Friday, April 24, 2009

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear (2004)

Read this back to back with the first in the series - Maisie Dobbs. Both wonderful, psychological portraits of post-WWI England, set within a classical mystery story with the bright, intuitive, meticulous, but lonely character of Maisie Dobbs. This time she is asked to find the adult daughter of a rich self-made man, who has run away. When her friends start turning up dead, Maisie involves herself further. I am amazed at how well she can paint all the pains felt by people after the war - the pain of lost loved ones, the pain of lost health, the shame of survivors, the lack of men to marry, the distancing of some, drug addictions, etc. Painted with today's sensibilities, but in seemingly yesteryear's genteel language. One of the other things that surprised me in this series, is that Maisie was trained in meditation for calming and focusing and picking up the energies of other people and even of what may have happened. I can't remember another book where this is used without attributing it to magical elements.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Bartimaeus Trilogy - Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud (2005)

This somehow was never entered into the blog, but I definitely finished this wonderful trilogy, probably in 2006.

Last Siege by Jonathan Stroud (2003)

This actually was a pretty good young adult book, it was just that after reading Stroud's Bartimaeus trilogy, which was about magic, but with a fresh twist, I was expecting something more extraordinary. Three kids from today's England don't really belong with any group and are bored on Christmas break. They start hanging around a partially ruined castle near the town and with the help of Marcus' great imagination and knowledge of history, they start exploring the closed castle. It turns into a real siege at one point. The story is written from Emily's point of view, and it is interesting to observe the coolaboration between her and Simon and Marcus. It turns into a pretty touching story in the end.

Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear (2003)

A very interesting take on the private-eye genre, lent to me by a colleague. Maisie Dobbs opens up her own investigative office in 1929 London - obviously quite an accomplishment. We see her investigating a possibly wandering wife, which leads to some questions about recently deceased WW I vets. Then the middle of the book takes us back to Maisie's childhood, where she starts working as a maid in a house of aristocrats, when he mother dies and her father can no longer take care of her. Her bright mind is noticed and she is sent to Cambridge, but she feels an obligation to help in the war effort and works as a nurse in France. This was the most intense part for me - seeing the war from a woman's point of view, sort of like a female shorter version of All Quiet on the Western Front by Remarque. Then we return to London in 1929 and now we see how her war experiences have affected her life, and the mystery is strongly tied to the aftermath of the war. So in a sense, this was a historical novel. Plus I loved the London and Cambridge settings, both places I have been.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang (2006)

I love it when books come my way through serendipity. A student was looking for this book, we couldn't find it in the library, so I put out a search slip on it. Since I had requested the search, they brought me the book. It looked interesting enough to read.

This is a fascinating graphic novel about the Chinese-American experience intertwined with a traditional Chinese tale. There are three stories being told at once. One is the time-honored fable of a monkey king that wants to be a god. The second is about a Chinese-American boy who's family moves to a new neighborhood and he has a hard time making friends and finding his place in the school. The third is about a teen, who's life is being ruined by a crazy Chinese cousin, who displays all the negative Chinese stereotypical traits. I really liked this combination of traditional wisdom with today's world and a good glimpse into the experience of Chinese-Americans, in an appealing graphic novel format.

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Hot Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman (2008)

Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution-- and How it Can Renew America (full title). Friedman's The World is Flat was a major eye opener for me, that pulled together many of the bits and pieces I knew and filled in the gaps on how the world is connected. This book has done the same for me on energy and going green. Actually there were a lot of things I didn't know on how our energy grid and system work. He is calling for a major shift in thinking, especially in politics. I do hope people in Washington and the state capitols will listen.

I can't even begin to list all the things Friedman covered in this book. For me, it has given me hope that people are ready to go green. I was trying to be green back in the 70's and back then it was such a counter culture sort of thing, and people didn't get it, that over the years I gave up except for small things that everybody does like recycling. (I had been recycling for years, but when I got to Kalamazoo, there was no place to recycle, except for papers that you could take to the paper plant.) I think this book is making me think more of how I live my life - what appliances I should be replacing with more energy efficient ones, to really go through my house and replace all bulbs with energy efficient ones, etc. Plus I have been thinking about my footprint on this planet in this huge house for a while now.

The Last Kasmiri Rose by Barbara Cleverly (2001)

As Maria wrote in her note as she gave this to me for my birthday, this is not great literature, but the setting was definitely worth it. This is the first book by Cleverly from England. It fills in a piece of my big question about who did the English think they were declaring half the world their empire. This is about India in 1922, and the story goes back to 1910. It showed the life of the British in a military outpost in Bengal, and the relation to the local Indians. (American Indians were referred to as "red Indians.") I heard for the first time, or at least understood better, that the English were starting to divide the Muslims and Hindus (later Pakistan and India) which up until then had gotten along fine. The events in the book have the potential to be politically disastrous, as there are rumblings about Indian independence. Some of the British had grown up in India, and definitely considered it their home, even if they had to go study in England. Some of these knew Hindustani and other local languages and became friends with the Indians, though one of the points made in the book is that most British didn't even see the Indians around them, didn't look at them closely, couldn't recognize them, as they were just the servants. We get a glimpse of the Indian point of view from some of the Indian characters, but I'd like to get a better sense of this. When did their rage get big enough to struggle for independence"?

The book is full of foreign terms. I don't know if they are Hindustani or otherwise, but it took a while to get used to it. Sahib refers to an English gentleman, memsahib to a married English woman, ayah is a nursemaid. But there were times when I didn't understand the sentence, like "The burra sahib is in the kutch erry." A little dictionary would have been nice, but the language did contribute to the setting.

The story itself actually got better towards the end. A woman has supposedly committed suicide, but a friend of hers feels it was murder that is tied to the deaths of four other women in earlier years, so she gets her big-wig uncle to bring in Joe Sandilands from Scotland Yard. Joe goes around the town and countryside seeing where the deaths occurred, interviewing various people, which is how we learn their stories. From this he ties them all together, and in saving the last victim finds the culprit. Again it was the individual stories that I liked the best. How they got to India, how they lived, how men had local wives until they were forced by society to take English women as their wives and what happened to the others. Fascinating country.

Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark (2008)

I can't resist novels about books, so this is historical fiction from late 15th century Venice, with word of the New World in the background. Seems like Venice has been the setting of quite a few books I've read, and I will have to visit it some day.

Luciano is an orphan, who gets nabbed while stealing a pomegranate in the market by the chef of the doge (chief magistrate) of Venice. But the chef makes him an apprentice, instead of punishing him, thus getting him off the streets, and he is even able to pass food scraps on to a couple of his friends still outside. Obviously the author is a lover of food, as the descriptions of the chef's meals and cooking just makes the mouth water. One can see she has researched food of those times, when potatoes had been recently introduced, tomatoes were considered poisonous by most, chocolate and coffee were not well known, etc. Though this was interesting in and of itself, the food and it's preparation has a deeper meaning in the book.

The buzz around town and in the palace halls is that there is a book out there that contains the secrets of alchemy, the elixir of youth, and love potions. Interesting that most of the people we meet want the book for just one of these purposes. It turns out to be knowledge being passed on through an unofficial network of guardians, and it contains things like the gnostic gospels. The powers of Venice are afraid of whatever knowledge it might contain and offer a huge reward to anyone who finds it, thus creating a frenzy among the populace.

Luciano is a clever lad, learns not only about the kitchen work, but spies on the doge and his guests to learn more about what is going on in Venice. He also is besotted with a novice in a nunnery. As he gets to know the chef better, they get involved in adventures surrounding "the book." All in all a fun read.