Wednesday, December 29, 2010

December Books: Recommended or Not

During the month of December, I read some excellent books and another number that I felt rather ambivalent, or neutral, about.  Here are a few thoughts on my month's reading:

Recommended Books:
  • I regularly scan various sources to determine which books to add to my reading list:  various short and long lists for well-known writer awards; my free Goodreads subscription; bestseller lists from various newspapers; etc.  One of the sources I look to on occasion is Heather Reisman's pick list, and when scanning some of her top picks a few months ago, I found reference to this new memoir-type book:  I Shall Not Hate, by Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.  I immediately ordered it through our library system, and went to retrieve it a week or two ago.  It was well worth the read.  Dr. Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor who was born and raised in the Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza Strip.  Against all odds, he crossed many lines dividing his refugee home from Israel and pursued his dream of becoming a physician.  He is a believer that peace is possible between Israelis and Palestinians, despite the killing of three of his daughters in January of 2009 as Israeli shells hit his home in Gaza.  His response to his personal tragedy is to continue to call for people in the Middle East to talk to each other, so that his daughters will be the last sacrifice on the road to peace.  The book is fairly raw in terms of style, but profound in meaning.  Though I am fairly ignorant of the historical details that resulted in the Middle East standoff of the current date, this book was very helpful in pointing out some of the relevant parts of history, and provide a completely new understanding of what it might be like to grow up and live in a refugee camp, and in the context of ongoing war.  Abuelaish's perspective continues to be one of peace, rather than hate; believing that people on both sides of the divide ultimately want to live in harmony together.  It was a fascinating and inspiring read, and I would highly recommend it.
  • The winner of the 2010 Man Booker prize:  The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson.  I'm struggling with how to describe this quirky book, but I think I can understand why it won a prize as big as the Man Booker, given the cleverness of the writing and the flavour of the content.  It's essentially an exploration of friendship, grief, and love, and what it's like to be a Jew in contemporary London.  Near the outset of the book, the main character, Julian Treslove is on his way home from a dinner party with his two closest friends, Sam Finkler and Libor Sevick...both of whom happen to be Jewish, and both of whom have recently become widowers.  Finkler was, many years ago, the first Jewish person Treslove had ever met, and Finkler wasn't quite what Treslove had pictured a Jewish person to be.  Thus, Finkler became, to Treslove, the representation of what it means to be Jewish, and since meeting Finkler, Treslove has privately called all Jews Finklers.  Anyway, as Treslove walks home that evening, he is dwelling vicariously on his friends' sorrow and imagines (as usual) the various calamities that could befall him...and then one appears right in his path:  he is a woman who mutters something like "you Ju!"  Julian is transported out of his usual sense of pathos and is exhilarated.  In his wondering about whether the mugger thought he was a Jew (he is not), he contemplates his long-time envy of his two Jewish friends, and ultimately determines to become a Jew himself.  This novel is low on action, and high on brooding and on Julian's various obsessions.  But it is a fun, quirky, cleverly-written, intelligent, and insightful book that I very much enjoyed. I definitely recommend this book if you're up for something a little different!
  • Another book long-listed for the 2010 Man Booker prize this year was February, by Lisa Moore.  Wow, what a book, I'd say.  The book's heroine is Helen O'Mara, a resilient Newfoundlander whose husband, Cal, died years ago while working aboard an oil rig.  Shortly after his death, she learned that she was pregnant with their fourth child, all of whom she is then left to raise alone.   February is a chronicle about how a woman slowly comes to terms with her grief, through her rich inner life.  The book is a wonderful piece of fiction about complex love and cauterizing grief, and it is about how memories knit together the past and the present.  It is profound and beautifully written.  Moore writes beautifully and descriptively, and is (IMHO) a master at seeing the smallest of details and exploring them fully.  I would gladly read another of her books.
  • Though Anita Shreve has written several other, acclaimed novels, Rescue is the first I have read of hers.  I would read another.  Rescue begins with a young rookie paramedic, Peter Webster, pulling a young woman from her car, a woman who he ends up falling in love with, marrying, and having a child with.  Sheila eventually leaves Peter and their daughter, and Peter raises Rowan on his own until many years later when Sheila re-enters their lives.  I really enjoyed this novel.  I found Shreve to be very skilled at drawing out the complexities of relationships: whether the love relationship between Peter and Sheila, or the father-daughter relationship of Peter and his daughter.  She creates a small world, populates it with believable characters and puts them through both joyful and heart-wrending moments very competently.  To quote one reviewer, "she gives them lives and then lets them all stumble along - as do we all."  It was definitely worth the read.

Books I Feel Neutral About:
  • Shamini Flint has been called the next Alexander McCall Smith (author of the Botswana-based #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series), for her authorship of her first book for adults, Inspector Singh Investigates: A Most Peculiar Malaysian Murder.  I wouldn't go so far as to call her the next McCall Smith, though there are some similarities, I suppose:  in this case, the plot is set in Malaysia, with a visiting inspector from Singapore; it is a gentler type of crime novel in a world where we've become accustomed to the more gruesome; the Inspector (like Mme Ramotswe) is a somewhat gentle, more-than-pleasantly-plump individual who tends not to believe the obvious about a crime scene but who scurries about investigating for the truth; there's an element of hope and helpfulness woven throughout, as in the McCall Smith books.  But there, somehow, the similarities to the #1 Ladies' Detective Agency series end.  Perhaps it's just that Shamini Flint is new at this sort of thing.  For example, I found irritating her tendency to overuse adjectives:  page 3 notes:  "The shrivelled old man with the large, yellow, herbivorous teeth and a thick head of implausibly black hair managed to inject a wealth of disbelief into the possibility of a not guilty plea..." and that sentence was about a character that never appears again!  It was a bit much in parts.  Altogether, it was not a bad book; she has promise.  The ending (the who-dun-it part) was actually pretty good and I was that's something.  I'd give her the benefit of the doubt and read another of her books, assuming the storyline continued with Inspector Singh, her be-turbaned, affable Singaporian sikh (how's that for a few adjectives!). 
  • The Long Song, by Andrea Levy, was on this year's Man Booker Prize long list.  I had been looking forward to reading it for a while - in part, to be honest, because I loved the title.  The title turned out to be a creative and fitting title for the book, which is about the life of a girl-becomes-woman who is born to a field slave on a sugar plantation in Jamaica.  The main character, July, lives with her mother until Mrs. Caroline Mortimer, a recently transplanted Englishwoman, decides to move July into the plantation house, teach her to be a lady's maid, and rename her 'Marguerite.'  The story carries July through her life until the present time, when she is putting together her memoirs in the shape of this book.  I thought the plot/storyline was quite captivating, and the author talented, overall.  I remain somewhat neutral about the book, though, primarily because I got stuck on how the story was presented.  In the very beginning of the book, it becomes clear that the narrator is July herself, telling the story of her life.  Throughout the novel, she interrupts her own story-telling to ask the reader questions, or to interject something that has happened in the current moment as she relates to her son.  It's a style that I find irritating at best, and I just can't see how it added to the value of the plot or the writing.  That style doesn't work for me and leads me to be guarded in my recommendation of an otherwise good read.
  • With Her Boots On, by Lisa Dow.  This book is a follow-up to Dow's first novel, It Would Be Funny...If It Wasn't My Life.  I have not read the first book, but found that to be no obstacle to reading the second.  This is a Canadian author writing about two friends, Mel and Kit, who live in Toronto.  Mel is getting ready to be a bridesmaid in her brother's wedding, and the book begins with a vivid description of the construction-orange dress that she will be forced to wear.  The book also covers a sudden transition in Mel's career, the relationship with her suddenly-into-modern-dance-lessons-and-overly-interested-in-the-instructor boyfriend, and her discovery that her Prada boots aren't the answer to all of life's hurdles.  It is a light, fluffy read, good for an evening's entertainment (or, in my case, the duration of a plane ride), even though it won't be winning any awards any time soon!
  • The Book of Awesome, by Neil Pasricha.  In 2008, the author created a blog entitled "1000 Awesome Things," in which he committed to chronicling the small but significant awesome things that were happening each day in his life, despite feeling like his world was falling apart all around him.  The blog began attracting huge numbers of readers and, eventually, he wrote this book.  In principle, I quite liked the book; what's not to like about a book that takes a paragraph or a couple of pages to detail some awesome thing the author has experienced (like the smell of bakery air; waking up early and realizing that it's Saturday; etc).  I enjoyed reading it, and it evoked memories about things that I have really enjoyed in my life.  The book falls into the neutral category of my month's reads only because I'm more of a novel person, rather than a vignette-type of reader.  But if you're in the mood for a pick-me-up, or if you need to be reminded of the good things in life, this is a fast read that will do just the thing for you.

Coming tomorrow (I think!):  My favourite books of 2010!!

No comments:

Post a Comment