Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Book Review: New York

Image result for new york rutherfurd"New York" written by Edward Rutherford was a fascinating read, even for historical fiction. This genre can be tricky to write sometimes because authors will weigh heavy on history or heavy on fiction and the one or the other is left lacking. But I felt none of that, which is notable, because this book spans a whopping 400 years. Rutherford successfully mixes fictional and real characters to create a fantastic history of the city, making the city itself one of the most, captivating characters in the novel.

Beginning in New Amsterdam, in 1664, we are introduced to Dirk vanDyck, a Dutchman and his relationship with the local indian tribes who originally inhabited the area. From there, we begin to follow the Master family and they live in the city of New York through all its history and happenings. 

It covers a lot of ground and I guess if I had one complaint, it would be that I forgot sometimes where I was and who was who, who begat who and so forth.  Sometimes I would think, "Man, that happened 100 years ago." And it did. The novel covers a lot of ground. When I decided to not let that bother me anymore, I became absorbed by the story of this family. 

It was so interesting to read about the back and forth of politics in the early stages of America (before it was the United States) particularly with France, England and the New World. One of my favorite parts was the Revolutionary War. The complicated relationships between the federalists and loyalists, especially among family members was so interesting. I particularly loved the Master family throughout this portion of the novel. The family relationships were honest and gave me a perspective I had never really thought about before.

Beyond the revolutionary war, we read about slavery, the civil war, war draft riots, financial troubles, the great depression, hippie movements, immigrants and the list goes on. In fact, there is not much that is not mentioned. There were all sorts of tidbits about architecture, art, theater, finance, politics, weather. Although I'm sure I missed a lot because I know a lot, what I did catch was so interesting. 

The fictional family is fun to read about. Their relationships are complicated and not always pretty. There are happy marriages as well as love affairs, undisciplined, disobedient children and honest, respectful relationships. I came to enjoy the family very much and was very interested in where history (their future) would lead them. Without that interest, the novel would have flopped.

The story ends on 9/11, when the twin towers fell. The more current parts of the novel seem to move more quickly to get to the end, and aren't quite as interesting as the previous parts. Maybe because I live in this world and I know what's coming. It is still a satisfying ending, though, with a great connection to the early chapters of the book. Overall, I came to admire and enjoy the Master family and would love to book a ticket for New York.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Book Review: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Image result for the no1 ladies' detective agencyI just finished reading The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith. It had been highly recommended and had been on my reading list for quite some time. Unfortunately, I think it was a case of expectations that were set too high because of the recommendation and anticipation. Don’t get me wrong, the book was great but did not meet the possibly unrealistic expectation I had for it. It just felt really disjointed with no solid development.

The book is about Precious Ramotswe, a private detective in Botswana. I was expecting a good mystery story. She is a private detective after all. I was confused at first, that we learned so much about her past, her father and upbringing, her indiscretions and challenges. After I realized the nature of the book, I started to enjoy it more. There are passages that are so beautiful in imagery, describing the landscape of Africa and the community in which Precious lives. I always enjoy reading about other cultures and countries. All the background sets the stage for nice character development in Precious.
However, Precious is one of the only characters I feel is adequately developed. Most of the other characters are the clients that come into the agency. Though the cases are entertaining enough, I don’t feel like they propelled the story in any real direction. And the final case, made reference to early on in an ambiguous story, not related to anything at all, really, feels empty because the connections and development were never very deep.
Beyond that, though, there were several parts that I really enjoyed. One was the attitude regarding the value of a woman.  A cousin raised Precious during the early years of her life. She was a meticulous teacher at home. By the time Precious started school, at age 6, she would have been considered very gifted, by our standards. In response to all this mothering, educating and nurturing, Obed, Precious’s father “had thanked her, and done so often, and generously, but it had not occurred to him to praise her, because in his view she was just doing her duty as a woman and there was nothing special about that.

“We are the ones who first ploughed the earth when Modise (God) made it,” ran an old Setswana poem. “We were the ones who made the food. We are the ones who look after the men when they are little boys, when they are young men, when they are old and about to die. We are always there. But we are just women, and nobody sees us.”

I think that may be a common attitude towards women, especially in certain cultures. I’m grateful that I don’t have to deal with that kind of mentality here and now. How draining.

 Another part I thought was hilarious was this. Precious is talking about the sense of confidentiality that doctors have, something she feels she has that in common with them, being a private detective. She reflects on how she doesn’t really have anything to hide anyway. Then she admits, “Now constipation was quite a different matter. It would be dreadful for the whole world to know about troubles of that nature. She felt terribly sorry for people who suffered from constipation, and she knew that there were many who did. There were probably enough of them to form a political party – with a chance of government perhaps – but what would such a party do if it was in power? Nothing, she imagined. It would try to pass legislation, but would fail.”

Besides Precious, the only other character who really mattered at all was her friend, a mechanic, J.L.B. Matekoni. The love story between the two, at least from his point of view, is so humble and genuine. I wanted to know more about him. 

There were occasional nuggets of gold thrown out, thoughts that caused me to think and added depth of character and emotion. For example, this one regarding the challenges facing Africa.“There was so much suffering in Africa that it was tempting just to shrug your shoulders and walk away. But you can’t do that, she thought. You just can’t.” But the nuggets were just too few and far between without enough development of character to hold me over. They just made me wish for more of something that wasn't there.

It was a fine book. I'm glad I read it. But I'm not racing to get the next one in the series because I don't feel connection to any characters or storyline. Recommendation: 3/5.