Monday, August 16, 2010

Library Love

Feelin' the library (and Old Spice guy) love today.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Book Review: Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague
by Geraldine Brooks
9780142001431, Penguin, $15

Beautiful, heartbreaking, well-researched, richly envisioned, this book is a must-read for all lovers of historical fiction. Geraldine Brooks imagines what it must have been like for the people of the village of Eyam, in England, who, in 1666, voluntarily isolated themselves from the rest of England and Europe in order to contain the ravages of the Plague to their own village.

Told from the point of view of Anna Frith, a housemaid to the new pastor and his wife, the reader is introduced to this simple, ordinary village, who attempts an extraordinary, self-less act. We learn of Anna's family, her miner husband and two sons; her drunken father, neglectful stepmother, and younger step-siblings; the village healer and her granddaughter; the politics of the new Pastor and his beautiful wife; the rich family on the hill who are patrons and the social leaders of the town; and the various other townspeople - miners, farmers, blacksmith, tavern owner, etc. - who make up small-town life.

When the Plague strikes, it is to a boarder Anna has taken in after her husband was killed in a mining accident. Coming from the city, the boarder doesn't realize the material he has brought as part of his tailor trade is infected with the seeds of Plague. One-by-one, villagers are struck down. The inspiring young Pastor must do what he can to hold the people of the village together, and also to keep the Plague from spreading. As the village closes themselves off, they're left with nowhere to turn with their sorrow and anger but upon themselves. Rumors run wild as people try to determine what keeps causing the spread of Plague; neighbors will not help each other for fear of catching it. It is up to the Pastor, the Pastor's wife, and Anna, to tend the sick, minister to the dying, and try to keep the civil unrest under control.

When will the sickness run its course? When will the year be over? And who will be left alive at the end?

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Book Review: First Contact, Or, It's Later Than You Think by Evan Mandery

First Contact, Or, It's Later Than You Think (Parrot Sketch Excluded)
by Evan Mandery
9780061749773, Harper, $13.99

First Contact combines Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams into sci-fi literary fiction that will have you chuckling almost til the very end. The one problem with it is that the author couldn't keep his own two cents out of it, so begins to interject with his own drivel, particularly toward the end. While I do recommend reading this because it was funny, relevant to the recent political state (as in pre-Obama) of the US, and if nothing else, will instill in you a desire to reread the original great gentleman, do prepare yourself to have the author talk out his own problems at you.

The story is really about Ralph Bailey, the current U.S. President's attache, and the course of his life pre-and-post alien contact. The hyper-intelligent beings from the planet Rigel-Rigel have contacted Earth. They've calculated, you see, that the people of Earth are on a bad personal trajectory, heading for the ruination of the entire planet if they don't change their lifestyles soon. Using drugged bundt cake and fruit punch, the aliens attempt to encourage the people of Earth, or certainly the President and those at the official first dinner, to have an enlightened experience and reevaluate their course in life. As humans tend to have a contradictory nature, not all goes according to plan.

The reader is also introduced to Ned, a Rigelian ambassador, and his wife Maude, who is having some driving issues on their home planet. Jessica Love, Ralph's girlfriend, features heavily, as well, as do Woody Allen movies, Dr. Pepper, Orthodox Jews, hip-hop, YouTube, and the quite religious views of the President of the United States.

Does First Contact work as political commentary? Yes. Does it work as a comedy? Assuredly. Does it work as a platform for either therapy or a personal ad for the author? No. But once you get over that bit, enjoy the other bits, and laugh out loud.

For an excerpt, go to the author's website here, and a big THANK YOU to him for linking to IndieBound.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Book Review: The Lost City of Z by David Grann

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon
by David Grann
Hardcover: 9780385513531, Doubleday (Random House), $27.50
Paperback: 9781400078455, Vintage (Random House), $15.95

This was the most fascinating book I've read in a long time. It combines the very best of good reporting, action-adventure novel, history, anthropology, and biography. David Grann seamlessly weaves together his modern-day search for  what happened to the lost explorer Percy Fawcett, and Fawcett's own quest for a city he labeled only as "Z", an El Dorado-like city supposed to exist deep within the Amazon rainforest in Brazil.

Colonel Percival Harrison Fawcett was a British explorer in the late 1800s, early 1900s who mapped great portions of South America. With the constitution of an ox, he survived extreme conditions of the worst kind in jungles where it seemed every aspect of the environment was trying to kill you. Unlike most other explorers, Fawcett advocated peaceful interactions with the Native tribes living in the jungles, and survived many tense situations. As he got older, Fawcett became obsessed with the idea of a lost village deep within the Amazon rainforest, one filled with gold and other riches. He gathered Native stories, read the accounts of other explorers, and kept his own journals chronicling his theories and his searches for this city he called "Z". As a member of the Royal Geographic Society, Fawcett expected them to fund his expeditions. Unfortunately, they did not, so Fawcett and his family spent many years in poverty, as Fawcett was equally unable to earn money as he was unable to stop going into the South American wilderness. In 1925, having finally secured enough money for another expedition, Fawcett departed with his son Jack, and Jack's friend Raleigh Rimell, into the Amazon in an area close to the region of Mato Grosso. [This is probably why I find this so fascinating, as my parents spent a year or more living with the Bororo Indians in that same region in the 80s before I was born.] The three explorers were never heard from again.

David Grann admits he is one of the least likely people to go exploring in such conditions. Without even a boyscout background, he nonetheless gathers equipment, Fawcett's research, and contacts people in Brazil who may help him find out what happened to Fawcett. Grann is hardly the first to try this; reportedly over 100 people have died during various rescue, information-gathering, and other attempts to enter the Amazon specifically looking for Fawcett and his lost party.

Grann, with a reporter's instinct for hunting out a story, manages to find a guide, then an interpreter, and eventually speaks with the Kalapalo tribe, who may have been the last tribe to see Fawcett and his group alive. What's even more incredible is that archaeologist Michael Heckenberger was living with the Kalapalo when Grann arrives. Heckenberger, and other archaeologists, may have recently discovered the remains of Fawcett's "Z".

Due to the hot and humid conditions of the Amazon, unlike a stone-based city such as Machu Picchu, any civilization built with jungle materials (wood, vines, etc.) would have rotted away and been swallowed by the jungle within 10 years of desertion. Due to the diseases brought by the first early explorers, hundreds of thousands of Native populations were wiped out, ravaged by diseases their immune systems had no experience with, before the next group of explorers came by. It could be that tragedies of this atrocious nature, combined with the accelerated breakdown of the natural materials used to build the great cities, caused the disbelief of early explorer accounts that detail great, prosperous cities with hundreds of people living in them. By the time a second wave of exploration began, the Native peoples, having been decimated to only a few hundred people, were living in small bands and villages, rather than in large cities. Archaeologists such as Michael Heckenberger are just beginning to map out and put together diagrams of huge, complicated cities, entire civilizations, that existed, often with technology and scientific knowledge that was far superior to that being used in the Western cities at that time.

A true adventure story, I was racing through the last few chapters, marveling at how Fawcett's story and Grann's story were coming together in a climactic ending. We're still learning so much about ancient civilizations thanks to modern technology, there was really no way Fawcett would have found his lost city of "Z". Yet, that doesn't mean it didn't exist.

Also, stay tuned for the 2012 movie version of this story that's reputed to star Brad Pitt.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Book Review: The Clothes They Stood Up In by Alan Bennett

The Clothes They Stood Up In
by Alan Bennett
Out-of-print hardcover: 9780375503061
Paperback: The Clothes They Stood Up In and the Lady in the Van, 9780812969658, Random House, $14

Why, you might ask, did I give you the out-of-print hardcover edition ISBN? Because it's such a great size - at about 8 inches tall and 5.5 inches wide, this book can be easily slipped into a small purse, backpack, or cargo shorts pocket. Much like the last book I blogged about - the tall, thin, apartment building-esque Keys to the City - the unconventional format is half the draw.

The Clothes They Stood Up In is about the Ransomes, a British husband and wife living in Notting Hill, who arrive home one day to find everything in their apartment is gone, including the furniture, the fitted carpet, and the roll of toilet paper (a hard-to-find shade of forget-me-not blue). The rest of the novel is spent watching Mr. and Mrs. Ransome deal with the outcome of this in their own ways. Mr. Ransome, a solicitor, takes refuge in filling out the insurance forms for a bigger and better sound system than the one stolen; he is a great lover of Mozart. Mrs. Ransome, a housewife, begins to redefine herself by the new possessions she brings into the home, purchased at local shops she had never visited before.

Mostly funny, occasionally sad, often poignant, this little book packs a punch in the range of emotions it evokes as you watch the couple struggle separately and together to come to terms with the loss of all their worldly goods. When their belongings are returned to them just as mysteriously as they were taken, a whole new set of questions must be asked about who would do such a thing and what that means for the Ransomes.