Thursday, October 29, 2009

A Guide to the Birds of East Africa by Nicholas Drayson

I may gripe about “Book Recommendation Fatigue”, but I continue to read books that other bloggers are raving about. This is largely due to the fact that I’m in the U.S. this year and actually have access to them. When in Brazil, my book choices are limited to what’s on my own shelves or what’s available through the library at the American school.

This week I read the novel, A Guide to the Birds of East Africa. The title is completely misleading since it is not a bird guide at all. The story takes place in Nairobi, Kenya. The men in the story are not native Kenyans, but descendents of immigrants from West India. The female protagonist is from Scotland so the books provides a fascinating mixture of characters while weaving bits of Kenyan and Indian culture into the story.

Mr. Malik is a widower who spends his time writing anonymous political articles for the newspaper, watching birds, and visiting AIDS patients. He is smitten with the woman, Rose Mbikwa, who leads the Tuesday bird watcher’s group. Although the book is about his efforts to win her affections, it is not, strictly speaking, a romance because Rose plays a rather small part in the narrative. In fact, most of the dialogue and action takes place among the members of the male Asadi Club.

I enjoyed the good writing and the simple bird sketches that preceded each chapter. I also appreciated the sensitivity and sense of honor exemplified by the main character, Mr. Malik. Yet I was often jolted out of my literary reverie by references to flatulence, Bill Clinton, and several other modern day topics. For some reason I didn’t mind the references to political corruption in Kenya since they seemed to support the story, rather than detract from it. Overall, it was a pleasant, easy read.

A sample of the prose:
He had loved his wife. Not at first, not when introduced to the shy girl that their families had chosen to be his wife. She was rather on the tall side, he thought, and only a little bit pretty. But soon he came to know this deep and quiet girl, and as she grew into a woman he was impressed by her strengths, which were many, and endeared by her weaknesses, which were few. And beauty seemed to grow within her. It sometimes shone so bright he could hardly look at her. (p. 11)

Short, balding, tender-hearted Mr. Malik is a lovely man who I’m sure you’ll enjoy meeting on the pages of this book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Books I Didn't Finish

I think long and hard before picking up a book to read. My free time is precious and I want to make sure I’m using it wisely. Since I choose my books carefully, I rarely pick up one that I don’t finish. But this year I’ve made a few miscalculations.

The Book of God by Walter Wangerin came highly recommended. Wangerin is a gifted writer whose books have blessed me in the past, but I only made it to page 300 of this bible-as-a-novel before I gave it up. I love any book that gives fresh understanding of the Bible and I am not opposed to paraphrases. The problem with this one was that I found it uninspiring. Instead of focusing on God, I found myself reading each story with an eye to how I would have re-written it for better flow. My attention was directed toward word choices more often than toward eternal truths. Because I was giving it too much time with too little nourishment in return, I put it aside.

Sometimes when a classic doesn’t interest me much, I’ll get the audio version, a painless way to become familiar with it. Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne was just such a book. Yet in spite of the excellent narrator (3rd version at Librivox) and the intriguing opening chapters, the middle of the book dragged so much that I felt I couldn’t sacrifice any more time to it.

I have read only positive reviews of Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield so I was very surprised at my dislike for it. Yes, it’s British and witty, but those qualities weren’t enough to salvage it for me. I love beautiful prose and the truncated sentences almost sent me into a panic.

I often say that really good writers have ruined me for the average ones. Once exposed to banquet tables of sumptuous words and unforgettable characters, it’s very difficult to be satisfied with fast food. I blame it on Trollope!

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Families Where Grace Is In Place by Jeff VanVonderen

This is not another how-to-have-a-perfect-family book. In Van-Vonderen’s own words, “this book is more about learning the right job, and less about learning new techniques. The first step is easy – if we will do it: We must learn the simple difference between God’s job and ours. God’s job is to fix and change. Our job is to depend, serve, and equip.” (p. 15)

The book recounts the differences between grace-filled families and families that shame their loved ones into good behavior. The author uses the labels “grace-full” and “curse-full”. By curse he doesn’t mean that family members curse each other, but that they live by behavior patterns that are a result of the fall. After Adam and Eve rejected God’s plan for them to live in perfect relationship with Him (and each other), human relationships became power-oriented. Curse-full families try to control the behavior of spouses and children. Grace-full families slowly release parental control by training their kids to make good choices.

While there are no earth shattering truths in Families Where Grace Is in Place, the book offers much food for thought. For instance, VanVonderen points out that children have three basic needs: to know they are loved with no strings attached, to know that they are valuable and capable, and to know that they are not alone to face life. Within the context of meeting these needs parents give their children the skills they need to live healthy lives that are pleasing to God. (It’s tempting to think that “perfect behavior” is pleasing to God, but you won’t get that message if you read this book. Grace by definition cannot be based on performance.) VanVonderen constantly reminds the reader that God extended grace to us before we were worthy (Rom 5:8). For that reason we can extend love to our children even when they mess up.

It’s not about “controlling”, but empowering to make good decisions. (Hmm… sounds a lot like another book I read this past summer.) We shouldn’t try to fix everything for our children. Instead we teach them to take responsibility for their own actions. “In curse-full relationships, rules and performance take the place of people and needs. In a family that seeks to be a place of grace, relationships are there to make sense of the rules. A grace-full family is the place where people can do the job of learning to live without the fear of losing love and acceptance if the job gets too messy.” (p.129)

I was challenged by this book to be more honest about my feelings when family conflicts occur. The author points out that avoiding friction by squashing emotions is unhealthy and DISHONEST. Does that mean I’m going lambast everybody in my family now? Hardly. My goal is to be a grace-filled parent who knows the difference between God’s job and mine. And I trust He’ll give me the grace to speak up when I need to.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

Whew! Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet is my third book in a row that came highly recommended by other book bloggers. Maybe I’m getting "recommendation fatigue” because I didn’t enjoy this one as much as the other two.

Many things about the book appealed to me. Since I was born in Asia, I appreciated the references to Chinese words and customs. The facts about Japanese American internment camps appealed to me because I like WWII history. I enjoyed the excellent writing about the complexities of relationships, particularly at a specific time in world history. Jamie Ford does a superb job of describing the clash between 1st and 2nd generation Chinese Americans, the conflicts between Japanese Americans and Caucasians, and even the animosity between the Japanese and the Chinese during that era.

Hotel is the story of a Chinese man, Henry Lee, who is trying to put his life back together after his wife’s death from cancer. It’s told in the present (1986) with flashbacks to forty years earlier. The flashbacks recount his painful relationship to his father and his budding friendship with a young Japanese girl named Keiko. To his son, Marty, Henry is a “man with no surprises in him”, but as the book progresses the reader discovers that there is much from Henry’s past that he has never shared. These slowly revealed secrets are what carry the book along.

My chief complaint against the book is its melancholy tone. I frequently put it down to recover from a sense of overwhelming gloom. One of its main themes is that all happiness ends up broken or marred. Yes, life is filled with the bitter and the sweet, but in Henry’s case the sweet moments are few. I made myself finish it (because it was overdue) and was glad it ended on a hopeful note.

Now I’m ready to move on to a book of my own choosing – preferably something lighthearted!

A sample of the good writing: Henry did his best to communicate without words. To give his son that smile, that knowing look of approval. He was certain Marty picked up every phrase of their wordless communication. After a lifetime of nods, frowns, and stoic smiles, they were both fluent in emotional shorthand. (p.84)