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Selections for March 2008

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Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski (2007)

Since the first-person narrator in Mischa Berlinski's Fieldwork is named Mischa Berlinski, readers might be forgiven for thinking that it's actually a memoir, an account of the author's experiences living in Thailand. That you come away from it feeling that you've learned a lot, too, compounds that belief. But it is definitely a novel - and an absorbing one, at that. When his girlfriend gets a job teaching in northern Thailand, Mischa decides to go with her, spending his time (and earning a meager living) freelancing for an English-language newspaper. It's from an old friend and fellow ex-pat that he first hears about Martiya van der Leun, an American anthropologist who's committed suicide in a Thai prison, where she was serving a life sentence for murder. Mischa's interest (soon an obsession) in the mystery surrounding Martiya's life and death leads him to the Walker family, three generations of missionaries working to convert the Thai hill tribes to Christianity, and to the Diyalos, the hill tribe that was the subject of Martiya's Ph.D. dissertation. The novel works on three levels. First, it's a satisfyingly complex why-dun-it, as we follow Mischa in his attempt to understand the conflict that led to the murder that landed Martiya in prison. Second, it's a great character-driven novel, as Berlinski offers sympathetic portrayals of both the Walkers and the tribespeople they love, and whose souls they want to save for Jesus. The Diyalos, in particular, although they are entirely a figment of (the author, not the character) Berlinski's imagination, are presented so vividly that their customs, beliefs, and way of life seem quite real. Third, the novel is, in many ways, and despite Martiya's ultimate fate, a tribute to anthropologists and the work they do. Reading Fieldwork made me wish I had taken more anthropology courses in college, and finishing it sent me to the library in search of many of the books mentioned in Berlinski's (the author, not the character) notes on the sources for the novel.

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Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (2006)

There are lots of reasons why Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is worth reading once. Or twice. Or even three times or more over the course of a lifetime. Readers as young as 12 or 13 will love the adventure; as older adolescents they can relish Card's well-paced story-telling and surprising, agile characterizations; and as adults they can appreciate the novel's subtle philosophical underpinnings, including questions about war and the potential for tragic misunderstanding between different cultures. The story takes place at a time when the Earth is at war with an alien race known only as "The Buggers." It opens as a 6-year-old prodigy named Ender Wiggin is about to become the youngest person ever admitted to the Military Space Academy. Ender is a wonderful protagonist: smart, vulnerable, humane, and struggling with the conflicts he is beginning to recognize within himself. The development of a brutal nature, necessary if he wants to succeed at the Academy, is balanced by the deepening of his empathy with and compassion for those he fights. The parallel development of these seemingly opposing traits, both of which, paradoxically, are encouraged by first the Academy and then by military leaders, carries Ender to his greatest triumph and greatest pain. Its military setting notwithstanding, Ender's Game is a warm, exciting story, rich with satisfying relationships. Written in the early 1980s, its anticipation of today's technology is eerie in its exactitude: "Smart" laptop computers, the internet, and the blogosphere are all integral to the functioning of the world. Throughout, we follow Ender as he finds his way towards saving his own humanity while living in a world that calls upon him to be a killer.

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Beginner's Greek by James Collins (2008)

I'm sure that publicists all over the world are trying to come up with a phrase as catchy as "chick lit" to describe a book about love (okay, a romance) that's told from a man's point of view - a book like Bridget Jones' Diary but with a male protagonist. "Lad lit" was, so to speak, run up the flag pole, but not enough people saluted. Whatever this genre eventually comes to be called, James Collins' Beginner's Greek provides a quintessential example of it. Collins' novel, a confection of a tale, giddy and full of improbable fun, sets a mighty high standard for other practitioners of the genre to match, let alone exceed. Twenty-something Peter Russell is an unabashed romantic, plain and simple. He's always believed that he'd meet the girl of his dreams by fate, via the randomly assigned seating on an airplane. And, amazingly enough, he does. Her name is Holly and she's reading Thomas Mann's The Magic Mountain, which Peter has actually also read. And she's beautiful. And she seems to like him, too, since she gives him her father's phone number, where she's staying for a visit, so he can call her. Alas, when he gets to his hotel room, Peter can't find the scrap of paper where she wrote it down. As the fates would have it, he does see her again, about a year later, only to discover that, following a whirlwind courtship, she's become engaged to his best friend Jonathan, an unreliable, woman-chasing, all around rotter of a guy whom Peter wouldn't trust to take care of his dog, let alone the most wonderful woman he's ever met. So Peter gives up on True Love and marries Charlotte, a perfectly nice person, and settles down to a life of not-thinking-about-Holly. But those capricious fates have other plans in store for Peter, Holly, Jonathan, and Charlotte... Cleverly written (one character muses that "One of the odd things about living in an apartment was that you could walk out of someone's life, but still have to wait for the elevator" and Charlotte feels about Holly that "they were like two acquaintances in a tragedy, who, after all the leads had died, had to stay onstage and talk about the weather") and populated with an idiosyncratic group of characters, Beginner's Greek deserves an honored place in the genre of "totally entertaining books."

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The Thin Place by Kathryn Davis (2007)

Kathryn Davis's The Thin Place is mesmerizing and mysterious. But there's no mystery as to why it's mesmerizing - simply take a look at the opening paragraph:

"There were three girlfriends and they were walking down a trail that led to a lake. One small and plump, one pretty and medium-sized, one not so pretty and tall. This was in the early years of the twenty-first century, the unspeakable having happened so many times everyone was still in shock, still reeling from what they'd seen, what they'd done or failed to do. The dead souls no longer wore gowns. They'd gotten loose, broadcasting their immense soundless chord through the precincts of the living."

Three adolescent friends on an aimless walk. The horrors of the post 9/11 world. The ineffable world of the dead leaching through to the living. In five short sentences Davis sets the stage for a remarkable and unpredictable tale. And that's what keeps you reading this stunning novel - the mystery of what's going to happen next. In Varennes, a town near the Canadian border, ordinary life goes on - Helen Zeebrugge copes with the various indignities of old age, ex-hippie Andrea Murdock researches the past, Buddy the dog does his doggy doings, Gigi the cat works on fully experiencing every one of her nine lives, and 12-year-old Mees tries to understand the strange gift she's been given. But Varennes is a "thin place," a shimmering, permeable division between the real and the inchoate, between the living and the dead, and strange things happen almost as a matter of routine. Davis uses a variety of points-of-view to tell her story, including those of both two and four-legged animals, but to give a plot summary would be unfair to readers - suffice it to say that you've never read anything like this before.

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Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal: A Worldwide Cinderella by Paul Fleischman (2007)

Of all the many excellent picture books I've read and reviewed over the years, few have come as close as Glass Slipper, Gold Sandal to being a perfect melding of artistic visions between author and illustrator. Author Paul Fleischman weaves together versions of the Cinderella story from 17 different parts of the world - among them Appalachia, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, Ireland, and the West Indies - and blends them into one enchanted tale. Artist Julie Paschkis uses a colorful palate and a folk art motif to illustrate each culture's contributions to the tale. Whether Cinderella is known as Catskin, Vasalisa, Sootface, or Cendrillon, whether she's dressed in a red kimono or a gold sarong, whether her foot fits perfectly into a slipper or a sandal, whether the wedding guests feast on mangoes, lamb stew, rice seasoned with almonds, or anise cookies, Fleischman and Paschkis show us the both the universality and the particularities of this most-beloved fairy tale.

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How Doctors Think by Jerome Groopman (2007)

Doctor-patient communication could be immeasurably improved if Jerome Groopman's How Doctors Think was required reading for patients and doctors alike. Here's a suggestion: It would make a fine and substantive addition to the ubiquitous - and usually out-of-date - collection of magazines in every physician's waiting room. Groopman examines how doctors make decisions - from the diagnosis to the treatment plan - about the health and well-being of their patients. He explores the reasons why well-trained physicians usually get it right, but are sometimes (and sometimes tragically) wrong. (As he praises and faults other physicians, he does not spare himself. He examines his own faulty thinking, both as a doctor and as a patient, describing what went wrong, and why.) The reason doctors think the way they do, says Groopman, has both an objective and a subjective component. Beginning in medical school, students are taught to use a series of algorithms to arrive at a diagnosis: A symptom, or group of symptoms, may directly suggest a diagnosis, which leads to a particular treatment plan. If not, further information is collected, either by probing for additional symptoms, or tests of one sort or another. The additional information suggests a diagnosis, which leads to a particular treatment plan. If not, further information is collected, and so forth and so on. Groopman argues that this kind of linear thinking often inappropriately forces a doctor's thoughts down a too well-trodden path. He believes that, as a result, too many doctors end up putting their patients in neat boxes with standardized labels, without really listening carefully to their specific complaints. His examples include a number of misdiagnoses (some chilling), all based on a doctor's inability, or disinclination, to really see the unique person in front of him or her. This is an important book, one that will inform and empower patients in their dealings with the medical establishment.

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The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman (2007)

I've always enjoyed Maira Kalman's artistry, from her picture books (take a look at What Pete Ate From A to Z) to her delightful illustrations in William Strunk and E. B. White's classic tome on grammar and language usage, The Elements of Style. But I was just totally wowed by her newest book, The Principles of Uncertainty. Perhaps the best way to describe it - although this is a book that is far too idiosyncratic to be easily captured in words - is to say that it's an abundantly illustrated and totally unconventional journal of a year in the life of the author. Whether she's riffing on her passion for hats, considering the losses she's faced (most notably the deaths of her mother and husband), describing her lusts for embroidery and travel, letting us peek at her morning routine, or making us salivate over her candy collection, Kalman writes (and draws) from both her mind and her heart. In turns whimsical and poignant, this unique book, which you'll want to read again and again, feels like a gift that Kalman has given us: a guide to living (and loving) joyfully in this world, all the while knowing that death comes at the end.

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They Did It With Love by Kate Morgenroth (2007)

Take several dashes of the television shows Desperate Housewives and Murder, She Wrote, add a cast of thin, rich, and beautiful female characters (and their assorted male partners), toss in some snappy dialogue, and you'll come up with Kate Morgenroth's They Did It With Love. Twenty-something Sofie and her husband leave Manhattan for suburbia, specifically the very upscale suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut. Being a bookish sort of gal, Sofie decides to join her neighbors' mystery book club, but she soon discovers that uncovering the secrets in her neighbor's lives is even more interesting than discussing Agatha Christie. Especially after one of the women turns up dead. Is it suicide, or murder? Is it just a gruesome coincidence that the first wife of the dead woman's husband did kill herself? (Or did she, really?) Fans of fast-paced amateur detective mysteries will have a thoroughly enjoyable time trying to stay one step ahead of Sofie, and the ending is, well, boffo. This is a perfect choice for your next long plane ride.

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Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan.(2008)

In her second novel, Lady of the Snakes, Rachel Pastan combines elements of two genres: the literary detective novel (see Possession by A. S. Byatt for a good example) and what is sometimes called "mommy lit" (the chicks of "chick lit" are now married mothers confronting a new set of issues - Allison Pearson's novel I Don't Know How She Does It: The Life of Kate Reddy, Working Mother is the gold standard here, although Pastan's novel is, overall, a more serious take on the subject). After completing a Ph.D. in 19th-century Russian literature, specifically on the works of Grigory Karkov (in the process of which she becomes intrigued by his patient, self-effacing wife, Masha, and her influence on his work), Jane Levitsky, her lawyer husband, and their toddler daughter Maisie, move to Wisconsin where Jane gets a teaching position. Even as she juggles the demands of teaching and writing (the latter a necessity if she wants to get tenure) with being a good wife and mother, she sees evidence all around her that in the end, women have to choose one or the other - it seems that no one can really have (or at least do a good job at) it all. Complications mount when Jane finds evidence that Masha may have played a far more important role in her husband's writing career than was previously thought, her babysitter quits unexpectedly, and her easy-going husband, Billy, suddenly becomes a lot more demanding. Any young (or not so young) mother trying to traverse the mommy track will have many aha! moments while reading this consistently entertaining novel, plus it's a great choice for those looking for intelligent, nicely written, character-driven novels. Book clubs take note.

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Chester by Melanie Watt (2007)

In literary criticism circles, you often hear the term "metafiction," which is defined in the Encarta Dictionary as "fiction writing that deals, often playfully and parodically, with the nature of fiction, the techniques and conventions used in it, and the role of the author." (One example might be Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night a Traveler.) When I read Mélanie Watt's Chester, I figured that I had come across perhaps the world's very first meta-picture book. The book opens with Watt explaining that she's trying to write and illustrate a book about a mouse, a book that will begin "Once upon a time there was a mouse. He lived in a house in country." But her cat Chester (a.k.a. the self-centered furball, according to Watt) won't let her get on with her story - he thinks that it's his book and that he's in charge of creating it. With red marker in hand (or paw), Chester goes about editing Mélanie's (cat and author are, of course, on a first name basis) manuscript, with hilarious results. Just when the reader thinks that Watt has gotten the last word, or at least the last picture, of Chester in a pink tutu - could there be a more biting insult to any self-respecting cat? (Especially one who believes that his name stands for:

Charming Handsome Envy of Mouse Smart Talented, Envy of Mélanie Really Handsome

Chester comes up with his own revenge. I can't imagine there's a four to seven year old out there who won't love this collaboration between author and subject, and amused adult readers will want to ask themselves just which of the two is the author, and which the subject of this laugh-aloud book.

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An Infamous Army by Georgette Heyer (2007)

Georgette Heyer took the title of her novel about the epic defeat of the emperor Napoleon at Waterloo from a remark attributed to the Duke of Wellington. He famously (and ruefully) described his troops, which included the remnants of ragtag armies from all across Europe and who were understaffed, undermanned, and under-equipped, as "an infamous army." Heyer is best known (and much loved) as the iconic author of dozens of romances, most set in England during the Regency period, 1811-1820, when King George III was declared unfit to rule, and his oldest son (who became George IV) was named Prince Regent of Britain. Like her romances, which are always solidly grounded in authentic period detail and richly convey both the time and the place, An Infamous Army skillfully brings the past to life. Although I've never been able to independently verify this, a good friend once told me that at the French Military Academy, An Infamous Army is required reading for the cadets. If it's not, it should be. Heyer scrupulously and exhaustively researched the battle of Waterloo, and she presents it in all its heroics and bloody loss of life. In fact, much of the dialogue between Wellington and his men in Heyer's novel is taken directly from his diaries and letters. But An Infamous Army - it is, after all, a Georgette Heyer novel - is also a romance. In addition to the characters based on real people, Heyer has invented a beautiful and strong-willed young woman, Lady Barbara Childe, and a handsome and dashing British Army officer (and aide to Wellington), Charles Audley, who loves (and tames) her. (In this pre-feminist time, it seems that the ultimate fulfillment of a beautiful and strong-willed young woman depended on her being both loved and tamed by a handsome and dashing young man.) Romance fans will certainly not be disappointed, and readers of historical fiction may be more than pleasantly surprised to discover Heyer's not inconsiderable story-telling talents.

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The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis (2003)

Walter Tevis' 1983 novel The Queen's Gambit may nominally be about chess, and chess may not be a game normally associated with speed, but this suspense-filled novel rockets along like an action movie. Perhaps that shouldn't be a surprise, considering that Tevis is also the author of The Hustler as well as the less well-known The Man Who Fell to Earth. Here Tevis' deft pacing, action-packed plot, and compelling characters combine in a page-turner that will appeal to chess players and non-chess players alike. As the book opens, we meet 8-year-old orphan Beth Harmon. Feeling lonely and out of place, one day Beth wanders into the basement of the orphanage where she lives and happens upon a chess board belonging to the janitor, a sort of working class Obi-Wan Kenobi figure named Mr. Schaibel, who becomes Beth's first chess teacher. From the beginning, Beth knows she has an almost uncanny and uncommon affinity for the game. We follow her as she attempts to make her way through both the perilous world of competitive chess and a complicated adolescence, filled with tournaments, pills, and beer (the latter shared with her adoptive mother, a wonderfully imperfect character). Even readers who are unfamiliar with the game of chess will delight in the way Tevis manages to make tournament after tournament a nail-biter - and manages, too, to make the book as much about Beth's growing up as it is about her winning chess contests. And for chess aficionados, each game Beth plays is coherently laid out, with fascinating discussions of strategy and heart-pounding descriptions of her attempts to win. The title of the book refers to an opening move in a chess game, one Beth struggles to master. But it also refers to Beth herself, as she moves through the world of competitive chess, and the wider world of her own life.