Saturday, May 31, 2008

Some Books I've Enjoyed Recently

The War of the Saints by Jorge Amado -- This magic realist novel by Brazil's leading novelist of the past half century is a richly textured and exuberantly comic novel set in the author's native Bahia region during Carnival and draws upon the candomble religion -- a mixture of Christian and African beliefs.  The sacred image of St. Barbara of the Thunders comes to life in order to rescue a young girl in love from the strict, repressive control of her guardian with remarkable consequences for the inhabitants of the city.  The book is altogether a joyous celebration of life and is my  favorite of those I've read so far in 2008.

Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon by Jorge Amado --Another and earlier novel by Amado, possibly better-known because of its film version.  Somewhat slower paced and a bit more sedate than The War of the Saints, it still embodies Amado's signature theme of the affirmation of life in the form of two intertwined stories of the love affair of the cafe owner Nacid and the migrant worker Gabriela who becomes his cook and more and of the coming of civilized progress to what had been a Brazilian frontier town.

The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier --  A novel by the Cuban novelist Carpentier that traces the history of Haiti from the time of oppressive French colonial rule through the revolution against the French and the subsequent equally oppressive consequences, all seen primarily through the eyes of the slave Ti Noel.

The Master of Go by Yasunari Kawabata -- A novel based on an actual Go competition Kawabata had reported on in 1938; in this novelization, the ultimate defeat of the Master by his young opponent comes to represent the loss of the older, classic Japanese way of life that was already beginning at that time and which would be accelerated by the societal consequences of World War II.

The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima -- Mishima's first novel is a delicate and beautifully-told love story between a young fisherman and the daughter of a wealthy merchant.  Mishima's later and more characteristic work tends to be dark; this early work is very much an exception.

God's Bits of Wood  by Sembene Ousmane -- Ousmane is a Seneghalese novelist who, in this work, presents a novelization of the strike by the African workers against the French Dakar-Niger Railway in late 1947 and early 1948.  We follow a number of individuals, both African and European, see the methods (starvation and force) used in the attempts to end the strike,  the suffering of the workers and their families, their determined resistance, and finally their eventual success.  The success of the strike was, in fact, the first clear warning most of Europe had that colonialism in Africa was coming to an end.  Of the books I've read this year, this is second only to The War of the Saints among my  favorites.

Crazy '08:  How a Cast of Cranks, Rogues, Boneheads, and Magnates Created the Greatest Year in Baseball History  by Cait Murphy --  The title pretty much says it:  this is a wonderful history of the baseball season of 1908 and of how some of the finest players in the history of baseball -- people like Christy Mathewson, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, Honus Wagner, Napoleon LaJoie, and Cy Young as well as the famous Cubs double-play trio of Tinker, Evers, and Chance), to mention only a few -- made '08 arguably the best season ever.  (I won't take sides on the issue, but '08 is certainly in the running.)  It's the year of what is certainly the most controversial game ever played -- the "Merkle Game," September 23, 1908; it's also the last year the Cubs won the World Series.

Uncommon Carriers by John McPhee -- This is McPhee's most recent (2006) book.  Like most of his work, it's based on a series of essays written primarily for The New Yorker.  Though I've long been familiar with his name, this is the first of his books I've read, and I've thoroughly enjoyed it.  In this book, he's concerned with people who move freight:  he rides cross-country with the driver of an 18-wheel chemical tanker, visits Port Revel in Switzerland where ship captains learn to maneuver huge cargo and tanker ships in the confined spaces of ports, channels, and canals, and rides on a river towboat and a coal train, among others.  This is a fascinating book;  McPhee does a remarkable job of bringing both the tasks and those who perform them to life.  I'm looking forward now to reading other books by him.


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