I have been having a lot of fun these past few months, reading books and writing about them. I would love to know what you think about my blog! Please tell me what you like, what you think could be improved, or anything else. Maybe tell me what you thought about the book, or if reading the post about it made you interested in reading the book. For instance, do you like the way I divided the most recent review into categories? Or do you prefer the previous style? Lolita is the most different from all the others -- it is more of a literary analysis -- what do you think about that style?
Also, I would love to get suggestions on what to read next!
You can comment here, or on the book post itself.
Thanks for reading!
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Take a look around. Everything that surrounds us -- except nature -- was created, invented by humans. The computer, calculator, oven, microwave, fork, knife, spoon, table, chair, everything solves a problem and eases (and sometimes complicates) our lives. Even the way that we understand the world had to be discovered and named by us like the periodic table of elements, the theory of relativity, latitude and longitude.
Latitude and longitude. Two very important imaginary sets of lines that encircle our globe and provide us with the wonders of GPS navigation. Latitude is marked by the stars, but longitude was once much more difficult to pinpoint. Dava Sobel’s fantastic biography, Longitude: The Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, reveals how John Harrison managed to discover how to determine longitude at sea without any training or significant formal education and in doing so saved millions of lives.
John Harrison was a modest man, a perfectionist to the core, whose mechanically inclined mind found his life’s greatest challenge in determining how to find longitude at sea with the use of a clock (an accurate clock! This was a time when most clocks lost 15 minutes or more a day) that had no pendulum. This problem was costing the empires of the world millions in lost cargos from sunk ships from the colonies, as well as many lives. In order to assuage this terrible and embarrassing loss, England’s Parliament set a reward. £20,000 to the one who could determine how to find longitude at sea within a half-degree, a nearly impossible task that quickly became a euphemism for the impossible.
A message from the story:
Accept praise when you earn it! If John Harrison had just allowed himself to accept the prize immediately, his political problems would have been avoided and he would not have needed to worry about others stealing his ideas. He could still have worked on improvements and perfected his chronometer, just without all the stress of having to vie against other options that arose during the time he took to tinker with and improve his machine through five stages.
What was wonderful:
This book was great fun to read. I enjoyed tracing the life of the brilliant man who at once solved the problem and then allowed his perfectionism to get in the way of claiming the prize for many years. The political intrigue, competition and life-and-death urgency of the issue was fascinating. The quotes at the beginning of each chapter delighted me and drew my curiosity deeper into the story. I especially loved the one from Lord Byron’s “Don Juan” that referenced John Harrison and his incredible ability to build clocks. Dava Sobel wrote in a highly accessible fashion that would draw in all readers who like history – including middle school and high school students.
I would have liked to see quotes from primary sources that might have allowed us to see Harrison and his story more clearly. Since this is a biography, I would have liked to see more pictures. It would have been nice to include a full-page picture of all his creations that are currently at museums. I would like to have been able to examine the detail of his beautiful work.
Monday, November 23, 2009
The Foreign Wife Elegy by Yuko Taniguchi is a lovely series of poems that depict the author's emotions on leaving home, her childhood, her thoughts on being foreign, her husband's medical work and her dependence on him as a reason to stay in this country. Taniguchi's short, evocative poems exquisitely capture a moment and leave the reader with a sense of quiet sadness.
This is my favorite kind of poetry. It is short, which makes it quick to read. It vividly paints a scene, making it easy to imagine. It expresses and produces emotion, giving the reader something to think about.
In the words of one poem: "lovely, lovely, lovely."
This is my favorite kind of poetry. It is short, which makes it quick to read. It vividly paints a scene, making it easy to imagine. It expresses and produces emotion, giving the reader something to think about.
In the words of one poem: "lovely, lovely, lovely."
Thursday, November 19, 2009
Liza Campbell, second daughter to the 25th Thane of Cawdor, tells the story of her Grimm’s fairytale life – complete with castles, servants, evil charms, evil stepmothers and Beauty-and-the-Beast-style father. It is detailed look at the world of the nobility, immersed in bygone ways and traditions. Steeped in history as a child, Campbell knew how to do the Scottish reel before she attended parties with peers her own age and could explain the history of the area while knowing little of current events.
Liza Campbell's memoir depicts a privileged and tortured childhood made terrifying by her unpredictable and power-drunk father, Hugh Campbell, who didn’t know how to communicate love, except in letters. She describes her father's decline as he struggles with great responsibility and fear of living up to his family name by philandering, drinking, doing drugs, and selling family heirlooms. Although she was obviously scarred by her experiences, Campbell manages to portray her father with some sympathy. His parents did not teach him how to handle emotions, prepare him to handle his huge estate or show him how to be a good husband and father. His role models were always those who showed off their power, hurting those around them. Scared of the great responsibility to live up to his title and bearing the weight of generations, Hugh Campbell avoids it with every effort. At his death, he deals a blow to his successors that they are still dealing with today.
This is definitely a tell-all book, designed to bolster the position 26th Thane of Cawdor and his siblings in their feud over heirlooms with their stepmother. It is a fascinating story – I barely put it down over the 6 hours I read it – and I ended feeling fired up, wanting to send a letter to the Dowager Countess, demanding that she return all property to her stepchildren. This sort of story has sadly become more common as families split, remarry and make wills that run counter to expectations. It is my opinion that widows should be provided for, but that all family property and heirlooms should always follow family lines -- maybe reverting to them after her death -- unless they give up all claims to it. But, as Liza Campbell herself notes at the beginning of the memoir, “My story is only one slender wedge of the pie.”
For further reading check out the following websites:
Wednesday, November 18, 2009
The author advocates Islam as love, a woman’s right to enter a mosque and pray and learn, and the importance of Mohammed’s wives. It also reveals that shariah law allows abortion up to 120 days, and wife-initiated divorce – showing how progressive Islam could be considered. This is juxtaposed with one character’s suicide bombing, polygamy, Holocaust denial, the delight the Muslims took in the Iranian hostage situation and the Iranian Revolution. As Khadra grows older, she meets many who disagree with the views she was brought up with, and she begins to challenge them and herself to seek a way to tie her beliefs and new understanding together.
I enjoyed reading this novel for the inside take on Islam. I think it is wonderful that the author has been able to counter anti-woman messages with other quotes from the Quran and Islamic history. She is able to present a peaceful version of Islam that would provide more equality than is practiced in most parts of the world. However, in my view, it is a little too easy to say, “oh their interpretation is wrong, that is why they commit these terrible acts.” It is too easy to say that jihad ought to be a war of words, not violence, when it is obvious that many interpret passages of the Quran to be a call to violence. I agree with the author that most Muslims are more apt to desire peace – as most people in general are – than to wish to be a radical and possibly lose their lives, but it also seems like a pat answer. The idea of martyrdom has drawn many after all. Kahf mentions the Islamic challenges to freedom, yet seems to believe that these will fade away as Muslims encounter Western culture and assimilate only the good aspects of it. This can be true for some communities, but certainly not all. This is in rather direct opposition to Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s portrayal of the Muslim interactions with the Western world and I am more inclined to believe Ali, who has gone through much tribulation for challenging woman's freedom and place in Islam.
For further reading: check out Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s two wonderful books: A Caged Virgin and Infidel.
I want to end with this quote by Khadra’s father from The Girl in the Tangerine Scarf.
“Brothers, do not for a minute think that we will stop protesting against the immoral and unfair policies of America outside, in the Muslim world. May my tongue be cut off if I forget Jerusalem. But let’s face it: here inside American, there are many good qualities. Law and order, cleanliness, democracy, freedom to work and honestly seks the provision of the Lord, freedom to practice religion. These are Islamic qualities. America is like Islam without Muslims. And our sick and corrupt Muslim home countries – they are like Muslims without Islam” (144).
Friday, November 13, 2009
Gathering Blue is the tale of a young recently orphaned girl with a disability that causes some in the community to dismiss her worth and right to live. Her village has had very little technology since the great Ruin, and strength usually wins over all else. After her mother's death, Kira's talent for embroidery saves her life and gives her a new role in the community as the ward of the Council of Guardians. Grateful, Kira works hard to learn how to make and use dyes. While struggling to meet all the expectations of her new protectors, Kira learns an awful secret that opens her eyes to the realities of her world and changes the direction of her life irrevocably.
Lowry keeps the interest of young and adult readers alike with memorable characters, lots of action and short sentences. She skillfully foreshadows the impending discovery, creating a sense of growing uneasiness as Kira explores the limits and possibilities of her world. Kira's experiences with her world raise questions of values, responsibility and the importance of kindness.
If you loved The Giver, or any of Lois Lowry's books, I recommend you pick up Gathering Blue. Lowry is one of the best YA writers out there. I can't imagine anyone actually disliking the story, unless you only like to read Henry James, with his unending description and long sentences. (I do love Henry James, but young teenagers often find their attention drifts away.) If you want to find out more about Kira and her world, read the sequel, The Messenger which focuses on one of the most fun characters of Gathering Blue, Matt.
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
I was very excited to read Yuko Taniguchi’s novel because she is a fellow tango dancer. I met her once at a tango event in Rochester and thought she danced beautifully. When I discovered that she was also an author, I just had to read her books. I’m glad to have discovered them. Taniguchi writes in a clear voice that is different from all the authors I have been reading lately. Taniguchi creates a distinct interior world that the reader can readily enter. It was similar to walking through a Japanese garden – all the senses are alive to contemplate the beauty in stillness, rushing water or suggested wildness.
The Ocean in the Closet depicts three generations of a family struggling with the separations caused by two wars. Anna Johnson, a half Japanese woman adopted by Americans, has a nervous breakdown and abandons her young children. Fueled on by love for her mother and a hope of family restoration, nine-year-old Helen seeks out her great-uncle Hideo Takagaka with encouragement from her Uncle Steve. Helen and her uncle travel to Japan in hopes that reconnecting Anna to her roots and showing that she was loved will bring healing to her heart.
The Ocean in the Closet is a story of loss, pain and hope. Taniguchi beautifully captures the voice of a child struggling to understand and cope with her feelings of abandonment and her mother’s pain. Hideo’s own struggle with the aftermath of WWII and living with the loss of his family is woven beautifully into the narrative and provides a Japanese perspective on the occupying American forces and view of war. Taniguchi explores the suffering caused by racial prejudice in both cultures and points to connection and understanding as way to making peace.
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Filled with the language of poetry, Shamsie depicts a post-9/11 Pakistan filled with loss and sadness, and glimmers of hope. Aasmani’s journey through her loss mirrors that of the country’s loss of freedom, as did the Poet’s love for her mother and country cause him to cry out against the injustices of government. Aasmani’s sharpness and rudeness to others reflect the anger and pain she feels over the loss of her mother and father-figure, similar to the way that the country currently refuses to back down to American demands. No one wants to be taken advantage of or pushed around. In the end, the courage to face the future and determine her steps back to wholeness bring freedom and lightness back to Aasmani.
This is a timely novel, and one I highly recommend to any who would like to know more about the people of Pakistan. I also recommend Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for a better understanding of the people of Iran. I believe that the people of America and all the countries of the Middle East need to understand each other and be able to relate so that we can establish a lasting peace between us.
Monday, October 26, 2009
Jeanne Kalogridis has a lovely way with words. She uses gorgeous word choice and description to enhance the reader’s understanding of the story and the characters and draw even the skeptical readers into the magic-entwined world of the Medici family and its effect on European history. She paints a realistic view of a time filled with political intrigue and power struggles where women were pawns to be sold in marriage and religious differences were an excuse for civil war. Although disturbing, the magic in this novel is intended to show how the characters impact history and often hurt themselves and those they care about. Occasionally Kalogridis ascribes contemporary ideas of tolerance or morals to Catherine that do not seem realistic with the setting.
This sympathetic portrait of Catherine de Medici shows her to be a sweet girl set on doing what she believed to be right and yet sometimes realizing too late that the results of her actions did not always produce the good result she intended. Catherine goes to great lengths by involving herself in astrology and other magic to protect those she loves. Everyone sees the kindness of her heart, but she feels increasingly burdened and weighed down by the evil she commits – or commands others to commit – and the unforeseen horrible events that follow. Her dreams of the future cause her to believe that her destiny is to save all who cry out to her for help, but each magic she invokes lead her and those she loves further into the despair she dreams of. It seemed that the novel was a commentary on a person’s inability to truly cheat or change fate. The law of he universe remains a life for a life.
The saddest part to me was that she failed to see an alternative to her actions. She said that God did not listen to her prayers, but she does not attempt to pray. She felt that her only option was to rely on magic. I could not help but wonder which events would have occurred without her magical intervention and which were truly dependent upon them. Of course, within this novel’s world we are to believe that all events are directly caused by the movement of the stars through each person’s natal chart and thus were destiny. Magic could appease the stars for a time, but eventually destiny would triumph.
One of my favorite aspects of the novel is that it is based in history. Real quotes are lifted from the historical records and inserted skillfully into the narrative. Catherine truly did have dreams that revealed the future and she was a friend to magicians and Nostradamus. She was blamed for the massacre on St. Bartholomew’s Day. Jeanne Kalogridis seeks to show the softer, loving side of Catherine de Medici who wanted only to protect those she loved and bring peace to France. To this end she changed a few details that would make Catherine unsympathetic to today’s readers. She also changed the name of Catherine’s third son who became King of France. I wish she had included more about the other contributions Catherine de Medici brought to France: pastry, art, architecture and music. It is a very interesting and well-written novel.
Thursday, October 22, 2009
The concept brings to mind the ‘pay it forward’ idea that was recently made into a movie and the delightfully fun TV show, My Name is Earl. But is it really so simple? Do we truly “reap what we sow” for every single action or thought? Can the concept of Karma, so rooted in Eastern thought and tradition, be combined with Chrisitianity? Is it, in fact, actually present in the teachings of Jesus? These are the questions that author Mark Herringshaw seeks to answer in his book, The Karma of Jesus, structured within a conversation he had with a questioning young man.
Getting what we give makes sense on many levels. If we are kind to others, most of them are inclined to be kind back. If we are unkind or rude, they are inclined not to help us when we have need and to snub us when they have that chance.
This basic idea is present in most major religions and is believed to have originated in Shramanic thought. It can be simply described as the belief that past actions have impact on the present and future. Life was seen as the time to ‘get it right’ and each person would be reincarnated to go through many lifetimes until they reached perfection. With correct conduct and behavior, a person may escape the cycle of reincarnation. Buddhism developed from these early Indian beliefs. Siddhartha Gautama was the founder of Buddhism and a follower of Sramana philosophy. In the book of the same name, Siddhartha shows how he tries out each style of belief in an attempt to gain perfection, finally choosing self-denial of all desires in an attempt to gain perfection and end his cycle of reincarnation. It seems that once a follower ends the cycle of reincarnation, he ceases to exist at his death.
Hinduism’s karma is similar. All intentional and unintentional actions, thoughts, and words that produce affect on others produce a person’s individual karma. Each person must suffer the consequences until they have exhausted their store. Some ill effects of karma can be mitigated by the gods (very rarely, but sometimes as a reward for prayer, pilgrimage or worship) or by one’s virtue and good deeds.
In fact, karma is at the root of the most basic questions that Christians and non-Christians struggle with when considering God. They ask, “How can God allow bad things to happen to good people?” The underlying presumption is that if people are good they will get good in their lives. When they are bad, bad things will happen to them. It is essentially the most basic form of karma.
Reincarnation answers the question of why good things happen to bad people and why bad things happen to the good people for Hinduism and Buddhism. It explains that each person’s fate is a direct reaction to the karma they have stored up over their many lifetimes.
Herringshaw reveals that Christianity has a few teachings that somewhat parallel the idea of karma. “You reap what you sow” “As you judge others, so will you be judged” “Treat others as you would have them treat you” and others. However, the main difference is the concept of forgiveness that is present in Christianity and the lack of reincarnation. Christians believe that they can never atone for their wrongdoing of their own accord. How can they ever be ‘good enough’ to cancel out every wrong? And how could they ever know which deeds equaled another? The concept of forgiveness cancels out the idea that all must pay in kind for every wrong action that they have taken, although the natural consequences are not always lifted. Forgiveness cancels the debt that people's wrongdoing has racked up by paying for it with the death of Jesus on the cross. Thus Jesus exchanges his perfect goodness for the evil all mankind has done -- in essence taking our bad karma on himself so that we do not have to pay for our actions with our lives. People enter into this agreement with God with an act of will and it is available to all who ask. The lack of reincarnation makes all people responsible only for their current life. It also gives some urgency to the fact that forgiveness must be attained in the current life, as opposed to the idea that many consequences of your bad actions will be paid for in the next life.
This book gives a clear understanding of a modern American view of both karma and Christianity and seeks to show how they compare and how they differ. It seeks to answer the question of who or what truly rules our lives? God or karma? It also reveals what draws people to both options. I found it to be a very interesting book and one that I would recommend to all interested in the difference between karma and Christianity and the ways each have shaped American culture.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Normally I love Lisa See’s novels. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and Shanghai Girls both captivated me within the first paragraph or two – even by just reading the back cover copy – on two separate vacations and it was all I could do to stop reading them and spend time experiencing the places and people I had come to visit. Remembering those experiences this week, I searched out another novel by Lisa See and started reading Peony in Love as soon as I got home.
I liked the opening description. I liked the first few chapters. But at the end of the part one I put it down in disappointment. This is a good story. It has compelling characters. It has some lovely description. It just is so predictable. The protagonist is obsessed with an opera and then her life begins to parallel the opera, though she doesn’t recognize it. By the end of part one, the readers know exactly what is going to happen. I felt let down. I like a story to surprise me, and although Peony’s life didn’t follow the opera in every detail, it did in general. It isn’t fun to know the whole story before reading it.
Another issue I had with Peony in Love is that there are so many spots where instead of showing what is happening, the readers are just told that it is happening. These spots could have benefited from more dialogue or at least a description of the facial expressions and actions of the characters to reveal them. There are also some parts that have a lot of potential for action and excitement, but they are brushed aside with a quick ‘and then this happened’ explanation that left me wanting more. Those are the types of details that make the reader feel like a participant in the story – like we are present and watching it unfold. (Of course, she did include wonderful parts where this was present. Those made the novel worth reading.) I think that this novel is one or two more drafts away from excellent. These two issues caused me to consider not finishing the novel.
I did finish it, of course. I was intrigued by the fact that these characters were based on actual people who had lived during this tumultuous time in Chinese history. Peony in Love is set in China a generation after the Manchus had overthrown the Chinese government and the people were still adjusting to what this meant for their lives. As the men were preoccupied with figuring out where their place was in the new government and society structure, women were given more freedom and some began to venture outside of their homes. Cloistered life within the family compound walls was no longer always a given. Educated women wrote about their new experiences and to publish their work. They read other literature and published their reactions. Within the next generation – Peony’s generation – some families began to return to the traditional expectation that women’s place was within the inner wall while others continued with their greater freedom. Women’s emotions and desire to choose her own fate was celebrated in the famous (and now partially banned) opera, Peony Pavilion. This opera captured the hearts and minds of many girls and women across China and many imitated the heroine in hopes of getting to choose their own fate and find true love. This was one of the reasons it began to be banned.
This novel gives a fascinating insight into the traditional Chinese beliefs about the afterworld. This topic was the most interesting part of the novel for me and made me wonder how all the ancestors could be remembered and honored properly as the generations went on. How many thousands of ancestor tablets were kept in a given household? What happened to the ones that were so old that no one remembered them? Was there a limit on how long a soul was supposed to spend in the afterworld before it was reincarnated? Were all souls believed to be reincarnated eventually?
Peony in Love is a decently good novel. I would recommend Lisa See’s others in its place, but it is a great story. The issues that I had with it are the same I have had with many other contemporary women’s lit. It seems to have been very popular; many have liked the novel and the history surrounding it is fascinating.
A good description of the opera’s story and its production:
A fun review of the opera:
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
I just finished this absolutely wonderful novel, The Paladin by Brian Garfield. I could hardly put it down! I read the whole book over the course of two days, just wrenching myself away to work, see friends as I promised, eat and sleep. It was originally published in 1979, but its focus on a boy's adventures during WWII make it a timeless tale and one I think would appeal to everyone who likes adventure, intrigue, death-defying stunts and initiation into a secret of heads of state. The best part is that it is based on a true story, fictionalized to protect the identity of these secret agents. Young boys between the ages of 10 and 18 would identify with Christopher, which makes it a wonderful book to give to reluctant readers. It is written in an engaging, suspenseful style that makes it a real page-turner.
Themes: Coming of age, good vs. evil, the questions of 'do the ends justify the means?' and 'What is good?'
The story focuses Christopher, a young tenant on Churchill's estate. He meets Churchill and impresses him when he is ten-years-old. He is soon inducted into Churchill's small private spy agency, separate from the national force, and is sent on a dizzying number of dangerous spy missions as Hitler schemes and conquers Europe. He becomes Churchill's Paladin, his personal knight errant, who serves at the request and direction of Churchill himself. He grows up, learning more and more about the world of secret agents and participating in hugely important events of WWII, including the bombing of Pearl Harbor. He hardens and struggles with murder, torture and the emotions of growing up and becoming a man. There is also a bit of romance. It ends with him at age seventeen.
As Christopher is drawn deeper and deeper into the world of international intrigue and political spying he struggles with the fact that these men he faces are simply doing what they believe is best for their country -- essentially born to their worldview just as he has been born to his. He struggles to determine the fairness of his missions -- ought he to 'off' these unsuspecting people just because he was ordered to do so? As he sees his friends die because of his missions, he begins to question the rightness of his orders and ultimately Churchill himself.
I don't want to give it all away, but it is a wonderful story. I wish there was a sequel so I could find out what happened to Christopher the man. Does he continue with this life as a secret agent? Does he continue to be practically Churchill's son?
I highly recommend this novel.
Monday, October 5, 2009
McGee does explains all with panache and beautiful prose - making this book as fun to read as it is informative. His obvious passion and love for food and science is felt in every line. There are even literary quotes involving food throughout the tome. I got more and more excited to cook as I read it, and could not stop myself from reading aloud to friends a few of the more astonishing tidbits of food history or chemical reactions. This book increases my confidence in the kitchen and frees me to experiment even more with ratios instead of following exact recipes. Since I now understand the purpose of including various ingredients --such as eggs for binding -- in recipes I know what I can leave out, increase, decrease or add. In short, this book explains everything the modern cook could ever want to know. I highly recommend it as a handy reference guide in the kitchen, and to all interested in the art and science of food, cooking and good eating.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Reading Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov for the first time this year was an appalling, yet fascinating experience. Beautifully and suspensefully written, it is a glimpse into the mind of an intelligent man who reasons away his desire for underage pre-pubescent girls as simply being against the law in this age, where centuries before it was considered normal. Humbert Humbert wishes he had lived during the era when he could freely love and marry a child, recounting that Dante fell in love with Beatrice when she was nine. (Unreliable narrator that he is, HH fails to mention that Dante himself was only a year older than Beatrice when they met. And he got Beatrice’s age wrong – she was eight.) It is still considered normal in parts of the world to marry a young girl to a man many decades older than she, without her consent. Although it is accepted in many countries, it appears that many of these young girls object to the arrangement as evidenced by ten year-old Nujood Ali’s campaign for divorce.
As I read the beginning chapters of Lolita, I could not help but remember a line from Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone, when “she reached the interesting age of nine. . .” one of the sisters is betrothed and quickly married against her will to a monarch of Europe. At nine! As I recall the girl tried her best not to appear attractive to the man sent to decide if she would make a suitable bride for his master. It didn’t work.
But it is easy to be appalled by Humbert. It is easy to lose sight of the girl-child who herself is not truly seen in so much in this novel amid the “fancy prose style” of our madman narrator. Lolita is a creation of Humbert’s imagination, denied a true voice and only glimpsed at in the small details: crying at night when she thinks HH is sleeping, an overheard exchange with friends, and the occasional comments she makes to Humbert. Most of the time she is spoken of and described by others: her mother, her camp counselors, her teachers, her husband and, of course, by Humbert himself. None of these persons truly know Lolita and only the comments on the school report come closest to revealing how Lolita is handling the abuse of her situation. Even her name is his creation for her. Her real name, Dolores, means sorrow. Her true name gives us a sense of her reaction to the fate she endures at such a tender age. After all, this novel is Humbert’s account, written from his jail cell, of his life with Lolita and his depiction of her can not be trusted to be accurate.