Monday, July 21, 2008

The Sweet Potato Queens' Guide to Raising Children for Fun and Profit

By Jill Conner Browne

Another in the Sweet Potato Queens series, this is a humorous look at child rearing. Though meant to be amusing, it still offers sound advice on how to cope with the problems of parenthood, written by a woman who has been there and done that. Browne's amusing and acerbic take on parenting is a good read even if you don't have kids yourself. Lots of fun to read, just like the other Sweet Potato Queen books and with a few killer recipes thrown in to boot. Although in this book, the talk of bribing men with BJs is significantly absent. Maybe Browne has finally realized that all this talk of BJs is just not a good thing. It has been one of the only things about her books that I never liked. In this book, they are only mentioned as one of the problems parents of boy have to face, teaching their boys how to handle today's sexually aggressive girls.

I enjoyed this book a lot, just as I have enjoyed all the Sweet Potato Queen books. In fact, I think I liked it best of all the books and it has some real down to earth advice for parents. It took me just a couple days to read it, which is the sign of a good book.

Bloody Jack

By L.A. Meyer

Mary Faber is a street kid in 1790s London, England. Her mom and dad, who taught her to read, died in an epidemic, leaving Mary to fend for herself. She falls in with a street gang and spends her days begging. She is frequently hungry and always dirty. Still it is better than being alone.
One day, the gang leader is killed. He was bigger and older than the other kids and without his protection, the gang can't survive. Mary sets off on her own, using the leader's old clothes, she passes herself off as a boy. Because she can read, she lands a position as a ship's boy, calling herself Jacky.
Together, she and the other ship boys form a new fraternity. Mary is thrilled with her new life. Not only does she get plenty to eat, but she is clean for the first time in many years. Her only problem is keeping her gender a secret. That is until she runs afoul of a nasty pederast who is determined to have his way with what he believes is a young boy.
Consequences of that run in divide the ship and divide Mary from her ship boy pals. Plus Mary, who is a young teen, finds her body betraying her as she fights to hide her maturing figure and deal with her monthly cycle. She begins to tire of the deception and comes to realize that it must soon end. She just hopes the captain puts her down at a nice port and doesn't just dump her overboard. Then the ship has a devastating encounter with a nest of pirates and Mary finds herself all alone on a strange and frightening shore.

This was a fun and enlightening look at life on board a British ship set in the years just before the turn of the century from the 1700s to the 1800s. Somehow, Mary manages to keep her secret, which was kind of hard to believe. Still, I enjoyed reading about her and her growing maturity and her blossoming love for one of her fellow ship boys.

Review by Kirkus Reviews.

Friday, July 18, 2008

A Confederacy of Dunces

By John Kennedy Toole

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1981.

Ignatius J. Reilly is a character, no doubt. No dummy, Ignatius has a master's degree and a razor sharp intellect, yet he spends his days wallowing in bed, jotting in his collections of note pads and watching movies that he hates just so he can criticize them. Ignatius lives with his mom and off his mom and when his mom crashes her car into a building while drunk, Ignatius is forced to go to work to help Mom pay for the damages or her home will be seized to pay what she owes.
Ignatius tried to work for a living before, but, according to what he says, the bus ride nearly did him in. He is just too sensitive for his own good. Still, with his master's degree in hand, he lands a job as a file clerk for Levy Pants. He quickly solves the filing problem by tossing the files in the trash and then he rouses the factory workers into rebellion against the owner of Levy Pants. The rebellion is very brief and Ignatius soon finds himself looking for another job.
His next job is as a hot dog vendor. He just kind of lucks into the hot dog job. He pushes a hot dog cart through the city streets, humiliating his poor mother to death. Apparently, hot dog vendor is just about the lowest kind of job a man can have in New Orleans of the 1960s. Plus Ignatius isn't making much money since he eats most of the hot dogs himself. His mom is further humiliated when his boss requires that Ignatius dress as a pirate while selling the dogs. Surprisingly, Ignatius rather enjoys dressing as a pirate. Since he is too fat to fit in most of the costume, it consists merely of a sash, a hoop earring and a plastic saber. Ignatius has lots of adventures while pushing the dog cart but makes almost no money and eventually flees New Orleans to escape his vengeful mother.

I don't think I will ever forget Ignatius J. Reilly. He is an amazing, funny, crazy, loony and smart character. Although he is not the kind of person you would actually want in your life, he was a tremendous amount of fun to read about. I truly enjoyed this prize-winning novel and look forward to reading it again sometime.

Review by Danny Heitman in The Wall Street Journal.

New Words:
Hexerei: Witchery, sorcery, wizardry, witchcraft. "'Never in my life have I seen a shop filled with so much religious hererei.'"
Recherché: Sought out with care; choice. Hence, of rare quality, elegance, or attractiveness; peculiar and refined in kind, especially with an artificial or pretentious effect. "Ignatius filmed the scene before him for a minute of two more, then he followed a post upward to the ceiling for what he imagined would be an interesting and rather recherché bit of cinematography suggesting aspiration."
Vibrissae: Long whiskers specialized as tactile receptors, commonly located in the facial region. "'I thought that the vibrissae about my nostrils detected something unique while I was outside.'"
Daube: A classic French stew or pot roast consisting of a single piece of meat such as a shoulder or joint , stewed in a rich, wine laden broth. "'I'm trying to cook her some spaghettis and daube, and she keeps on playing in my pot.'"
Banquette: Sidewalk. "'Irene!' Santa screamed when she opened the door and saw the hesitant Mrs. Reilly on the front steps and her nephew, Patrolman Mancuso, standing down on the banquette.
Sodality: Companionship; a fraternity, society, an association. '"You probly belong to a ladies' sodality or something.'"
Onanism: Masturbation. "The suggested onanism with the piece of chalk intrigued Ignatius."


By Stephenie Meyer

Bella Swan has made the hard choice to leave the city she loves, Phoenix, Arizona, for rainy, dark, gloomy Forks, Washington. Her mom has just gotten remarried and wants to go on the road with her new husband. So Bella, who is just seventeen, volunteered to move to Forks to stay with her father, Charlie.
Bella doesn't expect to be happy in Forks. It's not that her dad is hard to live with. In fact, he bought her a truck to get back and forth to school with, which was pretty nice since Bella had been saving money to buy a vehicle. It's just that Forks is a small town with a depressing climate and not much going on. It doesn't even have a decent library! (Horrors!)
Her first day at her new high school goes OK until biology class. She has to share a lab table with a strikingly good looking boy, Edward Cullen. But Edward seems to despise Bella at first sight, scowling and moving away from her as if she has head lice or something. Bella finds his behavior inexplicable and humiliating. Bella isn't vain, but she knows she isn't a troll so Edward is either a kook or jerk, she is not sure which.
Turns out Edward has several siblings attending this high school too. They are all very attractive yet very aloof. They sit together at lunch and they don't socialize with the other kids. They are all very pale with shadows under their eyes.
One morning, after a storm, Bella wakes up to a world covered in ice. She manages to drive herself to school safely. While standing in the parking lot next to her truck, another student loses control of his car and skids towards Bella. She has no time to flee and faces being crushed between her truck and the car when, out of nowhere, impossibly, Edward snatches her to safety. This is the beginning of the thaw in Edward's attitude to Bella.
Bella comes to realize that Edward is not human. He and his family are all vampires. She also finds out that Edward and his family are reformed vampires, refusing to prey on humans. Instead they go after deer, bears, mountain lions and other big game. However, there are vampires who do prey on humans and, as her relationship with Edward and his family grows, Bella has the misfortune to run afoul of one of these dangerous vampires.

This was a pretty interesting story. It is the first in a series, which, as I understand it, extends to five novels, which is a rather long series. Meyer's vampires are not the stereotypical vampire, they don't sleep in coffins (they don't sleep at all), and they can go out in the sun (but they glitter in the light so that is why they stay out of the sun). In this story she doesn't say if they are sensitive to garlic, don't appear in mirrors or photos and are burned by holy water. They are definitely not the typical vampire. I did have a few problems with Bella falling so hard for a guy who, besides being gorgeous, according to the author, feels cold and hard to the touch, like a corpse. Who would want to cuddle with a guy who feels dead when you touch him? Ewww! To necrophiliac for my taste. Also, since Edward finds Bella mouthwatering, they have to be careful not to get too close in case Edward turns Bella into a snack in spite of himself. So the romance in the book is very tame and low key. Still it was pretty interesting, reading about the author's version of the vampire life.

Review from Loves Vampires.

New Word
Dight: To prepare; to dress, array and put on things; to adorn. "Throughout the vast shadowy world of ghosts and demons there is no figure so terrible, no figure so dreaded and abhorred, yet dight with such fearful fascination, as the vampire, who is himself neither ghost nor demon, but yet who partakes the dark natures and possesses the mysterious and terrible qualities of both."

Monday, July 07, 2008

The Executioner's Song

By Norman Mailer

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1980.

Back in the mid 1970s, a recently released convict named Gary Gilmore killed two men during the commission of two robberies. He was caught and convicted and sentenced to die. Gilmore, who had spent many years in prison, decided that he couldn't bear to be in jail any longer and so he declined to appeal his conviction and he demanded to be executed as per his sentence. This decision launched an uproar over the death sentence as a form of punishment and many people tried to prevent the execution through legal means even though they went against Gilmore's wishes. They failed though and Gilmore was executed by firing squad. This novel is Mailer's presentation of those events.
When I found out what the novel was about I really wasn't that keen on reading it. Plus, the book is huge, more than 1000 pages. So I made a schedule, planning to read so many pages a day till I was finished. But I didn't need the schedule. This book, despite its nasty main character and ugly subject matter, is very readable and absorbing. It is very detailed but still manages to avoid being boring. It examines Gilmore's life after his last prison release, takes us through the trial and the furor generated by his wish to be executed and his two suicide attempts and to the fulfillment of the death sentence. You certainly learn a lot about Gilmore who was a very angry, irresponsible, selfish and childish person. He was so selfish that he talked the gullible woman who thought she loved him into committing suicide with him (they both survived). He was never really able to explain why he shot two men who put up no resistance during the robberies. Both men were solid citizens, married with young children, who were complete strangers to Gilmore. About the only explanation is that Gilmore was angry at his girlfriend and took his anger out on his two victims.
Gilmore got what he deserved, he was a manipulative, selfish creep, but he died like a man. I guess that's something.

As a portrait of a killer, The Executioner's Song is top-notch. As a look at how the media operates, the book is a revelation, a real insider's view. I thought I would hate this book. I won't say I loved it, but I will say it was well worth reading.

Review from Kirkus Reviews.

New Words:
Rotogravure: a printing process by which the paper is rolled through intaglio cylinders; a print made by such a method; the portion of a printed work produced by this method. "Bessie studied dresses in the rotogravure before sewing her own, and went ballroom dancing at the Utahma Dance Hall in Provo when they brought orchestras in."
Tautologic: repetition of same sense in different words: 'a true fact' and `a free gift' for example. "The reason you couldn't find the word in the dictionary is because you read it wrong -- or I didn't write it right -- anyhow it's TAUTOLOGIC not TANTOLOGIC."

The Resurrectionist

By Jack O'Connell

One sad day a terrible thing happened and a little boy, Danny, ended up in a coma from which he has never awoken. His father, Sweeney, has gotten his son a place at the Peck Clinic, a clinic devoted to victims of coma and which is doing cutting edge research on coma. Sweeney has also gotten a job in the clinic's pharmacy, working nights. The Peck Clinic has been in the Peck family for generations and is currently run by Dr. Peck and his physician daughter, Alice.
Before his illness, Danny was a huge fan of a comic book, Limbo, the tales of a set of runaway circus freaks, the main character of the comic being Chicken Boy, a young man covered with feathers and with beak instead of lips. He is the kind of leader of the freaks, guiding them on their travel through the visions he receives during his episodes of epilepsy. Supposedly, Chicken Boy is leading the little band to safety in a world that generally makes life hard for such as them.
Sweeney spends a lot of time with his son Danny, reading to him from the Limbo comics. Other than that, Sweeney doesn't have much of a life. He is eaten up with guilt and anger.
Sweeney gets kidnapped by a group of drug addled bikers. The bikers want to help Danny and they claim they have a drug brewed with Danny's own brain fluid that enables them to enter Danny's world. For they claim Danny has recreated in his own coma brain the comic world of Limbo and Danny is the Chicken Boy. They offer Sweeney the chance to take the drug and be with Danny if he will join their gang.

The story of Chicken Boy and the freaks in the Limbo comic is more interesting and makes more sense than that of Danny, Sweeney and the outlaw bikers. Sweeney, the Peck Clinic, the bikers and their clinic accomplice, the nurse Nadia (the brain behind the bikers), were weirder and stranger than the freaks and the cruel, heartless world of Limbo. The conclusion of the story is just creepy and unappealing. The depths that Sweeney allows himself to be drawn into don't make sense for a man who claims to love his son as much as he does. Nonetheless, this is an unforgettable story and Chicken Boy and his freak friends captured my heart. Though I didn't like the ending of the story, I did enjoy reading this book.

Review by Cathi Unsworth for The Guardian.

New Words:
Autodidact: a self-taught person. "An autodidact, he had a well-known passion for the Bible and the Bard, and Bruno hoped he wouldn't have to endure a reading from the Song of Solomon."
Gazonie: itinerant carnival and circus laborers. "The legend was that the Bedlam Brothers had started out as ordinary gazonies, signing on with a lower tier show when it passed through their hometown of Mt. Seir one summer's day."
Donniker: a rest room or toilet. "They had labored as concessionaires and cleaned up the most gruesome donnikers in the land."