Thursday, September 29, 2011

My God, What Have We Done?


My God, What Have We Done? by Susan V. Weiss
Fomite, September 2011
Trade Paperback, 496 pages
ISBN-13: 9780983206347
In a world afflicted with war, toxicity, and hunger, does what we do in our private lives really matter?
Fifty years after the creation of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, newlyweds Pauline and Clifford visit that once-secret city on their honeymoon, compelled by Pauline's fascination with Oppenheimer, the soulful scientist.
The two stories emerging from this visit reverberate back and forth between the loneliness of a new mother at home in Boston and the isolation of an entire community dedicated to the development of the bomb. While Pauline struggles with unforeseen challenges of family life, Oppenheimer and his crew reckon with forces beyond all imagining. Finally the years of frantic research on the bomb culminate in a stunning test explosion that echoes a rupture in the couple's marriage. Against the backdrop of a civilization that's out of control, Pauline begins to understand the complex, potentially explosive physics of personal relationships. At once funny and dead serious, My God, What Have We Done? sifts through the ruins left by the bomb in search of a more worthy human achievement.

My Thoughts:

In My God, What Have We Done? author Susan V. Weiss draws comparisons between two seemingly diverse events: the modern day marriage of an average couple, Pauline and Clifford, to J. Robert Oppenheimer's development of the atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Chapters from events in one time period and storyline will be reflected in some manner in chapters featuring the other.

Both narratives are well written and given careful consideration. They become not only a reflection of relationships but also serve as powerful character studies of human nature. Taking two very different stories and slowly building and shaping a correlation between them turned what could have been simply a clever plot device into a viable honest comparison.  The making of the bomb is not just a metaphor for the marriage in the book, but is a viable narrative in and of itself.  While Weiss doesn't beat you over the head with the comparisons (and I did feel a few times the comparison was a slight stretch) it was the juxtaposition of what felt like coincidental similarities in two very different stories that gave the novel interest.

 I was drawn into both stories and eager to find out what happened next. Having read Bird's biography of Oppenheimer, I knew his story. (Note: Weiss has a list of her sources at the end of the novel, always a plus for me.) What surprised me was how much I enjoyed this version of part of the story as well as the tale/comparison to a modern marriage. Do we ever consider the future consequences of our actions, however simple or well meaning?

One fact that struck me early on when reading My God, What Have We Done? is that Weiss is an excellent writer. It really rather begged the question "Why wasn't this novel picked up by a major publisher?" If you by-pass this novel based on its publisher, you will be missing a great novel. I'm actually honestly surprised at how much I truly enjoyed his novel.

highly recommended

Disclosure: I was provided a copy of this book for review purposes.


For our honeymoon, my husband and I went to Los Alamos National Laboratory, birthplace of the atomic bomb. opening

Clifford took two or three photographs of me standing beside the Los Alamos National Laboratory sign, grinning as jubilantly as I should have been in our wedding pictures. pg. 18

"We show a film here that'll give you a sense of what life in Los Alamos was like in hose days. Better hurray. It started a minute or two ago." pg. 20

The movie concluded with the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima by the Enola Gay. My wedding ring felt uncomfortably tight, so I began to rotate it around my finger. I glanced at Clifford and just then heard the co-pilot's legendary reaction to the explosion: "Oh my God, what have we done?" pg. 23

Soon after Clifford and I had begun dating, we went to an experimental theater performance in Philadelphia about the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer. pg. 24

This wasn't exactly a memory that I would willingly preserve or recount to our children. In fact I tried to forget the awkwardness of the scene and hoped that it wasn't predictive of a shared lifetime of miscommunication - miscues, retractions. pg. 32

Most of the books on his two bookshelves had been with him for years and never been subject to any kind of purge. pg. 46

So in 1942 Oppenheimer led them - the strange pairing of military men and academics - to that same corner of the country, and when they arrived at the mesa, all of them recognized it as the site they'd been seeking: surrounded by a margin of isolation, forlorn by human interest and separating distant residents from the bomb that would one day be tested. pg. 49

Never in my life had I felt as worthless, wicked, and unclean as during those times when I was in the market for a job. pg. 206

"Tragedy can bring people together, so they say." she paused. "But it can just as well drive them apart, you know." pg. 301

Again our history was being shaped by what we didn't do more than by what we did. pg. 429


Susan Weiss is a writer and a teacher who lives in Burlington, Vermont. Her stories have appeared in literary magazines and anthologies. In addition to teaching adult literacy and expository and creative writing, she has initiated community-outreach writing projects for offenders, refugees, and homeless people.
Visit Susan at her website,



TLC Book Tour:

Monday, September 19th: A Bookish Libraria
Tuesday, September 20th: “That’s Swell!”
Wednesday, September 21st: Lit Endeavors
Wednesday, September 28th: Savvy Verse & Wit
Thursday, September 29th: she treads softly
Monday, October 3rd: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books
Wednesday, October 5th: Booksie’s Blog
Monday, October 10th: Steph and Tony Investigate
Tuesday, October 11th: Col Reads
Wednesday, October 12th: Regular Rumination
Wednesday, October 12th: The Well-Read Wife

Monday, September 26, 2011


Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud , Dr. John Townsend
Zondervan, 1992
Hardcover, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780310585909

Having clear boundaries is essential to a healthy, balanced lifestyle. A boundary is a personal property line that marks those things for which we are responsible. In other words, boundaries define who we are and who we are not. Boundaries impact all areas of our lives: Physical boundaries help us determine who may touch us and under what circumstances -- Mental boundaries give us the freedom to have our own thoughts and opinions -- Emotional boundaries help us to deal with our own emotions and disengage from the harmful, manipulative emotions of others -- Spiritual boundaries help us to distinguish God's will from our own and give us renewed awe for our Creator -- Often, Christians focus so much on being loving and unselfish that they forget their own limits and limitations. When confronted with their lack of boundaries, they ask: - Can I set limits and still be a loving person? - What are legitimate boundaries? - What if someone is upset or hurt by my boundaries? - How do I answer someone who wants my time, love, energy, or money? - Aren't boundaries selfish? - Why do I feel guilty or afraid when I consider setting boundaries? Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend offer biblically-based answers to these and other tough questions, showing us how to set healthy boundaries with our parents, spouses, children, friends, co-workers, and even ourselves.

My Thoughts:

I've been taking a class this summer on boundaries, based on the book Boundaries by Dr. Henry Cloud and Dr. John Townsend. According to Wikipedia, "Personal Boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify for him- or herself what are reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave around him or her and how he or she will respond when someone steps outside those limits. Personal boundaries define you as an individual. They are statements of what you will or won't do, what you like and don't close someone can get to you."

Setting and communicating our personal boundaries to others allows us to protect ourselves. They allow us to separate who we are as unique individuals, including our thoughts and feelings, from others. They prohibit other people from manipulating, abusing, or using us. Boundaries allow us to preserve our individual integrity. 

Boundaries also prohibit us from taking responsibility for things that are not our responsibility. "No" is not a bad word. Other people need to understand that their actions have consequences. Setting our own personal boundaries can allow others to experience the consequences of their actions and their choices and prohibit them from blaming us for their actions and choices. 

For me, the class has been eye-opening and life-changing. At this point I'm a convert and would suggest that if you have the opportunity to take a class on boundaries, do so - and then start setting them. I'm hardly an expert and could probably benefit from taking the class again in a few months, but at this point I can say with conviction that any abuse, even "just" emotional or verbal, is not okay with me and that I am not responsible for the choices and actions of others. I am responsible for my actions and my choices. Boundaries are freeing.

very highly recommended - along with the classes on video 


Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.

Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom. pg. 29

No is a confrontational word. The Bible says that we are to confront people we love, saying, "No, that behavior is not okay. I will not participate in that." The word no is also important in setting limits on abuse. pg. 34

Sometimes physically removing yourself from a situation will help maintain boundaries.... you can remove yourself to get away from danger and put limits on evil. The Bible urges us to separate from those who continue to hurt us and to create a safe place for ourselves. pg. 35

Behaviors have consequences. As Paul says, "A man reaps what he sows" (Gal. 6:7-8). pg. 41

We need to take responsibility for our choices. This leads to the fruit of "self control" (Gal. 5:23). A common boundary problem is disowning our choices and trying to lay he responsibility for them on someone else.... We need to realize that we are in control of our choices....

Setting boundaries inevitably involves taking responsibility for your choices. You are the one who makes them. You are the one who must live with their consequences. pg. 42-43

Envy defines "good" as "what I do not possess," and hates the good that it has....what is so destructive about this particular sin is that it guarantees that we will not get what we want and keeps us perpetually insatiable and dissatisfied. pg. 97

To a boundary-injured person, people who can say a clear no sometimes seem curt and cold. But as the boundaries become more firm, curt and cold people change into caring, refreshingly honest people. pg. 273

You will begin to see that taking responsibility for yourself is healthy, and you will begin to understand that taking responsibility for other adults is destructive.

When people are treated as objects for long enough, they see themselves as someone else's property...

Grace must come from the outside for us to be able to develop it inside. The opposite side of this truth is that we can't love when we aren't loved. And, taking the thinking further, we can't value or treasure our souls when they haven't been valued or treasured.

This is a key principle. Our basic sense of ourselves, of what is real and true about us, comes from our significant, primary relationships. pg. 275

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Mystic River

Mystic River by Dennis Lehane
Harper Collins Publishers, 2001
Hardcover, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780688163167

When they were children, Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle were friends. But then a strange car drove up their street. One boy got in the car, two did not, and something terrible happened — something that ended their friendship and changed the boys forever. Twenty-five years later, Sean is a homicide detective. Jimmy is an ex-con. And Dave is trying to hold his marriage together and keep his demons at bay — demons that urge him to do horrific things.
When Jimmy's daughter is murdered, Sean is assigned to the case. His investigation brings him into conflict with Jimmy, who finds his old criminal impulses tempt him to solve the crime with brutal justice. And then there is Dave, who came home the night Jimmy's daughter died covered in someone else's blood. While Sean attempts to use the law to return peace and order to the neighborhood, Jimmy finds his need for vengeance pushing him ever closer to a moral abyss from which he won't be able to return.

My Thoughts:
After being made into a movie with a star-studded cast, I would guess that almost everyone either knows or has several good clues about the plot of Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. Since I recently read Lehane's Shutter Island, I knew I'd also be reading Mystic River at some point.  

Mystic River is both a murder mystery and a character study. Set in a blue-collar Boston neighborhood, Mystic River opens in 1975, following ten year old friends Sean Devine, Jimmy Marcus, and Dave Boyle during the time when Dave is kidnapped by a pair of child molesters. Dave escapes, but is changed. Then the novel jumps forward to one week in 2000 when Jimmy's daughter is murdered and Sean is now a homicide investigator for the Massachusetts State Police.
Mystic River is a crime novel, but is more importantly a character study of these men now grown and their wives. It focuses on a crime and the fragile, flawed, damaged characters dealing with their feelings of remorse, grief, revenge, passion, and hopelessness. While dark and moody, it totally captivates the reader and transports you to the neighborhood. You will feel like you are in the Boston neighborhood with these characters and experiencing their uncertainty, grief, guilt, and doubts.
As each of the character's actions seem to indicate guilt or influence the actions or perceptions of the other characters, it soon become clear that Lehane really is a masterful writer. There was no superfluous scene, no extra words, no unnecessary details. Everything was very carefully and skillfully presented right up to the end. You will be asking yourself  "Are all our futures so uncertain, so fragile? Does destiny really all hinge on one action, one event, one decision? Could one decision have changed everything?"
The ending wasn't as big a surprise as Shutter Island, but it was a very satisfying novel.
very highly recommended


When Sean Devine and Jimmy Marcus were kids, their fathers worked together at the Coleman Candy plant and carried the stench of warm chocolate back home with them. It became a permanent character of their clothes, the beds they slept in, the vinyl backs of their car seats. Sean's kitchen smelled like a Fudgsicle, his bathroom like a Coleman Chew-Chew bar. By the time they were eleven, Sean and Jimmy had developed a hatred of sweets so total that they took their coffee black for the rest of their fives and never ate dessert. opening

It wasn't like the Point glittered with gold streets and silver spoons. It was just the Point, working class, blue collar, Chevys and Fords and Dodges parked in front of simple A-frames and the occasional small Victorian. But people in the Point owned. People in the Flats rented. Point families went to church, stayed together, held signs on street corners during election months. The Flats, though, who knew what they did, living like animals sometimes, ten to an apartment, trash in their streets -- Wellieville, Sean and his friends at Saint Mike's called it, families living on the dole, sending their kids to public schools, divorcing. So while Sean went to Saint Mike's Parochial in black pants, black tie, and blue shirt, Jimmy and Dave went to the Lewis M. Dewey School on Blaxston. Kids at the Looey & Dooey got to wear street clothes, which was cool, but they usually wore the same ones three out of five days, which wasn't. There was an aura of grease to them-greasy hair, greasy skin, greasy collars and cuffs. A lot of the boys had bumpy welts of acne and dropped out early. A few of the girls wore maternity dresses to graduation. pg. 4-5
And he was glad, too, once again, that he hadn't gotten in that car.
Damaged goods. That's what Jimmy's father had said to his mother last night: "Even if they find him alive, the kid's damaged goods. Never be the same." pg. 26
For the rest of her life, Diane would wish she'd stayed in that car. She would give birth to a son in less than a year and she'd tell him when he was young (before he became his father, before he became mean, before he drove drunk and ran over a woman waiting to cross the street in the Point) that she believed she was meant to stay in that car, and that by deciding to get out, on a whim, she felt she'd altered something, shaved an overriding sense that her life was spent as a passive observer of other people's tragic impulses, impulses she never did enough to curb. pg. 47-48
And for a quarter second, looking into his face, she felt nauseous. She felt something leering behind his eyes, something turned on and self-congratulatory. pg. 56
The harsh light caught her face, and Sean could see what she'd look like when she was much older - a handsome woman, scarred by wisdom she'd never asked for. pg. 164
"....but it would hit them sooner or later - life isn't happily ever after and golden sunsets and sh*t like that. It's work. The person you love is rarely worthy of how big your love is. Because no one is worthy of that and maybe no one deserves the burden of it, either. You'll be let down. You'll be disappointed and have your trust broken and have a lot of real sucky days. You lose more than you win. You hate the person you love as much as you love him. But, sh*t, you roll up your sleeves and work - at everything - because that's what growing older is." pg. 262

Guest Post by Christopher Meeks

A Guest Post by Christopher Meeks,  
author of  Love At Absolute Zero  

Christopher Meeks began as a playwright and has had three plays produced. Who Lives? A Drama is published. His short stories have been published in Rosebud, The Clackamas Literary Review, The Santa Barbara Review, The Southern California Anthology, The Gander Review, and other journals and are available in two collections, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea and Months and Seasons. He has two novels, The Brightest Moon of the Century, a story that Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews describes as "a great and truly humane novel in the tradition of Charles Dickens and John Irving," and his new comic novel, Love At Absolute Zero.

Thank you, Lori, for joining the Love At Absolute Zero blog tour and for letting me jump in here. You asked me about the research I did to get the scientific details down pat in the novel. Your question coincidentally came on the opening day of the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion, and from an article I read recently in the Los Angeles Times, he had the same goals I had: to get the science right yet not let the science be overwhelming or hijack the story.

As you have in your review, Love At Absolute Zero centers on a physicist using the tools of science to finding a soul mate in three days—which I find funny. One of the things I most adore about writing novels is I get to research and become expert at something that I hadn’t ever thought of being an expert on before. Here, I had to learn quantum physics and then be able to explain it to the average reader. However, before I jump
ahead, let me clarify why Gunnar is a physicist.

When I conceived this novel, I needed my protagonist to work in Denmark for plot reasons, and it’s difficult for Americans to get a work permit there unless no other European can fill the job. Denmark is big into physics as I learned when I’d spent my junior year abroad in Denmark. I lived in a town called Roskilde, and there was an important nuclear research facility there called Risø, which was a part of the Niels Bohr Institute. Some Americans worked for Risø. I’d met them at a local bar, long before I was thinking of this novel.

Once I decided Gunnar would be a physicist, I made him nuclear, and he worked at
Risø—easy enough. Then I’d learned the Danes had outlawed all nuclear facilities in the
late 80’s. He couldn’t be a nuclear physicist. So what would he do? I leaped onto the
Internet and looked up the Niels Bohr Institute. I found the email addresses of many
people who worked there—graduate students, post-docs, researchers, and even the
director of the Institute, Nils O. Andersen. I wrote a handful of them a note explaining I
was a novelist looking to write about a physicist working in Denmark but I had to make
him real. What kind of research might he be doing that year?

The only one who wrote me back was the director, Dr. Andersen, and he was fascinated
by what I was doing. I learned from him that the hottest research topic was in the
ultracold. He and others were exploring what happens to matter near absolute zero.
Atoms become a new form of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate (BEC), which
turns out to be a really strange thing. Many known laws of the universe fall away when
atoms become BECs.

From there, I had to understand the simplest things about the subject, and I found a
great book called Absolute Zero and the Conquest of Cold by Tom Shachtman. I also saw
a great Nova program on Absolute Zero.

I ended up studying more and more history and even using physics textbooks to grasp
how quantum mechanics came about and played into BECs. There’s a wonderful play
called Copenhagen by Michael Frayn about Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg that uses
real science as background, which I found inspiring.

I called on Dr. Andersen several times, as well as scientists I found in America, such as
Dr. Sidney Nagel at the University of Chicago and Dr. Mark Saffman at the University
of Wisconsin, where I’d already decided Gunnar would be working. I knew the Midwest
well, having grown up there. Because my last novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century,
took place in Minnesota, this time it would be Wisconsin. Once I grasped the science,
then I used it to inform my characters.

This takes me to a truth I have about people. What a person does for a living colors the
way he or she looks at the world. Police officers who deal with the more twisted people
in society tend to look at anyone they meet with suspicion. Kindergarten teachers tend
to smile a lot because kids and people are inherently good. And scientists have a certain
sense of logic to them. The physical rules of the universe make things clear, and why
shouldn’t love be observed and quantified and understood?

As I explored quantum physics more and more, I came to understand how Gunnar
might view love from his angle of the way atoms in the ultracold behaved. Atoms in a
BEC no longer have an individual identity. They become a wave—a wave with properties
like no other wave. For me, this became a metaphor for love. Gunnar’s despair at
one point screams so overwhelmingly, it’s as if his soul joins the souls of other love-
saddened people, and they are a single unique wave racing through space.

To build on this, I started every chapter with an epigram, a law of physics that might
connect to the emotions that Gunnar experiences in that chapter. I didn’t expect most
readers to catch onto this—that it’s an extra, simply there for the taking. However, when
I gave my first polished draft to several trusted readers including my mother and father,
who are very intelligent readers, they didn’t get what I was doing with the epigrams.

My goal is to communicate, so with a few more drafts, I played with those epigrams,
moved them around in some cases or found better ones, and I hired a fantastic editor,
Lynn Hightower, who happens to teach fiction at UCLA Extension, as I do. She teaches
a master class in fiction where she makes her students outline their books after they’d
written a draft. As my editor, she suggested that some of my epigrams might go outside
of physics—to psychology or religion, for instance. Some might even be funny.

Hightower gets my humor, so this was what I needed. With her, I played more with

the epigrams. I cut out some chapters for pacing and added two characters, Gunnar’s
research partners, for more comic possibilities. The last thing I did is change the ending.
After all the drafts I did, I wasn’t happy with the end. It was too pragmatic, and if
Gunnar learns anything, love isn’t neat and tidy. The end couldn’t be true to scientific
logic, but it had to be true to love. In one clear vision, it came to me. I’m pleased that the
reviewers agree.

The science in the book is real, but it’s simply background in understanding who Gunnar
is. If plumbers and lawyers and hairdressers can fall in love, why not a physicist? It’s
meant to be a fun book, and if you learn something about the universe along the way,
that’s not so bad.

Thank you so much Christopher and Virtual Author Book Tours!
Be sure to check out the links below for more information and links to more reviews and giveaways:

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Love At Absolute Zero

Love At Absolute Zero by Christopher Meeks
White Whisker Books, 2011
Trade Paperback, 312 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0983632917
Love At Absolute Zero is the story of Gunnar Gunderson, a 32-year-old physicist at the University of Wisconsin. The moment he's given tenure at the university, he can only think of one thing: finding a wife. This causes his research to falter. With his two partners, Gunnar is in a race against MIT to create new forms of matter called Bose-Einstein condensates, which exist only near absolute zero. To meet his soul mate within three days--that's what he wants and all time he can carve out--he and his team are using the scientific method, to riotous results.

My Thoughts:
In Love At Absolute Zero by Christopher Meeks the plot is really quite simple: boy wants to meet girl. In this case the boy is 32 year old Wisconsin physicist Gunnar Gunderson. Gunnar gets tenure and decides he needs a wife. He consults with his research partners and they chart a course of action for him to find his soul mate in three days - which is all the time they are able to devote to the search while keeping to their research schedule. 

The premise behind Christopher Meeks's novel Love At Absolute Zero intrigued me right from the start. I know scientifically inclined geeks rather well and will admit that I could totally see one of them seriously consider using the scientific method to find a mate. Their seriousness and ability to immerse themselves in their research combined with taking a similar approach to finding a wife is where I imagined the hilarity would ensue. I was not disappointed.

Since readers of She Treads Softly know I like science in my science fiction, you will understand my curiosity when I wondered how would Meeks approach incorporating science in an purely entertaining novel. (Be sure to come back tomorrow for a guest post by Christopher Meeks where he addresses my question about the research he did to get the scientific details down pat in the novel.) I applaud Meeks for doing an admirable job keeping the science real while at the same time not bogging down the entertaining aspects of the novel with too much information about the science.

At the opening of each chapter is a quote or law that relates to physics or science in some manner. Pay attention to them because they enhance the humor in Gunnar's search. Chapter Five opens with: "If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" -Albert Einstein. Chapter Seven: "The great tragedy of science: the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." -English Biologist Thomas H. Huxley. Chapter Twenty-one: "An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field." -Neils Bohr. (As many of you know, I love good quotes!)

I found Love at Absolute Zero a very quick, entertaining, and enjoyable novel. He's also quite grounded in the real world, for example mentioning the site, and, of course speed dating. While I will admit to one minor quibble with the novel, the sheer humor and originality more than made up for it. My minor criticism is that the scientific geeks I know also all have very well developed vocabularies that they use without hesitation. As a character Gunnar was rather plain spoken in comparison to some real life counterparts. 

However, my minor complaint was all but erased when yet another funny scene occurred. My absolute favorite is in the quotes below and concerns the physicists visiting the Humanities department. Not that the novel is all humor. It is actually quite serious at times, but Meeks is a clever writer and has perfect timing - he knows when the reader needs a bit of levity to lighten up the mood. Actually, Love At Absolute Zero should be adapted to a screen play. The timing in the novel would perfectly suit a romantic comedy.
Highly Recommended

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.
Please note that the Kindle and Nook versions of the book to .99 cents for the duration of the tour. 

Come back tomorrow for a guest post by author Christopher Meeks! Be sure to visit the other Virtual Author Book Tours blogs for more reviews and opportunities to win a copy of Love At Absolute Zero


Gunnar didn't know that rushing to this meeting would become the first falling domino to lead him to the bathroom floor - but there were many steps ahead and things he might do to miss the bathroom floor. some people, strict determinists, might say that our first breath in the world sets up all that follows. Others talk about destiny. Still others argue free will. Gunnar didn't particularly like philosophy. It was too imprecise. Science was better, and he was happy with science. pg. 8-9

One screen was reserved for word processing, which included his upcoming assignments for his classes as well as a paper he was writing about strontium condensates that he'd told Jeet about. The condensates were Bose-Einstein condensates, a state of matter so rare, its properties baffled many scientists. Atoms at such low temperatures lost their individuality and physical properties, going through an identity crisis. pg. 17

He knew the way to find the right person. He should use the same approach that had always served him well: the scientific method. Use the scientific method for love. pg. 32

"Attraction and connection can't be explained any more than sunspots," said Harry. "It's about chaos."
"Anything can be explained by the scientific method," said Carl, disagreeing. "Even love."
"There has to be a science behind companionship," Gunnar said.
"You sound like Einstein saying God doesn't play with dice."
"Does this have to do with your getting tenure?" said Carl. "After I earned mine, and I was forty, I just wanted to settle down. It's how I met Jolene."
"I don't remember. She found me, I think. There's an idea of pheromones, that we put out our whiffs of desire, and women sense these things. Women sense everything, believe me." pg. 36

"There has to be a science behind sex attraction," said Gunnar. "We need the data. We're scientists. We can do this."
The other two nodded readily. "I think we can do this," said Carl.  
"We can do this," said Harry. "Three days."
"So where do we start?" said Carl.
"I know one place for answers," said Gunnar. "The humanities."
Harry loudly whispered the words "the Humanities," as if they were deep and dark, never to be mentioned.
"The theatre, specifically," said Gunnar. "That's what plays are about, right? Love?"
Both Harry and Carl shrugged their shoulders, and Harry said, "We don't know what plays are about." pg. 49

"This is how most men walk who are not dating," said Harry, and he stepped quickly and purposefully, his shoulders not moving at all. It was Gunnar's normal walk. "And this is how men on the make do it." Harry slowed down, put strut into his amble and his shoulders moved side to side.
"That looks fakey," said Gunnar.
"You don't see men do this?" asked Harry.
"Some of my male students, I suppose, but I always thought they were just from California." pg. 67
Raging Bibliomania                Sept. 12th        
Alive on the Shelves                Sept 13            
Book Briefs                              Sept. 14 & Sept. 15
Booksie's Blog                         Sept. 16           
A Casual Reader's Blog         Sept.19 & Sept 20
She Treads Softly                    Sept. 21 & Sept 22
This Miss Loves to Read        Sept. 22           
From the TBR Pile                   Sept 23            
Butterfly-o-meter Books          Sept.26  &  Sept. 27
The Book Addict                      Sept 28th & Sept 29th
Lit Endeavors                           Sept. 30           
Books and Needlepoint           Oct. 5              
My Bookshelf                            Oct 6 & Oct. 7
Gabriel Reads                           Oct. 10 & Oct. 11
Dan's Journal                            Oct. 11 & Oct. 12
Words I Write Crazy                 Oct. 12            
Ramblings of a Daydreamer   Oct. 13 & Oct. 14
Drey's Library                  Oct. 14 

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Ava's Man

Ava's Man by Rick Bragg
Random House, copyright 2001
Trade Paperback, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780375724442
Very Highly Recommended

The Pulitzer Prize–winning author of All Over but the Shoutin’ continues his personal history of the Deep South with an evocation of his mother’s childhood in the Appalachian foothills during the Great Depression, and the magnificent story of the man who raised her.
Charlie Bundrum was a roofer, a carpenter, a whiskey-maker, a fisherman who knew every inch of the Coosa River, made boats out of car hoods and knew how to pack a wound with brown sugar to stop the blood. He could not read, but he asked his wife, Ava, to read him the paper every day so he would not be ignorant. He was a man who took giant steps in rundown boots, a true hero whom history would otherwise have overlooked.
In the decade of the Great Depression, Charlie moved his family twenty-one times, keeping seven children one step ahead of the poverty and starvation that threatened them from every side. He worked at the steel mill when the steel was rolling, or for a side of bacon or a bushel of peaches when it wasn’t. He paid the doctor who delivered his fourth daughter, Margaret—Bragg’s mother—with a jar of whiskey. He understood the finer points of the law as it applied to poor people and drinking men; he was a banjo player and a buck dancer who worked off fines when life got a little sideways, and he sang when he was drunk, where other men fought or cussed. He had a talent for living.

My Thoughts:

In Ava's Man Rick Bragg has written a unique tribute to his maternal grandfather, Charlie Bundrum, a man he never knew but one he learned about through the stories of others.  Bragg introduces us to Charlie through the carefully written anecdotes he has collected from those who knew Charlie personally. Charlie was a husband, father, roofer, and bootlegger. He was a man who lived by his own personal code in a specific area and place in time.

Charlie Bundrum was "so beloved, so missed, that the mere mention of his death would make them [his grown daughters] cry forty-two years after he was preached into the sky."(pg. 9) "He grew up in hateful poverty, fought it all his life and died with nothing but a family that worshiped him and a name that gleams like new money." (pg. 12) Bragg said that he wrote this book in response to those who told him that he "short-shrifted them in the first book, especially about Charlie, about Ava, about their children" (pg.13) After Bragg's  All Over but the Shoutin' readers wanted to know more about the people who were his mother's parents.

In this tribute to his grandfather, Bragg has crafted an amazing, descriptive portrait of his grandfather, a man who lived in crushing poverty during the Depression. He protected his children at all costs. He liked to drink the "likker" he distilled, yet he was a drinker who would laugh rather than get angry. "Even as a boy, he thought people who steal were trash, real trash. 'And a man who'll lie,' he said, even back then, 'will steal.' " (pg. 53) 

This biography of Charlie Bundrum is a truly amazing tribute. Bragg's use of language clearly evokes the time and place as well as establishing the characters. This is a memoir that could have become maudlin, but I really think that the quality of Bragg's writing sustains the narrative and elevates it above the ordinary. This is a genuine, honest, portrait of the grandfather Bragg never knew except through the stories of others and a book that should be treasured for generations to come.
Very Highly Recommended - one of the best


A man like Charles Bundrum doesn't leave much else, not a title or property, not even letters in the attic. There's just stories, all told second- and thirdhand, as long as somebody remembers. The thing to do, if you can, is write them down on new paper. pg. 18
Ava met him at a box-lunch auction outside Gadsden, Alabama, when she was barely fifteen, when a skinny boy in freshly washed overalls stepped from the crowd of bidders, pointed to her and said, “I got one dollar, by God.” In the evening they danced in the grass to a fiddler and banjo picker, and Ava told all the other girls she was going to marry that boy someday, and she did. But to remind him that he was still hers, after the cotton rows aged her and the babies came, she had to whip a painted woman named Blackie Lee.

Maybe it isn’t quite right to say that she whipped her. To whip somebody, down here, means there was an altercation between two people, and somebody, the one still standing, won. This wasn’t that. This was a beatin’, and it is not a moment that glimmers in family history. But of all the stories I was told of their lives together, this one proves how Ava loved him, and hated him, and which emotion won out in the end.

Charlie Bundrum was what women here used to call a purty man, a man with thick, sandy hair and blue eyes that looked like something you would see on a rich woman’s bracelet. His face was as thin and spare as the rest of him, and he had a high-toned, chin-in-the-air presence like he had money, but he never did. His head had never quite caught up with his ears, which were still too big for most human beings, but the women of his time were not particular as to ears, I suppose. pg. 19-20

All my life, I have heard the people of the foothills described as poor, humble people, and I knew that was dead wrong. My people were, surely, poor, but they were seldom humble. Charlie sure wasn’t, and his daddy wasn’t, and I suspect that his daddy’s daddy wasn’t humble a bit. And Ava, who married into that family, was no wilting flower, either. A little humility, a little meekness of spirit, might have spared us some pain, over the years, but the sad truth is, it’s just not in us. With the exception of my own mother, maybe, it never was.

For a family so often poor, we have, for a hundred years or more, refused to adapt our character very much. But then, if we had been willing to change just a little bit, we never would have gotten here in the first place.

We are here because our ancestors were too damn hardheaded to adapt, to assimilate. We are here because someone with a name very much like Bundrum picked a fight with the King of France, and the Church of Rome.  pg. 26-27

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Carry Yourself Back to Me

Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed
AmazonEncore, September 2011
Advanced Reading Copy, 303 pages
ISBN-13: 9781935597674

With a broken heart, a stalled career, and a troubled family, singer-songwriter Annie Walsh seeks refuge at her secluded home, surrounded by a lush Florida tangelo grove and the company of her old dog Detour. But a crime connected to her brother Calder threatens to tear her family apart, and Annie is forced to shore up her loyalties and question some profound disappointments of her past. From the ever-changing present, where each hour brings an unforeseen piece of news, to the poignant childhood days of first allegiances and life-changing losses, circumstances converge and Annie steps out to lull the listener into this soulful, stirring journey like a fine and forlorn love ballad. Carry Yourself Back to Me cultivates an often tender, sometimes tart world of love and loss. Inflected with melancholy and redeemed by melody, this deeply affecting story is certain to strike a resonant chord in the heart.

My Thoughts:
Carry Yourself Back to Me by Deborah Reed is the story of singer/songwriter Annie Walsh. Annie has secluded herself at her home in Florida after being abandoned by her lover, Owen, six months ago. This also caused her to be estranged from her brother, Calder. Calder tries to mend their relationship but he is then accused of murdering his girlfriend's husband.
This is author Deborah Reed's first literary novel. She writes suspense fiction under the penname Audrey Braun. Reed includes several mysteries and questions that must be answered in this novel, as well as a lot of introspective musing, reflection on memories, and pondering the meaning of life. There is more going on under the surface than outward appearances would indicate. 
Stylistically, Reed is a good writer. While I will effortlessly concede that the writing is thoughtful and contemplative, and that the descriptions evoke a real sense of place, I would be remiss if I didn't also confess that I had a few problems with Carry Yourself Back to Me. To be honest, I found all the characters whiny and too self absorbed. It was like a stereotypical country song where everything goes wrong, everyone is cheating, and then your dog dies. All of this made the plot feel contrived to me. Apparently bad things have targeted this group of people and they have had it all happen to them.
Carry Yourself Back to Me just felt way too morose and desolate to me. However, with a nod to Reed, the quality of the actual writing kept me reading to see what happened in the end. Once I reached the ending, it felt implausible, but I suppose it neatly tied up all the loose ends of the plot. My issues with the novel may be more indicative of my frame of mind than of the merits of the novel itself. I would say that this novel is a bit more "chick lit" than I normally read. 
Recommended - especially if you tend to like introspective chick lit.
Disclosure: I received an advance reading copy of this novel for review purposes.
Since my copy is an ARC, I have quoted the opening of the book from The Nervous Breakdown:
Annie lifts her father’s old binoculars off the porch. Out past the cornfield a lime-colored pickup idles in the fog of Mrs. Lanie’s tangelo grove next door. The driver’s side hangs open, but no one is behind the wheel. Clutter juts from the truck bed, vapor rises from the tailpipe. Annie knows most of Mrs. Lanie’s pickers, but she doesn’t know this truck.

A ridiculous thought occurs to her. Owen’s come back. He’s sneaking through the grove and coming around the back of the house to surprise her. He’ll cup her eyes from behind and say something stupid like, “Guess who needs glasses?” Or “Who turned out the lights?”

It’s early. She hasn’t brushed her teeth or concealed her dark circles. She hasn’t washed her hair or even pulled it back. The ropey ends catch on her mouth as she sips her coffee. She scans the grove for the shape of a person stealing tangelos. There’s no one she can see.

The last thing Annie wants to do is think about Owen. But it’s like one foot tumbling over a slippery edge of earth the way she unexpectedly falls again and again into the same opening. Her thoughts have become flimsy, sentimental, throwaway songs. Nursery rhymes. Where oh where have you gone?

Steam rises to her lashes from the coffee stalled at her lips. She lowers the cup and presses its warmth into her chest, into the pocket of chilled bare skin above the zipper of her fleece.

It’s not as if their five years together were perfect. They were riddled with rough patches, cruel things slipping from their mouths. She watches the fog shift over the field and remembers all those brassy, merciless words. No doubt she’d use them again, given the chance.

The problem is the nights she couldn’t sleep for all the pleasure rushing through her. The malty scent of his skin, like freshly cut grain, something meant to be eaten. The feel of his cuff brushing her wrist made her greedy for sex and food and music to be played even louder. She’d spent years floundering in smoky, mediocre venues hoping for a crowd to show, and suddenly, here was her muse, her good luck charm, making her old hopes seem puny, amateurish in comparison to what she had with him.

She can’t forget this is the porch where most of the songs for Gull on a Steeple were written. Detour the same old dog that howled at the harmonica. These Adirondack chairs the ones whose red paint Annie and Owen wore away from so much use. Annie circles the rings of coffee and wine with her finger, the oily bug spray sealed into the arms like evidence of mornings, evenings, late nights spent trying to get it right. He made an honest-to-God singer-songwriter out of her. She made a sought-after music producer out of him. Rolling Stone declared Gull on a Steeple “An instant classic filled with vivid tales of love and loss without the slightest hint of sentimentality.” Depression magazine claimed, “Annie Walsh’s painful, clear-eyed, storied songs are woven with a voice reminiscent of the great Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams, and Aimee Mann, all spun into one.” The comparisons flattered her for the first few minutes, but after that and ever since she’s done nothing but worry about measuring up. Even when Entertainment Weekly came along and knocked her down to something of a Disney production. “A sprightly, nearly elfin frame that charms its way across the stage and into your heart.”

Now it’s hard to even listen to music, let alone play it.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Model Home

Model Home by Eric Puchner
Scribner 2010
Hardcover, 360 pages
ISBN-13: 9780743270489

Warren Ziller moved his family to California in search of a charmed life and to all appearances, he found it: a gated community not far from the beach, amid the affluent splendor of Southern California in the 80s.But his American dream has been rudely interrupted.  Despite their affection for each other—the “slow, jokey, unrehearsed vaudeville” they share at home—Warren, his wife Camille, and their three children have veered into separate lives, as distant as satellites.  Worst of all, Warren has squandered the family’s money on a failing real estate venture.
When tragedy strikes, the Zillers are forced to move to one of the houses in Warren’s abandoned development in the middle of the desert. Marooned in a less-than-model home, each must reckon with what’s led them there and who’s to blame—and whether they can summon the forgiveness needed to hold them together.  Subtly ambitious, brimming with the humor and unpredictability of life, Model Home delivers penetrating insights into the American family and into the imperfect ways we try to connect, from a writer “uncannily in tune with the heartbreak and absurdity of domestic life” (Los Angeles Times).
My Thoughts:

Model Home is Eric Puchner's debut novel about a family dealing with failure. A failed real estate venture sends Warren Ziller's family into an economic down turn, but, truthfully, the family was already disjointed and spiraling out of control and away from any connection with each other before their American dream became a nightmare. Model Home  opens in the summer of 1985, right after Warren's car has been repossessed, but before his family knows the truth about he family's financial condition.
Each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character, mainly Ziller family members. This includes Warren, Camille (his wife), Lyle (daughter), Dustin and Jonas (sons). Even while their illusions of happiness slip away from them, the reader will realize that the Zillers were never happy to begin with. The novel is alternately  depressing, and heartbreaking. There are funny moments, but they are few and far between. And the depressing addition of the diminished capacity of the family's dog was more than I could take
Puchner is certainly a talented writer whose ability elevated this tale about a dysfunctional family above the norm, however, in the end I didn't feel like Model Home  broke any new ground. The characters felt stereotypical, flat, and emotionally stunted. The good news is that this was a debut novel, which makes Puchner a writer to watch.
highly recommended for the writing, but be forewarned that it is a depressing story

Two days after his car—an ’85 Chrysler LeBaron with leather seats and all-power accessories—vanished from the driveway, Warren Ziller crept past the expensive homes of his neighbors, trying to match his dog’s limp. opening

A guilty hush came over the table. In the silence, Warren had a chance to take in the spectacle of his children: Dustin, his college-bound son, shirtless as usual and eating an Egg McMuffin he must have picked up on the way home from surfing, preparing for another deafening day of band practice in the garage; Lyle, his redheaded, misanthropic daughter, sixteen years old and wearing a T-shirt with DEATH TO SANDWICHES stenciled on the front, her latest protest against corporate advertising; Jonas, eleven and haunted by death . . . what could he say about Jonas? Every morning he poured granola in his bowl and then spent five minutes picking out all the raisins and dates, only to sprinkle them back on top. He liked to know where they were so “they wouldn’t surprise him.” Today he was wearing an orange windbreaker over a matching orange shirt. Warren felt something brush his heart, a draft of despair. He glanced under the table: orange corduroys, and—glaring conspicuously above Jonas’s Top-Siders—coral-colored socks.  pg. 4-5

“Maybe it’s the same guy who stole the Chrysler,” Dustin said. “I doubt it. Car thieves don’t generally abduct people.” Warren said this without batting an eye. There were surfboards leaning undisturbed in all their neighbors’ yards, yet Warren’s family had believed him when he’d said the Chrysler was stolen. It dismayed him, how easy it had been. A fake call to the police, a trip downtown to file a report. (The truth was he’d spent the afternoon at the office.) He’d smoothed any wrinkles of doubt by telling them there were bands of crooks who specialized in gated communities, knowing that people left their keys in the car. “Sitting ducks,” he’d called the families of Herradura Estates.

In truth, Warren had been in denial about the Chrysler. He’d hoped—despite the fact that he hadn’t made a payment in six months, had ignored the bill collector’s increasingly terse and belligerent notices—that the lender might just forget the whole business. Instead the men had come at night, while Warren was asleep. He’d gone out to the driveway with Mr. Leonard and found a dark drool of oil where his car had been. And the stain was only a herald of things to come. There was the furniture, the new Maytag washer, the house itself. 

Dustin finished his breakfast, licking some grease that had run down his wrist. It was such a boyish gesture, so casually innocent, that the taste of fear eased back down Warren’s throat. He would protect this innocence at all costs. If that meant lying to his family until he found a way out of this mess, so be it. pg. 5-6

She was a Midwesterner in the way Blackbeard was a pirate: iconic to the species.  pg. 7

Monday, September 5, 2011


Kraken by China Miéville
Random House, 2010
Hardcover, 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345497499
highly recommended

British fantasist Miéville mashes up cop drama, cults, popular culture, magic, and gods in a Lovecraftian New Weird caper sure to delight fans of Perdido Street Station and The City & the City. When a nine-meter-long dead squid is stolen, tank and all, from a London museum, curator Billy Harrow finds himself swept up in a world he didn't know existed: one of worshippers of the giant squid, animated golems, talking tattoos, and animal familiars on strike. Forced on the lam with a renegade kraken cultist and stalked by cops and crazies, Billy finds his quest to recover the squid sidelined by questions as to what force may now be unleashed on an unsuspecting world. Publishers Weekly
My Thoughts:
Kraken by China Miéville is definitely in his New Weird genre. Set in a London you won't recognize (reminiscent of Un Lun Dun and The City and the City) Miéville has created a totally new and weird world full of myths, cultists, magic, and murder. In the opening of Kraken, Billy Harrow, a cephalopod specialist at the Darwin Centre at London’s Natural History Museum is giving a tour when the prize specimen, Architeuthis dux, or the giant squid and the tank it is preserved in are discovered to be missing.
This crime results in Billy's introduction to a previously hidden population of London, including a cult of squid worshippers (the Congregation of God Kraken), the criminal mastermind called Tattoo (who is literally a tattoo), the FSRC (the Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime Unit), Wati (a spirit from ancient Egypt), and Londonmancers. The most terrifying characters, feared by everyone, are the violent duo Goss and Subby, a malevolent old man and a seemingly simple boy. The theft of the squid has somehow set into motion an apocalypse... or two.
Kraken's roots are firmly planted in geek culture. It is both satire and parody. There are lots of references and allusions to various science fiction stories and shows, both the new and classic. There are prototypical characters found in almost all science fiction and fantasy novels, but Miéville's characters are all given a different little twist. Actually, the supporting cast of characters is so varied that it can threaten to overshadow the main characters.

Miéville's eloquent prose continues here. Readers have to pay careful attention to his word choice and descriptions. Sometimes this made reading Kraken feel like work rather than pleasure - until another little gem of a description or word play came up and then I appreciated the care taken in the word choices. Still, at over 500 pages, sometimes a reader will want a break from quite so much thought needed. (Or perhaps my week of work made me want more pure pleasure in the reading rather than careful consideration of the specific words.)
I did feel that Kraken could have been edited down a bit for length. There were a few places where the plot seemed to stall and wander aimlessly. Admittedly, Miéville did get it back under control quickly, but still the places where the plot seemed to meander were evident. All in all, though, I still enjoy Miéville and am going to read more of his previous novels. 
Highly Recommended

An everyday doomsayer in sandwich-board abruptly walked away from what over the last several days had been his pitch, by the gates of a museum. The sign on his front was an old-school prophecy of the end: the one bobbing on his back read forget it. opening

"Can I just . . . ?" he said. "Let me explain about what'll happen when we're in there." Billy had evolved his own pointless idio-superstitions, according to one of which it was bad luck for anyone to speak the name of what they were all there for, before they reached it.
"I'm going to show you a bunch of the places we work," he said lamely. "Any questions, you can ask me at the end: we're a little bit time constrained. Let's get the tour done first."
No curator or researcher was obliged to perform this guide-work. But many did. Billy no longer grumbled when it was his turn.
They went out and through the garden, approaching the Darwin with a building site on one side and the brick filigrees of the Natural History Museum on the other. pg. 5

There were children: mostly young boys, shy and beside themselves with excitement, and vastly knowledgeable about what they saw. There were their parents. There were sheepish people in their twenties, as geeky-eager as the kids. There were their girlfriends and boyfriends, performing patience. A few tourists on an unusual byway.
And there were the obsessives.
They were the only people who knew more than the young children. Sometimes they did not speak: sometimes they would interrupt Billy's explanations with too-loud questions, or correct him on scientific detail with exhausting fussy anxiety. He had noticed more of such visitors than usual in the last several weeks. pg. 6

Everyone would be staring at the great tank in the centre of the room.
This was what they came for, that pinkly enormous thing. For all its immobility; the wounds of its slow-motion decay, the scabbing that clouded its solution; despite its eyes being shrivelled and lost; its sick colour; despite the twist in its skein of limbs, as if it were being wrung out. For all that, it was what they were there for.It would hang, an absurdly massive tentacled sepia event. Architeuthis dux. The giant squid. pg. 8

But this time when he opened the door he stopped, and stared for several seconds. The visitors came in behind him, stumbling past his immobility. They waited, unsure of what they were being shown.
The centre of the room was empty. All the jars looked over the scene of a crime. The nine-metre tank, the thousands of gallons of brine-Formalin, the dead giant squid itself were gone.  pg. 10

That wasn't the only reason Billy glanced repeatedly behind him. He thought he heard a noise. A very faint clattering, a clanking like a dropped and rolling beaker. It was not the first time he had heard that. He had been catching little snips of such misplaced sound at random moments since a year after he had started at the centre. More than once he had, trying to find the cause, opened a door onto an empty room, or heard a faint grind of glass in a hallway no one could have entered. pg. 13

Billy had bad dreams. He was not the only one. There was no way yet he could know that night sweats were citywide. Hundreds of people who did not know each other, who did not compare their symptoms, slept harried. It was not the weather. pg. 18

"We're the bloody cult squad, Harrow," Baron said. "Why d'you think we we're called in? Who do you think's responsible for what's going on?"
"Teuthies." Vardy smiled. "Worshippers of the giant squid." pg. 41

"That's what gets converts these days," Baron said. "It's a buyer's market in apocalypse. What's hot in heresy's Armageddon." pg. 53