Saturday, June 30, 2007

London Calling by Edward Bloor (2006)

This was a wonderful surprise of a book - a young adult book I got hoping my son would be willing to listen to a book again on our last trip, but the iPod ruled. London Calling had just the right combination of today's teen angst, a well researched historical period, and a bit of magic. Martin doesn't get along with many of his classmates in a religious prep school. His grandmother leaves him an old radio, when she dies, and through the radio he connects with London of 1940. I now realize that I never did understand what the London Blitz was all about, but through Martin's time travel, I got a clear image of life in London at that time - and how brave the English really were to not give in to Hitler while being constantly bombed. Martin gets to see both his grandfather, and the grandfather of his arch enemy in their youth. These family "heroes" aren't always so heroic. I like it when a historical figure gets personalized beyond official accomplishments. Even though these are fictional historical figures, the same idea applies, since that kind of information is rarely recorded.

The thing that thrilled the librarian in me was how Martin goes about researching and verifying the things he has seen in the past. He uses the Internet, then his sister has access to in depth databases through her work at an encyclopedia publisher (how cool is that?), and he finds some primary sources - a lady with photos, and eventually letters and diaries, that change how certain people and a period in history will be recorded. Martin even tracks someone from that time period down to interview.

One more piece of my world view jig saw puzzle is in place. I've recommended this book to my children's lit. colleague.

Heckuva Job, Bushie! by G.B. Trudeau (2006)

I hadn't bought or read a Doonesbury book for ages. I have followed the comic strip since college, over 30 years. Recently it is something in my "fun"column on my computer, and I check it almost every day. I have really liked Trudeau's comments on the war and its consequences, so I thought it was important to buy this particular book, which covers the strips from 2005-2006, including Alex choosing a college. I remember Cornell getting into the spirit and sending the fictional character an application packet. I feel BD's returning home as an amputee especially moving. I have just reconnected with an old friend JB, who was the first Vietnam vet I knew. Lasting effects... And then there is Duke returning to the states - to New Orleans, to milk the post Katrina money. Or Zonker working in a restaurant, where his goal is to push calories. Trudeau has this amazing way of zoning in on the important issues of our day, and he has such a wonderful cast of characters - and now their kids - to illustrate these issues.

Monday, June 18, 2007

The Teahouse Fire by Ellis Avery (2006)

Wonderful, wonderful book. Historical fiction at its best. Aurelia, a young girl from New York, loses her mother and travels to Japan with her uncle. She runs away during a fire and is taken in by a Japanese family who name her Urako. We see Japan from 1866-1891, as they open their country to Western influences. The Shinn family has done tea ceremonies for generations, but even those have to change in changing times. Yukako learns the tea ceremony from behind screens while her father teaches it to young men. When financial times are hard, Yukako teaches the ceremony to other women. The story line is actually not that important, the things that drew me to this book were the descriptions of the richly textured life in Japan - the relationships, the class system, the custom, the dress, the food, the bathing, everything. For example, I had no idea that when kimonos were cleaned, they were first dismantled, then washed, then sown back together. Households actually had seamstresses just for that purpose. Unsurprisingly, the arranged marriages often were not very happy ones, but this book gave me a more in depth sense of those and the relationship between men and women. Since interaction between the sexes was so limited, it created a tight knit female community. The Western influences leads to more options for the women, not only in dress, but in schooling and work.

It was fascinating to watch this Western girl adapt, learn the language, and latch on to this family - so giving us an insider's glimpse into the Japanese world, but with Western understanding. I have to admit, I never did fully understand the importance of the tea ceremony - something you had to train for years to do correctly with subtleties that go way beyond my perceptual abilities. Maybe if I think of it as an ultimate piece of classical performance art. Otherwise it is hard to imagine the level of luxury that has to be obtained to spend that much time and focus on this choreographed social gathering. I'll have to talk to a Japanese expert to understand this more fully. But the book itself made me feel great - I learned about another piece of the world and a specific time period, I enjoyed Urako and many of the characters created by Ellis Avery, and the storyline too was fulfilling in ways I can't describe without giving too much away.

This is Ellis Avery's first novel, and as Emily Barton wrote for the LA Times: "a novel that, like the tea ceremony itself, provides true pleasure to the intellect and all the senses."

Blue Smoke by Nora Roberts (2005)

Now this is the Nora Roberts I like and respect. This was a cross between Roberts' normal romances and her J.D. Robb books with tough cop Eve. This time the heroine Reena Hale works for the arson unit and is trained as a firewoman. The setting is Baltimore, and since I was just there for a conference this spring, I had been to Little Italy and recognized some of the places mentioned in the book. We see Reena from childhood, when she is fascinated by the fire that destroys her parents' restaurant. I loved her close knit family and cozy family business. The other unusual aspect of this book was that we got a realistic view of the various semi-serious relationships Reena has throughout her life. Usually romances just have the two people meet, and it seems that there is nothing in their past, they find the one and only. Now this lady has a lot of fires in her life - not just as part of her job, but as part of her life. It takes her a while to put it all together that they are connected, but the trip through her life is worth following. I had no idea what it takes to become a specialist in arson - and it is amazing how much they can tell about the origins of a fire. It is also scary to see the other side - how an arsenist can set up a destructive blaze. I also liked Bo Goodnight - a great carpenter, who once saw Reena at a party many years ago and was smitten by her.

Zen and the Art of Motercycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig (1974)

I had the urge to reread this and was glad I did. I read it soon after it came out - it was already a cult classic back then. I am amazed at how philosophical I was in my youth. I know it influenced my thinking. I learned to appreciate back roads, I know I had plans to learn to fix my own car after this book, though I only got as far as oil changes. It is the ultimate road trip book and I should have been listening to it on a long trip this time - because I would be in tune with his travel story, and I would have had more time to process his philosophy. Trying to get into the proper mood on short trips around town did not work, so I let some of the philosophy just pass me by. He discussed things like classical and romantic thinking, truth, insanity, rhetoric, aesthetics. Sometimes he equated Zen with boredom. I liked his take on "gumption", a word that also appeared in the movie The Holiday. I was riveted by his discussion of the academic world - academic freedom, the importance of reason, grading... I will just have to read or listen to it again sometime. I was uncomfortable with the author's son on the trip, who is watching his father getting so deep into thought, he is almost losing it, and the trip becomes quite boring with just day after day on the road, without interesting stops. Having traveled with a child all over the US, I know the importance of keeping him engaged.

After reading the book I was wondering what had happened to the author Robert Pirsig, and to find out if the book was really autobiographical, whether he really had gone insane. My library sources told me that he had written another book and gotten all sorts of awards, but nothing was said about what he had done for the last 20 years. A link from the Wikipedia filled in the blanks - someone had created a timeline for Persig - where he was when, including the time he was hospitalized. The timeline also followed the life of his son Chris, who traveled with him and was killed outside a Zen center in 1979. Pirsig has kept writing and living in different parts of the world. The last few years are listed as "living very privately," which I totally understand and respect.

Rebellion by Nora Roberts (1988)

I should have looked at this more closely. Roberts wrote this for Sihouette Books, so it must be one of those formulaic historical romances. Set in Scotland of 1745 with the Scottish heroine Serena MacGregor hating all the English, even her brother's friend Brigham Langston, though he helps the Scottish rebels. You know the rest - they fall in love and live happily ever after.

This would have been a wonderful opportunity to explain this historical time and the disagreement between the English and Scotts, but instead there is just the romance floating though this unexplained hatered. There were a few interesting parts for me - the herbal healer, and the way the "rebellion" was organized. They had to convince the farmers to fight, though the chances of survival and/or winning were small. I was glad to see that many were reluctant to go fight against the larger English force. The military strategy also was not well thought out. For some reason military strategy has caught my attention in a few books over the past few years - Churchill's brilliance as a tactician, Hitler's learning military strategy as a child organizing his schoolmates, good behind the scenes planning by Mary, Queen of Scotts (I think) and the poor planning of timing and supplies by one of the English kings in Philippa Gregory's book.