Friday, July 11, 2008

Lots of reviews!

I've been reviewing books on Shelfari for another reading contest. I'm running some of them today. Maybe you'll find something that will be your next summer read!

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama: I am torn about who to vote for in the upcoming election, so I wanted to educate myself as best as I can about the nominees. I've been impressed with Barack Obama's message, but I thought that reading his autobiography (especially one written before he went into office) would help me understand him better. Obama is the son of a Kenyan man who married an 18-year-old girl named Stanley in Hawaii. There have been many misconceptions about Obama and his family in the media and online, but reading this book dispelled them. He describes his life and upbringing with remarkable honesty, even about his foibles and mistakes. He has a knack for description and capturing a moment with almost Kodakesque clarity. While much has been made in the news about the influence on him of his father and mother (TIME Magazine devoted an entire cover story to her), I can't help but think that his white grandfather may have had a larger impact than acknowledged. Obama describes his grandfather's life as: single mother, hint of scandal, raised by grandparents, realizes he's not the fair-haired boy, that he appears more like a "wop". Substitute "wop" for any racial term for African-American, and you could be describing Obama. The book is compelling, not only to learn about the man who may become the first black President of the United States, but also as a story of self-discovery and the quest for purpose.

LIFE: Sixty Years is a look at photos from LIFE Magazine's archives from their beginning in 1936 through 1996. I am a very visual person. I need to see something to truly understand it. When reading certain books, I often have Google images open just to help me get a better idea of what's being described. I read the Illustrated edition of The DaVinci Code. During The Art Thief, I was constantly searching. This book is almost sensory overload for me, but at the same time not quite satisfying. Looking at the lush pictures of fashion, nature, and animals, I can't help but be awed by creations both manmade and from God. The pictures of disasters and unrest held my attention the longest. I find myself studying the images of faces looking for how they interpreted the scene in which they've found themselves. Seeing MLK's stoic acceptance of his arrest, the brutality of a police officer slamming his billy club on the back of a unionizer puts me in that moment. There's an image of a family in Arlington National Cemetery at the funeral of a Gulf War soldier. The children reflect complete lack of understanding. The mother is struggling for control, touching her children both for reassurance and to assure. A few pages later is the famous picture of a family running across a tarmac to greet their father who has been released as a Vietnam POW after six years in captivity. The daughter in front has completely left the ground in anticipation of meeting his arms. Her total joy moved me to tears. I wish that there had been more pictures so I could have great understanding. Great book.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel: I'd heard a bit about Life of Pi by Yann Martel, not much, but the title was familiar. I wish that someone had said to me in 2001 when it came out that I needed to read this book. Seriously, shaken me by the shoulders saying: Read this book! Pi Patel is a serious minded 16 year old boy who is traveling with his family from India to Canada with a few of their animals from their zoo. But the Japanese cargo ship they are traveling on soon sinks leaving Pi alone in a life boat with an injured zebra, an orangutan, a hyena, and a Bengal tiger. The animals soon lay waste to each other until only the tiger, named Richard Parker, and Pi are left to travel 277 days across the Pacific Ocean. How does a boy who calls himself Hindu, Christian, and Muslim survive against a monstrous predator when he is the only prey within reach? Pi narrates his story with great humility. As he recounts each act he took to protect himself from the tiger and then provide for the two of them, you can't help but marvel at both his ingenuity and his spirit. This is one of those carefully crafted novels where each paragraph is a marvel of grace and fluidity. Martel upsets the apple cart a bit in the end forcing the reader to decide which story they would choose, and in the end, which view of life as well. It's a powerful novel beautifully told.

A Royal Pain by Rhys Bowen: Rhys Bowen is not only one of my favorite authors, but Lady Georgiana is one of my favorite characters as well. Lady Georige, 34th in line to the English throne in 1932, is still working secretly as a maid in order to pay for the daily necessities when the Queen asks her (and you never say no to the Queen) to house and escort Princess Hanni of Bavaria around town in hopes that she will distract the Prince of Wales from his obsession with "that American woman". But Georgie is not only broke, but living without servants! Her maternal grandfather and his next door neighbor step in as butler and housekeeper when the flighty Princess and her entourage arrive. Princess Hanni has learned to speak English from American gangster films, wants to meet "hot and sexy men", and shoplifts from Herrod's. Georgie's hands are more than full, when people start dropping dead around her, and she needs to discover who's murdering them in order to avert an international incident! Georgie is absolutely charming. She hasn't a clue how to flirt, and regularly trips over her own feet. She's sincere and loyal, and remarkably innocent, but she's learning to acquire some backbone (especially in dealing with Wallis Simpson). Bowen writes a bit like a fun tabloid tell-all; you feel like you're getting a sneak peek behind palace walls, but as seen through the eyes of an outsider/insider. Georgie is a unique character, and I simply can't wait for her next adventure. I give the book 5 stars.

New Moon by Stephenie Meyer: Edward and Bella's romance is going along smoothly until an accident proves that her humanity is one issue they just can't overcome. Edward not only breaks up with Bella, but thoroughly breaks her as well by telling her that he doesn't love her and never will. The Cullens leave town, and Bella reacts by first becoming nearly comatose before stumbling through life like a zombie. But then Jacob returns bringing the sunshine of his personality to bear and brings warmth back to Bella and her life. Jacob is warm, open, and sweet all the things that Edward isn't, but despite his open affection for her, Bella can't seem to shake the deep love she has for Edward and the feeling that her life isn't completely full without him. Comparisons with Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet abound throughout the story, and they aren't far off. Bella is a shell of the character she was in the first book; she no longer loves to read, and her thoughts revolve almost completely around Edward and trying to fill the hole that he left in her life. Oh, the teenage angst! Bella, while not as interesting this time around, certainly attracts intriguing men, and this book is pure wish fulfillment for teenage girls (and their moms) everywhere. Both the bad boy and the good guy want her, and will do anything for her safety and happiness. Meyer has a real flair for portraying Bella's tortured emotions in a way that's sympathetic without being pathetic. I know that Myers fans are split between being Jacob and Edward fans; personally, I'm a Jacob fan (and my daughter is too!). I give the book 4-1/2 stars.

When Men Become Gods by Stephen Singular: This book is an indepth look at the creation of the Fundementalist Church of the Latter Day Saints, the offshoot of traditional Mormonism that has its roots on the border of Arizona and Utah. This group has recently been in the news because after their move to Texas, the authorities there swept in and took away over 400 children in order to investigate charges of forced marriages by underage girls. While the case there has fizzled out, perhaps it wouldn't have if the entire country read this book. The FLDS embraced polygamy and left the LDS church when it abandoned it in return for Utah achieving statehood in the late 1890s. The people of Colorado City Arizona and Hildale Utah are deeply under the spell of their leader Warren Jeffs. Jeffs, who took command of the group after the death of his father, put the entire community under his spell and after reading and studying Hitler and Napoleon, began breaking up families and using his power to reward those most faithful to him. All of the property in the entire community was turned over to him, and the group "bled the beast" by taking hundreds of millions of dollars in state welfare aid each year. Women who fled the cult started exposing the dirty secrets of Jeffs: his 180 wives, girls married at the age of 14, schools closed down, young men kicked out of town so they wouldn't compete with the older men for wives. The sins of Jeffs are many, and Singular does a terrific job of enumerating them. He lays out the case that put Jeffs on the FBIs most wanted list and eventually brought about his capture. Jeffs was found guilty of abetting a rape in late 2007, and charges against him are still pending. Singular offers up some hope for the communities he writes about, but I wish that he had been able to give more information about the YFZ (Yearning for Zion) Ranch in Texas where many of the staunchest holdouts have taken refuge. For more information about this read Carolyn Jessop's fantastic memoir, Escape, and watch Laurie Allen's DVD Banking on Heaven. Taken all three together, they are excellent exposes of this cult-like group. I give this book 5 stars.

Triangle: The Fire That Changed America by David Van Drehle: This book that chronicles the famous 1911 factory fire does a wonderful job of not only layering the reasons for the climate that allowed the fire to happen to build a powerful foundation, but also gives a terrific view of turn of the century New York City. Various forces such as the Gibson Girl, Russian progroms, Tammany Hall, and an eruption of Mt Vesuvius all brought the right conditions into play. Shirtwaists, what we would now call a woman's blouse, were popularized by Charles Dana Gibson in his Gibson Girl, and were actually a burgeoning start to the feminist movement allowing for more freedom in dress and from corsets. The industry quickly produced sweatshops and horrific conditions for workers who were pouring in from Eastern Europe and desperate for a job. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris worked their way up from poverty, but then turned their backs on workers treating them as possible theives and trying to squeeze every ounce of work out for the least possible amount of pay. The owners kept a vital door locked to prevent the workers from stealing clothing (an average of $25 a year went missing), and that in turn caused the greatest loss of life, 146 workers, in a US workplace until 9/11. Von Drehle does a terrific job of showing how this tragedy came about and the repercussions that came after it. It's a tragic part of American history that shouldn't be forgotten.

Last week, Mia and I saw our pet peacock Paco standing with his tail fanned out in front of the neighbor's glass doors. He was admiring himself in the reflection! When I saw today's pic on Cute Overload I couldn't help but think of Paco's pride.