Saturday, January 31, 2009

Onitsha by J.M.G. Le Clezio

Onitsha is J.M.G. LeClezio's Nobel Prize-winning book. The book follows Fintan, a young boy who travels to Africa, and specifically, the town of Onitsha, with his mother in 1948 to join his father who works there for United Africa, a trading conglomerate. Fintan does not know his father, Geoffroy, as he had been separated from Fintan and Maou, his mother, during the war. Now that the war is over, they are following Geoffroy to Africa to reunite as a family. The book follows Fintan's relationship with Geoffroy and Maou as well as his perceptions of Africa.
His first perception of Africa is space. Everything is bigger there than in his native Italy, more sun, the sky spreads forever, the rain is fierce. He sheds his protected persona as a little boy and learns to explore and fend for himself as he grows up. The reader sees the people of the area through Fintan's eyes. Bony is another boy who befriends Fintan at first, then turns against him as the colonial establishment starts to crumble and the natives are treated even more shabbily by those who control the area. He learns about sex from Oya, a beautiful, mysterious native woman. There is an English gentleman, Sabine Rodes, who seems to love the country but is considered an outsider by the establishment. He teaches Fintan much of the history and customs of the native people.
The establishment is a group of Englishmen set up in a typical Colonial situation of businessmen and governmental representatives. Gerald Simpson is the leader and he expects everything to be ordered by rank. He considers the natives as lesser beings, and his expectation of a swimming pool dug by black convicts fuels much of the conflict shown between the natives and those in the local government. The other English have carved out their own fiefdoms. They gather in the local club and attempt to set up a mirror of the England they have known. Contact with the natives is rare, except for expectations of service. The native people are treated with condescension at best and more often, with total contempt.
Over time, Fintan grows to disapprove of all the other English. His sympathies lie with the native population, who are treated with disdain and routinely humiliated and exploited. His parents also fall out of favor. Geoffroy has an obsession with local history and the legends and religion that fuel it. Maou quickly becomes shunned, as she shows her contempt for the way the other colonials treat the native population. Geoffroy is considered weak since he does not control Maou and her display of emotions. This disfavor finally results in Geoffroy losing his job and the family leaving Onitsha.
Readers of this book will learn a lot about Africa. It is set in the area that later becomes Biafra. The food, customs, religion and people are portrayed in such a way that the reader is transported there, and the descriptions of the area leave one with a feel for what draws people to the area. The language is haunting and dreamlike. The contrast between the language and the harsh events that are explored sets a stark contrast that outlines the brutality of colonialism. This book is recommended for all readers.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Divine Justice by David Baldacci

Divine Justice is the fourth book in David Baldacci's series, The Camel Club. The book opens with two murders, that of a Senator and that of the head of Intelligence. Oliver Stone is the assassin, and the reader starts with a negative impression of him. However, the secrets of why Stone has done such an act are revealed as the book unfolds, and it is soon clear that, while a troubled man, Stone has reason for doing such horrific things.
Stone is a former CIA assassin, and has been living below the radar for years. He goes on the run after the murders. On the train he is riding, he defends a young man attacked by a gang, and after saving him, accepts his invitation to go home with him. Home is a small coaltown in Southern Virigina named Divine. Divine appears to be a typical coal mining town, but it is soon evident that there are troubles in the town. There are several murders and suicides that may not be what they appear. Drug abuse is rampant, and several of the town's young men are caught up in drugs and their havoc. Stone quickly gets tangled up in the troubles and tries to find out what is happening, while staying underground.
Back in Washington, D.C., Stone's disappearance isn't unnoticed. Joe Knox is one of the CIA's best agents, and he is sent to find Stone. As he investigates, he realises that Stone is not even this man's name. He started life as John Carr, one of the most courageous soldiers the U.S. ever had. For some reason, Carr was denied the honors he earned on the battlefield. Knox also finds out why Stone has killed the two men whose murders opened the book. As he follows Stone, Knox encounters Stone's friends, who call themselves the Camel Club. The plot pulls all these threads together into an intricate plot that resolves satisfactorily.
Although I haven't read the first three in the Camel Club series, I didn't find it difficult to catch up with the back story to Divine Justice. The book is quick-paced and action-packed. I enjoyed it and will look for other books by this author. It is recommended for thriller and legal mystery fans.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Subway Chronicles by Jacquelin Cangro

The Subway Chronicles, edited by Jacquelin Cangro, is a collection of essays by various authors about the New York subway system and their experiences riding it. Some of the authors include Francine Prose, Lawrence Block, Calvin Trillin, Jonathan Lethem, Colson Whitehead, Jennifer Toth, April Reynolds and others. There are 27 essays. Each essay is followed by a short biographical sketch of the author and their body of work.
The stories range from comic to haunting, from history to wry observations about the people encountered riding. I enjoyed it quite a lot, partially because New York City is my favorite place in the world, and I have experience with the subway system as a visitor. The book is a great pick up book when the reader only has a few minutes as most of the essays are fairly short. I recommend this book for the general reader and for those planning a trip to New York City.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Cakes And Ale by W. Somerset Maugham

Cakes And Ale by W. Somerset Maugham follows the lives of a great novelist, Edward Driffield, and his first wife, Rosie as seen through the eyes of a young man who knows them over a span of years. Set in the early 1900's, the book is a telescope into the culture and attitudes of England during this time. Life is changing there, and while the nobility is still honored, more and more "trade" people are moving into society. Edward Driffield is such a man, and he compounds the disdain polite society has for him by marrying Rosie, who was a barmaid.
Yet, Edward's talent and the couple's social skills mean that soon they are at the center of a social group that includes up and coming artists, authors, bankers, and an occasional earl or duke. The narrator, a well-brought boy who becomes a doctor and later an author himself, is at first diffident about the couple. Yet, they are charming to him and he soon finds himself caught up in their circle.
Rosie is a great beauty, and it soon is revealed, a woman who spreads her charms widely. The narrator becomes one of her lovers. None of the men in her life seem to scorn her for her lifestyle as all are captivated with her. As an analogy, one likens her to a cool, refreshing forest pool. Does the enjoyment of diving in and cooling off diminish because others have also done so?
I adored this book. It is totally charming, while outlining a story that could have been sordid. Maugham writes about various aspects of society comically. The tone of the entire book is wry, while outlining a young man's growth and the morals and culture of an age gone by. I enjoyed this one immensely and recommend it wholeheartedly.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Road Home by Rose Tremain

The Road Home starts with a bus journey. Depressed by his wife's death and his sawmill job disappearing, Lev is leaving his Eastern European home, immigrating to England to try to restart his life. The book follows Lev for the year he spends in England, and his rebirth and resurgerance of purpose by the time he returns home. Lev starts as a leaflet deliveryman. From there he becomes the dishwasher in an up-and-coming restaurant, and when that goes well, the prep chef. After leaving that job, Lev works as a farmworker for a season, picking asparagus and other crops. He has come to love food, however, and goes back to London and becomes a waiter. As he moves from job to job, he begins to see a plan for the rest of his life, and he returns to his home in Eastern Europe, determined to live his dream.

Along Lev's journey, the reader meets many individuals. There is Rudi, Lev's best friend at home. Rudi is a larger than life figure, always dreaming and scheming and forcing life to bend to his will. Lev has a five year old daughter, Maya, whom he leaves with his mother, Ina. In London, Lev rents a room from an Irishman, Christy Slane, who becomes a fast friend. He helps Lev adjust to England, and in turn, Lev helps Christy get his life back together. Sophie is Lev's English love, and the book follows their love affair. There are Jimmy and Sonny Ming, Chinese immigrants who work with Lev in the fields. G.K. Ashe is the restauranteur who gives Lev his first chance and demands excellence from him. There is also Lydia. Lev meets Lydia on the bus, and although she is also an immigrant, she seems more in tune with various processes, and whenever Lev encounters difficulties, Lydia is the one he turns to for help.

The Road Home won the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2008. Rose Tremain has written several other novels that were acclaimed, such as Music And Silence, The Colour, and Restoration. One of her strengths as an author is character development. She writes characters that are instantly believable, and that the reader cares about. Even minor characters are fully developed, written in such depth that the reader feels they would recognize the characters if they passed on the street. There is also an underlying beat of hope in her novels that draws in the reader and makes her books compelling reads.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot. I cared about Lev, rejoiced in his triumphs and grieved at his setbacks. The resilience he showed after tragedy made him a sympathetic figure. His kindness and refusal to let life beat him down makes him a memorable character. This book is highly recommended.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Songs For The Missing by Stewart O'Nan

Songs For The Missing by Stewart O'Nan follows a typical family's life after their teenage daughter goes missing. Kim Larsen is home for her last summer before college. She disappears one afternoon between an outing with friends and going to work. The book follows lives in the time following the disappearance, showing how this occurrence affects each individual as well as the family dynamic. It explores how such an event can unravel familial and friendship ties and explores the stages of grief.

O'Nan is masterful at showing how the disappearance affects everyone. Ed Larsen, the father and a real estate broker affected by the economy and bad financial decisions, feels guilty that he hasn't prevented the disappearance and protected Kim as he feels a father should do. He stays busy at first searching, then becomes depressed as time moves on. Fran, the mom, goes into super-organizer mode, lining up volunteers, publicity, and donations. The disappearance and the organization of the events necessary for a full-fledged search become her life. When she isn't working on it, she knocks herself out with sleeping pills. Lindsay, Kim's younger sister, is confused and angry. Always in Kim's shadow as the little sister, now she has to create a new life with her own identity. Not only family, but friends are also affected. The book follows the lives of Kim's best friend and boyfriend as they also try to cope with the tragedy.

As time goes on, support from volunteers starts to dwindle and the police check in less often as the disappearance becomes a cold case. Kim's friends move on, starting their college careers, and forming new relationships. The Larsen family is faced with the dilemma of how long the disappearance can remain the primary focus of their lives. Is it fair to Lindsay to allow her life to be second to that of Kim's forever? Can they sustain the strength that focused their search? As time moves on, the family moves through the recognized stages of grief and finally finds acceptance that they will probably never see Kim again.

I've heard great things about O'Nan for quite a while, and this is my first experience with his writing. The writing is not overblown, which would be easy to do with this situation. While the situation is grim, the book is not depressing. Relationships and their exploration seems to be a real strength for O'Nan. He gets the tone of the average family in a small town exactly right, and takes the reader into the experience of losing your child without knowing what has happened. This book is highly recommended for all readers. I rate it four stars and enjoyed it despite the material.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

I finished Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson last night and I'm really glad I finally got around to this one. It has won many awards such as IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and the Independant Foreign Fiction Prize. It was recently translated from the Norwegian language so that those who read English are able to enjoy it.

The book follows the life of Trond Sander with two focuses. It concentrates on his current life as a sixty-seven year old man who has moved to a remote house in the country after the death of his wife three years before in a car accident. He chooses to return to the area where he had spent several summers with his father as a teenager in the country. His only current neighbor is Lars, whom he realises is the same Lars who was a neighbor's child back then. Once he realises this, the book focuses on his memories of those summers, and especially the summer when he was fifteen.

Like most fifteen year old boys, he was in that half-boy, half-man stage and testing everything. He loves and admires his father, but wonders at his frequent absences from the family back in Oslo. His best friend in the country, Jon, faces a family tragedy that Lars is also a pivotal part of, and leaves the family. Trond starts to put together pieces of his own family's history and to understand the relationships going on around him that he had been oblivious to as a child.

One of the big secrets he discovers has to do with those absences. It turns out that his father was involved in a network of Norwegian resistance workers who smuggled out documents and later people during World War II. Other members of the network included his father's best friend, and Jon and Lar's mother. Trond is a bit in love with this woman, and starts to act out his emerging sexuality with her by putting his arms around her in front of her husband and his father. That shocks them enough that the physical work they were doing is interrupted and an accident occurs, injuring the husband. Trond is shocked later to observe his father and Jon's mother kissing, making it evident that they are involved in an affair. That leads to the last secret, the fact that when Trond returns to his mother and sister at the end of the summer, his father stays behind. He leaves them and starts another life with Jon's mother. Trond never sees his father again.

I really enjoyed this book. The language is poetic, and reflects the stark beauty of the Norwegian countryside. The secrets are revealed slowly and with each secret, the reader feels that another piece of a jigsaw puzzle is slotted into place. The issues of family, relationships, and control are explored. This book is recommended for all readers.

Friday, January 9, 2009

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

Can a murderer be sympathetic and yes, even charming? As strange as that proposition seems, Aravind Adiga has created such an individual in The White Tiger. This book won the Man Booker Prize in 2008, and it is one of the more interesting books I've read lately.
The book follows the life of Balram Halwai, a man born into poverty in India. His father was a rickshaw operator, and died early of TB. Balram's life was dire as every day was a struggle to survive for his family. In fact, Balram didn't even get a name; he was named by the schoolmaster when he started school. In India, the family and ritualistic culture forms a straightjacket under which individuals are given a place in society and all behavior is defined and proscribed well in advance.
Balram wants something different. He is very bright, and a schoolteacher identifies him early on as a "white tiger", a rare animal that comes along only once in a generation. But his education is cut short when a cousin must be provided a dowry, and he is taken from school to work a menial job.
Things change for Balram when he is taken by the village's richest man to the city to serve as a driver for the man and his American wife. Balram thinks things will be different, but the life of a servant in India is one of total servitude. He is at the beck and call of his masters at all times, is paid very little, and is demeaned daily. The book portrays the life of the millions of Indians for whom life is short, brutal and mired in poverty, and the corruption that underlies every facet of civilization. Yet Balram takes matters into his own hands, and carves out a new life.
I really enjoyed this book. Despite the subject matter, it is not depressing to read. Balram is a very sympathic character, and the reader is led step by step into actions that seem justifiable, even when they result in murder, and leads to thoughts about morality, how to handle poverty and other questions about what is justifiable. The book shows an underside to Indian society that is rarely shown. India and China are the new giants of the century, and I've been reading a lot of books about both societies. The language in the book is breezy, and it flows steadily for a quick read. This book is highly recommended for all readers.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Trouble With Boys by Peg Tyre

In The Trouble With Boys, the author Peg Tyre, researches current educational practices and reveals how recent changes often mean that our boys are not thriving in school. For years, school and education in general, were male domains, so much so that specific laws were written to insure that girls were given the same chances at a quality education. These laws have worked well, so well in fact that contrary to popular opinion, girls are now thriving and make up the majority of those on honor rolls, advanced placement classes, leadership roles in extracurricular activities and are the majority of those applying to colleges.

I found this book fascinating. Tyre talks about the educational history that led to this current problem. Societal changes such as unskilled jobs being outsourced overseas, have forced the education system to focus on reading, writing and math skills as those are the skillsets that are required in typical jobs in the United States these days. Unfortunately, this emphasis has led to techniques that tend to favor the innate abilities of girls and that often disparage the innate abilities of boys. Changes in schools such as reduced recess, emphasis on early writing and small-motor coordination, organizational skills and collaboration rather than competition, tend to showcase girls' abilities. Male characteristics such as kinetic movement, noisiness, and the willingness to take chances are less valued and often emphatically discouraged.

Tyre covers many topics. She talks about the rapid rise in ADHD diagnosis, with a 48% rise in cases between 2000 and 2005. Since true ADHD is a fairly rare neurological issue, the large rise in diagnosis makes many experts question who is doing the diagnosing and what are the criteria they use. The rise of "redshirting", keeping a child out of school for an extra year of maturation, is another rising phenomenon. The impact of reading choices in the classroom, and the effect of video gaming are both explored, as is the issue of one-sex schools or classes. She also covers several projects and trials that are attempting to reverse the poor performance of males, and reports on their effectiveness.

A final area I found interesting was the chapter that spelled out why this poor performance by so many boys is a reason for all of us to be concerned. If boys are turned off to education, it is unlikely that they will continue on to college, and more and more, college is the mealticket to a stable, finanically rewarding career. When boys aren't represented in college, girls will be less willing to get married to those men who are less educated and have less money-making potential. Already one in three women make more money than their husbands, and this is a significant change in our society that will have far-reaching effects that are as yet unknown. As a sidenote, when there are fewer male applicants to college, less qualified males tend to be selected over those women who are qualified, but whose selection would make an imbalance in the incoming class.

The research in the book seems quite well-done. I particularly liked that Tyre pointed out areas of disagreement as well as areas in which she agreed with various researchers. This book is highly recommended for all parents. It will be a valuable resource for parents of sons who are starting to have issues with their education, and a thought-provocating read for those who have daughters. This book is highly recommended.

The Woman In The Wing by Jean Sheldon

The Woman In The Wing is a mystery that follows the adventures of Charlotte Mercer and other members of the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) during World War II. This organization, made up entirely of women, was loosly attached to the Air Force and did routine flying missions within the United States, such as delivering planes to new locations, or towing targets for gun practice, so that male pilots in the Air Force would be freed for fighting missions overseas. The women in the WASP were not considered full service people, and had no benefits such as medical insurance or even money to cover funerals when a woman died during a mission. Still, women flocked to serve as opportunities to fly and serve the country were rare. Charlotte, know as Char is crushed when weeks from getting her wings, she encounters a Air Force Major who refuses to pass her for graduation unless she performs sexual favors for him.

When Char refuses, she is taken off the flying rotation and given an alternate assignment. She is assigned to work undercover in a plant that builds aircraft, and that has been experiencing sabotage and accidents. Char is to room with an FBI agent named Ellie, and they work at riveting plane wings while trying to discover the spy responsible for the problems. People start to die, both plant employees and women pilots, and the book revolves around the investigation until the spy is captured at the book's climax.

This book is recommended, both for mystery fans and for those interested in World War II history. While I'd heard of the sterotype of Rosie the Riveteer and the work these women performed, I had never heard of the WASP, and the women who served their country in this fashion. I found the history as interesting as the plotline and welcomed the chance to learn more about a time that helped lay the groundwork for the women's liberation movement in the next generation.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Exit Music by Ian Rankin

Exit Music is Ian Rankin's latest in his Inspector Rebus series and is the eighteenth book about this policeman. It is perhaps the last, as the book follows Rebus in his last week of work before his retirement. Set in Edinburgh, Rebus is somewhat of a maverick, his foibles tolerated due to his murder clearance rate.
A mugging has resulted in the death of a man. The victim turns out to be a Russian poet, living in Edinburgh for a few months. As Rebus and his longtime partner, Siobhan Clarke, investigate, ties to politicians, businessmen, and one of the city's well-known gangsters start to emerge. The fact that this is Rebus' last case means that new detectives are drawn into the investigation and start to form ties with the rest of the police force assigned to the investigation.
A second murder occurs, that of the sound engineer who recorded the poet's public readings. All of the businessmen and politicians seem to still be involved in this newer case. Then the gangster, a longtime enemy of Rebus', is attacked and left in a coma. Rebus is suspected and those in the police force who have seen him as a thorn in their side, are glad to try to charge him with the crime. He is suspended, yet solves the case which ends with a surprising twist.
Fans of Rankin's work will enjoy this latest novel in the series, although with bittersweet regrets that the series seems to be ending. The novel not only delivers an intricate mystery, but reveals the atmosphere of Edinburgh and the inner workings of the police there. This book is recommended for mystery lovers.