Saturday, June 30, 2007

Moloka'i by Alan Brennert

Yet another piece of historical fiction that has served to educate while entertaining.

Brennert provides a little bit of the history of Hawaii, a little bit of the history of leprosy or Hansen's disease and a little bit of the history of the settlement of Kalaupapa in the context of the story of Rachel Kalama, a fictional seven year old child who is banished to and grows up on Moloka'i.

Brennert does a better job conveying the pathos of the grown-up Rachel than of the adolescent Rachel. Once again, I found myself reading a book to which I had little emotional attachment until Rachel reached adulthood at which point Brennert's ability to touch the reader with Rachel's struggles dramatically improved.

This is a sad story told in a way that celebrates the ability to persevere, fashion a life and ultimately triumph.

If I visit Lahaina as expected this fall, I'll have to include a side trip to Moloka'i in my itinerary.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Paper Lanterns

A Friend's Poem

By J’Ann Schoonmaker Allen

Pink, white, and yellow paper lanterns,
Candle lit and strung between metal bars
Decorate this temple yard.

Scents of incense, dried fish,
Cooked beetles, western breath, and
Fill the cool night air.

A bowing child moves fluidly,
Matching halmoni’s graceful body
For beat while Golden Buddha watches.

Monks, cloaked in brown from shaved head
To saddles, carry brass cymbals,
To some ancient rhythm.

Sightseers, sated, perhaps, depart,
Walking slowly
Behind the one
Before. The monks remain.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Norwegian Wood

Written by Haruki Murakami, one of my favorite writers, Norwegian Wood tells us the story of a Japanese college student, Watanabe, who's drifting along amidst the rebellion of 1960's Japan. He sees the flaws in their ideology and their activism and keeps his distance from this movement.

He gets involved with his now deceased best friend's girlfriend Naoko and with Midori, a college student he meets at a restuarant. Like all Murakami's novels, this reads smooth and jazzy. The characters all stand outside the mainstream and observe, comment and try to live in a different, better, rather lyrical or perhaps listless way. None of the relationships are clear cut or easily defined.

The New Yorker often prints his short stories and this link has a few which will give you a taste of his style: Murakami's Short Stories

Saturday, June 16, 2007

A Quotation Worth Saving

Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.

--Pablo Picasso

How Did I Miss This?

At the end of the semester I'm always swamped and emails and personal errands fall to the wayside. Thus I'm just now reading my Writers' Almanac for June 10th which I've learned is Saul Bellow's, my favorite writer, birthday.
It's the birthday of Saul Bellow (born in Quebec, Canada (1915). He grew up in Chicago. He was often sick as a child, and spent his time reading the great classics of literature. Saul Bellow later said, "I came humbly, hat in hand, to literary America. I didn't ask for much; I had a book or two to publish. I didn't expect to make money at it. I saw myself at the tail end of a great glory. I was very moved by the books I had read in school, and I brought an offering to the altar."

His father wasn't happy that Bellow wanted to be a writer. He said, "You write and then you erase. You call that a profession?" His brothers went into more conventional careers and Bellow once said, "All I started out to do was to show up my brothers."

He wrote a couple of novels that didn't do that well. He went to Paris on a Guggenheim fellowship. He hated Paris. The more he hated Paris, the more he loved America and Chicago. It was there he began writing his first big successful book, The Adventures of Augie March.
Do read The Adventures of Augie March, one of my all time favorites.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Skip This

Wandering around Kyobo bookstore I saw this children's book (for older kids say 10-11) and thought it might me an easy way to acquaint myself with the Middle East. The Shadows of Ghadams is set in Libya and tells the story of a girl, whose female relatives hide and save an injured man whom more fundamentalist citizens were chasing. Since the father and older male relatives are all gone, they can nurse this man and help him escape.

It would be a quick read if it weren't so boring. There's little dramatic tension even when they must get this man out of their home (the plan just works out, no near failure). Throughout the story, Malika adds tidbits about the culture describing food preparation, festivals, clothing, this is where historical fiction can get really interesting, but only if it's carefully woven into the story. Not here sadly. Her cultural sidebars seem just that--noticeable and set in a different tone than the narration. It's all so artificial. I kept wondering "Who is this girl doing all this tour guide-like explanation for?" Clearly. she's talking to her readers, but good writing makes that invisible. Some device where she did have an audience or a reason for the exposition would have helped.

The characters change very little, even Malika and this is a coming of age sort of story. The author seemed to have trouble with political correctness. The characters are Muslims and the most conservative seem to be willing to accept changes in their traditions and the progressive thinkers were willing to wait for "natural change." No one was too far from the center. Is that real? Perhaps, but I doubt it. It wasn't too interesting that's for sure.

I started the book and put it down. I only finished it because I am moving and want to donate some books to our school library.

One reason for reading a children's book was to familiarize myself with what's happening now and possibly writing a YA novel. If this is any indication, the market isn't that hard to crack.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I Love Studs Terkel

Today my culture class will discuss Studs Terkel's interview with C.P. Ellis, the KKK member who went through metanoia. It's an incredible story well told by Studs who has an uncanny ability to dig out America's history. This selection is available in Terkel's oral history on race.

Monday, June 11, 2007

If You're Thinking of Visiting Me

If you visit me, there's tropical breezes, flora, fauna, exotic culture, scuba diving, Bali side trips, spas. This offer is good for one year. Start saving!

Sunday, June 10, 2007

J'ai Fini!

He looks rather cute here. Not so neurotic and hard to live with. I finished reading Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, which is like climbing Everest in some ways. I'm a Also I finished William Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life. What to say? Obviously, whole books have been written on Search, which has its peaks and valleys to continue the mountain analogy, banal as it is.

Here are some quick comments.

  1. Thank God, I’m not a hyper-observant person. Granted one can make perceptive observations about every aspect of life, but that’s quite a cross to bear.

  2. Wow! Talk about beautiful sentences and masterful descriptions by the dint of perfectionism. (That’s sort of an inside joke since Proust uses “by the dint of” a lot—in some spots three times in two pages.)

  3. I loved Fran├žoise, the servant. She was so funny, probably my favorite character. There were times that I had to take a rest because there would be so much about the Narrator’s ruminations or (mis)perceptions on Albertine, which echoed Swann’s relationship with Odette and the Narrator’s with Gilberte. I guess two obsessions per work is my limit.

  4. Read a biography before or along with the book (or in lieu of). Some would disagree, but I found Proust’s life fascinating. He was quite neurotic, wearing fur coats inside in the summer, eating little and strange combinations of foods at odd hours, needing his mother so much, and never finding love. The biography will tell you about his relationship with money. He never held a regular job, though his parents encouraged him to find a career. He wound up inheriting a fortune, but frequently had money problems due to lavish spending and poor investments. He had a vexing and contentious relationship with his financial advisor after his parents died. Definitely, a father figure. Yet the book neglects the theme of money, while how we view money does reveal so much about our psyche, though it’s not something we remember the way we remember past loves, friendships.

    By reading the biography, we learn about the incredible task of editing and publishing this opus, who helped him and how they had to literally cut and paste and decipher Proust’s handwritten pages for the resulting 3300 plus page novel, which sadly wasn’t finally edited when Proust died (so we don’t really have what he finally approved). Proust thought he was going to die and his last months were a race to finish checking the manuscript. another bonus the biography provides is insight into what other writers and Proust’s friends thought of the book. Since some of the characters in the book are patterned after real people, it’s interesting to see what those individuals think of the book.

If you’re not up for a seven volume novel or 800 page biography (that does read much faster than the novel), do try Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life. It should amuse, enlighten and maybe pique your interest in Search.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

The Historian is an excellent read, equal parts horror story, historical thriller and travelogue.

Built around the Dracula legend, the book follows a young girl as she struggles to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance and her mother's absence. While the story can be hard to follow as it jumps back and forth between narrators, after a slow start, the suspense intensifies as the unanswered questions grow. Kostova doles out her mysteries as a bread crumb trail drawing her readers deeper into her story.

While multiple aspects of the story held my interest, I found myself most attracted to the story as a travelogue. The author describes the characters' travels through Cold War Eastern Europe in a way that can only be described as enticing.

We read this book for book club and at least one member read Bram Stoker's Dracula as a result of having read this book. I love it when that happens.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman

I found this book fascinating.

Ehrman presents a well argued, scholarly work dealing with how the books of the Bible and specifically, the New Testament have been altered through the ages, both purposefully and accidentally.

In a move that gives his work added weight, he lays out the methodologies of the scholarly field of textual criticism and then presents clear examples to support his arguments regarding changes made and motivations therefore.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

What Jesus Meant by Garry Wills

Wills has an interesting perspective on who and what Jesus was. He believes, as his foreword states, that Christ was not a Christian.

. . . he is not just like us, he has higher rights and powers, he has an authority as arbitrary as God's in the Book of Job. He is a divine mystery walking among men. The only way we can directly imitate him is to act as if we were gods ourselves - yet that is the very thing he forbids. He tells us to act as the last, not the first, as the least, not the greatest. And this accords with the common sense of mankind. Christians cannot really be 'Christlike.' As Chesterton said, 'A great man knows he is not God and the greater he is the better he knows it.' The thing we have to realize is that Christ, whoever and whatever he was, was certainly not a Christian.

Wills offers some thought provoking analysis of what the Gospels really have to say about Jesus. His is an anti-establishment view. He claims that religion killed Jesus, that Jesus was opposed to religion as it existed in his day and that he "did not found a church."

Don't read this book if you don't want to question your preconceptions.