Friday, June 27, 2008

Nine Parts of Desire : the Hidden World of Islamic Women by Geraldine Brooks (1995)

After an interesting phone conversation with a patron at work, I realized that Geraldine Brooks, the author of People of the Book, has written other books, and her first is this amazing non-fiction book about Islamic women. As a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, she had ample opportunity to interview and befriend women in Egypt, Jordon, Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, and other countries. She somehow pulls it all together in logical chapters about marriage, political power, education, work, the Queen (Noor of Jordan), etc.

This is the best explanation I have ever read and helps me understand the different levels of Islamic restrictions for women. Brooks is well versed in the Koran and the life of the prophet Mohamed, so she can show where different practices arose, and where they are inconsistent with the Koran or the prophet's life. I am in total awe or this woman, who being Jewish, took on wearing the coverings required by the women in each country. Ballsy woman. She was also able to explain the difference between the Shiites and Sunnis. Not that it makes logical sense, but at least I have some understanding now. I think my strongest gut reaction to the unfairness of the treatment of women arose from her stories about how Mohammed's revelations from God about women came in response to his own household situation. The multiple wives for the sake of alliances is still happening - reflecting the old European marriage patterns - like Marie Antoinette being an alliance between France and Austria. Of course, sometimes a new wife is taken to bear sons.

Though probably many men would enjoy total control over their women, I still don't understand why it has remained so ingrained in the Middle East culture. Though there are more liberal countries, seems that all Islamic women face more inequality than women in most other countries. Though some progress has been made (like outlawing clitoridectomies in hospitals of at least one country), there has been a conservative backlash in most of these countries. I would really like to read an update of how women have fared in the different countries in the 13 years since the book was published.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Pilgrims by Elizabeth Gilbert (1997)

Since Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love was my favorite book last year, I was happy to find this by her in the audio book store, but found it was not ideal to listen to short stories, especially while driving around town, when listening happens in short spurts. It is a little difficult to bounce around the different settings and characters. In general, I liked her short vignette's of life, though I didn't always get how each story was about "pilgrims," though I quickly learned to think of "pilgrims" as a broader concept. Lots of strong women - the woman ranch hand from Pennsylvania, the woman bar owner, who's business is ruined by a strip joint across the street. I think my favorite was The Finest Wife, where a woman meets all her old lovers again at the end of her life. I was a bit surprised by the Western slant in stories that started feeling like Annie Proulx's Wyoming Stories, but not as desperate. "Elk Talk" was about Easterners moving out West and trying to call elk. I did like Gilbert's realistic and female centric approach to sex in a few of her stories. Some stories I didn't care for. I'll try to remember to leave short stories for reading in print.

Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (1983)

Just one of those books I could not get into. I liked the setting of New York City in it's early days, but the characters and writing just grated on me, so after 2 CD's I gave up.

Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber (2008)

Another one of my favorite genre's - art history fiction! And this one combines the present with the past. Chaz Wilmot, a current day artist doesn't want to compromise his art and ends up just doing advertising work. The only thing he seems to get into is painting in the style of old masters. Then a college roommate asks him to experiment with some drug that may enhance creativity, and he starts having experiences as if he was Diego Velázquez, a Spanish court painter from the 17th century. Again, I liked the look into the past at how artists worked.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Horrific Sufferings of the Mind-Reading Monster Hercules Barefoot: His Wonderful Love and His Terrible Hatred by Carl-Johan Vallgren (2005)

Whew, what a title! This is one more of my Swedish books picked up at the Stockholm airport. First published in 2002, translated by Paul and Veronica Britten-Austin. The title actually does describe the wild ride through the life of Hercules Barefoot. On the back of the book, the quotes from various news sources are apt. The Guardian called this book "a picaresque, grotesque and magical novel." (OK, I had to look up picaresque, as I thought it was "picturesque" at first. From the Wikipedia: "a subgenre of prose fiction which is usually satirical and depicts in realistic and often humorous detail the adventures of a roguish hero of low social class who lives by his or her wits in a corrupt society.")

One one level it was my favorite historical fiction, depicting Europe in the early 19th century - starting with the births of Hercules,a highly deformed deaf-mute who can read and speak to people's minds, and the love of his life Henriette, in a brothel. We see details of life in a brothel, traveling freak show, monastery, asylum. These worlds are depicted in all their darkness of ignorance and intolerance and abuse of fellow humans. There were times when the story got so grotesque, I didn't want to read further - or, since I was actually reading the book and not listening to it, I could sort of skim more quickly through the unpleasant parts. When Hercules gets really mad about all the tortures of himself and deaths of those close to him, he goes on a mental rampage that was hard to read, but luckily, he pulls out of it in the end - because of love.

I was fascinated by a few of the descriptions - for instance, the church had a library of forbidden books where you would have to wait months for permission to enter, fill out lots of bureaucratic forms and have your background checked. (p.100) Sounds like the Soviet era Special Funds of forbidden books in the Communist times.

Now Hercules was deaf and dumb, but could communicated by reading minds and projecting into other's minds. He had stubs for arms, but his feet were very dexterous and he could play an organ. (This explanation was a bit fuzzy on how his deafness worked with music.) He eventually learned sign language and moved to Martha's Vineyard, where there really was a historic deaf community.

I flagged another part of the book, where one of the priests goes into a riff about what is evil. That has been one of my own spiritual questions, and though I didn't get any satisfying answers from this character, I was still glad it was addressed. This was just one of the philosophical discussions embedded in the book. I checked the author out in our library's Contemporary Authors database and got this insight: "In an interview with Sean Merrigan for Spoiled Ink, when asked about the nature of Barfuss's gift in terms of narration versus philosophy, the author remarked: "When I started out the novel it was a narrative ploy: what could I do with it, how far could I take it? But after a while all these other questions arose, questions about language, mind and perception..." I tried to get to the Spoiled Ink site itself, but the link didn't work.

Cathedral: The Story of Its Construction by David MaCaulay (1973)

I promised myself I'd look at this book, since it would give me a visual understanding of Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth. I should have bought it while I was listening to Pillars, but better late than never. I guess I am even more amazed, when I see the dimensions of a cathedral, especially in proportion to the town around it. It's like a bear sitting amongst week old chicks. Now I have answers to my questions about the size of the stones used, how they did the foundations, which I somehow could not visualize, the templates, the flying buttresses, the vaulted ceilings - all these things are much clearer. I thank McCaulay for providing this insight on cathedrals and many other structures not only to children, but all of us.

Abundance: A Novel of Marie Antoinette by Sena Jeter Naslund (2006)

This is the author of Ahab's Wife (which I think I read before I started this blog) and I listened to an abridged version, which was fine in this case.

At one point in my past I was fascinated by Marie Antoinette. I was not as fascinated this time around, but Naslund has a very interesting take on her - a very personal first person story.

The audio book has the advantage of having an interview with the author at the end - one that answered many of my own questions.

Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (1989)

I have been fascinated by the construction of cathedrals for some time now - maybe since I visited our National Cathedral in Washington and was blown away by its story - how it took 83 years to complete in our age of modern twentieth century technology. How in the world did people build these majestic structures 800 years ago? Where did people get the architectural and engineering skills, when everything else was so primitive? How could they afford this? Follett seems to have had similar questions. I liked that he was raised in a simple unadorned church, but started visiting cathedrals, when he needed settings for his novels and was intrigued.

[Will write more about the book itself, hopefully soon.] Listening to this 32 CD book was quite an undertaking, but well worth it. I'm glad I had a couple of long trips out East in May.

I still want to get McCaulay's illustrated book for kids on how cathedrals are built, as I still need some visuals, though I did go to the Wikipedia for illustrations for some of the terms, like clerestory.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Glory in Death by JD Robb (1995)

Road trip book again. Though I have listened to quite of few of JD Robb's books already, Nora Roberts' futuristic crime novel writer alter ego, my plan is to go through them all in a chronological order, so I can follow the development of various characters, relationships and settings.

Though this follows the formula - 3 murders with Lieutenant Eve Dallas going after the murdered at the end, getting into a fight where she is injured and Roarke coming to her rescue. I will ahve to keep count of how many of the JD Robb books stick to this formula.

Dallas, always the powerful, interesting troubled main character. Having night-mares and not wanting to deal with her horrid childhood. Her relationship to Rolrke gets a bit rocky, where he want to haves some commitment from her. Eve is finally able to tell Roarke she loves him. At the very end he proposes to her. I didn't expect that to happen so soon in the series, but I think it takes a few books before they get married.

Roarke - In spite of him being a powerful gazillionare, I like him. I like seeing him get rid of some of his shady operations, now that he's dating a cop. He even avoids answering her, when she asks why he sold a certain enterprise, by saying "for personal reasons," without elaborating.

Somerset - I don't think I've listened to the book that explains Roarke's relationship to his butler Somerset. Eve dislikes him and the feeling seems mutual at this point.

Mavis - Eve's only real friend is present in all her colorfullness. She is still a struggling artist without any boyfriend mentioned. I loved the scene where she spends the evening with Eve in Roarke's mansion.

Roarke's mansions - We slowly uncover the various parts of the New York mansion - the solarium, the hot tub/pool room, the library with its leather bound volumes. Eve gets her own room in this book, as Roarke moves her belongings out of her apartment. Eve and Roarke whisk off to his Mexico mansion on the Pacific for a night.

Feeney - Eve's trusted technical wiz at work - always eating almonds.

Commander Whitney - always supportive of Eve, but the first victim is a friend of the family, so that gets in the way of the investigation.

Chief Tibble - new since the last book, as Eve put the other chief of police out of business the last time. This new guy is supportive of her, though I don't remember how their relationship evolves.

Peabody - One of my favorite characters makes her first appearance and impresses Eve with her stiff efficiency and competence.

Dr. Mira - psychologist reveals that she was raped for years by her stepfather, trying to help Eve resolve her own past.

Nadine Furst - TV reporter - as Eve saves her life in this book, now I understand why they have such a solid relationship.

Future setting - though Robb doesnt' dwell on it, she fleshes out the futuristic setting in each book. I think it must be hard to predict technology 50 years from now, (I think the setting is 2058) as it moves ahead so quickly. The all still work at computer consoles with Roarke having the most sophisticated equipment. Computers are voice activated - as in security, house lights and food preparation. Transportation sill seems to consist of personal cars that are still involved in traffic jams, though cars can be put on automatic pilot. I think there are hover cars or some sort of personal flight craft. I don't recall references to the subway. There was a short reference to the clearing of old buildings, but the rich rebuilding brownstones. Some sort of food crisis has occured, as most available food is synthetic and the one thing that Eve really appreciates from Roarke's richness his access to real food and coffee. Virtual reality goggles are used for entertainment. Personal light and music shows can be programmed.

And then the title - Glory in Death. Like Sue Grafton's series A is for Alibi, B is for Burglar, etc. JD Robb has managed to name all the books in the series as Something in Death. And the title always is relevant. In this case, the murdered was looking for glory - it was part of his psychiatric profile and helped Eve nail him.

Though I had hear this book before, I didn't remember it, so about 3/4 through I started looking beyond the most obvious suspects, as I knew the killer had to be someone we had met. I figured out the killer a few chapters before Eve. I used love doing that with Agatha Christie.

I never have time for such a long comment on a book, especially a trivial one, but since this was written on the road - yes, I can write while driving - I had time to write down all my thoughts.