Wednesday, May 30, 2007


Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles J. Shields, published in 2006, was really interesting, but is just a portrait, a slice of the life of Nelle Harper Lee, rather than a biography. Shields had very little to work with because Nelle Lee doesn't give interviews or talk about To Kill a Mockingbird and hasn't for years. I found his attempt impressive even though it does fall short of the scope of a true biography. In the end, I am glad I read Shields' book. There is some measure of insight into Lee and why she never published another book.

The profound effect of To Kill a Mockingbird is well documented. "Eight percent of public junior high schools and high schools nationwide had added the novel to their reading lists only three years after its publication." Alternately, it is also on "the list of the one hundred novels most often targeted for banning." Many people list it as one of their all time favorite books.

I was surprised at the amount of control her older sister, Alice, had over Nelle's life. When Alice repeatedly called Nelle to come "home" to Monroeville, Alabama, from her apartment in Manhattan, it seemed like way to much power to turn over to a sister. Even so, Nelle allowed Alice that control and more over her life in later years. In the end, Monroeville was probably one of the few places where Nelle Harper Lee could actually have some degree of anonymity in her life since the town's residents could protect her in many ways. To Kill a Mockingbird changed her life but also limited it because it is such a beloved book.

In the end, "Fame had never meant anything to her, and she was not prepared for what To Kill a Mockingbird achieved. Before she knew it, nearly a decade has passed and she was nowhere near finishing a new book. Rather than allow herself to be eternally frustrated, she simply 'forgave herself' and lifted the burden from her shoulders of living up to the book. And refuse to pressure herself into writing another novel unless the muse came to her naturally."

(I appreciated Lee's high school teacher, Miss Watson. "Grammar, she explained over and over, was not a pointless academic exercise, but a tool. Knowing the rules was the quickest route to better writing. Grammatical writing also was the key to developing a clear euphonious style of writing." This is a fact I would love to have instilled in a few teenage minds this year.)

An offer is in on the house. Any prayers for the negotiations are appreciated. I might come out of this with my sanity.

Monday, May 28, 2007

To Kill a Mockingbird

I read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee again in preparation for reading her biography, Mockingbird. Any book review I could compose wouldn't do To Kill a Mockingbird justice. It really is a classic that should be read and reread, often, throughout your life.

I'm having some more anxiety and depression over the house not selling yet. We really need to sell within the next 3 weeks, if not our lives will become much more complicated. I'm feeling very ineffective and hopeless.

Saturday, May 26, 2007


Dreamcatcher by Stephen King is really an amalgamation of many earlier familiar storylines rewritten into a science fiction tale of an alien invasion being thwarted by a group of friends. Dreamcatcher was originally published in 2001 and is 617 pages. Although King is known for his hefty books, there could have been a tad bit more editing done here without harming the integrity of the story. I'd have to say that I prefer other novels King has written to Dreamcatcher, but since King is such a prolific writer I may be judging this particular story too harshly. And, after all, it was written while he was recovering from the accident that almost killed him, so it could have been partly therapeutic writing. Be forewarned that some descriptions are rather disgusting and there really is more swearing used than usual.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Would You Like Me More

Would you like me more
if I were a woman?
Would you treat me better
were I a man?
I am just words, no
not words even, just marks
on a page, tokens of what?
Oh, you know.

Then tell them, will you?
Tell them to stop looking for me.
Tell them that I never left home.
Tell them, if you must,
that I never left my body.
Unlike so many others,
I had no wings, just shoulders.
I was like the snow bunting,
of stout build but moderate size.
Better make that “exceedingly” moderate size.
I neither blessed nor cursed
but that the good suffered
and evil closed the books in triumph.

I cured no one.
When I died, my bones
turned to dust, not diamonds.
At best a tooth or two became coal.
How long it took.
You would have liked me then,
had you been alive still.
Had you survived
the silliness of self,
you would have treated me better.
I never lied to you,
once I had grown up.

When x told you that you were wonderful,
I said only that you existed.
When y said that you were awful,
I said only that life continues.
I did not mean a life like yours.
Not life so proud to be life.
Not life reduced to this life or that life.
Not life as something – to see or own.
Not life as a form of life
which wants wings it doesn’t have
and a skeleton of jewels,
not this one of bones and becoming.

How perfect are my words now,
in your absence!
Ungainly yet mild perhaps,
taking the place of no field,
offering neither to stand in the place of a tree
nor where the water was,
neither under your heel nor floating,
just gradually appearing,
gainless and insubstantial,
near you as always,
asking you to dance.

Marvin Bell
(New Yorker; October 11, 1976)

I found this poem when I was a senior in high school and immediately loved it. In college I actually did a series of 5 illustrations based on it.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Virus X

Virus X: Tracking the New Killer Plagues by Frank Ryan, M.D. was first published in 1997 and is 430 pages long, including an appendix of a time line of emerging viruses, notes, and index. If you've been reading virus books like I've been reading virus books, Virus X holds nothing totally new or startling but it does cover the investigations into some of the world's most deadly viral epidemics. For a general interest, Ryan's book is more successful than the last two books, Virus Hunter and Level 4, written by some of the actual doctors in the field. I would have to agree with reviews that say it is better written early on and falls off a bit in the later chapters, but it is still worth reading if you are interested in the subject.

I did read for the first time (that I can remember) that the Marburg virus carrying monkeys were imported to use their liver tissue for the polio vaccine. When examined postmortem, "The livers, in particular, seemed to be shot to pieces." Of course, it could be I noticed this after reading Polio earlier this year. I find the whole idea that monkey tissue has been used to create vaccinations and then injected into people quite disturbing.

Another interesting note: When [the director of the Arbovirus Laboratory at Yale] is sent a virus from a sick traveler who has arrived in New York City, he will not only diagnose the causative virus but tell you in what country, rain forest, subtropical savannah, town, or district the person picked up that strain of virus."

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Stone Diaries

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields was an incredible book and worthy of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. I read the Penguin paperback edition that was originally published in 1995. It was 365 pages long.

From Amazon:
This fictionalized autobiography of Daisy Goodwill Flett, captured in Daisy's vivacious yet reflective voice, has been winning over readers since its publication in 1995, when it won the Pulitzer Prize. After a youth marked by sudden death and loss, Daisy escapes into conventionality as a middle-class wife and mother. Years later she becomes a successful garden columnist and experiences the kind of awakening that thousands of her contemporaries in mid-century yearned for but missed in alcoholism, marital infidelity and bridge clubs. The events of Daisy's life, however, are less compelling than her rich, vividly described inner life--from her memories of her adoptive mother to her awareness of impending death. Shields' sensuous prose and her deft characterizations make this, her sixth novel, her most successful yet.

Part of what made The Stone Diaries so incredible was the breathtaking writing.

"Which for the most part will be a silent meal, both my parents being shy by nature, and each brought up in the belief that conversing and eating are different functions, occupying separate trenches of time."

"She imagines the soft dough entering the bin of her stomach, lining that bitter, bloated vessel with a cottony warmth that absorbs and neutralizes the poisons of her own body."

"She is a woman whose desires stand at the bottom of a cracked pitcher, waiting."

"The recounting of a life is a cheat, of course; I admit the truth the truth of this; even our own stories are obscenely distorted; it is a wonder really that we keep faith with the simple container of our existence."

"When we think of the past we tend to assume that people were simpler in their functions, and shaped by forces that were primary and irreducible. We take for granted that our forebearers were imbued with a deeper sense of purity of purpose than we possess nowadays, and a more singular set of mind... But none of this is true. Those who went before us were every bit as wayward and unaccountable and unsteady in their longings as people are today."

"The unfairness of this - that a single dramatic episode can shave the fine thistles from a woman's life."

"...[M]ost people who cut themselves off from love commit themselves to lies, hypocrisy, and discouragement..."

"Well, a childhood is what anyone wants to remember of it. It leaves behind no fossils, except perhaps in fiction. Which is why you want to take Daisy's representation of events with a grain of salt, a bushel of salt."

"Women, I learned, needed to be bloody, but they didn't need to be mean."

"My mother is a middle-aged woman, a middle-class woman, a woman of moderate intelligence and medium-sized ego and average good luck, so that you would expect her to land somewhere near the middle of the world. Instead she's over there at the edge. The least vibration could knock her off."

"I was the breakable one. Women always are. It's not so much a question of one big disappointment, though. It's more like a thousand little disappointments raining down on top of each other. After a while it gets to seem like a flood, and the first thing you know, you're drowning."

"In the morning light her hurt seems temporary and manageable, but at night she hears voices, which may just be the sound of her own soul thrashing."

"She knows how memory gets smoothed down with time, everything flattened by the iron of acceptance and rejection..."

"Sometimes she bunches her fists: sometimes tears crowd her eyes as she lies there thinking: another day, another day, and attempting to position herself in the shifting scenes of her life."

"If she's not careful she'll turn into one of those pathetic old fruitcakes who are forever counting their blessings."

"And we require, it seems, in our moments of courage or shame, at least one witness, but Mrs. Fleet has not had this privilege. This is what breaks her heart. What she can't bear."

"Nor, though she knew she had been loved in her life, did she ever hear the words, 'I love you, Daisy' uttered aloud (such a simple phrase), and only during the long, thin, uneventful sleep that preceded her death did she have the wit (and leisure) to ponder the injustice of this."

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Level 4 Virus Hunters of the CDC

Level 4 Virus Hunters of the CDC by Drs. Joseph McCormick and Susan Fisher-Hoch is a personal account of doctors and their work in the CDC. The book was originally published in 1996, but I was reading an updated 1999 version that was 397 pages long with an index.

The preface explains neatly what the goal of the book is:
"Our intent is therefore to give the reader a personal encounter with Level-4 organisms in various situations: in patients, in nature, in the laboratory. We hope that through our stories the reader in the safety of his or her home may vicariously face and care for a seriously ill patient with viral hemorrhagic fever; experience the search for virus reservoirs in remote places; sweat over the search for a new virus in the laboratory; work in a space suit; or look down an electron microscope. We hope the share with you the agony of uncertainty in the face of an epidemic of fatal disease and the triumph of containing that epidemic. Finally, we invite the reader to join us on the hunt in the jungles, villages, cities, and even deserts for those who are infected, and to visit with us the lairs of the viruses. Ultimately, through these personal accounts of real people and places, we also hope to bring a greater understanding of the viruses and their impact on humans."

I would say that they met their original intent for writing the book. Determining who exactly is writing the account can be a bit tricky after Chapter 14, Sue's Story. Once both doctors are collaborating in writing Level 4 you may find yourself stopping and checking to see who exactly is writing that specific account since they tend to jump back and forth with less than completely clear transitions. If you can ignore this and simply stick with their hunt for the viruses and dealing with less than cooperative people, etc, it is an interesting book. I would recommend Level 4 over Virus Hunter, but I'd also say that unless you are extremely interested in this topic, skip both. If you just want exciting thrill reading about viruses look at Laurie Garrett's The Coming Plague or Richard Preston's The Hot Zone.

Two more virus books are in my stacks, so my recommendations may change.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Treasure of Khan

Treasure of Khan by Clive and Dirk Cussler is the latest Dirk Pitt novel. It is 552 pages long and was originally published in November 2006.

From Amazon:

"Dirk Pitt's 19th adventure, the second collaboration between father and son Clive and Dirk Cussler (after 2004's Black Wind), offers a plot as credible as it is monstrous and the kind of exotic aquatic detail that amazes, informs and entertains. The action, and there's plenty of it, ranges from Siberia's Lake Baikal and the wilds of Mongolia to the Hawaiian islands. The treasure is that of Genghis and Kublai Khan, the great Mongolian conqueror and his grandson. The villain is a modern-day Mongol with dreams of restoring national power and pride. The heroes are Pitt, sidekick Al Giordino and Pitt's son and daughter, Dirk Jr. and Summer, all affiliated with Pitt's National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). The exploits of Pitt and company, particularly their narrow escapes, tend toward the larger-than-life, but these are nicely balanced by down-to-earth explanations of such phenomena as seiche waves and oil seeps." Copyright © Reed Business Information.

I've been reading Cussler's Dirk Pitt novels for years. I must say, I like the new, tamed Dirk better than the old, womanizing Dirk of Cussler's earlier novels. Treasure of Khan follows the same formula as all the Dirk Pitt novels. It was an enjoyable read, although I'd probably rate some other action adventure novels a bit higher as far as the writing and the plot. When you pick up the latest Dirk Pitt novel, however, you know what you will get.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Coal man

Way back when, a long, long time ago, when our 18 yr. old was about 5 or 6 and hadn't started down the genetically inclined dark path of night owl behavior, he liked to arise early on Saturday mornings and watch cartoons, while his dad and I liked to sleep in a wee bit later. Things are all reversed now, but, alas, that is a different entry for another time.

We were good parents and asked him on what shows he was watching. Sonic the Hedgehog was good. Bugs Bunny was good. All the shows he listed off were known to us and fine for him to watch... with one exception:
Coal man.
We didn't know what Coal Man was, but it sounded educational. We quizzed our son on Coal Man. Was it a good show? Would we think it was good for him to watch?
He assured us that Coal Man was a good show and that we would approve of it.

Then one Saturday my husband and I were both up early enough to see Coal Man.
Coal Man was really Conan, as in Conan the Barbarian.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

No Sunday paper

We didn't get a Sunday paper today. Even though we're subscribers, there was no paper in our drive. I even got down and looked under the cars in the driveway, thinking that it somehow was tossed under a car. Alas, it was no where to be found.
No. Sunday. Paper.
The automated call/complaint line said they will deliver it tomorrow. I've been reading the Sunday paper, well, for as long as I've been reading a newspaper. Since I started reading the newspaper back in high school, we're talking over 30 years of newspaper reading. Even in college I'd spring for a Sunday paper on my break while working weekends. I have always devoted a section of time on Sundays to reading the Sunday newspaper. It's like I'm in withdrawal and don't know what to do with myself. I could run over to the nearest convenience store and buy one, but I'll be getting my copy tomorrow, but Monday is not the same as Sunday....
No Sunday paper.... sigh.

Friday, May 4, 2007

The Pirate Hunter

The Pirate Hunter: The True Story of Captain Kidd by Richard Zacks is a nonfiction book written like fiction. It was originally published in 2002 by Hyperion, and is 426 pages long, index included. Zacks thoroughly and completely research the life of William Kidd, and this truly is the real story of Captain Kidd who, as it turns out, wasn't a pirate at all. Kidd was hired to chase pirates and through an extraordinary set of misfortunes and circumstances, he became accused of the one thing he was trying so desperately to not be, labeled a pirate.

From the jacket description: "Captain Kidd has gone down in history as America's most ruthless buccaneer, fabulously rich, burying dozens of treasure chests up and down the eastern seaboard... But it turns out that most everyone, even many respected scholars, have the story all wrong. Captain William Kidd was no career cut-throat; he was a tough, successful New York sea captain who was hired to chase pirates.... His three-year odyssey aboard the aptly named Adventure galley pitted him against arrogant Royal Navy commanders, jealous East India Company captains, storms, starvation, angry natives, and, above all, flesh-and-blood pirates."

If you love sea faring books and this period of history, you will likely enjoy The Pirate Hunter. The reviewers raved about it. Personally, I found it a tad bit slow moving in spots. Zacks really researched this book and he includes many details that I didn't particularly care about. In the final analysis, it is a well researched nonfiction book that has been written as a historical novel that was interesting but nothing I'd tell you is a must read.

Jane Austen

My sister is totally and utterly disgusted with me for never reading any Jane Austen.
My daughter is totally and utterly disgusted with me for not reading any Jane Austen.

Thursday, May 3, 2007


Boy oh boy did I ever make out like a bandit, or, err, a pirate, on my birthday yesterday.
I received my yearly Pez dispenser with 2 packages of 6 refills and a whole bag of doubloons. OK, the doubloons were actually chocolate coins covered in gold but since I understand the scarcity of the real thing, these will do just fine.

This years Pez dispenser was Winnie the Pooh. Last years was some Disney princess. This would perhaps be a good time to interject that I actually do not like Pez nor do I collect Pez dispensers. Someone else likes Pez and gives me the dispensers so I can continuously offer Pez to everyone else.
I will now get to say, "Pez?" to family members continuously, while holding up this years dispenser, until the refills are all gone.
Fun times here.

My family also, seriously, got me an Ammonite fossil, like a nautilus, cut in half and polished for display. I have the halves on the fireplace mantelpiece. They also picked up a big chunk of Calcite that has two different colors of green on either side of a grayish layer. These were very nice gifts.

Shhhhh... Just between us, I also picked up about 12 used books for a great price.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Under the Black Flag

"There is a less obvious explanation for the attraction of the pirates...As all women know and some men can never understand, the most interesting heroes of literature and of history have been flawed characters....They [pirates] are seen as cruel, domineering, drunken, heartless villains, but it is these very vices which make them attractive. A degenerate and debauched man is a challenge which many women find hard to resist. They want to give him the love they feel he is missing and they want to reform his evil ways."

Perhaps this quote from the afterward of David Cordingly's Under the Black Flag: The Romance and the Reality of Life Among the Pirates explains some faucet of my recent choice of reading material... or perhaps not. Cordingly's book was certainly a more literate, but still factual, account of the history of pirates. He has taken years of research and used it to write a very enjoyable and accessible history of pirates not only in the Caribbean, but also other places such as the North America eastern coastline, the Indian Ocean, and the Chinese pirates of Mrs. Cheng. Of the two pirate books I've currently read, this is the first book you should pick up if you want to learn more about pirates.

Under the Black Flag was originally published in 1996. My later paperback copy has 296 pages, although the writing ends at 244 and the remanding pages are appendixes, notes, a glossary, index, and bibliography. There is also a section with pictures. (In the picture section is a photograph of an early eighteenth century set of chains. This was used to display the bodies of notorious pirates near a port as a warning. It was helpful for me to see an actual picture of this contraption.)

From Amazon:
Though literature, films, and folklore have romanticized pirates as gallant seaman who hunted for treasure in exotic locales, David Cordingly, a former curator at the National Maritime Museum in England, reveals the facts behind the legends of such outlaws as Captain Kidd, Blackbeard, and Calico Jack. Even stories about buried treasure are fictitious, he says, yet still the myth remains. Though pirate captains were often sadistic villains and crews endured barbarous tortures, were constantly threatened with the possibility of death by hanging, drowning in a storm, or surviving a shipwreck on a hostile coast, pirates are still idealized. Cordingly examines why the myth of the romance of piratehood endures and why so few lived out their days in luxury on the riches they had plundered.