Book bits

Midnight Cactus, By Bella Pollen

In Westerns, folks who ended up in a border town tended to be on the run from something. Bella Pollen has revived this tradition, with a modern twist.

Her protagonist, Alice Coleman, is a British mother of two, on the run from an unhappy marriage back home in London. She has fetched up at Temerosa, an old Arizona mining town that represents everything that's left of her family's assets. Alice has plans to convert the shacks into a luxury spa, but what Temerosa really represents is a refuge from her workaholic husband Robert.

"It's hard to admit you're not happy. Surrounded by so many 'good things' ... it seems almost churlish to be discontented," Alice muses to herself. "You're not supposed to complain, so not only are you dissatisfied but you find yourself feeling guilty about being dissatisfied. It's a bad thing to have feelings you're not allowed."

Once in Arizona, Alice finds plenty to take her mind off her troubles. She grew up in the Orkney Islands, one of the wettest spots on Earth, and everything about the desert charms her. (Her kids, Jack and Emmy, are less sure at first, but soon Emmy can be found sporting cowboy boots with her old tartan skirt.)

Then Alice gets drawn into the immigration debate, thanks to her construction chief, Henry Duval, and her neighbor, head of a Ranchers Rights vigilante group.

"Last year, a nine-month pregnant woman shot dead an immigrant who entered her house. He was starving and unarmed; she was terrified and alone. This is an emotive issue," says Duval, who began helping illegals after a woman he loved died in the Sonoran desert when a coyote (guide) raped her rather than give her a drink of water.

Pollen ("Hunting Unicorns") spreads the debate over immigration among many voices and mostly is careful not to stack the deck for one side or another. The exception is Alice's neighbor, Jeff Hogan, who tells her, "We're all caring souls, but our compassion stops at the border."

He's not only a vigilante – but a racist, chauvinist, and greedy capitalist whose kids are spoiled and whose McMansion is in bad taste.

In general, though, "Cactus" is refreshingly free of soapboxes and wagging fingers. This is thanks to Pollen's witty style and quirky characterizations. The first half of the book is a leisurely ramble through the desert, but the second half whips along and feels more like a tumbleweed in a tornado.

Yvonne Zipp

Three books about remarkable women

Infidel is the story of Ayaan Hirsi Ali. Born to Somali nomads, Ali fled to Holland to escape an arranged marriage, became a Dutch politician, and then was thrust into the international spotlight with the murder of her colleague, Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh. A powerful, compelling read, "Infidel" is also a moving examination of Ali's struggle with her faith.

Put simply, this woman is a heroine. 2004 Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathi tells the story of her life in Unbowed: A Memoir. Growing up in rural Kenya at a time when girls were not educated, she nonetheless earned a PhD and a top job at a university. In 1977 she started the Green Belt Movement which mobilized Kenyan women to plant trees and halt the deforestation of their country. This inspiring story tells how Maathi has faced down jail, beatings, and death threats to achieve her goal.

The Gentle Subversive by Mark Hamilton Lytle tells the story of a little girl born on a farm in Pennsylvania with a gift for writing. This nature-loving child would grow up to author a book that would shake American industry to its core. In other words, this is the biography of Rachel Carson. Lytle, who teaches Environmental Studies at Bard College, shows how Carson came to write her classic "Silent Spring," published in 1962, and explores her ongoing impact on today's environmental movement.

Marjorie Kehe

Books Online

Love the idea of browsing through the holdings of a world-class library – without leaving home? Then try clicking on to digitalgallery.nypl.org, a website housing a new image database created by the New York Public Library.

The site provides access to more than 520,000 images digitized from primary sources and printed rarities owned by the library.

The online collection is organized by categories (such as arts and literature; cities and buildings; history and geography) and offers a wealth of fascinating and visually delightful material. Clicking on to "printing and graphics," for instance, makes available images as varied as dust jackets of early 20th-century European and American books, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, posters from the Russian civil war, and a 19th-century menu collection.

Readers' Picks

A Girl Named Zippy: Growing Up Small in Mooreland, Indiana is Haven Kimmel's wise yet witty memoir of a rambunctious small-town childhood. Zippy said nothing until she was almost 3 years old. When her Dad told her she was too old for a baby bottle, she pulled it from her mouth and spoke her first words, "I'll make a deal with you." If you read this book, prepare to laugh.

– David L. Horn, Carmel, Ind.

There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene, the story of an ordinary, extraordinary Ethiopian woman, Haregewoin Teferra, who could not turn away the orphans brought to her gate.

– Martha McKnight, Pleasant Hill, Tenn.

I'm sailing through Halsey's Typhoon by Bob Drury and Tom Clavin. It's the dramatic true story of how Admiral "Bull" Halsey's Third Fleet, on its way to protect MacArthur's troops during their invasion of Mindoro, was beset by typhoon Cobra. Every Navy veteran of World War II, especially those who sailed in the Pacific, will want to read this book.

– William N. Butler, Naples, Fla.

Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods is an entertaining account of the author's trip along the Appalachian Trail. Bryson provides an informative introduction to trail history and much-assailed natural wonders, while many characters he meets along his journey ensure some real chuckles.

– Caitilin Rabbitt, Liberty, N.Y.

Radiant watercolors and thoughtful quotes in Art as a Way of Life by Ann O'Shaughnessy and Roderick MacIver inspire artists to get to work.

– Anita Alvarez Williams, Boulevard, Calif.

What are you reading? Write and tell us at Marjorie Kehe.

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