Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Missing Peace

By Dennis Ross

Dennis Ross was the chief US negotiator in the Middle East for 1988 to 2001 under George Bush & Clinton. This is his inside look at trying to find peace between Israel and the other countries of the Middle East.
This is a really long book, more than 800 pages in pretty small typeset. It took me about six weeks to finish it, and, to be honest I just skimmed about the last 100 pages. I just got fed up. Not with the book but with the events depicted. Talk about an exercise in frustration! First they agree then they change their minds. Or one side is ready to deal and the other side gets cold feet. One side wants 11% the other wants 13%. Ross must have the patience of a saint. And after all his years of working for peace look at where we are now!
If you are interested in this subject, this inside look at the negotiations is very informative, though a bit wordy. For a better review of this book, check out Glenn Frankel's review in the Washington Post. Amazon also has his review and others.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

So Big

By Edna Ferber

Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1925.
I read this book some years ago and didn't remember much about it except that it was about a woman and her son. I guess it didn't make much of an impression on me. So I decided to read it again.
Selina Peake lived with her father till he died when she was 19. He'd been a gambler and when things were good, they lived the high life with nice clothes, dinners out and trips to the theater. He even managed to put enough money aside to have Selina educated at a private school. But when he died, things weren't going so well and Selina was left with little money. She had to get a job and she found one as a teacher in a country school.
She soon found herself married to a farmer, a large, practical, dull man. She truly loved Pervus DeJong even though they had nothing in common. Selina loved beauty and saw it everywhere, even in the commonplace crops grown by the locals. When she had a son, Dirk, her fondest wish for him was that he too love and live for beauty. She wanted him to live a creative life and she definitely didn't want him to be a farmer like his dad. (So Big is a nickname she gave Dirk when he was a toddler.)
Pervus dies and Selina has to run their little truck farm by herself. Which is ok because it turns out that Selina is a better farmer than her husband and with the help of a friend from school whose father makes Selina a loan, she is able to make the farm profitable enough to send her beloved son Dirk to college where he decides to study architecture. This thrills Selina because she sees her son embarked on a fulfilling, creative, beauty-filled life.
Gradually Selina comes to admit to herself that her son is a chip off the old block and has no more feeling for beauty and art than did his dullard father. She is disappointed and the novel ends with poor Dirk finding out that he is a clod in his mother's eyes. He is crushed to discover that although she loves him dearly he is a huge disappointment to her.
What a bitch. She has this handsome, kind, polite, well-liked, successful son and that's not good enough for her. His terrible crime? He's not artistic. What a bitch!
I think that Edna Ferber was disturbed. This is such a mean-hearted story. She sneers at everyone in it. She sneers at the stoic Dutch farmers and their kids, she sneers at the wealthy businessmen and their families, she sneers at the office girls in her son's office. And she sneers at Dirk, a perfectly lovely man whose only failing is that he is not artistic. There is something really wrong with a person like that.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Twelve Sharp

By Janet Evanovich

A Stephanie Plum novel in which you find out a bit more about the mysterious Ranger, a cool dude who does the more dangerous bond skips for the bond place Stephanie works for. Ranger and Stephanie have a history and, although she loves Joe, her cop boyfriend, she is still very turned on by Ranger, and he knows it. But now Ranger is missing and his wife shows up in Jersey looking for him with blood in her eye. She comes gunning for Stephanie, believing that she is involved with Ranger. Next thing you know the wife is dead and Ranger's daughter has been kidnapped and the prime suspect is Ranger. Stephanie gets back to her place only to find Ranger hiding out in her apartment. He needs Stephanie's help to clear his name and to find out who really has taken his little girl.
It's interesting to see Evanovich's development of the Ranger character, who has evolved from the macho man of mystery to a guy that has a family, an ex-wife and a young daughter. I do wish, though, that the Stephanie character would be more self-reliant and less in need of being rescued from the bad guys she keeps running into. Still, overall, it was an exciting and enjoyable novel.

Visions of Sugar Plums

By Janet Evanovich

A Stephanie Plum novel, with a Christmas twist, it starts out with a supernatural being materializing in Stephanie's little apartment. He is a studly looking fellow named Diesel who claims to be the spirit of Christmas. He never really explains what he wants from her, although he does like to make lewd innuendos; all he does is tag along with Plum as she chases bond skips. This time she is after an old toymaker called Sandy Claws.
OK, I guess this is Janet Evanovich's attempt to tell a Christmas story. All I can say is, she fails. This story makes no sense, it doesn't have a gooey moralistic Christmas ending and I never understood what Diesel wanted with Plum. Towards the end, you find out Diesel is also a bounty hunter and the guy he is after is the current beau of Plum's Grandma. So shouldn't the person he hangs around with be the old broad not Stephanie? This story just didn't work for me.

Full House

By Janet Evanovich

A new direction for Janet Evanovich, this story is a cross between a mystery novel & a romance. I should first say that I am not a fan of romances, I find them boring. It was in the mystery section so I wasn't expecting a romance novel. That is what I got, however, with a little mystery thrown in. I didn't really care for the novel. It was just too contrived. Billie Pearce, a respectable mother in her 30s, decides to take polo lessons. The polo teacher, millionaire Nick Kaharchek, can tell right away that Billie can barely ride a horse, much less play polo on one. He feels sorry for her ineptitude after the lesson is over and helps her dismount in the stable. Nick's old girlfriend is there too and makes it clear that she is still interested in Nick. After the old girlfriend leaves, Billie's horse steps on her foot and Nick has to take Billie to the hospital. See what I mean about it being contrived?
The mystery part involves a young cousin of Nick's who likes to blow stuff up and a pest control guy who can't seem to control the pests in Billie's house.
I read this book before but it made so little impression on me that I didn't realize it till I was about a third into it this time. I got the next in the series, Full Tilt. If it isn't any better than the first I won't get another in the series.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Birth of Israel Myths and Realities

By Simha Flapan

Simha Flapan was born in Poland in 1911 and emigrated to Palestine in 1930. From 1954 to 1981 he was National Secretary of Israel's Mapam party and Director of its Arab Affairs department. He died in Tel Aviv in 1987, the same year this book was published. In writing this book he hoped to sweep "away the distortions and lies that have hardened into sacrosanct myth." He examined what he described as seven myths about Israel.
Myth one: Acceptance of the UN Partition Resolution of 1947 was a compromise by which the Jewish community gave up the idea of Jewish state in the whole of Palestine and recognized the right of Palestinians to their own state, believing that the Palestinians would peacefully cooperate with the resolution. Flapan said that the reality was that it was only a tactical move in an strategy aimed a thwarting the creation of a Palestinian Arab state with a secret agreement with Transjordan and the ulterior motive of obtaining more territory for the Jewish state.
Myth two: Palestinians totally rejected partition and launched an all-out war under the urging of the mufti of Jerusalem, forcing the Jews to depend on a military solution. Flapan said there was more to it than that and the majority of Palestinians did not respond to the mufti's call for holy war against Israel and that many Palestinian groups made efforts to reach a compromise prior to Israel's Declaration of Independence. He further declared that Ben-Gurion opposed the creation of a Palestinian state and that fed fuel to the mufti's fire.
Myth three: Palestinians fled Israel (before and after its establishment) in response to a call by Arab leaders to leave and then return with Arab armies in victory and that Jewish leaders tried to persuade Palestinians to stay. Flapan said the truth was that the flight of Palestinians was prompted by Israel's leaders who believed Zionist colonization and statehood required the relocation of Palestinian Arabs to Arab countries.
Myth four: All the Arabs states united in 1948 to invade and expel the Jews. However Flapan found that the impetus was to prevent Transjordan & Israel from implementing their secret agreement. Abdallah of Transjordan wanted Palestinian lands to create what he called Greater Syria. The other Arabs countries opposed that scheme.
Myth five: The Arab invasion in 1948 made war inevitable. Flapan said that documents showed it was not inevitable because the Arabs had agreed to a last-minute proposal for a three month truce if Israel would postpone its Declaration of Independence. But Israel rejected the proposal.
Myth six: The newborn state of Israel was outnumbered and outgunned by its Arab opponents. Flapan said that was true only for the first four weeks of the war, at which point Israel received huge quantities of arms from overseas and that Israel's fighters were better trained and more experienced than the Arab forces.
Myth seven: Israel has always wanted peace but since no Arab states are willing to recognize Israel there is no one to talk peace to. Flapan said that from the end of World War II to 1952, Israel in fact turned down successive proposals by Arab states and by neutral mediators.
Flapan looked at each so-called myth and presented his arguments against them in this book. I thought some of his arguments were a bit of a reach and rather thin. But like they say, there is always two sides to every story and Flapan's book is very informative.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Able McLaughlins

By Margaret Wilson

Pulitzer Prize winner 1924.
Well, I really enjoyed this novel. I read it in one day. The main characters of this story are neither creeps or idiots. They are good, decent, likeable people and it's a real pleasure to share their world.
The story is set in the Midwest (Iowa, I think) during and shortly after the Civil War. The McLaughlins are Scottish immigrant farmers, adapting to a new life on the rich prairies of heartland America. The main character is Wully, the eldest son of John & Isobel McLaughlin, who comes home to convalesce. He is a Union soldier and was a prisoner of war till he escaped. While he is home he becomes reacquainted with his cousin, Chirstie. Seems like Chirstie has changed from the kid her knew before the war to a beautiful and appealing young woman. Wully falls hard and after they kiss in the tall prairie grass he is sure Chirstie feels the same. But Wully is a soldier and he is ordered back to the war zone.
He comes home a few years later in really bad shape, sick, starved and feverish. He lies in bed and all he can think of is Chirstie. The moment he is strong enough he rides off to visit the woman he intends to marry. But Chirstie appears to have had a change of heart. She acts as if he is the last person she wants to see. Every time he tries to see her, she is cold and angry. Wully can't figure it out. What is her problem? He sinks into a serious depression but decides one day he is going to find out what the deal is. He starts out by talking to her relatives and one of the people he happens to question is Chirstie's cousin, Peter. He blurts out the shocking truth about Chirstie.
Now all this sounds kind of sad and grim but somehow the story isn't. It is heartwarming and touching and the McLaughlins and the local people and the tall grass prairie are very much a part of the story of Wully & Chirstie.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Indians in Unexpected Places

By Philip J. Deloria

This book illustrates one of my pet peeves: false advertising. The cover of this book shows four goofy cartoon Indians in an old-timey car looking at cows and a little note on the cover reads, "We saw those cows that time. They were different from our cows back home at Pine Ridge." So the funny cover and the funny title promote this as a funny book. Wrong!
Turns out this is a serious look at Indians and their adaptations to technology. It's pretty dry reading and I just skimmed a lot of it. I mean, here is a sample of some of the text: "But when it comes to naming anomalies, even subtle and contradictory accretions of meaning will work to empower the broad, largely consensual categories that have consistently placed whites over Indians, men over women, capital over labor, and the normative over the exceptional." Sounds like something from the author's master's thesis. So to be fair to the book, I will just quote the blurbs from the publisher of the book, University Press of Kansas:
"Philip Deloria explores this cultural discordance to show how stereotypes and Indian experiences have competed for ascendancy in the wake of the military conquest of Native America and the nation's subsequent embrace of Native "authenticity." Rewriting the story of the national encounter with modernity, Deloria provides revealing accounts of Indians doing unexpected things - singing opera, driving cars, acting in Hollywood - in ways that suggest new directions for American Indian history."
"These 'secret histories,' Deloria suggests, compel us to reconsider our own current expectations about what Indian people should be, how they should act, and even what they should look like. More important, he shows how such seemingly harmless (even if unconscious) expectations contribute to the racism and injustice that still haunt the experience of many Native American people today."

Saturday, December 09, 2006

One of Ours

By Willa Cather

Claude Wheeler is a Nebraska farm boy right before the start of World War I. Claude is unhappy. He doesn't want to be a farmer. He yearns for something better, higher, more intellectual, exciting & stimulating. He feels estranged from his family. He doesn't really like his dad & his two brothers, they are too crass and materialistic. He loves his mom, but she is a devout Christian and he isn't. He hoped to find a better, more satisfying life when he went to college, but his parents forced him to go to a religious college instead of the state university. He gets a glimpse of the kind of life he is attracted to, but has to go back to the farm at his dad's insistence. Claude throws himself into farming but his heart is not in it. He is depressed and sees no hope for the future and pictures himself as a dead man walking. Then he get sick and a local girl visits him as he lies ill and Claude begins to fall for her. He pictures a life together with her, a life of love, companionship and passion and he asks her to marry him. But as the day draws near, it dawns on him that she is not the passionate, loving creature he fantasized. But he tells himself she'll change: of course, she doesn't. She's a cold fish and that's all she'll ever be. Claude once again sinks into despair and depression; his life is a terrible trap. Plus people keep pronouncing his name wrong: they pronounce it clod. (But how else is it pronounced?) This is a big deal to Claude, it is mentioned several times. It pains him to hear his name pronounced clod but he never tells anyone what the correct pronunciation is. This is the kind of weakling Claude is. He can't even tell people how to pronounce his name!
But guess what? He is saved by WWI! Yay! Let's go be a soldier and fight for what's good and right and splendid! Yes, now Claude feels his life is worth living!
I can understand Claude's idealism and excitement going off to France to see a whole new world. But I pity his naivete.
The part of the story set in Nebraska was more interesting to me than the part in France. I just skimmed the battle scenes as descriptions of fighting bore me. I was pretty sure what Claude's fate would be the minute he stepped on the troop transport ship. It's too bad Cather's hero wasn't man enough to tell his dad to get stuffed and go off to make a life for himself. Instead Claude follows his idealism to its predictable end.
This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. I didn't really care for it. Claude is just too big of a pussy for me to admire him. If he had had a little backbone in Nebraska he wouldn't have had to go to war to find himself.

Friday, December 01, 2006

Can't Wait to Get to Heaven

By Fannie Flagg

Welcome back to Elmwood Springs, Missouri! Yes, Fannie Flagg takes us on another nostalgic trip to Elmwood Springs, the home town I wish I came from. This story centers around Aunt Elner Shimfissle and her niece Norma. It really is a sweet farewell to wonderful, loony Aunt Elner. Aunt Elner is such an innocent, good creature you can't help but love her. She's a true saint, though she would probably deny it, remembering that time she fed ex-lax candy to the bratty kid who threw rocks at her cat! We lose Aunt Elner, but true to character, Elner manages to die twice. In between deaths she takes an elevator ride to heaven where she meets God. Or should I say Gods? Because God is Neighbor Dorothy & her husband, from Elmwood Springs old timey radio show of the 1940s & 50s. The hubby did all the technical stuff of creation & Dorothy supplied the beauty. Aunt Elner's heaven features candy striped zebras and polka dot squirrels, among other wonders.
If you liked the other novels featuring the folks of Elmwood Springs, then you'll probably enjoy this one too.

Alice Adams

By Booth Tarkington

This book has a really good message: be yourself; don't try to pass yourself off as something you're not. Maybe that is why it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922.
When I first started the novel, I didn't really get what Alice was up to. It took awhile before I figured it out. Alice is a young woman who is desperate. She isn't getting any younger and the eligible men just aren't coming around any more. She isn't sure what the problem is but her mother is. She blames it all on their poverty. Alice must buy into her theory because she is doing her best to portray herself as the daughter of a successful, prosperous business man. She meets a very eligible man, Russell, at a dance and every time she opens her mouth another lie falls out. Whenever she meets Russell she glamorizes herself & her family; she just can't admit that her dad is a lowly clerk and that the family is just getting by. She even lies about the tobacco she is buying for her dad, unwilling to let Russell know her dad can only afford the cheapest pipe tobacco, she spins a whole tale about her dad & his cigars. Naturally, Russell eventually wises up.
This book was made into a movie starring Katherine Hepburn in the 1930s. They changed the ending, I've heard, to one the studio felt would be more acceptable to viewers.

Daughter of the Middle Border

By Hamlin Garland

I came into this book with some preconceptions. I knew Garland had written some books about pioneering on the prairie so I thought it would be in the same vein. And given the title, I figured the main character would be a woman. Wrong! This book is about Hamlin Garland and his career as a writer. So unless you are a fan of Garland, give it a skip. Despite being a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1922, there is not much in it to interest anyone who is not really interested in him personally. It is certainly not about pioneering. Also, throughout the book Garland moans about being poor and about how depressing it is to be around old people, including his own mother & father. He must not have been too poor since he spent $1000 to ship his horse home and was constantly taking trips out west and moving from Wisconsin to Chicago to New York every few months. Made me tired just to read about it! I kept thinking, for God's sake, man, stay home! I never did figure out who the "daughter" in the title is...his mom? his wife? He never really says.