Sunday, September 29, 2013

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet - Jamie Ford

I enjoyed this book.  It was a tender portrayl of love and friendship through a time when some Americans were suspicious and distrustful of their foreign born neighbors.  The main character, Henry, is an infinitely patient middle aged man who reflects back on the early years of WWII and the way the Japanese in America were treated.  His relationships with his father, his wife, his son and his friend are touching and heartbreaking.  Based on true incidents at the time of WWII, this is a book worth reading.

Published:  2009  Read: September 2013  Genre: fiction

Poker Bride - Christopher Corbett

Sub-title: The first Chinese in the Wild West

This book was mis-leading.  It purports to tell the story of a young immigrant Chinese woman who is won in a poker game by a gold rush gambler.  There is no story - it's merely the hook to get the reader to buy the book.  It's really about the Chinese in the west with a lot of disjointed news and historical bits and allusions to the woman but no further details.  I didn't finish it and wouldn't recommend it.

Published: 2011  Read: (but not finished) September 2013   Genre: non-fiction, history

A Separate Peace - John Knowles

When I was about 13, we went back East to visit family.  I remember going to my Aunt and Uncle's home in Maryland and finding this book.  I remember it as one of the earliest "adult" books I had read but had a very fuzzy memory of the story.  I picked up a copy in a used bookstore and re-read it all these years later.

It's the story of two high school age boys in the final year during WWII.  They are anticipating getting into the war, either by enlisting or being drafted.  Their ways of reacting to their potential future and the choices they make in their friendship is the heart of the story.

The book is described as a "coming of age" story and the young boys end the story in different places from where they started in the summer before their last year.   The writing is tight, as if the author thought of just the right word for each sentence.  The characters are detailed and clearly painted.  

I vaguely remember not relating to the book at the time I first read it, it being about boys and all.  After re-reading it, I still don't relate to the relationship between the two, the male bond broken and stitched back.  I suspect when it was published, it resonated with many middle aged men of the time who had served in the war.

Published: 1959   Read: September 2013  Genre: Fiction (classic)

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Life after Life - Kate Atkinson

I am giving this book the distinction of "best book read this year".  It is so well written, imaginative, informative, engaging..think I liked it?

Life after Life poses the question, "what if you could live your life over and over until it turned out the way you would hope?"  A baby is born in 1910 in England during a snowstorm and dies; and then she is born again and lives up to WWI; then she is born again and lives during the bombing of London in WWII…and so on.  The author seamlessly weaves the multiple lives into each other.  A phrase or incident from a previous life appears in the story of the next before you realize it.  There's the sense of deja vu for the reader as the protagonist, Ursula, experiences it herself.

In addition to the multi-layers of Ursula's life, the vocabulary and language for each period is authentic. There are facts and experiences of the two wars from the perspective of those living and dying during them.  There are also references to authors, poets, artists and politicians of the time that immerse the reader in the lives of the characters.  

I'm off to check out other books by this author.  

Published: 2013   Read: September 2013   Genre: Fiction

Monday, September 16, 2013

Imperfect Birds - Anne Lamott

A teenager is on a path to self-destruction as her parent struggle to prevent her collapse.

Once again, the author brings us real-life people dealing with messy problems.  Her characters are genuine; they don't have great insights, superb problem solving skills, heroic natures.  They are everyday people dealing the best they can with what life brings.

The main character, Rosie, is a smart good student who "experiments" with various drugs.  The word "experiment" is an understatement.  She tries ecstasy, prescription, marijuana, and unidentified pills provided by her friends and schoolmates and uses them repeatedly.  Her casual attitude is slowly frightening as you realize the extent of her drug use.  She's also successful at hoodwinking her parents because of her good school performance and cavalier lying about her activities.

Her mother is depressed as she deals with mid-life and increasing unease at her daughter's attitude.  She does the typical rationalization and attempts to befriend her daughter which Rosie finds laughable.

Rosie's stepfather sees more clearly the growing problem and has to convince her mother that its serious.
They eventually tackle the problem with an intervention of sorts which the reader is not really sure is a permanent fix.  In the end, the power of family and belief in not giving up or ignoring the problem is the message I took away.

Published:  2010   Read: September 2013   Genre: Fiction

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Help Thanks Wow - Anne Lamott

A little volume where the author discusses her "three essential prayers" with her typical wit and humor.  I liked this quote:

p. 57 [When talking about being grateful for friends and family that have stuck with you over the years] "They say that a good marriage is one in which each spouse thinks he or she got the better deal.."

Published:  2012  Read: September 2013  Genre: Religion

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Crystal Desert - David G Campbell

Subtitle: Summers in Antarctica

I spent several weeks in August reading this book.  I'd picked it up thinking it would be a travel memoir, telling what it was like to spend time in this most remote continent.  However, the author is a biologist and the story is more a unfolding of the natural history of the Antarctic, its inhabitants (penguins, birds, krill, lichen, whales, seals) and the explorers that have sought its shores.  Much of the story bogged down in too much detail for me of the life cycles of the creatures and plants found there.  He barely mentions his fellow scientists or his own feelings living for three summers in such isolation.  He described at one point the laborious preparations required to go outside and dive in the shallow waters of the bay to research its inhabitants.

In the final chapters he traces the history of the whaling industry and its affect on the species of whales.  He also notes in an Afterword how an accord was reached to keep Antarctica open to all countries.

Published:  1992   Read:   August 2013   Genre: Natural History

The First Muslim - Lesley Hazleton

Sub-title: The story of Muhammad

This was a wonderfully written book.  The author tells the life story of Muhammad, from his childhood as an orphan through his revelation from God in mid-life that set him on the path to becoming the prophet of Islam. It ends with the prophet's death in the mid-sixth century and the naming of his successor.

Muhammad was orphaned as a child and was taken in by his uncle.  In his 20's he married an older woman and had four daughters and one son, that sadly died in infancy.  When his wife died many years later, he took many other wives, including two of the Jewish faith, cementing the kinship ties to family and supporters, but never had other children.  He began sharing the revelations he received with a group of followers and eventually they were driven from Mecca to Medina, where the following grew.  Muhammad and his followers had conflicts with the three Jewish tribes in Medina.  He was disappointed the Jews did not embrace his teachings as they were from the same ancestral line of Abraham. Two of the tribes were driven out and the men of the third tribe were killed, which left a lasting animosity between Jews and Muslims.
Eventually he returned triumphantly to Mecca and died there in his mid-60's.

His successor was a source of dispute.  Those who felt that the prophet had instructed them that all they needed was "the Quran and the example of his prophet" - the sunna, literally, the "custom" of the prophet, wanted abu-Bakar, a loyal supporter, to take over after the prophet and become the first caliph.  The followers of this group eventually became known as Sunnis.  Those who felt the prophet had instructed them that all they needed was "the Quran and the people of the prophet's house" backed his son-in-law, Ali. These followers called themselves shiat Ali , "the followers of Ali" which became known as Shia.

I felt I learned so much about the beginnings of the Muslim faith and the person of the prophet, Muhammad in reading this book.  I felt it was written to present him as a person who took his responsibility very seriously and felt called to share the words of God with his fellow man.  I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to understand a life that has had "almost unparalleled historical importance".

Published: 2013   Read: September 2013   Genre: History

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

We Need to Talk About Kevin - Lionel Shriver

Oh my, where to start?  First, if you have seen or plan to see the movie of this book, it is a very poor rendition of the book.  I rented it after I finished reading and the movie in no way conveys the voice or depth of this story.

A mother whose son has committed a terrible crime writes letters to her ex-husband in an attempt to explain and understand why their son turned out as he did.  Her ambivalence at becoming a mother when she had a successful career that took her to travels all over the world lays the groundwork for a difficult birth and a failure to bond with her son.  Her husband's blindness to any flaws in the child puts them at odds over his upbringing.  The boy is a chameleon, reacting ominously to her least command and turning a puppy-love face to his father.  Her growing desperation at her inability to deal with him, her almost prescient gloom that he would bring the family to great suffering has the reader asking - nature or nurture?  Is she a good mother? Are her letters after the fact, too little, too late?

I found it an engrossing read, not one to skim quickly.  There is a twist at the end that came as a surprise to me and I'd enjoy hearing what other readers thought.

Published:  2003    Read: August 2013  Genre: Fiction

A Mercy - Toni Morrison

A short read that may have been a prelude to a later book by the author, Beloved.  In this book, a young girl is given by her mother to a landowner in payment of a debt of the mother's slave owner.  Her life afterwards reverberates with that rejection though her mother, knowing that "there is no protection but there is a difference" made the better choice.  Prose almost like poetry in the writing.

Published:  2008   Read:  August 2013   Genre: Fiction