On my Bedside Table

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lily Dale: The True Story of the Town that Talks to the Dead

By Christine Wicker

I get the biggest kick out of the fact that New York State was the epicenter of new age freakiness in the latter half of the 19th century. Vegetarians, free-love cults, spiritualists -- all had upstate NY as their stomping grounds. Lily Dale is an outpost that survives to this day. I'll have to go visit.....

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Man in the Dark

by Paul Auster

There's an awful lot of stories going on in this slim volume, and they all kind of fight each other for space and attention. It's not a bad read, but it tries too hard. And the part where the granddaughter quizzes August about his relationship with her grandmother seem unformed, like you're reading character sketch notes that would have gone into writing the finished version...

Sunday, March 15, 2009

The Colony

by John Tayman

This is an amazing microhistory of the leper colony at Molokai covering the people, places and public health policy over a two hundred-year span. Father Damien is featured, of course, but Mother Marianne Cope and Joseph Dutton are there as well -- I'd never heard about them before, but they were just as impressive. From the beginning of the colony, when exiles were rowed to shore (or, indeed, heaved overboard near shore) to find no shelter, food, or medical attention waiting for them; to its development into a small, tight-knit community; to the stories of the last remaining colonists who only wanted to live out their remaining days in the place that had become their home -- the story of Molokai is by turns harrowing and moving. And lest you think we've come a long way -- I couldn't believe the note about the CA microbiologist that in the early days of AIDS recommended reviving Molokai as an AIDS colony..
This is a well-documented and researched history, compassionately written.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

The Snake Charmer

A Life and Death in Pursuit of Knowledge
by Jamie James

Picked this one up after a cursory glance -- it looked cool -- a guy stomping around Burma in search of rare species. I was about two pages in when I realized I'd heard the story before in an Outside magazine article a couple of years ago -- an excruciating account of a herpetologists fatal encounter with a many-banded krait, and the heroic but failed attempt of his colleagues to save him. I couldn't finish the article. Just couldn't bear thinking about that they went through (I'll admit I have issues with Outside magazine when they do things that to me almost border on snuff films).

I stuck it out though and made it through the book and I'm glad I did. It was good to know more about what kind of person and scientist Joe Slowinski was, more about his family and the people he worked with. It made it more of a eulogy and less a voyeuristic horror like that article. I also like learning more about the academic scene of the life sciences, what it's like to make your living (or not) doing something that crazy 19th centurey explorer/collectors did. I learned a bit about snake biology and taxonomy too. Definitely a worthwhile read, but not for the squeamish...

Friday, February 06, 2009

Fault Lines

by Nancy Huston

Wow. I almost didn't make it through the first section of this book, because of the incredibly unappealing, disturbing little boy who was our narrator. Fortunately, you don't see him through the rest of the book as it moves backward in time. It's an interesting conceit, each section goes back a generation through teh same family, telling the story from the point of view of a 6-year-old (who was a parent, grandparent, or great-grandparent in the sections before). It results in a multi-layered, multi-perspective view of each character. It's kind of tough to use 6-year-olds as narrators, though. Sometimes Huston gets it right, sometimes it doesn't ring true, but it definitely makes for a fresh way to view the action. Just work on suppressing the gag reflex in that first section.... oh, and at the end, too, where there's a list of book group questions for discussion.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Winter World

by Bernd Heinrich
This book rocks. It explores the amazing details of how animals survive the winter and all the various adaptations that involves. As fascinating to me as those details are, even more fascinating are the methods used to learn about them. Most of it involves destroying a little of what you're studying -- killing a bird to see how fast it cools fully feathered vs. plucked, the "grab & stab" technique of checking the temp of wasps emerging from their nest, dissecting crow pellets or kinglet gullets to see what they eat in winter. To know anything, you have to know everything -- dissecting those crow pellets, Heinrich is able to identify every seed he encounters. Much more than "what hibernates, what doesn't" that we might have learned in school. I came away with the impression that there's not just one winter -- there are a million different winters -- the kinglet's winter, the frog's winter, the chipmunk's winter, the honeybee's winter -- even a separate unique winter for every individual within the species. Worlds within worlds. Now I've gotta read a couple of his other books: Why We Run and Mind of the Raven.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


by David McCullough

I picked this up even though (maybe because) I've always found military history to be difficult to engage with. I've never been able to relate enough to make the story really mean anything to me. It can't all be blamed on the writing skills of historians, either. Even Victor Hugo couldn't keep me turning pages readily -- that 50-page chapter in Les Miserables on the battle of Waterloo? I skimmed through it (to the end where two minor characters' stories intersect).

But I figure as time goes by I've got the advantage of perspective and experience. Not of actual warfare, obviously, but experience of enough different people and situations that I should be able to stretch that empathy a little farther.

So I decided to give it a go, and I'm pleased to report that this was a very readable military history that managed to maintain a level of drama even for one not accustomed to appreciating the details of troop movements and tactics. It certainly doesn't hurt to have familiar characters and locations to read about. And 1776 focuses on the year that could easily have ended the revolution -- despite early successes in the siege of Boston, our boys faced defeat after defeat in New York. (But it feels so right to root for the underdog…) I was definitely turning pages -- as things went from bad to worse, I thought the book would end before they turned things around in New Jersey.

The other lovely thing about reading this book was getting a more fleshed out picture of an icon (George Washington). People are always more interesting than symbols -- and seeing Washington at what was arguably his shakiest allows one to better appreciate just how skilled he became. I especially love having a ton of details -- then I can forget my usual percentage and still kind of know something.

There were some details that managed to creep me out, though, in the description of George III. I found it making me think of a modern George…

"He remained a man of simple tastes and few pretensions….Socially awkward at Court occasions--many found him disappointingly dull--he preferred puttering about his farms at Windsor dressed in farmer's clothes….he could be notably willful and often shortsighted, but he was sincerely patriotic and everlastingly duty-bound. 'George, be a King,' his mother had told him. As the crisis in America grew worse, and the opposition in Parliament more strident, he saw clearly that he must play the part of the patriot-king. He had never been a soldier…But with absolute certainty he knew what must be done…"

…I don't know, maybe I'm pushing it. You be the judge….