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Selections for July 2008

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The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science by Natalie Angier (2007)

Offhand, I can't think of a more appealing popular science writer than Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Natalie Angier. Both in her articles in the science section of the New York Times and in her several nonfiction books, her writing is clear, concise, frequently humorous (she makes terrific use of analogies, puns, and other bits of wordplay), and always interesting. Even if, at first, you doubt that her topic is what you've always wanted to read about, Angier's sprightly style lures you in and keeps you reading. I always come away from reading something by her feeling much smarter and more knowledgeable than I was going in. It's no different with her new book, The Canon: A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science (which should be required reading for anyone interested in how the world works). Here Angier explains the basics (and innate beauty) of the building blocks of the "hard" sciences, including biology, chemistry, physics, geology, and astronomy. If you found your high school (and even college) science classes to be dull grinds, taken only because they were required - as, alas, so many of us did - Angier's book just might be a revelation to you. She'll take you through a thorough explanation of what's what in the natural world, and, even better, show you why it matters. This is a book that is best read slowly, to give you a chance to contemplate what you've just taken in.

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Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup (2007)

You would be forgiven if you thought that a memoir about a newly widowed mother of four who borrows her late husband's dream and becomes a Unitarian-Universalist minister and then works as a chaplain with the Search and Rescue division of the Maine Game Warden's office would be so innately depressing and/or boring that there's no sense reading it. But - trust me on this - Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup shows its writer to be a warm, caring, and courageous woman, and these essays (which are uplifting without being smarmy or sappy) are well worth the time you spend with them. She writes about her husband's unexpected death; her experiences on the job dealing with the after-effects of suicides, murders, lost children, accidents; and her everyday life, including trying to answer her children's questions about why God let their father die. Braestrup's ability to see beyond herself (always a challenge with a memoir) and her musings on love (both human and divine) and on the need to live life fully in the face of death make this a special book indeed.

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The Great Man by Kate Christensen (2007)

The eponymous (love that word!) "great man" of the title in Kate Christensen's third novel is the great (and fictional) 20th-century artist Oscar Feldman, whose enormous talent for figurative painting (solely the female nude) is matched only by his genius for seducing his models. Feldman sounds like he would make a great subject for a biography - right? In fact, two competing biographers - the ink on their signed contracts barely dry - rush to interview his survivors, who include his wife, Abigail, an autistic son, and his sister Maxine, herself a celebrated painter (but not nearly as well known as her brother was) of Rothko and Pollock-like abstracts. Not mentioned in Feldman's obsequious obituaries is the fact that he also left behind a whole other family: his mistress, Teddy St. Cloud, and the couple's twin daughters. As the biographers vie for interview time with the women in Oscar Feldman's life, each one gets the chance to tell her own version of the truth about him as she knew it. The Great Man is a comedy of manners about art and artists, egos, fame, the way we fashion ourselves, and how others make us into the people they want (or need) us to be.

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Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos (2008)

Marisa de los Santos definitely beat the sophomore jinx with her new novel, Belong to Me. Although de los Santos carries on the story of Cornelia and Teo, two of the central figures in her first novel, Love Walked In, in this follow-up she broadens her canvas to include several other memorable characters. In fact, if I had to choose which of de los Santos's many writerly talents is foremost, it would have to be that she creates remarkably real characters. Each novel tells an interesting tale, and the writing is consistently intelligent, smooth, and quite enjoyable to read, which should come as no surprise, since de los Santos began her writing career as a poet. However, for me, it's the three-dimensional men, women, and children who populate her fiction that I'll remember for a very long time. Two of the people she introduces in Belong to Me are a very bright 13-year-old named Dev Tremain and his mother, Lake. When one of Dev's teachers unfairly labels him a troublemaker, Lake moves the two of them to a suburb of Philadelphia (coincidentally, the same place where Cornelia and Teo have moved for Teo's work) in order to send Dev to a school for gifted kids. (Here's an example of the way de los Santos can capture the essence of a character in one short sentence: ".Dev wanted two things in the world to be as utterly straightforward and unmysterious as possible: one was music, the other was his mother.") The third important new character is one of Cornelia's new neighbors, Piper Truitt, whose improbably high standards of appearance and behavior intimidate Cornelia, and who very nearly abandons her own life to take care of a dying friend. As the plot progresses, friendships are formed, decisions are made, secrets from the past are revealed, and everyone's lives are sent spinning into new directions.

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The Other Side of the Bridge by Mary Lawson (2006)

The timeless story of brotherly non-love evidently began with Cain and Abel. There's a 20th-century version of it in John Steinbeck's East of Eden. Now, in the 21st century, in Mary Lawson's The Other Side of the Bridge, we get the story of two brothers growing up on a Canadian farm in the 1930s. Arthur Dunn, the oldest, is stolid, solid, and kind, while his younger brother Jake is the total opposite: flashy, manipulative, womanizing, and devious. (Even their names hint at their differences.) They both fall in love with Laura, who, improbably, it would seem, marries Arthur and settles in to a life of contentment, if not passion. Almost two decades later, Laura's charms and beauty have not noticeably waned, despite the fact that she has three children. Teenager Ian Christopherson, son of the town's doctor, takes a job on the Dunn's farm in order to worship Laura from closer than afar. His appearance, along with the unexpected return of Jake, sets off a series of events that inevitably ends in tragedy. Lawson's prose is poetic and evocative without being mannered or self-conscious. Her descriptions of the beauty and starkness of the Canadian landscape, the difficulties of the farmers getting through the Depression years, and her exploration of different sorts of love are all presented with honesty and care.

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House Rules: A Joe DeMarco Thriller by Mike Lawson (2008)

A lot of the hours when I'm not reading are spent searching for thrillers that I might want to read. What I am looking for are those with a smooth writing style, a complex yet fast-paced plot, and a likeable hero. So I was absolutely delighted to finally discover Mike Lawson. (I was a bit late to the party of his fans because I'd already missed his first two, The Inside Ring and The Second Perimeter, but I intend to remedy that situation quickly.) The third in his series about Joe DeMarco is House Rules, and it's an entertaining read. DeMarco is what's known in the corridors of power in Washington, D.C. as a "fixer." He's the guy you call when you want to find out what's what (without anyone knowing who's asking) or you want something done that may be everything from just a bit shady to downright illegal. DeMarco's talents for succeeding at these sorts of assignments make him an invaluable asset to his boss, John Mahoney, the powerful Speaker of the House of Representatives. In this go-round, Mahoney calls on Joe when the junior senator from Virginia, responding to two unsuccessful terrorist attacks on American soil, strongly urges Congress to pass a law requiring background checks on all Muslims in the U.S., with instant deportation if they're not citizens. And, due to the climate of fear that pervades the U.S., it looks like the bill is going to pass both Houses of Congress in a heartbeat. Not only does Mahoney (who's both an effective politician and not a stupid man) know instinctively that this new law is the wrong way to deal with the situation (it hearkens back, in his mind, to such mistakes as the law setting up the Japanese internment camps during World War II), but he has a connection to one of the terrorists that he needs to keep secret. Enter DeMarco. This smart political thriller offers readers both a wild ride and thought-provoking issues. In many ways, House Rules reminded me of the novels of the late Ross Thomas; this, from me, is high praise, indeed.

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The God of War by Marisa Silver (2008)

Coming of age novels can take place in a variety of settings, from the 20th-century Manhattan of J. D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye to the Victorian London of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations. And each of those locales has been the setting for many other tales. But I believe that The God of War by Marisa Silver is the only novel I've ever read that takes place hard by the Salton Sea, an (unintentionally) manmade lake in the middle of California's southern desert. Twelve-year-old Ares Ramirez lives in a trailer there with his mother, Laurel, her here-today-gone-tomorrow boyfriend, and his six-year-old brother, Malcolm, who has a profound learning disability. Ares, named for the Greek god of war, is at war with himself, his mother, and the expectations of society. He's torn between his misplaced sense of responsibility for the choices his mother makes (her unconventionality, her distrust of government and its agencies, her constant flouting of the rules, and her decision to simply ignore Malcolm's disability and the effect that has on both her sons) and Ares' own immense feelings of guilt for having caused Malcolm's condition years before. His growing friendship with 15-year-old Kevin, the town's bad boy, forces Ares to finally begin to accept who he is and what he wants to do with his life. Silver's language is both spare and evocative; she skillfully captures the confusion, tension, and pain of Ares' life.

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The Septembers of Shiraz by Dalia Sofer (2007)

Partly autobiographical (when she was ten, the author and her family had to flee Iran after her father was jailed by the new fundamentalist regime), Dalia Sofer's first novel, The Septembers of Shiraz, is a moving tale of a family caught up in political and religious turmoil - in Iran, it turns out, they are one and the same. Nine-year-old Shirin watches helplessly as her world is turned upside down when her father, gem dealer Isaac Amin is arrested - even though it seems that his only crimes are being Jewish and wealthy. As her mother, Farnaz, tries frantically to get her husband released, an aura of fear and paranoia grips both the family and the country. The Revolutionary Guards are watching and listening for any transgression outside the walls of the prison, while inside the jails the prisoners are routinely tortured and killed. Old friends and neighbors disappear without notice, and anyone with the means to leave the country, does so. Sofer's portrait of a country and a family in turmoil is frequently sad, but never melodramatic. The cast of characters includes the country of Iran itself; it's perhaps the most three-dimensional of all: like all the others, it is never entirely innocent, but never deserving of the suffering it must now endure.

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Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller by Steve Weinberg (2008)

These days, muckraking is somewhat of a dirty word (the term alone seems to imply something fundamentally dirty). But as Steve Weinberg makes clear in Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller, without the hard-nosed, never-say-die work of reporters like Ida Tarbell, American corporations (not to mention America itself) would be much more monopolistic entities than they are today. Certainly, without Tarbell's articles, the landmark 1911 Supreme Court anti-trust decision dissolving Rockefeller's myriad holdings would never have occurred. Beginning in 1902, Ida Minerva Tarbell published the first of her many articles in McClure's Magazine exposing the wide-ranging scope of the Standard Oil Company (known simply as "The Trust"), a series of businesses owned, run, and (many would say) misused by one of the world's richest men, John Davison Rockefeller. Her groundbreaking book (800 pages long!), The History of the Standard Oil Company, grew out of her magazine articles and is still considered today to be a high point of investigative journalism. Here's an example of Tarbell's scathing assessment of Rockefeller "... [he] has introduced into business a spy system of the most odious character. He has turned commerce from a peaceful pursuit to war, and honeycombed it with cruel and corrupt practice, turned competition from honorable emulation to cutthroat struggle." Weinberg's descriptions of the foes do justice to them both, but the real star here is Tarbell, who deserves to be far better known than she is. When we talk about the importance of freedom of the press, of reporters scouring letters, legal papers, documenting their sources, and working with insiders to get the real scoop (think of Woodward and Bernstein's "Deep Throat"), Tarbell should be credited with those innovations.

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Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac by Gabrielle Zevin (2007)

What would you do if your memories of the past were erased and you could, as it were, invent yourself from scratch? Just how weirdly disturbing - or exciting - would that be? That's the situation faced by teenaged Naomi Porter in Gabrielle Zevin's enormously likeable Memoirs of a Teenage Amnesiac. After a bad fall on the steps of her high school, Naomi wakes up to the realization that she can't remember anything that's happened in her life since the sixth grade. Just for a start, she has no memory of her parents' divorce or of her mother's remarriage and her father's girlfriend. She can't remember who her friends (and enemies) were - at one point she asks one of her classmates, "Do we like each other? Do we get along?" and the girl replies, "Not since fourth grade." Naomi's clueless on the kinds of food, movies, and books she liked and didn't like. Her hopes, her dreams, and her plans for the future are a blank slate. And most importantly, perhaps, she has no idea about the extent of her relationship (if any) with the three very different guys who appear to be in her life: her boyfriend Ace (the jock); her co-editor for the school's yearbook, Will (reliable, kind, and always there for her, and, incidentally, the son of her English teacher); and James (moody, artistic, and sensitive). Zevin keeps things light, but still gives readers a lot to think about. Teen girls looking for a good love story with some added substance need look no further.

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The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread by Don Robertson (2008)

You'll laugh, you'll cry, and you'll totally delight in meeting nine-year-old Morris Bird III (whom some classmates unkindly call Morris Bird the Turd) as he decides to skip school one autumn afternoon in 1944 and walk across Cleveland to visit his best friend, Stanley Chaloupka. He sets off with an alarm clock, a jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter, a map, a compass, a dollar and some change and (most reluctantly and unhappily) his six-year-old sister Sandra. Along the way he gets delayed by a cigarette riot and Sandra's whining insistence that she be allowed to play a game of jacks, drop-kicks a football into a coal wagon (much to the annoyance of the football's young owners), and is rescued by a teacher named Miss Edna Daphne Frost. Eventually, as the afternoon winds down, Morris and Sandra collide with history. They arrive at Stanley's block at the exact moment when above ground gas tanks belonging to the East Ohio Gas Company explode. (The explosion and subsequent fire in this real event would kill 130 people and destroy a square mile of Cleveland's east side.) Among the many other wonderfully drawn characters we meet are a passionate optician named G. Henderson LeFevre and the object of his lust, Mrs. Imogene Brookes (who is described as "a rare beauty if there ever was one, a woman of immense passions and appetites who really didn't belong there in Shaker Heights living out her years in a succession of blank matronly conditioned activities and responses"). I loved Don Robertson's The Greatest Thing Since Sliced Bread when it was first published in the early '60s, and I am just thrilled that a whole new generation of readers is now going to get to read it, too.

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Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point by Elizabeth Samet (2007)

After she received her PhD from Yale, Elizabeth Samet startled herself, her friends and her family by taking a job as an instructor in the English Department at West Point. She describes her experiences teaching there over the last decade in Soldier's Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, a moving tribute both to literature, her students, and the military academy itself. Literature at West Point matters, she writes, because it helps cadets learn to deal with ambiguity. Seeing a situation as grayish, rather than black or white, is not encouraged in most phases of the education of a cadet. Understanding a lyric poem demands a different kind of thinking from that used to carry out orders and survive a long day patrolling the streets of Iraq - not a better way of thinking, just not the same. Among the works of literature she assigns to her students are Randall Jarrell's devastating poem, "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner;" the World War I poems of Wilfred Owen, and Robert Olen Butler's story "Mother in the Trenches." (Every time she mentioned a literary work with which I wasn't familiar, I had to go get a copy and read it: this slowed down - considerably - my reading of Samet's book.) Interspersed with accounts of her students and their responses to the literature she assigns, Samet weaves in the history of West Point, including everything from when literature was first introduced into the curriculum (the first decade of the 20th-century) and (most movingly) the terrible divisive effect the Civil War had on the Academy's graduates, who used their fine educations in the cause of either the North or South. The title of the book, in fact, is a phrase that was originally used to describe the mental and emotional sufferings of Civil War veterans; now, of course, we refer to the same syndrome as PTSD, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.