Thursday, August 23, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

To give you an impression of how good this book was, I got off the bus yesterday and couldn’t close the book. I walked to my car still reading, with an occasional glance at the ground to make sure I wasn’t going to trip or get run over. I didn’t even want to stop reading long enough to drive the one mile home. I actually contemplated if there was a way I could read all the way home and not wreck. (You’ll be happy to know I decided this wasn’t possible.)

A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini, is the story of two women who grow up in Afganistan. One is Mariam, the bastard child of a rich businessman with three wives and his former housekeeper, the other is Laila, the daughter of a progressive school teacher and his wife, born 19 years later. Their lives eventually intertwine, and it is at that point that I couldn’t stop reading.

First of all, I knew Afghanistan has been at war and in political flux for a while, but until reading this book, I had no idea the turmoil Afghan people have lived through over the past 30 years in particular. It makes me want to go off and work for the UN. A Thousand Splendid Suns gives us insight into the true effect of war and revolving governments in Afghanistan by allowing us to peer into the lives of these two women and witness the struggles and tragedies—and joys—they face.

Khaled Hosseini makes you think about honor, love, happiness, endurance, sacrifice… makes you question your own allegiances, your own strength in facing hardship… makes you appreciate even more the comfortable American life you live, where you may not agree with the choices made by the government, but you aren’t punished for that disagreement. He makes you wish there was something you could do about the atrocities happening to human beings around the world… leaves you hoping for a better life for the Afghan people.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is definitely one of my top 3 books for this summer. Go read it. And then read Hosseini’s first book, The Kite Runner. I’m going to go back and read that one again.

By the River Piedra I Sat Down and Wept by Paulo Coelho

On my way back from a conference in Toronto in May, I found myself finished with all the books I had brought and with a lot of time to sit in an airport (oh, how I love Delta). So I wandered into the airport bookstore and discovered The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho. I choose books by opening to the first page and reading it. If I feel like I need to read more, then I buy it (or borrow it). With The Devil and Miss Prym, I was totally hooked and loved the story. When I was done, I made a mental note to read more by this author.

Last week, I decided to take a break from buying books and went to the library instead. I searched for Coelho and found By the River Piedra, I Sat Down and Wept. It is the story of a woman and a man who grew up together and, in their teens, find themselves in love. He, however, has a wanderlust that takes him out to explore the world, while she stays close to home in pursuit of a stable, secure life. After years apart, he calls her and they meet again and we learn that his feelings for her have never wavered, while she has become convinced that he is not the man for her.

When you read By the River Piedra…, you feel like you’re somewhere in a small mountain village in South America, sitting by the fire and listening to one of the village elders telling a folk story. You know there is a moral (in fact, the story is practically overflowing with moral guidance), but you are so enchanted with the story that you don’t feel preached to and you hardly notice that you’re being taught a lesson. The Devil and Miss Prym was the same way—you come away from Coelho’s stories feeling enlightened, yet like you’ve just been told a really good (grown-up) bed time story. I love it, and I’ll be reading more of Coelho’s work.

Jack & Jill by James Patterson

I try to be good about mixing up actual meaty literature (like 1984) with good old fashioned storytelling. The kind where you can devour the book in a couple of days because you can’t wait to see what happens. James Patterson has always been reliable for a great mystery and a fun, easy read. Jack and Jill was no exception.

Jack and Jill is part of the series of Alex Cross detective novels. Cross is a homicide detective living in not-the-best neighborhood in Washington, DC. He is a good, moral guy with a great family and close friends… the kind of guy you’d like to know and that you hope every police officer is like.

In this book, there are two series of killings that Alex Cross must solve. Jack & Jill are two killers who are randomly killing famous people around DC, and another killer is brutally murdering young children in Cross’s neighborhood. From the very start, I was hooked and couldn’t wait to solve the crime with Detective Cross.

By the end of Jack and Jill, I was again left pondering our government, but I won’t say much more than that because you should read this book yourself. Let’s just say that now that I think about it, maybe Big Brother is controlling things a little more than I’d like to believe….

Definitely a great vacation book!

1984 by George Orwell

When I graduated from college, I decided it was time for me to read all those classics that either never ended up on my high school reading lists or I faked my way through in English class. (Yes, I did fake my way through some of those books in high school… YOU try reading Treasure Island because you have to!) I went to a used book store (back then, there was no Cracked Book, but there was something similar…) and stocked up. I must have bought 15 “classics,” from The Great Gatsby to Cry the Beloved Country to 1984. And I read… I think maybe one of them.

But! I never got rid of them. So a couple weeks ago when I had finished Harry Potter but hadn’t had a chance to get to the book store, I decided it was time for me to plow into George Orwell’s 1984. Especially because that book was probably THE most widely read and referenced of the books I bought.

Well, now at least I have some reference when people talk about the book. It was alright… but I won’t read it again. It was interesting to see the perspective of a man writing in the 1950’s predicting 30 years into the future. Jeez, talk about doomsday! 1984 tells us the story of a society where every move you make is monitored by Big Brother and the Thought Police and history is rewritten on a daily basis to conform to Big Brother’s ideology. Pretty spooky. Our antagonist, Winston, decides that he really doesn’t agree with the crap that’s being forced into his mind, and this book tells the tale of Winston’s exploration of defying Big Brother.

I think I would have enjoyed this book a little more if Orwell hadn’t launched into about 20 pages of pseudo-political commentary in the middle of the book. Psh! Who needs that crap! I just wanted to know what happened to Winston!

When I finished this book, my first thought was, “Alright, that’s over with.” My second thought was, “Jeez, it’s a good thing that’s not REALLY how things are… I think….” It is disturbing to think of a society where the government has so much power that they can literally erase and rewrite history and have people believe it. It’s disturbing to think of a society where the government is watching your every move. And yet our government is given more and more leeway every day to poke around in our private lives… I’d like to think we’ll never end up in a world like George Orwell predicted in 1984, but some days, I wouldn’t be surprised.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Ah yes, the moment I had been waiting for for 2 years came just 2 short weeks ago... the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the seventh and final book in J. K. Rowling's amazing series. This release was the biggest of my life--never have I anticipated a movie or book or video game or electronic device or ANYTHING like I anticipated this book. And if that makes me a dork, that's alright. The day I spent with this book probably makes me a bigger one. :)

I savored every moment of this book as I have each of the other six in the series. There is something about the way that Jo Rowling writes that isn't necessarily the most amazing prose ever written, but it draws you in to the story as though you are right there, perhaps as though you've gone into the pensieve (for those of you who have read any Harry Potter! if not, don't worry about it. :) ).

Deathly Hallows shows us a very grown up Harry Potter, a very determined and, ultimately, resolved young man who has found himself in a battle to the death with Evil. His friends Ron and Hermione are by his side in this battle, and the trio is a great symbol of how important friendship can be.

I don't have a lot of analysis of this book because I feel like that would be analyzing my friends' lives. Isn't that weird? Well, if you haven't read these books, that should tell you something. By the time you're done, your family will have grown. Not that I have an ill word to say about any of them... more than anything, it was brilliant to have so many loose ends wrapped up. I was very satisfied with the way the book ended, but I will admit I shed a few tears for a few of the deaths.

Seriously, go pick up Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone if you haven't yet. You won't regret it. And if for some reason you've read the first six books but not this one yet, what are you waiting for?!

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut

When Kurt Vonnegut died earlier this year, I realized that I had never read a book by this legendary author. I talked to a girl I work with who raved about his work, and know a guy who does the same. So I put him on my mental list of "Authors I Must Read" and went about my business. A few weeks ago, while I was attempting to fill time until Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out, I picked up Slaughterhouse Five from The Cracked Book.

I had sort of anticipated Vonnegut reading like William Faulkner: slowly. I was wrong. Slaughterhouse Five was a very quick read, I read it in just one week of bus rides. :) The story is of Billy Pilgrim, a World War II veteran who becomes "unstuck" in time after being abducted by aliens. Sound wacky? It is, a bit. But it's funny and tragic, too. Billy, in the war, witnesses the bombing of Dresden, which I knew nothing about and sounds horrific. Slaughterhouse Five is a war story, but the statement made is in regards to the product of war: a man who can find no true place in his life and seems to sort of go through the motions, looking for purpose, basically lost.

Perhaps I'm wrong and that wasn't what Vonnegut meant at all. Perhaps Billy really was abducted by Trafalmadorians. But in this day of war, how many stories do we hear of men who come home completely changed and with difficulty readapting to pre-war life? When I think of Billy Pilgrim, I see a man who witnessed and experienced the hard and tragic realities of WWII and came home and came up with a new reality. Because wouldn't we all like to find some way to come to terms with the violence and sadness in the world? That's what Billy does.

If I'm perfectly honest, while I was reading this book, I was entertained, but kept thinking, "What's so great about this?" Kurt Vonnegut has a reputation for being a great American writer, but on first glance this book was just an amusing story. Reflecting, you can see there is much more to Slaughterhouse Five than meets the eye. Perhaps I'll go back and read it one day when I'm not rationing out the pages to make sure I finish at precisely the right hour to go get my Harry Potter book. :)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Tears of the Giraffe and The Kalahari Typing School for Men, by Alexander McCall Smith

Tears of the Giraffe and The Kalahari Typing School for Men are the second and fourth in the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. Somehow, on my last trip to The Cracked Book, I missed the third. :( Oh well! Luckily this is a series that you don't have to read in order to enjoy.

I read The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency a year or so ago, and got the second in the series to take with us to Turks & Caicos earlier this summer. Reading Tears of the Giraffe, I was reminded why I had made a mental note to read the rest of this series. These books are super entertaining, and I find myself laughing out loud as I read them. So I had to go out and get the next (or what I thought was the next) book in the series as soon as I got home!

Mma Precious Ramotswe is the Head Detective/Proprietor of The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency in Gabarone, Botswana. The series tells of her many adventures in solving sometimes sad, sometimes hillarious cases that people in her community have. As I read these, I find myself longing for the old days, a simpler life. Precious and her friends and co-workers live in a small town in Africa that is very traditional, they have fairly new technology but aren't attached to cell phones and computers like we are. I don't know, maybe I just want to go to Africa. :)

Regardless, Tears of a Giraffe and The Kalahari Typing School for Men were great easy reads that provide lots of laughs, a couple of tears (more in an, "aww, how sweet!" way than a sad way), and some good old fashioned lessons in morality. I highly recommend the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series if you want a good set of books for a beach or pool read!

Friday, July 13, 2007

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides

For years now, I’ve been reading what Oprah Winfrey tells me to read. She hasn’t once steered me wrong, so there was no reason for me not to pick up her latest book club selection. Especially when I found it at my favorite used book store, The Cracked Book, for half price! (Oh, how I love this store.)

Middlesex is a story of self-discovery. It’s about accepting who you are and what you feel, and traveling down the road of life to your true identity. It’s about finding a place in your life for all of your quirks, and those of your family. Callie, our narrator, comes from a Greek family—her grandparents come to the United States from Greece in their early twenties with a huge secret that no one in their family from that point on discovers until both are dead. While Jeffrey Eugenides exposes their secret (and Callie’s) quite early on in the book, I’d rather not spoil it here. Suffice it to say that Middlesex left me reflecting how, sometimes, the completely “abnormal” can have astonishingly “normal” results.

Middlesex is one of those books that infiltrated my life. I compared the journeys of Callie, the main character, to my own life, and had dreams that I was experiencing the same genetic flaw she experiences. Middlesex makes you question your own identity. I ask myself how many people are really able to experience and find peace with the journey of self discovery. I know from experience that it’s not always easy to just be okay with who you are. It takes a long time, and a lot of self-questioning. Callie is faced with a choice about her identity, and only at that junction in her life she truly able to take a look at herself and those around her and realize her own path to happiness and peace with herself. Not to say that as soon as you realize which way this path leads that happiness is achieved immediately, but I think we often don’t take the time to stop and really assess our own happiness. We take little steps that will give us momentary pleasure, but neglect to truly look around us and find where we belong. We don’t stop and look up to find the right route, because we’re too busy making sure we don’t trip over the tiny obstacles in the way. But really, when it comes down to it, it’s easy to get back up from a fall and keep going in the right direction. It’s not as easy to get back to the right path and continue in the right direction once you’ve completely lost your way.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, by JK Rowling

In anticipation of the release of Book 7, I decided to read Book 6 again. In the past, before each release, I’d reread all of the previous books. This time that was gonna be a little too time consuming, and I have the advantage of being able to watch condensed versions of the first 5 books in movie form, so it was just a revisit to Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince that was required to prepare.

I was glad I decided to read this one again. For one thing, when it came out I read it in about 24 hours, so that was a long time ago. I forget things. For another, I just LOVE these books! JK Rowling truly has created a magical world that feels like home when I’m reading her books. When the book’s not in my hands, I find myself daydreaming about what Harry and company are up to at the moment. I can’t wait to find those precious minutes to read more.

Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince is mostly a lead up to the grand finale. In Book 5 (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix), we learn that evil Lord Voldemort has truly returned, and HBP is Harry’s chance to prepare for the fight of his life. The entire book feels anticipatory—what can Harry possibly do to be ready to fight such darkness? When I read it the second time, I remembered the ending and found myself crying long before the actual tragic end to one of the main characters. It was like losing a close family friend. When I finished the last page, I found myself thinking about Harry as you might think of a friend who’s about to embark of the challenge of his life. You reflect on that friend’s strengths, reassure yourself that he is, indeed, capable of success, and feel butterflies in your stomach at the prospect of how it’s all going to go down.

I still haven’t stopped stopping to think and root for Harry a little bit every now and then. And in 8 short days, I’ll get to find out how it all ends. I am on pins and needles.