The Ghost Map

I lost steam for reading this one mid-way through, but slogged on because I had so much pent-up anticipation for the book prior to getting it. He lost me as soon as he digressed into the whole “hunter-gatherer turned farmer changed the world” sacred-cow of modern history. The work is a look at the history of the cholera epidemic in London, how 2 amateur scientists proved the disease was water-borne instead of the widely held “miasma” theory of bad air. John Snow pinpointed the source of the breakout at the Broad Street pump, and created the “ghost map” of deaths from a birds eye view, with circles around neighborhoods to show which water pump was the most convenient.
One of the more graphic scenes was the description of Fanny Burney’s mastectomy sans anesthetic; to depict the tenor of the medical times & to show Snow’s pioneering work in ether studies.
Johnson also goes on a blah-de-blah lovefest of the 311 system in NYC, where the city learns from its citizens on the street who are reporting data, which if critical mass is reached, becomes a topic the mayor addresses.

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American Bloomsbury

I’ve always been drawn to the mystery of the genius cluster that thrived in Concord, MA in the 19th century, briefly considering it as a topic for a dissertation while I was still flirting with grad school at Georgia State. I had a great class on American literature there– exploring Hawthorne, Thoreau, Emerson, and the rest. Was it something in the air, in the water, that drove such beautiful writing out of that area?
This book seems promising, until you’re 100 pages in and Cheever starts inserting her own thoughts and memories of Concord into the mix. It was refreshing to re-learn that the greats of American literature all lived in a small Massachusetts town together, Emerson funding the poverty of Thoreau, Alcott & others. Louisa May had a crush on both Thoreau & Emerson, Thoreau loved Emerson’s wife, Emerson & Hawthorne both lusted after Margaret Fuller.
Pretty flimsy stuff, this book. Good to whet the appetite and not much more. I am now inspired to re-read Little Women.

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Tales The People Tell In Mexico

For the last 20 years, I’ve been haunted by vivid memories of a Latino folk story about a witch who is refused food by a rich senora, who then curses the rich lady to starve no matter what she eats. I used to casually scan the shelves of my hometown library in rural Georgia, hoping to recognize the binding and learn the title of the book. I even queried bookstore employees in California, crossing my fingers that one day I’d have this book in my hands again.
A few weeks ago, I mentioned my dilemma to my librarian sister, who quickly identified the book as Tales The People Tell In Mexico. The book arrived today, and I devoured it on the commute home.
The Rich Senora
The people sometimes tell about a certain rich Senora, whose son was the Mayor of Motul. Although she was very, very rich, this woman was also very stingy. Every day, poor people came to her door to beg for food. Every day, she sent them away with nothing.
One day the rich Senora was eating, when a very poor, very old woman came to the door and begged her for a little food. Quickly, the rich Senora threw a cloth over her plate to hide the food piled high there. Then she ordered the old woman away, slamming the door in her face. But when the Senora returned to her food and lifted the cloth from her plate- what do you think? It was crawling with snakes.
This strange event frightened her. The next day, the same old woman came to the door again. This time the rich Senora was not so quick to send her away. She looked around the kitchen for something to give the poor woman. there was plenty of meat, lots of corn and tortillas. But the rich Senora did not want to waste such fine food on a beggar. She scraped a few dry skins from an old onion and gave these to the poor woman.
“Muchas gracias,” said the beggar-woman politely. “Though these are only onion skins, I am thankful. I shall put a little chili sauce on them, and with God’s grace, I shall be filled.”
That evening the Senora suffered a gnawing hunger. In the middle of the night, she had to get up to eat. She ate five tortillas, and still she wasn’t filled. She ate ten, twenty, thirty tortillas, yet she was hungrier than when she had started. And this was only the beginning of her hunger. In the days that followed, the Senora ate and ate and ate. She could not get enough. The more she ate, the hungrier and skinnier she got. Meanwhile, each time the rich Senora saw her, the beggar-woman looked fatter and healthier.
As fast as her servants could cook the food, the rich Senora ate. Tortillas, rice, beans, eggs, meat, chicken– anything! But it did no good. Even while she ate, she wasted away to skin and bone. At last, she became so thin that she died.
As she died, two angels flew down, fluttering about her on their great white wings. The angels reached toward her, holding out something for her to grasp. What was it? Onion skins!
Even though she was a rich Senora, and mother of a mayor, she had no choice. The onion skins were the only things she had ever given to anybody. Only by their strength could she reach heaven. The rich Senora grasped the onion skins and prayed that they would hold.
The angels rose with her. They flew higher and higher toward heaven, pulling her up by the onion skins. But the onion skins were old and dry, like the ones she had given the beggar-woman. At last they broke. Even as she watched the angels fly out of sight above her, the rich Senora dropped into a never-ending sea of darkness.

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Eat, Pray, Love

Sometimes you rescue books from their dusty neglect, forgotten on the bookshelves. And sometimes books rescue you, from an unpleasant situation or state of mind. This book was the latter, my rescue, my cross country flight entertainment, my rope to salvation out of a hole of unnecessary sadness.
Gilbert skillfully deboned and skinned herself, laying her heartbreak out for all to pick over and examine. Fresh from a painful divorce and torrid love affair with the wrong guy, she flees on her “I” journey, spending a year abroad in 3 countries starting with “I” (Italy, India, Indonesia). In Italy, she eats well and nurses herself back to health, finally ending things with David via email.
Appetite satiated and glutted on earthly pleasures for four months, she then heads to India to medidate in an Ashram and find spiritual peace. At the Ashram, she struggles with quieting her mind (monkey mind… I’m well acquainted with the problem), struggles with the 182 verse Sanskrit poem (the Gurugita) that eventually transports her to the heights of spiritual grace. One final problem remains– the lack of closure with her ex-husband. So the plumber from New Zealand sets her up on the roof of the Ashram and has her work it out by summoning his spirit and letting their spirits talk through the closure.
Healed heart & mind, she heads back to Bali (Indonesia) to help the medicine man she’d found a few years prior. In Bali, she finds balance, friendship, a Brazilian lover. The moral of the story is to find the strength to change your life for the better, you don’t need to settle for 2nd rate. Perfect timing on the book choice.
Recommended and pressed upon me by Ashlyn, the genius guru of relationship advice

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Blame it on Paris

Ah, the joys of dashing home for the weekend and devouring books you’d never be caught dead with otherwise. This book by a hometown girl about snagging her French husband despite all efforts to remain unattached, traveling the globe, working on her PhD. She introduces her Parisian boyfriend to rural Georgia, with its No Beer on Sundays!, red dirt, far from civilization, gun toting charm. Ended up being quite readable, funny in parts. I think also interesting to readers from outside the world that this is drawn upon. I couldn’t quite come to terms with her descriptions of herself as a manhunter in stiletto boots, but if not knowing the author, others should not have that same problem. Congrats to Laura on getting published, and it being a fine readable effort to boot!
First mentioned by JK, but thrust into my needy hands by Christine

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Future of the Book

Last night’s discussion at the Commonwealth Club was boisterous and entertaining. The topic was “The Future of the Book: Dead or Alive?” While the panel was firmly in the camp of “Books: Alive”, it was interesting to see how technology is helping keep books relevant; Brewster Kahle passed around one of the 600 first $100 laptops that will put the world’s catalog of books in the hands of 3rd world children. It’s a very basic machine, thin & light, with a screen that pivots & turns so that you can use the laptop as a tablet PC or as a regular laptop. There was some banter around “The Long Tail” (only economically beneficial if you own the entire catalog of the long tail…)
Highlights from the session:
Larson: books are a beautiful form that is a physical pleasure to read. To be a viable medium, they must be useable in bed, bath, beach & bus. For a book to be considered a bestseller, it’s all about volume and velocity of sales.
Gittins: Tyranny of retail distribution.. The opportunity is to provide tools for people to easily create books, tools to enable people to find what they are looking for. Blurb has $14M raised by people who care about the future of the book…
Kahle: Internet Archive is making the dream of the Library of Alexandria a reality; gathering all the books of the world in digital format. Library of Congress has 26 million books; if each book is 1MB of data, that’s 26 Terabytes of data, or $60k to buy the computers to run and store all the books of the LOC. Print on demand is virtually free, so the Archive can give away books.
Gunn: Everyone has at least one book in them. The book tour is a thing of the past– one stop at a major podcast can get you wider coverage than a book tour. What doesn’t work: authors hating the title or cover of their book and losing the energy to promote it; authors in it just to make money. Books are human, as long as we’re alive, they’re alive. “Begin!”

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The Soloist

Quickly read this one on a flight home. Salzman’s writing style is very readable, but I was disappointed overall in the book. Maybe it was because he re-used certain things in Lost in Suburbia (e.g. the time spent sitting in a box to impress NASA, the cello stuff). There was a nice tempo in the story as he jumped from jury duty to music lessons and back thru the past.
Basically, a child prodigy who never got social skills ends up teaching and not performing, gets jury duty where he almost loses his virginity to a fellow juror. The trial is a murder case, where a Zen student kills his master after contemplating the koan, if you come upon Buddha in the road, kill him. The question of insanity vs. knowing consequences of your actions. The cellist the lone holdout for not guilty, which results in hung jury. Side story is the discovery of the tiny Korean kid’s talent, taking him to concerts, enduring his mom’s harsh words. Eventually the cellist gets a cat. All is well.

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Top Picks of 2006

Here are my top picks for 2006.
The Winners
1. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
2. The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and other stories by Julia Slavin
3. River of Doubt by Candice Millard
4. To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel
5. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Honorable Mentions
1. On Seeing and Noticing by Alain de Botton
2. Women by Charles Bukowski
3. Andes to the Amazon by Bruce Junek
4. Ask the Dust by John Fante
5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
6. Legends by Robert Littell
7. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
8. Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
9. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson


Jess & Sophie are a couple so intertwined, playful, into each other, that they attract the attention of the mythical Lena, who enters their orbit and makes the twins into triplets. The threesome live together, play together, experience “Kink” together.
“…Lena shook her head: ‘No, kink is, it’s like art, it’s– well, it’s a theory, really, my theory of life,’ her smile mocking drama, more wine in our glasses, tiny moons to rim the lip. ‘It’s a way to see the world, to– like this guy’s kink would be his self-help thing, right? It isn’t only the money, he wants to help people, wants to be the one who makes them feel good… Like you two, you’re each other’s kink, right? You see the world through each other, you use each other to change the world, make the world. Your world: do you see what I mean? Like you’re not just living, just like everyone else, you’re making your life, shaping it like, like art, by the way you see things, the way you are. See?’ ” (p 52)
Then things unravel as Jess wants more and more of Lena and less and less of Sophie. Meanwhile, Lena & Sophie are the real couple, unbeknownst to Jess, and they leave him to his misery, where he spends the last 100 pages of the story chasing down leads on what Lena’s previous life was all about. In the end, he tracks Sophie down, as she is the only known survivor whom Lena did not slash & burn. Sophie has left Lena, tired of the lies, and moved on. She gives Jess Lena’s address for one last confrontation, fact-gathering mission. In the end, Jess wants Sophie back, and sits waiting in her salon to give her the earrings she’d left behind.
Great writing, borderline erotica of the best sort.

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Real Estate Riches

Great entry-level book to get your brain juices flowing about the possibility to own real estate. He makes a compelling case for borrowing most of the cash to finance the purchases; better to take $4k and invest $1k down in 4 properties, borrowing the rest, since there are so many tax advantages. Make the most of banks’ willingness to finance your real estate investing. Commercial vs. residential real estate also looks to be the most lucrative & easy way to go. Look at 100 properties, pick 10 to bid on, 3 will accept, find financing for 1. It’s all about the internal rate of return.
Good rah-rah book, a little weak on details of paying off mortages & how to go about getting started.

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Lost in Place

I wish I could tell a story this compelling about my growing up in the suburbs. Salzman exposes his extreme fanaticism with tales of kung fu practice in his parents’ basement, dying his pajamas black (turned out purple), buying a bald wig and burning lots o incense. After a year of trying to master kung fu and Zen on his own, he takes up lessons with a local Sensei (O’Keefe) who is a dash of nutso and a big swig of crazy. Tiring of lessons after the one where his friend Michael volunteers to be choked then restored, he attacks his cello in earnest. Flipping it sideways like a sitar, he starts a jazz band with Scott and refuses pot in the quest for purity. Eventually he succombs to the State of Whoa and becomes a burner. Tales of rebuilding engines, listening to his dad’s pessimistic view of the world, watching the stars with his dad, picking up the expensive telescope from the factory to save on shipping (all $$ went into the optics), getting a job in the mailroom of a lawyer office, studying Chinese, calligraphy, inventing his own curriculum in high school; getting accepted to Yale and deferring for a year, then tales of Yalehood. All in all, hard to put down, and has laugh out loud moments.
Recommended by Ellen

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Librarian rant

Does she work at the library solely to humiliate patrons on their choice of books? My belief in the automated checkout system is strengthened after tonight’s ordeal where the senorita mocked 2 out of my 3 book choices. Surprisingly, she left Kink alone– which seems borderline erotica from the first page. But she skewered my first attempt to understand real estate investing with a ridiculous comment “I would rather work at a job I love and not make money than invest in real estate.” Followed quickly by a “Where are you from? You must have grown up in suburbia,” as she checked out Mark Salzman’s Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia.
Sigh. I miss the Potrero branch librarians who have nothing but encouraging words about my choices. I’d rather the silence of the self-checkout than the heckling of a teenage girl who dreams of becoming a doctor. Need to work on that bedside manner, chica!