my challenges

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Codex 632

Codex 632, by Jose Rodrigues Dos Santos.

This book follows, in novel form, the exploration of who really discovered America and who the man known to the world as Christopher Columbus truly was.  The book opens with the death of a historian who has just discovered explosive information regarding Columbus, information that will change the world's view of the discovery of America, and follows the efforts --ultimately successful -- of a second historian to disentangle and decode the first man's research and find out what he had learned before his untimely death.

This books has elements of the Da Vinci Code in it, but really is much more intellectual than the Da Vinci Code.  If you are not prepared to wade through a large amount of scholarly writing, then this book is probably not for you.  Personally, I found it fascinating and eye opening.  Not only did it involve puzzles and riddles, as well as an interesting plot line, it also educated me on code-breaking, kabbalism, and above all on the age of discovery and Christopher Columbus.  I admit that this book may take a bit of work to get through, but I found it worth every second and every ounce of mental effort.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.  5 out of 5. 

The Search for God and Guinness

The Search for God and Guinness, by Stephen Mansfield.

Surprisingly, I had a very difficult time finding a book about Ireland that I could get through, starting and discarding three others before stumbling upon this delightful gem.  Perhaps it is because after living in Ireland for a number of years my tolerance for stereotypes and cutesy-quaint language and dialogue that has nothing to do with reality is very low.  In any event, I am delighted that I persevered, because this book was worth the effort of finding it.

Ostensibly telling the story of the world-famous Guinness brewery from its humble beginnings to its modern-day, market-dominating position, it also tells the story of the Guinness family.  In particular, the book highlights the social activism and social conscience of the family that has kept it ahead of the curve throughout the centuries and has made it consistently the best place to work in Ireland and throughout the world.  It is an inspiring and story and a fascinating one, and I stormed through it in just a couple of evenings of reading.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it heartily to all as an eye-opening glimpse into an astonishing family and business.  Five out of five. 

Bullets on the Water

Bullets on the Water, by Ivaylo Grouev.

I have discovered that it is almost impossible in the United States to find a book about Moldova, unless you want to read a tourist guidebook, which really seems like cheating for purposes of the European Reading Contest.  Finally, in desperation, I resorted to this book, a series of first-person narratives from recent (at the time the book was compiled) immigrants to Canada, one of whom is from Moldova.

It should be noted up front that this book was compiled in the early to mid-nineties, and is therefore twenty years old.  Surprisingly, perhaps, it seems every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first published.  The range of countries represented is the same range that are found in immigrants today, for the most part.

There were some immediate similarities between all of the different narratives that I found very interesting.  In the first place, virtually all of the immigrants came originally from well-to-do families, with a few notable exceptions.  That suggests that those able to immigrate in today's world are for the most part those that have money to support their leap from known to unknown.  More interesting still, virtually all of the immigrants experienced deep unhappiness, loneliness, and a sense of being misunderstood, stereotyped, ignored in their new home.  Only a few expressed optimism.  It was eye-opening, as initially I expected most of the new Canadian citizens to be happy and somewhat carefree, being at last out of the terrible environments that had caused them to flee their homelands for a new life.  Clearly this is not the case, and after consideration this actually makes good sense.  After all, often their education, work history, and life experiences don't directly translate to what is needed to succeed in Canada or the USA, and the frequent language barrier makes isolation probable rather than possible.

Overall I enjoyed this book and found it extremely informative in an increasingly shrinking world.  I would recommend it heartily.  4 out of 5.

The Pieces from Berlin

The Pieces from Berlin, by Michael Pye.

It was a good thing that I read the back cover of this book for a plot synopsis before starting it, or I never would have figured out what was going on.  This book ostensibly tells the story of a woman who takes in property from German Jews facing imminent deportation to death camps, and then absconds with it to Switzerland at the end of the war, setting up shop as an antiques dealer.  Some fifty years later, a survivor discovers one of their beloved possessions in the shop window, and justice must be done.  That was the story I expected to read, and it sounded plausible and interesting, a unique way of exploring what had happened to the owners of the stolen items.  That was not the story I got, however.  At least, not in any linear, understandable, enlightening form.  Instead, the author hops from one person's perspective to another's, one time period to another, with no warnings or road maps, and sometimes it is not even clear who is doing the talking.

There were a few interesting sections, those sections told from the thief's perspective during the events in question, and those sections told from her son's perspective during the war years.  Otherwise, however, I found very little redeeming in this book.  The characters, for the most part, were so underdeveloped that it was hard to sympathize with them or care about what was happening to them, and there was no real sense of "country," of the book being about Germans as opposed to any other nationality living through the war years.  Even the scenery described, with the exception of some of the rural Swiss locales, was relatively generic.  This book was a huge disappointment, one I expected to love and had high hopes for, and which instead I ended up utterly indifferent to.  As a result, I find I can't really recommend this book, and give it a 1.5 out of 5.

Small Wars

Small Wars, by Sadie Jones.

This book explores the effect that war, and in particular war through terrorism, has on a relationship, and on the individuals, through the experiences of a young family living uneasily and unwillingly in Cyprus in the 1950's after having been posted there by the British military.  This book is much more a picture of what happens mentally, emotionally, and psychologically to a person when they are surrounded by silent menace that can strike with deadly results at any time, than it is an event-based narrative.  I generally do not enjoy this sort of book, as I prefer more action in my entertainment.  This book was not really an exception to that general rule.  I didn't dislike the book, and ultimately I found it rather enlightening, but it was not a fast or easy read by any means.  I felt as if I were slogging through mud, a lot of the time, forcing myself on for the sake of finding out how it ended, without really much caring.  Adding to my difficulty in getting through this book was the fact that the only character that I found endearing and sympathetic, to whom I could relate, was a minor character introduced 2/3 of the way through the book and killed off quickly.  Overall, this book was a disappointment, and I found it largely tedious and the characters more annoying that sympathetic.  I will say that if you enjoy books that take place more within the heads of the characters than in their physical actions, this may well be the perfect book for you.  3 out of 5.

Apples Are from Kazakhstan

Apples Are From Kazakhstan, by Christopher Robbins.
 The following review is from  I went there to get a helping hand with describing this wide-ranging book, and discovered that someone had already written the perfect review.  I wholehearted endorse and adopt this review as expressing my opinions more eloquently than I myself could do.  Please do not quote this review as having been written by me.  Give proper credit.  Thank you!

Christopher Robbins, a guy you'd love to have a beer with and swap stories of adventure, absolutely captured a piece of Kazakhstan with his clever and witty book. He takes on a tough task covering the creation of a country from the rubble of the Soviet days. He adds some history and perspective of an enormous sweeping land and a complex society held together by clans and relations, a land often invaded and subjugated but which has maintained a unique identity with wonderful friendly people.

Most of the world knows nothing of Soviet Central Asia, a region kept under restrictive cover by Moscow for 75 years. This is the land of Ghengis Khan and Marco Polo, of the Golden Horde and Trotsky, of annihilation of male populations in 2 World Wars fought 4,000 miles away, and of shady modern-day JR Ewing's with foreign and local accents. Only in the late 1980's were foreigners allowed in, and from that time forward Kazakhs have experienced a rapid introduction to the modern international world, modern day carpet baggers, internal and external swindles, and a rapid investment from abroad.

Mr. Robbins captured with humor and cynicism the post-Soviet modernization era as Kazakhs have gone through growing pains as a Soviet test ground and land of disastrous Moscow policies that led to devastation of the Aral Sea and contamination of vast areas of Kazakh steppe (this was the nuclear test center for Soviets with over 400 above-ground tests and more underground tests, and significant cancer rates in the area around Semey where the testing was carried out). Yet the Kazakh people have strong national resilience and have moved forward step-by-step, led by Nursultan Nazarbayev, a consumate leader in the right place at the right time to lead his people while carefully balancing competing interests of Western investors and the US government, Russian power and influence, Chinese economic and population pressures, and fundamentalist Islamic forces in the south. It's a tough neighborhood, and President Nazarbayev has done as good a job as anyone could do.

From the dank and seedy basement bar of the Otrar Hotel in Almaty to the grandiose presidential palace in Astana; from the empty steppe space center in Baikonur to his visit to the Aral seaport with no sea for 45 miles, Robbins does a terrific job with humor of capturing this amazingly interesting land of the Kazakhs and the people who live there as they build a new country. Having been involved in Kazakhstan since 1993, I found Mr. Robbins did a fantastic job capturing the heart and spirit of this fine people during an unbelievably difficult period in their history. 

The Bielski Brothers

The Bielski Brothers, by Peter Duffy.

This fascinating nonfiction book tells the story of the Bielski brothers from Belarus, proud, Jewish, and willing to do whatever it takes to survive the Nazi obliteration of the Jews.  We start with the history of the family in Belorus, and quickly move forward to the Nazi period, the brothers' decision to live by their wits in the woods rather than to allow their fate to be determined by the Nazis.  We see how they orchestrated the escape and ultimate survival of hundreds of other Jews, the large group's desperate flight through the thick forests to a place of somewhat greater safety, the decisions they made that allowed them to survive, and the miracle that was their dignified, civilized life and survival.  The book is not without tragedy, but it is a book of hope and determination and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of all odds.

The book does bog down in a couple of spots, primarily when the author delves into the hierarchy and interworkings of the various partisan groups, as well as at the beginning when the history of the "ownership" of Belorus is explored.  Overall, however, this was a marvelous, interesting book that kept me turning the pages much faster than is usual with a nonfiction history book.  I enjoyed virtually every minute of my discovery of this long-forgotten example of courage and brightness in the dark night of the Nazi period, and would highly recommend this book.  4.5 out of 5.