Friday, November 30, 2007

The Septembers of Shiraz

By Dalia Sofer

What was it like to be a wealthy Jew in Iran after the fall of the Shah and the rise of the Islamic totalitarian regime? Isaac Amin and his wife Farnaz and their young daughter Shirin are living the good life when it all comes crashing down when Isaac is arrested and thrown into prison. His crime? Well, truly his crime is being a wealthy Jew. His alleged crime is that he is spying for Israel. This is based on the fact that he has traveled to Israel a few times in the past and that is proof enough of his guilt to the intolerant religious fanatics running Iran after the fall of the Shah.
Isaac is a self-made man. He father was a cold and indifferent man and an alcoholic. Isaac built his business from the ground up. He and his family have lived well, traveling to Europe, owning a vacation home; he drives a Jaguar.
At the start of the novel, Isaac is suddenly arrested and imprisoned. He is interrogated and tortured when he refuses to admit to being a spy.
His wife, Farnaz, doesn't even know where her husband has been taken. She visits the local prisons trying to track her husband down. She is never permitted to see him. His brother, who is a bootlegger, comes to Farnaz for money so that he may flee the country as he is afraid he will soon be arrested too. He is not the only one anxious to escape. All the time Farnaz hears of people who are sneaking out of Iran. All the time she hears of people who have been arrested on the slightest of pretexts and executed. A talented pianist friend is arrested and murdered. His crime: he played the piano for the Shah.
While Isaac is suffering under harsh treatment in prison, his employees take advantage of his absence to loot his business and steal his assets. Farnaz catches them in the process and tries to stop them. She pleads with them and asks them why they have turned against the man who gave them good jobs. Their response is to call her a "dirty Jew."
This is a very good story about a terrible, cruel regime and its destruction of a nation as seen through the eyes of a family subjected to its excesses. Although it is a work of fiction it tells the truth about Iran and religious intolerance. It's a must read for anyone interested in the Middle East.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

By J.K Rowling

The last and final installment of the saga of Harry Potter and his arch-enemy, Lord Voldemort, aka Tom Riddle. In this story, Harry and his best friends Ron and Hermione set out in search of the horcruxes, the items in which Voldemort has planted bits of his soul, which make it impossible to kill him. Not only do they have to find the horcruxes, a task given them by their deceased head master, Dumbledore, but they must also destroy them, not an easy thing to do.
At the start of the novel things are not good for those who oppose the Death Eaters, Voldemort's followers. The Death Eaters have managed to infiltrate the halls of government and Dumbledore's killer, Snape, is now head master at Hogwarts school.
Harry Potter is wanted for questioning in the death of Dumbledore as Potter was seen leaving the scene of the crime in the previous novel. And witches and wizards who come from muggle (non-magical) families are under attack as "thieves" of magic.
Harry and his friends set out to do the task Dumbledore had given them, and they decide not to attend their last year at Hogwarts. Now that Harry is seventeen he is considered an adult and he is not required to attend school any longer.
While on their search for the horcruxes, Harry and company find out about the Deathly Hallows, which turn out to be three objects, one of which Harry already owns, the invisibility cloak. The other two are the elder wand and a stone that can bring the dead back to life. All three items belonged originally to Death himself.
Harry becomes entranced by the idea of the Deathly Hallows, especially the magic stone because he wants desperately to have his parents and his guardian, Sirius, back in his life again. He even thinks of giving up the search for Voldemort's horcruxes and looking for the three items instead. But the untimely death of a very good ally gets him back on track and makes him put aside his doubts and rededicate himself to destroying Voldemort.
Harry realizes that Voldemort must have hidden one of the horcruxes at Hogwarts because Hogwarts was a very special place to Tom Riddle, Voldemort. So the last actions of the book take place at the familiar stomping grounds of Hogwarts. A long battle takes place between Harry and his allies and Voldemort and his supporters. The struggle leaves many dead including some important characters, people close to Harry. Harry, of course, has to confront Voldemort and he does so unarmed, ready to die for the cause if need be.
I enjoyed the story, more than I did some of the Potter stories. This novel is not fun, like the first few Potter stories were. In this story, Potter has to face the facts that Dumbledore was a human and flawed and that Snape is also not the man Potter believed him to be. Potter also learns to accept his destiny and to face it like a man.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Death in the Family

By James Agee

James Agee was only 6 years old when his father was killed in a car crash. In this novel, he revisits that time in a fictionalized form. James Agee also died suddenly, of a heart attack at age 45 in 1955, leaving his very young children without their father. This last novel of his was published posthumously and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction for 1958.
The first part of the novel is a prose poem called Knoxville: Summer 1915.
I am not a fan of prose poems and I found this section repetitive and sort of irritating, especially as the author goes on and on about the watering of the grass.
The subject of the novel is plainly stated in its title, A Death in the Family. The father has to travel to another town because his father is very ill and may be dying. On his way back home after seeing his father, the man is killed in a car crash, just like Agee's own father. The rest of the story is about how the man's family, his wife and two small children, react to his death. The story only covers a few days and ends on the evening the man is buried. There is a schism within the family, the man who died and the mother's father and brother are essentially not religious, but the mother and her sister and mother are. Some of the story deals with the schism. A lot of it concerns the dead man's little boy and his thoughts and actions as related to losing his father.
If this wasn't a Pulitzer Prize winner I would have never picked it to read. This is not the sort of story I care for, this meditation in loss. I don't care for introspective subjects and especially I don't care for stories about religion.
This is not to say this is a bad novel. I can see where many readers would enjoy and appreciate it. I am sure it is a very worthy book. I am just glad I never have to read it again. :)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Odd Thomas

By Dean Koontz

I first became acquainted with Odd Thomas in Koontz's third novel about Odd, Brother Odd. I didn't particularly like that novel and so I was not planning to read any more books by Koontz.
Oddly, though, before I read Brother Odd, I had seen mention of Koontz's character Odd Thomas and decided to read the book, Odd Thomas, as it sounded intriguing. So I put in a request for the book at the library. Years went by and I forgot about the request.
Then a few weeks ago the library informed me that my requested book was in. I didn't know what book they were referring to and was surprised that it was Odd Thomas. Well, since they went to the trouble to fill my years-old request, I decided to go ahead and read it.
So, since some of what I said about Brother Odd applies here also, I will quote from my review:
"It's about a young man named Odd Thomas. He ended up with the name Odd because of a typo on his birth certificate; he was supposed to be named Todd. But the name Odd fits him better because, to paraphrase the movie, he sees dead people.
Ghosts appear to Odd when they need his help dealing with the baggage from their lives that is preventing them from crossing over and entering eternity. The ghosts can't speak, but Odd is very intuitive and is able to figure out what they need from him ... Odd soon discovers that something very sinister is happening when malign spirits that feed on human suffering begin flocking..."
In this story, the malign spirits, called bodachs, are flocking around a customer at the cafe where Odd works. This customer, whom Odd calls Fungus Man because he reminds Odd of a mushroom, captures Odd's attention. Odd decides he needs to take a closer look at Fungus Man because the collection of bodachs around him are portents of violent death in the near future. Odd investigates and comes to the conclusion that something terrible is in store for the town where he lives.
I didn't care for this book anymore than I liked the other Odd Thomas story, Brother Odd. For one thing, Koontz has nothing good to say about modern culture and in fact hates the way the modern world is trending so much that he declares that the bodachs are the twisted, warped essence of voyeurs from the future surfing back through time to feed and glut on the violence and suffering of the past. Also, although Odd can see the lingering spirits of the dead, in this novel, as in Brother Odd, the main part of the story concerns Odd's desire to deal with and prevent whatever impending violence that has drawn the attention of the voyeuristic bodachs. So what could be a look at spirits and ghosts and life after death turns out to be just another thriller-type horror story. If you like that sort of thing then you would probably enjoy Odd Thomas.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Beyond Oil: The view from Hubbert's Peak

By Kenneth S. Deffeyes

Kenneth Deffeyes is a retired petroleum geologist and a Harvard professor. He worked for many years in the petroleum industry.
In 1969, a geologist, M. King Hubbert, published his findings on the total quantity of oil resource. His conclusion was that oil production would peak and then begin to decline in about 2000 as world-wide oil resources were depleted. Deffeyes agrees with Hubbert, although he estimates the peak as occurring in 2005. Anyway, the point of this book is that it is now time to look to other sources for energy production as oil becomes more scarce and more costly.
In this book, Deffeyes looks at the sources of oil. He also has a chapter explaining how to calculate Hubbert's findings, but, as he explains, it is not necessary to read that chapter (chapter 3) or look at the calculations to read and understand the rest of the book. He also looks at oil resources that are difficult and expensive to exploit such as oil shales and tar sands. He looks at natural gas, which is fated to decline as it is another diminishing resource. He also talks about alternate fuels like uranium, hydrogen and fuel cells. He also briefly mentions ethanol, if only to point out that it costs more energy to produce than it produces and is only profitable because of government subsidies.
The whole point of this book is that industry and governments need to move immediately to begin implementing alternate energy sources as oil production is certain to decline in the near future.
This was a surprisingly interesting book, especially to me because I know nothing about this subject. I found it very informative. My only quibble with it is that it didn't go into more detail about non-geological energy sources, such as hydroelectric, wind generators and the infamous ethanol refinery. At the end of the book, the author advises that if a person wants to invest some money, he suggests royalty trusts. According to him there are at least 20 oil and gas royalty trusts in the USA. As gas and oil become more scarce, these trusts are bound to increase in value: a tip for the wise from an industry insider!

Monday, November 05, 2007

Andersonville

By MacKinlay Kantor

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1956.

Although this is a work of fiction, the Civil War prisoner stockade it is based on, Camp Sumter, also known as Andersonville, was a real place. It was a overcrowded outdoor prison for Federal soldiers captured during the U.S. Civil War. Conditions were so bad that more than 12,000 prisoners died during their captivity, mostly from dysentery, scurvy, and malnutrition. Conditions were so overcrowded and filthy that a small scratch or mosquito bite could become infected to the point of gangrene and death. The prisoners were not policed and conditions were so desperate that, as a consequence, the strong preyed on the weak. A photo of the prison camp is online at the Library of Congress: Andersonville.
In Andersonville, Kantor tries to give the reader a taste of life inside one of the most notorious prisoner-of-war camps ever. He profiles various inmates and details their struggles to survive, and in many cases, their failure to do so. He also shares the lives of some of the local people and of the prison superintendent, Henry Wirtz. Wirtz was the actual superintendent of the prison, and although he was merely doing as he was instructed by his superiors, as is pointed out in the novel, he was executed by hanging in 1865.
The novel starts out with local plantation owner, Ira Claffey going for a walk on his neighbor's land. He loves walking in this area because it is a beautiful, piny forest full of wildlife and birds. He is enjoying his walk, basking in nature when he comes across two men. He talks to the men and discovers that the beautiful forest has been selected to be the site of a new stockade. The many trees will provide the lumber needed to build this stockade and the stockade will be used to imprison captured Yankee soldiers.
The novel ends with Ira once again walking across the desolate and ruined land where the forest used to stand. Now the stockade is deserted and Ira remarks upon the relicts left behind by the now freed prisoners: a crude, handmade sandal; torn clothes and rags; a cooking pan fashioned from a sheet of tin. He reflects upon the defeat the South has suffered and he hopes that some day he and his fellows can learn to love and accept the government they tried so hard to resist.
This was a really long book, trying to tell a really big story. A story so big, that only small sips and samples could be attempted. The Claffey family provides the frame of the story, but even their story is rather shallowly dipped into. I found these small dips and sips a bit dissatisfying and I would have preferred a story that focused on a handful of characters and told their story with more depth.
But still, it is an amazing look at a horrible time in American history and well-worth reading for that alone.
This novel was written in the 1950s and I felt that it has a rather anti-black slant to it. Blacks are mentioned and usually a described in somewhat derogatory terms: "Pet could not count past the sum of her fingers, though sometimes she tried to add the sum of her toes; but this bothered her because she had lost one toe ... and she could not quite understand why she never seemed to have as many toes as she had fingers." "Coffee might understand but dimly what his master had been about, and why..." "The dumb affection and faith they gave to Ira stemmed (much of it) from an awareness that he could do many of the same tasks they performed, and often do them better." "When he was young he had walked through an area in New York ... where besotted people white and black sprawled actually in the swill of the roadway, and wild eyes rolled in kinky heads thrust, slathering, cursing inarticulately, from windows." I sort of got the feeling that Kantor believed that maybe black people would have been better off if kept in slavery! He certainly paints them as inferior to whites in their understanding and intelligence and more suited to life as servants or field hands than to anything else. But that's just how he came across to me.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Lean Mean Thirteen

By Janet Evanovich

Thirteenth in the Stephanie Plum series, this one finds Stephanie under suspicion for the disappearance of her ex-husband, Dickie. Stephanie pays Dickie a visit at his office and she goes ballistic when she sees a photo of her archenemy, Joyce, on Dickie's desk. She has to be dragged off Dickie and shortly there after Dickie vanishes and of course Stephanie is the number one suspect.
With the help of the enigmatic Ranger, Stephanie investigates Dickie's disappearance and also brings in a couple of bail skips, including a taxidermist who specializes in exploding rodents and a roving tax accountant slash grave robber. Grandma Mazur makes a few appearances as do Lula and Joe Morelli, all recurring characters in the series.
I enjoyed this story, although not as much as I have the earlier novels. These later novels just do not have as light a touch as the first ones in the series have. But this was still a good read.