Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Top Five Characters I'd Want on a Desert Island

I couldn't think of ten, but...

1. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter

Basically, I'm counting on her to bring a bottomless bag with a bottomless supply of books. And she can't read them all at the same time, can she? Also, if that doesn't shake out, i'm sure she's memorized Hogwarts, A History and we could have some fascinating conversation.

2. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games

Someone needs to do the hunting! And any other survivalist strategy games.

3. Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire

He has some fascinating stories, and I'm sure he could rig up a sewage system if necessary.

4. Silk aka Prince Kheldar from the Belgariad and the Malloreon

He would probably set up an economic system and comically swindle everyone in no time.

5. Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings

Everyone needs a loyal friend, plus Sam can start a garden and cook the taters.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn

26. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed
*Available for sale in September*

Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is, as advertised, a “steampunk faerie tale.” The tale of Ali Baba and the forty thieves is retold in a world replete with difference engines, mechanical falcons, and airships. But this precise categorization may limit the story’s exposure-and that would be a shame. Aesthetics aside, this is a universal story about the rippling effects of avarice and its dangers across cultures, magic, and technology.

As in the original tale, forty thieves command a luxurious hoard hidden in a secret desert cavern. In this version, however, the hoard cannot be removed. The protagonist Ali's family had an ancient mandate to guard the now-usurped hoard against the return of the Persian royal family. Without the magical and mechanical prowess of his forebears, Ali's father cannot hope to retake the cave. But his talented second son, Ali, can. Unfortunately, the thieves will stop at nothing to gain the key that will allow them to spend the hoard, which they rightfully guess Ali's family has.

As in other steampunk novels, Baba Ali navigates the rift between the magical and the mechanical. For Ali bin-Massoud, an Arabian transplant to England, however, there is no such rift. The intricate puzzle boxes that his father gifts him are, his father tells the young Ali, “some of the first items to ever combine magic and mechanics.” Ali is a man who grows up to set out saucers for brownies before he begins to tinker in his master artificer’s workshop. Ali's master-mentor is none other than Charles Babbage, who shoulders the role of the proper English skeptic. Babbage's "difference engine," the forerunner of the modern computer, also makes a cameo appearance.

While I have had my doubts about the steampunk aesthetic in the past, the authors' use of it here has opened [the gears of] my mind to the [steam-powered] possibilities. The plethora of unusual objects creates an atmosphere of mystery and curiosity. As with most steampunk novels, many oddly named inventions can be discerned through their Latin prefixes and suffixes (While most Arabian terms can be determined from context, readers can avail themselves of a helpful glossary in the back). The magical/mechanical context allows the authors to get away with some otherwise hokey phrases (“his hand took on the glow of power”) and descriptive passages that further contribute to atmosphere. The very thoughts and feelings of the characters reflect machinery; when in fear, Ali’s “heart [stutters] like a stuck gear.” The technological aspect is welded seamlessly into the texture of the original folk tale, even supporting a crucial plot point on its hinges. The tale is further lubricated with details plundered from the other thousand and one nights, including "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp."

The novel is also deeply rooted in Arabian and Persian history. Though it begins in Victorian England, the desert and his hometown Wadi Al-Nejd will soon call Ali home (via airship, natch).Playful myth mingles here with a more realist sense of Islam and nineteenth-century Arabian custom. The forty thieves may invoke the classic malapropism “Open Sesame!”, but the characters wear thobes and beshts (inner and outer robes) and recoil at haram (sinful) tattoos. In addition, readers will receive a taste of the still-pervasive customs of primogeniture and paternalism. Enter Ali's older brother Kassim, heir to the family fortune. Unfortunately, he proves an underdeveloped villain whose irrational hatred of mechanics drives the first portion of the plot. While Ali's mechanical talents are an ingenious twist to the story, Kassim's corresponding hatred, essential to the plot, apparently rests on a single childhood memory. Overpowering fratricidal jealousy was not a feature of the original tale, and is hard to account for in the retelling. That said, Kassim's wife Malakeh enables the authors to portray a female character who, while limited, is well able to assert her own desires and schemes, a very satisfying element.

Considering the limitations of women at that time, but also the components of the original story, it is interesting that the authors unite the magical and mechanical in a female djinn (or jinni) who inhabits a mechanical female body. Why would such a powerful creature so domesticate herself? It is, of course, a hyperbole for the clever female servant in the original tale. Why is she so dedicated to Ali? Though a mechanical genius and kind at heart, Ali can play only a bumbling Pygmalion to this superlative Galatea.

The opening somewhat presumptuously invokes "Sister Scheherazade," but as the novel proceeds, the reader becomes as entranced as her famous listener. The authors' version of the Forty Thieves' Cave would have steampunkers selling their souls (or at least their corsets) for a glimpse. But for a novel that's full of things, the message is one that's more consistent with traditional Islam than twenty-first century consumerism. Greed, or the coveting of others' things, can destroy your life. Instead, make your own things and be content. Or, in this case, engineer a charming new novel from an old but trusty engine of story parts!

Received for review from the authors and publisher.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Catching Up

The following are books that I read on planes:

23. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

When I unexpectedly finished my book before I reached the airport, I frantically searched for something quick, cheap, and light to grab for the plane ride. I picked up a mass market paperback of Neil Gaiman's latest (is it his latest at this point? it's the last one I heard of.)

I wasn't especially fussed with the only other Gaiman I've read, Neverwhere, but the light satirical tone and fantastical quirks amused me enough. I had no idea what Ocean was about, but I figured it was hard to go completely wrong with Gaiman, and perhaps I would finally join his legions of uber fans. The former was a safe bet, though the latter is still a no-go.

As it turns out, Ocean is another book that would make a perfect children's story were it not for a few unfortunate references. Told from a young boy's point of view, it's again a simplistic plot featuring an invasive villain versus a plucky child rather than a stock hero's journey. The child, of course, has magical guidance and there's a requisite treacly sacrifice.

True to form, Gaiman is spot-on with a child's perspective, and quirky creatures and witty dialogue abound. I just don't get the hype, I'm sorry. I intend to try one of the more adult novels next.

24. How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway

The comparison to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is almost unavoidable, though this story features a Japanese mother and half-Japanese daughter. I may have actually enjoyed this one more, though I think I'm in the minority, because this is a more cohesive novel about a single mother/daughter pair rather than a more fragmented story about multiple mother/daughter pairs.

Shoko, a Japanese woman with the expected terrible past and shameful secret, marries an American GI and eventually ends up in San Diego with her husband, son, and daughter. Her daughter Suiko marries and divorces early, with a daughter of her own to show for it. As Shoko's health fails, Suiko and daughter Helena must return to Japan on their mother and grandmother's behalf to make peace with an estranged uncle they've never met.

Other reviewers have criticized Shoko's broken English. It sounded realistic to me, as I have met people who sound like her, but others argue that a woman who's spent most of her life in the U.S. would have a better grasp of language. I'm not so sure, I think it depends on the individual.

The most entertaining parts of the book are the excerpts from a supposed guide on how to be an American housewife for Japanese women married to American men. I wonder if there really was such a guide. It clearly depicts the gulf between the cultures, and how much these women sacrificed for the chance that their children would be safer in America. It's a notion (ironically) completely at odds with the dominant American culture of individualism.

Recommended to those who liked The Joy Luck Club and other books about cross-cultural families.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Meditations on the Holy Land and Book Review: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

23. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu

What I noticed most about my time in Israel last month was the overwhelming sense of community-that and (not coincidentally) everyone's tendency to force-feed me. In that vein, a friend of mine teaching in Israel for the year lent this book to me during my travels. "You'll give it back to me when I see you again," he said vaguely, and because both of us were feeling just confident enough in our Israeli-Jewish bubble, I knew that I would.

That sense of community persists in this book about three contemporary Israeli women, but in a weird and not quite as comforting way. The blurb on the back of the book is misleading. It begins, "Yael, Avishag, and Lea grow up together in a tiny dusty Israeli village...passing notes to each other to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life." The blurb implies a togetherness that the characters technically experience, but as the writing makes quite evident, do not feel. From the beginning of the book, Lea is isolated socially from the other two, though it's implied that the three played together as children. When Avishag and Yael have a fight, Avishag yells "I don't even know you!" and Yael takes this to heart. Despite the togetherness of their shared experiences, shared town, shared dysfunctional families, each girl feels alone, and each girl is ultimately presented alone, in Boianjiu's alienating prose.

When the women are deployed as soldiers in the Israeli army, they really are separated from everyone they have ever known. Even here though, there is an unsettling similarity of experience that will haunt each woman for the remainder of the book. This is a society that is intimately familiar with each others' experiences, and yet weirdly isolated for all that. They remember together, but they suffer separately. Each of their experiences are colored by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to treat the other is a fundamental issue in the book, as it is in Israeli society. Neither the author nor Israel has yet answered the question, though both dwell on it to macabre degrees. It is Yael who expresses a sentiment that I found in some Israelis, one of sympathy and frankly, brotherhood, with the Palestinians. On her base, Palestinian boys from a nearby village begin stealing things. In one scene, Yael describes:

It is the most ludicrous, charming thing I have ever seen.
The fence around the base, by the ammunition bunker, it is gone. Not anymore. Vanished.
Those boys. Those devil boys. They have stolen it.

My laughter echoes, across mountains I cannot see in the dark.


Boianjiu writes in stream-of-consciousness fragments, a format that I have probably mentioned my distaste for in the past. I think the style has its place, as it echoes the rhythm of human thoughts, but it can also be unvarnished, if you will, in a way that some readers find raw and emotionally honest, and I often find unfinished or lazy. Of course, Boianjiu's method is deliberate, and her characters are raw, unfinished, and lazy, and so it suits them well.

My biggest qualm with this book is that I do not feel the characters go through any significant changes, as a traditional novel would call for. But this is not a traditional novel. It is more aptly looked at as a series of short stories or snippets in the lives of Israelis, anchored around the nationally unique army experience. Boianjiu, a young Israeli woman herself who served in the army, hauntingly portrays the effects that army duty can have on impressionable adolescents. But though the army undoubtedly scars Yael, Lea, and Avishag-and brings them back together (that is, to their habitual aloneness-in-togetherness)-they remain the same self-obsessed, melodramatic people that they were at the beginning.

I sincerely hope that Boianjiu's portrait isn't truly characteristic of Israeli society, though it is certainly characteristic of teenagers and young adults. But there is hope. The young people that I met on my trip, both Americans and Israelis, were astoundingly open-minded and caring people, and I will carry the memories of our questions and discussions for a long time to come.

Monday, June 16, 2014

The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

22. The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

Travel and short stories make a marvelous combination in my book, and so when I found out that Elizabeth Gilbert had edited a compilation of travel short stories, it seemed like a magical combination. In her thoughtful introduction, Gilbert promises "you will not be bored"-and I was not disappointed.

Every single one of these stories is unique and meaningful. I liked some better than others, but I did not skip or skim a single one. For example, bull-running and rooster-eyeball-licking are not really elements I look for in my stories, but I can think of quite a few students who'd get a kick out of it. The story that appealed most to me included "Blot Out" by Colleen Kinder about what it's really like to wear a niqab, a full head and body covering with a grille for eyes to see through. When one of the characters says "the best part was looking strangers square in the eye," I had a glimmer of recognition. It's like staring from behind the safety of sunglasses. Clothing as social shield. My second favorite was a tale of Bedouin kidnappers who characterize their crime as a "free safari." And the best part of all? I could tell you the plot of every story, and each would still be worth reading. The value is in the perspective, the turns of phrase. And to my mind, that's what good writing, good stories are all about.

Entertainment with a global perspective. Now go read these stories. Go on. Now.
(Especially recommended for reading on airplanes, at the beach, or on the bus).

Sunday, June 15, 2014

A Dance with Dragons

After Israel, I spent some time in San Francisco and Chicago. I thought I'd have time for blog posts, but apparently not. Before my travels, I read:

21. A Dance with Dragons by George R.R. Martin

I finally finished the extant Song of Ice and Fire oeuvre. I have to say, I like where the series is going much better now. Nothing surprised me terribly (because with Martin, you are expecting the most terrible events), and the arc the books have followed has become more consistent with predictions I made after reading the third book.

So, basically, let's all breathe a sigh of relief that Tyrion is still okay (though things look bad on HBO right now), and look forward to Baelish and Varys wreaking havoc that won't matter so much when the White Walkers come 'round....

Enjoy the season finale tonight!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Novels, Stories, and Poems Read Most Often in Schools

Litlove's post about Flannery O'Connor's "A Good Man is Hard to Find" got me thinking about pieces of writing that I had to read repeatedly in the American school system. Now, I think some of these may have been regional, others national, and perhaps others the product of particular teachers I had, but I'm curious: what are the most commonly read works of literature in schools, and why?

In my own experience, these are the writings I have been asked to read more than once in school:

1. "A Good Man is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor

2. "Much Ado About Nothing" by William Shakespeare

3. "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" by T.S. Eliot

4. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

5. Elizabeth I's Armada speech

6. Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech

7. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

8. The Odyssey by Homer

9. "Ode to a Grecian Urn" by John Keats

10. "The Veldt" by Ray Bradbury

11. "All Summer in a Day" by Ray Bradbury

Other readings that I did not have to read, but gather were common:

1. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

2. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

3. "The Lottery" by Shirley Jackson

4. "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" by Ursula K. Le Guin

5. "The Lady or the Tiger" by Frank Stockton

6. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

7. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

What books did you have to read in school, what books did you get assigned in more than one class (feel free to include college), and do you have any thoughts on why those were popular readings?

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