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31 May 2013

'Angelmaker' by Nick Harkaway

Intelligent, full of action and the best ensemble of characters I've met in a long time

What a fun book this is.  It is intelligent, full of action and the best ensemble of characters I've met in a long time.  The humor was 'laugh out loud' funny several times.  Did I mention mystery and sex?  In essence it is a familiar story... a thriller with a reluctant hero, Joe Spork, who has to save the world.  What happens to Joe and the nature of the danger is original and at the same time not too far from machines created for our betterment in our society.

Who I want to talk about are the women in this book.  I am impressed and elated.  No women with their mouths slightly open waiting to be rescued in this book.  Women can be beautiful, sexy AND intelligent, which is fair enough  but not good enough in this witty story. In 'Angelmaker' the heroine is almost 90.  Edie Banister is memorable.  She sets the action in motion and keeps it under control.  Yet, she is not evil, she is the complete opposite.  But like evil, goodness without measure can also be dangerous.  It is the art of Nick Harkaway that makes Edie's goals, means and growth so believable and entertaining.  Other women in this book are of different ages and sexual orientations, brave, inventive and cunning.  Women take the initiative and have ideas.  Yes, that's right good ideas...  They are even funny!  It is a joy to read.

Sometimes writers will find The Man a partner who can keep up with him.  So as a reader I encounter one woman who complements The Man.  She is often intelligent, beautiful and fit, maybe exotic for added sexual interest. In 'Angelmaker' the women have no need of men and have often done jobs that men could not do.  If they help men it is out of love or duty.  Refreshing?  Yes!  Joe could only save the world with the women that chose to help him.  There were men as well, good and evil... also interesting, but Nick Harkaway felt no need to pair everyone off to justify the presence of these amazing women.  They were amazing first and women second. Does that make sense?  Go on read it, perfect for the Summer.

Nick Harkaway 
ISBN: 9780434020942 

21 May 2013

'Stonemouth' by Iain Banks

This book is a jewel... the sort of story that I read for the love of reading. Thank you Mr. Banks I am going to miss you

I read different genres.  I like fantasy, I like science fiction, crime not so much but sometimes it is tempting, romance I read rarely.  I like non fiction as well and all the sciences.  Then we come to fiction, just fiction.  Some dude has a story to tell in something resembling our world and our time and so writes it down.  Publishing houses are often tempted to add a bit of help here, humor or action will appear next to fiction.  Sometimes, like this time, fiction will just sit there alone, defiant; a good story does not need a tag.  Mr. Banks has a story to tell and hopes I will enjoy it.  Oh good....

So I met Stewart up a bridge on a damp Friday night.  Stewart has returned home after five years in order to attend a funeral.  The book is divided into the four days this visit is supposed to last.  I could describe the story but that is not the point.  There was excitement, mystery, love, regret, death, redemption... just the kinds of things you hope to read in a good story.  This is my point, Iain Banks can tell a good story.  He captured my imagination and quickly made me care about the protagonist.  A story teller without a gimmick... and how did he get past the gods of publishing?

These days everything is about marketing.  The cover jacket; is it feminine or masculine; are the blurbs placed well? Is the book labeled to attract its target audience? I cannot imagine what goes on between the editor, publishing house, author, etc... to produce a marketable book.  Which takes me back to the simple labels like Humor/Fiction or SciFi... I understand this may make it easier for me to find books similar to say, Isaac Asimov's, but a humor label may discourage me from reading someone just as good, only a lot funnier.  I have no solutions here only questions.

The mechanized book shopping of today with e-readers and book searches that narrow my choices based on what I have purchased or browsed before would never have handed me this book.  And this book is a jewel.  A lot of books are never published because the companies cannot afford to publish them and so we come to self-publishing and coming to a lap top near you, professionally published books that will be printed only after a certain amount of success.  I am sure many of them will be jewels as well.  How sad that I will be pigeon holed into being a certain kind of reader.  Google is already useless for me because the search results it gives me are so predictable and narrow (or trying to sell me something) that I cannot use the information provided.  If I knew the answer I would not be doing a search, so I have moved on to other search engines.  Amazon has already frustrated me as well.  These days I look for books on the Waterstones website...  But when I can walk into Hatchards or Mayersche then I manage to pick up jewels.  Stonemouth is a wonderful story.  It is the sort of story that I read for the love of reading.  Thank you Mr. Banks, I am going to miss you...

Iain Banks 
ISBN: 9780349000206 

09 May 2013

'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry' by Rachel Joyce

Harold has given me courage

I felt alternately worthless and great while turning pages.  I remembered personal acts of selfishness and especially resentments but I also remembered generous, selfless moments that occurred because that was my nature at that moment.  Like the blurbs on the cover of the book suggested, I did cry and I did laugh. Harold Fry, the protagonist, learnt to be kinder to himself and to have more faith in the world.  This book is about generosity, not material, though that plays a small role, but generosity of spirit; the kind of generosity that makes you take disinterested action, for the complete benefit of someone else.  It is also the sort of generosity that allows you to forgive others and to forgive yourself.

Selflessness, in this case a pilgrimage meant to save a life, will not stop wars and probably will not save the life.  But this intangible generosity has worth because Harold tried.  He decides to believe that he can save a life.  And he decides to believe that he must walk in order to save this life.  This belief coupled with this walk becomes a spiritual exercise, a pilgrimage.  I think Harold thought of it as an act of gratitude to an old friend not an act of giving, but Harold had not been ungrateful, just too ashamed of the need for the favor in the first place.  Nevertheless, he finds his way on the road north and on the road in himself.

Perspective allows me to forgive myself, if only a little, like Harold. I live a life of many regrets...I could have hugged her, I should have called, I should not have trusted, I wish I had not lied...My list goes on.  But, it seems that a life of regrets is also a life of me becoming a better person.  Those regrets discourage me from repeating them.  This is an encouraging perspective and it took a while to get there, after all it is a pilgrimage, but it is important. My sins are not so great and my acts of kindness have lit someone's day, or I hope so.

In the meantime, Harold has given me courage.  This book, this work of fiction, is better than many self help books out there or religious works for that matter, in spite of the language used.  It is a joy to know that others believe that to put one foot in front of another can already be an act of courage, generosity, gratitude and love.  Rachel Joyce's book is in itself a generous gesture to many strangers.  This one will sit next to 'The Elegance of the Hedgehog' and 'The Book of Tea'.

Rachel Joyce 
ISBN: 9780552778091 

03 May 2013

'Sex and the Citadel: Intimate Life in a Changing Arab World' by Shereen El Feki

gave me a sense of perspective and hope for all our futures

I thought this book was about Arab women and politics.  Instead, it is about humans and their most fundamental rights, hopes and of course, desires.  The first time I tried to describe this book I said it was about human sexuality.  The rejoinder was "homosexuality?"  No, it is about all of sexuality.  Humans as sexual beings and the power attached to the control of sex.  It is a vast topic, but the setting (the current Arab world, especially Egypt) narrowed the scope.  The author focused beautifully; Shereen El Feki discusses a taboo topic in the Arab world with grace, curiosity and openness.

Her questions and observations sometimes looked frighteningly familiar.  As a woman in Western Europe, life seems quite free with guarantees and rights that give me control of my own body, regardless of marital status.  But here is the rub... many guarantees are recent.  It is not too long ago that babies were taken away from single mothers and abortion was illegal (often at the same time in the same country).  My daughter does not imagine life without her rights, I do.  The Americas are still struggling with reproductive rights, no thanks to religion for that.

Shereen El Feki made me think about freedoms I take for granted, especially with regards to information and my rights as a married woman.  But she also reminded me of how much social expectations and generational differences affected my teen years and my young adulthood in conservative South America.  I still remember, a female relative in despair over my attitude about school work said, with some force: "If you continue like this you won't even marry a virgin!"  I think she meant me, rather than the groom... It was the worst fate she could think of in that moment... Not so funny once I read 'Sex and the Citadel'.

The Western World, thanks to money and belligerence, considers itself an influential society.  And it is.  But the expectations of change and growth we have are at times unrealistic in other cultures.  This is not to say that "culture" justifies the rape of someone's sister as a punishment to the man and his family for his moral lapse, like I saw on the news some months ago... The rights to the sister's body belong to her family, her husband or a court, if not by law then often by tradition. Laws, culture and attitude do not easily change with only outside pressure; new laws must mean something to those people affected by them.

If any message is obvious after her interviews and research, it is that the Arab youth have some important challenges and often have their own fantastic solutions.  If only their elders would listen; fear holds the Arab world captive in their own beds with repressive sexual rules and expectations... the most repressive of all is the inability to talk about sex at all. El Feki does a wonderful job of asking good, open questions to normal people in all kinds of socio-economic and sexual situations.  Her experiences with a group of house wives is both funny and tragic... But she also talks to homosexuals and prostitutes and anyone who has a sex life or wishes they had a sex life. 'Sex and the Citadel' gave me a sense of perspective and a sense of hope for all our futures in a shrinking planet.

Shereen El Feki 
ISBN: 9780701183165