Category Archives: Books I enjoy!

Saturday’s Book: “In Xanadu: A Quest” by William Dalrymple

 

Naomi’s Photos

Don’t read this book if you are easily offended.

However, despite the fact that Dalrymple is quite critical (or condescending!) of every place and culture he encounters on his incredible journey from Jerusalem to China, this book is a great read and I quite enjoyed it.

The book is actually a double form of time-traveling.  The author, and his formidable traveling companion, Laura, set out to recreate most of Marco Polo’s epic journey. They don’t begin in Italy but rather in The Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, where Marco Polo supposedly stopped to take some holy oil for the journey.  Dalrymple brings alive historical information about Marco Polo’s journey in a light, engaging,  and clearly knowledgeable manner. He particularly focuses on architecture and points out cross-cultural influences between Islamic and Christian architecture, as he relates anecdotes regarding the people he meets and their adventures along the way.

But the modern journey is itself a form of time-travel to a reader like myself, reading the book in 2018. The two students (the author was 22!!!) embarked on the journey in the early 1980s. Not only have the regions they passed through undergone changes or even upheavals since then, but the journey also took place in pre-Internet days. While Dalrymple is very knowledgeable about the past, he seems to have known very little of the current (1980s, that is) forces or news of the regions he was passing through in advance. I believe foreigners trekking through remote places was a much rarer phenomenon back then, which makes his tales even more interesting.

Naomi’s Photos

The young people certainly do not travel in style and do many a crazy thing to keep progressing towards their goal. Frankly,  I find it pretty amazing they made it to Xanadu at all. Side note: Dalrymple makes the whole journey but in India, Louisa replaces Laura for the last leg. Louisa was Dalrymple’s former girlfriend…

I have to admit that I’m a mother of 20 something-year-olds. Although I read the tales of these two young people’s travels through areas considered highly dangerous (where the two young people could have easily been murdered or thrown into a remote prison many times!), with a fair amount of equanimity, I got quite upset when I reached the part where Louisa became ill.  They were in an area where the health care was particularly appalling and she could have easily died!  Obviously, she did not but I identified strongly with their mothers’, who are briefly mentioned.

In short, despite its shortcomings, it’s an engaging book! I’m ready to read more of his books!

Saturday’s Book: “The Land of Decoration” by Grace McCleen

Naomi’s Photos

This book should have come with a personal trigger warning: Don’t read this book until you have recovered from reading “Educated” by Tara Westover. I found “Educated” to be a deeply disturbing book.

The fact that I could not stop reading the book even though I wanted to, is a testimony to how well the book is written. I had to see it through.

“The Land of Decoration”, like “Educated” is about a daughter in a family with extreme fundamentalist beliefs ***. In both books, I found the depths of the misery that such extremism lead to hard to read about. “In this book, the end of the world is at hand and life revolves around this fact. For motherless 10-year-old Judith, who lives with her father, there is no Christmas to celebrate. Birthdays aren’t celebrated either. Everything about her life sets her apart from the children at school, who bully her constantly. The neighborhood is derelict, the teacher at school has a drinking problem and there is a strike at the plant where her father works.

I wanted to airlift that child elsewhere, immediately.

But…

Judith is highly intelligent and blessed with a wonderful imagination. She created, out of odds and ends from what other people would call junk, an entire model of the town in which she lives. Judith called it “The land of decoration” and it is her escape from reality. It is she who narrates the tale,  a child struggling to reconcile the different realities she is faced with. Her “voice” is riveting!

When Judith begins to talk to God and make miracles with her “land”, what begins with snow literally “snowballs” into a lot of trouble.

The author really makes sure the reader sinks into depths of misery, along with that poor child before finally rescuing everyone. I’ve been known to abandon books but, as I said, I had to see it through.

I don’t know whether to recommend the book or not…

*** This book is a work of fiction. “Educated” is a memoir. 

Double Book Feature: “The Guests” and “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”

**Note: I am so behind with my book-posts that I’m resorting to a double feature!

** Another Note: I read both books in Hebrew. Books by both authors have already been translated into English so you may find these in the future as well.

Photo by Gil Epshtein

For me, both of these books are connected to language, words, books and how they are written.  Things I happen to be interested in…

In “The Guests” by Ofir Touche Gafla, the author takes a well-worn idiom literally (extremely literally!) and builds a whole unsettling new global reality with it. Everything is very realistic, “not sci-fi like” except that the people in the world, as we know it today, have to deal with the events of one highly unusual week and its aftermath.

Please concentrate a moment on the idiom ” Before you judge a man, walk a mile in his shoes”. Now imagine that every adult in the world wakes up one morning to find a pair of his /her dream shoes, exactly the right size, and color, just begging to be tried on. That act causes people to become someone else for a week. Not just “any” someone else, but the person they hate the most…

Can you really imagine all of the ramifications of such an event? I think not. Don’t worry, Gafla has done the imagining for you. The book is an intriguing read, even though I believe that the book could have been a bit shorter.

Epstein Family Photos

In “Back from the Valley of Rephaim”, the author Haim Be’er captures our interest right away by presenting us with an intriguing situation, raising a host of questions.  A highly successful (fictional) writer, from an Ultra-Orthodox Jewish background, passes away and is buried in a Christian cemetery in the German Quarter of Jerusalem.

A young filmmaker and his friend from the radio peel back the layers of the surprising mysteries surrounding the writer’s life, death, and work, with the help of many colorful figures whose lives intersected with the that of the writer. It’s also a tale of different time periods and places. I really don’t want to give you any examples, that would be a real spoiler here.

The use of language in this book was delightful – such a rich use of expressions, idioms, and surprising metaphors! I admit I had to look up a few unfamiliar ones! Frankly, it seems a challenging book to translate – I sincerely hope someone will do it!

Enjoy!

 

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Weight of Ink” by Rachel Kadish

Ink!
Naomi Epstein’s Photos

What a book!

What a VISUAL book!

I’m sure I have never ever said this before: I feel like I finished reading (actually it was listening, it was an audiobook) a book AND watching a mini-series. The descriptions of the different time periods and settings (mainly 17th century London and early 21st century London and more) along with the depiction of the characters, was so vivid and rich that I felt I was watching the story unfold as I was listening.

You have it all :

You have historians as detectives (which they can be! I know!)  following the tracks left behind by a 17th-century non-conformist Jewish woman, who was among the first Jews who returned to England from Amsterdam since the expulsion of all of England’s Jews in the 13th century. The woman is fictional but many of the characters she interacts with are not (and some are quite famous, but no spoilers!).

You have a wealth of historical information – I really knew very little regarding the great plague and fire of London, for example. If it were television I would call it a “period drama” or “costume drama”  – so vivid.

You have several love stories taking place in different time periods. The stories, as you might expect, tie in with each other in a way.

But mainly, you have characters trying to figure out their place in the world, particularly intelligent women who refuse to let others dictate what they can or can’t do.

My only complaint is that the author could have given the readers a bit more credit – some things didn’t need to be stated, the readers could deduce how the characters felt about something or why they reacted in a certain manner.  I personally am a fan of understatement so maybe it’s just me. In any case, the book could have been just as a good and a little bit shorter – 30 hours of audio!

But that’s quibbling.

I really enjoyed the book!

Saturday’s Book: “The Last Painting of Sara De Vos” by Smith

One could imagine such a scene as a landscape painting…
Naomi’s Photos

It sounded like a book I would enjoy.

A tale of a little known female painter who was a member of the Dutch painter’s guild as a work of fiction, with the author filling in the gaps in plausible manner given the period and place.  Such books can often illuminate a period in history and distant societies, enriching my world.

The lighting in the painting may have been wonderful but the book did not hold my interest. I read a bit more than a third of it before giving up on it. The parts about the super rich man (with detailed description of the wonders of his apartment) who is, (naturally) unhappy (cursed by the painting?) and the poor lonely art student drawn into forgery bored me and ruined the rest.

The book got excellent reviews but doesn’t work for me.

Saturday’s Book: “Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs

So, what’s up?
Naomi’s Photos

So how do you define crazy? I have a feeling that no matter how you tend to use the word “crazy” , it will apply to this memoir of growing up in a completely crazy environment.

The book is very well written  but I do not agree with any of the reviews that say it is funny. I felt shocked, upset and sad.

How can it be that a child could grow up, in the city, and not trigger a single red flag in the system?! Nobody noticed that his parents were dysfunctional (and yes, mentally ill) and that he basically moved from barely attending school to not at all? Not a single person took note that a psychiatrist was having some of his patients live at his home (calling it a dysfunctional home is an understatement) and “treating” several of the women patients undergoing crises in a motel bedroom?!

I find that incredibly sad.

I could never use such a book in my own classroom setting,  but I did imagine discussing one point that came up several times in the book: The author had what many teenagers would envy – absolute freedom. As a teenager no one ever told him what to do or when to do it, he could do anything he wanted (including tearing down a ceiling) and nobody cared. And that made him miserable. It made him feel trapped, going nowhere. That’s something I would be glad to have a few of my students ponder.

I understand there is a movie version but I’m not going to see it. The book is well written and I think the style of writing counts a lot in this memoir. Without it I suspect one is left only with craziness.

Saturday’s Book: “The Golden Legend” by Nadeem Aslam

Naomi’s Photos

What a remarkable book!

Riveting!

It’s the kind of book that makes me wish I were back in college, taking a literature class in which we were studying this book. I imagine “taking a magnifying glass” and taking a good look at how cleverly the author lets information drip in, not adding more information than you need at the moment, letting you sense things before they are affirmed and presenting horrific events with just enough detail to let you fill in the dots yourself, in the amount and manner that you can deal with.

In this legend, that takes place in Pakistan, there most certainly are extremely painful events. However the tale of current events is intertwined with a BOOK (which was once lost , once harmed, being stitched back together in different strokes) whose pages strive to alert the world to the many ways all known cultures in the world were influenced by each other and are connected. Education, books, learning about the other, accepting people’s differences (since no one is really that different) is the path to touching the legend. Extremism, ignorance, banning of books, thoughts and feelings hurts the people setting the bans too, not to mention those caught in the crossfire.

Think of “The Handmaids Tale” or “1984”.

Reading this book made me think of both of them, though in this one there is more hope, a bit easier to see what could be possible instead.

This is the kind of book that leaves an impression.

Saturday’s Book: “The House by the River” by Lena Manta

Not a river but it will do…
Naomi’s Photos

I really wanted to like this book, I truly did.

I have a soft spot for Greece, I’m interested in its recent history (as well as ancient history) and I know some wonderful people there. I am familiar with some of the places mentioned in the first part of the book (though have visited very few of them so far), such as Larissa, where I have a special friend.

I knew from the first moment (this isn’t actually a spoiler, its crystal clear) that the book has a clear message – the simple country home in the village is better than anything else and true happiness will only be found at home. I was prepared to treat it as a Greek fable and ignore the “schmaltz”.

My strategy worked well as long as the book was about the older generation and life during (and between!) the two world wars.

However, by the time I had finished reading about the eldest daughter’s experiences after she left home, I thought I would drown in “schmaltz”.

I have no patience for this. I moved on to a new book, which is riveting!

You’ll be hearing about it!

Saturday’s Book: “The Silver Star” By Jeannette Walls

It’s a bit like a star, don’t you think?
Naomi’s Photos

I read this book in three days. I couldn’t put it down.

Obviously, when you recognize the author’s name you compare it to “The Glass Castle”. No, it’s not as good as that book, which was really powerful and memorable. But there’s no need to compare – I really enjoyed reading this book.

First of all, Walls’ writing style had me totally mesmerised from the first page. There’s something about the way she writes that makes me feel that those two sisters, their unstable mother and even the two emus are so real.  Yup, emu, the animal. Two of them. The fact that the author combines the backdrop of racial tension following the integration of schools in Virginia, along with prevalent norms and different perspectives playing out in a small town vs. “city folk” add many thought-provoking dimensions to the story.

I must also admit that the “teacher side” of me also kicks in. It could be a great book to discuss with high school students. Many  issues that are relevant to all teenagers come up, with the wonderful message that running away from your problems isn’t going to make them go away.

In short, I’m glad I read the book!

(Belated) Saturday’s Book: “The Riddle of the Compass” by Aczel

Directions
Naomi’s Photos

Full title – “The Riddle of the Compass – The Invention that Changed the World”

What a little gem of a book!

This is a great example of what a good librarian can do for you. I’m so embarrassed to admit that I have forgotten the English-speaking-librarian’s  name, perhaps  because she rarely works during the times when I visit the library. But I do remember what I have learned by reading some of the stranger looking books she has placed on the recommended bookshelf – give the book a chance! It’s a library – you can always return it if you don’t like it.

You don’t have to be a skipper (I hate boats, get seasick) or a fan of how-devices -work programs  (I just want them to work, thank you very much) to find this book fascinating. In a simple and very engaging style, Aczel takes you on a trip around the world and through the ages. Not only does he present how people navigated at sea before compasses came on the scene,  he shows you how things are related to each other – commerce, war, prosperity, health, education, cultures and technology. In this case the technology is the compass.

Telling you anymore would ruin the experience and Aczel does it so much better! It’s like reading a multi dimensional travel book – globe-trotting and time travel.

It says on the cover that the author wrote more books – I’ll keep an eye out for them.

Enjoy!