Gouda Buddha Books

Devouring books since 2009.

Death’s Acre

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Death’s Acre is all about the man, Dr. William Bass, who started the body farm at the University of Tennessee.  The Body Farm is nothing new to those who have read Stiff by Mary Roach and other such explorations of the lives of dead bodies, and so I’m surprised it took me as long as it did to read Death’s Acre.

The book traces Dr. Bass’s early career, his near-foray into another academic area, his introduction to consulting on criminal cases, and how the need came about for greater research on the decomposition of bodies if crimes were to be solved.  (This happened in no small part because a Civil War soldier was mistakenly identified as a recently deceased body.) Essentially, Bass is the reason that forensic science’s use with regard to solving crimes has taken off so much in the past 50 years, and given rise to TV shows in which it is regularly used.

Dr. Bass, with the help of Jon Jefferson, goes on to detail various cases on which he has consulted and research projects his graduate students have done in areas where more information was clearly needed, such as insects with regard to decomposing bodies.  All of this is fairly grisly in the level of detail, but also quite matter of fact and respectful to the dead (despite the fact that Bass excavated a number of Native American cemeteries in the 1950s and as such is not well regarded in some communities).

I found the book fascinating, and raved about it to my husband over brunch one day while he frantically tried to shush me from out of concern for fellow diners.  I also found it a book I had to take breaks from because of the devastating crimes Bass recounts.  The book reads very easily, is readily accessible to non-scientists (though I doubt it would have the level of technical detail to be of interest to those with a background in the field), and has a sense of humor about it as well as a modesty.  Bass is proud of his accomplishments and the crimes he has been able to successful assist with, but he is even more proud of his students.  He’s also acutely aware of the limits of his profession, in so much as he can offer explanations or hypotheses, but he cannot ensure juries and judges will convict people.  Bass is intriguing as an indirect subject of his own book, and Jon Jefferson is to be given credit for the authentic voice within the writing.

I’m looking forward to reading the follow-up book, Beyond the Body Farm, and taking a second look at crime scenes in future murder mystery reads- especially given how many authors have been to the Body Farm as part of their research.  Now if only Sonika and I were writing a book…

Written by questionsandanchors

June 25, 2010 at 3:28 pm

Books I Have Been Too Lazy To Review

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Readers, I’m a slacker and have several drafts of reviews that have been in draft form for quite some time.  So I’m going to post a few of them together and start with only the mostly completed books to review individually.

The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood.  I started reading this book and realized I perhaps should have reread Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood is the prequel to Atwood’s previous novel, and I was having a bit of trouble remembering just what had and had not been explained in it.  But as I’m short on patience, I didn’t want to take the time to do so, and I persevered.  At some point, I’ll reread them both close together, and I think that I’ll get more out of them both, but I still really appreciated Year of the Flood even with this gap of memory.  It takes time to flesh out, but is well worth it, and as always, Atwood’s writing is captivating.  I didn’t get around to reviewing it because I found it nearly impossible to sum up the plot or my emotions to it.  Suffice to say, Atwood stirred quite a bit of thought for me.

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I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley.  I read the first essay in this book in my friend’s guest room in September of 2009, and the story of her collection of My Little Pony horses from various suitors stayed with me.  Eventually, I had to track down my own copy of this book because I wanted more of Sloane Crosley’s witty, self-deprecating essays that I could almost identify with (sometimes more so than others), and after reading it through, there was only one essay I really didn’t like.  Apparently Sloane Crosley is a big deal because of her publicist day job for Joan Didion among others (whom I’m also reading now), but I didn’t realize this at the time.  As such, people resent her shortcuts in much the same way people resent Jonathan Safran Foer for being discovered by Joyce Carol Oates.  C’est la vie.  I’m bitter because I don’t have fancy friends too, but if I did, I sure as hell wouldn’t blink before agreeing to have my work published, with the thought being if it is any good, it will stand on its own.  And so I Was Told There’d Be Cake does.  I’ve put my copy in my guest room now, and I’m excited for Crosley’s new book of essays on traveling, How Did You Get This Number,  which will be released in just a few weeks.  Perfect vacation reading.

Written by questionsandanchors

June 9, 2010 at 2:34 pm

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

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Sonika and I both reading the same book at the same time! Exciting!  And no one was more thrilled than I when she posted her review first.

The third book in the Millineum trilogy also made me angry that Stieg Larsson has died, but it was also a confirmation of his talent.  Unlike the second book, The Girl Who Played With Fire (link to my review), which picks up after a year has passed since TGWTDT, this book starts on the same night that the previous book ends.  I greatly appreciated the continuity and jump into action without any explanation; it shows a great deal of trust in the readers’ intelligence, as well as confidence in the story.

There really is very little that can be told about the plot of this  book without spoilers- and without revealing the ending of the past book. I will say I found it both immensely satisfied me and left me longing for more of both these characters and Larsson’s work.  It was a solid wrap-up to the main plotline trilogy, though I agree with Sonika that quite a bit more could have been explored.  Yet I appreciated that the lives of the characters after this mayhem were not quite clear; it was a nod to their complexity and the just-near-enough-to-the-underbelly world they exist in.

As an additional note, my brother was not so thrilled with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, in part because it is so plot-driven and he wished the characters were a bit more philosophical about their actions.  On this point, I have to agree that the characters act first and think later- if ever- about alternative options, but I would also be surprised if readers wanted their murder mysteries to have less plot and more long, descriptive scenes.  Am I wrong about this?

For a succinct overview of the trilogy, plot and characters, I’d recommend the first part of the NYT book review.  Otherwise, I’d tell you to hurry up and read the previous two books so you can enjoy The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Net.

Written by questionsandanchors

June 9, 2010 at 3:03 am

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest.

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Yep. I did it. I went out and bought it in hardcover the first second I could. I scoured bookstores for the whole month of May (not knowing and being too lazy to look up the actual release date) anxiously awaiting the nanosecond when I could get TGWKTHN into my greedy little hands. I was even stalking TARGET. JUST IN CASE. It was on June 1st (a whole WEEK after its release!) that I found it in my local Borders and snapped it up. It certainly made that day redeemable as having an anxiously awaited book to read on the train makes going on said train up to Boston for a stupid routine doctor’s appointment that will only last ten minutes, yet you are on the train for an hour to get there – half hour on the T, which inevitably makes you motion sick – another half hour on the T back to South Station – and an hour on a rush hour train watching powerful women wielding TWO Blackberries simultaneously – it makes that day worthwhile.

I can’t say much without getting all spoilery, so I will just say that it was awesome. It was awesome and a corollary to its awesomeness is that I am now firmly pissed off that Steig Larsson is dead.

I kind of morbidly wonder if the Millenium trilogy would have been as popular if he’d been around. There’s a certain mystique to “… and then he DROPPED DEAD.” about the books. It’s also really amazing to think of how wildly they’ve been selling (the Borders clerk – one of my former coworkers – commented that they’ve been flying off the shelf) when the author of said books hasn’t been around to do book tours and interviews and shit like that. No one, NO ONE in the world has an autographed copy of these books. Kinda eerie.

And while I wouldn’t mind reading an interview talking about his inspiration for Lisbeth Salander, I’m really pissed off that he’s not writing more books. I expected TGWKTHN to kind of wrap up all lose ends, but it really ends rather ambiguously. The main plot line is resolved, but there’s no real sense of “finality” to the ending. There’s a lot more “And then?!” that could be explored in subsequent books.

Which, of course, could definitely go into the territory of “Should have quit while he was ahead.” But I’m pissed that WE’LL NEVER KNOW because he didn’t “quit.” He bit it. He wrote three amazing books and then had the audacity to die before they were published.

So, there you have it. I loved the book and Stieg Larsson is a jerk. A dead jerk.

(And because I know you want to read them. YOU WANT TO READ THEM, OK? My reviews of The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.)

UPDATE: According to Wikipedia, the Millennium series was supposed to contain up to 10 books!

Larsson left about three quarters of a fourth novel on a notebook computer in Gabrielsson’s possession; synopses or manuscripts of the fifth and sixth in the series, which was intended to contain an eventual total of ten books, may also exist.[12]

YOU JERK. YOU DEAD, DEAD JERKITY JERKFACED JERK YOU JERKFACE AND YOU HAVE THE FACE OF A JERK.

Written by Sonja

June 6, 2010 at 5:51 pm

The Likeness.

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After I finished In the Woods and found out Tana French’s follow-up book was about the fascinating and as-yet underdeveloped character of Detective Cassie Maddox, I went to my used bookstore the next day.  Readers, I was fully prepared to pay full price for the book in the event that Half Price did not have it.  That’s how serious my craving was- I was willing to jettison both a bargain price and Amazon to have it in my hands immediately.

Fortunately, the universe came through for me and there was a lovely unblemished copy of The Likeness in stock AND on the clearance shelf.  Never have I felt so taken care of by mystic forces.

The Likeness picks up six months after the end of In the Woods.  Cassie has transferred out of the murder department and into domestic violence- until the body of a girl who looked exactly like her AND who was using her former undercover alias (Lexie Madison) is found in an abandoned cottage .

Now comes the part where French tests the reader: exactly how much are you willing to suspend your disbelief? But hey, I watched Iron Man 2 over the weekend, so I was game.  A scheme is hatched for Lexie Madison’s roommates to be told she survived the stabbing and is coming home- but for Cassie to be sent in undercover as Lexie to determine possible suspects for her murder.

Still reading? If so, then the rest of the book is quite fascinating, especially as all of the roommates are English majors.  Cue the drunk but philosophical talks and the big dreams of not working and just writing for the rest of their lives.  I understand; I’ve got the same dream, which is why I have plans to move to a Vermont farmhouse and co-found a commune.  But still, it’s quite interesting to watch the group attempt to resist pressures from the “real world” by refusing to engage with their parents or discuss their pasts.

The really dissatisfying part of this book to me was the romance angle between Cassie and another detective Sam.  I thought it was unconvincing, underdeveloped, and maybe it’s just because I really liked Rob Ryan, but I was not a fan of their romance at all.  I kind of hope that French breaks them up in the future.  I also hope I see a lot more of Cassie and Rob Ryan.

In the meantime, I’ll be bidding my time until French’s third book comes out, which focuses on Frank Mackey, the detective who coordinates Cassie’s undercover operation in this book.  I might even have to buy it in hardback.   Of course, this will mean my copies don’t match and paying full price.  We’ll see whether my thrifty Virgo tendencies can hold out, but I’m betting I’ll be beating down the bookstore door on July 13.

Written by questionsandanchors

May 12, 2010 at 9:40 pm

In the Woods.

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A week ago, I did not know who Tana French was.  I was wandering through my happy place- a used bookstore after a particularly stressful day at work, and I picked up In the Woods on the clearance rack for two reasons: 1) I liked the cover and 2) I remembered having vaguely heard of this book.  I took it home and could not put it down, and then immediately went out and bought French’s second book (also on clearance- win!), and all told, I have read through 900 pages of Irish murder mystery in the past week.

In the Woods opens with the dead body of a teenage girl being found in an archeological dig site.  Enter Detective Rob Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox, and throw in an extra complication: this is the same location that Ryan and two of his friends went missing as 12-year-olds.  Only Ryan was found, with blood in his shoes and socks, and no idea what had happened to his friends.  This event changed the trajectory of his life, especially given his efforts to avoid thinking about the trauma, right up until this case. Enter themes of identity as well, given that very few people know that Ryan was the kid who survived, and it’s a perfect storm for our Irish boy.

French uses the first person, which makes Ryan’s recounting of the case and his not-so-gradual breakdown intensely immediate.  In the Woods was not a car wreck that I couldn’t turn away from, but rather a car wreck I couldn’t escape, as I was in the car with Ryan.  I wondered what kind of a detective Ryan had been prior to this case, and worried about his liver, and wanted to yell at him when he made his predictable but annoyingly dumb mistakes.

Oh, what a meltdown it was, and still, I liked Ryan at the end of the book, and wanted much more of him and Cassie.  And I wanted more of French’s writing, which was surprisingly elegant given that the grisly crime works are not where I go looking to find prose that will move me.

This book is definitely a first novel and was not without its flaws, but I think the fact that I could not put it, or its follow-up down, speaks for itself.  Additionally, this was the perfect book to satiate me until The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest comes out later this month.  And for anyone to whom I’d like to recommend Larsson but worry about the graphic violence and triggering scenes, I finally have an alternative recommendation: Tana French.

Written by questionsandanchors

May 11, 2010 at 9:31 pm

The Lexus and The Olive Tree.

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So I was about 10 years late to The Lexus and the Olive Tree party (unsurprising given that it has sat on my shelves unread for about seven years), but I still found it a fascinating and valuable read.  Thomas Friedman  has long been on my radar for his op-ed column in the New York Times.  I find him to be a smart, insightful writer, and look forward to his take on events around the globe.

In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman addresses the tensions between “the drive for prosperity and development, symbolized by the Lexus, and the desire to retain identity and traditions, symbolized by the olive tree.”  He ties together global news stories and interweaves his own experiences, and by midway through the book, I was looking at the international page totally differently.  My Google friends probably wondered why I was suddenly sharing items about the Greek debt or accounting procedures in China.

And still, I considered this reading to be only a start, which is why I’m now hip-deep in Hot, Flat, and Crowded, Friedman’s most recent work about the need for a clean energy revolution.

I’m tempted to send every policymaker I know a copy of both books.

Written by questionsandanchors

April 23, 2010 at 5:45 pm