Sunday, November 25, 2007

The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency

Oh my goodness, I have not enjoyed a book nearly as much as this one in a very long time. I'm talking about the kind of enjoyment that has very little to do with being in suspense or held captive by a story line. I'm talking about good characters that you want to see succeed in life and you desperately want to be real and not fictional. The main character of "The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" by Alexander McCall Smith is Precious Ramotswe and I wish she were my neighbor so we could be best friends. Alas, she lives in Botswana, Africa and with her inheritance from her father, has started up the first detective agency run by a woman in her country. She knows that she'll meet up with skepticism, but it confident in her ability to be a good detective. Mma Ramotswe is clever, insightful, observant, unwavering, determined, and fair-minded. She wears a size 22 dress and has men proposing to her right and left. She doesn't think much of men in general, other than her sweet father, but she tolerates a few kind friends. She's an absolute treasure and one of my favorite protagonists in a long time.

The story is told in such a matter-of-fact way that you find yourself agreeing with everything that goes through Precious' thought processes. The word choices and pacing make you hear the narrative in English with an African accent. There are sections that were laugh-out-loud hilarious and other parts that were desperately sad. The sad parts are when she encounters prejudice and antiquated beliefs in witch doctors and magic. The part that made me laugh for days is when Precious is contemplating a doctor's ability to keep confidences, as opposed to a lawyer who likes to tell jokes at his client's expense. She realizes that she doesn't have all that many interesting secrets anyway, medically speaking, other than corns on her feet and constipation. However, Precious thinks that's a pretty common affliction with enough sufferers to form their own political party. However, what could they accomplish as a political party anyway? They'd try to pass legislation, but fail.

Precious describes an Africa that is both beautiful and desolate. She's an African through and through and doesn't have much patience for her countrymen who sell their African souls to be more American. I wish there were more books like these out there that make people want to see Africa and it's people. It's a beautiful book and there are three more about Precious, so I've got some fun reading ahead of me.

Friday, November 9, 2007

The Frustration that is New Moon

I forced myself to cool off for 24 hours before I wrote my opinion on "New Moon" by Stephenie Meyer for fear of becoming so incensed and irate that Mrs. Meyer's lawyers would come looking for me. I wrote about her first book, "Twilight" and was anxious to read the second, but I'm afraid I don't have nearly enough nice things to say about it. Mostly, it made me frustrated.

The main character (I hate to say heroine, since that implies a backbone), Bella, is still in love with her devoted vampire, Edward. She still wants to become a vampire, and he still refuses to do it. They are still slobbering all over each other and pronouncing their love, until Edward decides he's put her life in danger too many times and convinces her that he doesn't love her any more. Bella buys this lame break-up scene and falls apart. She spends the next seven months existing as a zombie and losing all her friends. Okay, so that's somewhat believable. I knew people like that in high school, but seven months seems pretty long. Bella comes out of it enough to make friends with Jacob, from the first book. This can turn into something real, I tell myself. I start to get excited that we've seen the last of Edward and Bella's spineless swooning. Now, I have to tell you that I have nothing against Edward. I think he's one of the most sensible characters in these books. The person who bugs me is Bella. She's a wuss. She's a great big self-centered mess. She can't possibly imagine why Edward would love her, so she buys the break-up fiction. She uses people for her own ends, mostly to get to Edward. She hurts people right and left. She apparently has no self-esteem to speak of. She needs to be shaken, hard. I think the main thing I hate about her is that everybody always has to take care of her. Bella cannot take care of herself. Don't start thinking I'm some sort of femi-nazi because I don't mind being swept off my feet. What I don't like is that Bella cannot seem to stand up on her own feet at any point in these stories. She's belligerent, impatient, selfish and she can't seem to stop swooning. Make. The. Swooning. Stop.

Jacob I like. He's practical. He's handy to have around. He cares about Bella (who knows why) and tries to look out for her. Bella and Jacob actually have a friendship, which is more than she has with Edward. And Jacob kills vampires. What's not to like?

What I'd like to see happen in the third book is Bella either growing some spine or dying. Jacob finds a really great girl and Edward finds him a little vampire honey so they can be immortal together. If Bella does become able to stand up without falling over, I want her to realize how much better Jacob is for her, but only if Edward is killed or something, because I don't want him to get hurt by Bella. Too bad the third book is already written and I don't have any say in this. Honestly, I half-way cringe at the thought of reading it. Maybe I'll put it off for a few months. I don't know if I can stand any more of Bella hyperventilating.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

The Life of Pi

Since the whole purpose of this blog is to get people talking about books and recommending them to me, I decided it was time to start working on those recommendations. "The Life of Pi" by Yann Martel was recommended by my friend, Jen, and I'm very glad I read it. I'm not sure how I feel about it yet, but I'm glad I read it. It's about a teenage Indian boy, Pi, who is traveling to Canada from India with his family and their assorted zoo animals. His father owned a zoo that he sold to somewhere in Canada, along with many of the animals that they had to transport. At some point in the Pacific Ocean on their journey, the ship sinks and Pi is left on a lifeboat with a hyena, a wounded zebra, an orangutan, and a Bengal tiger. He witnesses the tiger dispatch of the other animals and then has to use his wits to stay alive with a hungry Bengal tiger in a 32 foot lifeboat. It's useful that Pi grew up with a zookeeper father, or else he wouldn't know so many things about animal behavior, particularly tigers.

This is a survival story and I'll spoil it by saying that Pi does live through this ordeal, or else he wouldn't be able to tell the story after. But with this tale comes all the gory detail of surviving. The hyena and tiger are vicious and lethal, according to their nature, and the narrator doesn't leave anything out. By the time he gets to land, Pi has eaten anything he can and in gory detail. I don't have a strong constitution for that sort of thing and found myself skimming those parts as much as possible. But everything is told with such humor! At one point, he gives instructions on how to train a tiger in a lifeboat to stay in his part and recognize your territory. I found myself trying to memorize the instructions, like I would possibly need them someday or something, I don't know. But it was riveting.

The beautiful parts of the story are at the beginning, describing how much he loves the zoo and his own religious conversion. He's raised Hindu, but decides that he also wants to be Christian and Muslim because of the beauty that calls to him from those beliefs. The local religious leaders are dismayed by this, but Pi makes it work. At one point on the boat, he is shocked by something and says, "Jesus, Mary, Muhammad and Vishnu!" He's got everybody covered. He is a brilliant, kind, charming young man who is then subjected to unbelievable horror and adversity. And through it all, his beliefs are unshaken. That was inspiring to me. The whole ordeal left him changed, though, and at one point in the narration he says that a part of him died that has never come alive again.

Can I say that I loved this book? I don't know. I know that I couldn't put it down, that it was the most suspenseful book I have ever read. I know that it made me a firmer believer in the virtue of well-run zoos. I know that it was a beautiful testament of faith. But I don't think I could ever read it again.

Now I'm going to move on to the next book recommended to me. It's about World War I, so I'm hoping it's got less tigers in it. We shall see.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

The Borrowers

My children loved this book. I picked up a copy at a used book sale at the library (a great way to get cheap books, if you're willing to hunt for the good ones) and when I brought it home, they were instantly curious about the tiny people depicted on the front cover. The picture I have posted here is not the same as the cover of my book, but it's the same illustrator, so it'll do. "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton is about a boy who goes to live with his Great-Aunt Sophy around the turn of the century. His family goes home to England after living in India and he comes down with rheumatic fever. He's sent off to the country to rest and there meets the Borrowers. They are a tiny race of people who live under the floor of this old country house. They borrow what they need from the human "beans" and try to stay out of sight. Great-Aunt Sophy knows about them, but since they only decide to show up after she's been drinking, she thinks they are a figment of her intoxicated brain. The boy discovers the Clock family, Pod, Homily and Arrietty, by accident and becomes a friend and helper to them, despite their initial dismay of being "seen." Arrietty is the teenage daughter of Pod and Homily and desperate to see the world outside of the passages under the floor. They are the only Borrowers left in the house since all the other families have emigrated, something Homily refuses to do. It was so fun to hear about how they go about their borrowing and what they do with the things they collect. The illustrations were detailed pen drawings that helped my three-year-old stay interested. All in all, they loved it.

Since the book was published in 1952 and all the action takes place several years before that, some of the language was a mystery to my children, and to me. I didn't have a clue what blotting paper is, but the Borrowers considered it quite a necessity. That didn't stop us or keep it from being enjoyable, though. I went to Wikipedia and read that there are five more books about the Borrowers. We might have to check those out sometime. I also read that there have been some t.v. and movie versions of the book, but when I went to to see if it looked worth watching, I was really disappointed. The plot was nothing like the book, only using the premise of little people living within a house as a common thread. Oh well, movies are never as good as books, so I'm not surprised.

When I was a child, I loved to dream up these sort of things, so it was delightful to re-enter that imaginary world. Part of the fun of reading this book was watching my children's eyes open with amazement. The great part of childhood is that you can thoroughly believe in something like tiny people living within the walls of your house without practicality or realism ruining the fun. After we finished it, I asked my oldest child if she thought the Borrowers were real. She said no, but later, she and her sister were discussing where Borrowers might live in our house. I consider that a sign of a good book.

Friday, November 2, 2007


I've always been a sucker for vampires (har har) and when I found out that "Twilight" by Stephenie Meyer was about my favorite fictional monster, I had to read it. Yes, I also religiously watched "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and "Angel". Yes, I buy vampire teeth every Halloween and give them to my children and we all run around pretending to suck the life out of everything. The cat hates it. Where does this gruesome fascination with vampires come from? Good question, my inquiring reader. In a fit of introspection, I discovered the beginning of my love for the creatures of the night (cue the flashback music, please). When I was in elementary school, I discovered in the non-fiction section of the library a collection of books about the old monster movies from the 30s-50s: Dracula, The Wolfman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Godzilla, The Mummy, King Kong, Frankenstein, etc. I loved these books. They had little bios about the actors, like Bela Lugosi or Lon Cheney and then would describe the basic plot for the movies with photographs. These books fascinated me. I've always liked to be scared, in a spooky, creepy monster kind of way and these books provided that thrill. When these old movies would show up on TBS or something during the day in the summer, I hungrily soaked in the black and white scariness. The thing that frustrated me were the pathetic damsels who were always the victims of these tales. It's a sign of the generation and thinking of the time, but I was so annoyed by their complete lack of gumption. Run, blonde idiot! Can't you see how slow Frankenstein moves? But of all the villains, I loved Dracula best. He was dark and dashing, not freakish or grotesque like his monster fellows. You could see why the blondies stuck around. You could almost hear them thinking, "Hmm, one little bite might not hurt."

Stephenie Meyer's book is a love story, no less. Talk about unrequited love, especially when your true love also wants to suck your blood! It brought back memories of the dashing Dracula, or the brooding Angel, so when I read it, I was expecting something along those lines. It was a fun read, a definite page-turner, very exciting and had some great suspenseful moments. But a love story? Huh. The true love that is touted all over this book is all based on attraction. Buffy loved Angel because he was good! Dracula seduced his victims without any pretense of love! Edward and Bella in "Twilight" are in love because she thinks he's hot and he thinks she smells tasty. Really? That's it? There are two other books in this series, "New Moon" and "Eclipse" so I'm going to give Ms. Meyer a chance to redeem herself. I'm hoping there will be a new love interest, non-vampire related, or the "true love" will turn out to be that for real. Nobody spoil it for me!

While I wait for the other books to get to me from my holds list at the library, I think I'll go watch "Buffy the Musical" again. Nothing like some dancing vampires to perk a girl up.

Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters

If someone asked you to define evolutionary psychology, would you be able to do it? I wouldn't have either, but I have a better idea now after reading this book. "Why Beautiful People Have More Daughters" by Alan S. Miller and Satoshi Kanazawa called out to me because of it's provocative title. It's a Evolutionary Psychology for Dummies handbook, answering questions about human behavior using theories based on this new brand of science. Evolutionary psychology explains human behavior through evolution. Why do men go after younger women? Because they have greater reproductive possibilities, making it possible for men to pass on their genes more successfully. Why are men more violent and predisposed to crime than women? Because their neanderthal ancestors had to compete for mates, making them violent and thus stronger and more appealing to the females. Does the media perpetuate the Barbie image, making women seek after an impossible ideal? Nope, we evolved that way, desiring blonde, curvy, young images on ourselves and others. The media didn't make this an issue any more than our desiring food only because the media bombards us with McDonalds ads.

The authors keep stating over and over again that all because it's true doesn't make it right, that you shouldn't put these ideas into a moral context. The evidence is convincing, but it doesn't excuse bad behavior, or good even. People are more than their evolutionary urges. And the authors don't come across as justifying behaviors, just explaining them. I have my own beliefs on these topics, but I found this book fascinating and thought-provoking, which is really what you want in a book.

By the way, I'm cheating by saying I read this book, when really I skimmed. I read all the theories and introductions, but the book is set up in a question-answer format, so I just picked the more intriguing questions to read. And why do beautiful people have more daughters? Well, that's based on the Standard Social Science Model and a bunch of other stuff that took me a while to understand, so I'm not going to venture into explaining it here. But you should read it, just to have a conversation starter.