Saturday, February 28, 2009

Quickly ... Before I Start Dinner

There's a new post on Neil Gaiman's journal (a blog I highly recommend). He's reading his book that's about to come out, Blueberry Girl. I will only say two things. First, I want this book; even more, I would like to figure out how to save Neil's reading of the book. Second, if I knew someone with a young girl or pregnant with a girl, I would get them this book. It is that good. My eyes were welling up as I listened to the reading, and the art is stunning even on its own. But don't take my word for it. Go there, and see for yourself.

Once again, I am more than profoundly embarrassed that I didn't discover Neil Gaiman until this past fall's National Book Festival. I am so looking forward to savoring American Gods while in Hue ... where I will be just one week from today.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Zookeeper's Wife (book review)

The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman was my choice in the relative category of Annie’s What’s In a Name - 2 challenge. It may explain my doctorate in psychology in what seems like a past life, but I’ve always been attracted to stories everyday people who aided others in World War II Germany. Or perhaps it’s because I wonder whether, deep down, I would have the courage and resolve to act similarly in the same situation.

The zookeeper’s wife of the title was Antonina Zabinski, wife of Jan, the director of the Warsaw Zoo. The Zabinskis were Polish Christians but managed to save over three hundred people, most Jewish, during the course of the war. The zoo was closed as a result of the way (the Germans looted some of the animals when they took control of Warsaw), but the empty cages housed some of the refugees, who were code-named after animals. Other refugees hid in the zookeeper’s villa. Antonina tended to all, stretching her family’s meager rations to feed everyone, playing musical codes on the piano to send refugees into hiding places, and worrying over her young son’s increasing involvement in the family’s activities.

Just as compelling as the story of the family’s humanitarian efforts is, the story of the family’s pet animals is enchanting. A badger kiddie toilets and knocking on a door to be let into the house. Elephants filling a moat with dirt to create mud so that they could wade across. A carnivorous pet rabbit. The book had much to offer on several levels. At the same time, Ackerman explores how the Nazi interest in creating a perfect race of humans corresponded to their interest in creating pure strains of certain animals, the reason that many of the animals in the Warsaw Zoo were moved to German zoos.

I would highly recommend The Zookeeper’s Wife to anyone with an interest in the human side of World War II. Ackerman has a very nice writing style, and the book is, in between periods of gleeful marvel at the animal stories or of reflection on the human condition, quite easy to read.

The Last Templar (book review)

I read The Last Templar by Raymond Khoury for Annie’s What’s In a Name - 2 challenge, in the profession category, “templar” being accepted to refer to a member of the Knights Templar or, interestingly enough, “a barrister or other person occupying chambers in the Temple, London.”

This book was just done as a made-for-TV movie, the reviews of which weren’t that good. While the book is no literary classic, as thrillers go, it wasn’t half bad. After a short introduction set in 1291, the present-day action opens with four masked horsemen dressed as Knights Templar riding into the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and stealing artifacts from a Treasures of the Vatican exhibit. The book’s heroine, archaeologist Tess Chaykin, sees the leader of the horsemen almost reverently steals only one item, a geared device, over which he says some Latin words. She decides to investigate on her own, at the same time as the official FBI investigation is headed by Sean Reilly, a terrorist specialist and, relevant to the plot, a practicing Roman Catholic. Separately at times, together at others, they discover what the stolen device was and its importance, before finding themselves in a race against the Catholic church to find the secret to which the device points.

If I had a bone to pick with The Last Templar, it would be that the characters, especially Tess Chaykin, were not too well developed. In particular, Tess is said to be an archaeologist, working at the Manoukian Archaeological Institute, yet she is always addressed as “Miss Chaykin” rather than “Dr. Chaykin.” It’s a small point, to be sure, but it would have been nice to have a bit more background on Tess and on Sean, to make them a bit more real. That aside, The Last Templar does offer a good escape into fiction for those needing a break from the everyday.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Blood of Victory (book review)

I read Blood of Victory by Alan Furst for Annie’s What’s In a Name - 2 challenge, in the body part category. The “blood” in the title is not a body part, though, but oil, specifically the Romanian oil needed by the Nazis in World War II. The plot concerns British attempts to stop the flow of Romanian oil to Germany early in the war.

I.A. Serebin is a Russian journalist living in Paris. While in Istanbul, he is recruited by the British for their operation to stop the flow of oil to Germany. The story moves from Istanbul to Paris, Bucharest, the Black Sea, and Belgrade as Serebin tries to put together an operation to stop the oil barges from moving along the Danube River. Various characters, including Serebin’s lover, move in and out of the plot as it winds its way along.

Alan Furst has a reputation for novels written with incredible historical accuracy, and Blood of Victory appears to be no exception. The characters and action don’t appear at all contrived. At the same time, though, I found it difficult to warm up to the characters, to really feel as though I knew them, perhaps because not much background information is given. The reader sees the characters as they are in the action of the plot but doesn’t really get a feel for how they got there, or how they got to be the way. And the characters figure much more in the plot than does the action; Blood of Victory is not written in the typical spy-thriller vein. The story is told much more through the characters than though the action.

If you’re looking for a traditional spy or war thriller, with lots of action, you might want to give Blood of Victory a pass. If, however, you have a real interest in the history of World War II or the psychology behind the characters, then Blood of Victory might be just your cup of tea.

Grace After Midnight (book review)

This is my second book for Annie’s What’s In a Name - 2 challenge, in the time of day category. While purists might argue that the “dead” I put forward as a medical condition is a stretch, I don’t think anyone can quibble with “midnight” as a time of day.

Grace After Midnight is the memoir of Felicia “Snoop” Pearson, and will likely appeal only to those who, like me, became hooked on the HBO series The Wire. For those who may not otherwise know, The Wire is Homicide: Life on the Streets on steroids and/or without the NBC censors. Felicia “Snoop” Pearson first appeared in the third season of The Wire playing, who else, Felicia “Snoop” Pearson. On one level, ya gotta love a character named not only after the actor portraying her but very much patterned after her.

Snoop grew up on the streets of Baltimore, raised by foster parents who were more like grandparents to her. She only saw her real mother a couple of times, and never alone after the visit on which her mother had Felicia (she wasn’t called “Snoop” yet) take off her party dress then locked her in a closet so she could go sell the dress for drug money. Even before her teenage years, she learned the ins and outs of the corner drug trade. She also realized and accepted that she was gay. Several adults tried to keep her on the straight and narrow including, interestingly enough, two men themselves involved in the drug trade. She called these men Uncle and Father though there was no blood relation.

At the age of 14, Snoop was attacked by another girl in a street melee. When the other girl swung at her with a metal baseball bat, Snoop shot her, trading one form of lead for another. When no witnesses were willing to label Snoop’s act pure self defense, and one witness was ready to testify that Snoop acted first, Snoop asked her lawyer to plea bargain. She ended up sentenced to eight years in the Maryland Women’s Correctional Facility, though she was paroled after five years, when she was 20.

During her time in prison, Snoop experienced a number of ups and downs. Some of her stories of the other inmates are quite shocking. She also had the spiritual or religious experience from which the title is derived. One night, in the middle of a very low period after Uncle’s death and Father’s having been sentenced to life in prison, she looked up in the middle of the night and felt a presence. After that, she became determined to complete her GED and make it to the end of her sentence.

Snoop was 20 when she was released. She was determined to go straight, and followed the advice she had been given about getting a job: If they don’t ask about a prison record, don’t volunteer that you have one. After being fired from two jobs at which she was doing well because her employers found out about her prison record, she fell into dealing drugs. In a bar one night, she met Michael K. Williams who was playing Omar Little on The Wire. He invited her to the set, introduced her to the writers and producers, and she was offered a role essentially playing herself. She kept her drug corner running for some time after she was a regular on the series, but eventually closed it down.

In Grace After Midnight, Pearson writes about continuing to act and not getting back into the drug business. Searching and the Internet Movie Database indicates that she hasn’t really done any acting since The Wire ended, but that she is active in a nonprofit working with Baltimore youth. She was also arrested last summer for possession of marijuana.

As I said at the outset, this book will probably only appeal to fans of The Wire. I’m not sure that Pearson’s story will resonate with someone not familiar with her role on the series. But if you miss The Wire and still think of it as one of the best things ever to air on TV, er, excuse me, it’s not TV, it’s HBO, then you might want to give this book a whirl.