Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Fall Books

I’ve just finished a spate of books, so here is my fall review:

Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami. Lalami is the author of the blog Moorish Girl. She was born in Morocco and left at 22 to study in Britain and the United States. Her first novel is a collection of linked stories about Moroccans who try and flee to Spain for work and a better life. Some make it; others are caught by police almost as soon as they reach the shore and are deported back to Morocco.

This is a wonderful book. Lalami creates distinct, believable characters and shows readers an aspect of the world that most are unfamiliar with. We meet Murad, a unemployed college graduate who leads tourists to Paul Bowles' old haunts; Halima, who has few choices to escape her abusive husband; Faten who becomes a devout hajib-wearing Muslim when her attempts to rise in society falters; and others. The book is a window into poverty and the risks it forces people to take.

Dream of the Blue Room by Michelle Richmond – Richmond, a San Francisco resident, writes about Jenny, who is taking a boat up the Yangtze River in China to dispose of the ashes of her best friend and sometime lover, Amanda Ruth, who had been murdered 12 years earlier. Jenny is accompanied by her estranged husband, David, but instead of reconnecting, each finds solace in other passengers. Jenny takes up with Graham, an Australian suffering from Lou $Gerhig’s disease, and recovers a passion she thought she had lost. The entire book has a dreamy quality, as Jenny remembers her summers with Amanda Ruth, and ponders what led to her death. Richmond presents China as a place of squalor – overcrowded, polluted, and inhabited by drone-like people who parrot the government line. The combination creates an environment tht doesn't seem quite real, a place where time and action dont' bear their usual consequences -- sort of like traveling. The writing is beautiful and Jenny's choices are understandable.

Bait and Switch by Barbara Ehrenreich. This progressive reporter tries to recreate the magic she brought to Nickel and Dimed, which explored the working world of those earning a minimum wage. This book, which focuses on white-collar workers, doesn’t succeed nearly as well. Ehrenreich spent nine months looking for a job in the PR field, and when she didn’t find work soon enough to fit in with her book contract, she explored the businesses that have popped up to support job seekers. But stories about career counseling groups, resume writers, job fairs, and wardrobe consultants just aren’t that interesting. Still, Bait and Switch makes the point that job prospects are gloomy for middle-aged people, even those who have been successful at earlier points in their lives.

Mozart in the Jungle: Sex Drugs and Classical Music by Blair Tindall. I had high hopes for this book. I heard Tindall speak at Books By The Bay in San Francisco this summer and I was captivated by her stories of excesses in the country’s symphonies and orchestras. While Tindall’s book is filled with scenes of sex – between Tindall and fellow oboists and between teachers and students – Tindall sort of lists what has happened to her rather than create any kind of compelling narrative arc. She comes off sounding bitter, learning little from her experiences. The book does show, however, the grind of life for most classical musicians, who are paid litle compared to top symphony adminstrators or star performers like Itzhak Perlman, Michael Tilson Thomas.

Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger – Don’t bother.

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