August 07, 2014

Tales from a Pathologist

Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, Judy Melinek and T. J. Mitchell, (Scribner), 272 pages

It seems to me that if one is sentient, one can’t help but think about death a great deal. We all think about death differently of course. Some of us flee it, some of us glorify it, some turn it into entertainment, some eagerly await the next life. But I think we have a shared reason for thinking about death. We cannot control death, so we compensate for that lack of control with a desire for understanding—whether scientific or spiritual.

Among those looking for understanding are forensic scientists, anthropologists, and technicians. They come to the human body after death has occurred in an effort tell the story, to provide certainty, if not comfort, for those left living. Julie Melinek, one of the authors of Working Stiff, has made a career of this search for truth. (I want to note here that the book is coauthored by Melinek’s Husband, T. J. Mitchell, but as Working Stiff is written in first person from Melinek’s perspective, I’ll be referring to her when discussing the book.)

A significant body of forensics-for-laypeople literature has emerged over the past few decades, and Working Stiff is an excellent addition to this genre. Melinek originally pursued a career as a surgeon before realizing that she wanted a specialty more conducive to a sane family life. As she noted at one point, almost every surgeon has a cot in her office for catnaps between emergencies, but a pathologist’s patients are already dead. That doesn’t mean that she doesn’t take her work seriously, just that she values being able to do her work when she’s at her best, rather than in response to the chaos of medical crises.

The work Melinek does is fascinating, a sort of problem solving simultaneously pursuing knowledge, justice, and compassion. She doesn’t treat some lives as more valuable than others. Death comes in many forms to many people, and in every instance Melinek is similarly focused on uncovering the narrative underlying each death. She writes about overdoses, accidental deaths, deaths resulting from medical error, murder (and her explanations of the differences among these categories is remarkably precise, much clearer than the brief list I’ve offered here).

Working Stiff succeeds not just informationally, but stylistically as well. Melinek’s voice is both professional and relaxed, conversational and informative. At work, she spends a great deal of time explaining complex physiological information to ordinary people, and this makes her an excellent writer. Books in this genre can feel like collections of disparate narratives, sort of a “if this is Tuesday, we must be in the brain case,” if that isn’t too irreverent. While Melinek does focus on different classes of deaths as she moves from chapter to chapter, the narrative thread of her book—the well-defined time span of two years’ work—keeps these topics from feeling isolated from one another.

The narrative flow becomes particularly effective—and particularly important—in the last few chapters, when she describes the process of working to identify human remains after the attack that caused the collapse of the World Trade Center. She gives us a sense of what this work is like over time: not just one challenging day, but months of such work. She describes moving between “ordinary” autopsies and mass casualties.

This book is precise, and it is graphic as a result of this precision. It doesn’t make for light reading, but it is compelling.

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August 05, 2014

Something Wicked…

The Supernatural Enhancements, by Edgar Cantero, (Doubleday), 368 pages

Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements is a delight of a novel—particularly if you enjoy a bit of paranormal activity alongside your quest to solve the mystery left behind by the unknown, distant relative. The reader is thrown into the novel’s action from the start, as it literally opens with a journal entry missing the first pages. You’re in the thick of things and have to get your bearings as you keep moving.

As a preface, the novel offers the statement that “The following collection of documents details the events that occurred at Axton House, 1 Axton Road, Point Bless, Virginia, during the months of November and December of 1995. The footnotes are the editor’s only contribution. The first page is missing.”

The documents include the aforementioned journal, a separate dream journal, letters, telegrams, ciphers, written communication between a pair of characters one of whom is mute, transcriptions of voice and visual recordings—including store security cameras, and a handful of ephemera. In this sense, The Supernatural Enhancements strikes me as a modern-day successor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula, which also purports to be assembled from a variety of sources.

The Supernatural Enhancements is as much puzzle as novel, requiring readers to put the varying types of information alongside one another in order to follow the narrative. That’s what makes it such a delight. I can pretty much guarantee that no matter how seasoned a reader of this sort of mystery/historical thriller you are, you won’t see things coming. The narrative shifts under one’s feet like sand, changing the meaning of material that has gone before. Even at the finale, there are surprises yet in store.

At 368 pages, The Supernatural Enhancements is substantial enough to take you through a vacation weekend. Pick up a copy, and let it keep you company as you put your ordinary life aside.

*****

I was provided a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The views presented are my own.

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August 04, 2014

A Painter Painting a Painting of a Painter Painting a Painting of a Painter Painting a Painting…

The Art Restorer: A Novel, by Julián Sánchez, (Barcelona eBooks, Open Road Integrated Media, Inc.), 345 pages (approx.)

Reading Julián Sánchez’s The Art Restorer is like walking into a house of mirrors. Everywhere you look, you see the same thing—but distorted. The Art Restorer is a novel within a novel within a novel, and although each thread is distinct, they are at the same time a set of narrative isomers: slightly different in style or structure, but serving the same purpose.

The narratives in this story occur along two different temporal paths: during the Nazi occupation of Paris and in present-day San Sebastián, Spain. The World War II narrative centers on the life of the muralist Josep Maria Sert. Sert’s name is not all that familiar today, but during his lifetime he was regarded as the greatest artist living, and he produced mammoth commissioned works for cathedrals, corporate buildings, and private collections. One of these commissions was a group of murals for Rockefeller Center that can still be seen today.

According to Sánchez’s novel, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, Sert, who was popular among Parisian circles and also had solid relationships with some of the occupiers, worked as  sort of “fixer.” He provided black market goods or or could arrange the release of a detainee.

The main present day characters are all connected to Sert. There’s Craig Bruckner, the art restorer of the title, who hopes to write the definitive monograph on Sert’s works and who turns up dead—murdered?—early on. Bruckner had been studying Sert murals at the San Telmo Museum, where he befriended the new public relations director, Bety Dale. And finally we have Enrique Alonso, originally from Spain, now living in New York, author of historical thrillers, and ex-husband of Bety—who just happens to be writing a novel that includes Sert and that moves between two settings: Nazi-occupied Paris and present-day Spain.

Got all that? One of the characters is writing a book that mirrors the book in which his book is being written. In addition, chapters of the book he’s writing appear in the book in which he’s doing that writing.

What’s wonderful is that all this works. The characters and narratives are woven together so effectively that the novel feels purposeful from the start. Sánchez intertwines truth and fiction and fictional fiction in a way that leaves the reader wondering where the truth lies. And, as he explains in a forward to The Art Restorer, that’s exactly what he wants to do:

In keeping with the custom of all my novels, part of the events described are based on a true story. I leave it to the reader’s imagination and investigative ability to discover which are real, and which are fictitious.

Because Sánchez, like his character Alonso, is a writer of historical thrillers, the details of Sert’s life point to a mystery that needs solving, a mystery that Alonso puts at the heart of the novel he’s writing as he and Dale try to solve that mystery.

All in all, The Art Restorer is a delight. It demands attention from the reader, but repays that attention many times over. Once you begin reading, you’ll find yourself putting all other activities aside as you wait to see how the stories end. One particularly good piece of news is that this is the second of two books featuring Enrique Alonso and Bety Dale. You can also have the fun of reading the first of this pair of novels: The Antiquarian.

*****

Note: The publisher provided a free copy of this book for the purpose of review; the opinions expressed here are my own.

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August 01, 2014

William Howard Taft and Fisticuffs at One Thousand Feet

The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy, by Jacopo Della Quercia, (St. Martin’s Griffin), 400 pages

If you want a summer read that’s both gripping and silly, Jacopo Della Quercia’s The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy is just the read for you. One could also make a case for it as an unconventional choice for back-to-school reading. Take your pick.

In the America of this novel, William Howard Taft is much more interested in prize fighting than in presidenting—in the political arena he’s just a beard for his wife, Nellie, who really runs the country. Taft spends his time aboard Airship One (a dirigible) with his sidekick Robert Todd Lincoln holding special Cabinet meetings (the “special” cabinet is the liquor cabinet).

Taft and Lincoln stumble into a mystery via a pocket watch that previously belonged to Abraham Lincoln. They set off to solve the mystery, after first disabling the run-amok Taft automaton taking the President’s place in the White House:

“Mr. President… your decoy is stuck in the bathtub again.”

“Confound it! I keep telling them its exhaust port is not submersible. Someone get Nikola Tesla on the telegraph. Tell him I’m tired of plugging holes in the backside of Thomas Edison’s engines!”

This is pretty much the tenor of the entire work and it’s good fun, balancing the ridiculous with the historical. In fact, the more you know about American history, the more you’ll enjoy it. Della Quercia has a long resume as both a teacher of history and a writer of satire, and The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy is full of quick snippets of humor.

Thomas Edison is the brunt of a number of jokes. At one point, Taft paraphrases Edison saying, “He said something about perspiring and taking credit for other people’s inventions.” Later in the story, the first officer of the Titanic looks at Taft “with the same shock as if he had just seen an iceberg.”

As Taft and Lincoln come closer to understanding the mystery initiated with the discovery of the pocket watch, almost every major figure of the era is brought into the action: cabinet members, army officers, barons of industry, Arthur Conan Doyle, even the rapacious King Leopold of Belgium.

When you need a pick-me-up with enough complexity to stay satisfying throughout, you can’t do better than The Great Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy.

*****

I received an electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions expressed are my own.

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July 30, 2014

Mystical Journey

The Angel of Losses: A Novel, by Stephanie Feldman, (Ecco), 277 pages

Flat out truth: Stephanie Feldman’s The Angel of Losses is a marvel of a book, a put-on-your-stranded-on-a-deserted-island-list book. It’s thoroughly its own creature, but if I were choosing comparable titles, they’d be some of the best novels of the last few decades: Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina, Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s The Angel’s Game, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz.

The Angel of Losses, set in present-day New York and New Jersey, is narrated by Marjorie Burke, a doctoral candidate writing a dissertation on the character of the wandering Jew. Marjorie is pulled from the world of the scholarly to the fantastic when she discovers handwritten versions of the White Magician stories her grandfather told when she was a child. These alternate versions, featuring the White Rebbe, are found in journals he left behind at the time of his death—journals he’d wanted destroyed.

The novel uses and builds upon Jewish folklore. The White Rebbe is a wandering Jew character, one who’s made a compact with a now-fallen angel, Yode’a. The pact gives the White Rebbe great powers, but comes at a steep price. This price and its transmission from one generation to the next become Marjorie’s focus as she tries to understand both changes in her present-day family and events from her grandfather’s past.

The Angel of Losses moves effortlessly from present to past, from “real” narrative to the White Rebbe folktales and their variations. Its scope is broad, covering centuries and grappling with questions of faith, destiny, and free will; at the same time, it offers human details, the sort that keep the characters vivid and engaging, even within the larger context.

For any lover of fiction that probes human nature, for any lover of folklore, for any lover of magical realism, for any lover of fast-paced adventure, The Angel of Losses will provide an exceptional read. This is a book to buy now, while it’s out in hardback, and to buy in multiples for gifting to like-minded readers.

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July 28, 2014

Happy Endings

The Art of Adapting: A Novel, by Cassandra Dunn, (Simon & Schuster), 368 pages

Cassandra Dunn’s The Art of Adapting is one of those books that has one expecting a happy ending from the beginning. A middle-aged woman recently abandoned by her husband, her brother with Asperger’s syndrome, her son looking for a social niche, and her daughter with an eating disorder—yes, I suppose a writer could make a tragedy out of those elements, but that would be cruel. With characters who come so close ourselves (and these characters do) we need hope, need a sense of how an individual makes the best of her own imperfections and learns to use them to her advantage.

In The Art of Adapting this process of turning imperfections into advantages plays out not just for the characters individually, but also for the four of them as a family. Their collective imperfections ultimately make for a (surprisingly) functional group.

I don’t really want to say more about this book because with its straightforward plot line, I could too easily give all the best moments away. Suffice it to say, this is a book that will leave the reader feeling good about herself and the characters. The real-life reader may not have the elements of her life fall together as neatly as the characters’. But the characters’ happiness comes across as genuine and within the reach of the reader.

For readers who need an infusion of hope and for those who simply want to spend a few evenings with people trying their best and making progress, this book will be a genuine pleasure.

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July 25, 2014

Building a Family in Civil Rights Era New Orleans

Dollbaby: A Novel, by Laura Lane McNeal, (Penguin Group), 338 pages

About a week ago, I made a list of my ten favorite reads published so far this year. Now I’m going to have to figure out which one to kick off because Laura Lane McNeal’s Dollbaby definitely has to be there.

Dollbaby is set in New Orleans during the 1960s and early 1970s. It’s got all the elements you’d expect from a southern novel: a big, decaying house, an eccentric matriarch, servants who have become family, racial tension, and a whole passel of family secrets. After her father’s death, Ibby (short for Liberty) is dropped into this house to live with Fannie, a grandmother she’s never met; Ibby’s mother drives off to “figure her own life out.”

In less capable hands, this is the sort of novel that could degenerate into melodrama quickly, but McNeal’s deft, simple prose never allows that to happen. Each of the novel’s secrets has its own logic, and each secret forces the characters to hold one another at a distance—but the love and loyalty among them is clear. Even when the improbable is happening, the characters come across as genuine. As a reader, I never questioned the actions in the book because I was so engaged by the individuals populating it.

This is definitely a book worth buying in hardback—or requesting from your local library this very day. Read it, spend time with its characters, ponder events and might-have-beens. It will be time well spent.

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July 23, 2014

Good Greens (and Delicious, Too)

Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables, by Laura B. Russell, (Ten Speed Press), 168 pages

For ethical and health reasons, my wife and I eat vegetarian/pescatarian. We’re always looking for new cookbooks—especially those that can help us turn simple greens into multi-flavored deliverers of deliciousness. Whether or not you’re working your way to a vegetarian diet, Laura B. Russell’s Brassicas is a great cookbook to place on your shelf of basic cooking references.

Brassicas is actually more than a cookbook. It’s a reference guide to a wide range of vegetables packed with nutrients and phytochemicals galore. The book begins by defining brassicas (you may be more familiar with their other name: cruciferous vegetables) and giving basic info about preparation, storing, and developing your own ability to improvise in the kitchen using these veggies. The subsequent chapters focus on particular types of brassicas—kale, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts and cabbage—and begin with general tips for cooking with these veggies.

Then there are the recipes. Some of them are very basic and won’t be necessary for experienced cooks, but there are lots of interesting/unusual ones as well. Earlier this week I made Brassica‘s grilled baby bok choy with miso butter for our dinner. I’m used to grilling many fruits and vegetables, but had never thought of grilling leafy greens like bok choy. The mix of flavors and textures was a delight: soft, wilted leaves, crisp stems, crunchy charred bits, all topped off by the sour-salty tang of miso. The directions were absolutely clear, making prep and cooking easy.

I’ve got a long list of other recipes I want to try soon: Brussels sprout leaves with lemony yogurt dressing (which also involves fresh mint and pistachios); five-spice red cabbage salad; roasted broccolini with winey mushrooms, and watcress salad with ginger carrot dressing, to name a few.

Not every recipe is accompanied by a photo, but the photos that are included are beautiful—the sort of thing I call “food porn” because of the way it gets me salivating. The reference sections also include useful line drawings illustrating prep techniques. This is a great book to help you on your way to a better (and delicious-er) diet.

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July 21, 2014

Reporting the Tet Offensive as a Combatant

River of Perfumes: A Novel of Marine Combat Correspondents in Hue City During Vietnam’s Tet Offensive, by Michael Stokey, (Warriors Publishing Group, Open Road Integrated Media), 306 pages

Warriors Publishing Group believes that “War stories need to be published, distributed and consumed if we are to understand the mentality and motivation of military people. And we must do that to appreciate their service and sacrifice on behalf of this nation and its people.” River of Perfumes serves that purpose well. First published in 2011 and released in a digital edition in 2013, it’s not new, but it is one of those books that’s worth reading regardless of the date on the copyright page.

As the title makes clear, this is a novel about marine combat correspondents (CCs) in Hue during the Tet Offensive. The CCs are a mixed breed: weapon-carrying marines who engage in combat, but whose primary responsibility is to produce stories for the Marine Corps’ internal newspaper. Though assigned to specific companies, their press passes give them an autonomy unlike that of ordinary soldiers.

In this novel, the CCs, like the soldiers they fight alongside, are contemptuous of civilian reporters, who are generally shielded from the worst of the combat. One story told in this novel—I’ve no idea whether it’s based on fact—is of a Walter Cronkite report filmed in Hue outside of the combat area with the sounds of gunfire dubbed in prior to its broadcast in the U.S. The novel’s combatants also resent what they see as an anti-war bias among these correspondents: they’re looking for stories of atrocities by U.S. soldiers and hound those fighting for explanations of why they’re there, what the purpose of the war is. While these fall well within the scope of a reporter’s duties, those in combat can’t be sanguine about them. They may have questions about why they’re fighting, but their primary focus is surviving—and while trying to survive they can’t afford to question themselves.

The author of this novel was himself a marine in Hue during the Tet Offensive, and River of Perfumes reflects this fact. The novel is consistently precise about the course of the battle, the companies involved, the kind of action required of soldiers in the field. It’s this precision that makes River of Perfumes most valuable, placing readers in the action without over-writing it, giving them a full picture, but at the same time avoiding manipulation.

River of Perfumes is set during the war in Vietnam, but it’s valuable reading at any time our nation is considering, or is at, war. Those out of combat can’t ever really know the combat experience, but River of Perfumes gives us a glimpse of what war is like for combatants. We can all benefit from examining these experiences.

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July 19, 2014

A Backdoor Friendship with Harper Lee

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee, by Marja Mills, (Penguin), 288 pages

“In the summer of 2005, I was at Burger King with Harper Lee.”

That’s the sentence that opens Marja Mills’ memoir about her time spent in Monroeville, Alabama, with Harper Lee (Nelle, actually—the last E is silent), her older sister Alice, and their friends. It sets the tone and pace for the rest of the book. If you’re looking for a literary biography, you’ll be deeply disappointed. But if you want to vicariously meet Lee in a less literary, more human way, you’ll appreciate The Mockingbird Next Door.

Mills had the good luck of being the one reporter the Lee sisters chose to open up to—at least as much as they ever opened up. From the beginning, Mills made it clear that she would honor their judgement about what would be on and off the record. If they didn’t want a story told, she wouldn’t tell it. Because Mills was facing a health crisis and couldn’t work, she was able to spend a good bit of time with the Lee sisters, even renting the house next door for over a year, going on fast-food coffee runs, jaunts to feed the ducks at a small, local pond, and listening to the sisters’ stories.

Ultimately, this book is more oral history of a particular place and time in Alabama than it is a a book about Lee the author. Mills has a voracious appetite for stories, and the Lees seem eager to share their knowledge of local history—cautious, but nonetheless eager.

The portrait of the sisters that Mills paints is quirky and affectionate. They joke about storing books in their unused stove when they ran out of book shelves. Their regard for each other is constant. While Alice lived year-round in Monroeville, Nelle divided her time between their hometown and New York City. The sisters, both hard of hearing, communicated by fax when separated—and when in New York, Nelle always faxed the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle to her sister at home in rural Alabama.

This is a gentle book, imbued with respect and love for its subjects. If you can give yourself over to the books’ slow pace and its focus on small pleasures, you’ll be deeply rewarded.

**I received a free electronic ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.**

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