Thursday, January 29, 2009

Book 10: The Blood of Flowers

The Blood of Flowers by Anita Amirrezvani

This novel follows the fate of a young woman (she's 14, but considering that she's considered old enough to marry, I think woman is more fitting than girl) in 17th century Iran (the author specifically says 1620s). The narrator is unnamed, though everyone else in the novel is not. In the beginning of the novel, the woman's father dies, and she and her mother discover the fate of women when the man of the house dies and there are no close living relatives. While they weren't poor to begin with, they were definitely working class, and with the father's death, it is hard for them to support themselves. Without a dowry, the narrator's marriage options are slim to none, and as a woman in this time period, there weren't many other choices. Fortunately, a rich but distant relative in the city takes them in, which allows the narrator to expand on her natural skills at carpet making. There is of course family drama, things get better only to get worse, the narrator learns about friendship, betrayal and sex, and the descriptions of carpets and carpet making are actually interesting. The author also intersperses older folk tales and fairy tales into her novel which illuminate certain themes of the story and draw parallels to the characters' lives. I've actually had this novel sitting in my apartment for a while but just never got around to reading it. The main reason for that was the format of the book itself - I'd picked it up in the PX in Iraq so instead of being a larger sized paperback, it's one of the small ones, like a James Patterson novel, for example. I prefer the feel of the taller, slimmer books to the short ones. I know, I'm weird, it's the words and the story that actually matter. Once I got started, it was easy to become immersed in this novel regardless of the formatting.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Book 9: The White Tiger

The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

I had underestimated how much I would read while in Berlin, so when it came time to take a train back home, I needed a new book. This was one of the few English-language books they had, and I'd actually almost ordered it from Amazon previously but had decided to wait a little bit.

Balram Halwai, the narrator, reveals the ending of his story early on. Written as a letter to the Premier of China, Halwai identifies himself as an entrepreneur who has left behind the poverty and uncertainty of his childhood and early adulthood, and has a secure place in the world. He also quickly refers to the fact that he was wanted by the police, had stolen a significant amount of money, and murdered his former boss. There is little surprise when it comes to the fate of the characters. However, the story of how Halwai got from where he started to where he was is interesting, and certainly holds one's attention.

There are definitely times when Halwai seems unlikable and somewhat selfish, but it is also hard to feel much pity for many of those around him. His family is demanding; his fellow servants are equally self-interested; his bosses are corrupt, and completely unaware of the misery around them. As the novel progresses, Halwai realizes that in ways the rich are all alike, and equally cheap, even the ones that think they are better or of the people. It's a really compelling read and commentary on class struggles.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Book 8: A Thread of Grace

A Thread of Grace by Maria Doria Russell

Another incredible read. I've been really lucky so far this year with my selections. The novel includes in an interview in the back, and Russell says she was inspired by a nonfiction book to write this story. Unfortunately, I've misplaced all three of the novels I finished while in Berlin and can't figure out where I put them when I took them out of the bag which is driving me crazy because two of them were great novels, and the other was okay, but part of a series. And I also think I might want to read the book she refers to but it's kind of hard to get the title without the novel. Okay, calm breath.

The novel has a large cast of characters, and spans from September 1943 to the end of World War II. It deals with the fate and treatment of the Jews in Italy. Unlike many of the other countries under Nazi occupation, the Italians were a lot more willing to help and protect their fellow countrymen, and even hid Jews from other parts of Europe that had emigrated there. Many of the priests also played an integral part in this despite the church's official position. Some of the characters include native Italian Jews and refugees as well as various Italian Catholics that either helped discretely or became actual partisans in the fight. While overall, the story is very hopeful and uplifting, Russell is unafraid to kill off many of her most interesting and colorful characters. While fewer Jews may have died in Italy than other countries, the losses are still heartbreaking. Also, the way some of the heroes are dealt with in the end in the confusion of the aftermath was incredibly sad.

The novel also explores ideas of guilt and responsibility, and has two characters specifically that have problems dealing with their conscience. Overall, it was a great look at how the war affected people, and how it was possible for people to band together under the Nazis and attempt to resist them.

Sunday Music Video

Anberlin - A Day Late

I guess last weekend it wasn't the computer - most of the videos I tried looking up had embedding disabled on them. I actually prefer the acoustic version of this song, but that's not so much a music video as just a picture with the song playing in the background.

Anberlin - A Day Late (Acoustic)

Book 7: Living Dead in Dallas

Living Dead in Dallas by Charlaine Harris

This is the second in the Southern Vampire Mysteries series. Harris had two mysteries or subplots going on in this one, and while the one was kind of interesting, the other seemed rather weak. And actually, neither one of them seemed that mysterious, really.

The novel begins when Sookie's coworker Lafayette, a gay black man, is found dead - so much for using this character to explore sexuality and race issues. Shortly thereafter, Sookie is called away by the vampires in charge in the area to help out another group in Dallas. The part in Dallas was the interesting part, even though once Sookie read a few minds, there wasn't exactly any mystery as to what was going on. Instead, Harris used this opportunity to introduce a cult of sorts that is very anti-vampire. Basically, it's a mix of a cult, the KuKluxKlan and any other radical ultra-conservative group one can think of.

While working on that case, Sookie and Bill once again confront a few issues in their relationships, and their separation allows Sookie access to get some more clues about Lafayette's death upon their return home. This part is wrapped up, well, neatly isn't the right word . . . quickly. In addition, Harris threw in a few more supernatural characters, including a maenad, whose only reason for really being in the book seems to be the wrap up. Overall, an alright read, but I feel like Harris may have tried to throw too much in there for one book, and could have focused more deeply on some of the plotlines if she hadn't tried to have so many extra characters and events in it. Maybe I'm just too used to reading slow moving novels, and can't handle quickly paced plot lines . . .

Since I was reading this while in Berlin (I was on the subway a lot), I was rather surprised and delighted to discover that the Pergamon Museum, which has all the old Greek and Roman statues as well as Iranian art in it, was doing a special exhibit on Dionysius. Here is a picture of a maenad:

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Book 6: Snowflower and the Secret Fan

Snowflower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

I've seen this book several times over the past few years, but never bothered to pick it up. For some reason, the title made me think it was some kind of mystery that just happened to be set in Japan or China simply to capitalize on interest in those countries through superficial means. I was completely wrong. Next time, before I judge a book on its cover, I might want to actually at least read the backflap. Of course, another reason I was hesitant to pick it up was because I've heard critiques about Amy Tan, and how she writes Chinese characters and culture in a way that exoticizes them and appeals to whites. I didn't want to discover another author who was doing the exact same thing.

There is no mystery, instead, this novel is an incredible and amazing story about two women's friendship with each other. The fan is simply a gift they share that they use to record significant events in their lives on, and the reason it is ''secret'' is because of the language they use to communicate. As I discovered through this novel, in one part of China, women had their own secret written language that they used to communicate with each other since they were discouraged from learning the regular, "male" writing.

At a time when the life expectancy for women was around 40 years old, Lily, the narrator, lives to over 80, and decides to write this story to reflect on her life. Born to a poor, and not so well-to-do family, Lily's family discovers that Lily might be their key to moving up in the world: when it is time to have her feet bound, the local diviner calls in outside help because her feet could be extraordinarily small and perfect if done correctly. Having perfect "Golden Lilies" would open many doors for Lily in the marriage market later in life. Additionally, this also allows her to have a special relationship with another girl from another village, Snow Flower, who is of a higher class than her. All of this will be Lily's family's way out of poverty.

While Lily discusses her marriage briefly, her main focus throughout the novel is her relationship with Snow Flower as well as other women. While there are several, heartbreaking family tragedies along the way, everything goes according to plan for Lily. Over the years, her friendship with Snow Flower remains constant, even through secrets and changing circumstances. However, there are also plenty of misunderstandings, and Lily's confronting her past to deal with her guilt and her regrets.

I was very impressed by this novel. The portrayal of women's lives in China was incredibly interesting, though of course for the most part, these families are all of a slightly higher class simply due to the fact that they engage in footbinding. The servants, for example, have normal sized feet. While women's lives and fortunes depended very much on the men they were attached to (which can be seen in Lily's rise, but even more in Snow Flower's life), this novel is still about women's relationships and the ways they occasionally use and betray each other but also how much they can care and nurture each other. I'm generally pretty unemotional, but there was a scene in the book where even I almost felt some tears welling up. Definitely recommend this one.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

No Music Today

I'm in Berlin for the weekend, and I forgot to make a post for Sunday before I left. I found an internet cafe, but youTube won't let me embed anything through this connection . . .

As soon as I am home, I'll find something; also I read a really great book on the train ride up here, so I'll post on that soon, too. I started working on it here, but I can't handle the German keyboard for anything too extensive (there are only minor differences, but just enough to drive me crazy - who knew that I used the y-key and the '-key so often?)

Monday, January 12, 2009

Book 5: The Phantom of the Opera

The Phantom of the Opera by Gaston Leroux

While I've read a few classics, I haven't read that many of the classic gothic horror stories. I read Dracula in high school, and just didn't see the big deal. However, they had this at the PX, and I keep thinking I should see the musical or at least rent the movie, so I picked it up.

It was actually a lot more interesting and intriguing than I expected. Yes, it has the usual problem of some classic literature where the young woman that everyone is in love with doesn't seem to have that much of a personality - she's tragic, everyone loves her because she's so pure, sweet, innocent and, of course, beautiful, but the men in love with her aren't exactly that well developed, either. Raoul is just the usual rich man who seems to have less brains than necessary but lots of courage. However, since I was able to write that off as part of the genre and time period, I actually really enjoyed the novel. Until about three quarters of the way through. At that point, it just took a really weird turn. Once again, very much in line with the time it was written during, but still kind of messed up.

Basically, there is a character called the Persian that suddenly takes an important role as the person that helps Raoul to track down Christine after she goes missing. The character never gets a name beyond the Persian, and he then reveals a lot of background about the Opera Ghost, or Erik, that is just kind of out there. Erik is originally French, but he traveled the world, and ended up in India, where he served to amuse the little sultana, an incredibly blood thirsty, young woman. I didn't really see the need to have Erik travel all over the place to explain his nature, nor was there any point in throwing in minority characters only to describe them as violent or to help the young white protagonists.

Still, despite that, I actually enjoyed the novel quite a bit. Obviously, if this novel had been written today, I'd probably be incredibly irritated and pissed off about those types of needless portrayals in a novel, but since it's almost a century old, I'm mainly just flabbergasted. How much of the original story line is actually in the play? I just don't see it being as successful as it is if it still includes that rather xenophobic story line which really just distracts from the overall story anyway.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Finally, A Completely Unproductive Weekend

I'm back into a normal work rhythm, and I have to say it kind of sucks. Not the actual work part, just the hours. I get up at 5:30, go to PT, come back home to shower, and usually get back to the motor pool by 8:45. I take lunch sometime between 11:30 and 1:00, come back to work until the end of the day, and then go to the gym. By the time, I get home, it is usually after 7. Granted, I don't have to go to the gym, but I kind of feel like I need to. I'm actually enjoying my job more now because while I might be busier, I also have more responsibility, and more actual, real tasks to do. I just wish I had more time in the day. I usually have about 10 to 15 minutes in the morning before PT to check my email and stuff, and then another 10 to 15 minutes between PT and work. Once I'm off, I eat dinner in front of the computer while catching up with all the blogs I read, some of which post quite extensively. At that point, it's 8, and I usually try to go to sleep between 9 and 9:30, so I really don't have much time to watch DVDs or read at all during the week. I honestly don't understand how people can be married and in the Army.

My uncle wanted me to come to Schweinfurt this weekend to go to a party his colleague was having (there would have been a lot of single men there, he told my mother; everyone I know seems to think I need to meet people), but I just couldn't handle the idea of spending four hours on the road this weekend, especially since I still had to go grocery shopping. Outside of a few bags of skillet meals and some cheese, there was nothing edible in my apartment. Instead, I decided to spend the weekend at home and do nothing. I finally finished watching the fifth season of The L Word, I read two books, finished a third and started a fourth, updated my blog, and just generally relaxed.

Between having family and old family friends in Germany, and just being in Europe, I feel like I should be doing something or going somewhere every weekend. It's not like I'm going to have this opportunity again once I go back to the States. But honestly, sometimes it's nice to stay at home and relax - especially when it's freezing out anyway. Besides, I want to save money (although, now that I've read a few books, I feel like I have an excuse to order more, so I'm still not saving huge amounts). I figure next weekend is a four day, so I'm going somewhere for that, and I'm taking the train because that way I can read on the way - also, don't have to worry about parking or any of that crap. I probably should still consider getting a GPS, though. I figure once I file my taxes, I should be getting some money back, so maybe I'll use my return for that.

Sunday Music Video

Placebo - Running Up That Hill

I like the song more than I like the video, but whatever.

Book 4: The Confessions of Max Tivoli

The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer

I heard about this novel over at Books for Breakfast, and since I've been wanting to see The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it sounded intriguing (I've also heard that Benjamin Button was disappointing, so I thought maybe this would be a better way of dealing with the premise).

Overall, I'm not really sure what my reaction to this book is. It was incredibly well written, and obviously took a lot of thought and development on part of the author, but I didn't actually like the protagonist that much as the novel progressed. At first, it was easy to feel for Max given his extraordinary circumstances, but as he gets older (or younger in body), it's hard to not dislike the choices he makes. And there is something creepy about fifty year old man kissing a fourteen year girl, even if the man is actually 17 at the time.

While his actions in the middle of the book, or his second shot at Alice, make sense, they also seem unjustifiable. He refuses to reveal his condition to her, but doesn't even consider what this will mean for them in the long term, since it would be rather impossible to keep his secret over a long period of time. However, the worst part is probably the way he returns into her life for the third and final time.

In addition to Alice, Max manages to hurt various other people in his life, all in his singular pursuit of love. As his best friend Hughie tells him, Max is incredibly selfish. Despite the fact that I'm very torn about the protagonist, I really enjoyed the novel and the set up. I especially liked some of the supporting characters, such as Hughie, and the ending was rather poignant and saddening. As Max states at the beginning of the novel, "we are each the love of someone's life." The tragedy of this novel is that all the characters define the loves of their lives as people that don't feel the same. Max loves a woman who never even knows who he truly is, and ends up rejecting the one person that loved him as he was.

By the end, Max is fully aware of how damaging his actions have been, and for this reason, decides to confess. The very last paragraph is beautifully written, and a very fitting conclusion.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Book 3: Dead Until Dark

Dead Until Dark by Charlaine Harris

So obviously, I'm a huge Buffy fan. It's basically my favorite television show ever, and I honestly even like the 6th season, which most people hate (I'm actually a little less fond of the 5th season because I just didn't like Glory that much). As a result, I'm rather intrigued by the idea of HBO's series True Blood, which I don't have access to, not having HBO and all, and living in Germany. Although, I admit, I think the vampire thing goes back further than Buffy. I remember when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade, one of my favorite series of books was called Der Kleine Vampir, and I also used to buy collections of ghost and horror stories a lot, many of which had some vampire stories in them as well, some better than others. Right before I discovered Buffy, I went through an Anne Rice phase, although her books started getting really stupid after a while and my favorite was actually The Witching Hour (I think the one I finally just threw down in disgust was Blackwood Farm, even though Vittorio and Merrick had really pissed me off as well - I'm not sure if she got worse, or I just wised up).

Basically, I haven't really gone out of my way to do much with the vampire genre as of late because it's one of those things that can be very badly done. I've been hearing enough about this series lately, though, to give it a chance.

First off, what is with people always needing to add extra stuff to their vampire lore lately? Why can't it just be enough to have a vampire running around, at least for one or two novels before they start throwing in other supernatural beings? That stupid piece of crap Twilight did that (a friend suckered me into that one), and even Dead Until Dark throws a few things in. Not that it was badly done, but I guess there could have been more focus on the vampires before Harris started tossing in shapeshifters, or werewolf-like creatures. And I know Stephenie Meyer hasn't read any other vampire lore, but it almost seems like she got a few plot ideas from this novel, except then she removed all the sex, violence and anything interesting - in both, the protagonist suddenly has a vamp and a shapeshifter/werewolf fighting over her after being rather dateless most of her life.

However, unlike that annoying Bella, Sookie has intelligence and is resourceful. While she has her moments of "oh my god, my vampire boyfriend is so hot," she also sees the reality of their relationship and future problems they will doubtlessly encounter. She is wary enough to question whether or not it is even wise to be involved with him. She also actually gets a little mad at him when he keeps wanting to protect her, although she is also slightly flattered at some points. More importantly, while Bill and Sam both try to protect her and save her at different times, she also rescues Bill in the very beginning of the novel, and when it comes down to it, she saves herself (given that this is a series, I don't think it's exactly a spoiler when I say she doesn't die at the end). Okay, so maybe her strength is now slightly enhanced due to her vampire boyfriend, but she didn't wait around to be saved. Also, she was in real danger while Bella apparently can't even tie her shoes without being in mortal danger because she's so klutzy. I'm sorry, I'm getting a bit off track here, but that book still pisses me off.

I also rolled my eyes at the sex scenes a little bit - maybe I'm just overthinking things or being too critical, but really, who stops in the middle of making out, stands up, undresses in front of the other person, and then starts again? If you're already in the moment, don't you just kind of start tugging, pulling or pushing at anything that's in the way without making a big production out of it?

Of course, it isn't purely a vampire novel series; it's also a mystery series. The actual resolve to the mystery made sense, but it doesn't really seem like there were all these clues pointing to it. It just seems like murder mysteries nowadays are more about just guessing who is the most likely rather than the story laying out all these clues that turn it into a puzzle. I don't think I ever used to guess right when I read an Agatha Christie novel but the way she represented the ending, it seemed like the reader could have taken the clues to draw the proper conclusion. Of course, maybe between all the mystery novel writers out there, and the dozens of TV shows out there, it's just become too easy to guess and predict that kind of stuff without having to put any thought into it.

Basically, it was an entertaining read. It took me longer to read than it should have because I barely have time to read during the week anymore - it's depressing. I decided to take a chance and ordered the boxed set, so I will be reading the rest of the series in the next few weeks. This first novel was interesting but it wasn't incredibly deep or anything. I think the author has set up a few scenarios, though, that could lead to some interesting discussions about race, class and sexuality. Or they could just be passing references to make the books appear deeper than they are.

Book 2: The Pilot's Wife

The Pilot's Wife by Anita Shreve

As much as I love Amazon, nothing beats walking through an actual bookstore, and looking at the titles there. This is why I always end up looking through the shelves at the PX, despite the fact that I know not to expect much of anything. Sometimes, I get surprised, and they have books I really wanted to read, such as Blindness. Other times, I find titles that I recognize and sound interesting enough, though I probably wouldn't have gone out of my way to get them, such as Darkly Dreaming Dexter and The Pilot's Wife. Given a lack of options, I suddenly find myself inspired to buy books I wouldn't normally because they're the best of the bunch.

This isn't necessarily a book I would pass on to other people, but I wouldn't tell them not to read it, either. I think the back cover may have given more away than it should have with its reference to secrets, but then again, that's part of the reason I read it as quickly as I did - I wanted to know the secrets, though at least part of the secret was pretty easy to guess, and probably obvious. Basically, the book was very readable - the prose and the story didn't lag, and there are worse ways to spend an afternoon. I'm not sure how accurate a picture of grief the novel painted, but it seemed realistic enough. I didn't actually need all the twists at the end, and would have been just as happy with a random plane crash as what ended up being the reason behind it. In this way, the novel actually kind of dates itself since it refers to political issues and groups that aren't much of an issue anymore.

On a slightly different note, how many books are out there titled "The . . .'s Husband"? It seems like there a quite few books about "The . . .'s Wife", but I haven't really noticed any in the reverse. The title alone then gives the idea that this woman's life revolved around her husband and that her identity is defined by his. Kathryn met her husband when she was 18, and he was 33, so obviously he was already much more mature and set in his identity than she was. After they marry, she becomes a teacher at the local high school, but it never really seems like she is that passionate about it. Kathryn and her daughter's lives revolve around Jack's flight schedule, adjusting to his presence and absence as necessary. She has her own life and friends in Massachusetts but so much of it is defined by Jack's job. [Spoiler] Of course, one could make the argument that in this case the title is ambiguous and that it is questionable who the real "pilot's wife" is. [end spoiler]

Overall, I didn't feel like it was a waste of time, and even if it's one of those books I'll probably barely remember in a few months, it's also not one I had to force myself through. It was an interesting examination of a marriage, although in many ways, it seemed to me like Kathryn was settling by assuming that most marriages just naturally fade.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Sunday Music Video

Garbage - You Look So Fine

So New Year's was super-exciting. I was in bed by midnight and didn't have a single drink. Yeah. My life is just that glamorous.

Anyway, I'm not really into the New's Year Resolution thing but I have been meaning to blog more so the beginning of the New Year is as a good as a time to try and start some regular stuff. We'll see if I remember for the next few weeks.

Book 1: Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Darkly Dreaming Dexter by Jeff Lindsay

I actually only heard of this book due to the Showtime series, Dexter. I was actually surprised by how closely the series seemed to follow parts of the book. The first hundred pages of the book were used almost word for word in the first few episodes. This is one of the few times that the adaptation was more developed than the novel, but that's the difference between making a film and a series - there's actually the time to develop everything. The novel also takes place in a shorter period of time, and doesn't have as many plot twists and points to it. It was an entertaining, light read, but I am very impressed with where the show ended up taking it and how they fleshed it out.

For example, I much prefer the character of Laguerta in the show to the woman she is in the novel. At first she is incredibly political and slightly incompetent in both, but as the series progressed, Laguerta actually became a very sympathetic character, who is also a competent cop, if she's occasionally gets too wrapped in the politics of it all. She never really gets beyond dumb and incompetent in the novel.

I also have no clue how much of the second novel was incorporated into the show (during either season), but from reading the synopsis, it definitely sounds nothing like the second season of Dexter. It was a pleasant way to spend an afternoon, but I'm in no rush to read the rest of the series. Maybe if I happen to see the second one in the PX or hit another reading lull, I'll get it, but until then, I have other books I'm more interested in.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Old Favorite Revisited: Felicity

When I was in junior high and high school, I watched most of the WB's evening line up - Buffy, Dawson's Creek, Felicity, Roswell, Angel, Smallville (only the first two or three seasons), Charmed (consistently for the first three or four). Since then I have bought the entire collection of Buffy and Angel as well as the first season of Roswell, which wasn't quite as good as I remembered. While I always wanted to buy Felicity, I could never bring myself to do it because I wasn't willing to spend $50 per season, and they never seemed to go on sale. Well, they finally did, so I ordered the first two seasons (when I went back to order the third, I saw that it was available for preorder so I guess the reason they finally went on sale is because they're rereleasing them, kind of like My So-Called Life).

I've been watching Felicity every night for the past week or two (it takes so much longer to watch a whole season of television when I have a normal work schedule!), and it was just as good as I remembered. It's not quite as quotable as Buffy but it is intelligent, and interesting, and while some of the things the characters do seem completely age-inappropriate, other things are actually rather fitting. Also, Felicity is just such a relatable character in ways: she overanalyzes everything, and feels the need to discuss everything. As soon as she gets an idea in her head, she will head over to the person's room/apartment to discuss it, even if it might seem completely out of the blue, and they don't understand where she's coming from. In the very first episode, she ends up at Ben's and stands in the doorway yelling at him and arguing with him. The scene seemed quite familiar.

In other ways, it's almost depressing to watch because while it is well-written and it all makes sense within the context of the show, it's just not like real life at all. Guys don't break up with you and then five or six months later realize what a huge mistake it all was and make a grand romantic gesture to win you back. While there is so much more to the show, in simplest terms, it's almost just the love story of Ben and Felicity despite all the other men and women they date over the years. Somehow, they always end up back together after growing apart or separating for whatever reasons. And it's sweet and romantic, but it's not like there really is such a thing as soul mates, or meant to be. I can definitely see where watching this while younger could have somehow screwed up my ideas and perceptions about relationships. I wonder if this has anything to do with why it takes me so long to let go of things. Or did I simply like the show because it confirmed preconceived notions I already had way before then? Oh joy, it's like the chicken and the egg. Eh.