Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Queen of the South

I have a hard time reading a book that believes it is an adaptation of a all-time great novel, and even has the characters in the book REFERENCE reading the book.  That’s a starting place for me to say that Arturo Perez-Reverte’s book Queen of the South fell a bit short for me.  The concept of the book, a mistress of a drug lord from Mexico becoming an even bigger drug lord, being compared to Edmond Dantes, please! Not happening, that is a bit far-fetched.  Teresa Mendoza is in the tub when the “bat-phone” rings, which means her lover has just been killed.  She immediately goes on the run turning to her lover’s old friends to hide her until she lands in Spain and starts a new life, no longer the concubine of a drug king but a developing drug lord herself.  Once you can move beyond the fact that this “wall flower of sorts” is capable of making the big deals, the story line is compelling and the chase scenes and double-dealing of the drug underworld become fun to read.  The distractions do pop-up with this secondary plot of the newspaper journalist looking to find out Teresa’s story years after it happened.  The author uses the present/past/future technique, which is ok, but not the greatest as it takes away from the interest that does build on Teresa’s transformation.  The love triangles (the lesbian lover turned friend/partner in her business) and the new boyfriend, who eventually also gets killed, are added intrigues, as is how the world of drugs is so prevalent in our world.  Money makes people do strange things often.  A good amount of gore, sex (doesn’t seem to fit in to be honest), and back and forth between the actual story makes it confusing.  It almost feels like you are reading three books at times and makes you wonder if they're all part of the same story.  When it focused on the Teresa story, the book worked best for me.  I’d say a 50-50 like/dislike.  Again, the chase scene on the boat and the Teresa escapes from Mexico sections were like a great James Bond movie.  It dragged at parts and too many pages that could have been easily cut without harming the story line.  I’d take a pass on this one.  Not up to the “Count of Monte Cristo” by a  LONG stretch.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It is always interesting to me how I tend to read a similar set of books in a short period of time.  After Sophie’s World, I jump into another “philosophical exploration,” this one by Robert Pirsig, the “cult following book” Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  When I was listening to it I could hear the voice that begins the Star Trek series…Space: The Final Frontier. These are the voyages of the Starship Enterprise… I felt like I was on the journey with the lead character (the unnamed protagonist), his son Chris, and close friends John and Sylvia (well they were there the first nine days) from Minnesota to California (hey yeah, California is like another world... at least that’s what I have been told as I have never been to Cali!).  This journey is more about the thinking than the going for sure.  While there is some level of linear story, it is more about a philosophical, almost philosophical (Zen like) approach in learning about healthy thinking.  We should treat our instruments (our bodies) like the maintenance of the motorcycle, almost as complicated.  One needs to be “in the moment” as illustrated by the feel of taking care of your tools after fixing your motorcycle.  Understanding the inner workings of the person as he learns how to take care of the vehicle, the motorcycle, and later how boring/tedious it can be to take care of a motorcycle (or any mechanical instrument) yet it can be a fun past time and it all depends on one’s attitude during the process.  The author also explores “truth” and the whole concept of “quality.”  His long diatribe on the quality of education, through the character of Phaedra hit home as I sit in my role as educator and administrator on a college campus. The intertwining of the Phaedra character (his teacher) and the journey with Chris criss-cross throughout, but are complimentary in hitting the core ideas that Pirsig is trying to share with his audience.  This is not a book for a quick Sunday afternoon read.  It is deep and offers some challenging and entertaining “high brow” thinking.  While I enjoyed and learned some good “Zen” like philosophy, I did need to re-listen to some portions as it was too heady while running on the treadmill in the gym.  It is a classic, so having it on the list gives me a smile.  I am really glossing over this one and doing little to no real service in capturing Pirsig’s book.  Philosophy majors and those interested in capturing another “meaning of life” and how to place one would do well in reading when you are at a place of inquiry.   

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Their Eyes Were Watching God

A really nice coming of age story that follows the life of an African American woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s  Their Eyes Were Watching God.  The main character is Janie Crawford and she tells her life journey to her best friend, Pheoby, in an effort that she can share it with others, the noisy neighbors!  The story is set in the lower parts of Florida in the beginning of the 1900s.  Janie is born from a sexual assault of her mother by her school teacher.  Janie is left to be raised by her grandmother who attempts to raise her in the best way she can by influencing her to marry well to better her situation.  This leads to the first of three marriages for Janie.  Each of the three men is very different.  Marriage number one, the “arranged marriage by granny,” is to Logan Killicks, an older farmer.  Will money lead to love… not quite.  Especially when Logan is really looking for another farmhand, which leads to Janie running away with Joe Starks.  He takes her away to Eatonville and opens up a general store and he becomes the “mayor” of the town.  Joe wants Janie as the “picture perfect mayor’s trophy wife," then sadness, Joe dies and leaves Janie with a store and lots of eligible men who want her.  During this time she falls in love with Vergible Woods, aka Tea Cake.  They leave town, selling the store and head to Jacksonville and marriage three is in place.  Finally Janie realizes she has now found the love of her life.  The happy life turns sad when Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog trying to save Janie.  After he contracts the disease he starts to go crazy and attempts to shoot her, but, in a move of self-defense, Janie shoots him.  Tea Cake dies and Janie is brought to trial for his murder.  She is acquitted and eventually returns to Eatonville where her former neighbors spread rumors about her.  Gender roles, life as an African American in the South, the role of women subservient to males, and the various types of marriages in that time are examined by a complex woman searching for her voice and needs story.  Hurston’s literary skills illustrate the true plight of women in the day.  I appreciated the context of the characters and the storyline.  It was an easy read that kept me drawn to Janie’s difficult life.  I understand the praise for this one.  

Monday, August 22, 2011

Saviors and Survivors

A historical view on the death and destruction of Darfur through war, politics, and the environmental issues are all covered in Mahmood Mamdani’s book, Saviors and Survivors.  I have to say I was a bit surprised that a book like this could be someone’s favorite.  I say this not to be critical of the text itself, which reads like a class lecture book, but I didn’t find anything in it that would move me to say I was changed because of it…  Mamdani, an academic by trade, does an excellent job of outlining through primary sources the aspects of the wars and politics in neighboring Chad and the Congo.  The interesting piece of this book is how the author presents an argument regarding whether the Darfur situation is genocide or not, a whole 100 pages dedicated to it… not sure why?  But does present compelling data that makes one wonder whether one should donate monies to the burgeoning non-profits looking for funds for this group or that.  I had not known the history of Darfur, so that was interesting.  Mamdani also provided a thorough 30 year overview of how the Cold War (Reagan was always involved in this stuff, huh?) impacted where we are today, and also Libyan leader Nuammar al-Qaddafi… who, guess what... is in the news big time!  I would not suggest this as a book to read, as there is even more recent information on the Darfur front and as time goes on this 2008 book is just not recent enough on what is happening.  A favorite book for a RA?  Hmm smart student, but favorite?  Not for your list I don’t think.  Nice research Dr. Mamdani.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Historian

A very long listen… with The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.  Kostova’s tale is broken into three interwoven perspectives from different storytellers and different times, 1930s, 1950s, and 1970s (the narrator – the early days, the father (Paul) in the 1950s, and then the daughter (who is nameless???) in the 1970s).  The story is pieced together by the history enthusiasts (narrator, Paul, and his daughter).  This journey revolves around the history and lore of “Vlad the Impaler,” ie “Dracula”.  Yes, this is another vampire book!  How can this be?  Never a vampire book on the list and now 2 in one week?  Maybe I should never have proclaimed that NYU RAs don’t read vampire stories.  The good and the bad of this book, is that while vampire legend is a part of the book, much of it focuses on the journey of Paul looking for Dr. Rossi (his dissertation chair) and his daughter searching for her father.  What is the saying... "what comes around goes around?"  So the daughter grows up with a father who never shares anything about her mother except she died when she was born.  In a novel, that should raise suspicion already… Guess what?  Maybe she didn’t die.  When the daughter is searching through books in the attic she finds something strange and presents it to her father.  “The jig is up,” time to fess up Dad... Mom (Helen) didn’t really die during child birth… and is she still alive? History all seems to be united in the Dracula story.  Dad finally tells the tale of mom and that she was bitten by luring a vampire to gain more information about “Vlad” and the maps trying to find him.  There are a few journeys we learn about, Dad’s search with his wife (which leads to her disappearance) to find Dr. Rossi (oh yeah, he is really Helen's father!) and then Paul and his daughter’s search for Mom.  There are two love stories, Helen and Paul and also the daughter and Professor Bora (whom she meets on her journey).  Seems like a lot of history repeating itself!  Oh yeah, the vampire killing is pretty exciting, otherwise… hmmm way too long and repetitive to me.  I know it won some awards and all, but I don’t like vampire stores (in fact I dislike bats immensely – Gladys and the kids needed to get rabies shots when one flew in our house in Syracuse.. that too is a long story).  Not my cup of tea…

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The House on Garibald Street

A real life escaped genocide murder mystery – solved!  The House on Garibaldi Street tells the story of how Adolf Eichmann, the man who directed the Third Reich’s "Final Solution" to “exterminate” all Jews from Germany was found and captured.  It is written by the person who master-minded the plot when evidence was delivered his way, Isser Harel.  Harel was appointed in 1952 by the Prime Minister of Israel to lead the newly created Israel foreign intelligence agency called Mossad.  Isser provides a listing of the “players” in the perfectly executed plan to capture Eichmann when a German Jew, now living in Argentina, divulges to a friend in Germany who is a Jewish descendent that he believes Eichmann is residing in Argentina.  The book is named after the home where Eichmann is believed to reside, “The House on Garibaldi Street.”  Isser leaves no stone unturned in ensuring the plan is executed to perfection for fear that other Nazi Germans whom have relocated underground to Argentina may help save Eichmann.  The plan includes learning about Eichmann’s movements everyday and ends with him abducted while walking home from work and drugged so that they can fly him back to Israel to be tried for the war crimes he committed.  The reason for learning about Eichmann was through a girl who was dating Eichmann’s son, who decided to keep his last name and provided information that convinced Mr. Hermann it was Eichmann.  This is a really interesting overview of what happened… think about no cell phones, limited communication between the Israel undercover in Buenos Aries and Israel, compared to the bugging devices, etc. that we have now....  For those who aren’t aware of the genocide in Germany to the Jews, you may want to review before reading this one as this serves as a conclusion of sorts.  So sad how many people were destroyed by such evil people…  A good read. 

Sunday, August 14, 2011

My Life

This one has taken a really long time to complete… because it was really long!  President Bill Clinton’s book, My Life.  An overview of Clinton’s birth through his early childhood and ending with his wife Hillary’s election as Senator of NY State.  For those who are not aware of the historical moments from 1960s through 2004, pick it up and learn some of the “behind the scenes” rationale and thinking about the political decisions of the US (mostly from a Democratic point of view).  Clinton’s early life was pretty meager and he certainly did commit himself to education and moving from a difficult childhood (alcoholism, isolation, and limited resources) to a very successful politician.  Clinton shares his personal failures through his on-going sexual escapades (seemingly caused by desertion and abuse from the male figures in his life).  We learn about Clinton’s amazing ability to network and make people feel good about themselves.  Even though I had grown up during this period (living in DC!), I forgot how much turmoil he went through (either because he caused it himself or others were willing to dose it out to him because they believed he deserved it).  He detailed all of his various campaigns and the work that he and others did to win the race.  Clinton does present himself as learning the importance of diversity from a very young age being among different races, especially African-Americans.  One of the things that I felt was a bit “over the top” (and believe me as Clinton says “Was I better off at end of 8 years with him as President?”  YES I was) was his continual dropping of names and letting folks know how much he helped them or thanked them.  It came off as insincere to me.  The stories of the republican vs. democratic turmoil showed just how much human nature will never change, power is important to humans!  The book left me feeling badly for Hillary and Chelsea with how his personal life became front page headlines.  Has Clinton ever changed?  And how did his personal choices impact his professional choices?  Could they be separated?  Loved hearing about some of the NYU staff who were involved in the Clinton White House.   Long book that will teach us about a master politician and how he survived his own debacles.  Worth a read if history and politics is your thing.  If not, take a pass, I’m sure a 60 minute TV show on the history of Bill Clinton will capture most of this.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sophie’s World

Finished reading an interesting way to teach Philosophy to anyone, including kids, though some of it may be over their heads (mine too!).  Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner is the story of a 14-year-old, Sophie Amundsen, who is growing up in Norway.  Sophie resides with her mom while her father, an oil tank captain, is away at work. Think about a 14-year-old child receiving anonymous letters from someone… to join a correspondence course on philosophy!  She is intrigued and decides to sign-up under the tutelage of Dr. Alberto Knox, who delivers to her the history of philosophy from the Greeks (Socrates, Plato, Aristophanes) to Sartre.  She also gets a postcard from Albert Knag, a major in the UN doing peacekeeping work from Lebanon, who was sending a note to his daughter Hilde.  She does all of this and withholds the info from her mom, who begins to think Sophie is on the verge of craziness or using drugs.   Sophie learns about the thinking from the modern mind and then world’s collide… Albert Knag is teaching the world of the mind to his daughter at the same time and Sophie’s life serves as a teaching for Hilde, and vice versa.  So are we in Sophie’s story or Hilde’s story or both?  Does Sophie’s world serve a learning purpose for Hilde or vice versa?  Confused yet?  While using the devise of a child’s book to teach the student about the intricacies of thinking may be much, I liked the story mechanics, albeit the philosophy piece was cute, not so entertaining for me.  Then through Sophie’s visit to Alberto’s place (which she finds by chasing his dog, who started delivering the letters to her house so she didn’t discover him), she sees into mirrors visions of a young girl winking at her (Hilde) and later characters from the beloved children stories.  Wacky, yeah it gets pretty far-fetched after a while.  I felt I was back on the set of one of my favorite plays, Rhinoceros.   If the author had stuck with the initial story pattern, probably would have been more enjoyable for me.  The psychotic overtones didn’t work for me.  It actually could have ended like St. Elsewhere (TV show) which ended the series with a kid looking into a “snow globe,” ie the characters were all in his imagination. Overall, a cute concept, good learning for young folks on philosophy and the questions of life, but no, not as interesting as it started.  I’d take a pass on this one!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Don Quixote

It has been slow reading, or, in this case, slow listening.  Being on vacation and riding in cars most of the days this summer (going to camp with son Alex, traveling to conferences, etc.) is not helping me reduce the RA favorite list.  I also saved almost all of the long books for the end… finally finished listening to the all-time classic Don Quixote by Cervantes.  If you can get through it, similar to Count of Monte Cristo in terms of length (also a great book), you will really enjoy this one.  The story is broken into two parts where the main character, Alonso Quixada or Quixana as the spelling doesn’t seem to have been kept in the village exactly, a retired country gentleman approximately 50 years old, becomes obsessed by books of chivalry and begins to believe them true to the word.  His obsession leads him to a journey as a new man makes him a legend in his time.  Renamed Don Quixote, he lives in the section of the country called La Mancha with a niece and a housekeeper. Based on his behavior, others think that he is out of his mind while he perseveres through his own “knighthood” and galvanizing many to believe he is the feared and renowned Knight Don Quixote of La Mancha! He brings his faithful horse, renamed Rocinante, and his neighboring farmer’s daughter (a woman whom he loves, though she is unaware), Dulcinea del Toboso, to visit an inn, which he believes is a castle and asks to be knighted by the innkeeper.  After a valiant battle (argument) he gets dubbed knight by the innkeeper and is sent away, there begins the story of the Don!  He does have run-ins with others along the way but things get interesting when he convinces his neighbor, Sancho Panza, to become his squire (after he promises him governorship of a neighboring island!) and the two of them set off on adventures from fighting windmills believed to be giants to interactions with prostitutes, criminals and other unsavory characters that lead him back home at the end of Part One.  Part Two is more of the same, though by this time others have heard of the “legend” before he arrives.  Sancho becomes an even bigger part of the story and finally does land his governorship, though for only a few days.  Enough time to rule the locals with new laws, including being naked on the island!  The story has “period humor” for sure, though can still give one a smile on the face.  Like most journey stories this one has a beginning, middle, and an ending, one in which Quixote begins to see the truth and comes back to some semblance of reality.  The story ends with the death of Quixote and, as the author shares, there are no more stories to be told.  Cervantes' work is a masterpiece and lasts even to today’s high expectations for great works.  Add this to the list, it needs to be on the proverbial “bucket list” of books to read.  I now have completed EVERY book that at least 2 RAs suggested I read.  A nice accomplishment for sure.

Saturday, August 6, 2011


A truly sad day for me… my first RA Favorite book with VAMPIRES!  Oh no, first bad teenage story and now vampires… I must have had a few bad interviews with RAs.  This one was a Harlequin Romance-type story (If you don’t know what the Harlequin romance novels were, Google ”Fabio”.  He used to pose for the covers.)  The book was Damien by Jacqueline Frank.  We had some really good friends over for dinner and Lisa said there are a few really good vampire stories, I guess this was not one of them!  The down and dirty of this read: The Prince Vampire, Damien, falls in love with the Princess of the Lycanthropes, Syreena, even though vampires and Lycanthropes don’t mix!  Syreena has a mix of three venoms in her and Damien needs blood, so he sucks on her neck for some time, and guess what… he falls for her, and she falls for him.  But what will Siena, Syreena’s sister, say about that, and what about Jasmine, Damien’s “vampire compadre” of the last 900 years?  There are some “R” rated moments in this one for sure.  I have no doubt a Monday night movie on Lifetime Channel is coming soon.  The author goes into great detail a few times about Damien’s muscular, well-toned hot body and Syreena’s tight hot body romping in the sack.  There is little to no plot in this one for sure (well between the bed scenes and the Lycanthropes vs. the vampires I guess you could say there was a plot…).  Between the almost death of Damien, “I need some blood,” and Syreena’s disappointing her entire family for going to the dark side, what do you expect?  Predictable, boring and not worth the $0.99 plus shipping to get this book on half.com.  How do they make money on these books… and YES, this is only the first in a series called the Nightwalkers!  Say it isn’t so!  Well, I can’t say I haven’t read a vampire book anymore… sadness for sure!  Skip the last two reads and I am truly hoping for a step up with my next book!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Born Confused

Let me start out by saying, not my kind of book!  Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier tells the story of a teenage (17-year-old) Indian American growing up in everyone’s favorite state…. New Jersey!  Dimple, our protagonist, is dying to be a true American, but everything about her (looks, family, etc.) is Indian and that’s the way her life is going to be!  Add on the fact that her best friend is the knock-down gorgeous Gwyn Sexton (no relation to President Sexton of NYU – but hey a TON of the character’s friends attend NYU, and she even goes to parties there --- but not in Founders!).  Add the insecure Dimple with her best friend's “photo-shoot looks” and you have a conflict in the making!  Dimple fights with her parents to stop the Indian culture pressure, especially when they arrange a date with Karsh Kapoor, the son of a long-lost best friend of Dimple’s parents.  The evening goes poorly and Dimple lets Gwyn know how she didn’t like the set-up.  What do you think happens?  Of course, Gwyn, a resident loose-woman, now wants to get Karsh in the sack!  This is one of those very predictable stories, annoying, really... Indians who come to the states would act like this? Mostly annoying, though loved the fact that the author makes NYU the HOTTEST school in the world to attend for every Indian and anyone else!  (Great free P.R.!!!)  Dimple now decides she actually likes Karsh and wants him for herself.  Major best friend “cat-fight ensues” and true to form, Gwyn loses this guy, after trying to transition herself as an Indian person (cooking the meals, dressing the part, etc.). Luckily Karsh sees through this (is this a copy of some ABC Family Channel weekly situational tv show?).  I could not wait to have this one over.  Probably good for some 12 or 13-year-old teens, on second thought, don’t do it!  Funniest part – Dimple’s mom teaches Gwyn how to cook authentic Indian food for the party and mixes the ingredients for the curry chicken and warns Dimple not to eat it.  Skip this one!