Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Boy Who Saw True

The Boy Who Saw True
Author: Anonymous (Edited by Cyril Scott)
Ryder, 2004 (originally published in 1953)
248 pages

Subtitled The time-honored classic of the paranormal, this book is presented as the diary of a young boy (probably around 9-11 years old, although his age is never specified) living in England in the 1880s.  Cyril Scott (the "Editor") claims that he received the diary some years later in the mid-twentieth century after the death of the diary's author. Whether or not this is true doesn't really matter to me, and to be perfectly honest, I didn't care about how the so-called diary was found anyway. It was the contents that interested me.

In the beginning of the diary, the boy (whose name is never stated) is beginning to show signs of having psychic abilities. He can see auras (he calls them "lights"); he can also see mythical creatures, like fairies. He gets "feelings" about people. He also sees spirits of dead people, including his grandfather and a man he thinks is Jesus Christ. 

The boy's parents are very conventional. His father is too busy working and making money to really pay much attention to him. His mother is extremely "Victorian" and worries too much about what other people think - especially with regards to religion and church issues.  Mildred, his older sister, is engrossed in her own life and has an antagonistic relationship with her little brother. Early on, we become aware that the boy is struggling because his family thinks he's either lying or cracked in the head when he talks about what he can see. 

At just the right time,  a new teacher comes into the boy's life. The teacher is a sort of "closet Spiritualist." At the time, Spiritualism was a growing phenomenon in England, but was still considered a bit out there as many people considered it a threat to the current religious thinking. The teacher learns of the boy's "gifts" and then works with him (behind the parents' backs, of course) to develop the gifts, thus making a lasting impact on the boy's life.

The boy is an inquisitive little fellow, and surprisingly open-minded.  He actually had me laughing out loud, and quite often. Particularly amusing are his descriptions of how his parents react when he asks for clarification on the Vicar's sermons. Examples (I'm paraphrasing): "What does it mean 'to covet thy neighbor's wife'?" "What does 'lust' mean?" "What is a harlot and why is it that I'm not allowed to say that word? - it's in the Bible."

The boy stole my heart, and he will yours, too.  Unfortunately, the "diary" part written by the boy ends way too soon. This is followed by sporadic other "diary" entries written as the boy grows into an adult. We learn what happens to him in life as his spiritual growth continues. I enjoyed the first part of the book far more than the last part.

This is a book that will challenge your thinking. So if you're not into thinking differently, and you're not interested in Spiritualism or the paranormal, then this is not the book for you. 

Rating: 3.75 stars (the "diary" part written by the boy would get 4.5 stars!)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Thousand Splendid Suns

A Thousand Splendid Suns
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2007 (UK version)
367 pages

Several years ago, I picked up a book at the Indianapolis library called The Kite Runner. It was the only book that ever made me cry. Until now. 

A Thousand Splendid Suns is the story of two women in Afghanistan, spanning some forty years. The oldest woman, Mariam, is the "illegitimate" child of a rich man and a household worker. She and her mother are hidden away from her father's "real" family - which includes three wives and nine other children - but he takes care of them financially and visits Mariam every Thursday. She adores her father and pushes aside all the bad things she hears about him from her mother. 

A sad twist of fate separates her from everyone she knows as she is forced to marry a much older man. He's traditional, and very much at odds with the more liberal neighbors whose wives go out in public unveiled and whose daughters attend school and university.  As the Soviets invade Afghanistan, lines are drawn and sides are taken. Divisions continue to occur when the Soviets leave, years later. 

Meanwhile, we are introduced to the other female character, Laila. She is a generation younger than Mariam, and through another sad twist of fate they are drawn together. In order to avoid spoilers, I won't talk more about the plot. What I will tell you is that I read this book in one sitting, in about five hours on Sunday afternoon, because I couldn't put it down. 

This book has everything I like: history, a great story, and amazing characters.

A Thousand Splendid Suns is even better than The Kite Runner. I cried again - even more, this time - not just for the characters but for the fact that books this good just don't come along all that often. I'll probably have to wait another couple of years, or until Khaled Hosseini's next book comes out. Whenever that is.

Rating: 5 stars.  

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Elephant and the Dragon

The Elephant and the Dragon
Author: Robyn Meredith
W.W. Norton & Company, 2007
252 pages

I started reading this book in June before my trip to China and India. The first two chapters went quickly, but then I switched my attention to fiction, and my interest in this book waned. I finally finished it last night after skimming through several pages in the middle section.

The official title of this book is The Elephant and the Dragon: The Rise of India and China and What It Means for All of Us. There are a *lot* of books out now about India and/or China and their emergence as global economic powers. This one is somewhat unique in that: 1) it provides significant historical perspective on both countries, including some stuff you might wish it didn't; and 2) it lays out several suggestions for how other countries (especially USA) can remain competitive. 

As to the second point, education is the key, and if the USA doesn't get its act together with regards to K-12 education, we're doomed.

The writing is excellent, and you'll certainly learn something from reading this.  You might feel a little depressed, though. I certainly did. 

Rating: 4 stars.


Saturday, August 16, 2008

Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree

Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree
Author: Santa Montefiore
Hodder & Stoughton, 2001
547 pages

I was at the Buenos Aires airport, and I needed a book. There were not many English language books available at the bookstore, so my choices were extremely limited. I could have bought something by Stephen King, Patricia Cornwell, John Grisham, or Nora Roberts. I chose this one because it was written by an Argentine author I had not yet read, and because it was partly set in Argentina.

This is a story about "forbidden" love, and also a story about mothers and daughters, husbands, wives, friends, and lovers, and the insipid things that drive people apart. Mother Anna is an Irishwoman who at a very young age fell in love with a dashing foreigner, Paco. Paco was from a wealthy Argentine family and Anna was a poor but beautiful and strong-willed redhead from a small town in the north of Ireland. Everything she likes about him in terms of being different and exciting, he likes about her. She leaves her family behind in Ireland and moves to Argentina to marry him, and has all kinds of issues fitting in. They have two sons and a daughter, and the daughter, Sofia, is really the main focus of the story.

When the story opens, Sofia is a fiercely competitive fifteen year-old who can't do anything to please her mother. Anna dotes on her sons, and this drives Sofia away. Sofia feels "different" in so many of the same ways that Anna felt when she was younger. They are so much alike, you'd think they'd be best friends. But, as is usually the case in life, they rather dislike each other.

When Sofia falls in love with someone she shouldn't, the story takes a turn, and we see additional parallels between the lives of Anna and Sofia. What we end up with is a novel that probably best fits in the Romance category, but also has an interesting (but predictable) plot which is interwoven with 20th century Argentina history, e.g., Juan and Eva (Evita) Peron, the war between England and Argentina over the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, and the economic crises in Argentina. I found the historical and cultural parts to be very interesting and for those elements alone, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in Argentina or South America. Romance readers, or readers who view reading as a means of escape, will enjoy it for the storyline (which I found yukky.)

Meet Me Under the Ombu Tree in many ways is to Argentina what The Thorn Birds is to Australia. So if you liked the latter, you would probably enjoy this book very much.

Rating: 3 stars.




Tuesday, August 12, 2008

The Witch of Portobello

The Witch of Portobello
Author: Paulo Coelho
Harper Perennial, 2007
268 pages

Paulo Coelho is an internationally-acclaimed, bestselling author from Brazil. I first heard of him a couple of years ago when I saw his book The Alchemist on sale at Borders. I bought The Alchemist, but haven't read it yet . . . it sits in a pile of unread books back in Indy. I bought The Witch of Portobello on Amazon.com.uk and had it delivered to my home in Vienna. When I was packing for my trip to South America, I thought: "Wouldn't it be nice to take along a book that has some connection to that continent?" I looked around and my eyes landed on The Witch of Portobello, so I brought it with me. I started reading it in Buenos Aires this weekend.

The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks by various people who are telling the life story of a woman who - by all accounts - is now dead. The woman, who called herself "Athena" after the Greek goddess of wisdom, was born in Romania, adopted by Christian parents from Lebanon, and raised in London. She's always been just a bit different. As a teenager, for example, she was strongly attracted to the idea of becoming a saint.

Over time, Athena evolves into sort of a guru and advocate for "God the Mother."  She's the kind of woman that The Establishment loves to hate because she inspires others to think differently, therefore threatening the status quo. But is she sincere, or just another religious megalomaniac? As the tale is told through the flashbacks, we encounter thoughts about love, freedom, and the divine feminine. There's a lot of philosophy in The Witch of Portobello, and apparently this is a common theme in other Coelho books.

It's a quick read, thought-provoking, and has a surprise ending that didn't quite sit well with me. 

Rating: 3.75 stars - a tidier ending might have earned an even 4 stars.

Now I'm freaking out because it's only Tuesday and I'm out of English language reading materials. Here's hoping I can find a bookstore in Argentina or Brazil where I can get something to read for the rest of this trip.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Shadow of the Wind

The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Translated by: Lucia Graves
Phoenix (Orion Books), 2004
506 pages

I know you're not supposed to judge a book by it's cover, but the cover for the US paperback version of The Shadow of the Wind was so ugly, it gave me a migraine to look at it. Even though it was a bestseller a few years ago; even though I read the great reviews on Amazon.com and other places; well, I just couldn't get past the cover. Someone handed me the prettier European version recently, and I was able to get past my graphic nausea. And I discovered one of the best books I've ever read. Ever.

In fact, it's very challenging to write this review, because nothing I write will express how much I love this book. First, it's beautifully written. OK, maybe I should say beautifully translated, since it was translated from Spanish. Whatever the case, it's just a joy to read. The author and/or the translator have an incredible grasp of language. Really, in terms of pure writing, I can't think of anything I've read in a long time that was this good.

The plot - at least on the surface - is a simple one. A young boy named Daniel, son of a widowed bookseller, is taken by his father to the mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books to select a book that he will be "responsible for" forever. The book he chooses - called The Shadow of the Wind -is a great read, but no one seems to know anything about the author, Julian Carax. Suddenly, clues begin appearing, and Daniel becomes obsessed with learning more about Julian. Several people take an interest in the book - some want to buy it, others want to burn it. Daniel is torn between selling it and keeping his promise. There's also a "scary" person who keeps following him . . . does he have evil intentions? The plot thickens as smaller but very important stories are woven in to Daniel's story as he grows older and attempts to solve the mystery that is Julian Carax, while also solving mysteries in his own life.

Most of the story takes place in Barcelona, and much of it takes place in and shortly after the Spanish Civil War. Having visited Barcelona in May (and several of the key locations in the story, such as Montjuic, the Ramblas, Plaza Real, and Plaza Felipe Neri), it was easy for me to visualize these locations - which made it more meaningful. I remember seeing the pocks in the stone walls of the buildings at Plaza Felipe Neri - wounds left by the guns of war.

The Shadow of the Wind has some wonderful characters. My favorite is Fermin, the homeless man who Daniel and his father remove from the streets and make a part of their family. He's the classic example of the survivor - someone who's been through hell, but somehow made it, probably because of his endearing personality and sense of humor.

There are underlying themes in the book about forgiveness and redemption that will really make you think. In fact, it's interesting to me that although Daniel and his father often admit to being atheists, they actually display more Christianlike behaviors than some the book's so-called Christians. This is just one of several elements in The Shadow of the Wind that could be analyzed, if I had more time to write this review! But I don't!

The Shadow of the Wind is a mystery. It's historical fiction. It's action/adventure. It's fantasy. It's a love story (several love stories, actually.) It's everything. And you should read it!

Rating: 5 stars (Yes! Really!)