Monday, January 28, 2013

#BookReview: The Man in 3B - Carl Weber

I'm not really sure when Carl Weber started to dislike women.  To be honest, I can't say for sure that he doesn't like them, but his portrayal of them in his latest is less than complimentary.  If I'm being fair, the men don't seem to do much better.  Quite frankly, there's not really one likable character in The Man in 3B.

When Daryl Graham moves into the building, the women (married, single and otherwise engaged) are quick to take notice.  While the women swoon over him, the men admire him.  It comes as a surprise then when he's found murdered.  What isn't a surprise is that the police suspect several of the residents of committing the crime.

The slightly overweight Connie has just been dumped by her furniture salesman husband.  So when Daryl starts to pay her attention and offers to help her with an exercise plan, she's more than willing to let him.  For Benny the electronics genius, Daryl is the older brother he never had.  While his fireman father is busy sleeping with the women of the building, Benny is taking his first forays into adulthood with Daryl as his guide.  Daryl is the one man Krystal never got over.  Even though she's engaged to Slim, she can't get Daryl out of her mind and when he happens to move into her building, she doesn't want to let him out of her bed.

As charming as he sounds, it's hard to imagine that everyone has a reason for wanting to see the mysterious Daryl Graham dead.  They do and now it's up to the police to sort out who killed him and why.

Though Weber's writing kept me interested enough to continue reading the book, I was taken aback by quite a few of his characters comments about women.  For example, when Ben first meets Daryl he offers him advice about the women in the building, saying:

"Take my advice when it comes to the women in this building.  Hit it and quit and don't get too attached 'cause all of em ain't nothing but a bunch of gold diggers and whores."

The usually respectful character of Bennie also speaks ill of women,

"Those damn cackling, conniving, low-life wenches on the stoop were half the reason I hadn't been out of my apartment..."

The blatant and unnecessary disrespect of women isn't limited to men though.  Even Krystal gets in on it, referring to other women as whores and belittling her stepmother, Connie, unmercifully.  As I said, the repeated verbal attacks on women made this book difficult to stomach. Some of the story lines were too unbelievable and it seemed quite convenient that some of the characters just happened to live in the same building.  While I usually like Weber's writing, and I know others will disagree, this one was just too far reaching for me and seems to be his worst work to date.

Published: January 2013
Disclosure: Copy of book received from publisher, opinions are my own.

Theme: Theme from "227"

Friday, January 25, 2013

#BookReview: Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits - Laila Lalami #BP2W (Morocco)

Fourteen kilometers separate Morocco from Spain.  Those 14 kilometers can be the difference between living and merely existing.  Though it seems like a minor distance, taking no more than thirty minutes to cross, the two countries are worlds apart. The members of the group that set off for Spain in the six meter inflatable have a variety of reasons for leaving Morocco, but their ultimate goal is to create a better life for themselves.

Having failed her college exams for a second time, an increasingly religious Faten leaves Morocco after narrowly escaping arrest.  With a bachelor's in English Literature, Murad thought he'd easily find a job, but six years after graduation, he's only had one interview and, instead, spends his days trying to convince tourists to let him act as their tour guide.  Aziz leaves behind his wife and mother because he even though has a certificate in repairs, he can't find a job.  Beaten daily by her alcoholic husband who can't hold a job, Halima would gladly pay him for a divorce if it didn't mean leaving her children behind.

Lalami divides the book into before and after.  By doing so, you're not sure who survived the trip.  Even in knowing who survived, you aren't sure if they made it to Spain without incident or if they were deported back to Morocco.  I loved her writing style and characters.  Each one, though very different from another, was equally interesting and likable.  I found myself hoping all of them made to Spain.

Prior to reading this, I never really gave much thought to Morocco and didn't realize it was so close to Spain.  With its large Arabic population and Islamic influence, one can easily forget that it sits on the continent of Africa.

Published: January 2005

Morocco has capitalized on its proximity to Europe and relatively low labor costs to build a diverse, open, market-oriented economy. In 2006 Morocco entered into a bilateral Free Trade Agreement with the United States; it remains the only African country to have one. In 2008 Morocco entered into an Advanced Status agreement with the European Union. Despite Morocco's economic progress, the country suffers from high unemployment and poverty. In 2011, high food and fuel prices strained the government's budget and widened the country's current account deficit. Key economic challenges for Morocco include fighting corruption, reducing government spending, reforming the education system and judiciary, addressing socioeconomic disparities, and building more diverse, higher value-added industries. - CIA World Fact Book

Location: Northern Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Sea, between Algeria & Western Sahara
Size: 446,550 sq km; slightly larger than California
Population: 32,309,239
Ethnic groups: Arab-Berber 99%, other 1%
Languages: Arabic (official), Berber languages (Tamazight (official), Tachelhit, Tarifit), French (often the language of business, government, and diplomacy)

Theme: Hymne Cherifien (Hymn of the Sharif)

Friday, January 18, 2013

#BookReview: The Autobiography of My Mother - Jamaica Kincaid #BP2W (Dominica)

Xuela Claudette Richardson is born the daughter of a Carib woman and a Scottish/African father.  Her mother died during childbirth and the reader is reminded of this, seemingly, at least once a chapter.  The lack of a mother frames all of Xuela's thoughts and she seems to use it as an excuse for how she lives her life. Choosing not to love anyone, not even her father, Xuela comes across as a bitter and lonely individual.

While I know Jamaica Kincaid's work is hailed in certain circles, this book left me exhausted.  The repeated statement about Xuela's mother's death, her disregard and dislike for everyone around her and the supernatural undercurrent wore me out.  The author dwelled entirely too long in childhood and I eagerly anticipated her growing up and maturing.  Instead, I was treated to a rude, older version of the same character.

Initially I picked this book because I thought I might learn something of Dominican culture; however, short of the story being set in Dominica, there was little to learn of the country from the words of the author.  Since I'm obligated to read a book from a different country each week, it was too late to turn back and try another book once I was 50 pages into this one.  But given the opportunity, I would have preferred a different book.

Published: January 1997

Dominica was the last of the Caribbean islands to be colonized by Europeans due chiefly to the fierce resistance of the native Caribs. France ceded possession to Great Britain in 1763, which made the island a colony in 1805. In 1980, two years after independence, Dominica's fortunes improved when a corrupt and tyrannical administration was replaced by that of Mary Eugenia Charles, the first female prime minister in the Caribbean, who remained in office for 15 years. Some 3,000 Carib Indians still living on Dominica are the only pre-Columbian population remaining in the eastern Caribbean. - CIA World Factbook

Location: Caribbean, island between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, about half way between Puerto Rico and Trinidad and Tobago
Size: 751 sq km, slightly more than four times the size of Washington, DC
Population: 73,126
Ethnic groups: Black 86.8%, mixed 8.9%, Carib Amerindian 2.9%, white 0.8%, other 0.7%
Languages: English (official), French patois

Theme: Isle of Beauty  

Friday, January 11, 2013

#BookReview: Kitchen - Banana Yoshimoto #BP2W (Japan)

I knew when I started this challenge that there might be some books I wouldn't get because of cultural differences.  Two weeks in and I've come across that first book.  I really wanted to like Kitchen, but it was strange and otherworldly.  It was a huge hit in Japan though, so perhaps it's just me.

Though the book has one name, it's actually two short stories.  The first, Kitchen, tells the story of Mikage.  Most people have a favorite room in their house and for Mikage, it's the kitchen.  However, it's more than just her favorite room, it's where she feels most comfortable.  So when her last living relative dies and she's offered a chance to move in with a classmate and his crossdressing father, she gladly accepts, based on the level of comfort she feels in their kitchen.

In the second short, Moonlight Shadow, young Satsuki mourns the loss of her boyfriend.  Though she's comforted by the presence of her deceased boyfriend's brother, who dresses in the school uniform of his deceased girlfriend, she longs to see Hitoshi again.  An encounter with a stranger on her morning run offers her that opportunity, but only if everything goes according to plan.

Both stories dealt with death and crossdressing men.  I don't even know what to do with that honestly.  I've not read anything else from the author, so I don't know if these are focused on in her other works.  It just seems strange that both topics would play such prominent roles within the same book.

Published: 1988
In 1603, after decades of civil warfare, the Tokugawa shogunate (a military-led, dynastic government) ushered in a long period of relative political stability and isolation from foreign influence. For more than two centuries this policy enabled Japan to enjoy a flowering of its indigenous culture. Japan opened its ports after signing the Treaty of Kanagawa with the US in 1854 and began to intensively modernize and industrialize. Following three decades of unprecedented growth, Japan's economy experienced a major slowdown starting in the 1990s, but the country remains a major economic power. In March 2011, Japan's strongest-ever earthquake, and an accompanying tsunami, devastated the northeast part of Honshu island, killing thousands and damaging several nuclear power plants. The catastrophe hobbled the country's economy and its energy infrastructure, and tested its ability to deal with humanitarian disasters. - CIA World Factboo

Location: Eastern Asia, island chain between the North Pacific Ocean and the sea of Japan, east of the Korean Peninsula 
Size: 377,915 sq km, slightly smaller than California 
Population: 127,368,088 
Ethnic groups: Japanese 98.5%, Koreans 0.5%, Chinese 0.4%, other 0.6%. Up to 230,000 Brazilians of Japanese origin migrated to Japan in the 1990s to work in industries; some have returned to Brazil (2004)
Languages: Japanese
Theme: Kimigayo

Saturday, January 5, 2013

#BookReview: Zenzele: A Letter for my Daughter - J. Nozipo Maraire #BP2W (Zimbabwe)

"When independence came, we celebrated with tears in our eyes.  We would continue the struggle to ensure that our children received every opportunity of Western privilege...There was nothing that our children asked for that we denied them.  We who had grown up knowing only deprivation, austerity and hard labor.  We wanted only the best for them.  We even sent them to the best private schools with plenty of whites... But it was all in vain.  They have neither respect nor gratitude....these modern children are culturally bleached."

As Zenzele announces her intentions to leave Harare, Zimbabwe for the halls of Harvard, her mother reflects on life lessons that her daughter must know before she leaves for the states.  As the eldest of five children raised by a widowed mother, Zenzele's mother, Shiri, never had the privilege of thinking about global warming or worrying about the starving in Ethiopia.  After all, Zenzele has grown up in Zimbabwe, not Rhodesia, as her mother had.  Shiri is impressed and in awe of this daughter that protests inhumane treatment of others and petitions foreign governments.

Through the letter her mother writes to her, readers are treated to a history of Rhodesia and the fight for independence that resulted in Zimbabwe.  Interesting to note is Shiri's lament that what was envisioned as successful post-colonial life was rooted mostly in material success.  In the rush to claim what colonialists had, the new Zimbabwe adapted the British culture and began to reject their own.

As the children of Zimbabwe go abroad to study, there's the fear that they won't return, as one of Shiri's cousins did, and if they do return, they will have completely forgotten their roots and culture.  The hope is always that they go out in the world and absorb what they can from other cultures and bring it back to their country and continent.  Though she's proud of her, Zenzele's leaving is Shiri's biggest dream and potential nightmare.

I loved this book because even though it was a history lesson, it didn't feel like one.  So many of the lessons that Shiri passes on to Zenzele, and so many of the experiences she speaks about, are similar to those that all mothers pass on their daughters.  Others are lessons that I recognize as those passed on to me, that seem race-specific as an African-American, that I've also passed on to my daughter.  Things such as how to react when you're mistaken for a store clerk when you're obviously not dressed in the store uniform or being talked down to because the assumption is that your skin color means you're intellectually inferior..

There are so many lovely features that shall make you conspicuous among the flock.  One of these is your color.  In our country, you are accustomed to every shade from caramel to charcoal.  Overseas, they do not have an eye for our rainbow.  To them, we are all one burdensome color: black...Let no one define you or your country.

I could go on and on about all of the great nuggets of wisdom that Shiri imparts on Zenzele, but I'm really hoping you'll pick this up and give it a read for yourself.  I can promise you that you won't be disappointed.  And as Bill Cosby used to say on Fat Albert, "You just might learn something."

Published: April 1997

The UK annexed Southern Rhodesia from the [British] South Africa Company in 1923. A 1961 constitution was formulated that favored whites in power. In 1965 the government unilaterally declared its independence, but the UK did not recognize the act and demanded more complete voting rights for the black African majority in the country (then called Rhodesia). UN sanctions and a guerrilla uprising finally led to free elections in 1979 and independence (as Zimbabwe) in 1980. Robert Mugabe, the nation's first prime minister, has been the country's only ruler (as president since 1987) and has dominated the country's political system since independence. - CIA World Factbook

Location: Southern Africa, between South Africa and Zambia
Size: 390,757 sq km, slightly larger than Montana
Population: 12,619,600
Ethnic groups: African 98% (Shona, 82%, Ndebele 14%, other 2%), mixed and Asian 1%, white less than 1%
Languages: English (official), Shona, Sindebele, numerous but other minor tribal dialects

Theme: Blessed Be the Land of Zimbabwe