Wednesday, March 25, 2009

**New Giveaway**

Just wanted to let everyone know that Marta over on Marta's Meanderings is having a new giveaway to win the entire set of Maximum Ride books. I have heard great things about these books. I have also heard that they totally live up to the hype surrounding them. Go hop on over and enter to win! Thanks to Marta for this contest.

Enter to win here!

Thanks Aarti!

Today I was over checking out the blogs I frequent, and found out that Aarti of Booklust has given me an award! This is really exciting to me because it is my first award. Thanks so much Aarti, it is very much appreciated!

"This blog invests and believes in the PROXIMITY-nearness in space, time and relationships. These blogs are exceedingly charming. These kind bloggers aim to find and be friends. They are not interested in prizes or self-aggrandizement! Our hope is that when the ribbons of these prizes are cut, even more friendships are propagated. Please give more attention to these writers! Deliver this award to eight bloggers who must choose eight more and include this clever-written text into the body of their award."

I am so glad to be part of the book blogging community. I have gotten to know some really great people and have been able to experience some really wonderful writing. I have also been exposed to some really interesting books. In the spirit of the award, here are 8 blogs I would like to present this award to, and I hope that anyone who reads over here will stop to check out these awesome blogs!

Steph and Tony at Steph and Tony Investigate

Lenore at Presenting Lenore

Amy at Outside A Dog

Marie at The Boston Bibliophile

Nymeth at Things Mean A Lot

Gwen at Literary License

Dawn at She is Too Fond of Books

Elizabeth at As Usual I Need More Bookshelves

There are tons of other great book blogs out there, so I wish I had more than 8 awards to give. If anybody is interested in some of the other great blogs I check out, check over at my blogroll on the right and discover some of the awesome blogs I follow. Thanks to everyone who reads my blog and who has made me a part of this community. And thanks again Aarti!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Mistress of the Revolution by Catherine Delors - 528 pgs

Book CoverGabrielle de Montserrat is fifteen when she meets Pierre-Andre, a commoner whom she wishes to marry. Living with her brother, the Marquis, and her cruel mother, Gabrielle's plans are dashed when her brother marries her off to another man who uses his brutality to control her. When Gabrielle's husband dies unexpectedly, leaving her and her young daughter destitute, she must find a way to feed and shelter herself, even if it means becoming the mistress to a notorious cad. As Gabrielle navigates life for her and her daughter, the first rumblings of the French revolution begin to sound, which will eventually put her and everything she holds dear in danger. As the populace and the nobility turn on each other, and arrest and bloodshed become the order of the day, Gabrielle comes face to face with the man she left behind. But circumstances and lives have been irrevocably changed. Facing poverty, imprisonment, and the deaths of many of those closest to her in this complicated and unsettling time, Gabreille's life begins to head into unknown and unfamiliar territory. Charged with intrigue and emotion, Mistress of the Revolution tells Gabrielle's extraordinary story.

After reading the first few pages of this book, I was hooked. Gabrielle's story, written in the guise of a memoir, was filled with drama, pathos and excitement. I found her to be a wonderful character, both humble yet wise and forgiving. Through the course of the book, she went from a naïve teenager to a more thoughtful and well rounded woman, a woman shaped by her experiences. I thought that the personal growth evinced in the protagonist was very genuine and frank, and enabled me to really get close to Gabrielle and truly care about her circumstances. Instead of her innocence and naïveté being fractured all at once, there seemed to be a gradual devolving of these aspects of her character, and while this part of her personality was eventually shed, other more salient qualities began to assert themselves in her.

Another thing I liked about this book was the author's ability to flesh out her characters and make them seem like real people who were a product of their times. All of the people that populated this book were multi-dimensional and the morality that each espoused was not black and white, but varying and believable shades of grey. I felt that this aided the credibility of these characters and made them seem very realistic. Though some of the characters in this book were unpleasant, all had my undivided attention and some even my sympathy. The characters in this novel were written with a great depth and experience, and I believe this is one of the things that made this book exceptional.

Although there were elements of romance in this story, I would have to say that this book didn't really fall into the romance genre. Yes, at times, the love-story aspect was the main focus of the narrative, but generally speaking, this was not the main drive nor the primary facet of the book. The romance elements were extremely well done and tasteful, never compromising the historical aspects of the plot, but rather infusing the story with relevance and sensitivity.

I also liked the atmosphere of the story. Though it wasn't really filled with period minutia, the flavor and ambiance was very authentic and lent credence to the plot. I found the descriptions of attire and accommodation very convincing, and many times I got lost in the era, avidly encountering the essence and surroundings in which the characters lived. I found that although I wasn't really familiar with the era or the setting, the level of detail and the general aura of the story was at once engrossing and informative, and not a derivative of this type of literature at all.

The first half of this book dealt mainly with Gabrielle's changing circumstances, from the upheaval of her home life to her tumultuous marriage and eventual escape from the same. The latter half dealt mainly with the machinations of the revolution and the unpredictability of the population and its monarchy. Though Gabrielle was still the star of the show, the latter half of the book cast a much wider net over the political situation in France, thus turning this book from a character driven novel into more of a plot driven novel. I found this to be a bit unusual, but thought that the author handled this very skillfully, and instead of the book losing focus, the effect was one of a gradual widening of perspective and scope.

As I mentioned previously, I was not very familiar with this time period or area of the world, but I felt that the author did a wonderful job of illustrating the confusion and uncertainties of the time, in addition to forming a great chronicle for those of us with scant information about the French Revolution. I also really enjoyed the dramatic tension and elements of suspense that the author threaded throughout the story. The great thing about this was that the dramatic elements were held just long enough to be tantalizing, but not long enough to make the plot feel over-developed. In addition, the author used just the right amount of foreshadowing to facilitate the plot and make the narrative compelling and interesting.

Overall I found this to be a very gripping story. The narrative never lost its focus or drive, but remained compelling and interesting throughout. I did not find the plot to be insubstantial at all, and although the book was lengthy, It didn't feel too weighty or dense. I really enjoyed the multi-layered character portrayals and thought that the book was written with a great skill and a unique style. As a work of historical fiction, I thought it an unqualified success. I would definitely recommend this book to readers who enjoy engrossing historical fiction.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Unpolished Gem: My Mother, My Grandmother, and Me by Alice Pung - 304 pages

Book CoverAlice Pung's family escaped from Pol Pot's viscous rule in Cambodia in 1980. Her grandmother, father and mother walked through the jungles of Vietnam into Thailand, where they settled into a refugee camp for a year before they immigrated to Australia. Alice, the first child of her parent's union, was born shortly after her family's arrival there. Unpolished Gem is the story of Alice and her family's life in contemporary Australia, and the struggles they must overcome in beginning their lives after their adoption of their new home. Alice chronicles not only the family's awe at the graciousness and generosity of the Australian people and government, but the never-ending toil of her parents to continually advance and give their children the life they never had. She relates the daily power struggles between her grandmother and mother, her frightening spiral into depression, and the hidden anxieties of her first date. As her story progresses, Alice explains with clarity the struggles she experienced as a child and a young woman faced with the tremendous pressures of her life, those both outwardly and inwardly motivated. Mixed within are the stories of her parents' lives, full of struggle and a persistence that never leaves them. As she lovingly expounds on her parents, herself, and the grandmother she adores, we learn so much more about the girl behind the forced smile. Both candid and wry, Unpolished Gem tells a familiar story in a new and unfamiliar way.

This was an interesting, if acerbic tale. Both the family's struggles to leave their homeland and their attempts to incorporate themselves into their new surroundings were told with a wonderful wit, but at times the story seemed to gather more and more darkness around itself and venture into bleakness. From Alice's early childhood, the stage in their house seemed to be set for guilt and recrimination. One of the things that bothered me was the way in which Alice's mother and grandmother exploited her confidences as a young child and forced her to reveal each other's secrets. It seemed that the young girl was only a pawn in the vicious games each woman played. They both used the girl mercilessly in an attempt to find out if the other was gossiping about her, often making her complicit herself. Her grandmother consistently plied her with treats to get the verbal goods, whereas her mother made her feel shameful and inadequate for being a "word-spreader." This induced a terrible guilt in Alice, a child who did not understand at all the consequences of the game.

Other problems arose at home as well. Although Alice's father finds a quick measure of success, her mother finds the adjustments in her new life difficult to bear. She has many problems assimilating due to the language barrier and feels marginalized in the workforce. Alice's grandmother, the person with whom she is closest, carries over the stories and values of her homeland and becomes a pseudo-mother for the young girl. Alice's relationship with her grandmother seemed to give her a life focus and direction. After her grandmother's death, Alice quickly begins to morph into a bitter and cold person. But the problems really started before that for me. Alice seemed negative throughout the majority of the book. I believe that the pressure of her responsibilities towards her parents and siblings was the major contributor to this outlook. I can understand this. The problem with it, though, is that it doesn't make for very pleasant reading. Reading this book was like spending all day with a cranky and complaining teenager. At first, I thought the style was meant to be a self-depreciating and droll look at life through Alice's eyes, but as time passed, the jokes stopped being funny and started burning like acid.

Later sections dealt with Alice's crippling depression and her penchant for driving herself towards impossible standards. It was clear to me then that what I was reading was not a humorous story, but the chronicling of a deeply painful past. This book had more to do with Alice's unhappy life then it did with the story of her family. Yes, there were anecdotes about her parent's hard work, sad stories of their pasts, and silly stories of their incomprehension of their new circumstances, but above all this book read like one long grievance. By the point at which Alice goes on a pages-long rant about her parents' over-protectiveness, I had given up on this book. I eventually got tired of all the fussing and lamenting. There was just too much angst for me to enjoy this story very much. I felt that the triumph of Alice's and her family's assimilation into a new culture was something that was glaringly overlooked in this story. As Alice relates the struggles her mother and father endured daily to live their dream, she seems to stingily hold back the praise that is due to them. Instead of being proud of her mother, who works her fingers to the bone most days, she seems to grudgingly endure her company, and later openly harps on her mother's sense of traditionalism. It was frustrating to read the sentiments of Alice, who seemed so ungrateful for all the opportunities her parents had strived so hard to procure for her. It was interesting to note that her grandmother seemed to hold a place in her heart where there was no condescension or mean-spiritedness, though her grandmother was arguably more hostile towards others than her mother. I would have liked to read more about her special bond with her grandmother. It seemed that she reserved all her goodwill and good intentions towards her, and those avenues and attitudes of happiness and contentment seemed sorely lacking in this book.

I found this book to be too cynical for my liking. The continual harping and grousing annoyed me, and I felt that this book operated under the guise of a memoir but was really only an excuse for the author to unload her unhappiness and frustration on an unsuspecting reader. There was great untapped potential here, had the author only used her platform to elaborate on the triumphs and differences her family experienced instead of being unstintingly whiny. Definitely not one of my favorite memoirs.

For another take on this book, check out Aarti's review over at Booklust.

Friday, March 13, 2009

The Age of Orphans by Laleh Khadavi - 304 pages

Book CoverReza Khourdi is a typical Kurdish boy: traipsing among the rooftops of his hometown, wishing he were following in the footsteps of the older men of the tribe and longing for the comfort of his mother. All that changes when Reza joins the elder men on a trip out to the far desert for his circumcision. The procedure is normal for boys of his age, and Reza feels the typical conflicting emotions about it. What happens next in the boy's life is not so typical. Traveling back towards home in the dark, his people are attacked and killed by the Shah's men, leaving Reza to be captured and conscripted into the Shah's army. Reza must now learn to fight against his own people and tribes, pushing them into submission and taking over their land and crops. As the boy becomes a man, his emotions and inhibitions begin to die, turning him into the perfect soldier: a man who is dead to his feelings and reactions, who willingly and almost fawningly strives to do the bidding of his commanders. As Reza catapults into higher and higher ranks, his loyalties to his army and to his former people are constantly in opposition to each other. He must forget everything about himself to push forward and destroy the Kurd enemy, an enemy that was once himself. After many years of the soldier's life, it is suggested to Reza that he take a Tehrani wife, which he does just as obediently as he can. Reza and his new bride struggle in more ways than one. Her hatred for his Kurdish roots and his silence are only some of the things that begin to cause problems. Soon Reza is promoted to Captain, and although his rank keeps advancing, his status in his household and among his men begins to plummet. He begins to find pockets of resistance within himself that he cannot expose, so he must try to alleviate the unhappiness and emotional clash in other ways. Reza's story is both disturbing and dark, a story of Iran that many have not yet heard, in a voice as trembling and horrifying as the events that surround his life.

This book was almost too much for me. The graphic violence was portrayed with such a dearth of emotion and such coarseness that I felt my spirit plummet every few pages. There were some instances of horrible child abuse in the book, such as the terrible way the soldiers treated young Reza when he was captured. It was almost terrifying to think about what a child's mind would do under those circumstances, and indeed those reactions manifested themselves all over the page in Reza's reactions. I also had a hard time with Reza's relationship with his mother before she died. I thought it was odd that a child of 7 or 8 was still so focused on suckling from his mother. I agree that different cultures have different timetables for most things, but his intense and insatiable desire for her milk seemed strange and a bit malevolent.

In addition there were many instances of vulgar imagery. The human body and all its sexual functions seemed almost completely devoid of taboo, which was strange, seeing as though other areas of the book were so reserved and cautious. On the other hand, once I got past the shocking aspects of the plot, I thought the book was very well written. At times the writing had a touch of stream of consciousness, and at times it arranged itself like good poetry, full of arresting and intricate imagery. The imagery was especially well done because it evoked a great sense of place. You could feel the aridness and brightness that surrounded the characters, and could see the barrenness of the desert in which they lived.

Another thing I liked was the way that various chapters were told from differing viewpoints. Though each narrator was only heard from once, this technique allowed a fuller picture of the story to be revealed and for more of a wholeness and fullness to exist in the narrative. I especially enjoyed the chapters from the women's point of view, because this remained mostly a masculine story, and these chapters exposed more of what the other side of the population was experiencing at the time. Reza himself as a character was a little hard to get used to. He didn't showcase any internal monologue, and it was only by outward factors that I could decipher just was must have been going on in his head. This wasn't really a problem in the beginning of the book, for as a child he was much more prone to display some types of behaviors and reactions, but when I reached the second half of the book, Reza's adulthood, it became very hard to know why he did most things and what his thoughts were surrounding the greater issues of his life. I can only think of one time in the latter half of the book when it was clear to me why Reza was behaving the way that he was. There is no denying that this was Reza's book; the other narrators and characters only really existed to showcase other aspects of his life and his military service. I also felt that the second half of the book was slightly superior to the first half. Maybe it was the fact that I had been holding the book at arm's length in the beginning due to it's graphic nature, or maybe I just engaged more with the more mature Reza's character. Whatever the reason, I felt that the first half of the book was slightly less well-shaped and polished than the latter half, though it didn't affect my overall enjoyment of the story.

Although there were some eyebrow raising moments in the book, I did ultimately enjoy the story that was told and very much appreciated the craftsmanship of the writing. I think that before reading this book, it may be important to some readers to know that the story is sometimes explicit and disquieting because it may hamper the enjoyment of some to come to these scenes unaware. By no means does this book delve into the disgusting or atrocious, but some may find the ideas inside a bit perverse. I admit, there were times when the book became disquieting, but I also freely admit that I think the author wasn't just pushing the envelope to be avant garde. I think that this story, in this form, needed to be told. I think the point of it all was not to make us squirm in discomfort, but to make us aware of the lives that may be lead on the other side of the world, and perhaps it was an attempt to explain the plight of those nameless Kurdish orphans who are so wholly sucked into the circumstances that envelop them. An interesting and thought provoking read, recommended with caution.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa - 192 pages

Book CoverLeft debilitated by an accident many years ago, the Professor lives the life of a hermit, a situation that is complicated by his memory, which only retains the past eighty minutes of his life. Anybody or any thing that has been apart from him longer than that must be reintroduced as though brand new. To combat this cruel fate, the Professor takes to wearing small bits of paper stuck to his suit with safety pins. The notes he pins on himself have all the information that he needs in order to function. Because of these difficulties and idiosyncrasies, he has been through many housekeepers/care-givers. Most have left unhappily and with many complaints. When the newest housekeeper arrives, she not only sees the damaged man but also sees the beauty and wonder inside of him. As it turns out, the Professor has an incredible propensity for math, and has even won significant prizes and accolades for his work and research on the subject. Soon the Professor begins to insist that the Housekeeper bring her young son to work with her, and from their first meeting, the Professor is enchanted with the boy. The Professor, so overjoyed to be around the young boy, begins to show him the secrets of math and becomes a father figure to him. Soon the boy and the Professor begin to share a powerful affection for each other that manifests unexpected changes in both of their lives. As the boy, the Housekeeper, and Professor learn and teach each other about math, baseball, and each other, unbreakable bonds are formed and lives are impacted. Both touching and emotional, this book seeks to show the way that one person's life, however blemished, can affect the lives of so many others.

This was a story that did not disappoint. It was a tale both moving and unique, and the characters really stayed with me. I found myself thinking about the oddness and sorrow that must have been the Professors life, often wondering how I might deal with an eighty minute memory. I suspect not well. In its sparse yet elegant style, the story of the Professor touched my heart and made me consider the power of relationships and their influences in peoples lives. It was enlightening to be able to see how people so fundamentally different could grow to love and depend on each other. Though it cannot be said that the Professor formed lasting attachments, I think it is very debatable to say that the times he spent with the mother and son were both valuable and crucial times for him.

I really liked the method of exposition in this book. There was a great crispness to the dialogue and narrative; a tossing out of the old familiar way of storytelling into a new and more refined style. It seemed as though there were great stores of emotion on every page, yet somehow, things didn't overflow or get messy. There was just enough control of sentiment to make this a moving yet tight read. The fluid quality of the writing was very nice as well. I felt the chapters and narrative moved seamlessly along with none of the awkward or jarring shifts in it that I sometimes feel while reading other books. This was a very calm book that belied it's emotions. It dealt with very tragic and sometimes alarming things, but in a subdued and moderated way. I think that this actually served the story well, because it made everything so much more profound and penetrating. There was also a quiet joy suffused throughout the story, something tangible and uplifting that I took away and savored.

It was impossible not to love the Professor. Reading about him was both sad and humbling, yet the ways in which he dealt with his problem seemed ingenious and clever. He was never nasty and recalcitrant, never giving someone hell for the life he lost. Rather, he was quiet and subtle. He spent most of his time working on formulas and math puzzles that had stumped other mathematicians. His love for the little boy was something that was stirring and wonderful to read. I loved the sections between boy and man, both accepting the other for what they were, loving each other unconditionally. Watching the little boy grow and change was something great as well. As he begins to really understand the Professor, he begins to look for increased ways to appreciate and care for him. It was obvious to me, and to any who will read this book, that the boy and the Professor shared a common understanding of the heart, a connection deeper and keener than most relationships.

Another thing that I thought was nice was the inclusion of math and math problems. Though I have never studied math or been one to enjoy it, the author makes several allegories in the story using math, and uses the math sections as a tool for bridging the emotional divide between the Professor and the others. There are a lot of challenging ideas in this book, but it is one that can be read on several different levels, which I think makes it an even better book. The book also discuses baseball, but not in a way that is alienating to those who have no interest in the sport. Mostly the book discusses what it is like to be a fan and to get excited about your passion. In fact, you could almost substitute baseball in the book for rock concerts, or soccer, or anything that you as a reader have an affinity for.

This was a kind book, something that you could easily spend an afternoon with and leave feeling calm, sated and happy. It was also very poignant, in a quiet way. I found that even though I put this book down, I continued to think about it and I kept trying to bring it up in conversation. There is so much in this book about the nature of unconditional love and the beauty of spiritual generosity. I have to say that I really hope that this gentle book will be appreciated by many. A really great read that I definitely recommend.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Summer World: A Season of Bounty by Bernd Heinrich - 243 pgs

Book CoverWhat is the strange phenomena behind one group of ants kidnapping another? How does the unique tube shaped nest of the mud dauber promote and sustain its survival needs? What are the secret motives behind the wood frog's mating call? How does one species of butterfly not only manage not to get attacked and consumed by ants, but also gain entry to their secret lair as a guest? What is the story behind "invisible" caterpillars? In Summer World, author Bernd Heinrich answers all of these questions and probes into many other unusual animal and plant behaviors. Written as a chronicle over a period of years, the author shares his experiences of the changing landscapes of Maine and Vermont, deftly interpreting the astonishing and astounding world that most of us never get to see. Among his fascinating accounts we not only learn about the amazing animal behaviors being undertaken, but of the surrounding flora and of its own entrancing struggle for survival and reproduction. Heinrich does an amazing job of capturing the hows and whys of the forest and swamp that he studies, and with an infectious sense of wonder, fills his pages with accounts of his experimentation and exploration. The book, filled with drawings and photographs of his subjects, is a superb specimen of nature writing, and its absorbing and striking insights into the world of the plants and animals show that the change of season is something to be continually admired and appreciated.

I absolutely loved this book. While I was reading I became so excited about it that I was constantly trapping family and friends to read bits out loud to them. I would say this book is akin to a National Geographic show, full of interesting and strange tidbits of animal and plant behavior. I wasn't exactly sure what to make of this book when I first began reading because, for a time, Heinrich went into much descriptiveness about the physiology of plants and trees and quite honestly, I felt I might have gotten in over my head. I was a little worried that the book would be too dry and factual and not very entertaining, but boy was I wrong! When he began to get into the sections on frog behavior and mating habits, I was glued to the page, and as subsequent passages passed he delved further and further into the remarkable and strange behavior of birds, caterpillars, ants, and many other creatures. He even relates his joy when the first Pheobe (a small bird that makes its nests on and around human habitats) of the season is spotted one early morning. That's the thing about this book, it's evident that Heinrich loves what he does and how these plants and animals fit into our world. His joy over the bird was only the tip of the iceberg in terms of how devoted he is towards the nature that surrounds him. I liked that you could feel his enthusiasm and wonder throughout the book; he was consistently surprised and amazed at the economy and cleverness of the nature that surrounded him.

I also liked the author's way of making the material easy to understand and presenting it in bite-sized sections for easier comprehension. I thought some of the most endearing parts of the book were the sections where Heinrich, in seeking to understand the systems and functions of the nature around him, conducted impromptu experiments that sometimes did not go as planned. In particular, the incident with the wasps was very funny and unexpected. I think Heinrich has a great sense of respect for the all the various creatures that he studies, and his inquisitiveness and commitment towards them is something that I admire deeply. Though the book is divided into chapters that focus on one particular animal or plant, I liked the fact that sometimes a random creature would surprise me in an otherwise animal specific chapter. Heinrich also touches a bit on the evolution of the human species, the dangers of pollution to fragile ecosystems and the unpredictability of animal extinctions. This is the type of book that slowly unfolds on you, drawing you deeper and deeper into its intricacies and wonders, until before you know it, you are turning the final pages.

I found much to enjoy in this book and thought that Heinrich used his unique writing and research skills to bring all the wonder of the outdoors to his readers in a functional and convivial way.There were constant surprises to pick out of this book, and it has a style that can be enjoyed over and over through consecutive readings. Heinrich also wrote another book that is a companion to this book. It is called Winter World, and I can't wait to get my hands on it! If you are a nature lover, this book is definitely for you. I would also recommend it to anyone who is looking for a light yet engrossing read. An Awesome book.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister - 256 pgs

Book CoverLillian has discovered that the art of preparing fine foods can heal many of the soul's wounds. Personal experience tells her so. As students filter into the cooking school that she holds in her restaurant every Monday night, she begins to teach them the secrets of culinary excellence, tailoring the meals to each particular person's unspoken need. As raw ingredients are transformed into luscious feasts, each person in the class is also changed. From the frazzled housewife to the couple with a stormy past, each person begins to realize that the lessons taught in Lillian's kitchen have far greater reach than the table. Carrying the secrets of the kitchen back into their own lives, the students start to experience greater understanding and healing in their own lives and begin to see the class as a refuge, where the compassion of one chef and the support of each other coalesce in unexpected and curative ways.

As a lover of food literature, I have to say this book was divine. I found the food descriptions to be wonderfully luscious and intriguing, and the human element of the story was great as well. The chapters, which focused in turn on each of the students, were crafted very compellingly because they seemed to be written in various styles. They were not so different as to be jarring, but the writing of each subject was done in a unique and singular way. I took this as a great sign of the author's versatility. She was able to make each character's chapter their own by making small changes in the writing technique.

I also loved the depth of emotion in this story. The author showed great empathy and consideration for her characters and was able to enrich the story with great emotional control. I loved the tenderness and humility of her characters. These were thoughtful and deep people who were able to express intrinsic emotions in proportion tho their circumstances. The emotional scenes in this book were written with great acuity and depth, and ranged from a light playfulness to a profound grief. I think the author used each blank canvas of character in magnetic and engaging ways that added substantial dimension to the book. Her characters weren't stereotypical knock-offs, they seemed like authentic and genuine people, like people you know, people you love. This book could have easily been overblown with drama, but the author was able to form her narrative and characters with a wonderful humility and temperance.

I found Lillian's character to be a marvel. She was consistently loving and calm towards all her students, showing by example the healing and restorative nature of life through food. I found Lillian to be a wonderfully frank and disarming person. Whenever she was on the page I knew that something great was about to be uncovered. I loved the way she enabled her students to make the most of their lessons, and their lives, both praising and teaching at the same time. She was a wonderfully competent character, both believable and charming. The story was extremely moving as well. It was both perceptive and profound, especially the chapters involving Tom, the man hiding a secret heartbreak. Although I loved Lillian, I think it was Tom and his story that moved me the most. I cried while reading Tom's sections, sharing his anguish and despair with a heavy heart.

And have I mentioned the food? The food aspects of the story were fascinating and delectable. Many times throughout this book I read and reread the passages relating to the food. Her descriptions of the smells and look of the foods being prepared were like poetry, lyrical and passionate in a way I didn't expect, yet fully appreciated. I thought it was an exceptional additional benefit that almost all the food sections were written in the form of instructions, not recipes per se, but in a way that melded the story with bits of guidance that would make it easy for the reader to put together any of the featured dishes in the book.

This book was a delight on multiple levels. It was a combination of the tenacity of the human spirit and an ambrosial documentary of fine cuisine. I would have gladly read another hundred pages of this novel, had it only been written! This is not to say that the story ended unsatisfactorily, because it certainly did not. I just wanted more of this magnificent and savory tale. I thought the author did a wonderful job in both the idea and the execution. It was a quiet and uplifting tale full of scrumptious spreads. I would like to read this one again, just for the food this time. Highly recommended for foodies and those who are looking for a rich and satisfying novel.

Monday, March 2, 2009

The World in Half by Cristina Henriquez - 320 pgs

Book CoverMira has lived most of her life with her headstrong mother, believing that her father didn't want to be part of her life. Her father, a native Panamanian living in his country, maintains no contact with Mira and her mother; in fact Mira has never even met the man. All she knows is that she was the product of an affair between the two while her mother and her then husband were stationed in Panama, and that shortly after she became pregnant, her mother returned to America with her husband. After her mother is diagnosed with a terrible illness, Mira comes across a series of letters, written by her father. The letters change everything for Mira, and she decides to secretly embark on a journey to Panama to find her father. When she arrives there, she meets a young man named Danilo who decides to help her in her quest, and soon Mira and Danilo are exploring the city, hunting down leads and asking questions about the side of her family that she never knew. As her search continues, Mira discovers hope, loss and above all, redemption, and begins to realize that her life and the lives of her family are not what she had once believed.

This book had a lot of interesting qualities. While on the one hand it was quiet and subdued, never rising to a fever pitch, it was also very emotional and at times almost raw in what it was portraying. There were times that it was almost painful to read what was going on, but the author never resorted to melodramatics and theatrics, instead forming a more controlled and solemn narrative. There was a great sensitivity running through this story, and it was almost a feeling of peeking into the lives of real people who were struggling in their situations but putting on a brave face and trudging through for the benefit of the world. I genuinely liked Mira; she was independent, resourceful and honest, and it was interesting to watch her turmoil change her personality, turning her from an observer of life into a participant. I thought the author dealt brilliantly with the themes of illness and the uncertainly that it can cause. It was almost frightening to realize the implications of Mira's mother's illness, and those aspects of the book became almost dire in their significance.

One of the fascinating and unexpected things about this book was the inclusion of bits of information about geology and geography. Mostly this played out as an ongoing conversation between Mira and Danilo about the intricacies surrounding the building of the Panama canal. They discuss the difficulties of the endeavor, the hardships and dangers to the workers, and how the logistical problems of the construction were handled. The author uses the ideas surrounding the building of the canal to furnish the title of her story, and to illustrate some of the ways the construction of the canal parallel the changes in Mira's life.

Another thing I liked is that the plot of the book wasn't predictable. For awhile I thought I had everything all figured out, but it turns out the author had other ideas for the book that broke with formula and tradition, particularly in the case of Danilo. This was especially interesting. This book could have reverted to the same old girl meets boy standard, but I felt that the author created much more tension and meaning with her interpretation of this story. Although Danilo wasn't my favorite character, I thought it was curious to watch the effect that he had on Mira. It was almost as if watching him grow and change, she began to mimic those same motions in herself, although the results differed dramatically. I am inclined to say that Danilo's part of the story had almost as much weight as Mira's. Although she was certainly the focus of the narrative, I felt that his character was the true motivator in this tale. He forced Mira out of her safe and structured role, and forced her to confront ideas that were painful to grasp on her own.

Overall, I found this story quite pleasing. When I picked it up, I had very little information about it. I found that it was a book filled with sentiment and feeling, but not one of overstated drama. In the end, some questions remain unanswered, which I felt was truly like life: not everything is tied up in a nice little bundle. For a first time author, I think this book was quite an achievement, both a satisfying and intelligent debut. Recommended for those who appreciate well defined character development.
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