25 January 2007

The Life in Kurtistan Review of Books

I've been reading a lot lately, more than ever. I'm reminded of a scene from Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire where he falls into a river, almost fatally dehydrated, and feels the water soaking every inch of his body, inside and out. Surrounded by all of this French, I can crawl into an English language book and find some refuge and, if I'm lucky, maybe even learn a little bit about myself.

I should tell you that I feel that I am something of a selfish reader, I want a book to speak to me, to tell me something about myself that I didn't yet know. I want to feel that I am the character, that I am finding my way through the struggle of the plot. Good or bad, it's how I approach books, if I can't connect with it, it's probably not going to do much for me. I briefly review my recent reading list below. As you read it, keep my selfishness in mind. If I didn't like a book that you loved, it's probably this selfish tendency that's motivating my opinion. As always, I'm happy to hear disagreement, just put it into the comments section below.

Without further ado...

Prince of the Marshes, Rory Stewart

Over the summer I read Stewart's first book, The Places in Between, and really was impressed with the guy. He walked across Afghanistan. In the winter. A few months after the Taliban fell. Impressive stuff to say the least. So, I ordered his next book, The Prince of the Marshes: And other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq.

Plot Summary:
A few months after the Coalition invades Iraq, Stewart is sent to administer a province in the South for the British (he's Scottish). The book details his experiences trying to bring order to chaos amid the clash of two cultures.

The Kurt Opinion:
Interesting read though not as impressive as his previous work. If you are curious to know what sort of daily problems "reconstruction" might run into, this book is invaluable. You begin to understand the challenge that the entire Iraq effort faces when you see this account from a competent manager (at least he spoke some Arabic, had spent plenty of time out of his home country, and made a real effort to respect local customs) trying to administer a relatively peaceful region. Extrapolate from this account and imagine the more chaotic provinces and their civilian administrators (who may have had to apply for a passport before going to Iraq, having never before been outside of the country) and it's almost surprising that the war has gone as well as it has.

The Bottom Line:
Stewart's an impressive guy and provides an enlightening glimpse into life in the Coalition Provisional Authority. Definitely read if you are curious.

Dreams from my Father, Barack Obama

I liked what I was reading about him in the press and I wanted to know more. My mom was going to send me a care package so I asked her to through in Obama's two books. I chose to read this one first so that I got to know where he was coming from before I read The Audacity of Hope which, I imagined, would tell me where he was going.

Plot Summary:
Obama recounts his his pre-political life against the shadow cast by his often absent father. We get a family history going back to his grandparents, followed by insightful episodes from his childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. We see him growing up in Hawaii and Indonesia, going to school in New York, and finally working in Chicago.

The Kurt Opinion:
If I liked him before, I like him a lot more after having read this book. He's honest, he doesn't shy away from a mildly turbulent past. He's empathetic, he wants to understand people before he attempts to diagnose their problems. He's, he's, he's... Well, I could go on, but the point is that I like him, a lot. From what I have read, I trust and admire him. Granted, it's easy to paint a rosy picture of yourself, but this book was written long before he had any presidential ambitions. In that sense, I find it to be a valuable source of information about the potential 44th President of the United States.

The Bottom Line:
Insightful and engaging, it explores the way in which race and family have shaped a man who is quickly becoming a front-runner for the Presidency. A must-read for the politically curious.

The Audacity of Hope, Barack Obama

Feeling that I had some idea about the man's history, I was curious to know what were his thoughts for the future of the country.

Plot Outline:
Obama spends about 60% of the book talking politics, both evaluating the current political climate of the United States, evaluating past policies, and providing proposals for future policies. The remainder of the book is more personal history and modern anecdote. There is maybe 10% overlap between the two books.

The Kurt Opinion:
Obama's got some good ideas, though they don't yet seem to be completely formed. At the stage of the game that Obama was at when he wrote and published the book, it would make sense to not make too many positive proposals. The book exists more in generalities than in specifics but it is not the actual proposals that inspire interest in Obama, it is his attitude. From his perspective, American politics are stuck in the culture wars that were bred on college campuses in the 60's. Those activists are now our politicians and are having their demonstrations, sit-ins, and counter-demonstrations on our national stage. This is not a good thing for the world's sole super-power to be doing and Obama is looking for a way forward. It's an attitude that I generally agree with and puts me further into the Obama camp.

The Bottom Line:
Sets the stage for the Obama '08 run, though he will have to bring some impressive policies proposals to the table in the next 4o0 days to justify the interest that he has already garnered.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel

When friend Neil stayed a few nights here on his trek across Europe, he left this semi-worn paperback behind, having already read it. Everything that I had ever heard about it was universally positive and, even though I had been on a big non-fiction kick, I decided to give a novel a try and see what I could learn from a story.

Plot Summary:
Pi is an Indian boy who likes religions. He's a Muslim, Christian, and Hindu. That poses no problem for him, though it doesn't sit so well with the rest of society. Then he gets on a ship. The ship sinks and he is stranded in a life boat with a zebra, hyena, orangutan, and Bengal tiger. The majority of the novel is him floating around in the Pacific for more than a year.

The Kurt Opinion:
One of the acclaim snippets in the first few pages of the book exclaims that Martel's mastery is evidenced in his ability to make even the most implausible storyline seem perfectly reasonable. That pretty much sums it up for me. The book is marvelously written, from the seeming discontinuity to the incredible last 20 pages, everything simply works. What's more, the book, as a whole, is about the story of life, that is, what story you prefer to explain the universe. While the story is supposedly one that will make you believe in God, Martel, through the voice of Pi, tells us that he is just as happy with atheists too, it's those agnostics that boil his blood. "You can't just walk around not even trying to know!" you can almost hear him scream. The point is that if you really want to know what existence and life are all about, you have to have some degree of faith. For religious people this faith is clearly manifested, for atheists it is shown in their faith in scientific models and explanations. Though I don't completely agree with this point, I am pleased to find a pro-religion book being 1) supportive of all religions and 2) giving atheists a fair shake too.

The Bottom Line:
All in all, a masterfully constructed novel that will make you think, though may not make you believe in God.

The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho

When my mom sent this to me she hadn't yet read it, she had only heard good things about it and thought that I might like it. A few days ago, I got an email from my mom telling me that she had read the book along with the the friendly disclaimer, "I DID NOT SEND YOU THIS BOOK BASED ON ITS RELIGIOUS THEME- I DID NOT KNOW IT HAD A RELIGIOUS THEME- READ THE COVER FLAP- NO MENTION OF RELIGION THERE" (original emphasis). Well, what did I think of it? Read on...

Plot Summary:
This is the story of the boy Santiago from Spain. He has a dream that he will find treasure at the Pyramids in Egypt so he goes there. It's not easy and he learns a lot on the way.

The Kurt Opinion:
The book is fantastic and really struck a chord with me. It's a pretty straightforward story of a young man (Coelho calls him a "boy" throughout, but I have to put him around 20 years old) but the message is pretty powerful (and requires no religious sympathies to appreciate). The idea? Go for your dreams. Figure out exactly what it is that you want to do with your life, what it is that will make you most happy and don't let go of it. Most importantly, don't make excuses for why you can't get it. Things like "loved ones" and "other commitments" get in the way. The point is, your loved ones want nothing more than you to be happy and they are going to benefit from you being happy as well. If we all started making ourselves happy, the world would be a much better place!

There is another side to the book as well, it's about a loose kind of predestination. Coelho writes about the "Soul of the Universe" wants you to achieve your dreams and will help you a bit to that end (things like providing omens when necessary) and will, ultimately, be very happy when you reach your goal. I don't see that this part need to be construed as anything at all "religious" and actually got me thinking quite a bit about consciousness and predestination. Really, it was an intriguing book.

The Bottom Line:
Absolutely recommended to everybody. At 200 pages, it's not much of a commitment and it's very likely that you'll get something meaningful out of it. And mom, no need for any capitalized disclaimers, it was an excellent choice!

The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini

Everybody loves this book. It's enjoyed favorable reviews from pretty much everyone. If you sit next to a shelf that holds this book, it seems that you would be compelled to remark on how well it balances against the other books on the shelf. (It's been on the NY Times Best Seller list for 108 weeks in paperback form, currently ranks at 15, and was called by that publication, "[a] powerful first novel... [a] vivid and engaging story...")

Plot Summary:
Amir lives in Afghanistan during the time before the Soviet invasion when there was some hope that the country would eventually progress into a more fully developed state. He is a rich boy and his father has a servant whose son, named Hassan, Amir plays with. Amir is a weak and spoiled child, often cruelly ridiculing Hassan for his own pleasure. Hassan repays him with unyielding admiration. Some really bad things happen to Hassan that Amir could have prevented. Amir feels bad for a long time and struggles to find redemption.

The Kurt Opinion:
I got nothing from this book. I think that it owes to the fact that, as stated above, I'm essentially a selfish reader. This book did not speak to me at all. I could not imagine myself as either of the two main characters, nor could I engender even an ounce of empathy for the miserable main character. What's more, I didn't find the book particularly well written, some stretches were a real burden to get through and Hosseini seems to overreach in his attempt to place symbols throughout the book.

Maybe I should be able to look past the faults of the main character, but I'd prefer not to read a book that puts such a coward forward as it's hero, it just doesn't resonate with me.

The Bottom Line:
According to everybody else, this book is touching, devastating, amazing, mesmerizing, redeeming, etc... According to me, it's not worth the time it takes to read it. You are free to choose which recommendations you want to trust.

For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway

Every now and then you realize that you are walking around with a huge whole in your general knowledge. Not long ago I realized that my hole had a name and it's name was Hemingway (there's a blurb to go on the dust jacket). Also, it seems appropriate that I should fill this hole in Paris as it was Hemingway's residence for a long time. The Wikipedia article on him (link here) has some pictures of the caf├ęs that he would hang out in and they are all in the area where I have my phonetics classes. I'm not sure why I chose For Whom the Bell Tolls as my introduction to Hemingway, but it ultimately served its purpose quite well.

Plot Summary:
Robert Jordan is an American from Montana fighting with the Republicans during the Spanish Civil War.

[Side note on American education: I realized that I knew almost nothing about this war, even though it had significant implications for World War II. Esther mildly mocked me for my knowledge deficit and I read a lot about it. I feel that the only classes that where an American would be be taught about this war are perhaps in an AP European History class in high school, and more specialized classes at the university level. Also, because of the lack of direct American involvement, secondary educational sources such as the History Channel seem to ignore it as well. This is really a shame because 1) it is an important war for modern history, 2) it is a compelling story, and 3) it might have something to tell us about the war we are stuck in today. The New York Times wrote an interesting article on this point in the January 14 Week in Review. Here is the link, though it has already been archived and requires a Times Select membership to view it.

Of course, Wikipedia can give you an excellent history lesson if you are in need, as I was. Here's the link.]

Back to the plot summary...

Jordan is charged with the task of blowing up a bridge at a specific time and has met up with a group of partisans in the mountains and enlists them to help him. There is much drama and intrigue, plenty of plot-building flashbacks, and a tremendous amount of drinking (preferred drink: wine straight from the skin). The entire story takes place over just 4 days but easily fills 500 pages (this with Hemingway's famed economy of writing no less). It covers a lot of ground, personal and political, and ends the way a book like this must.

The Kurt Opinion:
This is a book, this is a real book. I'm not sure if I can give my appreciation of it justice without sounding like a doofus for not having read it already. But really, it's fantastic. The characters are so richly developed (and in so few words, no less) that you can't help but be drawn into the story. Robert Jordan is not some stock hero, swinging in with the explosives and out with the girl. He's a normal guy doing an extraordinary thing and, at times, he scares him to death. The tensions of the characters are so expertly drawn that you believe that you are in the novel yourself.

It's about politics, love, courage, and cowardice. It's amazing, it's great, it's a triumph of a novel. In all seriousness, I am coming up short on the proper adjectives to describe this book. If you have read the book maybe you will understand my enthusiasm or, perhaps, you will learn something about me from my enthusiasm.

The Bottom Line:
Spectacular in its subtlety, amazing in its reservation, Hemingway clearly deserves his high rank in the American literary canon. Read it and learn.

Well folks, there you have it, the Life in Kurtistan Review of Books. As I read more books I'll review them more quickly so that I don't have to write such a gargantuan post again. It'll be easier on me and you. Also, please remember that if you agree or disagree with my reviews, put your thoughts into the comments section below. I'd love to hear your thoughts on this, especially given that it has taken me so long to write it. Finally, if you have any book suggestions for me, please let me know, I'm always on the lookout for new material.

1 comment:

  1. I have been waiting anxiously for your review of books- especially The Alchemist- I am glad to find you enjoyed it. As I said, truer words were never written. I think I will read more Coelho books. I think he is very wise.

    I was surprised at your review of the Kite Runner. I found a lot of Hemingway in the book. Maybe its through my work, but I see people who have made poor decisions in their life, (I am not excluded in this category) usually early in life, but growing into people who do what they can to change the course of their life. Sometimes the results are not what they intend. It is also the story of how one decision can change who we become. Maybe because you have always been such a considered person, analyzing all your decisions, you cannot relate to Amir-but making life altering mistakes is part of the human condition as is redemption. I don't see Amir as a particularly noble person, but as a person struggling in many ways with his past- his relationship with his father, his jealousy, his cowardice throughout the book, and his final act of trying to redeem his past, albeit partially failed, just make him like many people in the world we share.

    Run Barack, Run!!!!!
    I am so tired of being under the rule of "a Decider".

    Life of Pi is sitting on my shelf, and based on your review,I am anxious to begin reading it- but I am going to read a few smaller books now while I am working. I have the new John Irving book, and look forward to your review of Garp- one of the funniest books I have ever read. I will pick up The Place in Between based on your review.

    On to your post on Chavez!
    Good Day to you and Esther.