Saturday, October 13, 2007

September Reads

THE EIGHT/Katherine Neville: a fun airplane sort of read, which worked out well as I was on more than my fair share of airplanes going to and from Kenya. It's one of those ancient secrets/conspiracy books that I assumed was inspired by Da Vinci Code. But I stood corrected after looking at the original publication date--1985. So now I assume it was reprinted and repackaged to take advantage of the Da Vinci Code furor. It traces the history of Charlemagne's magic chess set that apparently gives the holder of creation. Or something like that. I skipped the technical parts. It's told in two time periods: 1970s New York and Algeria and 1790s France. Other than that, I can't remember a lot of details. It passed the time pleasurably, which was its sole purpose.

THE RUINS/Scott Smith: also a fun trip book. I picked this one up because it's set in the Mayan jungles outside Cancun. Having just been there, I thought I'd enjoy it. I did. It's a horror book, but an understated kind of horror. Four American friends wind up on a day trip into the jungle to find a German tourist's brother who's gone missing from an archaelogical site. After encountering hostile local farmers, they stumble onto the site--only to find out the farmers are now armed and will not let them leave. There's no sign at first of the archaelogists, just a hillside covered with a strange vine that grows bloodred flowers and a big gaping hole that descends into the old mind. So what's the first thing they do? That's right, they go down into the big gaping hole. Creey and atmospheric, maybe don't read this right before going to Cancun.

AFRICAN DIARY/Bill Bryson: my favorite travel writer wrote a very short book about Kenya for CARE International. I can only hope he'll return to Africa at some point and write a longer book. His trademark wit and self-deprecating humor are leavened with touching accounts of Nairobi's Kibera slums and the Dadaab refugee camp near Mombasa. I loved it.

A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN/Marina Lewycka: From a professional review (because it says it better than I can): "In this comic first novel, two estranged sisters living in England discover that their addled elderly father, a Ukrainian war refugee and expert on tractors, is planning to marry a young, enormous-breasted woman who sees his modest pension as her ticket to capitalist comfort. The sisters put aside their differences, and embark on a spirited campaign to save him from boil-in-the-bag dinners, slovenly housekeeping, and such extravagant purchases as a broken-down Rolls-Royce. In the midst of these machinations—which include long-winded letters to solicitors, venomous gossip, and all-out spying—Lewycka stealthily reveals how the depredations of the past century dictate what a family can bear."
To which I can only add--this was a remarkably surprising and touching book, as well as laugh out loud funny.

THE ROTH TRILOGY/Andrew Taylor: Okay, I only read the first two of this trilogy in September, I finished the third this month. But I'm putting them together--deal with it. The unusual thing about this trilogy is that the books are in reverse chronological order, each one revealing more of the layers that underly what comes later. Each book can be read on its own, but there's a beauty and bittersweet harmony to reading them in the order intended. In THE FOUR LAST THINGS, set in 1990s London, a little girl is kidnapped. Her mother, a new Anglican priest, thinks the kidnapping is aimed at her and the controversy over ordaining women. But her husband has stories from his childhood he's never told her, and the truth is far more complicated. The second book, JUDGMENT OF STRANGERS, is set more than 20 years earlier, in a small village where the parish priest, David Byfield, remarries, setting in motion events he cannot predict and may not be able to live with. The third book, OFFICES OF THE DEAD, is set ten years before that and gives us a view of David Byfield's first marriage through the eyes of his first wife's best friend. Through each book there's a secondary thread about a late-Victorian priest who may or may not have been mad, who may or may not have been a religious and social radical, who may or may not have killed himself, and who definitely wrote very odd poetry. Highly recommended.

THE WHITE MAASAI/Corinne Hoffman: bought in Kenya, the true story of a Swiss-German woman who came to Kenya on holiday and ended up marrying a Maasai warrior and living in the bush for several years. Very intriguing, but my overwhelming thought through the whole book was: "Did you hit your head on something? Have you completely lost your mind?" But then, I'm not a big believer in destiny-changing, world-shattering love at first sight. I think it's always nice to back up attraction with, I don't know, speaking the same language.

A few others, mostly continuations of various serious I love:

JAR CITY/Arnaldur Indridason

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