Monday, January 31, 2011

Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni — 352 pgs

Book CoverTilo is a mistress of spices. Trained on a beautiful island by the Great Mother, Tilo is reincarnated into an old woman who must remain in her storefront spice shop, doling out blessings and assistance through the use of her spices to those who enter her shop. Her customers are Asian Indians like herself who have found life in America isn't what they hoped it would be. There is the woman who is trapped in a brutal arranged marriage, the man who puts himself into great danger in order to move up the in the ranks of the working class, and the young boy who is beginning to find acceptance from the various street gangs who crowd the city. As Tilo works her magic for the unfortunate people that visit her, she comes to love them and get involved in the small details of their lives. One day, a handsome and curious man enters her shop and Tilo finds herself entranced by his apparent interest in her. But Tilo's life is a stringent one, and due to the promises she made to the Great Mother, she's not free to become enmeshed with him. She is not even free to leave the store that she calls home. Tilo becomes more and more enamored with the strange man, and when he begins to reveal the secrets of his life to her, she decides upon a dangerous path. She begins leaving the store in order to further help some of her customers as she falls headlong into desire with the man who she believes can change her destiny, embarking on a journey that may end up costing her livelihood and possibly her life. In this work of magical realism and myth, Divakaruni tells the story of a woman who must decide which is more important, the secrets she has given her life to protect, or the longing and desires of her secret heart.

I've previously read numerous books by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and all of them have been amazingly interesting and full of life. I particularly loved The Palace of Illusions. This book, I discovered, was her first, and I think although it definitely had some of the hallmarks that I've come to recognize in her writing, it was by far the roughest of her books I've read to date. I found that although the premise of the story was an interesting one, the way it was written and the sometimes scattered effect of the plot was not really to my liking.

First off, I felt the sections that dealt with Tilo's time on the island got a bit of a short shrift. As a reader, I only got to know the backstory of the island in small asides that were sprinkled throughout the first sections of the book. What I did read about it was also organized a bit poorly and it was somewhat jumpy and underdeveloped. I learned that Tilo was at first a great healer and magic woman in her village, but then was captured by pirates (!) after summoning them with a calling spell. Later sections became even stranger and I had a hard time getting invested in the backstory. I think there is a fine line to be walked when writing magical realism. Too much and things become unbelievable and corny, and that's the problem I had here. When it's done right, magical realism gently brushes the story with a glittering mysticism, turning it into a world that you can almost believe exists in tandem with your own. This book didn't do that very successfully, which was something of a disappointment.

I also felt that Tilo, as a character, was very immature in her attitudes and behaviors. Though she had lofty ambitions to help those around her, in reality, a lot of what she did was selfish and self-centered. Sometimes she would go out of her way to help someone in need not because of how it would help them, but because she had feelings of shame and guilt about the power she wasn't exerting on their lives. Never did Tilo seem as selfish as when the mysterious man made his entrance. At first she can only be blamed for putting off her responsibilities, but soon she began to do things that were out of character for her, such as seeking the superficial beauty she thought the man wanted. These behaviors went against all she had been taught, and there was hardly a time that she wasn't flaunting her disobedience, despite what it was costing her. I began to feel very unsympathetic for Tilo and all she was doing, and felt more disengaged from her as the book continued. I'm sad to say that Tilo's changes towards the end of the book didn't please me, and in fact, made me rather angry.

One thing I did like was the focus it drew on the Indian immigrant experience. Most of the characters who came to Tilo looking for help were at the mercy of the ideals of the America that they had relocated to. They were underpaid, overlooked and unappreciated. They dealt with these disappointments in various ways, seeking the money, acceptance and influence that sadly eluded them. I thought there was a lot of power and truth in these sections of the story, and really got an idea of how hard it could be for someone to leave the only home they've ever known to strike out for a place where they thought power, wealth and happiness resided. Not all of Tilo's customers' stories had happy endings; some were decidedly ambiguous, which I also liked because I felt it reflected the reality of the situation of the immigrant experience. In the end, there are a lot of frustrations and no easy answers for these people, and like in real life, they must forge ahead regardless.

The writing in this book was scatter-shot at best. Very little punctuation was used, and there was what I felt to be a sort of messiness of ideas trying to compete with each other in the narrative. Since there were no quotation marks, it was often hard to tell when someone was talking or just thinking to themselves. I found that this bothered me a lot more than it usually does, and instead of feeling experimental, it felt more like laziness and artificiality. I begab to lose patience early on and was glad it wasn't a long read, because while I did want to find out what happened to Tilo, I was annoyed by the style in which the book was written. One could argue that the book was written in a style that complimented its character, but I don't believe that was done successfully at all, and the way I felt about the writing style overshadowed a lot of the better aspects of the book.

Though I will continue to read Divakaruni's books, I must say this one was a disappointment of a sort, though you could just chalk it up to the perils of a first time author trying to find her footing. I think if I were to recommend anything by this author, it would definitely be The Palace of Illusions, a book I gave a top notch rating. This is a book that really only needs to be read by completists, and while there were some shining moments in the story, overall it wasn't a favorite of mine. Hopefully this review doesn't turn other readers against Divakaruni's work, because I feel she has a light and melodious way with most of her stories and is a wonderful author of Indian fiction.

Friday, January 28, 2011

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde — 178 pgs

Book CoverWhen we first meet Dorian Gray he is a beautiful and innocent young man with the world at his feet. Lovely beyond compare, he's the darling of society and just budding into the man that he will one day become. But when his great friend and upcoming artist Basil Hallward decides to use him for the subject of a painting, everything changes for him. First off, he meets the irrepressibly cynical Lord Henry, who fills his head with narcissistic and negative thoughts, and finds that he is charmed to the bone with Lord Henry's misanthropy. When the picture of the Dorian is finally unveiled, everyone agrees that Hallward has captured both the charming beauty and fleeting youth in the painting, and Dorian, who is already becoming more worldly through Lord Henry's influence, makes a terrible wish. Dorian decides he wants to be young and lovely forever and that the only sign of his aging and decrepitude would present itself on the painting that Hallward has just produced. His bargain will change his life and the lives around him forever. At first blush, Dorian is little changed, but after short time, he begins to mire his once pure soul in devilish pursuits and fiendish pastimes. Being a dilettante is not enough for Dorian, and as he begins to sully his soul and reputation, Lord Henry is ever at his side, egging him on to more and more misogynistic and nefarious preoccupations. Just as he had wished, Dorian's visage continues to be unstained and lovely, while his portrait begins to turn vile and misshapen. In fact, Dorian is so consumed with the painting that he has it removed to a remote corner of his home, and as he becomes more and more invested in a life filled with debauchery, he studies the painting with growing glee. One day Dorian finally crosses the line with his behavior and comes to see that his soul and mind have been extremely warped. But the bargain he made will not be easy to break, and the frightened Dorian Gray must finally pay the price for all his wicked deeds. In this penetratingly astute novel, Oscar Wilde gives the reader a look into the seared soul of a man condemned to live a life of rare beauty on the outside and frightening corruption on the inside. A life that will have bitter and horrendous consequences for not only Dorian, but those surrounding him as well.

This year I decided to make it a point to read at least one classic piece of literature each month. I started this resolution with Dorian Gray because the blogosphere has been all atwitter about this book in the last few months, and this culminated with Jill's Dueling Monsters. The two books up for consideration were this book and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with The Picture of Dorian Gray emerging as the winner by a close margin. When my uncle gave me a copy for Christmas, I knew the fates had aligned things for me and this would be my first foray into my classic-a-month project. I had expected this to be a story that stayed mostly on the surface and was very surprised to find that Wilde goes to great lengths to create the kind of tale that reverberates through all life's incongruities and passions, and creates in Dorian a man who turns so radically from an innocent into a monster.

I definitely think I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fact that Lord Henry was a significant impetus for the change in Dorian. Though it's Dorian who makes the wish, it's Lord Henry who is his tutor in all things gross and savage. When Lord Henry first meets Dorian, he sees his beauty and innocence as a great well in which to throw his poison, and delights in breaking the lad's composure and peace of mind. All throuought the book, Dorian seeks Lord Henry's advice and approval, and the more Dorian grows into his evilness, the more willing Lord Henry is to pollute him further. Lord Henry has an opinion on everything and most of his opinions are savage and shocking. He finds life's purity boring and believes one should live only for the senses at the expense of the soul. His opinion of women is abysmal and his outlook on society is one of repugnance. Dorian soaks up these opinions like a sponge and comes to espouse all the things that Lord Henry stands for, becoming, in essence, all of Lord Henry's putrid ideas made flesh. Lord Henry exposes Dorian to a piece of literature that invades his soul, and Dorian believes it's this book that changes him, when in reality, it's Lord Henry's influence that has been changing him all along.

There's a great deal of philosophy here, and most of it is rather sardonic and pessimistic. It's within Dorian that these beliefs are placed, and within him where they flower to become a stain on his ever-consumed soul. Man as a creature of habit and addictions, man as a repository for suffering and indulgence, and man as a terrible monster of conformity and egotism. These are all subjects that are dealt with deeply in this book, and as Dorian learns these things, his mind begins to warp into a cynical shell that bears very little resemblance to what he had once been. Deception, lies and connivance take precedence over love, honor and respect, and Wilde creates a verisimilitude of human folly and behavior within his narrative that's designed to show not only the weakness of humanity but the pits that one can fall into when the soul is left to languish with unsavory company. The book also deals strongly with the hedonism that can arise within a man who lives solely for pleasure and experience. Though Dorian is fascinated by all that pleasure can bring him, he wants none of the consequences that this may entail, and because of the bargain he strikes, he goes through life untouched by the changes and disfigurement that all humans suffer.

Another important subject to raise is the duality of Dorian Gray. He is admittedly a hedonist and concerned with earthly pleasures, but his outward appearance, and one that he struggles to maintain, is one of grace and refinement. As he continues to debase and sully himself further, he never lets go of his outward mode of composure and togetherness. This is really one of the most interesting things about the book: the extreme divergence between the lightness that is exposed on the outside and the darkness that is dominating within. The painting that is part of the Faustian bargain is the only manifestation of the evils that are going on within this strange man, and as it's hidden away, the rest of the world can never discover the sham. He manages to hide his soul's deformity from everyone, but cannot, in the end, hide it from himself.

I thought this was an exceedingly robust and interesting read, and I admit that Wilde has a way of capturing prose that is not only elegant, but also beautifully consuming. It was a very accessible read for a classic and I enjoyed it so much, it makes me feel hopeful about my new resolution. It's a book that stirred a deep passion within my soul, because as much as I enjoyed it, I couldn't help but see that we are all a little like Dorian Gray, and though we may not indulge ourselves with as much fierce abandon into the heady enjoyments of the world, there is a spark of him in each one of us. A greatly intriguing read. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Tapestry of Love by Rosy Thornton — 352 pgs

Book CoverWhen Catherine leaves England to settle in the Cévennes mountains, she's hoping for a simple and rustic life. Surrounded by the dense woods and the idyllic mountains, her neighbors immediately adopt her into their community. From the older couple who share her land and help her with the maintenance of her property to the older widow who enlists Catherine to help her into town, Catherine is at once enveloped in France. But when she meets another neighbor, the handsome and mysterious Patrick, Catherine begins to question all she has known about attraction and love. As she settles in the beautiful French countryside, Catherine decides to become a self-employed business woman, weaving tapestries and working with fabrics on interior design. But there are some serious snafus when her sister Bryony comes to town for an extended getaway and is immediately enraptured by Patrick, and her interior design business hits a roadblock due to government restrictions. Just when Catherine thinks she's home free and that her feelings for Patrick have been quashed, the situation changes once again, leaving her more confused than ever. As the months roll by, Catherine becomes deeply involved in all aspects of rural life, from the ties to the locals, to her business, to the very perplexing feelings for Patrick that she can't seem to jettison, and discovers that life in this blissful and remote area is not only what her soul craves, but what her heart desires. Like the tapestries Catherine weaves, Thornton takes all the exquisite colors of the French countryside and Catherine's life, and creates a stunning representation of one woman's existence filled with the subtle dramas and grace that we all hope to capture in our own lives.

Sometimes I crave a good quiet read that renews my spirit and gives me things to contemplate. I had been reading many reviews of this book on the blogosphere and began to think it would be a great reading experience. When Rosy Thornton contacted me and asked me if I'd like a chance to review it, I snapped to attention and responded in the affirmative right away. The book didn't disappoint, and it was just the type of read that I could relax into like a hot bath during a time in my life that was rather stressful and worrying. As life was doing its best to turn my heart into a pretzel, I knew that I could have respite within these pages and I grew to love the time I spent with this story.

Catherine was a character whom I loved from the instant I began reading about her. She was so strong-willed, and no matter what disappointments were hanging over her head, she never gave in to self-pity and recrimination. Some of the things that she went through required a strong heart and a tough spirit, and Catherine had that in spades. When she meets Patrick for the first time, theirs is an electric attraction, and there's noting unrequited about her feelings for him. As he gently coaxes her into his life, Catherine begins to bloom like a rose under his ministrations. There was a lot of passion between these two people, but Thornton shares these revelations with a subdued and graceful hand, and the effect is one of total realism. Catherine is a woman in her middle age but her heart is no less moved or passionate than that of a younger woman at Patrick's tender behavior. When her sister Bryony comes into the picture and basically usurps Patrick, the tension Catherine experiences forces her to reexamine her feelings, not only for her sister, but for the man who has so enraptured her. She doesn't fret and whine about it though, and instead employs a great deal of patience and understanding, preferring to put Patrick and Bryony in the background and moving the other parts of her life into the foreground.

Another thing that was great about this book was its rustic appeal. I'm sort of a city girl, but I had not a bit of trouble appreciating the sections in which Catherine tends to her garden, or her forays into French cooking. I liked the quiet feel of the writing in these sections and it was constantly edifying to my soul to read about the wild mushrooms found in the woods and the elusive pack of wild boars that Catherine observes. There was something so charming and genteel about the life she was living out in the French countryside, and many times while reading I would drift off into daydreams about escaping the city to find solace in the woods and mountains. There was such a feeling of cohesion and peace within Catherine's life out there, and I found that a lot of these sections gave the book such charm. Reading about Catherine's day-to-day life in the Cévennes mountains made me at once feel relaxed and put me in a very peaceful frame of mind, which is something that I desperately needed.

The focus on the tapestries and Catherine's various other handicrafts was also something to be admired. I didn't know very much about this form of artistry before reading this book, but Thornton had a way of explaining everything so clearly that even a layperson could get caught up in it. Her descriptions of the work Catherine did and the dying and collecting of thread struck me as very knowledgeable, and I wondered many times if Thornton herself engaged in tapestry making, such was the level of expertise that she created in her story. I also liked that Catherine's artwork was so appreciated and sought after by the locals because so often crafts and art are things that are pursued and appreciated alone. The aspect of a single woman living in France and being such an expert needlewoman somehow appealed to some of my softer and more creative emotions. Often times, when one doesn't participate in a craft like this, reading about it can be alienating or just plain boring, which is something that Thornton very successfully escapes in her work.

I was so enthralled with this book and I think I read it at a perfect time in my life. The quietness and rustic qualities really spoke to me in a way that had a healing effect on me during a rough patch I was having, and I would be interested in re-reading this book at another time to examine other aspects of the story that Thornton so expertly crafted. It's a love story, yes, but also, and I think more importantly, a story about a woman who is strong, independent and wise, and who takes a chance on a life that not many of us will ever experience. I think this book would appeal to a lot of readers and it would be a great read to curl up with on a rainy afternoon. A great and gentle read. Recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Lotus Eaters by Tatiana Soli — 416 pgs — GIVEAWAY

Book Cover Helen Adams is an up-and-coming war photographer who finds herself caught up in the exotic and somehow addicting action of the Vietnam War. After arriving in the country as a green newcomer, Helen quickly falls into step with the boy's club of journalists in the area and begins to feel a strange attachment and attraction to the most jaded and dangerous of the bunch, Sam Darrow. As Darrow and Helen dance together and apart, they become more and more ensconced in a violent world where nothing is certain. Darrow is also in a working relationship with Linh, a cultured Vietnamese man who is the photographers assistant. Though Linh is subdued and quiet, he comes to care for both Darrow and Helen in peculiar and particular ways. When the unthinkable happens to divide the three, Linh is the only one able to pick up the pieces and move forward. As Helen begins to lose more and more to the war, she finds that she cannot let it go and becomes obsessed not only with the country and its inhabitants but of the war and its casual cruelties. Like the Lotus Eaters of Homer's epic tale, she cannot escape the beautiful and dangerous prison she's made for herself in Vietnam, no matter what it costs her. Taking bigger and bigger risks, Helen finds herself on the edge of civilization and at the mercy of those who have no loyalties, trying to discover a way back home. Both hauntingly evocative and stylistically lush, The Lotus Eaters paints a vivid picture of the intoxication of the Vietnam War era and the epic struggle between home and away that so completely envelops one woman.

Though I've read a lot of books centered on war in other countries, I've never read a book quite like this. What made this a different reading experience was the fact that rather than focusing on the native people and their reactions when war strikes, this book was more about Americans, specifically photographers, and their experiences in the turmoil that was Vietnam. Though it was a very different kind of read for me, I found it utterly engrossing and most of the time I read with tensed muscles, experiencing the very realistic terrors and heartaches of Helen, Linh and Darrow.

In the early sections, I wondered why this group of people wanted so desperately to be in Vietnam during this period. It seemed almost suicidal that they refused to leave, and their actions in covering the war were not only dangerous, but seemed a little self-serving at times. Of course, as I read on, I came to realize that these people were addicted to the danger and fame of being in this environment and of producing something tangible out of the suffering they were witnessing. Whereas Darrow came off as a more rugged adventurer who got a charge out of taking risks, Helen seemed to be trying to recapture something in herself, trying desperately to make sense of her life by invading the lives of others. Linh was different in this respect, because due to the ties and obligations that he had within the country, he could not flee. It was a vicarious lifestyle, lived on the edge, and all of the players seemed to live in a different realm of consciousness, never realizing that they themselves were changing the face of the war just by documenting it.

There were a lot of almost surreal moments in these stories, and like the best war stories, they captured the grand horror and senselessness of combat in a style I thought was not only very realistic but also heartrending. Lush landscapes aside, there were some startling and pugnacious incidences of violence and terror, not only for the photographers, but for the soldiers they were trying to capture on film. A lot of the book brought home the futility and senselessness of the military violence that was perpetrated in this war not only from the American side but from the Vietnamese as well. As the story began to pick up pace, the danger seemed to be almost tactile at times and began to churn with a life of it's own, pushing the tale into ever-widening spirals of insanity.

There was a very involving twist of a love story here, and part of the reason it was such a passionate exploration was that it was, in essence, love in time of war, when everything was desperate and the future was so unknown and shadowed. It was as if these people were desperately trying to hang onto the conventions of normal life, and in a very real way, it was as if they were making it up as they were going along. Holding on to each other as life rafts in the melee that was the Vietnam war, these people tried to somehow cling to the semblances of normalcy, and love was a precious commodity and a valued treasure in what what otherwise was a vast wasteland being torn further and further apart. Also, I must give a nod to the perfection and haunting quality of the title of this book, for like the Lotus Eaters of the Odyssey, Helen and the other photographers find themselves having eaten the lotus of Vietnam and not ever wanting to abandon it, no matter what destruction comes their way.

The last fifty pages had me dry-mouthed in anticipation of what this story would boil down to, and believe me, I was not disappointed. In a perfect narrative arc, this book had me twisting up in the trees with the abandon that the photographers were feeling, and the despair of the absolute disillusion that befell them as the close of the war approaches. This was a magnificent read for me, and despite the fact that it made me quite uncomfortable at times, it had the true hallmarks of beauty that not many books that capture the war are able to. If you are in the mood for a walk with a group pf people who are far from average, living in some of the most desperate times and situations you would possibly be able to imagine, I urge you to give this book a try.

Great news! The publishers of this book have generously offered me one copy of the book to give away. If you'd like a chance to win it, please fill out the form below. The winner will be chosen at random on February, 5th 2011. Good Luck to all entrants!

Author Photo About the Author

Tatjana Soli is a novelist and short story writer. Born in Salzburg, Austria, she attended Stanford University and the Warren Wilson MFA Program.

Her stories have appeared in StoryQuarterly, Confrontation, Gulf Coast, Other Voices, Nimrod, Third Coast, Carolina Quarterly, Sonora Review and North Dakota Quarterly among other publications.

Her work has been twice listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was awarded the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Prize, teh Dana Award, finalist for the Bellwether Prize, and received scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.

She lives with her husband in Orange County, California, and teaches through the Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

Visit Tatjana’s website HERE.

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Monday, December 20th: You've GOTTA Read This!
Monday, January 3rd: Simply Stacie
Tuesday, January 4th: 1330V
Wednesday, January 5th: Rundpinne
Thursday, January 6th: The Bookworm
Friday, January 7th: Nomad Reader
Monday, January 10th: Life in the Thumb
Tuesday, January 11th: Man of La Book
Wednesday, January 12th: The 3 R’s Blog
Thursday, January 13th: The Well-Read Wife
Friday, January 14th: In The Next Room
Tuesday, January 18th: Chaotic Compendiums
Wednesday, January 19th: Melody & Words
Thursday, January 20th: Musings of an All Purpose Monkey
Friday, January 21st: Book Bird Dog
Monday, January 24th: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, January 26th: Rhapsody in Books
Thursday, January 27th: Nonsuch Book

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Mennonite in a Little Black Dress: A Memoir of Going Home by Rhoda Janzen — 272 pgs

Book CoverRhoda Janzen's husband of fifteen years has left her for a man named Bob who he met on The same week her husband made his disappearance, she becomes involved in a serious car accident that leaves her injured. Deciding she needs a change of scenery, both literally and figuratively, she journeys off to visit her parents and the Mennonite community where she grew up. What follows is the true story of her temporary life amongst the Mennonites interspersed with the vivid recollections of her fifteen year marriage with a man afflicted with mental illness. Often hilariously funny, Rhoda divulges the strange habits and customs of the Mennonites alongside the tale of her heartbreak, sprinkling the text with do-it-yourself questionnaires, true stories of off-the-wall relatives and an exhaustive list of the top five most embarrassing Mennonite foods that can be carried in a lunchbox. Both clever and at times serious, Janzen explores the very unusual circumstances of her life in an unflinching and often candidly merry book.

When this book came out, it seemed to be all the rage. I had originally wanted to read it sooner than I did but things just kept getting in the way. Last month, my book club decided that we would do something a little different, in that we would each read a different autobiography and then discuss them and see if others wanted to trade reads. As I'm not a fan of autobiographies, I asked if it would be all right to read a memoir instead. It was agreed that I could go against the edict and read a memoir, so I decided that now would be the perfect time for this book.

I was immediately delighted with the first few chapters, for it seemed that Janzen wasn't going to get bogged down in a woe-is-me narrative about her life. The book got off on the right foot with an air of the refreshingly funny, and Janzen wasn't afraid to poke fun at herself as well. Interlaced with the more colorful stories she told came the story of her relationship with her husband. This relationship was bad with a capital "B". Her husband, afflicted with bi-polar disorder, would control her, berate her with name calling and go on horrific spending sprees. Janzen reached a point of numbness while dealing with his behavior and had trouble accepting that what her husband was doing constituted abuse. I think in her ability to be lighthearted and accepting towards him, she was actually doing herself a disservice, but it took many years for her to finally see that.

The other half of this book, the more lighthearted half, dealt with the oddity of her family and the Mennonite community at large. I didn't know much about the Mennonites going into this book, only that they were a bit like the Amish, which is actually one of the falsehoods that is addressed by Janzen. Though the Amish and the Mennonites came from the same stock, they are very different, with the Mennonites being a less rigid and more tolerant order. I really liked the more lighthearted reflections in this half of the book, and a lot of what made an impression on me was the dichotomy of living life as a Mennonite in communities that are decidedly less parochial than times past. The Mennonites weren't a wayward and backward bunch at all. They were professionals who were active in the community and didn't hide behind religion or segregate themselves from the rest of society. Janzen's mother in particular was refreshing, not only in her attitudes towards her children, but also to the community at large, including that small population of pot-heads who drive tractors.

A lot of the book was off-color, which was surprising given the subject it presented. I found these aspects quite refreshing and giggle-worthy. From monstrous patches of pubic hair to the indignities of wearing a pee-bag, Janzen reveals it all while managing to curtail a vibe of snarkiness, which really made the humor go a lot farther. There are discourses on the thrilling concoction that is borscht, a mother whose table talk is gag-inducing, and the tale of a sister-in-law who is extremely politically incorrect. In the end though, Janzen finds a way through her messy life, but the fact that she goes so far to keep it real throughout her ordeal is what makes this book the pleasure that it is. The humor is the kind you know polite people wouldn't laugh at but you can't stop yourself, knowing that Janzen has it right, down to the last letter.

This is not your typical memoir in any way shape or form, and that's what I liked most about it. In the double examination of both the Mennonites and her spectacularly bad marriage, Janzen manages to not only inform, but edify about the Mennonite community. The humor was well timed and placed, and the light-hearted approach curiously gave the book more gravity. I think those readers who are tired of all the drama in the memoir genre might really enjoy this book. I laughed right along with Janzen at the absurdities of Mennonite life and was able to rally for her when she finally started to let the baggage from her past go. An uncommon memoir; I need to find more out there like this one!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Mailbox by Marybeth Whalen — 320 pgs

Book CoverOver the course of 20 years, Lindsay Adams visits the same beach house owned by her aunt and uncle. Over that same span of time, she leaves a yearly letter at the end of each summer in the mailbox tended by the Kindred Spirit. Lindsay's first visit comes when she's just 15 and she meets an amazing boy named Campbell Forrester, who quickly becomes her first love. Though Campbell lives on the island and Lindsay further away, they make a pact to continue their relationship over the year, to be reunited in the summer. After a couple of years visiting the beach and Campbell, things take a drastic turn when Campbell gets sucked into a relationship with another girl. Lindsay is heartbroken but continues to visit the beach and the mailbox, avoiding Campbell for many years. Now Lindsay is returning to the beach after a painful divorce that has left her a single mother. When she comes across an old friend of Campbell's, she admits to herself that she is curious about her first love and takes pains to run into him again. Campbell is living a lonely life with his mother and teenage daughter, and is thrilled to have encountered Lindsay again and possibly have a second chance. But there are things in both of their pasts and present that will present some serious roadblocks to their happiness, and only with the help of God will they finally be able to reconcile and share each other's lives. Both tender and touching, Whalen creates a tale of lost and found love amid the everyday struggles of a life that continues to march along ceaselessly.

Late last year, I had the great honor of meeting Marybeth Whalen at one of the SIBA dinner events. After introducing ourselves and finding out a little about each other, she asked me what types of books I like to review. I mentioned that I read almost everything but there were a few exceptions, one of them being Christian fiction. Much to my chagrin, Marybeth told me she is a Christian fiction author. She told me a few things about her book The Mailbox and also about the book she was currently working on, and I had to admit I was intrigued. I explained to her the reason I generally don't enjoy Christian fiction is because at times it can feel a little sanctimonious and the messages are always batted expansively over the readers' heads. Marybeth replied that she often feels this way as well and that she strives not to do these types of things in her stories. It pleased me greatly to hear this, and as the weekend wore on, I kept running into her in unexpected places and we had more in-depth conversations about both her life and her books. I knew I wanted to read her book and see how she handled faith within the constructs of her story and she was nice enough to provide me a copy to review. When I read the book, I thought, well now this is the type of Christian fiction that I can get behind!

One of the first things I noticed about the characters was they were very original and socially dynamic. There wasn't anything about them I couldn't relate to, and though they had their feet firmly planted into the Christian world, they were flawed and troubled and didn't go on mini-rants about religion and spirituality. They were also not too wholesome to feel connected to, and Lindsay had a lot of both internal and external strife that she was trying to work through. These characters weren't goody-goodies and they weren't obsessively preachy about their beliefs. They didn't alienate other characters or, more importantly, the reader by being flawlessly even-tempered and morally overpowering. As the story begins to wind its way along, Whalen's characters reveal themselves to be people troubled by the past and burdened by the future. They come to discover their lives are filled with conundrums and half-realized dreams. They were engaging people, dealing with isolation, loneliness and heartache, and they struggled mightily with their pride and their expectations. In other words, these were the type of people that just about anyone could relate to and become invested in. I also think Whalen has an incredible gift for the creation of her male characters, which is not often the case with female authors. Campbell wasn't overly macho, nor was he overly sentimental.

The faith aspect mostly centered around the characters' prayer life. Instead of using her creative space to preach, Whalen instead lets the characters speak for themselves and shares how they use prayer to combat the sadness and futility of their lives. I liked this because I'm a big prayer person and feel it was a realistic portrayal of how spiritual people deal with the adversity that life throws at them. The praying also reminded me a lot of the praying I do. Instead of being formal, rigid and structured, it was more like a conversation on the fly with God. The characters spoke to Him as if He were a friend or mentor instead of an all-powerful entity that's not easily approachable. Their prayers felt real because it felt unforced and unconstructed. It was a tool they used to cope with their lives and it felt honest. I actually liked the fact that Whalen was humble enough to include this aspect in her story and it was perhaps the reason I felt especially close to the characters.

Though this book was ostensibly a love story, it also had a lot to do with moving forward in life after tragedy strikes and how life can throw a monkey wrench into carefully laid plans. The characters were not the type of people who lamented and obsessed over lost opportunity but instead they moved forward without blame or accusation. There was a feeling of perseverance and stolidness in this tale, and though most of the characters were dealing with harsh emotional issues, they all had healthy attitudes about themselves and their predicaments. The book really touched on a lot of important issues, such as infidelity, anorexia and jealously, in a way that was easy to relate to and understand. There would be quite a lot here for a book club to discuss and disseminate. Of course, I was rooting for Lindsay and Campbell to finally reunite, but before that happened, they had some serious issues to confront and they had to learn to forgive one another, not only to move forward into the future, but to heal the wounds of the past.

This book was refreshing not only in the way it portrayed its characters and their plights but in the way it encompassed the spirituality of its potential readers. It showed me that being a Christian is not about being morally smug and alienating others, and that's something most Christian fiction authors don't even attempt to accomplish with their books. It's not about being better or more spiritual; It's about finding the peace and acceptance that can heal your broken life, and learning that at its best, spirituality doesn't have to separate us at all. I thought Whalen did a great job with this book and I'm eager to read what she is working on now. I think she really gets it, and I think even those who don't share the same spiritual beliefs would get a lot from the story she tells. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin — 400 pgs

Book CoverDr. Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar has just been dispatched from Salerno to Cambridge in an effort to help catch a killer. This particular killer chooses children as his victims, and as the story begins, he has had his savage and bloodthirsty way with four of them. As the murdered children are all Christians, suspicion begins to fall on the Jews of Cambridge, much to the chagrin of King Henry, who wishes to see them absolved. Adelia finds herself in a strange predicament after landing in Cambridge, for although she's a doctor of particular renown in Salerno, the attitudes of the English prevent her from practicing openly: one because she is a female, and two because her specialty in the examination of dead bodies is regarded with suspicion and considered witchcraft. Under a cloak of secrecy, Adelia begins her investigation into the brutal murders, uncovering surprising and damning evidence of not only the supposed killer, but of the town and the people he is hidden among. When Sir Rowly Picot joins the investigation at Adelia's side, she's far from happy. Rowley has his own reasons for wanting information about the killer, but Adelia isn't quite sure he shouldn't be considered a suspect. As the two creep closer and closer to the truth, the unknown killer begins to venomously resist from the shadows, placing Adelia and Rowley into some of the most sinister and dangerous situations that they've ever faced. In this complex and deeply dark blend of historical fiction and mystery, two of the most unlikely allies must come together to unmask a horrible and demonic killer, and to save Cambridge's children before it's too late.

I rarely read books that are part of a series nowadays. For one thing, they're a bit tougher to review than standalone novels. Also, I find myself wanting to gulp down the entire series at one time, which can be a problem when there are so many other books vying for attention. I made an exception for these books after reading some really great reviews on them, and I have to admit the medieval setting was one that I couldn't ignore. I'm really glad I made the choice to read these books, but now I'm in the predicament that I dreaded, with wanting to read on and continue the series, come hell or high water.

What I noticed first about this book as I was reading, was the unremitting darkness that surrounded the plot and characters. One could argue that the medieval age was one of particular darkness, but I think this book strove deeply for a real feeling of foreboding and ominousness. From the outset, the murders of the children take center stage and there is no shying away from all the gruesome details. Even the introduction of Adelia manages to be suffused with cryptic portent, explaining her time among the other scholars of Salerno who are fluent in the art of death. This setting of the scene may have come across as too maudlin had it not been handled in the right way, but Franklin does a lot during these sections to set the perfect stage and to make these characters into people the reader is eager to know. As things begin to move forward, the pall remains, hanging over every description and scene, creating a medieval England that's not only dangerous and sinister, but ripe for the talents that Adelia has to offer.

The historical sections were what really interested me the most. Ostensibly, this book has a dual genre, bobbing between historical fiction and mystery, but I think I took the most enjoyment from the history. Franklin does a great deal to make the book feel authentic, from the prejudices and strictures against women, and particularly women skilled in the art of healing, to the oppressive and heavy-handed role of the church in Cambridge society. The attitudes of the population at that time were particularly backward in most cases, and the commoners needed little urging to become bloodthirsty, which in the case of this story, felt all too real. As Adelia is forced to investigate under cover, I began to see that the things which hindered her were not only the conventions of the people surrounding her, but the lack of enlightenment that spread far and wide throughout the realm.

I wasn't as impressed with the mystery aspects of this book early on, because it was pretty obvious to me who the killer was. But Franklin had a few aces up her sleeve and I managed to be shocked at the mystery despite myself. Often I shy away mysteries because it's always too easy for me to figure things out, but here, the mystery had a fullness and an unexpectedness that really thrilled me. There was definitely more to this story than met the eye, and turning the last page, I was both horrified and excited to find out where the next book would lead me. It was definitely a more sinister story than I had first thought it would or could be, and I liked that every character in the book played their part with skill and efficiency. The implications this story raised were much more troubling than the murder that Adelia was contracted to solve, leaving me to marvel at Franklin's skill at creating this microcosm of the medieval world, a world seething with malevolence.

it's interesting to note the position of women in this society. Being a woman tied to the Church or the wife of a commoner were the excepted norms, but for Adleia's safety, it's better that she hides her status as a learned woman, lest she be accused of witchcraft. A lot of the time, these strictures hinder and anger her, for coming from a place that respects the contributions of both male and females, Adleia is loathe to give up her rights and privileges. Though she must be covert in her dealings with the dead, a few of the other characters come to know her for who she really is and must protect her secret alongside of her. Even those in the know find her strange and inexplicable knowledge almost sinister, and realize the possession of this knowledge means danger to themselves. Though Adelia is severely limited in the ways she can investigate, she finds a way to do what is necessary and complete her job.

The plight of Cambridge's Jews was also very interesting. As taxpayers, they are of great importance to the king, but since the murders of the children, the other townsfolk have basically kept them in fear for their lives and hiding in an abandoned castle. It seems Cambridge and England is no stranger to anti-Semitism, and in fact, throughout history and across continents, Jews have been vilified for a number of reasons that are incredible to think about. By highlighting this aspect of the story, Franklin is able to discourse on the unfair blame that the Jews have shouldered, even in a place so far removed in time. In the discovery of the true murderer, the Jews are forgiven and accepted back into the town, but the damage has been done and things will never be the same. The unfortunate sting of blame and recrimination becomes just one pinpoint of the humiliations and injustices the Jewish population must endure throughout time.

I was unexpectedly pleased with the depth and power of this book. Many of the topics and situations are specific to the time and place described, but I found that Franklin's ability to make them resonant, even in today's society, was masterful. Though this was one of the darker books I've read in some time, I found it to be one that I couldn't put down, and the intelligence and complexity of the narrative was delightful to me. I think lovers of historical fiction would do well to pick up this book, as well as those mystery lovers looking for something beyond the norm. I'm already in the middle of the next installment and am finding it to be just as entertaining and engrossing as the first. It was a really great read, made greater by the author's ability to tease out the more meaningful aspects of the story. Recommended.

Friday, January 14, 2011

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver — 400 pgs

Book CoverIn this epistolary novel, Eva Katchadourian is writing a series of letters to her husband Franklin after the horror of her teenage son's violent massacre of several high school classmates. Reaching into the past, Eva chronicles, in a series of lucid and disturbing flashbacks, the evolution of a wealthy yuppie couple who are deciding if they want to have a child. Eva is a jet-setter, constantly traveling the world in order to research accommodations for a series of travel books she publishes, while Franklin is a scenic location scout working in marketing. Though they both do want a child, it's for very different reasons, and though Franklin is enthused with the idea, Eva harbors reservations about what having a child will do to her marriage and her sense of independence. When Kevin is born, it's clear to Eva, if not Franklin, that something is very wrong with him. Able to scream furiously and ferociously for hours, Kevin proves to be a difficult infant who grows up to be a secretive, cold and calculating child. Though Eva readily admits that she may not be an award-winning mother and is often distant and emotionally unavailable with Kevin, as he grows older, he becomes what can only be described as a psychopath. Though Eva sees this, Franklin is unable to realize the type of maliciousness that Kevin harbors deep inside, and Eva's constant recrimination of the boy sets the couple on a very rocky path. The two are constantly at each other's throats over the boy and are destroying each other's lives, much to young Kevin's amusement. When Eva gets pregnant with a second child in order to prove to herself that she can be a good mother and to have another ally against Franklin and Kevin, the boy's wicked and brutal behavior begins to escalate to a frightening degree. All this culminates with the bloody rampage that Kevin meticulously plans at the high school gym, and to the reader's shock and horror, we discover the magnitude of what Eva lost that day. In this frightening and disconcerting novel, the reader witnesses the birth and adolescence of a killer who expertly manipulates the emotions of the family that surrounded him and tried so hard to nurture him.

This is a book I've been hearing very good things about for quite a long time, though I had thought it wouldn't be all that interesting to me for a lot of reasons. But as time went on and I heard more and more about it, I realized that perhaps I was missing something by letting this one go unread. Though I know this type of violence in schools is not only prevalent but important, I couldn't imagine wanting to read a book that centered around this topic. What I discovered is not only is Shriver a penetrating and arresting author, but that this story has more to do with the frightening daily evolution of a very damaged person than the violence he perpetrates. It was not only disquieting, but ultimately terrifying and chilling as well.

One of the most interesting things about the book was the fact that all of the characters were somewhat repellent to me for various reasons. Eva was cold and distant, not only to Kevin but in certain ways to her husband as well. She seemed very arrogant at times and was definitely elitist. At times I wondered how Kevin couldn't help but turn out as he did with a mother like Eva, but at the heart of it all, there was something very human about her that drew me to her. Although I didn't like her, I could understand her perfectly. Kevin was repugnant for obvious reasons. A brutal personality, a penchant for human discomfort and destruction even at the earliest stages, I not only hated him but he scared me. The ambivalence he showed towards human suffering, and indeed his creation of it in others, made my heart and stomach shrivel inside me, and as he grew he only became more and more malevolent. Franklin too was rather unlikable. He repeatedly stuck to the belief that Kevin was a normal boy, even when facts to the contrary were laid right out in front of them. The one thing I hated most about Franklin is he never gave his wife's worries about Kevin any credence, and indeed, even fought with her over her "mistaken feelings" about the boy. He did this in front of Kevin and even joined the boy in making fun of her at times, in a fruitless attempt to bond with the boy. The funny thing is, even though I hated all the characters, it didn't impede me from being connected to them or their stories, which speaks to Shriver's skill at spinning such an incredible yarn.

One thing that I would be very remiss if I didn't mention was the incredible fluid writing. Shriver's skill with words and ideas is striking and beautiful. At times I had to put the book down and marvel over her ability to tease out so much meaning from one simple sentence, and there were many passages that I read over and over again in a state of awe. The writing borders on the poetic, but not in a florid or showy way. Rather, there's an intrinsic power and force to her words, a building up of thoughts and ideas into a crescendo of unbearable tension and wicked loveliness that not only impressed me, but drew me further and further into the story she tells. It was odd to have such a inspired response to the writing when the story being told was one of violence, hatred and ambivalence. As I read on and became more and more invested in the world that Shriver was creating, I felt almost as if I was being pulled down a rabbit hole of deviance and defiance. The beauty and fluidity of the writing and the terror and horror of the subject matter certainly presented me with a dichotomy, but by melding these two elements so seamlessly, the tale almost takes on a life of its own.

It was hard to read about Kevin's growing obsession with other notorious teens who went on bloody rampages in their own schools. Kevin touted opinions and details on them all, and throughout the book, his behavior towards them took on some frightening aspects. It was clear he was attempting to emulate them, only Kevin, in his meticulous way, wanted to be better, to make it more of a challenge and to have a higher body count. I can only describe all this as chilling, and although Franklin and Eva both seemed to want to ignore Kevin's growing fascination with this alien subset of people, it stood out to me in alarming and potentially dangerous ways. Throughout the book, which is told in a series of flashbacks, Shriver embeds these stories within the story of the Katchadourian family, sharing the details of school massacres far and wide, the tally of bodies they yielded and what the eventual punitive outcome would be. I honestly had no idea this type of thing happened so frequently, and it almost put me in a stupor of fear. I mean, I have kids who are at this stage in life, and to think that one of their classmates might be capable of doing something like made me a bit panic stricken. Shriver most movingly explains, through her exposé on Kevin, how these types of things happen and just how the ones left behind react when the violence rains down.

This was my first read of the new year, and while I found it lyrically impressive and tautly suspenseful, I also found it made me quite nervous and upset. While I was reading it, I had some very confusing sensations of doom and I was altogether a little jumpy. It was a brilliant book, made more powerful and poignant by its skillful rendering and also by its relevance, but it was also very disturbing and could at times strongly graphic. It was a fantastic read, and one that I'll never forget, but I warn you that it's not for the faint of heart and those who are easily disconcerted may want to avoid this one. A very realistic depiction of a subject that needs to be addressed, but in that realism also comes unexpected terror.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Valcourt Heiress by Catherine Coulter — 368 pages

Book CoverWhen the father of Merry the Valcourt Heiress dies unexpectedly, her long-absent mother returns to sell her and her fortune to the unpleasant and malicious Jason of Brennan, a fact which Merry finds repugnant. Running away from both Jason and her mother, Merry, dressed as a stable boy, is kidnapped mid-flight by a vicious man and his band of thieves. After she's rescued by a mysterious nobleman, she again runs away, only this time she decides to hide in the nobleman's retinue and take her chances on a new life. As it turns out, this nobleman is none other than Garron of Kersey, the new earl of Warham Castle. Garron is returning to Warham to take control of the castle and its people after his brother's murder. But when Garron arrives, he discovers the castle largely abandoned and the few survivors tell the tale of the invasion and slaughter of Warham and its people by a man known only as the Black Demon. When Merry comes to understand what's happened at Wareham, she begs the remaining residents to keep her identity secret and sets about repairing the damage wrought at Warham, helping Garron restore order in his lands. Merry is a playful and headstrong young girl who is unschooled in the ways of love, and as Garron's interest in her begins to rise, he questions where this girl has some from and what she is doing ruling the kingdom beside him. But Merry and Garron's new found peace and happiness aren't without obstacles. The faceless Black Demon is still unidentified and on the loose, and Merry's mother, rumored to be a powerful witch, is still ruthlessly searching the countryside for her daughter. The Valcourt Heiress is a delectable romp where historical fiction shares the spotlight with fantasy, melding together to form a tale of both high adventure and taut intrigue.

Once again, I made the mistake of judging a book by its cover. It happens all too frequently that I dismiss a book out of hand because the cover doesn't fit my parameters of what I think I should be reading. And looking at this cover, I expected it to be a bodice-ripping romance that would hold little interest for me. After reading the book, I have two points to make. The first is that I need to be a little more open-minded and less judgemental about the types of books I read, and the second (and I feel more important) is that publishers really need to work on more successfully matching the covers of their books to the material inside. This book has nothing even remotely to do with the design on the cover. There is never even a scene in the book like the one depicted on the cover. Publishers, stop doing this to us! You lose readers this way! Okay, I'll stop with the ranting and get on to the reviewing.

I hadn't been expecting it but this book was a lot of fun to read! Coulter has a way of interspersing her action sequences among the more mild and introspective scenes that I really enjoyed. This tactic made the writing feel very smooth and had the effect of making the books feel very pleasingly layered. A lot of the character creation was done in a progressive way as well, so it felt that as I was reading, I was coming to know more and more about the people who populated the book. Instead of having everything thrown at me all at once, I gradually got to feel more and more comfortable with the characters and all their habits and nuances. I especially liked the budding relationship between Merry and Garron and felt that it also evolved in a pleasing and unique way. It's not often I read books that heavily feature romance, but I kind of felt that the romance between these two characters was almost slipped in casually, and instead of being the prime focus of the book, it came off as a satisfying undercurrent.

One of the things I really liked was the continuing intrigue the Black Demon provided. Coulter had a way of reaching back and pulling this storyline off the back burner several times and bringing it into sharp relief throughout the tale, giving the book more than a hint of mystery and suspense. I also enjoyed that the book had some magical and fantastical elements to it as well, and really, although this wasn't a straight fantasy or mystery novel, it incorporated a lot of diverse elements into the story, making it a bit difficult to house under a a specific genre. It was all very finely wrought and in a way it took the best parts of each genre and formed a thrilling and inviting whole. I confess to being very engrossed with the rebuilding of the castle as well, and the logistics of making soap and fashioning furniture were very appealing to me. Maybe this is because I tend to be enamored of the day-to-day practicalities of this time period, but whatever it was, it kept me entertained.

Another thing I liked was that the pacing of the story was so solid and tight. There weren't a lot of needless sections that dawdled on the scenery and weather and things like that. I confess I often find those things boring and sometimes skim over them. When I'm reading, I like meat and grist, and needless pontification about the scenery just ends up bugging me. Some would say those types of things set the mood and tone of the book but I find them to be a little exasperating at times. This book wasn't bogged down with those kids of details and I really liked that. It was straightforward and honest storytelling, and there was more than enough action and specifics to fill the pages without resorting to what the trees outside looked like. It was great to see that Coulter excelled so beautifully with her intended tale, and though I didn't think I would be, I was very impressed with it all.

I suspect this book will be the first in a series, and for that I'm grateful. I found it to be a delightful way to start off the new year, and much to my surprise, I ended up really liking this book a lot. It was an entertaining escapist read and the characters, setting and plot line kept me avidly turning the pages. This is another instance when I would advise you to ignore the cover and just dig in. It's a book that's great fun and I ended up enjoying it a lot! Recommended!

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine — 528 pgs

Book CoverWhen Osama al-Khattar, a Los Angeles software engineer, returns to Lebanon in 2003, it's not for a celebration or for a light-hearted visit. Instead, Osama has come to sit at the bedside of his seriously ill father, sharing stories with him during the final days of his life. As Osama relates his history and the history of his father and grandfather, he weaves miraculous and wonderful fairylike tales throughout his story. From Fatima, the woman who seduced a djinn, to Baybars, a lowly serf who rose to be one of the most generous and beloved leaders of the land, Osama shares it all. As he relates the story of how his parents met, or how his grandfather, a once admired storyteller called a hakawati, became who he was, or how his beloved uncle Jihad began to feed his love of stories from an early age, Osama spins fanciful and colorful yarns about heroes both mythical and strange. Scattered throughout these colorful stories, a picture or war torn Lebanon begins to emerge, from the casual bombings of the 70's to the barren wasteland that stretches across the countryside today. Paired with the Arabic fables and the modern day story of the bedside vigil over Osama's father, Alameddine treats his readers to a feast of otherworldly and impressive stories of yesterday and today.

This book is something my wonderful reading partner Aarti and I have wanted to share in a joint read for a long time. As the year passed and seasons turned, the timetable for this read kept slipping further and further away. With Aarti in grad school now, her reading time is limited and precious, and I was glad to find out that over her winter break she was excited about sharing this book with me. We both had a lot of fun with it and got caught up in the whorls of the mazelike story that Alameddine told. We decided to switch reviews this time around, and as such, here are Aarti's thoughts on The Hakawati. If you head on over to Booklust after reading this review, you can check out my thoughts as well!

I'm writing this review a couple of weeks after finishing The Hakawati, and I find that many of the character names and relationships and conflicts have slipped my mind. I don't remember all of King Baybars' slippery plots or Fatima's fantastic escape techniques or why Osama's aunts didn't get along. What does remain, though, is the sense that I was in the hands of a master storyteller. Rabih Alemeddine turns words into magic and takes readers, literally, on a magic carpet ride through history, blurring the line between fact and fiction and bringing all his characters to full-blooded life.

I personally preferred the Arabian Nights-esque stories much more than the modern-day family drama as related by Osama. Osama's family is fascinating and complex, but none of them caught my attention the way that Fatima and Baybars and Layla and Othman did in the stories. Which is interesting because in a way, the stories were populated by characters with fairly simple and straightforward lives and relationships. They knew their roles and played them and we never heard about domestic disputes. Instead, we were regaled with stories of heroism and deviousness and jealousy and how people must use their wits to prove their honor. In the modern day stories, we get none of that. Instead, we get realism which is (to me) not nearly as fair in its rewards system. Rather, the "real" characters in Osama's life are betrayed, hold grudges, don't seem to find much humor in life and live through countless military attacks.

One of my favorite things about the Arabian Nights, when the story is told well, is that it really is only one story. One plot line leads seamlessly into another, one character introduces us to the next and before we know it, we are in the midst of a completely different adventure than the one we started in. I love this method, and I think Alemeddine does it so well. Here, the stories are more distinct — you have to keep them straight in your head — but near the end, they all seem to converge in a perfect bow and it's amazing how he does it.

There are a lot of characters in this book, and many are forgettable (including, dare I say it, Osama himself). But there are others that are an absolute delight — Othman and his beautiful, intelligent wife Layla, Fatima and her determination to keep her family together, Baybars and his quest to get on the throne. I was thrilled every time I came across one of them in the book, as though I were seeing an old friend. And at the end of the book, I felt a little wistful that I'd not be able to accompany them on any more of their adventures or grow old with them.

But I can always open this book again and ride once more on a magic carpet, defeat a villainous magician, fight invading armies and bring beloved lovers back to life. And I think that's what I appreciated most about The Hakawati. It is escapist literature of the highest standard — taking you to a completely foreign world and then settling you gently back in your own life until you're ready for the ride again.

Friday, January 7, 2011

The Language of Baklava by Diana Abu-Jaber — 352 pgs

Book CoverIn this culinary memoir, Diana Abu-Jaber shares a candid and hilarious snapshot of her life amid her loving and maniacal Jordanian family. From her earliest recollections, Diana lives under the shadow of her father, the irrepressible and comical Bud, whose multiple dreams for the future clash uproariously. Bud longs to open a restaurant and is very tired of working at jobs that he feels are beneath his potential. He also longs return to Jordan to live amongst his multitude of crazy brothers, who goad each other and egg each other on into heightening feats of absurdity. Being the oldest of Bud's three daughters, Diana is the child who tests the waters. Though Bud is strict and militant about the opposite sex and schooling, Diana gives him a run for his money, pitting her fiery temper against his own. As Diana grows to adolescence under Bud's scrutiny, she travels from Jordan to America and back again, spending part of her life as a normal American girl living in the suburbs and part of her life among the many uncles, the strange Bedouin aunts and the myriad of street children who make up her Jordanian family. Peppered throughout Diana's life story are the recipes that both Bud and other family members have shared with her over the years, giving this very entertaining memoir a flavorful edge. Both uproariously funny and startlingly thought-provoking, The Language of Baklava is one woman's interpretation of the immigrant experience shared with flavor, love and gusto.

This was a book club selection. I thought it would be interesting to choose from a few food memoirs and see what we came up with. This book was the unanimous choice, and after I began reading it, I knew that I was in for one heck of a story. Aside from the interesting and delicious sounding meals described within the text, I noticed immediately how ridiculously funny the book was. I love foodie literature and will read almost anything that fits this description, but when I find a book that's as all-encompassing and playful as this one was, I really begin to get excited and greedily scoop all I can out of it.

Diana is a middle class American girl. But not really. Though she looks and acts like an American and her mother is a long-legged American beauty, Diana is really half Jordanian, a fact that Bud never lets her forget. From the time she's a little girl, the table is always heaped with delicious Jordanian foods and surrounded by a bevy of crazy uncles who seem to make it their life's mission to fly back and forth between Jordan and America. The brothers are all loud and boisterous, and Bud is the king of them all. They've come to America to make their fortunes yet when they get together, all they do is lament the fact that they are not in Jordan. Meanwhile, Diana is going to school and making friends with other American children and becoming the kind of child that gets under Bud's skin: a very American child who is sassy to her parents and doesn't want to eat the food he prepares for her. When Bud decides the family is moving back to Jordan, Diana and her sisters are in for some big changes.

Living in Jordan, the family is besieged by the uncles and Bud begins his hijinks in earnest. Fighting and carousing with the brothers and attempting to capture the dreams that eluded him in America, Bud finds that things in Jordan aren't what he thought they would be. Meanwhile, Diana is making new friends and new routines, and despite the fact that Jordanian ice cream bears no resemblance in taste nor appearance to its western cousin, she's happy and free to enjoy a life filled with games, children and laughter. Though there are some squabbles, everything seems to fit perfectly in place, until the day Bud comes home angry with his employment situation and decides that the family should move back to America.

When the family returns to America, things are much like they were in the past, but now Diana is a teenager and begins to torment Bud about boys and school, like any other American teen might. Though she likes being back in America, something has changed in Diana and now she can relate to Bud's ever-growing restlessness for his home in Jordan. Bud and his group of brothers are still lamenting the fact that they are not in Jordan, but Diana ignores this until the day when, as an adult, she travels there to finish her second novel. This time she feels that she has finally come home, and Bud, who has traveled along with her, is in top form, recklessly agreeing to buy a restaurant from one of his more swindly brothers. As Diana gets to know Jordan as an adult, she meets some of her more maniacal and ridiculous relatives, and learns how the seeds of Bud's personality were planted.

Not only was this a worthy memoir, but the inclusion of recipes made this book a superior read for me. I had a really enjoyable time learning about Diana and her family and quickly developed a soft spot for the ever-outrageous Bud. There are a lot of memoirs out there right now but this is one I think will stand out. Not only because of the story it tells, but because of the no-nonsense way it's rendered. Diana seems to be saying, "My family is nuts, take them or leave them, that's they way they are." I loved the unapologetic take on the lives of this Jordanian crew and will be interested in reading some of Abu-Jaber's fictional work as well. Recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Third Policeman by Flan O'Brien — 200 pgs

Book CoverIn this surreal and absurdist novel, a one-legged gentleman farmer is easily swayed into concocting the murder of a man believed to have a black box full of money. His partner in crime, the loathsome Divney, refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the black box for several years, ostensibly to avoid discovery. This forces the farmer to spend every waking moment in Diveny's shadow, for fear that he'll recover the box without sharing its contents. When the location of the box is finally revealed, the farmer goes off to retrieve it and discovers that old man Mathers, the man who was supposedly murdered, is actually alive and well. Trying to concoct another way of separating the box from his owner, the farmer devises a plan to go down to the police station to fill out a false theft report, only to discover that a world of strangeness and unpredictability awaits him. As the policemen revolve around him in nonsensical circles, the farmer discovers a secret plot involving the melding of bicycles and men (!!) that threatens to take over the countryside. He also learns that these seemingly benign men have the secret keys to eternity and the ability to create fabulous and wonderful inventions that defy the mind's capability to perceive them. Though puzzled by what the policeman present to him, he soon discovers he's in serious danger and his only hope for survival is a congregation of wandering one-legged men and a strangely female bicycle. Both uproariously funny and puzzlingly sinister, this work of comic genius written by Flan O'Brien was published posthumously in the 60's and is still as representative of the enigmas of life today as it was back then.

A few months ago I was at a party and met a wonderful girl by the name of Melissa who's studying literature in college. We got into a deep conversation about books and she told me she was taking a literature course based on the books that have appeared in the television series Lost. I was greatly intrigued by this class and wondered aloud why there were no classes like this when I was in college. As she was describing some of the books she was reading, she began to get very animated about this particular book. From what she told me, it sounded like a trip and a half, and like something that I just couldn't pass up. When she got to the part about the relationship between bicycles and humans, I knew I was going to read this book and it was going to be fantastic. I wasn't disappointed in the least and I can only assume that Flan O'Brien was a genius, not only in the way he creates this particular story but in its off-the-wall narration. It was one hell of a weird ride, but I must confess it made my top book of the year, which says a lot considering I've read some pretty good stuff.

This book is told through a deceptively simple style of prose. Though we know that the gentleman farmer is up to no good and is, in effect, a murderer, I couldn't help but get invested in his tale and come to feel for the man. When he finally goes to retrieve the black box from its hidden location, old man Mathers has some seriously disturbing and puzzling news for him. It's not very clear just what this news means, but the farmer is not only flummoxed and enraged, he's also scared and sets out to find a way to separate this box from its owner. The first sections of this book differed from all the rest in that most of it was easily comprehensible. Farmer, box and old man were eerily interpreted but pretty straightforward. Had this book continued on in this vein, it wouldn't have been anything to write home about. Luckily for me, the book picked up a lot of steam and became increasingly bizarre and funny as soon as the farmer stepped inside the police station.

As the farmer arrives at the station house, he realizes that its dimensions and attributes are physically impossible. This troubles him greatly and he begins to think that coming to the station to fill out a lost item form may have been a bad idea. He has no idea what's in store for him when he finally meets the first two policeman. These policeman are inordinately consumed with bicycles and question the man endlessly about them, a fact that the man doesn't understand at all. When a strange gentleman comes into the station and admits that his bicycle has been stolen again, the police mount a search for the missing bike and our perplexed farmer finds out that in this strange place, bicycles are a thing of intentional menace and danger. This confuses him and the reader shares his feelings of confusion and foreboding, knowing that there is much about the bicycles that we just cannot know. It's also very comical that there is so much malice and weirdness associated with the bicycles, and a lot of this story is utterly absurd and nonsensical. It's all a whirlwind of comic perplexity, and as such, the only thing I could do was let it wash over me with a sense of ludicrous wonder.

Meeting the second policeman puts the farmer at a greater sense of unease, for the man is an inventor of the highest order but his inventions make absolutely no sense in any way that inventions should. One example is the finely crafted box. This box is about palm-sized and is beautifully inlaid with intricate carvings and gold. As the farmer examines the box, he comes to discover that this box hold two hundred identical boxes of the same quality, each small enough to fit inside the other. The smallest box is so tiny that the naked eye cannot discern it, and this, in addition to all the other wild inventions, has a frightening effect on the farmer. As more and more inventions are introduced to the farmer, he becomes increasingly more afraid for reasons the reader can't understand, and decides that he will no longer speak to the second policeman for fear of what may happen to him. Some of these inventions are amazingly bizarre and mystifying and others are silly and nonsensical. The reaction of the farmer is one that confuses the reader and it's not until the end of the book that we understand why.

When the policeman reveal their knowledge of the farmer's misdeed, they decide to build a gallows and hang him. Despite the fact that they have shown him their fabulous inventions and the secrets of eternity, they must punish him for his crime, and set off to get things prepared. This is when the farmer remembers the deal he struck with the leader of a strange band of one legged men, and he calls to him for help. When a female bicycle comes to his aid, the farmer escapes to the hovel of the third policeman and learns the truth about all he has seen and heard. This third policeman is off the grid and is operating under the guise of secrecy. He reveals the real secret of eternity that is hidden to all but him and he shares all his secrets with the farmer. Now the farmer is deathly afraid and goes to seek out old Divney for help. But when he reaches Divney, things become frighteningly clear to him and the farmer realizes just what has happened to him and why he's trapped in this absurd and strange conundrum. All of this sounds menacing but it's also comically brilliant and unlike anything I've ever read before.

I know my review of this book doesn't do it justice, and frankly, I doubt if any review ever could. It was a strange amalgam of farce, satire and horror, and told a fantastical tale that kept me flipping pages to see what O'Brien would come up with next. Nothing was predictable or ordinary, and even the hidden nuances of the book were strangely surreal and wildly funny. A lot will probably never make sense to me, and in a way it reminded me a lot of Alice's time in Wonderland. It had the same feel of crafty nonsensicalness and was full of amazing and unorthodox components that made the whole wildly atypical and divergent from anything I have ever read before. If you're in the mood for something strange that will knock your socks off, this is the book for you! It's a book I will be pondering over for a long time.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal by Conor Grennan — 304 pgs

Book CoverWhen Conor Grennan graduates from college, he decides he's going to use his life savings to travel around the world for a year before getting down to business and finding a job. Though he's mostly a free spirit and just wants to see the sights, he'll spend the first three months volunteering at a children's home in Nepal. Grennan doesn't sugarcoat things when he admits that this plan took shape because he wanted to impress his friends, family and colleagues. But when Conor arrives at The Little Princes Children's Home in Nepal, his world begins to change. At first scared of the lovable mob of children that tackle him to the ground, Conor begins to interact with them on a deep and paternal level that leaves his heart wide open.

All these children are the victims of child trafficking. Their parents, living in some of the most remote and poor villages in the world, were tricked into paying a benefactor to house, feed and educate them, hoping that their children will have a better fate than they would have had they stayed in the village. After collecting the children and the money, this malevolent benefactor uses the children as bait to attract foreign donations, ostensibly for the children's care. These children are then abandoned at random villages where they often become malnourished and ill. When the directors of The Little Princes Children's Home eventually come into possession of them, they are finally safe and able to begin a new life. But it's not always that easy, as more and more parents are being lured into giving their children away to the evil man known as Golkka. Although Conor and his colleagues wish to reunite these children with their families, scores of children show up at the doors of the children's home and others like it. When Conor takes on a double mission to find seven stolen children and to reunite several others with their family and village, he steps into a world of danger and corruption. Will he be able to find those unlucky seven and reunite the others with their families before time runs out? As Conor gets increasingly invested in the children and their fates, his life begins to change and he comes to realize that his home is there, in the children's home, with the kids he has come to love and cherish. Though at times heartbreaking, this tale is an ultimately uplifting story about a group of children that were once lost but now have been miraculously found.

I haven't read a lot of human interest memoirs over the past year, but I was really excited about this one. First off because Grennan seemed to be such a regular person, such an everyman, if you will. It was refreshing to see that his reasons for the trip to Nepal were essentially selfish but ended up having such positive and far-reaching effects. Conor also has the distinct ability to be genuinely funny writing about the children he comes in contact with and a good portion of this book made me smile. Whenever there was a scene of Conor interacting with the children, there was bound to be a flash of revelation from him, and as he grew to know them all, they came to love and respect him as a sort of surrogate parent. Conor also works with a few other volunteers from other parts of the world and this small handful of people become the children's be all and end all.

It was sad to see how the parents were tricked into believing that by paying Golkka to take away their children, they would have a better life. Most of the children that were trafficked were simply meal tickets for the dangerous man, and after they had outlived their usefulness, they were relegated to a shack on the back edge of someone's property along with dozen of others to starve and become seriously ill. At times they were sold into child slavery, and finding these children became the toughest obstacle that Conor could ever face. The sad part was that even though Conor recovered a few dozen, there were countless others that he couldn't save. It was a sad testament that so many of these cases could have been avoided had the parents only been aware of what Golkka was really all about, and even sadder that it continued to happen, even after the story had ended.

One of the hardest things to digest was the fact that the parents of the trafficked children could not take them back into their homes, even after they had been found and rehabilitated. Most of the time, they lived such hardscrabble existences that it was impossible for them to take these children home again. Often they were content to leave the children in Conor and the other volunteers' hands, confident that they would have better lives then they themselves could have given to their own offspring. Though there were many reconciliations, most of the children ended up staying in the children's home because the community could not feasibly absorb them back into the fold. The children didn't seem scarred by this though, and most of them were just happy to know that their parents were still alive, as many of them had been told that all of their family had died.

I thought this story would be mainly given over to the trafficked children of Nepal, but to my surprise and delight, Conor finds a person to love throughout his mission to save the children. I really relished this aspect of the story because I believed that Conor was a really good guy and deserving of the love that he so obviously needed. The woman in question was a pretty rare specimen as well, and I believe there was something more than chance that brought them together. The children also found it gratifying that Conor had fallen in love, and grew to love his intended just as much as they loved him, which warmed my heart as well.

This was a very interesting book not only in the story it told, but in the way it was presented and the feelings that it evoked in me. It was funny, sad and timely, and had the added benefit of starring the enigma that is Conor Grennan. I would urge anyone who is curious about the plight of child trafficking in Nepal to read this book, and as an added incentive, a portion of the proceeds from this book go directly to the Little Princes Children's Home. This book would also make a great choice for book clubs. A very touching read, filled with altruism. Recommended!

Watch the trailer.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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