Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Stranger by Albert Camus ****

Since I didn't have any library books and murder seemed to be in the news, I took The Stranger by Albert Camus off the shelf and read it for the first time since college. Meursault, the protagonist who was conceived during the Nazi occupation of France, is sadly contemporary with his casual murder of a nameless Arab ... perhaps in self-defense ... perhaps there was a knife ... but in the end Mearsault didn't think much of the entire incident. In fact, it seems that the entire justice system thought little of the Arab's murder. In the end, Meursault was convicted, but mostly because he didn't cry at his mother's funeral and didn't profess a belief in God.

Surprisingly current and sad, I don't recommend reading it when alone.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Stardust by Neil Gaiman *****

The village of Wall is on the border between the human world and Faerie. The villagers post guards at the opening in the wall to prevent people from entering Faerie ... except one day every nine years when the meadow on the other side hosts the Faerie Market. The Market is the scene of all sorts of magical interactions between the human and Faerie worlds. Tristan Thorn was the product of one of these interactions.

Many years later, on a dare from the most beautiful girl in Wall (or maybe the world), Tristan crosses into Faerie in search of a Fallen Star. There follows a wonderful adventure with fratricidal princes, enchanted princesses, and evil witches. Like many good fantasies, love and kindness triumph in the end.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman is a delightful YA novel (except for one semi-explicit sex scene in the first chapter). A simply delightful fantasy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler ****

Growing Up Amishby Ira Wagler presents an insider's view into the life of the Amish communities across North America. While the Amish (and Mennonite) communities might be well known in Lancaster County, PA, evidently there are communities all across the mid-western and eastern United States, and into Canada - any place where a family can support itself by farming.

While to an outsider, the Amish, dressed in simple homemade clothes riding horse-drawn buggies, might all look the same, an insider notices differences in the women's head covering, characteristic to each different locality. And the buggies: some liberal bishops allow rubber tires, while the more traditional bishops require just iron wheels. Some courting couples are allowed to meet weekly, while into other disticts, once every four weeks is deemed often enough.

This highlights to biggest surprise. Each district (around a dozen families) is independent and different. In a larger Amish community, real estate values vary by district, with the prices higher to live in a more liberal district where you might be able to have indoor plumbing and a telephone in a little outhouse.

The author was chronically ambivalent about Amish life and left, only to return, many times. Sometimes he left for hours, but he also left for months at a time. He joined the church and was excommunicated and returned to be forgiven only to leave again. In this way the narrative, beyond the interesting view into a conservative, religious, agrarian lifestyle, is a tradgedy, as the author never seems to make peace with his own life. While he tried to blame this angst on the church, the reader is left to wonder if the fault doesn't lie with the man and not God.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

One of Our Thursdays is Missing by Jasper Fforde *****

BookWorld is where books live ... the characters, the settings, the plots live there. This is where the imaginotransference engines run day and night to transmit the books from BookWorld to the reader's imagination. One of Our Thursdays Is Missing by Jasper Fforde is the sixth in the BookWorld series. If you are familiar with Terry Pratchett, and if not you should be, you can imagine BookWorld as the DiscWorld of metafiction - fiction about the process of fiction.

Like all good fantasies, One of Our Thursdays is Missing begins with a map: Fiction Island spans from Vanity and Fan Fiction in the south to Women's Fiction and Racy Novel in the north; Crime and various thrillers in the west to Fantasy and Horror in the east. The plot centers around the disappearance of heroine Thursday Next and the control of valuable metaphor deposits.

Thursday Next (not the RealWorld one, but the BookWorld one) is chased about both worlds through text sieves, on river boats, and flying TransGenreTaxi taxis. She is shot at and erased, but in the end she triumphs. A wonderful literary romp reminiscent of Terry Pratchett at his best.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee ****

Anjali Bose spent her entire life in the small Bengali town of Gauripur, as did her parents and their parents, since before India's revolution, probably even before the British arrived. Miss New India by Bharati Mukherjee follows as Anjali (sometimes using the anglicized Angie) breaks with tradition, gets educated in American English, rebels against tradition - especially arranged marriages, and escapes to Bangalore.

With this brief background in caste, tribes, and a stratified society, the story explodes into the excitement of modern India's technology boom, especially the opportunities and dangers for young women drawn to highly-paid (by India standards) outsourced jobs. Be warned, this is not a one-sided paean to technology and progress.

Through her teacher's connections, Anjali joins three other Bagehot Girls at the Raj-era Bagehot House. These four women party in the day and work at night (matching prime time in the United States), experiencing a life not previously possible in India - or most of the world for that matter. Freedom comes at a cost and in the end Bagehot House is gone and the Bagehot Girls are left to face their separate challenges.

Miss New India puts individual faces behind the story of technology and out sourcing in New India, an exciting clash of current events and individual repercussions. In the end two things are clear: India is not abolishing classes and caste as quickly as might be imagined, and the thin line between opportunity and exploitation is crossed both ways.

While this book provides an enjoyable and informative view of contemporary India, I had one problem: Anjoli is too much a victim of circumstance and an insecure girl totally dependent on others for approval and rescues. If the point is that India's women are not ready for this new entrepreneural world, this a tragic story indeed.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver *****

Taylor Greer is driving west from the mountains of Kentucky to some unknown surprise of something better, or at least different, to the west. Outside a bar in Oklahoma, a women given her a three-year-old girl, whose mother has died and he been seriously abused. These two make their way to Tuscon and together embark on a rocky road to mutual recovery. Three year later, Anna Fourkiller, a Cherokee lawyer from Oklahoma, threaten to separate mother and child for some greater good.

As I am held in the thrall of Pigs in Heaven of by Barbara Kingsolver, I notice something surprising about this book: No bad guys! Every character, in a book full of interesting characters - mostly family folks ("All families are weird") - grandparents, uncles, aunts, cousins, lots of cousins - is likeable. With so many writers falling back on good-vs-evil, it is wonderful to read a story of nice people making their way through life.

An excellent book to read when the world is seeming to me an incurable mess.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

The CHalice of Blood by Peter Tremayne *****

The Chalice of Blood by Peter Tremayne is a wonderful locked-room murder mystery set in 7th century Ireland. Brother Donnchad is discovered after the abbot had to resort to calling the blacksmith to break down the door. Inside Brother Donnchad is discovered murdered, still in possession of the only key to the lock, the only lock every used in this religious community, recently made by the blacksmith just for Brother Donnchad.

The investigation is lead by Fidelma of Cashel, sister of the King, legal scholar, and famous investigator and prosecutor. This is a woman who is often soft spoken and polite, though never flirtatious or deferent. When it suits her purposes, she can be regal, forceful, and demanding of absolute respect and obedience ... which she never fails to receive.

In addition to a wonderful mystery, Celtic scholar Peter Tremayne (pseudonym) packs the story with details of 7th Ireland: social and legal structures, vocabulary, and, central to the story, the transition from the traditional pagan/druid religions to Christianity.

Overall and excellent mix of mystery and history, or escape and education.

I found jarring one anachronism. These 7th century Celts seem oddly prescient in their references to centimeters, meters, and kilometers which weren't to be appreciated by the rest of Europe for another thousand years, and even longer in parts of the yet to be discovered Americas.