Friday, March 28, 2008

Full Cry by Rita Mae Brown

Rita Mae Brown is a prolific and varied author. Her Sneaky Pie mystery series is a light fun cozy series. Her early books were very marked social commentary. Her hunting series, of which Full Cry is third installment, is an interesting blend of her two other styles. It is a cozy mystery - there is no excessive blood, you spend the book working with the main character to discover who the villain is, and you learn a bit about something in the meantime. But, it also has some sharp social digs worked into the dialogue.
The main character, Sister Jane Arnold is a feisty 70 year old Master of the Hunt for her fox hunting team. At her age and based on her life experience she is not afraid to say exactly what she thinks. Through the course of the story she waxes poetic about a distinct number of social problems in existence today.
The mystery revolves around the use of illegal steroids by high school and professional athlete. Brown has no qualms about sharing her opinions about the role of drugs on professional paid athletes in today's society. Marital fidelity and the havoc it wrecks on everyone is a common theme in her books. But, Brown also shares her less than traditional views on love and marriage. She often has a gay character who is looking for a relationship. In this book she deals with a multiracial relationship in very open terms. She also does not apologize for her stance that love changes and open marriages or affairs are sometimes the best solution.
Finally, Brown's description of modern day fox hunting is intriguing. She is obviously extremely knowledge of and passionate about the sport. I think the details that she includes is part of why I like this series better than her other series. But, as with her Sneaky Pie books, she includes the lives of the animals - the hounds, the foxes, the horses, even the wildlife - to tell a more complete story about what fox hunting is and how it is conducted.
I didn't expect to get very excited about Full Cry. I thought it would just be a light, mindless read. But in fact it was a pretty good book.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Lady of the Snakes by Rachel Pastan

I read Lady of the Snakes in less than twenty-four hours. First, because it was a very good, well-written, and engaging story. But second, because I found it hard to read and wanted to get done with it so it didn't drag me done. I sincerely felt like my emotional state of being was being torn down by reading what Pastan had written. For me, it was too real and brought together too many uncomfortable experiences in the past seven years.
The story revolves around Jane Levitsky, an academic who is completely focused on her research - the life and writings of Grigory Karkov and his wife and copywriter Masha Karkova. The story opens with the birth of Levitsky's daughter Maisie. Throughout the birth Levitsky keeps comparing herself to the nineteenth-century Russian. This conscious intertwining of their lives remains a major theme throughout the story.
The second crucial element of the story is the mystery that Levitsky is trying to uncover about Karkov and Karkova based on details she begins to find in her academic research. I found that story was what drew me in and kept me reading. I had a good idea of the outcome, but Pastan managed to make the answer novel enough that it would be unlikely for anyone to guess exactly what will occur.
But, the experiences that Levitsky has as a woman trying to juggle her roles as wife, mother, and academic rubbed me raw. From her advisor telling her she is not a serious academic because she got pregnant to an uncomfortable conversation with a colleague who quit her job to stay home and raise her children I cringed. I was this character. And the uncomfortable conversations that I did not have, I watched and heard about some of my classmates having. In that regard, Pastan has done an incredible job honestly portraying the fine line female academics walk to be everything for everyone.
Moreover, the storyline about Levitsky's waning relationship with her husband as she tries to juggle her first year as a professor with a two-year old at home was poignant. I read interactions between Jane and her husband Billy and nearly cried. I clearly remember moments very like those between my husband and me as I tried to juggle similar loads. Luckily, I have not had to suffer the moments that Levitsky does which allow her to grow into her roles.
If you want to read a book that very accurately portrays the position of strong-minded female academics who want to have it all, this is an excellent book. If you want to read something light that won't make you think - especially if you are a female academic - this is not the best book for you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle

A Year in Provence has become one of those "new classics." I feel like I already should have read this book. And, as a French historian that I "should" like it. Honestly, I'm torn. I'm glad that I read this; I feel like now I can check it off my imaginary list of books to read before I die. But, I'm not sure that I feel much more enlightened or better off for having read it.
Peter Mayle and his wife left England, bought a house in Provence, and moved their permanently. Mayle's book is a one-year diary of their first year in the house and country. The man has way too much money. In the course of the book he installs a swimming pool (or maybe they paid to have it installed before they arrived), puts brand-new central heating in the entire house, rips out and installs a brand-new kitchen, buys copious cases or wine, cases of olive oil, and eats out on a daily basis. These anecdotes make up the body of the book, but they start to sound like bragging - look how much I have to make my like utopian.
The descriptions of the French are very amusing. While the characters are obviously stereotyped, there are many descriptions that are spot-on from my much more limited experience in France. As a francophile, I did enjoy reading Mayle's witty banter with the local characters in his neighborhood. It made me long to return to France.
Finally, this book will make you hungry! Every few pages Mayle describes in great detail the new and amazing meal that he and his wife have discovered. From truffles to rabbit to bread rubbed with tomatoes and dripped in single-pressed olive oil, his meals made my mouth water - yet another reason I want to return to France.
Oh, and one last side note: if you don't speak French, be cautious. Mayle is haphazard in his translations of the local people. Sometimes he immediately uses English, sometimes the words are recognizable from the context of the story, but there are a number of occasions when it is necessary to either understand the French or be willing to skim and not figure out fully the intricacies of the story. Were it any other language but French - which I do happen to read - I would find that trait really pretentious.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dakota Born by Debbie Macomber

I have run across Debbie Macomber's name again and again. She is a terribly prolific author. She is also a very well-advertised author. Her name comes up in romance, in mystery, in general fiction. I even received a packet in the mail advertising her various series. But, until now, I had never read one of her books.
My mom gave me Dakota Born. Like me she grew curious about Macomber after seeing her books everywhere. For my mom, the choice of book was obvious - having grown up in South Dakota she was curious to see how an author would write about it today. There were moments in the story when my mother said it was obvious Macomber was not from the Dakotas herself. There were factual elements that just did not ring true.
Not knowing that world the same way my mom does, I didn't notice the factual problems. However, I did grow up with the impression that someone from South Dakota would not consider themselves from "the Dakotas." They had allegiance to their state, but not to those other people up north. Macomber tended to combine the two as though there were one state, one allegiance, one type of people.
The book for me was one of the quickest reads I have had in a long time. In part, it was quick because I was genuinely interested in characters and wanted to know where the story was going. I happily picked up the book whenever I had a spare moment yesterday to read. However, the book was also a quick read because it was not exactly deep. The story revolves around a handful of couples all suffering from typical romance story problems - miscommunication being the prime suspect. There were moments when I was reading when I just wanted to slap the characters and tell them not to be so thick-skulled or dim-witted.
It took me just over 24 hours to read Dakota Born and at 384 pages with my kids home yesterday and a two hour break in the middle for gymnastics class, it was light. If someone handed me another Debbie Macomber book, I would happily read it. The story was enjoyable. However, I don't think I would go out of my way to buy one of her books. There are many other fascinating things on my shelf that take precedence.

Motif for Murder: A Scrapbooking Mystery by Laura Childs

I have read most, if not all, of Laura Child's books. In general, I really like them. They are good light beach reading. You could give them to a kid or your grandmother and not worry about offending any one. And, in both of her series, The Tea Shop mysteries and the Scrapbooking mysteries, you learn a bit more about her topics. She always includes tidbits and facts that make the stories more interesting.
But, I have to say, I was not enchanted with Motif for Murder. I found it to cliché, hurried, and not terribly imaginative. The story revolved around the kidnapping of Carmela, the series heroine's, on again off again husband Shamus. Carmela runs off to the bayou where she saves her husband and then they delve into the death of Uncle Henry. First, I hope that no one would be stupid enough to chase after a possible kidnapper and have the random luck of saving the kidnapping victim because no one else happened to be home. Second, the reality of finding the house and the kidnappers in the middle of the bayou seemed farfetched and unlikely at best.
Third, one of the main cruxes of the mystery they explain on the back cover of the book. Childs sets it up so the reader is supposed to wonder why the scrapbooking store was broken into. However, had you read the back cover you would already know the answer to the question.
This is the first book to have been written post-Katrina. On the one hand it was nice for Childs to acknowledge the hurricane and the affect that it had on the people of New Orleans. On the other, what she did discuss seemed tacked on, more or a marketing ploy or a last minute inclusion rather than a conscious incorporation that had any impact on the story.
I have to wonder if Childs is either getting tired of her scrapbook series or is so busy churning out books that she has destroyed her inspiration and creativity. I will pick up her books again, but after Motif for Murder there are not books that will be on the top of my reading list.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Moshin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is one of the most unique and most interesting books that I have read in quite a while. But, it was also a quick and imminently readable book. It is the kind of story that would be great to use in a classroom because most students would be able to read it without too much foreknowledge. Plus, there is an incredible story and a lot of important historical and political issues which are uncovered in the course of the story.
The story is written as a one-sided dialogue between Changez, the main character, and an unknown American traveler. Throughout the story, the reader learns a far amount of both Changez and his audience of one. But, the book is written as unending dialogue, the reader never hearing the words or thoughts of the American. The style is unique but extremely effective in this story. It allows the reader to put themselves in the place of the American.
Changez is a Pakistani who receives his education at Princeton, falls in love, gets a high-powered job in New York City, and then watches the destruction of the Twin Towers on 9/11. Subsequently, he struggles with his position as a foreigner in the United States.
Although I have read a few books about Middle Easterners dealing with post-9/11 America, this is the first book that I have read (probably ever) about a Pakistani. Hamid's political insight into the American government and his description of Pakistan sitting precariously between Afghanistan and India has caused me to wonder more about this nation's history and place today.
Reluctant Fundamentalist has received a fair amount of critical appraisal and was shortlisted for the 2007 Booker Prize. However, the topic has, not unsurprisingly, caused a certain amount of consternation. Those who suggest that the book is anti-American, or a hate speech against the American government have obviously not understood Hamid's message. There are some negative statements about the United States in the book. But many Americans would be as willing to make similar statements. Just because the author has an Islamic background doesn't mean that he has greater hatred towards the American government's choices in the past seven years.
I would heartily recommend The Reluctant Fundamentalist to anyone, as long as they are willing to read it with an open mind. If they want to find anti-Americanism, they probably could. But, I do not believe that was Hamid's point. Instead, I think he is trying to show Americans how it felt to be a foreigner - who by chance happened to have the wrong color skin - in New York in late-2001.

Them Bones by Carolyn Haines

Them Bones is a light quick read. It is the story of Sarah Booth Delaney whose family home is in deep debt. She resorts to kidnapping her friend's dog for $5000 to help relieve her financial burden. In a comic turn of events, Tinkie, the dog's owner, ends up hiring Sarah Booth to uncover the history of Hamilton the Fifth, an old local flame.
Haines uses Jitty, the ghost of a family maid from the turn-of-the-century, as a foil for Sarah Booth to discuss the details of the case and talk to in general. Jitty is a comedic break and she also allows for more active dialogue in the story rather than relying on Sarah Booth's internal conversations.
Overall, the story is light and an easy read. It is not particularly deep. It's a fun and enjoyable story.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Fire Watch by Connie Willis

Fire Watch is a collection of early short stories written by Connie Willis between 1979 and 1984. These stories show a darker more pessimistic view of Willis than is true in some of her later stories. The humor for which she has become known does not show up but in one of the stories - "Blued Moon."
Willis's stories in this book reflect the time period in which they were written. There is a genuine fear of communism and a view of the Soviets as the ultimate enemy. Nonetheless, there is an enduring timelessness to the stories that make them readable more than twenty years later.
The first story, "Fire Watch," enters the world that Willis returns to in Doomsday Book and in To Say Nothing of the Dog. This story has a distinctly frightful tone that does not show up in the later books. They give an interesting insight into one of Willis's favorite worlds. World War II England seems to hold a fascination for the author.
Likewise, Willis returns to another common theme for her - the ridiculousness of academia. Both "Blued Moon" and in some ways "Samaritan" both address questions about the validity of academic pursuits and the mix of the absurd with the theoretical.
I would definitely recommend this book to a fan of Connie Willis's other books. However, these stories do come across as dated and dark. This would not be the most logical place to start reading her books in order to create an affinity for Connie Willis.