Friday, September 30, 2011

ROMOLA by George Eliot ✰✰✰

Wow!  Where to start...
Let me first say that there is much to love here.  Truly!  The first fifty or so pages felt interminable, but once past that point the book becomes a veritable page turner.
Eliot crafts a fascinating, first-rate historical fiction plot based in Florence, Italy, from the death of Lorenzo de’ Medici (in 1492), through the time of Savonarola’s influence, and culminating in an epilogue placed in 1509.  In the midst of this tumultuous social situation is placed our heroine, Romola.  The daughter of a scholar, Romola herself is very well educated for a woman of her time.  This novel follows Romola through six complex post-de’Medici years of Florentine politics, further inflamed by the preachings of Savonarola, a Dominican friar.  As the plot swells in complexity, the gentle woman transitions from being her father’s daughter, to her husband’s wife, to a woman meeting life head on with a dignity of her own merit.  Possessed of a fast moving, labyrinthine plot, this novel, despite its length of just over 600 pages, keeps up a taut pace until the very end.
As might be expected in a novel named after a character, this one, despite the enticing plot, is very rooted in its performers.  Romola is a central figure, but by no means the only one.  Eliot pulls some of her players direct from the history books and some from her imagination, but each and every one of them feels so genuine that it is difficult to know which really lived and breathed and which only ever lived within her pages.  This is the type of book that has you googling purely imaginative personages-because they are portrayed with such authenticity.
Florence of the late fifteenth century is very well depicted: the pageantry of her holidays (including a fantastic description of Savonarola’s Bonfire of the Vanities); the dress, habits, and occupations of her various classes; and the architectural details of her stone edifices.  As you wander the streets with the novel’s inhabitants you are drawn into her neighborhoods, with their chaos, aromas, and idiosyncrasies.
So why a relatively low three star rating?   Because the prose is so dense that it left me wallowing somewhere between philosophy text and nineteenth century history tome.  For some reason, I had to work exceptionally hard to remain focused on reading the words themselves and concentrate with that little bit of extra grey matter to wrap my mind around what exactly was being expressed.  Was it worth it?  Well, yes, as my clear admiration for the book’s merits shows; however, I can not say that I “really liked” (four stars) or “loved” (five stars) a book which required so much effort.  So, three stars, a simple “liked” verdict, it is for this work.  This is definitely not a book for someone unused to literature of the Victorian era, as, in my opinion, this novel is some of the least accessible writing from that time frame.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

INTO THIN AIR by Jon Krakauer ✰✰✰✰

May 11, 1996 has come to be given the title of the “1996 Mt. Everest Disaster”, because on this day eight people lost their lives in a single afternoon on the world’s tallest peak.  Author Jon Krakauer was attempting the summit that day, and this memoir, written very shortly after his climb, is a riveting account of the lengths to which people will go in order to stand on the apex of the planet.
This book is part history, part culture of climbing, and part adventure journal, but beyond all else it is a tale of the fragility of mankind when measured against the force of a mountain.  Mr. Krakauer bares his soul, opening the door to a world to which only a select few can truly relate and a day that brought nightmares and survivor guilt to those who made it off the mountain.

This audio was riveting.  Usually, the quickest way to have me re-shelving an audiobook is to see that the author does the narrating.  In my experience, authors should stick to writing.  But the intensely personal nature of this particular memoir gave me the feeling that no one could tell this tale quite like Jon Krakauer himself.  I highly recommend listening to this story in the voice of the man who lived through it.

MOTHER TERESA, CEO by Ruma Bose and Lou Faust ✰✰✰

Being neither Catholic nor an executive of any level, this might seem an odd book for me to pick up, but I am glad that I had the simple pleasure and gentle learning experience this book afforded me.
As a young Hindi woman, during a time of aimless confusion in her life, Ruma Bose spent an extended period of time volunteering with Mother Teresa and her Sisters of Charity in India.  Ruma has subsequently gone on to become a successful business woman.  A dinner party conversation during which she sketched out the leadership style of Mother Teresa was the genesis of this book, on which Ms. Bose asked her mentor, Lou Faust to collaborate.
The book’s structure is very simple.  It is divided into eight chapters, each of which correlate with one of eight principles found by Ruma Bose to define the leadership philosophy of Mother Teresa.  These principles are:
Dream it Simple, Say it Strong 
Dealing with the Devil to get to the Angels 
Wait! Then pick your moment 
Embrace the power of doubt 
Discover the joy of discipline 
Communicate in a language people understand 
Pay attention to the janitor 
Use the power of silence 
At the beginning of each chapter Ruma recounts an anecdote from her time with the gentle woman who began and grew one of the world’s largest charity organizations.  These brief snippets let the reader see various sides of Mother Teresa from a CEO standpoint.  Lou Faust and Ruma then draw parallels to real world business situations.
The book left me with mixed feelings.  It is useful in that I do not think you need to be a CEO to apply these principles to your life, and this broadens the scope of those for whom this will be an enjoyable read.  However, the book, at a scant 144 pages, does not provide any concrete suggestions for implementation, neither on a personal nor a business level.  For me, the book was primarily an informative look at Mother Teresa through an alternative lens.  If you are fascinated by this special woman the book is well worth your time.


In choosing Theodora of Byzantium for her subject, Stella Duffy picked a definite case of truth trumping fiction.  Duffy fills her novel with richly depictive discourse, transporting the reader into a world of political intrigue and religious turmoil, a world where the worth and potential of an individual was most often pre-determined by birth. 
Born into poverty in a time (mid sixth century) and place (Byzantium) in which women had very few options, Theodora, daughter of a deceased bear trainer, followed a path considered fortunate for one in her situation.  She gained renown on stage as an actress, which sounds innocuous enough to our modern sentiments, but in her day actresses, along with singers and dancers, became prostitutes to their audiences after their onstage work was concluded.  Ms. Duffy uses this early portion of the novel to display for us the strength of Theodora’s resolve to rise above her current status, the culture and chaos of Constantinople, and the squalor from which our heroine succeeds in rising.  To understand why Theodora is such an anomaly, and thus why she is to be so greatly admired, one must understand the situation from whence she came.  
Disclosing too much of the plot would, I feel, rob readers of some of the narrative pull with which the amazing sequence of events of Theodora’s life endows this novel.  Once immersed in her tale, it is a difficult book to put down.  The story concludes with Theodora’s marriage to the emperor Justinian I and her coronation as empress of Byzantium.  Initially I was very annoyed by the ending.  In order to fully appreciate the transformative nature of this woman and understand the complete measure of her intelligence you must explore her role as Justinian’s consort.  I am happy to report that Stella Duffy announces on the book’s Penguin page that she is working on a sequel, to be titled The Purple Shroud.
There is one single element that kept this from being a five star book for me.  The book made liberal use of the “F word”.  It made me approach the first sex scene with some trepidation, as it seemed to indicate that Ms. Duffy’s writing in that area might be a bit raunchy for my taste.  That ended up being not at all the case.  Which left me wondering: who is the intended audience for this book?  It lacks the explicit sex which the more profane reader might expect, and its copious research would lead one to believe it is aimed at serious readers of historical fiction, who generally, in my experience, appreciate better verb selection.  Yes, some might argue that the word is used to show a certain degeneracy of Theodora’s character.  I feel it degraded Stella Duffy’s literary gifts.  Through wonderful, descriptive prose Ms. Duffy makes clear to the reader the gritty nature of Theodora and her unfortunate origins.  If an author does such an admirable job of “showing”, why stoop to the baseness of not only “telling” but doing so with the crassest of four letter words?
Overall, I enjoyed this look at one of history’s oft ignored women of substance.  If the one element mentioned above is not one to put you off, I think that lovers of historical fiction, as well as those who enjoy tales of personal transformation and triumph will find this a satisfying read.

Monday, September 19, 2011

PLASTIC: A TOXIC LOVE STORY by Susan Freinkel ✰✰✰✰✰

Rarely is there a book which says five stars right from the beginning and never veers from that ranking.  This book from Susan Freinkel is absolutely such a work.  It is first rate popular science, brimming with copious research but never stooping to that great folly of many non-fiction writers: “I researched this subject to death and by golly every detail is going to be shoe-horned in somewhere!”  Quite on the contrary, facts flow seamlessly through an easy-going chronicle of the topic.
In the course of chapters titled after and loosely based around common plastic items Ms. Freinkel walks her reader through plastic’s design history (the ubiquitous green stacking chair), BPA controversy (IV bags and tubing), cultural history (Frisbee), environmental impact (T-shirt bags), and indestructibility (disposable lighters), among other objects and issues.  Coverage of the chemistry involved in the manufacturing of various plastics is especially well done-easily accessible to any reader of popular science with just the right balance of detail and narrative flow.
A book of this nature could clearly become a platform for virulent environmentalism, and it is apparent that the author cares deeply about the environmental impact of plastic.  However, she gives balanced press to a plethora of individuals from organizations as diverse as grassroots activists lobbying for bottle taxes to the owner of a Chinese plastic factory.  It becomes clear that the issue is many-sided and complicated by many factors.
Plastics play a huge role in our modern world.  This book is a short run through the tide they have become.  Without a doubt there will be much here that will surprise and enlighten, and you think twice about just about every object that you encounter throughout your average day.  If you read one popular science book this year, choose this one for its sheer relevance. 


After many years as an editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine, Mark Adams decided that he had had enough of sending other writers off to the far reaches of the globe in search of riveting stories from the world’s most inaccessible places.  As the hundredth anniversary of Hiram Bingham’s discovery of Machu Picchu loomed, Adams, married to a Peruvian woman and long fascinated with Bingham (thought by many to be the inspiration for Indiana Jones), decided that this was the assignment to get himself out of his New York office.
And so, with limited outdoors experience (Adams hadn’t been in a tent in he couldn’t remember how long), the author set off to follow in the footsteps of the famous explorer through the jungles of South America.  Through a fine balance of humor, thorough research, a well structured narrative, and lively prose, the reader is ushered along on a journey through three eras of history-the age of the Inca, the age of Hiram Bingham, and the age of Mark Adams.  Many authors in a memoir of this sort inject far too much of themselves into the narrative.  Adams uses his experience to provide comic relief but leaves the focus on Bingham and the Incan history which he strove to unearth in the jungles of Peru. Hiram Bingham’s own pursuit to answer questions pertaining to the Inca which remained unexplored or unanswered in his own day, in part for his own scholarly knowledge, and in part his desire to build his own legacy, was well laid out by Mark Adams.  Throughout this exploration of Bingham’s quest the reader is carried along through three time phases simultaneously.
Not being one for jungles (Snakes?  I think not!), I was happy to follow along from the comfort and relative safety of my own corner of the globe-yes, we have bears here in the Last Frontier, but at least I can see the threat coming!  Mark Adams’ prose is so vivid, the reader will feel transported.  I highly recommend this one for its history, adventure, and verve.