8.28.2007

These is My Words, by Nancy Turner

These is My Words
These is My Words
I love this novel. These is My Words is a novel written as the diary of a young woman in 1880s and 90s Arizona who, after much tragedy, finds love, and who must survive and thrive in a very harsh environment.

Sarah Prine is one of the toughest female characters I have come across. And I am constantly amazed at her ability to soldier on. But what really makes me love this book is the relationship between Sarah and Captain Elliot. It's such a beautiful love story that, when I reread this book, I am glued to the pages for however many hours it takes me to finish it and I have a really hard time putting to down.

I recently found out that Nancy Turner has written two more books that feature Sarah and her family. At first, I was excited to read more about Sarah, but now, I'm wondering if I read this books, the experience of reading These is My Words might be ruined. In my mind, These is My Words is perfect just as a single book.

8.27.2007

Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley

Florence of Arabia
Florence of Arabia
I don't know how I feel about Christopher Buckley's Florence of Arabia. I really enjoyed it as a piece of satire, but I have a hard time with the message of the book. The satire focuses on a couple of different topics: American dependence on oil, Islamic fundamentalism. It chiefly focuses on women's rights in strict, Taliban-style sharia countries. One the one hand, I firmly believe that women should be treated equally--socially, economically, and legally--with men. But on the other hand, I don't think I (or the Western world) has the right to tell other people how they should live. As a relativist and a liberal, I have never been able to reconcile this.

Buckley takes pains to have his characters point out ever now and then that not all Arab (meaning Muslim) women want to be "liberated." It occurs to me, though, that everyone should be able to expect basic human rights. (Which begs the question, what are basic human rights? Well, the UN drafted and passed a Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.) Even though Buckley was trying to be humorous, and even though I really enjoyed this book, it makes me think unhappy thoughts, thoughts that are hard to put into words. Why are there places in the world where women are oppressed, abused, and not allowed to change their situation? Why are religions interpreted to create cultures like the Taliban?

I don't know how he does it, but Buckley creates satires that work like they are supposed to: first you laugh, then you think. For days. And days. And days.

8.18.2007

Books that have thwarted me

I'm sure this happens to any reader, but I seem to have some books that, no matter how many times I try to read them, they keep on defeating me and I never finish them. Here is my list:

Mila 18, by Leon Uris (I actually did finish this, eventually. 8/9/2012)

I have started to read this book about three times, but I can never seem to get past the first few chapters. I think my problem is that I want to read the story of the Warsaw Uprising, but Uris started his novel at such a remove from the ghetto that I have a hard time seeing how they will intersect.

War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy

Someday, I will finish this book. I actually started it last summer, and was doing quite well, until I noticed all the books that were coming out that I wanted to read. I did the math on how long it would take to finish the book at my current rate, and I gave up.

Fatherland, by Robert Harris

You'd think I'd have gotten through this one. It's an alternate history. It's about World War II. But I've started it four times and haven't made it beyond chapter five yet. I'm interested at first, but I think the premise of the book bothers me so much that I can't read on.

Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson

I've started this book twice, and I got about halfway through the last time I attempted to read it. I'm not sure why I couldn't get through this one either because it also had a lot of things in it that interest me: World War II (again), enigma machines, cryptography, advanced computer science, etc. But I guess I didn't have the stamina for this book. I quit when I found my self skipping sections that didn't interest me as much as the Waterhouse plot line.

The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

I've also tried to read Foucault's Pendulum and had to give that one up to. I've tried to read these books twice and have failed. I think it might be because they are so densely written that I have a hard time remembering all the details that I think I need to in order to understand what the book is trying to tell me. It's a bit like taking a class in college, when there's the possibility of a lot of the material is going to be on the final. The only way I found out how The Name of the Rose ended was that I listened to an abridged audiobook--and that doesn't count. (I don't think audiobooks are cheating. I think reading or listening to an abridged version is.)

Still Life With Crows, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Still Life with Crows
Still Life With Crows
I haven't read a serial killer novel in a long time, but I've been intrigued by what I've read about the main character, Agent Pendergast, that I've been wanting to read these books. And I really enjoyed The Cabinet of Curiosities, which I read, I think, last year or the year before. Still Life with Crows was the first book in the series that I happened to have in my collection, so I decided to start with it. Judging by what I read in the Wikipedia entry for Pendergast, I didn't really want to read the first two anyway.

When I started reading Still Life, I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to make it through. At first, it seemed to me that Pendergast was just a collection of eccentricities, rather than an actual personality. At first, he really got on my nerves in the way that old style detectives like Holmes and Poirot get on my nerves. But after a while, Pendergast grew on me, possibly because a lot of the other characters were jerks.

The other thing I liked about this book was the plot. Considering how many mysteries Ive read, it's gotten kind of easy for me to predict where the book is going to go. I may not know who done it, but I can usually figure out how the book is going to resolve itself. With Still Life, I had no clue what was going on 'till almost the very end of the book. Child and Preston were very good in this book about setting up the possibility of a supernatural killer that it stayed on my mental set of solutions, instead of being dismissed early on. And this helped make the book a very creepy read.

Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Stardust
Stardust
I think Stardust is going to go on my list of books where I actually enjoyed the movie more. I know better than to expect a movie to duplicate a book, but there are a lot of differences between the book and the movie, lots of new characters, and the ending is completely different.

I know that both the book and the movie are supposed to be fairy tales for adults, so I really shouldn't be surprised by the way the book turned out. It had a surprising number of what I think of as Dickensian moments, when something happens that resolves the plot and you can't help but think, "Man, that was convenient." (Think of Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations.)  Plus, I hate to say it, but the ending of the book just fizzled out. I don't want to ruin the ending for anyone, but I just don't believe that the baddie, who has pursued our heroes so viciously, would just give up like that.

This book was a very unusual book for Gaiman, considering what I've read by him before. Stardust had it's dark moments, but it's nothing compared to the Sandman series, or even American Gods. Of course, it could be that I'm just not a big fan of traditional fairy tales.

8.11.2007

Across the Nightingale Floor, by Lian Hearn

Across the Nightingale Floor
Across the
Nightingale Floor
I've been meaning to read this series for a while, but I only managed to get my hands on a copy last week. Across the Nightingale Floor is a fantasy novel set in a world that is very closely modeled on Shogunate Japan. But there's magic. You figure out the genre. Every time I try to classify this sort of book, I'm reminded of Polonius's speech about how good the actors are*.

The book has the standard fantasy genre plot of trying to defeat the evil warlord. There is a lot of journeying around from place to place and maidens in need of rescue. But this book does turn some of the fantasy conventions on its head. Some of the women in this book are not so helpless as they seem. (I'd say more about this but it would give away important plot points.) And, just when it seems like the characters are going to get their happily ever after, after the warlord is dead, things get even more complicated. I really like fantasy books like this. I like books that take the reader past happily ever after and show you what the heroes have to do once they're in charge. I think it was Che Guevara who said something to the effect of "A revolution is easy, getting the trains to run on time is hard." (If someone has the original quote, please let me know.)

* Hamlet, II, ii:

Polonius: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light.

Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

Soon I Will Be Invincible
Soon I Will Be
Invincible
After reading The Secret Servant, I need to read something totally frivolous. Soon I Will Be Invincible absolutely fit the bill. SIWBI is basically a spoof of comic book superheros and super villains. One plot follows a super villain as he escapes from prison and starts work on his Doomsday Device Mark V. (The previous four doomsday machines failed.) The other plot follows a cyborg who recently became a new member of the Champions, analogous to the Justice League of America and other superhero teams.

While Grossman really gets into the psychology of heroes and villains, I found that the best parts of Grossman were the small jokes and oddities of this super world. If you know a bit about the comic book world, there are lot of things in here that will make you laugh. One of the things that I found amusing was the disconnect between the characters' inner monologues, and the cliches that came out of their mouth when superheros spoke to super villains and vice versa.

This isn't a really a deep book, psychology notwithstanding, but it's excellent brain candy.

The Secret Servant, by Daniel Silva

The Secret Servant
The Secret Servant
Another long awaited sequel came out this summer: The Secret Servant, by Daniel Silva. This series follows part of the career of art restorer-Israeli assassin, Gabriel Allon, and is another book I recommend that you start at the beginning. There are two sort of trilogies in this series. Books 1 and 5 to the most recent deal with fighting Islamist terrorists. Books 2-4 are about what Silva called "the unfinished business of the Holocaust."

The Secret Servant finds Gabriel again fighting Islamist terrorist seek to attack Israel and the United States. And, truth to tell, I find these books harder to read than the Holocaust novels. Maybe it's because the Holocaust ended so many years ago and we're currently engaged in fighting terrorism. More likely, though, it's the way the terrorists are portrayed in the novels. While Silva gives a couple of sentences to saying that not all Muslims are terrorists, he spends an awful lot of time showing how ruthless, bloodthirsty, and uncompromising Islamists are. I'm not going to argue with anyone. I know there are groups in the Islamic world that want to kill Americans and Jews, and impose sharia on significant portions of the world. But I keep finding myself asking, where did all this hate come from?

I've been thinking about this question on and off in the week since I read this book and every time I find something to point to as a root cause, I think of something that happened earlier. It's an endless cycle of violence all the way back to the Palestinian Mandate and there's no end in site. Silva is very good about pointing out that the current cycle of violence is actually breeding a more violent generation of terrorists. And thoughts like this make me despair of there ever being peace, because it seems like there's no way to make it stop.

First Among Sequels, by Jasper Fforde

First Among Sequels cover
First Among Sequels
At last! Two weeks ago, the latest book in the Thursday Next series First Among Sequels came out and I was clearly running low on wackiness in my life. If you're not familiar with the series, I highly recommend him. His books take place half inside other books, like Jane Eyre, Great Expectations, and so on. It's a bit hard to explain, because an awful lot has happened in the last five books.

In this book, Thursday has to deal with problems in fiction, including training her fictional counterparts to work for Jurisfiction, and get her son to start his apparently fantastic career with the Chronoguard. (Do you see now why you need to start at the beginning?)

I have to say though, considering the originality of the first four books, this one was a bit of a let down. There wasn't a lot that was new here, compared to these books. Instead, there seemed be a lot of rehashing of old ideas. I did like the Chronoguard plot, but it wasn't enough to sustain the book. I also didn't like the ending. You can end a chapter on a cliffhanger, but to end a book on a cliffhanger is just irritating. It smacks of a ploy to make you buy the next book.