Book Reviews for Fall 2011
Big Girl Small
By Rachel DeWoskin (GRS’00) Fiction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
The narrator of DeWoskin’s alternately tender and raw coming-of-age tale is a little person with a big voice, and, as the book opens, a big problem. At three feet, nine inches tall, Judy Lohden, 16, is a fiercely talented singer as well as a wry observer of both teenage and adult culture. Judy tells most of her story from the seedy motel where she is hiding out, for reasons that slowly come to light.
Judy has left the familiar embrace of her Ann Arbor, Mich., public school for the prestigious performing arts school Darcy Academy (“D’Arts”); think Fame with cell phones and Facebook. Although she spares us most of what Holden Caulfield would call “that David Copperfield kind of crap,” we do learn that Judy’s parents, who run the homey Judy’s Grill, remain solidly, sometimes giddily in love. Judy has an older brother, and she says that her younger brother, Sam, is living proof that her parents “weren’t scared off the project” after spawning her. And even though “My mom likes my dad,” as she puts it, “what she loves most is the three of us.” Judy’s rants are mum on the pandemic of “phonies,” but she does manage to channel Caulfield (readers will bet “Lohden” is an anagram) in contemporary teenspeak: “I sat, as I do in every class, in the back row. From there, I could observe my gleeful actor and dancer classmates…talk about how, oh my god, this year AP bio was going to be so gross…and placements for voice classes were already under way and had you gone yet, and oh my god, mine went, like, so badly, and did you hear they’re not letting any non-seniors into senior voice this year, and blah blah blah.”
Although she soon lands some equally quirky partners in crime, including Goth Sarah, the school’s golden girls either ignore her or court her as a kind of mascot to make themselves feel charitable. Judy sees right through this. But when she falls for the casually irresistible Kyle, her perceptive powers fail her, and trouble follows.
DeWoskin, author of the memoir Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, is at her most convincing when her young narrator is less glib and more vulnerable. The heartbreaking picture of the incident that shamed Judy into self-imposed exile is painted with a delicate, masterful hand. It’s to DeWoskin’s credit that she doesn’t demonize the clueless, if testosterone-infused Kyle, who seems genuinely drawn to Judy’s feisty edge and extraordinary talent. In crafting her visceral description of Judy’s first sexual forays with Kyle, the author, the mother of two daughters, surely remembered how it feels to be a teenager in love. Pulled under the reckless boy’s spell as her gut churns with excitement and embarrassment in equal measure, Judy finds herself in a position where her voice deserts her; she is violated and becomes an object.
Despite its modern trappings—the video gone viral, the frantic texting—this is a very old story. But DeWoskin’s heroine proves her resilience and wit. ~Susan Seligson
Every Cowgirl Needs Dancing Boots
By Rebecca Janni (SED’96) Fiction (Penguin Young Readers Group)
If there’s a pint-sized person living in your house who loves pink and purple, throws ad hoc dance parties, and changes clothes at least three times a day, then this may be a dangerously good book to have around.
Call Nellie Sue, Janni’s main character, out of touch with reality or extremely in tune with her own world. She’s a suburban cowgirl, from her broad-rimmed pink hat to her fringe-trimmed pink dancing boots. She rides around the neighborhood on Beauty, her “two-wheeled horse.” And she loves speakin’ in a voice that takes ya back to the good ole Wild West.
Nellie Sue just got a brand-new pair of “dancin’ boots,” which “every cowgirl needs,” and is now looking for a dancing partner. Her mother suggests making friends with the new girls across the street. She’s skeptical at first, having pegged the trio “the glitter girls” for their sparkly tutus and ballet slippers, but gives them a cowgirl try anyway.
The glitter girls eye Nellie Sue cautiously and refuse her invitation to “go ridin’.” The spunky blonde is discouraged at first, but hatches a plan to entice her new neighbors: a first annual barnyard bash at her house that night.
Nellie Sue transforms her garage into a proper barn dance venue with bales (er, picnic benches) lining the walls and refreshments in a chuck wagon (OK, so it’s popcorn and pink lemonade hauled in a little red wagon). Then she waits an eternity (all of dinnertime) for her guests to arrive. Her father shows up for the first dance, and soon her neighbors come dressed in cowboy attire and are “standin’ by my hitchin’ post! Even Anna and her glitter sisters.”
Despite a dance floor mishap, Nellie Sue’s plan is a success: she finally finds a dancing partner to break in her new boots. In staying true to her quirky identity, she finds lasting friendship. If that message resonates with your little one, then you’ll read this book again and again—and again. ~Leslie Friday
My God, What Have We Done?
By Susan V. Weiss (SED’77) Fiction (Fomite)
Weiss’ debut novel has two narratives. The first, set in Los Alamos, N.M., begins in 1942 and chronicles the secret race by theoretical physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team at the Manhattan Project to create the world’s first atomic bomb. The second, 50 years later, follows the troubled marriage of a young Boston couple. The two stories intersect after Pauline, fascinated by Oppenheimer, a man she comes to view as an “ultimately tragic figure,” persuades her husband to spend part of their honeymoon at Los Alamos.
The novel cuts back and forth between the two stories, which have similar themes. A stay-at-home mother with two young children, Pauline experiences a profound loneliness as, bereft of work or friendship, she tries to make a place for herself in a new city. Her emotional exile is reflected in the wives transported to the secret community of Los Alamos. Ignored by husbands consumed by the pressure of creating the world’s most powerful weapon before the enemy can, they are plunged into a life of isolation—both physical and psychological, much like Pauline’s.
Pauline’s growing dependence on alcohol to cope with her day-to-day struggles mirrors that of Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, depicted here as an alcoholic who feels herself held captive by the barren landscape she suddenly finds herself in.
My God, What Have We Done? is at its best portraying the world of Los Alamos in the early 1940s. Weiss describes a town “erected all at once” and seemingly overnight by the U.S. Army, with buildings poorly constructed since the intent was to complete the bomb in less than two years. Because of the project’s secrecy, “streets had no addresses, the radio station no call numbers.”
Both the tedium and the enormous tension that characterized everyday life at Los Alamos are palpable here, as well as the long shadow cast by world affairs on the clandestine work being done.
But Oppenheimer himself is the novel’s most unforgettable character. The subject of dozens of biographies, documentaries, a television miniseries (The Trials of J. Robert Oppenheimer), and feature films (Fat Man and Little Boy), as well as an opera, Oppenheimer—“Oppie” as he was known to colleagues and friends—comes across as a man with superb leadership skills, adept at facilitating a team of men with brilliant talents and huge egos, and firmly believing “in the rightness of weaponry as a deterrent to war.”
In the end, however, Weiss’ Oppenheimer is a tragic figure, a man who feels he has blood on his hands. ~John O’Rourke
By Neal Stephenson (CAS’81) Fiction (William Morrow)
Stephenson has been called the “Homer of geek mythology,” and his novels “geek chic.” He writes about computer programmers, mathematicians, and scientists. His novels celebrate the great geeks of history—Isaac Newton, Alan Turing, Gottfried Leibniz, and company. His work holds a special kind of mirror up to this readership, where they can see themselves as the heroes.
The hero of his latest novel, REAMDE (an apparent misspelling of the common readme.txt Windows file), is multimillionaire computer game designer Richard Forthrast, creator of the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) “T’Rain,” which is almost identical to its real-life counterpart, “World of Warcraft.” (Note: If you’re already asking yourself, what on Earth is “World of Warcraft”? then reading REAMDE will be a bit like reading Hunter S. Thompson without knowing the difference between LSD and MSG.) Like “WoW,” “T’Rain” is played by millions around the world, who create Tolkienian fantasy analogues of themselves that they take marauding around the “T’Rain” digital world with all their like-minded friends. However, unlike “WoW,” the world in “T’Rain” is a 1:1 scale virtual equivalent of planet Earth, so there is quite a bit more to go marauding around in. It is also geologically realistic, so many players spend all their game time mining for virtual gold.
Here’s the catch: virtual gold mined in the fantasy world of “T’Rain” can be exchanged for cold hard cash in the real world.
REAMDE is the second Stephenson novel to take its title from the name of a fictional computer virus, the first being 1992’s Snow Crash, which skyrocketed him to stardom. However, the stakes have changed a bit since those early cyberpunk days. Snow Crash was able to scramble the real-life brains of any computer user who encountered it. The REAMDE virus, on the other hand, is used to extort real-world money from anyone who encounters it in “T’Rain”—not exactly life and death. The virus does, however, provide a turning point in the novel, shifting the focus from the exploits of Forthrast to those of Zula, his adopted Eritrean refugee niece.
To borrow a video game metaphor, here is where the book goes from being an MMORPG to a first-person shooter. Forced into trying to suss out the identity of the hackers who created the REAMDE virus, Zula, described as “throwing off...a sort of hyperspace librarian, girl-geek thing” that Forthrast “found clever and fetching,” spends her half of the novel colliding with Russian mobsters, hackers, the Chinese public security bureau, and Islamist terrorists. She makes some friends along the way, including barrel-shaped Hungarian hacker Csongor, who quickly falls in love with her, and spunky Hakka tea seller Yixia, who for all intents and purposes also falls in love with her. In fact, everyone who meets Zula seems to either a) fall in love with her, b) try to kill her, or c) devote themselves to keeping the folks in category b from getting their way.
Zula’s half of the novel is John le Carré for the Google generation. Stephenson offers an olive branch to the nongeek community here—there are enough gunfights, car chases, shady border crossings, high-profile thefts, and aerobatics to keep even “Call of Duty” players interested—without completely alienating his base. Eventually, both halves of the novel meet back up, and Forthrast is forced to deal with a reality so nonvirtual and dire it would be hard to believe if the last 900-or-so pages hadn’t convinced the reader of it in gritty detail. ~Devin Hahn
Brooklyn Brew Shop’s Beer Making Book: 52 Seasonal Recipes for Small Batches
By Erica Shea (CGS’04, COM’06) and Stephen Valand (CAS’07, COM’07), with Jennifer Fiedler Nonfiction (Clarkson Potter Publishers)
Making beer is akin to gourmet cooking, say self-taught beer brewers and authors Shea and Valand. Each time they create a beer, they write, they have the opportunity to experiment and tweak until the brew is just to their liking.
Their book offers a crash course in beer brewing as well as creative beer recipes to brew at home. Brewing at home isn’t as complicated as most people think. The four main ingredients—grains, hops, yeast, and water—are easy to purchase, as is the equipment. The fun part comes when home brewers experiment with recipes of their own, like using honey and maple syrup instead of corn syrup, and fresh herbs and berries instead of syrups and extracts.
In 2009, as the popularity of small breweries exploded, the 20-something BU alums quit their jobs to start the Brooklyn Brew Shop after experimenting with an old home brewing kit found in Shea’s basement.
The book has more than 50 beer recipes, organized by season, along with easy-to-follow illustrations of steps like fermenting and bottling. The authors urge readers to be brave and expand their palates with an apple crisp beer, a s’more beer, a gluten-free beet-buckwheat ale, and a simple everyday India pale ale. Each beer has suggested food pairings (like mushrooms or a mild cheese with a spring lager, or vanilla ice cream with their peanut butter porter) and recipes for beer snacks (beer-boiled pretzel bites, beer mustard, malted apple ice cream).
The authors write that in the food-obsessed metropolis of New York City, “we figured there had to be people who wanted to brew but didn’t think they had the space. We brainstormed a way to brew on a smaller scale and make it more like cooking…Our goal was to make brewing straightforward, fun, easy, and—most importantly—delicious.” ~Amy Laskowski
For the Love of Babies: One Doctor’s Stories about Life in the Neonatal ICU
By Sue L. Hall (SSW’70) Nonfiction (WorldMaker Media)
Hall’s book reads like a succession of plays in each of whose center is a very sick child. Few of us will have the chance to witness the kind of day-to-day trials and halting triumphs of life on this unnamed neonatal ICU, where babies fight to survive while tethered to minuscule ventilators, IV drips, and heart monitors. Hall brings this urgent, insular world to life through a series of vignettes named for a succession of tiny, but sometimes surprisingly tough, patients and chronicles the lessons offered by their struggles.
We are apprised of the litany of afflictions that can affect newborns, from toxemia to bronchopulmonary dysplasia to the genetic syndrome known as trisomy 18. As an associate clinical professor of pediatrics at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, Hall often supervised the medical teams treating the hardest cases. There is the case of baby Maricela, born with a “frog heart,” which is what doctors call a heart that is “unrecognizable by normal anatomic standards.” Maricela is one of many desperately ill children Hall attends to while walking a fine line between keeping distraught parents aware of the often dismal odds and giving them some small morsel of improvement to hope for.
But the book goes a step beyond serving as our eyes and ears in the battle to save life at its most fragile. Hall sheds light on tragic but preventable conditions. An infant suffers from kidney failure after her undocumented Salvadoran mother traveled over the U.S. border, breathing toxic fumes from the empty gasoline tank of the truck in which she was hidden by the “coyotes” her family paid to transport her. We learn that a possible result of cocaine use by pregnant women is placental abruption, a condition in which the placenta tears away from the uterine wall, leaving the baby without blood or oxygen.
But on balance, the book offers more hopeful tidings than grim ones. Hall reminds us that “finding hope in every situation, and helping parents to do so also, has been the most important part of my role as a neonatologist.” She does it all, she says, for the love of babies. ~SS
The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War
By Susan Luz (SON’76), with Marcus Brotherton Nonfiction (Kaplan Publishing)
In one way or another, Luz has been in the trenches ever since completing a master’s in public health at BU more than three decades ago. The book’s title alludes to her service, at age 56, as a colonel in an Army Reserve nursing unit in Iraq, where she stood in pools of blood fighting to save the casualties disgorged by the latest chopper in a mobile army surgical unit. But Luz has seen a kind of combat in many theaters.
A native of Cranston, R.I., she tended to gunshot wounds as a school nurse at the ravaged inner city Central High School in Providence, headed the forensic unit of the criminally insane ward at a Cranston psychiatric hospital, and watched three beloved nephews battle cystic fibrosis. As a Peace Corps volunteer in an impoverished village in Brazil’s mountainous interior, the indomitable, deeply religious Luz was the victim of a robbery and rape that left her close to death from machete wounds and unable to bear children; after a long rehabilitation in Rio de Janeiro, she returned to resume her work at the village clinic.
Luz’s book paints a convincing and refreshing picture of a resilient, good-humored woman who can find a glint of hope in the darkest places. The narrative, which leaps back and forth from her service in Mosul to her early days, opens with the arrival of her deployment letter, and her husband’s assurances, over dinner, that “I’ll support you in whatever you do.” Admittedly excited by the promise of adventure and the chance to serve her country, Luz writes that after serving her 545 days, more than anything else she “wanted to come home again safely and live out the rest of my days with the man I loved.”
The fact that she went to war in middle age lends compelling weight to her memoir. As a public health nurse, she writes, her job “was to make sure everyone stayed healthy. It was as simple and as complex as that.”
But any notion she had of primarily counseling soldiers not to smoke, or to use condoms, soon evaporated in the crushing heat, in which soldiers often do, as a diversion, fry eggs on the pavement. She writes confidently of rising to the broader challenges of mortal wounds and combat stress and wisely and tenderly about bonding with her female colleagues. Luz’s insider documentation of life on the M.A.S.H. unit is, as one would expect, laden with bizarre, unforgettable details. She describes the gaping groin wound of a soldier who survived a suicide bombing; after extracting an unexpected rib fragment from deep in the wound, the surgeons discovered that the bone belonged not to the soldier but to the suicide bomber. “We are the Sherman T. Potters, Margaret Houlihans, and Hawkeye Pierces of the Iraq War,” she writes.
In her story of “service, struggle, and war,” Luz loses patients, friends, and the children she might have had. But she never, for a moment, loses her humanity. ~SS