Friday, January 10, 2014

Annual Book Edition

Do you remember when you were 10 years old and how involved you became with a good book?  Remember books that you just couldn’t put down?  Over the year I “became too busy to read”, and it was only when my school started a half hour of required reading for all students and staff that I rediscovered the joy of reading a good book.  (Silent Sustained Reading in schools has been found highly effective for increasing comprehension and speed in all subject areas) 

Here are ten books that I have recently read and greatly enjoyed:

Pillars of the Earth –Ken Follett
The story is of a 12th century master stonemason involved in building one of the great cathedrals of England.  The author has done rigorous research to give the flavor of life in that period, when the empress Maud and Stephen are fighting for the crown of England after the death of Henry I. It is both excellent historical fiction and a good adventure story.

The Physician – Noah Gordon
Medical knowledge in 11th century England was often a mixture or herbology, wishful thinking, and magic.  A young orphan is adopted by a patent medicine salesman/surgeon – and he experiences the inadequacies of medical treatment.  His travels lead to meeting a true trained physician, and Rob gains the vision of where he must travel and how he must be trained to also become a skilled physician.  Gordon has written an inspiring story of seeking knowledge in a violent and superstition filled world.  Great read!
Good Soldier Schweik - Karel Hasek

Set during the World War I period in the Austro Hungarian empire. In the Czech Republic today, Josef Švejk, is still a kind of epitome of the Czech spirit of survival in the face of adversity.  The novel deals with a series of absurdly comic episodes, it explores both the pointlessness and futility of conflict in general and of military discipline, Austrian military discipline, in particular. Through possibly-feigned idiocy or incompetence he repeatedly manages to frustrate military authority and expose its stupidity in a form of passive resistance: the reader is left unclear, however, as to whether Švejk is genuinely incompetent, or acting quite deliberately with dumb insolence. These absurd events reach a climax when Švejk, wearing a Russian uniform, is mistakenly taken prisoner by his own troops.  An unforgettable classic book!

Half the Sky- Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn

Perhaps the social issue of this century is the inequality and ill treatment of women worldwide. More girls have been killed in the last fifty years, precisely because they were girls, than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century, particularly in third world countries that value male heirs. The authors suggest that it is impossible for countries to climb out of poverty if only a fraction of women (9% in Pakistan, for example) participate in the labor force. China's meteoric rise was due to women's economic empowerment: 80% of the factory workers in the Guangdong province are female.   Local women are   the most effective change agents: The book is an eye opener both for understanding the state of women worldwide today, but offering a range of well considered opportunities to support positive change.

Watch out – Furst has written a series of books and its easy to get hooked! Placed in the period prior to WW II when much of Europe was in a state of great uncertainty. Furst describes the political and social conflict.  His description of this period in Paris is full of rich literary style and images and his story telling is meticulous.  The book is more about the personal and psychological maneuvering of the characters than about war. I went on to read all his other books too!
War of the Newts –Karel Chapek

Its hard to place this book in a category – It is social/political satire, maybe a bit of biological science fiction, and perhaps just a good novel. The underlying message is a warning about the long-term effects of rampant imperialism.

Imagine pearl fishers in the South Pacific discovering a breed of highly intelligent newts – quite large – with opposable thumb hands and a well-developed brain.  They live happily on their island until the Europeans kidnap some and return them to Europe.  Much to everyone surprise they are really quite capable of learning and soon their effect of European life has great surprises.  The book includes a variety of press clippings over the story, personal accounts, and at times you wont know whether to laugh or cry from reading about the creatures.  A remarkable book. 

Putting Away Childish Things – Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg is a leading progressive Christian theologian of our time.  This is his first attempt at a novel.  The people and situations that he describes in the book will sound very familiar to you if you have dealings with flawed persons who are trying to lead an honest good life, also if you have had dealings with institutions that struggle with meeting the needs of their staff and clients, v. the perceived ‘good’ of the institution. The book deals with the open conflict in our world today between conservative and progressive Christians in an honest thoughtful manner.  Borg is able to include some of his best questions and reflections on what the Church needs to consider today.  Strongly recommended!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour bookstore – Robin Sloan

Set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore, our hero Clay Jannon lost his job as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and he has landed a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore. 

This is a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century. The book is a little quirky – but you’ll love it!

The #1 Ladies Detective Agency – Alexander McCall Smith

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series tells the story of the engaging Precious Ramotswe, who is drawn to her profession to “help people with problems in their lives. “She inherits cows, which she sells, and uses the money to set up shop in a small storefront in Gaborone. She is hired to track down a missing husband, uncover a con man, and follow a wayward daughter. But the case that tugs at her heart, and lands her in danger, is a missing eleven-year-old boy, who may have been snatched by witchdoctors.  Smith has captured the spirit of Africa and you will fall in love with Ms. Ramotswe, who is traditionally sized.

A Week in Winter - Maeve Binchy

If you like people you will love this book!   Stonebridge is a small town on the west coast of Ireland where all the families know each other. When Chicky Starr decides to take an old, decaying mansion set high on the cliffs overlooking the windswept Atlantic Ocean and turn it into a restful place for a holiday by the sea, everyone thinks she is crazy. Helped by Rigger (a bad boy turned good who is handy around the house) and Orla, her niece (a whiz at business), Stone House is finally ready to welcome its first guests to the big warm kitchen, log fires, and understated elegant bedrooms. Laugh and cry with this unlikely group as they share their secrets and—maybe—even see some of their dreams come true. Full of Maeve’s trademark warmth and humor, once again, she embraces us with her grand storytelling.