5. Ash, by Malinda Lo. This is a different take on the Cinderella story. There are many common elements with the well-known fairy tale: Ash, or Aisling, is a happy, contented girl until her mother and, later, her father dies. Her stepmother makes Ash a servant to pay off her father’s debts. Ash serves both the stepmother and two stepsisters, one whom is very cruel (one isn’t as mean). There’s a ball, a prince and magic — but then the story takes its own turn. Ash finds that she has to choose between the powerful and dangerous Sidhean, a fairy, and Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. The story flows smoothly and naturally. This version of Cinderella is darker than the typical fairy tale, dealing more with the shades of gray than in black and white. Through the story, Ash goes from someone who feels trapped to someone who begins to learn to break her own bonds.
6. Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, by Robert K. Wittman and John Shiffman. You don’t have to be an art connoisseur or even much of an art fan to appreciate this book. Here, Robert Wittman, now retired from the FBI, relates how he made a career of tracking down and recovering stolen art and artifacts. He recovered hundreds of millions of dollars worth of important historical artifacts and art through his career. Some highlights include the recovery of the 14th Bill of Rights, which was stolen during the Civil War; uncovering and exposing the scandel connected with two shady dealers on Antiques Roadshow; and the recovery of more than $2 million in Revolutionary and Civil War era relics stolen from a Philadelphia museum. The story is fast-paced and straightforward; Wittman finds the right balance of giving just enough history behind the pieces and the thefts without it coming across as a lengthy arts and history lecture. His stories on what he has to do to infiltrate the less seemly side of society are fascinating and, at times, intense. This is a must-read for true crime and history fans.
7. Codex, by Lev Grossman. I really liked Grossman’s “The Magicians,” and checked out this title because of the author and because it looked like a history-based mystery, which I enjoy. Alas, this book was rather disappointing. The story centers on Edward Wozny, an investment banker whose star is on the rise. He’s enjoying a vacation before travelling overseas for a lucrative job. Just before he officially starts his vacation, Edward is given a strange assignment — basically he’s asked to catalogue an impressive array of old books owned by a wealthy and eccentric client. What he finds — and what he is charged in looking for — seeks him to enlist help from Margaret Napier, a stiff but brilliant scholar of medeival texts. The book is rather slow for the first 90 pages or so; I almost gave up on it, but went one more chapter. Just in time if you will, the book started to get very interesting around page 90. It was clicking along very well after that, getting hard to put down, as Edward and Margaret try to discover the interest in retreiving a Codex that some want, and others want destroyed. Then, it ended. And the ending just left me scratching my head and thinking “what the heck just happened here??” The best thing about this story were some of the interesting historical tidbits and vocabulary words I picked up. There also was a side story about a hyper-realistic video game Edward gets from a friend. This had very little connection with the rest of the story, and should have been chopped. It only slowed things down. All in all rather disappointing.
8. Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives by Annie Murphy Paul. This is a fascinating (and occassionally disturbing) read for those interested in childhood development and epigenetics. The author parallels her own thoughts and experiences with her second pregnancy with the growing bodies of evidence that are showing the incredible impact of the environment, nutrition and other factors on the unborn child — effects that can be felt and documented even decades later. Two examples that struck me:
One was a study of children and adults who were in-utero during the 1944 “Hunger Winter” in the Netherlands. The famine, brought on by a tight German blockade coupled with an unusually severe and early winter, left an estimated 18,000 dead. Those children who were still in the womb during this time were not only smaller than average, but their own children were smaller than average. The children studied also had a significantly higher pecentage of ailments such as heart disease and cancer, even decades later. Higher rates of schizophrenia and other neurological disorders were also found among children who had been in the second trimester during the Hunger Winter (and, indeed, in other famines and times of intense stress).
The second is more recent: the ice storm that struck parts of the northern United States and Canada. This storm shut down some cities for several days. Researchers conducted two studies on children who had been in-utero at the time of the storm. They noticed significant delays in development when the children were toddlers, compared to children who had not been impacted by the storm, and in IQ. Those children were tested about a decade later; while the gap between those who were impacted by the storm and those who were not had closed somewhat, that gap still remained. At least one researcher quoted in the book said she was surprised that such a sizable gap would have remained, even a decade later.
The implications of such studies are sobering, to say the least.
I liked the writing style and the author’s own asides about her pregnancy, and she doesn’t seem to leave any stone unturned, any side or angle unmentioned. I do like how Paul at least tries to give the positives — what can be done to help improve the unborn child’s future. But many things seem rather daunting. Also, there were a couple pieces of advice that might seem a bit misguided. For example, she said she eschewed some fish because of mercury concerns (understandable) and instead went for others, including catfish. Huh? I don’t know about the mercury concerns of catfish, but that is not a fish I’d recommend, given its feeding patterns (bottom feeders tend to be chock full of other pollutants, and I don’t know the safety of farmed fish other than often its no safer.) Also, her observation of how children born via C-section don’t feel pain as intensely as those born “naturally” was, while may be true, left the impression that voluntary C-sections should be done more. Sorry — but while C-sections are sometimes necessary, they can bring a whole host of other problems for the mother and infant (higher rates of respiratory ailments in newborns, for example).
I do like how the book was chaptered– nine chapters for nine months. I do wonder if the information could have been a bit better organized. I’ve read far worse, but a couple things got repeated, and there were similar items that should have been grouped together. It’s not bad — the themes are fairly well established per chapter. It just needed tweaked. All in all, I really enjoyed this book.
9. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg. This memoir written by a Harvard graduate who spent two years as a prison librarian. Those looking for a read on how education and writing classes and caring mentors can help someone who has done wrong turn over a new leaf – may want to look elsewhere. Steinberg’s story is a brutally honest look at the prison population and the culture that surrounds it. Early on, he details how he’s mugged at knifepoint in the park — by someone who recognized him from the library and had even been a patron there. Another story deals with his near-friendship with a charming pimp whose looking to write his life’s story — and who turns out to have a *very* nasty rapsheet. One of the more tragic stories deals with Jessica, who struggles with her own past and in trying to connect with her son — who’s also in the same prison.
Steinberg himself is honest about him being a fish out of water, particularly at the beginning, in dealing with the motley group of inmates — both patrons and library workers. The two years he spent at Boston’s South Bay prison were juggling acts. When did he bend the rules to help an inmate? How could he command their respect? Should he follow in the footsteps of his more draconian successors? How far should he go in appeasing some of the other staff — a couple of whom were as bad as some of the inmates. There is a lot of tragedy in the book, counterbalanced somewhat by the author’s keen wit and eye for irony. Steinberg goes into the stories of several of the prisoners as well as some of the “customs” and “traditions” of prison, such as prisoners leaving “kites” for their fellow inmates (kites being little notes left throughout the library). Steinberg’s job was to find and dispose of these kites — considered to be against the rules. But he shares a sampling of what he sees in his story. I’m not sure “enjoyable” is the right word here, but “Running the Books” is insightful and thought-provoking.