Monday, June 30, 2008

The White Mary by Kira Salak - 351 pgs

Book CoverThe White Mary is the gripping and thrilling account of one woman's hellacious journey into the unforgiving jungles of Papua New Guinea and her struggles to get out alive. Marika Vecera is an adventuresome war reporter who is searching for Robert Lewis, a fellow reporter believed to be dead. When Marika finds evidence that Lewis may be alive, she embarks on an expedition halfway across the world to uncover the truth. Her growing unease with her boyfriend Seb's intimacy is just another excuse to embark on the odyssey that will bring her close to death and ultimately to the rediscovery of herself. Along the way she meets Tobo, a witch doctor and guide whom she hires to help her navigate through the wilderness, and who teaches her the ways of survival in the treacherous landscape. She discovers tribes from primitive societies whose superstitions and customs defy what even she, a well traveled and experienced explorer, can imagine. As her quest for Lewis continues, she finds that she must answer some difficult questions about herself, and above all, survive the experience.

Reading this book was a very visceral experience. It spoke to the questions and realities that we all must face. The action and conflict was delectable, but the level of self-introspection of the characters was the real heart of the story. The characters reflected on the questions that scare us, excite us, and repel us, never shying away from the uncomfortable answers that they attained. Many of the conundrums of religion were presented, as well as ruminations on war and the nature of humanity. At times, the philosophies expressed were uncomfortable and unsettling, but they were very finely etched, making them compelling rather than repugnant.

Another aspect of the book that heightened the experience was the author's tremendous way of conveying the atmosphere of the story. I literally felt hot and sticky reading about the searing conditions in the jungle. Salak's lush and descriptive language brought the Marika's world right into my living room. It was almost unbearable to read about the clouds of mosquitoes and the lack of provisions, especially the scarceness of water. The effect was one of complete immersion in the setting. It was an extremely convincing and detailed account of hardship that I found remarkable.

That said, I found the main character to be exceedingly unsympathetic and unlikable. She seemed to operate out of a sense of bitterness and detachment that I could barely tolerate. With all that she witnessed and experienced, one would think that she would display some sense of wonderment or awe, be it negative or positive, but this character had none. She was jaded and cold, always unheeding of advice and shrugging off the concern of the people who cared for her. She was so headstrong it was a bit annoying, always doing things the way she wanted, never learning from her experiences or that of those around her. At times, she disregarded and ignored cultural conventions that were hundreds if not thousands of years old, putting her at odds with the very people who were sheltering her. Her inability to love or be loved was chafing and convoluted. The only strong emotion she expressed was an obsession with Lewis that was quite inconsistent with her previous behavior. By the time she actually achieved some personal growth and began to change, I had given up on her. Her hard-boiled attitude had driven me away, and I wasn't able to trust that she had changed. Her self-revelation came too late, and I didn't care.

By contrast, Tobo, her guide, was a a great character. He was humble and knowledgeable about his surroundings, and although uncomplicated by western beliefs, he was honorable, respectful and wise. I found his unending bewilderment with Marika amusing and charming. His beliefs in the spirit world and of his magic was intriguing, and it seemed as though he understood Marika and her situation much better than she did herself. He was by far the best character in the book, and I wish he had been more of a feature.

This book was a mixed bag. I liked so much of it, and felt that at times it was a great work. However, the main character was a niggling disappointment coloring the story for me, and I was never able to fully lose myself in the pages. All the other elements of the novel worked perfectly. The story had depth and substance, and the sense of place was outstanding. The mood and flavor of the story, though dark, was intoxicating. Great premise and execution, but the main character was a letdown.

Friday, June 27, 2008

The Dangerous Joy of Dr. Sex and Other True Stories by Pagan Kennedy - 247 pgs

Book CoverIf I could describe this book in one phrase, it would be this: Touchingly candid. Whether writing about her own life or those of the odd and eccentric, Kennedy recounts her stories with loving detail and wonder. The people she writes about are truly people to ponder and marvel at. She deals with them all with a level of respect normally not afforded to these quirky trendsetters. Throughout their stories, she captures their brilliance, strength and mostly their humanness.

Among some of these unusual people are the quiet scientist and doctor Alex Comfort, who created a facet of the modern sexual movement by authoring the book The Joy of Sex. An older, shy man, Comfort reinvents himself as a sexual guru who reclassifies sex as a freedom of expression and who even bases the models in the book upon himself and his partner. She chronicles unknown scientists whose inventions just may relieve the economic pressures of third world countries, and sheds light on the brain bank, an organization at Harvard College that studies donor brains in an effort to understand the organic causes of mental illness. She explores people who are scouting new fuel sources and a man who realizes that children are the scientific future and creates an educational fun house for them. We meet one of the strongest women in the world, and a parrot named Alex with an attitude. Even more revealing are her personal essays, touching on topics of scary vacationing encounters and relationships that defy conventional thinking. Kennedy explores all these subjects with venerable compassion and an infectious marvel that highlights the importance of these people's advancements and uniqueness.

I tore through this book, wondering what and who was coming next, and enjoying the exposure to people who would have otherwise been unknown to me. The subjects in this book are fascinating and complex, inspired to make the world sit up and take notice of the unmentionable and unpopular. Some of the stories have hidden glimpses of humor, and some are laugh out loud funny. I particularly enjoyed the story of Vermin Supreme, a quirky and sometimes offensive activist who travels to rallies and protests with a boot strapped to his head, releasing the crowd's tension with his absurdities. The story of the Mystic mechanic, a man who wants all religions to embrace each other and has built a machine to be closer to God, was just as curious as it was humbling.

All in all, this book of stories was refreshingly peculiar and winning. It sparked a part of my interest that I didn't know was there, and made me think about the extraordinary people who are lurking behind their everyday facade. Kennedy's graceful style in addressing these compelling people made this book an admirable read. Highly recommended for those who would like an unusual experience.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Aviary Gate by Katie Hickman - 339 pgs

Book CoverThe Aviary Gate is the duel story of Celia Lamprey and Elizabeth Staveley. Elizabeth is a modern day scholar researching the story of Celia, a young English woman who is kidnapped following a shipwreck and forced into the harem of the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Lost and presumed dead to her family and friends, Celia must learn to survive in a forbidding and strange place. As Elizabeth hunts for clues about this missing girl that time and history forgot, the story of Celia is told in all it's bewitching detail. The Sultan's mother, the Valide, has plans for Celia which will put her at the very top of the harem and directly in the path of certain danger. Plots and enemies lurk around every corner, and everyone, it seems, has a hidden agenda and harbors dangerous ambitions. After a murderous plot is unveiled, Celia realizes that no one's place in the harem is secure. Although she thinks that she must languish here forever, she is not forgotten. Someone from her past is searching for her, and he's gotten closer than she can imagine. Meanwhile, Elizabeth has more than a scholarly puzzle on her plate. She is having problems with her lover, Marius. After numerous disappointments and heartbreaks, Elizabeth must decide what is most important to her, and what must be cleared away. In an effort to gain perspective, Elizabeth travels to Istanbul, where new opportunities arise for herself and for her studies of Celia.

With the clever use of the two story lines, the author is able to expound on detail and back story that the straightforward narrative of Celia's story lacks, while introducing another heroine. This dual story also had the effect of heightening the suspense of both stories, and creating a palpable anticipation in the reader. Without Elizabeth's analysis of the past, the story of Celia would have sacrificed its depth and importance.

The characters of Celia and Elizabeth were very different, yet somehow reminiscent of each other. Though both lived in different times, with different political and social customs, both struggled with the unfulfilling realities of love. Both women took control of their lives, albeit in different ways, and made their own destinies. Each examined her situation and courageously fought for happiness. These shared emotions of fear, discovery and heartache spurred them onwards in their emotional growth.

I particularly liked the author's description of the harem life. The clothes, jewels, and other facets of the foreign lifestyle were described with elegant confidence. It was entrancing to read about the ritual bathing and grooming, the intricate social hierarchies, and formal restrictions of behavior. The rivalries and jealousies of the women of the harem were startling in their fierceness and their resolution, and even the most docile of the women held secrets and alliances. It was often hard to gauge just who was targeting whom, and for what reason, which made this story unpredictable and satisfying.

The cast of characters were rendered in very exacting detail; they were multi-dimensional and vivid, each having their own motivations and concerns. The morally dubious characters still had moments of humility and compassion, while the villains were singularly unscrupulous, yet shrewd enough to mimic sincere behavior. Even the heroes and heroines had unappealing aspects that weren't glossed over.

Ultimately, I was impressed by the range of this book. It was once a mystery, love story, and historical novel. The plot was engaging, and the characters interesting. The book did not suffer long-windedness or become tedious. Though the ending wasn't what I was expecting; it was haunting and evocative. Reading this novel was a rare pleasure.

Monday, June 16, 2008

My Father's Paradise: A Son's Search for his Jewish Past in Kurdish Iraq by Ariel Sabar - 329 pgs

Book CoverMy Father's Paradise is Ariel Sabar's captivating account of the plight of the Kurdish Jews in Iraq, as well as the story of his family's history. The book shifts from the social and political aspects of the culture and it's struggles to maintain the legacy of it's heritage and language to the tale of how his father, Yona, and his family lived in Zakho, a small town in Kurdish Iraq, and their eventual departure. But instead of being a quaint saga of a family's lineage, it is rather a homage to his father and the accomplishments he has made in the preservation of a people that are fast disappearing. I learned to love Yona Sabar, just as his son and students did. He humbled and awed me with the diligence that kept his people's language alive.

I came to this book with little familiarity of the region and it's people, and felt that the author excelled at highlighting the reasons and ramifications of the Jews eventual emigration to Israel from Iraq, and the adversity that they faced in their new home. It was distressing to realize that this modest group of people were hated and marginalized in a place that they hoped would be a haven and sanctuary for them. Against all the odds, Yona Sabar achieved what most had never dreamed of: success and notoriety as a professor, author, and language consultant. Though, sadly, he could not accomplish this in Israel. After moving to America, his success came with struggles to assimilate with its culture. These passages were deeply affecting and stirring. I felt heavyhearted reading about his loneliness and isolation in a new country, so alien from his own.

The author's relationship with his father was portrayed with unflinching honesty and true feeling. It seemed it was not always easy to have a father who was so different from everyone else. But the very things that initially created distance between father and son later came to be the things that brought them together. It was a poignant reversal that closed the generational gap. As the author searched for meaning and understanding in his father's past, his father became the touchstone of his ethnic identity.

This book ran the gamut of emotions: there was pleasure in the tale of the aged storyteller of the village, who used his stories to enlighten his people as well as attain his own ends; there was sorrow in the story of a missing relative who was lost in the sands of time; and there was anger in the subjugation of a noble people who struggled with their new circumstances. Though there was much sadness, I ultimately found this story as one of hope.

Another thing I liked about this book was the conversational style in which it was written. The information was not dumbed down for the audience, and neither was it too complicated to be accessible. I felt as though I got to know the author as well as the subject through his use of a welcoming style of journalistic approach. The book includes black and white photographs as well as facsimiles of noteworthy documents. I found this extra detail very inviting. It was gratifying to be able to see some of the people who I was getting to know.

This was a very pleasing book. I learned a tremendous amount about a culture that was previously unknown to me, and the people inhabiting the pages were so detailed and their motivations were so amply described that I felt as though I could have been right there with them, comforting them when they cried, and sharing the sound of their laughter. Yona I found to be particularly enjoyable. He was funny and self-depreciating, as well as being intelligent and kind. His quest to save the Aramaic language was deeply impressive. I admired the skillful handling of these subjects by the author, and would definitely recommend this book to others.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Happy Birthday Readerville!

Today is Readerville's eighth birthday. Readerville is a community of book enthusiasts that has a lively message board full of discerning and intelligent readers, and has new articles every day regarding books, the publishing business, and the literary world. Some of my favorite features are The Odd Shelf, the author articles, and the specialized lists of books. It is a community for all types of readers, and I spend some time there each day. Yesterday, they featured an article by author Adrian McKinty, who related his story about being approached to buy any book in Hemingway's collection for $200. Readerville also has archived chats with authors, and seasonal recommendation lists. Some of the lists for the summer are more challenging and interesting then the usual summer fare that can be found elsewhere. If you haven't already visited, take a look!


Friday, June 6, 2008

The Devil's Larder: A Feast by Jim Crace - 165 pgs

Book CoverThis is a book of 64 vignettes about food. But it's not simply about food, it's about the emotions that go along with the food and the complex issues surrounding the food. The style is lyrical and poetic, and subtle themes of all flavors are infused throughout it's pages. Jim Crace has done a fantastic job of making these short essays, more often then not, foreboding and dark. There are stories dealing with death and love, indifference and hate, and just about any human emotion that can be played out. There is more than one story about poisoning, accidental or otherwise. Some of the stories are only a few sentences long, but in those sentences he has packed an emotional range and vivacity that some authors can't seem to find even after hundreds of pages. Some of the stories are subtle and refined, others vulgar and coarse. The one thing that these stories all have in common is some relationship to food either direct or tangential.

There are stories of a magic soup stone, it's granite flavoring hundreds of pots of stew and soup. Of cans missing labels that defy explanation of their contents. Tales of room service meals, and treachery played out in the form of sustenance. Stories of supernatural influences regarding food, and hungry nights out in the woods searching for anything that could be a meal. These stories have a rich feel, and many exotic ingredients pepper the pages: aubergines, morels and manac beans, razor clams, macaroons and a feast made of ingredients all of white. There are stories of fondue parties gone wrong, and stews made hearty with boiled leather. These stories are not for the touchy of stomach; they are a mash of devilish potency, spilling from the pages like verse.

This is the perfect book to dip into and out of noncommittally. The stories are perfect for when you can only do a little reading at a time, or between chapters of another book. I read the book in its entirety, and it did not suffer for having not been digested in small bits. The book was enticing, while at the same time being slightly repulsing. There is so much inside this book alongside of food, mostly our complex relationships to the food and the feelings that food inspires in us.

Though this was a strange book, and I have never read anything like it, it was pleasing and satisfying in it's own weird way. I had heard many things about it, and was eager to read it. Though it was short, it was unusually gratifying. I would recommend this book to those who are tired of the ordinary, and long for something that bites back.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Sweeping Up Glass by Carolyn D. Wall - 278 pgs

Book CoverSweeping Up Glass is the story of Olivia Harker, her family, her friends, and the hardships they all endure in rural 1938 Kentucky. The book introduces us to Olivia and her immediate surviving family, and then shifts off into about 15 chapters of back story. These chapters relate Olivia's childhood and her previous struggles with her mentally ill mother, her doting father, the love of her life, and the segregated black community in her area. Olivia encounters many hardships and setbacks as she grows up, and some are completely devastating. She grows from being a sweet and loving child into an acerbic and unbending woman. She is fiercely loyal in her love and ardently forceful in her hate. It is clear that her circumstances have shaped her. Olivia's daily existence is a tribulation that most would shrink from. Though she handles her situation with poise, she also carries more than a little bitterness. Olivia is a complex woman who is stubborn and resigned, yet still somehow hopeful. When we finally resume the action in the present, Olivia is faced with the realization that someone is killing the wolves that have always been protected residents of her land. Along with her grandson William, she attempts to track down the hunters. What she discovers is more than a simple poaching scheme, and the effects will be volatile to herself and the community.

The secondary plot revolves around Ida, Olivia's mother, who lives in a tar paper shack on the edge of her property. Ida is a fantastically rash character. She is mentally ill and has been abusive towards Olivia all her life; there is no love lost between them. Though Ida was absent for most of Olivia's adolescence, she returns to the family and creates havoc and heartache for Olivia and her father. Through all of her erratic behavior, Olivia's father, Tate Harker, remains loyal and steadfast to her. Yet Ida shows no reciprocation towards Tate, and remains cruel and unyielding. One of the interesting aspects of this book was the portrayal of the mental hospitals of the day. When Ida must retreat to one of these hospitals, Olivia visits to inspect it, and it is harrowing. The women there are either forced to be immobile or locked in small cages. Electroshock is mentioned, as are head shavings and ice baths. I had trouble with this section of the book, as it seemed a savage fate for Ida, one that Olivia didn't fully ruminate on. Though Ida had made some very bad choices in her life and didn't feel even the slightest bit of remorse, the choice to send her to that facility seemed heinous. It seems the author's point was that Olivia couldn't forgive Ida for what she had done and that as far as she was concerned, Ida was irredeemable. I feel that this section of the book may disturb many readers, and it was the only thing that marred my pleasure in this book. It was the only piece in the book that didn't seem to fit. The blatant cruelty of the decision was shocking.

Another aspect of the story involved Olivia's current relationship with her former high school sweetheart, Wing Harris. Olivia and Wing had only a brief time together before events separated them. Wing watched with stolid silence as Olivia went through horrible stages of her life, offering any help he could, while Olivia in her pride rejected him. As the book progresses, Wing and Olivia tackle the obstacles involved in their reconciliation. It is not as easy for them to reunite as one would hope. I liked the character of Wing because he was noble in the face of all his humiliations and trials, and he was always there when it mattered. Wing was a likeable character. Though somewhat sedate, he was unflinching in his honesty and loyalty.

The segregated black community portrayed in this book is poignant and revealing. Though they must remain separate from the whites, even having separate days for shopping at the local store, they embrace Olivia and her family as one of their own. The community's hardships are not harped upon, but relayed with respect to the adversity they faced. It was touching to see that there could indeed be no separation of color as far as Olivia's family was concerned. Themes of racial acceptance, real or imagined, hoped for or denied, ran through the book.

But as wolves continue to be slaughtered, Olivia unwittingly places herself and those she loves into the hands of unjust men who are trying to keep a devastating underground society alive. The story becomes a race to save those she loves, and the town, from certain destruction. Great forces are aligned against her, and it was with great trepidation that I realized the odds were against her. The many tiny revelations, along with the great, kept me on the edge of my seat, wondering if there was more to come, wondering how much more she and those of the town could take. Malice and discord sweep through the pages as the truths are slowly picked out. In addition, there are mysteries surrounding her father, secrets shrouded in perplexity that may indicate that her father was not the man she once knew.

This book had me hooked from the very first pages. The hard-scrabble daily existence of the characters was captivating and engrossing. The economies that had to be made were many, and the details of 1930’s Kentucky were so precise that it was greatly absorbing. The language was rustic and simple, yet very clear and concise. I found myself wanting to know more about these people, to know more about their lives, hurts and victories. This book has a lot to say about the times that it portrays. The small issues and the great, neither is neglected. There are wise and humble characters as well as wicked and sinister ones. Love, anger, betrayal, duty, honor, racism, and death, forgiveness: they are all here. And the tapestry created is one of beautiful complexity.

By the end of the book, I was wishing I could spend more time with these characters, that they would not go. Aside from the aberration regarding the mental hospital, this was an outstanding debut novel. I will definitely read any other offerings from this author, and I wish her luck in her writing career.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Fallen by David Maine - 244 Pages

Book CoverThis book was quite possibly the best biblical fiction book I have read in the past few years. Fallen is the story of Cain and Abel, and alternately, Adam and Eve. The book begins with the ending and cleverly winds it's way back to the beginning, with the body of the story told in shifting time-lines. Maine brilliantly manages to keep the story line comprehensive and lucid. I was very struck by the spare, yet visceral language throughout the book, and the motivations of the characters were portrayed extremely well. I raced ahead to finish the book, all the while trying to slow myself down so there was more to savor. Though the story is familiar to most, the nuances and subtleties that were infused throughout the book made this a one of a kind story, one where even though the outcome is predicted, the road getting there is anything but.

Most know the infamous story of the two brothers, Cain and Abel, but what is portrayed here is so much more. Maine has managed to take small snippets of those famous verses in the Bible and make them delectably consumable, and downright wonderful. Cain is portrayed as a difficult and tractable young man, bordering on heretical. He is forever feeling slighted and wronged, and his attitude only makes things more difficult for himself. It is hard to find sympathy for Cain; he is virtually unlovable, and remains so for the entirety of the novel. It becomes easy to see him follow his path from anger to murder. Even in his exile, he curses and berates God, making him seem all the more recalcitrant and miserable. His reflections upon himself and his inherent differences from his family are captivating, and make him a full and interesting character.

Abel, on the other hand is wonderfully compliant, kind and friendly. Though he tends towards platitudes and bossiness, the goodness in him shines through. Abel, his mother's favored child, strives for peace in the family, and is usually the one to try and persuade Cain to abandon his fits of pique. He is loving and forgiving, and he is truly humble to the Lord. He is constantly trying to find his brother's heart and make him see reason. It is clear to see that Abel is light to Cain's darkness. The insight gained regarding Abel's unselfish love for his brother make Cain's act all the more incomprehensible. Though Abel is more of a simple man, his devotion to his family and his God are very moving.

As the story moves forward, the focus is on Adam and Eve and their flight to safety after being banished from the Garden of Eden. It is a sorrowful trek that visits many misfortunes and hardships upon the two. Everything that could possibly go wrong for them does so from the beginning. Adam's staunch belief in the Lord pulls him through the struggles, and makes him accepting of any travail that comes their way. Eve is not always so emotionally compliant. There are scenes in which she doubts the intentions and safeguarding of God, and in these moments, Maine has cleverly elaborated on what can only be speculated upon. The awareness of the characters was also a great touch. These fictional characters see themselves as we would see ourselves today, their hopes, fears and dreams are fully realized within the story, and the effect is that all the characters are living, breathing and thinking entities who can be understood and appreciated.

At the close of the book, the story has finally come around to the beginning. God has banished the couple from paradise for their sin, and they are left wondering how and where they will survive. The fear they feel is perceptible, and their reactions to it recognizable. This story has been heard countless times before, yet what is different this time around is the cognizance of the sinners. It is so much clearer to imagine, in this novel, who and what Adam and Eve were like, and what they were thinking. By making them so human, the author has made them so much more plausible and believable. One can imagine feeling the same way today if one were faced with these overwhelming situations. The dialogue was also very solid. Both the children and the parents contemporized and tended towards philosophical understanding.

Another lovely touch was the depictions of the world around the characters. It was easy to see the hardship once the barren and wasted landscape was described. The deserts felt hot, the river felt cool. The effect was masterful, as the panorama wasn't excessively described. It was hinted at, and sparingly related, yet so much more revealing than if countless pages of scenery had been described. It was also interesting to see deftness of the period detail.

This was a wonderful book. It had so many multi-layered parts that came together seamlessly and satisfyingly. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who likes Biblical fiction, or anyone who would just like to read a good story. This book is one of three books of biblical fiction by the same author. I will most definitely be reading the others.
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