Monday, January 26, 2009

The Brightest Moon of the Century by Christopher Meeks - 311 pgs

In The Brightest Moon of the Century, readers meet endearing and affable Edward, a young man who is locked in a struggle with the world and his place in it. After the death of his mother, Edward's father places him in a private boys' academy, where, due to his lower economic status, he becomes the butt of jokes and pranks. As Edward navigates his way through his education with stoic resolve, he harbors secret fantasies of snagging an affectionate and lusty girlfriend and dreams of one day becoming a famous film director. Edward, navigating through the maze that is life, vacillates between the disappointment that his occasional failure brings and the tentative hope in his belief that he is coming closer and closer to his dreams. Edward's poignant sojourn through adolescence and adulthood is paved with endearing and touching moments, from his fumbling encounters with his first girlfriend to his flight from the nest. But Edward's life is far from typical as he eventually moves to Alabama with his best friend to run a mini-mart in a mobile home park, survives a catastrophic event, and begins to study film at a prestigious university. With each step, Edward comes one step closer to realizing his desires. Ultimately, Edward will see some of his dreams come true, but some must be sacrificed in the ever turning revolutions of fate.

This was a quiet yet very powerful piece of literature. In essence, Edward's story has hallmarks of similarity to many of our stories, but the way in which the author chose to portray this story made it both unique and stunning. Following Edward from childhood to middle age was like watching a beloved brother growing up alongside you. It wasn't only reading, it was sharing. Edward's feelings of insecurity and loneliness jumped off the page, touching me in a way that a character rarely does, and his successes made me smile with shared joy. I think the reason for this was the incomparable humanness and honesty of this character. He was completely believable and sympathetic, someone who you grew to know and love, whose joy becomes your own, and whose calamities compel you. This is a tremendous feat for an author. The ability to create the type of character who can reach out from the page and grab you by the hand is something that I find amazing. Edward's candor and reflection, his down-to-earth personality, was delightful and pleasing. Because, bottom line, Edward was a nice guy, the type of guy who is usually absent from the pages of books, a guy who is not filled with selfishness and egotism. He was someone whose complications arise from his situations and his reactions to them instead of his negative inner conflicts.

This is what I love about Meeks: his ability to gauge humanity, his understanding and acceptance of the strangeness and intricacies of life and personality, and his wonderful sense of compassion for his characters. In this author's gentle and capable hands we are free to enjoy the story he tells, knowing that while we will experience a great ride, we, and his characters will be looked after within the confines of his world. Additionally, the pacing of this story was wonderfully tight. I thought that the narrative made the most of its structure, holding on to the plot points just long enough to glean the most out of them, and then smoothly moving on to the next section. This story could have been lackluster and routine, but it certainly was not. I liked the way each chapter had a drive and destination to it, focusing on the main points while reaching back to retrieve information about the past. It was an elegant and efficient way to encapsulate many years into a manageable bite, and I appreciated the author's adept ability to create his narrative in a constructive and revealing way. The story never floundered and became trite; rather, it grew more involved and interesting as the layers became deeper.

The story's dialogue was expertly done as well. Sometimes it can be hard to convey emotion through the use of compelling dialogue but Meeks doesn't have a problem with this. His characters voices always ring true, and at times the emotion behind his words is not only captivating, but telling. Meeks made the most of his story and the most of Edward and his refreshing sincerity. By peeking into Edward's life we see a world that confuses, emboldens, and inspires. A world that can be unpredictable and diverse, but beautiful all the same. In this and all his work, Meeks shows us that the everyday can be extraordinary.

I have not read a book like this in a long time. Though at times bittersweet, the story and characters were so believable and real that I had trouble remembering that it was fiction. I got so quickly involved with Edward and his plight that I ceased to think of him as only the words on a page. To me he lived and breathed, he was someone I should know, someone I wanted to know. The story had a serene quality, a placid surface just bubbling with life underneath. This story would be perfect for someone who really wants to become involved with the characters in their reading, or someone who appreciates the outright unpredictability of life. I have no doubt that Edward and his quest for fulfillment will be loved by many. In one word, outstanding.

Also by Christopher Meeks: Months and Seasons.

Friday, January 23, 2009

An Author's Response to a Previous Review

Last month I reviewed The Jewel of Medina, a historical fiction novel that dealt with the Prophet Muhammad and his child bride Aisha. Although I found the book interesting and timely, I had some quibbles with the plot and characterizations. Mostly I was concerned with the portrayal of Muhammad, which I felt was somewhat dubious. After posting the review, the books author, Sherry Jones, was kind enough to send me an e-mail which answered many puzzling questions I had regarding the book. I thought I would share this e-mail, as I found it both enlightening and edifying.

Dear Zibilee,

Thank you for reviewing "The Jewel of Medina." I'm glad you enjoyed it for what it is: An enlightening tale of the origins of Islam, and a story about the difficulties of harem life.

Zibilee, my portrayal of Muhammad as a sexual man is accurate according to the Islamic traditions. One tradition tells how Muhammad had intercourse with all his wives every night, and ends, "Allah gave him the strength of twenty men." Some traditions say he had as many as 20 wives at one time, although I could only verify a total of 12 in his harem. Those of us who grew up with Christianity are so used to separating spirituality from sexuality that we have a hard time holding both in the same container. But, as the Tantric tradition demonstrates, the two can -- and, perhaps, should -- be intertwined.

Many books have been written about Muhammad the military strategist, etc. My goal was to tell about the women behind the man -- his domestic life -- and to portray the difficulties of life in the harem. It seems that you picked up on these difficulties. My information came from the Islamic traditions as well as many books about Muhammad and his wives.

And yes, the hype surrounding "The Jewel of Medina" has set readers up for disappointment. Things weren't supposed to be like this, but I can't do anything about it. I can only hope that, in time, the controversy will fade and people can approach the book for what it's intended to be: A love story, a book about women's obstacles and women's empowerment, a look at the origins of Islam through the eyes of one woman, and a bridge-builder, showing us in this culture that Muslims are people, too, and that its leader was a man of compassion and gentleness.

I love to see my book discussed for its contents and not for the controversy. As a noted Italian literary critic said to me, "The scandal is nothing. The book is everything!"

All best,

Sherry Jones

Monday, January 19, 2009

Darling Jim by Christian Moerk - 304 pgs

Book CoverDarling Jim, the intense new thriller from Christian Moerk, opens with a mystery: On his daily rounds, a mailman discovers the body of a woman, dead in her home. When the police arrive, they discover much more: There are 2 more dead bodies hidden in rooms behind locked doors. The bodies come to be identified as those of Moira Hegarty and her two young nieces, Fiona and Roisin Walsh. As the story behind these brutal murders deepens, Fiona's diary is discovered by cartoonist and postal sorter Niall. Niall, entranced with the diary of the dead woman, embarks on a journey to the Walsh's sisters hometown in Ireland to discover the answers to the cryptic clues Fiona left behind. And what he discovers is the family's link to Jim, an itinerant storyteller traveling throughout the area telling his stories at local pubs each night. As Niall follows the clues, he learns of the complicated and cruel fate that Jim spins among the women and of his legion of female fans that follow him all over the country. But there is more to Darling Jim, as he comes to be known. Jim spins an elaborate fable that not only draws his listeners in, but also houses the keys to his dark soul and wicked intentions. Niall's search becomes a race against time after discovering the existence a third missing sister, who may have escaped the fate of her family but who still may be in danger. Niall's journey becomes a long and difficult odyssey as he comes face to face with peril and jeopardy with every step he takes in order to save the surviving sister's honor, and possibly even her life.

This was an extraordinarily clever book, and it was a pleasure to relish each and every twist and turn in the story. Written with verve and acuity, the author seemed to have a great handle on timing, believability and dialogue. The characters were quirky and atypical, and each held their own distinctive personality and style throughout the story. The sisters' voices, coming from beyond the grave, expertly captured both their outrage at their situation and their determination for escape.

I admit, I didn't think this book was going to be as fun as it ended up being. I mean, with a triple murder haunting the opening pages, one does not expect fun. But the narrative had definite humor mixed with its pathos in a way I didn't expect. I found myself laughing at the oddness and eccentricities within the pages, especially the colorful colloquialisms in the sisters' wordplay. I really liked Niall, who began the story as a lonely loser but soon came to be an adventuresome and unlikely hero. Niall's commitment to the sisters he had never met was touching, and I felt it impossible not to root for this lovable and bumbling character. Jim, too, was interesting, a deliberate and dastardly foe, and his presence resonated through the pages, even when he wasn't the focus of the narrative. He had a dark charisma that made even the most stalwart of women smitten with him.

One of the winning things about this story were the sections of the book devoted to the ominous fairy tale that Jim created. This technique was particularly inventive, essentially hiding a story within a story. In fact, this book actually contained three stories: the main narrative, Jim's story, and the back story related by Fiona's dairy. Each of these stories was captivating in different ways, but all worked together and blended well and kept the level of suspense tight and controlled throughout the book. Another thing that I liked was the author's command of the elements and language of his story. He was aptly descriptive without being verbose, and the action and grist of the plot never veered off into unbelievability or precociousness. Though I did guess at one of the aspects of the conclusion of the novel, I wasn't at all disappointed because I thoroughly enjoyed the ride that took me there and appreciated the thought and creativity that the author put into this book.

This was not a common story, it had a lot of spunk and vivacity, and kept me turning the pages in anticipation. This is the first novel from Moerk, and based on this book, I will be on the lookout for his next work. I would recommend this book to those who like quick witted mysteries/thrillers with a generous helping of humor. A really fun read.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates - 368 pgs

Book CoverRevolutionary Road, originally published in 1961, tells the story of suburban couple Frank and April Wheeler. Frank, a moderately self-obsessed businessman, works for an office equipment company and spends his days finding infinite ways to shirk his responsibilities while flirting and schmoozing his way around the office. April, a stay at home mother, spends her time taking care of her children and home while lamenting her dream, the acting career that never got off the ground. Most of their leisure time is spent in the company of a select couple, denigrating the bourgeoisie aspects of their neighbors' lives and wallowing in the apathy and detachment that, in their minds, places them so far above the rest of their population and community. Aside from all this, Frank and April have a turbulent and quarrelsome marriage, each acting as both the tormentor and the tormented. As April and Frank become ever more disenchanted with their lives, April suggests a move to France, where the family can have a chance to begin again. And although Frank is ostensibly happy about the move, his true feelings are harder to gauge. The decision, once made, begins to catapult their lives into confusion and uncertainty. From the viewpoint of other sideline characters a portrait of this dysfunctional nuclear family begins to develop and coalesce, and the reality of the Wheeler's marriage is one of bleakness infused with mere shreds of hope. As the move to France looms closer, Frank and April's bitterness and disillusionment over their existence begins to grow, and an unexpected event threatens their plan and pushes their marriage to the breaking point. Frank and April's lives, both anguishing and relentless, evince their struggle for advancement while delineating the creeping boredom and unfulfillment that they both come to share.

This book, while beautifully rendered, was at times painful to read. What emerged for me was a fierce portrayal of emotional upheaval between two people, both striving for control over the other. The sentiments of utter nastiness between Frank and April were both devastating to read and depressing to contemplate. Don't get me wrong though, this was an exceptional book. The ability of the author to make me wince in discomfort was amazing, and the larger issues housed within this close story were ones that we all chew on from time to time. The themes of cynicism and disappointment were thoroughly explored alongside the self-delusion that only the fortunate can seem to exhibit. The atmosphere that Yates created was one of stifling ambiguity, a desperate struggle for an unobtainable balance between two deeply unhappy people. Despite Frank's priggishness and April's cutting attitude, it was obvious that both these people were in pain, and that their lives were not the places they thought they would one day inhabit. Franks unlikablility and selfishness made me really feel for April at times, and at times I wondered how this unlikely pair ever came to be. And April was no peach either, believe me. She had a way of making me go cold, what with her lack of empathy and predilection for despondence.

Although I could not connect with these people, I certainly felt for them. In a way it was like watching a train wreck, awful and ferocious, yet I couldn't look away. This, I think, is the brilliance of Yates, whose spare yet weighty prose told the story of two unlikable protagonists in a totally believable and urgent way. I wanted more, yet at the same time, I wanted less. I felt like I was watching two people undress: they were naked and vulnerable, while still being tough and unyielding. The couple's utter lack of pragmatism, indeed their whole concept of reality and acceptability, was skewed and slanted, not to mention their huge issues of accountability. Franks moral contortions were especially frustrating. The interesting part of these human complexities was the couple's total animosity toward the typical suburban life, when in reality they were espousing all that they found so repulsive. Lovely picket fenced house? Check. Two point five children? Check. Attitude of suburban melancholy? Check. It would have been almost funny were it not so piercing. I found the author's ability to express all this masterful. His prose was convincing and sparse, while still being moving and descriptive. The book hurled effortlessly along, gaining weight and momentum as it plunged forward. Frank and April were almost never remorseful for their actions, but in a way defiant and almost child-like in their ardent opinions and bullying self-serving behavior. They were, in essence, people you love to hate, while still being able to relate to. The ending was a bit clich├ęd and unsatisfying, but I prefer to look at the book in terms of it's message and it's ability to express that message, which I found profound. How many of us know an April and Frank Wheeler? How many of us are April and Frank Wheeler? This scathing and unflinching look at a a crumbling marriage could easily be a mirror reflecting the secrets of a couple in 2008, so well has it aged. It was a modern treatment of an age old quandary. What do you do when enough is never enough, when reality clashes with expectation?

If you are looking for a feel good love story, this book is not for you. If, however, you're looking for an honest and unflinching portrait of a marriage on the brink of disaster, I highly recommend this book. It is truly a great study of human behavior and it's proclivity for self preservation. Yes, at times it is depressing, but not horribly so, and not in the ways you would expect. If the ideas put forth in the story don't sway you, I would instead suggest this book for it's readability and it's artistry. The character creation and the author's ability to dismay the reader is worth the cover price alone.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Honeymoon In Tehran: Two Years of Love and Danger in Iran by Azadeh Moaveni - 352 pgs

Book CoverHoneymoon in Tehran is Azadeh Moaveni's distinguished memoir of her time spent living in Iran as a journalist and newly married mother. As an Iranian native of California and journalist for Time magazine, Moaveni spends her notable career reporting on the societal aspects of Iran, from it's controversial elections to trends in Iran's youth activist culture. When she returns to the country to begin reporting on Iran's 2005 presidential elections, she has no idea that she will soon begin living in Iran, not to mention that she will meet and fall in love with her soon-to-be husband. But despite best laid plans, Moaveni is soon pregnant and must navigate among Iran's religious and political restrictions to first marry and have her child, then to continue reporting. With harrowing clarity she explains the sanctioned abuses that face unwed pregnant mothers, and experiences the difficulty of obtaining the proper permission to be married. While documenting this time in her life, the author extensively explains the political, social and religious climate that she is steeped in as a resident of Iran. In an eye-opening way, she describes the confusion of governmental agencies that share executive power over the country, and even for someone as well versed in Iran's culture as Moaveni, it still is sometimes unclear who holds ultimate authority.

In addition, she gives a first hand account of the social repression that is the standard for the country. From the strict laws on acceptable attire (especially for women, who are expected to don their head coverings in almost all public venues) to the segregation of the sexes, even at events such as private weddings, Moveni explores an array of customs that all must live by in their everyday life. Aside from these revelations, she examines the repressive and reactionary attitude of the government, documenting the way in which the country's leaders seek to control Iran's image in the media and the shocking downfall in the socioeconomic status of Iran after Ahmadinejad's unexpected election as president. With all that she faces, there is still more: she must routinely deal with her private handler, known only as Mr. X, as he systematically bullies, threatens and frightens her into complicity. In Iran, each news correspondent must have a government minder, ensuring that the reporter doesn't portray unsavory aspects of the country or its leaders to the outside world's news outlets. By using scare tactics and intimidation, Mr. X fast becomes a villain in this insidiously prescribed relationship. As Moaveni moves through these new stages of her life, she gives a candid account of the attitude of both the traditionally religious and secular Islamic people living in Iran, and she explains in great detail the way in which the Islamic religion has shaped and still very much influences the governmental aspects of the country. Although Moaveni must face many difficulties in her time in Iran, still she embodies a great love for the people, culture and wonderful contradictions of Iran, where today most people can't afford to buy a home but nose jobs are had easily and affordably. At the conclusion of her memoir, Moaveni must decide if Iran is truly the place in which she wants to live her life and raise her child, and though I won't spoil the book for you, it's obvious that her heart is torn in two opposing directions. Her ultimate decision is hard won and heartbreaking. This accurate and compelling look at life in modern Iran encompasses all that the country is, and all it hopes to one day be.

When I first began reading this book, I was a little non-plussed at the fact that this was not mainly a book about one's person's experiences with everyday life in Iran. I had supposed, going by the title, that it would be exclusively about the author's struggles in a strict and repressive society. When I finally realized the scope of the book, I began to be able to better form an opinion of it. Although it was not what I was expecting, this book caught me totally off-guard and I was blown away by how much I enjoyed and appreciated the story Moaveni told. I didn't have much information regarding the state of society in Iran but was quickly able to understand and grasp the various aspects of modern life in the country. I believe that this material, handled so well by the author, could have been very flavorless and dull had it been presented in other ways, by other authors. As I read and my understanding grew, I began to ask myself questions that I hoped to be able to research the answers to later. However, that wasn't necessary, because Moaveni did a wonderfully thorough job of answering all these questions for me; I needed only to be patient as she explained.

As time went on, I realized that this book was perfectly complete, posing and answering questions about Iran that have been shrouded in mystery for far too long. It was then that a curious change took place within me: I stopped doubting the story and became more intimately involved with the country's history and future. The fact that the story was not as personal as I had originally hoped for ceased to matter, and I left those feelings behind and became totally engrossed with the all-encompassing story the author had to tell. I still enjoyed Moaveni's story of her marriage and pregnancy, but taken with all the other aspects of the book, those sections were only one facet of a multi-layered portrait of Iran. While reading, I experienced several emotions, all at the heels of each other. I found myself angry at the government and its minions for attempting to totally repress an intelligent and growing society, I was astonished that so many Iranians seemed to humbly accept these impositions on their lives, and saddened by their apathy for instituting change. I was also a bit perplexed at the audacity of the governments reactions and punishments to totally ordinary and normal aspects of human behavior. I was joyful when I read on to discover that most secular Iranians had their own ways of obliquely dealing with their suppressive regime, giving themselves the freedoms that had been methodically denied to them by their leaders. And last, but certainly not least, I was appalled and scared for Moaveni in her dealings with Mr. X, a cruel and inventive man who did his best to terrify the journalist away from her work. I very greatly appreciated the exclusive instruction that this book provided for me, and I think that Moaveni did a fabulous job in relating a huge amount of history and the implications for Iran's future in such a compelling and interesting way.

I have not had the opportunity to read the author's first book, Lipstick Jihad, but I am looking forward to reading more from this author, who I consider an expert in this area of the world. I think that this book should be read by anyone with a curiosity for Iran. Whether this will be your first time reading about the country or you are seasoned in the area's complexities, this is a wonderful read that is not only timely, but enlightening. I applaud this author for her unflinching look at Iran and her ability to relate the country's flaws, beauties and conundrums. A great read.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sacred Games by Vikram Chandra - 992 pgs

Book CoverSacred Games is an intricate saga of modern Indian society, which tells the story of Inspector Sartaj Singh, a middle-aged, mid grade policeman, and the momentous case that will finally elevate him to quasi-success in the realm of the Indian police force. From the moment the charismatic Singh is introduced, already entrenched in his battle for upward mobility among his colleagues, the kaleidoscope of the region's people and culture is in motion, creating a dense and populated contemporary fairy tale of India, both delightful and disturbing. The crux of the story involves the manhunt and capture of one of India's most influential self-made gangsters, Ganesh Gaitonde. As the story weaves itself between the daily life and professional trials of Sartaj Singh and Gaitonide's retelling of his rise to power, the vagaries and intricacies of India and its population begin to expose themselves. In an almost explosive way, the reader is lead through a culture that defies any attempt for explanation: the warring factions of gangsters that control everyday existence for millions, the ethical bribing at every level of social existence, the strict caste separations, and the everyday attempts to maneuver amongst the crippling poverty of the country. In addition, the book is packed with a motley assortment of characters. From the plastic enhanced beauty queen to the semi-crooked police commissioner, the hustling club owner to the unscrupulous blackmailer, every camp has been represented. Through the vibrancy and complexity of these characters, the story begins to take shape. As it turns out, Gaitonde is far from the city's biggest problem. Unknown to everyone, Gaitonde has been plotting with someone even more sinister than himself and the repercussions for Indian society just got a lot more complicated and dangerous. Though the main focus is always the tug of war between Singh and Gaitonde, there are several other sets of stories embedded within the main narrative, and each one only enhances the layers and conspiracies that float just beneath the surface of this funny, sad and thrilling novel.

One of the reasons that it's so hard to describe this book is because there is just so much of everything. The characters, situations and atmosphere are literally packed into this huge tome. It would be easy to say that this was a great book and leave it at that, but the thought and patience that must have gone into the creation of this brimming story leave me to marvel. Every instance of action is held to it's fullest potential, which kept me tense as I sprung from page to page. Threads of story disappeared completely, only to be deftly introduced again just when I thought they had dissipated. The author never let up on his hold over the story, keeping a myriad of confusions and labyrinth of details all in check. Every character, no matter their importance in the story, had a piece in the greater puzzle, and it was exciting to watch the drama creep from unforeseen corners out onto the main stage to thunder back into the spotlight. There were no messy segues and bits of plot left over in this story: everything was expertly tucked in, leaving no niggling questions to sort out other than the obvious moral conundrums that the story itself creates. One of the great things about this book was the way that each character was fully rounded and three-dimensional. Yes, there were some stock characters, but I would say that about 95% of the characters were shown in a way that highlighted their importance to the plot, while still fleshing them out completely. And despite the fact that Gaitonde was a villain, he came across as uniquely humble and beneficent while still managing to be an altogether bad apple. I also fell in love with the character of Sartaj Singh, just a little bit. His formalities, prudence and humility were very touching, lending him the air of an upright yet fallible gentleman. In a brilliant yet understated way, the country of India was not only the backdrop for this story, it became a character in itself. The effect was a clever installation of place, but it also lent a depth to the India I was familiar with and exposited for me whole new avenues of imagination. The book did have some violence running through the plot, but it was by no means gratuitous or off-putting. In this instance, I would say the author hit the perfect balance with his use of violence: not too gory, yet not too tame. I couldn't help but feel involved with this book, as it presented an India that few ever see: a teeming and colorful world that I feasted upon with relish.

This is, however, an extremely long book, and requires a certain level of commitment from the reader. The only problem I had with this book was the fact that I had to lug it around. To remedy this, I suggest that you may feel more comfortable with the paperback version. I should also mention that the book includes a glossary of the Indian slang that is peppered throughout the book. I found the glossary to be extremely helpful. This book had it all in terms of its pace, scope and subject matter, and gave me so much more to wonder about an area of the world that I already find fascinating. If you have the time to invest in this book, and have a love for Indian fiction, you can't go wrong with Sacred Games.
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