Sunday, April 22, 2012

THE SEWING CIRCLES OF HERAT by Christina Lamb ✰✰✰✰

As a young woman, Christina Lamb traveled to Afghanistan, and through a mix of persistence, courage, connections, and writing talent managed to document the final two years of the struggle for Afghan freedom against the Soviets.  Over the years she kept her finger on the pulse of the region, wrote a couple of books, and ultimately returned again at be on the ground as the Taliban breathed its last in the early months of 2002.
Christina Lamb is a wonderful writer with a knack for interweaving just the right amount of her own personal narrative in with the current events about which she is writing.  In addition, she casts back into the past and gives a whole lot of background information on Afghan history, politics, monarchy, trade, and agriculture.  I especially loved sections of the book where she discussed the architecture of the city of Herat during the height of its beauty, juxtaposing it against its current state.  While Herat may be in the title of the book, many cities are given equal coverage, among them the more conservative stronghold of Kandahar and the capital city of Kabul.  The book is fairly accurately titled in that women’s issues are very prominently featured in the narrative, and she discusses the history of different areas of Afghanistan with regards to women, education, and the arts, both before and after the Taliban.
Lamb does an excellent job bringing the reader’s senses to life and into her environment; readers feel the ruts beneath the airplane wheels and the grit of the dust storms-you smell the pine trees and taste the mutton.  Hearts ache for the children who lack for the most basic things-she heads one of her chapters with a quote that I love from the Persian poet Rumi: “Look at your eyes.  They are small but they see enormous things.”  The things that these children have seen and survived defy comprehension.  Indeed, the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Photography was awarded to Massoud Hossaini for his horrific shot of a twelve year old girl screaming in fear amidst a mass of bodies moments after a suicide bomb detonated in Kabul. (I have linked it here-I warn you, it is graphic.)  That same sense of place and culture comes through in the tenor of Christina Lamb’s writing; she spent a lot of time among the people, not sitting in the hotel with her western journalist coworkers, and it shows.
My one complaint, and the single factor that kept me from giving the book a fifth star, is that at times her timeline can get rather discombobulated as she tries to focus on specific people or places.  I would have preferred that she take a more chronological approach; obviously those places where she goes back to the Mongols that is not possible, but a stricter chronology from the late 1970’s to the 2000s would have made for a much tighter narrative.  My preference would have been to provide a listing of people at the beginning of the book, to help readers who have difficulty keeping all of the similar sounding Middle Eastern names straight, and then travel chronologically through the story, letting readers refer back to the list to refresh their memories as players come up again.
There are a lot of books out there on this topic.  This is a very good one for people without a lot of background, as the author does an excellent job giving the reader everything needed.  It was published in 2002, so many of the players have since been apprehended, but that doesn’t in any way take away from the history of it.  Overall, I highly recommend this energetically written, informative account.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

ATLAS SHRUGGED by Ayn Rand ✰✰✰ and 1/2

This is a tough book to review from a “star” standpoint.  If someone were to ask me would they like this book as a reader, from a pure plot, character development, etc. standpoint, the answer would be an “um...errr... I would really need to know a lot more about you”.  On the other hand, if someone wants to read a book purely for its merits as a study of economic and social systems, there might be too much character development in this one for their liking.  In short, I have been pondering what to say in this review since about half way through this thousand plus page tome.
Through her novels, screenplays, plays, and works of nonfiction, Ayn Rand put forth a philosophy which she termed “Objectivism”.  In its simplest form, Objectivism holds that a man lives first and foremost for his own welfare and happiness, and he expects others to do the same.  It rejects the idea of man being a victim to any force beyond his control, be it a government, or a deity-man is in control of his own destiny.  Objectivism states that each individual man is responsible for doing his own thinking and should never surrender his choices and thoughts to any other person or organization-reason should rule each individual’s decision making process, and it should be done individually.  Man has a conscience in order to perceive reality, not to invent one of his own desiring.  What is is; reality can not be changed.
Obviously, any person of faith would have serious issues with Ayn Rand’s philosophy.  I happen to believe very strongly that a world where everyone looks out for themselves first and foremost is a self-centered world, which, at the very least, goes again the formation of even family units, let alone larger societal groupings.  So, there were many parts of the book which I found very unrealistic because I simply didn’t buy into Rand’s rhetoric.  Those who are familiar with my reviews know that I am not fond of economics and existential philosophy.  The economics was actually fairly gently woven into the plot of the novel, and I went along willingly for the ride.  Rand’s philosophy gets shoved down the reader’s throat.  In one case in a one hundred fifty page speech, two hundred pages from the end of the book-talk about bringing the plot to a screeching halt!  Social philosophy is also near and dear to Ms. Rand’s heart, but at least social topics are easier for me to wrap my brain around than existential ones.  I can much more readily grasp Marxism than rationalism, and so the many pages that were devoted to those aspects of the plot (or simply expounded upon by the characters in conversation), I actually enjoyed and felt that she did a good job working into her story.
Ayn Rand used all of these various theories and philosophies to create an America in which the government is taking over the country, nationalizing, for the good of all, all of the major industries-controlling hiring, movement of goods, and eventually even intellectual rights.  For instance, if you invent something worthwhile, everyone needs to be able to manufacture it, not just your company.  There are two opposing groups of main characters, the governmental types and the industrialists who are fighting back, but who seem to be disappearing.  Through her book she creates an incredibly complex and believable picture of what could happen.  The plot structure was compelling, had good forward momentum, and despite the book’s length, kept me engaged.  I thoroughly enjoyed this aspect of Ayn Rand the writer; the one area where I felt let down as a reader of a novel was with regards to the great love triangle she had built up all through the book-I hated the way she resolved it!  She resolved it based on her philosophical self, not as a novelist, and as a reader of a novel I was very dissatisfied.
Obviously, this is not a book for those looking to read a simple novel.  You have to be willing to stomach a fair amount of both social and existential philosophy, politics,   economics, and a fairly complex plot structure that is business related.  For me it was a three and a half star novel, rounded up to four when forced to, given my respect for Ayn Rand as an intellectual; for someone with more interest in philosophy it would absolutely be a four, perhaps even a five, star novel. 

RANSOM by David Malouf ✰✰✰✰

Books that take one scene or element from a well-known work of literature and expand upon it, giving further background or depth fascinate me, especially if they are well done; I tend to never view the primary work in quite the same light ever again, and I feel enriched, despite the fact that the two authors often lived centuries apart, and the primary one might heartily disapprove of everything the second one wrote.  Somehow, I think Homer would love David Malouf’s rendering of King Priam and Achilles.
Malouf chose as his moment in literature the section of Homer’s Iliad in which Achilles is refusing to fight, for reasons too complicated to get into here, and his best friend Patroclus convinces him to loan him his armor, saying that it will at least rally the Greeks if they see his armor on the field and believe that it is Achilles come to do battle.  Of course, Hector believes that the two heroes finally get the chance to face each other on the field of combat, and, not realizing that it is Patroclus, not Achilles, in the armor, he kills him.  Achilles, in a fury of grief, calls out Hector, slays him, and then proceeds to defy all convention by treating his corpse in a most appalling fashion.  All of this is well documented in Homer’s Iliad.
Where Malouf begins to build his novel is around the backstory of the childhood friendship of Achilles and Patroclus, how they came to be raised as brothers.  He also tells in riveting detail the tale of how King Laomedon’s son, Podarces, found refuge during the sacking of their city among the slaves and servants.  When Podarces’ sister, Hesione, was taken captive by the conquering Heracles he promised her any gift she desired; knowing her brother was hidden among the slaves, she led Heracles there and pointed to Podarces and said that he was her brother and she wanted him.  Disbelieving that the filthy urchin was really the prince, and thinking Hesione deluded in her grief, Heracles christened Podarces “Priam”, meaning “the ransomed one”, or “the price paid”-his worthless life in exchange for her brother’s.  And so was “reborn” the boy who became the king of Troy.
Ransom begins as a story of vengeance-that of Achilles grieving his friend and brother Patroclus-a familiar story to those who have read Homer’s Iliad.  No matter how he tries Achilles is unable to assuage his anger.  The story then shifts to Priam and Hecuba, the parents of Hector, as they grieve their son.  Priam’s visit to Achilles, unadorned, as a common man, bearing a cart of treasure for ransom, but coming as a broken father, not a king, does figure into Homer’s work.  However, David Malouf has chosen this element of the tale to really expand upon and carry the emotional weight of his novel.  In his work we see Priam’s entreaties to his wife and family; we learn, through flashbacks, about his childhood; we see his preparations; and his journey with the course carter who becomes, in an odd way, his friend.  Through Malouf’s lyrical, simple prose we see an old, dignified man grieve, accept change, and face his own imminent death.
You do not have to have read Homer’s Iliad to read Ransom.  Any background information is given, and parts of the novel are simply taken from the author’s own imagination.  This is a wonderful novel, even for those who are not inclined to read ancient epic poetry.  The story of Achilles and Priam is a fairly well known one, discussed even outside the context of The Iliad.  Indeed, Malouf’s intent was a study of grief, in its many forms.  Just about every form of grief is touched upon through one character or another in the course of this novel, but that said, it manages to not be a depressing read.  Malouf’s writing is graceful and emotive and I look forward to exploring more of his work.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

GHOST SOLDIERS by Hampton Sides ✰✰✰✰✰ and a ♥

If another work of nonfiction manages to unseat this tour-de-force as my number one book of 2012, I will be thoroughly amazed.  Laura Hillenbrand’s account of American Louis Zamperini’s time as a Japanese prisoner of war during World War II, Unbroken, took my top nonfiction slot for 2011.  Hampton Sides’ Ghost Soldiers would have stolen the prize had I read them in the same year.  It is that good.  If you are among the legion of fans who read and loved Hillenbrand’s book last year but you missed Sides’ book when it came out in 2001, you really need to find time to slot this one into your reading list.
Ghost Soldiers is also a story of Japanese atrocities during the Second World War, but this time the setting is the Philippines, specifically the Bataan Peninsula.  Readers of Sides’ book will learn quite quickly that the famous Death March was only the beginning of the unspeakable horrors that the heroes of the Bataan endured.  The long years that many spent in prison camps were often far worse than anything they endured on the road to get there, and countless prisoners perished or were shipped to mainland Japan as slave laborers.  Every time I read one of these accounts of the unfathomable cruelty of the Japanese soldiers two thoughts course through me, one personal and one less so.  The more personal one is my memories of the Japanese people from my childhood, a mere thirty years after the end of the war: gentle, welcoming, bowing, smiling, running their fingers through my blond hair, teaching me their language and to sing children’s songs.  I try to fit that together with the same nation of people who could order such barbarous things done to American soldiers and I can not reconcile it.  The second thought that I have is to wonder why we hear so little about American POWs in Japanese camps and what they endured.  The cruelty defies words.  I have read many, many accounts of the holocaust in Europe, and I do not mean in any way to lessen what the Jews and the other targeted races there endured, but some of the specific forms of torture used routinely against Allied soldiers by the Japanese redefines the term horrific.  The holocaust will forever stand as a monument of man’s inhumanity to man, because it was genocide, an unforgivable attempt to eradicate an entire race/religion from the face of the earth; just as surely the Japanese treatment of American POWs stands as a monument of unadulterated base cruelty-the torture methods that the Japanese used on our soldiers were unmatched in their savagery.  For me, the sheer atrociousness, often verging of depraved, of the Japanese bring their war crimes on a level with the acts of the Germans, despite the fact that the number of lives taken by the later group was so much greater.
From this jungle of misery Hampton Sides brings us in alternating chapters to the story of the fledgling Ranger unit tasked with the virtually impossible task of rescuing some of the last of the Bataan prisoners known to still be alive by the time the U.S. forces finally begin to win the war in the Philippines.  This is the hope that drives his book.  If the entire book had centered on the prisoners, I could not have stuck with it-it was too wrenching-but having the parallel story of the history of the Ranger unit and how they were given the assignment to liberate Cabanatuan prison camp was the perfect foil.  As the book progresses the reader gets to know both sets of men-the Rangers and the prisoners of Cabanatuan, as well as many Japanese prison guards, Filipino guerillas, and other people who played a role in the events.  Eventually, the two stories collide on the night of the attempted rescue, and the rest is in the history books.
Every so often I read a work in which the prose is so outstanding that I can not let my review go online without at least a couple of quotes from the book.  Hampton Sides is such a writer.  The man could make a Dora script compelling.  The first quote is telling about a metal triangle that the Navy men had erected and used as a sort of time keeping device, and the second is taken from the Ranger’s thirty mile march to rescue the Cabanatuan prisoners:
”Every half hour the designated timekeeper would go out with a stovepipe in his hand and give the contraption a set number of dings in accordance with an old Navy custom called ‘sounding the watch.’  The system was a little intricate until one got used to it.  Far from dulcet, the tone of the ring was hard and sharp, a metallic sound punctuating the day with seriousness.  The Cabanatuan prisoners came to like it, though, for segmenting the blur of chronology, for the sense of orderliness it brought.  To some, it sounded like the proud, clear voice of duty...The bell was their day’s metronome, the sonic measure of their confinement.” (pg.137)
”The sun grew fat and luxuriant as it lowered itself beside Mount Arayat, the vast dormant volcano to the southwest.  In the sanguinary light, the jagged ridgelines of the Sierra Madre to the east broke through in sharper, richer blues, and the haze of the fields seemed to lift.  Prostrate before enemy sentinels, enveloped by open earth and open sky, strung out over nearly a hundred yards, the men felt utterly exposed, as though the Shinto gods might be following their progress and waiting for the right moment to impale them.” (pg. 226)
Those of you who have read and loved Hillenbrand’s Unbroken are probably curious as to why I feel that this book is better.  For starters, I think that Hampton Sides found the more compelling of the two stories.  He is able to take two groups of men, the prisoners and the Rangers, and tell their stories in parallel, building tension toward a somewhat crazy heroic rescue attempt.  It is truly the stuff of legend and Hollywood movies, but it really happened.  Second, Sides is definitely the better of the two writers.  His narrative nonfiction is consistently gorgeous throughout; the story needs a writer who can move you emotionally, and Sides certainly has that ability.  From a research and organization standpoint I would also give Sides the edge-there is more depth to his work and better flow to his narrative, despite working with a much larger cast of characters.
There is no doubt that this book is grueling at times, but author Eric Larson says it well on the back cover: “Ghost Soldiers took me on a queasy journey deep into the realm of pure evil-then rescued me in a blaze of heroics and righteous vengeance.”  Without exposing yourself to suffering you can never comprehend strength, heroism, and selflessness.  This book grew my soul and I am grateful I read it.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

UNSINKABLE by Abby Sunderland and Lynn Vincent ✰✰✰

My feelings regarding this book telling the tale of Abby Sunderland’s quest to become the youngest person to circumnavigate the globe were rather mixed.  Despite being interested in Abby’s experience, I had trouble staying engaged and ended up not finishing the book, largely because I had other pressing review commitments that were more in line with my interests. 
In alternating chapters, the book is narrated from shifting viewpoints, including those of Abby herself, her parents, and others involved with her endeavor, giving the reader the story from a number of different perspectives.  I liked the idea, but at times it felt a bit redundant, and I felt that while they were the most relevant, those chapters told in Abby’s voice seemed a bit juvenile.  
While I did not particularly connect with this is a book, I think that it would definitely be better appreciated by a junior high school audience.  Also, those with a strong background in sailing would likely have an easier time with the book-I struggled a bit, as many of the terms and experiences were simply outside my realm of experience.
Despite not finishing the book I still give it three stars, as I think there is a particular audience out there for it, and it was not poorly written; I was simply not the right reader.  It is also a very fast read, so even if you would simply like a first person account of Abby’s fascinating journey, you might consider this one.

COVERED BRIDGES: A CLOSE-UP LOOK by Alan Giagnocavo ✰✰✰✰

I found this lovely, simple book fascinating!  As a homeschooling mother I am always on the lookout for interesting books to use to illustrate art and science concepts for my kids.  This book takes a number of beautiful covered bridges in the United States and renders them in architect’s drawings, some very detailed, showing not only the outside elevations and inside structural renderings, but also many drawings of individual structural details.  A very brief history of each bridge is given as well.  The drawings themselves are done in pencil, but there is watercolor wash over pencil drawings of wooded areas surrounding the bridges that gives the book  the feel of a wonderful nature book-I loved it!  In some of the drawings the physics of the structure is explained, sometimes because it was the first time in history that that type of support was used.  The physical science in and of itself was interesting to myself and my kids, but it was also easy to see the love that went into creating these incredible buildings-they are truly forms of art.  
The publisher, Fox Chapel Publishing, also has a similar book out on lighthouses, which I gave a brief look through, and which appears to be similar in nature, for those who are interested in that great fixture of the American landscape.
You definitely do not need to be an architect to appreciate this book.  If you live near a covered bridge or are simply interested in their construction, a browse through this book would be enjoyable.  This would also be a lovely gift for someone who is planning a trip to New England, loves covered bridges, or has a penchant for unusual coffee table books.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

SIDEWALK CANVAS by Julie Kirk ✰✰✰✰✰

Growing up in Europe, sidewalk art was an almost daily occurrence.  It was not at all unusual to see Mona Lisa’s enigmatic smile glinting up at you as you exited the bakery or have the sudden necessity to skip over one of Titian’s voluptuous beauties as you switched busses at the main terminus downtown.  For those of my readers unfamiliar with the world of sidewalk art, Julie Kirk provides a lovely introduction;  she talks about the tools of the trade, the history of recreating great masterpieces on the sidewalks of urban landscapes, and other subject matter that is frequently chosen for depiction by sidewalk artists.  And as might be expected, the book is full of gorgeous photographs.
I was very impressed by this book when I received it a year ago in e-format as a review copy from the publisher; however, I wanted to view a print copy before I put out a review.  The print copy, I am happy to say, is full of high quality prints that do justice to both the original artwork and the chalk art versions.  My children and I had a lot of fun with the e-format version, in that it allowed me to project the images up on our TV screen.  As a homeschooling parent I used this book for a number of art lessons; the kids were fascinated by the style of the art, by several of the original works copied and the artists, and even by some of the cities featured.  The book is not available in ebook format, but the print version is large enough to be used in a small class setting.  For kids reluctant to learn art history, the originality of the chalk art is a great way to catch their interest.  Our librarian admitted to me that while shelving my hold books she got side tracked for a good fifteen minutes looking through Sidewalk Canvas-she was impressed by the unique subject matter and eye-catching layout.
This is the type of book that just about anyone, young or old, will enjoy.  Some will be interested enough to read it cover to cover, but the pictures are surely a visual feast that will be enjoyed by all, and I highly recommend it as a part of any art curriculum as a wonderfully original way to expose kids to the great masters, chalk art, and outdoor art.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

TALES OF A FEMALE NOMAD by Rita Golden Gelman ✰✰✰✰

Unlike most travelers in the “golden years” of their life-those post-childrearing years when a parent is finally free to pursue the globe as they haven’t been since their college years-Rita Gelman chose not to take a typical tourist approach.  She chose to spend long periods of time completely immersing herself in the language and culture of the places that she visited, and as a result, her book is different and very interesting.
Rita visited places as disparate as Mexico, the Galapagos, Bali, and New Zealand, and in each place she lived with natives, dressed as they dressed, cooked with them, worshipped with them, and took part in their native festivals.  Some places she lived for months and others she lived for many years, such as Bali, where she lived for eight.
Primarily a writer of children’s books, Gelman’s writing is very simplistic and not as vivid as I might have hoped for given the wonderful subject matter.  However, her story is so fascinating and the writing well organized enough so as to render the lack of excitement in her prose forgivable.  The approach is more of a series of essays, based on locations, than a narrative, although they do segue neatly into one another and so you do not feel that you have lost chunks of time.
As an armchair traveler visiting these various cultures through Rita’s book, I very much enjoyed her focus on the women.  I do not think that male readers would identify very well with this book, as Rita spent most of her time in countries where men and women lead separate lives, and she dwelt within the circle of women and learned their role within the various cultures.  She shares many of her feeling about her western views clashing with their traditions but how she felt very strongly that she was there to observe and participate, not to attempt to change their culture by foisting her’s upon them.  Points that she brings out about many of the cultures and her thoughts regarding them would make this an excellent book for a book club discussion.
Overall, a good, solid read.  Not the best writing, but the subject matter and organization make up for it and bump it up to a four star rating.  Highly recommended to all readers who enjoy travel writing, feminist reads, and books about adventurous middle-aged ladies.