The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult***

I am generally a fan of Picoult’s writing, but my favorite part of this book is when I got to close it and put it away.  My thanks go, nevertheless, to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the review copy.

Dawn is the sole survivor of a plane wreck, and as it goes down, she is assaulted by regret about the road not taken.  (My apologies to Frost.) On land once again, she decides to go back to the life she abandoned when she married and had her daughter, to see what might have been; the life she was preparing for was that of an Egyptologist.

There have been times when a novel features some area of history or science that I’ve never studied, and I find it so mesmerizing that it becomes my new favorite area to explore. This was not one of those times. In fact, it took me four tries to get through this thing, and even then, I skimmed much of the story from the fifty to seventy percentiles.  I tried the audio version; no joy there, either. I grew bored and my mind wandered; then I didn’t understand what I was reading, so I had to go back over it to pick up the part I’d daydreamed through.

In my defense, however, I have to say that the organization and frequently shifting points of view and time periods is enough to confuse the best of us, or at least give us whiplash.

Picoult’s strength is creating strong, resonant female protagonists that are easy to bond with, but I didn’t ever warm up to Dawn. Let’s take, for example, the notion of simply walking away, not only from your husband that loves you and with whom, till now, you’ve had a loving and solid relationship; there’s the matter of walking away from a child, or considering doing so. No, no, no. No. NO.

But mostly, this story just bored the living snot out of me.

I have provided three stars, because some readers will enjoy the lessons in Egyptology; if you’ve always wanted to know more within this realm, perhaps this book will work for you. If you go there, though, get it free or cheap; don’t sink full cover price into this turkey.

Girlhood, by Masuma Ahuja****

My thanks go to Net Galley and Algonquin for the review copy. This book becomes available to the public tomorrow, February 9, 2021.

From the beginning, it was plain to me that this would not just be another anthology. Every school library has books that include children from many places around the world, but this one is more diverse than most, and it conveys more of the girls’ own words. Included are girls from 31 countries, and most of them are people of color. The United States does not dominate the collection; there are two girls from the U.S. included, but they are not given anchor positions, and neither is from New York or California.

Each entry contains writing done by the girl herself, more extensive than anything else I have seen; I cannot tell whether some of them have been translated, or if all of them wrote in English originally. There are multiple photographs of each girl, her home, and the things that are important to her. Most are students; one is a mother herself. There are a variety of social classes, though none appears to be from a wealthy family. The girls that live at or near what we in the developed world would call the poverty level, do not speak about being poor, but about everyday life. My favorites are the Cambodian, Syrian, and Irish girls, but they’re all interesting. I am pleased to see several Black girls in the mix.

Though the collection is inclusive, none of the girls appears to be, or says she is, disabled in any way. I would like to see at least one such girl. But more concerning to me is that, although twenty percent of girls worldwide is obese, all of these girls in the anthology are either near the ideal weight, or on the thin side. Ahuja does not say how the girls were selected, but I can just about guarantee that the big girls that view this book will not see themselves. I hope future endeavors along these lines will correct this omission. Right now, the message large girls will have is that nobody wants to look at someone like themselves.

Nonetheless, this is one of the best such collections available today. It would be wonderful if there were a way to offer it in different languages and sell it in other countries, too. I recommend this book for middle and high school girls, and in particular to school libraries and humanities teachers.

The Pot Thief Who Studied Georgia O’Keefe***

thepotthiefwhostudiedgeorgiaoI read this book at the invitation of Open Road Integrated Media and Net Galley. Thank you to both parties. This title is one of several in a series that I had not encountered before. The pot in question is the ancient artifact sort, not the type that people grow and smoke. The author manages to work several disparate and esoteric topics into a single novel, but not necessarily to its benefit. My own viewpoint is that a high profile editor might be of great use here.

The protagonist, Hubie Schuze, is an archaeologist who has decided that ancient ruins are wasted if they are left where their owners chose to bury them, or if they are made available to everyone by placing them in a museum. He likes to dig them up and sell them to private collectors, and this is how he makes a living; he regards himself as “a short Indiana Jones”, but recognizes that the similarities are superficial at best.

Of course, anyone that makes a living through illegal means will tell you that there’s very little recourse if the client stiffs him; he can’t report them to the cops, and he can’t take them to court, either. It’s a dubious situation at best, but the protagonist is enthusiastic, and chooses to continue digging up artifacts and selling them. There is one place he hasn’t been able to access, however, and that is the area cordoned off on the nuclear reservation. Through various nefarious methods, he manages to sneak onto the reservation and find some treasure.

In this story, Hubie has partnered himself with Sharice, a beautiful African-Canadian who’s had a mastectomy. She is also a virgin when the story begins.

The enjoyable part of this story is the way the author incorporates word play into his protagonist’s snappy narrative. Also, I haven’t read many novels set in New Mexico, and so the setting was a refreshing change from more frequently chosen locations.

On the downside, there are too many side issues. If the interracial relationship is controversial, which the narrative indicates it is, then let’s have a mystery and a controversial relationship. Or, let’s have a mystery and breast cancer. Or, let’s have a mystery and O’Keefe’s art. This novel feels as if too many ingredients have been thrown in, and they can’t blend into a cohesive whole as a result.

The protagonist is difficult to like, given that he is pillaging ruins to which he has no legal or moral right, but I have read novels with unlikable protagonists before, and it isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. Sometimes the protagonist becomes more likable as the character is developed; sometimes a side character is developed and we find ourselves drawn to him or her as they interact with the protagonist. Sometimes the whole point of the novel is to watch the unlikable protagonist struggle and develop. That didn’t happen here.

Possibly the greatest hindrance, though, had nothing to do with the characters; every time the plot started to gain momentum, we would have to pause for a cooking lesson. God save us all from story arcs held hostage by one recipe after another. At the 78% mark I threw up my hands, skipped to the end, and called myself done with this novel.

Which I am.

This book is available for sale to the public January 26, 2016.

Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle, by Daniel L. Everett *****

dontsleeptherearesnakesI read this shortly after it came out, and I’ve been going nuts trying to remember the title. Thank goodness for Google’s search engine! Don’t Sleep, There are Snakes is an amazing memoir that challenges assumptions under which most first-worlders have lived for a very long time.

Everett went to Brazil with his wife;they were Protestant missionaries, sent by their church to convert the Pirahas, an indigenous people who live deep inside the Amazon jungle, to Christ. They took a few tools and trinkets with them, which have been useful to missionaries–think of them as spiritual bribes–for generations. They traveled under tremendous physical hardship, experiencing terrible illness and threatened by deadly snakes and other jungle life, risking their necks for their cause.

Furthermore, they were tasked with deciphering the Piraha language so that the New Testament could be translated for the salvation of these Christless savages.

Instead, the opposite occurred.

First of all, the Pirahas didn’t want their stinking trinkets. Even items that Westerners regard as essential, such as knives and cooking pots, were only of temporary interest. When presented with these goodies, they would enjoy them, then abandon them. Because stuff doesn’t matter to the Pirahas, and when you’re a nomadic people, you need to travel light.

At first, Everett patiently tried to teach them to hang onto things so they’d have them when they needed them. He watched them go to a tremendous amount of effort to replicate a process that the knife, the cook pot could have shortened by hours, not to mention a reduced physical effort. But over the course of time, they let him know that it wasn’t that they didn’t understand him; they just didn’t agree.

And the greatest barrier to the conversion of the Pirahas to Christianity is this: they were already happy.

Eventually, Everett found himself questioning his own prayers. Why was he asking the Almighty to help him change these people, to obliterate their successful lifestyle–at least by the basic standard of personal fulfillment, as opposed to who has the greater technology–in order to become grasping materialists trying to keep up with the Joneses?

Ultimately, he came to a startling conclusion: the Pirahas were absolutely correct. His God was a myth. All the Pirahas needed was what they already had, and to be left alone, along with the environment in which they flourished. And this conclusion ultimately cost him his marriage, but he could not, would not retreat into the opiate of Christianity. Once he had a clue, he couldn’t lose it.

It’s a fascinating read.

Everett also develops a new understanding of how language is learned. My daughter, who is a passionate linguist herself, tells me that his discovery is flawed and has been discredited. I would not know. It sure sounded interesting to me.

The one thing I can guarantee is that if you have no religious drum to pound yourself, you’ll find the transformation that occurs here compelling.

Not recommended reading for serious Christians.