Sunday, June 15, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

While I thoroughly enjoyed Geraldine Brook's two earlier novels, Year of Wonders and March, this one just didn't quite measure up to my expectations.
This is a historical novel about an illuminated Hebrew manuscript which was created in 15th c. Spain and recently saved from the ruins of Sarajevo's bombed out libraries in 1996. The protagonist, Hannah Heath is an Australian rare book conservator and the story follows her quest to "unlock the mysteries of the book's eventful past and to uncover the dramatic stories of those who created it and those who risked everything to save it". Brooks alternates the narrative between the past and the present. In alternating chapters, the reader is transported back through time to Seville in 1480. Along the way, we travel through WWII Bosnia (and the Nazis), the rising anti-Semitism of fin-de-siecle Vienna, the Inquisition and Venice in 1609, Tarragona (Spain) in 1492, and finally Seville where the manuscript originated. These chapters were well-written and quite interesting and informative (but so many horrific tales of inhumanity!). For me, however, the chapters dealing with Hannah's personal life were merely an irritating disruption to the rest of the story. I didn't care a whit to listen to Hanna's argumentative and caustic banter, or hear about how her (equally) ambitious mother abandoned her (boo-hoo), or to follow the sad story about her "romance" with a Muslim librarian. Her life seemed so overwrought and, basically, I just didn't like her. I have to admit there were a few moments when Becky's review of Year of Wonders came to mind and how it provoked in her almost a wish to come down with the plague so she could stop reading the book. More than once I wanted to throw Hannah into one of the dark, dank dungeons (Inquisition) just to get her out of the story. Becky, I felt some of your pain! Skip this one.

Friday, June 13, 2008

The Party's Over by Richard Heinberg

I know, I know. It's summer time. According to mom, I should be kicking back and relaxing. But it's just not my style...I have a need to know. "The Party's Over" covers much of the same ground as Kunstler's "The Long Emergency" albeit in a much less apocalyptic way. Whereas Kunstler comes across as a bit alarmist (for good reason) Heinberg presents the problem of peaking oil supplies in a straightforward, well-documented, scientific and historic way. Of course, the information is still very alarming, but that really isn't Heinberg's fault.

Why, you may ask, are you reading yet another book on the same topic? I suppose the reason is I'm trying to fully understand the problem. And honestly, I'm trying to find a flaw in these people's argument. I can't. Granted, they are making predictions and predictions can change. But the predictions seem very logical and well-researched. In fact, I've begun to look at the world through the lense of cheap oil and it's amazing how much our society depends on it. So many things are making sense to me now: our motivations in Iraq, the necessity of debt in our economy, Wal-Mart...the list goes on and on. And now I hear people complaining about the high price of gas and wondering why this is happening. The media and politicians are saying "supply can no longer meet demand," and "China is taking up supply excesses," but no one is talking point blank to the American people about what that actually means.

I'm beginning to realize what that actually means and it ain't good. And the fact that we, as Americans, are dragging our heels on renewable energy development, encouraging each other to buy, buy, buy, and sprawling our cities as quickly as possible, shows that when supply starts shrinking, so will we. I highly recommend this book and further research into this pressing problem. Good luck!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

Wow. What an amazing book. Honestly, I haven't read anything this fantastical, clever, and touching since I opened the first Harry Potter book years and years ago. With that in mind, this is definitely NOT Harry Potter.
Set in England during WWII, this is a classic "hero's journey" story of a 12-year old boy who's mother has just died. Steeped in grief, he becomes lost in the stories his mother used to tell him when he was a child - fairytales, folk tales, myths. When his father remarries and has another son, David finds himself falling prey to sudden blackouts and the ability to hear books conversing amongst themselves. Before he realizes what is happening, he finds himself plunged into a strange, dangerous world (a la Pan's Labyrinth.)

This book isn't for the faint-hearted. Although it is essentially about the vital role stories play in our lives, David's journey takes him to the darkest reaches of fairy tales and the secret nightmares we all harbor in the recesses of our minds. It is a transformative coming of age story, and Connolly delivers to the last page. I found myself enraptured by the adventure and smiling as the author gave me a new twist in the story I hadn't been expecting.

I can't say it enough. This one is a definite must-read for Dad. Becky, you might enjoy it (if you can make it past the squeamish stuff.) Mom, probably pass. While reading this, I was also reminded of Neil Gaiman's "Coraline" which was also impressive. I finished it last year during the blog drought. But if you enjoy this one (and I know you will), check out "Coraline." You'll be glad you did.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Eden's Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father by John Matteson

For all the Little Women fans among us, this 2008 Pulitzer Prize winning dual biography will likely be of interest to you. Although Louisa May is the better known member of the Alcott family, her father, Bronson was an eminent philosopher, teacher and friend of fellow transcendentalists, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. As a family man, however, Bronson was, for the most part, a useless provider (of money or affection). As he chased after his lofty philosophical ideals and utopian pursuits (which were usually miserable failures), his wife, Abba and older daughters, Anna and Louisa were left to be the breadwinners of the family, taking jobs as governesses, teachers, writers, or whatever they could find. And more than once, the family had to be rescued from destitution by their Concord neighbors/friends Emerson and Thoreau- who sometimes even provided them with a place to live. This biography depicts the complicated and often troubled relationship between Bronson, ever the idealist and Louisa, always the pragmatist. Although they differed in fundamental ways, the two shared the same birthday, found literary success around the same time and died within two days of each other.

I initially decided to read this biography because I wanted to know more about the American Transcendental movement. Transcendentalism is one of those broad brush terms that gets tossed around in literary circles and one that I never fully understood. As one would expect of a Pulitzer Prize winning book, Matteson has done a superb job of capturing the essence of this 19th c. movement by reflecting it through the lens of the Alcott family story. The narrative pulls you into the life and times of this unique American family and makes you feel as if you have actually known them in life. In Matteson's closing paragraph he writes: "To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them." I believe he has done a masterful job.

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Weisman opens this book with the following question: "Is it possible that, instead of heaving a huge biological sigh of relief, the world without us would miss us?"

I won't give away the answer, but if you like good nature writing (um, Dad), this is a wonderful book for you. Weisman chronicles what the world might look like if people were suddenly raptured away from it (gone extinct, taken by aliens, you get the picture.) At once startling and inspiring, Weisman reveals the inter-connectedness of ecosystems and explains the detrimental (or helpful) role humans play all over the world. From the plains of the Serengeti to the subways of New York City, you see the world as we know it slowly erode before your eyes. Weisman's writing is often poetic, his chapter titles for example: "Unbuilding Our Home, What Falls Apart, Wings Without Us."

I found myself overwhelmed, at times, by the idea of all humanity erased away. It's a sobering reflection. But at the same time, I was full of awe at the amazing ability of life to find a way. One chapter, about the wildlife that has returned to Chernobyl, was both heartbreaking and inspiring. Although some of our animal friends would fare worse than others (sorry, cows), still others would find new niches and possibly evolve to take advantage of new opportunities (housecats, for one.)

This book WAS "one of the grandest thought experiments of our time" as touted on the cover. Read, and enjoy.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

A Collection of Essays by George Orwell

I had read about George Orwell as being one of the great political commentators of his age but had read nothing other than "1984" and "Animal Farm." In this collection of essays, he discusses his years at a boarding school, shooting an elephant as a colonial policeman in Burma, his thoughts on Gandhi, Kipling, Dickens and a fellow who produced lewd post cards. He also discusses his time fighting in the Spanish Civil war, his time in Marrakech, England during the war, and why he writes. I've not mentioned a couple other of the articles because they were redundant or referenced so many people we don't know that the point he was making was not made or would not be of interest to any blog reader.Although his point of view is at least 60 years separated from today, there are things that stand out to make this a worthwhile read. He appears to view a topic as best he can without serious bias, even though he was a socialist and critic of many in power or in fashion. His thoughts are so clear and unvarnished in a way I seldom have run across that they are startling in their freshness and power to persuade. The world he described in "1984" is addressed repeatedly in these essays, with an eye to viewing humans as they are and that power corrupts, regardless of the ideology of those who wield it.I am sure he irritated almost everyone at one time with these essays because he views everyone as realistically as he can, warts and all, even though he may also have an affection for the subjects. Indeed, I would have hated to be his enemy because those he professed to admire were still noted for each of their shortcomings. Still, this was a good read and one where I want to go back later and reread, especially his article on Kipling (a good bad poet) and England during the war. As well written a collection of essays as I can remember reading.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Wind-up Bird Chronicle

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. That being said, I think it's a book you really love or really...don't love (no, Amanda, not like "Running with Scissors"). I tend to get somewhat fascinated with writing and stories that weave you in and out of reality - teetering, always, on the possible, but being just ridiculous or obscure enough to remind you that it's not real. If you don't find yourself of the same mind, you probably will want to skip this novel. But if you have read and enjoyed either "One Hundred Years of Solitude" or "Love in the Time of Cholera", you may just enjoy this book (different author but same kind of writing style). Though I know that dad didn't enjoy either of those, I still recommend this book to you (dad).
The book follows the experiences of Toru Okada, a (recently) former lawyer who stays at home while his magazine editor wife supports the two of them. Then his "journey" begins with a search for the family cat and this is when a whole new world of characters and experiences unfolds. As characters enter his life, they pull him into their world - literally. He finds himself within shifting interior landscapes, and through multiple eyes, and has an almost dreamlike search for identity in the midst of chaos as it is presented.
There are quite a few bizarre events that unfold that leaves you somehow accepting each new twist even though some are completely implausible. And what I think dad might find especially interesting is the way the book is able to contrast the Japanese military past with the present state of Japan. All in all, I think a line from the book sums it up the best (took me a while to find this quote, but I knew it was in there!): "There's a kind of gap between what I think is real and what's really real."
And there you go.