Thursday, October 06, 2005

Buy a Friend a Book!

My book was among those featured in the inaugural issue of Buy a Friend a Book week. Basically, you buy a friend a book just for the hell of it... whatever friend you like, whatever book, and for no good reason.

October's Buy a Friend a Book Week is coming to a close. Here are a few books I've enjoyed recently, and I will be buying one or more of them for friends. In light of this week's posting about not reviewing friends' novels on Amazon, I'm only including books of people whom I DO NOT personally know:

Stop That Girl by Elizabeth McKenzie: (from Elizabeth McKenzie's Stop That Girl is a series of chronological stories that, taken together, uncover the life story of Ann Ransom, a native Californian who moves from childhood to adulthood with poise, intelligence, and humor. When we first meet Ann in the collection's title story, she is a spunky eight year old living with her mom in Long Beach. Featured characters include Ann's mom, her grandmother Dr. Frost, her sister Kathy, and three or four of her romantic interests. The state of California itself serves as an important supporting character, helping to keep Ann rooted in time and space as she moves through each chapter of her life.

While each story is unique in its own right, McKenzie's lyrical style makes it easy to string each episode together to form the consistent thread of Ann's life. In one of the early stories, ten-year-old Ann attends a neighborhood party on her own, apologizing to the host for her parents's absence while attempting to fulfill the family's social obligations with the grace of someone well beyond her years. ("I make it my business to look as enterprising ad possible, a team player, someone you can count on, someone who never lets you down...") As she gets older, Ann continues to play the role of "normal one" in a family of eccentric personalities, while simultaneously attempting to forge her own identity as a young woman. In one climatic story, Ann's grandmother pays her a visit at UC Santa Cruz on the same day as a monumental appearance by Allen Ginsberg. What follows is a car chase that culminates in a showdown between Ann, her boyfriend, and her grandmother that perfectly illustrates the push-pull dynamic which seems to define Ann's life.

For Ann, each step forward brings with it a reminder of a past that she doesn't necessarily want to forget. It is this haunting inability to escape her past, to in fact embrace her past in order to move on, that make Ann such an endearing character and her creator such a gifted storyteller.

The Discovery of Insulin by Michael Bliss: (from an reviewer) This fine book is perhaps the best single narrative account of a major medical breakthrough. Bliss's background is not in medicine or biology but rather in Canadian history, politics, and Canadian cultural history. Prior to writing this book, he wrote what is probably the definitive biography of Frederick Banting and more recently he produced a highly praised biography of William Osler. One of the best things about this book is the broad perspective that Bliss brings to the subject. The exciting story of the isolation of insulin is grounded in a well laid out explanation of the social and cultural circumstances of these events. The situation of Canadian society, the nature of academic life, and the consequences of a great discovery being made in a Canadian city are laid out very well. Bliss is excellent on the science as well. He is a fine writer explains the background and events of the isolation very well. He really shows the team nature of this event and of scientific activity in general. He is very careful to delineate the contributions of all participants and shows how a group effort was really necessary to isolate insulin. A signficant point of revision is his emphasis of the role of JRR MacLeod, the Professor of Physiology at Toronto. In traditional accounts, he is a scientific bad guy who hijacks credit from Banting and Best. In Bliss's account, he is an important contributor who was probably victimized by Canadian nationalism. Bliss is very good as well on diabetes as a clinical problem, the impact of the isolation of insulin, and difficulties of moving from laboratory work to mass production. A fun and informative book that can be enjoyed by specialists and the general reading public.

I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe: (from the Product Description, via Dupont University--the Olympian halls of learning housing the cream of America's youth, the roseate Gothic spires and manicured lawns suffused with tradition... Or so it appears to beautiful, brilliant Charlotte Simmons, a sheltered freshman from North Carolina. But Charlotte soon learns, to her mounting dismay, that for the uppercrust coeds of Dupont, sex, Cool, and kegs trump academic achievement every time.

As Charlotte encounters Dupont's privileged elite--her roommate, Beverly, a Groton-educated Brahmin in lusty pursuit of lacrosse players; Jojo Johanssen, the only white starting player on Dupont's godlike basketball team, whose position is threatened by a hotshot black freshman from the projects; the Young Turk of Saint Ray fraternity, Hoyt Thorpe, whose heady sense of entitlement and social domination is clinched by his accidental brawl with a bodyguard for the governor of California; and Adam Geller, one of the Millennial Mutants who run the university's "independent" newspaper and who consider themselves the last bastion of intellectual endeavor on the sex-crazed, jock-obsessed campus--she gains a new, revelatory sense of her own power, that of her difference and of her very innocence, but little does she realize that she will act as a catalyst in all of their lives. With his signature eye for detail, Tom Wolfe draws on extensive observation of campuses across the country to immortalize college life in the '00s. I Am Charlotte Simmons is the much-anticipated triumph of America's master chronicler.

The Torn Skirt by Rebecca Godfrey: (from Publisher's Weekly, via When Sara's hippie father catches her masturbating after school, he can't handle what he's witnessed. In one of this whip-smart debut's many surreal scenes, he decides to move out effective immediately. Godfrey's novel is full of equally disconcerting episodes, but its brash honesty gives them a giddily delightful spin. The departure of 16-year-old Sara's single father leaves her to fend for herself, and she quickly heads down the wrong path in mid-'80s Victoria, British Columbia. An obsession with Justine, a strangely alluring street girl, leads her into the red-light district, where she meets China, a teenage prostitute who persuades Sara to help her rob a john. As the new friends flee the crime scene, the deceived man threatens Sara, vowing to get revenge. Sure enough, just as she finally finds Justine again, she is accosted by the man, and Justine nearly kills him with a knife belonging to Sara. Though the book is a hell-ride through the lives of burned-out teens killing time in homeless shelters and drug houses, the scenery is transformed by Godfrey's angry cleverness: one character is "like the rising rowdy moment of a party just before the cops arrive and send everyone home." Though secondary figures like Sara's father and China don't get the thorough treatment Godfrey gives Sara, Godfrey's singular voice is a perfect barometer of teenage rage and insecurity.

Needles by Andie Dominick: (from As the title suggests, the author is graphically frank about the medical necessities of living with juvenile-onset diabetes, and squeamish readers may find her memoir harrowing. In its essence, however, this is a story of emotional growth and healing. Diagnosed at 9 by her older sister Denise, who is herself a diabetic, Andie Dominick spends her adolescence rebelling against her condition: "dieting" by skipping shots, undergoing a dangerous abortion at 17. When, at 21, Andie discovers 33-year-old Denise dead in the house they share, she begins to reexamine the reckless lifestyle that killed her sister and threatens her as well. The discovery three years later that she has diabetic retinopathy, which could lead to blindness, helps Dominick realize she cannot follow her sister's path: "Denise always told me having the disease didn't have to change my life. But now it has ... because I am finally facing who I am." Love and eventually marriage continue Dominick's process of self-knowledge and acceptance, though there is no facile happy ending. (She has a tubal ligation rather than risk passing diabetes to another generation.) Dominick's deliberately plain prose and gritty candor render her struggle accessible and real.

Buy one of these books for a friend! I guarantee they will nod in agreement, laugh, cry... maybe all three. Personally stamped with the Martha O'Connor Seal of Approval!

Many thanks and gasps of awe to Debra Hamel for pioneering the Buy A Friend A Book Week concept.

Are you the author of one of these books? Feel free to add this image to your website!