Feb 28, 2008

Staircase of a Thousand Steps

by Masha Hamilton

This poignant, insightful story is set in a small, ancient village near Jordan called Ein Fadr. Young Jammana goes there for one last visit to her mother's birthplace, before leaving to America. In Ein Fadr, people live the same way they have for centuries. Jammana is troubled by the conflict between the traditional Arabic lifestyle in Ein Fadr and the modern world she is headed for in America. She has an unsettling gift of experiencing other people's memories in her dreams. She wants to find answers about the past from a midwife in the village who delivered her mother. In her quest for truth, Jammana begins to uncover buried secrets and dig up painful memories between villagers. Woven throughout this story of ancient culture, women's power and one girl's coming of age in troubled times, is an unsanctioned love affair. The ending is tragic, but in ways you might not expect. Although the storyline can get confusing (having numerous characters who lack proper introduction, for one thing) Staircase of a Thousand Steps is full of powerful language, vivid imagery and raw, touching moments. It definitely caught my attention.

Rating: 3/5                228 pages, 2002

Feb 27, 2008

Breaking the Spell

Religion As a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C. Dennett

It is time for a confession of sorts. Usually I like to avoid being too personal on this blog, as it is solely about the books and there are other places where I talk about my family and daily life. But now I feel a brief explanation is called for.

I was raised a very religious person. In my late twenties I became disillusioned by it and faced my own disbelief. I began reading texts not only on the history of the particular faith I adhered to (written both from the inside and outside) but also on religion in general. It was a very eye-opening experience that continues at a slower rate to this day. Up until now I have avoided discussing these books because it is sometimes difficult for me to separate emotional reaction from an analysis of the book on its own merit. But I feel it is time to try. I may not be able to say much in depth about these books because I am trying to keep that separation, and because it has been several years since I read most of them. However, I still want to have a record of them on my blog. So here goes the first of many. I hope this and future reviews of books that examine religion cause no one pain or offense; I do not wish to belittle anyone's belief, as for most of my life I've been a very strong believer myself. What I desire is to have a better, fuller understanding.

Breaking the Spell is an excellent read. Written by a professor of philosophy, it looks in depth at the nature of religion in the life of mankind. Religion (particularly in America) is examined in a historical, scientific, philosophical and cultural sense. The amount of information can be quite staggering, but it is well organized, and for someone like me who doesn't read much philosophy, it is very well-written and easy to understand. Some of the many questions the author addresses are: what does humanity's need for religion arise from? why does religion attract such strong followers? is religion the best way to live a moral life? how has religion altered the face of America? This book places ideas of science and religion side by side and uses one to illuminate the other. It even looks at an explanation of religion in an evolutionary context, something I did not expect at all. It does not criticize or demean religion, but treats it thoughtfully, with consideration and a degree of respect. I think this is a good book regardless of whether you are atheist or believer. It really made me think a lot. Personally I don't care much for the title, but if you get past a reaction to that and read what's inside, I feel it is well worth the effort.

Rating: 4/5                 Published: 2006 pp 448

Feb 26, 2008

The Stolen Child

Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome
by Ann Hewetson

Pretty much a resource book and so comprehensive it just might be the last one I read on the subject, aside from interesting personal accounts. The Stolen Child begins with the portraits of three very distinctive individuals with autism, written quite eloquently. Next is a section from the professional viewpoint: Hewetson traces our understandings of autism from the first descriptions by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger up to the most current research and findings. Then there's lots of useful information on various treatment and teaching methods, explanations of various terms used to define autism, comparisons of related or accompanying disorders, examinations of what might cause autism and the question of finding a cure. The last chapter includes excerpts of writings from autistic adults and parents of autistic children. Finally, there's loads of reference listings, resource organizations, and a glossary of terms. The most amazing thing about a book full of such technical and specific information is that it is relatively short, and very very readable. I really enjoyed reading it, for curiosity sake alone.

Rating: 3/5                         Published: 2002 pp 240

Feb 25, 2008

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

An Inquiry into Values
by Robert M. Pirsig

This is one book I know I didn't understand well. On the surface it is two things: the story of a father and son's road trip across the USA on a motorcycle, and a philosophical exploration of how we think and experience the world. One of the most curious things about it is something I haven't seen mentioned in other reviews, but I do want to speak of it.

***** S P O I L E R * A L E R T *****
Throughout the book, the father is chasing the ghost of his own past. Apparently when he was teaching rhetoric at a university he became so involved in the philosophical question "what is QUALITY?" that it literally drove him insane. He was committed to a hospital, where he received electromagnetic shock that literally "erased his personality" so that his memory is full of holes, his son recognizes that dad is not the same person anymore, and he calls the self he was before the incident by another name, Phaedrus. During the journey he visits the old university and runs into people who remember him as the professor and don't realize he's a stranger now. It's kind of weird. And the son is apparently showing signs of pending mental instability himself. All this is revealed in a few brief sentences that I totally missed the first time I read this book!

I liked reading the parts where Phaedrus tested his theories on his students, where quality is described as being a pervasive force that can permeate everything in one's life, where methods of problem-solving (illustrated via the motorcycle) were outlined. But most of these things didn't come until the second half or near end of the book. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the kind of book that made my head hurt, and I had to put it aside after every chapter or so. Let it absorb. Try and understand it. As you might have noticed, I've read five other books simultaneously because I had to keep getting away from Zen. But it was intriguing enough that I kept going back until I actually finished it.

Rating: 4/5                     436 pages, 1974

Feb 24, 2008

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister

by Gregory Maguire

This book takes the story of Cinderella and sets it in Holland, told by one of the stepsisters. There are no mice or pumpkins, and "Cinderella" is a beautiful, intractable girl named Clara. It begins when Iris (homely but intelligent) and her sister Ruth (mentally handicapped) accompany their widowed mother to Holland as bereft strangers. They find a painter who agrees to take them in as servants. When a wealthy tulip investor commissions the artist to paint his daughter Clara, Iris' mother jumps at the chance to ingratiate herself into that household of higher social status. Iris finds herself burdened with both watching after her dull sister Ruth and being forced companion to the disagreeable Clara, her new stepsister. What she is really interested in is learning about painting, which she does from the painter's apprentice, the charming and impish Caspar.

This story was delightful. It introduced me to the tulip craze of Holland in the 1630's, which I knew little about. In some ways it's almost more historical fiction than fantasy. The characters are so realistic, with their various virtues and flaws. Even though most of the people are predominantly good or evil, kind or cruel, intelligent or dumb, nothing is that black and white. Iris' mother has got to be the most complex person of all. Everyone is trying to achieve something: Clara to be seen as something other than a beautiful face, Iris seeks self-confidence, her mother wants money's security, nobody seems to think about what Ruth wants...

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a wonderful story full of personality contrasts, human folly, intrigue and admirable compassion. The end has satisfying curious twists. And, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about painting.

Rating: 4/5                       372 pages, 1999

Read more reviews at: Trish's Reading Nook
anyone else?

Feb 23, 2008


by Laurie Halse Anderson

I have never been so tempted to turn to the end and find out early what happened in a book. Because Speak is all about the impact one traumatic incident at a party had on a teenager's entire year in high school. Not knowing the whole story, the other students hate or ostracize her. She's riddled with guilt to the point of feeling physically ill and fear and confusion sit on her so heavy she cannot bring herself to talk to anyone: parents, teachers, friends. The self-incriminating, melodramatic inner dialog brought to mind Catcher in the Rye, and something about it made me think of The Outsiders, as well. Of all the books I've read, this is one of the most realistic (and bitterly humorous) pictures of what high school is like. Attitudes of teachers and students, cliques and popularity struggles, how pointless it all can seem. Some passages like this one just made me laugh:

Mr. Stetman won't give up. He is determined to prove once and for all that algebra is something we will use the rest of our lives. If he succeeds, I think they should give him the Teacher of the Century Award and a two-week vacation in Hawaii, all expenses paid.

He comes to class each day with a new Real-Life Application... Today's Application has something to do with buying guppies at the pet store, and calculating how many guppies you could breed if you wanted to go into the guppie business. Once the guppies turn into x's and y's, my contacts fog. Class ends in a debate between the animal-rights activists, who say it is immoral to own fish, and the red-blooded capitalists, who know lots of better ways to make money than investing in fish that eat their young. I watch the snow falling outside.

I thoroughly recommend this book. It's funny, sad, attention-grabbing (translation: I couldn't put it down) and short enough that no matter how tempting, you can make it all the way to the revelation at the end without peeking.

Rating: 4/5 Published: 1999, pp 195

Read more reviews at:
Book Addiction
It's All About Books
Things Mean a Lot
Leafing Through Life
Books on the Brain
Bermudaonion's Weblog

Feb 22, 2008

Mommy Knows Worst

Highlights from the Golden Age of Bad Parenting
by James Lileks

Facsimilies of ads and articles from newspapers, magazines and advice-books fill this book about parenting in the 1940's. With asides and explanations about why the advice is relatively reasonable and still adhered to today, or (much more frequently) hideously wrong and hilariously funny. Except I wasn't laughing. I just didn't find the author's effluent sarcasm amusing. So I didn't actually read the whole thing. I flipped through the pages reading material from the bygone era, occasionally looking to see what the modern commentary was. That plastic horse suspended on springs on page 162? We actually had one of those when I was a kid. I don't remember locomoting it across the floor or having difficulty dismounting, but I do recall badly pinched fingers (the danger of which is not mentioned in this book.)

Abandoned ..0/5.... Published: 2005, pp 176

Meme: Format

Question from Booking Through Thursday:
All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

Well, if it was perfect, I'd love to have all hardcover books, beautiful leather editions with glossy ink and creamy paper. There's something very aesthetically pleasing about such beautiful books. But that's just a dream so I'm very happy with my mixed-up library of hardbacks and trade paperbacks. The only kind of format I really don't like is mass-market or pocket size paperbacks, because they're smaller and fall apart after I read them several times in a row. Opening the pages wide to read the smaller text easily always ends up cracking the spine, and then the books never recover. Also they look funny among all the taller books, being so short. This has been a bit of a problem with me in swapping books on Book Mooch, because sometimes I receive books that were listed as trade paperbacks and turn out to be pocket-size. Some of them sit on my shelves waiting for the day I find a more desirable copy to replace them, others get cycled right back out into the swap system...

Feb 19, 2008

The Tribe of Tiger

Cats and Their Culture
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

This is not a scientific examination of cat behavior, but rather a collection of anecdotal stories from the author's life, friends and acquaintances, together with her personal thoughts and speculations. The first part of the book talks about housecats: their social organization, communication methods and whether or not they have "culture" (specific behaviors which they pass on to their kittens, that differ from how cats in other locales may behave). The second part is about time Marshall spent in Africa, and relates in detail relationships between groups of lions with native Kalahari bushmen who were hunter-gatherers, and later how that relationship changed when the bushmen were forced to leave or keep livestock, particularly cattle. The last section discusses mountain lions in America, and tigers in captivity. Throughout the book there are observations on various other cat species, and comparisons between the big cats and our domesticated housecats. Overall this book is not as good as The Hidden Life of Dogs (same author). But I still found it interesting.

I learned a number of new things, like that mountain lions share characteristics with cheetahs and bobcats can bring down deer. But some of her conclusions I questioned. For example, she surmises that cats mark people (rubbing against their legs) because people are their food source, so they stake out a claim on them like a wild cat would a territory that supplies his food. In my own household it doesn't appear to be so. Both our cats mark both of us, but my husband has never once fed them. If I were absent for a few days, he'd have to ask for specific instructions on how to do it!

Later in The Tribe of Tiger she states that tigers (if well-treated) are happier and longer-lived in circuses than zoos, where they are bored and stressed from being stared at by strangers all day. The more I think about this the less I know what I think: certainly I've never seen much of big cats in zoos, they are always hiding when I visit. Would they really prefer a circus where they have more privacy, but are confined in much closer quarters? Do they find the interactions with a trainer, intellectually stimulating, and enjoy traveling around seeing the different sights and people? Is that better than a zoo where except for the weather, nothing much would change day to day? Although most zoos nowadays have "enrichment" programs for their animals to stave off boredom, don't they? If only we could ask a tiger himself, and he could speak!

Rating: 3/5          
240 pages, 1994

Feb 17, 2008

Ring of Bright Water

by Gavin Maxwell

This book is a delightful, fascinating and sometimes sad story. Written by a reclusive naturalist who brought otters from the marshes of Southern Iraq to Northern Scotland where he lived with them in a remote location. The descriptions of the otters are wonderful and informative. It becomes obviously quite quickly that they make awful pets- they are extremely inquisitive, never at rest and very destructive to his home! But they're also funny and very endearing. Maxwell himself was so enthralled with otters that even after loosing his first one (due to an inability to control it) he acquired several others in succession. The sad thing about this book is that the author continued to bring wild animals from their native locations to keep, even though they made poor pets. He wasn't rescuing or rehabilitating them, he was acquiring them. I believe that's illegal now.

In spite of that, I do love this book for its wonderful nature writing- there are excellent and interesting descriptions of the Northern Scotland wilds and various other forms of wildlife that surrounded his home on the edge of the sea. Ring of Bright Water is full of humor and a wild beauty. There are several other books following it- The Rocks Remain and Raven, Seek Thy Brother... which I intend to get my hands on and read if I can. I think they're out of print and difficult to find now. I also spotted the title of a book on a shelf called The Saga of Ring of Bright Water: the Engima of Gavin Maxwell, which makes me think there's more to his story I don't know about. Perhaps I'll read that one also some day.

Rating: 4/5 Published:1960, pp 240

Feb 16, 2008

Princess Sultana's Circle

by Jean Sasson

This is the third book telling the story of Princess Sultana, member of a Saudi Arabian royal family. In unfolding further events in the lives of her family, friends, relatives and acquaintances, she reveals many more injustices and indignities committed against women in the strict Muslim culture. In addition to her struggles to protect and further the cause of women in her country, Sultana shows a more personal side in Princess Sultana's Circle. The life of a rich, sequestered princess is difficult for me to relate to until I see her private struggles: her attempts to become a more patient and spiritual person, to overcome a weakness for alcohol and deal with her daughter's revolutionary activities all made her less a foreign personage to me.

There is also a vivid picture in this book of how the fabulously wealthy live. It seemed to me that you could tell a lot about the people in the story by reading what they spent their money on: one friend had an enormous book collection, others private zoos of exotic animals; Sultana herself bought tons of expensive clothes (she gave many away to friends), and donated large amounts of money to the poor. Others used their money to gratify lust- some to a degrading extent, and against the will of women involved. It was these women Sultana strove to help and succor.

My favorite part of the book was when Sultana's family was forced to flee their palace for a while, and spent a period of time living in the desert alongside some Bedouin people. It was very interesting.

For further information, visit the author's website.

Rating: 4/5                    Published: 2000, pp 255

Feb 15, 2008

Meme: Out of Love

Question from Chris, posted on Booking Through Thursday:

Have you ever fallen out of love with a favorite author? Was the last book you read by the author so bad, you broke up with them and haven’t read their work since? Could they ever lure you back?

I can only think of one author this has happened with, but I don't think it was due to a book being bad. I think it's just because I grew up. When I was a teenager I first read Clare Bell's books about intelligent, speaking prehistoric cats- Ratha's Creature and its sequel Clan Ground. I also loved a third book that wasn't part of the series, Tomorrow's Sphinx, about cheetahs. I couldn't find any other books by this author at the time, or I would have gobbled them up. As an adult I stumbled across two more Ratha books, but they didn't grab me the same way the first two had. I think it was just one of those cases where books that strongly appealed to me when younger don't enthrall me the same way as an adult.

Most of the time I'm pretty forgiving with authors. I understand that not everything they write is going to appeal to me personally. I often only like one or two books an author has written, or half a series, but not the rest. That doesn't bother me. There are a few authors I really like everything I've read- Chaim Potok and George Orwell are two that come to mind.

There have, of course, been times when I began reading a new author (not one I was "in love with" yet) and became disillusioned by their work; quitting it for good. A notable case was Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series. I got pretty hooked and read a fair way into the series- I think five out of the twelve books. Then it just got too tedious- there were so many details and characters the storyline got confusing to me. And the repetitive manner in which some of the main characters' personalities were portrayed began to annoy me. Like a certain woman always yanking on her thick braid- I swore once if I ever read that phrase again I'd scream, and that's about when I quit the series. Too bad. It was actually pretty impressive, the mass of details in the entire world Jordan created. I just couldn't handle it.

I may have digressed from the question of the meme, but it sure was interesting to think about!

Feb 14, 2008

The Snow Goose

by Paul Gallico

It begins with a crippled, friendless man who lives near an abandoned lighthouse on the Essex coast. He works alone painting the surrounding marshes and waterfowl, building a small sanctuary to protect migrating birds from hunters. One day a young girl brings a wounded goose to his doorstep. It is a snow goose, far from its native home in Canada. They name the bird "The Princess" and work together to heal it. To their delight, the snow goose returns next season, and the girl resumes her daily visits during the its stay. Slowly over the years they develop a special friendship. But then one day the painter, long an outcast from regular society, discovers a means by which he may assist his fellowmen. He sets off on a brave mission of rescue, accompanied by the Princess, which places them in grave danger... The Snow Goose is a quiet, moving and rather solemn story.

Rating: 4/5               Published: 1940, pp 58

Feb 13, 2008

Snow White, Blood Red

edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Years ago as a teenager I read several of these books, collections of adult fairy tale writings by various authors, all with cover illustrations by Tom Canty and edited by Terri Windling. When I saw this copy of Snow White, Blood Red at the Book Thing, I recognized it as one I hadn't read yet, and brought it home expecting something curious and fun. I don't know what has changed, but I don't remember the stories being so dark and sensual. Maybe my memory is dim, maybe I glossed over or didn't understand those passages when I was younger? But several of the tales in this collection were so blatantly s-xual they made me uncomfortable and I had to skip them outright. (Yes, I'm something of a prude). If this is an example of gothic fiction then I'm not sure I like it at all, and may reconsider the werewolf and vampire stories that have made their way onto my TBR recently.

I did enjoy reading the introduction by Datlow, which explains that fairy tales ("about ordinary men and women in extraordinay circumstances") were originally not intended for children at all, and had much darker, more violent implications and endings than the pap we see Disney regurgitating today. Out of the twenty-one stories, my favorites were "Like a Red, Red Rose," "Troll Bridge" and "The Snow Queen."

The writers include Charles de Lint, Susan Wade, Tanith Lee, Jane Yolen, Patricia McKillip, Lisa Goldstein and many more, who "have produced richly imaginative retellings of existing fairy tales, as individual as the authors themselves, penned for a contemporary, adult audience... [set in] a time not so long ago, in a land much like our own, with no guarantee of safe travel, timely rescue or of ending Happily Ever After. Much like life itself." (p.20) They are strange and dreamlike, and don't shy away from the darker side of human nature. Deliciously frightening at times, if you want to curl up under a blanket and explore stories of wild imagination that sometimes feel a little too close to home...

Rating: 3/5                    Published 1993, pp 411

Feb 12, 2008

Princess Sultana's Daughters

by Jean Sasson

This book picks up where Princess left off. The cover page states: "A Saudi Arabian woman's intimate revelations about s-x, love, marriage and the fate of her beautiful daughters." It seemed to me there was more about the traditions, customs, religious beliefs and societal woes of a Muslim country than the story of her family, per se. I certainly learned a lot more about Muslim culture in this book. There are several chapters in particular describing a family pilgrimage to Mecca. The heightened conflicts of religious and social ideas were expressed in her own family's division: one of her daughters became a religious fundamentalist, preaching to and condemning family and friends. The other reacted to her horror of how men treated women by engaging in a love affair with a female friend. The beliefs and actions of her daughters were very distressing to Sultana as a mother. Just like in the previous book, Princess Sultana's Daughters describes many injustices and abuse experienced by women in Saudi Arabia. Although I admired Sultana's cause, I found myself uneasy about some of the means she used to promote her ideas and defend other women: verbal insults, hysterics, physical assaults, even blackmail and petty theft. Perhaps these were the only way to get results when her life was so controlled by men, but all this alongside the tales of scandals and scenes of high drama made me feel at times like I was reading a soap opera.

I just now found these two articles which may be of interest. Claims were made that Sasson is guilty of plagiarism and that Princess Sultana is a fictitious character. I don't know if that's true, and it doesn't make me like the books any less; but it does make me wonder if all the atrocities described in these books actually happen to women in Saudi Arabia. Some of them are just too horrible to mention.

*My information about the lawsuit against the author has been updated. Please read the comments.*

Rating: 3/5                       Published: 1994, pp 231

Feb 11, 2008


I have an answer now for question #4 in Eva's meme. I thought I had read the first two books about Princess Sultana, and wrote the two previous posts by memory of those readings years ago. But when I sat down to read the third book, Princess Sultana's Circle, I quickly realized that I already had! The book I missed the first time was the second one of the three. (It must have been unavailable at the library at the time). So that post I just wrote (and now erased) wasn't about Princess Sultana's Daughters, it was about Princess Sultana's Circle. I'm now reading Daughters, and then will refresh my memory better of Circle before rewriting that post. Such confusion, fickle memory!

Feb 10, 2008


A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia
by Jean Sasson

This is the story of a woman's life in Saudi Arabia. Not any woman, but an anonymous princess (called Sultana in the book) from a high-ranking royal family. Apparently she secretly conveyed information to the author in order to have her story written, and changed all the names to protect herself and her family. From reading the book, one would think that repercussions would be great upon this woman if her family knew she had publicly revealed what goes on behind the walls of their palaces. Princess begins with Sultana's childhood, where she quickly learns of the disparity in treatment between men and women. Even though she lives in astonishing luxury, her life is constricted by many rules. She has to submit in everything to her domineering father, cruel older brother, and later her husband. She is married at sixteen to this man she never met before. Although throughout the story Sultana herself is fairly well-treated and even receives a measure of education, the dismal situation of many women surrounding her is revealed in awful detail: double standards of allowed behavior, extreme punishments, forcible separations from family when married or divorced, denials of education, constrictions on where they can go and to whom they may speak, etc. etc. This book was dismaying, riveting and at the same time admirable, for in spite of all the oppression Sultana felt, she never looses her spirit and independent thought.

Rating: 4/5                 291 pages, 1992

Read another review at: SMS Book Reviews

Feb 9, 2008


by Steven Brust

Jhereg is the first book Steven Brust wrote about his imagined world, Dragaera. Aliens once visited this planet and genetically mixed humans with native animals, creating seventeen different humanoid forms and factions. They have special abilities, live to be hundreds of years, and are over seven feet tall. Normal humans are despised and on the bottom of society. The main character, Vlad Taltos, is a human who inveigled his way into one of the lower factions, the House of Jhereg. He becomes a successful assassin, using disreputable methods of sorcery and the dangerous companionship of a dragon-like jhereg as protection and leverage. I was attracted to this book by the cool-looking cover image, the description of Vlad's acquisition of the jhereg-egg, and the fact that the creature has a telepathic connection with him. But it's more about a mafia-like organization, crime, intrigue, power struggles and death duels than the animal figures or magic. Not a usual subject for me, but this one is written so fluidly, with humorous observations by the young, ambitious Vlad that I actually enjoyed it. I read the next two books (though they're not really written in chronological order) Yendi and Teckla before leaving the series. Now there's at least ten of them, with all kinds of interesting names.

Rating: 3/5               Published: 1983, 239 pp

Feb 8, 2008

Unstrange Minds

Remapping the World of Autism
by Roy Richard Grinker

Grinker is an anthropologist and the father of an autistic child. Unstrange Minds is an in-depth look at the history and cultural context of autism, in conjunction with personal accounts of living with the disorder. In the first half of the book, Grinker looks at autism in the US- especially the issue of the growing rate of reported cases, which he argues is due to greater public awareness and improved medical diagnoses, not outside causes like vaccines. (For more on this position, read this statement). In short, he posits that we see more autism now than a decade ago because it is easier to recognize, not because more people have it. The author explores different attitudes towards autism in other cultures, from the Navajo in America to India, South Africa and South Korea. The second half of the book is a memoir of his own life with his autistic daughter. Including a wide range of information: statistical numbers, diagnoses and treatment, cultural perceptions and individual anecdotal stories, this book is a beautifully written examination of autism. It is very easy to read and quite interesting, even for someone like me (personally, I don't know anyone who has autism).

Rating: 4/5                  Published: 2007, 340 pages

Feb 7, 2008

The Years of Rice and Salt

by Kim Stanley Robinson

Is this going to be the week of abandoned books? I really made an effort to finish this one. I got to page 354 before it became tedious and I couldn't continue. The Years of Rice and Salt is an alternative history, covering over 600 years. It starts in the 1400's, when the Black Plague wipes out over 90% of the European population. Thus, in the chapters that follow, Christianity is a small minority, Chinese and Muslim powers dominate the world and discover the Americas. The story is told through several characters who are continually re-incarnated through the centuries, always having the same basic personality: one is a revolutionary prone to violent action, one a philosophical nurturing-type, one an inquiring intellectual... If anything, this book gave me a much better picture of the concept of reincarnation than The Reincarnationist did. There was also a strong sense of rebellion against the gods, which I found curious (it made me think of the His Dark Materials books). Unfortunately, I am unfamiliar with all the various religions represented in the book: Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, etc. There were so many cultural and religious terms I didn't recognize that I lost much of the meaning. Similarly, I'm not too strong on history, and this book covers so much that I couldn't appreciate the subtle differences between reality and invented historical events.

Having recently read Pastwatch, I found the sections dealing with discovery of the Americas an interesting comparative. I also like another part where one of the characters was reincarnated as a tiger. But by the time I got through those 350 pages, the plot was really dragging and I had lost interest in what any of the characters were experiencing.

Abandoned               Published: 2002, 658 pages

Feb 6, 2008

Fat Girl

A True Story
by Judith Moore

I think this book speaks best for itself: "This will not be a book about how I had an eating disorder and how I conquered this disorder... This is not about the need for acceptance of fat people... I will not write here about fat people I have known and I will not interview fat people. All I will do here is tell my story.... I mistrust real-life stories that conclude on a triumphant note... This is a story about an unhappy fat girl who became a fat woman who was happy and unhappy."

There you have it. A rather depressing memoir written by an overweight woman. She had a distressing, painful childhood: parents divorced, father missing, relatives who were emotionally abusive. She found comfort in and was obsessed with food. Half the book seems to be either talking about food or describing food. The other half is about how terrible she felt about herself, how awful other people treated her and vivid, prolific negative descriptions of being overweight- sensory, olfactory, visual disgust with her body. The overall impression I came away with was that she was starved for love, and full of self-loathing. I found it dismaying that there was no real conclusion to the story: she didn't seem to learn to love herself, forgive her family, or overcome her weight problem. I felt no positive gain from reading Fat Girl, although I can't complain because the author laid it out for me in the beginning. It's just sad and unhappy. Not even much humor or insight to lighten the load. Yet in spite of that, I couldn't put the book down! It was riveting, in the way that staring at a car accident may be.

Rating: 3/5                       Published 2005, 196 pages

Feb 4, 2008

Black Beauty

by Anna Sewell

Although this classic is now commonly thought of as a children's story, I don't believe that was its original intention. Anna Sewell wrote it in order to bring to light the conditions horses lived in when they were as widely used for transportation as cars are today. I suppose you could call her one of the earliest animal-rights activists. She wanted to promote kindness to animals (and between people) and do away with the use of checkreins, which forcibly held a horses' head high, often damaging their necks; and other cruel practices such docking horses' tails. Through telling the story of one horse's life, Sewell demonstrated how kind, indifferent or cruel treatment affected a horses' health, soundness and well-being. She even showed how ignorant owners could harm their animals unintentionally. Black Beauty traded hands often, living in turns on a farm, on a rich estate as a carriage horse, in the city pulling a London cab, in a "rental" stable hired out for day use, hauling delivery carts for a butcher, etc. His equine acquaintances even share experiences as a mount in the military, a children's pet pony, and racing in steeplechases.

I've read this book many times. Recently I found a beautiful copy at the public library, the Viking Whole Story for Young Readers edition, 2000. In addition to containing lovely pen-and-ink illustrations by William Geldart, it has text, diagrams and miniature reproductions of gorgeous classical paintings in the margins. These give further explanations of things mentioned in the story which may have been common knowledge in Sewell's day but aren't now. I found it delightful and very informative. If you're interested in reading Black Beauty to understand how horses were used in the 19th century, I would highly recommend this edition.

Rating: 4/5                  
206 pages, 1877

more opinions at:
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New Books!

I don't usually post about new acquisitions, but today was such a great day in terms of books I had to share with someone (that's you readers) who could share in my bookish joy.

Do you ever get the hunch that there's a special book out there somewhere waiting for you, you just have to go find it? I had an itch for book-hunting, so first I drove over to a local thrift store, where I got this pile of books for $7:

Then I spent a few hours at the Book Thing, and came away with this haul (all FREE!):

To top that off, when I got home I discovered that I won a contest on Powell's and got $60 of credit (immediately spent on some long-wanted fantasy novels that complete my Barbara Hambly and Anne McCaffrey collections).

I also found that Cipriano mentioned me on his blog, Book Puddle, in a discussion about why we abandon books we're reading. I felt very flattered and tickled pink at that! All in all, it was a wonderfully bookish day, I was quite happy and satiated. I won't (I promised my husband) feel the need to go book-hunting again now for a month or two.

(If this post differs from what you see in Google Reader, or your comments are missing, it is because I accidentally deleted it, and re-wrote this post but it's shorter, I don't have time to list everything I wrote the first time. Sorry, I made a mistake, oops.)

Feb 3, 2008

Lady Into Fox

by David Garnett

This story is about transformation and change. Like Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in this surreal fantasy a person inexplicably becomes an animal, yet retaining their human mind and emotions. Unlike Kafka's book, where Gregor Samsa's change was met with disgust and repulsion by his family, sweet Sylvia Tebrick's husband still loves her strongly. After all, it's much easier to feel affection towards a fox than a large insect! When Sylvia suddenly becomes a fox, her husband sends away the household dogs and servants in an attempt to keep her condition secret. Sylvia the fox is at first distressed with her animal form, trying to walk upright, play cards, wear clothes like usual. But gradually, to the grief and dismay of her husband, she behaves more and more like a wild fox, until he can no longer keep her safely in the house. Sadly, the ending is inevitable and not very well disguised from the reader.

The strength of this book lies in its examination of emotional and psychological reactions to a sudden change in a loved one, which we have no power to halt or reverse. I've read that at the time of its publication, it was appreciated by many British families of war veterans, who had to face living with a loved one turned stranger by disability or mental trauma. But I think it is highly applicable today: accidents, illness and any number of things can irrevocably alter a person beyond recognition. Lady Into Fox has a strongly mythical feeling, haunting like a dream that remains with you long after waking.

Out of print for a long time, this book was reprinted by McSweeney's in 2004, in a beautiful edition containing the original woodcut illustrations.

Rating: 4/5 ........ 78 pages, 1922

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Page 247
Savidge Reads
Fleur Fisher Reads
Fyrefly's Book Blog
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Feb 2, 2008

The Bone People

by Keri Hulme

There are three main figures in The Bone People. Kerewin, a reclusive New Zealand artist estranged from her family and her art. Joe, a Maori laborer with a terrible drinking problem. And Simon, a small, strangely mute child. Joe found Simon on the beach after a shipwreck and became his foster father. But he can't control Simon's wild, erratic behavior. The two troublemakers strike up a strange friendship with the aloof Kerewin, revolving around the mystery of Simon's origins and behavior. All three of them are terribly dysfunctional people in their own way, seeking healing and trying to find a sense of family together. When I first read the book, I assumed Simon was autistic. But it turns out that something entirely different is going on. I won't give that away, but I do have to warn that there are explicit scenes of abuse which shocked and saddened me; however by that point in the novel I felt sympathetic to the characters; they were so real I could still care about them and finish the story.

I had difficulty reading this book at first. It always came across nonsensical and I couldn't make it through the prologue. Then I skipped it and started on the first chapter. Much easier to read, and I was quickly enthralled with Hulme's use of language. The book is written in almost a stream of consciousness fashion, alternating between present and past tense. The words swing from vivid, poetic descriptions to the often crude, rough talk between people and exotic-sounding Maori phrases (short glossary included in the back). The style is so unique I think it is a book you will either love (myself) or hate (my husband). It is really a strange, beautiful, sad and amazing book. It won the Man Booker Prize for Fiction in 1985. Not only does the story address grief, love, isolation, violence and redemption; it also deals with the conflict and meeting of Maori and European cultures. One of my very favorite books.

Rating: 5/5                366 pages, 1984

Feb 1, 2008

Dear Theo

the Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh
edited by Irving Stone

Another book I quit part-way through. Dear Theo is a compilation of letters that Van Gogh wrote to his brother over the span of thirty years. Irving Stone edited them heavily, cutting what was at first 1,670 pages down to the still-massive 572 I attempted to read. But he didn't include any breaks between letters, so you have no idea where one missive ends and the next begins. And there are only a half-dozen pictures included. Every page seems to mention numerous drawings and paintings done by Van Gogh himself, or other artists he admired (most of whom I never heard of). I would have appreciated seeing more pictures of what he was talking about.

The book didn't reach the point where Van Gogh was actually painting until about page 170, then it began to get a little more interesting for me; I did like reading his thoughts on art and techniques, but there were just so many words to slog through to glean them. Perhaps it was the stiff syntax (he wasn't a writer, after all) but I just didn't enjoy it. The last time I had the book open, I actually fell asleep reading it, woke up hours later and didn't know what happened! I'm usually conscious when I get too tired to continue reading and set a book aside. I think I would have done better to read a biography written by somebody else. Dear Theo, in my opinion, has merit as a reference book but not much else for me.

These are some things of interest I learned about Van Gogh from what I did manage to read (200 pages):

His father was a pastor; Van Gogh originally was studying for a position in the clergy, but failed to finish school.
He was in love with a cousin and wanted to marry her, but the family rebuffed him.
He was a reader, and especially like Victor Hugo and Charles Dickens.
At first he focused on drawing figures, and professed not to be a landscape artist (yet the paintings I know best of his are landscapes!)
He took in a pregnant unmarried woman off the streets, lived with her and the child for some time, and wanted to marry her.
He never could hold down a job, and was continually supported by Theo's money (even when the woman and child were living with him).
He was extremely prolific, drawing and painting continually (900 paintings and over 1,000 drawings in ten years).

Abandoned                 572 pages, 1937