Monday, April 25, 2011

From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman

"Gaza Strip gettin' bombed - Obama didn't say shit" - a line from a song by Lupe Fiasco I heard while driving in my brother's car.

This is why I get angry. The world is so painfully uninformed about the Arab-Israeli conflict that even (very talented) rappers, with obviously little foreign policy experience, are commenting on the poor Gazans who suffer in their little cage.

Of course, the history of the Gaza strip is more problematic than that, and I hope you can note the extreme sarcasm I employed in the above statement. I learned part of the Palestinians history in present-day Israel while reading Thomas Friedman's memoir/historical review of his time as a journalist in Beirut and Jerusalem.

This book took me about 3 months to read. While I was reading it, I had to take breaks and read other books...fiction of course...because my brain needed to relax.

The material is heavy. The writing is prize-winning. The content made me angry and want to argue, in fact, sometimes I did even though I knew Friedman couldn't hear me.

It was written from a particular perspective during a particular time period. Often Friedman would write something to the effect that "if such and such doesn't happen, I can't imagine the consequence" or the converse of that. With more than 20 years having passed since the publication of the book, a reader can note if such and such did indeed happen and what the recourse was.

But, I get ahead of myself.

While I criticize Fiasco, I do so in the light of knowledge. This knowledge I gleaned from reading From Beirut to Jerusalem and the knowledge I get from living in Israel. People still describe the Palestinian state in Israel as "occupied". I did not understand how they could consider themselves occupied in lands that were governed by their own Palestinian forces. It is true, they cannot leave the borders of their area, but this is for the safety of every Israeli(Arab, Jew, Christian, whatever) and every visitor to the Holy Land. When the security fence was erected(only 5-10% of which is a stone wall, the rest is fence), it decreased terrorist attacks by 99%. I'm not sure how the percentage stands after the recent terrorist attack in Jerusalem and the murders of the Fogel family in Itamar. Nonetheless, we are safer and they have their place to live.

They could have had more, you know, had they accepted peace at, say, any point. In the beginning, they would have had far more land than the Jews. 63 years later, Israelis have cultivated the land, built infrastructure, irrigated, populated, excavated, and protected their land. In modern times, it's a little too late for the land to change hands.

But, let's go back to the late 1970's when the Palestinian movement was in full swing in Lebanon. Friedman was there to cover the Civil War and was there to witness the massacre of US Marines in the Beirut barracks bombing of 1983. One American told him: "Now, we have some ingenious ways of killing people, but we are restricted by the Geneva Conventions. Well, these people over here never had any conventions." (203) It's a gross overstatement, and yet at the same time, understatement. There are so many good Arab people that to say "they" never had any conventions just plays into the racism and hatred that continues to fuel the fire burning away at peace. On the other hand, those fighting in terrorist regimes do not abide by the Geneva Convention(a 1948 resolution on how we are allowed to fight our enemies) and this, unfortunately, is the presiding belief of most enemies of Arab terrorist regimes. If they will stop at nothing to destroy us, how far must we let them go before destroying them?

Friedman was there was Arafat left Lebanon on a boat, with some of his people, leaving the rest behind to fight for the pleasant existence they had once led before getting involved in fighting. As a leader, Arafat achieved very little for his people, and yet so much for himself.

Friedman was there to see the aftermath of the massacre at Hama in Syria at the hands of the Syrian president to stop a revolt of the Sunni Muslims in the town. Everything was laid wasted. Begin's Israeli army stayed outside the town, neither helping the Syrian forces, nor the Sunni Muslims. It was not Israel's finest hour. Friedman writes of Prime Minister Begin at this time:
"His was a lesson which more than a few Middle Eastern statesmen could learn well: whether you are an Arab or a Jew, you can't heal your grandfather's shame. The dead can never be redeemed - only the living can. He who is fixated on redeeming his father's memory will never see the opportunities of his own world." (177)

THIS is a fundamental principle and problem in the Arab-Israeli conflict. It suits Israelis who are better at moving on, because we've been so successful in the past. But, as I stated before, there were mistakes and there was shame, all caused by trying to "heal grandfather's name". It can't be done. I can no more accept an apology for what the Nazis did to the Jews 70 years ago, than a German teenager can apologize for it. Use any analogy you like, but Friedman is still correct. Peace will only come when we can look at what possibilities we have right now and for the future.

Once Friedman makes it to Jerusalem from Beirut, his whole idea of Israel changes, as has mine in the years I have lived here since I first visited on Birthright. He was infused with a spirit of the idea of a pioneer state called Israel; I was infused by a religious holy land. "It is the place to lose yourself as a Jew." (285) Either way, we both missed a big part of the picture and were left quite puzzled by our misread. He wrote of an encounter he had with an Israeli merchant that I feel totally encompasses at least one of my frustrations with the Israeli/Middle Eastern way of thinking.

He purchased a radio with a warranty. After 9 months, the radio broke. He returned to the merchant. Thee merchant would not accept it.
"Mr. Thomas," he said, "if the radio had broken after one month, or maybe three months, okay, we would have replaced it. But nine months? I'm sorry." "No, no, you don't understand," I said. "This radio has a warranty of one year. One year means one year. It is not optional. It is not at your discretion." He just shook his head again. He did not understand one year. His mind could not see that far, no matter what the Japanese manufacturer told him. By then I had been in Israel too long to try to fight this mentality. in the end, we worked out a complicated Middle Eastern barter deal, which involved me giving him the broken radio and several hundred shekels and getting a brand-new, bigger radio in return."

It's like a big new board game that has no rules. Everyone else has played the game before, except for you and no one explains it right. This is why the West cannot cajole peace in the Middle East. We're playing our own version of a game we don't know the rules to.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Joanne Harris is the same author who wrote Chocolat. I never read that. I never saw the movie. I didn't buy this book because I recognized her other one. I bought it because I liked the font of the title, and the picture on the cover.

Apparently, I'm a simple human.
Me likey. Me buy.

But there is something to be said for attractive advertising of a novel. While sometimes deceiving, in this case, I think it perfectly reflected the tone of the novel. On one hand, it smells like old world and on the other, it confuses: how can there be 5 quarters? Much like the novel, set both in the 1940's and present day, and curious in the way it continually pulls you in, the cover is shows a lovely orange peel in the shape of an S(no apparent relation to the text). The back reads: "When Framboise Simon returns to a small village on the banks of the Loire, the locals do not recognize her as the daughter of the infamous woman they hold responsible for a tragedy during the German occupation years ago."

And I was sold. I'm not sure I even continued reading the rest of the description. The book just got wedged among the other books in my arms at Fresno's Book Nook on Cedar and Herndon(great used book store; I can always find something new).

I traveled back to Israel and the book went on my shelf with about 50 others. After I finished The Zahir, I was in the mood for the same style of book. I wanted something that had a captivating story and a distinctive writing style. I didn't want to work too hard(so non-fiction was out) as were classics that I had on my shelf so one day I might force myself into reading them so I could at least SAY I'd read A Tale of Two Cities(which I have not).

Books call to me. Some have sat years on my shelf, waiting for their moment, but, alas, my life has not yet been right for that book. And sometimes I've recognized it in the first minute of reading it and had to put the book back. There are a few books with marks of where I stopped reading. But not Five Quarters of the Orange. It needed to wait only a few weeks.

I didn't have to look twice over the shelf to grab this one and I settled into my bed, comforter around my chest and began reading.

"When my mother died she left the farm to my brother, Cassis, the fortune in the wine cellar to my sister, Reine-Claude, and to me, the youngest, her album and a two-liter jar containing a single black Perigord truffle, large as a tennis ball, suspende dins unflower oil, that, when uncorked, still relases the rich dank perfume of the forest floor."

I was instantly enraptured. As you are, I'm sure. Now, don't be sad. You can just run your little butt over to the bookstore and buy it. Or if you request it before anyone else, I'll bring it home just for you.

By chapter 3, I was completely engrossed in the book, setting aside meal preparation and classwork grading. Neither upset me too much as Harris winds a twisted tale unlike I've read in a long time. It's a mystery, with dynamic characters who intrigue and an end that, while I saw at least one twist coming, I was still overall surprised and delighted by. The narrator is a character I don't much identify with, and because of this, I was captivated by her choices, as much as I was by the author's choices with her language and plot development. It's the type of book I'd like to write, if I ever had an idea clever enough to develop it into something like Five Quarters of the Orange.

So without giving away much of the plot, because I hate that, I'll leave you with a quote I found...haunting: "My mistake was thinking children were like trees. Prune them back and they'll grow sweeter. Not true. Not true."

Jasper Fforde's "Well of Lost Plots"

The third installation of Fforde's fantastic best selling series is a dynamite hit.

How's that for a high school newspaper lead?

In all seriousness, Fforde's creation of a literary world is ingenious and unsurprisingly fun to read. For literature lovers, this is an escape into the world of the characters we love and know, and even some characters that we hate, and others that haven't yet been published. The leading lady, Thursday Next, is an enterprising agent who began her career in a lower level Special Operations section. She's now moved her way up to a much higher level, except that her husband has been erased and only she and her Grandmother remember him.

Confused? I was too. I read the first chapter a few times over before I really understood how Fforde was writing and what his characters were capable of doing. But, once I start a Fforde book, I can't put it down. I sacrifice sleep if I have to; the books are that good.

You must start out with The Eyre Affair, where Thursday Next must solve a mystery surrounding Charlotte Bronte's novel Jane Eyre. The second, Lost in a Good Book, delves even deeper into the literary world with just a barrel full of silly. Once you've made your way through those two, continue to The Well of Lost Plots. Unfortunately, I don't have the fourth in the series, so I'm stuck without continuing the saga for awhile. But, I do have the first of an offshoot, so if I get really desperate, I can have a little Fforde to sate my appetite for good, not so easy, yet wit-challenging reading.

Now, if that's not a cookie-cutter review, I don't know what is.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The Zahir by Paulo Coehlo

Do you know Paulo Coehlo's self-history? He is one of those people living in our generation that has barely scraped the surface of our collective consciousness and yet, his story is one "for the books" if you will. A few quick highlights: He was born in Brazil in 1947 and wanted to become a writer. His parents did not approve and when they could not stop him from pursuing a writing career, they figured he was mentally ill. He was twice committed to an institution that gave him electro-shock therapy. After he was released, finally, he joined a theater group and began working as a journalist. In 1968, Coelho joined the "hippie" generation of Brazil, but was targeted by the fascist regime that reigned. He was imprisoned and tortured. After he freed, he left his dream of writing and worked for awhile in the music industry writing lyrics. Eventually, he was called to return to writing.

While this is merely a sprinkling of his life's story, there is far more to Paulo Coehlo than the above history or even that this book has to offer. From The Zahir I gained a number of insights, but above of all, I discovered that I would have to go and hunt my own Zahir before I could ever truly understand what Coehlo has written.

The subheading of the novel is: A Novel of Obsession, and I suppose, in one way it's true. But, what I got out of the novel wasn't obsession, it was faith. It was about true love, the kind of love that grows deep roots throughout time, that can weather storms so big and vast you lose each other in the middle, but still find your way back to each other. It's a story about rebirth, about finding your true story, about recapturing love.

I could have underlined every other line in the novel; Coelho has a way of writing words that speak directly to the heart of whomever is reading his words. A random opening of the book leads me to: "...what we need to learn is already there before us, we just have to look around us with respect and attention in order to discover where God is leading us and which step we should take next." (143) And, seriously, that was a random opening of the book. It doesn't stop there though, his wisdom continues: "I also learned a respect for mystery. As Einstein said, God does not play dice with the universe; everything is interconnected and has a meaning. That meaning may remain hidden nearly all the time, but we always know we are close to our true mission on earth when what we are doing is touched with the energy of enthusiasm."

If Coehlo(and Einstein) are correct, does that mean that when the energy of enthusiasm does not touch our lives, we are far from our mission? Where, then, are our periods of learning? Learning cannot always be touched with enthusiasm. The hardest parts of our lives are usually a drought of enthusiasm. But if everything is interconnected and everything has a meaning, then the difficulties in our lives must have a place too. That can't mean we're far away from our mission, but something about the light of our mission has been dimmed. It's either inside of us to make the light come back, or it's God's way of saying that we're in the wrong place.

Unfortunately, Coehlo does not have an answer for that. Or possibly, I haven't yet read his novel that does answer that question. So as I finish editing this post, I am thinking about what exactly my Zahir is. The Zahir is the person, thing or object that gradually takes over our every thought until we are unable to think of anything else. According to Coehlo, it could be a state of holiness or a state of madness. Living in Israel sometimes feels like a state of madness, although I'm sure it's supposed to feel like a state of holiness. Either way, my Zahir is here, somewhere, waiting for me to notice it until I can think of nothing else save obtaining this precious thing.

It's a little overwhelming, and maybe the Zahir doesn't even exist. But, just in case it does, I won't be lending out my copy of this novel any time soon.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Re-read of Graham Greene's 'The Quiet American'

I read this book a second time because I couldn't remember why I liked it. But I had this warm feeling about the first book I ever read set in the foreground of the Vietnam War. 'The Quiet American' predates America's direct involvement in the war and focuses on the years of the 1950's when France was still making "headway".

I wish I had notes from the first time I read the book. I am quite certain that I didn't blame the main character for the outcome at the end. However, upon this second read, I feel like as a reader, I became involved. I felt myself urging him to do this or not to do that. He, of course, proceeded without paying heed to any of my advice. Without giving away the ending, I'm sure that when I read it the first time I felt that his actions were justified because of what he want to pursue, that the ends did, in fact, justify the means.

I'm not so sure now. This second reading made me focus on the treatment of the female character, Phuong and how neither men really loved her, nor did she really love either man. She was 18 and first, the mistress of the Fowler: British journalist, mid-40's, married, but in love, as much as he can be, with Phuong. Enter Pyle: American special ops desk guy before there were special ops desk guys. He's naive about war, and presumptuous about American power. His mistake, his mistaken trust, has a serious consequence. He is certain he loves Phuong, wants to bring her back to the U.S. and make a whole life for them there, but just after the tide of the war turns away from Communism.

There are two real stories being told her: one is a love story, sort of, between 3 people and the other is a story about war, and one's place within it. It should be read; it must be read. It is, in it's own way, a story about the loss of innocence in two ways. Pyle's loss, as though he is a child, growing into adolescence, and really seeing that the world has a lot of bad in it, or at least, about to see that the world is full of evil. The other loss of innocence is when Fowler becomes engaged, and is not longer a spectator in a war that has nothing to do with him. From this point, he can never go back to being just a journalist, and the consequences of this loss will be far greater than what Pyle might suffer.

Phuong is a flat character, and if she has any dynamic qualities, they are hidden by the characteristics of the two men, although I do not find this a misogynistic piece, but rather, scraping against harmony in the way one would expect a woman to feel and act. In that, the story feels hollow, but this is the only exception to a truly exceptional story.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Reading Egypt: A Light Comparison of Two Texts

It's not the ideal way to start a blog post. I don't have any particular interest in the subject of the two books that I read. But it's true. With all the uprising and freedom marches in Egypt, I had an involuntary urge to pull down a specific book from the shelf. I have about 50 books that I haven't read yet, with two or three old favorites mingling with the never been's. I scanned the selection, needing a break from the large "From Beirut to Jerusalem" by Thomas Friedman. My interest in Egypt doesn't exceed the general reading public's, but somehow over time I had collected 2 books on Egypt and then read them back to back. In the last two weeks, I read these two novels about Egypt, although thematically, they are vastly different.

Naturally the Middle East is very interesting to me at this moment in my life because I'm living here amidst all the chaos and hummus and revolution and suppression. But, Israel isn't chaotic or oppressed or amidst revolution, so when the countries around us start to make noise, I listen. While I liked both novels, neither text is about current Egyptian politics or the Muslim Brotherhood, which is what originally prompted me to read the first book. Both novels are filled fantastically with references to real Egyptian kings(as I type this something on t.v. is about an Egyptian symbol for power...weird how things always coalesce) and real Egyptian history. Of course, the kings and history are woven into a fictional story, but each novel was compelling and difficult to put down.

The first novel is The Hidden Oasis. It is set in modern times, mentions Mubarak and a few failed American policies relating to Iraq, as well as the Beirut US barracks bombing(which I had just read about in Friedman's novel). The Egyptologist, in contrast, is set in 3 time periods: late 1910's, 1922 and 1955. The story is told through letters, drawings, cables, and mostly journal entries. There are many story tellers and the story unfolds in a way that isn't entirely unpredictable, but is absolutely clever.

Paul Sussman's "The Hidden Oasis"(a nice, thick distraction while I was laid up in bed) looked like just the right choice. Sussman is a British writer with a wickedly short biography on Wikipedia. He's written two other books; I've read neither and in fact, had never heard of him prior to the reading the text. He has a fourth book coming out and the common thread throughout all his books is Egypt and archaeology. His characters are not consistent through each novel, which I like sometimes because it means he's focusing on the mystery, the history and not the characters. But that's only good for a book that you're reading because you're sick and you don't want to try very hard on extracting something besides pure entertainment from the book. Unfortunately, I found myself skipping over many sections because it felt like I was reading the descriptions for an action scene of a film. I got the distinct impression that he wrote the novel for Nicholas Cage to star in.

I hate Nicholas Cage movies.

After I finished "The Hidden Oasis", I moved onto "The Egyptologist", by Arthur Phillips, educated in Harvard and also writer of 4 novels.

The Egyptologist is really quite a special find. I almost didn't buy it because I was short on dollars. But it was in a used book store and decided to use my credit card. The story is dry sometimes because the details of Ralph Trilipush(a main character)'s digs drone on, but they must because it's a window into the psyche of his character. Phillips masterfully creates several characters whose qualities and inner-struggles are masked and peeled away a thin layer at a time. We are made to feel anger, regret, shame and pain through his characters, as well as revulsion, annoyance, and even, perhaps, a bit of jealousy. I wholeheartedly suggest The Egyptologist and look forward to scouring future second-hand book stores for Prague, Arthur Phillips first novel.

I don't have any books left on Egypt and I'm not rushing out to buy any more at this time, and yet, aside from excellent vocabulary and clever story lines, I am very glad I read them because I was reminded of how much history is at stake in a land at risk because it's current politics are unclear. The Egyptians have such a long, stunning history, and left so much of it behind for us to study. Even as Jew, whose people were enslaved in Egypt thousands of years ago, I can say that I am in awe of Egypt and its history, hopeful that whatever happens there now, it's once proud history of kings and queens and gold and royal cats can at least be preserved, since it is doubtful to be resurrected.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Naked Madonna by Jan Wiese

The cover is a painting of a naked woman, with a little side boob, circa 16th century. Tag line on the cover reads: "...God has not forgotten us...he just lets us go to the devil..." It is a Norwegian novel, translated from the original by Tom Geddes and written in 1990. The story is set in 1989.

I purchased the book at a flea market in Tel Aviv, from a book booth surrounded by vintage clothing. The books were mostly Hebrew, although there were a few German and French novels. I scanned the titles of the English novels and I looked through a few. I bought one novel, which I have already read, called No Retreat. It is a clever British novel about a false future in which Nazi Germany had beaten the Allies and a government had been set up in America, bed its time and 35 years later, sent trained reconnaissance soldiers to take England back from the Germans. It was interesting. I didn't read the back of The Naked Madonna, but I did flip open the cover. There was an inscription, which I love. It read:
For Dear Susana, With love, (name unreadable). September 2000.

I had to buy it.

Before writing my review of the novel, I searched the Internet to find what others thought. Apparently, I am insecure in my own judgment. I found Damien Kelleher, who does roughly what I do, or am attempting to do. In the outset, he rejects the novel as anything remotely worth reading. Naturally, I was taken aback, considering I really enjoyed the book, liked the ending and had basically prepared a package to ship it off to a friend who I knew would feel the same. I continued reading his rather scathing review.

My British inner voice said, "By Jove, I understand why he's hated it. He completely got the plot wrong."

He writes that a painting is discovered in the rubble of a building collapse. On the contrary, the painting is destroyed and the novel is the telling of the narrator's discovery of the painting, it's history and how it led him to be imprisoned. Very captivating introduction, I might add.

The writer uses three voices, the man who rediscovers the painting because he has been reading uncatalogued papers from the depths of the Vatican, a storyteller from the 16th Century and the painter of the painting. Damien Kelleher skips over the storyteller's role, although he is integral to the plot's movement. Upon reading further, Kelleher has diagnosed the novel as one of obsession, whereas I read a theme of forgiveness(for oneself, and others) as a main topic. In fact, were I to write a theme for this novel, it might go something like..."You must first look upon yourself to see you are innocent of all error, before you can accuse and judge another of a mistake." Hubris got many a character into a poor position and the theme is reiterated through each voice in novel, as well as secondary characters. The end, without giving away anything, does not follow the typical pattern of a man learning from this mistakes and everything ends up hunky-dory in the end. The story's original narrator is, after all, imprisoned.

I like books where the author takes liberties with the standard formula of a novel. I like when there is something worth underlining, something I want to go back to read again.

I thought the book was about the philosophy of Catholicism. By the time I got to the third page, I realized it was a novel. Already on the first page, something had caught my eye:

"Yet, I would rather believe that God does exist, but that He has become weary. He no longer wants to hold His hand over the people that He once created in His own image."

Sit for a moment and think about that. It's frightening to those of us who are religious and function based on the idea that some omnipotent being is watching over us, protecting us, listening to us, hurting for us, working for us. On the other hand, it surely explains why the world looks the way it does and how supposedly righteous and godly people can be successful in the world, but be so utterly evil on the inside. Or why truly righteous and godly people are poor and suffer.

Not much has changed, though, in this vein throughout the course of time. So then what are the signs that God is weary of us? I would be weary of this world and what my people had done with it. But I'm not God, and therefore I don't think he becomes weary. He is not suffering time the way we do and he gets to see all the miracles that happen on earth, all of his creation and enjoy it. He's not merely plagued with FOX News, CNN and MSNBC discussing Sarah Palin's latest malfunction, or how another body was found mutilated or some other horrific tale of crime or injustice. He sees the whole picture, and maybe for him, it balances out. Maybe, even, good tips the scales. I like to think they might. Later, Wiese writes, "Faith cannot be explained. It disappears into the light of reason." And so it does.

By the 11th page, I am sucked in. I want to stay up and finish reading it in one night, but I worked early the next day. Nonetheless, I read over half of the book in one sitting.

This line struck me as particularly thoughtful: "I had arrived here after fleeing from myself."
I, too, arrived here because I was fleeing from something, although not myself. Originally, it was my job, a boss I detested. In reflection, I can see that I was fleeing from a life I didn't really want and running toward the life I did. If I ever truly wanted to be Jewish, I had to come to Israel. Although I complain that I feel less Jewish here, I have been forced to redefine who I am as a Jew, and that includes my love and passion for Israel. I was fleeing routine. I was fleeing common. I was fleeing 27 years of exactly the same.

"A man was overwhelmed by desire. He confused it with love." We do this often. We see something(someone) we want and we must possess it. We think we cannot be whole without. Rarely is that true. Often we give up the thing that was making us whole in the first place for a pathetic substitute. I believe this was also expressed in another fashion: The grass is always greener on the other side. In Wiese's novel, this line is the beginning of one fable the storyteller shares which is set in the marketplace of a small town in the mountains of Italy. An idyllic setting, with timeless characters, but told in a way I've never heard before. "I didn't tell him that feelings of love are linked to the moment." His storyteller has much to learn, but is aware of his disconnect with the world. He is aware of his judgment against it, when he, in fact, is the one so deserving of judgment. He's akin to a 16th Century Aesop. Aesop "the Romantic" was, purportedly and according to legend, an ugly slave. But he was kind to a priestess and was given the gift of clever storytelling, which he used to embarrass his master and seduce his wife. Much like the storyteller who easily hands out the morals, but struggles to make right himself.

Another one of the storyteller's morals? "Only things that are freely available become a habit."

A third moral to a different story: "Miracles can happen when you give yourself unreservedly." I think Wiese is convincing the narrator(and perhaps the reader) that there is a God after all, and he is gregariously involved in our lives.

I think Wiese crafts a different kind of novel, one the reader must work a little for to achieve ultimate understanding and the reader must also use his or her reflective skills, because Wiese did not write the tale to entertain. On the contrary, he wrote it to provoke. The painter writes the stories of the storyteller. The storyteller finds his own stories and those of the painter written. He puts them together. The narrator(the imprisoned man) reads the tale, which affects his life and creates a third stream to the tale. Now, the reader is reading the tale of the narrator who read the tale of the storyteller and the painter. What is the reader's part in the text? can only find out for yourself.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

January 14th: What Have I Read So Far?

So far, I've only read one thing: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I was planning on moving on to a classic, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Hemingway. I like to vary my reading: something old, something new, something easy and something non-fiction. But, a colleague from work gave me the rest of the Dragon series and I figured, why not? Usually I like to string a series along so I can enjoy it. That would have been a good idea considering Stieg Larsson will never be giving us a new book although, the mystery of his death could be the subject of another book. I also read that the heroine of his novel, Lisbeth Salander, has just been cast, which means a movie will be shooting soon, which means that people who have not read the series will know what happens before I do. I can't have this, so I must read the novels. It's not exactly bothersome. Larsson has a fantastic imagination. When I write fiction, I use my experiences(many do) as a basis for the plots. If Larsson was using his experiences, he had a wild life. Either way, the plot is compelling. Unfortunately, the English readers are reading a translation.

Unless a translation has been done carefully, there are often grammar and spelling mistakes that go beyond the British spelling of favourite or colour. Sometimes the unfamiliar Swedish names are difficult to follow: Nieminen is a detective, but Niedermann is the bad guy. Modig is a woman, not the name of a troll under a bridge. Figuerola is a tall, blond, muscular and sexy-in-her-own-way kind of a woman. Figuerola should be a fat old man. The hero, a man who should be mid-forties, very attractive with salt and pepper hair, a man you'd be proud to have a fling with, is named Blomkvist. I can't imagine how he got out of elementary school unscarred with that last name. I guess what I'm saying is that sounds of words conjure images for me, and my real complaint is that the sounds of the names do not match with the image presented to me. Anyways, it might just be completely ethnocentric of me because I don't understand the pronunciation of certain combinations of letters. Wadensjoo with two dots over the o's comes out in my head: "Wad-ens-jew". I think of a Japanese man.

Other than that dissonance, and the translation errors, I think it's a fantastic work and a shame that a writer with so much success was never able to enjoy it. I wouldn't and couldn't give anything away dealing with the plot, but he does achieve some fantastic solutions in a short period of time that are easy enough to believe in the cinematic world, but for a plain mystery novel...well, I'd enjoy it a lot less if I stopped to consider how unrealistic it sort of is. I'm not taking notes on writing style; I'm enjoying being swept up in a mystery that stretches over 3 long books.

Ideally, throughout the writing of this blog, there will be passages or phrases that will strike me, cause me to ponder and reflect. The Dragon Girl series will not do that for me. If I can, in fact, make my way through For Whom the Bell Tolls, I imagine I'd be able to do that quite often.

Outstanding books I read in 2010:
The Catcher in the Rye(first time, believe it or not) by J.D. Salinger
The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott
The World to Come by Dana Horn
The Diary of Anais Nin(volumes 1 and 2) by Anais Nin
Beaufort by Ron Leshem
The Demon-Haunted World by Carl Sagan

There were other books that entertained me, but could not be put in that separate category. I re-read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. I enjoyed a book by Cynthia Ahern, There's No Place Like Home, and two of the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde. I put down a book about facism and the fall of a family; I couldn't stomach it. I randomly read a selection out of The Passionate Torah, a collection of articles about the Torah and sex.

I have about fifty novels lining my shelves, some of which have been around a long time, waiting to be read: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places by Le Ly Hayslip, a remnant of a college class I took(Vietnam Lit) in 2004. We didn't make it in time to read the book and I bought it, so I should read it. Plus the instructor, Professor Johnson, introduced me to The Quiet American by Graham Greene(a book I brought to re-read), Indian Country by Phil Caputo and In the Lake of the Woods by Tim O'Brien. Those were three of the best books I read during the pre-requisite stage of my Master's in Literature. So, I feel like I should read Hayslip's book. But a book must call out to me. It must be this book's time. I've had to put down a book when I knew I needed to read it, but not yet. I've had The Winds of War by Herman Wouk and A Tale of Two Cities by Dickens for a long time. Wouk because my mother's father, Popper, loved him and Dickens because it's a classic and I should read it. I just realized I have, in my possession, a book that was recommended to me when I worked at Barnes and Noble bookstores, over ten years ago. A girl, whose name I do not remember, Erin maybe?, suggested The Fountainhead and lent it to me. I never read it, nor did I return it, even though I promised I would. It, too, should be at the top of my list, but it needs to call to me. I must feel the need, be provoked, to read it. Sometimes the provocation is as simple as someone else reading the book and I want to discuss it with them, so I pick it up. That's how I read The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, which should probably be on my favorite 2010 book list.

I'm feeling a little guilty about not returning the book to a girl whose name I can't recall. Also, I'm remembering something that happened once. It still makes me feel bad although I'm not really sure how I was at fault for what happened.

I was at a dinner party and the host was telling me about a great novel he'd just finished: Suite Francois by Irene Nemirovsky. He said I must read it and showed me the book. I understood that he meant to loan it to me. He was a little surprised when I said I'd love to read it and put my hand out. He said he'd just write his name in it and to give it back soon because other people in his family wanted to read it.

I didn't think anything of it until later when a niggling feeling told me he didn't want to lend the book to me. Why? I love books. I'm a literature teacher for godssake. I don't let kids bend the covers or throw them or put them on the floor. What kind of person did he think I was?

Well, I was reading the book in the bathtub and naturally, I dropped it. I've probably done this twice in my life and it was with this precious book, which by the way was not signed by the author, nor was it special or hard to find.

I went to Borders and ordered another in hardback. It had arrived and I was going to return the new one, when he called me on the same morning and asked for it back. It was less than two weeks later and I had continued to read the waterlogged book, but was only halfway through. It's rather dense and a little hard to read. I explained what had happened and said that I would give the book to his son.

He said, "This is why I didn't want to lend you the book in the first place." Obviously, the words stung. I choked back tears, feeling very offended and sorry I had ever asked to borrow the stupid book in the first place. I apologized again, reminded him that he now had a brand new copy and hung up the phone.

Naturally, I couldn't finish reading the book. I had to give it away and even when I see it in a bookstore I feel bad.

I made a small mistake and I corrected it. No one died; no one was even hurt. I have no idea why he needed to make me feel like such an asshole. Someone who knew him told me that he is a jackass in general and not to take it personally. But anyone who knows me, knows that I'm overly-sensitive and it still bothers me 3 years after it happened.

Maybe I should try to find out who I borrowed Fountainhead from.

Or at least read it.