Saturday, November 29, 2014

As Seen on TV--If You Watch TV

When I get book recommendations from my younger son, I pay attention. He hasn't always been a big reader, but he often finds books through television series and films.  During Dick's hospital stay, even though I had other books I might have read, I decided to try his suggestion first--Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers, which has been made into a series somewhere on television.  The story begins shortly after a strange worldwide occurrence in which people randomly vanished.  Some believe the Rapture has occurred, while others can't believe this could be true in light of some of the people who were taken and some who were (to borrow the phrase) "left behind."

The story is primarily centered in Mapleton, a small American town, where lives intertwine.  Cults have emerged, drawing in a variety of people--a mother who lost her daughter, her best friend who leaves behind a family intact. A self-proclaimed religious leader draws followers until his own ego and desires bring about his downfall. A woman whose whole family disappeared becomes something of a martyr--until her husband's infidelity emerges.

A reviewer for Chicago Sun-Times compared the story to "Our Town" and someone in Entertainment Weekly called it the "best book about The Rapture since the New Testament."  I kept thinking of Karen Thompson Walker's young adult novel Age of Miracles, a story of an inexplicable "slowing" of the world's turning, affecting all human life.

Since the series is still running, I don't want to reveal any spoilers, but this book is an interesting treatment of an idea that keeps making the literary rounds--maybe even all literature:  Something happens.  Now what do we do?


Thursday, November 20, 2014

I get emails all the time with book suggestions.  One of the electronic book apps I use offers suggestions for me, but they are invariably books I read long ago. If it's so easy to know everything about me on the internet, it seems they should score more with books I would love, not that I did (or did not) love.

Every day, one of those emails offers free or cheap eBooks.  Sometimes they don't merit a second glance; sometimes they are classics I have loved for years. Every once in awhile, I'll buy or download one I know nothing about, strictly because of the title, the brief synopsis, even the cover (so there goes that old axiom.)
Suitcase Filled with Nails:  Lessons Learned from Teaching Art in Kuwait  was one I bought with no prior recommendation.  That it combined two of my interests--art and teaching--with the chance to learn something new about a part of the world so unfamiliar to me was a strong point.

Just because a book makes it to my iPad doesn't mean I am certain to read it--not immediately at least. The same, of course, is true about my personal library in general.  I could only hope to live long enough to read all the books I have fallen for--sometimes in a weak moment.  I could stay busy for years without adding anything new to the list.

This book jumped out at me, though, during our long stay in Carolinas Medical Center. I needed to read electronically, to avoid having to turn on an overhead light. There are no nice little reading lamps in most hospital rooms.  Most rooms are so bright they could be seen from outer space.

Wakefield is an American woman--a married woman--who left her home to take a teaching position at a university in Kuwait.  If she'd had a clue about the red tape and human obstacles she would face once she arrived, she might not have gone at all.  Her experience in academia trumps any of the worst stories I've heard here in the States.  Over the course of time, though, she learned to deal with the roadblocks or to fight through them.  As a result, she develops strong bonds with a group of female students, many from affluent backgrounds, trying to complete their educations.

If I've had problems with academic integrity, I know at least that my students are not forcing their families' servants to complete their projects.  Wakefield gives an inside view of the politics of Kuwait after U.S. military involvement. She also shows on a smaller scale how the Sunni-Shiite conflict affects individuals--in a college setting.  I was also struck by some of the irony she revealed in the young women's clothing requirements or at least expectations in a Muslim country.

In the book, she manages to deal with women's issues, animal rescue, academic competitiveness, religion and politics--putting human faces on what are often abstract issues.

Now I'm wondering what other gems I've downloaded that I should not overlook.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

What's With All the Long Titles?

For years now, I've kept a running list of the books I read. First I mark them on my wall calendar, and then around New Year's Day, I transcribe the list into a little book I've had for years.  During my husband's recent hospital stay--which ended up lasting at least twice as long as we'd expected--I found that reading was one of the few ways I could pass time even in the wee hours when I couldn't sleep. I could crawl under my minimal cover on my plastic couch/bed and read by the light of my iPad.

I had read IQ84 by Haruki Murakami, a strange, artfully crafted book, so when I saw his latest novel--and heard what a sensation it had caused within a week of publication, I was eager to check it out.  But I could never remember the title: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage. 

I've had similar trouble with name in books before. I remember that when I read James Michener's Poland,I had the hardest time distinguishing between the characters because their names were--well--Polish. Lots of hard consonants, not so many vowels.  I finally had to make a chart for myself in the back.  But this was the title of the book, and since I was reading a eBook, I couldn't as easily flip to the cover.

Fortunately, this didn't keep me from enjoying this strange little novel, focused on a protagonist who had been part of a group of five friends--three boys, two girls--in high school, only to return home from college and to be told he was no longer welcome in the group.  He was given no explanations.  

He had always been unusually fascinated with trains and train stations, and he had ended up in a career designing stations--or actually remodeling them. Because of the rejection, he rarely returned to his hometown, making excuses to his family.

Eventually, during the early stages of a dating relationship, he reveals this story to the woman who tells him he must find out the answer to their rejection. She does a little internet search and locates all but one of the girls, and he seeks them out, going as far as Finland to seek out one of the girls.  The explanation ends up being based on a false accusation, a story all of the surviving friends have long ago realized was not even true.

As quaint as the story may be, Murakami manages to reveal the interior of a man who, like most people perhaps, judges himself more severely than others do.  Even the coincidence that his four friends have a color in their names, which he does not, has distorted significance to him--even though his own name refers to making or creating.

Like his earlier novel, this book saturates readers with a sense of place; it feels both foreign and familiar.  I found myself more likely to empathize with Tzukuru than to become frustrated with the way a teenage disappointment has shaped his life.  Maybe that's because I accept the idea that we are all shaped by those early experiences, as he was, and maybe we all need someone to prod us on to pilgrimages of our own.