Monthly Archives: September 2010

Leaving Microsoft to Change the World, John Wood

This is one of those books that I was so desperate to read that when I saw someone that I barely know holding a copy I almost pounced upon them and snatched it from their little hands before asking, ever so politely, if I could please please please please please read it.

I’ll explain my desperation before I broach the book itself. Firstly, I love the title … I am not sure if Wood intended the double meaning, but it’s there and it’s fabulous. Did Wood leave Microsoft, as in resign, or did he stay at Microsoft and allow it (the company) to change the world? It’s an interesting question and in some ways Wood did both!

Secondly, after encountering Wood’s organisation Room To Read, how could anyone not be hooked on this journey? The website’s ‘Can You Read This?’ is a signpost for its mission to enable young people in underdeveloped nations to have access to the written word.

I have to confess that I first encountered John Wood on Oprah. On stage he is dynamic, fabulously entertaining and passionate. In a nutshell, his story is this: high powered Microsoft executive takes a well deserved holiday to Nepal after 9 years of solid work, no holiday, happens upon a school with barely a book in a dedicated room for a ‘library’ and is captured by a mission to provide libraries and education to people, first in Nepal and then around the world.

While the tale itself is admirable, the way that Wood recounts his journey into the world of charitable organisations is equally fascinating. Wood’s account in this book illustrates his own brilliance. He establishes this awe inspiring organisation like a business and through it realises his own dream and the dreams of literally hundreds and thousands of people in the developing world. To top it all off, Wood writes well and so this book is actually quite entertaining reading as well.

Wood is not an educationalist. What he knows is that knowledge is power and the only way to break the cycle of poverty in the developing world is to empower people to help themselves. He provides these people with the tools to do that.

This is an inspirational and much recommended book.

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Room: A Novel

This is one of those incredible books that is too scary to contemplate. Room is narrated from the perspective of a 5 year old boy whose mother is abducted 7 years prior to the narrative and held captive in a room. After several years in captivity she gives birth to a son who becomes her reason for living, for surviving.

In this masterful story, Donoghue describes with enormous tenderness the impact of living in a vacuum, the manner in which one’s life is literally written and written upon by the forces around us, the very essence of the enormous impact of nature on our identities.

For our little protagonist, Jack, Room consists of Table, Chair, Bed, amongst other things. There are no windows in Room, only a skylight. Within Jack’s limited world he learns about creativity and about love. Everything he knows he can touch and experience directly. He believes that the characters on the television are his friends – make believe individuals there to play with.

When Jack’s mother finally tells him that there is indeed a world outside of Room he thinks that she is joking, that it is impossible. It takes her quite some time to convince him that she is telling the truth and then to construct a means for them to escape.

Jack is a brave, inspiring protagonist, despite his young age. He is tenacious, driven and curious, and at the same time, terribly afraid (scave – brave and scared at the same time). The chaos of Outside descends on a Jack and his mother with a rapidity that neither can digest. On one level the result of this is that readers get glimpses of the insanity of our world with its many distractions and burdens, on another level altogether, we appreciate the intensity of Jack’s connection with his mother and her connection to him.

This book is magical. It brings to readers the pure joy associated with simple things and it expresses, with clarity, the manner in which we overburden our lives with mundane excesses. There is no doubt that Jack is a hero, a hero on many different levels.

If you read one book this year, this should be it.

Read Room now!

Solar, Ian McEwan

I have read quite a few of McEwan’s previous novels – Atonement and Amsterdam amongst my favourites – and I was thrilled to see that he had a new one. I was dismayed when a few of the reviews that I read were far from glorifying and so I hesitated to plunge into McEwan’s latest work, Solar. Andrew Riemer has some good things to say about Solar, but he is disappointed and so I expected to feel equally so.

However, I was pleasantly surprised to find Solar an exceptionally well written book with wonderful asides and intriguing characters. The New  York Times calls this book McEwan’s funniest novel yet and while there were moments which were indeed funny, overall this book is actually quite sad. In fact, the comic elements are at the root of The Guardian’s criticism of this text:

The protagonist “emerges as a figure of some comic dynamism, but the pages on his childhood and youth, though brilliantly done, articulate poorly with the knockabout parts of the plot. Once it became clear that the book’s world is comic, I also found myself wondering if it wouldn’t have benefited from being more loosely assembled, with shorter, discontinuous episodes and Beard functioning along the lines of Updike’s Bech, Nabokov’s Pnin or the consciousness in Calvino’s Cosmicomics.”

For me, the balance between McEwan’s comic depiction of his protagonist, Michael Beard, and Beard’s own satirical musing about the dilapidated state of his own existence, worked and I found myself constantly surprised by the manner in which McEwan managed to blend these two contrary states together.

In short, the book is about a physicist who wins a Nobel Prize for a piece of research that he published on the back of some theory of Einstein’s. Ultimately, said physicist produces no other work of consequences and he himself knows that his Nobel Prize win was more of a coincidence than anything related to the value of his academic contribution. The book opens with him on the brink of his fifth divorce, accepting his fate, the figurative head of a government organisation concerned with the development of wind turbines as a new fuel source, about to be thrust into environmental issues with which he really has no concern. Beard is a character who is as gluttonous in his personality as he is in his eating habits. He is, on all levels, grotesque and readers will struggle to feel any empathy for his situation. Where the novel becomes an interesting reading experience is in the manner that McEwan wins over readers who grow to feel for Beard as his unfortunate life unfolds. There is no doubt that this protagonist is somewhat of a metaphor for the state that man might find himself as he approaches middle age (the  Guardian claims that Beard is a metaphor  for humanity but for me, this book is so clearly masculine in its perspective that it is difficult to make such a sweeping statement). In essence, it is a sad metaphor, encapsulated best by Beard’s need to hold to on to his mould-ridden, decrepit apartment which he actually can’t stand but at the same time is too pathetic to have repaired. At this level, it is ironic that Beard becomes concerned with the harnessing of solar power as an energy source – clearly Beard himself is far from a source of light or inspiration! And perhaps this is McEwan’s message … that light can come from the most unlikely places …

Revealing anything more would involve spoiling this book. So, I will leave you with this: Solar is a spectacularly written book, something to be savoured and enjoyed. It is filled with so many diverse elements that it is difficult to capture in such a short space. Readers will find themselves laughing on one page and cringing with discomfort on the next.

I can highly recommend this one to any discerning reader. Hats off to McEwan. Again!

The Pawn

This was one of those free books that I downloaded from Amazon for Kindle’s website. It’s a thriller and the first in a series about Dr Patrick Bowers. The simple fact that the book was free made it already a winner in my book!

Rather than spoil it for you all, I’ll simply say that this was a fantastic thriller. I was gripped, hooked, captured by the plot and the characters. When I thought I had it all figured out, there was a fabulous twist that I didn’t expect.

A great thriller for those who like this genre!

Almost Dead

What does one say about Assaf Gavron’s book ‘Almost Dead’? I’ve been pondering this review for a few days now. It is such a complex and disturbing text that it is difficult to know where to begin and whether, indeed, the author has achieved any sort of textual integrity in this text.

To start with, the book’s premise itself is complex – half the text is devoted to the narrative of an Israeli who narrowly escapes from three terrorist attacks in one week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The other half of the book tells the story of the brother of the mastermind behind these attacks who has been coaxed into joining the struggle and enlisted to perform the final attack much against his will and his conscience. If this isn’t a challenging enough structure, Gavron complicates things further by narrating the Arab protagonist in a series of stream of consciousness recollections for, as readers discover through the telling, he is in a coma following his failed final attack.

Behind this complex dialogue between Arab and Israeli, thrown in the mix are a romance, friendship and a bit of detective work.

It is a lot to cover and for the first part of the book I was unsure if the author was going to meet this challenge. I actually found myself wondering if I had missed something central, feeling lost in the confusion of the various strands of narratives and the way they were woven together.

However, by the end of this tale, I was hooked. Gavron has achieved something monumental here and I was enthralled to read the internal thoughts of these characters. Interestingly, I think that he captured the Arab protagonist with more clarity than he did the Israeli who seemed far more self absorbed and concerned with his emotions than his counterpart. In itself this is an interesting comment to make about Israeli society which perhaps has the freedom to be self absorbed.

Strangely enough I found these characters to be very believable and this story itself not too far fetched. But, it is a weighty subject and although captivating, quite disturbing. Readers would have to be in the right frame of mind to tackle this one, but well worth it I would say!

Click here to buy from Amazon: Almost Dead: A Novel

Room

Has anyone read Room: A Novel
? Sounds fascinating!

Reviewing!

Check out this publisher – I am hoping to be reviewing for them soon on my blog!

How absolutely exciting.

The Landlord, Wells Tower

Unbeknown to me, Wells Tower is a Canadian born writer just one year older than me. He is well published and recognized for his talents.

His story, The Landlord, featured in The New Yorker’s special section on writers under 40, had many good points. The characters were quite solidly sculpted and the tone of the narrative was believable. The story flowed relatively well and was engaging enough that I made to the end without getting distracted by the other books that I am reading.

However (there’s always a but), in many ways, this story clarified for me why I don’t like short stories. The protagonist, a property owner heading toward financial disaster, has relationships with all these diverse characters who aren’t fully realised – both in terms of their identities and in terms of the relationships themselves. There is the carpenter, Todd Toole, a loathsome individual, recognised as vulgar and irritating and his apprentice Jason, young and naive. There is the protagonist’s daughter, Rhoda, a strangely disturbed individual, who we gather has many buried issues which would clearly benefit from further exploration. She is an unfinished character and her relationship with her father is unsatisfactorily explored. The protagonist realises this and comments on it and perhaps it is a way for Tower to explore the very complexity that haunts this father/daughter disconnect. However, for the reader, it leaves too much lacking.

The most interesting of all the characters in this story is the first one that we meet: Armando Colón.

At ten-thirty, Armando Colón comes to my office. It lifts my mood to see him. Armando lives in one of the worst properties I own, an apartment complex so rife with mold and vermin that, when I sent a man to clean a vacant unit there, he developed an eye infection that didn’t clear up for a month. You would never know it to look at Armando. His shirt is crisp, his stomach is trim, and his hairline is freshly razored into aristocratic darts. He operates a squeezeball with his right hand. His cologne, applied with restraint, has a wholesome cedar scent, and his presence in the stale air of my office is a force of orderliness and industry.

Colón is a fascinating character. The way that Tower describes him is intriguing and I was immediately captivated by the possibilities of his contribution to this narrative. Unfortunately, after his appearance in the opening, he disappears – quite literally. His absence almost becomes a signifier of something deeper that is occurring in the protagonist’s life at large …

There is no doubt that this story is well written and in terms of language and structure it is worth the read. Yet, for me, it left me wanting more … more substance, more texture, more emotion. I am not sure if this makes sense … perhaps if you read the story you’ll be able to add to my comments …

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/fiction/features/2010/09/13/100913fi_fiction_tower?currentPage=all#ixzz0zVGsgnu6

Birdsong

I know that I have stated elsewhere that short stories are not really my thing, that I have not managed to find them engaging. Well, The New Yorker magazine seems to have conspired to encourage me to revisit this genre with their 20 under 40 feature.

I was captivated immediately by Adichie, a favourite of mine, and her short story Birdsong. Adichie is a fabulous writer, renown for engaging with complex and confronting themes, weaving them through her narratives with awe inspiring skill. Her work almost always deals with the position of women, projecting a feminist bent that is clearly part of Adiche’s subtextual intent.

This story is classic Adichie. Set in Lagos, the tale follows the plight of a young woman romantically involved with a wealthy married man. Pushed into the shadows of the margin, quite literally, this woman is subjected to the humiliation of the secrecy surrounding her relationship with this man that readers know only as “my lover”. She is positioned in this way as the unrecognized Other, existing only for her lover on his terms, fashioned out of his language and expectations.

Adichie manufactures this tale around two tenses: the present tense where the female protagonist is trapped in traffic and the past, where she recollects her involvement with “her lover” and the humiliation that it left her with. This structure and the swift switches between past and present facilitate the type of musing which leaves readers reflecting upon the decisions that we make and the manner in which they impact upon our lives. As the protagonist recounts, she is far more aggressive in the present than she was in the past and this implies an underlying process of self development and self confidence in her identity and her position: “we know the rules and we follow them, and we never make room for things we might not have imagined. We close the door too soon.”

Adichie’s language in this story is so intricate that the reader cannot help but be totally immersed in every aspect of the narrative, overwhelmed by the raw emotions of the characters. When the protagonist feels “as though bits of my skin had warped and cracked and peeled off leaving patches of raw flesh so agonizingly painful I did not know what to do” the reader feels it too. When she realises with stark clarity the reality of the “rituals of distrust” that surround her relationship with her lover and in turn with herself, readers are equally moved to empathize with her struggle.

By the story’s end, readers desperately want this protagonist to leap out of her car in the traffic jam and proclaim herself, her feminity, her magnificence, for all the world to see. In some small way, the telling of this story is Adichie’s own proclamation.

A must read.

“Birdsong”: newyorker.com.

“Birdsong”: newyorker.com

Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche, another of my favourite authors. If you enjoy her work then you will love this short story: “Birdsong”: newyorker.com.

More on this later!