Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Twilight

Twilight
Author: Stephenie Meyer
Little, Brown and Company, 2005
498 pages

Last year during the holiday season, I was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping at B&N and overheard a woman asking the clerk for suggestions on something to get a 12 year-old girl. I was a little surprised at the clerk's suggestion of this series, because I thought it was for older girls. But as the clerk so correctly pointed out: "Pre-teen girls don't like to read about people their own age, they like to read about people who are a little older." 

It got me to thinking about my niece. At the time, "J" was eleven and pretty much a non-reader. She never got into Harry Potter like her brother did: basically if he likes it, she hates it, and that's just their relationship. "J" needed to find her own thing. I decided it was my duty as an Aunt to help her find it. So I, like the customer who had asked the clerk for a suggestion, bought the first book in the series - Twilight

I presented "J" with the book early, three or four days before Christmas. She took it reluctantly and promised to give it a try. Next thing I knew, she disappeared to her bedroom, and she stayed away for most of the next 24 hours. When she emerged, she said: "This book is awesome!!! I can't wait to read the next one!!!" Clearly this was not the same child. Aliens kidnapped my real niece in the middle of the night and replaced her with . . . a reader. My Mom was so impressed, she went to B&N on Christmas Eve and bought the other two available books in the series. And guess what "J" got for Christmas?

I finally bought my own copy of Twilight last Spring, and brought it with me to Vienna, thinking that I'd read it while I was over here. The time finally came this weekend. I made the mistake of starting around 11PM on Saturday night. I got so into it, I was up until 3AM. So, warning number one: this book has the same effect on 44 year-old women as it does on 11 year- old girls. 

The plot is simple enough: high school girl moves to a new town, meets a boy who is a little different, falls in love despite what makes him different, they struggle with what people think; then an enemy comes to town and tries to ruin everything, so we get the conflict element. Really what we have here is a sort of modern gothic romance. And I will keep it at that, except to say . . . no pun intended but it sucks you in. So don't start reading this book unless you've got time to keep reading not just Twilight but the whole series. I've already ordered the second book from Amazon.

Rating: 4.25 stars, even better than I expected. Just wish I'd thought of it myself. :-)

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Shantaram

Shantaram
Author: Gregory David Roberts
St. Martin's Press, 2003
933 very long pages

When we were in India a few weeks ago, my colleague and I saw this book for sale in the hotel bookstore, and she asked me if I'd read it (I hadn't). She said it was really good, and I almost bought it that night. But it was just so overwhelmingly huge. I promised myself I'd buy it later.  It was a pleasant surprise when, on our last day in India, my colleague presented the book to me as a gift to remember our trip. So I was able to start reading this book - which mostly takes place in India - while I was in India.

From page one, I was hooked. This book is like heroin (which has a part in the book, by the way.) It just gets into you, and you can't let go of it. Even when it drives you so crazy you want to pull your hair out. Which it does. You see, even though I liked it, there were parts of Shantaram that really got on my nerves. The bear, for example. I totally don't even get why that was necessary. If you read the book and you get the part about the bear, will you please let me know?

Here's the synopsis: an Australian man - a former heroin addict (long story) - is in an Australian prison for armed robbery. He escapes and makes his way to Bombay, India, where he meets some interesting people including slum dwellers, an alcoholic Frenchman,  a mysterious female, and a host of interesting international mafia types. (So far, it also sounds like the life of the author, who "in real life" did all of the above. At one point Roberts was Australia's "Most Wanted." It was while he was finishing his time in prison that he wrote this roman a clef.)

There's a lot of philosophizing in the book. Lin, the protagonist, is likeable enough, but very human. Torn between his desire to do good and a need to achieve his definition of freedom, he goes back and forth between good deeds and evil ones until ultimately, there is a need for some serious forgiveness and redemption - which, perhaps, there has been all along. There are so many layers to this book it's like an onion. Peel one away and then another appears until it falls off. Lin is a complicated character. He wants to be an intellectual - whether or not he actually is, I suppose, is up to the reader. He wants to be a good-looking man, but he isn't. Remember the "good" bad guys in the movie Pulp Fiction? Lin reminded me of them.

Of course, there's a woman. Or two. There was one in particular that I disliked so much, I would have killed her off in a very nasty way if I had been the author. Many characters are richly detailed - sometimes a little too richly - and there are several surprises. I was not happy with what the author did with one character in particular, who truly did not deserve what he got. But, like life, this book - this story - is not fair.

Shantaram is roughly divided into 4 sections: 1) the main character arrives in India and is learning the culture and meeting people. This was my favorite part. The trip to Prabaker's village is a joy to read.  The slum experiences added an interesting perspective. You learn what Shantaram means and why it is important to the story.  2) Lin gets in deeper with the "wrong" crowd, and a lot of complicated stuff happens. This section is surprisingly dark.  3) Even more darkness as Lin goes off "somewhere" to "do something" I'm trying to avoid spoilers here, but this was the section I liked the least, and I'll admit that I actually skimmed through several pages just to get past it.  4) Finally, things start to come together and everything is explained, and the book winds down to an end. The ending is very smooth, probably one of the smoothest endings I've read in a long time. Clever, too. Points are gained here.

Despite anything critical I may have to say about the book, I did enjoy it - sort of. It could have been like a love-hate thing. At any rate, I couldn't put it down. And that says something.

Clearly, the author fell in love with India while he was there. His description of the country and people is one of the endearing qualities of the book.

A movie version is in production right now. I've heard that Johnny Depp plays Lin, and the movie should be out sometime next year. Usually, I don't think movies are nearly as good as the books they're based on, but I will want to see this one. If for nothing else, I want to see how they mess it up.

Rating: 4 out of 5 - might have been higher if it wasn't so bloody long.

P.S. No, I will not be posting reviews every day! I can't read that fast! But I am moving through my current book rather quickly . . . 

Deep Survival

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why
Author: Laurence Gonzales
W.W. Norton & Company, 2004
318 pages

Back in mid-June, I was attending one of those work things where they bring in a Suit to motivate the masses.  Our Suit wasn't really a Suit but more like Business Casual. He mentioned this book, and how it's one of the best business books he's ever read, even though technically it's not a "business" book, and how much he'd taken away from reading it.

If I hear anyone say the words "best book", I pay attention.  A few days after the work thing, I went to my local B&N to look for it, and found it in the "Science and Nature" section. I started reading it on the flight back to Europe, and found that I couldn't put it down. It was more interesting to me than sleeping (which I should have been doing on the overnight flight to reduce the jet lag.)

Gonzales has an amazing ability to weave a tale, inserting just the right amount of research, dialogue, and action. The slightly biographic element - his father's amazing World War II story - adds a nice personal touch and provides insight into the author himself. After all, if his father hadn't been through those experiences, perhaps Gonzales would not have become the adventurer and writer he is. The other stories about survival - or not - of fighter pilots, mountain climbers, hikers, sailors, and others will have you biting your nails. And the other stuff - the psychology, the history, the science - contributes to this "best book."

I took notes in the book as I was reading it, and when I was finished, I typed up a summary. Here are some of the points in the book that rang true for me. As you read through these, think of the business implications for each:

* When you think you know everything, you close yourself off to learning other stuff. This attitude can cause you to miss out on something important.

* Regarding chaos theory - yes, a certain amount of chaos in business is good, because it forces people to work harder and become more creative. But there can also be too much chaos, and this isn't good because it makes people (and the system) break down - and then nothing gets done. People can only deal with so much change at once. (Do you hear that, Suits?!)

* There are times when you need to question the rules and even break the rules. Many people who die in accidents die because they followed the rules. So, if you're in a building that's on fire, don't wait for "Security" to tell you to get out. Just get out.

* You're only lost when you believe you are lost. And when you believe you are lost, you will either: 1) find yourself, or 2) die.

* The best way to ensure your own survival is to help someone else. This takes you out of the victim mindset, which helps you rise above your fears. You start to see yourself (and others start to see you) as a Rescuer instead of someone who needs rescuing.

* To be able to survive in the world, you have to get out there and experience it.

* Versatility is one of the characteristics of survivors. You have to be able to perceive what's really happening and then adapt to it.

* A sense of humor is another characteristic of survivors. If you can't find the humor in a situation (no matter how morbid), you might as well give it up.

I really got a lot out of this book personally, and I think you will, too.  Maybe as you read it you'll recognize survivor characteristics in yourself. Or maybe you'll learn some new strategies to help you next time you're in a situation. It won't be a waste of your time. 

My rating = 4.25 out of 5.