Friday, March 28, 2008

The Kite Runner

By Khaled Hosseini

Amir grew up in Kabul, Afghanistan. His closest companion was the son of his father's servant. The boy, Hassan, was about the same age as Amir. Not only was Hassan Amir's closest companion but he also prepared his breakfast, cleaned his bedroom and took care of his clothes.
All his life Amir had ambivalent feelings about Hassan. Amir spent most of his time with Hassan, yet he did not consider him his friend. Amir went to school but Hassan did not and was illiterate. Yet even though Amir had book smarts, Hassan was no fool and Amir was aware of this and rather disconcerted by it. After all, Hassan was his servant and thus shouldn't be better than Amir at anything. But Hassan was better at lots of things. He was athletic, intelligent, kind, gentle, brave and loyal. Amir was also intelligent but he was not the athlete Hassan was nor was he as good a person. Another thing that bothered Amir was that his father seemed to approve of Hassan but seemed to be disappointed in his own son, Amir.
Every year in Kabul there was a kite flying contest. The boys would fly their kites and attack each other's kites and the last kite left flying was the winner. As the defeated kites fell to the ground, the kids would run after them and claim them for their own. Hassan excelled at running down and finding the falling kites, he seemed to know where they would land by instinct.
One year, Amir entered the kite contest and Hassan promised him that if Amir won, Hassan would run and catch the final defeated kite for a trophy for Amir. Amir won the contest and Hassan ran off to find the fallen kite. He was gone for a long time and Amir went looking for him. He discovered Hassan being sexually assaulted by a neighborhood boy that has bullied the two boys in the past. Amir hid and watched the assault but was too frightened to intervene.
Amir can't cope with his feelings of failure and guilt. He can't face Hassan knowing he did nothing to help him. So he framed Hassan for a petty theft and Hassan and his father leave. Amir's father is very upset that Hassan and his father won't stay.
When the Russians invaded Afghanistan, Amir and his father fled to the United States. Amir's father, who was an important and wealthy man in Afghanistan, could only find work at a gas station. Amir settled in to American life pretty well, going to college, working with his father selling stuff at a flea market to make a little extra money. He met an Afghani woman and fell in love and married. His father became ill and died. Amir and his wife try to have kids but can't.
One day, Amir was summoned back to the Middle East by an old friend of his father's. He told Amir that Hassan is dead, killed by the Taliban, and that Hassan's son is in an orphanage. He wanted Amir to get the boy, Sohrab, out of the orphanage. Amir agreed to go back to Afghanistan and rescue the little boy, and in the process faced his own failings and personal demons.

This was a pretty good book. The first part, about Amir's childhood and the last part, where Amir comes back to Afghanistan to rescue the orphan were more interesting than the middle part, where Amir is in America going to college and meeting the woman he will marry. That part was kind of draggy. It was interesting to get a glimpse of Afghani culture as portrayed in the novel. It is hard to understand how a group like the Taliban could ever appeal to anyone. Reading a book like The Kite Runner may not help one understand that, but at least it is an introduction to a very different society than what is in the West.

New Word
Caracul: Hardy coarse-haired sheep of central Asia; the lambs are valued for their soft curly black fur. "Baba was wearing a green suit and a caracul hat."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Sorcerers' Plague

By David B. Coe

Book One of Blood of the Southlands Trilogy

Although this book is the start of a new trilogy by Coe, it was preceded by a five part series, Winds of the Forelands. This new trilogy stands on its own but it is helpful if you have read the Forelands series. I know I had a bit of a struggle figuring out just what an Eandi, Mettai, Qirsi and Y'Qatt were. Also, the story of Grinsa and Cressane from the previous series is briefly touched upon and knowing about that might have helped in understanding their characters more fully.

In an Eandi village, a strange, reclusive, scary old woman packs up her baskets and suddenly departs on a trip. This woman, Lici, tells no one she is leaving. As the weeks pass, the villagers wonder if she is ever coming back. The rumor is that she has amassed a small fortune and the villagers are eager to search her tiny house for the treasure. One of the village elders, Besh, searches the house and finds a diary written by Lici's adoptive mother. In the diary he finds out the reason for Lici's strange ways and he figures out that Lici is on a mission of destruction.
Lici came to the village as a terrified child, refugee from a disaster that struck her home village. She was emotionally scarred by her experiences and, although she lived most of her life quietly, as she entered her seventies she put into motion a plan she had been working towards her whole life. Using her terrible magical powers, she has enchanted a lifetime's work of baskets. The baskets are cursed and anyone who has one in his home will shortly die. Taking her baskets, Lici has set forth to visit the villages of the people she hates, the Y'Qatt. As the villagers buy her baskets, which are beautiful and very well made, the curse is released and nearly everyone dies as Lici makes her way to the next unknowing village. Besh knows Lici has to be stopped before her actions sparks a war between the local peoples. He and his son-in-law set out on her trail.
Meanwhile Grinsi and his woman, Cressene have newly arrived in the area. Grinsi is a Weaver, a kind of wizard of great value to the local people. Grinsi and Cressene are captured by a nomadic tribe because Grinsi is a Weaver. They refuse to let him leave but he makes a bargain with them. He will track down whoever it is that is spreading what they think is a plague (but it is Lici's cursed baskets) and stop them and then the nomads will let him and Cressene go.

This was an OK book. The plot seemed pretty thin. It hardly seems to have enough substance to expand into a trilogy. I found the Grinsi subplot boring. In the novel's favor, though, I must say that it doesn't rely on the typical fantasy storyline. (You know, some implacable evil force using vile demonic creatures is trying to take over the world and a poor lad of humble origin, who is really a powerful wizard of royal blood although he is not yet aware of that, has to fight it singlehandedly, using his powers and nearly dying in the process. Oh, and dragons. Mustn't forget the dragons!) So that was refreshing. I should add that I am not really a person who reads a lot of fantasy novels and I am not a fan of them for the most part. Maybe someone who likes fantasy would like this book more than I did.

One thing that I really hated was the cover art. It is a picture of a very beautiful and young woman with thick, long curly black hair in a wagon full of enchanted baskets. It is obviously supposed to be Lici. Even though she is described as white-haired, feeble, old and wizened. I guess nobody bothered to tell the artist that Lici is in her seventies! The artist even got her eye color wrong, Lici has emerald green eyes not amber! Oddly though, in his Amazon blog, Coe claims to be "thrilled with the cover art for Sorcerers' Plague." (See Amazon.) I would think he would want her portrayed more accurately. He must be more interested in the sales an attractive cover girl will generate than in veracity.

New Word:
Osier: Any of various related species of willow, whose twigs are used in making baskets.

Monday, March 24, 2008

The Killer Angels

By Michael Shaara

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1975.

In this story, we revisit the battle of Gettysburg in 1863, looking at the battle through the eyes of the generals who led the fight. We are privy to the decisions, misgivings and hopes of the men who led thousands of young soldiers to their deaths. We are there as Lee consults with his generals and then makes his own, fatal decision. We are there as the Union line stands against the Rebel onslaught.

In this book, Shaara explains how Lee messed up and why. He looks at the actions of various generals, Rebel and Union, on the battlefield. He also explores their private thoughts and reflections, which gives the novel a very human touch.

When I was researching this book before reading it, I was dismayed at the subject matter. Battles, wars and strategy hold no charm for me. As for the details of the battles, I am no judge. But, despite the unappealing subject matter, this was a really good book. I was totally surprised at how enthralling it was and I learned a lot more about the battle of Gettysburg. The Killer Angels is a great book.

For a more detailed review of the book, see Plant's Review of Books.

New Words:
Guidon: Originally the flag that marched at the head and to the right of the first rank for the troops to guide on. Usually carried by a cavalry or artillery company and swallow-tailed in appearance. Carried by some infantry companies as flank markers. "It [the army] came out of a blue rainstorm in the east and overflowed the narrow valley road, coiling along a stream, narrowing and choking at a white bridge, fading out into the yellowish dust of June but still visible on the farther road beyond the blue hills, spiked with flags and guidons like a great chopped bristly snake, the snake ending headless in a blue wall of summer rain."
Enfilade: Gunfire directed along the length rather than the breadth of a formation. "The guns to the right, on the Rocky Hill, would enfilade the line."
Vedette: A mounted sentry or outpost. "He [Longstreet] found Goree, sent him off to Hood, telling him to send vedettes ahead to scout the ground."
Napoleon: A smoothbore, muzzle-loading, 12-pounder cannon, used by both sides in the Civil War. "The line was a marvelous thing to see: thousands of men and horses and the gleaming Napoleons, row on row, and miles of wagons and shells."

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Optimist's Daughter

By Eudora Welty

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1973.

Laurel Hand comes home from Chicago to Mississippi when her father needs to have eye surgery. He has a torn retina and after the surgery he will be confined to a hospital bed for several weeks and he has to keep absolutely still or his eye may not heal.
Laurel's mother Becky died years ago and her father remarried to a woman Laurel's age, Fay. Fay is shallow and selfish and she regards Laurel and Laurel's dead mother Becky as her rivals.
After the surgery, while Laurel's father, Judge McKelva, lays motionless in bed, Fay complains that she is missing the Carnival. Always, her first thought is for herself.
Judge McKelva starts to decline. He becomes remote and somewhat unresponsive to his wife and daughter. Laurel sits at his bedside reading to herself as he doesn't seem to want her to read to him. Laurel thinks that "her father seemed to be paying some unbargained-for price for his recovery...his face looked tireder every morning."
One night, Fay gets fed up with the Judge's unresponsiveness and tries to give him a good shaking, as she says later, "I tried to make him quit his old-man foolishness. I was going to make him live if I had to drag him!" He dies shortly thereafter. Laurel feels that Fay caused his death by shaking him like she did.
The Judge's body is taken to his house and all the friends and relatives stop by to pay their respects. Fay's family also shows up, coming all the way from Texas. In the novel, they are supposed to be lower class people than Laurel's people. They just seemed like ordinary folks to me, no worse or better than most.
After the funeral, Fay decides to go home for a visit for a week leaving Laurel alone in the house, the house that Judge McKelva left to his wife and not to his daughter.
Laurel goes through her father's desk and her mother's papers. She thinks about their marriage and about her mother's death. When she was dying, Becky felt, probably unreasonably, that her family was betraying her. The last thing she said to Laurel was, "You could have saved your mother's life. But you stood by and wouldn't intervene. I despair for you." Laurel also recalls her own brief marriage to a man who died in WW II.
Laurel had planned to be gone by the time Fay came back from her trip but Fay comes home early, perhaps because she want to confront Laurel, to establish her dominance and ownership over the house that Laurel grew up in. They have an argument that almost turns violent. But Laurel realizes that Fay will never understand her because Fay is "without any powers of passion or imagination in herself and had no way to see it or reach it in the other person...[Fay] could no more fight a feeling person than she could love him."

I just plain didn't like this book at all. The wake part of the book lasts so long that it was almost like being there, and not in a good way. A lot of the motivations of the characters are left unspoken, disguised in language that just sorts of hints at what is going on. I found this book tedious and overly subtle.

New Words
Feist: a small, nervous, belligerent mongrel dog. "She [Fay] had round, country-blue eyes and a little feist jaw."
Packthread: a strong three-ply twine used to sew or tie packages. "Laurel was halted. A thousand packthreads seemed to cross and crisscross her skin, binding her there."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Book of the Dead

By Patricia Cornwell

Number 15 in the Kay Scarpetta series, in this book Dr. Kay Scarpetta has set up her own lab in South Carolina after the Florida deal went kaput. She is still being helped by ex-cop Pete Marino, ex-FBI Benton Wesley, her genius niece Lucy and her old secretary Rose. Kay is part of the investigation of the murder of a teen tennis star in Italy. As the investigation proceeds, Kay finds that the murder is linked to a local murder involving a little boy who was starved, abused and his body dumped in a swamp. The murders are also linked to loony shrink, Dr. Self, a woman who has a big grudge against Kay.
In this story, Benton has asked Kay to marry him and she has agreed. This sends Marino off the deep end and he starts hanging around with a very nasty woman who is a real bad influence on him. Lucy and Rose are both revealed to have tumors. Lucy's is not fatal but Rose has lung cancer. Kay is trying to make a new life for herself in Carolina but her hostile neighbors are not making it easy.
As I was reading this book, I found myself wondering why the "good guys" never seem to have a pleasant word to say to each other. They are always having to deal with hurt feelings and misunderstandings and everyone is continually saying and doing the wrong things. Kay, Lucy, Pete and Benton all seem miserably unhappy. The murderer is the only guy who is having any fun in this story and it is never explained just what his problem is and what his obsession with sand is about other than that he served in Iraq and was traumatized by it. The story is disjointed, shallow and once again the killer is linked to Kay personally, this time through that obnoxious pill from Kay's Florida days, Dr. Self and through Benton's boss.

I just can't recommend this book. I don't think Cornwell likes her characters anymore as she never lets them have a moment of peace or happiness. It appears Cornwell is going to replace the Marino character with the new character, the handyman and gardener, Bull. Lucy has a brain tumor and no compunctions about doing whatever is needed which may be her undoing. Rose is dying. Looks like the whole cast of characters is headed for a shake-up, which may be a good thing if it inspires the author to get back to the quality that this series used to have.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Cancer Vixen

By Marisa Acocella Marchetto

This book is called a "graphic novel" but it is the true account of Marisa's bout with breast cancer, presented in the form of a comic strip. Marisa was in her early 40s and newly engaged to her now husband, Silvano Marchetto, owner of New York restaurant DaSilvano. She discovered a small lump in her breast. She later went to the doctor (not because of the lump, though) and the doctor noticed the lump. At which point Marisa began her cancer journey.
Following Marisa's story gives a clear picture of the options available to women facing this disease. Marisa decided to have a lumpectomy followed by eight chemo treatments and radiation and five years of the drug tamoxifen. She details the misery of the treatments, which was pretty much what I feared they were. I didn't know that neulasta, the blood cell boosting drug they give cancer patients, had such nasty side effects. Apparently it makes you feel like you've been beaten up by a gang of thugs. Marisa, who had hoped to have children, finds out that while on tamoxifen, she should avoid becoming pregnant. By the time she gets off the drug, she will probably be too old to conceive. Plus one of her ovaries shut down during chemo.

Marisa still manages to remain upbeat most of the time and that is one of the best things about her book. While dealing with a disease that is a killer and also with the effects of September 11, 2001 (she wonders if she was exposed to some toxic agent then that may have caused her cancer), Marisa still tells her story with humor and insight. Her drawings of emaciated New York fashionistas are a hoot!
Lots of info is available about dealing with breast cancer. Marisa's graphic book presents the information in an upbeat and funny way. I enjoyed reading her story and sympathized very much with her struggle. And I also enjoyed the glimpse of her fast-paced New York lifestyle.

For another review of her book see the NY Times.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Angle of Repose

By Wallace Stegner

This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1972.

Lyman Ward is a disabled older man, who, in order to occupy his time and also to help him understand himself and his family better, writes the life of his pioneering grandmother Susan. Lyman is divorced, his wife left him shortly after his surgery to removed his diseased leg. His wife left him for his surgeon and Lyman is understandably bitter. His son thinks Lyman should forgive and let the ex back into his life if for no other reason than that Lyman needs someone to look after him.
The grandmother, Susan, is a gentlewoman, raised on the East Coast and planning on a career as an artist/illustrator in the 19th century. She falls for an engineer from the far West, Oliver. Her friends fear she is throwing herself away when she marries Oliver Ward. Too bad for Susan that she enters her marriage with an unrealistic expectation of what their lives together will be. Susan thinks that she and Oliver will have to spend, at the most, ten years in the west, while Oliver makes his fortune. Then, as she sees it, they will move back east and take their place in the East Coast artistic, genteel society that Susan craves. But that doesn't happen.
Oliver goes from job to job, location to location, always chasing after the success that continually eludes him. At first, Susan goes happily along, but as the years pass she loses confidence in her husband. Her feelings become even more bleak as Oliver turns to alcohol to ease his disappointment and frustration. Feeling miserable, Susan becomes involved with her husband's friend and assistant, Frank.
The story weaves between that of Susan and her trials and that of her grandson, Lyman and his problems. Lyman looks at his grandmother's unhappiness and mistakes and tries to figure out what went wrong in his own marriage

The "angle of repose"is a geologic term, referring to the place where moving rock stops sliding downward, like in a rockslide. It is usually a precarious position, that the least change may cause to deteriorate. In Stegner's story it not only refers to a place of rest in the Ward's marriage, but also to the place of rest reached by Lyman in his slide downward in his life, his marriage and his illness. This is an interesting tale of two marriages in two different centuries, but concentrating mainly on Susan Ward. It is a rather long story but well worth the time it takes to read. Stegner based his story on the real life pioneer, Mary Hallock Foote. In fact, the letters in the story are taken from Foote's letters. Reading her letters made me want to read about her. Makes me wonder how closely Stegner's Susan Ward's life matched Foote's.

For two other reviews see ReadingGroupGuides and Grandpoohbah.

New Words:

Epicene: effeminate. "In the 1870s he was gentle, thoughtful, amusing, a spirit that glowed through a frail, almost epicene body.
Madrone: a plant, the arbutus. "In the night she may have heard the wind sighing under the eaves and creaking the stiff oaks and madrones on the hillside behind."
Charivari: shivaree. "'There was some talk about a charivari,' Oliver said. 'I gave them money for a couple barrels of beer. So now I'm going to take Sue home and barricade the doors.'"
Theodolite: a surveying instrument. "She could not bear to think of him down there in the blackness, dropping his thousand-foot plumb lines, gluing his eye to the theodolite eyepiece while an assistant held a candle close, and while the bob, suspended in water to make its motion minimal, moved in its deep orbit hundreds of feet below and the wire which was all he had to measure by shifted its hairbreadth left or right."
Tommyknockers: Welsh or Cornish version of a brownie or leprechaun. They live underground and wear miner's garb and are mischievous. "'Tommyknockers. Little people who go through the mine tapping at the timbering to make sure it's sound.'"
Wobblies: a Wobbly is a member of a union, the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. "I suggested the I.W.W. parallel to Ada, who being a miner's daughter knew about the Wobblies."
Argillaceous: soils which are predominantly clay or abounding in clays or claylike materials. "Decades later, over the mountain at Permanente, not too far from New Almaden, Henry Kaiser would make a very good thing indeed out of the argillaceous and calcareous that Oliver Ward forced into an insoluble marriage in the winter of 1877."
Proud flesh: the swollen tissue around a healing wound or ulcer. "Slack's, at the end of the steel, was as ugly as proud flesh, a gulch of shacks and tents and derailed cars, its one street a continuous mudhole, every square foot of flat ground cluttered with piles of ties, rails, logs, rusty Fresno scrapers, wagonbeds, spare wheels, barrels, lumber, coal."
Lacunae: gaps, blank spaces. "Mice have gnawed Grandmother's Leadville letters and created some historical lacunae."
Attenuated: weakened. "Anyway I'm not sure I could stand being attenuated in Mr. James's fashion. I was half glad he didn't appear, isn't it awful?"
Democrat wagon: a high, lightweight, horse-drawn wagon, usually having two seats. "Oliver met us with a democrat wagon at Kuna, the end of the line."
Meeching: Hiding; skulking; cowardly. "Vexed by the unpleasantness of her own laugh as much as by Mrs. Briscoe's absence, she looked over her shoulder, afraid that meeching pig-like presence might be behind her."
Fourierist phalansteries: Fourierism is a system for social reform advocated by Charles Fourier in the early 19th century, proposing that society be organized into small self-sustaining communal groups or phalanges. A phalanstery was the building designed by Fourier to house the community. See Wikipedia. "'Plato,' I said. 'In his fashion. Sir Thomas More, in his way. Coleridge, Melville, Samuel Butler, D.H. Lawrence, in their ways. Brook Farm and all the other Fourierist phalansteries. New Harmony, whether under the Rappites or the Owenites. The Icarians. Amana. Homestead. The Mennonites. The Amish. The Hutterites. The Shakers. The United Order of Zion. The Oneida Colony. Especially the Oneida Colony.'"

Sunday, March 02, 2008

A Concise History of the Middle East

By Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr.

Arthur Goldschmidt, Jr. is a professor emeritus of Middle Eastern history at Penn State.

This book does not cover the ancient history of the Middle East. It starts with the era shortly before Muhammad and goes on from there. Like it says, it is a concise history, but still contains interesting details that help liven up what is basically a college text book for beginning students of Middle Eastern history. The author's style is very readable and his explanations some of the best and most clear that I have read. He lays out the history of this complex area simply and makes the connections apparent. This book gives the reader a really good, basic understanding of the region. I wouldn't mind having a copy of this book on my bookshelf.