Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Laura's Review: Gate of the Sun

Elias Khoury
539 pages

First sentence: Umm Hassan is dead.

Reflections: One of the most valuable lessons of my adult life has been realizing that the history we learn in school is just one point of view. As Elias Khoury writes, "I'm scared of history that has only one version. History has dozens of versions, and for it to ossify into one leads only to death."

In Gate of the Sun, Khoury tells of Arab - Israeli conflict from a Palestinian perspective. Khalil Ayyoub is a doctor caring for a man named Yunes, his mentor and father figure who has fallen into a coma after a stroke. Although the hospital director has declared Yunes will not recover, Khalil maintains a bedside vigil, talking to Yunes in the desperate hope that this will bring him back. Khalil recounts Yunes' youth prior to the formation of the Israeli state in 1948, the displacement of Palestinians, and Yunes' work as a freedom fighter from that point onwards. Yunes is forced to live apart from his wife, Nahila, and their children, because he will be killed if found. His rendezvous with Nahila take place in a cave near their village, the only place they can spend time together. They lived this way for years, with Nahila bearing several children and raising them on her own.

Khalil also tells stories of his own life, including his love for a woman named Shams, who is a sudden victim of the violence surrounding them. Shams' story, and that of their relationship, unfolds gradually throughout the novel. The book proceeds with Khalil sitting by Yunes' bedside weaving tales day after day for nearly seven months. Through these stories we gain an understanding of this period in history as seen by Palestinians; a very different perspective from that of the US government and media.

Khoury writes beautiful, descriptive prose: "A woman walking alone through the rubble of her village looking for the stones that were once her house. A woman alone, her head covered with a black scarf, hunched up in that emptiness that stretches all the way to God, among the hills and valleys of Galilee, within the circle of a red sun that crawls over the ground, passing slowly and carrying with it the shadows of all things." Yet I found the stream of consciousness style a bit difficult to follow, and had trouble keeping names, places, and events straight. In the end, I was ready to finish this book so I could get on to my next read.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Digging to America - kookiejar's review

At first this appeared to be the story of two young families who have adopted infant girls from Korea.

The Yazdans are second generations Iranian immigrants who name their new daughter Susan and let her assimilate seamlessly into American culture. The other couple are the Donaldsons, whose daughter Jin-soo is encouraged to keep and practice the Korean culture (even though she had no real knowledge of it).

However, in the middle of the novel there is a jarring narrative shift and suddenly we are following the lives of Susan and Jin-Soo's grandparents. Specifically, Jin-soo's grandfather, Dave and Susan's grandmother, Maryam. Dave is recently widowed and finds himself drawn to Maryam, while she, although attracted to Dave is put off by her unfamiliarity with American culture and the aggressively strange customs Dave's daughter initiates.

I thought it was weird that on one page we would be reading about 'Bitsy, Dave and Miriam' and a little later (when looking at the world through Jin-Soo's
eyes), these same people were 'Jin-Soo's mother, Jin-Soo's grandfather, and Susan's grandmother'. It seemed like a cheap trick (narratively speaking) and completely unnecessary.

I would have preferred if the story has continued to be about the girls and their acclimation to American life (given their foster parents' differing attitudes on the subject), but I guess the author felt differently.

That being said, the story was very affecting and I had tears in my eyes on the last page, when Maryam discovered that you don't get to choose your family, your family chooses you.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Arthur & George reviewed by raidergirl3

also posted to my blog

I am so glad I just finished reading The Hound of the Baskervilles. At times I felt I was reading Arthur Conan Doyle's biography, and the line between fiction and nonfiction has become very blurred for me. Much of what I read will become my belief about Doyle, even though I know it shouldn't. Barnes writes in a note at the end of the book that quotes and excerpts from newspapers are all factual.

This is the story of two men, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Edalji, one a famous writer, and one a quiet solicitor wrongly accused of a crime. I found the prose compelling and enthralling as I read the life story of both men, and how they eventually met, and how their stories became entwined. Doyle comes off as priggish and arrogant as his character, Sherlock Holmes. Edalji, son of a Parsee Vicor, is very British as well, with his stiff upper lip and resignation to his fate. Barnes is very ambitious with his story, and I quite enjoyed it.

It felt a little weak at the end, as he tried to connect the ideas of faith, and spiritism and the characters. It was rushed in content and yet slow at the same time. However, overall, a great read, with meticulous details and a wonderful telling of an obscure event in British history. Barnes is now two for two with me, having read and enjoyed A History of the World in 10.5 Chapters.

from the Guardian (UK) " Arthur & George is Julian Barnes's inventive account of a true and important miscarriage of justice... What Barnes adds to the tale--it was cause celebre of its day--is imagination, insight, passion, and of course his beautiful writing."

next up: Special Topics in Calamity Physics

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Ghost Map - Review by Sally906

Finished: 30/05/07 Review also found here
Genre: Non-Fiction
Pages: 284
Rated: B
Cover: Hard Copy
Obtained from? Own it
Reason(s) for Reading: Wanted to

Opening Sentence "...It is August 1854, and London is a city of scavengers..."

At the end of the summer of 1854, the deadliest outbreak of cholera in London's history erupted. At the time, London was one of the biggest, most populated and relatively modern city in the world. What it didn't have was sewerage systems in place, or access to pure water sources. But that was OK - because every one in the scientific and religious world knew that the people who died of plagues and cholera caught it from bad odors (miasma) - and as London was virtually covered in poo - there was a lot of miasma around.

The book traces the history of the cholera virus, and it is fascinating. It then goes on to describe the investigations of Doctor John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead. Separately at first, then joining forces they set out to prove that the virus was not caused by breathing foul air - but by raw sewerage getting into the drinking water. Totally at odds with the scientific thoughts of the day. Unfortunately Snow never lived long enough to see his theory proved and accepted.

While the book is easy to read and fascinatingly informative - which is hard to find in the scientific Non-Fiction genre. However, I did find it to be very repetitive at times. Often, as I read a paragraph, I virtually rolled my eyes thinking " Hello you've told me this twice already - I get it!!"

He finished up comparing this event to the modern viruses around today, such as bird flu, and how it could potentially happen again. I was disappointed that this was put in at the end, almost as an afterthought - maybe if he had repeated himself less then he could have expanded more on this theory.

On the whole though - it was easy to read, informative and very interesting.

The Inheritance of Loss - Review by Sally906

Finished: 16/04/07
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 312
Rated: E
Cover: Trade Paperback
Obtained from?: Library
Reason(s) for Reading: Wanted to

Opening sentence "...All day, the colors had been those of dusk, mist moving like a water creature across the great flanks of mountains possessed of ocean shadows and depths..."

I read this book for one of my reading challenges, the New York Times Notable Book Challenge.

Kiran Desai is the winner of the Man Booker Prize for Fiction 2006. Surely as a recipient this means that she is a superb writer, whose books are going to be the ultimate fiction experience. But no, not for me I'm afraid. Despite great reviews and accolades I just couldn't get into the book. I would just start to get engrossed and she whipped me off somewhere else - either jumping forward six months - or backwards thirty years. She has beautiful descriptions, such a poetic turn of words - I mean just look back up at the opening sentence - it is so mood setting. I read them and thought Ahhh - I'm in for a treat. Unfortunately the promise of the opening words just didn't follow through into the plot. I am not sure I even know the meaning of the end - or if the last page is the end - she just stopped. the only character I really cared about and can only imagine her fate - is that of Mutt. I shed a tear as I fear she will end up in the curry pot. I was devastated at her probable end - but again you just aren't told - no closure. I do hate that.

I do have Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard I am a bit reluctant to read it - but many people have told me it is a much better book - so will give it a try.

Read this in April but didn't realise I had not posted the review in this blog. Review can also be found here.

Digging to America - Sally's Review

Finished: 11/07/07
Genre: Fiction
Pages: 277
Rated: C +
Cover: Trade Paperback
Obtained from? Library
Reason(s) for Reading: Wanted to

Opening Sentence: "...At eight o'clock in the evening, the Baltimore airport was nearly deserted..."

Well it was deserted except for the two families, Bitsy and Brad Donaldson along with Ziba and Sami Yazdan. They are here to pick up their adopted Korean daughters and from this auspicious moment a friendship is formed. Bitsi, is the main driver behind the friendship - an over the top gregarious wonderful American - she sometimes overwhelms the Iranian Yazdans. Ziba, in turn, tries to out-American her USA born friend.

Quietly in the background though the two cultures are more alike than they admit - with Bitsi's father and Sami's mother slowly breaking down the barriers and falling in love.

Each year the two families hold an 'Arrival' party to celebrate the arrival of the two little girls. It is over the top and shows the different ways the two families raise their daughters. Betsi insists on her daughter, Jin-Ho, retain her Korean name and culture. Where as Ziba changes her daughter Sookie's name to Sue does not emphasis her Korean roots. As the years progress the families face all sorts of challenges in this gentle book - it is a complex book, with many nuances, and unfolded at a gentle pace. It is not an in-your-face exciting read - but it leaves you well satisfied.

Review also found here

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Everyman - kookiejar's review

I must admit here and now that I am somewhat fascinated by old men. They seem obsessed with death and sex and are unable to do anything about either.

The unnamed main character in 'Everyman' is no different. The bulk of the story is a look back on his life, as the opening scene is his funeral. We learn he has been married three times, has two grown children and has battled various physical ailments most of his life.

I got the impression that his inability to maintain a healthy relationship had a lot to do with his life long dance with death. His poor physical health seemed strongly linked to his emotional health.

My favorite part was where our hero tried to 'put the moves' on a pretty, young woman some 40 years his junior. She rebuffs him in the nicest way possible, but I wondered at what age does a man stop being a viable sexual partner and start being a dirty old man.

At times the descriptions of his various medical procedures seemed endless, and I found his sexual conquests to be rather coldly clinical, but all-in-all this was extremely well-written and I was pretty much engrossed from page one.

I have only attempted one other of Roth's novels ("The Plot Against America") and I didn't really like that, but I will try some of his others now that I've read 'Everyman'.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Nemirovsky's Novels in Demand

Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise has sparked an interest in her previous novels.

This from Alan Riding of the New York Times:

"First published in France in 2004, it has sold 600,000 copies in French and close to 1 million more in 30 other languages. And predictably, a dozen of her earlier books have since been reissued and sold for translation.

Now another previously undiscovered Nemirovsky novel has been unearthed. A powerful tale of love, betrayal and death in a Burgundy village, "Chaleur du Sang" -- provisionally titled "Fire in the Blood" in English -- was published to warm reviews in Paris in March."

To read more of this article, go here.

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Forgetfulness; reviewed by Lisa

I thoroughly enjoyed this book by Ward Just. I have only read one other of his books, An Unfinished Season (link is my review). I liked that book also, but I liked this one better. Perhaps you have to be "in the mood" for Just's books, and I was this time.

In Ward Just's books (it seems...I've only read two) nothing much happens. They are not action-packed. There is a pivotal event, and then you get to ride around in the character's head for the rest of the book while they figure out how they feel about it, what it means, and so forth. When you finish a Ward Just book, you feel like you are losing a friend in a way, so close have you been inside this person's head.

This particular book centers around the murder of a French woman married to an ex-pat American (that's not a spoiler, really, it's on the jacket and comprises the first pages of the book). This takes place post 9/11, and we get a view of how the idea of terrorism has changed the world, and the views of different cultures about it. Fascinating, a quick read, and deep well developed characters.

I said this before, when I read Unfinished Season, but Ward Just has been a prolific writer and more of his books are going on my list.

*Cross posted on my Book Blog

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Alentejo Blue reviewed by raidergirl3

Reposted from my blog.

I just spent a lovely week in the Alentejo region of Portugal, living among the locals, as well as with a few British tourists, and a few ex-pat Brits as well. Each person I met told me a little about their life, but it's funny how they see each other. It is so easy to label someone as 'trouble', or 'know-it-all' or 'nosy' based on a few characteristics. Once you meet the person, and realize why they are, or are not, the way they are, it all changes. As Joao, an old wise man of the village said, "There's more than one way to look at it."
I stayed until the fall festival occurred. At the same time, Marco, a cousin and former resident returned home, successfully from abroad. It was a great festival, lots of food and music, but everyone was there and there were some personality fireworks. Some people stayed, some people left, and then, life continued.

next up: Arthur and George

Monday, July 2, 2007

The Echo Maker reviewed by raidergirl3

This is the review I posted to my blog.

I'm somewhat conflicted about reviewing this book, because I know it is an award winner (National Book Award, 2006) and it was recommended by 3M for the Something About Me Challenge. And I can see why it was an award winner, but I think I read it at the wrong time of the year, when my brain has essentially ceased functioning at the end of June. There were some big ideas in this novel - who are we? how is memory of a person compare with their reality? the trust we have in the people around us? And these big ideas would take a lot more thought than I was prepared to give them.

Mark has been in a car accident and when he awakes from his coma, he believes his sister has been replaced, an imposter. This is called Capgras syndrome and Dr Weber, a reknown cognitive neurologist, comes to investigate.

There were several levels to this novel: the cranes which return to Kearney, Nebraska each year; Mark's recovery and dealings with his sister and their past life; the mystery of what happened to Mark on the night of the accident; Dr Weber's tentative hold on reality in his own life; the different syndromes associated with brain injuries; and the existential questions of self and memory. I mostly enjoyed the mystery of the accident and the note that was left for Mark in the hospital. I found my mind wandering during sections about the cranes and about Dr Weber and his problems. It could have been shorter and I wouldn't have missed much of the filler. Mostly, I didn't connect with the characters and found their actions difficult to understand, especially Mark's sister.

I also enjoyed the setting of Nebraska and feel the author did a great job of describing the feel and mood of the location. The science background describing the different symdromes was also very interesting, as was the mystery of the accident and the Capgras syndrome. I wanted to finish the book and never contemplated not finishing, but it was a little long, and I read three other books after I started this one because I couldn't read this very fast. The pages really dragged in parts and I had to concentrate to get through the novel. I blame much of this on me and my tired head this month.

This was a NYT Notable Book of 2006, and while I enjoyed much of the story I don't think I'll be looking for another of Powers' books for quite a while.

next up: Alentejo Blue

Intuition - kookiejar's review

Science is the search for facts. It is, however, a discipline steeped in failure, as that is the only way we learn. Unfortunately, too many people are unwilling to allow medical science the failures necessary to advance the field.

"Intuition" takes place in a laboratory where a vaccine for cancer has proven effective in mice. Of course, a finding that huge cannot be kept secret for long, despite the lack of follow-up tests. The media is alerted, with predictable results (the handsome doctor is profiled in People Magazine, the female doctor lauded for succeeding in a male-oriented field, the Asian doctor applauded for achieving the American dream, etc.)

Then one of the doctors notices a small discrepancy in the notations of the head of the department. Her decision to bring it to the attention of the scientific community brings the wrath of the government and public opinion down on the lab. Instead of focusing on the facts at hand, the investigation turns ugly and personal, threatening to destroy all the good work done there.

The whistle blowing doctor is appalled by what her actions wrought but is powerless to stop the snowball she set rolling. I thought this novel was very well-written and Goodman really nailed some of the uglier aspects of human nature and office politics. I would highly recommend this book to everyone but especially anyone with an interest in science.