Friday, July 29, 2011

Dewey by Vicki Myron

While keeping library cats is a fairly common practice, few of these cats gain worldwide fame and touch as many lives as Dewey Readmore Books, the library cat of Spencer, Iowa. Librarian Vicki Myron tells his remarkably moving story with Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World, a book guaranteed to appeal to cat lovers and even persuade a few library boards to get a cat of their own.

One cold winter morning in at the Spencer Public Library, a group of librarians discovered a tiny, shivering kitten trapped inside the library’s drop-box. They took him in and named him Dewey, and when they made the decision to keep him, they had no way of knowing how famous and influential this cat of humble beginnings would become. For the next nineteen years, Dewey would star in documentaries, become the subject of several books and charm every library regular from small children—including some with special needs—to elderly people who simply came in to read the newspapers.

Dewey endears to readers with his vivacious personality and endless capacity for affection, even while driving the librarians crazy with his stubborn streak and extremely picky eating habits. The battles over Dewey’s food make up some of the funniest parts of the book, and his thrill-seeking antics and creative choices of places to sleep—from shelves to boxes to typewriters—should be familiar to any cat owner. Dewey also possesses great empathy and emotional intelligence, and proves to be capable of extraordinary things when he helps bring a young handicapped girl out of her shell, and later helps mend the relationship between Myron and her teenage daughter.

In addition to providing readers with funny and heartwarming stories of Dewey, Myron also attempts to walk us through the history of the town of Spencer, with its tight-knit community and hard economic times, as a means of providing background to Dewey’s story and illustrating how one playful library cat made down-on-their-luck farmers smile. While this community element had the potential to enrich Dewey’s story, it instead felt tacked on and out of place. Myron is excessive with the details, and these portions of the book are clumsily written and plod on with the pacing of a turtle race. I quickly grew bored and exasperated with the history lesson and was eager to get back to Dewey.

Dewey’s personality sets a perfect example for a library cat, as they must be outgoing and comfortable with large groups of people, children included. Yet Dewey went above and beyond the call of a library cat; he changed the lives of those who loved him, and his story is one that will continue to move, entertain and even inspire.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by JK Rowling

Unless you are living under a rock… in a cave… in Siberia… you are familiar to some degree with the world of Harry Potter, and this companion piece to the series certainly does not disappoint. With The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the famed JK Rowling expands on the rich culture of the Wizarding World with the fairy tales told to our beloved characters as young witches and wizards, while Muggle (non-magical) children were told “Cinderella” and “Little Red Riding Hood.”

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is a collection of five short stories. The first is “The Wizard and the Hopping Pot,” a morality tale of a wicked wizard who learns respect for the Muggle world. The second is “The Fountain of Fair Fortune,” an enchanting tale about a group of witches and a knight who journey to a magic fountain to cure their misfortunes. “The Warlock’s Hairy Heart” delves into the dark side of magic and the destructive lust for power over human weakness. “Babbitty Rabbitty and Her Cackling Stump” comically spoofs the Muggle world’s fears and attitudes towards witchcraft and wizardry, while “The Tale of Three Brothers” delves into humanity’s relationship with death and their failed attempts at cheating it.

Adding background and history to these stories is Professor Albus Dumbledore’s enlightening and extensive commentary, which provides a wizard’s perspective on the social relevance of these tales. For example, “The Fountain of Fair Fortune” has been criticized by witches and wizards who believe in blood purity, for it contains a romantic element between a witch and a Muggle. “Babbitty Rabbitty” was among the first works of fiction in the Wizarding World to portray an Animagus, a witch or wizard (in this case, a witch) that can transform to an animal at will. Not only are these tales entertaining; they also add depth to the social dynamics of Rowling’s magical world, and provide social commentary—in metaphorical form—on our own Muggle world.

One of the best things about these enchanting tales is that Rowling doesn’t hold back on gruesome content, and not all of these stories end happily. The result is that these stories resemble the grittier old-school versions of fairy tales that have been softened by Disney. For example, Little Red Riding Hood was eaten by the wolf, the Little Mermaid died with her love unrequited and Rapunzel’s lover was blinded by the evil witch. Rowling clearly does not underestimate children and their ability to handle some level of morbidity.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard is definitely a must-read for any Harry Potter fan. It’s a delightfully fun book that provides a satisfying reunion between the reader and the Wizarding World, and a good light summer read.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

Biblical stories have been read and reworked for so many generations, and yet there’s always a new spin or interpretation to be had. However, a fresh perspective is not necessarily a substantial one. With The Red Tent, author Anita Diamant attempts to put a feminist spin on Biblical characters, with results that are poetic yet insipid.

The Red Tent is a retelling of the Biblical story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and Leah and sister of Joseph. It chronicles her story from the courtship and marriage of her parents and the births of her several brothers to her own marriage to the prince of Shechem. Other characters include Jacob’s other wives, Leah’s sister Rachel and the handmaidens Zilpah and Bilhah. The book’s title refers to the tent to which the women of Jacob’s tribe must take refuge while menstruating or giving birth, and also where they gather for socialization and form a sense of community among women from other tribes.

Though it’s an intriguing premise that starts off promising, The Red Tent is less like a novel and more like a journal written by Dinah, in which she merely outlines events and doesn’t bother to do much else. There is very little dialogue, little to no character development and not much insight into this fascinating ancient culture. As a reader, I don’t want to be simply told that Leah is the most capable of Jacob’s wives, and that Bilhah is the quiet, contemplative one; I prefer character to be revealed through actions and dialogue. As a writer, I have always been told to “show, don’t tell,” and I become exasperated with the constant telling and little to no showing.

Adherents of the Bible would probably look unfavorably upon Diamant’s spin on the story. In the Bible, Dinah is abducted and raped by the prince of Shechem and later rescued by her brothers; whereas in The Red Tent, she loves the man and willingly becomes his bride. Had Diamant’s intention been to effectively portray the ancient Biblical culture, this would be a glaring error, as bridal kidnapping was a common practice, and it would have been likely for a prince to stake a claim to his bride through force. But instead of accurately depicting the plight of women in such an era, Diamant chose to romanticize Dinah’s plight, thereby downplaying the feminist element she was going for.

Though poetically written by a skilled wordsmith, The Red Tent is ultimately vapid and unsatisfying and lacks direction. It turns up short in the feminist department due to the author’s unwillingness to go deeper and grittier, and a potentially insightful look at a woman’s life in ancient times turns up short. I say skip this one if you’re looking for the full package of entertainment, religious content and educational value.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Between Two Worlds by Zainab Salbi

While news headlines cover torture and executions carried out under Saddam Hussein’s orders, this memoir covers the deeper mental and psychological effects of his tyranny. Between Two Worlds: Escape from Tyranny: Growing Up in the Shadow of Saddam tells the revealing and inspirational story of Zainab Salbi, an extraordinary Iraqi woman whose father, and by extension her whole family, was bound by employment to the notorious dictator.

Between Two Worlds chronicles Salbi’s life from her childhood in Iraq to her adult life as a humanitarian, and the evolution of her relationship with her beloved mother, Alia. When she was eleven, her father was chosen to serve as Saddam’s pilot, thereby putting the family under his surveillance. As opposed to the superficial news stories we have heard of Saddam’s tyranny and oppression, Salbi gives first-hand accounts of interaction with this dangerous man; his charisma and his power of manipulation as well as the way he ruled Iraq like a child playing with toy soldiers. Despite being raised in a progressive, feminist household, Salbi arrives in the United States under the condition of an arranged marriage, which she would later discover was intended to protect her from becoming Saddam’s next wife.

Salbi would later found Women for Women International, a humanitarian organization dedicated to aiding women in warzones. For a time, she hides behind her philanthropic work; helping others in need as a means of denying her own lasting trauma sustained under Saddam’s reign. Ultimately she emerges triumphant over her past, proving her strength and resilience to become an inspiration to women worldwide.

In a time in which Islam is stigmatized and associated solely with terrorism, Between Two Worlds is significant in that it depicts Salbi’s Muslim upbringing and the questioning of her faith when she discovers the differences between Shiites and Sunnis. Although the American media criticizes the Muslim world for its treatment of women, Salbi portrays the customs of Muslim weddings and marriage as equally favorable towards all parties, thereby depicting the positive aspects of a culture that has been widely misunderstood.

Between Two Worlds is engagingly narrated and at times startlingly candid, and evokes inspiration and awe regardless of the readers’ cultural origins. For a reliable account of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, I recommend looking to citizens who lived under him rather than media outlets that are simply looking for the next scandal.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht

The Tiger’s Wife, an enchanting chronicle of family, tradition, legends and superstition, is made all the more impressive so by the fact that it’s a debut; the first novel of Serbian-American author Téa Obreht, the youngest of the New Yorker’s “20 under 40” list of great writers. The fame she has gained from this novel isn’t only due to her status as a young writer; it’s because she’s a damn good one.

The story takes place in an unnamed Balkan country on the mend from war, where Natalia, a young doctor, travels on a mission to vaccinate children of a local orphanage. Upon receiving news of her grandfather’s mysterious death, Natalia recalls the stories he would tell her; stories of the deathless man and the tiger’s wife, of a man who became a bear, of dead bodies casting curses on their families. As she experiences a culture clash with superstitious locals, Natalia questions the circumstances of her loss and her own belief in the mythical elements of her grandfather’s stories, and her search for the truth leads her to the supernatural world of the departed.

The story opens with a flashback to Natalia’s childhood, when she would visit the tigers in the zoo with her grandfather, also a doctor, who would carry an old copy of The Jungle Book wherever he went. He is the novel’s second narrator, as he tells her of his meetings with the deathless man, who guides souls to the afterlife. Meanwhile, Natalia narrates stories from her grandfather’s childhood, particularly of the woman in his home village who bonded with a wild tiger and became a target of fear and superstition. Entwined within the three narratives is the theme of a doctor’s relationships with death, how they confront death in their line of work, and how Natalia learns to accept it in her process of grieving.

Obreht’s scope is all all-encompassing in the portrayal of landscapes spanning war zones throughout decades of political unrest, and the backdrop of the grand Balkans wilderness. The Tiger’s Wife is gritty yet surreal, as lyrical and dreamlike as it is stark and unsentimental; a magical book with stunning imagery and memorable characters.

Needless to say, The Tiger’s Wife is an auspicious start to what will be a celebrated literary career. Make note of Téa Obreht as one of the great contemporary writers whose novels will appeal to a wide-ranging audience, fantasy lovers among them.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Angels and Ages by Adam Gopnik

It turns out that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin have much more in common than a shared birthday. New Yorker journalist Adam Gopnik proves this with Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life, a book of great insight and educative value, and an inside look into the human element beyond the history books.

Angels and Ages is a collection of six essays chronicling the two men’s lives from their humble beginnings to their own ushering in of new eras with their radical ideas of democracy and evolution. This is a unique dual biography in that it addresses both facts and misconceptions; acknowledges differences yet draws parallels between the two; and reconciles their social images with their true characters: the sons, the husbands and the fathers behind the textbook knowledge the general public has.

Lincoln, born to a time of slavery and authoritarianism, is portrayed as a shrewd politician, both idealistic and pragmatic, with strong convictions and a clear vision. Meanwhile, Darwin, who inhabited a world in which the Biblical account of creation was accepted as unquestionable truth, is portrayed as a modest, doting family man and inquisitive scientist torn between his theories and his religious beliefs. Despite their differences, both men endured difficult marriages and the loss of a child (Darwin his daughter, Lincoln his son), experiences that influenced their drive to climb the social ladder and make themselves seen and heard.

Gopnik is a skillful and at times poetic wordsmith. As he addresses the historical controversy over whether Lincoln’s secretary claimed, after his death, “Now he belongs to the ages” or “to the angels,” he begs the question of whether we live in a secular or superstitious world. He provides a striking visual of time spent at the beach, surrounded by seagulls, reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, and questions whether the book retains the impact it had back it in its day; whether the reader on the beach is gazing at seagulls in a new light.

Angels and Ages entertains with Gopnik’s wit and eloquence as well as his keen observations and analysis. As the reader gets to know Lincoln and Darwin as characters, they become more meaningful as icons, and if you’re not an admirer of either man, chances are this book will make you one.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

In poor regions where citizens have been denied the basic right of an education, the hard work of a few dedicated individuals can make all the difference, as this book demonstrates. Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time tells the poignant story of Greg Mortenson, co-founder of the Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit organization that builds schools in regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

In 1993, Mortenson was an avid mountain climber who attempted to climb K2, the world’s second highest mountain, located in Pakistan. He failed, however, and wandered lost in the wilderness until the chief elder of the village of Korphe took him in and provided food and shelter. Mortenson was then led on the tour through the village, and found that its makeshift “school” was made up of children sitting outdoors, scratching equations into the dirt with sticks. Moved by the elder’s generosity and wanting to improve the quality of life for the villagers, Mortenson vowed to return one day to build a school.

Mortenson struggled every step of the way: he struggled to find funding and to gain support for his cause, and when his cause started to gain momentum, he was targeted as a heretic by Islamic mullahs and the Taliban, at some point getting kidnapped by a group of radicals. But throughout it all, Mortenson never lost sight of his purpose, and today the CAI has built over 170 schools in poor regions of Pakistan and Afghanistan and has funded humanitarian efforts following the 2005 Kashmir Earthquake.

The book argues the case that education is the means of preventing terrorism, as building schools and promoting literacy programs prevents children from being taught by fundamentalist Islamic systems. The book is also keen on portraying Islam as a benevolent religion in itself that has been stigmatized due to the actions of terrorists. Mortenson succeeds in bridging distances between the West and the East not only with his humanitarian efforts but with his understanding of religious customs. It is this meaningful cross-continental dialogue that nurtures the next generation towards a promising future.

The novel’s title comes from an old Balti proverb: “The first time you share tea with a Balti, you are a stranger. The second time you take tea, you are an honored guest. The third time you share a cup of tea, you become family.” This saying refers to the hospitality of the culture that welcomes Mortenson with open arms, and the bonds of friendship he forms with the villagers he aids.

Three Cups of Tea is not to be missed. In addition, Mortenson has written Stones into Schools: Promoting Peace with Books, Not Bombs, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which, chances are, would appeal to fans of this book, and provide further inspiration and incentive to make a difference in one’s community.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Chances are you know Chuck Palahniulk as the man behind Fight Club. Although he provides a fair bout of entertainment with that movie, I can’t say the same for this novel. Any potential that Haunted had was lost to Palahniulk’s love of shock value and his desire to push boundaries to nonsensical limits. The result is an amateur’s attempt at nonlinear narrative and a self-indulgent medley of stories thrown together into a muddled mess of a novel.

Haunted begins on a bus, where a group of quirky characters—with nicknames like Earl of Slander, Mother Nature and Saint Gut-Free—are on their way to a writer’s retreat, having responded to an ad put out by the mysterious Mr. Whittier. They will spend three months in isolation, where they will write their masterpieces, be it poems, novels or screenplays. Before long they realize they are being kept hostage in an abandoned theater as part of a social experiment, deprived of electricity, heat and food. Readers are granted an inside look into the characters’ previous lives via poems and short stories juxtaposed with the central plotline, in which the hostages create their own realities and steadily go insane. Basically they’re the Manson family combined with the cast of Jersey Shore.

Clearly Palahniulk’s intention is to satirize the dark side of creative impulse; the artist’s willingness to go to extreme lengths to have their story be told. We have the story of Mrs. Clark and her husband, and their attempt at becoming porn stars; we have the Earl of Slander, a reporter who murdered a former child star so he could write an award-winning article about him; and other such stories that contribute to the theme of human desperation.

However, there are also stories included for no particular reason other than shock value. For example, there’s the story of Cora Reynolds, a deranged woman obsessed with humanlike dolls; of Mother Nature, who got involved in organized crime by giving foot massages; and Saint Gut-Free’s adventures in masturbation. While the novel does have its moments, overall it’s gimmicky and downright silly, and reminiscent of reality TV in that it’s morbid curiosity that keeps one from changing the channel.

I won’t be picking up another Palahniulk book anytime soon. I’ve had more than my fair share with this harebrained attempt at being clever and macabre, which succeeded only with the latter. Memo to writers: don’t try to be unconventional and avant-garde for the sake of it, otherwise you end up looking pretentious.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmin Khadra

I personally believe that some novelists who use their craft as an outlet for their views on social and political issues are better off being strictly journalists. Oftentimes a novel centered on a political issue—as opposed to a storyline—lacks characterization and substance. While the same can be said for author Yasmin Khadra and The Sirens of Baghdad, this is nonetheless an effective and timely novel that gives readers an inside look into a society in which human beings become collateral damage in the crossfire of war.

The Sirens of Baghdad takes place during the Second Gulf War and centers on an unnamed male protagonist who inhabits a Bedouin village in Iraq. He has returned to his home village after a US bombing closed off access to the university he was attending. When his village is attacked by thrill-killing GIs, the man vows to avenge his family, and he travels to Baghdad to join forces with a terrorist group.

From then on, the novel alternates somewhat clumsily between being a psychological study and a political thriller. There are no characters; rather, there are thinly-drawn archetypes whose dialogue reveals Khadra’s political stance rather than the characters’ individual views. Khadra could have simply channeled this content into political essays rather than through these fictional cardboard cutouts.

Khadra is consistent, however, with providing striking visuals reminiscent of the cinematography of an art film, and oftentimes as I was reading, I believed this novel would translate well onto the screen. Descriptions of landscapes and atmosphere provide more depth and substance than anything else the novel has to offer, and ultimately that is what remains in the readers’ mind longer after the novel is closed. In fact, it’s the imagery that gives a haunting quality to the novel’s end.

Ultimately, The Sirens of Baghdad succeeds where it counts. It gives an enlightening look into the psychology of terrorism and the prejudice and xenophobia that leads to it. Its portrayal of terrorists is that they are not mere villains, but human beings with missions they consider noble and beneficial to their own countries. In my opinion, understanding how terrorism is borne is the only way to stop it; therefore this is an important book that could be a real eye-opener to the mainstream reader.

Friday, July 8, 2011

The 19th Wife by David Ebershoff

Among the miracles of literature is its ability to transport readers to a world unlike their own; in this case, one in which men collect wives as property. David Ebershoff delves into this world with The 19th Wife, a vivid and startling account of the frightening religious tyranny and exploitation that transpires behind the walls of a polygamist sect.

The novel, which takes place in the fictional town of Mesadale, Utah, shifts between the past and the present as it alternates between two primary narrators. The contemporary portion is narrated by Jordan Scott, a twenty-year-old man who was banished by his sect at fourteen and forced to live on his own. Upon hearing that his father has been murdered by his nineteenth wife—Jordan’s mother—he returns to Mesadale to confront his past, as well as the mother who betrayed him. The other narrator is historical figure Ann Eliza Young—nineteenth wife of Brigham Young, the second Prophet of the Mormon Church—who would launch a campaign to end polygamy in the United States during the 19th century.

The portion of the novel dedicated to Ann Eliza Young never failed to absorb me. She begins with the story of her parents: their courtship and marriage, their religious conversion and the rift between them caused by polygamy. This would color Ann Eliza’s own perception of the institution and, combined with her time spent as one of Brigham’s many wives, prompt her to tour the United States to speak out against polygamy and Brigham Young himself. This courageous heroine makes for an inspirational and utterly transfixing story that transports readers to another place and time, and lucidly portrays all sides of the issue from the perspectives of Ann Eliza’s family, including her parents, her brothers and her son. The result is a sweeping portrait of polygamy’s effects on women and men and alike—the sexual tyranny, the loss of personal identity and the use of religion to govern and manipulate, to name a few—that is as gritty as it is poignant.

Jordan Scott’s story, however, starts off promising before veering off into cheap gimmicks and a rushed, anticlimactic ending that leaves loose ends untied. The murder mystery begins to falter once Ann Eliza’s story begins, and Jordan’s story seems merely an afterthought, as if Ebershoff neglected it in favor of the other storyline, which undoubtedly required more research and effort. The characterizations are so thinly drawn that I stopped caring about what would happen and became impatient to get back to Ann Eliza’s narrative.

Ultimately I attribute this novel’s worth to its riveting depiction of an important historical figure, characterized as a flawed yet bold and resilient woman who spoke out against men in power during a patriarchal era. My advice: read it for Ann Eliza Young and don’t expect much out of the other plotline.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Collapse by Jared Diamond

It’s pretty rare for me to recommend one of my textbooks—from a science class, no less—as recreational reading, but UCLA professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jared Diamond has written a crucial piece of nonfiction on the past and present condition of our environment and economy; one that should provoke introspection into humanity’s duel capabilities for progress and self-destruction. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed combines science, history, geography and personal experience to shine light from every angle on the formula that leads to a civilization’s breakdown.

Collapse is divided into four parts, the first of which describes the environment and economic history of the state of Montana, from the Native American hunger-gatherers to the individual stories of current farmers and their agricultural methods. Part Two examines past societies that have collapsed, describing the factors of their failure in terms of a five-point framework, while Part Three takes on modern societies, such as the Rwandan genocide and the developing nation of China. Part Four wraps it up on a wider scale, taking on corporations, globalization and the merits of the polder model, the Dutch version of economic consensus policy.

What is both revealing and frightening is Diamond’s portrayal of civilizations that collapse into themselves, such as the ancient society of Easter Island. While it is generally believed to have been torn apart by European colonizers, who conducted slave raids and infested the natives with disease, Diamond’s claim is that the society was well on its way to collapsing before the arrival of colonizers, due to environmental damage and the ensuing civil war that erupted over resources versus the growing population. Such factors also contributed to the collapse of the ancient Mayans, and the more recent genocide in Rwanda was due in part to overpopulation. The parallels drawn between ancient and modern societies are a resounding call to action to keep history from repeating itself, and provide a haunting and thought-provoking exposé on humanity’s slow-motion murder-suicide involving the planet we call home.

This is certainly no typical textbook of bone-dry facts; Diamond presents his subject matter in a voice that is both scholarly and conversational. He gives the impression of a pleasant conversationalist who is both intellectual and approachable, and he injects an entertainment factor among the disheartening accounts and statistics. Therefore it comes as no surprise that he ends the book on a high note, declaring his cautious optimism for the future.

Collapse is a glaringly relevant book for today’s world; a means of opening our eyes to the downfall in progress we are currently living within. If Al Gore’s campaign for the environment didn’t convince you, Jared Diamond certainly will. You don’t need to turn to sci-fi for a good apocalypse-based story—just pick up a copy of Collapse and discover the apocalypse happening in our own backyard.

Monday, July 4, 2011

White Oleander by Janet Fitch

Made all the more impressive by the fact that this is her first novel, Janet Fitch captivates readers with the labyrinthine scope and visceral beauty of White Oleander, a story of survival and endurance in an uncertain world. While too heavy for a summer beach read, this fierce, provocative and tragic novel inspires awe, and is better suited to be read at home on the couch, in solitude, with limited outside stimulation (maybe a little Leonard Cohen in the background).

A white oleander is a beautiful but poisonous plant, and a metaphor for Ingrid Magnusson, a seductive, sociopathic poet convicted of murdering her lover, leaving her preteen daughter Astrid to a series of foster homes. The novel chronicles Astrid’s coming of age from a lonely, misguided girl down a self-destructive path to a hardened, independent eighteen-year-old who can hold her own against her mother’s domineering hold.

In a manner befitting The Odyssey, Astrid survives a variety of trying environments, from the trailer park to the slums, from poverty to luxury and back again, fighting abuse, hunger, harassment and personal loss, while grappling with the authority she gains and loses in her own sexuality. Though initially lacking in her own identity, Astrid develops into a hybrid of the various maternal figures who govern her life, resulting in a mesmerizing character study that pits nature against nurture. Her desire for stability, her yearning to be loved, her disillusionment and fatalism, all resonate in this stunning portrait of the human condition.

At times the narration is bogged down by the fact that Fitch epitomizes the indulgent writer; she’s a lover of the English language and a very verbose narrator who piles on similes and metaphors the way Picasso piled on bright colors, or the way Gertrude Stein favored repetition. At times this makes for beautiful, vivid imagery and great psychological depth; other times it is simply exasperating, and the readers’ five senses are overwhelmed. In this way, Fitch is both a master of language and an amateur, who has yet to learn that sometimes, less is more.

However, the story does emerge triumphant, as the characters drive the story and engage readers both mentally and emotionally, and the ending provides satisfying closure. So, needless to say, don’t be turned off by the Oprah sticker. It’s actually a splendid book.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

Anyone can watch the news or read an article, but none of that compares to experiencing the horrors of a war-torn region firsthand. It’s the power of storytelling that can transport readers into another world; a world in which children graduate from toy guns to AK-47s before they’re old enough to drive. In his powerful, riveting memoir, entitled A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, Ishmael Beah relates his experiences at the frontlines of Sierra Leone’s civil war, and his transformation from an ordinary teenager into a drug-fueled killing machine.

At twelve years old, Beah is a happy, carefree kid, a serious student and a rap and reggae music enthusiast, until an army of rebels target his village, leaving a trail of carnage in their wake. Beah and his friends go on the run survive, wandering from village to village before turning to weapons to avenge their families. These boys become militiamen and are given cocaine and amphetamines by their lieutenant—an effective means of brainwashing them into carrying out mass slaughters in a blind rage. The novel goes on to chronicle Beah’s transition back into civilized society at age fifteen; a transition made possible by the humanitarian efforts of UNICEF.

Beah is a pleasant, conversational narrator, and at once relatable, so that his experiences feel vivid and real to readers. His story is an account of universal human struggle, and easily accessible to anyone, regardless of native origin or personal experience. Not only does he shine light on the socio-political crises of his native country; he also narrows his scope to give a firsthand look into individual accounts of the civil war and how it affected his friends and family as well as himself.

Also poignant is the determination of UNICEF officials to rescue these boy soldiers from a life of senseless violence. Once transferred from their base to the rehab center, the boys rebel, sneaking in knives and grenades, breaking out in fights and at times assaulting the officials themselves. Beah, however, bonds with the center’s nurse and is thus rehabilitated, thereby paving the way for his future as a UN spokesman and children’s rights advocate.

A Long Way Gone is hard-hitting yet engaging, heartbreaking yet ultimately triumphant. While this will likely be Beah’s only novel, I would gladly read anything else he may write in the future, as he has proven to be an excellent storyteller as well as an inspirational success story to those who have been affected by war.