Month: February 2008

by Masha Hamilton

This poignant, insightful story is set in a small, ancient village near Jordan called Ein Fadr. Young Jammana goes there for one last visit to her mother\’s birthplace, before leaving to America. In Ein Fadr, people live the same way they have for centuries. Jammana is troubled by the conflict between the traditional Arabic lifestyle in Ein Fadr and the modern world she is headed for in America. She has an unsettling gift of experiencing other people\’s memories in her dreams. She wants to find answers about the past from a midwife in the village who delivered her mother. In her quest for truth, Jammana begins to uncover buried secrets and dig up painful memories between villagers. Woven throughout this story of ancient culture, women\’s power and one girl\’s coming of age in troubled times, is an unsanctioned love affair. The ending is tragic, but in ways you might not expect. Although the storyline can get confusing (having numerous characters who lack proper introduction, for one thing) Staircase of a Thousand Steps is full of powerful language, vivid imagery and raw, touching moments. It definitely caught my attention.

Rating: 3/5                228 pages, 2002

Religion As a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C. Dennett

It is time for a confession of sorts. Usually I like to avoid being too personal on this blog, as it is solely about the books and there are other places where I talk about my family and daily life. But now I feel a brief explanation is called for.

I was raised a very religious person. In my late twenties I became disillusioned by it and faced my own disbelief. I began reading texts not only on the history of the particular faith I adhered to (written both from the inside and outside) but also on religion in general. It was a very eye-opening experience that continues at a slower rate to this day. Up until now I have avoided discussing these books because it is sometimes difficult for me to separate emotional reaction from an analysis of the book on its own merit. But I feel it is time to try. I may not be able to say much in depth about these books because I am trying to keep that separation, and because it has been several years since I read most of them. However, I still want to have a record of them on my blog. So here goes the first of many. I hope this and future reviews of books that examine religion cause no one pain or offense; I do not wish to belittle anyone\’s belief, as for most of my life I\’ve been a very strong believer myself. What I desire is to have a better, fuller understanding.

Breaking the Spell is an excellent read. Written by a professor of philosophy, it looks in depth at the nature of religion in the life of mankind. Religion (particularly in America) is examined in a historical, scientific, philosophical and cultural sense. The amount of information can be quite staggering, but it is well organized, and for someone like me who doesn\’t read much philosophy, it is very well-written and easy to understand. Some of the many questions the author addresses are: what does humanity\’s need for religion arise from? why does religion attract such strong followers? is religion the best way to live a moral life? how has religion altered the face of America? This book places ideas of science and religion side by side and uses one to illuminate the other. It even looks at an explanation of religion in an evolutionary context, something I did not expect at all. It does not criticize or demean religion, but treats it thoughtfully, with consideration and a degree of respect. I think this is a good book regardless of whether you are atheist or believer. It really made me think a lot. Personally I don\’t care much for the title, but if you get past a reaction to that and read what\’s inside, I feel it is well worth the effort.

Rating: 4/5                 Published: 2006 pp 448

Aspects of Autism and Asperger Syndrome
by Ann Hewetson

Pretty much a resource book and so comprehensive it just might be the last one I read on the subject, aside from interesting personal accounts. The Stolen Child begins with the portraits of three very distinctive individuals with autism, written quite eloquently. Next is a section from the professional viewpoint: Hewetson traces our understandings of autism from the first descriptions by Leo Kanner and Hans Asperger up to the most current research and findings. Then there\’s lots of useful information on various treatment and teaching methods, explanations of various terms used to define autism, comparisons of related or accompanying disorders, examinations of what might cause autism and the question of finding a cure. The last chapter includes excerpts of writings from autistic adults and parents of autistic children. Finally, there\’s loads of reference listings, resource organizations, and a glossary of terms. The most amazing thing about a book full of such technical and specific information is that it is relatively short, and very very readable. I really enjoyed reading it, for curiosity sake alone.

Rating: 3/5                         Published: 2002 pp 240

An Inquiry into Values
by Robert M. Pirsig

This is one book I know I didn\’t understand well. On the surface it is two things: the story of a father and son\’s road trip across the USA on a motorcycle, and a philosophical exploration of how we think and experience the world. One of the most curious things about it is something I haven\’t seen mentioned in other reviews, but I do want to speak of it.

***** S P O I L E R * A L E R T *****
Throughout the book, the father is chasing the ghost of his own past. Apparently when he was teaching rhetoric at a university he became so involved in the philosophical question \”what is QUALITY?\” that it literally drove him insane. He was committed to a hospital, where he received electromagnetic shock that literally \”erased his personality\” so that his memory is full of holes, his son recognizes that dad is not the same person anymore, and he calls the self he was before the incident by another name, Phaedrus. During the journey he visits the old university and runs into people who remember him as the professor and don\’t realize he\’s a stranger now. It\’s kind of weird. And the son is apparently showing signs of pending mental instability himself. All this is revealed in a few brief sentences that I totally missed the first time I read this book!

I liked reading the parts where Phaedrus tested his theories on his students, where quality is described as being a pervasive force that can permeate everything in one\’s life, where methods of problem-solving (illustrated via the motorcycle) were outlined. But most of these things didn\’t come until the second half or near end of the book. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is the kind of book that made my head hurt, and I had to put it aside after every chapter or so. Let it absorb. Try and understand it. As you might have noticed, I\’ve read five other books simultaneously because I had to keep getting away from Zen. But it was intriguing enough that I kept going back until I actually finished it.

Rating: 4/5                     436 pages, 1974

by Gregory Maguire

This book takes the story of Cinderella and sets it in Holland, told by one of the stepsisters. There are no mice or pumpkins, and \”Cinderella\” is a beautiful, intractable girl named Clara. It begins when Iris (homely but intelligent) and her sister Ruth (mentally handicapped) accompany their widowed mother to Holland as bereft strangers. They find a painter who agrees to take them in as servants. When a wealthy tulip investor commissions the artist to paint his daughter Clara, Iris\’ mother jumps at the chance to ingratiate herself into that household of higher social status. Iris finds herself burdened with both watching after her dull sister Ruth and being forced companion to the disagreeable Clara, her new stepsister. What she is really interested in is learning about painting, which she does from the painter\’s apprentice, the charming and impish Caspar.

This story was delightful. It introduced me to the tulip craze of Holland in the 1630\’s, which I knew little about. In some ways it\’s almost more historical fiction than fantasy. The characters are so realistic, with their various virtues and flaws. Even though most of the people are predominantly good or evil, kind or cruel, intelligent or dumb, nothing is that black and white. Iris\’ mother has got to be the most complex person of all. Everyone is trying to achieve something: Clara to be seen as something other than a beautiful face, Iris seeks self-confidence, her mother wants money\’s security, nobody seems to think about what Ruth wants…

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister is a wonderful story full of personality contrasts, human folly, intrigue and admirable compassion. The end has satisfying curious twists. And, of course, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about painting.

Rating: 4/5                       372 pages, 1999

Read more reviews at: Trish\’s Reading Nook

anyone else?

by Laurie Halse Anderson

I have never been so tempted to turn to the end and find out early what happened in a book. Because Speak is all about the impact one traumatic incident at a party had on a teenager\’s entire year in high school. Not knowing the whole story, the other students hate or ostracize her. She\’s riddled with guilt to the point of feeling physically ill and fear and confusion sit on her so heavy she cannot bring herself to talk to anyone: parents, teachers, friends. The self-incriminating, melodramatic inner dialog brought to mind Catcher in the Rye, and something about it made me think of The Outsiders, as well. Of all the books I\’ve read, this is one of the most realistic (and bitterly humorous) pictures of what high school is like. Attitudes of teachers and students, cliques and popularity struggles, how pointless it all can seem. Some passages like this one just made me laugh:

Mr. Stetman won\’t give up. He is determined to prove once and for all that algebra is something we will use the rest of our lives. If he succeeds, I think they should give him the Teacher of the Century Award and a two-week vacation in Hawaii, all expenses paid.

He comes to class each day with a new Real-Life Application… Today\’s Application has something to do with buying guppies at the pet store, and calculating how many guppies you could breed if you wanted to go into the guppie business. Once the guppies turn into x\’s and y\’s, my contacts fog. Class ends in a debate between the animal-rights activists, who say it is immoral to own fish, and the red-blooded capitalists, who know lots of better ways to make money than investing in fish that eat their young. I watch the snow falling outside.

I thoroughly recommend this book. It\’s funny, sad, attention-grabbing (translation: I couldn\’t put it down) and short enough that no matter how tempting, you can make it all the way to the revelation at the end without peeking.

Rating: 4/5 Published: 1999, pp 195

Read more reviews at:
Book Addiction
It\’s All About Books
Things Mean a Lot
Leafing Through Life
Books on the Brain
Bermudaonion\’s Weblog

Highlights from the Golden Age of Bad Parenting
by James Lileks

Facsimilies of ads and articles from newspapers, magazines and advice-books fill this book about parenting in the 1940\’s. With asides and explanations about why the advice is relatively reasonable and still adhered to today, or (much more frequently) hideously wrong and hilariously funny. Except I wasn\’t laughing. I just didn\’t find the author\’s effluent sarcasm amusing. So I didn\’t actually read the whole thing. I flipped through the pages reading material from the bygone era, occasionally looking to see what the modern commentary was. That plastic horse suspended on springs on page 162? We actually had one of those when I was a kid. I don\’t remember locomoting it across the floor or having difficulty dismounting, but I do recall badly pinched fingers (the danger of which is not mentioned in this book.)

Abandoned ..0/5…. Published: 2005, pp 176

Question from Booking Through Thursday:
All other things (like price and storage space) being equal, given a choice in a perfect world, would you rather have paperbacks in your library? Or hardcovers? And why?

Well, if it was perfect, I\’d love to have all hardcover books, beautiful leather editions with glossy ink and creamy paper. There\’s something very aesthetically pleasing about such beautiful books. But that\’s just a dream so I\’m very happy with my mixed-up library of hardbacks and trade paperbacks. The only kind of format I really don\’t like is mass-market or pocket size paperbacks, because they\’re smaller and fall apart after I read them several times in a row. Opening the pages wide to read the smaller text easily always ends up cracking the spine, and then the books never recover. Also they look funny among all the taller books, being so short. This has been a bit of a problem with me in swapping books on Book Mooch, because sometimes I receive books that were listed as trade paperbacks and turn out to be pocket-size. Some of them sit on my shelves waiting for the day I find a more desirable copy to replace them, others get cycled right back out into the swap system…

Cats and Their Culture
by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas

This is not a scientific examination of cat behavior, but rather a collection of anecdotal stories from the author\’s life, friends and acquaintances, together with her personal thoughts and speculations. The first part of the book talks about housecats: their social organization, communication methods and whether or not they have \”culture\” (specific behaviors which they pass on to their kittens, that differ from how cats in other locales may behave). The second part is about time Marshall spent in Africa, and relates in detail relationships between groups of lions with native Kalahari bushmen who were hunter-gatherers, and later how that relationship changed when the bushmen were forced to leave or keep livestock, particularly cattle. The last section discusses mountain lions in America, and tigers in captivity. Throughout the book there are observations on various other cat species, and comparisons between the big cats and our domesticated housecats. Overall this book is not as good as The Hidden Life of Dogs (same author). But I still found it interesting.

I learned a number of new things, like that mountain lions share characteristics with cheetahs and bobcats can bring down deer. But some of her conclusions I questioned. For example, she surmises that cats mark people (rubbing against their legs) because people are their food source, so they stake out a claim on them like a wild cat would a territory that supplies his food. In my own household it doesn\’t appear to be so. Both our cats mark both of us, but my husband has never once fed them. If I were absent for a few days, he\’d have to ask for specific instructions on how to do it!

Later in The Tribe of Tiger she states that tigers (if well-treated) are happier and longer-lived in circuses than zoos, where they are bored and stressed from being stared at by strangers all day. The more I think about this the less I know what I think: certainly I\’ve never seen much of big cats in zoos, they are always hiding when I visit. Would they really prefer a circus where they have more privacy, but are confined in much closer quarters? Do they find the interactions with a trainer, intellectually stimulating, and enjoy traveling around seeing the different sights and people? Is that better than a zoo where except for the weather, nothing much would change day to day? Although most zoos nowadays have \”enrichment\” programs for their animals to stave off boredom, don\’t they? If only we could ask a tiger himself, and he could speak!

Rating: 3/5          
240 pages, 1994

by Gavin Maxwell

This book is a delightful, fascinating and sometimes sad story. Written by a reclusive naturalist who brought otters from the marshes of Southern Iraq to Northern Scotland where he lived with them in a remote location. The descriptions of the otters are wonderful and informative. It becomes obviously quite quickly that they make awful pets- they are extremely inquisitive, never at rest and very destructive to his home! But they\’re also funny and very endearing. Maxwell himself was so enthralled with otters that even after loosing his first one (due to an inability to control it) he acquired several others in succession. The sad thing about this book is that the author continued to bring wild animals from their native locations to keep, even though they made poor pets. He wasn\’t rescuing or rehabilitating them, he was acquiring them. I believe that\’s illegal now.

In spite of that, I do love this book for its wonderful nature writing- there are excellent and interesting descriptions of the Northern Scotland wilds and various other forms of wildlife that surrounded his home on the edge of the sea. Ring of Bright Water is full of humor and a wild beauty. There are several other books following it- The Rocks Remain and Raven, Seek Thy Brother… which I intend to get my hands on and read if I can. I think they\’re out of print and difficult to find now. I also spotted the title of a book on a shelf called The Saga of Ring of Bright Water: the Engima of Gavin Maxwell, which makes me think there\’s more to his story I don\’t know about. Perhaps I\’ll read that one also some day.

Rating: 4/5 Published:1960, pp 240


All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it




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