Thursday, March 27, 2008

March Book Club Meeting TOMORROW

Sorry for the late notice, but I just got all the details worked out. We're planning on meeting in Downtown Sacramento at R15 (the corner of R and 15th Streets) at 4 p.m. on Friday, March 28. If anyone out there is interested in talking about this month's book, Water For Elephants by Sarah Gruen, feel free to stop by and have a drink with us.

If you don't have time to make it on Friday (sorry again about the late notice), there will still be an online discussion/review on the last of the month.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Real Ellis, and A Place to Belong

I'm not a huge fan of Bret Easton Ellis, but I know plenty of people who are. I read my first Ellis book last year. It was also the first Ellis book ever written, which I found out in this article that he wrote when he was 21. Because of this discovery I feel I owe him another chance. I plan to pick up one of his other books sometime this year, although I'm fairly certain he's just not my type of author. However, his life is really interesting and I suggest reading this great article about him in the Los Angeles Times.

Also, I just read about A Place to Belong, a memoir type book about a boy who grew up too quickly and began a life on the road at age 14. It seems as though this is author Paul Miller's first book, but it has gotten great reviews. It sounds like an interesting book that I'll definitely be picking up soon. If you'd like to read a review of it go here.

Monday, March 24, 2008

With evolution, nature can recover from nearly everything

If humans were to go extinct in the next few years, it's safe to say that mother nature will fully recover. There are some things she will likely not be able to fix, nuclear waste being top of the list, but evolution will help her to take care of a lot of the other problems humans have created, at least according to The World Without Us by Alan Weisman.

Luckily Weisman didn't just focus on one city and tell us how it would be destroyed and returned to its natural state, which was what I feared when I began reading the book. The first chapter focuses on New York City, the penultimate city to most Americans, but he quickly moves on to other things. Weisman talks to bridge workers to find out how quickly bridges would corrode and crumble depending on climate. He also looks into how buildings deteriorate, how roads crack and give way to trees and plants, and how other species would be effected by the loss of humans.

The chapters about deterioration of man-made buildings were difficult for me to read as I don't have a very scientific mind. I had to really focus on each paragraph to be sure I was really understanding, which made this a long book for me. I found the chapters about case studies (Chernobyl, the DMZ between the Koreas, etc.), and those about other species, to be the most fascinating. As a crazy environmentalist I find myself always thinking everything would be better off without humans, but this just isn't the case. There are several species that would likely become extinct themselves as a result of human extinction, many of those being the animals we have painstakingly domesticated and bred for our own use.

Other chapters that took turns I didn't expect were the chapter on war, in which Weisman argues that war is actually good for the environment despite horrible examples of it causing destruction, and the section about birds, in which we learn that birds are the least effected by humans because they don't have to spend all their time on Earth with us but they are still killed in the hundreds each year because of human interaction.

Overall, I found this book to be really interesting and I appreciated the illustrations that helped to explain some of the more difficult issues and managed to break up the dense text for me. The book is well researched and well written, giving a very full picture of what would happen if humans disappeared without destroying the Earth in the process.

Monday, March 17, 2008

A story of women in Afghanistan

It is difficult to write a review about A Thousand Splendid Suns without wanting to make comparisons to Khaled Hosseini's first novel, The Kite Runner, even though the two books are mutually exclusive. One doesn't have to have read The Kite Runner to understand A Thousand Splendid Suns, and in fact the two books are quite different.

The similarities lie in the way the story is told, in that Hosseini begins the story in an Afghanistan very unlike the one we read about in the newspapers today. A Thousand Splendid Suns begins in the 60's with Mariam, a harami, the illegitimate child of a rich man. Her father is never able to fully claim her and when her mother dies she is forced into an arranged marriage that will move her far away from her father and enable him to forget the shame that lies in her very being. Mariam is moved to Kabul, where she is treated kindly at first by her new husband. However, he is very strict, expecting her to where Burqa long before the Taliban comes to power and makes it mandatory for all women.

In the book we see Afghanistan transformed from a very modern city, where women are treated as equals with (most) men. It then goes through the period where Afghanistan is at war with Russia, and the story changes from Mariam to Laila. Laila is only 14 when her friends have all moved from her childhood neighborhood to escape the war. Just as her family is preparing to leave themselves, their home is shelled and both of her parents are killed. She is rescued by Rasheed, Mariam's husband, and forever after their lives are entwined.

Once the book reaches this point it takes on a much quicker pace, switching back and forth from Mariam to Laila, telling the story of their life together from each of their perspectives, which eventually becomes one and the same. Once the Taliban takes over we see a stark contrast between the Afghanistan of before and the Afghanistan of today.

"They want us to operate in burqa," the doctor explained, motioning with her head to the nurse at the door. "She keeps watch. She sees them coming, I cover."

She said this in a pragmatic, almost indifferent, tone, and Mariam understood that this was a woman far past outrage. Here was a woman, she thought, who had understood that she was lucky to even be working, that there was always something, something else, that they could take away.

Reading this book was difficult for me as it was told from the perspective of women. I could almost tangibly feel their anger mounting. They try everything humanly possible to get away from the horrible situation, but they are always betrayed.

Mariam thinks back to that long-ago morning when Mammy had said to her, "Like a compass needle pointing north, a man's accusing finger always finds a woman. Always. You remember that Mariam."

For them, these experiences really put their lives into perspective. They realize they really don't have any other option. And their husband helps them to see that, always pointing out that without him they'd be out on the street or dead because neither is able to work, nor are they able to be in public without a male companion without risking being severely beaten.

Mariam heard the answer in his laugh: that in the eyes of the Taliban, being a communist and the leader of the dreaded KHAD made Najibullah only slightly more contemptible than a woman.

If you are interested in Afghanistan, it's culture and it's people, both before and after the last 20 years of conflict, I highly recommend Hosseini's books. He tells the stories of normal people, and he tells it with a balanced hand I don't think would be possible by westerners who probably wouldn't be able to write without showing their outrage by such treatment of women.

Other blog reviews of this book:
Maw's Books

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Love your public library

There aren't much things I like better in the world than my public library. I can order all of the books I want for free. I can go on a waiting list for the popular books and have them waiting for me at my local branch as soon as they come in. And how cute is it that they still only charge 25 cents a day for turning a book in late. Blockbuster has nothing on the public library. I'm sitting in my public library using free internet and marveling over the four books I just checked out:

I've had "Anthills of the Savannah" on my reading list for more than a year, and have it listed as one of my books for the TBR Challenge. I've been in love with Chinua Achebe's writing ever since I read "Things Fall Apart" in 10th grade. Achebe is a natural storyteller who conveys the history of his people and the effects of imperialism in his short books. I've read wonderful things about this book and am looking forward to it.

Another Margaret Atwood book. Another book based around WWII. I'm becoming predictable in my old age. I've been looking for another Atwood book to read, and this one came highly recommended so I'm giving it a try. This is supposed to be one of her best books, and winner of The Booker Prize. I found the cover for "The Blind Assassin" to be a little confusing, but that's not unusual for an Atwood book. I guess I'll just have to read it to see what it's really about. I promise to report back.

"The Solace of Leaving Early" is another book that was recommended to me by a friend. It's Haven Kimmel's first novel. The basic premise is a murder in a small town brings two friends together. The first, 40-year-old preacher Amos Townsend, had been counseling the deceased as her marriage was unraveling. The second, Langston Braverman has abandoned her Ph.D. studies in search of a simpler life, only to return home to the news that one of her childhood friends has been murdered.

And, lastly, I am finally going to get around to reading "The Omnivore's Dilemma." I have heard great things about this book and really want to read it before my copy of Michael Pollan's new book arrives. I'm currently 91st on the list, so I won't be too rushed to finish Dilemma. For those of you who haven't heard of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," it is Pollan's attempt to answer the question, "What should we eat?" For omnivores it isn't an easy answer because we are able to eat just about anything nature has to offer us. In the book Pollan gives a history of four different kinds of diets and shows the benefits and downfalls of each.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

March book club selection: Water for Elephants

Water For Elephants has caught my eye a couple of times, but I was never sure I liked the idea of a story about a circus. However, it has been on my reading list for more than a year, so I'm going to give it a go and see if it's worth all the hype.

Here's a description from Publisher's Weekly (found on Amazon):

"With its spotlight on elephants, Gruen's romantic page-turner hinges on the human-animal bonds that drove her debut and its sequel (Riding Lessons and Flying Changes)—but without the mass appeal that horses hold. The novel, told in flashback by nonagenarian Jacob Jankowski, recounts the wild and wonderful period he spent with the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth, a traveling circus he joined during the Great Depression. When 23-year-old Jankowski learns that his parents have been killed in a car crash, leaving him penniless, he drops out of Cornell veterinary school and parlays his expertise with animals into a job with the circus, where he cares for a menagerie of exotic creatures[...] He also falls in love with Marlena, one of the show's star performers—a romance complicated by Marlena's husband, the unbalanced, sadistic circus boss who beats both his wife and the animals Jankowski cares for. Despite her often clich├ęd prose and the predictability of the story's ending, Gruen skillfully humanizes the midgets, drunks, rubes and freaks who populate her book."

The book club discussion will be online on March 31, the last day of the month. I also plan to hold an in-person discussion that evening so be sure to read the book. If there is enough interest I'll do live discussions each month.

OK then, happy reading!