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Cover ImageI’m not a fan of Virginia Woolf.  Though admittedly I am not that familiar with most of her work.  I started reading Mrs. Dalloway after I finished the atrociously bad (though such a clever idea!) The Hours.  I didn’t get very far.  Though I like her language, I had a hard time relating to her character (a woman planning a party – no surprise there, that’s not my style).

I had heard that she wrote a biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog Flush but I never thought to read it, since I was so turned off by her to begin with. But then I read another atrociously awful book How Elizabeth Barrett Browning Saved My Life, in which they mention Flush and I thought, this could be interesting. 

I love stories about famous folks’ dogs (the exception being the modern day Paris Hiltons with their little rats in bags) and one of the best books on the topic is The Pawprints of History by Stanley Coren (Flush was sadly omitted).  Flush is more than that though, it’s the imagined biography of this dog told in a whimsical yet very canine oriented way.  As the reader, you really feel as if you know what Flush was thinking, feeling, and smelling (and he did have many adventures!).

Flush’s bond with Elizabeth is palpable.  Virginia herself had a cocker spaniel and it has been suggested that she used him as the model for this book.  I’m sure he was.  Clearly the author loved dogs in general and spaniels in particular, but one special dog clearly prompted this labor of love.

Interestingly though, this book is really a backdrop for the story of Elizabeth herself.  Flush is with her when she elopes.  He is with her when she flees to Italy.  He is even with her for the birth of her child.  And through it all he is unimpressed with her poetry and even her husband (though he softens a bit on that count). He is still very soundly a dog.

Maybe Ms. Woolf isn’t so bad after all.  Anyone who can climb into the canine mind with such empathy and understanding must be a dog person.

And dog people are my people.

Why do I read such long books?  Arguably something like Gone with the Wind is worth the 1,000 pages.  I would say each of the Harry Potters was enjoyable even when topping over 400 pages each.  

Ken Follett, not so much.  We know he can write a long book, certainly, this one caps at a little over 900 pages.  But can he write a good one?  Of that I’m not so sure.  Which is not to say that World Without End is a bad book (or perhaps I’m just trying to justify my continued dedication to it) but Mr. Follett seems to think that his own book is too long.  Clearly he doesn’t believe any reader will continue to pay attention.  He’s constantly reminding you of characters (remember him? He was back on page 200? He’s still a hunchback, in case you forgot) and events (oh yeah, just in case you forget pages 400-476, here’s what happened, they got married and had a baby and here’s how old it is now).   

As a reader of lots of books, and longish books usually, I find this incredibly annoying.  I AM paying attention, and if I’m not it’s YOUR fault, Mr. Follett, not mine.  I have the same complaints as I did about Pillars of the Earth – too much rape, too much sex and too many inane, repetitive details (do we have to hear about that damn cat again?  Unless he turns into a pivotal character, even I don’t want the feline interludes all the time).

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Cover ImageEveryone knows how I feel about Oprah books.  And while I’d love to give myself the luxury of scrambling up on the soapbox and tearing down the woman for her choice of reading, I will at this moment gracefully decline to do so. 

Do not, fair readers, fear that I have gone soft or that I have gained a holiday spirit during this festive time of year.  No, I will refrain from an all out attack per se, but only because I have a very specific beef with Ms. Winfrey. 

I first read Pillars of The Earth when I was about 14 or 15.  I kept that battered mass paperback copy through college, many moves and life upheavals.  I didn’t think about it until recently, when I heard that Mr. Follett wrote a sequel to it called World Without End  (which I quickly bought) and I thought perhaps it warranted a re-read, particularly considering the roughly 15 years since I had last read it.  I went in search of my dog eared mass paperback and alas I could not find it.  I think it was collateral damage from our last and greatest move.

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Cover ImageI finished Mr. B. Gone (I’ll get to that later) and needed a new book for today’s commute, so I picked up this one.  I like nothing more than a good feud.  Historical, epic feuds are best.  And with Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots on the cover, how could I resist?  Two of my favorites in the world of political cat fights.

Alas, I only made it only to page 7. 

That’s right page 7 –  wherein Mr. Colin Evans, the author of this book, said that Mary Queen of Scots was the daughter of James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor, sister of Henry VIII.

I had to read it three times, each time more desperately trying to find the loophole.  Some word or another that I’d missed that was changing the meaning of the sentence.  Because, you see she was actually their granddaughter.  Her parents were James V of Scotland and Mary of Guise (who was French).  But no, the sentence was unfortunately very very wrong.

How does such a blatant, glaring, easily discovered, easily fixed error get into such book?  Let alone STAY in such a book.  Where are all the ever eager intern researchers?  How did this slip through the cracks?

Unfortunately this is way beyond my tolerance level.  Though I understand that not everyone is the Anglo-phile that I am.  I know that most people in this country know all the American presidents instead of all the British monarchs from the Saxons to Elizabeth II.  I know that I have a bit of an obsession.  But that is beside the point because due to this blinding beacon of an error I now have no trust that the rest of his information is correct, which of course makes reading the book a useless endeavor. 

Into the book swap at work it goes.  Too bad, because it might have been interesting.


We’ve talked about this before.  A poorly written book with a good story at its core can still be very interesting.  In fact in a lot of cases, it will be wildly popular and ridiculously lucrative.  A badly written book can still compel you to keep reading.  Even as you wince and groan at the language, you keep pursuing the ending.  You want to see the story unfold, so you stick with it.


For the past two weeks, I’ve been slogging through the over 600 pages of The Historian, lugging its hardcover heft to work and back (so much so the binding broke) and all I can think is that 1) Thankfully I read this book when I was commuting by train again and 2) I’m glad I only paid $6 for this book.

This book commits a crime greater than just being poorly written.  It’s a repetitive, drab, pedantic history lesson yes, but that could be forgiven (I loath little more than a character summarizing what another character has just said – apparently for the remedial reader’s benefit).  The problem is that between verbose and awful, awful prose (example – “It was too serious to not be taken seriously”) there are hidden gems like this one:

“. . .but it seemed to me now that a Catholic church was the right companion for all these horrors. . .I somehow doubted that the hospitable plain Protestant chapels that dotted the university could be much help; they didn’t look qualified to wrestle with the undead. ”

Sounds intriguing right?

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SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! Do not — I repeat, DO NOT keep reading beyond this point if you don’t want it revealed that Richard Nixon won the presidential election of 1972. You’ve been warned!

Considering the fact that I obviously knew how this book was going to turn out, the ending was surprisingly disturbing. I guess I was hoping that Dr. Thompson would reveal some ancient secrets about why it happened that way. But it turns out that, no, you could have written this ending as well, even without knowing anything substantial about the election. We’ve seen it all again, a thousand times since.

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godMy life, like a lot of others, is not made up of epiphanies.  It’s the continual presence of small, evolving thoughts that make the biggest changes in my perspective, rather than the cataclysmic breaks from ideology.  I couldn’t tell you when I first learned about evolution, though my current interest and study is clearly the result of some early interest piqued and nurtured.  Nor could I pinpoint the moment I broke my covenant with God (an agreement made by others for me, before I was able to make it).  It was too gradual to know when I finally parted ways with the Catholic Church. 

I used to envy those with faith, thinking that by lacking it I was lacking something else far more important (turns out maybe I just don’t have the ‘god gene’).  But over the years I’ve become more comfortable letting that (Catholic) guilt go.  Ultimately I’ve realized that by being an unbeliever I haven’t missed out on anything and in many ways it’s kept me above (or below or around) the fray.  When the Church scandals came out I was able to feel the simple human emotions of revulsion and anger instead of loss and betrayal.

There is a stigma with admitting to atheism.  People react as if you just admitted you don’t like you grandmother (personal experience talking here).  There is an intense pressure to explain yourself, to say what you do believe in, as if people fear that a flood or burning bush or lightening may strike you down and they might get caught in the divine punishment cross fire.

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Hunter Thompson does something unique in this book that I wish more political journalists tried. He’ll spend almost an entire chapter writing about the campaign like gripping sports commentary and then, just as you’re caught up in the excitement, he whips out a trail of hopeless vitriol about the sham of the entire process. He’s doing his job, but he’s tired of it, and that exhaustion is worth noting. We can pretend this is a contest or a race, or any of the other terms journalists use to trivialize the most sacred act of our democracy, but we should remember that it’s much more serious than that.

I empathize with Thompson (and I bet most voters do, too). We’re involved in this whole thing because it matters, but we have to pretend that the emperor has clothes on in order to keep our sanity and not punch someone. (And that note of violence isn’t all mine — by this point in the book Thompson has talked about wanting to rip someone’s throat out, throw someone else down an elevator shaft, and a half dozen other such flare-ups. The frequency is increasing the more time he spends away from his beloved Sandy and with the pompous idjits on the trail.)

When Thompson sneaks off of Ed Muskie’s campaign train in Florida because the whole depressing business reminds him too much of a Nixon campaign, he fatefully gives his press pass to a crazy hippie so the guy can have a free ride to Florida. The mess that ensues is incredible, not just for what happened, but for what it says about American politics.

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These are the times that try men’s souls. Or, at least, mine.

I hate primary season so much it makes me rage at the wind. Nothing speaks to the absurdity of politics moreso than this load of crap. While the general election in November at least pretends to be about what the people want, the primaries are always about what the media says about the candidates, which state wants more influence over the other, which candidate is the best-looking, most well-spoken, or has collected the most money so far. Do any of them deliver messages that resonate with regular folks? Umm, I don’t know since that apparently doesn’t matter.

So it’s been nice to read the good Dr. Thompson’s book chronicling his chronicles of the 1972 presidential race. I can’t think of anyone better than him, being so outside of the establishment (he always calls members of the mainstream punditry, “the press wizards”). We read to know we’re not alone, and reading this is like having a sage old dope smoker by my side agreeing with everything I scream at the newspaper every morning.

Better than that, he is writing about a bygone era of politics I never knew existed. This year was the pivotal one, apparently. Back then, the possibility — even inevitability — of strong third parties was real. This was a time when party nominees weren’t necessarily decided upon by voters — the gruesome 1968 Democratic National Convention was evidence of that. While the pundits and the press almost single-handedly coronate or crucify nominees today (remember the Dean scream?), in ’72 reporters were still only as influential in the process as football commentators are in the outcome of the Super Bowl.

But the dirty, corporate-controlled, People Magazine-style campaigns were sown back then. It’s kind of exhilarating to read about it first-hand from someone as human and honest as Thompson.

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Cover ImageI can say (somewhat truthfully) that Mary Roach gave me this book. 

OK, so the author didn’t give it to me.  I almost bought this book a while ago because I work with a woman named Mary Roach.  Since she’s our resident expert on all things medicine, and mysterious about everything else in her life, I wouldn’t have been surprised if she secretly authored this book (of course the author photo would have been doctored har har). When I told her this, she not only laughed, she said she had the book and brought it in for me. 

I wasn’t really sure if I was actually going to like this book. I’ve read many treatises on obscure, seemingly interesting topics and most of them, though well intended, fail miserably to be interesting.

Not so this book.

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Jessica’s Reading

Jesse’s Reading

Jesse and Jessica are Both Reading

Devin’s Reading