Tuesday, April 24, 2007

March Reads--part 2 (otherwise known as the books I enjoyed on my trip to Dubai)

WHAT THE DEAD KNOW by Laura Lippman: My second Lippman book, just as good the first one I tried. Thirty years ago, the Bethany sisters disappeared from a Baltimore shopping mall. No trace of them was ever found. Now a woman involved in a car accident claims to be the younger girl. But she clams up afterward, releasing only bits and pieces of her story and the detective believes at least some of what she's telling them is a lie. If she is Heather Bethany, why won't she tell the truth about what happened? And why does she not want to see her mother?

THE MINOTAUR by Barbara Vine: The pen name for Ruth Rendell's psychological novels, the minotaur referenced in the title is John Cosway, a schizophrenic for whom a Swedish nurse has been hired. Kerstin can't figure out the Cosway family--controlling mother and four beautiful but odd sisters--and she spends her time searching for the famous maze that is supposed to exist but can't be traced anywhere in the gardens. Kerstin grow suspcious about John's diagnosis and treatment and the motives of his mother, and a sudden death strengthens her fears.

THE STOLEN CHILD by Keith Donohue: I wanted to like this book club choice, really I did. And I was on vacation, so it's not like I was in a bad mood when I read it. But it just didn't do anything for me. The idea is intriguing--the concept of changelings who steal a human child in order to take its place. The stolen child is condemned to live forever (barring accident), accumulating years of experience living in the wild but never changing physically. The book follows both Henry Day (who used to be a changeling and steals Henry's life at the age of 7) and Aniday (which is the name the original Henry Day takes when he reaches the wild as a changeling. My major problem with this book was that it didn't have a story. At least not enough of one. I like things to happen in a book, threads to weave together, unexpected moments of connection and revelation, an ending that leaves me feeling I've made a journey. None of that happened for me in this book--I felt as though I was reading a condensed calendar of events in the two lives and it frankly bored me.

A SHORT HISTORY OF NEARLY EVERYTHING by Bill Bryson: I love Bryson's travel books, particularly NOTES FROM A SMALL ISLAND (about England.) In this book, he brings his humor and unique observations to, well, short history of nearly everything. The natural world, in other words, and the cosmos, and humans, and how we ended up where we are on the planet we are in the solar system we are. If you'd told me I'd ever love a book that talks about evolution and quarks and paleontology, I'd have laughed you to scorn. But not only did I love this book, I now feel that I have at least a basic grasp of many concepts that went right over my head in school science classes. That's what good writing can do--make anything accessible and interesting!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

There and back again (My trip to Dubai)

Planes: four airports and three flights in 28 hours. As Katie succinctly put it, “Some people are nice, some people aren’t.” Enjoyed three hours at Heathrow, especially the shortbread.

First impressions: Hot. Dry. And yet surprisingly green. Traditional Arab dhows along the waterfront port. Construction cranes. Good air-conditioning in both cars and buildings.

Gold & Diamond Souk: Wow. I am not a bling-bling person, but this souk is darned impressive. Jewels in every color and size, many that look just like the ring-pops I buy my kids. Only real. Katie bought her husband a wedding ring. I bought a pair of rosy garnet earrings (pink with little diamonds on top.) My favorite shops were the ones that sold traditional Indian jewelry, the kind brides wear at their weddings. The most stunning gold work, all twisted and coiled and filigreed and no doubt weighing dozens of pounds.

Jumeirah Mosque: The only mosque in Dubai open to non-Muslims. They lead tours several mornings a week. This was one of my favorite parts of the trip. We had a wonderful guide, an engineering student from Dubai Men’s College, who first showed us the washing ritual done outside the mosque before prayers. Inside the mosque, women were asked to cover their hair and then we had a discussion that ranged from the Five Pillars of Islam to Mecca to the purpose of the women covering themselves when outside their home to Ramadan. The mosque is beautiful (“Old, very old” as he put it—28 years, which is very old in Dubai!) and we were encouraged to take pictures. I tried not to flinch when an American asked about Islam and violence, but the young man handled it very well.

Malls: Dubai is famous for its malls, each one bigger and more elaborate than the last. We started out at the Mall of the Emirates, which is famous for Ski Dubai at one end, an indoor ski slope and tubing hill. Nothing like watching women in abayas (the black outer robe) on skies. There’s a grocery story in this mall (including an olive bar, with dozens of kinds of olives, and an elaborate spice area with both ground and whole spices) and our favorite part of this mall was the escalator for shopping carts right in the middle. No steps, just a long slope so you could get your shopping cart up to the next floor. We also spent a little time at Ibn Batutta Mall, which is built around seven different courtyards (Indian, Persian, Egyptian, to name a few) and at the Madinet Souk which, as its name implies, is constructed to look like a very upmarket Arabian souk. And all of this leads inevitably to . . .

Shopping: I did remarkably little shopping in the malls. Okay, I did come out of Ibn Batutta with a pink camel for my daughter. Come on, what 8-year-old girl wouldn’t love a pink camel! But the bulk of my shopping was done in two places, only one of which I’ll mention right here. The Fakih Antiques Museum. (I think. I don’t have any of their bags around any more to check that spelling.) It’s located in construction zone (what part of Dubai isn’t?) and in a group of warehouses that look like, well, warehouses on the outside. The only hint of something special are the enormous wooden doors that are truly antiques and that you can buy if you so desire. You enter the outer doors into a very modern reception area, then you go up two steps, duck to get through a short wooden carved door and voila! You’re in Aladdin’s cave. Or something near to it. Aisles about three feet wide, floor to ceiling shelves, a perfect jumble of boxes and lamps and tourist stuff and silver and shoes and pashminas and tablecloths and framed scorpions and bottled snakes . . . I’ve never had so much fun shopping in my life. We actually went twice. The last day we’d thought of several more things that we had to take home as gifts and so we returned. What are some of the amazing things I found, for myself or others?

Gifts: Embroidered tunics for 6 dollars. Hand-beaded shoes for 20 dollars. Pashminas for anywhere from 10 to, hmmm, I didn’t buy the most expensive ones that went up to 500 dollars. I decided on quantity—5 pashminas as gifts and 4 for myself. Traditional Omani daggers (tourist quality, not sharp) for my boys. An alarm clock that sounds the call to prayer. A little gold genie lamp for my youngest. Jewelry for my daughter. Silk table runner for my mother-in-law. A silk and velvet bedspread for me—only 100 dollars! Truly, it’s a miracle we got everything in our suitcases. And that’s without touching the other great shopping experience . . .

Oman: We spent three days at the Al-Sawadi beach resort in neighboring Oman. What could be better than a beach, a pool, the best massage of my life, a henna tattoo, and all-inclusive food. (Don’t get me started on the dessert bar—I’m hooked on Arabic honey pastries for life!) One night, Katie and I took the free shuttle bus to Muscat, the capital, about an hour away. We were dropped off outside the Mutrah souk, which can trace its history back hundreds of years. Muscat is a beautiful city, situated around a port that the Portugese controlled for some time. There are a series of old forts perched on the mountaintops around the city and we heard the call to prayer from a lovely mosque as we arrived. The souk is amazing—all winding pathways and inlaid ceilings and carved walls. It was here that I most felt foreign. Dubai is crawling with foreigners, but we could go fifteen or twenty minutes in the Mutrah souk as the only white women and the only ones not wearing the abaya and head scarf. We provoked some giggles and stares from passing girls. It was in the souk that I bought perhaps my favorite gift—a singing camel for my 5-year-old. But the bulk of our shopping was done on the promenade, particularly an Indian fabric store. They’ll be talking about us for months—the American ladies who know how to sew and bought meters and meters of Indian raw silk and other gorgeous fabric. It’s sitting in my sewing room right now, just waiting to be turned into gorgeous dresses.

Food: Yummy, both the expensive and the cheap. Cheeseburgers at the Food and Juice Centre in Muscat, chicken with bones at Eat and Drink Restaurant in Dubai, Thai buffet across the water from the famous Burg Hotel, outstanding desserts at the Lime Tree Café, even beef bacon at the beach resort.

Coming home: Long. Exhausting. Topped off by my friend’s missing bag at the end. Glad to report the bag has made its way home and is now in her hands. I would go again. I want to go again, to see how Dubai changes and to visit more of Muscat.