Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Floating Through France

Floating Through France: Life Between Locks on the Canal du Midi

Edited by Barbara Euser, I am lucky enough to be published in this Travelers' Tales collection alongside such wonderful travel writers as Larry Habegger, Linda Watanabe McFerrin and Joanna Biggar. It is a delightful gathering of travel experiences, reflections, emotions that come out of drifting along this beautiful southern waterway at only a few miles per hour.

Available in Spring!

Monday, December 19, 2005

The Caliph's House, Tahir Shah

Subtitled A Year in Casablanca, this book chronicles one man's purchase and renovation of an estate in Morocco. His tale of foreign home renovation and culture discovery is in the same vein as Peter Mayle's delightful A Year in Provence. In this completely different world than France (although they do speak French), Tahir Shah explores his own family history, ethnicity, culture and more. He contends with difficult employees, bad spirits, and an upside-down government system while making friends with a stamp-collector, a countess and some chamelons.

A brisk journey through the year, The Caliph's House is an easy read, but not without depth. Shah has such a keen eye to his surroundings that he need not use many words to convey a feeling or introduce a person. The story has been done before and as long as people feel like uprooting their families and moving to lands unknown to their own experiences, this story will repeat itself. But the cast of characters is so different, the culture so colorful that it is nearly impossible not to fall in love with Morocco.

Recommended for Armchair Travelers, Culture Explorers and Home Remodelers

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Time to Read

Just in time for later-minute shoppers comes a lovely little essay/recs list by Alan Cheuse or NPR. A Time to ReadAlan Cheuse's Holiday List starts off like an enjoyable little esay about reading and morphs into his suggestions for book-lovers this holiday season.

"Because of the pressure of daily life and the need to kick back and free the mind from the workaday world, many people throw up their hands and then turn on the TV. <...> But then comes holiday time, sacred days, time outside of ordinary time, when it's possible to find free hours for reading during a day usually given over to work."

Ain't that the truth Alan!

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Fondling Your Muse, John Warner

I strongly encourage you to take the time to read John Warner's bits of "Brilliance and Wisdom".

These are all funny. Some are really friggin funny and others are downright hilarious!

The book isn't bad either.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

This is one of those books I continually found myself gravitating towards while shelving. I would pick it up, look at it, open it, set it down again. I read a great review. Still I didn't read it. A friend of mine called me up and said he was strongly considering reading it. I bought it. I'm glad I did.

While certainly compelling, I wouldn't quite say you can't put it down. You can. I didn't want to stay up until 3am to read it. But I did want to grab it whenever I had a chance to do some reading - even if only for a few minutes over breakfast. So, compelling is how I would summarize it.

Mostly, though, I loved Kate Atkinson's use of detail. A character whom you may only meet a handful of times is first described with such character that you get a feeling for his personal history, something not normally considered useful when dealing with a character who will not make more than a few brief appearances. She takes loads of details and weaves them so smoothly through the narrative that its like reading a personal letter or having someone stand in front of you with their active hands and be very animated about what (or who) they are describing. You have to step back and re-examine the text to really see just how much detail she is using. I love this! Too much detail can be...suffocating. Not in the hands of Kate Atkinson. Her details are old-school, sumptuous, delicate and this book would be nothing without them.

The writing style overall is a very classic style. It makes for highly polished reading despite being a modern story about modern people with modern mystery holding it all together.

The story is simple. Think of the movie Crash. A simple film about a multitude of characters whose lives all collide. Same thing here. Its more about people than it is about dead or disappeared children. That's not to say you don't want to find out the truth. You do. But there is so much more than that. The who-dunit part isn't so important compared to how people become who they are and do what they do. Its seeing how a few simple steps can lead to tragic consequences. But then these same tragedies can breathe life back into the affected people left behind.

The only hesitation I have about any of this book is the no-resolution of one storyline. That of the missing child, Tanya. If the other case histories were not resolved in any fashion for the reader, the lack of resolution in one would no mean a thing. But the fact that we have clarification on all but this one. It is slightly disappointing. Not terribly, because there are hints to a clarification that we have to come to on our own, as a reader.

Or perhaps it's simply me reading between the lines, getting caught up in the hope and sadness of the families we meet. Which appears to be precisely what the writer wants from the reader.

Recommended for Those With a Heart

Sunday, November 13, 2005

A Great & Terrible Beauty and Rebel Angels, Libba Bray

I picked up an ARC (Advanced Readers Copy) of Rebel Angels at a Children's Rep night a week ago. It looked interesting. But I had to read the prequel A Great and Terrible Beauty first. So I picked it up on Tuesday. Read it by Wednesday morning. Then started Rebel Angels finishing it on Thursday. As you can tell from that, they are easy reads. They are considered Teen books and the writing is a little underdone, but not necessarily in a bad way.

The story is about a young woman in Victorian England at a girls' boarding school. She was sent there from India after her mother died mysteriously. Our heroine discovers she has seeing powers and eventually learns she can access another world called the Realms, a la Narnia but more sinister and a little more moldable. It is a place of great beauty, but also of intense magic and old rivalries contending with a force of evil trying to take control of the world and its magic. She makes friends in unlikely ways. The enemies aren't just in this other world, but every day at the finishing school which has, of course, rich snobbish pretty ladies from the upper upper upper crust of society.

While the story may seem a mish-mosh of Lewis-Tolkien-Forster-Austen, it works. Compelling, intriguing, imagery and staging that is effectively lovely and dark at the same time. The balance of time spent between the real world and the Realms is nicely laid out. The story is less about the other magical place than it is about a young girl trying to find her place in the world, trying to understand herself and the gifts which she has been given. The lessons laced throughout about girls, friendships, first loves, the struggle for power, the greed of the rich and successful, how to balance the expectations of society with your own desires; they are all there and are stitched in to the narrative so smoothly that at not time are you being preached at or being snowed on with sentimental drivel.

The two books could stand together on their own or there could happily be a third and either way, I am satisfied. However, once you read the first one you will find yourself unable to read anything else until you have also devoured the second. Definitely a book for the more literate or intellegent teen girl. Definitely for girls. But also a nice read for adults who want to get away from some of the darker realism we read these days in novels.

Reccommended for Romantics and Women With Over-Active Imaginations

Talk To The Hand, Lynne Truss

Lynne Truss has done it again. She has brought us a book that humorously points out minor flaws in our society that lead to bigger problems when left unchecked. Yes, Eats, Shoots and Leaves did that with its lambast of dropped apostrophes - which can lead to illiteracy and stupidity. Right? Okay, maybe not. But her new book is less a trove of how *to* behave as it is a long essay pondering our lack of general politeness. Am I terrible, rude person because I occasionally spit my gum out my car window? Maybe. But I know I treat people with empathy and politesse in the dry, rude retail industry in which I work.

Truss has written a diatribe here and it is hilariously funny. Especially for anyone who has had overexposed, prolonged contact with the general public. The deeper implications of what happens when we need to not only have our own personal space bubble, but still respect others is clear. If we don't learn to find a balance in this world of what we can do as an individual and how we need to acknowledge the existence of those around us, civilization as we know it will collapse. Okay, maybe not. But when a young man on a bus in London gets stabbed several times for being brave enough to simply point out that it would be nice for his girlfriend to not have chips thrown at her by another young man; this illustrates a point. We aren't allowed to point out when another person is *clearly* crossing the lines of politeness for fear we will be hurt by the offender. But the offender won't stop unless someone points out to him that what he is doing is not exactly considerate. This example goes beyond personal preferences of privacy or how we feel about people who talk loudly on their cell phones or who forget to say a simple "please" or "thank you" in public exchanges. And therein is the problem. If we can't even talk about these minor infractions that have nothing to do with our own private lives, but everything to do with basic respect of other human beings; how can we expect to solve any greater problems in our lives and communities?

Wait! Despite my depressing commentary here, Talk To The Hand is a delightfully funny book to which any person who has been in public for even an hour in the last year will be able to relate.

Reccommended for Cranky Pants and Sentimental Folks Wanting a Return to the Olden Days and Anyone With a Dose of Common Sense

Monday, October 31, 2005

Nine Parts of Desire, Geraldine Brooks

Published in 1995, this book was written in the late 80's and early 90's while Geraldine Brooks had her journalistic posting in the Middle East. With its pre-9/11 insights and exploration, it ranges in views of and from Muslim women across the Arab Peninsula and Egypt. Brooks realized that one of the ways to take the pulse of the Middle East was to talk to the women - people with whom she could have near unrestricted conversations with, since she also is a woman. An all-access pass to life behind and without the veil. The discussions run the gamut of veiling, driving, sex, working, education and the religion of Islam.

Using the Koran as a resource to draw from while inquiring into the history of the treatment of women was very illuminating. Granted, without reading the Koran itself, in Arabic, it is hard to really get an accurate snapshot of its writings but it was still very helpful in pointing out the contradictions of the Prophet's words and actions. It is easy to see why much of Islam has gone the direction it has - in its cycles of revolutions tilting towards fundamentalism, away from fundamentalism, and back again. It is more clear how some conclusions are come to about the veiling of women, restricting them from leading in the practice of religion (like in Catholicism) and even to the splitting of property and education of women. More clear doesn't mean it makes sense, though. Just because I have an idea of how men come to the conclusion that it is good to cut off a young girl's clitoris doesn't give it any more validity.

Since much of the Koran itself is supported by the Hadiths, or day to day living practices and words of the Prophet and his women, there becomes a problem in translating what it is he meant for all followers of Islam and what was meant only for his household in order to deal with internal conflict and issues. Rather like God telling the Old Testament peoples not to eat pork and other particular items - at that time it was likely necessary to preserve health. At the time there was an appropriate reason for the requirement, but now it is not as necessary. Or is it?

Nine Parts of Desire was a captivating read which I had a hard time putting down when it came time to go on to other parts of my daily life. It made me think more about the women of Islam and the difficult controversial things they have to live with, fight against, choose to accept, etc. There is a certain level of acceptability in veiling when it keeps away unwanted attention from men. I know there are times when I would love the privacy that the more intense forms of veiling offer women. But I would not want it forced upon me. It should be a choice. Conversely, if men did not behave the way they do towards women, would we feel the need to cover ourselves to such an extreme extent? Or does covering so much just make us more tantalizing, adding to the "wanting what we can't have" philosophy of life. It certainly is all about Desire - who causes it in whom? Whose fault is it we desire? Do we put out of sight what it is we desire? Or do we find a level of appreciating that which we desire and can't have?

Will the women of Islam always be running back and forth along the spectrum of the religion's dogma - from a practical, flexible end to a stifling, literal end? Will there never be a balanced growth that continues to move in one solid direction?

Brooks offers us no specific answers, but leaves us to question, ponder and simply explore the lives of these women: women most of us will never be or truly understand, no matter how hard we try or how intensely we want to.

*Highly Recommended*