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.