The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
A lovely, quiet story of the development of a friendship among three unlikely people: the professor who is a mathematical genius but who, since a serious car accident, can only remember things for 80 minutes, so wears notes pinned all over his suit to remind him of important things; the housekeeper sent from an agency who, though uneducated, is quite intelligent and very sympathetic, learning to deal with the professor's forgetfulness and giving him the best care she can; the housekeeper's son who becomes a special joy for the professor. The professor spends his life solving math puzzles and introduces the other two to the beauty of numbers and math, sharing with them also a love of baseball.
January 2011 Archives
The Housekeeper and the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa
Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia , by Michael Korda
The complex and hotly-debated topics related to the involvement of the United States in Middle Eastern affairs have been a fixture of American political discussions for years. Anyone who wants more knowledge and insight into the Middle East will gain greatly from reading Michael Korda's newest work, Hero: The Life and Legend of Lawrence of Arabia. T. E. Lawrence, or Lawrence of Arabia as he is now known as, was one of the most terrifically charismatic figures who shaped early Twentieth Century Middle Eastern history. Lawrence's vital role in organizing and arming Arab armies against the Turkish Ottoman Empire during the First World War was key in defeating the Turks and promoting an Arab identity in the early years of the Twentieth Century. He continued to champion the cause of Middle Eastern countries remaining free of European involvement after the war at various peace conferences that were held by the victors of the war to determine the political future of the Middle East. Korda's skillful and engaging writing style makes his life of Lawrence vividly come alive. He has reconstructed the desert battles with obvious care and meticulous research. Certainly this subject is filled with complicated politics and figures both Middle Eastern and European. Yet, Korda's book is a clearly understandable and engaging reading experience. For those who have never seen, or wish to watch this classic again, the much-lauded movie Lawrence of Arabia is available at the Greenwich Library. Equally, Lawrence's own book about his war years, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, to which Korda frequently refers, is also in the Library's collection.
Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley
Huxley's dystopian novel portrays a world where individuality and independent thought have been all but entirely bred out of society and replaced with an unrelenting need for social conformity. "Everybody belongs to everybody else". Human reproduction (outside of a cloning factory) is disallowed, and the concept of "family" is considered pornographic and pejorative. All forms of self-expression (including love) are deemed irrelevant and counter-productive to the aim of total social stability, and despite some amazing technological and medical advancements, even scientific progress has been subsumed to the cause of merely maintaining the status quo. People's lives consist of menial labor (for which they have been genetically engineered and brainwashed to find at least mildly challenging and interesting insofar as they are made content to keep doing it), sleeping around (everybody is expected to be the village bicycle), watching intellectually low-brow "feelies" (basically movies that appeal to all five physical senses) and playing lots of sports (tennis, anyone?). And for those occasions when such social opiates just aren't enough, there's always the hallucinogenic, hangover-free and state-sanctioned drug soma for taking a holiday from reality. Even death has been denigrated to the point where not even a whiff of fear or curiosity are involved; you die, your basic elements get recycled, and that's it. How can anyone truly care about death (or life, for that matter) when the sum of their lives amounts to so much meaningless action and no sense of self?
I see Huxley's Brave New World as relevant today as ever. It speaks to the dangers of over-reaction, of suppressing everything that makes us individuals just so we can all reach some common equilibrium of contentedness. It also speaks to the fallacy of consuming for the sake of consumption, something to think about the next time you hear some media talking-head nattering on about the health of our nation as relating to how much crap people are buying. And let's not forget propaganda and manipulation of the media, especially in this era of certain media outlets getting away with passing off opinions and outright lies as facts just to serve their own political agendas. Let Huxley's classic and cautionary tale serve as a fresh warning knell for our own day and age.
Matched, by Allyson Condie
The story of Matched begins on Cassia Maria Reyes' seventeenth birthday, which also happens to be the day of her Match Banquet. At the banquet, she will learn the name of the boy the Society has chosen for her to marry. The Society makes most decisions in the lives of its citizens; who they will marry, where they will live and which jobs they will hold, even the day they will die. At first this conformity seems a fair price to pay to live in a safe world where hunger and disease have been eliminated. Eventually Cassie learns that the rules of the Society can be sinister as well as protective and must decide if she is brave enough to make her own choices. This book is the first of a trilogy, but the story stands on its own. This book was included on YALSA's list for Best Fiction for Young Adults 2011 as well as Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers 2011.
Must You Go: My Life with Harold Pinter, by Antonia Fraser
Antonia Fraser, known mainly for writing wonderfully detailed histories of British historical figures and events, has chronicled her life with the esteemed British playwright Harold Pinter with great poignancy, grace and romance in her newest book Must You Go: My Life with Harold Pinter. Fraser and Pinter had brief encounters in the London literary world before their fateful meeting at a dinner party in January, 1975. As Fraser was saying her farewells to Pinter, he turned to her and said "Must you go"? That was the beginning of their loving and dedicated personal relationship. Each was already married with children. But, their lives eventually came together and they had glorious times as a couple who were rarely separated. They appear to have complemented each other perfectly - two writers devoted to their craft. Fraser details their successes and their challenges as they wrote plays and books throughout their 33 year relationship. This is a marvelously charming book! Additionally, the Greenwich Library has much of Fraser's and Pinter's literary output to enjoy. Perhaps a good book to begin exploring Antonia Fraser's work is Mary, Queen of Scots, a terrifically interesting and majestic biography.
The Chocolate Touch, by Skene Catling
John Midas is a normal boy, except that he has an abnormal love for candy, especially chocolate. But when he acquires a magical gift that turns everything his lips touch into chocolate, he finds out that too much of a good thing isn't so great.
Old Man's War, by John Scalzi
Imagine living out your life on Earth well into your golden years in relative peace and normalcy, except that when you turn seventy-five you suddenly have the option of transferring your consciousness to a new, younger body. Sounds terrific, right? The only hitch is that to get your new body you have to enlist in the mysterious Colonial Defense Force for anywhere from two to ten years, and you can never return to Earth. Doesn't sound so bad, considering the traditional alternative of growing older and dealing with the increasing infirmities of advancing age until you eventually expire; and after you leave CDF service they'll even give you a plot of land on a colony world where you can begin an entirely new second life. Still sounds like a pretty good deal, doesn't it? Sure, but once you've joined up and you're all settled into your brand-spanking-new, genetically-engineered and heavily modified bad-ass of a new body, you find out that the universe is a crowded and hostile place and that every xenophobic impulse you might ever have had is about to be entirely validated as you travel to strange new worlds, meet interesting and exotic alien species, and kill them (before they kill you first). Oh, and your chances of survival past a full tour of duty are pretty abysmal. It's still a shot at a brand new life though, and in addition to your arsenal of bio-engineered enhancements and cutting-edge weaponry you have what is probably your greatest asset--seventy-five years' worth of wisdom and life experience to help guide you through the ensuing mayhem. For John Perry, new recruit of the CDF, that might almost be enough...
John Scalzi has crafted an enthralling, fast-paced sci-fi tale with his Hugo-nominated Old Man's War. Readers may pick up strong echoes of Heinlein and Haldeman, but Scalzi borrows concepts from a number of sources (Finley-Day and Gibbons' Rogue Trooper comes immediately to mind) and uses them all to infuse his story with fresh perspective and new twists on some time-tested ideas. The narrative itself is brisk, being light on exposition and heavy on action. This one's a real page-turner.
100 People Who Changed the World, (managing editor, Robert Sullivan)
Anyone who wants a quick review of historical figures should read Life magazine's 100 People Who Changed the World. It provides interesting information on why these people (men and women) were prominent. Not only is it organized chronologically, but it's also organized by profession so the reader can see how each person in the field contributed to his predecessor. Yet, not every contribution had a positive effect on the world. Adolf Hitler is cited because his Holocaust nearly eliminated a whole race. Osama Bin Laden is also cited, and there can be no doubt his actions have effected the world. Fortunately, there were also people like Madame Curie, Alexander Graham Bell, Florence Nightingale and Dr. Benjamin Spock who tilted the scales toward the good. This is a short book with one page devoted to the contributions of each figure. It is concise and well-written. I enjoyed it because it made me look at certain events and people from a different perspective. In some cases, it provided new background information.
School Story, by Andrew Clements
After twelve-year-old Natalie writes a wonderful novel, her friend Zoe helps her devise a scheme to get it accepted at the publishing house where Natalie's mother works as an editor. Natalie uses a pseudonym to write her first book, and her friend, Zoe, pretends to be an agent. With a little help from an English teacher, the book exceeds everyone's expectations and could become a bestseller!
Superman Earth One, written by J. Michael Straczynski ; pencils by Shane Davis ; inks by Sandra Hope ; colors by Barbara Ciardo ; lettered by Rob Leigh
The latest updating of Jerry Siegal and Joe Shuster's classic Superman character, as handled by writer J. Michael Straczynski (Babylon 5), artist Shane Davis and company, can be found in the YA-friendly graphic novel Superman Earth One. Straczynski, with considerable help from Davis, retells the origin story of Superman, keeping to the already established backstory of the character Kal-El, sole survivor of the planet Krypton, raised by the Kents, meets Lois Lane, Jimmy Olsen, Perry White and works at the Daily Planet newspaper as reporter Clark Kent when not in costume, but adds more shading and motivation to the Man of Steel and his supporting cast. The book focuses on Clark arriving in Metropolis looking for work that he can use his super skills for (we discover Clark's very adept in both the sciences and, obviously due to his powers, sports). Meanwhile, via flashbacks to his growing up on the Kents' farm, Clark's also struggling with how he can use his powers while not violating the moral values his foster parents instilled in him. Subsequent encounters with the greedy head of a scientific research firm, Perry, Lois and Jimmy at the Planet office, and a frightening worldwide alien invasion that may be linked to the earlier destruction of his home planet, all provide Clark with more than enough incentive to put on the familiar (though slightly tweaked by Davis) red-and-blue costume and cape.
Straczynski and company do a lot of updating/rebooting with Superman and his cast. Besides acknowledging today's current scientific advances and social atmosphere (the military's had an ongoing secret investigation on alien technology that began over two decades ago the night baby Kal-El first arrived on Earth; Perry worries that the Internet will put the Daily Planet out of business), Straczynski and his collaborators take a more mature approach than previous writers and artists had. For example, one reason Clark decides to join the Planet is seeing the selfless bravery shown by Lois and Jimmy during the invasion. (In a previous reboot during the 80s, a more immature Clark only became a reporter because he went ga-ga over Lois.) Also, US Military Intelligence wants to learn more about--and possibly capture/experiment on--this mysterious Superman. The general public is depicted being divided over whether to trust Superman or not. And even better, Straczynski avoids, on this outing at least, bringing in the overused and frankly more-annoying-than-interesting Lex Luthor, instead giving our hero foes more worthy of his abilities.
The story's pacing never flags, and Davis' art complements the script, although there are one or two flaws. For example, did Tyrell, the leader of the alien invasion force, really have to resemble Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight? Toppling skyscrapers and threatening to destroy the Earth wasn't enough to show how evil he was? Otherwise, Superman Earth One is a terrific and sensible updating of a classic American icon for modern audiences. Can't wait for the sequel.
Spies of the Balkans, by Alan Furst
World War II has always been a treasure chest of intriguing scenarios for novelists. Alan Furst has carved out a much-admired niche for himself as a writer of World War II espionage fiction. His latest book, Spies of the Balkans, is a gripping tale set in the early days of the war, before the Germans invaded, in Salonika, Greece. Costa Zannis, a policeman on the force in Salonika, is faced with many puzzling situations related to the real possibility that war will soon come to his homeland. He becomes involved in a network that smuggles Jewish refugees from Germany to freedom in Turkey. Spies, possibly for the Allies or Axis, could be lurking all over Salonika and he tries to unmask the true intentions of these sinister characters. The weak-willed Italians attempt an invasion of Greece, but Zannis and his fellow Greeks defeat them. Then Zannis realizes the Germans will come and he must formulate plans as to how he will protect his family as well as fight the Germans. Spies of the Balkans is a great story and Furst creates an atmosphere of suspense and intrigue in Greece and has populated his book with wonderfully human characters who are facing the German onslaught. This book is highly recommended.