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22 February 2013

'Life of Pi' by Yann Martel

Guest blogger SecretZoe (age 13)

So, I have recently finished reading Life of Pi. My first reaction when finishing the book was WOW just WOW. The reason I felt this was because it was such an amazing story that it left me shell shocked. Just to give you an idea about Life of Pi, this story is about Piscine Patel a very religious young man who has studied and practiced many different religions, he had grown up in a zoo because his father was the zoo director. When the whole zoo is being moved to Canada via ship, the ship sinks in the middle of the pacific, Piscine also known as Pi (pronounced pie) finds himself the sole survivor of the ship along with a zebra, an orangutan, a hyena and a tiger?

When he is on a life boat with a zebra that has broken legs a hyena who is foul and an orangutan that seems scared witless he thinks himself lucky since when getting on the lifeboat he had a close encounter with the ferocious tiger named Richard Parker. He however does not know what danger sleeps a few centimeters below him under the trampoline. After the hyena has killed both zebra and orangutan, Richard Parker shows himself to eat the hyena. This is no book for weak stomachs; lots of blood and guts are included. Me being a teen this book was amazing to me due to the fact that it wasn't only fun but also made my brain work to figure out what was going on.

This book, to me, at first was quite boring because it had over 16 chapters of background story but once I really got into it it was just astounding, I give this book a 10/10, and categorize it for grownups or for teens who need a challenging book (but only if a lot of other books are getting easy).

Yann Martel 
ISBN: 9780547848419 

17 February 2013

'The Makioka Sisters' by Junichiro Tanizaki translated by Edward G. Seidensticker

This book cannot be rushed.  You miss too much if you rush, which is surprising since nothing much happens.  There are moments of drama and action, several illnesses, a flood, an amputation and a birth, but these are punctuation marks in the lives of these sisters; like the the joys and tragedies in any life.  Pride and decline are the predominant themes of this magnificent book.  Small comments, subtle choices, silences and discretion uncover familial and societal pride.

Most of the book is told from the point of view of Sachiko, the second of the four sisters from a prominent Osaka merchant family, now in declining fortunes.  The story tells about the hunt for a husband for Yukiko, the third sister, a task made all the more difficult because she is thirty at the start of the book.  Every now and again the author drifts towards someone else or follows someone out of the house in Ashiya, in the suburbs of Osaka.  As a reader we then explore thoughts, motivations, actions and intimate moments.  The book draws attention to the passage of time, missed opportunities and a pride misapplied in a modernized world.  The family is in decline as their core business is sold off and their representative family, that of the eldest sister, Tsuruko, moves to Tokyo.  But pride in the past has set expectations especially for the oldest sisters and so pride justifies manipulation, selfishness and cowardice.  But these are not grand schemes that the sisters set against each other.  Scores are settled and seniority (rank) is imposed by not answering letters promptly, not giving all the pertinent information, and silence instead of clarity and transparency.

I surprised myself with thoughts such as "I don't like her very much" or "she's just a pain in the ...".  These thoughts were not due to clumsy character development. Quite the opposite, they were the result of excellent writing.  Sachiko or Yukiko are not introduced as obvious heroines.  No one is.  There are no obvious sign posts to tell the reader what to feel and how to understand someone.  The book unveils them slowly.  The mystery of their character, their inner core as it were, becomes visible through time and gentle actions.  This is the treat of this slow moving book.  My favorite character is Teinosuke, Sachiko's husband.  He has taken the Makioka name and therefore their interests.  He slowly turns into a man who cares for his wife and her family with just the right balance of pragmatism and affection. Not that he changes the attitude of the sisters but he seems to bring sanity to the page and to their helpful acquaintance after yet another failed proposal.

Their declining fortunes have slowed the proposals for Yukiko.  Moreover, the previous (numerous) rejected suitors have left the impression that the family is too proud.  And so it goes...The book dissects a family and left me feeling satisfied.  Tanikazi sets his own pace.  In the Makioka homes we perceive a bit of where Japanese society heads with blind pride and stubbornness.  Modernization and thoughtless actions for the sake of progress is as ruinous as pride in a past that no longer exists.  The youngest sister, Taeko, the most modern of the sisters and the one who saw the least of the family fortune, plunges into romantic and sexual affairs, smokes and (imagine) wants a career.  Teinosuke does not see a problem with a modern woman. He sees problems with a proud family that does not support her and on the other end, a proud little sister that does not consult or heed advice.  Tragedy is the result.  All this occurs on the eve of WWII.  The book becomes poignant when I realize that it ends in 1941.  Moreover Tanizaki attempted to publish it in 1943 but was censored for showing a feminine, soft society.  Obviously, someone was not reading carefully.  Though I do not suppose that the real message of the book was any more palatable to the military in Japan at the time.  Some books have "classic" written on the cover... this book reminded me why.

Junichiro Tanizaki 
ISBN: 9780749397104 

13 February 2013

'The Book of Tea' by Kakuzo Okakura

"Simplicity, awareness, mindfulness, respect and beauty"

The Book of Tea by Kakuzo Okakura is one of my favorite books.  I call it food for my soul. Whenever I lose my faith in friends, or have personal problems that seem insurmountable I make a cup of first flush Darjeeling and read this book.  It is difficult to say in words what this book does for me.  One reason is probably that Okakura does such a beautiful job of explaining his view of eastern philosophy through Chanoyu.  Anything I say on the topic seems clumsy and incomplete by comparison.  He inspires me and teaches me.  Sometimes I pick up a book in order to learn.  I like to read about anthropology and archaeology, psychology and culture.  On the recommendation of a Japanese friend, I bought this small gem; I thought I would learn about Japan.  Instead I learnt to look at myself and appreciate the divine and miraculous in my life.  Kakuzo Okakura did not only open my eyes to the East, he opened my eyes to the beauty of the every day.

 I drink a great deal of tea and usually good, lose leaf tea both green and black.  Chanoyu or the Japanese Tea Ceremony, is indeed an art, but an art that can be transferred to any everyday gesture or habit.  Simplicity, awareness, mindfulness, respect and beauty can transform your small flat into a palace of elegance and refinement, a place of peace and comfort.  There is poetry in sharing tea with my neighbor.  I have found myself teaching my son to drink tea with me.  I enjoy the patience the preparation of Darjeeling instills. Sencha tea if not watched and prepared well can be bitter.  Once you learn to inhale the subtle aroma of jasmine tea and to exhale your worries then you can admire (the often misunderstood and misapplied term) Zen.  Chanoyu is the living culmination of ancient eastern traditions and philosophies.  It is also a fountain that can refresh and feed imagination and peace of mind.  This is possible because Chanoyu is not only a ceremony performed in a simple humble tea room.  Chanoyu is present wherever people come together to share in respect some simple food and a beverage.

As I read The Book of Tea I looked at my surroundings and found beauty or the potential for beauty everywhere.  Okakura not only discusses Chanoyu but the esthetics of what he calls Teaism, rather like a religious faith.  Beauty and elegance are best found in simplicity.  He then illustrates this unwestern thought with stories from Japanese tea masters.  I grew up in homes that were often complimented as elegant and beautiful, never crowded or excessive.  My mother has a magic touch.  It was in reading Okakura that I caught a bit of what my mother sees when she admires a painting and then purchases it, or what flowers she chooses and then where she places them....  If in doubt, take something away, simplicity is not poverty or ignorance.  Simplicity gives everything that is displayed room to breathe.  But the real magic of his view of beauty is in the imperfect.  No perfectly balanced lamps on opposite ends of a table for him.  He preferred an imperfection, that is with honesty and mindfulness acknowledged, so that the viewer may see perfection in her mind and thus become an active participant of art and a conduit to perfection of mind and spirit...

There is hope and peace in the view of life he encouraged in Japan and especially in the west.  I can believe in peace and beauty, friendships and good fortune when I make a cup of tea and meditate in gratitude on an orchid in my room.

Kakuzo Okakura 
ISBN: 9781619491908 

06 February 2013

'Cold Days' by Jim Butcher

Good laughs, great twists, dark deeds, oh ... and the world needs saving

I picked out Harry Dresden a long time ago in order to have something fun and light to read.  I read it and handed it to my husband, Beloved Proof Reader.  I thought it was ok, he thought it was great.  BPR continued to order or purchase the rest of the series and I forgot about it.  Finally, on one of those 'what do I do on a rainy Sunday?' days I picked up the next book.  It was addictive.  It turns out Jim Butcher improved as a writer from book to book.  This is always a good sign in a writer, but a special treat in a series.

The jokes in the books are good and the screw ups huge.  Harry is a fantastic character that gets wiser and more cunning with the years because, of his own admission, he is not that smart.  I get a big smile on my face just holding the book.  His latest adventure has one Harry's worst nightmares come true.  It is not a passing problem and Harry must learn to live with this new reality.  His supporting cast of characters all turn up in the best ways and are as much fun as usual.  I do not want to give anything away here because the past two or three books have taken the series to another level.  It used to be about a wizard working the streets of Chicago as a private investigator.  There were always under currents of sinister, secret conspiracies but now they are realities.  Harry has gone form solving a case or two per book to (slowly... he hopes) saving the world (once he realizes the world needs saving... as he mentions, he is not that clever).  Mercifully, Butcher's abilities as a writer have improved along with Harry's ability to control his magic.  Harry stays grounded, funny, cynical and passionate.

I know some readers groan at the idea of mixing fantasy and urban crime fighting but this time it works.  The action is excellent and the twists are obligingly unexpected.  The cast of supporting characters come and go through out the series so that they stay fresh in my mind rather than dull and repetitive.  In this house 3 out of 4 of us have read the whole series and we all have our favorite characters and adventures.  These are different characters and adventures.  What I mean is that there is enough variety to entertain three different readers in one home.  Go ahead, give Harry a try.

Jim Butcher 
ISBN: 9780451464408 

03 February 2013

'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' by Alan Garner

This is an excellent book that has survived 50 years without apologies.  And I am grateful, because I searched for it for almost 30.  Many years ago I moved to a new city and a new school.  Our English teacher, Mr. Clark, read a book to our class.  The story included magic, adventures and children... as I mentioned, it lingered in my memories for nearly three decades.  Mr.Clark, I hope, is retired and doing well.  His red brown mustache (it was the 80's) and southern English accent made the episode even more memorable.  You have to understand that I had learnt English in Texas two years previous and thought I must have forgotten it over the Summer because I could not understand Mr.Thompson (Australian) or Mr. Clark (English).   Anyway, it was like being read to by a posh Tom Selleck.  But back to the book...

I searched for this book for years.  I searched for the chills it gave me and the excitement.  I searched in other books for that sense of adventure.  I read fantasy and SF and anything I thought might make me feel like this book did.  I must say that it turned me from a child that liked reading into a child that loved reading.  Thank you, Mr. Clark for your excellent choice.

Many years later came the World Wide Web.  The only words I could remember from the book were "fire frost", the name of a magical stone.  The long and strange book title, I had forgotten.  And then... a hit.  OMG! it went directly to my wish list.  As is often the case when I search on the web, more information turns up then I expected. Alan Garner wrote two books with this cast in this world, the second is 'The Moon of Gomrath'.  The two books were published just a few years apart about half a century ago.  But and this is a big but, he finally wrote a third book to finish a trilogy.  It is titled 'Boneland' it was published last year and I am excited.  Hence the reason I had so many hits online for firefrost.  When I eventually held 'The Weirdstone of Brisingamen' I hesitated.  What if I am disappointed?  What if my memories tricked me?  But, I plunged in and read my book.

Alan Garner is a master.  As an adult reader, I see how well he understands his geography, his lore, and the power as well as helplessness of children.  I once again had chills several times.  The children are often in danger and confused.  Therefore, the reader is often in danger and confused.  The tragedy and victory of the conclusion leaves questions unanswered.  I feel it is a justified mystery, after all, I do not explain everything to my children.  Sometimes, regrettably, I must answer "when you are older...".  Which leads me to realize that that is the fundamental difference between The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  There are many things in this world that are magical by simply being mysterious.  Human emotions and grown up choices also fall into this category.  Alan Garner keeps me helpless and somehow sad even in victory by being true to how children experience the world.

A wonderful book, not as lauded as it should be.  The second book is often out of stock but I will persevere and then enjoy 'Boneland'.

Alan Garner 
ISBN: 9780007355211