Saturday, October 25, 2008

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
Even though this is a 'young adult' novel, I found it very touching. It is the story of young Arnold, a Native American living on 'the rez' in NE Washington. He is bright, and is encouraged by a teacher to go to the 'white' high school in nearby Reardan. There, of course, he doesn't fit it, but now that he's not going to school on the rez, he's also ostracized by many of former friends.

This is a moving coming-of-age story, which manages to show us the poverty and struggles of life on the rez without being maudlin. It has a similar, boyhood-friend feeling as Stephen Kings' Stand By Me, and even though it is set against the backdrop of life on the rez, this is a story that anyone, male or female, white or Native American, can enjoy. I laughed more than I cried, but I did cry.

I also had the pleasure of hearing Alexie speak twice in the past 2 months. Once at the Port Townsend Film Festival, where he introduced a film, and most recently as part of the "Spokane Is Reading" event, where he read from this book. (Ahem, and it was my copy he read from!) If you ever get a chance to hear him speak - GO!

Catching Up!

I've been reading - but not writing! ;-) Here's a partial list of my most recent reads:
Beggars in Spain Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a very interesting 'soft' science fiction. Set in the near future, where some people are genetically engineered to need no sleep (and for hyper intelligence), it is an interesting study of prejudice...
My review

Watchmen Watchmen by Alan Moore

rating: 4 of 5 stars
Groundbreaking graphic novel, and I can see why! I'd like to read it again in a few months - it deserves a 2nd look (literally and figuratively).
My review

Falling Free Falling Free by Lois McMaster Bujold

rating: 3 of 5 stars
Another fun book from Bujold! Fairly lightweight story of an engineer on a space station, which is primarily 'manned' by children who have been genetcially engineered for zero-G life...
My review

Ellen Foster (Oprah's Book Club) Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons

rating: 2 of 5 stars
I was underwhelmed by this. I expected something as gripping as The Secret Life of Bees or To Kill a Mockingbird. Sadly, this wasn't close. In fact, having read it abotut 6 months ago, I hardly remember a thing about it...
My review

View all my reviews.

Belle Ruin Belle Ruin by Martha Grimes

rating: 1 of 5 stars
This is a mystery novel, set in the south. The heroine is 12-year old Emma. She is interesting enough, as are the characters and the town, but rule #1 of mysteries is SOLVE THE MYSTERY AT THE END OF THE NOVEL!!! ...
My review

Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant Born on a Blue Day: Inside the Extraordinary Mind of an Autistic Savant by Daniel Tammet

rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a FABULOUS book! Written by an autistic man, it chronicles his life, from childhood through the present-day. He is a funny and sardonic writer, able to see himself as others might - an amazing feat for an autistic person...
My review

The Lady and the Unicorn The Lady and the Unicorn by Tracy Chevalier

rating: 2 of 5 stars
If you're into weaving/tapestry, you will probably enjoy this book. As historical fiction, it was interesting, but I didn't like any of the characters, and felt they were all a little one-dimensional. A mildy good story...
My review

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel Snow Flower and the Secret Fan: A Novel by Lisa See

rating: 4 of 5 stars
I liked this book, even though the story wasn't what I expected. But it is an amazing look into Chinese society 100 years ago, especially around the life of women...
My review

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Monday, September 15, 2008

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I was pretty disappointed in this book. I felt like I was reading one of those bad "women's" movies on the Lifetime channel, or even a soap opera. Everyone was sad/angry, everyone was hiding something, nothing good EVER happened to anyone (and any sort of 'good' event was accompanied by a subtext of impending doom - you could almost hear the sad music in the background!). I also have to refute one of the blurbs on the cover, that gushed about the author's beautiful, nearly poetic language. Huh? What book was that about - certainly not this one! (If you want a book that is absolutely beautifully written, read Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton - which is also one of the most moving books I've ever read!)

In this book, Edwards follows the life of a family "with a secret" (cue the violins), from the early 1960's to present-day. The big secret (which is no spoiler) is that during the birth of their first child, it was actually twins, though the girl was born with Down Syndrome. The husband - a doctor - hid this fact from his wife (who was under anesthesia), and passed off the daughter to his nurse and told her to put the girl in an institution. He tells his wife that the girl died, and doesn't mention Downs Syndrome. From this point on, the wife feels "something is missing", the father feels guilty, and the boy grows up wondering why his father hates him.

Of course, the nurse does not put the girl in an institution, but raises her by herself. When the novel was following these two, I enjoyed it the most. It seemed the most authentic, both emotionally and factually. (Having worked with kids with Downs, I have to commend Edwards for really getting it right.)

Unfortunately, the bulk of the book follows our "doomed" family, with pretty contrived 'symbolism' of the father's impressionistic photography. We see the usual fallout from "secrets": alcohol abuse, depression, adultery, teen angst, etc. It was all a bit too melodramatic for my tastes. I never related to any of the characters (with the possible exception of the nurse), and just kept wanting to scream "get over it!".

Thankfully, the book was short and I "got over it" very quickly. ;-)

Not one I'd recommend, nor an author I'll probably read again.

Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

This is the 2nd Stegner book I've read (the first being Angle of Repose), and I think I liked this one even better. Stegner writes beautiful prose, even when dealing with rather grim circumstances, as in this book. One also senses a deeper undercurrent of meaning than just the surface plot. Both of these things kept me reading through some pretty agonizing events in the characters' lives.

The book relates the tale of one family, in the early 1900's, attempting to make a go of it in the American (and Canadian) West. The husband/father is always chasing after the one great deal that will put them on easy street, consequently the family is constantly uprooted and experiences some pretty tough times. They go from city to city, looking for the pot of gold, and never finding it. When they do manage to find a pretty good thing, it's never quite good enough, so off they go again.

Not only are their economic circumstances rough, but the family dynamics are also quite hard. The father is somewhat abusive, and the mother 'stands by her man' throughout most of it. (Though one point, when his abuse moves beyond verbal and becomes physical to one of the boys, she finally puts her foot down.) I was often torn between admiration for the strength of her love for him, and disappointment, that she did keep trying to make it work, when clearly he was never going to change. But Stegner never portrays the father as wholly bad or evil, and we can see what drives this character to do the things he does.

I think this book is really about the 'great American dream' of making it rich, and how chasing such a dream is ultimately destructive. It's also about the loss of a way of life, when the West became tamed and 'civilized', and there was no more room for the free-roaming pioneer spirit. For a certain type of person, this was the loss of one's very soul.

I found this book to get better and better, as the big picture became clearer. The characters are portrayed as very real, and there are heartbreaking scenes. Yet I was still engrossed in the book, staying up way too late many nights!

This is not an easy book to read, but Stegner is an important American writer, dealing with the West, and this book is well worth the read.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

End of the World Blues End of the World Blues by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

This author was recommended to me, though not this book. However, when I went to the store to buy the recommended book, it wasn't in stock. This one was, and it looked very intriguing - especially since it's partially set in Japan. (I spent 2 weeks in Japan last year, and was enthralled by the culture.)

The book started out in a good way, throwing us into some circumstances that were not clear, hinting of more information to come as the book unfolds. However, it seemed to take a very long time getting to this information, and in a way, never really did. You are left to decide for yourself what is really going on.

The narrative was quite disjointed, which made some of the plot-lines hard to track, adding to the confusion/ambiguity. Unless you read this in a single sitting, you'll find yourself constantly looking back in the book, to remind yourself of who these people are and what happened earlier. While this may be seen as a failing of the author, I wonder if perhaps it was intentional, to illustrate the disjointed nature of life as he sees it - especially the lives of the characters.

The two main characters are Neku (aka "Lady Neku"), who may be a teen street waif living by her wits or may be a time traveller from the future, and Kit Nouveau, a young British ex-pat who had some disturbing experiences in 'the war' and has a tragic and tangled love life. It was interesting to see how these two characters' lives became entwined, and I felt they were fairly well developed. But, again, the disjointed nature of the narrative and some of the wandering plot lines didn't allow the depths and impact of their relationship to be fully presented.

All in all, I enjoyed the book, but I felt like it fell short of what it could have been. I will probably read another of his books (the one actually recommended by my friend), before I make up my mind on this author.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Bookseller of Kabul The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad

This is a fascinating look at life in Kabul, both during and after the Taliban. The author spent several years, off and on, with a bookseller and his family, and got to see a lot of the culture first-hand.

It was my first in-depth look at the repression of women by so-called "Islamists", and it's frightening and very sad. And almost impossible to believe that it's still going on, in the 21st century!

The sad lives these women lead, even after the overthrow of the Taliban is heart-breaking. One young woman wanted to be a teacher, but because she would have to go to school with men, she couldn't make herself go. She was free to do so, but she'd been brought up during the stringent separation of the sexes enforced by the Taliban, and she just couldn't mingle. It was heart-breaking. I wanted to go there and rescue her, somehow!

I highly recommend this for anyone interested in women's rights, religious fundamentalism or just plain cultural interest. It was well-written and fascinating to read.

Read This Book!

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

Rarely does one encounter someone who is really, actually, truly making the world a better place. And not just on a small scale. But in this book you meet one: Greg Mortenson.

This book is the saga of how a slacker mountain climber became involved in building schools for the remote villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and how his efforts continue to make a difference in that part of the world.

After getting lost coming down off a mountain climb, he is taken in by a remote village in Pakistan. He becomes friends with the people, and, touched by their kindness and their need, promises to come back and build a school. And, with fits and starts, and many problems, he finally does.

From this humble beginning, Greg pulls together some friends and benefactors and starts building more schools. He encounters some "religious" objections at times (the schools admit girls), and he has to deal with some unsavory characters (even getting kidnapped by the Taliban). But as the people come to see that he is not trying to evangelize, and how respectful he is of their customs, he overcomes.

Greg is not a saint, however, and the book makes this very clear. He is a flawed human being, as are we all. Yet the same determination that drove him to scale the worlds highest mountain peaks serves him well here. He doggedly pursues his mission (often to the detriment of his health, safety and family obligations). But schools are being built.

After reading this book, I was struck by the simplicity (and low cost) of his efforts, which show those people that Americans do care, and do want to help, and we're not all interested in bombing them. Education is the best enemy of religious fanaticism - Al Qaida, the Taliban, etc, recruit the uneducated poor from these areas. And they tend to run the only schools around - which are hotbeds of anti-Western rhetoric and propaganda. By building independent schools, which teach only school subjects, Greg's efforts are doing more against Islamic-funded terrorism than all the military offenses we've ever undertaken. And educating girls, too!

The Central Asia Institute is the non-profit organization that arose from Greg's vision. It is one group I plan to support whole-heartedly!!

Another great read by Mieville!

Iron Council Iron Council by China Miéville

This is the 3rd book in the (very loose) trilogy started in Perdido Street Station. It is set in the same world, but, as in The Scar, it deals with people, places and situations much different from PDS.

In Mieville's usual vein, there are concepts and characters far more unique than anywhere else in current SF/Fantasy novels. This guy has an amazing imagination! The cultures he has created for this world, their ideologies, their politics, etc are very rich and believable. He creates a fascinating melange of people and situations!

Also, in his usual vein, this is not a "happy" book. Bad things happen. There are bad people. Life is hard. But this book seems to have a bit more hope than the first two in this series. But only a bit...

Mieville is rapidly becoming one of my very favorite authors. The depth, detail and sheer brilliance he puts into every book are very rare to find. And his books seem to be getting better and better, as he matures as a writer. I can't wait to keep reading his books, as long as he keeps writing like this!

The Sharing Knife Trilogy

The Sharing Knife Volume One: Beguilement (Sharing Knife) The Sharing Knife Volume One: Beguilement by Lois McMaster Bujold

[This review is of the entire trilogy] This series was recommended to me by a friend, who had previously recommended books that I liked (including others by this author). He told me about the fantasy part of it, which sounded really, really good. Not your typical "fantasy" with elves, wizards, etc. Almost science-fiction, really - some of the humans(?) who live on this world have the ability to sense and use "ground" - much like 'the force' in the Star Wars universe. (It is basically a life-force.) They are the Lakewalkers. Think of them as half Native American and half Jedi knight (tho without the light sabers! :) They use their groundsense to heal and to hunt.

The non-lakewalkers are all referred to as 'farmers', tho not all of them actually farm. The level of technology is about 1700's earth - no power driven machines, other than water mills.

The really interesting thing about the Lakewalkers is WHAT they hunt: malices (called "blight-bogles" by the farmers). Malices consume 'ground' becoming more and more powerful, sucking the life out of everything around them. If they get too powerful, they can't be killed, and they will consume all the ground of the whole world and destroy the planet. (There's some interesting backstory about how they malices may have come into being).

The two societies are leery of each other, mingling hardly at all. The author does a very good job of portraying both societies, and the characters in each.

The main plot is a sort of "Romeo and Juliet" thing: a farm girl and a Lakewalker meet and fall in love. While the romance is a big part of the story, it's not overwhelming, and not what I would think of as your typical "romance" book plot. While I did enjoy the romance aspect, I really enjoyed the societies and characters. Our main characters are very interesting and well-drawn.

Once I started the first book, I didn't stop until I had read all 3 (over a 5 day period). They were that fun and compelling! A very good story!

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Club Dumas

I was disappointed in this book. It started out slowly, but there was enough intrigue to keep me reading. The 2nd half of the book was more interesting, as more events happened to bring us to the end. But that was the problem - the end. [WARNING: SPOILER AHEAD!]

The end was a cheat. Turns out the 2 big mysteries we were following the entire book, which were implied to be interlinked somehow (which was the 'big' mystery), were not related at all!! There really wasn't a mystery! There was just a group of Dumas fanatics and a guy who wanted to become the anti-Christ (and his motivations were never very clear). It was just so disappointing - I was looking forward to some clever intertwining of the 2 stories, but there was none. I felt cheated.

While the main character was interesting, many others were not - and were flatly drawn. However, the character I liked the most was the mysterious girl "with the green eyes". Who/what is she? Is she a fallen angel? A tool of Satan? I would love to have a book just about her.

So, while the book was mildly entertaining and somewhat educational, I can't recommend it strongly, because of the poor ending.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Count of Monte Cristo - Alexander Dumas

I can't believe it's been so long since I've posted anything. So much for good intentions. It's certainly not that I haven't read anything since then! ;-) So, here's my latest read:

Our book club read The Count of Monte Cristo during December/January. I chose the unabridged version (1200+ pages), but it was worth it! This version (published by Penguin) was recently translated, so the language wasn't stilted or awkward. It was quite easy to read.

For those of you who aren't familiar with this book, it takes place in the early 1800's in France. The hero is Edmond Dantes, who is a dashing young sailor when we first meet him. However, he has an enemy who is jealous of his good fortune, and this enemy puts into motion the steps that will find poor Edmond falsely accused of treason and sentenced to life in prison in a dungeon. While imprisoned, Edmond connects with a fellow prisoner, who is tunneling out for an escape. This other prisoner is a learned Abbe, and educates Edmond in literature, science, language, psychology, philosophy, etc. The Abbe becomes so attached to Edmond that he tells him of a secret cache of uncountable riches. Edmond manages to escape (in a most daring and spine-tingling manner), and finds this treasure - on the island of Monte Cristo. With his riches, Edmond plans to reward those who were kind to him and his family during this ordeal, and to punish those who imprisoned him. Of course, no one knows who he is, as he now calls himself 'The Count of Monte Cristo'.

The book is essentially in three parts: the first part where Edmond is in prison, the second part where he rewards those who were kind to him, and the last part where he gets his revenge. This last part was the most entertaining for me - Edmond doesn't just want revenge, he wants to make them suffer for a long, long time. It's very interesting to see him set up these elaborate situations that basically enable each of enemy to be undone by his own foibles - greed, money, power. When each man falls, it's pretty impressive.

I also learned a lot about French society at the time, as well as some Napoleonic history. I was surprised at the amount of sex in the book, given when it was written. While the sex is not explicit, there's a lot of it happening, and not between married couples! There's even a lesbian character. Somehow I thought that books of that era were pretty G-rated. But, maybe not in France!

If you do read it, I suggest you find some way to track the characters and their relationships with one another. Silly me, while I was reading it I didn't think to look online for such an aid, so I mapped out my own diagram. Now I've found a very good diagram here.

I also read some commentaries about the novel, and about its style. Dantes is a perfect example of a Romantic hero: dashing, talented and possessing skills above the norm. And the novel is an example of a Romantic novel, where the hero overcomes all, and everything gets wrapped up into a happy ending.

Definitely a good read - all 1200+ pages!!