Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James is a fascinating look at a herptologist, Joseph Slowinski and his life and career. That life was cut tragically short when he was bitten by a venomous snake while on an expedition to Burma. The book details Joe's early fascination with nature, and how his childhood experiences steered toward a career in science. Specifically, he chose the field of herptology and was known as a master biologist. His contributions to the field were such that he was recognized as one of the premier herptologists at a young age. This prominence had it's underside though; Joe's reputation as a hard drinking, rule-breaking danger-loving explorer.

The expedition to Burma was a scientific and politcal breakthrough. Burma is one of the last remote places where scientific surveys have not been systematically conducted. This is due mainly to the despotic government as well as the ruggedness of the terrain with the attendant difficulties of exploring. Joe's expedition included scientists researching birds, reptiles, insects and plants, in addition to the snakes. Several new species were discovered. Joe stuck his hand into a collection bag and was bitten by a krait, the most venomous snake in Asia. The story of how the expedition members attempted to keep Joe alive is detailed, along with the fact that Joe knew exactly what would happen to him and discussed his death and the stages of his reactions in detail with his campmates. A krait bite is not an instanteous death; Joe lived for over a day after the bite.

The book is arranged in chapters, and each chapter starts with a description of a different snake. Along with Joe's story, there were lots of facts about snakes and reptiles. For example, I learned that all snakes are venomous in some degree. Another interesting note was that there is a worldwide decrease in the number of frogs and other amphibians. The information about Burma and the inside look at how research expeditions are mounted and how they work was also interesting. This book is recommended for those interested in nature and those whose work includes categorizing the world around us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Death's Half Acre by Margaret Maron

Title: Death's Half Acre

Author: Margaret Maron

Publisher: Hachette Book Group

Genre: Mystery


Deborah Knott, district judge in a small town in North Carolina, is concerned about the changes taking place in her area. The old farms are being broken up and ritzy housing developments are growing up everywhere. Along with the new houses come outsiders who think their money trumps the family relationships and trust built on generations of local families.

As worrisome as the new money is, things get dramatically worse when Candace Bradshaw, chairman of the county commissioners, is found murdered in her big new expensive house. Allegations of political misconduct and insider corruption abound. Deborah's husband, who is a sheriff's deputy, investigates the case, and Deborah finds herself getting drawn in. In addition, her dad, patriarch of one of the old families and a former bootlegger, is acting strange and Deborah is worried about what is going on with him.

The fourteenth mystery in this series is a big hit for Margaret Maron. Those readers who have followed the series will be pleased to come back for another visit with Deborah and her eccentric family. Those readers for whom this is a first read will be quickly drawn into the series and immediately go look for earlier books in the series. I especially liked this one as I live in the area and could relate to the locations and the social relationships outlined. A solid win for Maron.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Winner of the 2004 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Great Fire explores how individuals put their lives back together after a life-shifting event such as a war, and the part that love plays in our lives. Set in the years immediately following World War II, it follows a group of men who fought in the war and now are involved in the followup to that conflict, and the people they interact with.
The main character is Aldred Leith, a highly decorated hero who is investigating the aftermath of the war and deciding what path his life will now follow. He is housed at a residence with a military family, the Driscolls. He meets and becomes fast friends with their children. Benedict has a life-threatening disease and Helen, his sister, is his constant companion. Over time, Leith falls in love with Helen, which causes problems. He is thirty-two, while she is seventeen. Their love is fraught with complications and separation.
In addition to Leith, there are many other characters the reader meets and becomes interested in. Peter Exeley is a friend of Leith's, whose life changes forever when he attempts to rescue a native child. We get vignettes of his mother and father, a former mistress named Aurora and a mother and daughter household that befriends Helen during her separation from Leith. Each charcter is drawn deftly and in such detail that the reader can imagine knowing them if they were to meet.
The writing is hypnotic and dreamy; horrible events occur but seem to be seen through a mist. Emotions are explored and those characteristics that allow one to survive cataclysms are identified. This book is highly recommended by such authors as Ann Patchett, Joan Didion and Anita Shreve, and it is easy to see why they loved it so much.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Written in fresh street talk vernacular, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao exploded onto the literary scene last year. It follows the lives of one Dominican Republic family and the trajedies that befall them. Oscar is the main character, although oddly, in this novel of personal statements, Oscar is the only voice we don't hear. Much of the story is told by Yunior, Oscar's sister's boyfriend. Oscar is a fat, friendless man, who grew up without much human contact and can't seem to break through to have friends or loves. His sister, Lola, while more successful, is betrayed by her various lovers, a pattern that has continued from her mother's life.
Underneath the family stories is the bleak history of the Dominican Republic, and in particular, the brutalities imposed on the entire country by the dictator, Trujillo. Many Americans may only have heard of him in passing, but he ruled this country with an iron fist for decades. He was an absolute despot, killing people on whims, stealing children, demanding sexual favors from wives and daughters of families. Rape, murder and confiscation of property were commonplace.
Some readers may be put off by the street language, the graphic sex and cursing. While I didn't have a problem with that, I wasn't in love with this book. It was too bleak for my taste, with most characters having lives that were depressing and full of betrayal.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book, which won the Orange Prize in 2007, follows a couple and their families during the Biafran separation from Nigeria and the war that followed from that separation. The main characters are Odenigbo, a professor, Olanna, a teacher who lives with Odenigbo and marries him during the war and their houseboy Ugwu. Other charaacters are Baby, their child, and Olanna's twin sister and her lover, Kainene and Richard.
The book portrays several themes. One is the rapidity with which chaos can overtake lives. The Biafrans started their independance from Nigeria convinced that they would win, as they believed they were in the right. The journey from the war being a slight inconvience to starvation, loss of property, conscription of anyone able to fight and injury and death happens quickly. It is amazing how things that were unimaginable a few weeks earlier now seem commonplace and desirable,, such as a fried grasshopper to eat as others had nothing.
Another theme is betrayal. The Biafran government was betrayed, by Nigeria, who tolerated and encouraged massacres that caused the Igbo people of Biafra to sucede. They were betrayed by the superpowers of the world, which did not recognize the new country. They were betrayed by relief organizations that let thousands of children and adults starve to death, while corruption in the organizations was rampant. There were constant betrayals by what had been considered friends the day before, as survival became more and more difficult. And there were personal betrayals, between lovers. Both Olanna and Odenigbo had affairs, and Olanna's was with her twin sister's lover. The way that these characters overcame and forgave betrayals was a major focus of the book.
Finally, as difficult as it may be to believe, a theme of the book was hope. The ability of the characters to adjust to their circumstances, and move on from various trajedies was seen again and again. The development of Ugwu from an ignorant country boy to an educated man with hope and a future showed hope for the future.
Adichie's writing was luminous. She portrayed a time of horror accurately and took the reader to that time and place, until the reader cringed when another bombing run occurred. She wrote of horrors and how they affected those who witnessed them. Finally, she wrote of how one survives such events, and how relationships with others provide hope and the ability to rebuild lives. This book is highly recommended.