Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Cross Country by James Patterson

Cross Country is another in James Patterson's extremely popular series about homicide detective Alex Cross. In this book, Alex is called to the scene of a gory crime where an entire family has been massacred. He quickly realises that the mother was his college girlfriend. Other family massacres start occuring, and Alex hears rumors that The Tiger is responsible. The Tiger is a shadowy figure who is known for having no mercy and for using young boys as his gang.
The action shifts to Africa when Alex hears that The Tiger has returned there. He moves from Nigeria to Sierra Leone and Laos, tracking the assassin and finding that he is not welcome by the police in these countries or even by the CIA, whom he expected to help him. Alex meets a woman reporter who helps him untangle the web of interconnections that make up the background against which The Tiger is employed. He encounters the inter-tribal wars, the lawlessness and the hopelessness of the African refugee camps.
After being captured and imprisoned, Alex is released and sent back to America. He returns home to find that his family has been kidnapped by The Tiger. Knowing what he does of The Tiger's methods, he is appalled and determined to do whatever is necessary to bring them home. The book moves quickly to a stunning climax.
This book is recommended for those who have read previous books in Patterson's series and are interested in an additional story about Detective Alex Cross. It is more of an issue-driven novel than the usual Cross motif, where Alex works to arrest and stop serial killers. Cross Country is a mystery but also gives the reader insight into what is occuring in modern Africa.

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk

This is one of the final books for 2008, and how I wish I'd waited for 2009. It is rare that I don't like a book, but this one was like Real Housewives of London, and I just don't have any patience for that kind of thing.

The book follows various women who live in a suburb of London, Arlington Park, through a day. Some work and some are stay at home moms. The one thread that ties them together is that none of them is satisfied with their life. They all feel that life has passed them by, that everything is just too, too hard and that their husbands just aren't pulling their weight in the marriages. They all have children, and treat them as an afterthought, little people that just add more work to their existence.

ARGH!! This is exactly the kind of person I avoid like the plague in my life. I have an optimistic outlook on life, and little patience for the poor little me attitude. If you don't like your life, change it? Or, as I often say, if everyone in your life is causing you problems, it's not them. You need to change yourself. I hate to end the year with a book I can't recommend, but this one was not for me at all.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Barcelona by Robert Hughes

Wow, I can't believe I've finished reading this book. I started it several months ago and put it down due to its denseness and the push to read more accessible texts. I was determined, however, to finish it, and Christmas break gave me the chance to do so.

Robert Hughes has created a masterpiece about this Spanish city. Fact upon fact tumble from the pages. History, food, music, art, science, inventions, political parties and philosophies, famous citizens, politicians, architecture, banking, world fairs; all are covered in intense detail. Hughes must have spent years researching this book. I've learned a ton about Barcelona, but would need to read the book at least once more to retain many of the details.

This book is recommended for those interested in how a great city came into being and how its citizens define themselves. The only disappointment I had was with the ending. The entire last chapter, devoted to the great Spanish architect, Gaudi, ends somewhat abruptly in the 1920's. It seems that if one devoted the time and energy to write such a massive tome, that the years since would have been written about as well. I'm very glad to have read this book and learned so much from it.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton

Henry Dampier can't believe his luck. Here he was, meandering along selling Bibles in the rural South, and he meets an honest-to-God FBI man. More astonishing, this FBI agent, Preston Clearwater, wants Henry to work with him, taking down a stolen car ring. All Henry has to do is drive the stolen cars from one point to the next, do everything Clearwater asks without question, and never tell anyone what he is doing. Henry can't believe his luck.

As the book progresses, Edgerton fills in Henry's prior life. His father was killed when Henry was a baby, and his mother left him and his sister with relatives. He grew up surrounded with family, Aunt Dorie, Uncle Jack, Uncle Samuel, his cousin Carson and sister Catherine. Family and religion shaped his life. As he moves around the South, Henry meets new people. Marleen is his first serious love, and the Finley sisters welcome him into their home.

But, all is not well. In his new life with Clearwater, Henry starts to realise all is not quite right. There are strange men who seem unlikely to work for the government, night trips that can't be mentioned, and soon the work progresses from taking cars to taking safes from houses. Along the way, Henry keeps his sweetness but starts to question and put hints together. The book builds to a revelation of murder and resolution.

Edgerton is a master at portraying Southern life. This book illustrates life in the South in the time period from the 1930's to the late 1950's, that last generation before television, electricity and cars became commonplace. Family and religion made up a large part of most people's lives. People lived close to the land, growing gardens, hunting and fishing. Moral codes were rigorous and enforcement was a community affair, where your neighbor was as likely to correct a child as the parents.

The other strength of the book is character development. If the reader is from the South, they immediately recognise the characters, as they grew up with people who were just like the ones Edgerton describes. The description of food, entertainment, religious beliefs and attitudes towards life are familiar, and the book feels like coming home and slipping on comfortable clothes. This book is recommended for those looking for reading entertainment and a fond look back to another time.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry

Salem, Massachusetts is the home of the Whitney family. Whitney women are known for their strength, their eccentricity and their ability to read the future in lace. There is Eva, the matriarch, who lives in Salem, reads lace and runs a tearoom. May, her stepdaughter, is an agrophobic who lives on an island in the harbour, where she has devoted her life to helping battered women, many of whom live there while putting their lives back together. Emma, Eva's daughter, also lives on the island, blinded and brain-damaged after a beating by her husband, Cal. May's daughters were twin girls, Towner and Lyndley. Lyndley committed suicide when she was seventeen and Towner left town, seeking a new life.

As the story opens, Eva has gone missing and Towner returns home, drawn by this family crisis. Towner seems to be the catalyst that causes old relationships and secrets to reemerge. Cal Boynton is back in town where he has reinvented himself as a religious leader of a cultlike following. A young girl, Angela Rickey, who is pregnant with Cal's child, also disappears. Towner's old love, Jack, is still in town and anxious to resume their relationship. In addition, a town policeman, Rafferty, also falls in love with Towner. Towner starts to untangle the mysteries that have haunted her life. Why did her twin commit suicide in front of her and Jack? What is the fixation that Cal has with the Whitney women? Towner slowly reveals the truth, sometimes reading lace to find patterns. The book rises to a page-turning climax where the truth that has formed this family is finally revealed.

The Lace Reader is a compelling and satisfying read. It explores the issues of sexual and physical abuse. The mindset of those who enter cults is investigated. Suicide and mental illness are other themes, along with lost love and the yearning to hide in the past. While it covers depressing material, the book is not a depressing one overall. Rather, it leaves the reader with a message of hope and the realization that the truth must be faced in order to lose its power to skew lives. Not easily forgotten, this book is recommended for all fiction readers.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Don't Know Much About Anything Else by Kenneth Davis

If you're looking for an entertaining book to give as a gift or for yourself, get yourself to a bookstore and buy Kenneth Davis's book, Don't Know Much About Anything Else. A sequel to Davis's New York Times bestseller, Don't Know Much About History, this book is what I'd call a "dipper". Rather than sitting down and reading it cover to cover, it is a great book to open up whenever you have a few minutes. A few minutes is all it takes for Davis to pose questions about subjects that you probably can't answer although you've probably wondered about, and to provide the answers.

Covering subjects as diverse as Labor Day, the state of Ohio, Katherine Hepburn, pro hockey and a myriad of other topics, the book is divided into sections. These include famous people, exceptional places, historic happenings and civics, holidays and traditions, everyday objects and remarkable inventions, space and the natural world, sports, entertainment and a miscellaneous section. Within each section, each subject is formatted the same way. The subject starts with a few fact-filled paragraphs about the subject. Following that are a series of questions, most of which you know you should know but can't really answer. That's not a problem, as the answers to the questions are on the back of the page.

For example, in the Labor Day subject, the reader learns who was the driving force behind the holiday, and the date on which it was signed into law. The date that holiday falls on annually is given. Then, the questions are items such as what was the first minimum wage, what percentage of workers belong to a union, what union was thrown out of the AFL-CIO for corruption and why is Frances Perkins famous? All of these are answered on the following page.

I found this book to be a delight. It is a great way to pass some time, and to learn facts. I can imagine families playing trivia with this book as the foundation, or parents using it as a fun method of educating their children. This book is highly recommended for all readers. Everyone can learn something new from the book, and will have an interesting time doing so.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

King of Nod by Scott Fad

WOW! If you're a fantasy fan, this book will amaze you. It is a rollercoaster ride that grabs the reader immediately and refuses to let go until the end reveals all secrets.

Boo Taylor has been away from his home, Sweetpatch Island, for twenty years. He left behind old secrets, family intrigues and an epic romance gone bad. Things were happening on the island that were more than he could bear. Fires, murders, racial tensions, curses, hints of old intrigues and tangled family relationships. It finally became more than Boo could handle, and he went away to try to build a life elsewhere.

But the island constantly tugs at his heart and spirit. When his father dies, Boo returns. He plans to only come for the funeral but quickly gets pulled into the old intrigues and mysteries. And he finds his lost love, Gussie again. Who are really his ancestors? Who has committed the murders and set the fires? What secrets hide in the old ruined mansion from which the island was ruled in days of slavery?

This book is highly recommended. It is easily one of the most memorable books I've read this year. The language is amazing, twisting and turning the tension, pulling the reader further and further into the secrets that make up Boo Taylor's life and which, if undiscovered, will kill him. Scott Fad has pulled off a masterpiece.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Homeland Insecurity by Terry Turchie and Kathleen Puckett

Homeland Insecurity is written by Terry Turchie and Kathleen Puckett. Turchie was a former Deputy Assistnat Director of the Counterterrorism Divison of the FBI, and was involved in the Theodore Kaczynski and the Eric Rudolph domestic terrorism cases. Kathleen Puckett was an FBI Special Agent for 23 years, involved in behavioral consulting.
These authors wrote Homeland Insecurity because they believe the FBI is in a perilous situation due to political manuvering and change of the organization's primary mission. The connection between the FBI and the CIA is investigated, and how that relationship has changed since the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
One of the more interesting parts of the books is the authors' belief that politicians have weakened the FBI, both to protect themselves from criminal investigation for bribery or influence peddling, and to provide a scapegoat for terror incidents or to serve as a grandstanding platform to advance their own political careers. Politicians from both political parties are named, along with their actions that harm the FBI. Those named include Richard Nixon, Frank Church, Jamie Gorelick, Don Edwards, Patrick Leahy and Charless Grassley, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Richard Shelby and George Bush. It is the authors' contention that politicians are addicted to power, and it is an addiction like any other, causing the addict to do anything to procure their drug of choice. In addition to the named politicians, famous scandals such as the Archer Midland scandal are explained.
The other focus of the book is the focus on the change of mission for the FBI. The focus has steadily moved from the criminal investigations that the agency was created to combat, to a counterterrorism focus. Agents are now more collectors of information than investigators. While given responsibility, the agency is also restricted by artificial walls between agencies, and oversight regulations, that make their work more difficult. In particular, the relationship between the FBI and the CIA is strained and adversarial.
While interesting, I'm not sure I was convinced of all of the authors' contentions. Some of the evidence seemed to be presented in a less than impartial fashion, or interpreted in the agency's favor whenever there was a question of how events should be handled. This book is recommended for those who are interested in how governments and government agencies work, and those concerned with the antiterrorism structure set up to protect the country.

Interpreter Of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

Interpreter Of Maladies won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. The collection of nine stories, by Jhumpa Lahiri, explores Indian culture and the interaction of Indian individuals with Western (British and American) culture.
In addition to exploring the Indian immigrant experience, the stories in this collection explore love and lonliness and the ways that people interact with those around them. Some stories focus on couples and their love affairs, others with relationships such as a sweeper and the building tenets, or an Indian women who babysits an American child. The stories give many details of the Indian culture such as mode of dress or adornment, social relationships, attitudes towards working, and religion outlooks.
My personal favorite was the story "This Blessed House". It explores the relationship between Sanjeev, an Indian who has finished his education and is moving up in his company, and his new wife, Twinkle. Although these are modern individuals, their romance was still an arranged one and the story demonstrates how they adjust to each other and to marriage. While many of the details of Indian culture are used, I liked this story because it is universal. Everyone in a marriage goes through this time of discovery and adjustment.
A quick read, this book is highly recommended for the reader who wants to learn about India and the Indian immigrant experience. It is hard to imagine that at least one of these stories wouldn't touch any reader, regardless of their background.

Monday, November 17, 2008

We Interrupt This Broadcast by Joe Garner

What a marvelous book! We Interrupt This Broadcast, by Joe Garner, takes the reader back through recent history to revisit the events that made news. The book's forward is written by Walter Cronkike, who was everyman's uncle and the ultimate news authority in the 60's and 70's. Each event is given a two to four page explaination of how the story unfolded. The book's afterword is written by Brian Williams. I found this particularly effective, as an example of how the news industry goes on, from anchorman to anchorman, each contributing to our lives with their coverage of the events that shape our histories.

The events covered start in the 1930's with the Hindenburg explosion, and end with the Iraqi war, Hurricane Katrina and the Virginia Tech massacre. Scores of noteworthy events are covered, from Pearl Harbor to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr. to the space program, the Kent State massacres, the Berlin Wall destruction and the political disgraces of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. The short histories of each event were fascinating. Reading them, I was shocked at how many facts I had forgotten about these events, or had never known.

Adding to the interest, there are CD's included that give the reader the actual words of the broadcast interruptions for various events. Being able to hear the news stories while reading about them made the events seem even more lifelike.

This book is highly recommended. It would be a great holiday gift for anyone who has lived through the events described, or for those who want to learn more about them. I can't remember a book that I've enjoyed more lately and I'm very glad I read this one.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Boosting Your Baby's Brain Power

Boosting Your Baby's Brainpower by Holly Engel-Smothers and Susan M. Heim is written for new parents. It outlines the connection between stimulation a newborn baby receives and how its brain develops. Written from a scientifc standpoint, it provides specific exercises for parents of babies to do with their child so that the brain power is maximized. The concept of windows of opportunities is explored. Physical development is explained along with the timeline most children follow.

The book is divided into eight chapters. The first chapter talks about brain development and what a healthy brain needs to develop after birth. Attachment to the parents and its' importance is covered in chapter two. Chapter three talks about language development, while chapter four covers vision development and chapter five covers audio development. Motor skills are covered in chapter six and temperment in chapter seven. The final chapter talks about how to prepare for a doctor's appoinment and what the appointment should cover.

Each chapter has a glossary of terms. I found this book a quick read and extremely interesting. Feelings about development I had with my children were scientifically proven or disproven. I especially liked the specifc exercises that a parent could do to stimulate and develop each area of the brain and the baby's development. My main feeling after reading the book was regret I hadn't had this book when my own children were babies. I would definately recommend this book to new parents and grandparents.

Monday, November 10, 2008

China Road by Rob Gifford

China has been called 'the sleeping giant'. If so, the giant is awakening, and it is unclear what effect its' stirring will have on the rest of the world. Rob Gifford, an NPR correspondent, spent six years living in China. When he decided to leave, he spent two months traveling across China on Road 312. China Road is the story of that journey, and his predictions about how the future will unfold there.

The biggest change visually is the major push for industrialization. China has 49 cities with more than a million people. Thousands of people every year are moving from the farms to the cities to work in factories. These factory jobs have long hours and wretched working conditions, but workers can make more in a month than a year's work on their farm would bring. The massive number of factories and the low worker wages means that more and more Western jobs are moving to China. Pollution is extremely high, and recent events have brought into question the safety of such products.

More interesting to Gifford is a less visible change. The Communist takeover and the subsequent Cultural Revolution wrenched the Chinese people from their moral backgrounds. Confuscism and Buddism were targeted, moral codes were scoffed at and their followers were persecuted. History was seen not as a treasure, but as a burden. Gifford sees that this has resulted in a China adrift without a moral code, and it is unclear how society will exist and emerge without a common societial background of agreed upon values. He also sees possible problems arising from the various provinces where minorities are the dominant population. Those minorities are often resentful of the Chinese rule, and that resentment could easily turn into revolution and attempts to break away. That is the major contradiction in China. In order to retain the tight control on its' people, China must employ recessive tactics. Such tactics don't fit well with the need for the technology required for growth. How this dicotomy will play out over the coming years is China's main challenge.

I enjoyed this book. It was interesting to read about the different areas of China, and the people who lived in each. From the macro level, it was fascinating to see how governmental action has changed the average life and common beliefs so completely. One example of this would be the 'one child' policy and the lengths to which the government will go to insure this policy. There were also lots of interesting facts; I would never have guessed that a large portion of the world's ketchup comes from Chinese tomatoes. I'm glad I read this one, as China will be a major player on the world scene in the coming decades.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Intruder In The Dust by William Faulkner

I'm a huge fan of William Faulkner. Whenever I open a Faulkner book, it feels like coming home, like one of the hometown ladies has invited me to sit a spell and have some cool sweet tea. He gets the characters and language of the locality spot on, and I recognize characters as types I meet every day here in the South.

Intruder In The Dust was a Faulkner I had not read before. It covers a weekend following the reported murder of a white man by a black man back in the 1930's. There is concern that the local inhabitants may rush the jail and lynch the man before he gets to go to trial. Lucas Beauchamp is the black man in question. He tells his version of the events to the sixteen year old son of the local doctor, a boy nicknamed Chick. The book follows what happens when Chick attempts to check out Lucas's story, and how the locals react and whether they believe rumors or attempt to base their decisions on facts.

On top of the Southern setting and the true-to-life characterizations, the other thing I particularly like about Faulkner is his writing style. His sentences are stream of consciousness, and one sentence can meander on for a page or more. It is reminiscent of the way Southern people talk, and how anything can serve as a stimulus for a story.

Intruder In The Dust is a true classic. I'm extremely glad I read it, and I highly recommend it.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Waterland by Graham Swift

Waterland, by Graham Swift, has been patiently sitting on my bookshelves waiting for me to get to it. My only regret after reading it, is that it took me so long to read this one. I've had an incredible reading run lately, with books that have really impressed me for various reasons, and Waterland is definately on that list.
The book follows Tom Crick, a history professor in the Fen country of England. His family have always been watermen; his father a lock-keeper on the "River Leem, which flows out of Norfolk into the Great Ouse". Tom is at the end of his career, a forced retirement, and is looking back into what formed his life.
The book opens with the discovery of a boy's body in the water by Tom's father. In the process of discovering how the boy died, we meet Tom's brother, Dick, who is mentally challenged, and his first love, Mary Metcalf. We learn about the history of the marshes and rivers in the area, and Tom's family history. He is a descendant of the Crick family and on his mother's side, the Atkinson family, the area's most prosperous family. Finally, as the book unfolds, we learn about the dark secrets that have formed the area's history and that of Tom and Mary.
Graham Swift's language is poetic and the history is mingled in very naturally. We learn how the great events of history, such as World War I, the rise of shipping and it's replacement, train travel or ale brewing, affects an average family. The family secret around which the book turns is hinted at early, and the susequent references build suspense bit by bit until the final revelation. Waterland was a 1983 Booker prize nominee. This book is a masterpiece, and I'm thrilled I read it.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson

I've enjoyed all of Kate Atkinson's books immensely, and this one was no different. She writes of people who are often disconnected from society for some reason, or facing problems. The plot meanders but ends up tightly tying all the plotlines together.
This book focuses on lost souls. There is Reggie whose mother drowned on vacation leaving her to make her way at sixteen. Reggie finds a job as a nanny with Joanna Hunter, a doctor. Who could be more normal than a doctor? But it turns out that Dr. Hunter is the sole survivor of a family massacre that occurred when she was six, leaving her to rebuild her world. Louise Monroe is a police inspector, who is questioning her marriage to a surgeon. Then there is Jackson Brodie. A former policeman and then private detective, Jackson is newly married. He takes a train home and is involved in a train derailment which lands him in the hospital after he dies and is revived.
All of these individuals interact as the book unfolds. Dr. Hunter goes missing the same week that her family's murderer is finally released from prison. Reggie is frantic, trying to make Inspector Monroe take Dr. Hunter's disappearance seriously. As she waits, she gets involved in the train derailment, which occurs outside her home. In fact, she is the person who revives Jackson Brodie, and then recruits him to help in the search for Joanna Hunter. This doesn't sit well with Inspector Monroe, who knows Brodie from his former occupations.
Those who have enjoyed Atkinson's other books will find this one enjoyable. Brodie is a recurring character from an earlier book. Those who haven't read Atkinson have a great treat in store for them. I'll definately be waiting for her next book, and thank her for this one.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

A Sight For Sore Eyes by Ruth Rendell

Francine has had a rough start to life. When she is seven, her mother is murdered by a man who comes to the house, and Francine escapes by hiding under her bed. Teddy has had a rough childhood also. His parents were shocked to have him, and were too self-centered to pay him any attention at all. In Ruth Rendell's A Sight For Sore Eyes, Francine and Teddy find each other and form a relationship.

Characterization and plotting are hallmarks of Rendell's style. In addition to the two main characters, there are several other women who play large parts in the plotlines. Julia is Francine's stepmother, and tries to keep her a baby because of her early trauma. Harriett is a rich woman, married to a man who no longer loves her and going through a series of young lovers. Both these women share the self-centeredness that seems to move the book forward.

I can't remember ever reading a Ruth Rendell that I didn't enjoy, and this one was no different. Rendell's plotlines are tight and the evil that happens seems inevitable with the characters involved. For fans, this one is highly recommended.

Make A Joyful Noise by Chariss Walker

Chariss Walker has written a book to give hope and help to individuals facing various life issues, through a Christian filter. She divides the book into three sections.

The first section is titled Understanding Spiritual Laws. In this section, Ms. Walker tells her story and how she came to believe in these ideas. She talks about concepts such as how we come to understand truth, that we are led to those who can help when we are ready for such help. She discusses the power of words, and how having the right attitude can change the way a life unfolds.

The second section is titled The Spiritual Laws. Ms. Walker devotes a chapter to the following laws: The Law of Oneness, The Law of Vibration, The Law Of Attraction, The Law of Polarity, the Law Of Action, The Law of Rhythm, The Law of Cause and Effect, The Law of Asking and Receiving, The Law Of Increase,The Law of Compensation, The Law of Transmutation, The Law Of Relativity, The Law of Reciprocation and The Law of Forgiveness. Each law is interpreted through the filter of Christian concepts and Bible verses are used throughout to illustrate the principals. Each chapter ends with various affirmations the reader can use when practising the law.

The last section is titled Putting Spiritual Laws Into Practice. It covers topics such as prayer, meditation, thanksgiving, praise, affirmations, visualization, dreams, miracles, light of the world, and angels. The same format is used; each topic is explained with either a short parable or Bible verses or both. I found the indexing of angels into various groups very interesting. The book ends with recommended reading and a glossary of terms.

The audience for this book would be either a reader who is interested in the Christian faith, or one who is searching for answers to make sense of their life. Readers in those categories will find this book informative and helpful.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Infidel by Ayaan Hirsi Ali
This is Ayaan Hirsi Ali's biography in which she details how she went from being a typical Muslim woman to rejecting the Muslim religion and her native country. Ali was raised as a strict Muslim, which meant that she was raised as a second class citizen. Every aspect of her life was ruled by religion and by her family's lifestyle, which was based on generations of adherence to strict religion tenets. Ali went through periods when she was very compliant, and periods when she questioned all that she saw around her, and especially the treatment of women. She was excised, the term for female circumsion, at an early age along with her sister.
The final blow came when her father, who didn't live with the family for many years, arranged a marriage for Ayaan with a man she had not met and who she did not want to marry. He was a Muslim living in Canada, so in order to join him, she had to emigrate through Germany. When she got to Germany, she found the strength to go instead to Holland, where she was granted refugee status.
Ali spent several years getting a college education, then becoming a strong advocate for Muslim women. Her work led to her being elected to the Dutch Parliment. As her work progressed, she gained a reputation for speaking out against the Muslim religion and the second-class status of women in that religion. Her views led to death threats against her, and when Theo Van Gogh, a direct descendant of the painter and a film maker who lived in Holland, was murdered, the murderer stabbed a note into his chest. The note was a threat against Ali. Her life now consists of bodyguards and constant vigilence against those who would kill her for her views.
The most interesting issue she brought up was the dichotomy between two ideals in the West. One ideal is multiculturism. In most Western countries, it is considered a "good" or civilized thing to support the right of other cultures to express themselves without having to change their values, religion, etc. to that of the dominant group. However, another ideal is that each citizen should be treated equally. So what are Western countries to do as increasing numbers of immigrants from other cultures arrive? Should their values be supported, even if those values treat women, for example, as chattel with no rights? Should women be beaten because the religion supports this, or separate schools established so that the children of the minority don't have to be exposed to other values? I found this conflict between ideals very thought provoking.
I enjoyed this book quite a lot. I believe I'll be thinking about it for quite a while. I admire the strength that Ayann Hirsi Ali found within herself to create a life so different from that assigned to her by her culture. This book is highly recommended.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Grotesque by Natsuo Kirino

Natsuo Kirino does not write about pleasant people or situations. A few months ago, I read her book, Out, that takes as it's subject matter three factory women who band together to commit a murder. She explores this territory further in her latest book, Grotesque.

Kirino explores the relationship between two sisters, and their classmates at an exclusive girl's school. Yuriko is the most beautiful girl in the school by far, so beautiful that she is considered almost monstrous, as no one can relate to her. Her older sister, intelligent but average looking, chooses to distinguish herself by becoming the most malicious girl in the school. Her main target is Kazue Sato. Kazue is intelligent but hopelessly awkward, and is teased and humiliated by the others. The top ranked girl, Mitsuri, drifts between cliques, but befriends the older sister.

Years later, these women have turned out differently than might have been expected. Mitsuri, after becoming a doctor, gets involved in a religious cult and is imprisoned for crimes she committed out of devotion to the leader. The older sister lives a life of quiet desperation, stuck in a dead end job and with no human contact or warmth. Both Yuriko and Kazue become prostitutes, and both end up murdered by the same man.

This is not an uplifting book. There are no characters that I'd like to know better, and the book is very bleak. I was left wondering if Japanese society is really as depressing for women as the book portrays. In particular, the prostitutes were willing to degrade themselves in any way requested, without even knowing themselves why they did so. I'm not sure I would recommend this book to others.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Music And Silence by Rose Tremain

This book entranced me from the very first page. It is easily the best book I've read in months, perhaps the entire year. Music and Silence, winner of the Whitbread Award in 1999, is Rose Tremain's seventh novel.
The book is set in Denmark, at King Christian's court in the 1630's. The King is troubled, beset by financial ruin for the country and an unfaithful wife, Kristin, that he still loves. His only solace is music, and he has an orchestra on call at all times. One new member, Peter Claire, is a lutist, and so handsome that the King calls him his "angel" and calls on him to play for him whenever he is especially troubled. Claire, in turn, falls in love with Emilia, who is the king's wife's companion. Emilia has come to court to escape her home after her mother has died and her father has remarried.
The lives of these characters, and many others, are intertwined in a delicious mix of love and hate, strategies and failed plans, music and philosophy. Relationships between men and women are explored and the strengths of both men and women in the time period are displayed. The reader also learns some Danish history, and how life at court was for various individuals.
I can't remember a book with better character portrayals. Each character, whether major or minor, was finely drawn, so that the reader felt she could recognize them if she happened upon them in the street. Kristin, the king's wife, is a villian that I'll remember for quite a while; a more self-centered woman cannot be found in literature. I couldn't wait to get home each day to read more of the these characters and the lives they lived. This book is very highly recommended.

Massacre River by Rene Philoctete

Massacre River by Rene Philoctete is a stream of consciousness novel about the repression and dictatorship of life in the Dominican Republic during the reign of Trujillo, and the massacre of Haitian workers and families on the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The book centers around the lives of Pedro Brito, a labor worker organizer and his wife Adele. It showcases the banality of torture and death, how the common people attempting to live their lives were constantly exposed to humiliation and death, never knowing exactly what would cause their tormentors to kill them.
The contrast between the lyrical language and the depressing topic constantly jars the reader, drawing them along the path of the story even as they resist. While this book evokes emotions, I can't say I enjoyed reading it. One reason was that I had just recently finished The Brief Wonderous Life Of Oscar Wao, which also takes the Dominican Republic and the events of Trujillo's reign as its focus. This book was just too soon after that one.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James

The Snake Charmer by Jamie James is a fascinating look at a herptologist, Joseph Slowinski and his life and career. That life was cut tragically short when he was bitten by a venomous snake while on an expedition to Burma. The book details Joe's early fascination with nature, and how his childhood experiences steered toward a career in science. Specifically, he chose the field of herptology and was known as a master biologist. His contributions to the field were such that he was recognized as one of the premier herptologists at a young age. This prominence had it's underside though; Joe's reputation as a hard drinking, rule-breaking danger-loving explorer.

The expedition to Burma was a scientific and politcal breakthrough. Burma is one of the last remote places where scientific surveys have not been systematically conducted. This is due mainly to the despotic government as well as the ruggedness of the terrain with the attendant difficulties of exploring. Joe's expedition included scientists researching birds, reptiles, insects and plants, in addition to the snakes. Several new species were discovered. Joe stuck his hand into a collection bag and was bitten by a krait, the most venomous snake in Asia. The story of how the expedition members attempted to keep Joe alive is detailed, along with the fact that Joe knew exactly what would happen to him and discussed his death and the stages of his reactions in detail with his campmates. A krait bite is not an instanteous death; Joe lived for over a day after the bite.

The book is arranged in chapters, and each chapter starts with a description of a different snake. Along with Joe's story, there were lots of facts about snakes and reptiles. For example, I learned that all snakes are venomous in some degree. Another interesting note was that there is a worldwide decrease in the number of frogs and other amphibians. The information about Burma and the inside look at how research expeditions are mounted and how they work was also interesting. This book is recommended for those interested in nature and those whose work includes categorizing the world around us.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Death's Half Acre by Margaret Maron

Title: Death's Half Acre

Author: Margaret Maron

Publisher: Hachette Book Group

Genre: Mystery


Deborah Knott, district judge in a small town in North Carolina, is concerned about the changes taking place in her area. The old farms are being broken up and ritzy housing developments are growing up everywhere. Along with the new houses come outsiders who think their money trumps the family relationships and trust built on generations of local families.

As worrisome as the new money is, things get dramatically worse when Candace Bradshaw, chairman of the county commissioners, is found murdered in her big new expensive house. Allegations of political misconduct and insider corruption abound. Deborah's husband, who is a sheriff's deputy, investigates the case, and Deborah finds herself getting drawn in. In addition, her dad, patriarch of one of the old families and a former bootlegger, is acting strange and Deborah is worried about what is going on with him.

The fourteenth mystery in this series is a big hit for Margaret Maron. Those readers who have followed the series will be pleased to come back for another visit with Deborah and her eccentric family. Those readers for whom this is a first read will be quickly drawn into the series and immediately go look for earlier books in the series. I especially liked this one as I live in the area and could relate to the locations and the social relationships outlined. A solid win for Maron.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
Winner of the 2004 Miles Franklin Literary Award, The Great Fire explores how individuals put their lives back together after a life-shifting event such as a war, and the part that love plays in our lives. Set in the years immediately following World War II, it follows a group of men who fought in the war and now are involved in the followup to that conflict, and the people they interact with.
The main character is Aldred Leith, a highly decorated hero who is investigating the aftermath of the war and deciding what path his life will now follow. He is housed at a residence with a military family, the Driscolls. He meets and becomes fast friends with their children. Benedict has a life-threatening disease and Helen, his sister, is his constant companion. Over time, Leith falls in love with Helen, which causes problems. He is thirty-two, while she is seventeen. Their love is fraught with complications and separation.
In addition to Leith, there are many other characters the reader meets and becomes interested in. Peter Exeley is a friend of Leith's, whose life changes forever when he attempts to rescue a native child. We get vignettes of his mother and father, a former mistress named Aurora and a mother and daughter household that befriends Helen during her separation from Leith. Each charcter is drawn deftly and in such detail that the reader can imagine knowing them if they were to meet.
The writing is hypnotic and dreamy; horrible events occur but seem to be seen through a mist. Emotions are explored and those characteristics that allow one to survive cataclysms are identified. This book is highly recommended by such authors as Ann Patchett, Joan Didion and Anita Shreve, and it is easy to see why they loved it so much.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

Written in fresh street talk vernacular, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao exploded onto the literary scene last year. It follows the lives of one Dominican Republic family and the trajedies that befall them. Oscar is the main character, although oddly, in this novel of personal statements, Oscar is the only voice we don't hear. Much of the story is told by Yunior, Oscar's sister's boyfriend. Oscar is a fat, friendless man, who grew up without much human contact and can't seem to break through to have friends or loves. His sister, Lola, while more successful, is betrayed by her various lovers, a pattern that has continued from her mother's life.
Underneath the family stories is the bleak history of the Dominican Republic, and in particular, the brutalities imposed on the entire country by the dictator, Trujillo. Many Americans may only have heard of him in passing, but he ruled this country with an iron fist for decades. He was an absolute despot, killing people on whims, stealing children, demanding sexual favors from wives and daughters of families. Rape, murder and confiscation of property were commonplace.
Some readers may be put off by the street language, the graphic sex and cursing. While I didn't have a problem with that, I wasn't in love with this book. It was too bleak for my taste, with most characters having lives that were depressing and full of betrayal.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Half Of A Yellow Sun

Half Of A Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This book, which won the Orange Prize in 2007, follows a couple and their families during the Biafran separation from Nigeria and the war that followed from that separation. The main characters are Odenigbo, a professor, Olanna, a teacher who lives with Odenigbo and marries him during the war and their houseboy Ugwu. Other charaacters are Baby, their child, and Olanna's twin sister and her lover, Kainene and Richard.
The book portrays several themes. One is the rapidity with which chaos can overtake lives. The Biafrans started their independance from Nigeria convinced that they would win, as they believed they were in the right. The journey from the war being a slight inconvience to starvation, loss of property, conscription of anyone able to fight and injury and death happens quickly. It is amazing how things that were unimaginable a few weeks earlier now seem commonplace and desirable,, such as a fried grasshopper to eat as others had nothing.
Another theme is betrayal. The Biafran government was betrayed, by Nigeria, who tolerated and encouraged massacres that caused the Igbo people of Biafra to sucede. They were betrayed by the superpowers of the world, which did not recognize the new country. They were betrayed by relief organizations that let thousands of children and adults starve to death, while corruption in the organizations was rampant. There were constant betrayals by what had been considered friends the day before, as survival became more and more difficult. And there were personal betrayals, between lovers. Both Olanna and Odenigbo had affairs, and Olanna's was with her twin sister's lover. The way that these characters overcame and forgave betrayals was a major focus of the book.
Finally, as difficult as it may be to believe, a theme of the book was hope. The ability of the characters to adjust to their circumstances, and move on from various trajedies was seen again and again. The development of Ugwu from an ignorant country boy to an educated man with hope and a future showed hope for the future.
Adichie's writing was luminous. She portrayed a time of horror accurately and took the reader to that time and place, until the reader cringed when another bombing run occurred. She wrote of horrors and how they affected those who witnessed them. Finally, she wrote of how one survives such events, and how relationships with others provide hope and the ability to rebuild lives. This book is highly recommended.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review of Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children

The author of Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children has lived the nightmare that the book is about; she has an adult son that has failed to grow up and take responsibility for living a productive life. Instead, he has been involved in drugs, in and out of jails, and has tried to shift the blame and responsibility for his life choices onto the author and her husband. From the pain she experienced going through this, she learned the lessons she writes about in the book.

When a parent has a problem adult child, there are certain steps that must happen in order for things to change. The first is that the parent must accept and take responsibility for enabling the child. This could consist of paying their way rather than having them get a job, providing legal help, cashing in retirement funds so that their child can avoid consequences, or a myriad of other ways parents enable rather than help their child. Once the parent accepts their enablement and the consequences of it, they are ready to let the child face the consequences of their choices, even when it causes pain and embarrassment to the parent and the family.

Allison Bottke has formed a group to help parents in this situation. Called Sanity Supports, it serves as a safe place for parents to come and share their anguish, as well as having a support group to help them make the tough decisions and stick by them. The website for this group and the principles shared in the book is . Sanity is the acronym she uses for the six-step program she lays out. These steps are:

S = Stop enabling, stop blaming yourself, and stop the flow of money
A = Assemble a support group
N = Nip excuses in the bud
I = Implement rules and boundaries
T = Trust your instincts
Y = Yield everything to God

The book is written from a Christian standpoint, and while there is much valuable information for everyone, it's unclear how those of other religious faiths or those who are agnostic would receive the book. However, this is Bottke's experience, and separating God from the other steps she took is not possible. In addition to the six-step program, there are also valuable resources throughout the book. She lists many other books and authorities that parents in this situation can research. This book is recommended for those parents who are facing this difficult life situation.

Wild Week

It has been a wild week here. We got over 10 inches of rain from tropical storm Fay in three days. In addition, on Wednesday we had tornado warnings and sightings. April spent an hour and a half in the school stairwell, crouched into the tornado position. That was pretty scary for her. In a totally bonehead moment, I left the car window down one night and got rain in the car. Now I need to find a way to eliminate the smell left behind.

There were also good things in the past week. Rex put a new lock on the back door, and it is one of those that uses a digital code rather than a key to lock and unlock. That is so much easier for April, and it eliminates the issue of locking yourself out of the car.

April started taking piano lessons this week. I think she'll really like them, but we did have to give up Girl Scouts. There are just so many hours in a week and you can't do everything. This leaves her with dance, GA's at church, and then piano. In January, we'll add cheerleading on Saturdays. In addition, I'm trying to find some cooking classes that work with our schedule as she really enjoys those.

This was a banner week for new books. I received the following: The Snake Charmer by Jamie James, Death's Half Acre by Margaret Maron, Bad Seeds In The Big Apple by Patrick Downey, Good-bye And Amen by Beth Gutcheon, The Bible Salesman by Clyde Edgerton, The Road Home by Rose Tremain which is the 2008 Orange Prize winner, King Of Nod by Scott Fad, Loving-Living-Party Going by Henry Green and The House At Riverton by Kate Morton. I finished a self-help book named Setting Boundaries With Your Adult Children by Allison Bottke, and my review is on this page.

We had a very social Saturday. We have friends that have been in our lives for 20 years or more, and they are great people. They have three adult children, all married and with children. We've retained a relationship with all of them over the years. Yesterday the youngest child had a birthday party for her baby and husband. The baby just turned one, and the husband hit the dreaded forty. It was so much fun to go to this cookout and catch up on all their lives. Then Saturday evening a neighbor had a birthday party for their twin daughters, who turned eighteen. They are special girls, and April looks up to them as mentors and friends. Another fun time but too much food and cake!

Today is catch up time. April has a bug project due where we had to catch various categories of bugs and now have to mount and label them. Since she is scared of bugs, you can imagine how much fun this will be. I want to get a kitchen catchall drawer cleaned out, and I brought home some work from the office. There's laundry, grocery shopping and errands to be done, so this should be a busy day. See you all next weekend when I post the weekly digest. Hope you have a grand week.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Guns, Germs and Steel

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
I found this book to be incredibly interesting. Dr. Diamond, a professor of geography at UCLA and a National Medal of Science recipient, explores why some cultures were more successful than others over time in establishing civilizations and exporting their civilizations to other regions.
His basic premise is that there is no evidence that the successful cultures contained individuals of any higher intelligence on the whole than those cultures that were not successful, nor is there an innate difference between humans in different societies. Rather, successful societies became so because of a geographic luck of the draw. Those areas that were hospitable to domisticating large animals and food stuffs tended to have successful civilizations. If there was any other determining factors, it was physical obstacles such as mountain ranges that tended to discourage migration, and tribal size. Sheer numbers of humans tended to result in more successful societies as there were more inventors and more innovations to adopt.
I found this book fascinating. Dense with facts, I immediately turned back to the first page and started rereading when I finished, as there was much too much information for me to take in and assimilate as I'd like to on one reading. It is evident why this book won the Pulitizer Prize.

The Smart One

The Smart One by Ellen Meister
Title: The Smart One
Author: Ellen Meister
Publisher: HarperCollins
ISBN: 978-0-06-112962-9
Genre: Women's Fiction, Family Relationships, Humor
Reviewed by: Sandie Kirkland

Bev Bloomrosen is having a midlife crisis. She's 35, and hoping to change careers and start teaching art, hopefully moving from New York to Las Vegas. She's divorced, unattached and still embroiled in sibling rivalries with her two sisters. Clare, the oldest, is known as "the pretty one" and is married with two children, perfectly happy as far as Bev knows. Joey, her younger sister and "the talented one", is a former rock star and drug addict. That leaves Clare in the middle, known as "the smart one" but wondering what to do with her life.

While she waits to hear about the Las Vegas job, her summer gets complicated. First of all, there's the issue of Kenny Waxman, the boy next door who broke her heart in high school. Kenny is living in his parents' house while they try to sell it and also at loose ends waiting to hear about a job. Bev finds him just as appealing now as she did twenty years ago, but should she take the plunge and get involved again with him? Then there is Clare, whose marriage is not as happy as it seemed and who is contemplating an affair. Bev feels she needs to stop this and gets involved with the man she suspects is the one Clare is attracted to, her contractor, Leo. Joey is mysterious, disappearing for days then back involved in family matters. To top things off, the sisters make a grusome discovery, an industrial drum stored under the Waxman's house which contains a pregnant woman's body. Who is responsible for her pregnancy and death?

While this all sounds grim, Ellen Meister writes about these situations in a lighthearted manner, making them seem like normal family issues and bringing them to a successful resolution. The characters are well-defined and believable, and the reader soon begins to cheer them on as they encounter difficulties. The writing is light and breezy, and draws the reader along to the end. Readers who want a light read with lots of romantic action and resolution of family difficulties will find this book very enjoyable.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

What an incredibly busy week! It was the first week back from vacation, so I had lots of work to catch up on. Then I had a new staff member so that took quite a while to get him situated and feeling comfortable. Finally, it was April's first week back at school, with all that entails. Lunches, first week at dance, first week at GA's, next week starts piano lessons.

The first school project is an insect identification. April has to locate bugs in six of eight categories, glue them to a sheet and identify them. For a girly girl who hates to admit bugs share the world, this is quite a challenge. We've been looking in corners and inside light fixtures to find bugs that have already met their demise.

I finished reading Heir to The Glimmering World (see review) by Cynthia Ozick this week, and The Smart One by Ellen Meister (review to follow). In progress is Barcelona by Robert Hughes, Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, and A Thousand Splendid Suns. I hope to read in Suns this weekend.

The weekend should be low-key. I do have laundry to do, of course, but no big obligations. Rex is working on getting his Sea-Doo charged and started as he is selling it. I need to go get a haircut, and I'm determined to clean out one closet or drawer, and have April empty one dresser top or closet floor. We'll see if I'm successful.

I also need to get busy with birthday gifts. Ben, my son, will be 28 this week. His wife, Katie, has a birthday on September 15, and Rex's birthday is September 10th. In the biggest news, Alex the Wonder Baby, will be one on September 8th! I can't believe a year has gone by, and it breaks my heart they are so far away. Then I have a birthday party next weekend given by one of Ben's good friends, Julia, the daughter of one of my best friends, Janet and Gordon. Her little girl will also be one, and her husband wil be 40. The girls next door have their 18th birthday next week also; it's a busy time of year!

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Finally, I caught up on all the email that piled up while we were on vacation. It took 3 days to read it all. Now I can start working on figuring out how this whole blog thing works.

I spent the day doing laundry and getting ready for the new school year. It's hard to believe that's it's time for the kids to go back. I'll still need to go shopping for school supplies this week.

I haven't read anything except email. I have two books in progress. The Smart One by Ellen Meister, is a review book. It's a murder mystery/chick lit/sister relationship book that's light and amusing. Heir To The Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick, is a book about a young girl at the turn of the century who finds herself in a household as an assistant to a Jewish scholar. The writing is luminous, and I'm really enjoying that one.

Outside of that, I've been shopping online. I bought makeup from Avon, some things on Ebay, clothes from Lands End to finish out the summer, and an order to Coldwater Creek for work clothes. That one has a $25 gift certificate that I need to use.

I talked with my son today. My grandson had tubes put in his ears this week, so that should help with all the ear infections. In the next two weeks, I had birthdays for my DH, my son, my DIL, my grandson, my twin next door neighbors, another friends baby and husband, and another friends 2 year old. Lots of shopping and parties coming up!