Monday, January 29, 2007

Banker to the Poor
by Muhammad Yunas

Have you heard of Mr. Yunas? He won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for his work in establishing Grameen Bank, the first bank to arrange micro-credit (loans usually less than $300) to the poor. This model of banking has since spread around the world to alleviate poverty and create a self-sustaining model of independence.

The book is the story of his life and Grameen Bank. He writes in a casual, conversational style that is easy to read.

After a visit to a local village in the 1970s, when he lent $27 to a poor woman so she could end the cycle of dependence on moneylenders and lift herself out of poverty, he was inspired to found Grameen Bank

He paid attention to the poor around him. And he paid attention to what it would take to make them self-sufficient (not dependent on charity).

It fascinated me that paying attention and being resourceful can wreak such a wonderful outcome (btw, why do we usually only say "wreak havoc"? we should start saying "wreak joy/life/beauty").

Isn't that an attribute of all great entrepreneurs and innovators--that they are paying attention at the right moment? In Farsi, "paying attention" translates to "well-gathered thoughts". What do you need to pay attention to?

Ellen Foster

by Kaye Gibbons

Ms. Gibbons has a knack for writing that dives deep and straight into your mind and heart. She is described as bringing a short story sensibility to a novel, and I think that's right. Her books are stark in a way--the prose is simple, the storyline almost an afterthought--but her characters breathe and live.

It's the best way to be remembered when you die. For who you are and what you mean, not what you did.

I loved this little morsel of a book, and read it quickly.

It's a good read. Pick it up.

Monday, January 22, 2007


Pedram and I are having a blast watching this series--great drama, happens to be scifi. Love it!

The Blood Doctor
by Barbara Vine

Lord Martin Nanther is a hereditary peer in the House of Lords in London. The time is the mid 90's, when hereditary peerages were banned. In the backdrop, he is thus dealing with the loss of his political position. He is also married, to his second wife, Jude, a successful and beautiful publisher he desperately loves. Jude is trying to become pregnant (Nanther has an adult son from his first marriage and finds himself decidedly unenthusiastic about another child but doesn't let on to Jude), and that becomes a second storyline in this book.

Nanther (neither Martin nor Lord seem appropriate for this guy, somehow) is writing a biography about his illustrious forebear, the original Lord Nanther, who was made Baron Nanther by Queen Victoria in recognition of his services as a doctor with a specialty in hemophilia and blood to her and her family (there were a few hemophiliacs in Victoria's family). The mystery (Ms. Vine writes mysteries, remember) centers around who his ancestor really was--saintly or perverse and cruel?

Well, I made it through this one, not quite so happily as I did with The Minotaur. The Blood Doctor is approximately 200 pages too long. If she had crafted it as a short story or even novella, I think the interesting subject matter would have packed more punch and the storyline would not have lost its rhythm.

Ms. Vine goes into a bit too much detail on the biography process, and the central intrigue about the good doctor didn't grab me. In addition, the other two story lines she is juggling (the House of Lords and the pregnancy) end up getting almost as much attention, and detract from the central mystery.

I suppose I was expecting quite a lot after The Minotaur, and I found The Blood Doctor lacking. However, she is still very deft in her prose and I do believe if the book had been halved in size, it would have worked excellently.

But read it and tell me if you disagree.

Despite The Blood Doctor and because of The Minotaur, I'm not giving up on her yet, and have checked out another Vine book and two Ruth Rendell books. Reviews on those to come.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Cold Comfort Farm
by Stella Gibbons

Funnily enough, I picked up this book because I was cleaning the library out of their Kaye Gibbons collection, and scooped this accidentally! Good accident. I had a jolly time reading this quick read. No relation in themes or style to Kaye Gibbons incidentally.

It's a humorous satire, poking fun at the melodramatic novels popular at the time (CCF was first published in 1932). Flora Poste, our heroine, finds herself an orphan--but despite being "athletically and lengthily educated", she has no means of making a living, and off she goes to live with some relatives in the country. She then proceeds to apply her common sense, levelheaded, omniscient, and modern approach to fixing all of the resident evils of the motley family living there.

Yes, the book is fun and quite funny, but it also made me noodle on (my boss uses this phrase, I think it's hilarious) the notion of "fixing" people's problems. I recognized myself in Flora Poste, and while I rather liked Flora, she was also incorrigible and such a busybody! However, dear friends, rest assured that I'm not sure I'm going to become less of a busybody (matchmaking, offering unsolicited advice, etc.) anytime soon...

You may remember, that this novel was a made for BBC movie, starring Kate Beckinsale (who oddly, I find annoying in real life, but fine on sceen) back in 1995. It is now on my Netflix queue as well. (Good reviews of the film too, which is lovely).

The Minotaur

by Barbara Vine

Fun, creepy fun. This lady is a hell of a writer. Beautiful, effortless prose. (She's British, I'm convinced it's easier for them.)

A mystery, yes, not higbrow fiction, but textured, interesting, creepy in a not too creepy way and satisfying. I felt none of the sickly book-bloat guilt I sometimes feel after reading a book in this genre (heck, the New York Times loves her!). Interestingly, her real name is Ruth Rendell, and she's also a Life Peer in the House of Lords (which sounds really cool and means she is known as Baroness Rendell of Babergh). I'm in the middle of reading another book by her, The Blood Doctor, and it's going swimmingly. That's the highest recommendation I can give for Ms. Barbara Vine--I cleaned out the library on all her books after finishing Minotaur.

A psychological thriller, set in the 1970's British countryside. Told from the perspective of a young Swedish student who comes to live for a year in England, because she's fallen in love with a dashing young Brit. She takes up residence as a nurse to a sick adult man in the countryside for a seemingly wealthy, certainly eccentric family, that fascinates her with their endless dysfunctionality and ridiculous behavior.

Of course, this wouldn't be a mystery novel without a mystery, and it centers around the reason her charge is "sick" (he's constantly so drugged out by his overbearing mother, it's difficult to say what his illness truly is) and the disturbing, wickedly mean relationships between the mother and the three sisters. It's a fast-paced read, but also intellectually satisfying. This author is really adept at illuminating the nuances of the characters motivations, with a light touch (she shows, not tells). Interesting themes Ms. Vine explores subtly but consistently: authority, the complex reactions to mental illness, infatuation, love and money.

Important note: make sure you have at least 2 days to devote to this book--hard to put down once you start.

Netflix and Novels

I just added the TV movie version of Charms for an Easy Life to my queue. I guess this blog will grow to encompass sundry film reviews too...especially if they are based on the books I review.

Charms for the Easy Life, by Kaye Gibbons

It's amazingly easy to read and grabs you right away. In fact, it feels so effortless (but it's the kind of writing that you know was slaved over, honed and perfected), that I questioned how I could have gotten quite so much from it.

Two lovely ideas from this book:

The grandmother, when she's young, gets this lucky charm, that's supposed to bring her an easy life. Her husband leaves her, tries to con her, she works as a doctor in the early 1900's when infection and poverty are rampant--but she is blessed with a wonderful daughter and granddaughter---they're all three smart, good-looking, admirable, love each other deeply and admired.

The grandmother gives the charm to her granddaughter (fully believing in its worth as a lucky charm) as a gift to her granddaughter's future husband and tells her to tell him "It's a charm for an easy life. Just depends what your definition of easy is."

I love that. The relativity of life and the difference perspective makes about how you feel about your life.

There's another line I really like too where the grandaughter says of her grandmother "I admired her energetic mind and her muscular soul." Isn't that a great thing to have--a muscular soul? One that's strong, flexible, resilient?


As many of you know, I haven't posted on here in over a year...the truth is I struggled with what would be appropriate fodder for this semi-public forum. I have strong notions of privacy (even with my random, usually trivial, silly or boring) regarding my internal world--thoughts about myself, life, the people I love, even just the people I know slightly just seemed to precious to broadcast to any Joe Blow who happened to be clicking through the blogger "next blog" feature.

However, I've decided to take the plunge again (with some urging from my good friend and tireless blogger, Wendy) and reinvent this blog as a place for me to post my thoughts on the books I read.

As you probably know, (if you're reading this, you probably know me) I'm a grossly voracious reader. I probably average about 6 books a month, and that's a slow month.

The good, the bad, the ugly, it will all go here. My notions of privacy will probably still be a little uncomfortable with cracking open my head about the books I spend my free time on (giving you strong glimpses into who I am and why I read what I read), but I'm willing to go for it, in the interests of being both modern and entertaining, as well as creating a good record of what the heck I spend that free time on!

I look forward to receiving a lot of comments and reactions to my reviews and hope that there is strong differences of opinion, because I love debating books, almost as much as debating films.

Note to Pedram & Wen: I can be a lazy mofo, so keep me on track!

(Bonus points if you can figure out why this particular picture of Madonna's graces this entry)