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The Big Page of Holly Reviews

Page history last edited by PBworks 13 years, 8 months ago

Reviews by Holly

 

Currently reading:  

The Red and the Black by Stendhal

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

Headless Males Make Great Lovers

 

 

Review #1: Early Pleasures: Tales from a Biologist's Garden by Roger B. Swain

Published 1978 (my version is from 1981)

ISBN # 0-684-166657-7

188 pages

Challenge book #1

 

I really liked this book. It has 21 short chapters, each devoted to a specific garden or wildlife phenomenon. Like parsnips.

 

The main worry I always have about nonfiction books is that they will be dry, boring, too-clinical, etc. This one struck the perfect balance between informative and entertaining, with lots of slightly folksy anecdotes and observations. Some chapters, like "White Life", lean a little heavier on the biology aspect...which led me to read them slightly less attentively than the chapters with more personality. All, however, were enjoyable.

 

I liked the self-reliant tilt of "Time, Energy and Maple Syrup", which also showed up in "The Attraction of Wild Bees" and "The Cultured Cabbage". Making maple syrup is just the type of thing I would do, so I felt a kinship to Mr. Swain. He reminded me a bit of Barbara Kingsolver at times, as they both have writings that intertwine science with humanity.

 

In "Salting the Earth" and "The Squirrel and the Fruitcake", Swain portrayed some challenges to agriculture and horticulture that are due (at least in part) to the choices of mankind. The possible solutions he suggests are both amusing and realistic.

 

The chapters of the book follow the cycle of nature, beginning in late winter/early spring and wrapping up just after the Christmas mistletoe. My favorite chapter of all was the final: "Ex Familia". In this chapter, Swain looks with honesty at all the ecological challenges we face and presents his own optimistic point of view. I won't spoil it, but...it made me feel better.

 

 

Review #2: Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher

Published 1995

ISBN #0-31295812-9

977 pages

 

Rosamunde Pilcher, if you don't already know, writes deeply romantic novels and novellas. They are generally set in Great Britain, starting sometime between World War II and the present. They all feature lots of gorgeous, sweeping visual descriptions, and they make excellent use of old-fashioned/British descriptions like "in some style". They do NOT include any graphic sex. These are novels you could comfortably loan to your grandmother.

 

Coming Home is my favorite of her long-form novels, which include The Shell Seekers and September. It is set just before, during and just after World War II. The main character is Judith Dunbar, a girl born in Colombo (Ceylon) to British parents. The story begins when she is fourteen; shortly before she says goodbye to her mother and sister and home of four years. Her mother and sister, you see, are heading back east to live with dear old Dad, and Judith is off to boarding school. One event follows another in pretty short order, and before you know it, she's finishing school. Soon after, the war begins.

 

The book is divided into two main parts, which I suppose could be best described as 'childhood' and 'adult', although the 'home' in Coming Home also changes between the two sections. The novel is interspersed with letters, usually from Judith to her absent parents, but sometimes the sender and reader change to other characters. The book is written in third-person limited omniscient, with the omniscience generally directed toward Judith, but again this does shift from time to time.

 

The one thing that really bothers me about this book is the same thing that bothers me about all of Rosamunde Pilcher's books: the endings are too neat. No loose ends. All of the characters pair off. Nearly everyone has a happy ending. It's all very rosy, but, well, a little too rosy, if you know what I mean. Sometimes happy endings are unrealistic, no matter how much you want them.

 

 

Review #3: Eats, Shoots and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

Published 2003

ISBN # 1-592-40087-6

204 pages

Challenge book #2

 

I don't know how many times I have picked this book up in bookstores and libraries, contemplating its title and purpose before returning it to its shelf. Did I think a book on punctuation would be dull? Was I afraid of an effusion of bad puns? No, neither. I have considered copyediting as sheer-fun career, and puns (no matter how painful) set me to giggling. The truth is, I was worried that the author would not live up to my high standards for language usage.

 

It is somewhat embarrassing to admit that, but only because I have been conditioned to believe that grammar is not cool.

 

I shouldn't have feared. Lynne Truss is a woman after my own heart. Not only does she lay out very clear and specific rules for punctuation, she also periodically indulges in just the type of rants I do. (Rants on topics such as: Two Weeks Notice. Remember this movie? Hugh Grant, Sandra Bullock, etc. Yeah, okay, the movie itself doesn't matter. It's the title! Two Weeks Notice, when it should be Two Weeks' Notice. Ugh.)

 

This sweet little book also contains miscellany beyond my expectations: the history of several punctuation marks, the changing use and purpose of punctuation, and dozens of rhapsodic quotes about punctuation  (some from well-known authors!). It was engaging and amusing, and I enjoyed it thoroughly--except when forced to scan through anecdotes in order to find the punctuation rules!

 

 

Review #4: The Yokota Officers Club by Sarah Bird

Published 2001

ISBN #0-345-45277-1

368 pages

Challenge book #3

 

With my previous review in mind, I would be remiss if I did not point out that the title of this book SHOULD have an apostrophe after "Officers".

 

I should also note that my perspective on this story is likely to be a little different from anyone else's. I am an air force brat, like the protagonist. My father was stationed for two years at Osan Air Force Base in South Korea, and I have been to Yokota and Kadena (where the story takes place). I can decifer all the military acronyms. I ate at the Officers' Club. I flirted with airmen. I moved, I moved, and I moved. There is a lot for me to relate to in this book, which is why my mom plucked it off the shelf for me, I'm sure.

 

Of course, during my tenure as a brat, OSI and RIF were never the threats they are in The Yokota Officers Club. The base staff dealt with all the lawn care, so no one was ever going to get fired because their kid didn't mow the lawn. As far as I remember, no one disappeared overnight due to behavior infractions or their father's death. No one fretted over classified material or recon missions or...anything, really. The lives of the kids were very separate from the jobs of their parents. Who really knew where Dad went on TDY?

 

At the height of the Cold War, though, things might have been a little different.

 

The narrator, Bernie, is the eldest of six military brats. As the story opens, she is flying to Yokota to be with her family at the end of her freshman year in college. The Vietnam War is raging. Bernie has become a hippy, which becomes a source of friction between her and her family--though not the main friction of the story. This is a story about loyalty and politics and standing up for what you believe in. It is also about secrets, small and large, and revenge. And the innocence of a child.

 

This is a story that could have really happened. In fact, while it is fiction, many of the elements come from the author's own life as an air force brat. The writing is vivid and familiar and heartbreaking, all at once. This book picks up the splinters of the shattered vase, pieces them together and discovers who knocked it down. But it doesn't--it can't--make the vase whole.

 

 

Review #5: Promised the Moon: the Untold Story of the First Women in the Space Race by Stephanie Nolen

Published 2002

ISBN #1-56858-275-7

331 pages

Challenge book #4

 

"All men are bastards." --Kate (French Kiss)

 

Reading this book was a lot like watching Titanic. You knew how it was going to end. No matter how much you loved the characters, no matter how good things looked, no matter how it SHOULD have been...that ship was going down. 

 

Of course, I didn't really like the characters in Titanic. I did like the women in Promised the Moon. For the most part.

 

In essence, this book was about thirteen extraordinary women pilots. Some were married; others were single. The oldest was a forty-year-old senator's wife, who had given birth to eight children. Some were WASPs during World War II. Two were twin sisters. One worked as a cropduster. Several taught flying lessons. Many owned their own airplanes and businesses. On average, they had 4,500 flight hours.

 

They were trailblazers before the Space Race, and when it began, they stepped forward to serve their country. They gave up time, jobs, husbands and sweethearts in order to undergo astronaut testing. For many of them, becoming an astronaut began as an unexpected invitation and became an obsession.

 

The lady astronaut program was the whim of two scientists. Sputnik was already circling the earth, and the United States was trying desperately to send a man into space. But the spacecraft were too heavy. What if, the scientists thought, the United States sent WOMEN into space? Women were lighter, smaller and used less oxygen. But could they endure the physical trials of space travel?

 

Dr. Randolf Lovelace decided to find out. He recruited Jerrie Cobb to undergo the same trials that the Mercury Seven confronted. No one really knew what spaceflight would be like, so they ran potential astronauts through all kinds of tests. Jerrie passed them all with flying colors--in many cases with better results than the Mercury Seven.

 

So the field was expanded. Dr. Lovelace and Jerrie recruited other women to undergo the tests. Another, older woman pilot named Jackie Cochran also suggested candidates...and suggested that she run the program.

 

Jackie was accustomed to leading advancements of women in aviation. She was married to a millionaire, and she had many high-level political connections. She founded and ran the WASPs during WWII. She was a pioneer, and in her eyes, these younger women pilots should defer to her. Since she was too old (and her health was too poor) to undergo astronaut testing herself, Jackie felt she should at least run the program.

 

It didn't hurt that she was one of Dr. Lovelace's biggest financial supporters.

 

If I write much more, I'll give the whole story away. I'll end with this: this is an amazing story of several extraordinary women who achieved tremendous things over the course of their lives. It is a shame that they had to live in a society where men were such bastards.

 

I really, really dislike Lyndon B. Johnson and John Glenn.

 

 

Review #6: Eat the grapes downward: An uninhibited romp through the surprising world of food by Vernon Pizer

Published 1983

ISBN #0-396-08203-3

165 pages

Challenge book #5

 

This book annoyed the heck out of me. The author was so caught up in his own eloquence that he couldn't write a simple sentence to save his life. The worst was on the (several) occasions when Mr. Pizer was sure that his wordplay was far too clever for his readers to catch, so he had to add a second sentence to point out and explain how clever the first sentence was. Ick.

 

I'm also not too sure about some of his facts. He specifically mentions angulas as a popular Spanish snack food. I have eaten them. Spanish they may be, but in my experience, they are more along the lines of an entree than a snack. He also says salted grasshoppers are widely eaten in Japan, and I never saw them there. I will grant that I do not know everything, and I have not explored every inch of Spain or Japan. But Pizer implies that everyone eats these foods all the time, and that's just not true.

 

This book was a huge disappointment to me. I only finished it so I could say I made it that much closer to my challenge goal.

 

 

Review #7: Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver

Published 1993

ISBN #0-06-109868-X

436 pages

 

Can I just say that I LOVE Barbara Kingsolver? She is my hero, in so very many ways. First of all, she is a wife and a mom and a full-time writer, a grouping of roles that I aspire to. She also grows/raises much of her family's food supply, which I also try to do. And she can write a happy ending that is not only lovely, but also believable. What an incredible woman. 

 

Pigs in Heaven is the sequel to The Bean Trees, both of which are mostly about a young woman named Taylor Greer and her adopted daughter, Turtle. I have read this book before, but not recently, and it was nice to relax and reacquaint myself with characters that I like and admire. It also has some bearing on a story that I'm writing, so this seemed a good time to reread it. 

 

As this story begins, Turtle is six years old, and she saves a man's life. In the media hubbub that follows, a Cherokee lawyer named Annawake spots Turtle, recognizes her as Cherokee and becomes determined to return the girl to her people. Taylor, like any mother, does all she can to keep their little family together.

 

The last time I read this book, I was not a mother. That change in my life altered how I thought and felt about the events in this book. Before, my mind could relate, but now my heart can.

 

Barbara Kingsolver is an extremely gifted writer, and I urge anyone who has not read her books to do so immediately! Her characters are luminescent, and her writing brims over with words perfectly chosen to illustrate every situation. 

 

 

Review #8: Growing your own mushrooms: Cultivating, Cooking and Preserving by Jo Mueller

Published 1976

ISBN #0-88266-089-6

169 pages

Challenge book #6

 

Reading this book was a little like immersing myself in an alternate universe. Being a self-reliant type, I expected to read about growing mushrooms from a mostly utilitarian perspective. Perhaps some descriptions of different ways to raise mushrooms, discussion about different types of mushrooms, eloquence about the joys of raising and eating mushrooms, etc. As you might have guessed, that's not exactly what I found.

 

The author, Jo Mueller, is a wife and mother who raises mushrooms in her basement. (At least, at the time of writing she was. That was 32 years ago.) She seems to have written this book because A) she enjoys raising and cooking her own mushrooms, and B) most people know squat about raising mushrooms. She is simply telling the reader about how she does things, not about all the possibilities.

 

Her way of doing things includes: one kind of mushroom (the ubiquitous white button), heavy use of pesticides (shudder) and lots of manure. She also mentions repeatedly how good mushrooms are for the dieter, because they are so low in calories. There are many other moments that bring home just how sexual politics stood in the 1970s: cooking the fish "your man" caught, lighter recipes for "the girls", etc. 

 

I was also fascinated by the continual reference to a "food budget". (Does anyone keep one anymore?) In the recipe section, there is a whole chapter on cooking with "other meats" like chipped beef, tongue and liver. Her recipes also make wide use of American cheese. At times, it seems Jo only raised mushrooms because it was cheaper than buying them!

 

This book kept me engaged for the morning, but if it had been much longer, I probably would have lost interest.

 

 

Review #9: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Published 1997

ISBN #0-590-35340-3

309 pages

 

Admittedly, I have read this before. But come on, who doesn't love a great novel reread? Well, aside from my husband, who can hardly sit still long enough to read a novel once. But I digress.

 

I love reading the first Harry Potter because it has such an enormous sense of wonder throughout. I adore the entire series, of course; but the others simply do not convey the same awe. Harry, and we along with him, become desensitized to the amazing people, places and things he encounters every day.

 

Diagon Alley is a perfect example. In Sorcerer's Stone, he can hardly gawk enough at the shops, brooms, potion ingredients, or wizards and witches. By book 4, he lets Mrs. Weasley do all of his back-to-school shopping while he goes to the Quidditch World Cup. Crazy.

 

Of course, Harry wouldn't be able to function if he stayed agape all of the time. It makes sense that he would eventually become inured to the wonder of his world. But every once in awhile, I feel the need for a little more awe in my life, and that's when I read Sorcerer's Stone.

 

 

 

Review #10: Maskerade by Terry Pratchett

Published 1995

ISBN #0-06-105691-X

358 pages

 

Terry Pratchett is one of my favorite authors. His books are smart, hilarious and completely unexpected. They are set, for the most part, in a fictional alternate universe called Discword. My favorites are about the Ankh-Morpork City Watch, followed by Death. But the Lancre witches also have their fine points, many of which arise in Maskerade--a novel about opera.

 

Maskerade is sort of a murder-mystery that plays off of The Phantom of the Opera, with witches and X-rated cookery thrown in for good measure. The main character is Agnes Nitt, a.k.a. Perdita X, a girl from rural Lancre who comes to the big city for two reasons: 1. to escape her image as a fat girl with a wonderful personality, and 2. to avoid being drafted into the Lancre coven. The Lancre coven, comprising Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg, follows her to Ankh-Morpork for two reasons of their own: 1. to collect royalties on Nanny's best-selling cookbook, and 2. to look out for one of their own (in other words, Agnes).

 

As it happens, Agnes has subconsciously channeled all of her magical gifts into her singing voice. She can sing in harmony with herself. Her vocal range starts too low for human ears and ends too high for human ears. She can imitate anyone's voice. And she can throw her own voice, mid-aria, across the room.

 

While the totality of these gifts result in her job with the opera, it's the last talent that lands Agnes onstage her first night. She sings from the chorus, while the more picturesque (and brainless, talentless, etc.) Christine lip-synchs downstage. If only dead bodies would stop turning up, everything would be ALMOST perfect.

 

 

 

Review #11: Poplollies and Bellibones: A Celebration of Lost Words by Susan Kelz Sperling

Published 1977

ISBN #0-517-530791

113 pages

Challenge book # 7

 

The author of this book, Susan Kelz Sperling, is/was an English teacher with a passion for obscure verbiage. I thought at first that it would be like a dictionary, albeit with fewer entries. The outdated word, an explanation, its setting...and thou.

 

However, it is not so predictable as that. The book is divided into several short chapters. For the majority of them, Sperling uses a literary device called a round. So the first paragraph asks, "What is Obscurity A?" Then answers the question with a goodly description, ending with a final sentence that includes Obscurity B. The next paragraph begins, "What is Obscurity B?" And, of course, answers the question with a definition that includes yet another unknown word. And so on and so forth until the final word and definition that includes Obscurity A. Thus, a round.

 

I do like the method of a round. Unfortunately, the non-round chapters were mostly short stories, and they were rather labor-intensive to read. She had an exhaustive index, but still. It isn't fun to read a story when you have to look up every third word.

 

But there were a lot of gems unearthed, including:

  1. condog: to agree, a pun formed from concur
  2. merry-go-down: strong ale
  3. eyebite: to bewitch
  4. lip-clap: kissing
  5. bellibone: a pretty girl, from the French belle et bonne
and my favorite (remember The Dark Crystal?)...
  1. fizgig: a frivolous person, fireworks in the shape of a dragon

 

 

Review #12: If Wishing Made It So by Lucy Finn

 

Published 2008

ISBN #...apparently, none

 

289 pages

 

If Lucy Finn can publish a book, and I can't, there is no justice in this world. Seriously.

 

Granted, it is a romance novel (not a bodice-ripper), but still. Romance can be well-written. Her setting was...nice. The premise was amusing enough for me to pick it up at my MIL's house. But the story itself? Totally beyond the realm of possibility, and believe me, I am not referring to the genie.

 

For example, how can one be simultaneously "a strong, level-headed woman" and "a fainter"? What kind of idiot would purposefully leave her genie at home when she knew she was in danger? Who on earth would--tra-la-la--skip lightly out of her car in a public parking garage, mind in a cloud, WHEN SHE KNEW MOBSTERS WERE TAILING HER?

 

I keep picking it up and flipping back through the pages, sure that I must have missed a crucial chapter somewhere. But no. I just wasted my time reading about a moron.

 

 

Review #13: Making Money by Terry Pratchett

 

Published 2007

ISBN #978-0-06-116164-3

 

394 pages

 

Is it okay to say again that I love Terry Pratchett? I really feel it is imperative to do so as often as possible, especially since I heard a rumor that he has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's. Suck.

 

Making Money is the second Discworld novel featuring Moist von Lipwig, the postmaster of Ankh-Morpork. In the first, Going Postal, Moist was roped into restarting the postal service. In this, he is roped into running the Royal Bank and the Royal Mint, which are dominated by the family Lavish (in particular Cosmo, who is obsessed with becoming the Patrician and taking Moist down).

 

The Bank and Mint are make no money whatsoever. In fact, it costs the Mint more than a penny to make a penny. But Moist has a gift for achieving the unachievable through bluster, fear (his own) and sheer entertainment. Besides, the assasins will kill him if he fails.

 

In his spare time, Moist pursues the lovely and smokey Adora Belle Dearheart, who has a heart and a gift for freeing golems. Which leads to an interesting solution to his problems.

 

Honestly, this was not as good as Going Postal. I was a bit disappointed. It was a good book. For, say, Christopher Moore, it would have been stellar. For Terry Pratchett, it was...eh. Perhaps my expectations are a bit high.

 

 

 

 

 

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