I was very moved by the classic antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun when I read it in high school, many years ago. I recall this now after stumbling ontoI was very moved by the classic antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun when I read it in high school, many years ago. I recall this now after stumbling onto an excellent PBS American Masters documentary about Dalton Trumbo, focusing on his experience as a blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter. What I didn't remember about the book is that it was published in 1939. I also don't recall learning much about Dalton Trumbo, the novelist, writer, and screenwriter. A remarkable, interesting man - extremely intelligent and eloquent. A person of great conscience. I would like to read this novel again someday, knowing now the full scope of Trumbo's life experience....more
I really enjoyed this novel -- full of lively, interesting, and believable characters. The Hayward Public Library hosted the author at an event in NovI really enjoyed this novel -- full of lively, interesting, and believable characters. The Hayward Public Library hosted the author at an event in November 2009, and I was very impressed by the thoughtfulness of her presentation -- she provided interesting answers to hard questions about her religious and spiritual beliefs, and her identity as a Muslim-American woman. Haji has a very down-to-earth, authentic, and approachable personality.
The writing is strong and at times very poetic. The opening is very moving, especially when read for a second time, following completion of the novel (when it will convey a fuller, more complex meaning, in light of the book's somewhat surprising ending). Although Saira comes from a different background than my own, I identified with her -- perhaps because of her age, which I guessed is similar to mine. But I also think this speaks to how American the character of Saira is, despite coming from a Muslim Indo-Pakistani background. This also suggests that the author addresses universal themes, in regards to how we as children navigate different, independent paths from our parents, and how difficult that can be in regards to making, or breaking, the expectations that our parents often have for us. And that the "messy details" of our family's history are often removed by our parents, or ancestors, but that if or when we discover the truth, they can provide an essential piece of our identity and sense of connection with the past.
I chose this novel for the February 2010 selection for my Mostly Literary Fiction Book Group. The majority of the 25 people who gathered in two different meetings to discuss this novel enjoyed it, and connected with the characters and the story.
Everyone agreed that Big Namina, the sister of Saira's grandmother, and like a great aunt to Saira -- the daughter not pretty enough to be make a successful match in marriage -- was a highlight of the book, warm-hearted and wonderful. She forges an interesting and vital life as an English professor at a women's college in Karachi, and serves as an important role model to Saira.
An outstanding scene for many of us occurs in Chapter Nine, when Saira decides to try out for the high school musical Grease, and unexpectedly lands the role of sexually provocative Rizzo. What does a good Muslim girl do when presented with an opportunity that she knows will horrify her parents? She tries to keep it secret from her parents, of course. Perfectly captured -- simultaneously humorous and heart-wrenching.
One of the strengths of the book -- its abundance of themes and twists in the plot -- was identified by some as its weakness. Even if the novel incorporates a few too many themes, it's a worthwhile and interesting read from a talented author I will gladly follow. A good book group selection because there is so much to discuss!...more
I listened to the audio version of this amazing autobiographical novel. The narrator, Dion Graham, is really talented - his delivery of Valentino AchaI listened to the audio version of this amazing autobiographical novel. The narrator, Dion Graham, is really talented - his delivery of Valentino Achak Deng's narrative is convincing and emotionally compelling. He introduces and switches between both Sudanese and American characters, and men and women, expertly.
Eggers frames the telling of Deng's story ingeniously - contrasting situations in Deng's (then contemporary) life in Atlanta with the recounting of his harrowing journey as a young boy from Marial Bai in southern Sudan to a refugee camp near the eastern border of Ethiopia, followed by a refugee camp in Kenya, and then finally to the United States in 2001. As he relates his story to people with whom he has chance encounters in his present-day life in the U.S., he effectively tells us his story, as if he were sitting with you one-on-one for hours on end. By the end of the book, my connection to him and his story felt vital -- unforgettable and life-changing.
That he and other "lost boys" survived the arduous journey, and were able to start new lives in the U.S and elsewhere in the world, is simply amazing. Eggers balances heartbreaking tragedy and loss with humor and optimism. We come into contact with a cast of interesting and endearing real-life characters, and get insight not only on the political battles and wars that led Deng and others to flee from southern Sudan, but we also learn the ups and downs of accepting and negotiating charitable assistance and financial contributions, and its impact on his friendships and relationships with other Sudanese refugees. The story is enlightening in many ways, including understanding the cultural and political differences between the Muslim Arabs of northern Sudan, and where Darfur fits into all of this. I believe Deng has since returned to Sudan to oversee the building and running of a school in his Sudanese hometown -- I'll look for news of his progress, for sure. This novel is triumphant, its telling a true achievement. I give it the highest rating, and highly recommend it....more
Zeitoun is a moving and eye-opening journalistic account of a much-loved and respected Syrian-born small business owner and resident of New Orleans inZeitoun is a moving and eye-opening journalistic account of a much-loved and respected Syrian-born small business owner and resident of New Orleans in the days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. Eggers worked closely with Abdulrahman Zeitoun (known simply as "Zeitoun") and his American wife Kathy to faithfully represent Zeitoun's experiences when he remained in New Orleans to supervise his residential properties and business sites following the hurricane.
Some of the most emotionally rich scenes are those that describe milestones in Zeitoun's childhood and introduce American readers to his extended family in Syria. The opening passage describing the custom of night-time fishing for sardines in Jableh, a small Syrian coastal fishing town, is stunning.
Eggers creates and sustains suspense as he recounts earnest rescue missions alongside incompetent and brutal security maneuvers intent on maintaining order. This is the eye-opening part of the account that was seldomly portrayed in the media. A worthwhile, accessible book - perfect for high school students and older.
A bonus is that all author proceeds from the sale of the book will go to benefit a wide assortment of non-profit organizations involved in promoting human rights and the ongoing rebuilding of New Orleans....more
This is a beautiful novel, with sensitively drawn characters in a volatile and violent period of Iran, from 1973 to 1974 during the reign of the ShahThis is a beautiful novel, with sensitively drawn characters in a volatile and violent period of Iran, from 1973 to 1974 during the reign of the Shah of Iran. At the heart of this novel is a love story, but there's much more. The sustaining nature of intimate friendships and family relationships, and the sacrifices that the characters make for each other are poetically and movingly portrayed. At a time when U.S. foreign policy with Iran weighs heavily, this novel provides a personal and valuable insight into Iranian culture and history.
We had the pleasure of hosting the author at the Hayward Public Library on Sept. 28, 2009, and I selected it for the December meeting of the Mostly Literary Fiction Book Group....more
This was another Paris vacation-inspired read (though I'd been wanting to read it for a while). A sweet and tender story with quirky characters I fellThis was another Paris vacation-inspired read (though I'd been wanting to read it for a while). A sweet and tender story with quirky characters I fell in love with, and interesting philosophical and culture-related discussions (it's time for me to watch Yasujirō Ozu's The Munekata Sisters, revisit the art of seventeenth-century Dutch masters, and finally read Tolstoy's Anna Karenina). A book whose characters love grammar? Bring it on! A 12-year-old's inspired reflections on the beauty of a choir? Couldn't get enough! The friendship between a self-taught intellectual Parisian concierge and a Portuguese immigrant maid? Precious. The unlikely friendship/love between a wealthy Japanese widow and a working class French concierge? Touching. I loved just about everything about this book -- so much that one of my very few purchases during the said vacation in Paris was a used copy of the novel in its original French, with a plan to revitalize my French by reading it paragraph-by-paragraph in the original text.
I would recommend this novel to everyone I know -- but would probably stop short of selecting it for a book discussion group. Why? It's a book to enjoy, but not necessarily a good one to dissect and debate. I think it would be more of a meeting in which everyone shared their favorite passages while all the others shook their heads in agreement. Or, in the chance that someone didn't like the book, I'd rather spare myself the disenchantment, and hold onto this one as a pure delight....more
I stumbled onto this charming book while searching for potential reading about Paris, my delightful vacation destination this summer. The title refersI stumbled onto this charming book while searching for potential reading about Paris, my delightful vacation destination this summer. The title refers to one of Knisley's favorite French beverages, which she documents in her sweet graphic travelogue of a six-week vacation in Paris with her turning-50-years-old mother. French Milk combines Knisley's fun cartoon sketches about her experiences in Paris and impressions of France with confession-like comments about life as a 22-year-old -- just about to graduate from college and struggling to find her way in the world as an adult and an artist. She introduces her readers to her friends, her lovers, her divorced parents, her favorite authors (including Oscar Wilde), and her ups and downs with the art world and identity as an artist. Interspersed are photographs of favorite meals, destinations, and loved ones. More than just a travel journal, it is in great part a testimony of the love and special moments shared by a daughter with her mother -- which, as a mother, touched a tender place in my heart....more
I think On Beauty is brilliant. I loved the extra layer of meaning that my reading of E.M. Forster's Howards End provided -- but I don't think it's neI think On Beauty is brilliant. I loved the extra layer of meaning that my reading of E.M. Forster's Howards End provided -- but I don't think it's necessary to do background reading to enjoy this novel. The characters are "messy," as Zadie Smith would say -- most of them make a lot of mistakes, but, for the most part, you love them, or sympathize with them for all of their deficiencies. It's a book with many layers, which is just the kind of fiction I love the most!
Zadie Smith has experience in many worlds, crosses many boundaries, and has interesting things to say from a variety of perspectives (including as both a fiction writer and as an academic). She's not only an extremely talented novelist, but she is super educated and smart, with interesting opinions on art, writing, and reading that can be appreciated by anyone. For example, her stance on the value of reading fiction in one sentence, which I really like: "When we read with fine attention, we find ourselves caring about people who are various, muddled, uncertain and not quite like us (and this is good)." (Read "Love, Actually," published in the UK Guardian, Nov. 1, 2003, to understand the fullness of what that means.)
In On Beauty Smith tells an engaging story centered in a Harvard-like community, with lots of political, social, and academic battles that make you laugh and cringe at the same time. The dialogue is snappy and entertaining. We get the most concentrated view of Howard, a middle-aged, untenured professor (his stalled book-in-progress and unpopular art history lectures argue against Rembrandt's artistic genius), and his practical, down-to-earth, and wise wife and three young adult children. Howard gets himself deeper and deeper into trouble, putting his 30-year marriage on the line for extramarital nonsense, as his career continues to go nowhere. There are lots of controversy-filled themes packed in this novel: race, immigration, class, gender -- along with love, family, friendship, coming-of-age, and aging. Everyone is trying to figure out their place in the world and with each other.
One of the many memorable scenes is when Howard makes an unplanned visit to his father during an emergency trip to London. It has been four years since their last failed visit, and they both can't help -- despite their best intentions -- but clash. Howard and his father speak different languages. It pains Howard to confront his father's ignorance just as his father is shocked by Howard's incomprehensible views of art and puzzled by his interracial marriage and family. Smith skillfully captures the chasm between father and son, painful memories, and the impossibility of successful communication and a meaningful relationship.
Readers of Howards End won't have any trouble recognizing the parallels - but Smith goes way beyond the framework provided by Forster, to make this a book that addresses contemporary personal and social contradictions in an entirely fresh, creative, and relevant manner. I highly recommend this outstanding novel!...more
Anticipating Luis Alberto Urrea's Bay Area visit in August 2010, I picked up Into the Beautiful North, which I enjoyed! A sweet and informative tale,Anticipating Luis Alberto Urrea's Bay Area visit in August 2010, I picked up Into the Beautiful North, which I enjoyed! A sweet and informative tale, with a unique insight into undocumented Mexicans just looking for a way back home. (Unfortunately, Urrea's Bay Area appearances were cancelled. I'll look forward to catching up with him on his next book tour.)
Find out more about Luis Alberto Urrea, including his great admiration for Rudolfo Anaya, author of this year's East Bay Big Read selection, Bless Me, Ultima:
This is an idea-packed novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. I grew very fond of the characters Fos and Opal, and followed their chanceThis is an idea-packed novel, which is both its strength and its weakness. I grew very fond of the characters Fos and Opal, and followed their chance meeting, budding love, and a lifetime that led them to unexpected places and challenges that they weathered together. I appreciated getting an inside view of major historical events spanning especially the time between the two world wars -- including the Tennessee Valley Authority's building of dams, and its forced evacuation of thousands of families, followed by the building of the atomic bomb at the Oak Ridge Laboratory. Fos and Opal are quiet but interesting characters, who are ultimately the tragic victims of "things unseen." Fos's passion is science and light, which fuels his life's path in ways he could never have predicted, and provides meaning and satisfaction to him, even as he discovers the profound consequences of the limitations of his knowledge.
But more than science and history, this novel is also about the limitations of love, friendship, and family. Fos's war-time friend Flash is generous but essentially flawed. I wasn't satisfied with the life trajectory that Wiggins drew for him - I wanted more for and from him, and felt slighted by his disappearance from much of the book.
Wiggins is a talented writer, that much is clear, and I'd like to read her other novels. Evidence of Things Unseen made me recall The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers, another "big idea" novel that drew deep connections been music and science -- sometimes to a point of excessiveness. Wiggins begins most of the chapters with quotes from Moby-Dick -- but Captain Ahab's obsession is driven by revenge, and that kind of obsession doesn't seem paralleled in the characters of Evidence of Things Unseen. I'd call Fos's pursuit of science passionate, not obsessive. Maybe I need to revisit Moby-Dick to see the parallels more clearly. Certainly the crew of the Pequod were the innocent victims of Ahab's pursuit, just as the Oak Ridge Lab employees were the unassuming passengers on a ride that delivered terrifying dangers and destruction.
I felt that Wiggins threw in a few too many complicated characters who made fleeting appearances, which felt like distractions to me. But overall, this is an interesting and complex book that drew me in and kept my attention. ...more
I liked this novel, but not as much as Howards End. I'd give it 3.5 stars if I could. What I liked was the witty dialogue - Forster's dialogue reallyI liked this novel, but not as much as Howards End. I'd give it 3.5 stars if I could. What I liked was the witty dialogue - Forster's dialogue really shines, and the exchange been the cast of oh-so-British characters is quite humorous. Lots of on-target jabs at tourists, which would certainly transfer to today's world. Another plus are the views of Florence. Makes you want to take the next flight to Italy!
What I didn't like so much was the romance. I just didn't feel the sparks between George and Lucy. I could certainly laugh at Cecil, and know that he wasn't right for Lucy - but I couldn't really get the initially repressed passion between George and Lucy. (I saw the film adaptation years and years ago, and from what I recall, the romance was more convincingly portrayed.)
What I did like, as with Howards End, is Lucy's internal push and pull. Lucy wrestles with following the lead of her heart and passion vs. obeying narrowly prescribed societal standards. (Of course, this is in the context of a very pampered and privileged social milieu.) ...more
When I first heard about Dreams from My Father, I didn't realize that Barack Obama wrote it in 1995, long before he was a presidential candidate. We aWhen I first heard about Dreams from My Father, I didn't realize that Barack Obama wrote it in 1995, long before he was a presidential candidate. We all know that Barack Obama is a powerful orator. His memoir is even more compelling than his speeches. It came across to me as authentic and honest -- not a bit rhetorical (except a little bit at the end). Complex with well thought out observations and insight. It didn't feel like it was thrown together to help sell him as a politician -- though I'm sure he wrote the book with a future of politics in mind. Very easy to read, and interesting -- even for someone who overdosed on media coverage of Obama during the presidential race. There's a lot to learn from this as an historical document.
Although I started it knowing quite a bit about Obama, the honesty and depth of Obama's personal reflection, and the style in which it is written make this book a must-read, as many other reviewers have commented. I especially liked the picture provided of Obama's days as a community organizer in Chicago. (I wonder if his critics even bothered to read this book, before they belittled the value of the role he played in the South Side of Chicago. His experience made me respect him even more.) I think it provided a much-needed context for an outsider's understanding of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr. - realizing the success of his church's programs and the role it plays in the community, and bringing together and unifying the more affluent middle class with the struggling poor. Not to romanticize or gloss over Wright's provocative and objectionable rhetoric that we've witnessed in prime-time media sound bytes. But to broaden the lens just a bit.
I also learned a lot from Obama's travelogue of his first trip to Kenya, before he headed off to Harvard Law School. I came away with a better appreciation for the history and conditions that produced his grandfather and father. Obama grapples with realizations about the strengths and weaknesses of his ancestors and his extended family, and the complex set of circumstances they faced, in regards to the politics of Kenya and the emerging dominance of white men in Africa. I enjoyed the opportunity to meet all of his half-sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles, and other relations -- quite an interesting assortment of characters, struggling in their various ways to make their way.
It goes without saying that Barack Obama faces a formidable set of challenges as the president, and I don't find myself agreeing with everything he says or does. But I'm glad to have encountered his authentic self in this moving memoir, and I recommend it as essential reading to everyone....more
I have been wanting to read Zadie Smith's On Beauty for a while, but thought I should read Howards End first - because I know Smith's 2005 novel was iI have been wanting to read Zadie Smith's On Beauty for a while, but thought I should read Howards End first - because I know Smith's 2005 novel was inspired in part by Forster's classic novel. I'm glad I did! It's hard to believe that Howards End was written in 1910, it felt surprisingly relevant to today's world. Though women had not yet received the right to vote, Margaret and Helen are strong, independent, and interesting (if somewhat fickle) characters. Forster brings a lot of sensitivity, insight, and nuance to his characters. Lots of secrets, clashes between people from different socio-economic classes, intrigue, and philosophical musings -- which kept me engaged from beginning to end. I loved the notion that a physical location, a house, has a soul, and Forster captures the pull and essence of Howards End with great skill. If you haven't seen the 1992 film adaptation with Emma Thompson, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Anthony Hopkins - it's very good, and faithful to the novel. But of course the book has much more depth. I'm a Forster fan, now, and look forward to reading more of his novels. (And now I can be "in-the-know" when I read On Beauty.)...more
I selected Gilead for the Mostly Literary Fiction Book Group's July 2009 selection. This is a seemingly straightforward narration in the form of a letI selected Gilead for the Mostly Literary Fiction Book Group's July 2009 selection. This is a seemingly straightforward narration in the form of a letter from an elderly minister, John Ames, to his young son. I am not a religious person, but I found this book rich in philosophical and personal reflection. I appreciated John Ames's broad knowledge of non-Christian philosophers, including Feuerbach (who strongly influenced Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels), and Ames's willingness to scrutinize and challenge his own beliefs. Lots of layers that lend the book to an interesting discussion.
Gilead is written by the author of the modern classic novel Housekeeping, published in 1981. If you haven't read it, I thoroughly recommend it!
Once you've read Gilead, you may want to read Robinson's follow-up novel, Home, which continues the story of John Ames's close friend, Reverend Robert Boughton, and his family. (It's on my "to-read" list.) ...more
I'm reading this book of connected short stories in anticipation of our online chat with Tess Uriza Holthe (the Q&A is over, but you can follow thI'm reading this book of connected short stories in anticipation of our online chat with Tess Uriza Holthe (the Q&A is over, but you can follow the discussion at:
Enjoying the book so far. What a contrast to When the Elephants Dance! Chazz, the affluent and troubled character who opens the book, is portrayed in fine detail. The author isn't afraid to give us the harsh realities of drugs and mania. You know Chazz loves his wife, but mental illness, and the long-term impact of parents who have emotionally abandoned him, have their grip on him....more