Monday, June 30, 2008

Guest Blog--Three Sisters by James D. Doss

While traveling a few weeks ago, I read Shaman Sings by James D. Doss (Paperback – 1994). I had picked it up at my favorite thrift store, Deseret Industries, years ago and threw it in my suitcase as a likely read when I flew to Canada for a five-weeks stay. For years I have been a fan of Tony Hillerman and his Navajo detectives Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee and have been attracted to other mystery books with a similar theme.

I was not disappointed when I read Shaman Sings. I liked the flavor of the old Ute Shaman, Aunt Daisy, and her favorite nephew, Charlie Moon. In fact, Charlie Moon plays such a small role in the novel that I was surprised when I checked and discovered that Doss’ books have ‘A Charlie Moon Mystery’ printed on the covers.

There were moments in the book when I was not quite sure whether Aunt Daisy is supposed to be seeing and hearing characters from Ute lore or whether she is just using peyote or some other substance. I never did come to any conclusion. Chief of police Scott Parris of Granite Creek, Colorado helps to keep the story grounded in reality.

The book has a flavor of mystic and reality about it, and I decided that I would look for more James Doss books at my local library. After I unpacked my suitcase, I headed for the library and found the most recent Charlie Moon mystery. Usually, I would not go from an author's first novel to the most recent, but I was prompted to do so by the fact that it was available and had a shorter circulation time than older books.

I have dragged my feet for the last five days reading Three Sisters. The main characters are the same. Charlie is more handsome and wise than ever. Aunt Daisy is more unorthodox, and Scott is pricklier than he was 14 years ago.

My problem was that there is a different presentation to the story. Shaman Sings is a classic Southwestern who-done-it, while Three Sisters has picked up a narrator with an interesting sense of humor. For example: “As he lowered the tailgate, the Columbine hound looked up at the boss, opened his mouth...`I bet you’d like to go for a walk.’ No. Dogs cannot talk. This was the human being speaking.” The book is full of asides by the narrator. He acts as if he and I have settled down by the fire while he recounts the mystery. I am still not sure if I like the style.

The story is about three wealthy sisters living in smalltown Colorado. Cassandra is a psychic with a local television show. Somehow, while she is on the air, she is able to see violence at the very moment it occurs. Meanwhile, another sister meets with a grisly death. She apparently is mauled by a bear. The many threads of the tale come together to make a satisfying picture by the end of the book.

The characters were well limned, and in the last few pages, I think I fell for Charlie. He is an extraordinary person. I guess I’ll be checking out some of the older books written by Doss. I wonder when the transition in storytelling style occurred.

If I discover when it did, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, I am going to start on the latest Jesse Stone novel by Robert B. Parker. I’ll let you know how Jesse is handling alcohol and his ex-wife.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The House of Widows

Based on the title alone, one might guess, correctly, that Askold Melnyczuk’s The House of Widows isn’t exactly light—or necessarily enjoyable—reading.

Following his father’s suicide, James Pak—a self-described historian—travels to London, Vienna, and Kyiv in search of his father’s, and consequently his own, history. What he discovers is far from comforting: war crimes, abuse, human trafficking.

The book has an interesting narrative pattern as it interweaves several stories and voices. Along with a 25-year-old James’s search for his family story, a contemporary James, now an employee at the U.S. embassy in Vienna, must decide how to deal with volatile information he’s been given about American soldiers in Iraq. Even James’s father and an Interpol agent have their own chapters.

The “House of Widows” isn’t what one might think, and the entire book is full of surprises: twists, turns, and history repeating itself. That being said, the book certainly does not read like popular spy/thriller fiction.

At times, particularly at the beginning, Melnyczuk’s writing feels almost intentionally obscure. As the story develops, though, the writing relaxes, the pace picks up, and Menyczuk creates an intriguing, thought-provoking read.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Book Buzz

  • The Times carried a nearly impossible book quiz this week. I’d only read one book on the list and didn’t even recognize the quote. You can find the answers here.
  • Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing will release a new book in August about her parents. Booklist describes Alfred & Emily as an “unusual marriage of fiction and memoir . . . a book at once spellbinding, rueful, and tragic.”
  • Speaking of biographies, Booklist also features “Top 10 Biographies for Youth: 2008.” Maybe I should shift to YA biographies. I started Young Stalin weeks ago and have gotten nowhere. If only it were about 200 pages shorter and written for a child, I might finish.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Fairy Tale Detectives

Two young sisters, Sabrina and Daphne Grimm, discover they have an unusual heritage in Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm: The Fairy Tale Detectives.

After being abandoned by their parents, the girls move to modern-day Ferryport, New York to live with their hitherto unknown grandmother. They soon discover they are related to the Grimm brothers—and that the Grimm Fairy Tales are not fairytales at all. When grandmother is kidnapped, they must tap into their magical backgrounds to save her and Ferryport.

Detectives is the first in a six-book series for young readers. At times, the book reminds me of the Lemony Snicket A Series of Unfortunate Events. In both series, the children are orphaned, face mortal dangers, and define difficult vocabulary words. Detectives is not as charming and clever as Unfortunate Events, but it is more upbeat and not quite so grim (excuse the pun).

The Fairy Tale Detectives is a good introduction for children to fairytales and classic literature (including Shakespeare). The book is smart and well written, and I would particularly recommend it for parents and children as it reads a bit young for an adult audience.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

A friend has been hounding me for months to read Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time. It is the only book she’s read in a year, and she insisted I would love it—particularly considering my volunteer work in Afghanistan.

I humored her, and put the book in my library queue. About a hundred people were lined up before me, and although the book has been a persistent bestseller, I had no desire to rush out and read it.

My turn at Three Cups finally arrived, and I struggled with it. I spent two weeks just getting to page 75. The writing felt sluggish, and the story about a mountain climber turned do-gooder seemed to drag. I thought about quitting, but I knew I had to persist for my friend’s sake.

By the end of the book, I felt like cheering and telling everyone to read this book about Greg Mortenson. He has spent years developing the Central Asia Institute (CAI), a nonprofit organization that builds schools (and bridges and women’s centers and water pumps) in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He braves the dangers of tribal leadership, embraces the good people he meets, and sees clearly how the U.S. government has failed this region.

Greg Mortenson is downright inspiring. My secret dream is to work with human trafficking in Eastern Europe, and he makes me feel like I can (and should) be doing it.

Yet, Mortenson’s accomplishments also make me feel a bit guilty. He has devoted his life to the region, and I only spend one night a week, from the comfort of my own home, doing volunteer work. At times, Mortenson comes across as too perfect—which can be irritating for us imperfect people.

The inspiration, though, outweighs the guilt, and the book invites introspection. What am I doing to help the world? What should I be doing? What more can I do? And how can I get the government to step up and do the right thing?

Of course, not everyone can be a Greg Mortenson—and I’m not sure they should try. He clearly neglects his wife and children in favor of CAI, and I wonder how long his marriage will last. Yet, if we all did just a little, imagine what a difference we could make in this world.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Guest Blog--Sweet Death, Kind Death by Amanda Cross

A few weeks ago, I read The Edge of Doom written by Amanda Cross. The novel has a copyright date of 2002, and part of the story hinges on the relatively new technology of DNA testing to determine parentage. However, Kate Fransler and her attorney husband Reed don’t seem to have heard of the Internet.

Puzzled by this inconsistency, I looked up some information myself on the Internet. I knew that Amanda Cross was the pen name of Carolyn Gold Heilbrun who taught English at Columbia University for over thirty years. Could she really have not used a computer?

What surprised me was the discovery that she killed herself in October 2003 – one year after this book was copyrighted. Her son is reported as saying that she was not ill but simply thought that her life was complete and should be over.

A week later while traveling by air, I started reading Sweet Death, Kind Death by Amanda Cross (1995). In the book, Kate Fransler is asked to look into the suicide death of a professor at a small women’s college.

As Kate begins to look into her death, she discovers that Patrice was obsessed with death. In fact, Patrice had told several people that when she felt as if her life was complete, she would take her own life rather than go on living. As in most of Cross’s books, the story unfolds largely in interviews or conversations among the characters. This book explores the dead woman’s preoccupation with death and the circumstances that lead up to her death.

I am convinced that Heilbrun would have found me dreadfully dull and slow witted. I could never have carried on a reasonably intelligent conversation with her. Her characters talk about books I have never read and authors I have never heard about.

I was engrossed and intrigued by this novel, though, since I am certain that I was reading the philosophy of the author herself. The characters in Sweet Death, Kind Death were surprised by Patrice’s death because it seemed so untimely. It is extremely difficult for me to imagine a healthy woman of 77 taking her own life as Heilburn did. I wonder if her family was prepared for her death. It seems to me that she may have continued to be a productive and creative woman for many more years.

This book was not a biography. It presumably was purely a mystery novel. For me, it was a new experience to find myself as involved with the author while reading as I was with the story.

Friday, June 20, 2008

The Book of Other People

I’d considered reading The Book of Other People, a collection of short stories by “the best writers of their generation,” several months ago. However, I didn’t get the impetus to actually read it until I discovered Aleksandar Hemon a few weeks ago. He, along with other favorites like Jonathan Safran Foer and Nick Hornby, contributed to the collection.

Ironically, Hemon’s short story, “The Liar,” is the most disappointing in the collection, reminding me of something a novice writer would create in an attempt to be clever and edgy.

The stories range in length, tone, and even medium (the collection includes two graphic short stories). In Miranda July’s “Roy Spivy,” a woman has a romantic encounter with a famous actor on an airplane. Heidi Julavits's “Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz” experiences “a reminiscence inside a reminiscence inside a reminiscence.”

My favorite story, though, is the first in the collection (yes, I did actually read the entire book): “Judith Castle” by David Mitchell. The story is told in first-person from Judith’s perspective. Yet, despite Judith’s filter, it becomes clear quite quickly that no one actually likes her. In fact, she is downright irritating. I couldn’t help but appreciate this twist on the first-person narrative.

Not all stories are as enjoyable. The beauty of a collection, though, is that it can cater to all tastes. And it is a good introduction to authors you (or I) may never have read before.

On a side note, I was surprised to see that male writers outnumbered female 2:1 in the collection. And of the female writers, several use their initials. What does this say about the public’s or industry’s perception of females as serious writers? Clearly, we aren’t nearly as advanced as I’d thought.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Book Buzz

Something très tragique happened this week: my copy of the Sunday New York Times never arrived. Granted, I can read the paper online, but it just isn’t the same. If the Buzz seems less perky today, blame it on the newspaper delivery folks.

  • The Times also reviews Jim Sheeler’s Final Salute. The book follows Major Steve Beck, the man charged with informing families when their Marine dies. I heard Sheeler interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air a few weeks ago. The review (though far from glowing) made me feel emotional, the NPR piece made me feel weepy, and I feel choked up now just thinking about it, but I also have a brother serving in Iraq at this very moment.
  • As a fine tribute to the late newscaster, two books by Tim Russert hold the top spots on Amazon’s bestsellers list (he also holds #8 and #15).
  • Mystery lovers likely know already that the latest Janet Evanovich, Fearless Fourteen, came out Tuesday. I tried one Stephanie Plum novel, but it was too hardcore for my delicate sensibilities. I much prefer Lynley and Havers (okay, I’ve only watched the Mystery! adaptations). The latest in the Elizabeth George series, Careless in Red, came out last month.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Ex Libris

I walked past Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader at the library and immediately turned around. Without reading the dust jacket, I added the book to my pile. Any book about books must be a good book.

After reading Ex Libris, I have mixed feelings. The collection of essays is ten years old, and they already feel dated—particularly an essay about pens and typewriters. More than anything, though, I take umbrage with the subtitle. Fadiman is anything but the “common reader.” She is the daughter of two published authors (who sent their children to boarding schools); both her husband and brother also write. Is that the pedigree of a common reader?

Fadiman often comes across as pretentious and elitist. In “The Joy of Sesquipedalians,” she writes about reading an essay that introduced her to several new words: diapason, goetic, paludal. I consider myself well educated, intelligent, and well read, but Fadiman’s “ordinary” vocabulary is far from accessible (e.g., the word sesquipedalian).

Yet, at times I can relate with Fadiman’s book love. In “My Ancestral Castles,” she talks about her parents’ personal libraries and inheriting books from them. I have fond memories of my own parents’ libraries and wonder if my siblings and I (all six of us) will fight over, or even want, their books. Does anyone want Dad’s collection of political books? Will I keep Mom’s collection of Georgette Heyer or Emily Loring books out of sentimentality? Will we divvy up or donate her thousands of mysteries?

In Ex Libris, Fadiman concentrates less on the texts themselves and more on the reading process or reading habits: organization, book shelves, book marks, book-leaf inscriptions. If you have a large vocabulary, patience with pretension, and a love of books, you’ll enjoy this read.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008


The protagonist of Lisa McMann’s debut young adult novel, Wake, has a unique talent/curse. Janie Hannagan discovers at eight years old that she can enter other people’s dreams. Although these dreams reveal interesting information—crushes, fears, desires—they also keep Janie from her own sleep and send her into a seizure-like state at the most inopportune moments, like during study hall.

In her senior year of high school, Janie finally meets Cabel, a classmate who seems to understand her. But Cabel has disturbing dreams of his own and may not be what he appears. Janie struggles to control her powers while battling the strong feelings she has for Cabel.

The novel’s premise is fascinating, and McMann has a unique, fast-paced style of writing. As such, the book is a quick and entertaining read. It does contain strong language and frank sexual talk (after all, Janie does enter teenager’s dreams).

Unfortunately, the premise also has one important (and rather vital) weakness. It functions on the supposition that dreams reflect reality. When Janie enters a dream, she reacts as if she is entering the dreamer’s memory. I remember my dreams quite well, and they rarely reflect my reality: past, present, or future. They may reveal something about my psyche, but they do not reflect actual events.

The story may have been better served if Janie could read someone’s thoughts instead of dreams (ala Unbreakable). If you are willing to suspend your disbelief, though, Wake is an enjoyable pleasure read.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Guest Blog--Memory Book by Howard Engel

While living in Toronto, I became very attached to Benny Cooperman, a struggling private detective created by Howard Engel. I read all four of the books in the Massey College library written by him.

And, of course, I had to check out Howard Engel on the Internet. I discovered that Engel had a stroke in 2000 leaving him with a rare condition called alexia sine agraphia. With this type of brain damage, Engel was able to write but was not able to read. He could not read books or newspapers or labels or traffic signs. He could not read the words that he had written. What a challenge for an author.

In 2005 he published Memory Book. (I actually broke down and bought the paperback addition to read while I traveled.) In this novel, Benny Cooperman wakes to find himself in a Toronto hospital. Six weeks earlier, he was found in a dumpster outside a U of Toronto resident hall. He had been hit on the back of the head and left for dead with a professor who was not as lucky as he was. She did not survive.

Benny discovers that the blow to his head has left him with brain damage resulting in alexia sine agraphia. As Benny struggles with trying to remember what happened yesterday, he begins to try to unravel the mystery of what he was doing in Toronto in the first place.

Benny has lost none of his sense of humor and none of his ability to solve mysteries. And Engel has not lost his ability to create an entertaining story. All of the clues are there for me to follow, but I have to admit that I am not as clever as Benny even with his blow to the head.

The novel has an afterword written by Oliver Sacks, M.D. He talks about Engel’s efforts to write again despite his disability. Since he finished Memory Book, he has written two other books: another Benny Cooperman mystery and a nonfiction book talking about his personal experience following his stroke.

Now the only mystery is where I am going to find two books published in Canada now that I am back in the United States. I guess I’ll be checking out

Friday, June 13, 2008

Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

I have stacks of books just waiting to be read, but instead I wasted the last two days reading Laura Viera Rigler’s Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict.

Considering my own Jane Austen addiction, it’s no surprise that I was initially attracted to the book. Courtney, the book’s heroine, is a modern woman from LA. One morning, not long after the disastrous end to her engagement, Courtney wakes up to find herself inhabiting another woman’s body: Jane Mansfield (snark snark) from regency England.

The premise is intriguing. How would an Austen enthusiast adjust to life two hundred years ago? How would she react to the strict social mores and bed pans?

Apparently, not well. For someone who claims to be a Janeite, Courtney knows very little about the time period. She is shocked to discover “proper” young women do not wear makeup, finds being escorted to dinner by a male partner “odd,” and is completely clueless about the rules of courtship. The latter is particularly perplexing since Austen novels are replete with romance.

Courtney is an unappealing heroine, both in her time and Austen’s. She lacks any sort of charisma or logic, at one point even lecturing Jane Austen herself about cinema. Huh?

Of course, Courtney isn’t really to blame but Rigler. Her writing is awkward and self-conscious. I found it difficult to get past the stilted words in order to fall into the story. She also adds inexplicable elements and leaves several loose ends in the book’s convoluted wrap up.

I love Jane Austen, and I wouldn’t mind experiencing time travel myself. However, Confessions is not the best means of enjoying either.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Book Buzz

  • The cover of Stephenie Meyer’s Breaking Dawn has finally been revealed. Phew. I’m just thanking my lucky stars the book comes out before I move to Turkey.
  • Speaking of fantasy, check out Booklist’s “Top 10 SF/Fantasy for Youth: 2008.” I’ve only read one book, but I’ve thought about reading two others (that counts, right?). If reading is too difficult, Booklist also features the “Top 10 SF/Fantasy Audiobooks: 2008.”
  • I browsed the book section at Costco yesterday. It was like entering a reader’s crack den. I wanted to buy every book—and at such reasonable prices. I was particularly interested in Douglas Preston’s The Monster of Florence about an Italian serial killer. My instincts must be good because Amazon has the book listed as one of this month’s best. Actually, my instincts are terrible. I instead bought Confessions of a Jane Austin Addict. Fifty pages in, I already know I made the wrong decision.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Culture Shock! Turkey

After declaring on Monday that one can never really understand a nation or culture by reading a guidebook, I picked up Culture Shock! Turkey: A Survival Guide to Customs and Etiquette.

I enjoy the Culture Shock! series because it tends to be humorous, entertaining, and sometimes downright rude. Whether or not the information is actually accurate is another question.

Arin Bayraktaroglu is a Turkish expat who writes about business, social, and family customs. Here are a few of my favorite nuggets (though, once again, I can’t attest to their accuracy):

  • Turks are incredibly romantic and tend to fall in love easily. Proposals on the second date are not uncommon. I don’t know if this is true, but I suspect anyone who falls in “love” so quickly will likely fall out of love equally as quickly. I don’t plan on any international romances.
  • Hospitality is an essential part of Turkish culture, and the food is particularly delicious. Mmm, I love food. Hopefully, I’ll get a lot of walking in to counteract all the eating I plan on doing. Turkish delight, I’m on my way.
  • Turks believe in the “evil eye.” People with blue eyes are particularly suspicious. I’m not exactly sure what the evil eye is or does, but I do know that I have very blue eyes. I guess I better start practicing my innocent look.

After reading this guide, I won’t claim that I really know anything about the Turkish culture. But at least I now know that nodding my head “yes” actually means “no,” and shaking my head “no” actually means “I don’t know.”

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Voices from Chernobyl

A few years ago, I watched a John Stossel segment on ABC’s 20/20 about myths. One of the myths he “debunks” is “Radiation Will Kill You.” In the report, he discusses Chernobyl, stating that “the biggest health menace the people of Chernobyl faced was psychological trauma, in part from fear. The fear was worse than the radiation.”

I was horrified when I first watched this report and feel doubly so after reading Voices from Chernobyl.

In the decade following the Chernobyl disaster, Svetlana Alexievich interviewed hundreds of people affected by the nuclear reactor’s meltdown, including residents of the area and first responders and their families. Voices is a collection of their firsthand accounts.

I would like John Stossel to read these accounts and then try to tell the world the danger of radiation is a myth.

For example, in a moving prologue, a woman recounts her experiences as a pregnant wife watching her firefighter husband die. His skin falls from his body, and he coughs up pieces of vital organs. After being exposed to her husband’s radioactive body for two weeks, her baby is born with heart and liver disease and lives for only four hours.

I was particularly interested in the cleanup crews’ accounts. All of the responders interviewed suffer from the affects of radiation, and most were soldiers called—and sometimes forced—into action. Many survived action in Afghanistan only to die slowly from Chernobyl. Several wish they’d died from the known danger of an enemy’s bullet rather than suffering from radiation’s Russian roulette.

I’ve read other books about Chernobyl, but reading actual accounts makes the disaster much more personal and emotional. Although the meltdown occurred over 20 years ago, the affects still resound throughout Eastern Europe, particularly Belarus, today.

Monday, June 9, 2008


Three characters cross paths in O. Z. Livaneli’s Bliss: a professor facing a mid-life crisis; an ex-soldier experiencing PTSD; a young woman condemned to death by her family after being raped.

Bliss, translated by Çiğdem Aksoy Fromm, is my first—but certainly not my last—foray into Turkish literature. If I were hoping for a book promoting Turkish tourism, I would be sorely disappointed. Livaneli does not sugarcoat his native country. Instead, he exposes Turkey’s dark side: ethnic conflicts, shantytowns, and institutionalized misogyny.

After spending two years fighting the Kurds as a commando, Cemal returns to his village only to be ordered by his father to take his young cousin, Meryem, to Istanbul where he must kill her.

Fifteen-year-old Meryem has been raped and ostracized by her family. When she does not commit suicide to hide her “shame,” she is expelled from the village. The cousins’ situations may feel appalling and antiquated to the Western reader, yet the book takes place in the 21st century.

Eventually, the two meet İrfan, who is experiencing an identity crisis. As a Turk, he feels neither European nor Asian; an atheist, he is confused by his Muslim heritage.

Livaneli’s characters are conflicted, complex, and compelling. More than anything, he shows the reader that there is no such thing as a compact national identity.

I keep reading books about Turkey, hoping to get a grasp on the nation and culture before I move there. However, Bliss is a good reminder that no country, no culture, can be adequately summarized in a travel guide.

Friday, June 6, 2008

The Witch of Blackbird Pond

I’ve been muddling through a few “serious” books for the last few days, but I haven’t felt passionate about any of them. So yesterday, inspired by this week’s Book Buzz, I picked up Elizabeth George Speare’s The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

The book’s protagonist, sixteen-year-old Kit Tyler, leaves 17th-century Barbados to live with her aunt in Puritan New England. Not too surprisingly, Kit does not fit well in her new environment. She has been pampered and spoiled. She is a Royalist and an Anglican. She can swim.

Kit is not the ideal heroine for a 21st-century audience. She is selfish and an unrepentant former slave owner, yet Speare makes her a sympathetic character. Kit, a misfit herself, shows great strength as she adopts the town’s outcasts: an old Quaker woman, a neglected young girl, and a feisty sailor, Nat.

Witch is one of my childhood favorites. It was my introduction to literature and romance, and Nat may have been the first fictional character I fell in love with. Yet, this book is not the typical fairytale. Kit is not the perfect heroine, her relatives are not horrible to her, and Nat does not appear nearly enough.

I was not disappointed in this reread (though I could have used more romance). Speare is a good writer, and Witch is perfectly suitable for an adult audience. Plus, it is a fast and comfortable read. Now, where can I find myself a feisty sailor?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Book Buzz

  • David Sedaris may not be to everyone’s taste, but I find him deliciously funny. He appeared on The Daily Show this week promoting his new book, When You are Engulfed in Flames, and talked about moving to Japan to quit smoking. Oh, la.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Guest Blog--Cold, Wet, and Sandy

Posted on behalf of Genuine Class

Cold, wet, and sandy seems to be the constant state of being for the men in the U.S. Navy Special Forces. Otherwise known as the U.S. Navy SEALs, this military acronym stands for Sea, Air, and Land commandos. Two books, The Warrior Elite and The Finishing School, by Dick Couch describe the torture, determination, and dedication of these men who volunteer for some of the most hazardous combat duty in the world.

These books are not war memoirs but deal mostly with the training of wannabe Navy SEALs and their instructors. They describe what it ultimately takes to become a Navy SEAL. Dick Couch, who himself was a former SEAL during the Vietnam War, does tell a little bit about his experiences during his deployments in Indochina but mostly sticks with the present, or to be exact pre-9/11, training of these men.

The first book, The Warrior Elite, details the training of the infamous BUD/S, another acronym meaning Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL. This six-month program consists of four phases. In the first, Indoc, the BUD/S trainees prepare physically for the next phase called First Phase. During First Phase, the men endure more physical punishment in preparation for Hell Week, which is a 5-day crucible, with only three hours of sleep in total, to see who’s got what it takes to endure the most. This crucible is the real gut check and has the highest rate of DORs (another acronym meaning Drop On Request) in the entire program. Second Phase deals with diving qualifications, and Third Phase includes land warfare where the trainees finally get to blow stuff up.

The second book, The Finishing School, discusses what happens to the men after BUD/S and how these men are finely tuned to become Navy SEALs. It will take almost 18 months before they earn their Tridents, the gold eagle holding a trident and cocked pistol pendant that displays their MOS, or Military Occupation Specialty, as U.S. Navy SEALs. This book is more about guns, bombs, and the skills necessary to become the elite warriors as well as what these men do to prepare for a deployment. It concludes with the preparations of one SEAL team to deploy for six months.

Both books are well written, and the fact the author is a former Navy SEAL gives them authenticity. Dick Couch was allowed to watch, record, and interview both the students and instructors. This interaction helps give the books a personal touch and also debunks a lot of myths about the men who become or who are Navy SEALs. I personally enjoyed reading about the struggles that each student has during the course of his training. Many who should have made it do not, and many made it who should not have because of their physical prowess.

I first become interested in these books when I read a war memoir by Marcus Luttrell called The Lone Survivor. In Mr. Luttrel’s book, he references Dick Couch as his sources on BUD/S training. I enjoyed Mr. Couch’s books a lot more than Mr. Luttrell’s. Yet, like The Lone Survivor, both The Warrior Elite and The Finishing School are pretty liberal with their praise of all things Navy SEALs. Everyone is the best or the greatest and the most professional: the candidates, instructors, and history of the SEALs. Too often, it seems like Mr. Couch is trying to compare his days as a SEAL with those of these prospective candidates, almost like he is saying “the older I get, the better I am.”

It is enjoyable to read about the pre-9/11 training because many of these men talk about terrorism in an abstract, naïve way. This theme continues in the second book which includes the build up to the Iraq War; many of these SEALs worry they will miss out on the fight. They had no need to worry because I am sure that each one of these SEALs has since been in combat. This fact makes the book bittersweet because people like Marcus Luttrell have now endured loss of life and injuries that probably were not a reality when they were first in training.

Anyone interested in the qualifications or instruction it takes to become a Navy SEAL should read these books.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Lazarus Project

In 1908, Lazarus Averbuch, an immigrant from Eastern Europe, is shot dead by the Chicago Chief of Police. Almost a century later, fictional Vladimir Brik, an immigrant from Bosnia, decides to write a book about Lazarus. Aleksandar Hemon’s latest novel, The Lazarus Project, imagines Averbuch's life and Brik's research.

Armed with a grant and a fellow-Bosnian photographer, Brik returns to Eastern Europe to learn more Lazarus’s life there. They travel through Ukraine, Moldova, and Bulgaria before finally returning to Sarajevo. The chapters alternate between Brik and Averbuch, and each is accompanied with a black-and-white photograph.

Lazarus’s murder is shocking. In essence, the novel suggests he is killed because the chief recognizes him not only as an immigrant but a Jew whom he suspects of anarchy. These actions appear outrageous to the contemporary reader. Yet, how different is early twentieth-century Chicago from early twenty-first century America? Don’t many Americans still fear immigrants? Don’t many Americans still fear anarchists—though we now call them terrorists? The reality of this comparison is disturbing.

The novel also raises the interesting question of what makes an American an American. While traveling in Eastern Europe, Brik often refers to himself as American rather than Bosnian. At some point does he truly morph from one nationality—one culture—to another? Does an immigrant ever truly feel American?

Lazarus invites contemplation and introspection. At times, though, I was distracted from the novel by Hemon himself. What little I know about the author’s biography is surprisingly similar to his character.

Hemon, like Brik, was visiting the U.S. when the conflict in Bosnia broke out. Hemon, like Brik, is married to an American. Hemon, like Brik, received a grant to write his book. Hemon and photographer Velibor Bozovic traveled through Eastern Europe researching Averbuch’s story.

Brik does not always have the most flattering view of his wife, his in-laws, marriage, and fatherhood. I continually imagined how Hemon’s wife felt reading these passages.

Like Anya Ulinich, about whom I wrote a few weeks ago, Hemon is not a native English speaker. He makes some interesting vocabulary choices and seems overly-obsessed with Madonna, but Lazarus is beautifully written. I will definitely be reading more Hemon.

Monday, June 2, 2008


I’ve been addicted to series since childhood. In elementary school, I had several I adored: The Boxcar Children, Ramona Quimby, All-of-a-Kind Family.

Over the last several days, I’ve reread three Holly Beth Walker Meg books for the first time in twenty years: The Treasure Nobody Saw, Mystery of the Black-Magic Cave, and Mystery in Williamsburg.

A few years ago, I took up The Box Car Children again, and I was a bit disappointed by them. They felt dated, particularly in terms of gender rolls. The Meg series has a similar feeling. Although a majority was written in the 1970s, they have the “wholesome” feel of the 1950s.

Meg Duncan is the classic young heroine. Her mother passed away years before, and her father is an oft-absent, high-power government official. Perhaps writers (and Disney movies) cling to this cliché hoping a lack of adult supervision will give girls the freedom to snoop—and get into numerous “scrapes.”

Meg is definitely a snooper. In these three books, she investigates squatters, witches, and forgers. The mysteries she faces may seem a bit adult—witchcraft?—but Meg never falls into any real danger. She lives in a world where no one locks his doors, a world devoid of child molesters.

As a girl, I loved these mysteries. I remember occasionally feeling delicious fear as I read, and I would recommend them to any voracious young reader. As an adult, I am fraught with worry reading about adult men stalking little girls.