Review of “The Madonna and The Starship by James Morrow

James Morrow writes very entertaining Kurt-Vonnegut-esque type dark comedies employing a lot of satire, especially of the religious variety.

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This latest book takes place in the 1950’s and centers on protagonist Kurt Jastrow, an aspiring dramatist who earns a living as a pulp-fiction science fiction writer. Currently he is head writer for a schlocky tri-weekly science fiction adventure series, “Brock Barton and His Rocket Rangers.” He also stars in a ten-minute epilogue at the end of each installment, “Uncle Wonder’s Attic,” in which he guides a young kid through a scientific experiment suggested by that week’s Brock Barton episode.

Jastrow’s mediocre existence is jolted when he gets a message from two blue lobster-like creatures from the planet Qualimosa. They announce they are coming to see him because they love his program, and want to present him with the “Zorningorg Prize”. They also intend to exterminate the pockets of irrationality throughout the universe, which means destroying all viewers of another program on the same network, a weekly religious series “Not By Bread Alone.”

Jastrow, along with the religious program’s writer/producer and babe Connie Osborne, conspire to come up with a satirical script that will convince the Qualimosans that “Not By Bread Alone” is actually exposing the illogic of religion rather than valorizing it. They write a script called “The Madonna and The Starship,” which is very amusing, and they succeed in saving the Earth.

The book has lots of funny bits, such as this one:

Connie: “Let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that these crustaceans are exactly what they say they are. Somewhere beyond our solar system lies a planet of logical positivists. … I hope your Qualimosans aren’t typical of alien races. What could be more boring than a galaxy run by Bertrand Russell?”

And then there is the need to placate the sponsors’ during the airing of “The Madonna and The Starship,” resulting in this scene (that results in a sharp uptake in sales for these products):

Jesus: “Eat these measures of Sugar Corn Pops … for they are my body.”

Brock: “You know, Jesus, the great thing about Sugar Corn Pops is that it’s got the sweenenin’ already on it….”

Jesus: ‘Most impressive,’ Jesus replied, methodically distributing eight mugs of warm, chocolate-flavored beverage. ‘Drink this Ovaltine, for it is my blood.’”

There is also a bit of a surprise twist to the ending, so that even non-atheists will be pleased.

Evaluation: If you love satire and aren’t offended by writing that makes gentle fun of religion, this short book has many laugh-out-loud moments. Morrow has won a number of awards for his work, and is worth getting to know. (My two personal favorites are This Is The Way the World Ends, 1985, and Towing Jehovah, 1994.)

Rating: 3/5

Published by Tachyon Publications, 2014

Review of “The Remedy for Love” by Bill Roorbach

This is a deeply moving, powerful story that explores love and intimacy in the face of loneliness, fear and loss. It begins at the onset of a huge blizzard in Maine. Eric, a 34-year old lawyer separated from his wife Alison (at her initiative), helps a young homeless-looking woman get her groceries to her cabin in the woods, and then the two of them get stuck there as the storm worsens.

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The woman, Danielle, 28, is thin, unkempt, and bruised; clearly she is frightened of Eric and keeps telling him her husband Jimmy will be back any moment. Eric has no wish to take advantage of Danielle even as he knows Jimmy couldn’t get home if he tried, no more than Eric can get out. So Eric and Danielle try to make the best of the situation – each in their own way. Over the course of their confinement, a strange and wonderful intimacy develops between them. It turns out they each need rescuing, and they come up with an unusual way to make it happen.

Discussion: There is some beautifully crafted and evocative writing in this book. When Eric looks out from the cabin at the falling snow:

…gazing long, [he] admired the birches bowed in fair arcs on the far bank, balsam firs like court ladies in tiered dresses, green emerging only darkly from the strange humps where whole jungles of alder ought to be.”

And how perfectly illuminating when Eric contemplates what went wrong with his marriage, thinking about how he and Alison started to argue about the minutest factual things:

…these two people who deeply agreed on everything getting as hot over details of their orthodoxy as the old protestant pastors, nuanced positions breaking the church of their romance into splinters and then splinters of splinters, sharp things to be deployed at any time.”

Or this stunning passage, when Eric begins to notice Danielle’s odd appeal:

Something startling in the shapes her clavicles made, not that he was looking. She’d startled him all day with her strange, retractable beauty, like a cat’s claws.”

Evaluation: This is a lovely book. I was reminded a great deal of Tom McNeal’s To Be Sung Underwater. The ending here is much more uplifting, but the adult exploration of the nature of love is similar. I definitely want to read the books he has written previously. Highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Algonquin Books, 2014

Review of “The Doubt Factory” by Paolo Bacigalupi

This is a story that reads for all the world like a horrible dystopia, but is based on facts that are all too real. Bacigalupi credits the 2008 article by Michelle Nijhuis, called “The Doubt Makers” for the inspiration of the story, and for much of the non-fiction content. In essence, Nijhuis exposes how businesses systematically cast doubt on scientific studies that might interfere with their profit-making enterprises, allowing many dangerous commodities to stay on the market long after they should have been banned.

[This process still goes on, of course. As scientist Seth Darling, author of a new book on climate change, writes, in spite of an overwhelming consensus among scientists that our planet is warming and that we are primarily to blame, mainstream news outlets still provide substantial airtime to skeptics. He observes: “Because the mass media have propped up a false debate, the general public is understandably confused.” Many of these so-called skeptics are actually paid for their "testimony," and it is this manipulation that is the focus of Bacigalupi's novel.]

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The author does a good job of making a weaving a compelling plot out of this disturbing practice. He creates a group of talented teenagers, each of whom has experienced a death in his or her family because of unsafe products that should not have been allowed to stay on the market. Calling themselves “2.0” and led by Moses Cruz, they are working together to try to stop further risks to public health. They have targeted the biggest enabling PR firm, Banks Strategy Partners. Simon Banks and his business partner George Saamsi help put together reports, testimony, and controversy for companies with potentially lethal merchandise, in order to delay punitive government action. The 2.0 group wants to convince Alix, Simon’s daughter, to help them get into her father’s records so they can (hopefully) interest the media. It is not an easy job: Alix has no idea what her dad really does, but she loves him, and has a hard time believing he would help companies put so many lives at risk for the sake of greed.

And Alix isn’t the only one needing convincing. “Status quo is easy to sell,” one of the 2.0 group says. “You can’t con someone who doesn’t want to be conned, and you can’t wake up someone who doesn’t want to wake up.”

But Alix is drawn to Moses, and also wants to know what the truth is about her father. What she doesn’t realize is that the power and money behind these corporations could threaten her life, as well as the lives of others in the group.

Bacigalupi previously tackled the nefarious side of corporate greed in his story for middle graders, Zombie Baseball Beatdown, but that book ended on a more upbeat (and unfortunately more unrealistic) note than this book for older readers.

Evaluation: Bacigalupi successfully integrates his info-dumping into an interesting and suspenseful scenario. He is a consistently intelligent and compassionate writer.

In addition, I really like the fact that this is a very diverse group of teens, but the focus is on what unites them rather than their physical or gender-related differences.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Little Brown Books for Young Readers, a member of the Hachette Book Group, 2014

Review of “Germania” by Simon Winder

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

I enjoyed Simon Winder’s book Danubia enough to seek out his earlier combination travelogue/history, Germania – a “personal response,” as he calls it, to German history.

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Writing “German” history prior to 1871 presents a daunting task because before that date there was no country known as “Germany.” The land we think of as Germany was composed of numerous principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, and independent city-states that popped in and out of existence owing to the vagaries of hereditary suzerainty and noble marriages. Winder notes that successive historical maps of the country resemble nothing so much as “an explosion in a jigsaw factory.” He does not undertake to present a chronological narrative; rather, he travels around the countryside and regales the reader with stories relevant to the place he is visiting, although the history still manages to be presented in roughly chronological order.

Winder is not one to make heroes of long-gone historical characters. Of Charlemagne he writes:

As usual with such leaders, historians – who are generally rather introverted and mild individuals – tend to wish Charlemagne to be at heart keen on jewels, saints’ relics and spreading literacy, whereas an argument might be made for his core competence being the efficient piling-up of immense numbers of dead Saxons.”

Rather, the “heroes” of Winder’s story are the Free Imperial Cities such as Strasburg , Nuremberg, and the Hanseatic League that endured the middle ages as independent entities fostering trade and cosmopolitan values.

Winder breaks off his history in 1933 with the rise of the Nazis, avoiding not only the nastiest period in German history, but also its remarkable economic recovery after World War II. But he does manage to get in a few jabs at modern Germany, as with his exploration of what it means to “be” German, spoofing the Nazi’s efforts to create a pure Aryan race. After a short summary of the shifts of various unrelated tribes over the territory for about a thousand years, he says, “In practice Germany is a chaotic ethnic lost-property office, and the last place to be looking for ‘pure blood.’” Indeed, he sees German reverence for their deep past as having a corrosive and disastrous effect:

There can be few stronger arguments for the damage that can be done by paying too much attention to history than how Germany has understood and taught its ancient past, however aesthetically pleasurable it can be in operas.”

Winder livens up his sweep of German history with a tourist’s eye for the unique and noteworthy in his travels, describing the Christmas markets, the Ratskellers (with their massive glasses for serving beer), the ubiquitous castles, dense forests, flower-bedecked windows on half-timbered houses, marzipan in a variety of shapes (including, in one Lübeck shop, models of the Brandenburg Gate, the Eiffel Tower, and the Houses of Parliament) and “endless sausages.” He quips, “There is always a pig and a potato just around the next corner…..”

Half-timbered house in Germany

Half-timbered house in Germany

Evaluation: Germania, like Danubia, is a quirky book that could hardly be classified as serious history, although it contains a lot of factual information on an important topic. (“Germany,” the author writes, “is a place without which European culture makes no sense.”) Perhaps “travelogue with historical background” might be a more apt description. The writing is sprightly and entertaining, and the book presents an often delightful and decidedly unique guide to the region.

Rating: 3.75/5

Published in Great Britain by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, Ltd; Published in the U.S. by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010, and in paperback by Picador, 2011

National Pizza Month Kid Lit Review of “Pizza in Pienza” by Susan Fillion

Earlier this month, we ran a post on October being National Pizza Month for a good reason. Those who know us understand that if we invite you for dinner, we will probably be having pizza. And even if we don’t invite you for dinner, we will probably be having pizza. This is what we have at least two times a week. We have been known to have it every single day in a given week. So naturally I was very excited to find this book, after first hearing about it on Jama’s excellent blog.

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This book is not only about the joy of pizza and the history of pizza, but is bilingual in both English and Italian, something you don’t see often. [This feature will help you memorize appropriate things to say when you travel to Italy to experience the real thing!]

The story is told by a little girl in Pienza, “a small town in Italy where Pope Pius II was born.” The author (who is also the illustrator) takes you through the town via bright, folk-style acrylics under which are simple sentences in English, then Italian. Although the Italian is not shown phonetically, there is a very good guide to pronunciation at the end of the book.

After telling you about her town and about the customs and habits of the people (“Here in Italy, we eat our main meal at midday”), she starts to explain the history of pizza.

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Some of the pictures (the author is also the illustrator) are humorous, such as the one showing Mona Lisa with a slice of pizza. But all of the illustrations are so rich in color and happy in tone, it’s hard to choose a favorite.

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The author doesn’t just keep the action in Italy. She informs us that “The first pizzeria in the United States opened in New York City in 1905.” She notes that “pizza really became popular after the Second World War. Soldiers returning from Italy talked about it when they got home.”

I could go on recapitulating every page for you, but now I can hold back no longer and must go make pizza. This joyous book will inspire you and your children to do the same! Helpfully, the author even includes a recipe at the back of the book, along with some more in depth notes about the history of pizza.

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Evaluation: This charming book filled with delightful pictures and fascinating information will have you watering at the mouth.

Rating: 4/5

Published by David R. Godine, 2013

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

Review of Soulminder by Timothy Zahn

I have heard so many great things about this author, who has written more than forty science fiction novels, but I was disappointed with Soulminder.

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It tells the story of an invention by Adrian Sommer and Jessica Sands of a method to isolate the soul from the body. The “Soulminder” – like a heart-lung machine, works to “trap” the essence of a person who has died, so that if the body can be repaired, the soul can then be put back into it. The Soulminder becomes mankind’s ticket to immortality.

It’s an idea that’s instantly popular and in demand, and immediately creates complications. Because it is an expensive procedure, is it fair that it only be available to the rich? Should its use be subject to government controls? What are the implications for religious beliefs?

In a short time, the ethics of the Soulminder becomes even more complicated. It begins to be used for witness testimony, with the dead temporarily borrowing a body of a volunteer to tell the court who killed them, during which time the soul of the body being borrowed is held in the soul trap. The rich and bored decide that borrowing bodies is a good way to experience extreme sports or extreme drugs. Criminals now have a new way to hide: they can steal other bodies in which to place their souls, killing off the original owners. Terrorist government regimes come up with the idea of torturing people, killing them, and then bringing them back to torture them again. In short, the possibilities for the use and especially the abuse of the Soulminder are endless.

Sommer is desperate to return the Soulminder to its original life-saving medical purpose, and to eliminate the corrupt or deleterious uses of his invention. Does he have to destroy it entirely, or is there some other option?

Evaluation: The narrative really felt flat for me. The issues raised by Soulminder should have been interesting from an intellectual standpoint, but they were just paraded out one after another in a meh-like fashion, and I never got excited about them. Nor did I get invested in the characters. Most of what we learn about Sommer and Sands is that they work too many hours and they “growl” a lot (as in, “‘Oh certainly,’ he growled” or “‘I’m not sure,’ she growled.” A search through my e-book edition yielded 39 instances of growling….) There were a few allusions to the fact that people who, having gone through the soulminder, reported a tunnel with light at the end, but of course, since they come back to life, they in essence abandon the tunnel, so that possibly-intriguing plot line gets abandoned as well.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Open Road, 2014

Review of “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This story is the “autobiography” of the fictional character Theodore “Theo” Decker, whom we meet in his late 20’s or early 30’s. At age thirteen, Theo’s life is shockingly disrupted on a visit with his mother to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. First he falls in love at first sight with a red-headed girl named Pippa. Then, a terrorist bomb explodes, killing his mother and dozens of others.

In the rubble after the explosion, Theo encounters an elderly man, who, in a dying gesture, gives him a ring and an enigmatic message. Theo thinks the man is pointing at Carel Fabritius’s famous painting, “The Goldfinch.” [This is a real painting, never actually stolen, and currently owned by the Royal Picture Gallery of The Hague.] It was his mother’s favorite. In the ensuing chaos and confusion, Theo takes the ring and the painting and wanders out of the museum.

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Not really understanding the value of the painting, Theo keeps it and hides it among his scant possessions, because it is the only connection he has to his lost mother, and because the sheer beauty of the painting helps soothe his pain and loneliness.

Theo’s father was long gone when the explosion took place, so he goes to live with a school friend’s family. His life is once again disrupted when his father reappears and takes him to Las Vegas, where Theo develops some nasty habits like smoking, drinking, and drugs.

Theo ultimately returns to New York and becomes a dealer of antique furniture in partnership with James “Hobie” Hobart, the former partner of the elderly man who was killed in the terrorist explosion at the Museum. There he once again meets Pippa, but she is just visiting from her school in Switzerland, and, although their attraction seems mutual, they once again go their separate ways. Hobie is very honest, but not a very good business man. Theo is a much better businessman, but not as scrupulous. Hobie is a talented builder and restorer of furniture – so good that Theo is able to pass off some of Hobie’s work as that of some of the famous old masters at prices commensurate with their inflated value.

Theo’s chicanery is discovered by one of the buyers, Lucius Reeve, who refuses Theo’s offer to repurchase an “antique” at a higher price than he originally charged. Instead, Reeve attempts to blackmail Theo. Reeve figured out that Theo was in the same museum room with “The Goldfinch” during the bombing and believes Theo and Hobie know of its whereabouts. Things start moving very fast when “The Goldfinch” is stolen and Theo tries to get it back.

The novel concludes with Theo’s pondering what he has learned from his past. In particular, he contemplates the painting and “the history of people who have loved beautiful things, and looked out for them, and pulled them from the fire.”

Evaluation: This book is very well written. The author writes authoritatively about the art world and antique furniture. Her ear for dialog is finely tuned, especially when relating conversations at formal gatherings of the wealthy. Moreover, while the narrator (and principal character) is male, I never had the feeling that the author was female.

My one criticism is that the book is a bit too long, although the final chapters move along like a thriller. I should also note that my sister and brother-in-law, both well-schooled educators, felt the book was “overwritten.” This accords with the many reviews that have described this book as “Dickensian.” With Dickens, one either revels in the profusion of words, or reviles it. I would probably be in the former group.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Published by Little Brown and Company, a division of the Hachette Book Group, 2013

Note: This book won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

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