Monday, November 30, 2009

The Genesis Secret, a Review

People get so excited about novels that venture into the world of religion.  The uproar over The DaVinci Code was immense (though one could gauge its success by the number of books published as a "response" or "rebuttal").  People forget that "fiction" can be translated to mean "making it all up, no matter how many real elements one injects into the story, like in Fargo, the Coen brothers movie."

So, should anyone get excited about The Genesis Secret?

If so, it's entirely unnecessary.  The fact that it's a novel rather than a news story never escapes the reader at any time.  At the beginning of the book, debut novelist Tom Knox states two true elements of the story: the existence of an archeological site and a religious group.  The foundation of the story is realistic  — tension, politics, religious issues, public safety responses — but the character-based story never enters the realm of realism for me.  And that makes me glad.

Two storylines of two main characters weave through this novel, creating a strong cord to tie it all together.  Journalist Robert Luttrell is recovering from a terrible experience in Iraq and his boss sends him on a plum assignment extended as a sort of vacation: go to Kurdistan to report on a famous archeological dig, the Gobekli Tepe.  Scotland Yard's Mark Forrester finds himself investigating bizarre murders and murder attempts in the U.K. that appear to be sacrifices — but to whom, and why?

Franz Breitner heads the Gobekli Tepe dig, which is unearthing a huge temple-like area that was deliberately and laboriously buried (and carbon-dated) thousands of years before the "first civilizations" in the Fertile Crescent.  If tools and agriculture at Gobekli Tepe pre-date known history, what does that mean for the timeline of human development?  Even more pressing, what prompted a people to laboriously bury this indicator of advanced civilization?

The site and its workers appear to be threatened, or is it simply paranoia of Europeans traveling in the Middle East?  Then an accident at the dig site prompts Rob to work with Christine, an osteoarchaeologist who has no bones to study at the site, to determine if someone is behind this — and if so, who and why.

There's enough evidence to suggest there are secrets being guarded in one part of the world, while someone else on the other side of the globe is trying to unearth the very same information.  Who will win, and who will lose more than just a little information?

Other interesting characters flesh out the story: Boijer the Finnish Scotland Yard officer, Isobel with an incredible Turkish home, Franz and his cryptic notes, Hugo and his intelligence and lungs, Karwan and his helpfulness, Steven and his Cockney accent, Kiribali's menacing presence.

There were some characters I could have done without, and a couple of details that were unessential to the story.  Rob and Forrester's mutual connection was completely unnecessary and added nothing to the story or characters; in fact, Forrester's situation was gratuitous.

Finally, Knox reveals too much too soon, leaving readers to wonder exactly why they need to keep reading.  We think we see the Genesis Secret halfway through the book, though I can tell you there's more, thank heavens.  Frankly, the direction the story took after the Big Reveal was narrowly focused on a single character (maybe two),which was too restrictive for this expansive of a story.  I nearly stopped with nearly a quarter of the novel left because it seemed the most important part of the story had been told.

However, the second-to-last chapter saved the entire book, and I'm grateful for journalists who know how to tie together the elements of a story.  Alas, Rob made leaps with facts that weren't revealed to readers, and I hate having characters hiding information until the author writes their "big epiphany."

Finally, readers who don't like blood and gore should absolutely pass on this book.  There are scenes that describe cruelty beyond measure, and though it's essential to this story, it is very very difficult to read.

Having said that, it's suspenseful, original and interesting, and I can recommend it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Thankful for An Extra Thanksgiving Poem

Thanksgiving Letter from Harry

I guess I have to begin by admitting
I'm thankful today I don't reside in a country
My country has chosen to liberate,
That Bridgeport's my home, not Baghdad.
Thankful my chances are good, when I leave
For the Super Duper, that I'll be returning.
And I'm thankful my TV set is still broken.
No point in wasting energy feeling shame
For the havoc inflicted on others in my name
When I need all the strength I can muster
To teach my eighth-grade class in the low-rent district.
There, at least, I don't feel powerless.
There my choices can make some difference. 

This month I'd like to believe I've widened
My students' choice of vocation, though the odds
My history lessons on working the land
Will inspire any of them to farm
Are almost as small as the odds
One will become a monk or nun
Trained in the Buddhist practice
We studied last month in the unit on India.
The point is to get them suspecting the world
They know first hand isn't the only world. 

As for the calling of soldier, if it comes up in class,
It's not because I feel obliged to include it,
As you, as a writer, may feel obliged.
A student may happen to introduce it,
As a girl did yesterday when she read her essay
About her older brother, Ramon,
Listed as "missing in action" three years ago,
And about her dad, who won't agree with her mom
And the social worker on how small the odds are
That Ramon's alive, a prisoner in the mountains. 

I didn't allow the discussion that followed
More time than I allowed for the other essays.
And I wouldn't take sides: not with the group
That thought the father, having grieved enough,
Ought to move on to the life still left him;
Not with the group that was glad he hadn't made do
With the next-to-nothing the world's provided,
That instead he's invested his trust in a story
That saves the world from shameful failure. 

Let me know of any recent attempts on your part
To save our fellow-citizens from themselves.
In the meantime, if you want to borrow Ramon
For a narrative of your own, remember that any scene
Where he appears under guard in a mountain village
Should be confined to the realm of longing. There
His captors may leave him when they move on.
There his wounds may be healed,
His health restored. A total recovery
Except for a lingering fog of forgetfulness
A father dreams he can burn away.

By Carl Dennis

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thankful for the Little Things


Thank you for these tiny
particles of ocean salt,
pearl-necklace viruses, winged protozoans:
for the infinite,
intricate shapes
of submicroscopic
living things. 

For algae spores
and fungus spores,
bonded by vital
mutual genetic cooperation,
spreading their
inseparable lives
from equator to pole. 

My hand, my arm,
make sweeping circles.
Dust climbs the ladder of light.
For this infernal, endless chore,
 for these eternal seeds of rain:
Thank you. For dust.


Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thankful for the Life We Have


This is what life does. It lets you walk up to  
the store to buy breakfast and the paper, on a  
stiff knee. It lets you choose the way you have  
your eggs, your coffee. Then it sits a fisherman  
down beside you at the counter who say, Last night,  
the channel was full of starfish. And you wonder, 
is this a message, finally, or just another day?  
Life lets you take the dog for a walk down to the 
pond, where whole generations of biological  
processes are boiling beneath the mud. Reeds 
speak to you of the natural world: they whisper, 
they sing. And herons pass by. Are you old  
enough to appreciate the moment? Too old? 
There is movement beneath the water, but it  
may be nothing. There may be nothing going on.  
And then life suggests that you remember the  
years you ran around, the years you developed 
a shocking lifestyle, advocated careless abandon, 
owned a chilly heart. Upon reflection, you are 
genuinely surprised to find how quiet you have 
become. And then life lets you go home to think 
about all this. Which you do, for quite a long time.  
Later, you wake up beside your old love, the one 
who never had any conditions, the one who waited 
you out. This is life’s way of letting you know that 
you are lucky. (It won’t give you smart or brave, 
so you’ll have to settle for lucky.) Because you  
were born at a good time. Because you were able  
to listen when people spoke to you. Because you 
stopped when you should have and started again.  
So life lets you have a sandwich, and pie for your 
late night dessert. (Pie for the dog, as well.) And  
then life sends you back to bed, to dreamland,  
while outside, the starfish drift through the channel,  
with smiles on their starry faces as they head 
out to deep water, to the far and boundless sea.


Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Be Thankful: A "Squeeeeee!" Moment

You're welcome.

And thanks to Cute Overload (and sender-inner Beatriz) for such a great image! Truly a resource and sense of humor for which to be thankful.

Monday, November 23, 2009

In Honor of New Moon: A List

The Top 5 Worst Vampire Novels
of All Time

5. The Stakes of Wrath

4. Pale 'Un: Going Rouge

3. Fine Italian Cooking -- Without Garlic!

2. Van Helsing Is a Big Fat Idiot

and's Number 1 Worst Vampire Novel of All Time...
1. The Bridgework of Madison County

[ Copyright 2009 by Chris White/ ]

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Electronic Books: Would I Go There?

Electronic book machines are coming out of the woodwork these days, surprisingly enough, in time for Christmas. As a lifelong reader, the question arises: would I go there?

Well, I already have, in my own way: I read my news on the computer.

I read the Washington Post, New York Times, AP News and BBC News on my computer daily. Those sources are in my browser toolbars, and I click on them before I open any other pages. I peruse the headlines and scan the pages to see what the media think I need to know. I regret to admit that I do not subscribe to any print news sources or newspapers (though I would be glad to support the Web sites I use with a subscription).

I do receive sales papers on my doorstep — and, when my neighbor Kathy is home on a Sunday, her copy of the Sunday WaPo. (That's Washington Post, for those of you outside of the metro D.C. area.)

As a former newspaper reporter, I should be ashamed. I should have ink flowing through my veins. I don't. I hate newsprint ink on my fingers, hands, arms and clothing after reading the paper. (No, I don't roll around in the paper to get that dirty. Try carrying newspapers in your arms and see how much ink winds up on your clothes. Smarty.) However, I love the news. Good heavens, I just realized: I'm a news junkie!

But back to the topic. I like the neatness of e-newspapers. I can read news stories on the computer all day. Well, let me clarify: I can read news articles for short bursts on and off all day. I do not stare at the screen for hours absorbing the news, not even on the weekends.

News articles have shortened to the point that Jeff Goldblum's character noted in The Big Chill: you can read the articles while on the toilet. (You're welcome for the paraphrasing.) I still read, and love, longer articles — but I rarely find them, and often wind up having to read them in installments, especially those from The New Yorker magazine. (The cartoons, thankfully, I still can read in one shot.)

But books — would I go "e"? No, books for me are not meant for the monitor or LCD, even when it's small and pocket-sized.

Some multi-feature cellular telephones have book-reading applications, but I don't want to use my cellular telephone to read a book. I'd go blind. The 3-inch screen is not meant to do more than show me what the phone is doing at that very moment.

I don't want a machine I carry in my purse, briefcase or backpack. I've tried viewing my digital camera's LCD screen in the sunlight, and I don't want to have to fight the sun, which is supposed to make reading easier because of its helpful light. I don't want to worry about dropping it and having to shell out a few hundred dollars more to replace it. I don't want to have to worry about it falling in a pool or getting splashed at the beach. My family kills electronics in water or finds their phones wiped clean of all information, and I don't want to follow suit with something I can't afford to replace regularly.

Would a machine make it easier to carry around my library? Would it reduce my pathological hoarding of books? (I have regaled my friends time and again with stories of the 25¢ copy of The Phantom Tollbooth for the home library, so I can lend out multiple copies at a time, or a dime for Franklin's autobiography.) Could I get some classics for free online and carry them with me to read at any time? Absolutely.

And yet....

I enjoy the heft of a book in my hand. I take pleasure in reading in direct sunlight (or by flashlight, even). I feel at home surrounded by stack of books on my nightstand and thousands of books piled on every flat surface in my home. I like perusing the spines to see what looks good, both at home and in commercial settings. I am gleeful to find Treasure Island illustrated by N.C. Wyeth in the thrift store bookshelves.

If I drop it in the tub, a book will dry, ultimately (though it never will be the smooth volume it once was). I can (and have) dropped my books down the stairs, lost a grip on an entire box of them and watched them crash to the ground or come to a stop on the landing. The cats have knocked over stacks, curled up on whatever I set down on the bed or table and chewed the corner or two of whatever distracted me from them.

My favorite place on the planet was Acres of Books, the now-defunct used bookstore in Long Beach, Calif., whose name was a literal description of the store and its inventory, with row upon row of towering bookshelves only shoulder-width apart. (Vicky would spend short bursts of time with me in there, bless her claustrophobic heart.)

In short: I love books. I do not plan to surrender them for anything "e."

Someday, I may change my mind. I suspect my love affair with the printed word will strain next year when David and I pack what most likely will be about a hundred boxes of books when we move. Someday my eyes may need assistance that only a future device can provide.

But it is not this day. I appreciate reading in any form, but I intend to continue my love affair with the printed page.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Celebrating Water on the Moon with Google and Dad

I join NASA and Google in celebrating the discovery of water on the moon — technically, the discovery of water molecules on the Moon's surface — but water nonetheless.

My dad is one of the reasons NASA could make this discovery.  He spent a huge part of his life — and mine — sending machinery and people to the moon.  He also was instrumental in getting them home (see Apollo 13: my dad was one of their "go-to" geeks in times of trouble).  He also worked on the space shuttle.  As an electrical and mechanical engineer, he was the thruster guy.

I took my dad to the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. when he visited me ages ago.  We stood in front of the lunar module as he explained how he designed the reverse thrusters to provide — well, if I was a rocket scientist, I could explain it.  He could, and people started shuffling closer to us to listen and watch as dad gestured, described and pointed.  A woman asked him a few questions about the module, and he answered them.  When we walked away, the small crowd dissipated.

"You know," he said, "I was at Cape Canaveral with my brother Bob and was telling him about [insert mechanical terminology regarding the spacecraft here].  A young woman with a small child stood there and listened.  When I finished, she turned to her child and said, 'Son, you don't have to believe everything you hear.'" He chuckled at the memory.

Dad possessed a great sense of humor and was smarter than should be allowed — and was very humble despite it all.

Thanks, Google, for the fun artwork I posted above.  And thanks, Dad, for helping make the discovery possible.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Rebecca, a Review

Some people cannot keep the secrets of some classics, as though they expire after a certain period of time.  Right before I watched Citizen Kane for the first time in 1982, I was asked, "You know Rosebud is [SPOILER], right?"  I responded, "Well, I do now."

So I approached Rebecca like reading it was a state secret (except to Carole, who was her fabulous no-giveaway self, as I knew she would be).  No bonehead was going to tell me about Daphne du Maurier's "Rosebud," so  I started the novel with no information other than the brief and completely innocuous summary on the back of the 1970s-era paperback I picked up at the thrift store.

Thank heavens.  There were so many great elements I would have been quite vexed to have had any of them spoiled.

The summary is simple: a young woman is rescued from a life as a "traveling companion" (a.k.a. maid) to the American bore Mrs. Van Hopper by Maxim de Winter, who owns the legendary English estate  Manderley.  There in the halls of Manderley the young bride faces a more complex and frightening future than Mrs. Van Hopper: that of being the second Mrs. de Winter.  The first, you see, was Rebecca, a tall, beautiful, popular, graceful woman — all qualities the second Mrs. de Winter honestly felt she lacked.

The story is told by this young woman, whose new husband is more than twice her age and who hasn't as much professed love as asked her to join him in his life.  After a quick marriage and honeymoon abroad, she comes "home" to an estate of which she has heard, but it's grander than her wildest dreams.

Maxim is not the most attentive of men and the second Mrs. de Winter is an inexperienced young lady left her to her own devices — and to those of Mrs. Danvers, who served as Rebecca's personal maid who also ran the household under Rebecca's exacting eye.  Frith, the butler, addresses the young bride as "Madam" and directs her by stating what "Mrs. de Winter" would have done.

Maxim is not only inattentive, he refuses to run Manderley as it had been in the past, rejecting the idea of lavish parties and other entertainment that was to have gone on with Rebecca.  The second Mrs. de Winter is left to decide what this means for her as a wife and mistress.

The story is told by the second Mrs. de Winter, which provides a clear eye to established society and history.  It is new to her, so it's new to us.  Each piece of information — how Maxim acts, how Mrs. Danvers lurks, how Frith directs the ingenue — offers clues to the drama with subtle, caressing tension that entraps readers.  We know we're toeing close to the edge of disaster with the second Mrs. de Winter, and yet we can't look away because we really don't want to leave her alone at Manderley, not like this.  What is Mrs. Danvers doing in the west wing? Why is Jack's visit so disturbing?  Why would Maxim refuse to follow the dog down the path to the beach?  What is the draw of Rebecca, what is her secret?

The story is told at first as a mix of the past and present, with clues that suggest the de Winters are not presently at Manderley, that mention of this beloved home is painful.  Once the second Mrs. de Winter arrives at Manderley, the story and the reader remain there with her.

And remain we must, until the final pages with an end that I found spectacular and completely fitting to the story.

Please read this, especially if you plan to watch the movie.  Read the book first — let du Maurier tell you her story, then allow Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier (or, later, Emilia Fox and Charles Dance) to perform it for you.

And if anyone opens their mouth to discuss the book, ask them to wait.  You will want to talk about this story, if only to remind yourself that it is, after all, only fiction.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Drunk Hedgehog Taken to Hospital to Sober Up

(Click here for the article complete with a hedgehog photo! Drunk Hedgehog Taken to Hospital to Sober Up)

A hedgehog was found sloshed out of its mind and "squealing loudly" in an apple orchard in England this week -- not to be confused with your college roommate, who often got drunk while playing Sonic the Hedgehog.

The feisty hedgehog, nicknamed Tipsy by animal rescuers, was seen rolling around haphazardly after consuming one too many fermented apples at a farm in Devon. As luck would have it, the Prickly Ball Hedgehog Hospital -- an actual place -- was just a few miles away in a nearby town.

"This is definitely the first drunk hedgehog I have found," said Ann McCormack, who drove Tipsy to the hospital. The animal was given ample dosages of antibiotics and painkillers but McCormack guessed that Tipsy would have a "big headache" the next morning.

Rescuers said they were just lucky they got to the hedgehog before it started leaving sobbing voicemails for its ex-girlfriend.

Er, thanks to