Sunday, March 22, 2009

Alex & Me

By Irene M. Pepperberg

Dr. Pepperberg and her parrot Alex became famous when Alex demonstrated that not only could he communicate clearly with people but that he understood complex concepts such as shape, amount and color. He could even count to six. Thus Dr. Pepperberg and Alex exploded the idea that animals can't think and for this Alex was justly famous.
This book looks at Dr. Pepperberg's life with Alex but sadly, it starts out with the bird's premature death at age thirty-one. Alex was a star during his lifetime and, like many stars, he burned out too soon. He was a bird of great personality who ruled the roost, literally, bossing and correcting the other parrots in the study. But the best thing about Alex was his ability to make intellectual leaps that not even his biggest fan, Dr. Pepperberg, expected. For example, Dr. Pepperberg was working with Alex on phonemes, the individual sounds that make up a word. She was demonstrating Alex's skills to a visitor and he was doing really well. Each time he succeeded she told him he was a good bird but Alex continually stated that he wanted a nut. But he didn't get a nut, just verbal praise. Finally Alex 'looked at me and said slowly, "Want a nut. Nnn ... uh ... tuh."' He actually spelled the word out using phonemes! Alex was truly a special parrot.

I really enjoyed this book, even with its very sad beginning. I have always been interested in Alex since I first saw him on TV and reading about this lively little character was fascinating and charming. Some people have called him a bird genius. But maybe Alex was just a typical parrot and a clear demonstration that animals have a lot more going on than we have given them credit for.

The Reincarnationist

By M.J. Rose

Josh Ryder has flashbacks, flashbacks to previous lives, one as a pagan priest in old Rome and one as a young man in 19th century New York. These flashbacks are disrupting his life and to get some control, he hooks up with the Phoenix Foundation that investigates past life memories in children. Although Josh is not a child, his flashbacks are so compelling that the Foundation takes on his case and gives him a job as their official photographer.
The Foundation sends Josh to Rome to check out an archaeological dig of an old tomb because they hope the tomb contains an ancient artifact, the memory stones. These stones are supposedly the key to unlocking past life memories and the Foundation and Josh are eager to get access to the stones. But it all goes terribly wrong when a security guard enters the tomb and steals the stones, fatally shooting the archaeologist in the process. Josh, who was nearby, saw the killer but was not able to prevent the theft or assault.
Being in Rome is a trying experience for Josh because it brings on his flashbacks of his life as a pagan priest. He fades in and out of reality as he remembers bits and pieces of his previous life and especially his intense love affair with a Vestal virgin, Sabine. It is her tomb that the archaeologist were excavating. Staying in Rome, Josh experiences again the terrifying events that lead to Sabine being buried alive as punishment for breaking her vow of chastity and bearing Josh's baby.
Another archaeologist on the tomb dig, Gabriella Chase, finds herself a target of whoever stole the stones. Her apartment is burgled and some of her papers on the dig are stolen. Gabriella becomes the focus of a ruthless person who will stop at nothing to gain and understand the memory stones, even to kidnapping Gabriella's baby daughter to force Gabriella to translate the ancient symbols etched on the stones. With Josh's help, she will uncover the secret that allows the user to access their past life memories and force the shadowy killer to reveal himself and save her baby in the process.

This novel just didn't do it for me. I found it to be pretty tedious. The flashbacks to old Rome were often gruesome and didn't really add much to the story beyond the idea that Josh loved this woman and she was buried alive. It took forever for them to finally get her in the ground. I never developed an interest in the characters, except for Rachel, who was Josh's sister in a past life. Josh is supposed to become Gabriella's love interest but they don't get together until nearly the end and it is not surprising that it takes so long because Josh is more interested in his dead lover, Sabine, than in living, breathing women. Also the kidnapping of the baby was easy to see coming as the baby is merely there in the story to be kidnapped. I got so bored with the whole story that towards the end I was just skimming the pages wanting it to be over. Also, the ending stinks, as we are left hanging when one of the main characters is shot and we are not told what happens next. I just didn't care for this book.

New Words

Loculi: plural form of loculus, which is a place for the deposit of valuables, especially a chamber in the podium of a temple; or a niche in a tomb or catacomb in which a sarcophagus was placed.'"You weren't ... supposed to come back," Drago said, dragging every syllable out as if it was stuck in his throat. "I sent him ... to look in the loculi ... for the treasures."'

Flamen: a name given to a priest assigned to a state-supported god or goddess in Roman religion. 'The danger to every priest, every cult, everyone who held fast to the old ways, increased daily. The priest he'd seen in the gutter that morning was yet another warning to the rest of the flamen.'

Peyos: the long, uncut sideburns worn by male members of most Hasidic groups. 'His long black coat, baggy black pants and white shirt were wrinkled and smelled stale. Being unkempt displeased him, and the way people stared at his clothes, beard and peyos was annoying to him.'

Iconoclast: a destroyer of images used in religious worship; someone who attacks cherished ideas or traditional institutions. 'She was certainly happy in Rome, and she had always been an iconoclast.'

Koans: a paradoxical anecdote or a riddle that has no solution; used in Zen Buddhism to show the inadequacy of logical reasoning. '"You are a fucking living encyclopedia of reincarnation theory, but you sit there like some Buddha, not saying a word, offering cryptic koans about letting the water reveal its secrets in time."'

Friday, March 20, 2009

Ladies' Lending Library

By Janice Kulyk Keefer

Spend an August in 1963 with the kids and moms of Kalyna Beach, sharing their up and downs (mostly downs) and getting a glimpse of life in this imaginary Ukrainian immigrant community. The moms are mostly from the old world and the kids are up to date members of Canadian society trying to cope with two opposing points of view, their moms more restrictive old fashioned ways and the siren call of the modern world with its dating, cars, makeup and sex.
The moms try to be good moms, but their own unhappiness and frustrations get in the way, with kids ending up feeling estranged and lonely with moms that just don't get it and dads who are out of the picture except on weekends. The few times that the dads show up their time is mostly consumed by chores and repairs but the time they can spend with their children is highly valued by both the kids and the dads as they horse around on the beach playing with the kids and getting a little sun.
Stuck out in the country, pretty much on their own most of the time, coping with kids and all the endless tasks that make up their days, the moms blow off a little steam with their "Ladies Lending Library," a weekly get together where the moms drink a little gin, gossip and complain and occasionally actually talk about some book they are reading. It's a way for these immigrant women to discuss and understand their new lives in Canada and it's a way for them to cope with their children who, although of Ukrainian heritage, are Canadian and definitely not old world.

Although this book is set during summer vacation at the beach, it is not a book about people having fun on holiday. These mothers are not happy campers. Not only do they feel very isolated and trapped in this small vacation community, they also are dissatisfied with their marriages and their kids and just life in general. This is a downbeat look at summer at the cottage. However, if you don't mind wading through all the angst and let the story take you where it will, you might find this story well worth reading as it takes you into the lives of these miserable folks.

New Word

Lisle: a strong fine cotton thread or fabric, formerly used to make stockings. 'After lunch, Marta had gone off to her room as usual, taken off her dress, and lain down on the bed in her slip, with her lisle stockings rolled to her knees.'

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Animals in Translation

By Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson

This book looks at animal behavior from an autistic point of view, comparing similarities between autistic brains and behavior and animal brains and behavior. The author, Temple Grandin, who is autistic, believes that autism can shine a light on how animals view the world, because of those similarities. She shares her own discoveries and struggles and how they have led her to realize that she sees the world in many ways the same as animals do.
Her autistic view point has enabled her to design animal handling systems and equipment that reduce the stress on the animal. In this this book she shares her insights with the goal of improving the lot of animals who share their lives with humans, from chickens and pigs and cattle to our pet dogs and cats. Her insights can help every person who wants to improve the quality of life of the animals under their care. This isn't just a book for pet owners, it has lots of tips for farmers, ranchers and packing houses.
Temple points out that people need animals and the humane thing to do is to make their lives as stress free and easy as we can. She also addresses the strange personality defects that can arise in animals that are over-bred or bred with the emphasis on improving one particular trait. This kind of over-breeding can lead to rapist roosters, dogs with epilepsy who bite without warning or provocation and cows who are indifferent mothers. One of the things Temple would like to see happen is less emphasis on building a particular trait within a breed such as large, meaty breasts in chickens, a hyper alert posture in sporting dogs and huge milk production in cows and more emphasis on breeding for overall good health.

This sounds like it is a boring book but it really isn't. Temple gets her point across with many interesting examples from reality that gives her text life and poignancy. It's well worth reading for anyone who shares their life with animals and cares for and about them.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Last Night at the Lobster

By Stewart O'Nan

Manny is the manager of the Red Lobster and we get to know him on its closing day. Even though he has another job waiting for him at Olive Garden (owned by the same corporation that owns Red Lobster), the new job is a step down since he will only be the assistant manager there. So this will be Manny's last day as boss and he has decided he will carry through and do the best he can. But it isn't going to be easy. First of all, he is short staffed as some of his employees couldn't be bothered to show up for the last day. This means Manny has to take up the slack, helping out in the kitchen, helping set up tables out front, doing the routine maintenance like putting deicer on the snowy sidewalk. Secondly, a big snowstorm is bearing down on the community and Manny has to fight to keep the sidewalks cleared, make sure the snow plow does the parking lot and then have to cope with a power failure that shuts down the lights but not the kitchen. Complicating things even more are Manny's feelings for one of the servers, a woman Manny was involved with until she ended it. Even though he has a pregnant girlfriend, Manny is still enamored with this other woman. After this day he will never see her again and this is the last chance for Manny to reach out to her.
Manny wants this last night at the Red Lobster to be stellar even though every thing seems to be conspiring to spoil it for him, from selfish customers, vengeful employees, and foul weather to an indifferent ex-lover.

Manny is a real heart-breaker, yearning as he does what he can't have anymore, his old job and his old girlfriend. Even though his world is crashing down around his ears he still holds it together and runs the restaurant with grace and competence. Reading about his last day as manager makes one wish that it could all work out for him, that a last minute reprieve will be granted him and his restaurant. Following Manny as he overcomes the day's challenges and deals with his own lost expectations was a memorable and interesting experience.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Don't Know Much About the Civil War

By Kenneth C. Davis

From the cutesy title I thought this would be a more tongue in cheek or a more entertaining look at the Civil War. But it's not. It is pretty much just a history of the Civil War. So that was disappointing but even so it is a very clear and easy to understand explanation of the US Civil War. The book ranges from the causes of the Civil War, follows the course of the war and briefly examines the aftermath of the war. Need to know more about the Civil War? You can't go wrong with this book.

New Word

Catafalque: a decorated bier on which a coffin rests in state during a funeral. 'I kept on until I arrived at the East Room, which I entered. There I met with a sickening surprise. Before me was a catafalque, on which rested a corpse wrapped in funeral vestments. "Who is dead in the White House?" I demanded of one of the soldiers. "The President," was the answer, "he was killed by an assassin!"' (From Lincoln's account of a dream he had.)

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Green Hat

By Michael Arlen

Iris Storm has a bad reputation. Her first husband committed suicide and when asked why he did it, Iris said he did it "for purity." Which society took to mean her lack of it. But does Iris deserve her bad reputation? Maybe not.
Pretty, captivating and enigmatic, Iris makes her own way through the world, snapping her fingers at those who dare to sneer at her. But when her path crosses that of a former lover who is about to be married, tears and blood will be shed. Will Iris fight for her own happiness and destroy a newly wed couple's bliss? Or will she bow out the only way she knows how?

This book was a big hit when it first came out in the 1920s. It still holds up although it might be considered a bit over-dramatic what with three suicides and an almost fatal illness.
Here are some quotes from the book that give a little of its flavor:
And one of the reasons why there can never be a Marxist revolution in England is that the rebels will be told they are sneering at the King. They will be abashed.

"Wait till you're so free that you just daren't do what you like. Wait till you're so free that you can be here one minute and there another. Wait till you're so free that you can see the four walls of your freedom and the iron-barred door that will let you out into the open air of slavery, if only there was some one to open it. Ah, yes, freedom...."

"I couldn't tell her," I said.
Guy smoked thoughtfully, looking over my head. "I'll tell her," he said, "in the morning. Had an idea he might blow his brains out."

"And I do so hope, Naps," she said with a fine large smile, "that your friend won't die, for then how will I manage a man who has nothing left to live for?"

New Words

Mulcted: To be punished for an offense or misdemeanor by imposing a fine. 'When the law had gone he would come back wiping his mouth, and jokes were exchanged with the butcher and the fishmonger; but when the law really wanted him, say twice a year, a posse of policemen would simultaneously rush both ends of our lane, and the hearty-looking man was mulcted in a fine not exceeding so much and was back again the next morning within a yard of my door.'

Mondaine: disenchanted, blasé, cynical, disappointed, disillusioned, knowing, sophisticate, sophisticated, worldly. 'It was a sort of blasphemy in her to be so beautiful now, to stand in such ordered loveliness, to be neither shameful like a maiden nor shameless like a mondaine, nor show any fussy after-trill of womanhood, any dingy ember of desire.'

Caddish: offensive, discourteous; low-bred; mean, vulgar. 'I was startled at her eyes in the looking-glass. They were cold blue stones, expressionless, caddish as a beast's.'

Assoiled: assoil means to absolve or pardon; to atone for. '"And oh, if one could be assoiled in human understanding!"'

Declassée: having lost social standing or status. 'His sister was, as it's not impossible to have gathered, what is called declassée -- even for a March or a Portairley.'

Bye-election: a by-election or bye-election is a special election held between general elections to fill a vacancy. 'Hilary, Guy wrote from Mace, was helping a Liberal to fight a musty bye-election in some Staffordshire place.'

Cenotaphs: a cenotaph is a monument built to honor people whose remains are interred elsewhere or whose remains cannot be recovered. 'Yet they would verily seem, those few dead young men, to have a certain god-like quality of immortality denied to the multitude that died with them and for whom cenotaphs and obelisks and memorials must do duty for memory: that they should retain the regret of their many friends is not remarkable, but it is odd, and pleasant, how they will ever and again loiter, gay and handsome and "sound," in the imagination of those who never knew them.'

Puissant: powerful; forceful. 'But would I had the debonair truculence of that puissant nobleman, the Earl of Birkenhead, who has dared to say, in an age given over to the new-rich snobbery of exalting plain, normal men: "I do not like meek men."'

Shagreen: an untanned leather, often dyed green, sometimes made from the skin of a shark. 'Born of Machiavelli by Demoiselle Demi-monde, crafty, thin, pale, dry-shiny as shagreen, he walked to fortune about every great restaurant in Europe, adding always, but with discrimination, to his order of l'aristocracie internationale; and to bankruptcy twice, of truly patrician magnificence, about the baccara tables of his less inspired but more cautious colleague, M. Cornuché of Cannes and Deauville.'

Lysis: recuperation in which the symptoms of an acute disease gradually subside or in biochemistry, the dissolution or destruction of cells such as blood cells or bacteria. 'But in these things the patient just continues ill, two, three, four weeks, might live, might not. Lysis, not crisis.'

Aigrettes: an aigrette is a long plume (especially one of egret feathers) worn on a hat or a piece of jewelry in the shape of a plume. '"Dear, it takes a woman who once had a passion for aigrettes and who loves eating lobsters to be so sensitive."'

Drugget: an inexpensive coarse woolen cloth, used as a covering for finer carpets, as a layer between the carpet and the floor, or as a cheap floor covering. 'Beneath my careful feet was a narrow strip of drugget slanting from the door across to the bed, but on all sides of this strip the floor shone vast and brown in the dim light of a shaded lamp that stood on the heavy oak mantelpiece.'

Funked: to funk is to be afraid of, to shrink in fright. '"Here I am at thirty, a nothing without even the excuse of being a happy nothing, a nothing liked by other nothings and successful among other nothings, a nothing wrapped round by the putrefying little rules of the gentlemanly tradition. And, my God, they are putrefying, and I bless the England that has at last found us out. And if they hadn't been putrefying, sir, and if we hadn't been going rotten with them, you couldn't have taken advantage of the fact that Iris never funked anything in her life to bring her down here and drag her through the slime---"'

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Mission Accomplished! Or How We Won the War in Iraq

By Christopher Cerf and Victor S. Navasky

The authors review some of the many claims by Bush and his people and others who were in support of the Iraq war and points out how mistaken they often were in their claims and assumptions. For example, Major General Martin Dempsey, at a ceremony reopening a bridge in Baghdad said, "Safety and security have been achieved." Fifteen hours after this statement, quoting from the book, "insurgents drove across the newly reopened bridge and fired eight Katyusha rockets into the Al Rashid Hotel inside the Green Zone, killing a staffer of the Coalition Provisional Authority, wounding fifteen others, and narrowly missing U.S. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, who was staying at the hotel." The book is chock full of these priceless little gem facts and well worth reading for anyone, for or against the Iraq war. The book ends with a quote from Dick Cheney on the first Iraq war where he says what a horrible mistake it would have been to try and invade Iraq because taking over Iraq would destabilize what is a very volatile part of the world and he warned, "It's a quagmire if you go that far and try to take over Iraq." Too bad he didn't remember what he had previously said when Bush and company were planning their move against Saddam Hussein and Iraq.

Review from the Huffington Post.

New Word:

Précis: an outline; a sketchy summary of the main points of an argument or theory. 'Therefore, rather than provide an obfuscatory précis, we herewith present what nonscientists might think of as a preview of coming attractions.'

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Beat the Reaper

By Josh Bazell

Dr. Peter Brown is on his way to work when a man tries to mug him, because he "can see the blue scrub pants under my overcoat, and the ventilated green plastic clogs, so he thinks I've got drugs and money on me." Huge mistake on the mugger's part as Peter proceeds to break the man's arm and smash his face in. Peter is not just a doctor, he is an ex-mafia hit man.
The novel proceeds as we follow Peter the doctor/killer on his rounds dealing with patients and popping various pills to keep himself going and as he slowly acquaints the reader with his past and how he became a hit man.
His past is very complicated, with roots in the old country and the murders of his grandparents, which sort of pushed him into a friendship with the son of a mob lawyer. The son, who has the unlikely nickname of Skinflick, introduces Peter, then known as Pietro Brnwa, to his dad and the dad sets Peter up to kill the men who killed his grandparents, launching Peter on his career as a hit man.
After years as a hit man and lots of complications which we read about as flashbacks through the story, Peter turns against Skinflick and his father and enters witness protection and thus starts on the road to his new career as doctor in a New York hospital, supposedly to make up for all the murders he committed by now saving lives. Too bad for Peter that one of his patients turns out to be an old Mafioso who recognizes Peter and rats him out before Peter can prevent him. The last part of the novel deals with Peter fighting for his life against the thugs sent to take him out.

This was a compelling read, especially the parts about Peter's time in the hospital dealing with the patients and medical staff; in fact that is the best part of the story. The part dealing with the mafia thugs and Peter's career as a killer were gross, disgusting and disturbing and were really too much for me. I didn't care for those parts at all, it was all just too horrible. Still the story was interesting even if too yucky for my taste and I read in just a few days.

For another review see the Houston Chronicle review by Barbara Liss.

New Words

Omertà: a code of silence practiced by the Mafia; a refusal to give evidence to the police about criminal activities. 'Mob omertà bullshit runs both ways --the old guys blackmail the new guys, and the new guys finger the old guys.'

Vuarnets: a brand of sunglasses. 'I cut down on the Old Europe mannerisms and started dressing shaggy-preppy, with Vuarnets and a coral necklace.'

Santa Clawed

By Rita Mae Brown

Another in the Mrs. Murphy mystery series, this one finds Harry and her pets getting ready for Christmas. As luck would have it, when Harry goes to buy a Christmas tree, her dog, Tucker, finds a dead body at the Christmas tree lot and once again Harry and the pets are in the thick of another murder investigation.
In this case, the dead man has had his throat cut and an obol, an old coin, inserted under his tongue. He is also a monk, from a local order that runs a hospice for the terminally ill, the Brothers of Love Hospice. Recognized in the community for their good works, the monks seem to be unlikely targets for murder and yet before much longer a second monk is found murdered in the same way, also with a coin under his tongue.
Turns out the saintly monks may not be so saintly. The two dead monks came to the order later in life after having messed up in the secular world. And they aren't the only monks in the Brothers of Love with checkered backgrounds.
Things go from bad to worse when Harry's pets lead her to a stash of cash hidden in an old wood lot, but someone catches Harry off guard and bashes her in the head, leaving her unconscious in a bad snowstorm with only her pets to stand by her.

Reading about Harry's life in the hills of Virginia is always entertaining. Rita Mae Brown paints Crozet as the very appealing kind of down home small town that many would like to escape to, if you can ignore all the dead bodies. Well, it's a mystery series and that means you have to have some dead bodies. The murder plot drives the story but the best part of the Mrs. Murphy series is Brown's portrait of small town life in rural Virginia.

For another review see Lady Rhian's blog at Blogspot.