Saturday, May 25, 2013

Rabbit Hunting & Adams' Watership Down

It's not often that I side with gun-toting psychopaths, but I'll make an exception for Mr. Rodney Wold of Kentucky. Here is yesterday's Daily Mail article about him, "Man threatens his neighbor with an AK-47 in a dispute over rabbits:"
A 64-year-old man brandishing an AK47 assault rifle allegedly threatened his neighbor after spotting him trying to scare rabbits away from his garden.
Rodney Wold, from Louisville, shouted from his porch: "If you want to hunt something, hunt men," according to police.
The dispute on Thursday started when Wold's neighbor was using an air rifle to scare rabbits away from his back garden. When Wold saw the neighbor, he allegedly fetched the AK47 from his house and appeared on his porch moments later, brandishing it.
"He loaded the magazine with, I believe it was, 19 rounds and went back outside and pointed it at his neighbor," police spokesman Carey Klain said.
Sounds like excellent material for the next Steven Seagal movie! Anyway, for a novel that will help you see the world from rabbits' perspective (and maybe even see Mr. Wold as a hero), try Richard Adams' Watership Down:
Richard Adams's bunny-centric epic...follows a warren of Berkshire rabbits fleeing the destruction of their home by a land developer. As they search for a safe haven, skirting danger at every turn, we become acquainted with the band and its compelling culture and mythos.
Adams has crafted a touching, involving world in the dirt and scrub of the English countryside, complete with its own folk history and language (the book comes with a "lapine" glossary, a guide to rabbitese).  As much about freedom, ethics, and human nature as it is about a bunch of bunnies looking for a warm hidey-hole and some mates...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Earth-Bound Asteroids & Winters' The Last Policeman

Back in February I posted about the meteor that injured hundred in Russia ("Impact Events & Lucifer's Hammer") and matched it with Lucifer's Hammer, a novel that speculated about what would happen to society after a cataclysmic impact event.

Now there's going to be another large rock flying near Earth (not hitting us, thankfully!), and I have a recommendation for a novel that looks at how we would react before a world-ending impact event, if we knew that impact was coming and that there was nothing we could do about it.

Here's Friday's LA Times article "Dark, massive asteroid to fly by Earth on May 31:"
It's 1.7 miles long. Its surface is covered in a sticky black substance similar to the gunk at the bottom of a barbecue. If it impacted Earth it would probably result in global extinction. Good thing it is just making a flyby.
Asteroid 1998 QE2 will make its closest pass to Earth on May 31 at 1:59 p.m. PDT.
Scientists are not sure where this unusually large space rock, which was discovered 15 years ago, originated from. But the mysterious sooty substance on its surface could indicate it may be the result of a comet that flew too close to the sun...
For a novel about Earth-bound asteroids, try The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters:
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway?
Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares...
As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?

Bipolar Disorder, Possible Flu Link, & Garey's Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See

(Previous bipolar disorder posts: Bipolar Disorder & Eugenides’ The Marriage Plot, New Bipolar Disorder Treatment & Quick's The Silver Linings Playbook.)

Here's last week's New York Times article "Flu in Pregnancy Is Linked to Bipolar Disorder:"
Flu infection during pregnancy may increase the risk for bipolar disorder in the child, according to a new report...
From 1959 through 1966, researchers recruited more than 19,000 pregnant women enrolled in a large health insurance program in California, collecting data on influenza infection from just before conception until delivery.
Using various techniques, they tracked down cases of bipolar disorder among the offspring from 1981 to 2010 and found 92 cases of documented illness and 722 matched controls, a sample size the authors acknowledge is not large.
After controlling for maternal age, race, educational level, gestational age at birth and maternal psychiatric disorders, they found that people whose mothers had the flu during pregnancy had quadruple the risk for bipolar disorder as adults.
For a novel about bipolar disorder, try Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey:
Debut novelist Juliann Garey channels movie studio exec Greyson Todd’s spiral into madness with the intimacy of memoir. Punctuated by electroshock treatments that dampen Greyson's extremes at the expense of his sense of self, Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See maps his memories before and since his mother’s death threw his mind for a perpetual loop.
Greyson's roaring mania has an upside: It spawns a lust for risks that reward him richly in Hollywood. But as the highs give way to immobilizing lows that become impossible to hide, he leaves his wife and daughter and disappears into the Israeli outback, then Nairobi, Bangkok, and eventually New York, where everyone is “impatient and irritable and agitated,” so he fits right in.
Deep cash reserves allow Greyson to indulge the urges brought on by full-blown bipolar disorder for a good decade before he lands in a psych ward, and his exploits take on spectacularly lavish, absurd proportions, but you’ll laugh through gritted teeth. And though you may not ever like him, you’ll know his pain well enough to be grateful for every grain of sanity he regains.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Obesity & Attenberg's The Middlesteins

From last week's BBC article "Rise in obesity poses dementia time bomb:"
Ever-growing waistlines could result in a big increase in the number of people who develop dementia in the future, researchers have warned...
Nobody knows exactly what causes dementias such as Alzheimer's disease, but body weight appears to be a risk factor. One study of 8,500 Swedish twins showed that those with a body mass index (BMI) greater than 30, who are classified as obese, were almost four times as likely to develop dementia as those with a normal BMI.
For a novel about obesity, try Attenberg's The Middlesteins:
For more than thirty years, Edie and Richard Middlestein shared a solid family life together in the suburbs of Chicago. But now things are splintering apart, for one reason, it seems: Edie's enormous girth. She's obsessed with food--thinking about it, eating it--and if she doesn't stop, she won't have much longer to live.
When Richard abandons his wife, it is up to the next generation to take control. Robin, their schoolteacher daughter, is determined that her father pay for leaving Edie. Benny, an easy-going, pot-smoking family man, just wants to smooth things over. And Rachelle-- a whippet thin perfectionist-- is intent on saving her mother-in-law's life, but this task proves even bigger than planning her twin children's spectacular b'nai mitzvah party.
Through it all, they wonder: do Edie's devastating choices rest on her shoulders alone, or are others at fault, too? With pitch-perfect prose, huge compassion, and sly humor, Jami Attenberg has given us an epic story of marriage, family, and obsession. The Middlesteins explores the hopes and heartbreaks of new and old love, the yearnings of Midwestern America, and our devastating, fascinating preoccupation with food.
If you'd prefer a young-adult novel, you might like Blubber by Judy Blume:
Sometimes a writer will make a character fat as a political tool, in order to convey their own intended message, be it one of size acceptance, tolerance, or other. This seems most prevalent, logically, in children's books - Judy Blume's Blubber is the strongest example that comes to mind.
Written realistically from the point of view of an average-sized, ordinary child named Jill, Blubber tells the story of the merciless, constant taunting of Jill's obese classmate, Linda. Jill struggles to reconcile her own feelings of guilt and her need to not be cruel with her fear of falling victim to the same cruelty as her overweight peer.
This is one of the few children's books I can think of that deals honestly with the kind of bullying fat (and other noticeably 'different') kids are subject to, and its brutality. Blume makes her point, without coming off as preachy or judgmental or bonking the reader over the head with obvious, overblown clearcut endings.
(The review above is from the excellent essay "The Skinny on Fat in Fiction.")

Germans in the Old West & Hershon's The German Bride

From Wednesday's BBC article "German dialect in Texas is one of a kind, and dying out:"
The first German settlers arrived in Texas over 150 years ago and successfully passed on their native language throughout the generations - until now.
German was the main language used in schools, churches and businesses around the hill country between Austin and San Antonio. But two world wars and the resulting drop in the standing of German meant that the fifth and sixth generation of immigrants did not pass it on to their children.
For a novel about German immigrants in the Old West, try The German Bride by Joanna Hershon:
Hershon's third a stylish account of a German Jewish young woman's often brutal odyssey to the post–Civil War American Southwest. After a family tragedy in Berlin, Eva Frank flees in shame and guilt to Santa Fe with her new husband, Abraham Shein. Abraham and his older brother, Meyer, are successful dry goods merchants, and once Eva and Abraham arrive in Santa Fe, Eva's narrative becomes a fish-out-of-water story as the promises Abraham made to her fail to materialize. Abraham, an abusive philanderer with a gambling addiction, wants a child, and Eva wants Abraham to build them a proper house. Eva—hoarding her dowry—begins scheming ways to abandon Santa Fe and establish a better life in San Francisco, but fleeing from unstable Abraham is a dangerous proposition.

Bisexuality & Irving's In One Person

We here at Newsworthy Novels don't usually include film reviews among our news stories, but this one couldn't be resisted. Here's yesterday's Telegraph film review "Fast & Furious 6: the bisexual blockbuster" (emphasis mine):
There is, of course, nothing in the Fast & Furious films to give Brokeback Mountain a run for its money – but it’s rare for a mainstream studio picture to openly entertain the possibility that its heroes could be bisexual...
In the fifth film Diesel and Johnson mount one another like bison in heat in a ludicrous tussle in a shed; in the sixth, Michelle Rodriguez and Gina Carano, the strapping female mixed martial artist, clash on the London Underground in a brawl that, to these eyes, was basically frottage.
Now that's a colorful film review!

For a novel about bisexuality, try John Irving's In One Person:
A New York Times bestselling novel of desire, secrecy, and sexual identity, In One Person is a story of unfulfilled love—tormented, funny, and affecting—and an impassioned embrace of our sexual differences.
Billy, the bisexual narrator and main character of In One Person, tells the tragicomic story (lasting more than half a century) of his life as a “sexual suspect,” a phrase first used by John Irving in 1978 in his landmark novel of “terminal cases,” The World According to Garp.
In One Person is a poignant tribute to Billy’s friends and lovers—a theatrical cast of characters who defy category and convention. Not least, In One Person is an intimate and unforgettable portrait of the solitariness of a bisexual man who is dedicated to making himself “worthwhile.”

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sweatshops & Kwok's Girl in Translation

From Tuesday's BBC article "Bangladesh collapse: Thousands hold prayers for victims:"
Thousands of mourners in Bangladesh have held prayers for more than 1,100 people who died when a garment factory building collapsed last month...
At least 1,127 people died when the eight-storey Rana Plaza collapsed on 24 April. The collapse is the latest in a series of deadly incidents that have focused global attention on safety standards in Bangladesh's export garment industry, which is the second biggest after China's.
Hundreds of factories have been forced to close by recurrent worker unrest sparked by the disaster, officials say. The government has since announced steps aimed at improving conditions. That includes raising the minimum wage for industry workers and making it easier for them to form unions.

For a novel about sweatshops (in the US), try Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok:
When Kimberly Chang and her mother emigrate from Hong Kong to Brooklyn squalor, she quickly begins a secret double life: exceptional schoolgirl during the day, Chinatown sweatshop worker in the evenings. Disguising the more difficult truths of her life -- like the staggering degree of her poverty, the weight of her family's future resting on her shoulders, or her secret love for a factory boy who shares none of her talent or ambition -- Kimberly learns to constantly translate not just her language but herself back and forth between the worlds she straddles.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The IRS & Wallace’s The Pale King

From yesterday’s BBC article “Outrage grows at IRS 'targeting' of conservative groups:”
The outrage over reports the US tax collection authority singled out conservative groups for extra scrutiny has continued to build. Three Congressional panels are planning hearings into actions by the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)...
The number of groups filing with the IRS for tax-exempt status shot up between 2010-12, after a Supreme Court decision loosened restrictions on campaign spending by groups not formally affiliated with candidates' campaigns.
Ahead of the 2012 presidential election, conservative groups complained to the IRS and to members of Congress that their applications for tax-exempt status were being held up and had received undue scrutiny…
While the head of the IRS tax-exempt division has said the "absolutely inappropriate" actions were limited to the agency's branch office in Cincinnati, Ohio, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday additional queries to conservative groups came from the Washington office and at least two other branch offices.
For a novel about the IRS, try The Pale King by David Foster Wallace:
The agents at the IRS Regional Examination Center in Peoria, Illinois, appear ordinary enough to newly arrived trainee David Foster Wallace. But as he immerses himself in a routine so tedious and repetitive that new employees receive boredom-survival training, he learns of the extraordinary variety of personalities drawn to this strange calling. And he has arrived at a moment when forces within the IRS are plotting to eliminate even what little humanity and dignity the work still has.

Cancer & Edson’s Wit

From yesterday’s Reuters article “Angelina Jolie has double mastectomy to elude cancer:”
Hollywood star Angelina Jolie has had a double mastectomy to reduce her chances of getting breast cancer and says she hopes her story will inspire other women fighting the life-threatening disease.
Jolie wrote in the New York Times on Tuesday the operation had made it easier for her to reassure her six children that she will not die young from cancer, like her own mother did at 56.
"We often speak of 'Mommy's mommy', and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me," wrote Jolie, 37. "I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a 'faulty' gene."
The Oscar-winning actress said her doctors had estimated she had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.
For a work of fiction about dealing with cancer, try Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer prize-winning play Wit:
As the play begins, Vivian Bearing, a renowned professor of English who has spent years studying and teaching the intricate, difficult Holy Sonnets of the seventeenth-century poet John Donne, is diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer.
Confident of her ability to stay in control of events, she brings to her illness the same intensely rational and painstakingly methodical approach that has guided her stellar academic career.
But as her disease and its excruciatingly painful treatment inexorably progress, she begins to question the single-minded values and standards that have always directed her, finally coming to understand the aspects of life that make it truly worth living.

Cold War Spy Games & McCarry’s The Miernik Dossier

From yesterday’s Guardian article “Russia to expel US diplomat accused of spying:”
Russia has said it will expel a US diplomat accused of working as a spy after he was arrested while trying to recruit a Russian agent for the CIA, in an elaborate raid that revealed the American was carrying a bizarre arsenal of suspected spyware.
Ryan Fogle, the third secretary at the US embassy in Moscow, was paraded in footage aired on state-run television after being detained late on Monday night by officers from the Federal Security Service (FSB), a successor to the Soviet-era KGB. He stands accused of being a CIA spy and was declared persona non grata by the foreign ministry on Tuesday.
"A classic spy arsenal was discovered, as well as a large sum of money that doesn't just expose a foreign agent caught red-handed, but also raises serious questions for the American side," the ministry said. "Such provocative actions in the spirit of the cold war in no way help to strengthen mutual trust."
Fogle was said to be carrying two wigs, three pairs of glasses, a compass and map of Moscow, as well as a knife, lighter, stacks of €500 notes and his US embassy ID.
For a novel about Cold War era CIA spying, try The Miernik Dossier by Charles McCarry:
The Miernik Dossier is presented as a series of documents that trace the progress of a “typical” spy operation. There are letters, telegrams, reports from different intelligence services, transcripts from listening devices, descriptions of photographs, and so on.
It tells the story of a Polish man, Tadeusz Miernik, who is living in Geneva and who may or may not be a Russian operative. He comes to Paul Christopher, anxious not to be deported back to Poland. A coincidence (or is it?) sends Miernik, along with Christopher, an English spy, and an African prince on a trip to the Sudan in an air-conditioned Cadillac. Their adventures — rescuing Miernik’s sister from Poland, an apparently random attack by bandits, meeting an acquaintance in Cairo — make up the story.
As the book goes on, the pieces of the operation begin to fall into place. No person within the operation has all the pieces of evidence; you as the reader are the only one with all the clues and therefore with the ability to understand what really happened and why.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Kenya Asylum Break, Psychiatric Hospitals, & Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

From today's BBC article "Kenyan patients escape from Nairobi's Mathari hospital:"
Forty mentally ill patients have escaped from the Mathari Mental Hospital in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, after overpowering guards, police say.
A search has been launched for the patients, some of whom are known to be violent, police told the BBC. Kenya's Standard newspaper reports that the group escaped from the state hospital after complaining that the medicine given to them was ineffective.
Mathari is the biggest psychiatric hospital in Kenya. In 2011, rights groups called for an investigation into alleged human rights abuses at the hospital following a CNN documentary "Locked up and Forgotten". The CNN crew reported that during a visit to the hospital, they found a dead body locked up in a seclusion cell with a patient. Senior Nairobi police officer Moses Ombati told the BBC the patients had staged a protest, before overpowering guards and escaping.
For a novel about a psychiatric hospital, try Ken Kesey's classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest:
In this classic of the 1960s, Ken Kesey's hero is Randle Patrick McMurphy, a boisterous, brawling, fun-loving rebel who swaggers into the world of a mental hospital and takes over.
A lusty, life-affirming fighter, McMurphy rallies the other patients around him by challenging the dictatorship of Nurse Ratched. He promotes gambling in the ward, smuggles in wine and women, and openly defies the rules at every turn.
But this defiance, which starts as a sport, soon develops into a grim struggle, an all-out war between two relentless oppnonents: Nurse Ratched, back by the full power of authority, and McMurphy, who has only his own indomitable will. What happens when Nurse Ratched uses her ultimate weapon against McMurphy provides the story's shocking climax.
For a newer, young-adult psychiatric hospital novel, try It's Kind of a Funny Story by Ned Vizzini:
Like many ambitious New York City teenagers, Craig Gilner sees entry into Manhattan’s Executive Pre-Professional High School as the ticket to his future. Determined to succeed at life—which means getting into the right high school to get into the right college to get the right job—Craig studies night and day to ace the entrance exam, and does. That’s when things start to get crazy.
At his new school, Craig realizes that he isn't brilliant compared to the other kids; he’s just average, and maybe not even that. He soon sees his once-perfect future crumbling away. The stress becomes unbearable and Craig stops eating and sleeping—until, one night, he nearly kills himself.
Craig’s suicidal episode gets him checked into a mental hospital, where his new neighbors include a transsexual sex addict, a girl who has scarred her own face with scissors, and the self-elected President Armelio. There, isolated from the crushing pressures of school and friends, Craig is finally able to confront the sources of his anxiety.
Ned Vizzini, who himself spent time in a psychiatric hospital, has created a remarkably moving tale about the sometimes unexpected road to happiness.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Mother's Day, Momhood, & Tan's The Joy Luck Club

This blog has previously recommended several mom-focused novels:

Light-hearted mom novels seem a little hard to come by!

Anyway, for this mother's day my book recommendation is a classic novel about mother-daughter bonding, Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club:
Four mothers, four daughters, four families whose histories shift with the four winds depending on who's "saying" the stories.
In 1949 four Chinese women, recent immigrants to San Francisco, begin meeting to eat dim sum, play mahjong, and talk. United in shared unspeakable loss and hope, they call themselves the Joy Luck Club. Rather than sink into tragedy, they choose to gather to raise their spirits and money. "To despair was to wish back for something already lost. Or to prolong what was already unbearable."
Forty years later the stories and history continue. With wit and sensitivity, Amy Tan examines the sometimes painful, often tender, and always deep connection between mothers and daughters. As each woman reveals her secrets, trying to unravel the truth about her life, the strings become more tangled, more entwined. Mothers boast or despair over daughters, and daughters roll their eyes even as they feel the inextricable tightening of their matriarchal ties. 
Tan is an astute storyteller, enticing readers to immerse themselves into these lives of complexity and mystery.
You might also like the list "The Top Ten Novels about Motherhood" from the Momoir Project blog.

Mongolian Dino Bones, Paleontology, & Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures

From yesterday's BBC article "US to return more smuggled dinosaurs to Mongolia:"
The US is to return more than a dozen illegally smuggled dinosaur skeletons to Mongolia. The announcement follows the handing over to Mongolian officials on Monday of a 70-million-year-old Tyrannosaurus bataar at a ceremony in New York.
The latest group includes two more Tyrannosaurus bataars, six Oviraptors and several Gallimimuses. ...   A Florida fossils dealer admitted smuggling the bones of the Tyrannosaurus which was handed back on Monday, which sold at auction for more than $1m (£643,000).
Jurassic Park opens with some good scenes of paleontologists at work, but quickly morphs into a dino-fighting adventure novel. For a novel that is entirely focused on the paleontologists themselves, try Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier:
In 1810, a sister and brother uncover the fossilized skull of an unknown animal in the cliffs on the south coast of England. With its long snout and prominent teeth, it might be a crocodile – except that it has a huge, bulbous eye.
Remarkable Creatures is the story of Mary Anning, who has a talent for finding fossils, and whose discovery of ancient marine reptiles such as that ichthyosaur shakes the scientific community and leads to new ways of thinking about the creation of the world.
Working in an arena dominated by middle-class men, however, Mary finds herself out of step with her working-class background. In danger of being an outcast in her community, she takes solace in an unlikely friendship with Elizabeth Philpot, a prickly London spinster with her own passion for fossils.
The strong bond between Mary and Elizabeth sees them through struggles with poverty, rivalry and ostracism, as well as the physical dangers of their chosen obsession. It reminds us that friendship can outlast storms and landslides, anger and jealousy.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Blind Athletes, Blindness, & Gillard's Star Gazing

From yesterday's New York Times article "It’s Just Another Hurdle for Blind Athletes:"
Holding a fiberglass pole, Aria Ottmueller bent and touched the runway to locate her starting mark. A coach helped position her front foot. The foam vaulting pit at her high school appeared only as a blue smudge. The crossbar was invisible to her.
A thousand miles away, in East Texas, Charlotte Brown struggled to distinguish the runway from surrounding grass or artificial turf. So her coach placed a strip of carpet along the edge of the runway to provide a hazy visual contrast and guide her straight toward the bar.
This weekend, Ottmueller, 17, and Brown, 15, are competing in their state track and field meets in the pole vault, pioneers with severe visual impairment who are further redefining what is considered an able-bodied athlete and what is considered a disabled one. In the past, athletes with disabilities were not accommodated in mainstream high school sports. Now, athletes like Ottmueller and Brown are not only competing, but also succeeding against their able-bodied peers.
For a novel with a blind narrator, try Star Gazing by Linda Gillard:
Blind since birth, widowed in her twenties, now lonely in her forties, Marianne Fraser lives in Edinburgh in elegant, angry anonymity with her sister, Louisa, a successful novelist. Marianne's passionate nature finds solace and expression in music, a love she finds she shares with Keir, a man she encounters on her doorstep one winter's night. While Marianne has had her share of men attracted to her because they want to rescue her, Keir makes no concession to her condition. He is abrupt to the point of rudeness, and yet oddly kind. But can Marianne trust her feelings for this reclusive stranger who wants to take a blind woman to his island home on Skye, to "show" her the stars?

Friday, May 10, 2013

Giro d'Italia, Tour de France, & Krabbé's The Rider

From last week's New York Times article "Tour de France Champion to Headline the Giro d’Italia:"
With its systemic corruption, fractious leadership, an entrenched code of silence and some of its members recently embroiled in a high-profile drug trial, professional cycling these days often seems to resemble organized crime more than sport...
Fitting, then, that the cycling world will gather in Naples on Saturday — not for Camorra-like clandestine meetings, but to start the Giro d’Italia, the three-week Grand Tour that signals the start of the sport’s high season.
Recent editions of the Giro have been short on star power, but organizers have managed to up the wattage considerably this year by attracting Bradley Wiggins, the defending Tour de France champion, to headline the 21-stage race that will span 3,405 kilometers, or 2,116 miles...
The Giro is often considered the most grueling of the Grand Tours, which also include the Tour de France and the Vuelta a España. It is a physically demanding challenge that can be, at times, absurdly so. In 2009, the peloton staged a protest after a series of dangerous stages, including one where Spanish rider Pedro Horrillo ended up in a coma after a mountain crash.
For a novel about bicycle racing, try The Rider by Tim Krabbé:
At the start of this chronicle of a single bike race, the author glances up from his gear to assess the crowd of spectators. "Non-racers," he writes. "The emptiness of those lives shocks me."
In immediate, living prose, Krabbé, a novelist as well as a cyclist, takes us with him, inch by inch, as he rides the hundred-and-thirty-seven-kilometre Tour de Mont Aigoual, a course through the mountains that is better known as one of the cruellest stages of the Tour de France.
He imagines an official collecting his clothes "after I've died in the race" recalls a champion cyclist who suffocated to death while climbing one particularly nasty hill; and insists that "being a good loser is a despicable evasion."
Along the way, he lays bare the athlete's peculiar mixture of arrogance and terror, viciousness and camaraderie, and the result is one of the more convincing love stories of recent memory.
Another Tour de France novel is The Race by Dave Shields:
The white-knuckle pace of a bicycle race drives this novel about a young American's opportunity to compete in the Tour de France. Complex relationships with teammates, personal and professional obstacles, and a terrible disaster cause the young cyclist to redefine his limits.
An insider's perspective on the world of professional bicycle racing which reveals that the required tactics and skills create a culture in which pain is the ultimate currency and endurance is the most powerful force.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

The Cleveland Abductions, Kidnapping, & Sebold's The Lovely Bones

From yesterday's BBC article "Ariel Castro faces rape and kidnap charges in Ohio case:"
The owner of the Ohio house from which three women were rescued this week a decade after they went missing has been charged with kidnapping and rape, US prosecutors have said. Ariel Castro, 52, will appear in court on Thursday. His brothers Pedro, 54, and Onil, 50, will not be charged.
Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23, and Michelle Knight, 32, were found in the Cleveland house on Monday. Cleveland's police chief has said the women were bound with ropes and chains.
In a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, authorities said Mr Castro would be charged with four counts of kidnapping, covering the three victims and Ms Berry's six-year-old daughter Jocelyn, alleged to have been born in captivity. Mr Castro was also charged with one count of rape against each woman.
For a novel about kidnapping and what it puts a family through, try The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold:
The Lovely Bones is the story of a family devastated by a gruesome murder -- a murder recounted by the teenage victim...
The details of the crime are laid out in the first few pages... Susie Salmon describes how she was confronted by the murderer one December afternoon on her way home from school. Lured into an underground hiding place, she was raped and killed. But what the reader knows, her family does not. Anxiously, we keep vigil with Susie, aching for her grieving family, desperate for the killer to be found and punished.
Another novel about a kidnapping is Room by Emma Donoghue. I didn't like this book -- the five-year-old narrator drove me up the wall -- but many other readers enjoyed it and it features a child born to a kidnapped woman and their escape from the kidnapper. Here's the summary:
To five-year-old Jack, Room is the entire world. It is where he was born and grew up; it's where he lives with his Ma as they learn and read and eat and sleep and play. At night, his Ma shuts him safely in the wardrobe, where he is meant to be asleep when Old Nick visits.
Room is home to Jack, but to Ma, it is the prison where Old Nick has held her captive for seven years. Through determination, ingenuity, and fierce motherly love, Ma has created a life for Jack. But she knows it's not enough...not for her or for him. She devises a bold escape plan, one that relies on her young son's bravery and a lot of luck. What she does not realize is just how unprepared she is for the plan to actually work. T
old entirely in the language of the energetic, pragmatic five-year-old Jack, Room is a celebration of resilience and the limitless bond between parent and child, a brilliantly executed novel about what it means to journey from one world to another.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Tanzania's Maasai People, Safaris, & Crompton's Hour of the Red God

From last month's BBC article, "Tanzania's Maasai battle game hunters for grazing land:"
In a remote corner of northern Tanzania, Boeing 747 planes land on a private airstrip, trucks with United Arab Emirates (UAE) number plates drive across the plains, and anyone with a cell phone receives an unlikely text message: "Dear guest, welcome to UAE."
For centuries, the sprawling savannah in the Arusha region of the East African nation was home to the Maasai people, but these days it can feel more like Dubai, one of the states that make up the UAE.
That is because this chunk of land in Arusha's Loliondo area near the Serengeti National Park has been leased to an Emirati hunting company called the Ortello Business Corporation (OBC). Since 1992, OBC has flown in wealthy clients to shoot lions and leopards, angering nomadic Maasai cattle herders who are blocked from pastures in the hunting grounds.
Now, Tanzania's government wants to give more land to the hunters by establishing a 1,500 sq km (579 sq mile) wildlife corridor exclusively for OBC. The plan would displace about 30,000 people and affect tens of thousands more who graze cattle there in the dry season. The Maasai have erupted in protest, saying their livelihoods will be destroyed. More than 90% of Loliondo's Maasai depend on rearing livestock on seasonal grasses there.
For a novel about the Maasai people set in Kenya, try Hour of the Red God by Richard Crompton (note: novel contains graphic violence):
Meet Mollel, a former Maasai warrior whose beloved wife died in the bombing of the US embassy in Nairobi. Mollel has been assigned to the investigation of the brutal murder of a local prostitute. Despite the resistance of his colleagues, Mollel soon begins to uncover something more far-reaching. But are his warrior's instincts, which have always served him so well, correct? Or will his convictions about the case be turned on their head? The investigation will become more personal to him than he could have possibly imagined...
For a satirical novel about safaris, try The African Safari Papers by Robert Sedlack (one of my personal favorites):
The African Safari Papers is an intense and outrageous portrait of a family so troubled that their vacation is, in a word, torture. Richard Clark, the narrator of this sharp and sometimes madcap novel is nineteen--a drug-addicted, foul-mouthed, sex-crazed young man in Africa on a safari with his parents. Obviously, this is a mistake. As Richard smolders with resentment, he documents the trip in a series of journal entries that are funny, sad, and piercingly insightful. Juxtaposed with the hostile environment, the tense situation becomes explosive: with raw energy and acuity, somewhere between Hunter S. Thompson and David Sedaris, we see Mom going insane, Dad drinking compulsively, and Richard busy getting high on smuggled drugs.
For a mystery novel with a safari setting, try Mrs. Pollifax on Safari by Dorothy Gilman:
Mrs. Pollifax has been sent on safari by the C.I.A. and told only to take pictures of all of her companions, in order to find the international assassin whose next target is the president of Zambia. It sounded so simple, but shortly after Mrs. Pollifax started taking pictures, someone stole her film. And right after that she was kidnapped by Rhodesian terrorists. And right after that--well, read for yourself....
For a mystery novel with a Botswana safari setting, try The Double Comfort Safari Club by Alexander McCall Smith:
Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi head to a safari camp to carry out a delicate mission on behalf of a former guest who has left one of the guides a large sum of money. But once they find their man, Precious begins to sense that something is not right. To make matters worse, shortly before their departure Mma Makutsi’s fiancé, Phuti Radiphuti, suffers a debilitating accident, and when his aunt moves in to take care of him, she also pushes Mma Makutsi out of the picture. Could she be trying to break up the relationship? Finally, a local priest and his wife independently approach Mma Ramotswe with concerns of infidelity, creating a rather unusual and tricky situation.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

California Wildfires & Barr's Firestorm

From today's BBC article "California firefighters tackling six major wildfires:"
More than 3,000 firefighters are battling six major wildfires in California, the state fire agency says. One of the fiercest blazes has shut the famous Pacific Coast Highway for the second time in as many days, with a 30-mile (50-km) stretch off-limits. The so-called Springs fire has reached the coast north-west of Los Angeles, threatening thousands of homes.
For a novel about a wildfire, try Nevada Barr's murder mystery Firestorm:
A raging fire in a national park seems an unlikely setting for a murder, but that's exactly the circumstances that crime-fighting park ranger and medic Anna Pigeon confronts in this mystery thriller. A suspicious fire breaks loose in Northern California's Lassen Volcanic Park and Pigeon assists in battling the blaze and treating the wounds of other fire fighters. As if that's not enough, Pigeon finds herself without food and water trapped with a group of fire fighters, one of whom is a murderer. She tries to figure out who the culprit is before he, or the weather, strikes again.

Suicide & Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides

From Thursday's BBC article "Suicides soar among US middle-aged people:"
The suicide rate among middle-aged Americans rose 28% in a decade, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has found.
Among adults 35-64, white people and American Indians saw the sharpest increases from 1999 to 2010. The CDC did not investigate causes behind the trend, but noted many suicide prevention programmes were geared towards youths and the elderly. The report found no significant change among other age groups.
Since 2009, suicide has claimed more Americans than motor vehicle crashes. There were 38,350 suicides in 2010, making it the nation's 10th leading cause of death, the CDC said.
For a novel about suicide, try Jeffrey Eugenides' The Virgin Suicides:
Eugenides's remarkable first novel opens on a startling note: "On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide... the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope."
What follows is not, however, a horror novel, but a finely crafted work of literary if slightly macabre imagination. In an unnamed town in the slightly distant past, detailed in such precise and limpid prose that readers will surely feel that they grew up there, Cecilia--the youngest and most obviously wacky of the luscious Lisbon girls--finally succeeds in taking her own life. As the confused neighbors watch rather helplessly, the remaining sisters become isolated and unhinged, ending it all in a spectacular multiple suicide anticipated from the first page.
Eugenides's engrossing writing style keeps one reading despite a creepy feeling that one shouldn't be enjoying it so much. A black, glittering novel that won't be to everyone's taste but must be tried by readers looking for something different.

Guns for Kids, Child Gun-Casualties, & Brown's Hate List

From yesterday's Guardian article "Guns for kids: critics eye marketing practices after Kentucky shooting:"
The gun manufacturer Keystone Sporting Arms is in a defensive crouch this week. The Pennsylvania-based company has taken down a website for a popular product. When I called Keystone at noon on Friday I was immediately (and politely) referred to the company's lawyer.
Keystone is in retreat because one of the guns it makes for children, a lightweight, single-shot, .22-calibre rifle called the Crickett, was used Tuesday by a five-year-old boy in Kentucky to shoot and kill his two-year-old sister. The boy had been given the gun – full name Davey Crickett, a pun on the legendary American frontiersman – as a birthday gift. The siblings' mother was home but wasn't watching.
On the subject of children killing other children, a good young adult novel about a school shooting is Hate List by Jennifer Brown:
Five months ago, Valerie Leftman's boyfriend, Nick, opened fire on their school cafeteria. Shot trying to stop him, Valerie inadvertently saved the life of a classmate, but was implicated in the shootings because of the list she helped create. A list of people and things she and Nick hated. The list he used to pick his targets.
Now, after a summer of seclusion, Val is forced to confront her guilt as she returns to school to complete her senior year. Haunted by the memory of the boyfriend she still loves and navigating rocky relationships with her family, former friends and the girl whose life she saved, Val must come to grips with the tragedy that took place and her role in it, in order to make amends and move on with her life.
For a non-fiction book about a school shooting, try Columbine by Dave Cullen:
In this remarkable account of the April 20, 1999, Columbine High School shooting, journalist Cullen not only dispels several of the prevailing myths about the event but tackles the hardest question of all: why did it happen?
Drawing on extensive interviews, police reports and his own reporting, Cullen meticulously pieces together what happened when 18-year-old Eric Harris and 17-year-old Dylan Klebold killed 13 people before turning their guns on themselves.
The media spin was that specific students, namely jocks, were targeted and that Dylan and Eric were members of the Trench Coat Mafia. According to Cullen, they lived apparently normal lives, but under the surface lay an angry, erratic depressive (Klebold) and a sadistic psychopath (Harris), together forming a combustible pair. They planned the massacre for a year, outlining their intentions for massive carnage in extensive journals and video diaries.
Cullen expertly balances the psychological analysis—enhanced by several of the nation's leading experts on psychopathology—with an examination of the shooting's effects on survivors, victims' families and the Columbine community. Readers will come away from Cullen's unflinching account with a deeper understanding of what drove these boys to kill, even if the answers aren't easy to stomach.