Sunday, May 25, 2008

The Cactus Eaters by Dan White

I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is, hey, look, I'm reviewing another great book and, I think, even am doing so rather coherently. The bad news is that you have to worry about my coherence because now that it's not raining and crappy outside and I don't have to work until Tuesday, why of course, I'm dreadfully ill. I managed to hold out just long enough to slave away carrying junk around for my mother's yard sale (so now I'm sick and sore), but when the time came to simply enjoy the glories of a long weekend (something I've been forever prevented from doing by virtue of having those sorts of jobs where you're forced not only to work both days of the weekend but also the holiday itself) I found that my throat's all sore and my head feels like it's going to explode (and hey, I might even find the whole head exploding thing quite preferable to the current situation). But, to leave this all on an up note, I don't feel too bad to read, and A Great and Terrible Beauty is pretty great, so I've been busy devouring its awesomeness all day long. Now that I've finished updating you on my less than pleasant personal situation (Aren't you glad I decided to share? More importanly, aren't you thrilled that the coming review has not one single parenthese?), on with the book reviewing.

Sometimes ignorance is the catalyst you need to change your life.

The beginning of The Cactus Eaters finds Dan White wanting to grow up. To do so, he imagines that he will need to go through some hardship and emerge on the other side a real man. The hardship he voluntarily exposes himself to is the Pacific Crest Trail a grueling 2,650 mile hike from the Mexican border through California, Oregon, and Washington to Canada. The trail passes through waterless desert and over treacherous mountain passes, and a precious few actually complete its length each year. Despite its dangers, Dan and his girlfriend Allison quit their jobs, mail supplies to various towns along the trail, and begin their hike, after one false start, in Agua Dulce, California. What follows is a hilarious and informative memoir of Dan and Allison's epic hike.

Readers can't help but relate to Dan as he gapes at a well-meaning trail angel lightening his pack, struggles to keep up with fellow PCT hikers whose zeal to finish the trail makes them seem nearly insane, and passive-aggressively attempts to avoid hiking with a rather unpleasant "slow walker" without much success. White's tales of the unusual characters he and Allison meet on the trail flow seemlessly with descriptions of scenery, hardships of the trail, and informative digressions into the history of the area. White's reflections on what drove him to attempt the hike, how his experience on the trail changes him, and what it gave to him and took from him when all was said and done are compelling and never seem anything less than genuine.

Dan and Allison in all their normal personhood are great guides to the trail - not quite so insane-seeming as those who hike the trail repeatedly. Their random made-up rapping, ridiculous ghost stories, and occasional fighting not only pass the time on the trail for them but also spice up the reading for us. That, and the, at first, outsider view of the trail, its unusual hikers, and those trail angels who want to see the PCT hikers succeed help to give a glimpse of the trail that maybe you or I would see if we suddenly went off the deep end and decided it was high time to take a 2,650 mile hike.

White's memoir is at once laugh out loud funny and a little sad as he reflects on a time in his life that was not always great but did have a profound effect on him. White helps those who would never in a million years consider taking such a hike understand how, despite its many trials, one could become so attached to the experience of roughing it in the wilderness in what seems to be a different plane of existence that it would seem surprisingly hard to return to "real" life. All in all, a great and engaging travel memoir that flows so well that you won't want to put it down.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Queen of the Road by Doreen Orion

Hey, look, everybody. It's time for a book review! I do these, remember? I fear that my last two reads are slipping out of my memory, but hey, I just finished this one, so it's still fresh in my mind. I'll really going to get around to the other two. Really. So here we go with the first of the trio of travel writing.

Doreen Orion, a psychiatrist, was happy with her life in Boulder, CO. A self-proclaimed Long Island Princess, she was content with not only working from home but from the comfort of her own bed, collecting massive amounts of shoes and designer clothing, and bingeing on reality TV. Then her husband Tim (Not so secret identity: Project Nerd for his propensity to attempt everything from household repairs to vehicle maintenance on his own), also a psychiatrist, decided to follow his dream of touring the U.S. on a converted bus. Disarmed by her husband's cunning (she still doesn't quite know how she was persuaded to do something she wouldn't consider doing in a "million years") Orion agrees to the plan and finds herself attempting to cram all the trappings of her old life onto a bus for a year long jaunt about the country. Orion's tale of traversing the country in the bus with her husband, pets (two cats, one poodle), and one hundred pairs of shoes is laugh out loud funny, informative, and even a bit enlightening about what the true makings of the "good life" are.

Each chapter is headed up with a different martini recipe useful for laughs and self-medicating for any bus phobia that may arise. From Florida to Alaska, Orion chronicles their adventure including details of their many destinations from the tasty to the kitschy to the downright scenic. Hilarity ensues as the bus malfunctions, hikes complete with frightening birds and bugs are attempted, and appropriate nudist RV park behavior is contemplated. Orion brings her wit to the best and worst of situations.

Best of all, though, is the bigger journey Orion ends up taking as she shuffles off her old life of couch potato materialism in favor of getting out and living life instead of watching it on TV. Watching Orion progress from someone whose stuff seems to own her to someone who begins to see that there is much more to life than things as she embraces the experiences the trip has to offer her is a rewarding experience and worthwile lesson that we can all stand to learn and relearn again. For Doreen and Tim, the trip turns out to be life-changing as their priorities are rearranged to accomodate the friendships they'd been missing out on, the simple joy of getting up in the morning excited about what the day has to offer, and the quality time together that enriches their relationship.

The chapter about their trip to Tim's father's house in rural Arkansas is especially hilarious. Also very nifty... Orion includes a list (with comments!) of many of their destinations complete with website addresses and contact information to help in your own vacationing as well as a list of the books she enjoyed while on the trip and beyond. What book lover couldn't love that?

Overall - a great read that might well have you planning a road trip and maybe even considering re-arranging a few your own misguided priorities.

The book is out on June 3rd, but if you want to get an advance look check out her website where you can read an excerpt and even see some great pictures from the trip.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Weekly Geeking (#3) Down Memory Lane

Greetings! Remember me? I blog here!

I'll have a couple of sparkly new reviews this weekend, but until then, I will amuse you (or bore you to tears) with a walk down book memory lane in response to this week's Weekly Geek prompt which asks us to talk about our favorite childhood books. At first I thought this was going to be hard and short post because my memory was failing but then I read a few other people's posts on the topic and that really got my juices flowing, and I came up with more than enough to populate a rather lengthy post.

Literary Feline unwittingly helped me get started because when she sent me the book I won from one of her drawings (thanks again, by the way!), she included a great card with a print from Graeme Base's Animalia which is a book I loved as a kid. My earliest memories of receiving books as presents come from aunt getting me his beautiful (and often interactive!) books for Christmas as well as Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express another childhood favorite. Another that sticks with me to this day, mostly because of its great title is, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day - a line of adjectives I continue to use for some of my worst days that gives them a bit of a funny spin (along with repeated resolutions to move to Australia leaving all my problems behind). I also loved, loved Jack Prelutsky's (and Shel Silverstein's) wacky poetry like Something Big Has Been Here. This included one gem entitled, I believe, "The Turkey Shot of the Oven," a hilarious tale of Thanksgiving gone wrong as well as "My Mother Made a Meat Loaf" about some equally unedible food. I can still recite the title poem which, for some reason, I felt I needed to memorize (I was waaaay into memorizing things as a youngster). Humor me while I take a stab at it (and forgive me if my memory isn't serving me well)...

Something big has been here
What it was I do not know
For I did not see it coming
And I did not see it go.
But I hope I never meet it,
If I do I'm in a fix
For it left behind its footprints.
They are size nine fifty six.

When I got a little older I was crazy about Little House on the Prairie. I loved a ton of the Newbery winners - Maniac Magee, The Giver, Shiloh, Number the Stars, Jacob Have I Loved, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry (and the rest of its series), Bridge to Terabithia, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Sounder (one my teachers read this aloud to the class), Island of the Blue Dolphins, I could go on and on. Mildred D. Taylor's, Scott O'Dell's, and Ann Rinaldi's books all instilled in me a healthy love for historical fiction. Jane Yolen's The Devil's Arithmetic taught me about the Holocaust and helped me develop an interest in reading about it that I have to this day. Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach was another favorite - it's so easy to picture these fantastical things happening from his writing. And Brian Jacques Redwall books. Loved them. Still have a few on Mt. TBR. I loved how the animals had their different dialects and all the incredible things they were always eating and all that triumph of good over evil. I wish it all existed and I could go there.

And The Reluctant God by Pamela F. Service. An ancient almost Pharaoh gets transported to modern day Egypt and then England. I read this again last year and loved it just as much as I did the first time. That's a good book.

I also had a weird obsession with Jack London's White Fang - both the movie and the book. I still remember reading my Apple classics copy from one of those Scholastic book flyers that they were always giving out in school (that I always had to order at least one book from!). We were having a blizzard at the time I was reading it - what atmosphere!

And wrapping up - the guilty pleasure. I loved those R.L. Stine books - not the Goosebumps ones (though I did enjoy them for awhile) - the Fear Street ones - especially this Fear Street Saga trilogy. It was like...R.L. Stine doing historical horror. Great stuff, that. I devoured them.

This post is starting to make me feel like one of those Oscar winners trying to fit everything in before the music starts ("and to every great book I forgot...I love you! Thank you!"). I'm sure I forgot some great ones but I remembered more than I thought I would!

Wow, that was fun. I'm sure everybody else is asleep by now (hey, wake up! You're snoring! Is that drool trailing down your chin? Ew!), but I really enjoyed all this. Makes me want to go back and read it all again, but I can't help but worry that it just won't have the same awesomeness that it had back then when I was reading it for the first time. Some live up to my great memories of them, but some definitely don't. Do your childhood favorites stand the test of time?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

We interrupt this blogging for some reading...

Greetings fair readers who probably think I've disappeared. Well, I kinda did a little. So I woke up on Friday (or was it Thursday?) and it dawned on me that my deadline for Elle reading is strikingly sooner than I'd imagined (I thought I was doing so good! I thought I was ahead of the game! I should know better!). I've finished two of the three books but only started the third today amid all the Mother's Day festivating this weekend (Happy Mother's Day to you mothers by the way - I'm a big fan of mothers but not so much of Mother's Day where I'm lowered to the level of ill-equipped slave girl in the face of the mothers of my family not having to do anything to contribute to the execution of the festivating because it's like their day or something). That said, I really must finish this book by oh, mid Tuesday night so I can fulfill my bookish obligation. Since upstanding adults and employers seem to frown on people taking unexpected leisure time to finish their you say...recreational book reviews, the time will probably be extracted from what is usually reserved for blogging (because I really do much of that anyway) and blog-hopping (and I was doing so well with my feed reader!) and TV watching (because I'm sure you even care about this last one).

I am not ignoring your Weekly Geeks links, I promise I will get to them. The one day this week when I was about to attempt them Blogger was acting all flaky, so I didn't get to it. But later this coming week, I will!

In the meantime, I must read and contemplate the pitfalls of reviewing memoirs/travel writing which I will be doing a bit of when I return. I mean, how are you supposed to critique someone's life experiences and their reactions to them? The plot was kind of slow moving? The emotions seemed hollow? The self-reflection somewhat overwrought? The thought processes contradictory? The narrator bizarrely idiotic? Usually I don't seem to have a problem with this kind of thing and half a review magically appears in my head that doesn't question any of this, but these questions are gnawing at me a bit this time around. That's not to say I didn't enjoy the books thus far. I did. I just can't quite peg down what to say about them.

Alas, my blogging time is up and I must return to the book. Here's wishing you all happy reading that doesn't remind you of the rushed type of reading usually prevalent in finishing college homework assignments!

Monday, May 5, 2008

Weekly Geeks #2 - Linking Up

Weekly Geeks time has come again. After some thought, I've decided to partake again this week. This week's idea comes by way of Darla whose blogly policy is to link to other bloggers' reviews of the books she reviews. Dewey's challenged the rest of us to do likewise. I thought to myself, hey, I suppose that's a pretty good way to build some book blog community and help out some readers who are looking for a few different opinions on the same book and see if anybody happens to have the same taste in books as me, et cetera and so on.

Therefore, I'll be happy to link to anybody's reviews of books reviewed by me here, including all the reviews I've posted in the past and all of the ones that I will post in the future in their respective posts. Just leave me a note in the comments on this post or on the post of whichever review, and I will attempt to get around to posting the links in a decently acceptable amount of time (read "relatively quickly given that I have to work for a living and American Idol and those great comedies on CBS on Mondays and uh...Grey's Anatomy. And books, I have to read books..."). That said, I've got one condition, sort of. If I link your review to my review per your request (if I just find it and decide to link it all on my own, this will obviously not apply), I'll pretty much be hoping that you too are planning to adopt this policy and will link my review to your own review on your blog, in keeping with the whole "community building" and "reader helping" idea and uh, basic tenets of fairness.

Since I don't have a whole crazy ton of reviews here yet, though I'll admit to having more than I expected, I'll even include a list of the old ones to make it super easy to determine whether you have a review I ought to be linking to. I'm not going to link the reviews in the list though, that would just be too easy (read "I'm too lazy to do that. Isn't the list above and beyond the call of duty enough?"). I will note, however, that I am listing them in reverse chronological order and they're linked from those "Read In (Year)" posts in my sidebar. (Seriously, why can't I be concise? And why am I developing a penchant for seeming really unhinged when I write these Weekly Geeks posts? I'm not even feeling that unhinged this week. And what's with all the parentheses??)

Okay, really, here it goes.

The Widows of Eden - George Shaffner
Speak - Laurie Halse Anderson
Fever 1793 - Laurie Halse Anderson
The Beet Queen - Louise Erdrich
Stealing Heaven - Elizabeth Scott
Sobibor - Michael Lev
The Wentworths - Katie Arnoldi
The Translator - Daoud Hari
Make Lemonade - Virginia Euwer Wolff
Schindler's List - Thomas Keneally
A Break With Charity - Ann Rinaldi
Jumping the Scratch - Sarah Weeks
Have You Found Her - Janice Erlbaum
After You'd Gone - Maggie O'Farrell
Boy Meets Girl - Meg Cabot
A Northern Light - Jennifer Donnelly
Snow Falling on Cedars - David Guterson
Sleep Toward Heaven - Amanda Eyre Ward
The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke
From Ashes to Life - Lucille Eichengreen
Even the Stars Look Lonesome - Maya Angelou
Hard Love - Ellen Wittlinger
No Great Mischief - Alistair MacLeod

Saturday, May 3, 2008

It's Those Free Books, darnit

So, I was poking around very briefly on the Bookcrossing forum and found this link where you can receive a free Penguin classic of their random choice so long as you agree to review it for their blog within six weeks of receiving it. Now I didn't read the terms and conditions (at length) so I'm hoping I'm actually even eligible to play because I went ahead and registered with only momentary trepidation. Much to my relief, the e-mail I recieved after registering informed me I didn't get a gigantic tome of epic proportions (phew!) or a volume of poetry that would likely prove totally impenetrable to me (phew!) or Shakespeare (okay, I'm sorry, Shakespeare still scares me a little) or something I already own but haven't got around yet (yay!) or, well, anything too daunting to read and review in six weeks. I'm to get A Tranquil Star by Primo Levi, a book I'm actually interested in reading. But jeez, my love for and inability to say no to free books could have got me into a scrape there. A lucky near miss, really, considering that there does appear to be many gigantic tomes and volumes of poetry and wow - looking at it now I can't quite believe what a chance I was taking - I'm so excited that I actually got a book that really appeals to me.

Er...anybody else trying their luck?

The Widows of Eden by George Shaffner

The citizens of Ebb, Nebraska are suffering through their worst drought in history. After more than one hundred days without rain, farmers who have lived in Ebb for their entire lives are packing up and disappearing in the middle of the night unable to make a go of it any longer. Not to worry, though, help is on the way. Word comes that a certain Vernon Moore, mysterious traveling salesman and occasional worker of miracles, is on his way for his first visit to Ebb in about five years. The quaint townspeople of Ebb believe that Mr. Moore is the answer to their prayers and their only chance for rain, but the ailing multi-millionaire Clem Tucker has other ideas. What happens when Clem proposes a deal that would have Mr. Moore choose to spare his life instead of asking for rain?

This is the premise of George Shaffner's The Widows of Eden. It defied my expectations in more ways than one. There were parts of this book that I enjoyed very much and others that nearly discouraged me from finishing it. The premise is very attractive, which is why I requested and received it from Library Thing's Early Reviewer program. The follow-through is a bit less than optimal. At the helm of the book is first person narrator Wilma Porter who operates the bed and breakfast where Mr. Moore stays when he is in town and is also the fiance of the aforementioned Clem Tucker. As one might guess, Ms. Porter is very much at the center of the story given her relationships to those two pivotal characters, however, her first person narration continues even into places and situations where she is not present which is somewhat disorienting. It also often seems that Shaffner has taken every stereotype of small town fiction and played each up to a fever pitch that can, unfortunately, be a bit cringeworthy. Sometimes this can be overlooked - I'll admit to giggling at a few of Wilma's kooky comments such as, "An amendment to the state constitution was supposed to prevent the sale of family farms to big corporations, but it turned out to have more loopholes than a cheap shag rug." Other times, Shaffner overplays his quaint rural fiction hand with his constant use of the endearment "honey pot," the existence of an all-powerful Quilting Circle of gossipy ladies who don't seem to do any quilting at all, and Wilma's irritating way of never referring to her goddaughter by her name but as her "sweet/perfect/adorable little goddaughter."

That said, there were parts of this book that I found so absorbing that I could forgive this book some of its more irritating tendencies. Despite the occasional lapse into pure cheese, Shaffner writes snappy dialogue and creates a cast of very lively characters bent on saving their town and their way of life. The mystery of Vernon's possibly miraculous origins as well as the origins of three widow friends who accompany him on the occasion of this book is well thought out and even a bit suspenseful. My favorite part, however, was Vernon's conversations with Clem on the subject of the deist's paradox (which suggests that a benevolent God would intervene in the affairs of men and since He hasn't in quite some time He has abandoned us), the nature of God, and his attempts to persuade the unbelieving Clem that God cares for His creation and hasn't retreated to heaven leaving His people to their own devices. I'll be the first to admit that having guaged the tone of this novel, I didn't expect a philosophical discussion this well thought out and absorbing. I might not believe everything that was said, but I drank it up and these scenes kept the pages turning the quickest. By the end, I was thoroughly curious whether Vernon would be able to convince this selfish and heartless millionaire of God's existence and providence and what would happen if he couldn't.

All in all, this book seemed to be a paradox in and of itself, as if Shaffner intended to write a lighthearted novel for those in need of some small town centered brain candy but ended up with something a bit more serious than that, and the reader is stuck trying to figure out just how to take it. While it isn't one of my favorite reads and it definitely wasn't what I was expecting, it does have its redeeming qualities and as such could make for a fun summer read with a side of a little food for thought.

The publication date for this book is June 17, 2008.

That's another one down for Pub 2008 and the Spring Reading Thing, too!

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Weekly Geeky Numero Uno

So, that whole thing about keeping up with my feed reader this week is already a big FAIL. Until tonight I'd managed to eke out perhaps an hour or so total of internet time since like....Sunday. It's just been that kind of week where everybody's demanding my attention and assistance at work and at home and everything seems to be impeding my progress. I mean, even the bunnies munching grass in my driveway look at me like, "You think I'm gonna move so you can park your car, chump? No way!" It must be a rotten week if I'm imagining the local rabbits are malicious, no? All of you people reading should be glad that I didn't have the time for a proposed ranting post about my week which likely could have been titled "Things the Devil Makes You Do in Hell and Other Tales from the Workplace."

Anyhow, in my vast trash heap of a week, I have, at long last, managed to take some time for the first week of Dewey's Weekly Geeks challenge which is a pretty fine idea if I do say so myself. Something new every week - should you choose to participate every week which you don't even have to! This Dewey - she's a cool character - and I just got a book I won from one of her blogly book drawings today which brightened my day as this trash heap of a week draws ever so slowly to an agonizing finish. So yeah - three cheers for Dewey and stuff!

(I should take a moment to say that I'm feeling a bit unhinged at the moment so should not be held responsible for any excessive ridiculosity)

So yeah, I say again, this week's challenge is to visit the blogs of fellow participants, leave them some comments, and give them some link love on your blog which I am doing herein. Just what my ailing feed reader needs, right? I'm afraid to even look at it right now, but I imagine soon I'll be adding yet more blogs to it...

Anyhow, really, I'm going to get on with the show now. It should be noted that I discovered a surprising amount of blogs that were new to me and that I hope to pop in on at a later date - these are just a random sampling!

Oh and I should say hi to all you folks that visited me as part of the Weekly Geeks, too. It's been great to see some new faces around here - I promise I'm not ignoring you and purposefully being all incommunicado - I'm usually a bit more personable - but in case I haven't mentioned this yet - this week has been more than usually disruptive to my average internet activities!

Now really - some new blogs!

Where Troubles Melt Like Lemon Drops - Love the name! Love the woodsy picture up top! Interesting post about how long to press on with a book that's kind of boring her despite its many great reviews. And she's at sea. That's pretty nifty, too.

The Inside Cover - I have to say, her answer to this week's Booking Through Thursday made me smile.

Sarah's Pensieve - Her review of Napoleon's Buttons caught my eye since I've got a newfound interest in science of late. It sounds like a pretty accessible book about chemistry of all things. And this - how cool is that? I mean, really. I guess I'm in touch with my inner nerd, too. *shrugs*

Bookworms and Tea Lovers - Captured me long enough in my web wanderings to get me to add The Blessing Stone to my wish list.

Bookworm - Okay this is kind of weird that I'm using my weekly geeks post to compliment her weekly geek post, but I thought it was really clever how she used her post not only to visit some new blogs but to analyze what makes a good book review complete with book reviewing "morals."

Well, there's one week down. It's been real. It's been fun. It's been real fun. And now I've run out of time to open up the dread feed reader. Blast.