All posts tagged: 2013

Darfur – Julie Flint & Alex de Waal

A starving African child lulled into complacency by famine. That is my image regarding Darfur and its humanitarian crises together with a salute to my high school geography teacher, who placed a blank sheet of paper over the entire continent of Africa on the world map and told us, that this was how most Westerners perceived the world. How right she was, and that is the reason, there is a need for a book such as “Darfur” by Flint & de Waal with the catchphrase: a new history of a long war. Reading “Darfur” does not require any further knowledge that the sparing news coverage on the crises as the book includes introductory chapters regarding Sudan, the region Darfur and the people of Darfur, before focusing on the Sudanese government, the Janjawiid, the various rebel movements, the international reaction and the Abuja peace talks. My critic of “Darfur” is that it focuses almost completely on the political tug-of-war and not on the real life devastation of the conflict. The authors also make a side regard …

The Ice Queen – Alice Hoffman

What if one of those ugly wishes, we mutter in anger before thinking it through, came true? That is the defining moment in the childhood of the protagonist in “The Ice Queen”, and it turns her into ice. Feel not and be not tempted to make wishes. As an adult, she is then stroke by lightning – literally. What does not kill you, is supposed to make you stronger; but it does not come automatically. The main character has to struggle through and (re)gain her life and sanity. Moreover, this is the story of “The Ice Queen” written in the magnificent Hoffman style of magical realism that hits home every time. “The Ice Queen” is a fairy tale for adults, which makes you question your own life, wishes, passions, direction, and more than anything, that secret many carry that turns into a shard of glass in our eye. With the title as it is, it is impossible not to compare the novel to H. C. Andersen’s fairy tale of the same name. The parallels are …

What French Women Know – Debra Ollivier

What is it about French women that seems so sensual, intelligent, beautiful, sophisticated, and above all French from an Anglo-Saxon (American or British) perspective? That is what American-born, French-wed Debra Ollivier explores in this tongue-in-cheek book with the catch phrase: about love, sex and other matters of the heart and mind. Despite the fact that “What French Women Know” does include reference to scientific studies around the differences between French and American mindsets, the book is a broad generalization about women on both sides of the Atlantic in chapters about men, mystery, rules, perfection, nature, art de vivre, and body. A witty pearl, written without scruples, “What French Women Know” works because of the generalization. The epitome French woman is so clearly defined that it is easy to see her positive and negative facets, and compare and contrast her the Anglo-Saxon woman. Debra Ollivier has lived in France for a number of years and experienced the cultural clash between French and Anglo-Saxon women first hand, so the caricature is not without factual observations and truth …

Beautiful Creatures – Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl

(Includes rant about young adult fiction) I love it, I hate it, I love it, I hate it – I have the same guilty conscience after reading Beautiful Creatures as when I have eaten too much chocolate and enjoyed every bite. Here is yet another young adult novel with a supernatural twist and lo and behold, the main characters are teenagers and the balance between good and evil in the world is at risk. So far, Beautiful Creatures is generic, one in an unending line of young adult novel á la the Twilight Saga, and yes, this one is now a major motion picture. Surprised? Nah, not so much. However, Beautiful Creatures made a good impression on me and has its own identity and unique supernatural world. Winning characteristics include the male protagonist (I kid you not) and the novel’s Southern flair, which is far from the white trash in the Sookie Stackhouse series, but retains that old plantation, Civil War reenactment, history-saturated atmosphere, which the authors manage to incorporate in the plot. The uniqueness …

Dissolution – C. J. Sansom

Dissolution is one of those immaculate novels where the reader is immersed in history, not that history is a heavy cloak, but where the author brings a period in time to life and the pages are saturated in historical details which makes the time period in question even more vivid. C. J. Sansom works magic in Dissolution. I could actually feel the stigma of being a hunchback, as the main character is, feel the mud of a cold November road cling to my shoes, and feel the warmth of a well-stoked fire in an otherwise stone cold room. The relevant time-period is 1537 and for once, the plot line is not Henry VIII and his capricious love affairs, leaving many a wife dead. Henry has proclaimed himself Supreme Head of the Church, and Thomas Cromwell implements new laws and the following terrorizing regime of trails both swiftly and without compromise. One order of business is ensuring the obedience of the monasteries and the building of wealth through the monasteries’ concession to the crown. A commissioner …

The Red Chamber – Pauline A. Chen

The Red Chamber is Pauline A. Chen’s retelling of Dream of the Red Chamber, a Chinese classic of massive length and encompassing some 400 characters. Pauline A. Chen’s The Red Chamber is more mainstream, if that terminology is applicable in connection to a novel set in 18th century, Qing dynasty. The Red Chamber is a historical novel about a family’s fall in society, including the unhappy love story between the wealthy, connected Boachi and the poor orphan relative, Daiyo. Their story reminds me of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in its miserable prospects, devastation, and intricacy. Like Anna Karenina, The Red Chamber is much more than just a compelling story that sweeps the reader off his or her feet, it is a detailed portrait of a distinct cultural society in a specific point in time. The Jia Mansion, which is the central place in the novel, is a world unto itself with strict cultural bounds, representative of the Qing dynasty. This – to me exotic – place is vividly depicted. The elderly grandmother is the grand dame …

The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

I half expected “The Shining Girls” to be one of those entertaining, if somewhat shallow, stories with a supernatural twist that resembles a piece of chocolate: wonderful while it lasts, but without staying power. I was in for a pleasant – well actually unpleasant – surprise. “The Shining Girls” is a grim story centered around Harper (male) and Kirby (female), who are both stalking someone – each other. As a child, Kirby was visited by a stranger, who walked up to her and gave her a plastic horse and a promise that he will be back. He comes back – to kill her in a gruesome, particular scene that left me unable to sleep afterwards. As an adult, Kirby attaches herself to a former crime journalist in order to find her killer and she is propelled down a road that does not make sense. Harper is a drifter through time in search of his shining girls. He visits them when they are most innocent and then comes back to kill them. He is connected to …

I would be most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.  ~Anna Quindlen, “Enough Bookshelves,” New York Times, 7 August 1991

Monsters – Simon Sebag Montefiore

Compiling short biographies for history’s most evil men and women cannot be easy without resorting to continual use of synonyms for evil, vicious, cold-blooded etc. but Simon Sebag Montefiore succeeds in keeping focus on these horrible individuals in chronological order from the 9th century BC to now. “Monsters” includes dictators, tyrants, warlords, politicians, terrorists, and mass murderers from Jezebel to Osama bin Laden, and I find the short biographies concise and complete in terms of facts and context. Please note that “Monsters” is popular history; there are no long discussions of the religious influences in the biography of Bloody Mary or ideological subcategories of Fascism in the biography of Mussolini and no footnotes discussing the attribution of the quotation “One death is a tragedy. One million deaths are just a statistic” to Stalin, but then again “Monsters” does not aspire to encompass any more than an introduction to these antiheros from nearly every continent and perhaps show the commonality between these individuals across time, geography, and many cultural, ethnic, religious, political differences. It seems that …