Tag Archives: book review

Little Bee

By Chris Cleave


Why I Chose This Book

Book club book! But this time it’s one that we didn’t read for book club (we read Water for Elephants instead, which I reviewed already). It was my first choice, however, and so I put my name on the reserve list at the library for it. It was a long list, so it was just as well that I didn’t have a deadline, because it’s not a book I retrospectively would have been especially happy to own. If I have to own books, I want them big and fat and epic and take me at least a week to reread. This one does not fit those requirements.

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book

Book club is tonight, which means that we’re going to discuss some other title and then move our brains onto the next one, and I can already feel my thoughts about this one slipping away. It gets worse when they go back to the library before I write about them, too. Plus the kids are playing Legos and watching Dora and because book club is tonight thinking about dinner is not my problem, and I can take a shower later. Today, I write!

Nutshell Review of the Book

I liked it fine. How’s that? The three main characters (Sarah, Little Bee, Lawrence) were sympathetic enough, and the two secondary characters (Andrew and Charlie) did their job of being people triggering events that gave the main characters something to do. The locations were vivid in a way I don’t usually notice in books, and I won’t tell you what amazing secret the blurb on the cover begs readers not to spoil for others, but it was a dumb thing to say. It’s not a dumb secret, but it’s hardly some big reveal that upends your understanding of the whole book to that point. Kaiser Sose it ain’t. Actually, I’m not even sure what event in the book it’s supposed to refer to. Regardless, it’s a pretty good guarantee that readers will finish the book.

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Ali and Nino

By Kurban Said

Why I Chose This Book

Book club book! It’s the one I voted for, actually, because I already had a copy of Dead Until Dark lying around the house that I know I’ll get to one day, and I didn’t really want to read The Distant Land of My Father because, well, I thought it was a memoir and was not in a memoir mood. I’ve since become more intrigued by it, but what can you do now?

Why I Chose Right Now to Review This Book

I started this review about a week ago, when I’d finished the book, but got distracted. Now I find out my book club friend hasn’t even gotten a hold of the book yet, and I’m loaning it to her tomorrow, and I figured I’d better write out my notes while I still had it around for reference, in case I needed to look up names and things. So much easier to open a book than dig info out of the Internet.

Nutshell Review of the Book

The story was pretty good to OK, but shines as an artifact. It was written in the 1930s as a historical novel set in the 19teens (right before WWI), in a specific geographic location: the intersection of Asia and Europe, in a town unsure of which continent was its primary influence. I was impressed with the diversity of locations and lifestyles presented in the book, and the style of the novel was easy to follow. The main character, Ali (a Muslim boy), was quite well fleshed-out, although everyone else was less so. It is called a “great romance” by the book cover blurbs, but, eh. Ali certainly has great love for Nino (a Christian girl), but we only get glimpses of her from his point of view. There is enough to suggest that she is a fully fledged person, but the reader doesn’t really experience her as a fully fledged character. She speaks up for herself often enough, but always to Ali, so what you get of her comes through his filter. You kind of have to trust him for why he’s so in love with her (besides the fact that he’s a young, rich son in love with his pretty, rich high school sweetheart whose parents consider them old enough to marry, which is the perfect set up for instant romance). And he does a lot of courageous things to be with her, so he’s really, really sincere, and he does think a lot about how she’ll react to plans he makes for them, which lets you know she speaks up for herself, but she’s not really in the book with us.

Long story short, your enjoyment of the novel will likely depend on your interest in this guy’s point of view, and your interest in the historical portrayal of a Eurasia populated by Muslims and Christians on the verge of war. Personally, I think the historical part is what the book has going for it. I did get pretty tired of Ali by the end.

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The Land of Painted Caves

By Jean M. Auel


Why I Chose This Book
Are you kidding me? I read the first installment of this series, Clan of the Cave Bear, when I was 11. Posting at The AuelBoard forum (Member #2375) got me through two bad jobs and whatever temp worker assignment came with internet access. I loved these books. Well, not the fifth one. But it was my Solemn Duty to follow the story to its end.

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Possession

By A. S. Byatt


Why I Chose This Book
A long, long time ago I owned a copy of this book. Perhaps I received it as a gift or hand-me-down. Read it. Loved it! Not sure why I didn’t write about it. (Perhaps I hadn’t started a blog yet.) Anyway, a few weeks ago now a crate of books came my way (it’s where I got Mirror, Mirror from) and Possession was among the lot. I think, seriously, that it was my copy of Possession that I’d passed along to my mother that she never read that ended up in that crate–and a visit to the garage library sorted first by genre then author reveals that my copy of Possession is not on the shelves–but I rescued it and read it again, because, well, I love academic mysteries, particularly fictional ones. And I also had some free time.

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The Monsters of Templeton

By Lauren Groff

Fair to middling. That’s how I rate this book. I guess that gives it 2 1/2 stars on Amazon’s scale of 5. We read it for book club, and we haven’t met yet so I don’t know what everyone else thinks, but it was my second choice. I don’t gripe about reading books that are my second choice as a rule, so this review of the book is not sour grapes. It’s just full of alright already. Yeah, yeah. Alright already. I’m just not sure what this story was for.

Nutshell Review (because I don’t feel like spending a lot of time analyzing the story) with SPOILERS. Got that? SPOILERS: A PhD student wants to know who her father is, and her mother–who knows–won’t just tell her, which is dumb (because why bring it up at all for Jesus’s sake [it’s actually for a religious reason she brings it up, not me being clever with some kind of blasphemous, exasperated turn of phrase] if you are still going to play head games with your child?), and at the same time the main character student is debating whether she should have an abortion after an ill-concluded affair with a married college professor. Willie, the student, is a brat and a jerk, and spends a lot of time looking through historical and family documents to get the answer, which she finds only when a ghost shows her the single hidden letter that reveals all. There is also a sea monster of the Loch Ness variety in the book, but it’s dead. If you enjoy reading stories about crabby people reading old documents because key information is being deliberately withheld from them on flimsy pretense and then discovering the answers only through supernatural intervention that only acts in any meaningful way at the precise moment when the crabby people need that exact form of help, then you will like this book.

The most interesting part of the book to me, in retrospect, is the Author’s Foreword. I am not joking. In the foreword, the author explains her personal connection to James Fenimore Cooper, and states her intention for writing the book in this format and her hope for what readers will learn. She talks about using novels (lies) to get at the truth about lives and people and places, and hopes that we will understand better the real town of Cooperston after reading about the fictional town of Templeton, where the action takes place. The author obviously relates specifically to the main character–perhaps not as a grad student or professional archaeologist, but definitely as a person with long family ties to the town and its founder. The book aims to teach us what it is like to live in the present day as people attached to so much history, and how one finds identity in the past as much as one forges identity in the present. The book is full of photographs and family trees, and (fictional) primary source documents, like letters and journal excerpts, and characters from Fenimore Cooper’s literary legacy, as well as other authors who served as inspiration for Groff, and attempts to create a picture of how families are built on recurring themes as well as recurring chromosomes, and how former transgressions and nobilities affect the lives of their descendants. Does the book accomplish it? I don’t think it does.

I’m not sure why. Part of it is the really contrived and basically stupid reason that Willie is having to look through all this material in the first place. Her mother, who is presented as an earnest person and a champion of others, is messing with her head. That’s it. That’s the only reason. The reader (I mean me) gets so hung up on the fact that this goose chase exists only to make a book that you don’t care who the father is, and you don’t care who the ancestors are. Also, all she has to do is read and read and read until she gets to the answer, so there’s not a lot of puzzling to do. It’s just busywork. All busywork. (Sully was another character that behaved in a random and arbitrary way out of the blue in order to advance the plot. It was jarring to learn that he left Clarissa for a goddess with a splinter, especially after the conversation he had with Willie on the telephone. But that was a good excuse to get Clarissa to Templeton!)

Another reason is that the book is an explicit tribute to James Fenimore Cooper, but all the names have been changed, and you have to keep wondering if this is an exact biography with different names or if any creative license has been taken with lore and family history, and it’s a distraction. James Fenimore Cooper is far more interesting than the main character, and when you leave his not-story to come back to the pointless “truth” of Willie’s experience, you are mad. Another reason is that the literary tributes to characters and other authors are too numerous. Turns out that Uncas and Cora have a baby! Turns out that Charlotte Temple is running around New England! Turns out that Scarlett O’Hara isn’t the only young widow stewing under the weight of heavy mourning! Turns out that Feminore Cooper didn’t like Susanna Rowson! Turns out sometimes people related to famous people who have love affairs with slaves try to deny the relationships! I started skipping those interludes that delved into these silly psychological musings about characters, especially The Buds, who suffered from groupthink. The letters between Cinnamon and Charlotte were interesting, and I liked Sarah’s mental breakdown (despite its echoes of Cunningham’s The Hours), and I thought the mother had a rich history I would have liked to learn more of, but overall there just wasn’t enough story. And there was absolutely no reason to have firestarters and ghosts in the book if they didn’t do anything or symbolize anything. The sea monster in the lake was supposed to represent the family and its ugly secrets, I think, and how beautiful it is to discover secrets and how sad it is to lose them, but it was badly used, too. The technical details about the sea monster at the end belonged in a different book. Maybe it was supposed to represent that Willie is ultimately an academic, but it was just strange. If you are going to employ a creature like the sea monster, it should have really been the ostensible center of the story, with Willie’s discoveries and investigations the ostensible B plot. You know, we watch the monster be revealed and exposed but the truth is really about uncovering the human past, that kind of thing. Bookends and a title do not a metaphor make. Also, if the monsters were supposed to be the horrible people in her family, there really weren’t any. Everyone was just trying to get by, with varying degrees of humanity and success.

I also don’t like the phantom pregnancy angle, but not because it was a bad idea. I think resolving the pregnancy storyline in that way could have supported the idea of lineage and inheritance and what it all means (and if it means nothing), but it was sort of dropped in as like some kind of abortion question cop-out. It was a missed opportunity to explore what it means to have descendants, and what we owe to our children versus to ourselves, and if Willie was going to be the end of the line, and the contrast between Sol having children he never knew about and Willie not having a child she thought she was having. I also liked the way she referred to the not-baby as a “lump,” because it made me think of lumps of clay, and how people can be molded but only to the limitations of their material make-up, and stuff like that. And then there was the sea monster with the unborn baby, and the self-fertilization stuff, and the baby that was swimming in the sea without a family, and the meth-head lost daughter who swam to the light, and so many beautiful moments that could have presented so many wonderful truths about families and individuals. But all we get is Willie, Willie, Willie, who got 1500 on her SAT, was homecoming queen, is the only person ever–apparently–to leave the town and make something of herself (which is tries to fail at) or to read Fenimore Cooper, and we learn an awful lot of truth about how self-absorbed big fish in little ponds can be.

It all makes me want to reread Possession by A. S. Byatt again, which I remember as a terribly thrilling and romantic book about grad students frantically searching for information about dead authors. I even liked the movie (especially that business with the letter and the little girl at the end). To echo what some reviewer on Amazon said about Monsters, it would probably also make a great movie. I think I would definitely go see that movie. I don’t know who I’d want in the lead role, though. But you know that actress who played Charlie on Ugly Betty and showed up as the germophobe teacher in Glee? I’d cast her as Charlotte Temple. I like her.

Jayma Mays

Jayma Mays

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors

By Nicholas Wade

This book is the selection for the second month of the International League of Skeptical Readers, and I hope you are inspired enough to join us for the discussion at the International League of Skeptics website. If that invitation isn’t radiating enough warmth and enthusiasm for your liking, perhaps you’ll warm up to the Littlest Skeptical Readers, Fella and Filly, who both already know their letters. In English, but hey–one language at a time.


Long Story Short: This book relies heavily on scientific findings from genetic research into the human genome (and the genomes of other species) to offer insight about how the human species Homo sapiens (us) beat out its Homo cousins and took over the world. It is very strong when it sticks to the science and very iffy when the author starts speculating about why things came to pass.

Why I Chose This Book: I learned about this book on the “Are We Alone?” podcast put out by SETI; the author had been a guest on a show called “Driving Evolution.” The story of the body lice I think is what really caught my attention, and it seemed like a topic that would interest most of us but likely make some claims worth analyzing.

The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I thought the book read really well. There was quite a bit of science to get through, but it was presented in a straightforward way without any dumbing down. The lists of genetic sequences were hard to keep straight, but they’d be confined to one paragraph and did not bog down the rest of the text. I particularly enjoyed the multidisciplinary approach of the book, tackling the question of how human beings arrived at their evolutionary and geographical positions when there are no explicit answers. It was interesting, too, to see the time span of the book’s event, starting with what information can be gleaned about the common primate ancestor to why Jews these days are so smart. A main argument of the book was that biological and cultural evolution influence each other (like a macroversion of the contents of the book Nature Via Nurture by Matt Ridley, who examined an individual person’s genes), and the author pretty much hit all the main topics of culture, from language to cooperation to agriculture to the next big thing.

I practically read this book straight through, it was that entertaining. The chapters at the beginning, from “Metamorphosis” to “Exodus” brought together information that people mostly sorta already know with discoveries specific to those fields and discoveries from other fields that add depth to the knowledge of how our species evolved, how it left Africa, and why it spread across the continents on the time schedule that it did. I also thought the sociological chapters, like “Settlement” through “Language,” were equally well-composed. It was easy to identify the point of each chapter, it was easy to see what evidence the author provided to support his points, and it was easy to see how they tied into the book. Personally, my favorite parts were the stuff about language and the domestication of animals, and how this seemingly ancillary information could inform biologists and anthropologists on human development and movement.

The Book’s Weaknesses: What Wade did not seem so good at was transitions. Not transitions between chapters or topics—I thought the book held together well and read smoothly—but between evolutionary states. “Stasis” was a particularly problematic chapter for me. It is undoubtedly difficult to determine how humans went from their stone-age selves all over the world to profound artists in Europe only, but the guessing was too blatant for my liking. It’s a subject that needs to be addressed, of course, but an entire chapter almost on pure conjecture was annoying. Maybe it’s just annoying to have this problem in our understanding of humankind. Maybe I was shocked and impressed that he was actually taking on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel thesis about how Europe and Asia got so far ahead of the rest of the world because of natural resources (an argument that Wade explains later in the book)—that Wade ACTUALLY SAID that perhaps the European crowd was just smarter and then so disappointed that he backpedaled from it. It was natural aptitude that put the smarter Europeans into civilization and cave painting and metallurgy at first, but then everyone convergent evolutioned so that we’re all equally smart now. (Except for the Jews, who will one day rule us all.) The backpedalling annoyed the crap out of me… especially when so much is made of the extravagant possibilities of genetic drift elsewhere in the book. It was a very bold move to pose the idea that some people as a group just were smarter. You know everyone has thought it, and it is possible that genetic drift made this crowd a little savvier (and then culture took on its own development), or even just a few bright individuals (there are geniuses in every generation), but it seemed a little silly to invoke convergent evolution afterward, to insist later in the chapter that of course all people are equally smart now (except for the Jews) and no one should be offended. It’s wishy washy.

The book suffered further once we took on eras covered by recorded history. The book strays from its central premise to make gee-whiz observations and play more what-if games. The Genghis Khan story was definitely food for thought, but it doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of human ancestry. I mean, OK… it’s a nice example of how quickly one man’s genes can spread through a population. It would have been a great anecdote for the parts about Mitochondrial Eve and Y-Chromosome Adam. The Thomas Jefferson stuff was completely unnecessary. The examination of how evolution is still in action would have been a better epilogue than a chapter, and the stuff about the Jews was just comical. I was seriously laughing. I know that intellect is to a great degree inherited, and that culture can influence heredity (like the lactose tolerance stuff) but IQ tests do not great evolutionary arguments make. I don’t care how many Jewish doctors and rabbis there are in a population… or how many Chinese people are willing to go along with Asian Culture Conformity… or how little is known about how genes influence behavior… it’s one thing to talk about how stumbling onto language as a communication tool that enhances survival might direct what kinds of aptitudes/people survive to the next generation, and another to say that because medieval anti-Semitism squeezed Jewish people into financial occupations that genetics is why they are so smart today. Or that a few thousand years of Chinese insularity made Chinese people suited for conformity. Perhaps it’s the arrogance of my ignorance showing, but I cannot believe that nature and nurture are working so closely together at the population. In the Ridley book Nature Via Nurture he refers to how you can be born with the “schizophrenia gene” but never experience an environmental even that “turns it on.” I buy that. It’s a gene, it’s a person, it’s a specific ailment. What happens to you externally affects what that gene is going to do. But all these little baby Chinese girls being adopted by Americans aren’t genetically inclined toward conformity. They grow up to be the same headstrong individuals that their abrasive American native peers turn out to be. I suppose this is where someone else takes the idea of cultural memes on its logical tangent.

What Should Have Happened: My biggest complaint about the book is its lack of diagrams. For example, it wasn’t that helpful to read some paragraphs about the subtle differences between the skull shapes of different Homo ancestors. It was difficult to keep track of the long trains of DNA mutations and sequences, and there could have been a few more maps. Considering that nearly two pages were given over to Thomas Jefferson’s lineage, these omissions are almost inexcusable.

Short Story Shorter: I would recommend this book to anyone with an interest in human origins—even to people with limited scientific knowledge.

The World Without Us

By Alan Weisman

I started this book at some point in December and read it across more than a month, having looked forward to it ever since I read the short version, or whatever that was, way back when in The Economist before some plane ride. I can’t believe it could have been the plane ride to Michigan last fall–like in 2007–but I haven’t taken that many plane rides. Perhaps time has gotten away from me! Anyway, when I was on one of those whirlwind trips through the library chasing Fella or Filly and hoping to god we don’t get shushed by an old person or pull too many alphabetized books off of shelves, I saw this featured at the end of an aisle and just grabbed it. I’d been meaning to read it I guess for more than a year. I ripped through the first few chapters, and then got stalled on the story of a house. Boy did that house take a long time to disintegrate, in sentence after sentence with the exact same grammatical structure, arranged in what seemed like paragraphs of equal lengths. I put the book down and did what any self-respecting reader would do:

I went online.

First stop was to the Skeptics’ Guide discussion board. They have a thread about books you just can’t get through, and I put the call out for someone to convince me to keep going or else give me permission to stop. I was mildly convinced to keep going. So I did, but not before checking the Amazon reviews to make sure that I was thinking the right thing about it. I found people there who were unhappy with it, too, which made me feel validated and correct, and satisfied. The person at SGU telling me to keep at it had said that certain individual chapters were very interesting to read, and for the most part I found them so. But like I’ve already written elsewhere–perhaps in this blog–the book is much, much less than the sum of its parts.

In the first place, it’s not about “the world without us.” It’s about “stuff that is happening in the world because of us, and what might happen if we stop doing those things.” The tone wavers between punitive and alarmist, from, “Oh Noes! Planet iz being sick!” to “Ha! You reap what you sow! See ya, suckers!” You cannot figure out what his point is. You’ll read a beautifully written vignette about some such place, or time, or creature, and you will feel a gamut of emotions, from shame to pride to admiration. But the vignettes don’t add up. A couple of chapters feel like finished pieces, but most of them take a theme, riff on it for a while, and then end with some clearly tacked-on sentiment to tie it all into the chapter. I edit documents, and I edited a lot of books for a not-very-good publishing company that took what it could get, and I added lots and lots of paragraphs and sentences here and there to save us the trouble of trying to get an author probably not up to the task of rewriting the manuscript (Sheryl or David, if you are reading this, NOT YOU) to put a cohesive center/topic/marketable idea. You add a sentence here, muse on some concept there… subheadings, pictures, rhetorical questions–I am a cobbler of texts rather than a creator of one, but I can spot a patch job. Uh oh. Book’s veering off topic. Better add a meaningful coda to remind people what book they are reading!

I mean, come on. Weisman cheers on one page that if humans disappear, the something pheasant will have a chance to bounce back, but then on the next page laments that if humans disappear the bison will go with them (or vice versa or whatever). Are we supposed to be happy or sad? Is one animal better? In the chapter on Cyprus, he spends the entire first part describing how the landscape took back the city in four years or less, but then spends the end boo-hooing about what developers are doing to the landscape. Well, it’s a short term problem by his definition, right? Develop away! The earth recovers, right? He already talked about how quickly a house breaks down. In the chapter on geology, he applauds the Mayan regime for having a minimal impact on the environment, and then curses governments later for hurting environments. One hand strikes and the other hand gives a flower, over and over and over.

What else? I didn’t care for the fearmongering about evolution; the book went back to the library today (it was overdue) so I can’t look up page numbers, but there’s a paragraph where he becomes alarmist about how mutations are going to change evolution. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people state obvious facts–such as mutations drive evolution–and present them as charged, emotional items. I also didn’t care for the part where he’s interviewed a representative of an oil refinery… I mean, I was interested in the interview, and found it fascinating to read what the representative said and did not say… but he named the guy and gave his position and his company, which is good. People on the record in books ought to be on the record. What I didn’t care for was the next part in the chapter where a nameless accuser, identified only by initials, got to take the first guy down. First of all, it’s unfair to put one person on the record and not the other, but if the first didn’t care and the second made it a condition, whatever. Fine. It’s their business. But it was absolutely jarring to have no explanation of why suddenly there’s some person identified only by initials. I spent several minutes trying to figure out who it was. I checked the names of previous chapters, I looked for references that it was someone’s first name, nothing. I was forced to conclude that it was someone else. That is something authors and editors are supposed to take care of. Readers have their own work to do, and it shouldn’t be filling in holes left by the production staff. That’s just sloppy. And since I’m on the topic of sloppy, I saw “insure” for “ensure” twice.

/rant

I still don’t even know that the book needed an editor so much as a completely different format. It’s the kind of thing that has so many small topics to muse upon and learn about, that I think they would have made great installments in some serialized version called something else. Dickens used to publish by the chapter in magazines. There are serial columnists. These stories and warnings should have been tightly focused, short pieces in a collection. That would have solved the contradiction problems in a lot of places. Plus, without the need to justify the presence of every chapter beneath that title (which doesn’t describe the contents of the book in the first place), you wouldn’t have needed these smug, pop-psych, vague pronouncements at the end of every chapter trying to force a unified theme onto the book. I’m all for a good morality tale, but not when it is that artificial and explicit. Just stating the facts and making observations would have driven the point home.

These observations Weisman makes about the environment are fascinating, and the gyrating trash field in the Pacific Ocean a great ecological tragedy, and the workings of biology and nature amazing and cool, but the book is not a good venue for them. It was tedious and frustrating to read. Plus, since the author has informed us that it’s basically too late to do anything but get on with the leaving, I’m not sure what anyone expects a reader to do. Set up a booth at the next Earth Day Fair, I guess. But not distribute literature at it. Paper, you know. And all that foot traffic is bad for grass, but asphalted spaces hurt the ground, too. As for those Voluntary Human Extinction groups? I am officially creeped the fuck out.

All that said, World Without Us was much better than World Without End, even though there was no lesbian nun sex in Weisman’s book. Perhaps if there were more lesbian nun sex in general, the world would have fewer problems.

About the Author
Karen’s loins produced only 2.0 babies, which puts her family below the replacement fertility rate. Her cats stay indoors, and are far too lazy to kill even bugs, much less songbirds. She has an electric compost machine and saves gift bags. And she always, always cuts up the six-pack rings before putting them in the trash.

Japan Sinks

By Sakyo Komatsu

I have no idea where I got the idea to read this book. None. It’s Japanese sci-fi, in translation, from 1971. It’s not on any lists that I might have encountered, and I can’t think of what else I might have been reading reviews of that would have had someone mention this; people at Amazon often refer to other books that I fairly often investigate to some degree. But I went searching for this book, and requested it from Central Storage at the library. It was waiting for me. I don’t know how many registered patrons there are of our library system, but no one wanted it. Fate? Perhaps. Apathy? Perhaps. I read it in a few days but kept it for six whole weeks, and not once did anyone appear on any kind of wait list for it. It’s weird to think that of the millions of people who could have wanted to read it, I was the only one in the city who did. One could spin this circumstance in a variety of ways… I’ll stick with being a ridiculous dork. I already expressed my interest in plate tectonics in an earlier post. That’s probably why I went so far as to get and read this book.

The premise of the book is actually quite interesting: Geological processes are effecting a giant rift in the sea bed that topples the Japanese archipelago right into the chasms below. Everything is going to go. One lone scientist has predicted it. Who will listen? Is it even possible to evacuate everyone in time?

Nerds break!

You can’t really type and eat Nerds, and I can’t really have Nerds in the house and not eat them.

So this is a book I read in translation, and I’m not sure how that affected the book. It’s also 1971 science fiction, which is not like really like modern science fiction, in that the characters don’t have a lot of character. There are also no women in it, except for two, both of whom are brought into the story for the sole purpose of giving the main character someone to have sex with (not at the same time). Not having women in a novel really limits what the novel can do. The science actually wasn’t too bad. Now I’m no earth scientist, and I wouldn’t even call myself an educated fan (although I am a fan) but the phenomena described in the book–the ones that did all these horrible things–work for the story. They’ve got a high-tech deep submersible submarine, which is pretty cool. I forgot everyone’s names, sadly, but the two main guys are a skilled pilot of said sub and the Eccentric Scientist who makes the discovery. The two women end up having sex with Sub Pilot.

This is the first Japanese science fiction book I have read in a while, so I am not sure what uniquely Japanese science fiction conventions are at play that I am not recognizing. But basically no one believes the scientist until it is really too late to save everyone. That’s pretty common. In real life, I like to believe that with earthquakes killing people here and volcanoes killing millions of people there, at a frequency of about every couple of weeks, people would believe him and take action long before they do. More than the first half of the book is about the scientist gathering data and being frustrated and not being listened to, or being heard but no one in the government doing anything. The disaster stuff is horrifying at the edges, but you don’t see it up close until the very end.

By far this most interesting part of the book is the government’s confusion about what exactly they can do. The book is set in current times, and I have every reason to believe that it’s a pretty reasonable snapshot of Japan’s place in the world. The government really doesn’t know what to do. They are afraid to ask other nations to house their refugees. There is this striking several pages where officials are reporting on their discreet enquiries to Australia asking if it would be OK if five million or so people set up shop in the Outback if they promised not to be any trouble. The world is portrayed in the novel as generally hospitable and concerned, and countries step up with real estate and airplanes and ships to start evacuating, once the evacuation plans are in place, but it was so sad to see the Japanese characters worry about asking for help. No way would that happen in an American book. We get warning that this supervolcano beneath Yellowstone National Park is going to blow in two years, we are announcing to all our friends and political relatives that we’ll be moving into their garages and that we’ll be bringing our pets. Japan has had a very unusual century, and it is even now struggling with balancing its past reputation with its present one. (I had some sense of this already but) Wikipedia tells me that the late 1960s were just when Japan was starting to pit itself against international manufacturing competition and finding success–and there were still plenty of former prisoners of war around that were still pissed off and talking. It’s never addressed outright in the book, but one gets the impression from the characters that the Japanese people don’t quite think they deserve humanitarian aide considering, well, you know.

The other noteworthy character dilemma is the struggle with what it will mean to the Japanese people and culture to establish a diaspora. Even though people are being relocated by the tens of thousands to the same places, it’s considered a death knell for the Japanese way of life. (Which it probably would be, although Jewish people have kept it up for a very good while now.) The government is by no means forbidding anyone to leave, and is actively negotiating with other countries for space, but it’s actually wondered aloud if it would be better for everyone to die and for the world to remember the great nation of Japan and its glorious history instead of letting it trickle away ingloriously. That is not anything you would see in an American book, at least not in a regular character. Maybe in an unintentional villain–maybe. TRITENESS ALERT: They say that a picture paints a thousand words, but that one sentence (I’d tell you which one but it’s gone back to the library already) captures just about everything there is to say about what makes this a Japanese book. /TRITE If I were more conscientious, I’d read it myself, or if I had a Japanese literature scholar friend I would ask, but I’m not and I don’t, so I’ll limit myself to wondering how this 1971 novel compares to a contemporary Japanese science fiction novel. I can’t personally think of any book I’ve read from any culture or era or genre that expresses that sense of futility and hopelessness and stubborn pride at the global level.

I overuse the word “interesting.” Sorry. But I am sick of thesaurusizing.

It’s interesting that the author shows so much of this mental and internal turmoil, especially when he shows a world that positively leaps to Japan’s aid when finally asked. The island disappears, but Sub Pilot survives, so it’s not even a particularly depressing book. It makes me think of Deep Impact, which I never saw. I have the impression that Deep Impact is very depressing. This book, though, is more of a disaster romp and political crisis than swan song. I will confess that I started flipping through pages towards the very end. One gets the point once all the decisions are made. Yep. Japan sinks way far down. Eccentric Scientist was right.

A few years ago they made a disaster movie out of the novel, with all the requisites of a made-for-cable-television production: Nihon Chinbotsu

Watching this trailer reminds me of that supervolcano movie that was on the Discovery Channel a few years back–the one that had an unusual amount of British actors and characters in it for a disaster set in the great plains of North America. They’ve obviously beefed up the role of women, by actually putting some in the film, although the main female seems to be cast in a nurturing and sacrificing role. I do like that graphic at the end of Japan seen from space, sinking below the waves. Poor Japan! This version appears to be one of those over-special-effected remakes of disaster movies from the 1970s, but with a power ballad a la Celene Dion in the Titanic. It’s compared unfavorably to the original 1973 version, which nonetheless has a worse review. One reviewer complains that no one in the film seems to feel like there’s any hurry, but that comes straight out of the book. Cataclysm movies are what they are. I don’t think I am going to seek it out. You’ve seen one bad disaster movie based on implausible science, you’ve seen them all. Some building fall down and waves rise up. People are crushed and drowned respectively. Old men meet terrible ends with dignity and courage. Beautiful young girls have superficial injuries, like breaking their wrists. Paper houses catch fire. Guilder, of course, is blamed for it all.

Odysseus Unbound: The Search for Homer’s Ithaca

By Robert Bittlestone

I totally dug this book, even though those bastards at the library didn’t let me renew it–I couldn’t read the last few chapters–and even though handling the book made me break out in hives (although that could be related to something else, considering I still itch and the book’s been out of the house for two days). I first heard about this book on an episode of “The Naked Scientists” podcast (one of my regulars; I’ll link to it officially soon); they interviewed the author. I was surprised to find out how long the book had been in print already, so it’s hardly news, I guess. I think the author is an economist by trade, so if you move in economic, or British, or Homeric circles, maybe this is even old news to you.

This is one of those books where the author ties literature to actual archaeological evidence, or tries to. You know how there are always those searches for the real Noah’s ark or the real gardens of Babylon? It’s one of my favorite kinds of stories to read–even if it’s completely fictitious. For book club we read an OK book–The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova–that was about combing through ancient records to discover Dracula (or maybe just vampires). It’s why I read both Foucault’s Pendulum AND The Da Vinci Code. I am all excited to resume my interrupted journey through Babylon 5 because I’ve hit this part where G’Kar refers to ancient documents that seem eerily similar to stuff that is going on at that scary planet. Battlestar Galactica follows what are basically biblical clues to find the planet Earth. Even the A.S. Byatt novel, Possession, is in this vein (I liked the movie, too). So that’s why I was drawn to this book, not caring that much about Greek Classics (although I like The Odyssey much more than The Iliad, which I am not entirely certain I’ve even read once). I have also been fascinated since I was a child with plate tectonics, so earthquakes and changing shorelines and the theory of Atlantis as Minoan culture blown sky-high by a volcano and swamped by a tsunami.

Turns out–and you probably know this–that people in their inexpert investigative ways of the 18th and 19th Centuries searched the world for the remains of Troy, and finally found it (they say that they found it, anyway) in Turkey. Maybe. Turns out that for centuries now, and milennia even, there has been an island in Greece called Ithaca, that so little resembles the Ithaca described by Homer in The Odyssey that everyone just assumed that Homer was wrong, that he (or the collection of voices now ascribed to a single storyteller) screwed up all the geographical details, even though so much of what he describes about life and sailing and agriculture and other details are correct. So people have been looking a long time for where Ithaca could be, and Bittlestone is the latest one to do so. This book presents his case. Boy, is it compelling.

First of all, the book is just beautiful. It’s heavy and it’s wide, but every single page is that glossy paper you see sometimes in the center of books with photographs printed on them. The photographs in this book are on almost every page, and they are all in color. There are satellite photographs, photographs that the author took on the ground (or that his professional photographer friend took), photographs of artifacts, topographical maps, everything. He cites passages from the poem to support his theories, and he often provides multiple translations for them, so you can see how different theorists have come up with their ideas about where Ithaca actually was. He cites geographies and travelogues from various centuries, and he is just so enthusiastic about this adventure he’s on that the book is a joy to read. (Some of the chapters are admittedly less interesting than others.) What makes this seem like more than some hack spinning threads of conspiracy (and there are lots of hacks with ideas spinning threads in the world) is his reliance on textual evidence, his descriptions of his thought processes, his correspondence with various experts in different fields, and his ultimate cooperation with local agents, a Greek language scholar (Diggle), and an actual practicing geologist (Underhill). Each contributor has a big appendix in the back to give readers the technical explanations that Bittlestone left out of the main narrative. I am so sad that the book had to go back–I didn’t get to flip through that part. I could re-request it, and I probably will. I didn’t get to the part where he was describing the town and the palace locales.

I don’t really know what to count as a flaw of the book besides its lack of portability. I suppose he spends too much time promoting the strengths of his version and not enough time to address the facts of the other side (although he does mention them and describe them by the paragraph). But he isn’t really making a case that this peninsula of Cephalonia (Kefalonia) is the location–he is making the case that Cephalonia is a reasonable candidate and that an extended exploration would not be a waste of resources. The problem is that there are no artifacts that can be specifically dated to the time that the Odyssey supposedly takes place. I think that’s the problem; like I said, I didn’t quite finish the book. It all looks great from the sky and on paper, but nothing’s really there to make the case more than circumstantial. That said, he explains at one point that any given strong resemblance could be coincidental, but then provides a formula for how to calculate the likelihood of coincidence that two or three strong resemblances would all be circumstantial.

What I really liked was when he would list all the “clues” from the poem and check each purported locale against the list. It’s very methodical. It’s very exciting. I mean, why not? If they prove this, I can’t wait to learn what they think Scylla and Charybdis were. The geological surveys and explanations of how earthquakes have rocked this island, and what kinds of dramatic changes are possible were fascinating. The photographs of land that has been raised above sea level are amazing. You really don’t want to be standing on it when these earthquakes hit. At one point, Bittlestone postulates that the violence of the earthquakes in the region made it absolutely certain that Poseidon would be in the story. I’ve felt a few earthquakes, but nothing like the ones he describes. The 1953 earthquake is terrifying to read about, as are the 19th century descriptions of other seismic events.

Just beyond the pages of the book lurk the author’s family members, too. This dude seems like he is always on a weekend getaway to Greece (nice work if you can get it, I suppose), and more than once jokes about how his family thinks he has completely lost it. It’s interesting to think about why people form obsessions. Not that I want to call this an obsession, exactly–it’s an unsavory word that implies an inability to keep food in the house or your hair clean. But at one point his curiosity blossomed from a what-if to a quest. It’s not the worst quest in the world; it’s on a beautiful island in your time zone or a couple over, in a place with cars and bathrooms… it’s turned into at least one book deal… it’s based on classical literature upon which many tenets of Western society are based. He’s not looking for reptilian aliens in a cave in New Mexico or anything. It’s a pretty high-brow pastime, so far as pastimes go, and it’s definitely conferring high status at cocktail parties. But does one do when your fancy is captured so entirely by something so far outside of your profession? He’s a commerce specialist. All the press on him refers to him as an amateur archaeologist. You get the impression while reading that he never expected to be that guy, and yet here he is, Mediterranean traveler on the media circuit.

The other question that I can’t fully answer for myself is so what? So what if the Odyssey was inspired by true events? So what if Ithaca isn’t Ithaca? In my limited way I’ve been trying to come up with a way that this could enhance or undermine Western culture. I suppose if it were true, there would be renewed interest in tracking down sources for other popular stories and legends, which would be way cool. I’m not saying that way cool isn’t a good enough reason to do things. I just wonder if it will change anything. Would it just be this amazing psychological experience, to think that stories really can live so long? One of the big things about Odysseus was that he could never keep his mouth shut. Sure, he was in a hurry to go home, but he can’t just get there without telling everyone who he is and what he’s been up to. It’s a poem as much about fame as the Iliad is about glory (I think–remember, I’m not sure I’ve read it). People think sadly of Troy and admire from afar the tragic and heroic figures in it, but do you know what they really remember? That stupid horse. You know who thought of that horse? Odysseus. You know what else? He got a whole poem all to himself after that… and they made a frikkin noun out of his name, and then a frikkin minivan. A minivan that we might actually buy!

Suck that, Hector!

So what would it mean for Odysseus to be real? It’s not like there aren’t documents of real people surviving from that far back in history. The personal connection to our ancestors is a powerful one to make, but it’s there. We know individuals. Events lately online have gotten me thinking about how long our legacy can last, even when we don’t want it to. Would Odysseus be happy to learn that his name has been carried on the wind through time (OK, that’s a pompous phrase… sorry)? It’s like reality TV will never go away. Odysseus came out pretty good in the retelling, if you think about it. Or does he? If we learn where Troy was and then where Ithaca was, and if they are anywhere near where it looks like they were, he’s going to have some splaining to do. It’s not even a twenty-year walk.

Duh-rama, Josephine B., and Potato Peel Pie

I am behind on writing about books. I have been caught up in an Internet drama, and watching two rival websites react to a newspaper article attacking one of them. The other website is populated by people who have been banned from the first. It’s very exciting. Lots of people are sputtering and indignant, and it’s better than television. My favorite part so far is that a gossip and fashion blog has gotten in on the action, and all the women who usually be shoppin’ are now sitting around chattin’. It’s way cool.

The offended party? Liberating Minds.
The offending party? Freedomain Radio.
The newspaper? The Guardian.
The women? Jezebel.

It’s a tragicomedy of Shakespearean proportions! Sadly, following it has been a huge waste of time that I should be spending on other things. I did manage to find the error in my check register–there was an ATM and a deposit entered twice–so it balanced. That’s good! I also cooked a spaghetti squash–not my favorite of the winter squashes but a beautiful side dish, especially if you put a green leaf salad right next to it on the plate. Plus you just have to cut it in half and microwave it! And add butter, of course. I even did some work for money today, which didn’t take any longer than usual because I edit this newsletter and I always take a break between articles because my attention flags. And I totally got out of having to fold laundry today, too. Shame on me, right? But on the other hand, I kept both kids alive from dawn to dusk so I figure it all works out.

So that’s my drama. Now for my books.

I’ve accumulated quite a list, but I only want to talk about two of them tonight because they basically have the same structure and I had the exact same reaction to each.

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.
By Sandra Gulland

OK. This is Josephine Bonaparte we’re talking about–the shocking woman who pushed the waistline of her dresses up so she could appear longer in public pregnant (or so I have in my head)! The wife of the Emperor of the World! The French Revolution! The sugar plantations of the Caribbean! How on earth could this book turn out so dull? It was dull. So dull, in fact, that I have to get up and reheat a leftover Chipotle carnitas taco right now I can’t stand thinking about this book.

OK.

I received the entire trilogy that this book starts when I was on my road trip a few weeks ago. My stepmother gave it to me in a very nice box set box and said that she had read it and didn’t really want it back. That maybe should have alerted me, because other times she has given me my own copies of books she has read and kept, but I was on a road trip with an iPod I couldn’t charge (that Blue Screen of Death Debacle I never wrote about) and accepted them. So it’s in diary form. Ugh. Not my favorite, but readable if it is actually in diary form. You know, like Mary Chesnut’s diary of the Civil War. Not when it’s just a first person novel broken up into faux date segments as if she were making notes in her book, complete with dialogue and quotation marks and explanatory footnotes. So the diary conceit was perfunctory at best; maybe that was the hook that got it published. Something has to make a book original, right? My second complaint is how episodic this story was, and the head pounding over the magical Negress back home who prophesied that Josephine would be queen. Go figure.

Josephine ends up in prison to have her head cut off by the revolutionaries eventually, and that could have been pretty exciting. I liked how the character of her son was portrayed. He was a minor character but he seemed quite real to me. Something was missing, though, in Josephine’s reflections on the world around her and the way people treated her. It was like being wrapped in cotton batting and not really having any reactions. The diary/first person/unrealistic prose (for a diary–it would have been better as a straight novel) put too much distance between the events and the reader. I finished the book and that’s it. I feel a little guilty now for passing the whole box set to my mother, who ran out of things to read. I feel like I am keeping secrets from her that she should know, and that I am committing a lie of omission. It is my secret sorrow. Maybe she’ll never get around to reading it. Retirement keeps her pretty busy, you know.

Part of the problem might be that I have rather recently seen the Kirsten Dunst Marie Antoinette movie, which just sparkled. The clothes! The setting! The soundtrack! I don’t know how much of it was true to life or character (or events) but it left an impression. I really liked it and I didn’t know that I would. This book just fades away in comparison. I don’t even remember the titles of the other two books.

On the other hand, it made me very badly want to read a good book about the French Revolution. Whatever biography of Marie Antoinette the movie drew from is supposedly good (I haven’t researched it thoroughly), and you can’t beat the French Revolution for a misunderstood and glorified phenomenon. I had wanted very badly to look up such a book after seeing that movie, and I forgot about it. I am grateful, then, to this novel for rekindling my interest.

Did you know that Marie Antoinette was accused of child molestation at her trial? It was trumped up, of course, but isn’t that interesting? I learned that on Wikipedia–even better, on a page that has a disputed neutrality. You go, Wiki!

The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Here’s another historical novel with a romance that has a woman ending up with a different guy than anticipated, set during a war, written in an alternate first-person style (epistolatory rather than diary this time). It’s post-WWII, and a charming, vivacious, war-weary author is looking for inspiration for her next book. She’s an orphan! She has a gay friend! She is courted by an American! She loves books and ended an engagement over them! Her pen name is Izzy! She falls in love with the countryside! She’s just too cute for words! She interacts with quaint personalities who become her second family! She gets jealous of a traumatized concentration camp survivor, too, which is a strange and unpleasant episode. Not that you shouldn’t be jealous of concentration camp beauties who are after your man, but this one was clearly shellshocked and blowing in the wind and subject to the whims of people who took a fancy to her (and who were fortunately good-hearted). That Juliet wigged out about her was off-putting, really.

The book works for a while. The first half is far superior to the second, and unlike the botched diary format of the Josephine book, these letters–although they mostly sound like the same person wrote them all–actually sound like letters. So that conceit holds up. It becomes an integrated part of the story rather than a pretentious distraction. The second half of the novel turns into this bizarre pastoral romance that just isn’t supported by the details of the text, and that has this annoying Mary Sue character in the middle of it. A dead Mary Sue, but she died for principles and to save another. We read this book for Book Club last week, and someone more charitable than I suggested that perhaps the picture we have of Elizabeth is one that has been romanticized by the writers of the letters after her death. I can roll with that. But hell–even the way she has decorated her home is Mary Sueish (the place feels like one of those homey and hip bungalow San Francisco residences you see in movies, what with the art pieces and the books everywhere and the eclectic but tasteful furniture choices). She manages to pick out the one good Nazi to have a love affair with, and her orphaned daughter is raised by the village as a loving testament to her memory.

Blah blah blah. And it’s one of those books about books. You are supposed to love instantly people who love books and have life-altering experiences because of books, because you, Reader, are currently reading a book so you must be just like them. It’s a lovefest. And now my hating on this book is crossing over to hyperbole, but the constant name-dropping of authors and the emphasis on what powerful literature can do for even uncultured folk did get on my nerves.

I was absolutely enchanted, however, by the woman who read the cookbook during their times of occupied scarcity. I can easily understand why that would upset the other members of the society and why she would be unable to read anything else. That seemed true. That said more about the war and Guernsey and the effect of art on life than anything else in the novel.

Having looked up the book on Amazon to get verification that my negative impressions were entirely correct (they of course are), I half-learned (being not quite sufficiently interested to fully learn) that one of the authors died or got sick before the book was published and the other author picked up the slack somehow. I’m not really surprised. The book changes in tone and plot so dramatically that you can almost tell where the first author stopped and the other author tries to pick up the pieces. The vision wasn’t fully shared or realized. The love story, I have to say, blindsides you. Say what? I so don’t buy it. Living on an island with a view of the English Channel? That I could buy. After all, the post boat comes daily. How remote could it be?

So by the last third of the book I was having my alright already reaction and reading as fast as I could so I could finish as fast as I could without actually just flipping pages. But you know what? This book made me want to learn more about the Guernsey occupation during World War II. I’m sure there is fascinating material on it. It makes me wonder, too, if the book should have actually been about one of the people on the island, instead of the breezy and cute author who pops in and is immediately accepted by local folk. Had the book actually been about Elizabeth McKenna and her Nazi lover and her freedom fighting and her town’s book club I think I really, really would have liked it. She wouldn’t have seemed like such a Mary Sue.

At least I had the book loaned to me by my friend, who brought it to my house and to whom I returned it at book club. I didn’t have to drive or spend money on it at all.

It wasn’t even a terrible book. It’s just that it seems bad because of the second half, which probably wouldn’t have seemed that bad if the same person had written the entire book, or if both people had written the whole book in consultation the whole time. I still don’t really want to recommend it to anyone.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

I’ve also read Japan Sinks, Blindness, and Out–three foreign novels that I really shouldn’t lump together because they were so different and my reactions so varied. Next time!