Sunday, July 27, 2008


I am off on vacation tonight. I am taking a break from phones, computers, email, blogs. Of course I will be reading as much as I can.

I will be with family celebrating my mom's 90th birthday. So it will be all about family and luckily I have a great family with a minimum of dysfunction and only a few weirdos to keep life interesting.

I'll be back in two weeks. If you miss me, you can catch up on earlier posts you might have missed or hey, read some books yourself instead of blogs. While it is fun to read about books, I believe it is much more fun to read them. What do you think?

See ya'!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008


The Martian Child, David Gerrold, Tom Doherty Associates, 2002, 190 pp

Another book about adoption, recommended to me by my friend Laurie, the sci fi writer. This one is from the viewpoint of the adopting parent. Gerrold turned his experience into a novel and I devoured it in a few hours.

The man is single, gay and a sci fi writer living in the suburbs of Los Angeles. The boy he adopted was 8 years old, abandoned by his mother (who was a drug abuser) and in foster care since he was a year old. He was considered not adoptable because of all his behavior troubles plus he told everyone that he was from Mars.

Despite qualms and self-doubt, David adopted him and made a success of it. Another child saved by love. Good writing and excellent insight into the Martian thing. Apparently it is somewhat common for kids in the foster care system to believe they are from Mars.

Saturday, July 19, 2008


Today's word is crenelate. It comes from p 16 of Children of Men by P D James. This is a word that I usually go past, knowing that it has something to do with buildings but not really knowing what it means. So this time, I got honest and looked it up. Then I was in a can of worms known by dictionary users as a word chain. Here we go:

crenelate transitive verb meaning to furnish with battlements or crenels, or with squared notches.

which led me to crenels.

crenel noun meaning any of the indentations or loopholes in the top of a battlement or wall, embrasure.

which led me to battlement and embrasure.

battlement noun meaning a parapet with open spaces for shooting built on top of a castle wall, tower or fort.

which led me to parapet (at which point I moved to an easier dictionary.)

parapet noun meaning a wall or bank for protecting troops from enemy fire. From French from Italian from papare, to guard + petto, breast from Latin pectus.

Sentence: OK guys, get behind the parapet before you get shot.

enbrasure noun meaning an opening, as in a parapet, with the sides slanting outward to increase the angle of fire of a gun. (Here we got a much needed picture.) From an obsolete French word, embraser, to widen an opening.

Sentence: Even though the guy was over to the right, I managed to pick him off thanks to the embrasure I was shooting through.

OK back to battlement noun meaning a parapet with open spaces for shooting built on top of a castle wall, tower or fort. From Middle English batelment from Old French bataillier, to fortify from battaille, fortification on a wall or tower. (Another great picture.)

Sentence: The soldiers were placed along the battlement with their bows, arrows and kettles of boiling oil.

OK, cool, so a crenel is a noun meaning any of the indentations or loopholes in the top of a battlement or wall, embrasure. (A crenel is an embrasure, one of those openings with the slanted sides.) It is from Old French, diminutive of the Vulgar Latin crena, a notch.

Sentence: While stooping behind the battlement, I shot an arrow through the crenel.

Back to the original word crenelate transitive verb meaning to furnish with battlements or crenels, or with squared notches.

Sentence: We finished the sand castle but it looked a bit plain so we crenelated the tops of the walls.

There, now you and I can read lots more historical fiction and know what they are talking about instead of guessing. We can also name the parts of our sand castles. All thanks to P D James. How about some sentences, guys?


The Whistling Season, Ivan Doig, Harcourt Inc, 2006, 345 pp

I had heard about this author. He writes about Montana in the homesteading days of the early 20th century. And I liked this book a great deal, though some say his earlier books are even better. He reminds me of Wallace Stegner but he is less ponderous-that's a good thing. He does not judge his characters.

The Whistling Season could be a Young Adult novel. Paul is the oldest of three sons and tells the story, looking back on his thirteenth year. His father, Oliver, is a homesteader who had lost his wife and the boys' mother a year ago to a medical emergency. Oliver decides to hire a housekeeper from an ad in the paper. Rose and her brother Morris arrive from Wisconsin and bring change to the area.

These two interlopers are surrounded by a certain amount of mystery and Doig does not reveal their secrets until the last few pages, so all through the story, though they each do wondrous deeds that improve life for Paul and his family, there is a certain uneasiness simmering just beneath.

All the characters are fabulously created. Paul and his brothers attend a one-room schoolhouse complete with bullies, buddies, lug heads and scholars as well as annoying girls. Morris becomes the school teacher and being well-educated as well as the flamboyant character he is, he teaches like his hair is on fire. My favorite parts of the book were the schoolhouse scenes.

It all ends happily with a sense of uprightness tempered by wisdom about people and the vagaries of the human heart. Doig has recreated a time we shall never see again in America and yet the juxtaposition of goodwill and values with lawlessness and a certain anarchy is still the essence of our country's character.

Monday, July 14, 2008


Life of Pi, Yann Martel, Harcourt Inc, 2001 319 pp

I finished this book several weeks ago, so some of the impact has faded, but it was a large impact at the time. I dreamed about it all night after finishing it right before bed.

The story begins in India when Pi is a young boy. His parents own and run a zoo, so he grows up surrounded by hundreds of animals from all over the world. He is a bookish boy, taunted by his schoolmates and given to spiritual yearnings. By the time he is a teen, he is a practicing Christian, Muslim and Buddhist.

But hard times come and his family decides to emigrate to Canada. The animals are sold to other zoos and they set out on an ocean journey with some of the animals, which are bound for America, on board. Their ship is a Japanese freighter and sinks. Pi is left on a lifeboat with a hyena and a Bengal tiger for company.

He spends seven months on that lifeboat and manages to survive, living on fish and learning to use the meager emergency supplies he finds. Alone with the tiger, who would eat him in a heartbeat, Pi uses his knowledge of animals to keep the beast at bay, while he practices his three religions to keep from succumbing to hopelessness.

Martel writes the book as though it were Pi's true story but according to interviews he made up the whole thing. Some people found all kinds of symbolism in the story, others found it to unbelievable. I just let myself be completely taken in and marvelled at the contrasts between faith and despair. It is one of the best books I've read so far this year. I don't know how I missed reading it for seven years with everyone telling me how great it was. They were right.


I haven't posted one of these in a while so I have a huge backlog. Please play the game and leave a sentence in the comments.


Found on page 3 of Children of Men by P D James.

accidie may also be spelled accidia or acedia. In Webster's New World Third College Edition the definition is given after acedia.

It means spiritual sloth or apathy and is one of the seven deadly sins.

It is derived from the Greek akedia which comes from a-, not + kedos, care.

My sentence: In college she discovered drinking which often happened on Saturday nights and led her to accidie on Sunday mornings.

What is your sentence?

Thursday, July 10, 2008


Three Little Words, Ashley Rhodes-Courter, Atheneum, 2008, 297 pp

One day at work, business was slow and I was there alone. I was looking through the Young Adult shelves and came across this memoir of a foster child who finally got adopted. I read anything I find on this topic as research for the novel I am not writing. By the time I went to bed that night I had finished the book.

The story takes place in South Carolina and Florida, where Ashley lived with her single mom and brother, later with her maternal grandmother and then in a long succession of foster homes. As usual, it is a heart wrenching tale of loss, neglect, sometimes abuse; of bureaucratic inefficiency and heartlessness, sometimes corruption.

Finally after nine years in fourteen different foster home, Ashley is adopted and has to work through lots of issues like trust, eating and accepting a new mother. She makes it. The new mother is novelist Gay Courter. I read and loved two of her novels in the 1990s: Flowers in the Blood and The Midwife. Gay Courter was instrumental in helping Ashley write her memoir and it is well written. They are both advocates for children who are lost in our failed foster care system.

I fully realize that this is a naive question with no easy answers, but how can the wealthiest nation in the world have so much poverty, messed up health care and so many children who are left adrift in our society? Lest we become complacent or over-confident, books like this should be required reading for all citizens.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008


Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller, Atria Books, 2008, 527 pp

Though the writing is weak and actually slowed my reading, this is the best book I've read about music, the 60s and 70s and the female musicians of my generation. Joni Mitchell, Carole King And Carly Simon are featured section by section, in an ambitious triple biography that is also social history. Weller follows each of these woman from early childhood through their respective peaks of fame and on up to the present.

Carly Simon is the only one who consented to interviews so the rest is based on research and interviews with people surrounding these women. One wonders about the reliability of those other interviewees. Still I was absorbed in these women's lives, their many love affairs and marriages, and the stories behind their songs. The organizing principle behind the book is the connection with feminism which the author handles well.

Having been a fan of Joni Mitchell since I first heard her perform in 1968 and even met her backstage, just before her first album was released, I was most interested in the Joni sections. I learned things about her that I've not read elsewhere. Carole and Carly have never been favorites of mine though I like reading about Carly and James Taylor.

But this is a good book for any woman born between the mid-1940s to early 1950s, because whether famous or obscure, we all lived through the second women's movement toward independence and self hood and our story must be preserved. We've come a long way and it is not over yet for the women of this world.

Monday, July 07, 2008


The Host, Stephenie Meyer, Little Brown and Company, 2008, 619 pp

In her first novel for adults, Stephenie Meyer, author of the wildly popular Twilight series, delves into sci fi. It is the sort of sci fi that anyone could like because it is about people and their interactions, something like The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. In fact, I was amused to see a sci fi novel take #1 on the New York Times bestseller list for two weeks in a row.

Thank goodness that she is a good storyteller because the writing is just OK, as it was in Twilight. She repeats herself and draws out the tension too long. I had to gulp down all 600 pages in a weekend because I was assigned by my boss at the bookstore to read it and rule on whether we could sell it to our teenage customers. (We can. No explicit sex, no gratuitous violence, though as in Twilight, plenty of sexual tension and rough stuff and injuries. It is one of Meyer's feats that she can do sex and violence without upsetting the YA censors.)

A race of outer space beings, known as souls, has invaded earth. No war or weapons are involved. They take over human bodies, replacing the personality while using the body as a "host." The emotions, senses and memories of the original person are left intact but the humans naturally feel invaded and look on these souls as parasites.

Melanie is invaded by Wanderer but in this case, she fights back hard and the two female personalities just about equally share one mind and one body. Melanie had a brother and a lover before the invasion and she convinces Wanderer to search until they are found.

Some humans have escaped capture and live literally underground in caves. Wanderer/Melanie find Jamie (the brother) and Jared (the lover) in such a hideout. At this point in the story, events get more tense than ever. The souls' purpose in coming to Earth is to bring peace to a violent and warlike planet, but that's a dicey proposition since human beings don't like being told how to behave by an outside influence.

Stephenie Meyer has amazing powers of imagination in all this and in the way she moves the story through all the conflict. I liked how Melanie and Wanderer become best friends. Imagine if you had an imaginary friend in your mind who was a fully realized personality. The ideas here include honor, courage and sacrifice in dealing with love, loyalty and anger. The theme is that love conquers all and is handled without sentimentality or melodrama though with plenty of drama. Pretty impressive actually, if you can stick with it for over 600 pages.

Saturday, July 05, 2008


Highwire Moon,
Susan Straight, Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001, 305 pp

What a great book! It is the story of a mother and daughter who are separated when the daughter is only three. Serfina was an illegal Mexican immigrant who came to California from Oaxaca to work the oranges. Being Mexican Indian, she is considered the lowest even by other Mexicans. She was only 16 and got stranded in Rio Seco, which is Straight's fictional town based on Riverside, CA.

Serfina ends up with Larry, a white man who works various construction jobs, uses speed and was raised in foster homes. They have a daughter, Elvia, but they hardly connect because Serfina does not learn English or even venture out much. She pines for home. When Elvia is three, immigration gets Serafina and sends her back to Mexico. Elvia winds up in foster care for many years until her father finds her, takes her back into his crazy life and becomes fiercely protective of her in his own way.

When the story opens, Elvia (now called Ellie) is 16 and living with Larry and his speed freak girlfriend. For all these years she has thought that her mother abandoned her but now she is pregnant (though Larry does not know this) and decides to find Serafina. Meanwhile, Serafina is stuck in Tijuana caring for her own sick mother and pining for Elvira.

It could be an Oprah-like sentimental story but it's actually more like a prayer or an aria as these two women overcome dangers and pitfalls in their search for each other. The writing is perfect: images, just enough story, the viewpoints of the main characters clearly evolving in each one's distinctive voice. The life is hard, violent, unpredictable; there is barely enough love and hope to keep life going. Possibly this book is too dark for some, too lightweight for others. For me it was a jewel of a book.


Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides, Farrar Straus and Giroux, 2002, 529 pp

I guess everyone in the world had already read this book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and went on to be an Oprah selection. I even found two copies of it in my house. Finally it was picked as a selection in one of my reading groups. (I am currently in 5 reading groups.) So now I have read it too!

I liked it; it is a bit over-written in sections and thus over-long, but generally I enjoy long books. I learned plenty about human hermaphrodites, which caused me to recall that I became interested in genetics back in high school, except then I got a steady boyfriend and my sexual research took place with him. Since I lived in Ann Arbor, MI, for all of my early adult years, I loved that the book is mostly set in Detroit from 1922 to 1975.

What I enjoyed most was the main character. Calliope Stephanides was born a girl with Greek parents and a big fat extended family, but because of a recessive mutation on her fifth chromosome, she turned out to be a boy. As Cali becomes Cal, we learn the entire story of her family from a small Turkish town where Greeks lived in the shadow of oppressive Turks, to how that quirky chromosome showed up and made this character's life a misery.

It is not however a book about misery. It is about large characters, American society, love and coming of age. I now have scenes of joy, despair, humor, sex, shady business, and private girls school indelibly in my mind. Middlesex raised as many questions as it answered and maybe that is why I will never forget it.