Monday, July 25, 2011


I have really struggled with migraines in the last couple of weeks.  As a result, I “read” next to nothing, but listened to a great selection of audio books.  My kids and I are in the last week of school, and I am working on end of year grades and curriculum planning for next year; time is short.  Instead of writing long reviews for these four books (which three of them richly deserve!), I am forced by time constraints to just write one post with quick blurbs.
THE PLAGUE OF DOVES by Louise Erdrich ✰✰✰✰1/2
This novel just didn’t quite make five stars for me, mostly because the subject matter is not my favored fare.  The general premise of the novel is how the senseless murder of a white family continues to affect the lives of community members, especially those living on the nearby Indian reservation, into the next generation.  I loved Louise Erdrich’s flawed, believable characters and her portrayal of modern day Native American life.  Definitely an author I will read again (any suggestions of other titles?); my thanks to Auntie Nanuuq on Shelfari’s Play Book Tag for introducing me to Ms. Erdrich.

LIFE STUDIES: STORIES by Susan Vreeland ✰✰✰✰
Based on Vreeland’s novels, I expected this collection of short stories to all revolve around the lives of famous painters.  The first few do feature major artists as a main character, but all the others revolve around the presence of art in, and its impact on, the lives of a variety of people.  Some characters are artists working in various mediums, and others are everyday people whose lives are altered by the arts.  As with most collections, some stories were better than others, but none of them would have rated lower than three stars and a couple were outstanding.  While not the best narration I have heard, Karen White does a fine job.

THE SEA by John Banville ✰✰✰
This novel was a disappointment for me.  Perhaps it was over-hyped and simply didn’t live up to my expectation.  After the death of his wife, the main character returns physically to the cottage by the sea where he spent his childhood summers.  The novel revolves around his reminisces.  I had heard so much about Banville’s descriptive writing, and this sounded like just my type of novel.  Let’s just say that if you are looking for a book that will make you aware of body odors which have never previously registered on your olfactory radar, this is your novel.  By the end of the book I was somewhere between fed-up and grossed-out.  Banville’s talents are well employed in the creation of interesting characters; however, not one of them is at all likable, which left me completely indifferent to their fates.  The novel earned three stars based on the stylistic talent of the author-my overall enjoyment of the book would have put it in the two star range.  John Lee’s smooth narration, in his soft, barely perceptible Irish accent, was perhaps the only thing that kept me going.
THE MARCH by E.L. Doctorow ✰✰✰✰✰
I picked this one up for two reasons-I have heard many good things about the author, and it was published in 2005, which is my Pick a Year Challenge year for 2011.  This outstanding work of historical fiction follows the lives of a vast array of characters as General Sherman’s Union Army marches through Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina in the closing days of the Civil War.  Even in audio format, the book is so clearly written that I had no trouble keeping track of the many figures, both historical and fictional, the troop movements, and the overall plot structure.  By the end of the novel I felt as if I knew the characters.  Doctorow does a great job tying up the various lines of the plot and giving glimpses into the future of his fictional characters, but I was not ready to say goodbye and wished for a sequel to let me know what transpired in their lives after the war.  The Civil War is one of those eras about which I keep saying I need to read more.  This book has certainly fueled my desire-I recommend it highly!  For those of you who like audio books, this one, read by Joe Morton, is very, very good.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

BIOPUNK by Marcus Wohlsen ✰✰✰1/2

This book definitely has an interesting premise in its theme of do-it-yourself biohackers championing open-sourcing of intellectual property in an effort to pool research regarding DNA.  Don’t let the science scare you; author Marcus Wohlsen makes biology and the blueprint of life very accessible.  In essence, this work deals with young, bright individuals who set up biology wet labs in their garages and kitchens and attempt to do for DNA what Bill Gates and Steve Jobs did for computers.  They are driven by the belief that free access to one another’s findings, as opposed to the strict confidentiality of the major biotech companies, will lead to major discoveries and medical cures.  A pooling of intellectual resources, so to speak.
My first thought was concern that while this group is earnestly seeking cures and diagnostic avenues, there is bound to be another group bent on using the same technology with the opposite in mind.  While the ethical argument is raised, Wohlsen does not spend any ink on how real and present that threat is-information which I would have appreciated in this age of global terrorism.
A number of interesting people are introduced who are involved in various forms of research and who have a variety of world views.  While some have smaller, more attainable goals in mind, such as finding a less expensive early detection test for which insurance companies might be more willing to pay.  Others see the end goal as being able to engineer life itself.
Within the narrow scope of those choosing to use their kitchen sink research for what most would view as positive goals, Wohlsen’s research is impressive.  As I said, the flip side-those who are intent on evil-is not covered at all.  However, the book could use a good editor to help with organization (mine was a pre-editing galley, so that issue might well be ironed out) and the ending was rambling with odd, inconsequential references to punk music.
Ranking:  I would give this book four stars for the excellent job it does presenting the good side of bio hacking, but I really felt that the opposite side needed to be told as well to lend balance to the ethical questions.  So...
✰✰✰✰ I will round to four stars in those venues which do not allow for 1/2 star rankings, but my true rating is ✰✰✰1/2 stars for lack of balance.  I am assuming the organizational issues and ending were worked out in the editing phase.