Saturday, October 25, 2008

Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles

Korea: A Walk Through The Land of Miracles
Author: Simon Winchester
Harper Perennial, 2004 (originally published in 1988)
282 pages

I bought this book at Bandi and Luni's Bookstore in Seoul, thinking (by the appealing cover and subtitle) that I'd stumbled upon something really good. Simon Winchester has written lots of books, with several of them (The Professor and the Madman, Krakatoa, The Map That Changed the World) appearing on bestseller lists and receiving high praise. So I was let down hard when this book didn't meet my expectations.

The author went on a walking journey of South Korea - from tourist haven Cheju Island to Panmunjom up by the DMZ and border with North Korea - in the late 1980s. Along the way he met some really weird people - most of them not even Korean but American or Irish or British. The American soldiers were a rough and rowdy bunch who all seemed to be sex maniacs. The other foreigners seemed slightly mad and/or alcoholic. His portrayal of the Koreans he met seemed to be just as stereotypical.

The only part about the book I liked (if "liked" is the right word) was the very first part, which was a chapter providing some historical perspective and background.

I was so disappointed, I couldn't read it all. Too bad, because having been to Korea I was really interested in reading a good book about it.

Rating: 2 stars, and that's being generous.

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas

The Boy in the Striped Pajamas
Author: John Boyne
David Fickling Books, 2006
215 pages

This is not a book I would have selected to read on my own, but it was highly recommended by one of my Vienna colleagues who hasn't done me wrong yet, so I picked it up in the young adult section of B&N recently and dropped it in the suitcase for the Asia trip. I started reading it last night but only read a few chapters before getting too drowsy. At 2:30 this morning, jet lag kicked in, and I was wide awake, so I started reading again and didn't stop until I was done (only about an hour and half later.)

It's about Bruno, the nine-year old son of an upwardly mobile military father during early 1940s Germany. Bruno seems to be a happy-go-lucky sort of fellow until the day he learns that his family is leaving their nice Berlin home for a place faraway due to his father's promotion. He calls this place Out-With, and he calls his father's boss the Fury. So it's not too difficult to figure out that Bruno's father is a Nazi, and the family is moving to Auschwitz.

Bruno hates his new home. It's boring. He misses his friends and the action back in Berlin, and he doesn't find a comrade in his older sister. One day while looking out the window, he notices some people wearing "striped pajamas" and slowly, he enters their forbidden world. From his innocent perspective we go on a bittersweet philosophical journey, meeting interesting people such as Pavel, the doctor who now serves dinner for Bruno's family, and Schmiel, the young boy (and character in the book's title) with whom Bruno strikes up a forbidden friendship.

To tell you more than this would surely be wrong. Don't be fooled, though - this isn't necessarily a book just for kids. A movie version is expected soon. I just hope it's done right.

Rating: 4 stars for the writing, but 5 stars for the message.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Heretic's Daughter

The Heretic's Daughter
Author: Kathleen Kent
Little, Brown and Company, 2008
331 pages

The Heretic's Daughter is fiction, but first-time novelist Kent is an actual descendent of Martha Carrier, one of the many people accused of witchcraft during the Salem witch trials of 1692. Martha wasn't the first person accused, but she was the first person who stood up to her accusers. This is Martha's story told through the eyes of her daughter, Sarah.

I don't know about you, but I've always asked myself how people could have been so stupid to believe the antics of the girls who started the witch hunts. I've probably been swayed by watching too many bad dramatic versions of this story. But you know, there is always background information that we might not have that can help us understand why people behave the way they do. In this case, the people of Massachusetts (and the rest of New England) had just been through an outbreak of the plague that had killed hundreds of friends and relatives, and increasing violence between the settlers and Native Americans had people on edge. It was a bad time in general, and an especially bad time to be a woman who thought or behaved differently.

The story begins in the winter of 1690. The Carrier family has fled their home in another town for Andover to live with Martha's mother until the plague threat dissipates. Unknowingly and unintentionally, they bring the plague to Andover, and thirteen people (including Grandma) die. This begins a chain of events that will create great sorrow for the Carrier family.

Martha Carrier is at first portrayed as a cold sort of woman who has little interest in nurturing her children. She doesn't conform to the expectations of their "Puritan" society, which creates disorder in the family and community. Despite these shortcomings, Martha really is the backbone of the family and Sarah will eventually come to understand that perception is not always reality.

Sarah's father is also a nonconformist - and isolationist. A Welshman of large stature, he has a mysterious past and for the most part just wants to be left alone with his family. Sarah is perplexed that people in the community seem to fear him, yet from her perspective he avoids conflict and never stands up for his wife and children when they need it. The plot thickens as this subplot unravels.

Sarah - the heretic's daughter - experiences more pain and sorrow between the ages of 9 and 12 than most people experience in a lifetime. She blames herself for more than she should. And when her mother asks her to do something she's never asked her to do before - lie - she's not sure she can. Her journey will take her to prison - not a modern prison but a dark, danky, lice-filled cell where people are basically living on top of each other in human misery. Many of The Heretic's Daughter's characters are based on real people and situations, and Kent has translated her research well to fiction: At least one woman gave birth in prison, only to watch the baby die and then die herself. Children were accused and imprisoned, too. A four-year old girl was convicted of witchcraft and the judges actually struggled over whether to give her the death penalty.

There are many other interesting characters in the book, such as Sarah's favorite cousin, Margaret, who has visions; Margaret's likeable yet tragic father, the man whom Sarah simply calls "Uncle"; and Mercy Williams, the older teen just ransomed from Native Americans after a violent kidnapping years before.

The story is fascinating (it is historical fiction, after all!) The writing is tight, some of the best I've ever read from a first-time novelist. I read it in one sitting -- literally! -- on the plane from Chicago to Tokyo yesterday/today. Highly, highly recommended.

Rating: 4.5 stars.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cannery Row

Cannery Row
Author: John Steinbeck
Penguin Classics, 1994 (originally published 1945)
181 pages

I was in Monterey, California last week for the very first time, and was charmed by the quaint city and its surroundings. Although I didn't actually go to Cannery Row the place, I saw it from the bay one morning from the whalewatching cruise boat. It's changed a lot since the days John Steinbeck lived in the area, but I'm sure there were some things, such as the smell of the salty sea air, that were the same when he was there.

I read more than my share of Steinbeck in high school (The Pearl, Of Mice and Men), college (The Grapes of Wrath), and just for fun (East of Eden, The Winter of Our Discontent), but I could not remember reading Cannery Row. So when we visited the San Francisco Bay area after the trip to the Monterey Peninsula, I asked my friend "Q" if we could pop by B&N. I mean, if I wanted to read Cannery Row, I might as well start reading the book in California, right? Yeah. 

So I started reading it on the flight from San Jose to Chicago, and it went quickly. In fact, when we landed at O'Hare, I only had about 20 pages left (which I breezed through on the quick flight from Chicago to Indy.)

The setting is not so much Cannery Row but its surroundings. Back in the 1920s-1930s, Monterey was a major producer of sardines which came out of the bay (or from the area). Cannery Row was the name of the part of town where the sardines were canned. Several canning companies had factories there. It was hard, nasty work. Monterey was also home to a couple of military facilities (Army and Navy still have a presence there today) and it was/is also a port city, so it was not uncommon to see sailors roaming about the town. It must have been a happening kind of place.

In the preface to the book Cannery Row, the Steinbeck scholar-author writes that a British review of the book after it's original publication described it as (I'm paraphrasing) a book about nothing. I can understand why. The book does ramble a lot, and it's more about people and characterizations (Steinbeck's strength, IMHO) than it is about plot. There is a plot - sort of. And there are certainly lots of disasters. Some of them funny, others sad.

The characters in Cannery Row were based on stereotypes of real people that Steinbeck interacted with in his daily life there on the peninsula: Doc, the marine biologist, who collected and sold all kinds of marine life for scientific research and bought himself two pints of beer for just about every meal; Lee Chong, the Chinese grocery store owner who sold it to him (and would sell pretty much anything else to anyone else); Mack, the leader of the mostly unemployed group of men who rented space from Lee Chong; Hazel, one of the group members whose mother had so many children, she forgot to inquire whether he was a boy or girl when she named him; and Dora, the buxom, orange-haired madame of the local whorehouse. Each of these characters has a hard edge but a soft heart. For example, when the town gets influenza, Dora and her "girls" make and deliver soup and take care of the sick.

Some of the minor characters, such as Frankie (the child Doc tried to help) and the retired Army officer (whom Mack and his gang meet while on a frog-catching mission) only show up on a few pages, yet have long-lasting influence on the main characters and outcome of the story.

I laughed out loud several times while I was reading Cannery Row. Other times, I probably could have wept. This book may be "old" but human nature pretty much stays the same no matter how many years go by. When you get tired of modern fiction or books that really are about nothing, pick up something by Steinbeck, and get drawn back into some good writing. 

Tortilla Flat is supposedly the sequel to Cannery Row. I'll have to check that out someday.

Rating: 4.25 stars. And it won a Nobel Prize for Literature, too.