Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Skeletons at the Feast

I know it seems baffling to be writing book reviews on Christmas Eve. But, the presents are wrapped, the house is relatively clean, the laundry is spinning, the boys are playing and I need to get these books out of my head so that I can relax. I do enjoy writing them, but when I get backlogged, I can feel a little overwhelmed by all the characters and plots in my head.

Skeletons at the Feast took me to a dark place - the Holocaust. If there weren't so many great books written about this black mark of the world's history, I would ban myself from reading any books on this topic in the future. I hate that such a horrific occurrence is repeatedly used as bait for novelists.

Bohjalian is a good author, though, and does a good job developing his characters, giving them interesting conflict, all the while threading bits of real history into his story that he obtained through diligent research. I'll give him credit for all of the above.

However, part of me felt like Bohjalian decided this was going to be his one and only time to write about the Holocaust so he was going to put it all in one book. The details he gives about the atrocities committed by the German soldiers, the Russian soldiers and the desperate and destroyed left in their wake is so graphic, so skin-crawling brutal that it borders on gratuitous. Including as much as he does has the opposite effect from the one I imagine the author intended and his book almost becomes a WWII caricature. I'm not saying the things he describes didn't happen. No, he seems to have read enough journals and letters to give each horror story credibility, but to include them all -- in the same book, witnessed by the same characters in the space of about a year -- it made these disturbing acts of cruelty seem made-up. I feel it was a disservice to take someone's real life nightmare and diminish it by setting it alongside so many other nightmares so that they all seem somehow....less. Because that is what happens. The first description was like a punch in the stomach, the next a slap on the face and all the rest...swats on an already numb backside.

As much as I wanted to, I didn't dislike this book. Bojahlian creates a complicated story about the fallout from ignorance, naivety, and privilegefound among the rural aristocrats of Poland and Germany near the end of the war. Not forced to witness the daily disappearance of Jews and other minorities, the Emmerilich family was living in relative peace and prosperity, along with their polite relationships with the POWs helping out on their beet farm, until the ugly consequnces of their fuhrer's decisions found their way to the family's country manor, Kamenheim. Anna, The Emmerlich's teenage daughter, falls in love with Callum, a scottish POW, and convinces her parents to allow him to remain with their family instead of sending him back to the prison camps. As Callum and the Emmerlichs flee the approaching Russian troops, the blinders of this family's eyes are removed and they finally see first hand the destruction throughout their land. Along their west-bound journey, they meet and become dependent upon Uri, a young, vigilante Jew posing as a German soldier in order to survive. There is an additional, competely separate story involving a french, Jewish girl named Cecile who is trying to keep herself and her friend, Jeanne, alive while prisoners in a concentration camp that does eventually intersect with Uri and the Emmerlichs but not soon enough to be satisfying

There are plenty of lessons to learn within the pages of this book, but I can't say that it is one I recommend. The author tries to write too many stories at once-- a romance, a look at Nazi sympathizers, stereotypes the Polish people had of Russians, allied prisoners of war, a coming of age story, the gore and sadism of war, Jewish resistance, Jewish survival and an unnecessary epilogue, to make this novel truly great.

The Painted Veil

Kitty is a beautiful young woman, raised by her shallow and socially aggressive mother to be equally shallow and ambitious. In spite of her beauty, Kitty finds herself unmarried at the age of 25 and losing her place as her mother's beloved when her much younger and less attractive sister, Doris, becomes engaged to a baron. Embarrassed by her sister's superior match, desperate to leave the disappointed glare of her mother and panicked that another decent offer won't come her way, she says "yes" to Walter Fane, a bacteriologist working in Hong Kong, whom she barely knows.

They marry and she accompanies him to Hong Kong where she finds herself bored, ambivalent and unmoved by her husband's love for her. Quickly, she falls in love and begins an affair with Charles Townsend, a handsome, suave politician who, like her, views life as a shallow thing to be lived as selfishly as possible. When Walter discovers their relationship, he coldly gives her an ultimatum: accompany him to inland China where there is a cholera outbreak or he will cause a scandal and divorce her (this was written in 1925 when an affair such as this would, indeed, be an actual scandal) unless Townsend will agree to divorce his own wife and marry her within the week.

Predictably, to all except Kitty, Townsend's true colors appear and he disappoints her. Disillusioned and actually afraid of her husband who she believes only wants to kill her, she travels inland and her deeper, more understanding, more aware life begins.

The title comes from the English poet, Shelly's, sonnet, "Lift Not The Painted Veil Which Those Who Live/Call Life." I love the multiple layers found throughout the book that stem from its title. There are several descriptions of reflections on water, camouflaging the death and disease of the village condemned by cholera with scenes of light and beauty. As Kitty is a front-row witness to death, she observes the veil that lifts when life leaves a body several times. Most poetically is her own veil, lifted to experience a life so different from the superficial one she had expected.

I hate that I wanted the Hollywood ending (apparently...there actually IS a Hollywood ending. The book was made into a movie and I hear it gave the story the satisfying ending I didn't even know I wanted until it didn't happen). Seriously, why do I feel disappointed? Maugham writes a fantastic portrayal of a shallow woman developing into something more. I suppose I wanted her progress to have an effect beyond her own awareness. I wanted it to fix her marriage, alter her relationship with her sister and parents, and finish the relationship with her adulterous lover for the right reasons. Eventually, Maugham allows those things to happen but not at a pace which allows Kitty to avoid loss, pain and humility. Once again...why do I feel disappointed? Those consequences are truths and I appreciate and respect truth. Maugham unflinchingly writes Kitty's growth as a woman as it would have realistically happened.

But, it's a gritty reality.

A Christmas Dress for Ellen

I needed a nice story to read at our Relief Society Christmas party and my sister in Canada immediately suggested this one. Having never heard of it before, I read its summary on Amazon.com and, from the convenience of my computer, ordered it.

It did not disappoint. Originally told by President Thomas S. Monson during the 1997 First Presidency Christmas Devotional, A Christmas Dress for Ellen retells of the Jeppson family's frozen and desperate 1927 Christmas. Living in Hillspring, Alberta Canada, the family had suffered two straight years of failed crops and was living in poverty. Without the means to provide any kind of Christmas for her five children, Mary Jeppson wrote to her sisters in Idaho and modestly asked for help. The subsequent response to her humble request is filled with love, service and sacrifice - the very gifts our Savior offers us.

I'll enjoy this addition to our Christmas library for a long time.

Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10

I'm not sure I can separate this book review from my politics. Although, after reading some of the other reviews of this book, I'm not sure anyone reviewing this book has yet, so I'll just add my own bias to the pile.

Marcus Luttrell, a Navy SEAL, writes a first person narrative of his four member covert SEAL team's failed Operation Redwing mission: to take out a high ranking leader of al Qaeda, protected by members of the Taliban, in the remote and forsaken mountains of Afghanistan. The mission, attempted during June of 2005 and risky to begin with if everything went perfectly, turned into a bloody retreat as their location was apparently leaked to the Taliban by some unarmed goat herders Luttrell and his team mistakenly, or rightfully...depending on your ideology, set free after the goat herders stumbled onto their hidden location.

Luttrell and his SEAL teammates faced 4 against 100+ odds against a heavily armed, better positioned Taliban army and the results are disastrous for the SEALs. Within 24 hours, Luttrell turns out to be the sole survivor and his injuries and position give him little chance for rescue. Days later, dying of thirst, his legs destroyed from a grenade explosion and from seven miles of crawling, he is found and protected by an independent and stalwart Pashtun tribe who refuse to hand over Luttrell into the hands of the Taliban. With their protection, Luttrell is eventually able to send out an emergency beacon picked up by the US military and is later rescued by an elite team of Army Rangers.

Brave and physically fit as Luttrell is, elite as the Navy SEALs are, courageous and patriotic and confident as his team was...Luttrell does not give this story, or his team, the justice they deserves because he fills his book with so much personal bias, so much political and military rhetoric, and much too much tangent-flowing-pat-on-the-back-extraneous-information that this story of survival and valor is weakened to the point of failure. He failed to share his story in a neutral, matter-of fact way that could appeal to the masses, instead choosing to propagandize it to those who already agree with his personal political philosophies. The entire book reads like a Toby Keith song.

Recently, I was watching What Not To Wear on The Learning Channel and after a woman's boss told the video camera that she didn't feel like she could send her employee to certain meetings because of how she dressed, Stacy and Clinton told their victim that her clothing should never have a negative impact on the workplace. Neutral or positive....yes...but if her choice of clothing was hurting her opportunities for progress and promotion, she needed to change how she dressed for work.

Both for its perspective and understanding about the sacrifice and heroism those asked to defend our country display - this is an important story to tell. Unfortunately, I feel like Luttrell's choice of voice is like this woman's personal choice in clothes: it may be exactly what he thinks but how he tells it is not very helpful and perhaps even harmful. The writing was poor to distraction. According to the cover, there was a co-author involved but the writing felt so juvenile - it read like a high school, or worse, junior high school essay. First hand accounts of history are, of course, invaluable, but a grown-up story should be given the benefit of grown-up writing.

Beyond that, I lost track of how many times Luttrell veered off track his story of survival. Whether it was the detailed account of exactly how extremely physically fit Navy SEALs are through rigorous training is (his Bud/SEAL training fills the first 2/3 of the book), how liberal, unfair and anti-military the mainstream media is, personal stories of his family members and childhood, or the unnecessary repetition of military procedures and his personal racism, (I found his stereotypes of the Arab people disconcerting, particularly after Afghan men risked their lives, and the lives of their entire tribe, to protect and help him) this book ended up having too many objectives than the one the title claimed: the story of Operation Redwing and the fate of the SEALs who gave their lives to the cause.

Not ever having served in the military, nor knowing many people who have, I can only imagine the indoctrination that must occur to train and prepare soldiers for battle. Luttrell clearly believes certain things to be so but that does not necessarily make them so. The laws protecting human rights given in the Geneva Convention, the criminalization of torture, humiliation and harassment of an enemy, rules of engagement - all, according to Luttrell, written by a bunch of liberals in suits - might seem misplaced and unnecessary in Luttrell's mind, who has a Machiavellian belief that in the military realm, the desired end should justify any means. However, history has shown that without checks of power, mankind is notorious for disregarding human life. I'm not saying those rules and regulations make his job easy or fair, because, just as he complains, too many of our enemies do not abide by these same rules. He contends that unless the members of the military are given free-rein to do "whatever needs to be done to win" we will lose not only this war, but any war.

Maybe he's right. I don't know. Maybe he should have killed those goat herders who he believed betrayed their location. Maybe the coalition guards in Abu Ghraib had every right to humiliate and treat their prisoners like animals and slaves for the sake of their own morale. Maybe the only real way to be patriotic is to believe your country is stronger and tougher than any other. But I hope not.

I hope there is room for a little humanity in the world. I hope, like that Pashtun tribe in Afghanistan, there is room to do the right thing regardless of the guns pointed at you. I hope there are people everywhere who do the right thing because it is right and not because there is a law against doing something else that is wrong. I did not get the sense from Luttrell that in his world of war games and war, he believes many human beings are capable of doing the right thing. Except, of course, Americans and only if those Americans happen to be from Texas, think Bush is the greatest commander-in-chief ever or members or relatives of members in the military. Otherwise, those actions are a surprise and perhaps even an anomaly.

Luttrell may be brave, tough and patriotic. He may be highly trained, confident and a finely tuned warrior.

But....I hope, for my own sons' future, that he is wrong.

Recovering Charles

If ever a book was to get a "meh" rating, this would be it. Not bad but not necessarily good, Recovering Charles tells the story of a son who finds a way to forgive his alcoholic father by searching for him throughout the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation. Like most "meh" books, it has some highs and lows.

The highs would be the description of New Orleans. For the first time, I felt a deep sense of horror and urgency about saving that great city. Blame it on the over-saturation we get from the media, the almost non-stop global disasters whose images stream through our T.V.s and computers through-out the years, but I admit that I was not personally affected with New Orleans flooding. Reading this book didn't give me a complete turn around, but I do think it allowed me to feel how much was lost for the individual citizens there - albeit the people I was mourning for were completely fictional.

The lows included an unnecessary love story, a completely unnecessary love triangle, and a weak protagonist.

If you're interested in a story involving New Orleans and its recovery, you might enjoy this book. For anyone else...all I can say is...."meh."

The Peacegiver

I've been wanting to read this book for years. Literally. I'm not quite sure why it has taken me as long as it has, other than the fact that it's a church book and being the literature heathen that I am, righteous books sometimes stay at the bottom of my often tall stack.

However, now that I've read it I can say that I am glad that I did because it changed how I think. I consider myself on the stubborn end of persuadable so that is saying something.

The Peacegiver uses a story format with conversation, philosophy, parables and Dickens-esque-out-of-body-experiences to shed light on Christ's atonement. The main character is Rick, a 30-something year-old man who thinks his marriage to Carol is beyond repair but the lessons he leanrs about forgiveness can be applied to any struggling relationship. Using two Old Testament examples, Abigail and David (which, embarrassingly enough, was a story that was previously unknown to me) and Jonah's mission to Ninevah, Rick's grandfather guides him like a Greek philosopher to new understandings about sin, blame, forgiveness and peace.

I hesitate to give you the conclusion. I guess I'm being as annoying as Rick's grandfather (and, believe me, he is plenty annoying...even as a kind of guiding angel) who wanted Rick to figure out for himself what the the scriptures were teaching instead of handing over the big "ah-ha!" but those conclusions are powerful. Without question, it has brought additional peace and harmony to my home, my marriage and my relationships with others in the three weeks since I've read this book. That's exciting.

I can't promise ease and enjoyment if you read The Peacegiver. The author uses descriptive similes like a germaphobe uses hand sanitizer (catch that?) and it's very, very slow. Rick's lightbulb takes much longer to turn on than any human I know so it can be frustrating to stay at his pace. However, because the book's reward, an easy and applicable understanding of the most important principle given to us from God, is made possible without first attaining a degree in Old Testament studies OR philosophy...it's worth your time and patience to read this book.

84 Charing Cross Road

I was guided to this book by several people after I raved about my love for The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Now that I've read it, I can see how the two books are similar, although I did prefer the satisfying fiction in Guernsey.

84 Charing Cross Road is a sweet, short book containing the correspondence between Helene Hanff, a gregarious and irreverent writer living in New York, and the much more formal workers of the antique bookstore, Marks & Co. in Great Britain. The letters begin following World War II and Helene's warmth and generosity (she sends them things that are difficult to get over there with rations. Eggs. Nylons. Canned tongue Blech!) brings down their professional front until a clear friendship develops.

Obviously, each correspondence isn't included as the book progresses 20 years and there is sometimes nearly a year between letters. Still, I found Helene's humor and charm to be every bit as disarming as Frank Doel and the others at Marks & Co did. To be centered around their common love of books makes it only more lovable.

As it is non-fiction, the story ends realistically and not nearly as satisfying as a feel-good novel. Still, I love that Helene published these hard copies of proof about the power of correspondence and friendship.

Pillars of the Earth

I hated this book. Let's just get that out of the way so there is no confusion later on.

Ken Follett describes a gloomy, dismal, nearly barbaric society whose citizens' greatest concerns seem to be their egos and their lust for power and control. He uses the building of the great European cathedrals as the impetus for his story; the magnificent structures were made possible through trickery, lies, greed, criminal acts and selfish ambition. Forget about the Glory of God...that's just history's cover story. But Follett's cathedral in Pillars of the Earth serves as much purpose as the hospital in the soap opera General Hospital. He focused much more on the personal drama, romance, and rivalry of his weak characters. This was historical fiction a la Daytime television.

The story didn't even feel historical. Follett tried. He mentioned eating with a knife almost as frequently as the tunics his characters wore (Setting it apart from modern day. We no longer wear tunics, you know). But everything felt too modern - their speech, their attitudes, even their relationships. I read the mammoth 1,000 page story quickly but I can just as easily get sucked into Guiding Light. The plots are interesting enough...just mind-numbing and unlikely. For example, the Alfred-Aliena-Jack love triangle had my interest but then the high drama of Aliena's secret pregnancy followed by her truly unbelievable delivery (during the same time the ceiling of the cathedral fell....underneath the stone rubble....really?) along side Jack's odyssey was just too much. And could someone please just get kill William Hamleigh before he rapes someone else? (They don't. The reader is required to experience one too many grotesque acts by an inhumane man who supposedly fears hell. Once was MORE than enough, Ken. We get it. He's baaaaaad).

Even if there is some historical truth to the background story - the difficulty in building a cathedral (oh yeah..remember that?), it is overshadowed by all the non-historical melodrama. I don't think Follett did that period of history any favors by making it all seem so salacious.

Here Be Dragons does a much better job of storytelling the tumultuous middle ages. Read it if you want to experience the pettiness of power. I'd even recommend Philippa Gregory's novels over this. It was about 900 pages too long.

The Mother In Me

Written by a group of smart, articulate and thoughtful women who write for Segullah Magazine and Blog Segullah, The Mother In Me compiles essays and poems whose topics cover pregnancy, miscarriage, infertility, adoption, birth, the loss of a stillborn (I wept), parenting special needs children, and several on the challenges of being a mother to small children.

I think this book is best read in small doses - first, because each essay has its own feeling and message to experience and second, because after reading multiple essays at a time, the book starts to feel redundant. Smart woman....smart woman sacrifices (time, energy, body, mind)....smart woman resents challenge...smart woman feels grateful for challenge...smart woman better because of challenge.

As someone who considers herself a smart woman (I hope we all do), I can certainly identify with the whole cycle. Motherhood is hard. Motherhood is sacrifice. And yet, motherhood is the absolute best teacher I could have ever hoped for in life. Every essay chronicles the development of a God-like trait: patience, hope, faith, forgiveness, compassion, and pure, pure love. After reading, I'd want to hug my children, read them a story, take them somewhere to teach them something, play hide and seek, cook together. It made every experience that every mother knows is difficult and frustrating to be looked upon as a cherished opportunity. I really enjoyed it.

It's only flaw, in my opinion, was that sometimes the essays felt overly essay-ish. It's not like I prefer authors to dumb their writing down, particularly in this book because their writing isn't difficult to read or hard to understand. But sometimes...only sometimes...I felt the superfluous descriptions of leaves, food, weather, etc, etc were added because the authors were English majors going for the "A" instead of mothers writing for mothers. That's all.

This would be a GREAT book for any young mother, any mother who ever was a young mother, any woman who one day hopes to be a young mother. In other words, this would be a great book to read for any woman. I'm sure some men would even like it too.

Highly recommended.

James and the Giant Peach

I shouldn't be allowed to read classic children's literature. My brain simply doesn't appreciate its intended purpose - creativity, imagination, fantasy. Instead, I wonder, "What's the point here?" Sometimes, there is a point, but I think with Ronald Dahl, the focus is placed on the magic and if there happens to be a story in there somewhere in it..so be it.

I borrowed it from the library because it was on the most-commonly-banned-books-in-America shelf and I wondered how the author of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory could upset so many modest American readers?

I still don't know. Unless there is some upsetting symbolism that went way over my head and would be sure to go over the head of its intended audience, I don't understand how this book could offend anyone but mean, crusty old aunts who don't love and take care of their orphaned nephews.

That being said, I wish I loved this non-controversial story, but I didn't. I thought it was overly strange. Strange in a did-you-write-this-while-tripped-out-on-LCD? kind of way. Giant talking bugs. Living in a peach. Flying over the Atlantic Ocean with the help of string tied onto 501 seagulls via the giant silkworm and spider. Landing on the needle of the Empire State Building in New York. A ladybug marrying a police man (What the?). O.K then.

James was surrounded by mean, nasty aunts and now he's happy and living in a giant peach in New York City's Central Park. Wildly imaginative but famous through the ages?

To make sure it deserved its fame, I had my eight year old son read it (even though the word a** is in it twice. Why did Dahl do that?) and he liked it. He didn't love it. Not because it was strange but because like most things he reads, the characters are magical and the plot bizarre. For him, it seemed almost standard fare. When he finished, he handed it back to me and I asked, "Did you like it?" "Yeah." That's it. No buzz. No acting out parts of the story and certainly no regurgitating details from it like he does with some of his other books.

I guess we're just a bunch of fuddy-duddies around here because I found nothing extraordinary about James and the Giant Peach except it's eccentricity.

The Art of Racing in the Rain

I'm shocked...shocked, by how much I loved this book.

The narrator is a dog.

There is much mentioning of racing - Formula One, NASCAR, Indy....

and the narrator is a dog. But I think I mentioned that already.

I liked this book so much that it made me want a dog. No, it made me want this dog. And I don't even like dogs.

Enzo, a terrier/lab mutt, believes in his next life he will be human. As he feels practically human already, just limited to grand gestures due to his loose-muscled tongue and lack of opposable thumbs, he spends his dog years closely watching his ownder, Denny Swift, to learn the art of being human so that when it's his turn, he'll have a head start.

Denny, a race car driver/mechanic/down on his luck dad is a kind owner who loves his dog and uses racing philosophies in his own life. There are many to choose from, but my favorite is, "No race has ever been won in the first corner; many have been lost there." Denny's own story is one of work, patience, courage, endurance, hope, and love. It's not an easy story to read. There are times I felt like throwing the book I was so mad at Denny's in-laws, but (kind of embarrassing to admit here), Enzo kept me sane. I just loved that dog. Just when I'd about had it, he'd make me laugh and I could manage another chapter.

Enzo dies in the end. It's not a secret. From the opening pages, you are reading the words of a dying dog. But that didn't take away my sadness in the end. I bawled when Denny held his beloved friend in his arms and says, "It's okay. You can go." Think Where The Red Fern Grows and Old Yeller only for adults. There is some mentioning of "mounting" (it's a dog's perspective, remember) and language.

Several times throughout the book, Denny or Enzo say, "Your car goes where your eyes go." Enzo knew that applied to life as well. Your life goes where your eyes go. I'm happy my eyes rested on this book.

So Brave, Young and Handsome

I love Leif Enger's writing. It's almost like he has some sort of program akin to Photoshop for writing - and manages to edit words so that they're softer...more pleasant than the picture he's describing. This whole book has a romantic, old-west feel that immediately snagged me. Even though I had already started another book, the opening chapters of So Brave, Young and Handsome swept me up and into its narrative.

It begins with a former postal worker, Monte Becket, painstakingly trying to write 1,000 words a day to produce the follow-up to his first surprisingly successful debut novel. His son and his wife patiently wait for him to finish but Monte knows, deep down, that he doesn't have what it takes to write a second book. With a need to distract himself from his failure, he befriends his mysterious neighbor, Glendon Hale, and accepts an invitation to travel to Mexico with Hale as his old neighbor rseeks forgiveness from the wife he left behind years before.

Hale turns out to be a wanted man using an alias, and much like Peace Like A River, the story - while beautiful and not in a hurry to get anywhere - turns into a bit of a hunt as Hale evades capture time and again from an old nemesis.

In the end, the book has a little bit of everything. Romance, adventure, crime, art, philosophy and a not too shabby tale of friendship. I can't say I enjoyed it as much as Peace Like a River, but it's a pleasant read.

Loving Frank

This book was brought to my attention several months ago but I didn't seriously consider reading it because I thought it was essentially a biography of Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect. I have a serious handicap when it comes to reading non-fiction and if I'm going to read a biography of someone, I wanted to read about someone whose life's details I had some...nay....any interest in knowing. An architect, even a really, really famous one, didn't meet that criteria.

When it was selected as a book group selection, I waved my white flag and read it anyway. Say what you will about book groups, one thing I appreciate about the forum is that they tend to throw books in my path that I wouldn't otherwise read. When I end up actually enjoying the mandated book, I appreciate the selection even more.

Loving Frank is part factual biography, part fictional novel featuring the life of Mamah Borthwick Cheney's as she fell in love with Frank Lloyd Wright. Mamah, a feminist, intellectual and suffragist, was married to safe, loyal but rather boring Edwin Cheney. The married couple were financially secure enough to keep a nanny, a housekeeper and eventually hire an up and coming architect to build one of his conceptually new "Prairie Houses". Financial and marital security did not bring contentment to Mamah, however, and when Wright intimately connects with her on an intellectual and emotional level during the building of her and her husband's home, a physical affair between the two quickly follows.

What makes this story compelling and great discussion fodder isn't Frank and Mamah's relationship or their affair, it's the constant negotiating and justification the author forces Mamah to debate with herself and with the world about the honesty and integrity of romantic and self love. For Mamah, a person's own happiness super ceded that of any one else's, including one's children, although she admitted several times how incongruous that belief felt at times. When she found literature written by radical thinker, Ellen Key, her belief that she should be with Frank at the expense of everything else, because she loved him, deepened. I am left wondering when, if ever, a selfish act is the BEST act. As much as the pair wished it to be so, they did not exist in a bubble and their relationship had real and lasting consequences to the families they abandoned.

If the moral debate is the actual gift of the book (and for me, it was), then the fancy wrapping and giant bow is the holy-cow-wow! drama and historically significant events that made up the life of Frank Lloyd Wright. This should be a very interesting discussion.

Ella Minnow Pea

It wasn't until I told someone, out loud, what I was reading that I realized the title, Ella Minnow Pea, really sounded like the "LMNOP" of the alphabet song. Now, of course, I have no idea how I missed it. Ella Minnow Pea. LMNOP. Obvious. So obvious I wonder what else I missed. Such a clever title. Such a clever book.

Ella Minnow Pea resides on the fictional island of Nallop, off the South Carolina shore, where all the residents are brought up in reverence of syntax and language. The founder and most celebrated resident, Nevin Nollop, was the author of the well known keyboard practice sentence, "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When the letter tiles creating this celebrated sentence beneath his statue begin to fall off, the self-righteous and clearly brainless members of the governing council take it as a sign that Nollop, himself, wants the usage of these letters to terminate. As a result, they ban all future use of the fallen letters. First "z" gets the ax, followed by "q" and "k". The residents of the island face severe and, frankly, far fetched punishment if the banned letters are used in writing, speech or music.

As the book is written through letters between friends and family members within the community, the reader witnesses first hand the difficulties in communicating without all of our precious 26 letters. Yes, we need our "z" and our "k"s, uncommon as they may seem. Life without the letter "d" is no life at all. End scene.

In spite of all of the author's cleverness, which is bountiful, I found this novel lacking. The author, Mark Dunn, brilliantly uses the English language in its most advanced form. While I'm sure I'm exaggerating, (but since this entire book is a satire, I feel it's appropriate here) I think at least 10% of the words throughout the book were words I had never seen nor heard before. Dunn either has an intimate knowledge of English vocabulary or an extremely thick thesaurus at his disposal. For language lovers, I've no doubt this book would be a delight.

For story, character, plot and reality lovers, however, the story isn't quite as accomplished. The author's not very subtle dig at organized religion as a vehicle for the blindly obedient to carry out the wishes of non-existent tyrannical beings got on my nerves. Likewise, the characters were so poorly developed that I was never quite sure who the letters were being written by or to whom they were being sent. As their relationships with each other was never the point of the book, however, I let it slide.

Ultimately, this is a show-off book about language but not one that really entertains or matters, because the story isn't funny, romantic, endearing, sad or slightly plausible. Just very, very clever.