Sunday, February 17, 2008

Anansi Boys

By Neil Gaiman

This book is the sequel to American Gods but it stands on its own so it is not necessary to read the first to enjoy the second.

Fat Charlie Nancy has a problematic father. His dad is a joker, a fan of the practical joke. He made Fat Charlie's boyhood so embarrassing and painful that even though Fat Charlie is planning to get married he is not planning to invite his father. His father is the one who saddled him with the nickname Fat Charlie even though Fat Charlie isn't fat. When Fat Charlie hears that his father has died, he isn't exactly heartbroken. Still he goes to his dad's funeral and there he is told that his dad wasn't actually human. Fat Charlie's dad, Mr. Nancy, was a petty god, Anansi, the personification of spider, an African trickster god.
Seems like, back at the beginning, the animal god Tiger was in charge of all the stories. Tiger's stories are full of hunting, killing, blood and strife. Then Anansi gained custody of all the stories and stories became full of cunning and tricks and imagination instead. Tiger still wants to get the stories back and he hates Anansi.
Fat Charlie also finds out that he has a brother, Spider. Spider is everything that Fat Charlie is not. Spider has godly powers like their dad, Spider is cool, Spider is attractive, Spider gets everything he wants. Compared to Spider, Fat Charlie is a loser.
Spider shows up at Fat Charlie's and turns his life upside down. He gets Charlie in trouble at work and Charlie's nasty boss frames Charlie for the embezzlement the boss has been committing. Spider dates Charlie's girl and sleeps with her, something that she never let Charlie do.
Seeking to get Spider out of his life, Charlie makes a deal with the bird god and he gives her the bloodline of Anansi for her own. Foolishly he doesn't realize that this includes himself.
Charlie finds himself in jail for embezzlement and both Charlie and Spider are being attacked by hordes of birds every time they venture outside. A storm of birds swoops down on Spider and carries him off and he ends up being hunted by Tiger. It is up to Charlie to straighten out the mess, find his voice and discover what it means to be the son of the trickster god, Anansi.

This is meant to be a fun book, for the most part, and it is. Some of the funniest stuff is Charlie's comments about his girlfriend's mother. There are some folk stories featuring Anasi and Tiger which are pretty boring but I guess they are included to illustrate the two characters personalities and history. They might be interesting to people who like folk stories and mythology. The novel isn't all fun and games though. The part about Fat Charlie's murderous boss and Spider's struggles with the bird god and Tiger are pretty grim. Spider gets his tongue ripped out and is tied down for Tiger to kill. Despite these darker notes, this is a good, often funny and entertaining story, an enjoyable read.

New Word:
Lubricious: "Fat Charlie realized that he knew the man in his dream, knew him from somewhere, and he also realized that this would irritate him for the rest of the day if he let it, like a snag of dental floss caught between two teeth, or the precise difference between the words lubricious and lascivious, it would sit there, and it would irritate him."
Lubricious means offensively displaying or intended to arouse sexual desire; or having a smooth or slippery quality.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

House Made of Dawn

N. Scott Momaday

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1969.

After I finished reading this book, I thought to myself that many parts of it were like reading blank verse and that it seemed rather disjointed and without much of a plot. Then I read online that the book originally started out as poetry, then as short stories and finally it was all tied together in the form of a novel. So my impression of it was confirmed by the facts.

In the novel Abel has come home to the reservation to live with his grandfather in New Mexico after serving overseas in World War II. He is pretty much of an alcoholic. During the short time Abel is home, he kills an albino man who he believes is a witch. He is sent to prison (his time in prison is completely skipped over) and after getting out heads to Los Angeles. At first he gets a job, but loses it. He runs afoul of an abusive cop and gets the stuffing beaten out of him. He is found by a friend and taken to the hospital. When he leaves the hospital, he heads back home to the reservation just in time to take care of his grandfather who is dying. Tending to his grandfather and listening to him talk helps Abel reconnect with his spirituality.

Even though I am neither a fan of poetry or short stories, still I enjoyed reading this book. The descriptions of the landscape were wonderfully evocative. I lived in New Mexico for a few years and reading this novel brought the beautiful and stark vistas back almost as if I were there again. I also enjoyed reading about the ceremonies and the dances, especially the story of the peyote service at the Los Angeles church. I even enjoyed reading the poems and songs. I do wish I had a study guide when reading it as I didn't understand parts of the story, especially the business with the albino. Also, there are a lot of Indian or Spanish words in the story. Still, though a lot of it didn't make sense to me, I really liked it.
For a more thorough summary of House Made of Dawn see the article about it at Wikipedia.

New Words (not the foreign words):
Sacristan: the man in charge of the sacristy and the vessels and vestments. The sacristy is the room in which these items are stored.
Peneplain: A flat, featureless landscape formed by a long history of erosion. "He made camp that night far down the peneplain and saw the stars and heard the coyotes away by the river."

Monday, February 11, 2008

The Fellowship of the Talisman

By Clifford D. Simak

This story is set on an alternate Earth where it's the twentieth century, but people are still living like it was medieval times. Duncan Standish, son of a lord, is on a mission. An ancient manuscript has been found. This manuscript is a diary of the life of Jesus Christ, written in ancient Aramaic. This eyewitness account could be the definitive proof that Jesus Christ was a real person and could bring inspiration and comfort to a suffering world. The only person who can authenticate the diary is in Oxenford (Oxford) and Duncan takes on the task of conveying the diary to Oxenford. His mission is urgent as the expert is a very old man in poor health. Duncan sets forth with his friend Conrad, a guard dog, a war horse, and a little donkey to carry the pack.
In this alternate Earth, evil is on the rampage. A mysterious, malign group known as the Harriers is killing everyone, destroying the countryside and Duncan's path lies straight through their territory. The Harriers are strange monsters and hellish creatures who are not of Earth. Their presence on Earth is the reason mankind has not advanced.
Duncan and Conrad head for Oxenford, encountering many strange creatures and have many battles with the Harriers. They are helped out by creatures that normally wouldn't help humans, like Scratch the demon, Snoopy the goblin, Nan the banshee, who all hate the Harriers more than they hate humanity. Somehow, though often out-numbered they manage to prevail against the Harriers. Duncan believes that the magic talisman he found on their travels is protecting them against the Harriers. Perhaps the talisman holds the key to the destruction of the Harriers. Or perhaps not...
This was an OK read. I got a rather tired of the endless battle scenes. I also didn't much care for the ending, it was a bit of a letdown. Other than that, it was an OK fantasy story.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Lifeguard

By James Patterson and Andrew Gross

Ned Kelly is sure that his luck has just turned from bad to good. He is in love with a lovely woman, Tess, and she loves him too. Plus Ned's friends have come to him for his help in pulling off a sweetheart of a heist that will net them each a million dollars. What could go wrong? Everything.
The million dollar deal turns out to be a setup and the only thing Ned's friends get is dead. Ned escapes their fate but learns that someone has murdered Tess. Now Ned finds himself the chief suspect in the failed heist, and the murders of his friends and of Tess. The cops are sure they are on the right track and that Ned Kelly is their man. However FBI agent Ellie Shurtleff thinks the heist was an inside job and that Ned and his gang were just patsies. Together Ellie and Ned work to figure out who was the brains behind the heist and why his friends were killed and if or how the murder of Tess figures into it all. And who is Dr. Gachet?
I read the condensed version of this novel and I think it must have left some important details out because I found the story confusing and hard to follow at times, especially towards the end as Kelly's search for the truth zeros in on the elusive Dr. Gachet. Other than that, it was an interesting story. Ned Kelly isn't really a criminal, but when his friends come to him with a million dollar sure thing, it is easy to see how he couldn't resist.

Looking for Peyton Place

By Barbara Delinsky

What does Looking for Peyton Place have to do with the novel Peyton Place? Other than that it is set in a small New England town, not much. Peyton Place was an exposé of the secrets and scandals of life in a small town. The only scandal in Looking for Peyton Place is the mercury pollution and cover-up at the local mill. True, the heroine of this story likes to imagine that the author of Peyton Place, Grace Metalious, speaks to her and gives her advice. That is pretty much just a plot device to tie this story to the original novel.
In Looking for Peyton Place, the main character Annie Barnes believes, as does the whole town, that Metalious based her novel on their town. Annie believes her mother was the basis for the main character, Allison, in Peyton Place. Annie's mother settled down in her home town and raised three daughters, Annie, Phoebe and Sabina. Annie left home and became a writer and her two sisters stayed home. Sabina got married and works at the mill and Phoebe works at her mother's dress shop.
At the start of the novel, Annie comes home after her mother has died of a mysterious illness with symptoms similar to Parkinson's Disease. Annie finds out that her sister Phoebe is now afflicted with the same symptoms as their mother. She begins to suspect that some kind of toxic substance is at work when she discovers that many folks in town have gotten ill and some have died. Annie is pretty sure that the source of the pollution is the mill.
As she starts to investigate further, Annie runs into a lot of anger and resistance. The townsfolk are convinced that Annie is writing an exposé like Peyton Place. She is even threatened by the local police and runs afoul of Aidan, one of the sons of the mill owner. She had a bad experience with Aidan in the past. Nevertheless, she carries on the investigation, with the help of an unknown informant, whom she only knows as "True Blue".
Despite being stonewalled by most of the locals, Annie becomes convinced that mercury is the reason behind a lot of the illness in town. She also finds herself falling for one of the enemy, the mill owner's other son James. She really likes James, but is he involved in his family's cover-up of the mercury pollution at the mill? She wants to trust him but she finds it hard to believe he isn't one of the bad guys.
I didn't really care for this story. I thought it was predictable and dull. I didn't feel that the story really had much connection to its namesake and that the author just wanted to capitalize on the previous novel's notoriety.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Teta, Mother, and Me

By Jean Said Makdisi

Makdisi takes a look at the history of the two most important women in her life, her grandmother and her mother. Makdisi is a Palestinian Christian who lived through the upheavals in Palestine, Lebanon and Egypt. Her grandmother was born in 1880 in Syria. Her father (Makdisi's great-grandfather) was an Arab Protestant minister in Syria. Previously the family had been Greek Orthodox Catholic but he was educated at a Protestant mission school and converted. Makdisi's grandmother and mother and Makdisi herself were all educated in Protestant mission schools. It is Makdisi's contention that the skills and values communicated to herself, her mother and grandmother were intended to created modern women of them and they succeeded in turning the three women into typical examples of modern middle class women. But Makdisi feels that they were alienated from the traditional Arab culture that, according to Makdisi, values women's place in society more than modern culture. She says that her mother and grandmother became isolated and redundant once their duties of childcare were over: "She existed in an empty, undefined space created by the new structure of society, and it was a space that provided little comfort or status for women who had no husband and no property. Teta [her grandmother] was dispossessed of the high status traditionally granted to Arab matriarchs precisely by that society which she had helped to form." She feels that the 'veil' of modesty taught to her as a child, was a "veil far darker and more impenetrable, and far more durable, than that outer cloth which covered the faces of ... Muslim girls..." She says the mission schools created a "system which repressed, rather than liberated, women..." Makdisi's mother also felt betrayed by the modern society that was supposed to make her life better, and that "Mother wrote grimly that she did not think her children had appreciated her hard work, her hospitality or her contributions to their lives." Somehow this is all the fault of a Western society imposed on Arab culture by the racist mission schools, according to Makdisi.
That Makdisi doesn't like the West or its values comes through pretty clearly. That is understandable, given that she is Palestinian. It is not a very balanced look at the effect of modernity on Middle Eastern women. Plus, it is just not a very interesting book. The writing dry and dull and full of a lot of boring details, except about herself. Although she does talk about her childhood, Makdisi skims over her adult life. I found this book a chore to read and I was glad when I finally got through it.
For another review of the book, see Christianity Today.

Monday, February 04, 2008

The Confessions of Nat Turner

By William Styron

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1968.
In 1831, a slave called Nat led a rebellion in Virginia. Nat and his followers killed 57 whites; men, women and children. Nat was an intelligent man who learned to read at time when it was forbidden to teach slaves to read. Nat was very religious and prayed and fasted in order to become closer to God. He experienced visions which he believed were God leading him to rise up against slavery. He was convinced that the whites needed to be slaughtered and that it was the only way to obtain his people's freedom from white oppression. Sadly, his failed rebellion resulted in the revenge killings of hundreds of innocent blacks and the enactment of even stricter rules against blacks in the South, freed men and slaves.
William Styron was born in Virginia not far from the site of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. I suppose he was aware of Nat from the early days of his life and it is not surprising that he decided to write this fictionalized account of Nat's life and the rebellion he masterminded. It was perhaps presumptuous of Styron though. At the time the novel was published, he was criticized and called a racists by many in the black community. They felt his portrayal of Nat distorted the motives that drove Nat to take the drastic steps that he did. After reading this novel and reading about Nat Turner, I think they are probably right. I don't think Styron really understood what drove Nat to rebellion. A lot of what he wrote about Nat comes off more as fiction than as fact, especially the stuff about Nat's fantasies about white women. Also Styron completely omits the fact that Nat was married. In the book, he paints Styron as a frustrated enamored man lusting after a white girl. This book does present the bare facts of the rebellion but it seems off base in its depiction of Nat. However, if you look at this novel as just a work of fiction, then it is pretty interesting.
Nat's rebellion is an important event in history and illuminates the desperation of people who feel they have been dealt with unfairly and unjustly and seek redress even to point of murder of the innocent and the not-so-innocent.

New Words:
Quiddities: "'The essence -- that is, all the quiddities of detail are the same -- or at least I hope they are the same.'" Quiddity means the essence of a thing.
Casuistry: "'Merciful God in heaven, will such casuistry never end! Is not the handwriting on the wall?'" Casuistry means subtle but misleading reasoning.
Crepuscular: "I seemed to be walking alone at the edge of a swamp at nightfall, the light around me glimmering, crepuscular, touched with that greenish hue presaging the onslaught of a summer storm." Crepuscular means that time of day at dawn and twilight.
Majuscules: "'I stress and underline that word. I put that word in majuscules!'" Majuscules means capital letters.
Sedulous: "Though usually the sedulous snoop, I had paid no attention to the conversation, fascinated instead by Benjamin, wondering if this would be one of those evenings when he fell out of his chair." Sedulous means diligent.
Coffle: "The slave coffle had halted at the side of the road, not far below the clearing where the wagon trace began." Coffle means a line of slaves or prisoners chained together.
Calcimine: "I heard the ladder make a faint tap-tapping as they set it against the side of the house and quickly I tested it for balance, gripping it tight by a chest-high rung, then without a word began my climb up the side of the house, past the newly whitewashed clapboard timbers that hurt my eyes in a calcimine lunar glare." Calcimine means whitewash.

Sunday, February 03, 2008

Heart of Stone

By C.E. Murphy

Margrit Knight is a young lawyer who likes to take chances. One chance she loves taking is going for a run through Central Park after dark. She is a fast, strong runner and she figures she can outrun any would be assailants. She is more than a little perturbed when a strange man has the audacity to speak to her as she is jogging. She then finds out that a man matching his description is a suspect in the murder of a woman in the park. He next approaches her at a dance club, startling her badly. But before she can summon help, he vanishes. The cops, including her on again, off again boyfriend Tony, can't figure out how he managed to get out of the club without appearing on the security cameras. Still at the club, after the police have left, the man, Alban Korund, again approaches her and claims that he was not the murderer and that he needs her help. Before he can say much more, Tony shows up and scares him off.
Margrit gets involved in a squatter case that sets a powerful man against her. This man sends an assassin after Margrit but Alban swoops in and rescues her. She is knocked out and Alban carries her off to his apartment. Once she awakens, he reveals the that he isn't human, he's a gargoyle. He can switch back and forth between looking human and looking stony. He's big and strong and fast and he has wings and can fly, but only at night. During daylight, he is changed to real stone and frozen that way till sundown. And he still wants Margrit's help in proving his innocence.
In the course of their investigation, Margrit learns that, before humankind, there were five races of beings; dragons, vampires, djinn, selkies, and gargoyles. These "old races" are all in decline because of humanity. In fact, the woman who brought the squatter case to Margrit is one of the old races, a selkie. The man who owns the building concerned turns out to be a vampire. His hired guns who tried to run over Margrit are a dragon and a djinn. Seems like there is a lot going on in New York that humans are completely unaware of.
A lot of this book didn't make much sense to me. Why would a powerful property owner, a Donald Trump kind of guy, bother to have some small-time lawyer killed just because she was trying to get an injunction against have an old building torn down? If Donald Trump, or any developer, killed everyone who sued them, the bodies would be knee deep. It was also rather contrived that Margrit would be approached by a selkie at the same time she was introduced to the gargoyle. Another thing that bothered me was that the sexual tension between Margrit and the gargoyle, Alban, is never resolved. I figure it is a hook to draw the reader into the second novel, House of Cards. Although there are few minor threads left hanging, the main one is that Alban and Margrit never get together, even though Margrit's tongue is practically dangling on her chest every time she and Alban are in the same room. I just didn't find this first book in this trilogy, titled The Negotiator, that interesting.

A Thousand Splendid Suns

By Khaled Hosseini

Miriam is born in 1959 into a hard life in Afghanistan to a bitter and unhappy woman. Her mother is angry at Miriam's father, because, when she became pregnant, instead of marrying her, he set her up in a little hut on the edge of town. She and Miriam live as outcasts. Miriam's mother tries to teach her daughter the facts of life for women: "Like a compass needle that points north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always." And, "It's our lot in life, Miriam. Women like us. We endure. It's all we have." Despite this, Miriam loves her father desperately. When the Disney cartoon "Pinocchio" comes to town, Miriam wants to see it so badly she runs away from her mother and goes to her father's house in town. He refuses to see her and won't even open the door. She spends the night sitting in front of the door and in the morning she is taken home by her father's driver only to discover her mother has killed herself in her absence. Her mother was sure her daughter had abandoned her forever. Miriam's father finally takes her into his home, but only for a few weeks. He arranges for her to marry a shoemaker from Kabul. The shoemaker, Rasheed, is a widower and much older than Miriam. He wants to get married again because he wants a son. Miriam gets pregnant many times, but always miscarries. Her life with Rasheed is miserable. He blames her for the miscarriages and he beats and belittles her.
In the neighborhood where Miriam lives is a beautiful girl named Laila who has a crush on a boy, Tariq. Tariq's family leaves Kabul when the civil war makes life there dangerous. He says goodbye to Laila and they have intercourse. Laila's family also decides to leave, but are killed in a bomb blast. Laila survives and is taken in by Rasheed and Miriam.
Rasheed is lusting after Laila and wants her to marry him. Rasheed knows she is in love with Tariq so he arranges for a man to come and tell Laila that Tariq is dead. Laila has no one she can turn to and she knows she is carrying Tariq's baby. So she agrees to marry Rasheed. At first, she and Miriam don't get along because Miriam resents her. Laila gives birth to a baby girl and Rasheed is angry and disappointed.
Laila and Miriam become allies against Rasheed and they try to flee Kabul and escape his terrible abuse. They are caught and returned to him and he punishes them cruelly. Later, Laila finally gives birth to a boy, but Rasheed never forgives her for trying to escape him.
Hard times come and money is scarce. Rasheed forces Laila to put her little girl in an orphanage. This crushes Laila and Miriam, they both love the little girl dearly. Then one day, Tariq shows up, looking for Laila. Laila's son tattles to his father about Laila's male visitor and Rasheed goes ballistic. Laila and Miriam are in a fight for their lives.
I found this book very griping and well worth reading. It is a revealing look at life in Afghanistan in a society that views women as property whose only function is to produce and rear children. Although I was aware of the bare facts of life for women under the brutal and repressive Taliban, still it was fascinating reading about the lives of these two women. I really enjoyed this book.
For a more complete summary of the novel, visit Wikipedia.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Fixer

By Bernard Malamud

This book won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1967.

This is a political novel, detailing the imprisonment of a Jewish man wrongly accused of killing a boy. It is set in Russia in the early 1900s, shortly before the Russian revolution. It is a story of prejudice and antisemitism. It is also based on the true story of Menahem Mendel Beilis.
Beilis worked in a brickyard and he was a Jew, but not devout. He was accused of killing a boy in a ritual murder. Basically, the state had no case against him. As in Malamud's novel, the state decided to coerce a confession out of Beilis. To that end he was imprisoned in the worst conditions, treated inhumanely and accused of the most ridiculous crimes, all in an attempt to break his will and get him to confess to the murder rather than take the case to trial. The blatant antisemitism of the case attracted international attention and the outcry against the Russian regime helped bring Beilis to trial. He was acquitted and later immigrated to Palestine and then to the USA.
In Malamud's version, Beilis is Yakov Bok. Bok is also a non-devout Jew who works in a brickyard and he is accused of a murder he didn't commit. He is imprisoned for two years under terrible despicable conditions all to force him to confess to a crime he didn't commit. He knows he is innocent and he refuses to knuckle under. One reason he does this is because he wants to protect his people, the Jews: "So what can Yakov Bok do about it? All he can do is not make things worse. He's half a Jew himself, yet enough of one to protect them. After all, he knows the people; and he believes in their right to be Jews and live in the world like men. He is against those who are against them. He will protect them to the extent he can. This is his covenant with himself." Bok knows if he caves and signs the confession, it will be used as an excuse to attack and slaughter the Jews living in Russia.

This was a difficult novel to read. The antisemitism portrayed in it is disgusting and nauseating, especially as it is a true picture of antisemitism then and now. Bok spends two years locked away in solitary under horrible conditions. It was depressing to read about what he endured. I can't say I enjoyed the story and I especially didn't like its inconclusive ending. Still, I had never heard of Menahem Mendel Beilis, so in doing a little research for this review, I guess I learned about an important event in history.

For another review, see the NY Times review from 1966.

In a side note, I am currently reading the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Confessions of Nat Turner, a fictionalized account of a slave rebellion in Virginia in the 1830s. Malamud, in The Fixer has this to say about slavery: "There's something cursed, it seems to me, about a country where men have owned men as property." An interesting coincidence, I thought.

Something new: I thought I would list the words I came across with which I was not familiar. So here goes.

New Words

Meliorist: reformer. "That is how I feel, but having made that confession let me say, as you may have guessed, that I am something of a meliorist."

Peculating: embezzling. "He was arrested for peculating from official funds."

Shochet: a kosher animal slaughterer. "Before Yakov was permitted to leave the office, the Prosecuting Attorney, his face darkened by blood, reading from his notebook, asked the prisoner if he was related to Baal Shem Tov or Rabbi Zalman Schneur of Ladi, and whether there had ever been a shochet in his family."