April 30, 2010

Beatrice and Virgil - Yann Martel

I am one of those people who was really on the fence about Life of Pi (I loved the book right up until, but not including, the last chapter). I probably would have read Beatrice and Virgil eventually, but then my sister sent it to me for my birthday earlier this month, and it was bumped up to the top of my reading list.

I think that I liked this book. I found it quite engaging - as I read it over the course of this week, mainly in 30-60 minute chunks at bedtime, it was easy enough to pick up and put down with no problem remembering the story from night to night; but not so gripping that it kept me awake at night. That is, until last night when I was finishing the book.

I'm not going to reveal the plot, but I will say that there is a plot twist right close to the end that was as visceral as a punch in the stomach. In retrospect (hindsight being 20/20 and all), I should have seen it coming, but I didn't, and it kept me awake after finishing the book, reflecting on what had just happened.

Parts of it were a bit clunky - there are obvious parallels between the main character and the author; it was a bit slow to get going and to figure out where the story was going - but it was almost like a runaway train picking up momentum before crashing at the end of the line.

A lot of the promotion has been about the concept of a "flip-book". The main character is an author who can't get his latest book published because it is a flip-book with a novel beginning at one end and an essay at the other that meet in the middle; and apparently Yann Martel wanted to publish this as a flip book along with an essay on the holocaust. But then someone sensibly pointed out that including an essay would necessarily colour any reader's interpretation of the book. Though a lot has been made of this, I think that the whole thing was less relevant than the actual plot.

So as I said at the beginning, I think that I liked this book, but I'm going to need to take some time to digest what just happened. It is certainly a book that is going to stay with me for a while.

April 24, 2010

Half the Sky - Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

The sub-title of this book is "Turning Oppression into Opprotunity for Women Worldwide. I read it as part of the group study leading up to a short-term mission trip to Zambia in July, but given my interests (namely social justice and international development), it is a book that likely would have crossed my path anyways.

The authors are journalists who won the Pulitzer Prize for their coverage of China, and this book is very well written and easy to read with respect to writing style. What makes it difficult are the topic covered. The title comes from a Chinese proverb, "Women hold up half the sky," and it delves into issues that women face around the world. The authors have traveled extensively through Asia and Africa (I noticed fewer stories from Latin America), talking to people and collecting stories. They present problems such as human trafficking, forced prostitution, maternal mortality, and female genital mutilation; but rather than presenting only the problems, they also tell stories of people and organizations, and what is being done to combat these problems. The issues are grim, and in some places it seems as though they are getting worse rather than better, but each chapter ends on a positive note with the story of how issues are being addressed.

This book really should be on the must-read list for anyone interested in International Development to become familiar with the issues before going overseas. It is very powerfully written; and one thing that I really enjoyed were the photographic portraits of the women whose stories are told.

All that being said, the book isn't perfect. The authors do acknowledge their biases throughout the book (e.g. their views on how to solve the problems of forced prostitution - should governments legalize and regulate prostitution; or should it stay illegal and governments should crack down on brothels? The authors are quite clear in their preference for cracking down on brothels and give their reasons why.)

And one issue that I thought was brushed off was the issue of prostitution here in North America. The authors say, right in the first chapter, "Growing up in the United States and then living in China and Japan, we though of prostitution as something that women may turn to opportunistically or out of economic desperation," and then there is one similar comment along the same lines later in the book. But really, the issues underlying this so-called "voluntary" prostitution are the same issues underlying forced prostitution or human trafficking - poverty, abuse, and drug addiction. I would challenge the authors to show me a girl growing up in a loving middle- or upper-class family who plans to be a prostitute when she grows up! Most women on the streets here in Canada have been abused, are addicted to drugs, and have no other options. Life on the streets here is not fun (to put it mildly); but in order for someone to choose it, it has to be better than any other option open to her.

Ahem. Stepping off my soapbox now.

Despite this quibble (which, as it arose in the first chapter, coloured my reading of the rest of the book as I was always on guard for other disagreements with the authors), I do agree with the majority of the issues presented, as well as with the proposed solutions. An excellent read.

April 21, 2010

Here Lies Arthur - Philip Reeve

From the outset, I have to confess that I love stories about King Arthur, and have read every version that I can get my hands on. But this one left me cold.

It was well written, and very readable, but it was author's take on the legend that I didn't care for. Arthur is portrayed as a small-time ruffian with his band of followers, pillaging and raping at will; Gwenhwyfar is a bit of a cougar (in the modern usage of the term); there is no round table and the building built to house the round table has a straw roof and collapses; and Merlin is a teller of tales and a petty conjurer, who is spreading his vision of who Arthur should be rather than who he really is.

I do appreciate the value of different perspectives on legends, but I could have done without this version. All of the magic, chivalry, and questing nature - everything that I love about the Arthurian legend - are gone. This is not going to make my re-read list, and I am going to have to try very hard to forget it.

April 13, 2010

Out of Africa - Karen Blixen

I picked this book out of my TBR pile a few weeks ago, and it has served me well during this busy time as a book that I could pick up at bedtime and read a chapter at a time.

It is a book that I have planned to read for many a year (though I have never seen the movie); especially since moving back to Canada from Africa. I am in mixed feelings about this book, as I had expected to be.

What I didn't like: the colonial attitude, the racism (though the author seemed to pride herself on her lack of racism and relationship with the "natives"), the use of multiple random languages without a translation. I managed OK with the French and Swahili, but the German was beyond me! I was also frustrated by the lack of personal details - it was only by doing my own research after finishing the book that I learned about the authors marriage, separation, divorce, and affair with Denys Finch-Hatton; which were all going on during the period that this book takes place.

What I did like: the beautiful descriptions of the countryside so that I could imagine myself there. I am currently trying to write out some of my experiences in Tanzania, but after reading this book, I have to ask myself why bother - it has already been written and far better than I could write it. A sample: "One year the long rains failed. That is a terrible, tremendous experience, and the farmer who has lived through it will never forget it. Years afterwards, away from Africa, in the wet climate of a northern country, he will start up at night, at the sound of a sudden shower of rain, and cry, 'At last, at last.'"

About the language, I am quite fluent in Swahili, and it was nice seeing it used in a book, but I found some of the spellings and usages to be strange. I don't know if it is archaic usages because of the almost-90-year gap between when Karen Blixen learned the language and when I learned the language, or a difference between Kenyan and Tanzanian Swahili (though they are both lumped together as East African Swahili as compared with Congolese Swahili).

But overall a good read, and I'm glad that I read it!

April 10, 2010

Swallows and Amazons - Arthur Ransome

I can't remember how old I was when I first read this book. I suspect that I was probably around 12 years old. I do remember that my mother gave it to me; and as neither of my sisters have read it (I think), I suspect that it may have been in order to introduce me to a new series of books that would keep me in the realm of childhood, rather than reading the "adult" novels that I was starting to discover. I can't remember how many of the books in this series I eventually read - I think that I made it through 4 or 5, and then our little rural library didn't have the rest of the series.

I don't think that I have re-read it since reaching adulthood, that random line which I draw either at the point when I went away to university or the point when I graduated and started working. Anyways, point is that I haven't read it in a long time, and yet somehow my copy has travelled with me every time that I have moved, and been filed away in my bookcase.

Last weekend was Easter weekend, and as a church musician, it is probably the busiest week of the year for me. On Good Friday, I was looking for something to read that wouldn't involve too much brain power, and my copy of Swallows and Amazons leapt off the shelf at me. (I have to admit that I was browsing the Children's bookcase in my library!)

It was a very enjoyable re-read. All that I could remember of the plot is that it was about 2 families of children sailing and camping out in the Lake District of England. It was well written and so kept me engaged and guessing about the plot; while not being too taxing on my tired brain. Plus it made me long for summer when the ice will be off the lakes and I can get my canoe on the water again. It is definitely going to stay on my shelf for re-reads in the future!