Saturday, December 22, 2007

James Collins/BEGINNER'S GREEK


Peter, a hedge funder, and Holly, a classics teacher, meet on an airplane and Peter falls hard for Holly. When he foolishly loses her phone number, he realizes the woman of his dreams has slipped out of his life...until she reappears as his best friend's wife. Some people are meant to be with other people; many hijinx ensue.

I was really disappointed by this book (which is coming out in January 08, has gotten a lot of positive buzz, and has already been picked as a Booksense choice). I think because of the high-end packaging and the length (416 pages!! at least 150 of which are pure unnecessary fluff; also, a good number are devoted to tertiary characters' back stories, which I don't understand because some of them, eg Charlotte's father, never come back into the story after they have their scene at the beginning...) I had assumed it was going to be a thoughtful contemporary love story. Alas, it is "chick lit" at its most cliche. I might have been less disappointed by it if I'd gone in expecting something extremely conventional. But alas. I didn't.

If you're looking for a "satisfying" (read: neatly resolved!) quick read that will provoke little moral ambivalence, this might be a book for you. But alas I have an axe and I will grind it briefly here. Not only is the plot not particularly original and a little bit dawdling, not only are there some almost farcical cutenesses (a law firm called Fold, Moisten & Seal? Seriously?), not only is this book another lighthearted celebration of rich, polished white people and their understanding of high drama, but there's just SO much patriarchy about it. Peter doesn't love his wife because her dress isn't quite chic enough, because she's not quite pretty enough, because she works really hard to be cultured (you shouldn't have to work for it!), because she makes herself look foolish and undignified when she imitates a gargoyle face. (Peter actually thinks that in one scene.) Holly, the love interest, is such a thin flimsy character--everyone loves her, but you get to the end of the book knowing next to nothing about her. Meanwhile, the men cheat and lie and manipulate, but the women love them anyway.

But who knows. Maybe I'm being unfair, and these are the things that men like Peter really think about.

Anyway. I'm sorry this review is a little mean; I just found the book a little mean.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Alain de Botton/ESSAYS IN LOVE

Although he was born in Switzerland and comes from an exotically mixed family background, England's chattering classes have graciously deigned to overlook these cosmopolitan origins (and his unfortunately French-sounding name) and have adopted de Botton as their darling. He abandoned his original vocation as an academic philosopher to establish himself over the last decade-and-a-half as an extremely popular writer and TV presenter, thus pulling off the very enviable trick of making his passions (philosophy, architecture, literature) into the stuff of his work. He has managed to become a great popularizer of these abstruse subjects, leavening his erudition with a charming wit, and forging a style which is broadly accessible yet not dumbed-down. De Botton is one of those people that most of us (by which I mean well-educated Englishmen of a certain age) would like to be.

I was reading - and loving - How Proust Can Change Your Life, his quasi-philosophical appreciation of A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu, during a trip to the States last summer, but didn't quite finish it. I'd read enough to convince me that I loved his viewpoint and his way with words, and so was delighted to find this in my favourite bookstore (just about the only decent bookstore!) here in Beijing a couple of weeks ago.

It's his first book, from the early '90s. Whereas, I think, most of his subsequent work has been non-fiction (albeit written with a novelist's flair for language), this is more of a novel-in-disguise. It masquerades as a philosophical treatise on love, with short chapters divided by theme, and each chapter further divided into short, numbered paragraphs, each dissecting a particular observation on love. Yet he uses an account of a devastating love affair of his own as the subject matter, so despite the unorthodox approach and high-brow tone, there is a strong narrative backbone to the work. There's no way of knowing how far the love affair described is an imaginative creation; you suspect it is a fictionalized rendition of perhaps several different real-life affairs - but it is often so poignant, so powerfully-felt that you sense the writing of it was a kind of necessary catharsis for him. Then again, maybe it's all completely made-up and he just has very convincing powers of invention.

I gather from Amazon that it's now been retitled as On Love: A Novel (although my edition, which appears to have been published recently, still has the old title). Perhaps the 'concept' of the work was too confusing, was tending to limit the readership. Or perhaps de Botton was becoming embarrassed that people were constantly assuming that this seemingly most personal of his works was a true story. If it is closely based on real events, he has been ruthlessly, bravely honest - 'he' ultimately comes out of it rather worse than the girl, exposing 'himself' as in many ways a bit of a shit.

Above all, the writing here is gorgeous. A little heavy going sometimes, because he's trying to express some quite complicated ideas and you want to keep doubling back to make sure you've got it. And perhaps just a little too rich at times - it's dense with epigrams. But it's hard to resist a book that's so full of humour and humanity and honesty and wise observation. It's a short read - barely 200 pages - and something that I think I could return to again and again.

Just one brief example to whet your appetite, a great metaphor from one of the closing chapters:
"There is an Arabic saying that the soul travels at the pace of a camel. While most of us are led by the strict demands of diaries and timetables, the soul, the seat of the heart, trails nostalgically behind, burdened by the weight of memory.... The camel became lighter and lighter as it walked through time, it kept shaking memories and photos off its back, scattering them over the desert floor and letting the wind bury them in the sand, and gradually the camel became so light that it could trot again and even gallop in its own curious way - until one day, in a small oasis that called itself the present, the exhausted creature finally caught up with the rest of me."

Monday, December 10, 2007

Behind the Curtain--Peter Abrahams


This is the second book in the Echo Falls YA mystery series, which is about a young teen named Ingrid who solves crimes in her city with inspiration from her hero, Sherlock Holmes. Ingrid is also an actress, so each book's themes revolve around a play. This book features the Wizard of Oz, and it reflects Ingrid's doubts about what is fact and what is just all in a teen sleuth's head.

In this story, Ingrid uncovers a steroid ring but is afraid to go to the police because her own brother, a star football player at the local high school, is one of the buyers. So of course she must nab the bad guys herself.

What I love about this series is the characters. Abrahams does a great job of making every character interesting and all the main characters likeable, especially Ingrid. Who couldn't love a girl whose hero is Sherlock Holmes? I adore the bus driver, who is always saying "Zip it, kid!" and the soccer coach, who is forever shouting cryptic advice to his confused players, things like: "Use all four dimensions!"

At times, Abraham's "hip" style gets on my nerves. I guess he's trying to show Ingrid's personality, but I just get annoyed sometimes. For example, he's always using the phrase "essence of." Like if Ingrid takes a drink of Fresca, she'll think, Refreshment, essence of. I try not to let it get to me, though, because the books are so enjoyable otherwise.

But why oh why does Abrahams have to write so slowly? I know he also writes mysteries for adults, but it seems like I have to sit through very long stretches to get my next Echo Falls fix.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Holes by Louis Sachar


Stanley Yelnats was given a choice. The judge said, "You may go to jail, or you may go to Camp Green Lake." Stanley was from a poor family. He had never been to camp before.

Camp Green Lake has no lake. Also, nothing there is green. It's a camp where bad boys are sent to develop 'character.' Their sentence? To dig holes five feet wide and five feet deep, day after day. Stanley soon realizes two things: number one-that the Warden is looking for something; and number two-that Stanley knows where it is.

With a cast of characters like Zero, Armpit, Zigzag, and Magnet, this book has energy and humor that starts on the first page and doesn't stop.
The boys must learn to work together in an environment that is akin to a labor camp. It's a story of survival and friendship.
The author says that when she started writing this book, she began with the lake. As I read Holes, it did become clear that more attention was devoted toward the sensory detail than to the characters. Since I prefer books that explore emotion and pain, this was a little bit of a let-down. But not much. I think all children ages 9-12 will enjoy this book immensely. (And no, I haven't seen the movie yet.)
Holes won the Newberry Medal in 1999. I rate it very good.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Anita Amirrezvani/THE BLOOD OF FLOWERS

isn't this a gorgeous cover? a good friend passed this book on to me. i'm so glad i read it. set in 17th century persia, the author brings another world to life with rich descriptions of sights, sounds and smells.

the heroine (who remains unnamed throughout the entire book--to honor artisans of the past), loses her father at age fourteen. they live in a small village and come from humble roots. with her father's passing, she and her mother are unable to make ends meet. altho she was meant to have been married soon, it is now impossible as she has no dowry.


they turn to her father's half-brother for help, and he writes to invite them to stay at his home in the impressive city of isfahan. when they arrive, they find that her uncle holds a high office as one of the lead rug makers for the shah and other elite. our heroine has always been a good knotter (rug maker) and her uncle takes her under his wing.

she enjoys life in the big city, despite the fact that her aunt treats her and her mother like servants. they sleep in a tiny dirty room between the latrine and storeroom. our heroine befriends naheed, a girl from a wealthy family who is her same age, and they become friends. naheed convinces her to attend polo games so naheed may attract the attention of her crush--whom she intends to marry.

life changes for our heroine when she is offered a sigheh--a legal marriage union lasting three months--to a rich young widower. her aunt siezes it as an opportunity to ingratiate the family to perhaps gain rug commisions, as well as take the financial burden off of taking care of them, as our heroine would be paid for this union. and the sigheh can be renewed on a three month basis--if her husband is pleased. but they must keep this contract under wraps, as it is seen as shameful to the richer families (such as her aunt and uncle).

when our heroine agrees to this arrangement and loses her viriginity is when the story starts twisting every which way. we see her rashness as her strongest foible, and she repeatedly makes mistakes because of it.

the author disperses persian folklore throughout the tale, much like fables. the tale is told in the first person narrative, and the prose is lyrical. the author really brings you into this other place. an excellent debut novel. i took special interest in the tale as there are similar themes between her book and my own. i am impressed by her ability to create a quiet story that is still filled with intrigue and tension. i recommend it and consider it among the top five novels i have read in 2007.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan


This book has all the usual Amy Tan elements: fractured mother-daughter realtionships, disconnects between Chinese and American cultures, secrets from the past that haunt the present, etc.


It tells two storys. The first is set in modern day San Francisco, where Ruth fears her aging Chinese mother is succumbing to Alzheimers. She finds an account written by her mother that reveals shocking secrets about her mother's childhood in China. That leads us into the second story, which takes place in China during the excavation of Peking Man, a famous set of prehistoric skeletons found near the village where Ruth's mother spends her childhood. Ruth's mother not only reveals the hardships she endured as a girl who finds out she was adopted as a baby, but we also learn about Ruth's mother's birth mother, who is haunted by bad luck ever since her husband-to-be dies on their wedding day.


I found the story set in China to be quite engrossing, with the ups and downs in the characters's fortunes suspenseful and surprising. The story set in San Francisco is not as rich or involving, and Ruth is not as interesting a character as her mother is. The main draw of this book is learning about the fascinating culture of old world China, but the story itself doesn't rival Tan's Joy Luck Club.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Spencer Wells/THE JOURNEY OF MAN


A history of the migration of homo sapiens out of Africa and to our various other pockets of the world. The author, a genetic biologist, uses information gleaned from studies of polymorphisms on the Y chromosome (hence, the journey of MAN) to determine how long people have been where and which other groups they are most closely related to. The results are fascinating.

The text is heavy slogging at times, particularly at the beginning in the chapters that introduce polymorphisms--the author explains basic things like what a neutron is, but then is really rather light with explaining heavier stuff in a way that readers who are new to the subject would appreciate. (I took some genetic and evolutionary biology in college, and I still found myself having to step back and re-read many passages.) However, the interesting and quotable information that does come through made it worthwhile for me.

Here are some examples of some of the things I found interesting:

-There is most genetic diversity within populations than between them. 85% of genetic diversity is represented in all populations, things we can't see--like immune systems. Genetic evidence proves that all the physical differences we're so keen to take stock of are strictly topical.

-We are not descended from Neanderthals. For awhile, in fact, we co-existed. Neanderthals had their own exodus out of Africa over the million years preceding the human exodus (a million years is an amazingly long time for them to have bipedaled the earth if you think about the fact that modern humans have only existed for 50,000 years). There is no genetic evidence of any intermingling between humans and Neanderthals. Some scientists hypothesize a genocide scenario in which humans killed off the Neanderthals, but most think the Neanderthals just declined in number slowly and became extinct because they weren't as smart as us and couldn't make as many babies.

-The reason humans are such evolutionary winners is because we never adapted to our surroundings. Sounds counterintuitive, right? The thing is that when animals evolve to succeed in their environment, they make themselves highly vulnerable when the environment changes. And human beings haven't evolved in any meaningful way except one--their brain size. We have nothing except that. And apparently that's all we need. Awesome.

-The large brain size that sets us apart from everything else (including Neanderthals) occurred in what the author and others called "The Great Leap Forward" (thanks, Mao). The Great Leap happened in that community in northern Africa right before the migration out and can probably be pinpointed by--this is awesome--sentences with subjects, objects, AND verbs. Apparently, studies have shown that monkeys (and parrots, and other things) can memorize and understand words to an extent of "eat apple" or "monkey eat." But the breakdown occurs at "monkey eat apple"--human brains are the only ones that can make that leap. So cool.

-All the non-African men in the world and most African men are descended from one (1) single man. They all have the same guy's Y chromosome. He lived about 50,000 years ago in northwest Africa. So brotherhood of man, indeed.

-The only people in the world who don't have this Y chromosome are some African groups whose ancestors lived in the south of that continent. That means there is exponentially more genetic diversity among African populations than there is between, say, an Indonesian and a Welshman. There's also more in common between a man with the north African marker and either the Indonesian or the Welshman than there is between the man with the north African marker and a man with the south African marker.

-The oldest (longest-established) non-African people in the world are... Australians. They made their way along the coasts of India and Southeast Asia until they got to Australia about 45,000 years ago. They probably left archeological evidence along the way, but since the sea was 200 kilometers farther out back then all their remains are probably under water.

-Gene markers of modern populations can show cultural habits of ancient populations. One example: we know that Australians passed along the Indian Ocean coasts for thousands of years, yet there are no Australian Y chromosome markers at all in the southern Indian population, despite some archeological record of their presence. At first glance, you'd guess that this means ancient Australians and southern Indians never intermarried. But if you look at placental mitochondrial DNA (obviously found only in the female population), there is a lot of overlap with the Australian equivalent. The revised thesis: southern Indian men took Australian wives from the migrant coastal people, but few (or none) of the migrant men stayed in India or took Indian wives with them on their journey. This is in line with other facts mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA reveal about the Indian caste system--men were basically locked into the caste they were born into, but women sneakily married up or down much more frequently. Wells makes a Verdi joke in this story: La Donna e Mobile. I found this highly entertaining.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Hattie Big Sky by Kirby Larson


What attracted me initially to 'Hattie Big Sky' is that it's about my favorite part of the country-the West. And about a state I've always wanted to visit-Montana. The story gives more than enough detail to make you feel like you are right with Hattie, trying to prove up her claim. Everything from the cold, brutal winter to the dry summer heat and the invasion of grasshoppers and hailstones leaves you feeling humbled by what nature can do.

The anti-German sentiment provided another layer of depth to Hattie's story. Children calling other children 'huns' and the shopkeeper calling sauerkraut 'liberty cabbage' provided a look into the racism that existed then, without turning Hattie's story into a social commentary.I loved that Hattie's story is realistic. I truly felt I learned a lot about the life on a homestead. What a great way for children to learn about history!


This book is warm, vibrant, and leaves you with a feeling of lingering hope. I loved Hattie's spirit, and would recommend this book to anyone who wants to read a YA that's more than a high-school drama-queen story. Hattie reminds me of an older Laura Ingalls Wilder. Kudos for a great story!!
(I posted this review on a friend's blog because Kirby would be stopping by. My criticism of the book-which I didn't post-was that it lacked a strong emotional pull. Toward the end of the book, one of the children dies. It fell flat. The writing felt too journalistic. However, even with the lack of emotion that I like to feel for the characters, it was still a very good book.)
I rate it 'very good.'

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk

Title:- My Name Is Red
Genre
:- Fiction
Subgenre:- Novel
Author:- Orhan Pamuk
Translator:- Erdağ M. Göknar
Publisher:- Random House
ISBN Number:- 0-375-70685-2
Price:- US $ 14.95/Canada $ 22.95/Rs. 220

The Blurb

At once a fiendishly devious mystery, a beguiling love story, and a brilliant symposium on the power of art, My Name Is Red is a transporting tale set amid the splendor and religious intrigue of sixteenth-century Istanbul.

The Sultan has commissioned a cadre of the most acclaimed artists in the land to create a great book celebrating the glories of his realm. Their task: to illuminate the work in the European style. But because figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam, this commission is a dangerous proposition indeed. And when one of the master miniaturists disappears, the only clue to the mystery lies in the half-finished illuminations themselves. Part fantasy and part philosophical puzzle, My Name Is Red is a kaleidoscopic journey into the introspection of art, religion, love, sex, and power.

*******************

Easily the most talked about book of 2007, ‘My Name Is Red’ by the turkish author Orhan Pamuk has been in the limelight for all sorts of reasons. It has had the honour of being the most critically acclaimed work of Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk, as well as suffered ignominy at the hands of Turkish fundamentalists, leading to the prosecution of Turkey’s most fearless and talented living novelist.

The novel recounts the story of four master miniaturists engaged at the royal atelier in the creation of a commemorative story in verse, the Book Of Festivities to mark the thousandth anniversary of the Hegira. Their work is to illustrate and embellish the book in the Venetian style making use of the techniques of perspective and idolatry, which were at the time deemed an affront to Islam. When one of the master miniaturists protests, he is found killed at the bottom of a well. The quest for the killer played against the backdrop of sixteenth-century Istanbul and the tragic courtship of Black, a miniaturist and Shekure, Enishte Effendi’s daughter make for a compelling read.

Like all great novels, the unraveling mystery becomes a metaphor for the unfolding of human spirit and conscience. However, what is most remarkable about Pamuk and what sets him apart from his coevals is the extent of scholarship and omniscience that he commands. It places him as a Turkish master in the cohorts of Dickens, Proust and Mann - arguably the greatest writers of English, French and German respectively. Incidentally, Mann himself won the Nobel in 1929 for The Motion Mountain.

Though the theme of the novel concentrates on the philosophical questions of the need and importance of style and signature in the arts of painting and illustration, Pamuk manages to lighten the mood by using the motifs of Nusret Hoja and the upcoming coffeehouse. The latter is depicted as the cynosure of all depravity where dervishes dance late into the night and blasphemous stories are retold in a bid to pollute people’s minds.

Each book has its moments, and this novel is no exception. Perhaps the most poignant moment is the one when Master Osman, the head miniaturist of the royal atelier, cloyed by the sight of the most perfect of all paintings in the royal treasury, blinds himself with the same plume needle that the master of masters Bihzad had once used to blind himself. Also Nizami’s tale of Husrev and Shirin has been evoked a countless number of times, and to good use.

Pamuk manages to concoct a wonderful fantasy hemmed by melancholy and tragedy in a way nobody has ever done before. It is ironic that Pamuk who secretly advocates the futility of style in the book has inadvertently ended up creating a very realistic, spartan and distinct style all his own.

Chokher Bali – A Grain Of Sand

Title:- Chokher Bali – A Grain Of Sand
Genre:- Fiction

Subgenre:- Novel

Author:- Rabindranath Tagore

Translator:- Sreejata Guha

Publisher:- Penguin Books

ISBN Number:- 0-14-303035-3

Price:- Rs. 250


The Blurb

Chokher Bali: A Grain Of Sand is Nobel Prize-winning author Rabindranath Tagore’s classic exposition of an extramarital affair that takes place within the confines of a joint family.

It is the story of the rich, flamboyant Mahendra and his simple, demure, beautiful w
ife Asha – a young couple who are befriended by the pragmatic Behari. Their cosy domestic scenario undergoes great upheaval with the introduction of the vivacious Binodini, a young, attractive widow who comes to live with them. Asha and Binodini become bosom pals. Binodini is initially drawn to Behari but then begins to respond to the advances of Mahendra, who has become obsessively attracted to her. After several twists and turns, Binodini elopes with Mahendra, leaving the entire family in turmoil.

On the one hand,
Chokher Bali: A Grain Of Sand is a sensational account of two illicit relationships: Mahendra’s infatuation with Binodini which blkinds him to everything else, and Binodini’s secret passion for Behari of which she is never able to speak of. On the other hand, it is a complex tapestry woven by the emotional interplay between five finely etched characters: the impulsive Mahendra, his adoring mother Rajlakshmi, the frail and sensitive Asha, the strong, silent Behari, and the self-willed and irresistibly attractive Binodini.

A compelling portrayal of the complexity of relationships and of human character, this landmark novel is just as powerful and thought-provoking today as it was a hundred years ago, when it was written.


************************

Published in 1903, Chokher Bali is claimed by many to be the first modern novel written in India. And its publication seems to be as coincidental as that of Gitanjali, the book of poems which won for India her first Nobel and for Tagore, international acclaim. Shrisha Chandra had restarted the magazine Bangadarshan and Tagore’s name had been added to the list of contributors. The latter took it upon himself to write a serialized novel for the magazine, his efforts resulting in the genesis of his first novel Chokher Bali. In the view of these circumstances, it is understandable why Tagore’s novel bears a strong resemblance in its subject to Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyaya’s Bishbriksha (The Poison Tree), the serialized novel which had earlier appeared in Bangadarshan and which was published in 1873. And indeed Tagore does make explicit references to Bishbriksha in Chokher Bali.

Chokher Bali is Binodini’s novel. Binodini – a young, beautiful and charming widow and the grain of sand in Asha’s eye. The novel revolves around Binodini, capturing her in all her avatars – as a hapless widow, as a gamine, as a seductress, and as a repentant woman. Tagore lends expression to her longings and fancies in immense detail, so much so that at some points the narrative becomes a tacit debate on love, longing, morality and relationships. And in doing so, he manages to make you fall in love with her.

Chokher Bali represents the literary equivalent of the place of miniature art in painting and illustration. The story by its plot itself is nothing to rave about – it might be better suited for scurrilous paperbacks that line the shelves of dusty bookshops and railway bookstalls. However Tagore manages to weave a beautiful variegated fabric out of threads of very few colours. His narrative retains a tension which does not lose you till the very end, due credit for which must go to the translator for understanding the ethos of such a simple and splendid novel.

One observes the conspicuous absence of judgement on the part of the author, which makes the turn of events and the whims and decisions of the characters as natural as the fluttering of leaves on a sweltering summer noon or the flow of a gushing river. The complexity of the narrative rests on the emotional turmoil suffusing it and not on the turns and twists of the plot (though there are many of those too). Also Chokher Bali is suffused with a spiritual aura which Tagore connoisseurs have learnt to recognize as the hallmark of Tagore’s writings.

Tagore’s novel is as simple and as complicated as only a true exposition of love can be. Go, rediscover love.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ivor Cutler/LIFE IN A SCOTCH SITTING-ROOM, Vol. 2


I was saddened to discover earlier this year that one of my oddball literary favourites, the determinedly eccentric Scots performance poet and occasional singer (usually self-accompanied on an asthmatic harmonium), Ivor Cutler, had died in 2006. He was a lifelong schoolteacher, who turned to writing - and found fame through radio performances in the UK - relatively late in life. He'd been a favourite of mine for 30-odd years. The man collected ivory cutlery, as a concrete pun on his name - how can you not love that?

So - since I haven't quite finished my current book yet! - I thought I'd review my favourite of Ivor's books on here. (This is a book I love so much, I never like to be without a copy, wherever I am in the world. And I have quite often bought it as a present for friends. Can there be a higher recommendation?)

"Life In A Scotch Sitting-Room, Vol. 2" (there was no Vol. 1!) is probably his finest work. It's a sequence of grim, quirky, often surreal prose poems forming a fictionalized memoir of his between-the-wars childhood in a Glasgow slum. Rather as with Monty Python's 'Four Yorkshiremen', he often gleefully exaggerates the squalor and privation, having fun with stereotypical images of the Scots and the poor (for example, the family allegedly subsists almost entirely on a diet of herring and 'grits'; and liver vein is prized by the children as "chewing gum of character"!). These strange, macabre, oddly beautiful little stories are complimented by the highly distinctive, nicely grotesque line drawings of the great English cartoonist Martin Honeysett.

Each of the 21 'episodes' is only a page or so long, so it is a very short and easy read - but it is quite haunting. The observation and the use of language are often just exquisite - a joy to be treasured and shared down the years.

If you'd like a taster, I have put a number of excerpts from this on my blog over the past year - most recently here.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy


I love a gritty, male voice. Cormac's voice carries the story. It is much more than a traditional cat-and-mouse story. The sheriff opens with: I sent one boy to the gaschamber at Huntsville. One and only one. My arrest and my testimony. How can you not continue reading? I couldn't. I finished in two sittings.


We begin in the point-of-view of the sheriff, who waxes philosophical throughout the book. His philosophy? That it takes very little to govern good people. The bad people, they can't be governed at all. He compares the crimes of today to the crimes of yesteryear. It is a story about the degradation of the soul.


The rest of the book is written in third person--sympathetic to one character at a time. The past tense reads like present tense. Cormac puts us in the shoes of the different characters, and gives us a pair of binoculars to pan the scenery. This particular scene is typical of that style of writing: He stood there looking out across the desert. So quiet. Low hum of wind in the wires. High bloodweeds along the road. Wiregrass and sacahuista. Beyond in the stone arroyos the tracks of dragons. The sentences are stripped to their essentials. There are no transitions between scenes. You just have to keep up.


The sheriff says at the end of the book: I think I know where we're headed. We're bein bought with our own money. And it aint just the drugs. There is fortunes bein accumulated out there that they dont nobody even know about. What do you think is goin to come of that money? Money that can buy whole countries. It done has.


I rate this excellent!

Michael Cox/THE MEANING OF NIGHT



this is most interesting. i thought i had seen this perhaps reviewed earlier, and it was, by miss moonrat herself. she gave it an eh and didn't particularly like it. and here's my very opposite opinion. i consider the meaning of night to be the best book i've read this year. and i read jane austen's pride and prejudice for the first time this year as well as other "classics" such as in cold blood and brave new world. kinda goes to show how varied opinions can be, right?

and so the book begins :

"after killing the red-haired man, i took myself off to quinn's for an oyster supper.

it had been surprisingly -- almost laughably -- easy."

cox does many things that new novelists are warned against. (i mean, look at those ly words! =) he starts with a murder. a tad cliche. he jumps around as far as timeline of the tale. there are themes which aren't new to any reader, the anti-hero discovers he was given away as a baby. his childhood, his life, his history was never what it seemed (many fantasy books). there is an incredible estate involved (austen books, gone with the wind) which should be his to inherit, except for the rash decision his birth mother made to cast him aside.

the tale is a confession, narrated in the first person by edward glyver. he discovers after his mother died, that she was part of the conspiracy to deny the rich and powerful baron of evanwood estate (his birth father) an heir. his birth mother did this horrific act (giving away of her first son), in retalition against her husband. she would deny her husband the heir he wanted, even tho the act sends her to her own grave, she is so struck by guilt and sorrow for her lost son.

edward discovers along the way, as he searches for clues, that other people were roped in to conspire in this act of betrayal. when edward discovers his past enemy, phoebus daunt, has insinuated himself into his father's home, and is to be adopted and made heir to evanwood, he tries everything in his power to gather information against daunt and thwart it.

i think cox is a master at storytelling. he sets the scene of victoria england so well, and the tone of edward perfectly. you understand his anger and his pain, you feel his frustration at the cards he was dealt in life. it is a mystery that unravels for the reader, and we are forced to see edward make mistakes, misinterpret information, even as we know what the inevitable outcome will be.

i spent five hours straight last night reading, so that i could finish the book. i found that my heart was actually pounding close to the climax of the story. in the end, edward does kill his old nemesis, phoebus daunt : "i killed him, but in doing so, i killed the best part of myself". as a reader, i wanted this murder, it was a scene the author had to give, and he created an obsessive monster in edward, yet still, i got it. i understood and was sympathetic to edward. dare i say, i liked him. i think that is an amzing feat in itself, by cox.

of course, after reading this tale, i think my storytelling skills are about as good as lump of a fresh horse manure--hell, stale dried horse manure. but i'm inspired. it's great to see an author who can tell a compelling story in a different era, create mystery and suspence using familiar elements, but still give a fresh and gripping tale. cox said that this novel was thirty years in the making, and he only felt compelled to write it finally when he was in danger of losing his eyesight. it was now or never. on the backcover : the meaning of night was named one of the 10 best books of the year by the economist, the washington post, booklist, and booksense.

i highly recommend it.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Jenny Downham/BEFORE I DIE


Tessa Scott is 16 years old and, by her calculation, within 217 days of dying of cancer. Having given up on chemotherapy, she lives at home with her dad and brother, Cal (her mom, a semi-deadbeat who left the family when Tessa was 12, comes by periodically), eats wholesome foods, and spends her time hanging out with her best friend, Zoey. That, and making a list--the 10 things she wants to do before she dies. #1 is have sex. #3 is try illegal drugs. #5 is get famous.

I know it sounds like a subject that's been done to, um, pieces, but Jenny Downham is not Lurlene McDaniel. The prose is beautiful and thoughtful and Tessa's narrative is smart, unflinching, and pitted with tiny, wonderful observations. This book isn't a simple get-out-your-kleenex tearjerker; it's less about death than it is a focus on the amazing things there are in life that we are wont to miss when we're not at risk of losing them. Tessa isn't a selfish narrator, either--she takes the time to notice things like her dad's loneliness and his still-burning torch for her mother; Zoey's insecurities and teenage errors; her brother's shyness, fears, and launch into adolescence. There's a lot of wisdom and grace in a book that could have been done luridly and cheaply to the same relative attention.

There's a lot of buzz building around this book, which was an adult book in the UK but billed as a YA book here (much like THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHTTIME, which, like BEFORE I DIE, is easily appreciated by adults). In this case I want to say the buzz is worth it--the story is good, the writing is flawless and rich, and the lens the book offers you to look at your own life reminds you of what is precious. A good read.

Plus, here's an example of a book that braves sex, drugs, and other hot-button YA lit concerns realistically and responsibly (in an unglorified but unboring way that kids will find interesting because of its honest information but adults will find acceptable because it addresses repercussions seriously).

Jenny Downham's story is one of the perks for me, too--a single mother of two boys (ages 7 and 12), 43-year-old Downham lives in subsidized housing in a less than glamorous part of east London, and her sudden fame is surprising and uncelebrated (here's her very soft-spoken literary profile).

Khaled Hosseini: A Thousand Splendid Suns


My grandmother handed me this book and told me that, if I wanted to understand how f#$ked up Afghanistan is, I should read it. My first reaction is that it's very impressive how a male author was able to tell this gut wrenching story through these very convincing female characters. Surprisingly, it is the male characters who seem oversimplified and less convincing. Nevertheless, this is a powerful read, and my grandmother was right about it being a primer for the problematic history of Afghanistan. I would recommend this, along with The Bookseller of Kabul, by Asne Seierstad, to anyone wanting to better understand this country and most especially the plight of its women. I fear that our current intervention is not going to end this ongoing tragedy any time soon, especially since, as a country, we seem to have completely forgotten that the war there continues. And it will continue even after we leave.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard

Pretty Little Liars takes place in Rosewood, Pennsylvania. The main characters are four rich, beautiful girls- Aria, Emily, Spencer, and Hanna. All of them have their own dirty secrets, and they all have one thing in common- their best friend, the girl who had made them popular, Alison DiLaurentis- had disappeared and had not been seen since the summer between seventh aand eighth grade.
Aria has just moved back from living in Iceland for two years. She is devastated to have to come back to the states- she loved I celand. The boys were amazing, it was beautiful there, and she was no longer the peculiar girl who was popular by chance. And when she comes back, she meets an older, smart, and cute guy and "hooks up" with him. And what do you know- she comes back to school, and he's her teacher.
Emily has been a swimmer forever. She's always been one of the shy ones until the new girl, Maya, comes and spices up her life. And she might just have more than friendship on her mind.
Spencer is the perfect person. She has the perfect grades, all AP classes, is great at sports, has the biggest house and is the most beautiful. Yep, she's perfect. There's only one person better than her- her sisterMelissa. They've been battling it out since who knows when, and Melissa always wins by a hair at every competition. Ans when Spencer meets her sister's hot British boyfreind, it's all down hill from there. Her parents practically disown her. She stole her perfect sister's property- her boyfriend.
Hanna went from fat to phat. After her dad left and found a better, thin daughter and called her a pig, she shed the extra poundage she packed on. But she may be hurting herself in the process. Hanna will do anything to stay beautiful, and I mean ANYTHING. She can't stand to be fat again, to be a loser, to lose her boyfriend. Hanna has a dark past that may be repeating. And she has to save herself.
And the thing all of these beautiful, rich, lucky(or so meets the eye) girls have in common is that their best friend, the one that once held them all together, the it girl- is gone without a trace. And the mysterious "A" has been blackmailing them. Alison's disappearance is eating away at all of them, and A is going to make sure that it is known what really happened. They will ruin these girls' lives, bring out their dirty secrets, and bring back all of those brutal memories. And no one knows who she is.
This book is suspenseful and bone chilling. It keeps you reading, which is a great attribute in a book. The cons, though, are as follows: it is a bit too suspenseful. It gets inappropriate and annoyingly cliche. In all it is a girly book. It is okay, but it is serious chick lit for teenagers that are into the whole "rich girl drama". This book was not great, but between okay and good. It is interesting. If you are one of the aforementioned people, by all means read it. If you are like me (you like more substance and are not one of the aforementioned people), then don't.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Ruthanne Lum McCunn/GOD OF LUCK


In the marketplace in his village in southern China, a young man named Ah Lung is kidnapped and taken on board a slave ship bound for Peru, where Chinese conscripts (or "pigs") are impressed into "eight" years of hard labor, paid only in scrip, on the sugar cane fields or on the guano islands. The life expectancy among the pigs is 3 years and their chances of earning their freedom close to zero. At home, Ah Lung's clever spinster twin, Moongirl, and his gifted silkwormer wife, Bo See, conspire to try to free him from his impressment.

I picked out this book because it was a Fall Booksense pick. I was also interested in the topic, since I didn't know much about Asian slave trade to the "new world" (it turns out more than 1,000,000 Chinese slaves were brought over during the 19th century). McCunn did a lot of research and I feel like I really learned a lot from 250 quick pages--about the slave trade, about raising silkworms, about life on board a trans-Pacific vessel.

A nice short book, which is always a positive for me.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Weirdly: A Collection of Strange Stories

I first bought Weirdly: A Collection of Strange Stories published by Wild Child Publishing, as an e-book and I will admit to previously being pretty skeptical about an e-book. I mean, part of reading is the physical aspect of opening a book and turning the pages. And I love the smell of a new book. Pure ambrosia. So imagine my delight when I found out that Weirdly was finally being released in print! Now you can go to Amazon or Barnes and Noble.com and purchase a paperback copy of a great anthology of strange and scary stories. Everyone will find at least several stories in this anthology that will make their heart pound a little faster and creep you out just a tad.

So let’s talk about the stories. Well, some of them are more vignettes, but just because they are short doesn’t mean that you are being shortchanged. Now, I can’t review all of them but I can tell you that the ones that hung with me after I finished the book did so with a vengeance. The book opens with vampires and ends with werewolves. Could you ask for more? The first story Those Who Won’t Be Missed by C.T. Adams & Cathy Clamp, is a well written vampire story with an interesting voice and an excellent ending. The bookend is aptly titled The Sickness by Amanda Tieman which features werewolves in love. And in between are stories of ghosts, beasts, murderers, demons, morticians, and soulless sorority girls. What is there not to love?

Two other stand-out stories are Anya by Stacia Helpman and The Beekeeper by James Cheetham. One tells the story of the rise and fall of an Avenging Angel while the other delves into the clouded mind of a dying man and his daughter who seeks for one last time her father’s missing affection. The other pieces were all strong and interesting in their various ways but hands down my favorite piece was Stone Child by Bernita Harris. Its central protagonist is Lillie St. Claire and she is a full spectrum mega-Talent and an exorcist. A Talent is a rare individual of unusual psychic sensibility. The mark of a Talent is shown in the silvering of their hair. In Stone Child, we enter a world with a proliferation of spectoral entities and ancient creatures from myths and legends. Talents are employed in criminal investigations to discover missing victim’s by their ghosts and help solve murder cases. The story opens with a missing child case, but the plot untwists itself to reveal no ordinary missing person’s case. I can’t reveal more for fear of giving away too much of this unique and fascinating story. You are just going to have to buy your own copy.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Yasmin Crowther/THE SAFFRON KITCHEN


When a young British woman (Sara) miscarries her baby following an unfortunate and preventable accident, her Iranian mother (Maryam), tormented by guilt, is driven back to Iran to unlock her history and the sources of her own anger and misfortune.

This is a book about how people who seem to be so close can be leading lives that barely intersect, and also about how tiny random intersections of lives can have huge and terrible ramifications. I found it very sad and more than a little thought-provoking. For me, the most powerful element was Maryam's marriage to Sara's father, Edward--although they have spent the last 35 years together and Edward loves Maryam fiercely, it is revealed that he knows almost nothing about her. It is a realistic look at the way people love and fail each other without even realizing it, and at how some of the problems you'll encounter in life are subtle and have no simple solutions.

I don't want to say too much and spoil the book, because I do think it is a good, thoughtful read. But it was a half-finished novel for me in a lot of ways, and could have used a lot of polishing. First, Crowther shamelessly rotates narrator--Sara's 1st person point of view, then Maryam's 1st person, then Maryam's 3rd person, then Sara's 3rd person, then Edward's 3rd, then Ali's 3rd, then Noruz's 3rd. That makes me a little cranky, since it seems to me like the author couldn't do the work of making a commitment to one voice. Second, at the beginning we're set up to see that Maryam's relationship with her sister Mara was exceptionally close and important to her--and then Mara never even comes into the story, not for a moment. I feel like there was a major narrative thread that was dropped there, and elsewhere, too. Finally--and this is petty--I hate when authors begin each chapter with epigraph-style poems or quotations. Sometimes it is acceptible in nonfiction, but in fiction, as one of my friends once pointed out to me (was it you, Rose? I feel like it was), if someone else's words say it better than you can, then maybe you shouldn't be saying it at all.

So... good story, but could have been much more carefully crafted.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Maniac Magee

I love middle-grade novels. They are the true home for children's literature. I hope to convince you that these novels can be as riveting as adult novels.

Maniac Magee, written by Jerry Spinelli, won the Newbery medal-the highest honor for children's literature -in 1991


This story opens with:


***
They say Maniac Magee was born in a dump. They say his stomach was a cereal box and his heart was a sofa spring.


They say he kept an eight-inch cockroach on a leash and that rats stood guard over him while he slept.


They say if you knew he was coming and you sprinkled salt on the ground and he ran over it, within two or three blocks he would be as slow as everybody else.
They say.


***
When Maniac's parents are killed, he's sent off to live with an aunt and uncle who hate each other, but won't get divorced because they're Catholic. Maniac runs away, and keeps on running until he's smack in the middle of a racially-divided neighborhood.



Maniac's life on the streets and encounters with good and bad folks of all colors is told in an almost rueful style. This story is funny, and leaves you with a tear just at the edge of your eye the whole way through.

It's a story of struggle and hope. I rate it 'very good.'

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Paris Review Interviews, Volume II


Some of the best writing advice I've ever received, for whatever it's worth, has come from The Paris Review. Last year, the magazine initiated a project to collect their interviews, which began in 1953 (Graham Greene?), into four volumes of paperback goodness. These books are absolutely beautiful in their textures and type (I've just been enlightened to the artfulness of type by a brilliant young woman named Kristin.) and format. Many of the readers here probably already know this, but these interviews have been released in paperback format in the past. In fact, many used bookstores have them lying around for about a dollar a piece. One of my favorite used bookstores, a nice little corner place -- name's eluded me -- in Lyndonville, Vermont, actually had one of these in its free book pile. I buy the new ones anyway because they're so nice to carry around.

Every interview, whether it's given by a poet or a prose writer, is useful to writers of all genres. The best interviews I've come across so far, though, are Hemingway and Vonnegut (Volume I) and Alice Munro and Stephen King (II). Some of the interviews are definitely better than others, and that can be attributed to grumpy-ass writers or smart-ass upstart writers trying to stymie their subjects rather than gently steering the interview toward some kind of focus else let it meander and form itself organically.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Flann O'Brien/THE THIRD POLICEMAN

After a few fairly busy weeks of reading, I suddenly found myself with no free time - and somewhat at a loss as to what I should take on to read next anyway.

So, I returned to this old favourite. This book is so inventive, so side-splittingly funny, so scintillatingly well-written, that I often carry it around with me just for random dipping into whenever I have a few spare moments alone; but I hadn't read it cover-to-cover for a few years now, so I was about due.

Flann O'Brien was the pen-name of Brian O'Nolan, an Irish civil servant who wrote a funny column (originally, I think, daily, but later slightly cut back to 3 times a week) in The Irish Times throughout the middle decades of the 20th Century. (These pieces were published under the alias Myles na Gopaleen, and a number of anthologies have been compiled; I highly recommend them, if they're still available.)

He also turned out a handful of comic novels over the years, of which I think this one is much the best (although his debut, At Swim-Two-Birds, was very warmly praised in a review by Graham Greene). All of them are extremely bitty, betraying their origin as off-cuts of the newspaper column; but at least with The Third Policeman the central narrative thread - and the convincing voice of the 1st person narrator - is strong enough to carry you along through all the disparate flights of whimsy. It is an odyssey through rural Ireland, and also through the wilder reaches of the imagination, through the guilty conscience of a murderer. (For years, we O'Brien fans have taken additional delight in his comparative obscurity, in the fact that he was "our secret", a special treat shared only by a select few. Now, alas, The Third Policeman has been prominently mentioned in the TV series Lost, and has become one of the hottest searches on Amazon! Oh, well - I shouldn't begrudge others the pleasure of discovering this, I suppose.)

One of the many wonderful conceits in the book is the protagonist's obsessive ambition to write the definitive study of the life and works of an obscure 17th Century philosopher/inventor/alchemist called De Selby. Numerous extracts from this work-in-progress are quoted in the course of the story, complete with voluminous footnotes. At one point (purely to meet a personal challenge, one imagines: to prove that it could be done) there is an entire page of footnotes. Of course, this is no more than a convenient pretext to introduce a lot of whimsical nonsense that has no bearing on the central story, but it is so brilliantly carried off that you just don't care. The footnotes - a superb parody of academic writing, which gradually builds a fragmentary picture of the bizarre feuds waged between earlier De Selby commentators - are in fact one of the funniest elements of a very, very funny novel.

O'Nolan spoke fluent Gaelic (something of a rarity in Irish literary circles, even then), and wrote in it on occasion. And the rhythms and phraseology of that rich, strange language infuse his writing here. You can open this book at random and find something extraordinary on almost any page - every paragraph, almost every sentence has something of odd, startling beauty in it.

I don't usually like to include quotations here on BookBook, but I couldn't resist this one (describing a midnight bicycle ride through the country):
"Other winds were moving about in the stillness of the evening, loitering in the trees and moving leaves and grasses to show that the green world was still present in the dark. Water by the roadside, always overshouted in the roistering day, now performed audibly in its hidings." (And there's another one here on my blog, if you're interested.)

This book is a kind of pastiche of Irishness - of the Irish language, Irish literature, Irish manners - but an extremely affectionate one: both pastiche and celebration at the same time. If you haven't ever visited Ireland, or read many other Irish writers, you might not quite get how wonderful it is. But you will still wet yourself laughing.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Here They Come by Yannick Murphy





This book is a big pretty poem about the splendor of our small and smelly world. It takes place in the seventies. It is narrated by a thirteen year old girl. It is about nothing happening in a staggerinly beautiful way. It is one of those books with no plot that is stil bad-ass (people who call this impossible, remember: Catcher in the Rye...duh!) I don't know what to say...you'll read it or you won't, but if you're the kind of person who would give it a chance, you're probably the kind of person who would be invigorated by what it shows us about the possiblity to find, however tainted, magic in everything that we deal with all day in the mundane world. Yannick Murphy likes to tell her students to "put [their] stink on the page. Perhaps that's the best way to explain what this book is all about.

THINGS FALL APART Chinua Achebe

In the 1950s Chinua Achebe wrote Things Fall Apart as a reaction against the portrayal of the primitive African in Western literature. The novel introduces the reader to the life of an Ibo tribe in Africa. Through the story of Okonkwo, his wives and children, the reader learns about the tribal way of life, its customs and beliefs, social hierarchy, politics and system of justice - in other words, the traditions of their civilisation. When white missionaries arrive on their iron bicycles, the indigenous way of life is destroyed. Okonkwo clings herocially to the old ways but cannot withstand the white man's rule and religion and so moves inexorably towards his personal tragedy, echoing the 'falling apart' of everything he has ever known.

Achebe doesn't idealise the Ibo way of life; some of their customs seem barbaric to us. He seems to want to show the reality of a lost way of life. We are left to question whether the white colonials, with their guns and their arrogant imposition of political and religious domination, aren't the real barbarians, with their casual destruction of the indigenous civilisation. Who are the real barbarians here, and who are the "civilised" men?

The book is written in an amazingly simple style. The language is almost childish in its simplicity, which suits the story well and adds to its power.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Kazuo Ishiguro/AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD


A renowned and retired Japanese painter struggles with the aftermath of the war, his relationships with his daughters and grandson, and the legacy of his career.

I've come to realize with this, my third Ishiguro book, that he has a very distinct technique (quiet plot, slightly self-righteous but eventually sympathetic first person male narrator, dishonest manliness to disguise weakness and tragedy). I liked this one because it's a tiny and barely delineated sphere of Occupation-era Japan. By "barely delineated" I mean that he manages to only convey certain details and never gives the impression of world-building or expository description--his world-building just happens. He also is so deliberate with his dialog that it not only sounds real, it sounds like Japanese.

I liked this. It's an interesting reminder of cultural guilt and the smaller, immortal ramifications of war.

Kathryn Harrison/THE KISS


At age twenty, Kathryn Harrison was reunited with her father, who had not been allowed to be part of her childhood. She becomes obsessed with him, with having him back in her life, and he becomes obsessed with her--less paternally. The memoir is less about their affair than it is about Kathryn's failing psyche, her ongoing battles with anxiety, anorexia, bulimia, rejection, neglect.

I found this book stomach-turning. For me, it wasn't the incest--it's obvious that the father is a total unforgivable creep, that he is physically, psychologically, and emotionally abusive, that Kathryn is powerless to resist him because of her various vulnerabilities--that's simply a train wreck that you know is going to happen from the beginning. And I thought from the title and cover there was going to be some ambiguity about the incest, but there isn't; you're left with no doubt about her father's disgustingness. She didn't indulge in any graphic descriptions, at least, not in the kinds I was afraid of having to read (there is one description of a doctor's visit that I unfortunately read while I was eating and which caused me to have to put down both book & chopsticks for awhile). So that wasn't what really got to me.

I think what was most upsetting is the inevitable and endlessly reinforced conclusion that the book isn't about her father at all; it's about her mother, her mother's neglect, rejection, jealousy, and hostility. The book raises a lot of ideas about various ways parents can fail their children. Which is just an upsetting thing to have to think about, even when it's not as dramatic a story as this one.

I gotta be honest--the tense vacillation (past to present and back again) seemed gimmicky and poor to me. Otherwise, the writing is good. This was a really quick read--I finished it while stuck on my morning commute.

This is a good book, but it's uncomfortable and I wouldn't recommend it to everyone. I do think it's worth reading, though, as long as you know what you're getting into.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Anne Fadiman/THE SPIRIT CATCHES YOU AND YOU FALL DOWN: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures


In Merced, a city in Southern California, 1/5 of the population is Hmong refugees (now, their descendents) who were brought to the US in the 1970s and 1980s following the decimation of their people by various factors (let's just say the US was at least indirectly involved). Among these refugee families were the Lees, whose first American-born daughter, Lia, turns out to have a very serious kind of epilepsy, a condition which, in Hmong culture, is not infrequently occuring. An attack is considered to be the spirit leaving the body. In the Hmong language, epilepsy is called "when the spirit catches you and you fall down."

Anne Fadiman uses Lia's story as a tool for introducing the many facets of Hmong-American culture clash in this utterly absorbing book. I have to admit that when a friend lent this to me, my plan was to skim it quickly, say I liked it, and return it--the subject sounded small and not like something I would find particularly interesting. I decided to read the intro in good faith and then found I couldn't put it down. There is so much to know about so many things and Anne Fadiman offers you a really readable, well-informed edge here.

In a nutshell, the root of the problem at the heart of the book is that the Lees see their daughter's ailment as at least in part spiritual; the American doctors see it as purely medical, to be dealt with procedurally. Furthermore, doctor-patient relations are fraught with hardship, misunderstanding, and bitterness because the hospital cannot afford to retain Hmong interpreters and the Lees, who have never had any formal education, do not speak or write English, never mind medical jargonese. But Fadiman goes to impressive lengths to show the many contributing elements of the story--the history of Hmong oppression, the genocides and government sacrifice suffered in Laos, the death marches in Thailand, the limited immigration to America. Then, the challenges of going back to work under a Welfare system that makes it impossible to support your family by working yourself; the prejudices and rumors that arise among resident locals looking for a scapegoat; the perpetuation of stigmas associated with bad luck. The subjective sides of medicine; the protection of patients' rights; the horrors of being an immigrant in America; the challenges of maintaining your people's culture without being marginalized by your new society.

This is a really rich book--it makes you ask questions about moral relativism, the nature of medicine in America, multiculturalism, and the many forms of racism. I really recommend this--I think it really helps you think actively about your identity as a citizen of your own country as well as to ask some smart and leading questions about all the above issues. Plus it's a good read.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Robert C. O'Brien/Z FOR ZACHARIAH


Z for Zachariah was written by Robert C. O'Brien, who is most known for writing Mrs. Frisbee and the Rats of NIMH. But apparently he died before finishing Zachariah, and his wife and daughter wrote the last few chapters from his notes.

The story follows a girl, Ann, who thinks she is the last human alive after a war devastates everything beyond her small valley. But then a man appears. Ann isn't sure whether to trust him at first, but when he succumbs to radiation sickness, she takes care of him. Once he's better, Ann realizes that maybe she would have been better off alone after all; the man turns controlling and may have suffered too much during the war to have kept his sanity.

This story is so taut and fast-moving that once I sat down with it today (having started it yesterday) I had to read to the end. At the same time, it wasn't so scary that I couldn't take it (I'm kind of a wimp when it comes to scary stuff). The title, which I thought was a bit strange, refers to a picture book Ann remembers reading when she was little, which started off with "A for Adam" and ended with "Z for Zachariah." Ann figured since Adam was the first man, Zachariah must be the last.
Fast, easy read. Great ending. Taut without being too scary.

James Shapiro/1599

James Shapiro's book (subtitled 'A Year In The Life of William Shakespeare') is a survey of a pivotal stage in the writer's development; but it necessarily focuses on the social and historical context of his writing, and on the reflections of this in the writing itself, rather than on the life of the man - about which virtually nothing is known. Shapiro reminds us of this caveat at the the outset, but it is still just a little frustrating that we so often become aware of just how broadly he is speculating; and how many times he is forced to use "we simply don't know...".

The core argument for the crucial significance of the chosen year is well made. It was the year in which Shakespeare's theatre company, The Chamberlain's Men, made a decisive split from the legendary clown, Will Kemp (and hence from the broader, more physical comedic tradition which he represented), signalling new opportunities and ambitions for Shakespeare's writing in both serious and comic genres. It was also the year in which The Globe Theatre theatre was built, a hugely risky enterprise that might as easily have brought fortune or ruin on Shakespeare and his co-investors among The Chamberlain's Men (this is one point where I really wish Shapiro had enquired a little more deeply - how much and where is Shakespeare likely to have had to borrow in order to fund this undertaking? can we gauge the eventual return on his investment?). The rapid success of this venture - despite a sudden upsurge in the number of competing theatre companies and rampant uncertainties about the dangers of censorship or complete suppression by a paranoid government - gave Shakespeare, it would seem, a unique platform on which develop his artistry in new directions.

This was the year in which Shakespeare, just turning 35 (but already an actor and playwright with at least a decade's experience), completed final polishing of his great, long-in-gestation history play Henry V, dashed off the decidedly sui generis tragedy and comedy, Julius Caesar and As You Like It, in an improbably short space of time, and then settled down to produce the gargantuan first draft of his masterpiece, Hamlet. A truly remarkable year, even by his standards; and one that can aptly be seen as laying the foundation for the great plays of his mature years - Lear, Macbeth, Othello.

It was also an unusually turbulent year in England's domestic politics. The aging, childless Queen Elizabeth was still obstinately refusing to settle her succession - which was breeding anxieties about the risk of foreign invasion, civil insurrection, or the return of the vicious religious persecutions of half a century earlier. There was a bloody rebellion in Ireland, which threatened to drain the national treasury dry. There were innumerable rumours of assassination plots and possible invasions (the country was on an all-out war footing throughout the summer, expecting the imminent onslaught of another Spanish Armada - although this fear proved a mere phantom). And there was endless anxious speculation about the designs of the Earl of Essex, the charismatic but impetuous nobleman who had recently quarrelled with the Queen - and had then been handed the poisoned chalice of a command in Ireland to suppress the rebellion (an appointment probably prompted largely by a desire to have him out of the way, but which also raised the unwelcome prospect that he might - like Julius Caesar - use his command of the army to establish himself [or the King of Scotland, or the King of Spain] as England's ruler).

What is perhaps most remarkable in all this is how - at a time when the insecurities of Elizabeth's government were driving it to some quite brutal oppression and censorship, and most Englishmen were very evidently afraid to speak their minds openly even in private correspondence - Shakespeare somehow got away with alluding to so many of these contemporary events in his plays that year. Better than any book I've read before on Shakespeare, this one really shows you convincingly how the background events find expression in the work.

All in all, then, it's a damn good read. If you're hoping to find out more about Shakespeare "the man", you'll be disappointed; but if you're interested in the development of his work, or in the society that gave rise to it, this is a fascinating book. I fret that many of Shapiro's inferences are very tenuous, his juxtapositions sometimes trite and mechanical; but in general, the book is well-written and surprisingly easy to read. I usually struggle with non-fiction, but I got through this in a week.

Monday, October 29, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

This is a beautifully written novel about a young white girl growing up in the 1960s in South Carolina. Against a background of increasing racial tension she is raised by a black woman, rather like Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird, and the girl's unsympathetic father. When the black woman is beaten for wanting to vote, the girl and the woman run away together. The story is interwoven with gems of wisdom concerning the social grouping and conduct of bees, which are a symbol of what is going on in the protagonist's life. I wasn't totally convinced about the bees, but Sue Monk Kidd writes in a gentle, enjoyable style with some lyrical descriptive touches. The book was long-listed for the Orange Prize in 2002.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Stephenie Meyer/TWILIGHT

let me preface this by saying that i don't usually read romance nor vampires / paranormal (so i have nothing to compare it to). i love watching tele shows about it, but reading it, not so much. i'm not certain how this book or author caught my eye, probably just random surfing. i read it was her debut novel and won accolades. it is considered YA fiction, which i've been reading some due to the fact that a fellow crit member is writing YA, and she had suggested my own novel may fall in that category.

bella swan leaves everything she knows in phoenix to move to forks, wa with her father, a town that gets the most rainfall in the united states. we learn that she does this as a sacrifice, so her mother can move around with her new husband phil, who plays minor league ball. this theme of self-sacrifice runs through the entire book, and it is meant to be bella's forte as well as foible. she is all of seventeen and has to maneuver through the pangs of attending a brand new high school in a teeny town where everyone knows everyone else's business. on her first day, she catches the eye of edward cullins, one of the adopted sons of dr. cullins. of the five children, they are all pale, beautiful, and move with astonishing grace. hmmm.

to bella's terror and (let's be honest) thrill, she is seated next to edward after seeing him at lunch in bio class. only to have the boy lean away from her like she stinks of filth, his fists clenched in agony. as bella becomes THE MOST POPULAR girl in school, in which the geek to the sunny boy decide to chase after her, she finds herself becoming more and more obsessed with edward and his smouldering golden eyes. their relationship truly begins when edward shoves her out of being crushed in the school parking lot, even tho he was half way across the lot and managed to stop the oncoming truck with his broad muscular shoulder.

i started reading this book yesterday at lunch (at the boba house, yeah!) and finished this morning. i felt it was good storytelling in that the characters and their quandry drew me. edward is the brooding, chilvarous, beautiful vamp boy who contiuously saves bella throughout the book. and she, in turn, is the awkward and clutzy girl who doesn't see herself as pretty, but everyone else seems to. the prose is okay at best. there is constant description of how magnificent edward is (everyone wants to screw -- er, make out with -- a vampire!) and bella wonders why he would ever ever love her.

the problem is, i couldn't help wonder myself. other than the fact that bella has a delicious floral smell which makes edward want to suck her dry like a good latte, what does he see in this girl? there are hints to her maturity (she takes care of both her mother and father in many ways) as well as her bookish intelligence (she is writing about shakespeare and mysoginistic themes in his plays), the main parts of the book are her trying not to whisk her panties off every other minute and edward restraining from eating her up completely.

thus, i would say the weak points are in some characterization. bella is sacrificial to the end, and is the girl that needs to be saved by a vampire who loves her as both a person and a possible food source. but the tension provided by that is well drawn out by meyer, if you're willing to go along, and not think the whole situation a bit ludicrous. i found it hard to relate to high school again, at the same time, i could relate to getting that first true crush/love, and being consumed by the littlest things.

all in all, it is a rather fluffy story with some good tension hinging on the theme of forbidden love. i would rate the prose as okay, at times cheesey--but hey, it's a YA vamp romance--and the storytelling as the strongest point. if you aren't into YA and fluffy vamp romances, i wouldn't recommend it. if you dig the stuff, i think it's a lighthearted read.

i'm sort of in love with edward myself now. who knew i had an angsty teen girl still crouching within me waiting to be saved?

Anna Godberson/THE LUXE


Elizabeth Holland is the 18-year-old star of 1899 Manhattan high society--perfect pedigree, well-groomed, beautiful, and now engaged to the most eligible bachelor in town. But Elizabeth's engagement upsets the delicate social balances that have been constructed with a lot of hushed-up sleeping around behind the scenes, and everyone--Elizabeth's back-stabbing best friend, her vengeful maid, her besotted little sister--seems to want Elizabeth dead. Will she make it to her own wedding?

In case it didn't carry over into my book description, I'll admit I was rather disappointed with this book. I have an advance reader's copy that I picked up at BEA this year and I was thrilled to get my hands on it--it's like Gossip Girls, they said, only cultured and historical! I haven't read Gossip Girls, so perhaps this book was exactly par for the course, but in my gullible little mind I thought Anna Godberson would be using an established form--the teen society novel--to sneakily teach kids history. That was appealing to me.

So that was my first disappointment--because all the characters spoke and acted essentially like they would today. Periodically someone would say something like "that's not what a Holland would do!" or "well-bred ladies are never fashionably late!" but it all felt a little artificial. Also, the author didn't let any historical research get in the way of her story at all--she didn't take advantage of the potentially intriguing place and time to make setting a major part of the story (I'm left with no visual understandings of any of the Manhattan locales). Even within the framework of a sexy YA novel there was so much the author could have done. But instead we're left with yet another celebration of rich white bitchy girls who have lots of casual sex.

I perceive that last piece as really irresponsible. It's not that I think YA novels need to be preachy or adhere to certain values--it's just that I don't understand the reasons the author chose to glorify certain behavior in a way that is not only not well-written but is counterfactual and encourages (through a veil of fantasy) behavior that is harmful.

The use of casual sex in this book was not only universal (almost compulsory) but it was utterly not erotic. I can understand if an author includes a well-written kiss (or maybe more) to get the reader's blood flowing, but the way sex is used here is, for example, "She opened her kimono" (end chapter). It's basically assumed that if two of the characters (who, by the way, are all teenagers) are having a relationship that they are going to casually sleep with each other--the message I'm getting from this? "Want to keep a man, girls? Make sure you take off your skirt on the first date!" And then this gets back to the whole historical accuracy part. Am I wrong in assuming casual premarital sex was a much bigger deal back in the times when condoms and pills weren't available? Because no one suffers any sleeping-around consequences of any kind. No one fears or thinks of pregnancy or STDs--which even in an adult novel is unrealistic.

There is also an unmistakable vein of misogyny. All the girls in the story hate one another and work actively or passively to bring one another down. Even Elizabeth, who is described as prissy and perfect, is not exactly a nice person. When she is caught in an indiscretion (sleeping with the stable boy) she does not react well and ends up publicly firing the maid who discovered her. On the other hand, the "dreamy bachelor" character, who happily goes around seducing all the main characters without any consequences, who is constantly drunk in public, who has no desire to shoulder any responsibility and has dropped out of Harvard to have more time to enjoy his father's wealth, becomes the object they all compete for, and comes out at the end of the book looking like a tragic hero.

Sorry this review got a little bit rant-like. I'm just disappointed that this is what's being published for teenagers, because I don't understand how it's good for anyone at all. Even if it's a matter of giving them what they want, can't we do it in a way that increases their vocabulary or doesn't sub-consciously put women down any further?

Friday, October 26, 2007

Kim Edwards/THE MEMORY KEEPER'S DAUGHTER


During the emergency conditions of a fluke snowstorm, an admired society surgeon delivers his pregnant wife of two babies--a healthy baby boy and a twin sister with the obvious signs of Down syndrome. Thinking to spare his wife the pain of raising and possibly losing this daughter, the doctor asks the nurse on duty to take the baby girl to an institution. He tells his wife that her daughter was born dead. Thus is irrevocably set in motion a chain of events that will change many lives.

I'll start with the bad points of the book for me, which rather upset my reading but didn't ruin the book. It was too long, first--it is a quiet plot that looks into the lives of a very small set of characters, but it dragged on to 400 pages. Also, the writing was a little stale for me; nothing unusual or gripping about the prose, and the opening 25 pages in particular felt like a Hallmark greeting card. I'll admit there was a lot of text-skimming on my part. Now onto the pros.

The theme that I find most provocative is the concept of two people wasting each other, of an unhappy relationship that tumbles to a state beyond redemption but that the characters, for whatever reason, continue to endure. I think that this is a difficult but provocative subject in a book, because I think this kind of relationship is something that happens to a lot of people in "real" life but is not perceived as romantic/active enough to get portrayed in fiction. But it's a theme that must hit close to home for many of us; I for one lap up books that try to broach the subject. Kim Edwards definitely succeeds in creating an inevitably failed and wasted relationship; another commercial success is KITE RUNNER.

Another thing that was interesting to me is that the bone of contention in the entire book is Phoebe, the daughter with Down syndrome, but as a character she is barely there. Although her existence changes/ruins many lives (through absolutely no fault of her own), she matters much more as a concept than as an entity. For her birth family, it is the fact of her absence and the lies that surround her whereabouts that tear a family apart. For her adopted family, we see the difficulties of public prejudices and disadvantages that her adopted mother must overcome to get her equal treatment in schools and to understand her relationship with the adult world. But in neither case does the author attempt to get into Phoebe's mind and character--which is to her credit. This book isn't, after all, about Down syndrome--it's about the unpredictable ways in which well-meaning people fail one another.