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Who doesn’t love a good story?  whether it is a book, a movie, a song, or a real-life experience?

I have always been captivated with the aspect of the “story” –  Reading stories aloud with my mother and my sisters when we were young, and now continuing that tradition with Kris (we read the last Harry Potter aloud to each other, and have also done this with a handful of other books);  my love of the Story Corps* oral history project administered by the Library of Congress, and aired weekly on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition; my love for the written word; appreciation of a well-written movie or television show…. ahh, the list goes on.  There are so many good stories to share – both true and fictional.

Much of my summer has been spent reading stories – with my nose in a book.   Good stories left and right.  Here’s some of the recent books that I picked up:


The White Mary by Kira Salak.   I was familiar with Salak’s nonfiction work [The Cruelest Journey, which I reviewed here] about her own travels and experiences, and her first novel had many of the same elements that draw readers into the story.

The White Mary

The White Mary

Marika Vecera is a well-known war correspondent:  she takes the dangerous and scary jobs in war-torn developing countries and has had more than one near-death experience.  She starts a serious relationship and soon after learns about the apparent suicide of her journalistic “idol”, Robert Lewis, and decides to begin research to write his biography.  As she details his life, we see Marika learn more about her own through a series of flashbacks.  Her search to learn more about Lewis leads her to the jungles of Papua New Guinea; where Lewis was spotted alive by a group of missionaries.  She leaves her home and her loved one with this obsession to learn more about her subject.

Kira Salak book signing

While reading the novel, I could not truly divorce the character of Marika with Salak.  Of course, I know that most novels are often autobiographical, but this one seemed particularly close to the source.  Salak’s first book details her solo trek across Papua New Guinea (from north to south) and she undoubtedly pulled many of the details about her travels into the fictional account.

Stylistically, I had a few (minor) issues with the book. The character dialogue seemed contrived, particularly between Marika and her lover, Seb.  I kept on thinking “do people really talk like this to each other?” At least no one I know… This lead me to think more about her style in general.  She tells amazing stories – such adventure and danger! – but I find her writing to be slightly exaggerated and a little out of touch.  She contributes frequently to National Geographic Adventure (that is where I first learned about her), and her shorter articles seem more palpatable than book-length descriptions…  Aside from that, I did truly enjoy the story.  I had a hard time putting the book down, and read it in entirety on one rainy Saturday.

I saw Kira Salak speak last Friday night at the National Geographic Society (where she is a sponsored adventurer) and was happy to learn more about her, what drives her, and to see photographs of her more recent travels through Bhutan.  At the end of her lecture, I even got to ask her a question about spirituality and travel – it is often a theme in her books, so I was interested to see how her own travels have shaped her in that way.  She generously shared her answers with the audience, and did a book signing after the event.  {3 of 5 stars}

– — –

Where the Wild Things Were by William Stolzenburg.  I read about this book in a great new science magazine called SEED. It was the clever title that caught my eye, but also the very interesting subtitle: Life, Death, and Ecological Wreckage in a Land of Vanishing Predators.

Stolzenburg’s style really resonated with me. He describes large earth-shattering revelations with such eloquence. Starting with the thesis that the death/extinction of predators and “super”predators are to blame for many ecological/environmental, he delves into numerous case studies and ongoing research of many leading biologists.

Where the Wild Things Were

Where the Wild Things Were

The first chapter’s discussion of the kelp forests along the Pacific rim was particularly interesting, and made a real case for the rest of the book: ecosystems MUST be looked at from the top-down, rather than the reverse. The scientists that Stolzenburg profiles methodically and systematically demonstrate how the top predators directly relate to such things as river ecology, plant/seed distribution, and seemingly unrelated things like Lyme disease (which hit pretty close to home…).

While so many points in this book stood out, I particularly enjoyed the one time humans got it “right”: the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming in the mid-1990s. It was a success story, and I presume that it remains so this day, over ten years later.Simply put, this book was amazingly written and infinitely informative. If you care about nature, biodiversity, and the future of our planet and the creatures living on it, reading this book will help you gain insight on how setting life back into the natural balance will remedy many (unfortunately not all) of the ills we face.  {5 of 5 stars}

– — –

The Gargoyle by Andrew Davidson.  If you read book reviews, you have probably heard of this new book – just out in August and already making quite a stir… Davidson is a Canadian (he gets a bonus point for that alone!) and has got a lot of people talking about this debut novel.  So, the day after I read the review in Washington Post’s Book World, I put it on hold at the library.  A few weeks later, I had it in hand.

The Gargoyle

The Gargoyle

Over the period of one day, I was completely immersed in the story… so many stories within one! Beginning with the shock of a near-fatal auto accident, this book definitely starts off with a bang.  The main character (who is never “named”) is severely burned, and spends months upon months in a hospital’s burn unit.  I really enjoyed seeing the transformation of the main character both physically, spiritually, and emotionally throughout the 400+ pages of the novel.  With the care/love of an eccentric “is she or isn’t she? mental patient” he meets in the hospital, he finds love, redemption, and ultimately a reason to live. (Before meeting Marianne, he spends his days in the hospital planning his suicide). He lives for her, just as she lives for him. Interwoven into the main story are many vignettes about love and loss that Marianne tells – spanning centuries and the globe.  She tells them as if she was there, and these people were her close friends.  She even weaves a story about how the two of them were lovers in sixteenth-century Germany… and it doesn’t seem to matter to the reader if it is true or not, because it is so beautiful and so pure.

Davidson put SO much work into this book.  He researched everything from third-degree burn recovery to medieval manuscripts; Icelandic love ballads to Japanese language.   That feat in itself is very praiseworthy! (and when you read the book, you understand how it really works together).

This one will stay with me for a long time.  And imagine my excitement and surprise when the author emailed me and thanked me for my review over at GoodReads!  it totally made my day! :)

(You can read the first chapter and see a short film adaptation of one of the love vignettes included in the story over at Amazon!) {4 of 5 stars}


* Story Corps has become a tradition for us:  since we drive to work together each morning, we listen to the radio.  Because the stories are so sweet, and often poignant or downright sad, Kris teases me about my Pavlovian response to the guitar theme music.  He looks at me and just waits for my eyes to mist up each week!  Oftentimes they do, but some times, the stories – usually no longer than 2 minutes – are hilariously funny.  Here is a good example of one from earlier this summer [transcript and audio]  :)   enjoy!

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19 Responses

  1. stacey

    I need to get “where the wild things were” that sounds like a perfect read for me!

  2. Rachel

    Thanks for all the reads Lolly–I’ve been keeping up with you on Goodreads and have already added all the titles you mentioned in this post as ‘to-reads’. Thanks also for pointing out StoryCorps…a fellow graduate student had mentioned this to me a few months ago but I was too busy at the time to look into it. It’s now my latest podcast!

    I’m also very curious to read the Stolzenburg book. I am a wildlife bio working with ungulates in the west…which, unfortunately, is a very predator hostile environment…just curious to read his take on some of the issues. I would say that the wolves in YNP are a success story to date, although they may be too successful. I’m involved with some elk research there and the question starting to arise is if we continue hands-off management, if it’ll swing into an extreme cyclic patterns of wolf/elk populations like seen with moose on Isle Royale. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all continues to evolve.

  3. Cassy

    I just requested The Gargoyle and on interlibary loan. I will probably have to check out Where the Wild Things Were too. I’m always looking for a good read. Thanks for the recommendations. I think it’s adorable that you two read Harry Potter aloud together. That’s so fun!

  4. Bridget

    I had to own The Gargoyle when I petted the book at Costco about 4-5 weeks ago. Like yarn, I think books are amazing to touch. This one had a weight to it that was crazy heavy (for it’s size) and the cover was beautiful. That being said, the content of the book matched the outsides of it. I’ve not recently (in many years) finished a book and then almost wanted to start rereading it immediately. It was a beautiful story. I am amazed by how the author can spend so much time describing the physical trauma to the main character and by the middle of it, I almost even forgot about it. The relationships with Marianne, the phys therapists, drs, etc were so much more important.

  5. Mia

    You constantly amaze me with the books you pick. My to read list keeps getting longer and longer because of you. I am trying to figure out when you have time to sleep with all of the knitting and reading you do plus working.

  6. Stacey

    Ooh, I forgot about StoryCorps. I need to get back to those feeds building up on this computer here…
    And Gargoyle sounds really good…

  7. Jenna

    Thanks for your recommendations, as always! They always make me want to pick up more books. The last one sounds particularly intriguing.
    O and I are going to listen to one of your recommendations on our road trip – The World Without Us. I’m excited! xox

  8. Hazy

    Just headed over to Amazon to add The Gargoyle to my wish list. Its just out in hardback in the UK. With those many pages, I think I’ll wait for the paperback. Thanks for the review!

  9. Josiane

    You got me very curious as soon as I saw your post title, as my boyfriend is a storyteller. Have you ever seen a live storytelling performance? I’m sure you’d love it!
    Though I don’t read as much as I used to, I’ve been immersed in one book lately, namely my boyfriend’s soon to be released first novel (not his first publication, though; he’s published short stories, and a collection of some of the tales he’s written accompanied by the CD of a live performance). I’ve finished the last round of editing on the novel a few days ago, and now the book has been sent to the printer. It was really interesting to go through the whole process. It’s been a WIP for so long, though… now it’s pretty exciting to know that we’ll soon hold the FO and be able to share it with readers! (Sorry if this was all a bit off topic and a lot about me… but your title and book reviews created a link between your post and the book that has taken over our lives lately, so I just couldn’t help it… and I’m so excited, I had to share!)

  10. Julia in KW

    Gargoyle looks very intriguing. I think I will have to check it out…Having a husband nineteen-year-old son means I don’t get to read out loud too often, but amazingly, at Christmas time and when we are on driving vacations I somtimes get to read a story out loud to those in close vacinity. We have specific Christmas novels that we read in rotation and have for 10 years or so. In the car, we have read various books picked up about where we have visited (some hiking books, etc. that include a life story are always interesting and usual hold the attention of all of us).

  11. Moni

    I just put a hold on Gargoyle after reading your review! I love a good story that I can’t put down!

  12. felinemagnet

    Oh, I love Story Corp – every Friday at 8:25 am! I remember the story you linked, it was a riot. But many of them make my cry, too. I still remember one last year from around 9/11 that had me absolutely sobbing as I was driving. And I’ve been known to sit in the car to finish listening to a story.

  13. scoutj

    I will have to check these out! I’m reading The Year of the Fog right now and it’s just okay.

  14. Laura

    Thank you for the book recs! I read at the gym every morning, and just this morning I was feeling sad that I have nothing to read when I finish my current book, a Pam Houston novel. Now I have several to request from the library!

  15. Kate (tattycat)

    Wow! I went to grad school with Kira Salak– that was right after she finished her first book. We took a class on Eastern Philosophy together– she’s a fascinating person in real life.

  16. amanda

    I seriously thought I was the only one getting all misty eyed when I heard the Story Corps music – Jason (husband) still hasn’t caught me. We drive into work together as well, so I know it’s only a matter of time!

    It’s getting to be cuddle up under a quilt and read (or knit) time with the chilly mornings – definitely adding these to my “must read” list!

  17. knittyvritti

    thanks for the book tips, especially the gargoyle. that one got right by me, and i’m glad you flagged it—it sounds like a great read.

  18. tiennie

    I’m amazed that you can get so many things done and then on top of that read great books and give us reviews on them. Thanks!

  19. Karen

    I hadn’t heard of The Gargoyle yet but your review of it has put it on my to read list too. It sounds great!

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