Saturday, December 12, 2009

Review of Kitchen Confidential

This was the latest read for my book club, and while it didn't spur any especially intellectual conversations, it was fun to talk about, because it's a fun book. Kitchen Confidential is a sort of memoir by Anthony Bourdain, a famous NYC chef, who describes the ins and outs of his life in professional kitchens. I've always known that working in restaurants is kind of like an extension of college -- drugs, heirarchy, gossip, cattiness, sex, and general debauchery -- but reading about some of the antics in Anthony Bourdain's life really seared the images into my brain (pun intended).

There are some useful lessons to be learned about food consumption by reading this book that are fairly obvious when you think about them, but good to reiterate nonetheless:

- Don't order seafood on Mondays
- Don't eat mussels unless you really trust the establishment
- Never eat hollandaise sauce unless you make it yourself
- (and while not a food-to-avoid), it's more than likely that someone had sex on the sacks of rice or flour somewhere in a walk-in storage unit.

Bourdain is a pretty good writer in terms of getting his story and the images associated with it across. His voice is strong, and he has a good sense of humor that made me laugh out loud at times. However, I got the sense that he writes how he talks, and his use of exessive italacs got really annoying by the end of the book.

Overall, this is a fun read for anyone who likes food and is interested in learning more about what it takes to prepare your meal when you go out to dinner.


Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Review of Wicked

Have you ever wondered what made the Wicked Witch of the West so wicked? I hadn't either. But when I heard that Gregory Maguire's book explored this very question, I was intrigued. Although I had never contemplated the witch's story, once I knew that a story existed, I wanted to know what it was.

Wicked is the story of how a green girl in the land of Oz grows up to be the Wicked Witch of the West. The story begins with the birth of Elphaba (the witch) to Melena, an heir to a powerful family from Munchkinland (FYI - not all Munchkinlanders are small). Melena's husband, Frex, is a zealous minister often away preaching in faraway towns, and Melena is not 100% sure who Elphaba's father actually is. Elphaba is born with green skin, a full set of razor sharp teeth, and a strong aversion to water. Although not inititally affectionate, she grows up to be willful and smart.

The Oz in Wicked is not the Oz we are familiar with. The Wizard is a cruel dictator, issuing laws and edicts from on high that limit the rights of humans and Animals (animals who speak, think, and integrate with society), making life in Oz more and more difficult for those who do not support his rule. There are guards who roam the streets, jailing people who dare to speak against the Wizard, creating a miliary State in and around the Emerald City, where Elphaba is sent to attend boarding school. Elphaba starts school at a time when the Wizard is starting to clamp down on human and Animal rights, and she is outraged. Her roommate, Galinda (one day to be known as Glinda), is a snooty girl from the north who initially couldn't care less about anything other than her social status, but as the girls get to know each other they become friends over a shared desire to make Oz a better place. And it all goes down hill from there.

Wicked spans about 40 years, and in that time we learn why Elphaba turns into the Wicked Witch of the West...kind of. Although I really enjoyed reading this story - it was creative, fun, and different - I felt that Maguire was not able to aptly explain why Elphaba actually became so wicked. Yes, she was frustrated, short of temper, and racked with guilt over the death of a lover, but by the end of the book I did not see the wickedness from the witch in the movie in the character of Elphaba. Perhaps this was Maguire's intention -- when you actually know and understand someone, they are not as evil or scary as they might seem at the surface. Perhaps the Wicked Witch of the West that we are all familiar with wasn't actually that wicked at all - just misunderstood.


Friday, September 25, 2009

Review of When a Crocodile Eats the Sun

Heartbreaking. If there is one word to try and capture this book, that is the one. Tragic and infuriating are close behind.

When a Crocodile Eats the Sun is a memoir by Peter Godwin, a successful journalist who hails from Zimbabwe but presently lives in New York City. It begins in the late 1990's when some of the first signs of Mugabe's inane policies regarding land-reform started to emerge, and ends in 2004, when the destruction and tragedy were all but a done-deal and broadcast around the world. Godwin is an excellent writer, and he deftly tells his family's story while weaving Zimbabwe's history and more recent events into the tale. Godwin's elderly parents are all that remains of his family in Zimbabwe; His younger sister has been forced to leave due to her affiliation with the Opposition, and his older sister is dead, killed years before by friendly fire in the civil war. Several of their friends have emigrated or been killed, and Godwin is unsuccessful in convincing them to leave. Godwin's parents are virtual prisioners in their own house in Harare, a city that is quickly descending into chaos. His parents' failing health presents an additional challenge, and Godwin struggles to help from a distance.

Godwin manages to travel back to Harare frequently by taking on assignments, and it is on one of his trips that his father tells him a secret that he had kept from everyone except Godwin's mother for over 40 years. It would ruin the story to divulge it here, but suffice to say that it changes Godwin's entire image of himself, and allows him to weave a whole new chapter around WWII into the story.

I cried a lot reading this book (and I rarely cry when I read). I cried with anger at what Mugabe has done to this incredible country, I cried with a deep sadness for Godwin's family, and the millions of other innocent people who have had their lives all but taken away from them, but I also cried with love and respect for his parents, whose spirit and perseverence was something that we should all aspire to. As heartbreaking at this book is, it is a book that needs to be read far and wide, and I highly recommend it.


Monday, September 14, 2009

Review of Persuasion

One of the things you've got to love (or hate) about Jane Austen is that, for the most part, you know what you're going to get when you pick up one of her books. Sometimes there's something to be said for predictability with authors -- it's like a kind comfort food. It's nice to know that there is something out there that will make you feel good, fill you up, and leave you with a smile on your face when you're done, even if it's not the most delicious meal you've ever had. For some, that's macaroni and cheese, for me, it's Jane Austen.

Persuasion is the story of Anne Elliot, the oldest of three sisters who is teetering on the edge of spinsterhood at the ripe old age of 26. Anne was once engaged to marry Captain Frederick Wentworth, but her friend and confident, Lady Russell, persuaded her that he was not the right match and the agreement was ended. Eight years later, Anne is still unmarried and wondering if she made the wrong choice when Captain Wentworth comes back into her life.

And the rest is typical Jane Austen: for several chapters there are miscommunications, misunderstandings, and a few dramatic moments when it looks like Anne will end up with the wrong guy and Captain Wentworth will end up with the wrong gal, but then...ta da! All ends well and everyone ends up with the person they were supposed to be with. That being said, Persuasion was actually my favorite Austen read so far - I found the characters to be more interesting and multi-faceted then usual (despite the predicably facile younger sisters and absurdly vain father) - and there were a couple of twists and turns that did leave me guessing. I was transported back to early 19th Century English society, and found myself smiling from start to finish.

Ah...felt so good, just like mac n' cheese.


Sunday, August 16, 2009

Review of Master & Commander

Master & Commander by Patrick O’Brian is the first in a series of twenty books that is well regarded as the best nautical literature ever written (if not some of the best literature ever written). I picked up the first in the series, Master & Commander, on my way to Cape Cod for a two week vacation. It took me the full two weeks to read the book, partly because I found that I could not completely get into the story with as much fervour as I had expected. What I did not realize when I started reading was that the first book is as much about introducing us to Jack Aubrey, newly appointed to rank of Captain, and Stephen Maturin, an erudite Irishman/Catalonian who becomes the surgeon on Jack’s ship, the Sophie, as it is about telling us the story.

The first third of the book consists of establishing their characters and ensuing relationship, along with an esoteric introduction to the Sophie and all of her crew, rigging, sails, decks, etc. Once Jack’s cruise gets underway we quickly come to realize that he is an extremely able seaman: strategic, fearless, and cunning. He is also in it for the money, much to the chagrin of his Lieutenant, James Dillon, another Irishman and once-member of a resistance group (along with Stephen Maturin). The second third of the book follows Jack on his cruise as he takes several French and Spanish ‘prizes’ during various battles, and earns himself and his crew quite a bit of cash and a reputation for being lucky. Along the way Jack continues to have an affair with a woman married to his superior, who, by the final third of the book, has taken out his anger on Jack by cutting his cruise short and relegating him to convoy. Along the way he is beaten in battle, and the close of the book is the court-martial where Jack is found not-guilty of any wrong doing.

Perhaps it is because I was expecting so much in the way of non-stop action and adventure that I was somewhat disappointed by my first Patrick O’Brian experience. However, I am not giving up, as I have been told that the books only get better and more exciting, and there is no way that a 20-book series as beloved as this can disappoint.

MY RATING: 6/10 (but mostly due to raised expectations)

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Review of Three Junes

Three Junes has been on my “to read” bookshelf for at least four years. I bought it because I am a sucker for the gold or silver stickers denoting some major book award, and Julia Glass won the National Book Award for Three Junes in 2002. I started the book soon after I bought it, and could not get into it, so it rested on my bookshelf until early summer when I decided that I needed to space out my Twlight Saga obsession with some actual literature. I did in fact start Three Junes after Twilight, but was quick to put it down when the other three books of the saga came into my possession. Miraculously, I always picked Three Junes back up in between each book for a chapter or two, and then finally finished it about a month after I had first started it.

The book is actually three distinct stories, with no overlap in characters except for one or two degrees of separation between the protagonists in each story. The first follows Paul on a guided tour to Greece following the death of his wife. The second follows Fenno, Paul’s gay bookstore owning son in New York and Scotland (the provenance of Paul and Fenno), and the third follows Fern, a widow five months pregnant from her Greek boyfriend. Each story consists of several flashbacks to periods in the character’s lives, and the present day is different for each one. Glass does an impressive job of weaving back story and present day for each character to create in-depth portraits of individuals in various stages of their lives. For Paul, it’s his ‘sunset’ years, for Fenno, it’s his mid-life/early 40’s, and for Fern, it’s her ‘grown-up’ phase, following graduate school and starting her career (and family).

Although I was not blown away by the book while I was reading it, once I finished I was happy to have given it my time (a month, in this case). Glass is a skilled writer, and she was not afraid to delve deeply into her characters’ psyches (and psychoses). None of the characters was lovable, but they were all likeable in their own ways, mostly because anyone reading the book would be able to relate to at least some of the challenges one or all of the characters were confronting. Three Junes was woven together by the themes of transition, of letting go of control, and what it means to be born and to die, whether you’re ready for it or not.


Review of Eclipse and Breaking Dawn

Beemused was right. It was impossible to not read the Twlight Series back to back. Although I was successful in reading at least one book in between, that was the extent of my ability to pace myself. Unfortunately, the rest of the series continued to falter, and neither Eclipse nor Breaking Dawn were as good as Twilight. However, despite their faults, I was still unable to put them down.

I finished both books over a month ago, and I am finding it difficult to recall the major plots points, twists and turns of each of them, not to mention distinguishing between the two. I think the Twilight Series is less about the plot itself and more about the experience of reading them. There is nothing quite like it when you find a book that completely takes you in and builds a metaphoric wall that separates you from the outside world. That is what happens when you read this series. This is not to say that any of the books are quality literature - they are not. In fact, as the series progresses it gets quite trashy.

Warning: spoiler alert if you read on.

Eclipse and Breaking Dawn center around Bella's desire to 1) have sex with Edward and 2) become a vampire. With a few battles against evil vampires thrown in between, she succeeds in both. However, I actually laughed out loud when I read about the birth of Bella and Edward's vampire-human hybrid baby. What annoyed me most wasn't the fact that they conceived and had a child, but that the name chosen was a combination of Bella's mother's (Renee) and Edward's mother's (Esme) names - Reneesme. Yes, Reneesme is the name of their child. Need I say more?

I'll close by saying that despite the downturns in plot, I had fun reading the books, and am glad that I experienced this latest phenomenon of popular culture.


Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Review of New Moon

Well, I guess the honeymoon had to end sometime, and better sooner rather than later. This is not to say that I won't be reading the rest of the series - I will, but I am not expecting much in the way of plotlines. New Moon is the second book in the Twilight series. It picks up a few months after the end of Twilight, with Bella and Edward hopelessly in love, happy in their human-vampire relationship. The town of Forks is still completely oblivious to the vampires in their midst, and life is seemingly perfect for Bella. Until she gets a paper cut. That sets off a sequence of events that lead to Edward leaving, Bella going headlong into months of despair, and subjecting the reader to endless descriptions of crying into pillows, holes of pain in stomachs, and doldrums that seem to go on for hundreds of pages.

What is frustrating is that the book is still mind-numbingly addictive. The sexual tension that held up the first book isn't existent in New Moon, but I still found myself staying up way past my bedtime to read just one more chapter. The second book revolves around Bella's friendship with Jacob (who, by the way, turns out to be a werewolf), one of the Quileute Indians we were briefly introduced to in Twilight. Jacob distracts Bella from her longing for Edward, who has disappeared, along with the rest of his family in the hope that Bella will forget about him and move on with the rest of her life. Of course, she is too head over heels in love with him for this to happen, hence the misery I described earlier.

Even though I just finished this book a little over a week ago, I'm struggling to recollect the major plot points, because the story dragged on quite a bit. The first third consists of Bella's pain and longing for Edward, the second third is her friendship with Jacob, and the final third is her reunion with Edward and the introduction of the Volturi (the super ancient and powerful vampires who live in Italy). The scenes in Italy were definitely the best part of the book, with some great descriptions of vampire horror and carnage. But the rest of the book pretty much left me cold (I could make some vampire joke here since, according to the books, they're all cold as marble).

Anyway, I know that I will read the others, but I'm not holding my breath for the thrill that wove its way through Twilight.


Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Review of The Glass Castle

Reading an excellent memoir is perhaps a little more satisfying than reading an excellent novel because when you put the book down you can say "holy shit, this actually happened." (Unless the memoir was written by James Frey). Although I thought I couldn't read a better memoir than Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight, I was wrong. The Glass Castle is the best memoir I have ever read.

When you read about the childhood that Jeannette Walls survived, it creates new meaning for the word "resilient". Her parents never should have had children, but they had four. Her father was a raging, but brilliant, alcoholic. Her mother was a selfish (and I think manic-depressive, although that is never discussed) woman who could not see beyond her own needs and challenges. At the age of 3 Jeannette is badly burned while cooking hotdogs for herself and her older sister so they could have something to eat for dinner, and neither of her parents show any remorse or shame for the position they put their child in by not providing enough food for her. This is consistent throughout her childhood as her parents move from one small town to another, letting their children fend for themselves, narrowly escaping abuse (both physical and sexual) from neighbors, strangers, and even grandparents and uncles. Only through the bond and protectivness of the siblings are the children able to survive and escape to New York City when they are old enough to live on their own.

What I found most moving about this book was the fact that Walls was able to write so openly and honestly about such horrific events in her childhood, but in a way where she was not asking the reader for pity or sympathy. Her life just was what it was, and the events that she survived were heart wrenching, but also freeing and deeply moving. Ultimately, this is a book about family, and the ties that keep us bound to each other whether we like it or not. It is definitely worth reading.

MY RATING: 10/10

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Review of Twilight

I have to admit, Twilight was a great read. I picked it up at the airport on my way home and started reading in the waiting area. By the time we boarded I was on page 55. When we reached cruising altitude I was on page 92. Then I had to restrain myself from reading on the flight because I had work to do. And that was no easy feat. The book is addictive. The last time I picked up a book that hooked me like Twilight did was when I read The Da Vinci Code (yes, I read it. And yes, I enjoyed it). Now don't get me wrong -- I am not saying that either of these books is an example of good writing. In fact, they're both really bad in many many ways, trashy almost. But Stephenie Meyer is a master at capturing teenage angst, awkwardness and frustration, not to mention the imagination of the reader. It's as though the story is crafted in a way to hit all of the same nerve endings that cocaine does, creating a rush (while you're reading), comedown (when you put the book down), desire for more (several minutes after you've put the book down), and then withdrawal (when you finish the book). (BTW, I've actually never done cocaine, so if I got my metaphoric drug-addled phases wrong, forgive me).

I have always said that I do not have an addictive personality, however, I find myself thinking about Bella and Edward at various times throughout the day, wondering what happens in the next book. I have created a rule for myself that I will not read all 4 books in a row, but instead space them with at least a book in between. If I have to make rules its a sure sign that I have a problem, and I guess I can't pride myself on not having an addictive personality anymore.

I'm not going to summarize the story -- Meezly did an excellent job of that, so there's really nothing more to say except that, for what it is, Twilight is a lot of fun.


Saturday, May 30, 2009

Review of The Cellist of Sarajevo

Set during the Siege of Sarajevo in the early 1990s, The Cellist of Sarajevo follows three individuals over a period of about three weeks as they try to live their lives in the chaos that is war. Although it is a novel, the story used the factual story of a reknowned cellist who sat amongst the rubble of shelled buildings day after day playing at the site of a massacre of innocent people waiting to buy bread.

The story follows Arrow, Kenan, and Dragan, all strangers whose paths do not cross throughout the book. Arrow is a sniper who has been tasked with protecting the cellist from enemy fire. Kenan is a family man who is responsible for making the trek across the city to get water for his family. And Dragan is a baker whose family has left the city for safety in Italy. They all have their respective 'targets' as the story progresses: Arrow is targeting the sniper who has been sent by the enemy to assassinate the cellist; Kenan is targeting the brewery where he will be able to find fresh water; and Dragan is targeting the bakery where he hopes to buy some fresh bread.

I found this book to be quite contrived. I did not believe in any of the characters because Galloway never let us get to know them. Perhaps this was intentional -- how well can you know someone who is living through the insanity of war? -- but it resulted in the characters not feeling fully formed (which in several instances became confusing and I often found myself confusing Dragan's and Kenan's storylines). I also did not like Galloway's writing style -- every sentence seemed overly crafted, as though each word was intentionally placed after the next, making several parts of the book feel affected and, as I said earlier, contrived. Which is too bad, because I think the concept for the novel was unique and could have been the basis of a much better story had it been written somewhat more skillfully.


Saturday, May 9, 2009

Review of The Ghost Road

The Ghost Road is the third and final book in Pat Barker's Regeneration Trilogy. It is set during the closing months of World War I, and centers around Dr. William Rivers, a psychologist treating mentally and physically injured patients from the front.

Unlike Regeneration where the story focused on Dr. Rivers as he treated patients, The Ghost Road picks up where The Eye in the Door left off. Billy Prior, one of Dr. River's more interesting patients is heading back to the front despite his asthma and potential for split personalities in highly stressful situations. Rivers continues to treat patients returning from the war with shell shock and psychological trauma back in England. However, the story also consists of several flashbacks to River's time as a missionary doctor in Melanesia.

As the final book in the trilogy (and winner of the Booker Prize), I had high hopes for The Ghost Road. Unfortunately, it didn't compare to the other two books. I found the flashbacks to River's time in Melanesia distracting from the arc of the storyline following the war and Prior's return to the front. This was the first time in the series when the reader is actually taken to the war itself as we follow Prior to France and experience the battles through him. Although the horrors of the war are terrifying to read about, it's as though, as a reader, the time has come to experience it alongside him -- having read two entire books describing the horrors through the psychological havoc it has inflicted on the men fighting, the reader is ready to "see" what could have created such damage. Although difficult to read about, the parts of the book that took place in France were the most riveting.

My guess is that Barker won the Booker prize for this third book as a nod to the trilogy itself (similar to Peter Jackson's Oscar win for 'The Return of the King', even though it was nowhere near the best film of the three). It's worth the read to bring Rivers' and Prior's stories to a close, just don't expect it to be the best one.


Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review of The Eye In The Door

The Eye In The Door is the second book in the Regeneration Trilogy . Unlike the first book which centered mostly around Dr. Rivers, The Eye in the Door is split between Dr. Rivers' continued work with patients suffering from 'shell shock', and Billy Prior, one of Dr. Rivers' patients who was introduced in Regeneration.

The Eye in the Door takes place in the Spring of 1918, when the war was dragging on and defeat by Germany seemed possible. In England, politicians were distracting the public by targeting homosexuals, and the historical events of the time play a central role in the book. In fact, I've had a very difficult time writing this review because the story is so complex and nuanced with plot turns peppered by historical events, not to mention psychological food for thought. This is the type of book where each chapter could be a study of its own, either of history or psychology, yet there is a story that weaves its way through all of them and ties the book together.

Barker is an expert at conveying the emotions of a scene through dialogue. It's as though each chapter has it's own emotional theme (repression, fear, anger, sadness, love), and you feel it with the characters as you read. With the myriad emotions and politics surrounding homosexuality in England during this time set as the backdrop, Barker creates a tense but riveting story that is part history, part novel, part mystery, and part psychological study. Written by a lesser writer, this would probably have devolved into a chaotic and unsatisying read. But Barker manages to pull it off and I couldn't put it down. I didn't love it as much as Regeneration, but it doesn't fall far behind.


Thursday, April 23, 2009

Review of Regeneration

Another fantastic read for 2009. I'm on a roll! After reading Birdsong last year for my book club, I became quite interested in WWI, and my father suggested that I read the series by Pat Barker.

Regeneration centers around Dr. William Rivers, a psychiatrist at the Craiglockhart War Hospital who is treating officers returning from the front. One of his patients is Siegried Sassoon, a noted poet of the day, who has be sent to Craiglockhart not because of war trauma, but because of an anti-war manifesto he wrote that was published in the newpaper. As Dr. Rivers works with Sassoon and many others, the scale of death and destruction, and seemingly endless stream of traumatized soldiers, starts to take its toll. Rivers is forced to confront his own demons and decide if and how he wants his career to proceed.

What makes this book so brilliant is how Barker is able to address so many themes in a 250 page book that consists of a lot of dialogue. These themes range from homosexuality (admitted and repressed) to supressed anger to the insanity of war. I loved her writing style as well - clear and to the point, but also full of imagery and feeling. No book review can do it justice.

The icing on the cake is that several of the characters in 'Regeneration' were real people, and Barker has based the story on actual events that occured at the time. This made the story that much more moving, and I am already into the next book in the trilogy.

MY RATING: 10/10

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Review of Dreams From My Father

It's a great feeling to read a good book that is well-written, heartfelt, and educational. But it's an even more wonderful feeling when the smart, articulate, honest, and inspiring writer happens to be your President.

I've been meaning to read this book for a while, but it took picking it for our book club to actually get me to pick it up. I have to admit, there was something that felt oddly voyeuristic about reading such a personal memoir by Barack Obama. But it was also incredibly satisfying -- I loved learning about his childhood and his pathway to community organizing and law school. It was also nice to finally have the sequence of his moves to various states and countries explained, not to mention his family history.

I could tell that he wrote it at a time when he wasn't considering a political career, because he was honest about emotions, family relationships, struggles and weaknesses in a way that someone aspiring to become President of the United States would edit much more substantially. For that reason, it was a refreshing read. I loved that he shared his struggles and confusion with respect to his identity as a black boy growing up with a white mother and grandparents. It is not easy to write about race, but Obama wrote eloquently and honestly, and I learned a lot. My only criticism of the book is that, at times, I felt like some of the chapters dragged on a bit. Whereas the chapters from his childhood raced by, the sections on his time in Chicago and Kenya were not as riveting to me.

I could go into more detail discussing the complexity of Obama's father, his relationship with his other family members, and his time in Chicago, but I feel that you need to read the book instead, because it's worth it.

I will end the review by saying that reading this book reminded me again of what a fucking idiot George Bush is, and I question how we all actually managed to survive 8 years of his presidency. Thank God he's gone, and Hail to the Chief.


Monday, April 13, 2009

Review of The Book Thief

This book was a gift from my friend Kristin. I visited her in Germany last September, and as we were walking throughout the picturesque streets of Frieberg I found myself struggling with the same sequence of thoughts I had struggled with during my previous (and first) trip to Germany in 1996. The sequence goes something like this: 1) As I am walking along I see an elderly person, somewhere in their 80s or 90s. 2) I think, "Damn, they're old! I wonder how old they are?" 3) Then I think, "If they're 85, that means they were in their 20s during WWII." And then I jump straight to 4) "I wonder if they were Nazis during the war...did they fight? Did they collaborate? Did they resist? What did they DO (or not do)?" And then I feel somewhat guilty for having those thoughts until I see the next elderly person and think them all over again...I can't seem to help myself. I shared this with Kristin at one point, and she told me to read "The Book Thief". "It will change the way you think about many of the Germans who lived through the war," she said. And then she bought it for me for Christmas.

The Book Thief is the story of Liesel, a skinny, hungry, and illiterate girl who is taken to live with the Hubermann's, a foster family in a small town close to Munich in 1939. The story follows Liesel through the war as she and her foster family resist the Nazis in the small ways that they can on the surface (such as Hans Hubermann refusing to join the Nazi party and paying the social price for it), and the big ways hidden below the surface (such as hiding a Jewish man in their basement).

I absolutely loved this book. In fact, it goes into my top 10. Part of the reason is because I haven't ever read anything like it. It is written in a unique style, but unlike other books that have dealt with serious subject matter by taking a unique approach to story telling which I hated because I felt they were so contrived (i.e. The History of Love or Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), there is no posturing with the writing in the Book Thief, and instead I found myself wanting to dive deeper into the story with every page that I read.

I realized very quickly why Kristin had recommended this story to me -- it is a partial answer to the question I was asking when I walked the streets of Frieberg in September -- it is the story of what people who were not Jewish and not fighting DID during the war. And it is told without judgment, but instead through writing and imagery that is honest, touching, and beautiful to read.

MY RATING: 10/10

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Review of From Beirut to Jerusalem

I saw this book on my friend Elie's night table when I was visiting her in San Francisco at the end of January, and was inspired to pick it up. I found a copy in the SF airport and got through the first 100 pages on my flight to Vancouver. It took me until last week to get through the remaining 470, not because the book wasn't good, but because I made sure to read it slowly enough to maximize my comprehension.

From Beirut to Jerusalem is Thomas Friedman's "take" on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He worked as a reporter in Beirut from 1979-1984 and then moved to Jerusalem, where he worked from 1984-1989. The book is written in two parts corresponding to these times and locations.

As someone who really did not know any of the history (except in broad brushstrokes), this book was a fantastic read. He describes the history, relationships, and personalities of all of the major players in the conflict, and for the first time I found myself understanding more than just the basics of this very complicated issue. It's a very well-written book, and the combination of historical facts peppered by his personal experiences and relationships because of his time living there kept it from being dull or too hard to understand.

For the most part, I don't agree with Thomas Friedman's views, especially on Iraq or the economy -- he always seems like too much of a Hawk to me. But his take on the conflict in the Middle East as he writes it in this book was something I found myself nodding my head to. Not only was he more 'dovish' than 'hawkish', but his sense of compassion really comes through.

There were several passages that resonated for me in this book, but I am going to end the review with the one that I liked the most:

"The Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once remarked that if you ask a man how much is 2 plus 2 and he tells you 5, that is a mistake. But if you ask a man how much is 2 plus 2 and he tells you 97, that is no longer a mistake. The man you are talking with is operating with a wholly different logic from your own."


Friday, January 9, 2009

2009 Books

1. Half of a Yellow Sun - Ngozi Adichie
2. From Beirut to Jerusalem - Thomas Friedman
3. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak
4. Dreams From My Father - Barack Obama
5. Regeneration - Pat Barker
6. The Eye In The Door - Pat Barker
7. The Ghost Road - Pat Barker
8. The Cellist of Sarajevo - Steven Galloway
9. Twilight - Stephenie Meyer
10. The Glass Castle - Jeannette Walls
11. New Moon - Stephenie Meyer
12. Eclipse - Stephenie Meyer
13. Breaking Dawn - Stephenie Meyer
14. Three Junes - Julia Glass
15. Master & Commander - Patrick O'Brian
16. Persuasion - Jane Austen
17. When A Crocodile Eats the Sun - Peter Godwin
18. Wicked - Gregory Maguire
19. Kitchen Confidential
I started 'War and Peace' while on vacation in Mexico and I'm about 500 pages into it (with another 900 to go). I've decided to finish it when I'm on vacation this summer - it's just not the kind of book you can read during the work year.

Review of Half of a Yellow Sun

This book was recommended by a friend who has spent several years working and living in various countries in Africa. I was excited to try something completely new. It tells the story of a wealthy Nigerian woman, Olanna, in the years leading up to and during the Nigerian-Biafra war, a time and place that I knew absolutely nothing about prior to picking up the book. The story follows Olanna and her intellectual academic husband as the war surrounds them and then takes over their lives.

Adichie is a good writer, and her scenes are described so clearly that it's as though you're there, standing in the corner of the room watching as the drama unfolds. But the book never really grabbed me. I kept waiting for it to pick up, turning the page thinking, 'now' it's going to really start getting interesting. But that climax never came.

When I put down the book and thought about writing this review, I had to think for a while about what it was that didn't make me love this book (even though I did indeed like it). And this is what I came up with: although her writing is clear and descriptive, she never really delves into any emotional depth of the characters. Although she writes about their feelings and emotions, they are always only skin deep, and never enough to give a real sense of who the character is - she only scratched the surface with each of them, and therefore I never really got a sense of who any of them really were.

But it's an interesting piece of history that shaped the country and its people, and I'm glad that I read the book.