Mean and Lowly Things, by Kate Jackson

I have just shot two days when I should have gotten a lot more done than I did reading Harvard graduate student Kate Jackson’s absorbing (to put it mildly) recount of her three trips to collect specimen snakes and amphibia in the Republic of Congo (as distinguished from the Democratic Republic of Congo). Dr. Jackson’s passion for herpetology overcame the most intolerable of circumstances, camping for weeks in deep jungle, bitten daily by all manner of insects, snakes, and other creatures. She seems to have no end of tolerance for discomfort, which for me pretty much defines how much adventure a person will have in her life.

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What in the Woods, here at last!

What’s in the Woods?, a companion book to my popular What’s on the Beach has been in the works for three years. I never fully appreciated how much work goes into a book—especially a generously  illustrated book—until I did all the work of all a publishing house’s departments myself—researcher, writer, illustrator, editor, book designer, layout artist, producer, advertiser, and distributor (although Partner’s Book Distributors distributes my books too). Everything except the printing, which is done not only in the United States, but in Michigan at Holland Litho in Zeeland.

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Skeleton Man, by Tony Hillerman

Skeleton Man takes place in comtemporary time, mostly in the Grand Canyon, a very cool location to say the least, but the legendary Joe Leaphorn has only a small role here and Jim Chee, who functions as the lead investigator, takes almost a secondary role to the competing parties looking for a batch of diamonds lost in a plane crash in the Fifties.

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Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler

Only toward the end of this novel was my credibility challenged. Karen Joy Fowler has a penchant for the incredible, both in reality and imagination. She combines them irresistibly in this fabulous novel, which I’d use in my Developmental English class next fall if the language wasn’t so challenging. This aspect of the book–the fabulously descriptive vocabulary–enhanced my own reading experience but I’m not sure my students could handle it.

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Good Harbor, by Anita Diamant

Diamant has clearly interviewed women who’ve been through the most common type of breast cancer diagnosis–DCIS, a noninvasive cancer that is contained within a milk duct and has not reached the nodes–which commonly involves a lumpectomy and radiation. Although the diagnosis is not exactly the same as mine–I had invasive ductal cancer that did not reach the nodes–the treatment is the same. Diamant has done her research.

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The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

I was reminded of my childhood in Pakistan in the early fifties at every turn in this extraordinarily engaging novel. Amir, the narrator, begins this seeming autobiography–it is that convincing–as the son of an upper-class Afghan man who brings him up, having lost his wife at Amir’s birth. The reader is not spared the horrifying effects of Afghan politics, but the real story lies not so much in these events but how different people deal with them. This is a novel about truth and lies within families, secrets that can destroy lives, loyalty and the long-term price of even small disloyalties, and how important it is to recognize how much we may not know about even those closest to us.

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My Best 2004 Holiday Reads

This holiday included a lot of airport and flight time, and I’ve never enjoyed reading anything more in such circumstances than Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about Precious Ramotswe at her No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana. Easy to read and full of fun and wisdom, Precious Ramotswe’s take on life sounds true to my experiences in Nigeria when I was in the Peace Corps years ago. A book in this series (there are five now) lasts me from the gate at the Flint Michigan airport to the baggage claim someplace eight hours away. The latest–this year’s reliably good read–was The Full Cupboard of Life. Other titles lend a clue: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

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