Monday, June 28, 2010

The Know-It-All

By A.J. Jacobs

When he was a little boy, Jacobs thought he was the smartest boy in the world. Of course, he wasn't, which he realized as he grew older. For one thing, his father was a very accomplished man who had written several scholarly law books, a feat that Jacobs envied greatly. Because Jacob's dad really was a very smart man and Jacobs always felt like he was competing with his father, and in view of his father's obvious accomplishments, Jacobs was falling way short.
At one time in his life, the father had set out to read the whole Encyclopaedia Britannica but had quit in the Bs. So Jacobs decides he will read it, A to Z, and in doing so will not only top his father but will acquire such vast amounts of knowledge that people will be amazed and admiring.
Jacobs does read the whole encyclopedia and he does acquire vast amounts of knowledge and people are amazed. But mostly they are annoyed because he keeps spouting off little tidbits of info about oysters and gagaku and other trivia.

I enjoyed this book. It was funny and informative and full of snippets of info Jacobs gleaned from his journey through the encyclopedia. At times the trivia was a tad overwhelming but for the most part the stuff he chose to include in the book is pretty interesting and offbeat, with anecdotes included from his own life and struggle to read the encyclopedia making for a nice balance of facts and memoir.

Mondo Canine

Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur

As it says on the cover, it is a treasury of quotations, anecdotes, essays, and lore in celebration of doggie joie-de-vivre. This is an amusing, sometimes sad, sometimes inspiring collection of stories, snippets and quotes. One of my favorite quotes from the book is by Jerome K. Jerome, author of Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog) who says, "Fox terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs." Having a fox terrier, I know this is true.
The hardest and most touching part of the book to read was the section containing stories where owners say that final goodbye to their beloved dogs. It also has a section on dog heroes. One of my favorites of that section is the story of King, a German shepherd mix who saved his family one night when their house caught fire:
King ... literally walked through fire to save his masters' lives. At 3:30 a.m. on December 22, 1980, Howard and Fran Carlson and their daughter Pearl were asleep in their home in Granite Falls, Washington, when flames from an electrical fire erupted in their kitchen and roared through the house. King entered the house from his outdoor sleeping area, ran into Pearl's bedroom, tore off the blankets, and began tugging her arm, finally pulling her out of bed. Pearl ran screaming through the thick smoke into her parents' room. Fran woke her husband—who had recently been hospitalized with lung disease—led him to an open window and told him to jump. Then she grabbed Pearl, who in the confusion had wandered into the living room. Fran opened another window, pushed Pearl out, and then jumped herself. At that moment King appeared at Pearl's window. He was trying to bark, but all he could manage was a squeak. Fran ordered King to jump, but when he ran back toward the master bedroom instead, Fran realized that Howard was still in the burning house. Fran made her way back through the smoke and flames toward the sound of King's whining and found Howard lying semiconscious on the floor. She helped him to his feet, and they managed to break open a sliding glass door and jump to safety, followed closely by King. "He was the last to leave," she said. "He wouldn't budge before we were outside."
It wasn't until daybreak that the Carlsons saw the singed hair on King's body and his burned, swollen paws. They discovered that his metal chain collar had become so hot it had burned his throat, preventing him from barking normally. And when King refused food, they found wood splinters in his mouth and realized that to save his family, King had gnawed through a plywood door.

This is a fun book to read and I really enjoyed it. It is jammed pack full of amusing and informative tidbits and amply illustrates just how much dogs add to our lives.

Dog Heroes

By Tim Jones

A book of true stories of dogs who have saved lives, helped people in need and given their lives in the performance of their duties. It includes tales of dogs in the military and of rescue dogs and of working dogs doing their duty and of ordinary pets behaving in extraordinary ways.
One of my favorite stories was about Chips. Chips was a family pet who was a tad over-protective of his family. So with the arrival of World War II, Chips was sent to serve in the military. Chips was involved in the invasion of Italy in July, 1943, landing on the beach with his unit under terrible enemy fire. The unit was pinned down by heavy machine gun fire coming from a bunker just above them. The situation was extremely precarious. Then Chips, all on his own without being sent by his handler, raced toward the bunker. He was shot twice but kept going, charging over the barricade and grabbing the machine gunner by the neck. His actions gave the troops below the break they needed to swarm the bunker and capture the soldiers inside. Chips recovered from his wounds and continued to serve until 1945 at which point he was sent home to his family. He was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart.

This was a fun and heart-warming book to read. Full of stories of the good dogs do for humanity, with their service and devotion, it makes one realize how wonderful dogs can be and what an asset they are and how under-valued they are for the what they bring to our lives.

Dakota: A Spritual Geography

By Kathleen Norris

Kathleen Norris writes about living in the small town of Lemmon in north central South Dakota. The house she lived in was built by her grandparents and she used to spend summers there as a child but she grew up in Hawaii and lived on the East Coast before moving to Lemmon where her family's roots in the community go back generations.
Written during the farm crisis of the 1980s when crop prices were depressed, interest rates increasing, land values falling and many farms failing, Norris observed how the local community reacted. So she writes of small town life in changing times. She also writes about her feelings about life in a monastery and about how the challenges of living in and the landscape of the wide open spaces of the grasslands of the Dakotas helped her to understand and develop her own spirituality.

This was a pretty good book. I especially enjoyed her reflections on the insularity of small town people and of how it makes life harder for new members trying to fit in to a community that will never stop thinking of them as outsiders. I also enjoyed her descriptions of life on the prairie and of the struggles to make a living in a less than hospitable environment. I didn't enjoy as much her raptures over monastery life. Overall, I found the book interesting and surprisingly inspiring, and I am not a person who is easily inspired.


By Sheneska Jackson

Blessings is the name of a hair salon in Los Angeles. Its owner is Pat who was given the salon by her husband to take her mind off the fact that she in unable to conceive a child. The salon wasn't doing too well until Zuma showed up one day wanting a job. Zuma was an accomplished hair stylist who brought lots of new business to the salon. Also working at the salon was Faye, a single mother with a small son and a wayward teen daughter. Shortly after the story begins, Pat hires another person, Sandy, an ex-stripper and mother to two youngsters.
Both Pat and Zuma want the same thing, to have children of their own. They end up spending thousands of dollars on fertility doctors and, after giving up on that, on trying to adopt. Zuma has lots of men friends but no one she wants to raise a child with so she has saved up her money and is planning on getting pregnant via artificial insemination, something she is keeping a secret from the gals at the salon.
Meanwhile, Faye is having a really hard time with her kids, her young son is getting into fights and her teenage daughter, who is pregnant, has run away to be with her boyfriend. And Sandy turns out to be a psycho bitch who thinks nothing of leaving her preschool age son at home alone with his baby sister who is only a few months old. Her jealousy and rage eventually drive away the father of the two kids, leaving the children in her neglectful care.

This was an OK story. Of the four characters, Faye is the most likable, but is described as on overweight pig, stuffing her face with junk food. Pat seems like a mental case in her obsession with getting a child. Zuma is just plain mean and the least likable of the bunch. The oddest character of the group is Sandy, who starts out as quite sympathetic, sassy and brave, standing up to and facing down Zuma's hate and racism. But then we are told she is pathologically jealous and that she actually hates her two small children, slapping and pinching them, forgetting to feed them, leaving them home alone while she goes off to work. Gutsy and feisty at first, the Sandy character is then transformed into a monster and a villain. I guess I didn't warm up to the book because I didn't warm up to the characters, selfish, baby-crazed Pat, Zuma the hateful bigot, Faye the fat pig and Sandy the psycho bitch child abuser. So, although the story was pretty interesting, the characters just left me cold.

A Bride Goes West

By Nannie T. Alderson and Helena Huntington Smith

The true story of a young woman's life on the Montana range in the 1880s and 1890s.
Nannie was a young Southern woman from West Virginia when she and her new husband set out to become cattle ranchers in Montana. Their first year together was fun and exciting as Nannie became familiar with the ranching life. She wasn't really trained to be a self-sufficient country woman, having been raised in a household where being a lady was more important that knowing how to cook and clean. In fact, the only thing she actually knew how to cook were rolls and it also never occurred to her or her husband that her city clothes were entirely unsuited to the hard life she would now be living. But like many a young bride, she learned and she coped and she adapted.
At first, things seemed to be going really well. Those first few years the rains were timely and the grazing was good. To begin with they were living in a dirt floor shack but her husband and his men soon built them a snug little log house. But then one of the hired hands got into a dispute and in revenge, the little house was burned along with all its contents, including some heirlooms Nannie had brought with her from back East.
After that, they moved and a new place was built. But things just went downhill from there. The weather turned dry and the winters were brutally cold. Between the drought, the cattle lost to cold and blizzards and the decline in the market price and the money spent to build the new place, their dream of cattle ranching was never realized. They had to sell out and move into town where Nannie's husband was killed in a freak accident, kicked to death by two feuding stallions. She was left to raise their four kids by herself, which she did to the best of her ability and helped by a small life insurance policy her husband had.

This was an interesting story about life on a cattle ranch in the pioneer days and about a young woman's education in the school of hard knocks. The bulk of the story is about the time before Nannie's husband died with her life after his death being allotted just one chapter. Like most pioneer narratives, it is a story of hardship, hard work, family, love, danger and survival. It's a good story.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The Moon's a Balloon

By David Niven

Niven's autobiography, tracing his life from childhood until the late 1960s. Growing up in England, entering the military, gradually settling upon a career in movies that took him to Hollywood where he struggled for a time. Marriage, kids, success, back to England to fight in WW II, then back to Hollywood & more success, then the tragic death of wife #1, then more success, new wife, new kids, more success, an Oscar, a few slightly bawdy stories, lots of encounters with famous people, leaving Hollywood for a more Continental life, more success, more famous people and there you have it.

David Niven certainly knew a lot of famous people, including Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy and scores of show folk like Elizabeth Taylor & Mike Todd, Frank Sinatra, Noël Coward, Greta Garbo, Errol Flynn, Sam Goldwyn, Humphrey Bogart & Lauren Bacall, Peter Ustinov, Lawrence Olivier, Merle Oberon and on and on. So if you want to read about the early days of Hollywood and some of its most famous stars then this is the book for you. However, I found it a little dull at times, especially the WW II section and it took me several weeks to read it.

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Are You There, Vodka? It's Me, Chelsea

By Chelsea Handler

A series of stories supposedly taken from events in her real life by comedienne Chelsea Handler. Some of the stories are mildly amusing, but they are all vulgar, crude and nasty. Her comedy is mainly just cruel and mean, whether dealing with her lovers, her family, her friends, dwarfs or animals. It's scary how cold and uncaring she seems to be and how willing to sneer at everyone, including her elderly father whom she refers to as Shamu and Bitch Tits. But what can you expect from a woman who urinates out of her vagina? Quoth Chelsea:
I had my drink in between my legs and was trying to redirect the urine that was seeping its way out of my vagina.

Bottom line, this is a gross book. Which would be OK if it was gross and funny. But this book is mostly just gross.

Fearless Fourteen

By Janet Evanovich

Another in the Stephanie Plum series. Stephanie is a bounty hunter. She tracks down people who have missed their court date and hauls them back to jail. She is not a trained law enforcement officer, she is just a woman who needed a job and was able to land one with her cousin Vinnie who owns the bail bond company.
Stephanie has an on-again, off-again relationship with Joe Morelli, who is a cop. In this book, the relationship is definitely on, with Stephanie spending most nights at Joe's house. But while she is sleeping with Joe, she still has eyes for Ranger, who owns a security company and he sometimes throws work her way. In this story, Stephanie is body guarding an aging star who is making an appearance in Trenton. But this is just a side story to the main story, which is about a long-ago bank robbery.
Joe's house used to belong to his aunt, but when she died she left the house to Joe, something that Joe's cousin Dom didn't anticipate when he hid a very valuable set of keys in her basement, keys to a garage and a van full of nine million dollars stolen in a bank robbery by Dom and his gang. Now that Dom is out of prison, he is looking to find those keys and finally split the money with the rest of the gang. Dom took the fall for the robbery while the other members of the gang remained free and anonymous.
So now Dom is angry at Joe for usurping his inheritance, for shtupping his sister Loretta, and for standing between Dom and the nine million. But when the dead bodies start to pile up, it turns out Dom is not to blame and that someone in the gang has turned against his fellows. And as per usual, Stephanie manages to find herself smack in the middle of all the action.

This was a pretty good story and lots of fun, despite the body count. Stephanie manages to get herself dyed blue while searching for a clue to the whereabouts of the money and a potato gun plays a significant role in foiling the guy out to get all the money for himself. Lulu is there to help in her usual outrageous outfits and also giving her boyfriend Tank the heebee-jeebies when she tries to finagle him into marriage. All in all, it is another excellent and fun addition to the Stephanie Plum saga.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

To Say Nothing of the Dog

By Connie Willis

This novel is set about fifty years in the future and time travel has been around for about thirty years. When first developed, time travelers had hoped to go to the past and bring back treasure. But it didn't work. The time travelers could not bring anything from past back. Time wouldn't allow it. Every time it was tried, the device to travel back to the future refused to work until the contraband was removed. After this was figured out, the greedy exploiters lost interest in time travel and it was relegated to academics and historians who wished to used it for simple research.
Of course, messing about in the past can have grave consequences for the future. Even something as simple as causing a fated meeting not to occur by delaying one of the principals for a few minutes can have repercussions that last into generations. So it's a good thing that Time is very stable and has the ability to correct interference. So time travelers have to be very careful when visiting the past.
But major, pivotal events are off-limits to time travelers. When they try to visit these times, they can't do it. They end up somewhere else or somewhen else. At the time of this story, one of those critical events is the destruction of Coventry Cathedral in England in World War II by a bombing raid from Germany.
Anyway, a very influential and wealthy woman in the present time of the story, the 2050s, has decided to rebuild Coventry Cathedral. She is determined to produce an exact replica of the building, including all its furnishings and decorations. She has managed to do so with the exception of one item, the bishops bird stump, which is a large, iron, heavily decorated vase. This vase may have been in the cathedral when it was bombed or it may have been removed with most of the other valuables just before the bombing. But it was never seen again after the bombing. So this woman has mobilized the time travelers, who refer to themselves as historians, to go into the past and try to figure out what happened to the vase.
Meanwhile, one of the historians has come back from the past with a cat. Now, this is supposed to be impossible, since previously no one was able to bring anything forward, alive or inanimate. The historian is part of the crew trying to gather info on the lost vase for which task she has been in the late 1800s attempting to gain access to a young woman's diary that may have the last name of a person who may have knowledge about the lost vase, some fifty years in that person's future. The historian, Verity, impulsively rescued the cat from being drowned by the family's butler (in the 2050s, cats are extinct), and also impulsively brought the cat to the future. Of course, everyone is astounded that she was able to do this and also concerned that removal of the cat might affect the course of history. So another historian, Ned, is sent to take the cat back.
Repeated time jumps make the time traveler loopy and Ned has been making lots of jumps trying to gather info about the lost vase. As a result, he is very time-lagged and completely zones out when he is given the instructions about returning the cat. The only thing he really remembers is that he is supposed to stay in the past for a few days to rest and recuperate. He doesn't remember about the cat or even realize that it is in a basket with the rest of his gear that he is traveling back with.
So he goes back to the same time and locale as the cat came from and, in his befuddled state, accidentally prevents the owner of the cat, who also is the owner of the diary that Verity was trying to get a look at, from meeting the man she is supposed to marry and instead the young woman meets another young man and they fall in love, which also prevents this young man from meeting the woman who is supposed to be his future wife. So somehow Ned and Verity have to correct their interference with the past in order to keep from changing the future. And also locate the bishops bird stump.

Whew, that was a long explanation and that's just laying the foundation. Ned and Verity go on to have quite a time in Victorian England, with Ned embarking on a boat trip down the river that has a lot in common with another boat trip, recorded in Jerome K. Jerome's humorous book, THREE MEN IN A BOAT (TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG). You don't need to be familiar with the Jerome book to enjoy this story, but it does add an extra something if you are.
Well, a lot doesn't happen in this story, it's mostly about Ned coping with Victorian times and trying to correct the consequences of his actions. Sometimes the plot gets a little thick, with all the time travel intrigue, bouncing back and forth between the future, 1940s Coventry, and the Victorian era. It's a lighthearted book, often mildly amusing, but not a funny as the book it emulates, THREE MEN IN A BOAT.