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.

I got my copy of this remarkable book from our public library, but it is, of course, available wherever you buy your books online. You can read some of Kate Jackson’s blog posts and reader reviews at

Click on an image to enlarge it.

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.

I just returned from doing a booth at the Ann Arbor Book Festival. I sold 30 copies of What’s in the Woods in just four hours, along with my other titles and many Lake Effects note cards packs. It was an encouraging start to the season.

What’s in the Woods retails at $12.50, with my usual 50% discounts for wholesale and 25% for school and library purchases, 50% for orders of 10 or more. This year I am also offer merchants a free acrylic book display holding 10 books each for orders of 10 copies of one title.

Wowsie wowsie, these are exciting times! My new Lake Effects III and IV posters are out now too. Want me to come for a show or a signing? Contact me to arrange it.

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.

I’m probably not remembering this right, but it seemed to me that past Hillerman books told the story through the eyes of one, maybe two people. This story has a more godlike approach and we spend lots of time observing the behavior and conversation of not very interesting bad guys or a revengeful woman.

I had a hard time caring much about anybody except for Bernie, young policewoman who got herself in a jam here, but we knew Hillerman wasn’t going to let anything bad happen to her because she was about to marry our hero, Jim Chee, so what’s to worry about?

I just couldn’t get interested in this book. Sorry, Tony Hillerman. But thanks for the many other good reads you’ve provided me over the years.

A Fabulous Read!

Paula Wall has written a book I wish I’d written–the highest compliment I can think of. Her book recounting the passionate adventures of several generations of irresistably eccentric women joins the ranks of other page-turners like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.

Ms. Wall has a very funny way with metaphor. I found three or four I thought were overdone, but that’s not much considering the hundreds that succeed, not to mention the delightfully colorful language. I kept wondering how on earth she came up with all this stuff, sentence after sentence, page after page, with never a falter, never a boring moment.

So if you could use a kick in the hutzpa department, several hundred laughs, or inspiration to be yourself and let the hips fall where they may, go read, borrow, or beg THE ROCK WALL right now. It’s probably an easy reserve at your public library, where I found mine, pulling it off the shelf as a maybe I’d never heard of. But don’t wait too long–Paula Wall is going to be a very, very popular author. I can’t wait for the next installment about the next generation of Belles, which I am heartily hoping is in the works.

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.

How to describe this book? It’s the story of a Chinese railway worker in the West and a mysterious woman in an apparently seamless black dress who doesn’t speak but seems to inspire just about everyone, good and bad, to follow her. It’s sort of a grown-up Wizard of Oz story, as everyone heads for the Golden City, San Francisco, and their adventures along the way never fail to entertain. Even Emily Dickinson is enlisted as inspiration for every fictional chapter.

How did I miss this book, published fifteen years ago? I recommend it as a great summer read, travel read, or sick leave balm–any time you can drop everything without getting fired.

(PS…inspired by this author, I also bought and read another of her books, Before Women Had Wings. I hated this book…endless pages of child and wife abuse. There is a happy ending, but so what? It came too late for me. Perhaps this novel would appeal to persons who can more closely identify than I can.)

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.

Yet something was missing for me: the underlying authority of having been there. She knows the breast cancer experience in her head, but not in her bones. Reading this book about breast cancer for me is like reading about Paris from someone who never actually went there. The description of Kathleen’s reactions to her diagnosis, constant anxiety, annoyance with the inquiries of friends, none of that works for me. The first two months were definitely an emotionally chaotic time. Now, healed from the surgeries, I do experience those things, but in waves. I have cry days every couple of weeks, otherwise I feel pretty great. But I’m between treatments. This fab feeling may not last.

Another difference in my experience: My major negative emotion is not so much overall fear or even fear of death. My sharpest fear is lack of trust in the reliable competence of the medical community based on my experiences so far, but my strongest emotion is not fear at all, but grief, all the stages of which I seem to traverse for each little loss.

I don’t believe that I’ve been dealt a death sentence, although I may know a little more about how I might die than most people know–life, after all, is lethal for all of us. But breast cancer involves constant facing of the unknown, a scary journey that can be physically and emotionally painful (although you don’t know how painful until you get there), and the side effects of treatment are also unknown and are not the same for everyone.

Diamont did explore the way having a serious illness changes relationships, sometimes bringing one closer to old friends, introducing surprising new friendships, and causing some friends once thought close to flee. I’ve experienced all of this. So many heroes come out of the woodwork. So many people really will–really want to–help if you’ll just tell them how. Not knowing how to help or what to say, or not wanting to face their own vulnerability and illusion of perpetual health, has caused some friends to pretend that there’s nothing wrong, nothing really changed. The subject of my health is definitely off the list of acceptable conversational topics for some.

Relationships, Jewish community dynamics, and a wonderful feel for walking an ocean shore–something I also know quite a bit about–keep this book a good read. And the questions raised by the breast cancer issues and how I related to them was also of value, even if I didn’t agree. The only reason I might avoid reading it is that the description of Kathleen’s radiation treatments and her reaction to them–including a disabling depression–scared me a lot. Really a lot. Since I’m just about to start them, I can’t comment on whether I will react similarly. But stay tuned. I’ll let you know.

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.

I found the prose, characters, and story so engaging that I stayed up two nights reading this book. The plot was believable until the end, when it started reading like a James Bond novel and there were too many convenient coincidences. I wondered if the last bit of self-inflicted violence was absolutely necessary. It seemed to try to prove a point that had already ably been proved.

Read more reviews of this prize-winning book.

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.

A longer read, on a different level, is a book in Martin Cruz Smith’s Arcady Renko series. These mysteries, which include Gorky Park, Red Square, and the latest, Wolves Eat Dogs, offer an exciting armchair look at contemporary Russia. Far more than that, MC Smith is a master craftsman. Every sentence is a joy to read; metaphors are fresh and unpretentious; characters are many-sided and engaging; the plot is unpredictable. Who would think that a novel taking place largely in Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power disaster in history, would be fun to read. I’ve been a big fan of Smith ever since I read Red Square. His books offer a blueprint in novel-writing. Maybe I’ll attempt one.

Last, I really enjoyed reading The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin, a translation from the Russian. The language is so lovely that I couldn’t believe it was a translation (Andrew Bromfield did this one), and the plot was interesting. This time I got a historical visit to Russia–Moscow in the 1870s. I felt betrayed, though, by the end. I was actually angry about it. As a writer myself, I feel a responsibility to my reader, and I felt Akunin enjoyed too much playing God.