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What are we READING?

Daily Staff Report

The Bookworm of Edwards1. “Wild Girl: The Notebooks of Ned Giles, 1932,” by Jim Fergus: Depicting the dusty Depression-era West, this grandly, cinematically imagined sweat-and-blood-stained saga, inspired by events that took place in Arizona and south of the border in the Sierra Madre badlands, dramatizes latter-day conflicts between whites and Native Americans. During the fall of 1999, an obscure, financially struggling photographer, Ned Giles – now in his early 80s – sells, for $30,000, “La Nina Bronca,” his only copy of a photo of a young Apache girl lying on the rude floor of a Mexican jail cell: The buyer’s curiosity about the picture’s provenance sparks Ned’s memories. The rest of the book, set in 1932, reveals a legacy of heroism and lost love through Ned’s scrupulously detailed diaries, which vividly recount a nightmare of harrowing misadventures beginning the day he signs on to be a part of the Great Apache Expedition, one of dozens of men hoping to free the son of a wealthy Mexican rancher kidnapped by the Apaches. (The wild Apache girl will be used as ransom.) The narrative unfolds as a series of flashbacks, intermingling short passages from the third-person POV of the fierce Apache girl and first-person excerpts from the diaries of the 17-year-old Chicagoan photographer on his first big assignment.2. Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd: Jessie Sullivan, the protagonist of this rewarding second novel by the author of the bestselling “Secret Life of Bees,” is awakened by a shrilling phone late one night to horrifying news: her mother, who has never recovered from her husband Joe’s death 33 years earlier, has chopped off her own finger with a cleaver. Frantic with worry, and apprehensive at the thought of returning to the small island where she grew up in the shadow of her beloved father’s death and her mother’s fanatical Catholicism, 42-year-old Jessie gets on the next plane, leaving behind her psychiatrist husband, Hugh, and college-age daughter, Dee. On tiny Egret Island, off the coast of South Carolina, Jessie tries to care for her mother, Nelle, who is not particularly eager to be taken care of. Jessie gets help from Nelle’s best friends, feisty shopkeeper Kat and Hepzibah, a dignified chronicler of slave history. To complicate matters, Jessie finds herself strangely relieved to be free of a husband she loves – and wildly attracted to Brother Thomas Whit O’Conner, a junior monk at the island’s secluded Benedictine monastery. Confusing as the present may be, the past is rearing its head, and Jessie, who has never understood why her mother is still distraught by Joe’s death, begins to suspect that she’s keeping a terrible secret. 3. Kite Runner,” by Khaled Hosseini: This is the story of a friendship between two boys growing up in Kabul. Raised in the same household and sharing the same wet nurse, Amir and Hassan nonetheless grow up in different worlds: Amir is the son of a prominent and wealthy man while Hassan, the son of Amir’s father’s servant, is a Hazara, member of a shunned ethnic minority. When the Soviets invade and Amir and his father flee the country for a new life in California, Amir thinks that he has escaped his past. And yet he cannot leave the memory of Hassan behind him. 4. The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Friedman: New York Times columnist Friedman was best known as the author of The Lexus and the Olive Tree, one of the major popular accounts of globalization and its discontents. Having devoted most of the last four years of his column to the latter as embodied by the Middle East, Friedman picks up where he left off, saving al-Qaida. for the close. For Friedman, cheap, ubiquitous telecommunications have finally obliterated all impediments to international competition, and the dawning “flat world” is a jungle pitting “lions” and “gazelles,” where “economic stability is not going to be a feature”and “the weak will fall farther behind.” Rugged, adaptable entrepreneurs, by contrast, will be empowered. The service sector (telemarketing, accounting, computer programming, engineering and scientific research, etc.), will be further outsourced to the English-spoken abroad: Manufacturing, meanwhile, will continue to be off-shored to China. As anyone who reads his column knows, Friedman agrees with the transnational business executives who are his main sources that these developments are desirable and unstoppable, and that American workers should be preparing to “create value through leadership” and “sell personality.” This is all familiar stuff by now, but the last 100 pages on the economic and political roots of global Islamism are filled with the kind of close reporting and intimate yet accessible analysis that have been hard to come by. Add in Friedman’s winning first-person interjections and masterful use of strategic wonksterisms, and this book should end up on the front seats of quite a few Lexuses and SUVs of all stripes.5. Jemina J. by Jane Green: Yet another take on the singles scene, and from yet another British writer, this jaunty novel has one slightly new focus–the Internet as a dating device. “Bored, fat and unhappy” Jemima Jones is a hack writer on a small London paper, whose weight precludes both promotion (which she richly deserves, because she’s smart) and getting together with the man of her dreams: kind, modest and gorgeous reporter Ben Williams. The Web opens a new world to Jemima, and when she begins an online correspondence with L.A. gym owner Brad, identifying herself as JJ, her friend Geraldine encourages her to send Brad a doctored photo of what she would look like if she were thin. Jemima joins a gym, goes on a diet and even becomes a blonde, preparing to accept Brad’s invitation to come to L.A. Lucky JJ: Brad turns out to be a hunk, and the sex is great… but JJ senses that something is wrong. Meanwhile, Ben has become a celebrity “presenter” on British TV, but while the whole country goes gaga over his looks, he too feels that something is missing. By the time several coincidences produce a dreams-come-true ending, readers are fond of plucky Jemima, but somewhat tired out by her adventures. Green’s determination to provide texture results in too many scenes that brim with London and L.A. local color, but fail to add verve to the narrative. Outside of Geraldine, who, surprisingly, is both beautiful and a true friend, the other characters tend to be stereotypes: Jemima’s roommates, airheads on the make; the predatory female TV producer; the editor who offers Jemima a promotion once she is blonde and svelte. Though the concept is clever and nicely handled, the broad humor lacks true comic brio. (As the online initiated would say: it’s not LOL.) Green does, however, capture the nuances and neuroses of the singles scene with a gimlet eye and an uninhibited voice. A bestseller in England, the book should also hook female readers here as they relate to Green’s frank comments about body size and social acceptability6. “Birth of Venus,” by Sarah Dunant: Alessandra Cecchi is not quite 15 when her father, a prosperous cloth merchant, brings a young painter back from northern Europe to decorate the chapel walls in the family’s Florentine palazzo. A child of the Renaissance, with a precocious mind and a talent for drawing, Alessandra is intoxicated by the painter’s abilities. But their burgeoning relationship is interrupted when Alessandra’s parents arrange her marriage to a wealthy, much older man. Meanwhile, Florence is changing, increasingly subject to the growing suppression imposed by the fundamentalist monk Savonarola, who is seizing religious and political control.7. “Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” by Mark Haddon: Christopher John Francis Boone knows all the countries of the world and their capitals and every prime number up to 7,057. Although gifted with a superbly logical brain, Christopher is autistic. Everyday interactions and admonishments have little meaning for him. At 15, Christopher’s carefully constructed world falls apart when he finds his neighbor’s dog Wellington impaled on a garden fork, and he is initially blamed for the killing. Christopher decides that he will track down the real killer, and turns to his favorite fictional character, the impeccably logical Sherlock Holmes, for inspiration. But the investigation leads him down some unexpected paths and ultimately brings him face to face with the dissolution of his parents’ marriage. As Christopher tries to deal with the crisis within his own family, the narrative draws readers into the workings of Christopher’s mind.8. Under the Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer: Using as a focal point the chilling story of offshoot Mormon fundamentalist brothers Dan and Ron Lafferty, who in 1984 brutally butchered their sister-in-law and 15-month-old niece in the name of a divine revelation, Krakauer explores what he sees as the nature of radical Mormon sects with Svengali-like leaders. Using mostly secondary historical texts and some contemporary primary sources, Krakauer compellingly details the history of the Mormon church from its early 19th-century creation by Joseph Smith (whom Krakauer describes as a convicted con man) to its violent journey from upstate New York to the Midwest and finally Utah, where, after the 1890 renunciation of the church’s holy doctrine sanctioning multiple marriages, it transformed itself into one of the world’s fastest-growing religions. Through interviews with family members and an unremorseful Dan Lafferty (who is currently serving a life sentence), Krakauer chronologically tracks what led to the double murder, from the brothers’ theological misgivings about the Mormon church to starting their own fundamentalist sect that relies on their direct communications with God to guide their actions. According to Dan’s chilling step-by-step account, when their new religion led to Ron’s divorce and both men’s excommunication from the Mormon church, the brothers followed divine revelations and sought to kill, starting with their sister-in-law, those who stood in the way of their new beliefs. Relying on his strong journalistic and storytelling skills, Krakauer peppers the book with an array of disturbing firsthand accounts and news stories (such as the recent kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart) of physical and sexual brutality, which he sees as an outgrowth of some fundamentalists’ belief in polygamy and the notion that every male speaks to God and can do God’s bidding. While Krakauer demonstrates that most nonfundamentalist Mormons are community oriented, industrious and law-abiding, he poses some striking questions about the closed-minded, closed-door policies of the religion-and many religions in general. 9. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell: Best-selling author Gladwell (The Tipping Point) has a dazzling ability to find commonality in disparate fields of study. As he displays again in this entertaining and illuminating look at how we make snap judgments-about people’s intentions, the authenticity of a work of art, even military strategy-he can parse for general readers the intricacies of fascinating but little-known fields like professional food tasting (why does Coke taste different from Pepsi?). Gladwell’s conclusion, after studying how people make instant decisions in a wide range of fields from psychology to police work, is that we can make better instant judgments by training our mind and senses to focus on the most relevant facts-and that less input (as long as it’s the right input) is better than more. Perhaps the most stunning example he gives of this counterintuitive truth is the most expensive war game ever conducted by the Pentagon, in which a wily marine officer, playing “a rogue military commander” in the Persian Gulf and unencumbered by hierarchy, bureaucracy and too much technology, humiliated American forces whose chiefs were bogged down in matrixes, systems for decision making and information overload. But if one sets aside Gladwell’s dazzle, some questions and apparent inconsistencies emerge. If doctors are given an algorithm, or formula, in which only four facts are needed to determine if a patient is having a heart attack, is that really educating the doctor’s decision-making ability-or is it taking the decision out of the doctor’s hands altogether and handing it over to the algorithm? Still, each case study is satisfying, and Gladwell imparts his own evident pleasure in delving into a wide range of fields and seeking an underlying truth. 10. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: Join Douglas Adams’s hapless hero Arthur Dent as he travels the galaxy with his intrepid pal Ford Prefect, getting into horrible messes and generally wreaking hilarious havoc. Dent is grabbed from Earth moments before a cosmic construction team obliterates the planet to build a freeway. You’ll never read funnier science fiction; Adams is a master of intelligent satire, barbed wit, and comedic dialogue. The Hitchhiker’s Guide is rich in comedic detail and thought-provoking situations and stands up to multiple reads. Required reading for science fiction fans, this book (and its follow-ups) is also sure to please fans of Monty Python, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and British sitcoms.Vail, Colorado


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