"All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened
and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you
and afterwards it all belongs to you; the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse,
and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was."
Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, May 30, 2015

What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
What If?:  Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions
Randall Monroe

The Summary
Randall Monroe, creator of the webcomic xkcd, answers a variety of scientific (and often absurd) questions he has received via his website - including questions such as:
  • What would happen if you made a periodic table out of the actual elements?
  • Is it possible to build a jetpack using machine guns?
  • What would happen if you took a swim in a spent nuclear fuel pool?
  • What are the results of a earthquake that measures 15 on the Richter scale?
  • What happens to the last artificial light if humans disappeared?
And much, much more.

The Good
I enjoyed Monroe's book.  It is absolutely hilarious, combining absurdity with comedy - and, yes, real scientific inquiry.

Although the questions may be completely, off-the-wall crazy - or, you know, dangerously stupid to try - Monroe makes a sincere attempt to give an answer.  The questions may not always make sense, the answers can be catastrophic, but the author makes a valid case for his explanation and throws in a touch of wry, biting humor that makes his book funny, informative, and enjoyable.

Monroe also spices up his book with illustrations.  Stick figures, to be precise.  The illustrations are rudimentary, but they have an incredible range of flexibility, conveying precisely what Monroe seeks to show his readers.  It makes What If? a little more interesting, and a lot funnier.

The Bad
Unlike Monroe, I have no experience with physics or mathematics beyond basic algebra, so I can't say one way or the other if his hypotheses are correct.  But they're surely interesting (and, occasionally, disturbing), and Monroe does a fine job of making his explanations accessible.

He obviously works hard to help his readers understand; however, the science behind his answers is, at best, complicated (read:  convoluted) - and, well, confusing.  Not that his book won't be interesting if you decide to pick it up.  Rather, I might recommend brushing up on your scientific vocabulary if you don't know what transuranic or megapascals means.

The Ugly
Somehow, the questions that Monroe answers always seem to end up with catastrophic consequences such as nuclear explosions, death, planetary destruction, species extinction, and worse.  I mean, it's rather depressing.

Poor moles.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes

The Crusades Through Arab Eyes
Amin Maalouf

The Summary
Drawing from the chronicles of historians and Muslim scholars, Amin Maalouf chronicles the events of the Crusades as they affected the local populations and shaped conscious thought in the medieval Arab community.

The Good
I found The Crusades Through Arab Eyes incredibly informative.  Evenly paced with a narrative-like quality that kept me intrigued, Amin Maalouf's historiography provides a thorough look at the Arabic world during the Crusades.  While Maalouf makes his stance clear, providing a comprehensive examination of Arab life and warfare, he also takes great care to provide an overview of the European crusaders and the native populations, revealing both the greatest victories and the worst failures.

With properly cited resources, expansive investigation into different cultural facets, and highlights of all major events and historical figures, The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is an excellent resource.  Additionally, it provides a glossary of frequent terms and an index, which makes it an invaluable research tool.

Honestly, I enjoyed reading The Crusades Through Arab Eyes.  Although it took me a couple attempts to begin reading it, I enjoyed the style in which Maalouf presents his novel and, more importantly, I liked the knowledge and facts the author provides.  He's carefully detailed in his depictions of history and he pulls directly from primary resources, providing glimpses into the diaries and first hand accounts of historians who witnessed events.

The Bad
If Maalouf is frequently critical of the Franj - the European Crusaders from the west, who invaded the Muslim East - he's merely documenting a different version of events, showing the effects on individual communities and the results of foreign occupation.  The Crusades Through Arab Eyes is a fine resource; however, if you're looking for a book that builds up the Crusaders (or may otherwise romanticize their activities), you really won't find it here.

Maalouf is fair in his assertions, but he's clearly biased in his subject.  Which, honestly, isn't necessary a bad thing.  His research is clearly more interested in the regions and historical figures affected by the Crusades, rather than the Crusaders themselves.

The Ugly
Well, if you know anything about the Crusades, then you probably have vague idea as to how gruesome warfare - and, subsequently, survival - became.  Honestly, I only had to make it to the third chapter to learn about the Siege of Ma'arra, a Muslim city in Syria, to find some of the goriest details.  These were dark and chaotic times indeed - and they remained as such for over two hundred years.

Think about it:  two hundred years of violence doesn't paint a pretty picture.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The Pearl that Broke its Shell

The Pearl that Broke Its Shell: A Novel
William Morrow
The Pearl That Broke Its Shell
Nadia Hashimi

The Summary
"Kabul, 2007:  The Taliban rules the streets.  With a drug-addicted father and no brothers, Rahima and her sisters can rarely leave the house or attend school.  Their only hope lies in the ancient Afghan custom of bacha posh, which allows young Rahima to dress and be treated as a son until she is of marriageable age.  As a boy, she has the kind of freedom that was previously unimaginable...freedom that will transform her forever.

"But Rahima is not the first in her family to adopt this unusual custom.  A century earlier, her great-great-grandmother Shekiba, left orphaned by an epidemic, saved herself and built a new life in the same way - the change took her on a journey from the deprivation of life in a rural village to the opulence of a king's palace in the bustling metropolis in Kabul.

"Crisscrossing in time, The Pearl That Broke Its Shell interweaves the stories of these two remarkable women who are separated by a century but share the same courage and dreams.  What will happen once Rashima is old enough to marry?  How long can Shekiba pass as a man?  And if Rahima cannot adapt to life as a bride, how will she survive?"

The Good
I devoured The Pearl That Broke Its Shell.  It's a heart-wrenching novel - that is, I'm fairly certain I cried while reading it - but it's so beautifully written and it's such a gripping story that I couldn't help getting sucked into it.  I loved reading about Rahima and Shekiba, women who became bacha posh in order to survive in a society hostile to women, especially independent women.

I also love the fact that the stories are told in such a unique way.  Rahima tells her story in the present, a first-person point of view that catalogs current events as they happen, and she's incredibly candid.  More importantly, Nadia Hashimi manages to show Rahima's growth as she matures into a young woman - a young woman intent on making decisions for herself.

Shekiba, on the other hand, has her story shared:  Rahima receives the story of her great-great grandmother in pieces, one little bit at a time.  I like that events in Shekiba's story mirror those in Rahima's life as if these two ladies share a parallel destiny, a future that seems just a little more optimistic.

The Bad
I suppose my one complaint is character perspective.

I don't mind that the novel switches between Rahima and Shekiba, respectively first and third-person; however, I was bothered by the occasional and seemingly arbitrary (or, perhaps, accidental) switch in the midst of either chapter.  It happened infrequently, usually Shekiba would begin to refer to herself in the first-person during her story, but it occurred enough that I definitely took note.

The Ugly
Rahima and Shekiba do not lead easy lives.  Shekiba endures tremendous loss, first her siblings and mother, and then her father, and suffers abuse at the hands of her extended relatives.  Likewise, Rahima deals with her father's addiction to opium and, later, endures violent physical, emotional, and sexual abuse at the hands of her husband.

Neither woman is given the opportunity to express independence, to decide who they wish to be.  The men in their lives control their every action, keeping them contained, keeping them blind as Rahima's aunt points out:  "Your husband is a lot of things, but he's not a stupid man.  He knows what he's doing.  He doesn't want you to see what's going on in the rest of the country, what other women are doing.  [...]  He needs to keep you blindfolded."

And that fact is pretty sickening.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bonus: Once We Were Brothers

St. Martin's Griffin
Once We Were Brothers
Ronald H. Balson

The Summary
"Elliot Rosenzweig, a respected civic leader and wealthy philanthropist, is attending a fundraiswer when he is suddenly accosted and accused of being a former Nazi SS officer named Otto Piatek.  Although the charges are denounced as preposterous, his accuser, Ben Solomon, is convinced he is right.  Solomon urges attorney Catherine Lockhart to take his case, revealing that Otto Piatek was abandoned as a child and raised by Solomon's family only to betray them during the Nazi occupation.  But has he accused the right man?

"Once We Were Brothers is the compelling tale of two boys and a family that struggles to survive in war-torn Poland.  It is also the story of a young lawyer who must face not only a powerful adversary, but her own self-doubt.

"Two lives, two worlds and sixty years all on course to collide in a fast-paced legal thriller."

The Good
Once We Were Brothers has an intriguing premise:  two men, who were once as close as brothers, are suddenly separated by war and political ideology.  It certainly has the bones to make a good story, and I was definitely intrigued when I first set out to read the book.

For the most part, I liked Ronald Balson's novel.  I liked the way Ben began his story, sinking into his history, recounting his experiences and his environment.  And Once We Were Brothers is packed full of comprehensive information.  It gives you a vision of the enormity of the Holocaust, while simultaneously revealing the effects of Nazi occupation in Poland on individuals.  It shows the impact of World War II on an emotional, individual level and a larger, international level.

Moreover, Ben and Hannah's romance is spectacularly sweet.  I was constantly hanging on his words, wondering what would happen to him and Hannah, what would happen to his family after surviving the Holocaust and the war.  I never really expected the ending I received.

The Bad
When I'm reading Ben's words, listening to his tale along with Catherine and everyone else, I can sometimes sink into his story; however, after a certain point, I struggled with the tone of his voice.  I imagine him to have an accent, considering he lived in Poland for a very large portion of his life, and he slips in and out of it, but I can't focus for the interruptions.

Yes, I understand his narrative is an interview, but I don't need to be reminded each and every chapter.  I would like to hear his story in one, cohesive unit, not parsed into bite-size pieces with lots of legal jargon stuffed in between.

Furthermore, I wasn't ecstatic with the character development of Balson's novel.  Sometimes, I thought it seemed rushed, like Catherine's life.  Her story is condensed into a few, quick paragraphs and brief snippets of information, and I personally didn't see very much growth.  Any changes she underwent, any changes to her relationship with Ben always seemed abrupt.

The Ugly
The main story of Once We Were Brothers occurs during World War II.  With a Jewish family.  In Poland.

You can see where I'm leading with this.