Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Exodus by Leon Uris

The Palestinian/Israeli conflict seems to be following me this fall. I have had more than one long conversation about the history and the current reality of the situation. Technically, I was trained in grad school to teach the subject. I never would have presented myself as an "expert" or even particularly knowledge about the region and the conflict. However, as I have taught it I have discovered that I do know a lot more about what happened than the average American citizen. However, most of my reading is academic, relatively dispassionate prose about dates and events and responses. Dispassionate is a relative term when talking about Palestine/Israel because anyone who knows the name has an opinion - and usually a very strong opinion about who is wrong and who is right. My university training tended towards a pro-Palestinian stance. I am thankful for that because it allows me to play the devil's advocate in a society that leans towards pro-Israeli beliefs. My own view is uncertain. I feel that there is much too much history to be able to convincingly feel more overt sympathy for one side of the other.
Anyway, that's a long introduction to Leon Uris's book. I picked it up off my shelf, having acquired it by way of my brother. I talked to my mother about the story and she read it sometime in 1963. I am very glad that I read Exodus, but I also have some cautionary fears about introducing a book written in 1958 to today's audience.
Exodus is the story of the creation of the state of Israel. Backtracking through the lives of multiple characters, Leon Uris explains how Jews ended up in the Middle East in the 1940s. His historical knowledge about the ghettos of Poland, the concentration camps of Germany, and the Pale of Settlement seems spot on. There is little that I could find to fault him for and I resoundingly recommended the book to a Jewish student who is curious to learn more about Israel. It is a fascinating read.
However, Uris's perceptions of the Arabs is significantly less historically accurate - to say the least. This is the point in which the book is dated. The Arabs are portrayed in the most stereotypically Orientalist terms possible. The Christian Arabs are sympathetic, but the rest smell bad, are traitorous, have absolutely no morals, and are all identical. The Jews are absolutely, no questions asked, correct in their takeover over the Holy Lands. The "Moslems" are completely wrong because, in Uris's descriptions, they have no love of the land and no ability to care for it. I believe there is some historical accuracy in what he has written, but I would like to think that were he to have written his book forty years later, he would have recognized his universalist dismissal of a people and given the Arabs more credit.
One of the best reasons to read this book is to get a better understanding of the role that the British played in further heightening the tension in the region. Uris shows how the political, religious, and moral dilemmas that the British faced created the conflicts that exist in the region down to today.
I would be very curious to know how, if at all, Uris's views of Israel changed in the 40 years between writing Exodus and his death in 2003. The Palestinian/Israeli region remained mired in conflict and obviously continues to be a major source of tension today. At the very least, reading this book has reaffirmed the need to teach people the history of the Holy Lands in order to allow people to take an educated stance on the continued crisis. But, I would hesitate to recommend Exodus to a dyed-in-the-wool pro-Israeli because Uris's stereotypes of the Arabs will only further confirm their belief that the Palestinians are "evil" and the Jews are not.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Finding Time to Read

After reading my blog I have had a number of people comment that they don't have time to read. I have also been asked where I find the time to read with two kids. For me reading isn't something to fit into my busy day; it is a necessary part of my day. Maybe I should focus on exercising or becoming a gourmet chef instead, but that's just not who I am.
I read every night before I go to bed. If I don't read I will spend hours tossing and turning, going over my day in my head again and again. Reading fiction allows me to divorce myself from the issues that surround me during the day.
I read during my commute to work. I love taking public transportation. Twice a week I get on a tram, sit down, and have 35 uninterrupted minutes - twice a day - to become absorbed in another world. Plus, I don't have to fight traffic, fuss when there's an accident, and search for a parking spot.
I read when I am sitting with my boys watching television. I limit their TV intake but there are times of the day when they need a chance to sit quietly - especially considering that at the ages of 2 and 4 they no longer nap. Some would argue that I should be paying close attention to the shows so I know what they are watching. However, the 25th time you put on The Wiggles Sail Around the World there is no need to pay attention. I have actually discovered that I can simultaneously sing the songs and read; the lyrics don't require that much focus.
Finally, when I'm really invested in a book, I will read in the evenings after the boys go to bed. My husband and I chose a few years ago to save money by getting read of cable television. We watch DVDs , but now TV is not something that we automatically turn on and stare at. Instead it has become one option.
Everyone has their different hobbies and different ways they spend their free time. For me, though, reading is not something that comes low on a list of possible ways to spend my free time. It is something I can't imagine not being an integral part of every day.

Friday, October 19, 2007

The Third Secret by Steve Berry

I like a good conspiracy theory as much as the next guy, but I am getting terribly tired of Marian apparitions, secret societies that control the Church or disagree with the Church, and a rewriting of history in which every event is interconnected in some unexpected way. The Third Secret is not that over the top, but I just had to get that off my chest first. After The DaVinci Code I felt like everyone was a copycat trying to build on Dan Brown’s popularity. I read this book because my husband asked me too. He said that he wanted to talk to me about the “different” final outlook. It solves a lot of the current issues that plague the Church.

There is definitely a sense of the Catholic Church conspiracy theory about this book, but it does have some unique characteristics that I liked. First, the characters are not secondary to the Church. They are in fact the Pope and his chief secretary. Second, Steve Berry has done an extensive amount of research on the papal selection process which is interesting to any Catholic who has thought about what really happens behind closed doors. Third, the answers that Berry suggests at the end of the book have a great appeal to me. As with DaVinci Code, Berry offers solutions that are controversial, but in no way unexpected given the other "revolutionize the Catholic Church" novels that exist.

This isn’t a book I would necessarily recommend, nor would I pan it. It is not terribly original, but it is engaging. It kept me reading, but I didn’t walk away feeling particularly enlightened or encouraged. It fulfills basic “beach reading” material.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Pawing Through the Past by Rita Mae Brown

Rita Mae Brown is a prolific author. This is the eighth book in the Sneaky Pie Mystery series. One thing that has always amazed me about Brown is her ability to write such a traditional cozy style mystery complete with cats. After all, her earlier works were anything but traditional and mainstream. That the same person could pen Venus Envy, Rubyfruit Jungle, and a mystery series set in rural Virginia where two cats and a dog solve the mysteries is a testament to Brown’s diversity. Upon thinking about it more, though, there are some common themes that emerge in her various books. As her mysteries are solved there is often a stark social commentary about what would cause a person to turn to violence.

I read Brown’s stories because they are like coming home – you know what to expect, there is nothing too shocking, and they are easy. She’s a good writer and the stories while not overly obvious are also not trying to twist and turn just to keep the reader guessing. Also, by the eighth book I have a vested interest in the characters. The relationship between Harry and Miranda is quaint. The on again/off again feelings between Harry and Fair are realistic. I like the addition of Tracy who she introduced in this book.

Reading Brown’s work I am often amused by her descriptions of Virginia. Having lived there, I find some of the portrayals apropos. But, I must say her take on Virginia winters make me laugh. Having lived there for six years I never remember a snow storm that lasted more than a few days and even then it was rarely enough to keep cars off the road. Now maybe it was that much worse 20 miles away in the mountains, but I sometimes wonder if her winter scenes are poetic license to create the necessary plot points for the murder and denouement.

If you want something light, you enjoy animals and want an amusing take on what they are thinking and saying, and you like solving mysteries, pick up Brown’s Sneaky Pie Mystery series. They don’t disappoint.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Alibi by Joseph Kanon

A friend gave me this book. She had been intrigued by the topic. However, after reading part of the book she got bored and never finished it. Thinking I might be more interested, she passed it on to me. I understand why she quit. The plot should be fascinating, but the book is laborious to read.

The story takes place in 1946 Venice. Adam, an American soldier who has just finished his job as a Nazi hunter in Germany, travels to Venice to visit his mother. He falls in love with a Jewish woman who recognizes the doctor who turned her father in and had him sent to the internment camps. Murder, intrigue, and witch hunts ensue. World War II Italy is rarely studied in any detail due to the overwhelming shadow placed on it by Germany. The immediate post-war years – especially the attempts to ferret out the “true” fascists from those who were just trying to get by – is likewise not greatly studied. So, the topic definitely made me want to read more.

The overarching theme of the book revolves around moral responsibility. By cooperating with the fascists did someone automatically become guilty? Or, was it justified to cooperate for self-preservation? And, were some people’s lives worth more than others based on their political background, religion, and own moral compass? All of these questions would logically suggest an engaging story.

But it was SLOW!! The story is very dialogue heavy. I have an ongoing debate with an acquaintance about the merits of dialogue versus description. He prefers dialogue; I apparently focus more on descriptive passages. I would guess he might like this book. Kanon has a good ability at writing English the way a foreign-language speaker would speak it. But, for the reader it becomes repetitive and dry. Long conversations that go in circles dominate the story as the characters repeatedly cover the same material over and over. By the end of the story you have a more complete picture of the role of the main actors during the war. But, the 400 pages of suspense are not worth it for the answer on the final pages.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Impossible Things by Connie Willis

I am not a huge fan of short stories. I want the in-depth development of a good long novel. There is a reason that I read books that are part of a series – I like to see characters develop over time. However, Connie Willis is such a great author that I will read anything that she writes.

The first Connie Willis book that I read was To Say Nothing of the Dog. I saw it listed on a book list of great science fiction books. And it was great! Hysterically funny. Then I read Bellwether which is more of a fiction book that deals with science and scientists. That one was wonderful, in part because it happened to be about my hometown, Boulder, Colorado. There is so much to poke fun at in Boulder and she captured the idiosyncrasies perfectly. But, I think her style holds her back from being labeled as one of the great science fiction authors. (Which is odd, because she has won more awards than most authors dream of. Yet, you don’t find her heralded on the shelves at bookstores.) She is sentimental, terribly satirical and funny, and not worried about doomsday. All of those characteristics are what appeal to me but might not appeal to a “typical” science fiction reader.

Some of the stories in Impossible Things didn’t interest me overmuch. But I will mention three that I really enjoyed.

“In the Late Cretaceous:” This is a story about academia at its “finest” – I say in my most sarcastic tone. The lack of understanding of good teaching and basic education is such a crucial point in today’s schools that her story transcends time and place. Plus, the humor that she injects about college campuses is right on.

“Jack:” Writing about London during World War II, Willis takes a very different perspective than is often seen in war literature. The basic story is interesting enough, even without the intrigue about Jack. Honestly, the outcome was a bit obvious, but it did not undermine the narrative of war-torn London. (I have to wonder though, if it was so obvious when it was written. In retrospect, her story probably was novel in the 1980s but has been overdone today.)

“At the Rialto:” My guess is that this story was something of a precursor for Bellwether. The story and the book both have a sense of the ridiculousness of scientific theory played out on average characters. Although I’m not a scientist, I will say that by the end of her story, I had a better understand of quantum theory than I did when I started.

This is a book that I will hand to my husband and tell him to read select stories. As a die-hard science fiction fan, I know that he would not find every one engaging. But there are some that he will appreciate.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

I just finished reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult. I have a few observations to make:

Observation 1: Do not attempt to read this book when you have anything else going on in your life. Life will seem like an annoying distraction. I read all 400 pages in 24 hours. During those 24 hours I also taught three 1 ½ hour classes, made dinner, played with my children etc. To say that it is engaging is an understatement. You will be glued to the book from the first chapter.

Observation 2: I would have said that this book touches a parent differently than it does another reader. But, after finishing it, I’m not sure that that is true. There are universal dilemmas in the book that would engage any reader. And the various voices that Picoult uses to tell the story create an empathy for characters very different from oneself. Through their telling of events, the reader identifies with an angry teenage boy, a mother of a dying daughter, a high-powered lawyer, and a thirteen year old girl.

Observation 3: Be prepared to get angry. I wouldn’t have made that statement until the very end of the book. There were points throughout the story where I got angry at individuals characters and wanted to shake them and ask what they were thinking. To me, that’s a sign of a great writer, when characters become so real that you want to interact with them. But, for me, the end of the book made me very angry with the author.

That’s all I have to say.