Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A Touch of Dead -- Book Review

A Touch of Dead 
by Charlaine Harris
Rating: 4 out of 5

This book is a collection of five short stories featuring the telepathic waitress and friend of vampires, werewolves, and witches, Sookie Stackhouse.  I have been looking at the novels in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series for some time now because the premise of them is so appealing, and because there's so many of them, which is always a nice prospect when one encounters a new author -- there won't be any waiting for the next book if you like the series, because the the next book has already been written!

So I chose this book, hoping that it would be the perfect introduction to the Sookie Stackhouse novels.  I am glad to say that I was right; these stories, set in Sookie's world and falling in between the action of various novels in the series, introduce a lot of the major characters in the series.  A true Sookie aficionado would probably have gotten more out of the stories than I did, but I really enjoyed them and am now more eager to tackle the actual novels, which I plan to do in very short order.

This book was a very quick read -- I read it in one day, which is not hard, even though I am one of the slowest readers in the universe.  Each story comes in at around 5,000 words, so they are easily digestible nuggets.

The stories themselves run the gamut from basic detective-style stories with a twist ("Fairy Dust," about the murder of a fairy by dreaded lemon juice, and "Dracula Night," which concerns a stranger who says he is Dracula, but may not be) to an interesting Christmas story involving werewolves ("Gift Wrap").  The other two stories in the collection, "One Word Answer," and "Lucky," were also fun and not at all run-of-the-mill stories.

I borrowed this book from my local library (part of the 2010 Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge) and it occurred to me after I finished it that that was really the only way I would have read it.  Not being a Sookie Stackhouse devotee, I probably would not have taken a chance on this book in a bookstore.  It's a very small book that has a list price of $23.95.  To be honest, that has always irked me.  Shouldn't the size of the book be somehow related to the price one pays for it?  I know the publisher is probably trying to capitalize on the popularity of this series and the new HBO series based on it -- there was an extremely prominent "True Blood" sticker pasted on the cover.  I also know that some of the costs of book production and distribution are essentially the same no matter the size of the book.  But please!  This kind of pricing is just the tiniest bit ridiculous.

OK, soapbox mode off!  I do recommend the book to anyone, and it is especially recommended to those who have already read some or all of the novels.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Dead Souls -- Book Review

Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol
Rating: 3 out of 5
When I was younger (and I realize that this makes me sound way more decrepit than I actually am), I went through something of a Russophile period.  (Yes, it's a real word, according to the Internet at least -- it means a person with a love of all things Russian.)  I made attempts to read Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, collected books about Russia, and just thoroughly immersed myself in it.  I grew out of it, as most of us grow out of our younger passions.  However, even though the only Russian literature I ever managed to actually get through was The Brothers Karamazov and a few short stories of Tolstoy's, I maintained an affection for the genre (if it can be called that) that persists to this day.

I tell you all this by way of saying that I was truly excited when I learned that The Classics Circuit was going to be hosting a blog tour of Russian imperial literature, called "White Nights on the Neva."  It seemed a perfect way for me to revisit my Russophile days of yore. For my review I chose an author whom I had heard of constantly -- Gogol -- and I chose one of his most famous books: Dead Souls.

Just a little biography that I found helpful: Nikolai Vasilievich Gogol (one thing that made me a Russophile was the names!) lived from 1809 to 1852.  Dead Souls was published in 1842 when he was 33.  He had been publishing for 11 years at that point, so he was something of a matured author when this book came out.

Unfortunately, I have to say that I was not particularly impressed with the book (at least on a first reading), even though I really wanted to like it.

My problems with Gogol started with the prologue to the book. In the prologue, he worries that he has not gotten his characterizations right, or maybe he has misrepresented what the decor of Russian manor houses is really like. So he takes great pains to beseech readers with special knowledge to help him with "fact checking" in subsequent editions of the book.  This was off-putting to me, since it's not something that authors normally do.  But then it occurred to me that Gogol is generally regarded as a humorist/satirist, and that he was probably carrying this to such an extreme purely for the comedic effect.  However, it didn't feel like he was doing that (or else he was being extremely subtle and I was being extremely dense) so that started me off on the wrong foot with him. However, I am really not one of these readers that expects the author to do ALL the heavy lifting, so I trudged on.

The problem was, it didn't really get any better the more I got into the story itself. This is an early 19th-century novel, so I realize it's not going to read like James Patterson (and I say that as no real fan of James Patterson) but it's harder to relate to this novel compared to Dickens, for example.  The premise is intriguing to say the least: Chichikov, the main character, arrives in a town and begins visiting all the wealthy landowers, for two purposes: 1) to impress them and make vital business connections; and 2) to begin his scheme of acquiring the "dead souls" of the title.  These are serfs that have been accounted for on a landowner's census and other records, but they have died.  The landowner is still essentially paying taxes on them, however, so Chichikov's scheme is to buy them and take them off the landowners' hands.  His hope is to amass enough of these dead souls to gain some influence and power thereby, and be able to use them as collateral for buying his own estate.  It doesn't end well, of course, and Chichikov is, as the old-timers say, "run out of town on a rail."  The novel is incomplete and essentially ends at this point -- the most common explanation seems to be that Gogol thought better of his satire in his later years and tore up part of the manuscript.  Other sources simply state that the manuscript was never completed.

Even though I could not really get into this book, it was easy to see that there were actually layers there, and that I was (by necessity) reading the book too superficially to really appreciate or understand it.  Gogol apparently wrote this as a type of allegorical satire, and there are lots of clues that jump out at the reader from the very start.  Chichikov appears to be a kind of Everyman, in one way, and that is reflected in Gogol's initial description of him:

In the britchka was seated such a gentleman -- a man who, though not handsome, was not ill-favoured, not over-fat, and not over-thin.  Also, though not over-elderly, he was not over-young.

Later on, when Chichikov is trying to impress the various officials and landowners as he embarks on his scheme of wriggling into their good graces, the same motif pops up again:

So dazed was Chichikov that scarcely did he realize that the Governor was taking him by the arm and presenting him to his (the Governor's) lady.  Yet the newly-arrived guest kept his head sufficiently to contrive to murmur some such compliment as might fittingly come from a middle-aged individual of a rank neither excessively high nor excessively low.

Each official and landowner that Chichikov visits has his or her own idiosyncrasies, and it's clear that Gogol enjoys lampooning these people as well.  There is some genuine humor here -- it's just buried rather deeply at times.

Overall, I am glad I read this book, just to see what the fuss was about, but the main conclusion that I reached from it was that I need to read it again to get everything out of it that Gogol put into it.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Farewell, My Lovely -- Book Review

Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
Rating: 4 out of 5

Today I am very happy for The Classics Circuit to visit my blog, in the guise of the Golden Age of Detective Fiction tour.

Farewell, My Lovely was published in 1940 by Raymond Chandler, the virtual inventor of the hard-boiled private detective.  It’s the second novel he wrote, and features the iconic detective Philip Marlowe.  Marlowe is not a very nice person sometimes (and one wouldn’t expect him to be, given the kind of people he has to deal with) but he’s honest, and strong, and brave to the point of foolishness.  That’s what we want in a private eye, anyway, right?

This book initially frustrated me, and I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it.  But after I finished it, I realized that this novel is an ideal mystery story.  By that, I mean that it opens innocently enough, with Marlowe running into a hulk of a man named Moose Malloy, who happens to be searching for a former sweetheart named Little Velma.  He just happens to be searching for her in the dive where she used to be a singer, however, and that’s where the problems start.  The current employees and owner of the establishment are none too happy about Moose poking around there.  Moose ends up killing the owner of the bar in a back room, and thus Marlowe gets sucked into the story, even though he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Moose vanishes and Marlowe begins to look for Velma, trying to track down the source of this mystery.  Inevitably, of course, his questions lead to further questions, jewelry heists, gigolos, loose women, marijuana, a psychic who of course is not all he seems to be, more thugs than you can shake a stick at, crooked policemen, and murder.  Even though it was initially frustrating because of the disjointed way things seemed to be developing, I think this story is the best kind of mystery story: the reader encounters a series of events that seem totally unconnected and don’t make very much (or any) sense, and the author manages to keep his audience off balance for a very long time until things start to be pieced together.

Even though Chandler finally pieces the puzzle together in a highly satisfactory way, one doesn’t read him merely for the story itself.  His method of storytelling, along with his turns of phrase and imagery are as equally compelling as the plot itself.  Take these examples, just a few of the MANY I highlighted as I read:

“Uh-huh,” the voice dragged itself out of her throat like a sick man getting out of bed.


“Put it up – or I’ll blow it out of your hand!” I snarled.  My voice sounded like somebody tearing slats off a chicken coop.


It was a blonde.  A blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.


I left her laughing.  The sound was like a hen having hiccups.


The house itself was not so much.  It was smaller than Buckingham Palace, rather gray for California, and probably had fewer windows than the Chrysler Building.


A man in a striped vest and gilt buttons opened the door, bowed, took my hat and was through for the day.


Mr. Grayle stood up and said he was very glad to have met me and that he would go and lie down for a while.  He didn’t feel very well. He hoped I would excuse him.  He was so polite I wanted to carry him out of the room just to show my appreciation.


He smiled his first smile of the day.  He probably allowed himself four.


Randall and I took our hats off.  In that neighborhood that probably ranked you with Valentino.


The eighty-five cent dinner tasted like a discarded mail bag and was served to me by a waiter who looked as if he would slug me for a quarter, cut my throat for six bits, and bury me at sea in a barrel of concrete for a dollar and a half, plus sales tax.

If you like those, there’s way more than that, but I just got tired of highlighting and retyping all of the great passages.

Chandler also waxes poetic from time to time in his novels, and while it sometimes strikes a jarring note, it can be a ray of light in an otherwise dark tale:

Twenty minutes’ sleep.  Just a nice doze.  In that time I had muffed a job and lost eight thousand dollars.  Well, why not?  In twenty minutes you can sink a battleship, down three or four planes, hold a double execution.  You can die, get married, get fired and find a new job, have a tooth pulled, have your tonsils out.  In twenty minutes you can even get up in the morning.  You can get a glass of water at a night club – maybe.

So Chandler is fun to read, definitely, but keep in mind a caveat: this novel was published in 1940, and what was socially acceptable then makes the reader of today cringe at least a little bit (and sometimes a lot).  I won’t go into all of the references that Chandler throws in – and yes, I know that this is not a story about a Sunday School picnic on the fourth of July – but the undercurrent of racism in this story is a sad reminder of where this country once was – and by some accounts, is headed again.  There’s also quite a bit of rough language, but it’s not that much by our modern-day standards (you can hear just as rough language watching prime-time TV these days), although I am sure it was eye-opening and risky in Chandler’s day.

All in all, this was a rewarding read, and whetted my appetite to read more Chandler.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Science Book Challenge 2010

At the risk of overextending myself on another challenge, I have decided to sign up for the Science Book Challenge 2010 being hosted for the third year by  However, I don't think it's a big deal because 1) it's only 3 books, 2) it lasts all year, and 3) I already started reading one of the books.

Here are my choices for this challenge:
The Triumph of Evolution...And the Failure of CreationismHow It Ends: From You to the UniverseWhat's Eating You?: People and Parasites
1. The Triumph of Evolution and the Failure of Creationism by Niles Eldredge
2. How It Ends: From You to the Universe by Chris Empey
3. What's Eating You?: People and Parasites by Eugene Kaplan

I love to read non-fiction books like science books (since that is what I do, after all) but I find that they very easily crowd out the fiction books if I'm not careful.  When I was younger I gravitated more towards fiction -- I think in part because reading non-fiction felt too much like schoolwork.  But now I seem to crave them!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Every Patient Tells a Story -- Book Review

Every Patient Tells a Story: Medical Mysteries and the Art of Diagnosis
by Lisa Sanders, M.D.

Rating: 5 out of 5

The author, Dr. Lisa Sanders, is a professor at Yale Medical School.  She is also a technical advisor to the TV show, "House, M.D." and a columnist for the New York Times Magazine.  This is one of the most compelling books about medicine I have read in a long time; the only book that even comes close to it is Complications by Atul Gawande.  That book had a different focus than this book, however.  Sanders writes about the medical profession much more generally than Gawande, and from an internal medicine aspect.  At one point she describes internal medicine as the most difficult specialty (I imagine that most specialists feel that way about their own specialties) because the cause of the patient's problems cannot be observed directly, making the art of diagnosis that much more important -- hence the subtitle of the book.

Here's where this book essentially scares the crap out of me (in a good way, however).  It's Sanders' contention that doctors are no longer being trained adequately in the art of the physical exam, and those older doctors that were trained in it are no longer taking advantage of it and using it to its full extent.  The entire book is a series of case studies that present a variety of patients in dire straits, simply because many of them were misdiagnosed by some doctor.  These are the cases that no one really discusses or thinks much about -- and yet, people die every day because of these issues.  It's at this point that the reader suddenly sits up and thinks, that could be me!

Sanders' writing style is tremendously engaging, and she doesn't hesitate to describe episodes in her own training and medical practice that show her in a less-than-favorable light.  She is definitely adept at showing the human side of the medical profession, and the tremendous, almost superhuman challenges they face in their training and practices.

While I devoured this book, it really made me want to be a doctor.  Immediately.  White coat and everything.  But then, the reality kicked in -- age, four years of constant studying, blood -- and I calmed back down.  However, for those people already headed for medical school in some form or fashion, this is an excellent, inspiring book that provokes thought.  It should be read by everyone, but especially every pre-med student, medical student, resident, and patient.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The 2010 Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge

I'm hungry to visit the library again. Anyone who has stumbled on this blog and is reading it knows EXACTLY what I mean. So I am very interested in this challenge, hosted by Home Girl's Book Blog: the 2010 Support Your Local Library Reading Challenge. The sign-up page is here, but here's a run-down of the rules:

1. Anyone can join. You don't need a blog to participate.

2. There are four levels:

--The Mini – Check out and read 25 library books.

--Just My Size – Check out and read 50 library books.

--Stepping It Up – Check out and read 75 library books.

--Super Size Me – Check out and read 100 library books.

(Aim high. As long as you read 25 by the end of 2010, you are a winner.)

3. Audio, Re-reads, eBooks, YA, Young Reader – any book as long as it is checked out from the library count. Checked out like with a library card, not purchased at a library sale.

4. No need to list your books in advance. You may select books as you go. Even if you list them now, you can change the list if needed.

5. Crossovers from other reading challenges count.

6. Challenge begins January 1st thru December, 2010.

(If you are currently participating in this challenge, or are going to join me in the pursuit, let me know in the comments!)

Given my reading pace and history, I will be doing well to complete the Mini level. But I think I'm up to the challenge! Here's my list (to be filled in as I proceed):

1. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood
2. A Touch of Dead by Charlaine Harris
3. Amen, Amen, Amen by Abby Sher

Sunday, April 18, 2010

In Honor of National Poetry Month

One of my favorite poems -- I have no idea why.  It's just visceral, I guess.

"The Pasture" by Robert Frost

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’n’t be gone long.—You come too.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Edith Wharton Blog Tour: Madame de Treymes

Rating: 2 out of 5
First Sentence: “John Durham, while he waited for Madame de Malrive to draw on her gloves, stood in the hotel doorway looking out across the Rue de Rivoli at the afternoon brightness of the Tuileries gardens.”
Major Characters: John Durham, an American in Paris (ha); Madame de Malrive, also known as the former Fanny Frisbee (also an American in Paris); and Madame de Treymes, Fanny’s sister-in-law

Synopsis: John is in love with Fanny, and has been for a long time.  She is married but separated from her French husband, Monsieur de Malrive, and is in a sense trapped in France – she has custody of her son for the time being only if she agrees to stay in France.  Although John and Fanny love each other (in their restrained, turn-of-the-century Wharton way), they cannot marry because Fanny’s in-laws will not consent to her divorce.  They play an inordinately large role in family affairs such as marriage and divorce.

Madame de Treymes, Fanny’s sister-in-law, seems to be the most approachable member of the clan, and John decides to visit her and find out why the family objects to the divorce, and under what circumstances they might consent to it.  After he secures a meeting with her at a social function, he learns that she is ready to help him obtain the necessary consent, in return for money to pay off her husband’s gambling debts (John supposes).  He refuses to buy Fanny’s hand in marriage like that, and nothing further comes from the encounter.

A little later in the story, Madame de Treymes suddenly announces that the family has decided to let the divorce proceed.  Fanny is overjoyed, of course, but John doesn’t quite trust this apparently unfounded change of heart.  He later learns that Madame de Treymes’ husband has had to leave the country due to money problems.  John feels a pang of guilt at having been unwilling to help her earlier, even if it did amount to a bribe.  He decides to thank her personally for any part she may have had in the reversal of the family’s decision, and she responds in a very curious way.  After an extended cat-and-mouse conversation between the two, it gradually comes to light that Madame de Treymes has been working behind the scenes so that her family manages to profit from the divorce in a way that John and Fanny did not forsee.  This constitutes a sort of “twist” ending to the story, so I won’t go any further in my synopsis so as to avoid spoilers.

General Information and Impressions: Overall, I enjoyed the plot of this story the most.  I did not enjoy Wharton’s writing style so much.  The mannerly atmosphere of the story was also something I didn’t enjoy, although I understand that this is one of Wharton’s hallmarks.  Oddly enough, this story seemed very dated to me in ways that other classics do not.  I don’t know why.  I also got the impression that the characters in this story were not real people.  They seemed more like actors playing roles on the stage, and I couldn’t imagine relating to these characters at all.

When I signed up for this spot on the Edith Wharton Blog Tour, a project of The Classics Circuit, I did so in hopes that I would have as good an experience with Mrs. Wharton as I did with Wilkie Collins, when I hosted him at the end of last year in another of The Classics Circuit’s author tours.  And although it sounds quite lame, I picked Madame de Treymes, an early novella Wharton published in 1907, because it was short.  It consists of 10 short chapters, and certainly could be read in one sitting.  Having read very little, if any, Wharton in my past, I wanted to have a short and sweet introduction to her work.  I am afraid I might have made a poor choice, because I just didn’t get that much out of Madame de Treymes.  I didn’t hate it, but it also did not make me want to run out and get another Edith Wharton book to read.  I do have a copy of The House of Mirth, though, so maybe it will find its way onto the TBR pile at some point.