Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Things Fall Apart (1959)

It's almost Banned Book Week so I picked up this book by Chinua Achebe which was on the ALA list of classics that have been challenged and/or banned. I admit I knew nothing about the book or the author when I chose it. It's a story about a man named Okonkwo in a village somewhere in Africa (Nigeria?) called Umuofia. A simple life, we are shown how they observe celebrations such as marriage, grieve for the dead, and respect the gods that provide them with food. Many events over generations have given rise to their system of justice which is strictly observed by all members of the village. For instance Okonkwo is banished from his village for a period of seven years because his rifle exploded and accidentally killed the son of his friend, Obierika.

Obierika was a man who thought about things. When the will of the goddess had been done, he sat down in his obi and mourned his friend's calamity. Why should a man suffer so grievously for an offense he had committed inadvertently? But although he thought for a long time he found no answer. He was merely led into greater complexities. He remembered his wife's twin children, who he had thrown away. What crime had they committed? The Earth had decreed that they were an offense on the land and must be destroyed. And if the clan did not exact punishment for an offense against the great goddess, her wrath was loosed on all the land and not just on the offender. As the elders said, if one finger brought oil it soiled the others.

Unfortunately, as it has often happened in the history of our world, someone (white Christians in this case) comes along to civilize an already civilized people because they know better and in the process pride and self-respect is destroyed.

Why, he cried in his heart, should he, Okonkwo, of all people, be cursed with such a son? He saw clearly in it the finger of his personal god or chi. For how else could he explain his great misfortune and exile and now his despicable son's behavior? Now that he had time to think of it, his son's crime stood out in its stark enormity. To abandon the gods of one's father and go about with a lot of effeminate men clucking like old hens was the very depth of abomination. Suppose when he died all his male children decided to follow Nwoye's steps and abandon their ancestors? Okonkwo felt a cold shudder run through him at the terrible prospect, like the prospect of annihilation. He saw himself and his fathers crowding round their ancestral shrine waiting in vain for worship and sacrifice and finding nothing but ashes of bygone days, and his children the while praying to the white man's god. If such a thing were ever to happen, he, okonkwo, would wipe them off the face of the earth.

The end of the story is no surprise, it is just another tragic ending of imperial interference. I can well imagine that some Christians would be offended by the depiction of the missionaries and might challenge this book in some libraries.

This book begs to be read slowly. There is very little description, just bare action, so things can easily be missed if read too fast. It is a short book and well worth the time to read it.

My rating for this book: +++++

Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Windup Girl (2009)

Like his other book, Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi's story takes place in the future when fossil fuel reserves are used up, sea levels threaten coastal cities, and genetic companies are creating new species of plants and animals to help mankind. Unfortunately, there are also new species of diseases to destroy food crops and people. This new world has calories as the basis of world trade instead of oil. Taking place in Bangkok, we follow an American with a mission to find a rare seed bank, his plant manager who is a Chinese immigrant, a leader in the Trade Ministry's White Shirts, and a member of the Japanese New People, a genetically created and lab raised human known as a windup girl.

By then they were only mopping up. AgriGen and PurCal and the rest were shipping their plague-resistant seeds and demanding exorbitant profits, and patriotic generippers were already working to crack the code of the calorie companies' products, fighting to keep the Kingdom fed as Burma and the Vietnamese and the Khmers all fell. AgriGen and its ilk were threatening embargo over intellectual property infringements, but the Thai Kingdom was still alive. Against all odds, they were alive. As others were crushed under the calorie companies' heels, the Kingdom stood strong.

The thing I really loved about this book is how the reader is immediately immersed in the language and life of the characters - there is not easing into the story with descriptions of the city and explanations of the foreign terms. This book was fantastic!

My rating for this book: ++++1/2

Dexter is Delicious (2010)

Another fabulous episode of life with Dexter by Jeff Lindsay. The blessed event has arrived and Dexter is now a daddy. This should be just the thing to banish the Dark Passenger and polish the new world that Dexter has created for himself with a house, wife, and children. Out of nowhere, his brother returns, seemingly sincere to be a part of this family. Can he be trusted? And will the bad guys stop doing bad things and distracting Dexter? We want Dexter to be able to enjoy his family but on the other hand, would he be as interesting a character?

I stood up. I just needed to move around, try to calm down, collect my thoughts, tame these weird and wild and brand-new emotions, before they carried me away on a flood tide of stupidity. I walked into the kitchen, where the dishwasher was already whirring away at the dinner dishes. Past the refrigerator, its ice-maker clicking. I walked into the back hall by the washer and dryer. All around me, through the whole house, everything was clean and functional, all the machinery of domestic bliss, in its place and ready to do exactly what it was supposed to do - all of it but me. I was not made to fit under the counter of this or any other house. I was made for moonlight gleaming off a very sharp knife and the soothing ratchet of duct tape purring off the roll and the muffled horror of the wicked in their neat and careful bods as they met their unmaker -

I doubt I would spoil the story by saying that Dexter decides he must keep the world safe for his Lily Ann. Yay!

My rating for this book: ++++

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Extraordinary (2010)

Is it fair that one person has to pay a debt for an obligation made by an ancestor many generations before them? Nancy Werlin gives us a story about a girl from a very wealthy family who has to face this dilemma. Phoebe's mother is a descendant of a man who made a deal with a fairie queen in order to create a financial dynasty. It seems that Phoebe will have to repay his debt.

Mallory appears at Phoebe's school one day, looking quite lost and wearing bizarre clothes. Phoebe turns her back on her priveleged friends and befriends her. Little does Phoebe know that Mallory has an alterior motive.

"Yes, Your Majesty. Phoebe - the girl - we are best friends now. That is what humans call it: best friends. With time I will be able to make her do exactly as we wish. But Your Majesty! I have tired you. Would you rest now? I can come back."
"I am only a little tired. I am not so sick yet, my child. Very well. You may have the time you say you require. It will not, after all, be the longest time that a faerie has ever masqueraded as a human."
"Thank you, Your Majesty. This is just a delay. I won't fail you or our people, I won't. You may rely on me. In the end I will do exactly as I have promised."

It is an intriguing question about how long a family can enjoy the fruits of an arrangement before they have to settle a debt. In this case, over 200 years pass before the opportunity arises for the fairies to collect and Phoebe is the price. Is there no alternative?

I liked this book except for some aspects which seemed forced and necessary only to make the story work. For instance, Mallory's "mother" is a mentally disturbed woman whose true daughter (named Mallory) had died. This Mallory moves in with her, helps her keep up with her drugs and Skittles addiction, and no one worries too much about the situation. Did the school not notice that someone is taking the place of someone they thought had died? Oh, well. It is a fantasy and we shouldn't worry about such details.

My rating for this book: +++

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Grimm Legacy (2010)

Polly Shulman has given us a book with a very interesting premise. A library in New York City loans out items instead of books and has special collections including one with items from the fairy tales written by the Brothers Grimm. They hold magic and must be handled with respect and care since magic can be tricky.

Elizabeth is recommended for a job as a page at this library by her social studies teacher after writing a paper on the Grimm brothers and their fairy tales. She works hard and is eventually given the key to the special Grimm Collection. Unfortunately, someone is stealing items from this collection. Is it one of the other pages?

At one point in the book, Elizabeth and another page named Marc are shrunk down so they can sneak into a room. They get around by riding inside winged sandals.

He was gone for a while. I stroked my sandal's wing. While I waited, I took a minute to marvel at my position: six inches tall, riding a winged sandal through a storehouse of magical items. If anyone had told me a year ago I'd be in this position, I would have laughed and then edged away.

I really wish I liked this book more than I did. The last part of the book felt rushed and compressed like the author was running out of paper. In any case, it is a good read and fantasy readers should enjoy it.

My rating for this book: +++

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Spies of Mississippi (2010)

Subtitled "The True Story of the Spy Network the Tried to Destroy the Civil Rights Movement" I thought I had found a really interesting nonfiction book. Unfortunately, this one by Rick Bowers misses by a mile.

I'm not sure why this book misses but I found my mind wandering while reading and I frequently had to back up and read a section over. This exerpt is from a chapter about Clyde Kennard, a young black man who was trying to enter all-white Mississippi Southern College. He was framed for a burglary committed by a young white man named Johnny Lee Roberts.

Police searched Kennard's farm and came back with a couple of empty feed bags. Kennard was charged as an accomplice to burglary -- a felony. On the witness stand, Roberts gave a meandering, hard-to-follow account of the robbery that confused even the district attorney. Still, it took an all-white jury only ten minutes to hand down guilty verdicts. Roberts got a suspended sentence, and the co-op rehired him. Kennard, by contrast, was sentenced to the maximum penalty -- seven years of hard labor at the notorious Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman.

I can only hear Sgt. Friday of the LAPD narrating this in his "just the facts, ma'am" voice. I don't even think this book would be good for reference since there aren't that many facts or quotes or primary source references. What a shame!

I have to admit that I do not, as a whole, appreciate books about history so I can't really recommend this one.

My rating for this book: ++1/2