Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

Several years ago – yikes! It was actually twenty years ago! – I discovered Kaye Gibbons and Algonquin Press of Chapel Hill. I loved the small format books they had then, and I loved the consistent high quality of the writing. Mudbound does not disappoint me in the least. This novel is one terrific story. Two decorated war heroes – one white, the other black – return from World War II to a small town in the Mississippi Delta. The brother of the white soldier owns a farm, and one family of tenants includes the parents of the black soldier. Pappy, the father of the white soldier is involved in the local Ku Klux Klan. The soldiers form a bond based on the horrors they witnessed in Europe, and, as you can well imagine, this does not sit well with “Pappy,” a miserable, nasty, old man.I was raised in the inner city of Philadelphia, and it wasn’t until I spent three years in Mississippi that I saw racism for the first time. I was bewildered, helpless, and disgusted. Jordan has completely captured those feelings in this story told by the six principal characters. Not only that, she has captured the voice of each person. Each chapter has a distinctive feel. I could tell which character was speaking without looking at the title. Sometimes, this device of intertwining characters telling a story can be poorly connected, but not here. Jordan has masterfully woven a tapestry of love, hate, class, hard work, loyalty, racism, and betrayal. I wholeheartedly recommend this novel. Five stars.
--Chiron, 11/28/07

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Kite Runner

Kite Runner is one of those books that everyone reads, nearly everyone loves, and almost everyone gets angry, sad, furious, and/or tearful. I thought the story was interesting, I liked the characters, but I found it far less than perfect. There were two things wrong with it – one minor, and the other involving some significant details.
The minor flaw was the way he kept inserting Farsi/Pashtun words and then immediately translating the word, even though, in the vast majority of cases, the meaning was perfectly clear from the context. This minor annoyance seemed to increase as the story progressed, and my familiarity with his characters made it slightly more aggravating.
The larger flaws involved plot. I found the chance meeting with Assef at the end completely improbable, as well as Amir’s escape from Afghanistan. I found Amir’s recovery from the beating he took also unbelievable. That aside, I did enjoy it, and I would recommend this book without the warnings. 4 stars.--Chiron, 11/24/07

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Ten Things about Reading

I stole this from Bibliolatrist. See
1. Do you remember learning to read? How old were you?
I was probably around 6 or 7. I vividly remember my mother reading stories to me, and there was one book in particular of scary stories. I only wish I could remember more than the orange cover. I remember being called on to read in second grade. One time, the nun (Sr. Rosaline) pointed to a word in a really funny story, and asked me to pronounce it. The word was “zephyr”; she asked me what it meant, and I told her, “A warm wind.” She was old, and she stared at me a few seconds, then asked me to read the story to the class. This was a pivotal experience in my life, and my first clear vision of reading.
2. What do you find most challenging to read?
Business books. I have read three in my life, including two in the past year for my book club – The World is Flat and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. The third was 20 years ago, The One-Minute Manager. As a fearsome hater of meetings, I actually liked that one, but this is my fill for quite a while.
3. What are your library habits?
I frequently use the library to search for books I want to buy. My wife is a librarian, and sometimes she will bring home books to examine so we can purchase the correct one. A good example of this is a book of the paintings of Remedios Varo. The one I want is out of print, and we could not find it for sale anywhere. She found one at her library that had most of the paintings I wanted, so we ordered that one.
4. Have your library habits changed since you were younger?
Oh, yes. When I was in grade school, high school, and college, I lived at the library. I almost always took out the maximum number of books they would allow. When I was in academic hiatus (1975 to 1992), my library visits were sparse – I was much more likely to buy my books. When I returned to school in 1992 through to 2003, I was a pretty regular visitor to the library for research and reading periodicals for research purposes. On many occasions, I would borrow a book, read it, then search for a copy on line. Now, I only visit the library to have lunch with my wife. I do frequently search several library catalogues over the web.
5. How has blogging changed your reading life?
It has stimulated me to be a more constant reader. Teaching five or six classes left me with little spare time during the 30 weeks a year I was in class, but blogging has invigorated me to find time to read even then. Now, I do not go anywhere without a book.
6. What percentage of your books do you get from: New book stores, second hand book stores, the library, online exchange sites, online retailers, other?
This is tough. I would have to guess, and a rough guess at that, but I would say new book stores, 50%, second hand stores 10% (mainly because there are no good ones in Central Texas, and I have to find some when I travel), and the balance 38% from On-line retailers. I keep 2% aside, because occasionally I will buy books from friends.
7. How often do you read a book and NOT review it in your blog? What are your reasons for not blogging about books?
Since I started RabbitReader, I have reviewed every book I have read.
8. What are your pet peeves about ways people abuse books? Dog-earing pages? Reading in the bath?
This is a hilarious story. One night we were having dinner at a local restaurant, and we saw a woman sitting alone at a nearby table, and she was reading a paperback. Her friend arrived, and she bent the page down and closed her book. There were cards on the table to sign up for e-mail, and I wrote on the back, “Please don’t bend down the page. It hurts the book. Use this for a book mark, and smile every time you see it.” She laughed, and I went home and made some bookmarks with this saying and a clip art picture of a book and a reader. Yesterday, we were at the airport, and a woman sat down next to us, and opened her book to a dog-eared page. I finally had a chance to use my new book marks. No, she did not slap me, she laughed, and as we boarded the plane, my bookmark was sticking out of her book. Well, I guess it was hilarious to me!
I don’t even want to think about reading in a bathtub.
9. Do you ever read for pleasure at work?
My work makes me a professional reader, and almost everything I read at work is for pleasure. However, reading essays for “millennials” makes me want to tear my hair out and run screaming into the night.
10. When you give people books as gifts, how do you decide what to give them?
I always spend a lot of time thinking about the person I want to give a book to. The match must be perfect!
--Chiron, 11/21/07

Unpopular Essays by Bertrand Russell

I am not sure where this book came from, but I recently found it in my office when I was packing up to vacate for summer renovations. I had read a few short things by Russell, but never an entire book. This collection of essays was, to my mind, uneven. However, the ones I liked I read and thoroughly enjoyed. The others I skipped after a few paragraphs.
The first is “Philosophy and Politics.” It was a bit too political for me. I haven’t read much PP since college back in the 60s, and I don’t plan to read much more. This essay reminded me why.
A really good one was “Philosophy for the Laymen.” Russell could take some arcane ideas and boil them down to a clearly understandable sentence. I won’t even try and summarize Hegel’s theory of “The Absolute Idea,” but Russell explains it as “pure thought about pure thought.” That makes sense, to me at least.
My favorite, however, was “An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish.” Russell takes on everything here – religion, astrology, sex, history, politics, et al. This is the longest essay in the collection and well worth the price of admission.
Not for everyone, but it will take a proud place on my rationalist book shelf. 4 stars.
--Chiron 11/21/07

The Snow Leopard by Peter Mattheissen

Several, no quite a few years ago, I tried reading Far Tortuga by Mattheissen, but the style was so odd I gave up. Lately, I have had The Snow Leopard come to my attention by way of passing remarks in a couple of things I have read.
While at The Blue Bicycle in Charleston, SC, I came across a first edition of TSL, and decided to buy it. I began reading it on the plane ride home, and I was hooked.
Part travelogue, part adventure, and part spiritual journey, Mattheissen’s attention to detail – physical and psychological – is nothing less than enchanting. I have a fear of heights, and believe me, there were times I felt a sucking feeling that I was being pulled over the edge of a cliff. I would love to see the Himalayas – from the foot of the mountains!
The author accompanies George Schaller on an expedition to Dolpo in the Himalayas of Northern Tibet to study “bharal” or the Himalayan Blue Goat. The pair also hopes to see the rare and elusive snow leopard. Peter never sees one, but after they separate, (Mattheissen had promised his children he would be home by Christmas), Schaller encounters a pair of leopards quite by accident.
At times, Mattheissen gets sidetracked by local myths of ancient deities and zen masters the local people revere. The names are completely unfamiliar, and the stories convoluted. I could not remember these from one page to the next.
Overall, this book is mesmerizing – I could hardly put it down. 4-1/2 stars.
--Chiron, 11/21/07

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Book Store Traveler, Part One

I spent the past weekend in Charleston, SC and found a wonderful bookstore. The Blue Bicycle at 420 King Street (just down the block from the Francis Marion Hotel) is a wonderful place. I spent several hours there on Friday, and I went back Saturday. [I have not accepted any considerations for either of these mentions.]
They claim over 50,000 books, and I do not, for a minute doubt it. Their selection of literature is wide ranging, and in most cases, extremely reasonably priced. They happened to have a half-price sale on current fiction. I found a first hardback edition of Marion Zimmer Bradley's Mists of Avalon, Peter Matheissen's The Snow Leopard, a signed preview edition of Elizabeth Berg's Joy School, and Carl Hiassen's Lucky You. I also picked up a copy of a selection of Yeat's poetry, Walter Farley's Island Stallion Races for my childhood collection, and a few other minor things. I spent less than $75.00. Their website is The staff was friendly , helpful, and knowledgeable about their stock. Five stars!
Charleston is a wonderful town, with lots of great restaurants, shops, parks, and friendly people. Add it to your list of travel destinations.
--Chiron, 11/11/2007

Atheism: A Reader Edited by S.T. Joshi

This volume is a must for all rationalists. As Joshi says in the Introduction, “This book…is intended only for those who profess an open mind on the subject of religion and religious belief” (10). No candy-ass stuff here – this is the real deal. Every rationalist, atheist, agnostic, and free-thinker I have ever heard of (and many I have not) are represented. Joshi has collected an excellent gateway to the literature of rationalism – one that also includes an extensive list for “Further Reading.” I always love these lists, and have built my library of rationalism over many years using these resources.
He has divided the collection into the usual sections, and presents the best of Thomas Huxley, Leslie Stephen, Emma Goldman, Bertrand Russell, John Stuart Mill, Antony Flew, David Hume, George Eliot, Carl Sagan, Thomas Paine, and Clarence Darrow. These make up a brief list of some of my favorites.
Only one author has two essays – Robert Ingersoll. I have a couple of Ingersoll’s works, but I had forgotten what a wonderful writer he was – especially when compared with some of the stiffs from the 18th century. Back in the ‘80s, I attended an American Humanist Association conference in Scarsdale, NY. I met Gloria Steinem and Corliss Lamont the father of 20th Century humanism. The entertainment at the banquet on Saturday night was Roger Greeley, who performed a series of monologues from the writings of Ingersoll. He sold first editions of Ingersoll’s works, and I bought one along with a signed poster of the event. I highly recommend Ingersoll for your philosophy/religion/rationalist bookshelf.
--Chiron, 11/8/07

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky

This is an incredible book. Powerful, absorbing, interesting, smooth – all those clichéd words that we apply to books live in this novel. I could hardly put it down.
The story of the author is sad. Némirovsky was born in Russia in 1903 and emigrated to Paris during the October revolution, studied at the Sorbonne, and began to write. She was an immediate success. She was working on Suite when she was arrested by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz, where she died in 1942.
Suite was hidden and completely unknown for 65 years. She originally intended to include five books, according to the appendices. The appendices include extensive notes for the two books here and her plans for the other three. They also include correspondence with her husband and daughters the day she was arrested. His pathetic, hopeless attempts to rescue her were tragic. He begged and groveled before every friend and official he could button hole. His desperation and sense of panic comes through – even in the telegrams.
The first book involves the braided stories of a group of people fleeing Paris ahead of the advancing German army in 1940. They include a snooty aristocrat, a bank auditor and his secretary wife, the bank president, who is trying to rescue his wife and his mistress without them meeting, an obnoxious writer who cares only about his manuscripts, and saddest of all, an effeminate man who collects fine porcelain which he quietly and tenderly packs for the journey.
The second book shifts to a small village in the occupied zone near the demarcation line with Vichy France. The Germans have occupied the town and the class consciousness of both sides comes to the surface. The tone of this book is serene and placid. Only the occasional abrasive interactions threaten to upset the peacefulness of the narrative.
The characters are subtly and finely drawn. They move the story, which leaves the plot in the background, probably because it would have been as well known to her readers then as it is today. I recently finished watching Ken Burn’s brilliant documentary on World War II, which also focused on ordinary families and soldiers. The book ends with the German invasion of Russia in 1941 – the last scene is the German army marching out of the village.
When I got to the end of the second book I was devastated that there was no more. What could Némirovsky have planned, what wonderful insights into war and the psyche of invaders and conquerors might she have revealed. This is probably the first time I have been so directly affected by the unspeakable tragedy of the holocaust. God surely was asleep at the wheel from 1932 to 1945. A second novel, Fire in the Blood, has recently been published.
--Chiron, 11/7/07