Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I recently heard a book referred to as a cozy mystery, and I think this is another one. The sleuth/heroine is sort of a young Nancy Drew with attitude. (The hardback version even has a similar type of cover with no dust jacket.) There's not much emotional chemistry among the members of the de Luce family, but eleven-year-old Flavia is into chemistry of the scientific variety. When an almost dead body turns up in their estate's garden, she can smell carbon tetrachloride on his dying breath. Constantly underestimated, Flavia solves the murder before the police do but after her father has been arrested for it. She uses common sense and keen observation to reconstruct the crime, using to best advantage her ability to solicit information from adults by feigning innocence. She's no goody-too-shoes, though, mixing her older sister's lipstick with poison ivy extract and eagerly awaiting the results. OK, this is pretty tame mischief, but that's what makes it cozy, right? She's also not above a little clandestine snooping and pilfering, or the occasional lie in the name of righteousness or self-preservation. This is a nice break from heavy literature, but don't expect too much, and perhaps you'll be entertained. I'm not sure if this book is targeted for young readers, but it certainly seemed that way to me. Let's hope they don't get any ideas about contaminating Mom's cosmetics when this book inspires them to pay more attention in chemistry class.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


In Michael Chabon's alternate universe, several million Jews inhabit Sitka, Alaska, thanks to the fall of Israel in 1948. Their days are numbered, though, because their land is soon to revert back to the U.S. government, and everyone is scrambling to apply to stay. In the meantime, our protagonist, a stereotypical overweight, alcoholic, divorced cop, Meyer Landsman, now reports to his ex-wife Bina, for whom he carries a well-lit torch. Among the "frozen Chosen" are a group of Orthodox Mafiosi, who may be responsible for the death of a junkie chess player in the same sleazy hotel where Landsman lives. I had procrastinated about reading this book because of its reputation for a smattering of Yiddish. However, there was a lot more that I, with my WASP heritage, was in the dark about than just the language. In fact, what bothered me most was that Chabon is a little smug and arrogant as he tosses around Biblical references and whatnot, so much so that, in the end, I didn't totally follow who did what to whom, especially the U.S. government. I did get the general gist of it, though, and that was sufficient. The metaphors are a dime a dozen but all spot-on, although sometimes I had to read them twice. The dialog is colorful and sometimes so sarcastic that it's hard to know who are friends and who are enemies, and sometimes the line is just intentionally blurred, as with Inspector Willie Dick (the names!), a small man whose accoutrements are all 2/3 normal size. To me, although a lot happens, this book is more about the over-the-top playful and rather rambunctious style than the plot. It brings to mind the old noir detective stories with their perfunctory telling of events but in this case also with a raucous sense of humor. There's one particularly funny scene in which Landsman and his partner join his partner's father for a homemade dinner of moose chili, moose quiche, and moose meatballs—just before the old man tries to off himself.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

GREAT HOUSE by Nicole Krauss

This was not a book that I couldn't wait to get back to. On the other hand, whenever I picked it up I was mesmerized—by the prose and the characters, and the desk that semi-binds the various narrators together. The book has two halves, each of which covers four different lives. The second-half stories pick up where their first halves left off, and the intricacies of their connections to one another become more clear, though not ever crystal clear, and the varying time slices are a little confusing. The desk is central really to only two of the stories. Nadia never really owns it but houses it for many years for Daniel Varsky, who is tortured and killed in Chile and therefore never coming back for it. A young woman who is purportedly his daughter comes to claim it, and Nadia is devastated after giving it up. She is a writer and now questions the quality of everything she has written, as the desk has become an anchor to herself and her craft. Varsky had received the desk from Lotte Berg, another writer, whose husband now mourns her passing and reflects back on the desk, a gift that once loomed in their house, making him jealous of his wife's secret past. Then there's Weisz, who wants to find the desk, which originally belonged to his father, who died in the Holocaust. For those who freely give up the desk, it carries no particular weight. For those who have it wrenched from them (Nadia and Weisz), the loss is far greater than that of a piece of furniture, and they embark on separate quests to retrieve it and of course the missing pieces of themselves. There are no happy characters in this book. A few are wistful at best—Isabel, returning to her lover, and Aaron, the character you'll love to hate, reluctantly opening himself to a reconnection with his estranged son, though perhaps too late. And speaking of missing pieces, reading this book is a little like finishing a jigsaw puzzle with a few pieces missing—frustrating and incomplete. I found myself futilely rereading sections for clues that I might have missed.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

BLINK by Malcolm Gladwell

The eyes may be the windows into our soul, but facial expressions are apparently good indicators of everything from how likely a marriage is to survive to how likely a suspect is to pull the trigger on his gun. It seems almost intuitive that over-analyzing is counter-productive, but Malcolm Gladwell gives us lots of examples to prove it, including a war game that made me cringe to think that our military really operates this way. Almost as scary is the process of determining how to handle ER patients with chest pain, in which case too much information may actually be misleading information. The author takes several detours, including one at the end that indicates that first impressions are not always valuable, particularly where a gender or racial bias may come into play. The conventional wisdom that women are inferior to men in the brass section of an orchestra is blown to smithereens by blind auditions. Warren Harding was elected President, apparently because he looked the part. Gladwell also points out that often our choices, in everything from speed-dating to music, do not always bear out what we say we like. In fact, we may claim to dislike something just because it's different, but without innovation, where would we be? Thanks heavens market research is sometimes ignored. In the case of New Coke, the taste tests were taken seriously, and they proved to be totally deceptive, since taking a sip of something is a lot different from drinking an entire 12-ounce can.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Guglielmo Marconi was not a physicist, but he won the Nobel Prize for Physics. Hawley Crippen was a kind, generous doctor who murdered his wife. These men lived at the same time, and both had unlikely fame. Marconi as a teenager was intrigued by the work of others in the field of wireless communication. He doggedly pursued a variety of techniques and firmly believed that wireless communication across the Atlantic was possible. His methods were strictly trial and error, with a fair amount of intuition thrown in. Obsessed with his work, Marconi left a trail of betrayed mentors and ignored family members. And it's easy to see why. As with all great inventions, his was an attempt to accomplish something previously considered to be impossible. The most interesting section is the one in which events prove that Marconi should have left some things to the professionals, such as the design of the structures on which he mounted his huge antennae on opposite coasts of the Atlantic. Crippen's parallel tale is more of a snoozer, and I kept thinking, "Let's get back to Marconi." The culmination is that Marconi's invention helps not only in the rescue of the Titanic's survivors but also in the miraculous capture of an unsuspecting criminal.