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Pearl's Picks for January 2009

The Book of Dahlia
by Elisa Albert (2008)
I had forgotten just how much I loved Elisa Albert’s The Book of Dahlia. When I sat down to write this review and started looking over the many passages I had marked in the book, I couldn’t resist leaving my computer, going to sit down on my couch, and starting to reread it, just because I was immediately sucked into Dahlia’s story once again. Given its subject matter, you might think that The Book of Dahlia would be just too darn depressing to even think about reading, let alone rereading. And--to be entirely honest--a novel about a 29-year-old woman who gets a diagnosis of terminal brain cancer is not going to offer you a laugh a minute. But trust me on this, give it a try--it’s certainly one of my favorite books of 2008. In describing Dahlia’s life, the narrative voice (told from the third-person limited point of view) is mocking, tender, tough, humorous, and heartbreakingly honest. For example, Dahlia doesn’t mind playing the cancer card to get sympathy and attention; she keeps up with her daily flossing even in the face of her certain demise; and she reads self-help books in order to learn to deal with the future with equanimity. When she contemplates her own death, she worries that people might not care. When they hear the news, she fears they might just ask, “Dahlia who?” The narrator continues, “What if no one was talking about her? What if no one knew? What if she was to die and cause hardly a ripple in the lives of everyone she’d ever known? What if what she’d assumed were semi-meaningful associations…were really just indifferent non-relationships after all?” And isn’t that, in the end, if we’re as honest as Dahlia, what we’re all contemplating at that utterly lonely hour of 3 a.m. on those nights when we can’t sleep?

The Numerati
by Stephen Baker (2008)
Stephen Baker’s The Numerati is instructive about a potentially disturbing--even frightening--aspect of modern life: the well-marked trail we leave behind us whenever we use the various electronic tools that have become increasingly woven into our economic and personal lives, like credit and ATM cards, grocery store discount cards, computers, cell phones, and “EZPASS” cards for toll booths. Baker, a business writer, delivers his vision of this new world in a cheerful and slightly off-hand manner, which ironically makes what he says all the more distressing. The Numerati, as Baker defines them, are the new generation of math geniuses and data miners who take all those bits of information that so many of us so blithely offer up in supermarkets, while surfing the Internet, or on the phone, in order to develop profiles of us as voters, as consumers, as employees, and as parents. In the brave new world that Baker believes is fast approaching, politicians will be able to send electronic messages to individuals shaped especially for them--based on voluminous information about the products they buy, the food they eat, the magazines they read, and the websites they regularly visit. In this world, smart grocery carts will remember our favorite brand of cereal, know whether we’re likely to be interested in store brands, shop sales, or are vegetarians--and present personalized advertisements to us, accordingly, as we shop. In the final chapter, Baker discusses the issues that each of us ought to consider: just how much of our secret selves are we willing to offer up to the data detectives for the convenience of our electronic tools, and what, exactly, does personal privacy mean in a world in which our personal lives are more and more transparent to those who know where to look.

The Quiche of Death
by M.C. Beaton (2006)

The Vicious Vet
by M.C. Beaton (2006)
Sometimes only cozy mysteries will do the trick. For readers who aren’t familiar with the term, in a cozy mystery whatever blood and gore there is is minimal, and always takes place off the page; the cozy mystery is most often set in a small town; it’s the polar opposite of “noir” fiction, and there’s usually an amateur female detective involved. Someone--I don’t know who--most succinctly defined this type of book as “murder in a teacup.” The Brits were the first to perfect it, most famously in the series of Miss Marple mysteries by Agatha Christie. Cozies are the favorite subgenre of many mystery aficionados, and if you count yourself among that large group, then you won’t want to miss reading the series of delectable novels by M.C. Beaton featuring Agatha Raisin. Since many of us like to read a series in order, I’m happy to report that the first two of about 20 (o frabjous day for cozy fans!) Agatha Raisin books, The Quiche of Death and The Vicious Vet, are now available in a trade paperback edition under the title Introducing Agatha Raisin. In the first, 50-something Agatha sells off her high-flying public relations firm in London and retires to the small village of Carsely, in the Cotswolds. In a misbegotten attempt to gain acceptance among her mainly unfriendly new neighbors, she buys a spinach quiche from a restaurant and passes it off as her own in a local bake-off. Not only does she not win, place, or show, but in fact the judge dies after tasting her entry. So who put the cowbane in the quiche? Accident or murder? Agatha takes it upon herself--with the help of Bill Wong, local policeman--to figure it all out. In the second, Agatha, always looking for the main chance and a handsome man, sets her sights on the attractive vet in town and figures that the fastest way to his heart is through an examination of her cat. She figures the cat has no communicable diseases, so who’s responsible for the death of the doctor? As amateur detectives are wont to learn, snooping carries its own dangers.

by Elise Broach (2008)
Young fans of Blue Balliett’s Chasing Vermeer and E.L. Konigsberg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler will definitely enjoy Elise Broach’s Masterpiece (with illustrations by Kelly Murphy), a novel for 9 to 12 year-olds featuring an adventurous and inquisitive beetle named Marvin, a perfectly normal 11-year-old boy named James, the Metropolitan Museum, and a daring art heist. For his eleventh birthday, James (who lives with his mother and his stepfather) is given a pen-and-ink set by his artist father. Marvin, out for his daily constitutional around the apartment (where he and his family live under the kitchen sink), discovers both James’ gift and the joys of drawing, using all four of his legs (very delicately) as pens. The resulting picture--of the scene outside James’ window--is indeed remarkable. It’s so impressive, in fact, that the adults in James’s life can hardly believe that an 11-year-old is the artist (let alone a beetle of whom they’re unaware). So James and his stepfather are invited to the Metropolitan Museum, where James is asked to play an important role in foiling a nefarious and complicated plan to steal a drawing by Albrecht Dürer. At that point, James realizes that he needs help--and quickly--from Marvin (with whom he became acquainted after finding Marvin’s drawing on his desk), who must then decide how to balance his loyalties between his beetle family and his new best friend. Broach provides both a most satisfying resolution and, as an added benefit, a reason to treat the beetles who wander around your house with a little more respect.

One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War
by Michael Dobbs (2008)
Although there have been numerous books written about 1961’s Cuban Missile Crisis, it appears (from a non-scientific survey that I did recently among friends and family), that few people remember the details of an event that, along with the Berlin blockade and resulting airlift, demonstrated the political realities of a post-war, Cold War world. Now, thanks to Washington Post reporter Michael Dobbs’ riveting One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War, we can relive the events of those perilous days. Using sources from Russia, the U.S., and Cuba that were not available, for one reason or another, to authors of previous books (for example, to Robert Kennedy when he wrote Thirteen Days), the author takes us through the thoughts and actions of the major players (and many of the secondary ones) involved in the crisis. Dobbs begins his book with an account of the momentous week of October 16, 1962, which began with Kennedy receiving news that the Russians were sending missiles to be set up in Cuba. He traces both the debate among the President’s advisors over whether to attack Cuba or set up a blockade of the island country, and the corresponding thoughts and actions of the Soviet and Cuban leaders. The end of the week saw President Kennedy sign an executive order to prevent ships from entering Cuban waters. As the tension over the blockade grows, Dobbs offers us a heart-stopping (and lengthy) moment-by-moment account of what Kennedy’s White House staffers called “Black Saturday,” Oct. 27, 1962, when the opposing leaders stood (figuratively) face to face (remember, Skype had not yet been invented), each seemingly unwilling to back down as the possibility of a nuclear armageddon stood in the balance. As gripping as the best thriller, Dobbs’ book is essential reading for anyone interested in recent history, of course, but also for those fascinated by the workings of government, realpolitik, and the role of luck in crisis management.

The Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman (2008)
Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book is not a book I would have read when I was a pre-teen. Too scary sounding. I found the real world alarming enough, and would never have gone anywhere near fiction that invited the supernatural into my life. I even avoided fairy tales, so there’s a big lacuna in my reading life where the Brothers Grimm should reside. Of course, one of the delights of reading is that it can provide an opportunity to wander beyond what one would feel comfortable with in real life, and as an adult I find that I’m happily able to read some scary fiction (especially when it’s written for kids or teens). And while Gaiman’s novels would have been too much for my rather timid childhood self, I certainly had friends then who would have loved reading them, just as I know plenty of kids now who will revel in the reaches of Gaiman’s imagination, his ability to tell a page-turning tale, and the happy-sad, touching conclusions to his books. While a man we know only as Jack murders a family in the middle of the night, the youngest member, a toddler, wanders out of the house and makes his way to a nearby graveyard. After much discussion among the ghostly denizens who reside there, he’s taken under the wing of a loving couple, Mr. and Mrs. Owens, and given the name Bod, short for Nobody Owens. He’s also watched over by a mysterious man named Lucas, who comes and goes on business that nobody (including Nobody) knows about. Bod grows up being taught by his caretakers the particular talents necessary for survival, including the Dreamwalk, the Slide, and the Fade but must learn on his own how and if these are to be used in navigating the dangers of the world outside the graveyard. And always, Jack the murderer is on the hunt for that one victim he needs to find in order to finish the job he was sent to perform. Frightening, emotionally satisfying, and unforgettable, this is a book many kids 11 and up (and their parents) won’t want to put down. Although, it’s perhaps best not to read it as a bedtime story.

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World
by Tony Horwitz (2008)
My expectation upon opening a book by Tony Horwitz is that not only am I about to set off on a consistently entertaining and frequently humorous adventure, but that I’m also going to learn a lot--and virtually painlessly--to boot. In A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World, I happily got everything that I expected. Horwitz’s history/travelogue investigates all the various claims about who really discovered America, and when, and how, and what happened next. He begins with one of our national myths: pilgrims debarking from the Mayflower on Plymouth Rock in 1620--and then roams, cheerfully for the most part, around the New World in the footsteps of the variously brave, foolish, evil, and/or misguided adventurers and explorers in the centuries before that mythical First Thanksgiving we pay homage to by overeating every year. He devotes chapters to a whole host of men, such as Leif Eriksson, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, Juan Ponce de León, Hernán Cortés, Francisco Vásquez de Coronado (who knew that he got as far inland as Kansas?), Herman de Soto (whose route covered what would become 10 of these United States), and Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca. Horwitz journeys from the coast of Labrador in Canada to Santo Domingo and Hispaniola in Central America, and on to New Mexico, the Plains states, Florida, up the Mississippi, Virginia (the lost colony of Roanoke and Jamestown) and back to Plymouth Rock. Along the way he takes part in a sweat lodge ceremony that nearly does him in, visits many small local museums, and participates in a historical reenactment of a battle between the Spanish conquistadors and the Seminole Indians, in which he (as a conquistador) is wearing 50 pounds of chain mail and is consequently almost unable to walk, let alone do battle. Depending on the quality of your history courses in high school and/or college, this book will either be a refresher or an eye-opener. My guess is that most readers, like me, will find that it’s filled with events and people known only vaguely, if at all. In either event, it’s a real treat to read.

Telex from Cuba
by Rachel Kushner (2008)
Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner’s multilayered and complex first novel, offers us an incisive portrait of the island country during the years leading up to the 1958 Cuban Revolution. Kushner makes effective use of multiple voices and viewpoints to describe the social and political realities of Cuba during the decades-long setting of the American sun. Two of the central characters are American children living with their families in the Oriente Province, home to United Fruit Company and the nickel mining operations, which were the country’s largest exporters. K. C. Stites is the youngest son of the man who runs United Fruit, arguably one of the most powerful men in Cuba. When the book opens, K. C.’s older brother Del has just run off to the mountains to fight alongside Raúl Castro and his group of revolutionaries against the dictator Batista, which embarrasses his parents and shocks the other American families living in the luxurious environs of the American enclaves. Everly Lederer (who seems to be based on the author’s mother) comes to Oriente when her father gets a high level job with the nickel mines. All the characters--Cuban and American--have their own particular stories to tell. One of the most interesting is that of Christian de La Maziàre, an amoral Frenchman who came out of World War II having had a successful collaboration with the Nazis and, now looking for his next main chance, finds it in the Revolution and the brothers Castro. Kushner is in total control of her subject, and the insights that we get into the country of Cuba and the lives of her characters--be they fictional or real or play a major or minor role in the plot of the novel--make them fully three-dimensional. The writing, filled with memorable phrases and descriptions, carries the reader along effortlessly.

A Mercy
by Toni Morrison (2008)
A Mercy, Toni Morrison’s new novel, is, quite simply, a miracle of beautifully wrought prose and sharp characterization. She celebrates the strength of women in the face of harshness and adversity while at the same time laments (without whining) the ways of a social and political order that puts them at the mercy of the men in their lives. The setting is colonial America during the early 1680s--nearly a century before the Revolutionary War that would establish America as an independent nation, and about a 180 years before the Civil War that would tear the young country in two. Morrison begins her story in its middle, and then goes backward and forward in time, filling in the blanks until gradually we arrive back where we began, sadder but wiser, so to speak, and certainly understanding more deeply the events that are at the center of the book. In partial payment of a bad debt, a Portuguese plantation owner living in Maryland gives trader Jacob Vaark a young slave named Florens, whom he takes back to his wife, Rebekka, at their female-heavy homestead in New York. (Florens’ mother actually offers the child to Jacob, believing that he’s a good man, and bound to be a better owner than most of the men she’s encountered.) Along with Rebekka, her mistress, Florens will grow up with Lina, a Native American who was raised by “Europes,” as she calls them, after her village was wiped out by disease, as well as with mixed-race Sorrow, who was rescued by a sawyer’s family from the wreck of a ship and given to Jacob for caretaking. In addition to the compelling backstories of these four women--brought together in a makeshift family under a “good” man’s care--readers will take away from this magnificent novel whole sentences and paragraphs to be read, re-read, and savored.

Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3
by Annie Proulx
The first thing to note in Annie Proulx’s newest collection of stories, Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories, is that, for most of the characters, things aren’t fine just the way they are. Life is grim, whichever way they try to turn; choices are narrow to non-existent; the weather’s awful; and death lies just around almost every corner. Mostly, these characters would much rather that things could be different. Whether it’s a female soldier come home physically and emotionally damaged from the fighting in Iraq, in one of the best of the stories, “Tits-Up in a Ditch,” or a young woman who makes a terrible decision to set off on a solo hike, in “Testimony of the Donkey,” or a teenage couple in the 1880s trying to make the best of land that’s unfit for farming, in “Them Old Cowboy Songs,” these stories are full of pain and suffering--which is communicated vividly by Proulx’s strong and gorgeous prose. You simply can’t look away from the sadness that she is describing. Proulx somewhat leavens these harrowing tales with “Swamp Mischief” and “I’ve Always Loved This Place,” two sharp little stories set in Hell, where the Devil and his assistant attempt to think up new temptations to drive humanity crazy.

by Dirk Wittenborn (2008)
The difficult decision of whether to use the form of memoir or autobiographical fiction in writing about one’s experiences was probably made easier by the James Frey debacle a few years ago. Go for fiction, if you possibly can. Indeed, Dirk Wittenborn, a sometime writer for Saturday Night Live, chose to go the fiction route, using details of his own family’s history for his novel Pharmakon (a Greek word meaning both “poison” and “cure”). Will Friedrich, a psychopharmacologist at Yale, has always been interested in the nature of happiness. In the course of his research, Will devises a scale whereby therapists can determine whether a patient is becoming more happy--or less. In 1951, he and a colleague discover what they believe to be a “happiness” drug, which they then proceed to test on a group of students. (This is before the time of Institutional Review Boards.) When one of the undergraduates, the desperately unhappy, fiercely intelligent, and decidedly weird Casper Gedsic starts taking the new drug, his results on the scale of happiness skew wildly toward the happy side, but the ultimate and ultimately horrific results of Casper’s getting the drug will shape the future of Friedrich, his wife, and their four children over the next five decades. Told from the point of view of the youngest child, Zach, Pharmakon is, in the end, about unintended consequences rising out of (mostly) only the purest of motives. Parts of the novel are funny, much is tragic, but through and through it’s an absorbing tale. When I finished it, I went on a Google hunt trying to figure out which parts of the novel were based on true events and which were invented. There is, in fact, something called Wittenborn's Psychiatric Status Rating Scale, developed by the author’s father (my husband actually used it when he was writing his dissertation), but if there was an outbreak of parrots in a tree outside the family’s home (as described so winningly in the novel), or a person whose actions resembled Casper’s, I was unable to find any record of it. You may have better luck.

Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out
Candlewick (2008)
The historic inauguration of our 44th president makes Our White House: Looking In, Looking Out especially timely. Over 100 of our best known writers and illustrators contributed to this whirlwind and eccentric look at various aspects of the White House and its residents since the birth of the nation, providing a fascinating and enjoyable way for young people (and adults) to get a sense of our country’s history. The book has seven parts: From the Foundation Up; Struggling to Stand; Annexation and Division; One Lamp Lights Another; With Courage and Determination; The People’s House; and The Great House Endures. Part I opens with a poem by Jane Yolen that depicts a conversation between the first residents of the White House, John and Abigail Adams. It also includes an imagined memoir by a young Irish boy who’s come to the New World with his father to help build a beautiful house for the president, as well as an essay by Walter Dean Myers about the slave laborers who worked on its construction. Some of my favorites from later sections include a sprightly account of White House ghosts, by M. T. Anderson, one on presidential pets, written and illustrated by Steven Kellogg, the Four Freedoms speech by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a short story by Patricia MacLachlan about a little girl meeting Eleanor Roosevelt, and a poem by Nancy Willard called “On Looking Into Dresses Worn by the “First ladies” of the White House (Paper Doll Cut-outs).” For each work of prose or poetry, there’s an appropriate and winning illustration. The artists include Leo and Diane Dillon (a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln and her African-American seamstress, Elizabeth Keckly); Stephen Alcorn (a picture called “Freedom from Fear”); Matt Phelan (a graphic account of Herbert Hoover’s one term in office); and David Slonim (a two-page oil painting called “America’s Wilderness”). This is a remarkably rich and rewarding book, nicely introduced by historian David McCullough.