Saturday, February 21, 2009

Educating Alice - Alice Steinbach & My Kind of Place - Susan Orlean

Last week I picked up two books of travel essays. One by Alice Steinbach, a Pulitzer Price winning journalist. The other by Susan Orlean, author of The Orchid Thief. I enjoyed both of these collections as reading about other people's travels always reminds me of the wonderful places I have been, satisfies a bit of my wanderlust, and gets me excited about traveling to new places. Steinbach's essays are on the longer side - and despite being a reporter, they felt more personal in the sense of relaying how she felt she grew and learned because of her travel experiences. Orlean, on the other hand, was a bit more funny and her essays while anecdotal, did not seem to carry the same weight as Steinbach's. In each city Steinbach writes about, she takes classes to learn about local culture. She goes to cooking school in Paris and trains border collies in Scotland. My favorite chapter took place in Kyoto, and focused on Steinbach's education about the world of geishas and meiko. I felt at times that Steinbach's observations about Japanese women seemed shallow and judgmental - which made me wonder if that is always that case when Westerners write about another culture, it is just that when I don't know anything about that culture, I take the Westerner's word at face value. Steinbach's book has much more of a memoir feel to is as she relates each experience to her own life and her own journey - and is not as concered about the culture she is attempting to appreciate. I also realized that I am interested in reading about travels in countries outside of those in Western Europe, and tended to skim quickly through the ones set in France, England, and Italy. Orlean's book is much more of a hodge-podge of experiences. She writes about travel to specific places - learning to shoot clay pigeons in Scotland and attending the Taxidermy Championships in Springfield, Illinois (this reminded me of something Chuck Palahniuk would have written), but she also writes about the concept of travel. I particularly enjoyed a short piece about the world map shower curtain - its popularity and the reasons people like it so much. Unlike Steinbach, while Orlean obviously learns things from her experiences, she more often just reports what she sees, and not necessarily her own particular reactions to everything. In this way, the observations seemed much more objective (though this is not necessarily true), and I felt it easier to like Orlean as a narrator. I particularly enjoyed an essay about fertility rituals in Bhutan. Orlean is able to make places as exotic as Bhutan and as mundane as Springfield each ring with their own true uniqueness. I could have used a little more organization among the chapters, but as a whole, I found the randomness of the collection fun, with each page turn a new unexpected adventure. Steinback and Orlean have written very different books here, but both look at the concept of travel as a way to enrich one's life and to discover something out there greater than yourself.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

The Black Ice - Michael Connelly

Installment #2 of the Harry Bosch series - In this one, Bosch responds to the apparent suicide of one of his fellow officers. Suspicious of the circumstances, Bosch begins investigating a string of seemingly unrelated murders all linked by a deadly drug - black ice. I am thrilled my friend Rob turned me on to Connelly's books because they really satisfy my frequent craving for good suspenseful detective fiction. I like Bosch as a protagonist - he is the requisite loner who can still manage to attract women with his inability to either communicate or commit. But, what I found strange in this one is that despite Connelly's description of Bosch as someone who is unwilling to trust anyone, and never takes anyone at face value, he sure was quick to share information about his investigation with anyone who would listen. Even after it became clear (like from the beginning) that Internal Affairs was involved, and that a possible police cover-up was going on, Bosch had no problem leaving an outgoing message on his answering machine informing the world that he was taking a clandestine trip to Mexico - or confiding in the first Mexican police officer he meets. His poor counter-surveillance techniques would not be approved of by John Rain (my other favorite thriller protagonist). Yet, despite his flaws, Bosch always solves the crime and leaves me eager for the next one in the series.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Darkness Visible - William Styron

William Styron is the award-winning author of Sophie's Choice and The Confessions of Nat Turner. He also suffers from extreme and paralyzing depression. Styron's memoir captures brilliantly the helplessness of depression, and focuses on depression as a disease as serious as cancer. He explores the stigma attached to depression - and how the silencing of those who suffer from depression has caused major problems in the medical field - with doctors who are reluctant to diagnose patients or who are still convinced that it is within an individual's power to simply "get over it" - without exploration of proper medication and therapy. Though this book is quite short and written as a retrospective, Styron was able to portray the progressive nature of the disease. Toward the beginning he thinks of himself as someone who would never commit suicide, and then at the end, he finds himself desperately in need of hospital commitment to prevent such a drastic action. Styron does not explore possible causes or triggers of his depression - and in a sense this is kind of the point. If there is no "cause" - then there can be no quick fix. Rather, depression is a mental illness with no true beginning or end. While I think looking at the disease in this way helps take away stigma, or the blame mentality our society has about depression - it also does not provide much in the way of help or hope. Because of this, I found that this book would probably be most relevant to people who do not suffer from depression - so that they could get a realistic idea of what it is actually like for those arond them who are suffering, and who cannot verbalize their emotions as eloquently as Styron. It is a book that demands acceptance, and a great compassion for the millions of people who struggle daily with this debilitating disease.

The Hour I First Believed - Wally Lamb

Lamb's latest novel, which came out in December 2008, was apparently published 10 years after his last book, I Know This Much is True. I didn't realize the time lag, because it took me a long time to get to his second book (reviewed on this blog last year). But, I really loved it, and was eager to pick up the latest - despite it's roughly 800 page length. The Hour I First Believed focuses on Caelum, a middle aged teacher at Columbine High School. He is in a troubled marriage and flies away to attend the funeral of his aunt, when the notorious murder/suicides take place. His wife, a nurse at the school, is hidden in the library when the attack occurs. The book then follows her descent into severe PTSD. While trying to support his wife, Caelum is also trying to deal with his own personal demons - brought to the forefront by his aunt's death. This book has got a lot going on. There is a seemingly delinquent child who comes in and out of Caelum's life, there is a women's prison in town formerly run by Caelum's grandmother, and as time goes by, a couple fleeing from the wake of Hurricane Katrina rent out a room in Caelum's home and one of them begins to research Caelum's family history for her dissertation in women's studies. The phrase "the center cannot hold" comes to mind - and I found that as I was reading, instead of trying to piece it all together and figure out what central message Lamb was trying to convey, that it made more sense to read this just as portrait of Caelum's life - where seemingly random things occur, people walk in and out, some having an impact on his overall view of the world, and others merely passing through. As a character study, the book was quite powerful. While it spun out of control at times (particularly in the end), I did find that Lamb's portrayal of an individual with PTSD and her partner's attempts to cope with it, outside the commonly understood context of war veterans, was quite compassionate and true to life. I also like when characters from an author's previous works merit a mention in their books, and Lamb gives a nod to the twins from I Know This Much is True in a brief aside, which I appreciated. This book is a long meandering journey - with a lot of sadness, and some hope. It reminded me quite a bit of Richard Russo's Bridge of Sighs. Lamb is a terrific storyteller, and this one was definitely worth my time.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

AIDS Sutra - Amartya Sen (ed.)

When I was in high school, I read a National Geographic article about HIV/AIDS in India. The article focused primarily on the sex industry, and I was horrified at the lack of education among the population, as well as the poverty and refusal for government intervention that forced people into such dangerous circumstances. Today, there are over 3 million people in India with HIV, but still the secrecy and denial about the disease plagues the nation. This anthology contains 16 essays by some of India's most prominent writers (including Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, and Salman Rushdie). Each of the essays looks at a different segment of India's population affected by the HIV/AIDS epidemic - expectedly, the focus is on various aspects of the sex industry. One of the most powerful essays, I thought, was Rushdie's exploration of Mumbai's transgendered population. The cultural taboos surrounding homosexual relationships, and the effect on these individuals, was heartbreaking. The spread of HIV within the sex industry is clearly a socio-economic problem, and a result of attitudes toward gender and sex. But, so much of this book was also about love and the need for acceptance. This book was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation - and I would have liked to see a more lengthy foreword/afterword about the conrete work the foundation is doing to enhance healthcare and education, as well as to reduce poverty in India. In the past decade, I feel the spectre of HIV/AIDS has dimished in the United States because of a better understanding of how the disease is transmitted, and advances in medicine allowing those with HIV to live longer healthier lives. Yet, these acknowledgements of the need for public health education, access to medicine, and a fundamental acceptance of people for who they are - are clearly missing in so many cultures (and still in the US), and I hope that the need for continued dialogue about HIV/AIDS will not be forgotten, simply because better drugs have been created. This is a depressing collection of essays, but one that is a good reminder that these problems have not gone away, and that we need to work together globally to overcome the devastation they have caused.

Monday, February 9, 2009

San Francisco Noir - Peter Maravelis (ed.)

Years ago I was wandering around Westwood waiting for a friend and I stumbled upon a Mystery Bookstore. One of their displays featured this "noir" series from various cities across the United States. I wanted the one from San Francisco, but they were sold out. So, I settled on The Maltese Falcon - a great introduction to noir fiction (also known as hardboiled detective stories). Then the other day, I was browsing in the library, and I found it. Each of the short stories in this collection takes place in a different San Francisco neighborhood, and together form a great review of the genre. As expected, some of the stories are unnecessarily bloody and violent. In these stories, the main character is usually the perpetrator or a victim, or somehow tied to the crime - but rarely the detective (unlike Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe). Sex plays a huge role, and the characters are rarely likeable, and always self-destructive. The dialogue is choppy, but direct, and the writing really manages to evoke a mood of dread and anticipation. I question why I enjoy these stories so much. There's just something about them - despite the stereotypes and hopelessness - I keep getting drawn in and left wanting more.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Night Train to Lisbon - Pascal Mercier

This book was recommended to me by my mom's friend Edie - who likened it to Shadow of the Wind, one of the best books I've read in the past couple years. Needless to say, I was excited to check it out. Night Train to Lisbon focuses on Raimond Gregrorius (Mundus), a studious linguistiscs professor in Switzerland. Mundus appears to live a relatively mundane existence with a predictable schedule. One day, however, he encouters a mysterious Portuguese woman. The encounter unnerves him and leads him to discover a book written by a Portuguese doctor named Prado. Uncharacteristically, Mundus drops everything and takes the train to Lisbon to unearth what he can about this mysterious man. In Portugal, he meets family and long-lost friends of the author revealing secrets of Prado's past. Mercier intersperses the narrative with excerpts from Prado's book, and the reader follows the intellectual development of Prado along with Mundus's journey of self-discovery. There are hints along the way the suggest Mundus is viewing the entire experience through a distorted lens. The most blatant is Mundus's continual problems with his eyeglasses, but there are multiple questions about whether Mundus's telling of his adventure is accurate. I did not find this book as enjoyable as Shadow of the Wind, but this could be a function of the narrator, and that I tend to prefer books with child narrators. In many ways, Mundus was not a narrator with whom I could identify. Yet, this is an interesting book from a literary perspective - in terms of what one can learn about another person from their writings, and the lengths to which writing can take you - both emotionally and physically.