So What Are You Reading?

Reviews of Books.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

I Love [heart symbol] Lord Buddha. Hillary Raphael

The setting for I Love Lord Buddha is the hostess bars of Tokyo in 1997. The main characters are western hostesses who spend their nights socializing and drinking with men in these bars. Amongst them is a charismatic leader from New York who takes the name HIYOKO and starts recruiting these displaced women into a new-Buddhist group called the Neo-Geisha Organization. Reinterpreting Buddhist philosophy through her cultish mind, HIYOKO plans for a cataclysmic event that will shake humanity into exercising Buddhist values so as to avoid a larger global catastrophy. It is a lively story with lots of sex, drugs, and Buddhist theory, which portrays the lack of spiritual values in modern commercial Tokyo.

The plot unfolds as HIYOKO's cousin Heidi Peterson, a sociology grad student from the States, arrives and starts doing her research on the Neo-Geishas and their enigmatic leader. It takes the form of Heidi's notes, interviews, police reports, and pages from various documents following each other in brief chapters, many only one page long.

Fast pacing and an interesting structure give the novel a unique look and feel. Very little is capitalized. which makes reading a bit hard since the break between sentences is only the tiny period. Without a leading capital letter new sentences can be hard to find at times. However this typographic style contrasts well with the fact that HIYOKO is always in all caps.

Well written and plotted the novel does a good job of creating the world of the characters and the moral dilemma of our times.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Visitors from Oz. L. Frank Baum

This book is considered by some to be the lost "Third Book of Oz" since the material it contains was written in 2004 and 2005 after the publication of Baum's first two Oz books: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900) and The Marvelous Land of Oz (1904). The book features six characters from The Marvelous Land of Oz who leave Oz to travel through the United States of America.

This is probably the worst of Baum's Oz writing. Baum reused ideas from other books, and engaged in what are today offensive racial and ethnic stereotypes. Twenty six chapters of this book were originally Sunday newspaper pieces that were written as promotional material to advertise the books and the upcoming 1905 stage musical called Woggle-Bug. Seventeen of these were part of a contest in which each story ended in a situation that puzzled all the visitors except the Woggle-Bug who told them the answer but which wasn't revealed until the next week. The readers were invited to guess the answers for a chance at a prize. The last and longest chapter was originally published in 1905 as The Woggle-Bug Book. This segment follows the plot of the stage musical and, with its heavy reliance on ethnic humor, gives a pretty good idea as to why the musical failed. At the end of the book are 15 newspaper articles dated between August 18 and October 3 1904 that detail the flight to Earth by the Oz characters and relate their adventures in false news story style.

At the back of the book is a history of the material's creation and publication called "American Fairyland" that was written by David Maxine. Here we learn that two prior attempts to publish these stories in 1960 and 1986 were edited or abridged to remove offensive words and dialect. This is the first time since its original publication that the stories are printed as they were written.

The book does provide a look into life in the US as it was perceived by Baum 100 years ago. In that sense it provides a clearer perspective on Baum's world than his fairy tales. Also the illustrations by Eric Shanower, although created much later than the text, are delightful representations of the stories by the best Oz illustrator.

Friday, September 08, 2006

A Kiss is Just a Kiss. Bruce Velick

This is not a narrow-minded boy kisses girl tribute to heterosexual romance although there are lots of pictures like that. The book contains 60 black and white pictures that span the 20th century from 1915 to 1988. In addition to the heterosexual romantic kiss there are men kissing men, women kissing women, people kissing animals, animals kissing people and other animals, children kissing each other, adults kissing children, people kissing statues, statues kissing statues, kissing in the foreground, kissing in the background, and even a person kissing the pope's ring.

Each picture has the photographer's name beneath it and a list at the end of the book lists the photographer, the title, the date, and the owner of each photo. Two are from before the 1920s, three are from the 1920s and 30s, eight are from the 1940s, nine are from the 1950s, five from the 1960s, eleven from the 1970s, and 12 are from the 1980s. Ten have no dates associated with them.

These are famous photographic kisses. Included are William Mortensen's The Kiss, Robert Doisneau's Le Baiser de l'Hotel de Ville, Dennis Stock's Cafe de Flore, Weegee's Palace Theater, an untitled kiss by Elliott Erwitt, Louis Stettner's On a Dutch Ferry, and Alfred Eisenstaedt's Times Square VJ Day,

There are also pictures by Peter Marlow, Bruce Davidson, Joan E. Biren (JEB), Chris Steele-Perkins, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Leonard Freed, André Kertész, Burt Glinn, Mary Ellen Mark, Ernst Haas, Barbara Crane, Gilles Peress, Lou Stoumen, Josef Koudelka, Sage Sohier and many others.

Combine this with a delightful essay on the history and importance of kissing by Tom Robbins and you have a great book. It would make a wonderful gift for a lover or a friend. Buy one for yourself and be inspired.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Forever Fifty. Judith Viorst

Judith Viorst has become the poet of aging with books of poetry dedicated to her lyrical and funny perceptions of each decade of life from the 20s to the 60s. With Forever Fifty And Other Negotiations she explores with insight and humor the joys and fears of being in your fifties. The book contains 24 one-page poems that are accompanied by full page graphic illustrations in green ink on a rich cream paper. The 24 graphics are reproduced on the end papers. The attention to design makes this a wonderful gift for a quinquagenarian friend.

The poems are funny and sentimental yet bittersweet. In some poems we see a person who is struggling to accept the limitations of middle age (where running wild is to go for a walk without sunscreen and memory can't be relied upon). In others she seeks the joys that come with the wisdom of years as when she says "We're quicker to laugh, and not so eager to blame." In yet others, she makes affirmations to live life "as a sexy old lady" and lists the things she'd like to do before she goes.
There are poems that take humorous looks at adult children, long-term marriage partners, and young doctors.

Overall, a wonderful but light look at the aging process of the 50s. It is a book you will enjoy, but one that will not burn into your soul.

Monday, September 04, 2006

Nothing Natural. JennyDiski

I found this to be a powerful book that delved deeply into the life of a woman named Rachel who becomes involved in a sadomasochistic relationship with an emotionally distant man. Initially I felt the title referred to this s&m relationship. However, as the author reveals more of Rachel's life, it appears that there is nothing natural in her emotionally starved world. Her parents fought bitterly when she was a child. She struggles with paralyzing spells of depression and is incapable of emotional closeness. She is delightfully articulate and quick witted - an intelligent woman with a large share of emotional distress. We watch her spiraling deeper into a suicidal state and it takes a strong reader to maintain compassion. Finally her darkest hour passes, and the novel ends with her first steps towards a healthier self concept. Compelling reading and wonderful character development - a great first novel.

Parsival: Or, a Knight's Tale. Richard Monaco

This is the first of a now out of print four volume series based on the Arthurian Grail quest of the hero Parsival. The other three volumes are: The Grail War; The Final Quest; and, Blood and Dreams.

This first volume follows Parsival from his overprotective mother and his childhood home on his first quest to become a knight at King Arthur's round table. Once he is a knight, he begins his second quest to find the Grail Castle and discover its secret.

A parallel story tells of Broaditch, a servant from his mother's castle, who sets out soon after to find Parsival. The two quests compliment each other with short episodic chapters from each telling the tale of the book.

The book is not for the squeemish. There is a war and lots of bloodshed. The people are bawdy rather than chivalric, and the sexual relationships are not always consensual. However, it is an exciting and humorous retelling of a medieval tale. I can't wait to read the rest of the series.

Mystics, Mavericks, and Merrymakers: An Intimate Journey Among Hasidic Girls. Stephanie Wellen Levine

I read this book as a non-Jew who was interested in Hasidism. This particular book attracted me because I am the parent of two teen-age daughters. Having close contact with the problems my daughters face in the modern world I felt would help me understand the issues of Hasidic young women. Although the book is not designed to give a rigorous introduction to Hasidism, I am quite delighted by Stephanie Levine's work and the chance it has given me to have a glimpse into the spiritual and mundane issues of modern Lubavitch Hasidism.

Far from being a broad review of young Hasidic women, Levine focuses on the Lubaticher sect of Hasidism and its community in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, New York. She spent over a year living with and interviewing the students, teachers, and parents associated with the Bais Rivka Lubavitch high school, a girls-only school.

Hasidic girls have very little contact with males outside their immediate families. Their religious beliefs allow them only the slightest contacts with the world outside their community. Popular videos and music are not allowed and dietary restrictions only allow eating in the most kosher of restaurants. The "mavericks" part of the title has to do with the rebellious response that the young women sometimes bring to these severe restraints.

The "mystics" aspect of the title has to do with the deeply spiritual aspects of Hasidism where every thought and action of an individual's life has cosmic implications as the community does all it can to bring about the coming of the messiah. The last chaper of this book, "Into The Future," begins with a wonderfully clear and concise description of Lubavitch mystical beliefs.

The irrepressible joy and exhuberance of the young women, that the spiritual practice of Hasidism seems to promote, leads to the author's use of the term "merrymakers" to describe the subjects of this book.

Levine starts off the book with a general introduction to the Crown Heights Lubavitch community and the background to her study. She talks about the Bais Rivka school and its students.

Then in a series of seven chapters she takes in depth looks at seven of the young women she was able to get the closest to in her year of research. We meet their families and see their day to day life. We hear them describe their current life and aspirations. As the most important duty of a Lubavitch woman is to marry and have children, their mate selection and preparations for married life are part of these chapters.

The last chapter contains a look at the future for both the young women and the Hasidic movement. This is a wonderful book for anyone like me who is interested in Hasidism or the lives of young women in the modern world. Levine is a wonderful writer and she treats her subjects with fondness and respect. Yet she is honest and direct. So this study has both objectivity and admiration, a delightful combination in such a work.

Castle Rouge. Carole Nelson Douglas

Irene Adler is a character created by Arthur Conan Doyle and the only woman who ever outsmarted his famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. Carole Nelson Douglas has taken Irene and turned her into a detective with her own series of mystery novels. In this book, Castle Rouge, the action picks up from the previous volume Chapel Noir, with Irene seeking out the person or people who have perpetrated Jack the Ripper like murders in Paris a year after the Whitechapel murders in London. She is in desperate pursuit because it appears that her colleague Nell Huxleigh and her husband have been taken by the same culprits. But who are they? In this second volume Irene leaves Paris first for Prague and then a castle in Romania. Who is responsible for this international crime spree? Don't read the Selected Bibliography at the end of the book until you have finished it. You may find a spoiler of a clue there,
A long tale that stretches across two large volumes, but the excitement never flags. Highly recommended - a feminist point of view on the Victorian era.

Chapel Noir. Carole Nelson Douglas

Irene Adler is the only female adversary to outwit Sherlock Holmes and she may have stolen his heart as well. Carol Nelson Douglas has taken the brief outline of Irene Adler in the Sherlock Holmes adventure A Scandal In Bohemia and fleshed it out into a marvelous sleuth of her own design. She has created her own series of books with Irene Adler as a 19th century detective with a feminist flair.

Adler's latest two-part adventure, Chapel Noir and Castle Rouge, is told through a series of journal entries by her female companion Penelope Huxleigh. Additional chapters are supposedly taken from notes written by a prostitute called Pink and sections of a mysterious yellow book of anonymous authorship. This multiple "authorship" allows Douglas to present her story from different perspectives.

And what a story! In Chapel Noir Adler is called on by Baron de Alphonse Rothschild to investigate a particularly bloody murder in a Parisian bordello. Before long Jack the Ripper is the suspect and Sherlock Holmes (sans Watson) has come to Paris to investigate. As the plot moves on, more famous historical figures are drawn in either as suspects or allies. 470 pages later I found, instead of the end, that this is the first of a two part story.

A rollicking adventure that continues for another 470 pages in Castle Rouge. Lots of fun if you can stand the gruesome aspects of the crimes.

Kushiel's Dart. Jacqueline Carey

What an epic adventure! This book starts out slow and I was tempted to stop reading it often during the first 300 pages.

It is a hard book to read. There is a six page Dramatis Personae that lists the major characters and it can be very confusing at times. The second half is easier as less characters are introduced and the action kicks in big time.

The author sets up an alternative historical France that she calls Terre D'Ange, the Land of Angels, at around the time 800CE. There is a whole alternate theology based on the son of Jesus (Yeshua in the book) and the Magdalene.

The book reminds me of The Hobbit in the sense of it being an epic adventure through many lands and past many challenges, but the hero is a woman and a masochistic prostitute at that. The book is more sensual than explicit with a free love theology as a theme. However, the emphasis is on the machinations of courtly politics and war.

Once the action starts, it is hard to put down.

Folly. Laurie R. King

Laurie King's Folly is a very sympathetic portrayal of the effects of psychosis and madness on the individual. In this case it is Rae Newborn who is literally reborn from her last bout of suicidal mental illness through the solitude of an uninhabited island and the project of rebuilding a burned-out house. We join her as she leaves therapy to live on an isolated island off the coast of Washington state. Her only human contact is a weekly visit by a tatooed man called Ed who drops off her supplies and picks up her laundry and shopping list. She starts off by dumping her medications into the Sound (pharmaceutical pollution!) to live drug free with her imaginary Watchers and her suicidal depression.

The mystery aspect of the novel is based on the old adage: "just because you're paranoid doesn't mean the world isn't out to get you." She is a famous artist with her own and inherited wealth. Her son-in-law is involved in shady dealings and always seeking money from Rae. Her geat uncle Desmond originally built the house and disappeared when a mysterious fire destroyed it just before completion. Is someone out to get her or is she just psychotic? As the work on the house proceeds and her health improves this question keeps up the suspense.

The structure of the novel is broad sections named after the progress of the house reconstruction (Clearing the Ground, Laying the Foundations Building Walls, Raising the Roof Beam, and House Warming). Each of these is introduced by some brief statement by an anonymous Victim who seeks vengeance against The Thief. Who these two are the ultimate mystery of the novel. Each section is divided into chapters that are told from the point of view of Rae Newborn. To break up this a bit, the author introduces chapters throughout the text that are selections from Rae's journal, Desmond's journal, Rae's letters to her granddaughter Petra, and letters from Petra.

Laurie King is a master of character development and locale. Her depiction of Rae and the people with whom she interacts brings these people to rich and complex life. Even when the readers know they are minor characters, we are still treated to people who bring a complexity to their roles. This is also true of the setting in the San Juan islands. The pace and ecology of this community is lovingly portrayed. Add to these the technical details of house carpentry and woodworking, and you have a very rich and satisfying novel.

Folly is an excellent mystery. Without the known anchors of Ms. King's mystery series (Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli), this book may lack some of the success of books in those series. I found it difficult at the start because Rae has been suicidally depressed and I have a natural reluctance to make friends with people like that. Yet it is by confronting our discomfort that this book is ultimately successful in providing a deep insight into the stigma of mental illness.