Thursday, August 28, 2008

My friend Laura turned me on to Robertson Davies a few years back. He is a terrific writer. Here's what the Writers' Almanac said about him today:
It's the birthday of the novelist and playwright Robertson Davies, (books by this author) born in Thamesville, Ontario (1913). In the 1930s, he was a successful Shakespearean actor in London, until 1939, when all of the city's theaters closed down because of the war. Davies decided to return to Canada and look for a new job. At the encouragement of his father, he took over the family newspaper. The stories that he covered — sex scandals, murders, children locked in basements — eventually inspired him to write novels. He said, "I have been among people who would make your hair stand on end. And this is where I find the stuff I put in my books."

He's best known for his Deptford Trilogy, Fifth Business (1970), The Manticore (1972), and World of Wonders (1975), which revolve around a boy from small-town Ontario, who grows up to become involved with magicians, millionaires, and modern-day saints.
I read "Fifth Business" and loved it.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisitedis one of my favorite books and this month's book club selection. I love this book about Charles Ryder's history with his college friend Sebatian's family so much that I didn't want it to end. Also it's the second time I've read it and I knew what was going to happen so I slowed myself down to avoid the beautifully written, but sad ending. Charles, an artist, comes under the spell of the Flytes, a wealthy, intriguing Catholic family. The mother's quite pious, while the father ran off with his lover and lives in Venice. The four siblings are each quite distinct as well. Charles keeps crossing their paths between the two World Wars.

Waugh is a masterful writer. He includes so many deep, witty, complex characters. His emotional range is wide, parts are quite witty and others deeply sad. He does some smart things like giving us Sabastian's backstory through a character we can't trust at all, Anthony, who clearly doesn't like Sebastian, but Anthony is witty and smart so we know some of what he says is true. What bits?

It's a good book for discussion (my group's will be this week) as there are questions on the nature of various relationships and everyone's true motives. I have gone to some blogs with movie reviews and the comments pages have been full of perceptive, engaged posts. It's a book people aren't ambivalent about.

Since the movie is supposed to be completely unfaithful to the book, I'm waiting to see how the other book club members think about it before I decide to go.

I have put the BBC's 1982 television mini-series in my queue. It's got a "very long wait."

Religion of Peace?

I do think everyone, whether conservative, moderate or liberal should read Religion of Peace? by Robert Spencer. Spencer has well researched and documented his evidence that proves that Islam is not the religion of peace that people including George Bush contend. Wow! That statement might hit some readers like a bomb. However, I urge your to read the book (if you can't make your own trip to say Saudi Arabia or Indonesia to see for yourself) before you judge that thesis.

From our rather calm communities it's easy to figure every country is kind of like ours just with different holidays and customs. Cultural relativism has been taught through schools and television. I admit I pretty much thought that way.

Then I moved to Sulawesi in Indonesia last year. It didn't take long to see how different life was in a Muslim-majority country that bills itself has having freedom of religion. As my other blog, Ruined for Life (search "Indonesia") shows discrimination against non-Muslims was quite common and radical Islam is on the rise. Young women were starting to wear burqas more; they'd recently begun segratating high school classes by religion; interfaith marriages are illegal; the church nearest my house had been burned down and on and on. So that changed how I viewed the peacefulness of Islam.

Back to Spencer's book - he covers topics such as the role of women in Islam, how the crusades and inquistion compare with the spread of Islam through force, false or inaccurate portrayals of Christianity and Islam in the media. Each point is supported with evidence and it's easy to find Spencer's sources. I did look up a few online because I wanted to see the original article and it all checked out.

Spencer is not spreading hate. He sensibly acknowledges that there certainly are good Muslims. He does examine the history and current events of Islam that threaten our national security and that of Buddhists, Hindus, and others in Asia and Africa. He also sets the record straight on areas of Christian history that have been exaggerated.

Here are a few things I learned:
  • Muslim men may marry up to 4 wives after that the women are considered concubines. I'm not sure why 4 is a magic number.
  • Non-Muslims are called Dhimmi (like goy in Hebrew I suppose) and often have had to pay extra taxes to live in Muslim countries.
  • If a man marries a pre-pubescent girl, he should wait till she reaches puberty to initiate sexual relations.
  • The reason for female victims of rape to have to have 4 male witnesses to the crime is that Shar'ia courts suspect many adulterous women would just cry rape.
I don't think this should be the only book a person reads about Islam, but it should be one among several.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Gift from Brittany

After reading Almost French Marjory Price's A Gift from Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside was the perfect book to read after Almost French: Love and a New Life in Paris. Again a young English- speaking woman goes to France, falls in love and tries to acclimate to French culture. However, there were some important differences in how each woman engaged the culture.

In 1960 Price, a painter, decided to move to Paris to immerse herself in the art world there. She meets Yves, another painter, and is smitten. They soon marry and have a daughter. When the daughter is three, Yves decides to buy property with seven delapidated houses in the boonies of Brittany. Did he consult his American femme? Non! Price protests, but soon decides to make the best of things.

In Brittany, Price meets Jeanne, an older, wise, loving woman and their friendship makes up the core of the book. Jeanne teaches Mitch (a.k.a. Marjorie) farm skills to survive the rigors and social challenges on La Salle. Price widens Jeanne's horizons taking her to the beach (yep, Jeanne had never set foot in the sea) and later to Paris. Their friendship is deep and has a reciprocity, that I liked.

I admired Price's resourcefulness and courage. She never whined. When her husband tells her that they'd never find a skilled architect from the nearest city and they HAD to make due with a local incompetent, she doubts him. She winds up getting a great architect who loves the idea of working on these old homes.

It seems from the beginning Price spoke French well and when she faced adversity had little assistance from her husband, who was definitely more of an obstacle than anything else. She had to make hard choices and deal with major problems (while Sarah Turnbull lived more on the periphery and had a lot of help and luck getting work, etc.) while considering the needs of her daughter. It was just more rivetting to move through this book that presents a France that's probably disappeared. In fact, Marjorie saw some traditions die during her 10 years in LaSalle.

Price revealed more about her relationship with Yves and her own inner struggles and doubts. Thus I felt I knew her much better than I did Turnbull.

Read this! (It would be a good book club book.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Peace in the Post-Christian Era

Thomas Merton wrote Peace In The Post-Christian Erain the 1960's during the Cold War. Sadly, it's still relevant. Intelligently and objectively, Merton assesses the politics and philosophy of the atomic age when nuclear war was a great threat.

He points out how hypocritical it is for Christians to consider nuclear weapons "just" or pre-emptive attacks (see how timely this is) a moral choice for a Christian leader or people. He traces the history of the Christian doctrine of "just war," challenges Machiavellian philosophy and takes apart the "Red or Dead" cliche. He asserts with Fr. Murray (whom I don't know) that "war has now become a moral absurdity." He points out that when democratic, capitalistic countries believe they must defend their way of life through war, they prove Marx right. He questions why we assume that the teaching of Christian meekness and forgiveness just applies to individuals, not to nations or organizations.

The book makes us look at Christian hypocrisy or lack of deep faith in Jesus exhortations to abandon weapons and make peace. I should send a copy to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

I highly recommend Peace In The Post-Christian Era.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Glenview by Beverly Roberts Dawson

I grew up in Glenview so this book basically leapt into my cart when I saw it at Costco (in Glenview, of course).

I found it very interesting. I've always been intrigued by the history of my little hamlet north of Chicago and this book provides a lovely pictorial trip down Memory Lane.

It was fun to see what familiar environs once looked like, to see urban legends confirmed and to catch glimpses of things I hadn't even imagined.

These Images of America series are charming.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Ozma of Oz

Ozma of Oz (Books of Wonder),another adventure with the characters from Oz. Here Dorothy gets swept away at sea when she's traveling with Uncle Henry to Australia for his health. Most of the story she never thinks about her uncle or wonders if he's worried about losing her at sea. I thought that was really strange. Anyway she finds herself on an island and this time has a retinue consisting of Tik Tok, a mechanical man, a hen named Bill, whom she calls Billina as that's more feminine, the Tin Man, Scarecrow, Lion, a Tiger, Ozma of Oz, and the Sawhorse from book 2. They all help her through a series of challenges. There's far less sexism, but still a bit. Baum also includes the occasional barb like when they go back to Oz and someone points out the new college and says they had to build it because there were so many young men adverse to work so they got them out of the way by sending them to college.

There's some delight in the magical trees which grow lunch pails and dinners, the Wheelies, creatures who pursue Dorothy and a King who has enchanted a whole royal family and gets our team of heroes to figure out how to free them. A fun, fast read.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Replay by Ken Grimwood


Jeff Winston dies suddenly in 1988 at age 43, discontented with his life.

He immediately reawakens in 1963 at age 18, in his college dorm room.

Disoriented and confused, he discovers that he gets to live his life all over again. And again. And again.

I first heard about this book on NPR's You Must Read This on July 10. Brad Meltzer practically gushed about this book. Since time travel has always intrigued me (I even liked Timerider, a cheesy 1982 movie about time travel), I thought hey, I'd probably like that book.

And I did.

With just the right amount of philosophy, Replay takes the reader on an exploration of the meaning of life without being heavy handed.

A cult classic with good reason.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Do Not Disturb Any Further

Talk about a guilty pleasure. John Callahan's Do Not Disturb Any Further is a collection of his very politically incorrect cartoons. They make me laugh though I feel I shouldn't. Part of the reason he gets away with say ridiculing the disabled is that Callahan is a parapalegic, one who hates overly PC language and sentiment. I heard him on television once say he'd rather be called "crippled" than "disabled."

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

The Marvelous Land of Oz

I just finished reading the second book in Frank L. Baum's Oz series, The Marvelous Land of Oz (Books of Wonder). I just can't get over how sexist it was. Now I know why they never made this into a movie.

The story begins with Tip, a boy whose guardian is the wicked Mombi. He tricks her, creating a Pumpkinhead man and runs away. After a few initial chapters that weren't all that interesting, Tip's on a journey familiar to Baum's readers. He decides to go to Oz and along the way, you guessed it, he meets some odd friends. In this story it's a giant bug, a saw horse and a Gump they make out of odds and ends. So far so good and I'm up for this quest. They're off to see the Scarecrow, whom we remember is now ruling Oz.

But the Scarecrow's rule doesn't last long. A group of girls led by Queen JinJur conquer Oz because they want the city's jewels and they are tired of doing chores. They think men have ruled long enough. (The picture shows JinJur taking it easy now that she's in charge.) Okay, that could be rather progressive.

Once they take over all the men have to cook and clean at home. They moan and groan because it's just too much work. This is when things got just incredibly sexist. There's no way they could take this story and adapt it to film today. Also, I can't envision a teacher reading it aloud to a class. The troop led by Tip go find the Tin Man and Glinda and after several adventures oust the girls. All is well when the men don't have to cook dinner any more. Baum tells us that the women were sick of their husband's cooking so they were happy to whip up their own tasty dishes. (The picture above shows the men celebrating their liberation from "women's work" which it seemed they had to do for a few days.)

There's another twist so things aren't 100% sexist, but the tone was awfully demeaning. It's not a story I'd read to a child though. Not now at least.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

The Dew Breaker

In The Dew Breaker Edwidge Danticat looks at the consequences, the guilt and fear of one former Haitian prison guard, who tortured countless people 30 years ago. The story begins with a sculptor who has created a work depicting her father as a brave victim. This noble piece, which the woman is delivering to a wealthy client spurs her father to admit the truth, he was the predator not the prey. Then the story examines the torture in during the Duvaliers dictatorships. Danticat employs shifting narrators and each chapter has a different structure, which I found more confusing than artful. Still I found this a facinating way to see how morality and history impact individuals. I felt that Danticat describes the many characters well, but wished she'd given me more description of the places. I had no clear picture of the homes or towns in Haiti, which I really wanted since I've never been there or seen much through the media.

The reviews and introduction do make it clear that Danticat's father was not a torturer.

My Next Memoir on France?

After reading Almost French I saw this book,
A Gift from Brittany: A Memoir of Love and Loss in the French Countryside. It sounds good. It's the story of an American woman who moves to France to study painting and she finds love. The difference here is that it all unravels.

Almost French

On Shelfari.comI saw that Bridget was reading Sarah Turnbull's Almost French: Love and a New Life in Parisso I got it at the library. I've read a few other expat in France books (e.g. A Year in Provence, Words in a French Life and French By Heart). Also have visited had three friends who moved to France so I've heard the real stories. Turnbull's experiences fit right in with those. It's pretty much unanimous that France, especially Paris, poses big problems for the expat who hopes to fit in socially (i.e. find a group of friends in say less than three years). It's easy to partake of the food, wine, art and ambience, but getting through the invisible social barriers is another story. It's harder than in Japan, quite a bit harder.

From the start I was intrigued with Turnball, an Australian who meets some dashing French lawyer, Frederick, and takes him up on his offer to stay with him in France. Something that I really wouldn't do. It's just to risky. (I'd visit, but I'd be in a hotel.) And Turnbull did have some of the same qualms most women would. What if this Frederick is a psycho? Luckily, he isn't and Turnbull decides to stay in France.

The book describes her navigation of and assimilation (as much as one can assimilate) into French culture. I particulary enjoyed reading about her pluck and ingenuity as she tried to get funding for a journalism training program, her learning the art of dog ownership in Paris and her volunteering at a soup kitchen. Her insights were fair. She doesn't simply bash the tough parts of French culture, she does try to understand. Although she writes of topics many others have covered like home construction and the food mania, I found these reflections fresh.

I would like to have learned more about her relationship with Frederick, how it evolved and deepened. Readers get a glimpse of that, but not as much as I would have liked. I wondered how she felt about being financially supported by someone she didn't know all that well and how she felt about living in France without the proper visa. (She doesn't get her work visa until she's been in there six years. For obvious reasons, she doesn't advertise that. Only someone who knows more about immigration will pick that up.)

Since I'm working on some writing now and really agonizing over structure, I noticed that Turnbull's structure is very episodic or thematic. Each chapter pretty much addresses one theme like owning a dog or house hunting. The only thread that is found throughout the book is that she's an Australian in France. I think that weakens this memoir. French By Heart covers the same territory and I thought the ongoing conflict with the busybody neighbor heightened my enjoyment. It gave the story a map, a definite way to measure the writer's personal, not just cultural, growth.

Would I want to live in France? Nope. Although I love French things, I doubt I'd have the patience to put in the years of social isolation, even with understanding the reasoning behind it. (One friend there now married to a Frenchman with a half French baby was recently diagnosed with depression. It is real hard to fit in there.) Still, for some reason I'd read another memoir by an expat there in a heartbeat.