26. Under the Table

March 15, 2010

Katherine Darling

I recently started working with an online tutoring program for college students. Students post drafts of their papers, and professional tutors offer them advice on how to improve their organizations, thesis statements, etc., and ask questions to prompt better discourse. We’re supposed to respond in the body of the essay, using bold type and in brackets, [like this]. We respond to bigger-picture concerns first — for example, if there’s an incomplete thesis statement (or, uh, no thesis statement), or if the paragraphs are poorly organized and ineffective — before we get to the sentence-level stuff. We have to be supportive and not fix the papers for them (both of these things are kind of hard). The creators of the site tell us over and over again that we’re not editors; we’re there not to fix the student’s issues but to help them identify and correct those issues, which will then improve their writing. While there is a huge difference between editing and tutoring, I think that they are related: editors fix or address problems, and hopefully their writers will improve them in future drafts or projects. Tutors need to have an editor’s eye to figure out why things don’t work, and need to know how to fix them.

It was pretty clear to me Katherine Darling could have benefitted from a better editor. I finished this book two days ago and I’ve already forgotten its timeline. She was a little all over the place.


25. Under the Table

March 2, 2010

Ruth Reichl

Eva Rice

I read this book on a plane.

It’s a big commitment, bringing a book on a plane. If you don’t like it, your other options are: examine the SkyMall catalogue and contemplate the many various uses of the Bug Vacuum, stare out the window and pop your ears, try to fall asleep without touching the stranger next to you, or read it anyway and curse the author and fall even deeper into that slightly panicked bad mood that always accompanies air travel.

Luckily, I enjoyed this book a lot. A quote on the back cover calls it “one of those books you read guiltily… but then realize there’s zero need for guilt — it’s that good.” I don’t know if it was that good, but it was well-written with round characters… and the cover didn’t make it look like a Devil Wears Prada knockoff. That always helps.

Rice tells the story of Penelope, an 18-year-old girl living in post-WWII England. Penelope’s family is/was well-off, living in one of those houses that has a name and a team of staff. However, the house was appropriated by soldiers and her father was killed in the line of duty, so the family is short on cash and the house is long on repairs (two staff remain, and they factor very tangentially into the story). Penelope’s life is fairly staid, despite her difficult mother and the fact that none of the family has dealt with her father’s death, when she meets Charlotte in one of those ways that people meet only in books, movies, or TV shows. At first I was sure that Charlotte would turn out to be one of those poisonous friends Oprah and Cosmo are always warning us about, but the two girls have a really lovely relationship. They are supportive and enjoy one another’s company, and Penelope becomes quite close with her family.

As Rusty mentioned in her Pajiba review, this book doesn’t really have a main conflict; however by the end everyone’s lives are perceptibly or imperceptibly different from where they started. I enjoyed this book, I think because Rice doesn’t try to do too much, even though she covers the war, debt, Hollywood, Elvis Presley, English society pages, and death. She kept things manageable and personal, which I appreciated.

I’ll be interested in her next work; this was Rice’s first novel.


23. Spook

February 27, 2010

Mary Roach

This book was enjoyable, but it was no Bonk. In Spook, Mary Roach again travels the world to understand the science of a weird subject, this time the afterlife (well, really whether or not there is an afterlife, and whether we can use science to establish a connection with it). Roach journeys to India to explore reincarnation, to Duke University to discover the latest in soul-weighing, and to Cambridge University to learn about Ectoplasm (I’m pretty sure that I never had an Ecto-Cooler, but I found myself craving one while reading this section).

While I guess the topic of this book — Death, and what comes after — is a lot like another of her books, Stiff, here Roach intends to explore the intangibles of what happens after you die. While in Stiff she followed cadavers as they rotted in the sun and were strapped into cars bound for brick walls at high speeds, examining the physicality of being dead, I found Spook interesting because she isn’t quite sure what happens to “you” after you die. She’s not sure that there is an afterlife. Like most scientists, I think, Roach needs evidence to believe, and its challenging for her to watch whole villages wholeheartedly believing that a middle-aged Indian man could have been reincarnated into a young boy several miles away simply because Hindi believe in reincarnation and this boy knows a lot about the dead man’s life.

As always, Roach toes the line between respect and irreverence. She again uses hilarious footnotes (I love a good funny footnote) to illustrate the lunacy of some of her findings (“I take it as nothing beyond happy coincidence that the [Society for Psychical Research] membership roster has at one time or another included a Mrs. H. G. Nutter, a Harry Wack, and a Mrs. Roy Batty.”) and is at turns sarcastic and contemplative. I admire the hell out of Roach’s tireless pursuits of good research (I also love research) and open-mindedness: At one point, she spends a weekend at a “Fundamentals of Mediumship” retreat, trying to learn how to become a medium. She feels like an idiot trying to divine the lives’ of total strangers, but doggedly sticks with it.

Spook is another solid book from Mary Roach; she’s like the less-funny, more science-oriented Bill Bryson. They’re quick reads and give you some really cool, weird shit to bring up at parties. For example, did you know that in the thirteenth century, Frederick II, the King of Sicily and Emperor of the Holy Roman empire, treated two men to an excellent dinner, then sent one to bed and other off to hunt, then “that same evening caused them to be disemboweled in his presence, wishing to know which had digested… better”? He did! Now you know!

(The sleeper digested better)


22. Service Included

February 27, 2010

Pheobe Damrosch

(I need to stop leaving reviews so long. Writing this will be my punishment, though it is most likely my readers who will suffer.)

Eric Larson

Parts of this book scared the crap out of me. I hate scary or violent movies but for some reason I can read true crime stories all the live-long day… then invariably have to psych myself up to get to the bathroom in the middle of the night, lest Ted Bundy be lurking outside (I know). I find it fascinating, and sadly not because of the psychology aspect. I don’t care what makes these people tick or their brain waves or why they commit these scary, violent acts: I just want to hear some fucked-up shit.

In late 1890’s Chicago, Herman Mudgett, alias H. H. Holmes, built a hotel with hallways that led nowhere, plus strange, small rooms… and outfitted several of those rooms with gas pipes that only he could access. He’d lock people in there and suffocate them at his leisure.


Holmes killed at least twenty women this way. He’d get to know them, make offers of business assistance or marriage, then totally gas them to death. I mentioned this on Pajiba before, but several times while reading this book I wanted to take the cops and shake them: Holmes’ relationship, or at least association, with these women was well-known; yet time and again the cops would ask Holmes what he knew, Holmes would shrug, and the cops went satisfied on their merry way. It’s a testament to the climate of city culture (people disappeared all the time) and the real new-ness of Holmes’ evil. People just didn’t think that other humans were capable of such depravity.

Those parts of the book really scared me. The other parts, which recounted the struggle for a group of men to create and execute the `896 World’s Columbian Exposition, were at turns incredibly interesting and kind of boring. Larson is working with a lot of material: he needs to give the biographies of at least half a dozen men and detail the events of more than two years of dense, complicated work; not everything he includes is as riveting as a serial killer planning a hotel to house and gas out-of town Fair guests or as impressive as the 20-year-old Midway manager who manages to transport entire villages from Europe to Jackson Park, Chicago.

Several people have pointed out that this seems like two books in one: a biography of a killer and a historical narrative of the Fair. True, Larson goes back and forth a lot, often within the same chapter, which occasionally made me go, “eh?” But I think both stories informs the other. As I said, it’s a lot of material, and cracking open a 400-page book that is positively brimming with information kind of makes you feel overwhelmed, impressed, and a little bit scared, which is how I imagine Chicago to be at the turn of the century.


20. Hit List

February 2, 2010

Lawrence Block

The Keller books are very enjoyable, not super-heavy on plot or drama, but rife with intirigue and noirish dialogue. They’re fun mystery novels for people who aren’t really into mystery novels.

We first met Keller in Hit Man. He’s a… hit man, living in NYC and occassionally journeying out to White Plains for an assignment. In Hit List, things are pretty much the same: his conversations with his hit-man secretary, Dot, are still the most fun to read, he still thinks a lot, he still is a damn good killer. He’s a little more grounded than he was in Hit Man, content to spend time in his apartment and collect his stamps when he isn’t out murdering total strangers. However, someone isn’t to happy with Keller, as it seems like he keeps missing getting hit himself. Who hits the hit man?

Block is a very good writer, not heavy on description but sets the tone of his books quickly. Keller is a great character, but Dot is my favorite. She’s smart and clever and very witty, but a fierce and loyal friend. She also has fairly high morals for someone who arranges contract murders. Their relationship is fun to read.

I’d be interested to read some of his non-Keller novels — the man has written over 50 mysteries — but I feel like I really struck it rich the first time. Hit Parade is next.



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