Thursday, July 31, 2014

OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham (✰✰✰)


I absolutely loved the first and only previous book by Maugham that I read, The Painted Veil, which was recommended to me by two friends who know my tastes quite well.  It had been my intention to make Razor’s Edge my next Maugham, but this one fit a monthly tag of books pertaining to orphans that an online reading group was doing for July, so I went with it.
Of Human Bondage follows the life of Philip Carey, who after being orphaned at a very young age is sent to live with an aunt and uncle, the latter of whom is a vicar in a small English village.  The novel is a Bildungsroman, following Philip as he grows and progresses through young adulthood, moving from vocation to vocation and through the foibles of passionate first loves.

Unfortunately, this one just didn’t have the same kind of emotional punch that The Painted Veil delivered for me.  I am willing to admit that some of my problem might have been that I did this one on audio and the other I actually read; the difference in format might have caused me to miss some of the lovely nuances of prose that I so loved in my first Maugham experience.  It really did seem to me that the beautiful phrasing that was such a hallmark of The Painted Veil was missing here.  Toward the end of the novel there were a couple of quotes that I thought I might have marked had the book been in print, but nothing like the stack of Post-Its that littered my copy of the other work.

Another issue that I had with this novel is that I didn’t care for any of the main characters.  Philip has an almost obsessive love affair with one young woman who I found nothing short of repugnant.  Maugham describes her as a brainless shrew, and Philip himself calls her a woman with no imagination or sense of humor.  I simply couldn’t buy that he would continue to be pulled into consorting with a woman whom even he uses more negative adjectives to describe than positive.  Given that the relationship was a pivotal one in the book, it made the whole arc of the plot a bit of an unrealistic stretch for me.

Overall the book was an interesting study between the sexes.  My reading friend, Mary, one of those who recommended a number of Maugham novels for me, told me to pay attention to how he treats his women.  While I didn’t notice much in The Painted Veil, I did notice in this one that there is either something weak or unpleasant about all of the female characters.  Not a single one was wholly likable.  I admit that flaws are what make characters real, breathe life into them, but some of these women seemed rather unredeemed by anything positive.

This is definitely not a plot driven novel.  It is above all a study of personal evolution, a rumination on how the company a young person keeps and environment in which they choose to abide affect the views they acquire and the path their life takes.

I am unsure as to whether or not reading the book in print would have overcome the issues that caused me not to rate this novel higher.  It was a marvelous, introspective look into the workings of one young life.  Unfortunately, I simply didn’t love the novel.  That ambiguous something that can take a deeply thoughtful novel and tip the scales over into enjoyable was just somehow missing for me.  The narration by Steven Crossley was more than adeptly managed.  I did listen to it at 1.25 speed, because it seemed a little on the slow side, but other than that, I think the audio kept me going through a book I might have really struggled to read on my own.

At twenty-seven hours of audio or roughly 650 pages in print, this book is not for someone looking for a quick read.  Neither its heft nor its content will appeal to most readers.  However, those who love very introspective character studies and a large and varied cast of supporting personalities will find in this novel, if not a five star new love, at least a thought provoking and enjoyable read.



Tuesday, July 15, 2014

JOURNEY WITHOUT MAPS by Graham Greene (✰✰)


Off the top of my head I can only think of one other book that garnered a measly two stars from me, so you know I sincerely disliked this book.  Despite being a person who nearly always finishes a book once I start it, I was sorely tempted to drop this one many, many times.  The only reason I persevered with it was because the next book on my Africa list is Tim Butcher’s Chasing the Devil, which retraces Graham Greene’s journey through Liberia.  Butcher’s book has come highly recommended to me, so I didn’t want to drop both books, but the friend who recommended Chasing the Devil remarked that she wished she had read Greene’s book first.
The most irritating thing about Journey Without Maps was how negative Greene was about everything that he experienced.  I realize that travel through Africa is taxing both physically and mentally, but I felt that Greene exhibited a rather obnoxious inability to accept that when you choose to travel to certain corners of the globe life is not going to be as you knew it to be back home.  His journey was made during the waning days of British colonialism, and I often got the feeling that his views were perhaps colored by the attitudes of the time in which he lived.

Another major issue that I had with the book was the constant shifting from one topic to another.  Numerous times I would reread the preceding paragraphs, thinking that my mind must have wandered and caused me to miss a transition, only to discover that it was Greene’s mind doing the wandering, not mine.

To the author’s credit, there were stretches where the lovely, descriptive prose of Greene the novelist shone through.  Those were the places that saved me as I took months to slog through this relatively short travel narrative.  A couple of my favorite quotes:

“Their laughter and their happiness seemed the most courageous things in nature.  Love, it has been said, was invented in Europe by the troubadours, but it existed here without the trappings of civilization.”

“Once a beautiful little green snake moved across the path, upright, without hurry, bearing her bust proudly forward into the grasses like a hostess painted by Sargent, poisonous with gentility, a FabergĂ© jewel.”

Quite a bit of African culture is conveyed, but between the wandering style and the disdainful tone, it is a serious challenge to enjoy those tidbits of trivia and knowledge that would normally make such a travel log enjoyable.

There are very few people for whom I would recommend this book.  If you have an amazingly unsquelchable interest in colonialist attitudes or an unshakeable love of the minutia of African daily life and politics, then it might be worth a go.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

SALT: A WORLD HISTORY by Mark Kurlansky (✰✰✰✰)




This was one of those books that ended up on my To-Be-Read list (known as a TBR list in reader parlance) on a complete whim.  More than likely I read an intriguing review of it when my online reading group, Play Book Tag on Shelfari, had “Food” as the monthly tag from which members were to choose a read that month.  I then noticed it available on Overdrive, and it seemed fated.

Ill-fated according to my children, who could not understand why anyone would write a whole dang book about salt in the first place, and moreover, why they had to be subjected to it every time they came into the kitchen, their sister’s room, or a vehicle I happened to be driving.  One night my husband came home from work and the first thing out of our youngest’s mouth was, “Mom is stiiiilll listening to that salt book!”  More than once, however, I did catch my middle son actually paying attention.  I swear I heard him utter a “Huh!” at one point.  The book is a trivia lover’s dream; you will learn something new every time you read or listen, I guarantee it.  Sneaky how I educate my children, no?

In tracing this one element in its many forms, Kurlansky paints a cultural, economic, and political history, seamlessly flowing through chronology and geography from ancient times through the modern era.  One of the things that I loved is that the book is not just Euro-centric; the history is truly global.  Even those events with which the reader is likely quite familiar, such as the American Revolution, will unfold in a totally new fashion when seen from the perspective of these tiny little grains.

Food history is also explored, with the author sharing countless recipes from cookbooks contemporary to the time and place being discussed.  Honestly, food history does not exactly get my intellectual juices jazzed, but the tidbits shared were relevant, entertaining, and brief.

Kurlansky is not the most narrative of nonfiction writers, but he has a gift for story telling, and that takes what could be dry recitation of what is clearly an awesome feat of research and brings it to life.  Narrator Scott Brick’s natural tone and cadence were boring and slow, and I almost abandoned the endeavor but decided to try it at 1.25 speed.  Speeding up the pace of an audio not only picks up the pace (sometimes there is a downside and parts seem to be channelling the Chipmunks--not so with this audio, though), it also imbues a subtle change in the timbre of the reader’s voice.  Both elements worked advantageously in this case, creating a near perfect listening experience.  Although audio is not my favorite format for nonfiction, I absolutely recommend this one.

Surprisingly, I think this book will appeal to a fairly wide audience, whether you choose to read or listen.  Due to excellent editing, fascinating content, and linear structure the book rarely lags.  Lovers of science and history nonfiction will find the tome particularly appealing.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

THE GHOST MAP: THE STORY OF LONDON’S MOST TERRIFYING EPIDEMIC--AND HOW IT CHANGED SCIENCE, CITIES, AND THE MODERN WORLD by Steven Johnson (✰✰✰)


Steven Johnson’s Ghost Map centers around a city (London, England), a doctor (John Snow), and a minister (Henry Whitehead) during the cholera epidemic that struck with particular virulence in a contained area of the city in 1854.  At that time, it was unknown how the disease was transmitted and why certain areas and people seemed to remain immune.  Dr. John Snow and minister Henry Whitehead performed groundbreaking, feet-on-the-ground research in the area in which they both lived and worked, on and around Broad Street, which forever changed the way cholera epidemics were managed in cities.  Dr. Snow was one of the first to chart victims on a map, leading to a clearer picture of where the inception of the epidemic might lie, and thus the title of the book.
The story of these two men and the people of Broad Street and its environs, which comprises about two-thirds of the book, was definitely the high point for me, although I felt that the book could have used tighter editing, as segments of information were repeated far too many times and stated statistics were refuted, often on same page.  For instance:
”There were four hundred people per acre in Soho in 1854, in London’s most densely populated neighborhood.  The Twin Towers sat on approximately one acre of real estate, and yet they harbored a population of 50,000 on a work day.”  And in the next paragraph: “Even if you could have hijacked an airplane back in John Snow’s day, you’d have been hard-pressed to find an area crowded enough to kill a hundred civilians on the ground.”
Not to mention within the book itself: ”In 1851, the subdistrict of Berwick Street..., with 432 people per acre. (Even with its skyscrapers, Manhattan today only houses around 100 per acre.)” 
Are we the reader supposed to catch the finely split hair of “workday” vs. “houses”?  Neither set of statistics is backed up by source information.
Despite the editing issues, the book remained a solid four star read for me until the final segment dealing with epidemic disease in the modern age.  While the 1854 segments were written with absolute objectivity, the latter half contained the pronoun “I” far too often for what is purported to be a serious work of science and history writing.  To say that Johnson turns the book into a platform to declare his personal views is not at all hyperbolic; I even used the word “rant” in my notes.

Without his annoying insertion of self into the sections on modern day cities and their infrastructure relative to bio-weapons and nuclear threat, they would have been far more thought provoking and relevant.  Not only did he interject his own views into the topic at hand, but some information often stretched the lines of connectivity to his subject to a snapping point.  For example, he spent considerable ink on environmental issues and global warming, defending cities as more sustainable than a similar population spread across a greater land area.  While his arguments were solid, this section strayed too far from the topic of the book and felt as if these are causes that the author cares deeply about and so wanted to somehow angle into his book.

In defense of the good things, the final third of the book wasn’t a total disaster.  There was a section on the modern challenges with cholera, which are exacerbated by the rising number of squatters: a billion today, with the possibility that by 2030, a quarter of world’s population will live in unplanned squatter settlements.  I was saddened to learn that primarily due to these settlements, 1.1 billion people lack access to clean drinking water and almost three billion (almost half the world’s population) are without basic sanitation elements such as toilets and sewers.

I cautiously recommend this one.  Johnson is a fairly vivid narrative writer, and that makes the story a gripping one.  Due to the editing issues, the book takes an interest in the subject sufficient to overcome the pacing and foibles that result.  Readers will need to realize too, that the last third of the book takes a dramatic swing in tone and regrettably often in topic.

Some favorite quotes:

“The history of knowledge conventionally focuses on breakthrough ideas and conceptual leaps.  But the blind spots on the map, the dark continents of error and prejudice, carry their own mystery as well.  How could so many intelligent people be so grievously wrong for such an extended period of time?  How could they ignore so much overwhelming evidence evidence that contradicted their most basic theories?”

“Families continue to perish together in the developed world, of course, but such catastrophes usually unfold over the space of seconds or minutes, in car accidents, and plane crashes or natural disasters.  But a family dying together, slowly, agonizingly, with full awareness of their fate--that is a supremely dark chapter in the book of death.” 

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

THE ART OF HEARING HEARTBEATS by Jan-Philipp Sendker (✰✰✰✰1/2)


It all begins with a question.  What is the most powerful emotion in life-love or fear?  Julia Win, American raised daughter of a Burmese father and American mother, would positively say fear.  For some reason that she cannot comprehend, her seemingly pragmatic father seems to believe absolutely that the answer is love.  On the morning of Julia’s law school graduation, her father abruptly disappears and fails to return, despite leaving a trail halfway across the world that leads investigators to believe that his exodus was voluntary.  Sparked by a love letter that she finds among his things, Julia decides to follow her reserved father to the place she suspects he spent the first twenty years of his life, twenty years about which he has never spoken.  She has two goals in mind-to try to find answers about the man her father was before he became a successful immigrant and to discover what role the mysterious woman, Mi Mi, with whom he appeared to correspond for almost half a century, might have played in his missing twenty years.  Once in Burma, Julia meets an elder in her father’s home village who shares with her the incredible story of the part of her father she never knew.  
As the reader tags along with U Ba, while he tells Julia the tale that begins to open her father’s soul to her, it becomes apparent that there is a wealth of Eastern wisdom that is going to pass from the perceptive elder into the heart of a young woman who desperately wants to answer questions not only of her father’s past, but also about her own relationship with him, and how her own consciousness can be enlarged by the things she learns.

For the most part the characters are fairly solid, with the exception of Tin Win, Julia’s father.  I found there to be too vast a gap in the characterization of the father that Julia knew and the man that he was in Burma as a young man.  However, as most of the book takes place in Burma, and the author makes the dichotomy that her father is revealed to be one of Julia’s main struggles, in an odd way it worked and didn’t bother me as much as it might have otherwise.  Still this issue was concerning enough, in my opinion, that it cost this lovely novel a five star rating.

In the end, life circles of love and time are both completed, giving this book a perfectly tuned conclusion, but not in the way readers are probably expecting.  I found it sublime, perhaps the finest denouement of any novel I have ever read.  Absolutely nothing was forced or rushed, in perfect harmony with the pacing and ambience of the novel.

There is so much to adore about this book.  The writing is absolutely gorgeous and frequently profound.  Much of the power in the book comes from the transcendence of the simple things in everyday life and the emotions that cross boundaries of culture and time.  In the novel, the main character really does possess the ability to hear heartbeats, but I think there is a deeper meaning implied by the title, that of being attuned to people in such a visceral fashion that you can reach into the very center of their being.  The incredible descriptive passages deprive the readers of their eyes and lead them down a path built on their other senses.  Kudos are definitely due to Kevin Wiliarty, who did the translation into English from Jan-Philipp Sendker’s original German.  The beauty of the language in this novel shows great skill on Mr. Wiliarty’s part.

The second element of the novel that cost it five stars was the narration.  Cassandra Campbell has narrated a number of titles that I have enjoyed, and I think that her mellow tone was perfect for the material.  However, her pace was so painstakingly slow that it caused otherwise exquisite material to stall and lose impact.  For the first time ever I used the feature on Overdrive which allows the speed to be increased.  Playing the audio at 1.25 helped considerably, but at times, especially during longer dialogs, the characters took on an almost Chipmunk sound.

I definitely recommend reading this novel in print, not only for the audio issues mentioned above, but also because there are going to be many passages that readers will want to highlight, such as those that I have shared here (Thank goodness for the Kindle Big Brother that keeps track of all Kindle readers’ highlighted passages, enabling me to add these here despite listening to the audio.):

“I speak of a love that brings sight to the blind. Of a love stronger than fear. I speak of a love that breathes meaning into life, that defies the natural laws of deterioration, that causes us to flourish, that knows no bounds. I speak of the triumph of the human spirit over selfishness and death.”

“Must one have seen the world? In this village, in every house, in every shack, you will find the entire range of human emotions: love and hate, fear and jealousy, envy and joy”

“Not all truths are explicable, Julia,” he said. “And not all explicable things are true.”

“There is nothing, for good or for evil, of which a person is incapable.”

“Life, U May told her, is a gift full of riddles in which suffering and happiness are inextricably intertwined. Any attempt to have one without the other was simply bound to fail.”

“He mumbled something about a virus, the virus of love, the infection which, if she had understood him correctly, everyone carried, but which only ever afflicted a few.”

"Do we leave the dead behind or do we take them with us? I think we take them with us. They accompany us. They remain with us if in another form."

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A LONG WAY GONE by Ishmael Beah ✰✰✰✰


When most Americans think about child soldiers in Africa, the first thing that generally comes to mind are the Lost Boys of Sudan.  Unfortunately, this is not a situation that is limited to Sudan, or even to Sierra Leone, the setting of this book by Ishmael Beah, who was forced to become a soldier, at the age of thirteen, for the army of his government.

It becomes clear, through sharing the author’s story, that for most of these boys becoming a child soldier is not a choice.  After running from their homes in an attempt to escape ravaging army or rebel factions, most are separated from family and even other adults as they flee into the jungle.  By banding together the boys manage to keep watch while others find shelter and sleep, but the necessity of food is what most often causes the boys to approach the villages, bringing them to the attention of armed factions who force them to either join them or be killed.  In a speech he later gave at the United Nations Beah said, “All this is because of starvation, the loss of our families, and the need to feel safe and be part of something when all else has broken down.”  Once under the control of the soldiers the boys are drugged with cocaine and marijuana, which impair their inhibitions and desensitize their consciences.

Beah fought for the Sierra Leone Army for almost three years, at which point a representative from UNICEF approached his commander and was allowed to take some of the youngest soldiers to a United Nations sponsored home in Freetown.  I have never had a very high opinion of the UN, but I was very impressed by the time and effort that Beah’s narrative clearly shows that UNICEF puts into assisting these traumatized children regain mental stability and recapture what remains of their childhood.

Clearly, the road back is both challenging and painful, coming to terms with the acts that they perpetrated against others and needing to learn to forgive themselves.  And nothing will ever fully eradicate the dreams and waking visions these traumatized boys experience.  One of Ishmael’s friends, in the midst of their trials, put it in heartbreaking terms:

“How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety?  Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death.  Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies.  Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you.  It will be quieter than I am.”

Perhaps the phrase that Beah used that implanted itself most indelibly in my brain was his belief in the “fragility of happiness”.  After loosing everyone he loved and everything that made his life normal, he has a problem accepting that happiness can ever again be permanent.  He expressed it thus at one point:

“I couldn’t bring myself to be completely happy.  It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving.  I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen.”

This book is a challenging read on a number of levels.  For some reason, it is listed as a young adult read, and I know that some schools use it in their curriculum, but I would hesitate having a student younger than high school read it, given the atrocities that are described.  Yes, these acts were committed by middle grade boys, but those boys are having to learn to live with the visions in their heads and the stain on their souls.  I see no reason to put the weight of that ugliness into the minds of other young people who haven’t been forced to endure it to survive.  This is a long way from being the most explicit rendering of the atrocities of war that I have read, but it is still in no way, in my opinion, appropriate for young readers.  Another aspect is far less weighty.  The book is written by Ishmael Beah himself, and so is clearly drafted by someone for whom English is a second language; as such, the writing style does take some adjusting to.  I think this simplicity of language might well be why it is often thought an approachable read for middle school students.

Sometimes the very simplicity of the language works to beautiful advantage, especially when the author reminisces about his unrecovered family.  During the many, many months that Ishmael spent keeping himself alive in hiding, prior to capture by the soldiers, he said this:

“When I was very little, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen.  If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’  I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going.  Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.”

To me, although at the time the quote is used in the book it is used in a literal sense, this quote is a metaphor for the entire arc of Ishmael Beah’s experience.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

COCKTAIL HOUR UNDER THE TREE OF FORGETFULNESS by Alexandra Fuller ✰✰✰1/2


Author Alexandra Fuller grew up in what is now Zimbabwe, which is what drew me to this book.  Those of you who have followed my reviews for a while know that one of the most enthusiastic reviews I have ever written was after reading a galley for Peter Godwin’s sensational work of narrative nonfiction, The Fear.  While Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness has its moments, Ms. Fuller is simply nowhere near the writer that Mr. Godwin is. 

Despite the fact that I am giving this book a relatively low rating, let me say that I laughed more while reading this than I have in a very long time.  Sometimes a bit shamefacedly, because Nicola Fuller was clearly a bit unbalanced.  Cocktail Hour is part memoir of the author’s memories of her mother while she and her siblings were growing up but is for the most part a biography of her mother, otherwise known as Nicola Fuller of Central Africa.  Many, many sections of dialog are used, which is what lends the wonderful humor to the book.  You feel as if you are right there listening to their zany family interactions, not to mention her mother’s madcap advice to her children.  Growing up Nicola Fuller’s daughter was always an adventure.

The story, however, goes far beyond the time of the author’s reckoning and gives a full history of Nicola’s life, beginning as the daughter of a landed, if impoverished, Scotsman, through her move to Africa with all its adventures in the many countries that she lived in there.  While the beginning of the book is full of humor, the book deepens as it develops and Nicola’s life becomes difficult and psychologically more unbalanced.

More than anything, I loved how Alexandra Fuller showed her mother’s personal evolution, both mentally and physically, throughout the course of her life.  Nicola Fuller, for all her appearance of being a giddy woman, is a woman of great courage and fortitude, and by the end of the book I found myself admiring her a great deal.  What brought down my rating of the book was that I would like to have far more descriptive writing about the countries and their people, their way of life, and better background on the various conflicts.  Because I read a fair number of books on Africa, I could visualize, but I am not so certain that a reader picking this up as their first visit to Africa would be able to keep up.

If you want a story of a woman who has lived what is by any account an amazing life, this is probably a four star book, but I docked it a star for not giving me more of the pivotal supporting information about those events and people that must have shaped Nicola into the woman worth writing about.

One of my favorite quotes about Nicola Fuller:

“What my mother won’t say--lost in all her talk of chemicals and pills--is that she knows not only the route grief takes through blood but also the route it takes through the heart’s cracks.  What she won’t tell me is that recovering from the madness of grief wasn’t just a matter of prescriptions, but of willpower. [...]she took a different route and she regained herself and that had very little to do with the very talented psychiatrist and everything to do with forgiveness: she forgave the world and her mind returned.  She gave herself amnesty and her soul had a home again.  The forgiveness took years and it took this farm and it took the Tree of Forgetfulness.  It took all of that, but above all it took the one thing grief could never steal from my mother: her courage.”