Monday, September 29, 2008

The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

My husband handed me The Color of Magic with the phrase, "fluffy, light, entertaining." I took the hint and started reading. His description was apt. The reason he suggested I read it was he wondered if we should look for the other Discworld books by Prachett to add to our ever growing list of books to read. The consensus: I enjoyed it, but I feel no need to go out of my way to read any more Discworld books right now.

The Color of Magic is the first book in Prachett's well-known Discworld series. For fans of Piers Anthony Xanth novels, Prachett is similar. The world revolves around satire and the ridiculousness of our own world. My personal favorite anecdote in the entire book involved a very unique explanation of the Big Bang theory. As Prachett himself states, there is no map of Discworld. Its characters cover the gamut from trolls to vampires to living luggage. Death and Fate are two important characters. The book is funny. It is not deep. But it does poke fun at our own society. For all of those reasons its enjoyable. But, I didn't walk away having fallen in love.

My first introduction to Terry Prachett was through a book known in my house as "the rat book." In fact, it is actually entitled, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents. My mom had a classroom set when she taught Middle School and for the life of her could not understand who had purchased such a book for a school. I read it and had to agree. There was nothing wrong with it, but it did not fit the expected norm of American school educational text. After that introduction I was unsure of Prachett. But, the next book of his I read was a clear winner. I had been on a Neil Gaiman kick and read Good Omens co-written by Terry Prachett. I LOVED Good Omens. It is hysterical. And in reality there is a lot of similarity between Good Omens and The Color of Magic. They both use the supernatural to poke fun at the normal.

If you like Xanth and you're a fan of Good Omens; if you have a young teenager looking for something fun and light to read that has a large number of books in a series; if you want a fantasy beach read, I would definitely recommend The Color of Magic. If someone handed me the set, I would read them. But, I have other things I want to spend my book money on first.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Bride's Kimono by Sujata Massey

I have finally finished the last Sujata Massey book on my bookshelf. No more Rei Shimura Japan mysteries for me. There were enough engaging aspects to the series that I'm glad that I have read them. But, there were enough annoying moments in the writing that made me wonder why I was reading them.

In The Bride's Kimono, Rei travels to Washington D.C. to bring kimono to a museum for an exhibit and to give a speech on kimono history while she is there. The transition from Japan to the United States opened up a new world of Massey's writing. One of the first things I noticed: Massey isn't just negative about Japan, she's negative about the United States too. I have to wonder if there is any culture that she is not derisive of. In this book Americans are materialistic, crime is rampant, and the police are ineffectual and offensive. I remember an old adage which suggests that any person who has lived in more than one culture will always find faults with all of the cultures that he knows. But, I feel like Massey focuses so heavily on the negative that it is impossible to see the positive in her worlds.

On the other hand, this book was a more intriguing mystery than some of her other work. The criminal was not obvious. The reason for the crime was unanticipated. The characters who are suspect are varied and problematic. But, for fans of one particular character of Massey's, this book resolves an ongoing dilemma. Hugh Glendinning is back and Rei finally ends up with the man that she should be with. This book has a greater focus on the stereotypical romantic genre than her other books, but I don't think it is poorly done. And, in this book, readers get to watch the interactions between Rei and the parents that she discusses in each of her books.

One thing that kept me reading was Massey's ability to create a sense of tension. When I put the book down I wanted to know what was going to happen, where Rei would go next. At times I felt like the tension got a bit drawn out, but it was engaging nonetheless.

I won't be running out to buy any more books by Sujata Massey. I am glad that I read the ones that I did. I have learned a bit about Japanese culture and am curious to learn more - in part to dispel some of the stereotypes that I feel Massey has perpetuated.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

My German Question by Peter Gay

I picked up My German Question at a university bookstore a few years ago. The book was being used in a history course and the topic caught my attention. It has sat on my shelf for the past two years because I rarely pick up a non-fiction book to read for enjoyment. However, I decided to assign it as a choice for my students' book review this semester and knew that I needed to have read it before my students. I'm glad to have read Peter Gay's addition to the literature on life in Nazi Germany. It adds a direction to German history that I think has been little covered in the scholarship. However, there are definite limits to the work for the non-academic reader.

Peter Gay grew up a Jewish individual in Berlin. He was an adolescent in the 1930s and obviously was severely affected by the Nazi regime and their treatment of the Jews. However, unlike many Jewish people in that world, Gay and his family succeeded in escaping in 1938 to Cuba, eventually emigrating to the United States. Gay is a respected European historian who has written extensively on cultural questions in Modern Europe. He is probably most well-known for his extensive writings on Sigmund Freud. I first encountered Gay in a history class on 19th Century Europe with the book Schnitzler's Century.

In the 1990s, Gay chose to write an autobiographical examination of life as a Jew in Nazi Berlin. My German Question was the outcome. What makes this book fascinating is how far the path strays from the stereotypical representation of life in the 1930s. Gay never experienced a concentration camp. He never suffered direct physical mistreatment by a Nazi officer. In many ways, he world was quite isolated from the events that popular culture focus on leading up to World War II. The counter example is kristallnacht when members of his family had businesses destroyed and his father went into hiding for a short time. Nonetheless, Gay successfully explains how comprehensive Nazi ideology was in affecting people's lives. He studies his internal dialogue, his interest in sports, his growing awareness of adolescent sexuality as ways of showing how the Nazis affected him and his life. He effectively explains why his family did not feel the need to leave Germany earlier. They did not suffer the extensive cruelty that would lead them to feel a need to flee. And they were German. Why would they leave their homeland? I found the book interesting because it added a dimension that I had not read before.

However, that dimension is also the book's limitation. Gay is readable by a non-academic audience. Yet, if the reader does not have a strong background in the history of Nazi Germany I'm afraid that his views might confuse more than clarify what life was like. Life doesn't seem quite so bad as most books show. In addition, if a reader does not know Gay's academic background, his attention to sexuality and psycho-analysis can get a bit overwhelming. Finally, Gay drops a fair amount of German into his book. At times it is necessary to explain double entendres with the language, but it becomes distracting.

If.. and a big if, you are interested in Nazi Germany and have a decent background in life for the German people in the 1930s, I would strongly recommend Gay's My German Question. He successfully adds an important dimension to understanding life for the German citizen as Hitler rose to power. However, if you merely have a passing interest and prefer non-fiction that reads like straight-forward biography, this book is not the best choice.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Islam by Eyewitness Books and Mosque by David Macauley

I assigned sections from these books for my Middle Eastern History class this semester. I guessed that a number of my students were taking this class to learn some of the basics about Islam and life in the Middle East. So, I chose to give them excerpts from young readers books at the outset to familiarize themselves with the basic before we jumped to the more detailed history of the Islamic world. I hope that they respond as favorably as I have. Both Macauley and the Eyewitness book are excellent forays for a beginner interested in Islam. The books offer a historical interpretation of the Muslim faith that remains remarkably unbiased.

Macauley's 2003 work describes the creation of a fictitious mosque in the 16th century Ottoman Empire. He follows the architect and the financial donor as they decide how to construct the building. Macaulay is sensitive to the historical period and carefully explains the role of zakat, legal almsgiving, to justify the cost in constructing a mosque. His pictures and his explanations clearly show the role of a mosque in society; the important features of a mosque, specific to the Ottoman Empire in this era, but in many ways similar to mosques across historical and regional boundaries; and the surrounding buildings that would have likely been constructed alongside a mosque. With a long history of other architectural books for young adults, Macauley has a strong history in his field. I was pleased at his interpretation and sensitivity to a field that can often be contentious today.

As much as I enjoyed Macauley, I have to say, I liked Islam even better. Like the rest of the DK Eyewitness book series, this book is set up like a young adult's encyclopedia. Each page incorporates pictures and short explanations to further explain the religion and the society of Islam. What impressed me the most with this book was its ability to remain unbiased and historical. It would have been easy to oversimplify the history of Islam and try to describe one Islam that was relevant at all times. The authors of this work have not done so. There are pages that cover important historical era - Muhammad's life, the Crusades, the creation of the Ottoman Empire - and sections that cover diverse geographical areas - Mali, India, China as well as the more familiar (to Western readers) Arabian peninsula.

Whether you have no experience with Islam and are looking for a basic introduction to the faith or you have a decent amount of knowledge but would like further clarification about particular details, I would strongly recommend this book. In fact, I don't doubt that my lectures the next few weeks will be better because I sat and read Islam and Mosque carefully.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Flower Master by Sujata Massey

Due to less than careful reading of copyright dates, I read the last two Massey novels out of order. I finished The Floating Girl first, when in fact it is a story that comes after The Flower Master in the chronology of Rei Shimura's life. So, I knew going into The Flower Master a bit about what would happen to Rei and therefore knew at least one person who could not have been the murderer.

I have, as you may have noticed, a love/hate relationship with Massey's books. I continue to read them for the cultural information that I learn while I nonetheless feel that their are flaws in her writing. That having been said, The Flower Master is one of my favorite books in the series so far. I learned a fair amount about Japanese culture that I did not know - one of the greatest assets of Massey's books. In this instance it was a detailed explanation of the role of ikebana - flower arranging - for Japanese women. I thought that Massey did a good job elucidating the female-centric world and the jealousies that exist which are played out through flowers. She adds interesting cultural touches -a Koren-Japanese woman who never gets recognized for her hard work because of her heritage, for example.

There is also a secondary story about the impact of pesticides in flowers. It is logical to realize that flowers sold for decorative purposes have pesticides being used on them, but it is not something I have ever heard about before. Massey successfully introduces an environmental message into her book about the dangers of beauty and the appeal of a more natural type of nature. This sub-plot in the story also demonstrates a cultural interaction between the Latin American world and Japan that I was unaware of. (Amero-centric that I sometimes am, I think I forget that most nations have interactions with each other not just with the United States.)

The resolution to the book was sadly lacking. It was too quickly resolved and the choice of murderer seemed to come out of left field. I understood the choice of assailant, but I feel like Massey needed to lead up to the answer more deftly and once the murderer was discovered she needed to more clearly resolve the story line. Instead, the murderer is found, chapter ends. Next chapter starts the next week. What happened in between,? As far as I was concerned a lot of people were left sitting at a party waiting for food and flowers.

Once again, a mixed review for Massey. I'll keep reading (I have one or two more on the shelf) for the cultural story. But, I will probably once again find fault with her technical skills as a mystery author.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

I read March by Geraldine Brooks which was good, but not amazing. I enjoyed it, but don't remember much about it. So, when friends and family began raving about People of the Book I thought I would pick it up, but I didn't run right out and buy it. Mom sent me her copy and it has been sitting on my shelf all summer. I was in the mood for something non-mystery and this caught my eye. In the end, I'm glad that more than one person recommended it to me as I really enjoyed People of the Book. Yet, I find that it is a hard book to describe accurately.

The story takes place over a 500 year period working backwards chronologically in time from the 1990s until the 1480s. The story opens with a book conservationist who has been called to Sarajevo to verify the authenticity of a Haggadah (an illuminated Jewish text that tells the story of Passover) that was thought to have been destroyed during the Bosnian Civil War. As the conservationist attempts to unravel the mystery of this beautiful illuminated text the story jumps back in time to the world the book inhabited at different eras.

What I relished in this book was the encapsulated snapshot that Brooks gave of the life of average Jewish individuals through history. Most of the eras that she chose revolved around highly contentious moments when the Jewish people were at risk. One story takes place during World War II. Another takes place during the Jewish expulsion from Spain. But, because the book is not a static item that continues to have a life outside of the people who own it, Brooks does not feel the need to tell complete stories. Snippets end without a resolution to the lives of the individuals who interacted with the Haggadah. By the end of the book, the story of the Haggadah is resolved. As a reader you feel a sense of closure as the plots comes full circle and the text is authenticated and preserved.

There was a greater honesty to Brook's story because she did not wrap up each sub-plot into a neatly encased story. The threat to the Jewish people, the senseless death at the hands of religious zealots, the unease of the characters as they moved forward is mitigated because at length their journey is only important in so far as the preservation of the Haggadah is concerned. But as a reader I had a much greater sense of the long and often sad history of the Jewish people. Brooks compassionately showed the number of times that the Jews have been treated horrifically because of their religious beliefs. And, without giving away the ending, I had a huge appreciation for her choice of artist to have originally created the illuminations used in the Haggadah. To me, that choice speaks volumes about Brooks understanding of religious tension and strife and the senselessness of the death that has revolved around religion.

Another interesting side note is how readers have viewed People of the Book. To me it is first and foremost a book about religious intolerance. I have heard from a friend that it is primarily a book about the world of book conservation and the science involved. I have also heard second hand that it is at its base a love story. All of these things are true but I must say that the love story for me was merely a means to tell the story and not the plot. Nonetheless, I think it is a mark of a great book when different readers can take vastly different things with them when they finish. I would recommend this book to most anyone.