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!