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Pearl's Picks for December 2008

The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird
by Bruce Barcott (2008)
For a long time now I have been a big fan of Bruce Barcott's writing, including both his book reviews and, especially, his articles in Outside magazine. His new book, which grew out of an assignment for Outside, doesn't disappoint. The Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw: One Woman's Fight to Save the World's Most Beautiful Bird, is fluently written and illuminates a whole host of important issues that arose from one American woman's attempt to protect the wildlife of Central America. Sharon Matola ended up in Belize almost by accident, after a varied career that included marriage to an Iowa dentist, tiger taming in a Mexican circus, the serious study of mushrooms, and assisting the director of a documentary being filmed in Belize. She started a small (but popular) zoo outside Belize City in 1982 with the animals left behind after that film was shot; Barcott describes the zoo as being filled with "misfits, poaching casualties, orphans, abandoned pets, and problem jaguars who developed a taste for cattle and household pets." In 1999, when she learned that a multinational corporation based in Canada was planning to build a dam that would destroy the nesting ground of the last 200 scarlet macaws in Belize, she enlisted individuals and groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council in her cause. As Barcott explores the six-year fight to prevent the Chalillo Dam from being built, we learn about many things: Belizean history and culture, politics—big-time and small-town, dirty and clean—and the real-politik economics of improving quality-of-life versus saving a species from probable extinction. Right from the first paragraph of the book's introduction, which begins, "The scarlet macaw looks like a creature dreamed up by Dr. Seuss" and concludes: "If birds formed villages, a town of macaws would thrum with happy marriages and lively conversation," you know you're in for a rousing, intelligent read. And though you shouldn't judge a book by its cover, this cover, a painting of a macaw by Edward Lear, is beautiful. (And, in the course of following one of the wonderful byways and tangents that reading affords, I learned, via Wikipedia, that this was the same Edward Lear who wrote delightful nonsense verses. Who knew the man who wrote "The Owl and the Pussycat" was so multi-talented?)

The Ghost in Love
by Jonathan Carroll (2008)
The first paragraph of chapter nine in Jonathan Carroll's loopy and heartwarming philosophically inclined fantasy novel, The Ghost in Love, is a surefire test of whether or not you'll enjoy the book. In fact, you might want to read it first, before you check the book out of the library. Here it is: "A man, a dog, and two understandably disgruntled women were walking down a sidewalk. One woman was a ghost, the man should have been dead, the dog was the reincarnation of the should-have-been-dead's girlfriend, and the last, the tall woman, was an innocent bystander who had the bad fortune of loving two of the others." If you can joyfully embrace those two sentences rather than wanting to either throw the book across the room (if it's a library book, please don't) or put it down in bewilderment and frustration, you'll enjoy this novel. When Ben Gould fell and hit his head, he should have died—but he didn't. The ghost who's been sent to escort Ben's soul to the Afterlife can't understand what happened. And neither can the ghost's boss, who tells his employee to hustle on back to Earth and keep a close eye on Ben until they figure out what's happening. Then things get really complicated, as Ben realizes that he and the rest of humanity are (as William Ernest Henley put it in his poem "Invictus") now masters of their fates and captains of their souls. As we, along with the characters, explore the possible implications of this, Carroll has a lot of fun with ghost gourmands, dogs who talk, and the possibility of meeting up (in this case, at a picnic in the rain) with all of our younger selves. You'll need to allow yourself to suspend a lot of disbelief to enter Carroll's magical world, but it's well worth it.

Maps and Legends
by Michael Chabon (2008)
It seems to me that Michael Chabon can write no wrong (pun intended). From his early novels, like The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, to his most recent, The Yiddish Policemen's Union, to the articles that have appeared in such various and sundry magazines and journals as Architectural Digest, Swing, and the Washington Post Book World, he's shown himself to be an engaging writer and a discerning reader and thinker. Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, a collection of new and formerly printed essays, only enhances that reputation. Among the essays are one on Sherlock Holmes (Chabon counts himself among the legions of fans), lengthy reviews and analyses of Cormac McCarthy's The Road and Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and its sequels, a charming autobiographical piece called "Golems I Have Known, Or, Why My Elder Son's Middle Name Is Napoleon," and an essay called "Kids' Stuff," about comics and their role in the reading lives of children. One of my favorites is the first essay in the book: "Trickster in a Suit of Lights: Thoughts on the Modern Short Story," in which he argues for a more expansive understanding of the word "entertainment" (and what he calls its "suave henchman": pleasure) than is now applied to the activity of reading. In fact, the word entertainment is most often used to describe only a certain type of literature, like comics and genre fiction. He writes: "I would like to propose expanding our definition of entertainment to encompass everything pleasurable that arises from the encounter of an attentive mind with a page of literature." I think Chabon would agree that dividing the universe of books and reading into two opposing camps—i.e., "good literature" versus "reading for pleasure" is not a particularly useful way of thinking about books, doing neither the writer nor the reader any favors. Personally, I found this to be a very entertaining book.

The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century
by Steve Coll (2008)
It's a safe bet that Steve Coll's serious interest in the Bin Laden family of Saudi Arabia began when he was researching and writing Ghost Wars (see below). Obviously he dug up a lot of material that didn't quite fit into the arc of Ghost Wars and really needed a book of its own. That book became The Bin Ladens: An Arabian Family in the American Century. When we hear the name Bin Laden, what immediately comes to mind, of course, is its most famous (or infamous) member, Osama, and the date 9/11/2001. But, as Coll writes, beginning with Osama's father, Mohamed, the Bin Laden family's influence on the Middle East goes well beyond the beliefs and behavior of one son (one of at least 54 siblings and half-siblings, in fact). The family's close ties to the Saudi royal family began in the years following World War I, when a 20-something Mohamed Bin Laden, impoverished and blind in one eye, left his native Yemen for Saudi Arabia. His first job was as a bricklayer for the booming oil company Aramco. He soon set up his own construction company, and became wealthy as the builder of choice for Saudi royals. He sent many of his children to school in England and the United States. Two major turning points in the history of the Bin Ladens were the Iranian revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Political and ideological differences broke out between Osama and the rest of the Bin Ladens (most of whom worked in the family construction business). Osama objected strenuously, ostensibly for religious reasons, to an American base on Saudi Arabian soil, even though the family business had the contract to build it. But when the family started funneling money to support the Afghan resistance movement against the Soviets (which the U.S. government also supported), Osama was sent to oversee the distribution of funds. He founded Al Qaeda following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1988, and returned to Saudi Arabia. With the rise of the Taliban and militant Islam, Osama's relationships within the family and the Saudi government frayed to a breaking point, and the rest, as they say, is history. Coll's smooth writing makes the reading of both The Bin Ladens and Ghost Wars easy. Although this book was written after Ghost Wars, I might suggest reading it first, because of the valuable background material it contains.

Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001
by Steve Coll (2004)
People who neglect to read the subtitle of Steve Coll's Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, From the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001 may be forgiven if they think they're reading a spy thriller. Coll, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, and managing editor for the Washington Post from 1998 to 2004, presents—with meticulous attention to detail (buttressed by non-intrusive endnotes) and a novelist's sense of drama—a narrative history of the disaster of U.S. policy in the Middle East and Central Asia. The scope of his story is reflected in the three-page list of "Principal Characters" he conveniently provides at the beginning of the book, organized under the headings "The Central Intelligence Agency," The White House," "Department of State," "In Afghanistan," "In Pakistan," and "In Saudi Arabia." Coll shows how the U.S. intelligence community's misreading of events in the Soviet Union led the government to see events in Afghanistan and the surrounding area primarily in Cold War terms, and ultimately to the CIA's involvement in the evolution of the Taliban and Al Qaeda as part of the effort to balance Soviet influence in the area. This is an important book, one that needs to be read by anyone who wants to understand the events of the recent past.

The Plague of Doves
by Louise Erdrich (2008)
In many ways, Louise Erdrich's newest novel, A Plague of Doves, will sound familiar to her scores of fans. It takes place on and off an Ojibwe Indian reservation in North Dakota, covers a wide swath of time, is told in a variety of voices, both first and third person, and breaks your heart before offering a kind of redemption with its beauty and wisdom. When a white family is murdered on their farm near the Ojibwe reservation in Pluto, North Dakota, in 1911, the repercussions of the never officially solved crime haunt the community, both Indian and white, for generations to come. Among the first person narrators are Mooshum Milk, one of the men accused of murder, who miraculously survived the lynching that followed. Mooshum is a storyteller, a dreamer, and a man who keeps the secrets of the tribe. His granddaughter is Evalina Harp, part Ojibwe, part white, who tells her story of growing up in the 1960s and 1970s on and off the reservation, and of her love for her ne'er-do-well schoolmate Corwin Peace and one of her teachers, a nun, both of whom are descendants of members of the lynch mob. One of the most interesting narrators is Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, a mixed blood living in Pluto, whose own complicated life and history offers another facet of Indian-white relationships. But you can't talk about a book of Erdrich's without mentioning her writing, which not infrequently can stun you with its acuity, its intimacy, and its range of expression. A Plague of Doves is, quite simply, miraculous. It's Erdrich's best novel yet.

Looks
by Madeline George (2008)
In Looks, author Madeline George does an outstanding job of capturing the emotional pain that sometimes seems inherent in adolescence. Her novel brought that time back so vividly for me that I frequently found it a little painful to read (and I mean that as a compliment to the author's skill). Do you remember how concerned everyone was with appearances, and how the worst thing you could do was to look, or act—or, worse, be—different from everyone else? The two main characters in George's debut novel seem, at first, to have nothing in common with either one another or the rest of their classmates. Sophomore Meghan Ball is grossly overweight. She tries to protect herself from being the butt of her classmates' jokes by making herself as invisible as possible, spending her time at school silently watching and listening from the sidelines. Freshman Aimee Zorn's survival strategy is extreme self-control. She's trained herself not to eat, and refuses to let herself feel upset that her mother's live-in boyfriend, a professor of poetry, has moved out of their house. She channels all her hunger—for love, for food, for acceptance—into writing poems. When Aimee is betrayed by the seemingly supremely perfect and popular Cara, Meghan's childhood best friend, it is Meghan who finds the perfect revenge, one which will also go a long way toward taking the school's best athlete, J-Bar (the ringleader of the group of Meghan's worst tormentors), down a peg or two from his smug stardom. This would be an especially good choice for a mother/daughter book group.

The Mercy Rule
by Perri Klass (2008)
I'm not one of those readers who requires a strong plot from a book—in fact, I can take plot or leave it. I'm frequently just as happy with fiction in which nothing spectacularly eventful happens. But, if a book wants my commitment, I almost always demand an interesting, three-dimensional character or two. (You can get a good idea of how this plays out in my reading life by looking back over the books that I've chosen for Pearl's Picks.) Getting to know Dr. Lucy Weiss, the central character in Perri Klass's collection of linked stories, The Mercy Rule, made this book a richly satisfying reading experience for me. Lucy is a wife, a mother, and a pediatrician, (as is Klass) and each of those roles has been shaped and informed by her own childhood experiences. She was raised in a series of foster homes, and has devoted her career to working in a clinic that specializes in the needs of foster kids and those at risk of being removed from their families by the state. Lucy's relationship with her husband Greg, a college professor, is described with a kind of rueful honesty that acknowledges the complexity at the heart of every marriage in a way that we don't often see in contemporary fiction. Their children—ten-year-old Isabel and six-year-old Freddy—are drawn with such sympathy, and seem so authentic and true, that it's hard to believe Klass isn't in fact writing about an actual pair of kids she knows in real life. Any parent will find it easy to understand the fear Lucy feels that her brilliant but rather odd son will find the road increasingly tough going as the years pass, and the pain she experiences when all the boys in Freddy's class except him are invited to a birthday party. Klass made me believe in the reality of her characters—that they were living, breathing, complicated human beings, the sort of people I'd like to get to know better—to the extent that I couldn't help but wonder what happened to them after the book ended (especially, but not exclusively, Freddy). If your book group decides to discuss The Mercy Rule, I'd suggest kicking off the questions with what the title means in the context of these stories. The term "mercy rule" is one that is usually applied to sports: it's when a one-sided contest is brought to a close, rather than forcing the losing team to play on to the end of the game.

Education of a Wandering Man
by Louis L'Amour (1989)
It's hard to imagine a reader who hasn't at least heard of Louis L'Amour. In addition to being the prolific author of what seems like a gazillion westerns (actually 86 novels and 16 collections of short stories, as well as three works of nonfiction), he was a book reviewer for the Daily Oklahoman; many of his books (Hondo, The Quick and the Dead, and Heller in Pink Tights, for three) were turned into movies, and others into television series. But I suspect that before his memoir, Education of a Traveling Man, was published in 1989, even his many fans knew little about the remarkable man behind the books. This year, to celebrate the centennial of his birth in Jamestown, North Dakota in 1908, Bantam has reissued the memoir for a whole new generation of readers to discover and embrace. L'Amour (the family name was actually "LaMoore") knew he wanted to be a writer from the time he was a young boy. He grew up in a household filled with books, and spent long hours at the nearby Alfred Dickey Free Library, where his eldest sister Edna was a librarian, though he had no formal schooling after the age of 15. He drew on all his varied experiences—among them, serving in the Merchant Marines, riding the rails, working cattle—for his books. He came of age at a particularly good time for someone who described himself as writing "frontier stories." He says, "I am probably the last writer who will ever have known the people who lived the frontier life. In drifting about across the West, I have known five men and two women who knew Billy the Kid, two who rode in the Tonto Basin war in Arizona, and a variety of others who were outlaws, or frontier marshals like Jeff Milton, Bill Tilghman, and Chris Madse, or just pioneers." And when he wasn't writing, he was reading. L'Amour read avidly, and his tastes ranged from the classics to poetry to detective stories, and all things in between. He kept track of what he read (how I wish I had done that!), and his encyclopedic lists from several years are included in this memoir. I found myself nodding in agreement with many of L'Amour's statements about books and reading, including this: "Often I hear people say they do not have time to read. That's absolute nonsense. In the one year during which I kept that kind of record, I read 25 books while waiting for people. In offices, applying for jobs, waiting to see a dentist, waiting in a restaurant for friends.I read on buses, trains, and planes. If one really wants to learn, one has to decide what is important. Spending an evening on the town? Attending a ball game? Or learning something that can be with you your life long." He received many awards (although none from the literary establishment), including a Congressional Gold Medal in 1983 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.

Song Yet Sung
by James McBride (2008)
James McBride's first book was the well-reviewed and much-read memoir, The Color of Water, a tribute to his white mother and the story of growing up in a bi-racial family. His second was Miracle at St. Anna, an illuminating novel about the painful ironies of African Americans fighting in World War II. (It's now a Spike Lee film.) Song Yet Sung, his third book, has many of the qualities that I most enjoy in a novel. It's a page-turning historical novel, and in the midst of all the plot twists and turns we learn a lot about the time period of the book (the 1850s, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where both Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass were born); each one of the large cast of characters is satisfyingly complex; and the writing is wow-inducing in its elegance. The story revolves around Liz Spocott, a 19-year-old slave who's been shot in the head in the process of escaping from her owner and is then lured to capture by a handsome African American employed by Patty Cannon (who was a real person) and her gang of slave-catchers, who track down runaways and resell them for great profit. Liz discovers during her imprisonment with other slaves that her injury has given her the gift of seeing the future, and she becomes known to her fellow captives as "The Dreamer." Working together, the group of captives engineers an escape and Liz goes on the run again, this time followed not only by Patty Cannon and her crew, but by a professional slave-chaser, Denwood Long, known as "the Gimp," hired by her master to track her down. McBride ratchets up the tension with great finesse—I stayed up way too late because I couldn't stand going to bed without knowing how it ended. Fans of Toni Morrison's Beloved will find this book similarly engrossing.

What Happened to Anna K.
by Irina Reyn (2008)
I am always so pleased when I discover a first novel that I love and want to share with others. It reaffirms my faith that it's still possible to find books that offer me insight, knowledge, and pleasure in a voice I've never heard before (and helps me get through the occasional dry spells that are an inevitable part of the reading life). Irina Reyn's What Happened to Anna K. was such a book for me. Even in the 21st century, in Anna K.'s close-knit Russian-Jewish community in Rego Park, Queens, women's roles are tightly constricted—the goal is to marry well (arranged marriages are common), follow the biblical commandments and dictates of the group's rabbi, and raise children to carry on the tradition. When Anna K. leaves her financially successful older husband and young son because she's fallen hopelessly and helplessly in love with a younger man (a wannabe-writer who happens to be her naïve and innocent cousin Katia's boyfriend), the shockwaves reverberate throughout the insular community. So what finally happens to Anna K.? Here's a hint: Reyn has ingeniously reinvented Leo Tolstoy's tragically selfish eponymous heroine, Anna Karenina, moving her more than a century and many time zones and continents away from her native Russia, but maintaining the outlines of Tolstoy's plot. (Though it's certainly not necessary to have read Tolstoy's novel in order to enjoy Reyn's.) The pleasures of Reyn's novel are to be found both in her clear-eyed depiction of the tensions between self and society, as well as in the descriptions of the Bukharian-Jewish émigré community where Anna lives, and whose conventions she both flouts and flaunts. I had never heard of Bukharian Jews before I read What Happened to Anna K., and I spent a lot of time when I finished it looking up information on their fascinating history. I also went out and bought the highly regarded new translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky of Tolstoy's Anna Karenina to read.

The World Before Her
by Deborah Weisgall (2008)
Deborah Weisgall brings two women into sharp focus in her novel The World Before Her. One of the women, Caroline Spingold, a 33-year-old American sculptor, is fictional. The other, 61-year-old Marian Evans, is the very real 19th-century English novelist, better known by her pen name, George Eliot. Alternating chapters, most set in Venice, move from 1880 (Marian's tale) to 1980 (Caroline's story) and back again. As with most novels structured in this fashion (remember A. S. Byatt's Possession?), readers may come to prefer spending time with one character over the other. That was the case for me, and my favorite (history buff that I am) sections were those about Marian Evans. Although I had been familiar with the outlines of Evans' life, I didn't know many of the specific details that Weisgall weaves into this account. Marian lived with—and loved—George Lewes for a quarter of a century. Although they never married, since he was unwilling, or unable, to divorce his philandering wife, their friends (and even his children) never considered them anything but a devoted couple. Now Lewes is dead, and Marian, heartbroken, turns to the worshipful and adoring John Cross, two decades her junior, and agrees to marry him, in the hope of obtaining the social and personal benefits that go along with a legal relationship. They are in Venice for their honeymoon when Marian begins to realize that she may have made a grave mistake in thinking that marriage to John would give her the sort of happiness she gave her character Dorothea Brooke, in Middlemarch. In 1980, Caroline is unwillingly accompanying her wealthy (two decades) older husband on a business trip to Venice, although it's the last place she wants to be. Just before her father left her and her mother for another woman, the family had spent a glorious summer there, and she has never wanted to return. As Caroline and Marian are each forced to confront issues of identity, love, art, and marriage, the reader comes to realize how each women's life, seemingly so different in fact has many parallels to the other's, in ways both large and small. (And, if you enjoy this book as much as I did, I'm sure you'll want to go back and read—or reread—George Eliot's writings. Although Silas Marner is the one most often used for English class assignments—probably because it's the shortest—I would suggest Daniel Deronda or Middlemarch instead.)