September 28, 2014

The Underground Girls of Kabul by Jenny Nordberg

Imagine living in a society where girls are not valued.  In fact, they are property and subject to the whims of the males in their lives.  Where they go from father to husband and never have a say in what happens.  This isn't a fairytale.   It's a reality in Afghanistan, even after the removal of the Taliban.

When Nordberg goes to Afghanistan she expects to find out about the lives of women.  What she doesn't expect to find is an underground movement of women who are posing as men.  And it's something everybody knows but doesn't speak on.  More commonly found in pre-pubescent girls, it has become custom to turn a girl into a boy either for running errands, helping in a shop, or to give luck that a boy will be born next.  The girls are normally returned to being their birth gender before puberty starts and they are married.  But there are a few exceptions.

It's hard to imagine changing yourself into a different person to be integrated in society and have freedom of movement but that is exactly what happens in Afghan culture.  Whether it is for necessity to survive and get an income or because there is shame from having all girls, the reasons are varied but all widely accepted.  Nordberg does a great job of showing the different personalities of the girls that have been boys for awhile and their history.  It was interesting to read about how they handled the transition back (if they transitioned) and how it set them up for the rest of their lives.  The different reactions of people to her was telling as well, because as a foreigner she had a lot of freedom compared to most, but was still treated differently based on her gender.

The reporting in this book was handled very well.  Nordberg researched, talked to many people, and got the different sides of everything.  Pretty standard, but sadly not something that happens with a lot of journalists anymore.  I think the attention she paid to the leads and as in-depth as she went in her reporting was remarkable.  Especially considering she was in a closed-society that doesn't encourage outsiders to make contact with women.  Sure, it probably helped she was a woman herself, but it's still a difficult culture to navigate and get answers.  Which makes this view pretty important.  Her take of the situation, that not just women should be being helped, but the men who encourage education in women should be helped as well, is an important thought and one frequently overlooked.  And the stories are engaging and well written, done in a professional way but still having a lot of detail.  I could have kept reading if there was more.

I think this is a great book that shows a hidden side of Afghan culture that could be key to improving lives for women over there.  I definitely recommend this book for anyone interested in women's studies or Afghan culture.

**This book was received in a Goodreads Giveaway**

The Underground Girls of Kabul
Copyright 2014
333 pages

September 19, 2014

Big Sky Secrets by Linda Lael Miller

**This book was received as part of the Amazon Vine program**

Linda Lael Miller is one of my favorite romance novelists.  I like her stories, subjects, and the detail she puts into everything.  This book was technically part of a series, but it isn't really necessary to read them in order, it can be read as a standalone book.  It wasn't one of my favorite of hers, but it still kept me reading.

Ria has started a new life.  After the death of her husband she left the west coast for a small flower farm in Montana and now is content growing her flowers and attending the farmers markets.  Her only agitation is her neighbor Landry, who has a buffalo that likes to get loose quite often.  But he's so darn good looking that she can't help but feel more than agitation for him.

The characters were a little weak in this one.  I especially didn't like the plot twist for Ria's dead husband.  It felt like they had to make him a less likable guy in order for her new romance to be ok.  I just didn't see the need for it.  And Ria herself had a couple bouts with her character going crazy.  Add in her niece Quinn that acted more like 12 than 17, and it was somewhat confusing.  That being said, I did like Landry's butler.  While a weird addition to the book, he was a welcome one.  Landry was the typical rich cowboy, he provided a hunky love interest who was good in the sack.  Which for a romance novel is pretty standard.

The plot was ok.  There wasn't that much strife.  And I did think the ending was a little rushed.  I'm also never sure why the end all be all of these romance novels are marriage and a kid.  I'd love to see marriage and perfectly happy without kids, but I don't think romance novels are allowed to be published without that ending.  I did like that the two had sort of a love-hate relationship going and that it took place in Montana.  Miller is also very descriptive so while this book didn't take place over a long period of time, it felt like what was happening was in a regular timeline while reading because you could picture what was happening.  There were descriptive sex scenes in this book, three, right at the end.  So there's a lot of buildup as you can imagine.

Miller's still my favorite but this one fell just a bit flat.  But it was entertaining, and you can't go too wrong with that if you're not expecting fine literature.

Big Sky Secrets
Copyright 2014
376 pages

September 15, 2014

Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse

Sometimes you read about a character you absolutely can't stand or relate to.  But more on that later.  This book was suggested to me, and as I always like a good conversation about books, I told him I would read it.  Hermann Hesse is a pretty well known author, although I've heard said that this book is one of his more misunderstood ones.

Harry Haller is a recluse, a wolf, as he likes to call himself.  He spends his time contemplating poetry, music, books, in the privacy of his own rooms and has never learned to dance nor unleash the more animalistic side of him, despite knowing that it lies dormant within him.  When he meets a woman named Hermine, his world starts to change though.  She introduces him to dancing, pleasures and cheap thrills, and eventually to the magic theatre, where he is taken on a ride so out of the normal that he cannot tell what is real and what is not.

It was interesting, when talking with the friend who suggested this book, to discover just how different he and I viewed Harry Haller.  I viewed him as narcissistic and with a superiority complex.  He viewed him as misunderstood and socially awkward.  I guess it really is true that our own life experiences shape how we view things.  My reasoning for finding Haller narcissistic were a result of his constant moaning about how the upper classes of society didn't understand or appreciate his views on art, literature, etc.  And that dancing, etc. that he secretly was interested in was considering lower class by him and more animalistic, a different side to him.  It was as if he felt himself so superior to either group of people, that he couldn't fit in despite trying.  I just found it a real turn-off.   I also didn't like the way he discarded a certain character once finished with his development of his own character.  It's like learning much from a good book and then setting fire to it when you're done reading.  Destruction with no real purpose.

That being said, if Hesse's intent was to make me dislike Haller then he did a very good job.  The book is descriptive and evokes emotion, if not necessarily the positive kind.  But the first third of a book was a whiney drag to get through.  I got tired of Haller describing himself and his suffering of being alone and it wasn't until Hermine entered the picture that things actually got interesting.  I still didn't like the social interactions he had, but at least there were new characters that offered different perspectives.  The Magic Theatre was also intriguing and the images evoked from the writing were disturbing yet colorful and varied.  It was like having a very vivid nightmare.  I realize that I may not fully understand the emotions or worldview that Hesse was expressing through Haller, but I just couldn't connect with any part of him which made this a difficult read.  It was like looking at a piece of abstract art; it may appeal to some and I can appreciate that the artist had a lot of thoughts and emotions going into the work, but I certainly don't want to hang it in my house.

I think you can be of two minds of this book, you either like it or you don't.  For me, I can't say that I enjoyed it, other than enjoying the debate about the writing and character motivations that came out of it.

Copyright 1927
256 pages

September 01, 2014

Travels with Casey by Benoit Denizet-Lewis

Travels with Casey; one immediately compares the title to the Travels with Charlie written by Steinbeck.  And that's kind of the point.  The author thought about that classic book and then decided to do his own spin on it.  Take his dog on a trip around the country in an RV, but instead of learning about the people, he wanted to learn about the dogs of the country.

Denizet-Lewis never really felt connected to his dog.  Sure he took care of Casey well, made sure he had everything he needed, but he always felt as if maybe Casey didn't want to be his dog.  There just wasn't a connection with him despite several years together.  So on a writing assignment he decides to pack it up and see if being stuck in an RV together will do anything for that connection.  Along the way he'll stop at various points in the US known for Dog Shows, unique dog parks, dog people, and other such things relating to dogs.

Despite this being a book about dogs, Denizet-Lewis encounters several different people as well.  From the guy who will stop at nothing to find a lost dog, to the guy who lives with wolf-dogs, people can be just as different as dog breeds.  Some of them he describes as a bit crazy, but he takes care to show the goodness that they all have and the common bond of dog ownership.  These are all people, that for various reasons, are obsessed with their dogs or helping dogs.  And it's nice to read about that sometimes when there's so much on the news that points to the other directions.  For himself, Denizet-Lewis tells you all about his flaws, but he comes across as a genuinely likable guy. 

I liked the pace of this book.  While there were sections I would have liked to read more on (Best Friends Animal Sanctuary) I think overall the different snippets were enough to keep the book moving along and interesting.  I enjoyed all the different things related to dogs that he found on his travels and didn't know about some of the others (dog shaped hotel, etc.).  The only part I didn't really like was that so much of his personal life and drama invaded the book.  I think it's probably more of a memoir/dog travel book and while there was nothing particularly out there, I guess I just expected it to be more about the dogs and less about his personal anguish.  It was a mix between.  Again, that doesn't mean this book was poorly written, it just wasn't what I expected based on the title.

For those that like memoirs and books about dogs this is probably going to be a good read.  It has enough whimsy mixed with enough serious topics to keep it interesting.

**This book was won in a Goodreads Giveaway**

Travels with Casey
Copyright 2014
309 pages