Robin Taylor

Of course Jon Katz plugs his own book on Amazon.com's Web site. After all, Geeks is about the way the Internet is changing people's lives. It's about people making connections, especially the kind of people the lost people who have trouble connecting in the real world. He says tongue-in-cheek that he wrote Geeks in an open source fashion. That is, he wrote columns on the themes that Geeks would focus on, published them on the Web, and responses flooded in. These responses fed more writing, which he again posted.

One of Katz's thousands of e-mails was from Jesse Dailey, a teenage boy in Middleton, Idaho. Jesse and his friends had started their very own Geek Club at school, proudly referring to themselves with the name once used to disparage them. Dailey and Katz began corresponding regularly, and, before too long, they met in Idaho.

Geeks aims to document the ongoing Geek Ascendancy in which the geeks highly intelligent, long-despised nonconformists are at the forefront of the technological revolution, wielding new power. They are running the systems that run the world. To illustrate, Katz documents Jesse's upward movement from Middleton into the professional, social, and academic worlds of Chicago.

Jesse is almost always accompanied by his best friend Eric Twilegar, whose story Katz also tells. Eric, however, is less likely to win friends and less forthcoming with his thoughts and feelings. You get the feeling that if it weren't for Jesse, Eric never would have left Idaho.

The most powerful part of Geeks deals with the Columbine High School tragedy. The contrast between Dailey's success and Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris's murders/suicides is chilling. In the wake of the shootings, Katz is saddened that the cost of being different just went up (i.e., two disturbed individuals brought about a backlash against all things non-mainstream). While conventional wisdom maintains that playing violent videogames makes teenagers depressed, murderous, and suicidal, Katz questions the assumed cause-effect. What if troubled teenagers are depressed before they begin spending so many hours online? What if, for the first time in their lives, these lost people are finding friends? What if the Internet is actually a solace to those who have been hurt in the real world? Online community, Katz makes clear throughout Geeks, may be second to the real thing. But it sure beats nothing.

Ask Jesse and Eric.

Robin Taylor is a Web project manager and technical writer for an IT company in Washington, D.C.

Of course Jon Katz plugs his own book on Amazon.com's Web site. After all, Geeks is about the way the Internet is changing people's lives. It's about people making connections, especially the kind of people the lost people who have trouble connecting in the real world. He says tongue-in-cheek that he wrote Geeks in an […]

Readers familiar with Robert Hellenga's first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, will hear its echoes in his second, ruminative book, The Fall of a Sparrow. Classical, Italian, Persian, and American cultures are superimposed on one another much like the palimpsest of history that Alan "Woody" Woodhull, the protagonist, sees in Rome's skyline. The layers give the present structure and depth and make it resonate with meaning. Hellenga again explores the myriad subtle technical details of the creation and preservation of beauty, this time through the crafts of American blues guitar, traditional Italian cooking, and classical literature.

The principal narrative of The Fall of a Sparrow centers on a terrorist bombing that occurred in Bologna in August, 1980, killing the oldest of Woody's three daughters. The novel begins seven years after the strage, as the terrorists are finally to go on trial in Bologna, with a mood not of crisis and trauma but of reflection and old grief. The first person narration of Woody's middle daughter Sara opens, closes, and bisects Woody's story, a framing device reminiscent of a Greek chorus, putting a thoughtful distance between the reader and Woody, reminding the reader to listen for the novel's moral lessons. Woody has continued with his life as a classics professor at a small Midwestern liberal arts college after the death of his daughter Cookie, but he has not learned to accept the loss. When college politics force him out of his professorship, Woody leaves for Italy to attend the terrorists' trial both as journalist and as the father of a victim. He plays his guitar for money, enters into a relationship with an Italian restaurant owner, and before he even realizes it, has begun a new life.

Hellenga's book is about love, particularly about Woody's love for the women in his life-his ex-wife, three daughters, several successive lovers and each is a wonderful mystery to him. They are emblems of love and life, and the quiet tone of the novel belies the passion with which Woody loves them and believes they save his life. Physical love is his religion; it is a celebration in the face of death; it is earthly and natural, yet spiritual and transcendent; it defies all moral codes; and it cannot be governed or directed by mortals. Even the bitter, misguided dean of Woody's college and the woman who planted the bomb that killed his daughter are like fallen angels, and he stubbornly believes they are better than men. Though they will not let him, he wants to love them, but doesn't understand how.

All of Hellenga's characters, men and women, seek closure, most often in the form of forgiveness. They seek it for themselves, those who have hurt them, and the God who has brought them anguish and despair. Though they hurt people around them, they are not villains, just human. Hellenga shows the reader that passionate love, though it can violate someone's sense of honor, or cause pain, is unavoidable, and so is the forgiveness that follows.

Reviewed by Robin Taylor.

Readers familiar with Robert Hellenga's first novel, The Sixteen Pleasures, will hear its echoes in his second, ruminative book, The Fall of a Sparrow. Classical, Italian, Persian, and American cultures are superimposed on one another much like the palimpsest of history that Alan "Woody" Woodhull, the protagonist, sees in Rome's skyline. The layers give the […]

Meet the older, wiser Douglas Coupland. His latest novel, Miss Wyoming, loses the flaws that mar his weaker novels too much style, not enough substance; pseudo-profound ramblings; and self-absorbed, unsympathetic characters. Instead, Miss Wyoming contains some of Coupland's best writing witty, irreverent, and full of detailed characterizations and up-to-the-minute pop culture. In books such as Generation X and Microserfs, Coupland's characters have shown us what it means to grow up in America at the end of the 20th century.

Their attempts at escape or reinvention were, more often than not, unsuccessful (Shampoo Planet, Polaroids from the Dead). Now, his characters have returned home, where they try to create more meaningful lives than the ones they ran away from. In her teens, Susan was a beauty queen turned '80s sitcom star. By her mid-twenties, she was an unemployed has-been with a grim future. Then she walks away from a plane crash in the Midwest, the sole survivor (one of Coupland's magical moments: her seat alone sits upright among the smoldering carnage in an Ohio field). Presumed dead, Susan disappears for a year. She emerges after a year to prevent her mother from capitalizing on her supposed death. You will cheer for the reborn Susan as she remakes her life on her own terms. John is no less driven than Susan, and just as alienated. He produces multimillion dollar blockbuster movies with his best friend. After his decadent lifestyle leads to a breakdown, John sells everything he owns and walks away from his life. He believes seeing America from the road will be a poetic and healing journey, but he nearly dies in the desert. His partying lifestyle was empty, his walkabout was a flop. Lacking direction or purpose, he is not as admirable as Susan, but he is endearingly earnest. Susan and John, both smart and strong, have survived Hollywood's cruelty and capriciousness. They ran away and returned changed, determined to make something solid and lasting out of their lives. When they meet, it feels like destiny. And although Susan and John live in Hollywood, the most difficult place in America to do anything with integrity or substance, by the novel's end they have embarked upon something noble and honest.

Surprisingly for Coupland's readers, Miss Wyoming is satisfying in traditional ways: the right couples pair up, and families are repaired. Most importantly, the end of the book feels like the beginning of something good.

Robin Taylor manages Web projects for an IT company in Washington, D.

C.

Meet the older, wiser Douglas Coupland. His latest novel, Miss Wyoming, loses the flaws that mar his weaker novels too much style, not enough substance; pseudo-profound ramblings; and self-absorbed, unsympathetic characters. Instead, Miss Wyoming contains some of Coupland's best writing witty, irreverent, and full of detailed characterizations and up-to-the-minute pop culture. In books such as […]

A good memoir can be written about a series of interesting events, but the best memoirs have a unifying theme. Betty Fussell, food writer and food history expert, has written a unique memoir about her life in food and war. Reading My Kitchen Wars is as enjoyable as watching a gourmet cook or listening to an artist talk about her passions.

Fussell is not the first to relate food to war: The French refer to cooking utensils as batterie de cuisine, literally, the artillery of the kitchen. Fussell's first months in the kitchen were indeed a struggle. She was no bargain of a wife and didn't even know how to cook spaghetti. Her journey from simple macaroni and cheese to the awesomely elaborate menus of her dinner parties will impress and inspire. By the time women are taking off their symbolic aprons and leaving the kitchen, Fussell doesn't want to, and you applaud her, because you know it's a conscious choice. It's fascinating to see how much things have changed since Fussell was a young woman. She describes her personal experience in terms of the general social trends of each decade, relating especially interesting and outdated tidbits, like Julia Child's recommendation for an asbestos sheet in the oven, or the fact that men haven't always been tending the barbecue.

My Kitchen Wars is also about the separation of men and women. The first real wall Fussell sees between them is war, which marks the men with an experience the women cannot know. They are divided once again and forever by domestic duty.

A good memoir can be written about a series of interesting events, but the best memoirs have a unifying theme. Betty Fussell, food writer and food history expert, has written a unique memoir about her life in food and war. Reading My Kitchen Wars is as enjoyable as watching a gourmet cook or listening to […]

"I am American now," Sagesse LaBasse declares at the opening of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life. Readers will be thankful that she doesn't tell her story American style. In contrast to a nation full of people who compete to tell their most shocking secrets in front of a studio audience, Sagesse delivers her narrative in a refreshingly quiet and understated voice.

Her story begins when she is a teenager spending long, lazy summers on the grounds of her grandfather's hotel by the sea in France. These chapters will effortlessly transport you to the Mediterranean coast, where the slow, sunny ease is deceptive. Disturbing events will raise difficult questions about culture, colonialism, family, selfishness, and sacrifice. Yet despite the weight and complexity of these issues, Sagesse is unflinching in her analysis of the people around her. Most impressive, she examines her own actions at least as seriously as she does those of her friends, parents, and grandparents. Only Sagesse's brother gets an uncritical treatment from her. Etienne Parfait was deprived of oxygen at birth, damaging his brain. He is silent, wheelchair-bound. At times Etienne seems joyful and at others troubled or distraught. He serves as a mirror for Sagesse and a vessel for her family's emotions. Tenderly, without caricaturing him, Messud uses Etienne as a foil for her characters, to bring out their subtler traits.

"I am American now," Sagesse repeats like a mantra. Her insistence highlights her uncertainty. Her mother is an American who moved to France for love, and Sagesse's paternal ancestors emigrated from France to Algeria and returned to France generations later. Sagesse will follow in her parents' footsteps by leaving her home country. Messud characterizes America, without judging it, as a place where one can reinvent her history as she pleases, or erase it all together; it is all future and no past.

Robin Taylor is a web designer and technical writer for an IT magazine.

"I am American now," Sagesse LaBasse declares at the opening of Claire Messud's second novel, The Last Life. Readers will be thankful that she doesn't tell her story American style. In contrast to a nation full of people who compete to tell their most shocking secrets in front of a studio audience, Sagesse delivers her […]

You might expect Dominican-American Loida Maritza Perez's remarkable first novel to brim with warm, hazy memories of the homeland (and be cut with the immigrant's shock of immersion in a new culture). That's why the intimate scale of Geographies of Home comes as such a surprise: The action happens within the family. Home is not in our native countries; it is in our hearts and memories. Aurelia, Papito, and their 14 children left Trujillo's Dominican Republic for New York years before. Aurelia's only law is love for her children and grandchildren. Adventist deacon Papito fears for his daughters' safety and tries to beat that fear into them. Prodigal daughter Iliana is torn between independence and family loyalty. Troubled Marina sees visions of spiders and God. Rebecca cannot leave the husband who beats and degrades her. Perez weaves the story by smoothly shifting the point of view among the characters and their memories. The conflicts and tension are not unique to the immigrant experience; they'll be achingly familiar to almost every reader. Should Iliana fulfill herself at college, or return home to help her family? Is seeking psychological help for Marina the same as betraying her and shaming the family? How long will Aurelia try to salvage Rebecca's life for her, and how far will she go when the grandchildren are at stake? The pleasures of Geographies of Home are like those of a memoir: The characters are complex and real, and their memories are vivid and full of emotional detail. Perez deftly handles each character's blend of passionate and conflicting emotions.

Though her book threatens to burst with color and life, Perez has woven it tightly. She writes boldly and precisely of love, bitterness, desire, sin, madness, fear, and forgiveness. She describes the tiny geography of the human heart.

Robin Taylor is a reviewer in Washington, D.

C.

You might expect Dominican-American Loida Maritza Perez's remarkable first novel to brim with warm, hazy memories of the homeland (and be cut with the immigrant's shock of immersion in a new culture). That's why the intimate scale of Geographies of Home comes as such a surprise: The action happens within the family. Home is not […]

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