Thursday, December 28, 2006

The Best Book I Read in 2006, I Think

Well, tied for the best, In Search of Lost Time, Emma, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, also were off the charts. How can one compare?

Anyway Harry Mulisch's The Procedure was listed as a choice by the Great Books Foundation and I'd never heard of Mulish and thus it immediately went into my amazon cart. After page 2, I'd decided he was a great writer and I stick to that opinion.

The Procedure tells two tales, one takes palce in the sixteenth century, when an irrational king calls Rabbi Jehudah Löw,and orders him to create a golem by following a procedure outlined in a third-century cabalist text. The second tale takes place now. It's the story of Victor Werker, a Dutch biologist who's created bone fide life from inert clay. Of course Victor can't enjoy his scientific triumph and celebrity. Self-doubt, the loss of his own daughter, a failed marriage and a despicable rival preclude that.

Mulish weaves a wonderful tale, well two wonderful tales, that allow the reader to intelligently contemplate science, life, God and our possible hubris. I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Perfect for book clubs since it raises so many issues and is very well written.

"Sharply imagined, vivid, and often funny." —The Washington Post

"Immensely challenging, eminently readable and astonishingly good. Mulisch is a first-rate writer who grabs your attention … a dazzlingly original highbrow read" —Mail on Sunday

"A deftly created tale [that] tackles nothing less than the mystery of life itself. What gives this novel its fascinating brilliance is Mulisch’s skill as a storyteller" —The Times (London)

"Entertaining, moving and invigorating" —Sunday Times (London)

"Wonderful observations, much humour, highly ambitious … the wild daring of a very exciting mind" —Independent

For an excerpt on the publisher's site.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I kept picking this book up but not buying it. I was definitely attracted to it but had heard little about it so kept putting it off.

Then, the other day, one co-worker was returning it to another co-worker and I mentioned my indecisiveness. The next thing I knew I was taking the book home.

After I read One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus, my copy was handed around to at least five other people. It traveled down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, to California and to New York. I thought that spoke volumes about the story, the word of mouth that enticed my friends and acquaintances to experience it.

This copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan has a similar history which encouraged me to bump it up my reading list. I'm pleased that I did so. I started it on Christmas and finished it last night.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of the lot of women in rural China in the late 19th century and the story of an unlikely lifelong friendship between Lily and Snow Flower. I have not done much reading about this era or culture so found the book edifying as well as entertaining. Women were valued only as mothers of sons but as often happens with oppressed populations, they found subtle ways to circumvent the various authorities in their lives. As Lily's mother-in-law taught, "Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want."

The focal point of the story is nu shu,
the secret-code writing used by women in a remote area of southern Hunan Province [which is believed to have] developed a thousand years ago. [Nu shu] appears to be the only written language in the world to have been created by women exclusively for their own use.

I like this hook. It speaks to our contemporary mores and allows our 21st century sensibilities to connect with these women's 19th century realities.

See does a good job of foreshadowing without hitting the reader over the head. The hints are woven into the story just as off the cuff observations might be. One reviewer describes the work as understated and absorbing which captures my reaction well. While avoiding being overwrought, See invokes various emotions, including anger, wonder, horror, sadness and, yes, tears.

Lisa See will be appearing here in Aspen on February 20 at Aspen Winter Words. I just might have to check it out.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Abraham's Well

I just finished my friend, Sharon Ewell Foster's Abraham's Well. Since I know Sharon and have enjoyed her books set in modern times, Ain't No River and Ain't No Valley this work of historical fiction was a departure. I can't pretend that my review is unbiased so don't say I didn't warn readers.

The story reminds me of The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman as it consists of an elderly woman looking back on her life during a significant historical period. Armentia, the main character, is African American and Cherokee. She lives in the 19th (and I suppose early 20th century) experiencing tribal life, slavery, the removal of Cherokee and other native Americans during the Trail of Tears and eventually freedom. It's the story of an imperfect character, rather than a superhero, finding strength and courage to surmount injustice and hardship. I'm a sucker for such stories.

For me historical fiction succeeds by teaching me and entertaining me and Abraham's Well does both. Although I've read a little about the Trail of Tears and knew that some African American's are part Native American, I had no knowledge of African American involvement in this chapter of American history. Sharon includes an explanation of why she decided to write about this topic and her family heritage as it relates to the themes of the novel. I found that quite interesting. I could see this making a good movie.

The book reads very fast, as Bridget points out. Bridget's also right about the chapters on the preaching but there's probably less church-going in this story than the others I've read so I had a different view of that aspect. I didn't mind it. I realize that Sharon's fans will be looking for Christian fiction when they decide to read this novel.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Abraham's Well

I have mixed feelings about this book.

I liked the story presented by this book. I didn't tire of it and was able to read it quickly.

I appreciated the window into events with which I was barely acquainted. I added to my understanding of the Trail of Tears which the book handled in depth and with believable detail. The descriptions reminded me of a similar forced march portrayed in One Thousand White Women by Jim Fergus (a book I have repeatedly recommended and praised).

The language choices used to present the attempts to turn the protagonist into a "breed mother" worked well.

The characterization of Mama Emma's guilt and denial over her role as a slave keeper rang true as did Armentia's struggle with her feelings for and expectations of Mama Emma.

Yet, the book is not without its shortcomings.

I never connected on an emotional level with the protagonist.

The inclusion of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, Juneteenth and the Land Rush felt contrived. The last third of the book seemed rushed.

As I read, I occasionally had the feeling that the sentiments or, at least the vocabulary used to express the sentiments, were too contemporary.

The religious message was heavy handed. The multiple chapters dealing with the middle of the night preaching session were overlong.

The book succeeds in some measure on an educational level but, on a story telling level, it hits just shy of the mark.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Zipporah, Wife of Moses

Think a fluffier Red Tent (I recommend the Red Tent most highly, by the way).

Moses' struggle with his destiny was compelling but the end wrapped up rather abruptly and Aaron and Miriam were portrayed quite poorly (although perhaps accurately. Who knows?).

The book did leave me wondering how Zipporah, Gershom and Eliezer really died. I went to the Old Testament but didn't find my answer there or online.

I do enjoy how historical fiction often leads me to further research.

Halter includes the interesting backstory regarding Thutmose III and Hatshepsut, the pharaohs who are portrayed (perhaps accurately) as Moses' "adopted" brother and "adopted" mother, respectively.

I've read Sarah and I'll read Lilah, if that's any indication of my regard for this book.

3.5 stars out of 5.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Japan's Best 'Short Letters to My Home Town'

This book features 51 brief letters written for a contest in Japan. It's bilingual so every letter is in both Japanese and English. Here's a sample:
I asked my mother,
"When can we go back?"
Tears in her eyes,

Fumi Ozawa (f. 13)
The soccer ball that I used to think
I would use all my life--
where did it go, I wonder.

Yoshikinki Kanamori (m. 15)
Hometown, I don't understand you,
but you seem to understand me.

Shinnosuke Michiya (m. 13)
I don't want to know about your past,
but I would like to see the hometown
that brought you up.

Noriko Hamoyama (f. 51)
Tiny jewel by the joining of the rivers,
The whistle of the train;
How can I leave? How can I stay?

Tom Lombardo (m. 49)
The one place where I take the
loneliness off with my shoes.
with the realization that
this is where I was always going.

Cheshe M. Dow (f. 18)

© 1999, Maruoka-cho Cultural Foundation, Sumitomo Group Public Affairs Committee

Friday, December 15, 2006

In Praise of Amazon Used Books

I love that I can easily buy and sell books through Now they do take a commission, but I just got a biography on Proust for $2.49 plus shipping. My order will total of $6.43. If I bought it new, it would be $15.60. I got another Proust bio for $9.93 rather than $26. I could go on and on with my savings. It's so much easier than say going to 10 used bookstores searching for something specific.

Equally, good is that I can easily sell books I'll never read again. I just unloaded the loathsome Perfume. I got it for $18 and will only make back $5, but it's better than nothing.

In the last 3 years I've made at least $1,000 in books that I don't need anymore. Not bad at all.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

An Alternative to "Perfume"

One of my students, a German major, mentioned loving Perfume. Well, she's young and probably hasn't read much. Rather than blasting Perfume, I suggested she read something by Gűnther Grass, one of my favorite authors. Grass is quite controversial lately after recently remembering his participation as a youth in Nazi politics, but I'll gloss over that.

I first read his Cat and Mouse in a class in German novelas (in translation). I moved on to the epic The Tin Drum, before getting to my favorite, The Flounder, which is an incredible history of the interaction of Western women and men from prehistoric times till the present. The story weaves together the myth of the flounder and the fishwife, who's been much maligned throughout history. That folk figure was not originally such a shrew. The frame of the plot is the narrator's wife's pregnancy. Each of the nine books corresponds to a month in her pregancy. Grass is a master and I loved his epic catalogs and perceptive insights. Now I did read this 20 years ago, but I haven't read anything better (equal maybe) that The Flounder.

Desert of Love

I want to read as many Nobel Laurat writer as possible. A few weeks ago I got an email from "The Writer's Almanac" mentioning François Mauriac's birthday. Intrigued, I looked for some of his books at our library and chose Desert of Love (1925) at random.

I expected a French Graham Greene, but I don't think he fits that description. I did keep thinking of The End of the Affair, which I read last fall. There's a lot less explicit Catholic content in Mauriac.

The story involves a middle aged doctor and his teenage (later 34 year old) son, who're both attracted or obsessed maybe more accurate with Maria Cross, a kept woman who lives in their town. All the neighborhood ostracizes her. Neither father nor son know the extent of the other's involvement with Maria. This synopsis may lead one to expect a cheesy, Harlequin romance, but Mauriac probes the the motivations and inner thinking of each character shedding light on how Maria's response or games with Raymond, the son, lead to his future womanizing or dissipation. The style is spare, which I love. I marvel at concise writing where there's nothing that isn't required.

It's a trim 131 pages so that's quite a difference and break as a reader from Proust, whom I'll write about after my grades are done.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Iraq: Reporters' Notebook

I've just finished listening to MIT World's Reporters' Notebook on Iraq. Well things are worse than I thought. Much worse and have been for a long time. I found myself taking notes. Another book at the top of my book list. This list looks more like a plateau than a peak every day.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Cool Evangelism

Well, maybe Donald Miller isn't an evangelical Christian. He might not fit any mold. My friend Jennifer gave me a copy of Blue Like Jazz, Miller's first book and I loved it so I bought In Search of God Knows What.

Again Miller muses over what it means to live a Christian life and wrestles with scripture applying it to American society. Here he focuses on our prediliction for comparison and status. He offers an interesting interpretation of Romeo and Juliet in light of Catholicism and Protestantism during Shakespeare's day.

Miller is down-to-earth, perceptive and humorous.

If You're More of a Movie Person

I just finished book 2 of In Search of Lost Time , and learned that Harold Pinter wrote a screenplay of it in 1972. A producer got the rights to film the novel, and commissioned a screenplay with the idea of first publishing it as a book. I read that if a lot of readers clamoured for the film, the producer hoped to get the money to finance it.

Pinter did try to cover the 3000 or so page book in 120-some pages. I've just read the first third. It's sort of a poetic visual rendition. I'm happy to say Pinter avoided voice overs. Most writers would have indulged in them for this. Bravo!

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

Wow! Read this book!

My mom recommended this book to me a few months ago and a woman on a plane next to me told me that she had just finished it and could not get it out of her mind.

I read it in two days.

In a remarkably matter of fact yet connected voice, Jeannette Walls details her childhood. As the child of a brilliant alcoholic father and an artistic irresponsible mother, Walls suffered extreme deprivation. But for all that, she never whines or blames and she emerges with a remarkable lack of anger.

I was often angry with Walls' parents but I was left marveling at the love this family felt for each other through it all.

While the book itself does not include a reading group guide, I think it would stimulate a lively book club discussion. Try the Book Browse reading group guide.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Don't Read "Perfume"

Our department book club chose a real loser, again. It's Perfume by Philip Suskind. The style's pretentious and the structure seems like the author's following some flowchart or checklist he found in a book on how to construct a novel.

It's the story of some olfactory wunderkind. I'm just on p. 130 about halfway through the book. A chapter will begin with a sentence on the main character's acute sense of smell and after 2 sentences, anyone who's read more than a dozen books and predict what will happen. Oh, the "novice" wows the skeptical perfume master. I guess I can just jump to the next chapter. My guesses have been on the money since page 1.

Yes, this book has won awards and garnered praise. I'm not sure why. If this weren't for a book club, I'd abandon Perfume and resell it immediately on It's not something I'd put on my bookshelves. I want to delete it from my memory. I'm really thinking of not finishing this and getting something else. I'll go to the book club explain my response to the book and see if other people found something redeemable in this and then if they did read the rest. I have too many good books that I want to read by authors I trust.

I may not finish it and just go to the book club ready to say I couldn't read this.

On Beauty by Zadie Smith


I want back the time that I wasted on this book.

Yuck again.

I want my money back.

Two families full of characters I either despised (Howard Belsey, Victoria Kipps) or merely disliked (Zora Belsey, Monty Kipps). It reminded me of The Corrections with no redeeming graces.

It was disjointed, with characters falling in and out of the story. Carl's here, Carl's not here, oops, Carl's here again, oh now Carl storms off for good.

There were no truths. Maybe that's an overstatement. Very few truths. Just contrivances, superficialities and exaggerations. Stereotypes.


Sunday, November 19, 2006

March by Geraldine Brooks

The drought is over.

Finally, a book with which I connected.

I've been intrigued by this book's concept since I first became aware of it right after it was released in paperback. I have no idea how many times I've held it in my hand, contemplating its purchase. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in April and it's been on my Amazon wish list since May.

Then, a week ago Wednesday, the woman next to me on the plane was holding it in her hand. I asked her if she liked it and she said she hadn't even started it yet. A few minutes later, she looked up from it and exclaimed that it was wonderful.

So I took the plunge. So many unread books in the house, but still I'm buying more.

I started it Friday night and finished it this afternoon.

Partially because it's written in the first person, partially because it's so well written and partially because I was already acquainted with the characters by virtue of reading and re-reading Little Women and Little Men, I felt an immediate connection to Mr. March (as I'm writing this, it occurs to me that I don't think we're ever told his first name) and his travails. For the most part, the plot flows naturally and does not seem contrived but for the repeated reappearance of Grace, which is a necessary and welcome coincidence.

All but four of the chapters are written from March's perspective. Those other four chapters are a surprising and illuminating look at the story from Marmee's perspective. I especially appreciated learning that certain interpretations presented as gospel from March's perspective were in fact utterly misguided. Brooks' portrayal of March's motivations for certain actions and Marmee's differing understanding of those same motivations was a masterful chronicling of the pitfalls of marital communication.

While the ending of Brooks' previous novel, A Year of Wonders (which I also highly recommend), seemed forced and artificial, March does not suffer so.

Brooks reads my mind when she states,
The thing that most attracts me to historical fiction is taking the factual record as far as it is known, using that as scaffolding, and then letting imagination build the structure that fills in those things we can never find out for sure.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards

I think it must be me. I can't think of the last book that I connected with on an emotional level.

I found this book to be emotionally distant, dispassionate.

Not mesmerizing and definitely not "Absolutely mesmerizing" as Sue Monk Kidd states on the cover quote. I did read it quickly but partially because I started it while traveling so had nothing better to do. I found it slow to start.

About half way through, I did find myself, at bedtime, reading it for longer than I anticipated, but I have to chalk that up to a desire to find out how the secret is resolved, an idle curiosity, not an emotional engagement.

I didn't care; I was curious.

The concept of how deeply a secret can affect and ruin a family played out in a fairly believable way, given the background of the players but there was at least one plot twist involving an unwed mother which came out of left field, hung around for a while and then disappeared as suddenly as it appeared.

David's resolution was confusing to me. It was very sudden and had me flipping pages back and forth to see if I had missed anything.

I didn't like any of the main characters although I guess I identified most closely with Caroline. She was pragmatic and able to channel events so as to not allow them to destroy her.

My reaction to this book does have me questioning a reviewer's ability to separate his/her emotional state from that which s/he is reviewing. Ultimately, a review is a sort of a window into the reviewer's state of mind as much as it is about the work being reviewed.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Corelli's Mandolin by Louis De Bernieres

With a long wind up, De Bernieres provides a window into an obscure corner of World War II. While De Bernieres does a fair job on an intellectual, introductory level, there is a remove to his characterizations which never allows the reader to feel quite the level of attachment to the cast of his novel as one might wish. The end of the novel feels rushed and flat, especially when compared with the detail-laden, almost overdrawn beginning. It's as if the novelist tired of them or at the very least ran out of time. All the same, due to my lack of knowledge regarding virtually all of this history, I did find many redeeming qualities and am glad that I took the time to read it. I enjoyed getting to know all the main characters as individuals whom I might have like to have known in real life.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik

An eminently readable series of essays about an ex-patriate American family of three in Paris. The French bureaucracy does not fare well but that's not surprising. Gopnik is genuinely fond of the Parisians and gives the American reader insight into those qualities which we tend to disparage.

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

My Favorite Living Japanese Writer's Honored

Haruki Murakami receives Franz Kafka literary prize
PRAGUE (AP) Author Haruki Murakami was in Prague on Monday to receive a prestigious Czech literary prize.

Murakami was chosen in March by an international jury that includes prominent German literary critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki and British publisher John Calder to win the annual Franz Kafka Prize, the Franz Kafka Society said.

The award, a small statue of Kafka by Czech artist Jaroslav Rona and a cash prize of $ 10,000, was established by the society in 2001. Murakami was to receive it at a ceremony at City Hall.

It is awarded to "authors whose works of exceptional artistic qualities are found to appeal to readers regardless of their origin, nationality and culture, just as the works of Franz Kafka," the society said.

A former jazz bar manager, Murakami burst onto Japan's literary scene in 1987 with a hugely popular experiment with realism, "Norwegian Wood."

Since then, the writer has won acclaim as well as a huge following both in Japan and abroad. His works have been translated into some 35 languages, including Czech.

His "Kafka on the Shore," a fable of magical realism about a 15-year-old runaway, was selected as one of the 10 best books of 2005 by The New York Times.

Murakami has also penned works of nonfiction, including a book based on interviews with victims of the 1995 deadly nerve gas attack in Tokyo, and has translated works by Raymond Carver, Truman Capote, John Irving and J.D. Salinger.

Murakami is the sixth recipient of the award. Past winners include Philip Roth of the U.S., Ivan Klima of the Czech Republic and Peter Nadas of Hungary. In the last two years, Austrian novelist, playwright and poet Elfriede Jelinek and British playwright Harold Pinter were chosen for the prize shortly before they won the Nobel Prize for literature.

-- from The Japan Times.

Now I urge you to read his books. They're jazzy, funny and modern. Start with his short stories in Elephant Vanishes and from there if you like him, try Norwegian Wood or Wild Sheep Chase.

Monday, October 16, 2006

Your Two Cents

If you were selecting books for a book club, what what would you choose for the next 8-10 months?

Comment please.

Soul Mountain

The Nobel Committee knew what it was doing
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian

This is a marvelous book. The writing mixes folklore with existentialism. I can't recommend it highly enough. I've been reading books on China like Wild Geese, which has a compelling story but the style was mediocre. Here we get literature and a glimpse into life in China. I wish he wrote more novels.

Gao (in North East Asia family names come first) has written many plays and lives in Paris. More of his work has been translated into French than into English.

Soul Mountain focuses on the narrator who learns that he doesn't have lung cancer after all. He then abandon's his life as a cog in a propaganda department to wander through rural China.

Women of the Silk

My friend Kimberley was wondering what book I'd recommend for her book club. They don't want anything too dense or literary and please nothing with a lot of incest, drug use or slices of the bleak side of life. Hmmmm.

They do like historical fiction. The Girl with the Pearl Earring was a winner. With all this in mind I came up with the suggestion of
Women of the Silk, which takes readers to China before the revolution and into the world of the girls whose families sold them off to silk factories. The life parallels Northeastern mill girls. The details were fascinating and I felt I understood this era and social strata better. It's not sentimental like Memoirs of a Geisha is in spots. It's actually the first in a trilogy so you may follow Pei's life for decades more if you like.

Giving credit where credit's due my friend Kasia told me about this book and lent me book 2 which I finished and will return - soon.

At a Crossroads or Just Curious?

The non-fiction book I'm reading right now is What Should I do with My Life? and it's engrossing. The author was at a crossroads in life (which I can relate to and decided to see how people dealt with this question. He interviewed dozens of people from all sorts of backgrounds:, gurus, college career counselors, investment bankers, ex-investment bankers, White House policy makers, and on and on.

He gets them to probe how they've dealt with this question and not in a superficial way that'll produce a recipe for shallow contentment or big bucks. He really seems to listen and ask tough questions, while carefully challenging and encouraging them to eliminate the b.s. and really look at their lives.

Last night I read about three women who'd all changed careers frequently. One was a "Boom Wrangler," who'd gone from one fast-paced trend-setting enterprise to another, the other worried that she was a "Change Junkie," whose early life of constant moving and a rotation of fathers doomed her to impermanence and a "Phi Beta Slacker," whose ability and expectations for achievement and success led her from one great opportunity to the next (great schools, cool, high-level jobs) but never touched her core.

As someone who's changed a lot more than I ever expected, who's constantly searching for my niche the question fascinates me. We must look at this carefully and honesty and Po Bronson, the author is so good at helping people do that.

He finds others who grapple with the "Where Should I do What I Should Do?" question as well. He tries to get a handle on the need for passion and discovers that lots of people who are passionate about their work have plenty of boring days and dissatisfaction with parts of their job, but the meaning or mission resonates and so they stay.

He sees the conventional success narrative with each "next step" offering more money, more success, while he offers an alternative narrative where each "'next' brings one closer to finding the spot where one's not held back by [lack of] heart, one explodes with talent, where character blossoms, and gifts become apparent."

Is there an HR address for that?

Reading Proust

Finally, I dove into Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Last year I read Alain de Botton's accessible, witty How Proust can Change your Life and rolled my eyes whenever Rory Gilmore'd mention Proust and her mother would get the reference completely. Time to read this myself.

In March and April this year my online book club tackled Swann's Way. I ordered all three volumes and though I was the only person aside from Jack, the club's moderator, to read the book (which actually gave me an extra boost of pride and accomplishment) I've continued and felt well rewarded. I read about 10 pages every other day and am 70% done with Volume 1. I do love the detail and the word choice. It helps to have a good dictionary on hand (I need something better than the paperback Webster I've got).

I just brought the first 1000 page volume to Seoul due to weight constraints on luggage. I'm slowly going through it so I can return in December with it finished and begin Volume 2 in January. I could read the whole thing in a year, but that would mean reading little else. Impossible. Or just not what I want to do.

I'm intrigued that Little Miss Sunshine has a character who's the #1 Proust scholar in the world and he's played by Steven Carrell, whose performance in The Office is brilliant. The movie's website led me to a Proust blog, and that lead me to Proust yahoo! groups and a very cool blogsite on books called Metaxucafe. I love how the internet connects one to a series of cool things and people.

Click here for: One good Proust blog

For My Online Book Club: Oct & Nov.

I love the simplicity of language and the simple, graceful plot. Everything's cut to the bone.

In school I got the idea that I didn't like Steinbeck, but I'm already planning on more.

My only complaint is that Cathy is so evil that she doesn't seem as real. Yes, I think some people are evil. I doubt they're actually born that way, but perhaps they are. I haven't decided for once and for all. Yet I've never run across anyone as bad as Cathy, though I have met calculating opportunists who seek every advantage.