Thursday, December 24, 2009

Degenerating into lists

Well, I decided to handmake all my Christmas gifts this year. Since I decided it at the end of October, and NaNoWriMo ate my November, Christmas gift making took up all my free time in December. (Plus I needed something of a break from writing after NaNo.) I have been reading, though (I still commute on the metro/tram/bus at least 2 hours a day).

You'll probably have to wait until I re-read (or re-re-re-re-re-re-re-read, as the case may be) these books, but here's a list of most of what I read in November and December (in the order they are piled on my shelf, not the order in which they were read):

Another Fine Myth Robert Aspirin
*The Wanderer Alain-Fournier
*A Doll's House and Other Plays Ibsen
Myst: the Book of Atrus Rand and Robyn Miller
*Sinning with Annie and other stories Paul Theroux
Captains Courageous Rudyard Kipling
The English Patient Michael Ondaatje
Three Men in a Boat Jerome K. Jerome
Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden
The Railway Children E. Nesbit
The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkein
Gifts Urusula K. LeGuin
*Dubliners James Joyce
Swallows and Amazons Arthur Ransome
*In Cold Blood Truman Capote

Right now I am re-reading To Swim Across the World by Frances and Ginger Park. I have not decided what will get to come on my UK trip. (On the one hand, I want to just buy books THERE! but I will need something to read in the airports on the way there. We'll see.) So there will probably be at least two more books to add to this list.

* = first time I read this book

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Note to the Faithful*

This is a bit late, but you knew this anyway: I am doing NaNoWriMo. Which means all my words are being sucked into the endless black hole of my novel this month. I am still reading, and the stack of books to review is piling high on my end table, but I haven't time at the moment. So watch out for a tumbling avalanche of reviews in December.

*Faithful, here, means the three of you who read this...

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Angelic Darkness

The Angelic Darkness
Richard Zimler

When Bill Ticino's wife moves out, he is beset by insomnia and childhood fear of spirits. Hoping to reassure himself, he rents part of the house to a mysterious Portuguese diplomat. Called Peter, the new tenant brings his pet hoopoe, piles of bizarre relics, pointedly important stories, and new experiences with spirits and mystics.

As an emotional Bill starts to piece life back together, he finds that things are far from what they seem. From the feminine transvestite prostitute he interviews for an article just before his murder to the pixie-like Indian singer who seems to know far too much about the world, Bill's normal way of framing things are bent. But are any of these things really happening?

Although I was initially intrigued by the characters and their stories, the point of the book was disappointing. I expected the mysticism to reveal the deep overlap between myth and reality, perhaps breaking the boundary altogether in a step into urban fantasy. But it was about figuring out how to be gay in a straight world. Oh, well. Ok, then. This was a letdown not because I deem it an inappropriate struggle to portray, but rather because the beginning, the stories, the tone, were not well tied in to the conclusion. I was left feeling like I had started one book and finished another.

The Shack

The Shack
William Paul Young

This tale of how God responds when bad things happen to people who want good lives has been discussed all over the place. Copies of it have even made it to Russia, which is saying something. So, now it's time for my three cents.

The scene is set with Mac losing his baby girl to a brutal serial killer. His depression grows gnarlier, his relationships falter, and he doesn't trust God anymore. After all, if the ruler of the universe were actually good, He wouldn't let people kill adorable small children. And then, God invites him out to the shack where the last bloodstained traces of Mac's little girl were found. Desperate, he goes.

When he's given up all hope, the shack is transformed into a beautiful house, and God the Father walks out of it to give Mac a big hug. The idea of God manifesting as a big black woman whippin' up great meals is delightful to me, and I am thrilled that someone finally portrayed Jesus as being Middle Eastern. The Holy Spirit as a mystical iridescent Asian woman is a bit more cliche, but still entertaining. The three of them work together to show Mac that his view of life, God, and tragedy are skewed.

Hang'in out with members of the Trinity for one-on-one chats about free will, omnipotence, forgiveness, and justice, Mac finds his depression lifting and worldview radically changing. He leaves so impressed by the truths he's learned that his friends and family eventually believe his incredible story.

Thanks to this book, I now believe in the importance of an editor and understand why self-publishing is such a bad idea. It took long, conscious effort to turn off my internal writer/English teacher/editor and actually pay attention to the story. Young uses far too much passive voice and makes sentences and ideas overly complicated, bogging them down with multiple extraneous metaphors. It's a great story, but the writing - oh dear.

Contemporary Chinese Fiction

The Picador Book of Contemporary Chinese Fiction
Ed. Carolyn Choa & David Su Li-Qun

Sadly, the only contemporary Chinese fiction I've read in the past three years is the marvelous little Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie. So when I found a collection of contemporary short stories, all translated into English for the first time, I was delighted.

The book did not disappoint. The nineteen authors cover broad territory in the twenty-eight pieces: death, marriage, love, disappointment, the change of traditions, respect, ghosts, and how to share a crowded courtyard with too many other people. Each character is carefully sculpted with a minimum of movements, fully three-dimensional and elegantly portrayed. Reflecting on bits of life in communist times, the authors manage to present a rich, deeply colored glimpse of life using deceptively simple strokes. Reading is like listening to bells and watching the wind tickle a pine: mystical and yet very connected with the dirt of life.

I am babbling because it is hard to adequately sum up how different these stories feel from what I normally read. I suggest you do what you can to find them yourself.

The Red and the Green

The Red and the Green
Iris Murdoch

I admit to not knowing much about Ireland or its history, other than that it really didn't like the English shoving it around and it has leprechauns. I also admit to planning a trek there this winter. So. Enter Iris Murdoch, whose book The Sea, the Sea was my traveling companion on my last foray to the British Isles, and who proved a fantastic wordsmith and traveling companion, particularly as I was on her home soil. Who better to introduce me to the Irish mind in the week leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916?

Her story follows various members of an extended Irish-English family as they move about Dublin in the days prior to the uprising, painting a picture of diverse households, motives, and ideals. Murdoch presents the tale in pairs of opposites: Andrew, the London-raised English cavalry officer just about to be sent to France to fight the Germans, in contrast with his admired cousin Pat, one of the junior leaders of the revolution; Christopher, a well-endowed gentleman pushing life around with the end of a walking stick until it's just as he likes it, as opposed to Barney, who muddled up his early religious devotion and can't quite seem to sort out his consequent life; Millie, the eccentric, defiantly unfeminine, incredibly alluring widow who plays her many partners against each other and is vastly different from innocent, prim Frances, who watches the restless sea with calm eyes and has been raised in the most ladylike fashion.

And then, after all the build-up, all the political arguments and riding around on bicycles and surprising each other in secrets and proposals and refusals and generally wandering around in the heads of all these men (the women are supplemental characters, really), the uprising comes in and drags them all off, and the book is finished off in eight and a half pages. We find out what happens to the bodies of all the people, but I was left frowning after how the battle affected the minds I'd been inside. Suddenly my intimately known characters became ghosts. Perhaps that's as Murdoch meant it to be.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Empires of the Plain

Empires of the Plain
Lesley Adkins

This summer I visited the British Museum, where I was overwhelmed by the huge rooms full of ancient treasures. Besides the Rosetta Stone, what impressed me the most were huge relief carvings from Assyrian palaces, beautiful pictures covered in intricate cuneiform writing.

Unfortunately, I only remember Ancient Egypt, Ancient Greece, and Ancient Israel from school, and had no idea what cuneiform was or who the Assyrians were. So when I saw a book on Henry Rawlinson, the East India Company soldier responsible for much of the work done on cracking cuneiform, I picked it up.

Rawlinson was a soldier, diplomat, and self-taught linguist in the employ of the East India Company for the first several decades of the 1800s. His greatest single feat was climbing a formidable rock face to make copies of a huge trilingual inscription recounting the victory of Darius the Great over rebels. He spent much of the rest of his life deciphering the symbols and three languages, while colleagues began to unearth colossal palaces and wall carvings bearing more cuneiform.

Following Rawlinson's career from homesick initiate to trustee of the British Museum, Empires of the Plain gives an astonishing look into the politics, trade, archeology, and linguistics of the knowledge-hungry British Empire in the Middle East. It also showcases the worth of tenacity and determination in the face of seemingly impossible tasks. If you have any interest in the Middle East, British Imperialism, ancient races, archeology, or linguistics, this book is well worth the read.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Lord of the Rings

The Lord of the Rings
consisting of The Fellowship of the Ring
The Two Towers
and The Return of the King
J.R.R. Tolkien

The quite good film adaptations of this epic classic has rendered it famous even to those who don't tackle thousand page tomes. But even good films are not the same as books - "The media makes the message," as dear old Marshal McLuhan would say - and The Lord of the Rings is more than worth the read.

It's the story of nine people who step into a journey that tests, refines, and transforms them, ultimately deciding on their place in the new world and what that world will be. It's about doing hard things, what happens when you succeed, and the terror of failure. And it's about faith in friends.

Along the way, we adventure with hobbits (those remarkably sturdy small earth-dwellers), elves (fair folk of the forest), rangers (grim protectors of the borders), dwarves (rugged stone-shapers and metalworkers), men (some good, some bad, all tall), ents (ancient tree-herders and by far my favorite), old creatures of unclassifiable sort (Tom Bombadil!), and wizards (keepers of lore, wisdom, and power at need - and some make spectacular fireworks). They are set against troubles (orks! trolls! demons! snow! wolves! axes! love!) that threaten to overrun them at every turn and defeat their mission to thwart the conquest of the world by the evil Sauran.

The plan is simple: destroy the ring that Suaran made to control all other rings of power. The execution of the plan... well, therein lies the tale.

One of my favorite things about Lord of the Rings is that it is largely told from the point of view of the "least" characters. The hobbits are unknown to most of the world and viewed as simple farmers by the rest. They do not set out reknowned or heroes. But the parts they play impact the world more significantly than any, even the wizards and elf-lords, could have predicted.

But even the heroes struggle with self-sacrifice, feelings of inadequacy, and the temptation to just step back and say they've done enough, which makes them intimately accessible and real. And the friendships in this book are magnificent. It is riveting and epic, and yet close to heart and calming. Not because it is Happy, but because it is Right.

The back of my volume quotes The Sunday Times: "The English-speaking world is divided into those who have read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings and those who are going to read them." I hope they are right.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Popular Music

Popular Music
Mikael Neimi
translated by Laurie Thomson

Featuring Finnish speaking characters, but written in Swedish and set in a small Northern Swedish town just across the border from Finland, Popular Music is the growing up story of a boy and his home.

Matti and his best friend Niila are born into a tiny rural town where most people speak Finnish and don't understand the soft Southern Swedes, who don't even know they exist. When they are boys, they watch automobiles arrive and sneak into an older sibling's room to play records of Elvis and The Beatles. But they still ride kick-sledges to school and chop wood for their mothers.

As they get into scrapes, work their first jobs, learn to play guitar, and are initiated into the rites of family feuds, their town also changes. Slowly but as surely as the spring thaw, modern living creeps in, leading the grandparents to scoff that they're all getting soft.

The story is told in first person, taking us inside Matti's head and adventures. He doesn't skimp on boy-humor and teenage capers, so if you don't like fart jokes or air gun wars, stay away. Somewhat crusty and crude at times, it nevertheless is an intimate look into an intriguing culture and a touching story of coming of age in a forgotten rural village.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Half a Life

Half a Life
V.S. Naipaul

A couple of years ago, I read a rich and provoking memoir by Paul Theroux about his relationship with V.S. Naipaul. Until that point I had heard of neither of them; since then I have wanted to read their works. So, even though Half a Life cost three Euro, I bought it. It also won a Nobel prize, which also helped justify the cost.

It's hard to say precisely what this book is about. Will has a lot of angst about Purpose and Race and Ethnicity and his place in the world, but he never really resolves any of them. Born of a mixed-caste marriage in provincial India, he dabbles in converting to Canadian missionary whiteness, moving in Notting Hill bohemian society, hobnobbing with those in vanity publishing, and living with half-Portuguese half-African ruling colonials in Africa. None of them fit him, though he adapts to each for a time.

Driving his ethnic angst is a cloudy sense of purpose. He gets out of India, writes a book, almost completes a degree, and still has no direction. Not all who wander are lost, says Tolkein, but many are. Will marries, slides into his role as the man of the manor in Africa, but is not content. Nothing drives him, and he drives nothing. Each time he realizes he is unhappy driftwood, he moves on to a different mix of folks, waiting for them to validate him and teach him to paddle. Ultimately, none do.

He tries exploring sexuality as a means to fulfillment, beginning with whores and his friends' girls, and moving on to marriage and then falling back to whores before finishing in adultery. But sex gives unsatisfactory, temporary answers, and he dismisses it eventually.

Along the way, we are treated to Naipaul's terse, telling descriptions of persons, events, neighborhoods, and classes. The subtle brilliance of the work is in the way he uses words. Whatever one thinks of the themes, Naipaul is a master of his craft.

An almost raw look at race, identity, and globalization, Half a Life carefully reveals the emptiness of a purposeless life. Unfortunately, it ends as hopeless as Ecclesiastes: vanity, vanity, all is vanity...

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Last Samurai

The Last Samurai
Helen DeWitt

Once I had to spend 16 days in Finland with very little money, waiting for a visa to Russia. I whiled away much of the time in the English book section of the public library. As I had no library card, I could not take books out, so I sat in hard wooden chairs and read books cover to cover, averaging two a day. This was one of them.

Unfortunately I have not the time nor necessity to read books cover-to-cover in a single sitting now, but still I re-read The Last Samurai in only three days. I couldn't help it; I love this book.

Are you ready to be surprised? This book is not about Samurai. It did not inspire any films. Not the Tom Cruise one, not any other one. Sorry. It's about a single mother from a family of thwarted genius, raising her son as well as she can to explore his interests and proclivities. Since she does not want him to grow up with no male role models, she makes him watch the Japanese film The Seven Samurai (on which the classic American film The Magnificent Seven was based) repeatedly. And in between he teaches himself Greek at age 4, Japanese at 5, starts in on Algebra and aerodynamics before kindergarten, and generally makes it difficult for his mother to continue computerizing back issues of obscure magazines such as Carpworld. The boy, called Ludo, turns a precocious eleven and starts thinking of applying to Oxford and trying to find his father.

Such is the storyline. The style, well! DeWitt dispenses with traditional punctuation like quotation marks, which gives the book a stream of consciousness quality, but it is not so annoying that I cannot read it. The story of Ludo and Sybilla (his mother) is interspersed with their summations of interesting people they admire ("He was a linguist, and therefore he had pushed the bounds of obstinacy well beyond anything that is conceivable to other men."), comments on syntax and language structure (Japanese, Icelandic, Inuit...), passages from aerodynamics texts, and Sybilla's dry, sarcastic humor ("Tall Men in Tight Jeans! I haven't seen this in years! ...Not ONE but SEVEN tall men in tight jeans! It's simply MAGNIFICENT!").

It is possible that I like this book because everyone it in is as obsessive and strange as I am. It is also witty, original, and makes me laugh. Hard enough that people stare at me on the metro. Care to give it a whirl?

Saturday, September 26, 2009

The Kite Runner

The Kite Runner
Khaled Hosseini

Amir's childhood is a tumble of playing with his friend Hassan, reading stories under the pomegranate tree, vying for his father's approval, and taking part in the annual kite flying competitions. But as childhood wanes, three events break Amir's comfortable upper-class life: he discovers that he is a writer, he fails to step in and help Hassan in crisis, and Soviet troops begin bombing Kabul.

Amir and his father smuggle themselves to Pakistan, and from there move to California to begin a new life. But the the repercussions of his cowardice haunt Amir. Resolutely, he stifles guilt and ignores the memory of the friend who was a brother to him. Until a phone call from Pakistan requires him to make the same choice again.

Powerful, devastating, heartbreaking, and convicting, The Kite Runner is not only a look at the world of Afghanistan in the last century, but also a deep exploration of the sin of omission. The characters are rich and pungeant, the setting exotic yet homey, the narrator an uncomfortably real man. Prepare to journal and cry over this one. And be careful: it just might change you, too.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Prisoner of Zenda

The Prisoner of Zenda
Anthony Hope

This is a re-read, but I've decided to review all books as I read them, provided they haven't yet made it onto the site. Which means you will not get a review of Lord of the Rings every three months, but you do get to hear about The Prisoner of Zenda today.

For a long* time I listed this book when asked my "favorite**." It's a clever and moving tale of high adventure, full of sword fights, intrigue, daring, and frantic gallops across small European countries. It reminds me very much of the film description of The Princess Bride: "Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles...."

Set in mythical Ruritania, The Prisoner of Zenda concerns a young English aristocrat, left enough money by his father to allow a life of whim and leisure. When he goes to see the coronation of the new King of Ruritania, he discovers a plot against the sovereign, to whom he bears a striking resemblance. To save the throne, he agrees to sit in for the kidnapped king, buying time for a desperate rescue attempt. Unfortunately, he inadvertantly wins the heart of the princess, and must choose whether to live the honorable man or continue the masquerade to fulfill the desire of his heart.

Though interlaced with questions of honor, loyalty, and valour, The Prisoner of Zenda never forgets that it is a tale of heart-pounding adventure. It has well earned its place as one of the top three swashbuckling adventures I've ever read.

*when it comes to the life of my obsessions, "long time" can be reasonably defined as 6-18 months.
**While I am firmly of the opinion that an avid reader can have a favorite book just as realistically as one can have a favorite skin cell, people persist in asking this question, so I generally try to remember a standard answer.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Question for the People

Hey, multitude of readers - yes, all two of you - have you ever read a book that was so good it became the Standard of Goodness against which other novels you read were judged? What is it? Why do you consider it so excellent? Do you re-read it, or just cherish it in memory?

The House on the Strand

The House on the Strand
Daphne du Maurier

A long time ago, in a country far far away, there were library booksales. At one of these heavens I saw a book called The Scapegoat, intriguing because I had just finished a thesis which dealt with the idea of scapegoating. As it was fifty cents, I bought it. And so was caught by the brilliance of Daphne du Maurier.

The Scapegoat will probably always be my favorite, but The House on the Strand throws open a vaguely uncanny realm of possibility, thrusts you into it, and closes the door behind. Specifically, the psychological relationship between the past and present. Do we carry latent common memories with ancestors? If aroused, what would those memories tell us? Would active knowledge of them change our present behavior? Professor Lane, a brilliant biologist, has concocted a drug which opens the old world to his long-time friend Richard Young, who is eager for new experience with which to replace the pasty dissatisfaction of a midlife crisis.

There is never any question as to whether these characters are real; they walk in my memory as vividly as my college roommates, merging fiction and reality much in the same way the drug merges past and present for Richard. He begins to encounter difficult side effects, but now is addicted to the drama of watching another world unfold (this was before TV and therefore surprises him).

Though the setting is rich (Cornwall countryside!), the characters superb, and the plot intriguing, the resolution is dodgy. Most of the pressing questions remain unanswered after a long build-up of hints and near-reveals. I was left feeling a bit cheated out of important information, as if the author decided it was time for the book to be finished already and just closed things off. I understand the dramatic need for the twist which occasioned most of my disappointment, but somehow the tension did not build in such as way as to leave me breathless, but, rather, huffy. Perhaps it is my own fault.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Devil Wears Prada

The Devil Wears Prada
Lauren Weisberger

Contrary to what is said on the popular blog Stuff White People Like, it is not socially unacceptable to read a book after it has become a movie. Well, maybe it is, but I don't live in white suburban America anymore, so I don't have to abide by those rules.

I will admit that, if I had not been dragged to see the movie and then accidentally adored it, I would never have picked up this book. One has only to glance at me to see that, clearly, fashion is not My Thing. Somehow all the fashion genes in my family (along with the fashionable jeans) got distributed to my brothers.

But I adored this movie for its fantastic wittiness, fascinating characters, stellar cast, and moral morasses. The book is not quite so witty, the characters are not quite as endearing or lifelike, and of course there's no cast. But the moral challenges and decisions about priorities are even more strongly a theme of the book.

The choices made in the book are not as neat or as fixable as in the film. Andy loses people she loves and is not able to get them back. She lets her friends down and almost costs the life of one of them. She learns little about fashion. But she is real, she struggles with priorities, and the story is told well. I actually took it out of my bag to finish reading it at home one evening after work.

I probably won't re-read this books as many times as I have re-watched the film, but it was enjoyable and not overly fluffy. Definitely worth the time.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

In America

In America
Susan Sontag

The story of a celebrated Polish actress who persuades her friends to follow her to California to establish a simple farm commune and take pleasure in wholesome activity, In America is a tale of dreams, journeys, hope, and how to find one's self when one is without a proper country.

The novel is quite philosophical, spending a lot of time poking around in European perceptions of American culture, particularly theater. It also addresses the disconnect between European ideals of America and the actuality of the young country, the naiveté of aristocrats turned homesteaders, the choice of fidelity in marriage, and the nature of friendships.

The cast of characters are flawed, struggling, vaguely triumphant but not heroic, perhaps meant to mimic protagonist Maryna's famous tragic roles. All of them feel a bit grey, a bit forced, like type-actors on a stage. Unlike the popular Shakespearian roles, there is not a solid, definite end to this story. It fades to grey with Maryna growing old on stage, no mention of whether her husband has reconciled his cravings, no word of whether our heroine has found life or tied of it.

The whole book was slightly grey and flat, with stream-of-conciousness monologue that lasted pages unbroken even by paragraphs. These were interspersed with journal entries, letters, and more typical descriptive prose.

I was interested by the storyline and musings of the chief character, but never captivated. Too bad; I was prepared to enjoy it immensely.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Saving Fish from Drowning

Saving Fish from Drowning
Amy Tan

I fell in love with Amy Tan last summer when I happened across The Joy Luck Club in a small library in Southern Russia. I read the book in a single sitting, and was so engrossed in it that I didn't notice the sun until I had finished the book and had second-degree burns. I was left with the wackiest tan lines ever and a strong appreciation for Tan's whimsical and witty way of portraying serious truths. So when I came across another of her books in a used book store in Finland, I bought it right away.

With such a wry, contorted zen title, it is no surprise that the book is quirky, glancingly philosophical (although there is more to chew on if you choose to look), and set in Asia. China and Burma, to be precise, with some before-and-after in California. It follows the misadventure of twelve rich, cultured Americans as they tour Buddhist temples, view artwork, sample local cuisine, and encounter indiginous tribes. They are meant to be guided by their friend, Bibi, a spunky Chinese woman who emigrated to America and became the foremost scholar on Buddhist art. Unfortunately, just before the trip is to depart, she is found dead of mysterious causes.

That does not leave her out of the story, however: her spirit follows the group, narrating to us with her wise humor. If only she had lived to keep her friends from making so many cultural blunders and unwise mistakes! But she can only watch, listen, and sigh helplessly as the group gets itself into predicament after foible, leading finally to their mysterious disappearance.

I enjoyed the commentary on tourism, Western ideals forcing themselves on a local setting, and the changing interactions of a group required to live, eat, and sleep together for weeks under stress and change. The characters are quirky and privledged, yet very human. Insightful, exotic, suspenseful, and full of wry humor, Saving Fish from Drowning was an absorbing and fulfilling read. Just make sure you have a good layer of sunscreen on before you start.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day

What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day
Pearl Cleage

To be perfectly honest, I bought this book for its cover, which is graced by a chic silhouette of a purple tai chi woman. The typefaces are clean and the cover's understated design intrigued me. Certainly an editor who had chosen such a designer would also have chosen a book to match.

I shouldn't have ignored the "Oprah's Book Club" logo in the top right corner.

Nothing against Oprah (well, nothing that has a part in this discussoin); I buy books for myself, and for my students to practice their English. Oprah tends to recommend books that are a bit more syrupy than I like. Other Oprah book club books I've read have also been big on realistic cultural lingo, which confuses English as a Foreign Language students faster than a page from the book of Job. So I usually avoid the books Oprah has sent her clubbers off to read.

This time, lured by the oh so intriguing cover, I bought the book anyway. It's the story of a 30s-something African-American woman who ran away from her tiny Michigan town to find a life. Now she's back for a short visit between big exciting cities, facing a life with HIV and disillusioned with the prospect of Mecca.

Visiting her sister, she finds that their hometown has changed for the worse, filled with cocaine addicts, abusive boyfriends, single teenage mothers, and ignorance. But her older sister, a widowed social worker, is trying to give the kids enough life training to be able to make something of themselves. The neighbor, a dreadlocked Vietnam vet who practices Tai Chi between carpentry jobs, is helping, too. And as main character Ava starts to help out, she accidentally begins to like the place.

The themes of grassroots-driven social change, small-town community, and looking out for each other are strong, but they work out too quickly for this story to read as anything but a fairy tale. Crack babies are quiet, teenage girls immediately adopt safe sex, the abusive boyfriend is stupid enough to land himself safely out of the way in jail, the cocaine addicts are shuffled off to rehab, and the interfering pastor and his wife are banished to Chicago. It's a story that should be gritty, but somehow we manage to keep our hands clean all the way through.

A little too quickly told, too neatly packaged, but I did like the themes and the characters are quirky and entertaining (if a tad flat). I didn't hate it, but I probably won't be reading this one again. Maybe I'll just prop it up so I can look at the cover.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Snow Falling on Cedars

Snow Falling on Cedars
David Guterson

Though it may be difficult to immediately appreciate the aptness of titling the story of a murder trial after trees and snow, I have never read a book with a more fitting title. The narrative is grey, quiet, thick, inescapable, brutal, beautiful.

The story itself explores the lives of a small island fishing community off the coast of Seattle as the inhabitants interact with each other, their memories, and the first murder trial in twenty-three years. A murder trial is anything but impersonal in such a small community, and we walk through the reflections and encounters of community members as they recognize how their lives are intertwined with each other. They held their breath and walked with care, and this made them who they were inside, constricted and small, good neighbors.

Illegal immigrants, racial prejudice, World War II, childhood romances, relocation camps, strawberry farms, and salmon fishing weave in and out of the story and the island. And, of course, at the end we finally find out the truth. But will justice be done?

Monday, August 17, 2009

104 Books You Really Should Read

This is not a meme; I spent hours compiling this list myself.

Ordered by difficulty and alphabetically. Roughly. I have read every one of these books, and I did not include any books which I myself have not read and been changed by. Which means The Kite Runner is not on here, because I haven't read it yet....

It is 104 because I could not stop after 100.

How many of these have you read? What would you add to the list, and why? Have any questions about any of these books?

1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
2. Dr. Doolittle, Hugh Lofting
3. Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder
4. Misty of Chincoteague, Marguerite Henry
5. Over Sea and Under Stone, Susan Cooper
6. Stories from Grandmother's Attic, Arletta Richardson
7. The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald
8. The Secret Garden, Francis Hodgeson Burnett
9. The Trumpet of the Swan, E.B. White
10. The Wheel on the School, Meindert DeJong
11. Winnie the Pooh, A.A. Milne
12. A Winter Book, Tove Jansson
13. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L'Engle
14. Aesop's Fables
15. Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
16. All Creatures Great and Small, James Harriot
17. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery
18. Another Fine Myth, Robert Asprin
19. Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
20. Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates, Mary Mapes Dodge
21. Heidi, Johanna Spyri
22. King of the Wind, Margurite Henry
23. My Side of the Mountain, Jean Craighead George
24. Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle
25. Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome
26. The Black Arrow, Robert Lewis Stevenson
27. The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis
28. The Giver, Lois Lowry
29. The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling
30. The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie
31. The Outlaws of Sherwood, Robin McKinley
32. The Prisoner of Zenda, Anthony Hope
33. The Scarlet Pimpernel, Baroness Orczy
34. The Wizard of Oz, Frank W. Baum
35. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
36. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, Mark Twain
37. A Long Way Gone, Ishmael Beah
38. A Raisin in the Sun, Lorraine Hansberry
39. Born on a Blue Day, Daniel Tammet
40. Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
41. Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
42. Ivanhoe, Sir Walter Scott
43. Kim, Rudyard Kipling
44. Links, Nuruddin Farah
45. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
46. Lord of the Flies, William Golding
47. Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
48. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
49. Rebecca, Daphne Du Maurier
50. Short Stories, Rainer Maria Rilke
51. The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare
52. The Clan of the Cave Bear, Jean Auel
53. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
54. The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom
55. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
56. The Hoosier Schoolmaster, Edward Eggleston
57. The Invisible Man, H.G. Wells
58. The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan
59. The Last of the Mohicans, James Fenimore Cooper
60. The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
61. The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
62. The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann D. Wyss
63. The Three Musketeers, Alexandre Dumas
64. The Yearling, J.K. Rawlings
65. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
66. Tom Sawyer, Mark Twain
67. Treasure Island, Robert Lewis Stevenson
68. War of the Worlds, H.G. Wells
69. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig
70. Anil's Ghost, Michael Ondaatje
71. Cry, the Beloved Country, Alan Paton
72. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte
73. 1984, George Orwell
74. A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
75. Animal Farm, George Orwell
76. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Die Sijie
77. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
78. Cat's Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut
79. Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
80. Gulliver's Travels, Jonathan Swift
81. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad
82. How Green Was My Valley, Richard Llewellyn
83. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
84. Les Miserables, Victor Hugo
85. My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok
86. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexandr Solzhenitzen
87. Out of the Silent Planet, C.S. Lewis
88. Picture of Dorian Grey, Oscar Wilde
89. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
90. Robinson Crusoe, Daniel DeFoe
91. Silas Marner, George Eliot
92. Tales from the Scriptorium, Paul Auster
93. The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat
94. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. LeGuin
95. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
96. The Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
97. The Illiad, Homer
98. The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara
99. The Pilgrim's Progress, John Bunyan
100. The Prince, Machiavelli
101. The Scarlet Letter, Nathaniel Hawthorne
102. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte
103. Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand
104. Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoevsky


Sir Walter Scott

One of the most easily located landmarks in Edinburgh is the monument to Sir Walter Scott. The gothic steeple rising over his statue can be seen from all over the Northern side of the city.

Having just visited the capitol of his country for the first time, I found it appropriate to re-visit his most famous book. I thoroughly enjoyed it as a young teen, and thoroughly forgot it in the meantime. Which was an unfortunate thing, as it is an excellent tale of chivalry, adventure, and the thin lines between law and right.

What struck me most in the midst of this merry tale (with appearances by Robin Hood and his legendary gang, Prince John, King Richard the Lionhearted, and more knights than you could shake a lance at) was the deep animosity between Saxons and Normans, and the even greater hatred everyone cherished toward Jews. I am glad modern Great Britain is more accepting, but it is worth remembering that our past is not as pure as we often conveniently believe.

I also really enjoyed the exploration of identity; several times Scott makes use of masks and anonymity to showcase the difference in the way a person is treated when gaged by ability and character, and how he is treated when more commonly labeled by name, rank, and country. (In what ways do you do this?)

Overall, a delightful jaunt through the castles, forests, and lanes of medieval England.

The First Official Post

Hello! Welcome to my book blog. It may or may not be updated regularly, and will probably depend strongly on how often I travel to Finland to buy more books. But the idea is for me to share my opinions on stories I encounter. Hopefully you will reply with stories and opinions of your own.

Let the reading begin!