Book 123: In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist by Ruchama King Feuerman

Icover42672-mediumn the Courtyard of the Kabbalist by Ruchama King Feuerman

Finished reading March 29, 2014

Rating:  8/10

Jerusalem. Isaac Markovitch has left behind his life in the US and moved to Jerusalem and has started to work as the assistant to a rebbe (according to Dictionary.com: rebbe – a teacher in a Jewish school or a title of respect for the leader of a Hasidic group), who’s purpose is to help the Jewish people who come to him searching for advice. They might be there because of an illness, or trying to find a good way to find a husband.

Mustafa is an Arab who works on the Temple Mount as a janitor. He has lived his whole life with a crooked neck that pains him. His mother has driven him out of his home village and doesn’t allow him to return. Mustafa meets Isaac, and a relationship develops, Mustafa is hoping that maybe Rabbi Isaac as he calls him, can fix his neck.

Temple Mount

Temple Mount. Credit: Andrew Shiva

The Temple Mount has been used by several religions as a holy place and hence is seen as one even now. According to the Bible, there have been two Jewish Temples on the Temple Mount. For the Sunni Muslims it is the Noble Sanctuary, where the prophet Muhammad ascended to Heaven. It has also been used by Christianity and Roman religion.

One day Mustafa sees something in the rubble that the workers are digging up on the Temple Mount – something that looks like a ball.  He takes it to Isaac as a gift.

The novel is about the relationship between Mustafa and Isaac, but also about Isaac “finding himself”, but there is also the arising question of the relics that are unearthed on the Temple Mount that Isaac thinks are of Jewish heritage, but the Muslim workers are digging there with shovels not paying any attention to the pieces of vases, etc. except for Mustafa, who decides to take care of them, despite them not having any worth for the Muslims.

“In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist” is an interesting book, with curious characters, and a thought-provoking premise, containing also themes of Arab-Jew relations.

I found it a good read, although I think I might enjoy it more second time around, knowing what the book is about. There were quite a lot of religion specific words that I had to look up in a dictionary. I don’t think that any previous knowledge of Judaism or Islam would be essential for understanding the plot, as the author explains the necessary concepts and ideas (like what is the importance of the Temple Mount and the relics, etc.

For other books about Jewish-Muslim relations, Israel, etc., see these:

Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa

The Lemon Tree by Sandy Tolan

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habiby

I got a chance to have this title as an e-book for review via NetGalley.com

Book 122: Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

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Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman by Haruki Murakami

Finished reading on March 27th, 2014

Rating: 7.5/10

Murakami’s style = missing people and cats + intelligent young people + mystery and magic. Kind of like Mikhail Bulgakov  and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle mixed up, as there’s someone who’s gone missing, some-one who’s there trying to find them, and then you might have talking animals.

This book is a collection of Murakami’s short stories, that might be a good introduction to his style. They’re interesting, although some might make you want to read more about what happened in that specific story.

However, if you’ve read something by Murakami before, then you’ll probably see something really familiar. For example there are stories that are  actually included in his Norwegian Wood and The Wind-Up bird Chronicle for example.  That was something that borthered me, as although I quite liked the novels, I rather didn’t like reading the same story again, maybe with different names and initial conditions, but that nonetheless followed the same basic formula (probably they were written up before the novels…).

The stories are good, mostly they’re sad – in almost every one of those there’s someone who has just died, or who has gone missing, so this collection more that anything I’ve read by Murakami before reminded me of Arthur Conan Doyle. That makes it a lot easier to understand the popularity of his work as well – there’s mystery and you want to know what happened, but you can’t be certain that there aren’t supernatural elements in there like talking monkeys for example, which was the part that reminded me of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita’s Behemoth. (So if you love Murakami, you might like Bulgakov)

So what one basically needs to know about it is, that it’s 24 short stories – something I didn’t know when I bought the book.

 

 

Book 121: Darwin Slept Here by Eric Simons

6120630Darwin Slept Here by Eric Simons

Finished reading on March 25th, 2014

Rating: 10/10

I started reading this book yesterday, on officially the second day of my vacation (although unofficially it was 5th) and I can say that I only put it down on the account of three activities – sleeping, eating and going to a job interview. The book is about the authors attempt to retrace Charles Darwin’s travels in South America in the beginning of 19th century.

Charles Darwin spent five years in his twenties on an expedition on HMS Beagle, that first took him to South America. There he got acquainted with the lush green rain-forests of Brazil, the dull Patagonia, the flora and fauna of that wondrous place and the native people, the urban culture of 19th century etc.

Eric Simons, while in his twenties, happened across Darwin’s “Voyage of the Beagle”, and took some time to visit the places where the great Naturalist had been, before coming up with the theory of Evolution. Simons’ writing is very fluent and quite descriptive and makes one wish to go hiking as well.

” The science was pretty much the extent of what I knew until I happened across The Voyage of the Beagle for the first time, and read about the iguana-lobbing, and immediately went green with nineteenth century naturalist envy. The guy got to chase, catch, and throw iguanas – repeatedly- and call it research!”

-Eric Simons

I don’t usually read travel-diaries or travel writing, unless it’s about polar expeditions. this one however seemed like it might be an interesting thing to read, and it certainly was – it’s not just “took a bus, had a sand-witch and saw this…”, rather Simons goes a lot deeper:

First you get an insight into young Darwin’s travels,activities and thoughts and opinions.

Secondly you get to read about the nature and life in South America.

So why not just read Darwin’s own writing?  Well I certainly will be doing that soon as well.

Although Darwin is a large part of it, you also get to see how it differs from what Darwin saw, whether it be good or bad.

“When you’re traveling, sometimes you want so badly for your own trip to fit into everyone else’s trip.”

– Eric Simons

I enjoyed this book a lot, although the general undertone didn’t seem to cheerful (which might have been because it’s overcast where I am).

Anyhow, if you’re usually a reader of the travel diaries of historic discoverers and scientists, you might find this book interesting as well. Or if you’d like to know a little bit more about Darwin, but don’t want to read any of his works just yet, give this one a go!

Although Darwin traveled further after South America, this book only deals with the part when he was there. Can’t have too much of a good thing I guess.

Book 120: The Science Magpie by Simon Flynn

PIMG_9637The Science Magpie by Simon Flynn

Finished reading on March 24th, 2014

Rating: 8/10

What percentage of science and engineering degrees are awarded to women in your country? How to remember the names and the order of planets in the Solar system or the geologic timescale? How to test the pH  of different things at home?

The Science Magpie is a collection of interesting facts, funny poems and other entertaining things to keep you out of the dangerous claws of boredom. But they’re not random facts. They’re all about science! It’s a very easy read, covering different fields of natural sciences.

I found a lot of interesting things in there, but there are also some that one can find on the internet.

Going through this book would probably be fun in a science class.

If you liked this you might find Paul Parson’s How to Destroy the Universe interesting too.

Book 119: Fireside Astronomy by Sir Patrick Moore

pIMG_9627Fireside Astronomy by Sir Patrick Moore (the amateur astronomer, not the environmentalist Patrick Moore)

Finished reading on March 22nd, 2014

Rating: 7/10

Fireside Astronomy is a collection of short articles on various astronomy-related topics.  It’s all very well written and easily understandable, not needing much previous knowledge of physics or astronomy, it’s more on a popular level.

The articles range from stories from the history of astronomy and space science to the building of telescopes etc. Some of the stories are funny, some are just the kind of things you’d read in magazines.

As the book was published in 1992, then it gives an impression of the state of astronomy twenty years ago. Although the book is quite old, it shouldn’t be overlooked, as it still has a lot of value, since the history hasn’t really changed.

There are some funny tales there, which were the reason for me reading it. For example how a telescope in the UK was put out of use for quite a while because of a fly. Apparently it had gotten into the telescope and died and fell on the telescope’s cross-hairs. I’m not quite certain whether the cross/hairs were in the main telescope tube or in the guide telescope as they are for amateur telescopes… However the fly broke the cross-hairs and there was a lot of trouble trying to fix them. The cross-hairs help one locate the object you want to observe in case of  a  guide telescope, as what is in the middle of the cross-hairs will be in the center of the main telescope’s field of view as well (of-course only when the two telescope tubes are perfectly parallel).

Book 118: Lucky Planet by David Waltham

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Lucky Planet by David Waltham

Finished reading on March 22nd, 2014

Rating: 8/10

Lucky Planet tells the story of our lucky blue planet, that is just about right for life to have evolved here. Waltham shows in which ways exactly Earth has been lucky and what are some of the prerequisites for a habitable planet.

Earth, the third planet from the Sun is home to (moderately) intelligent beings who throughout history have speculated on the possibility of life on other worlds. This book shows why we might not ever succeed in finding life somewhere else as the Earth itself has been very fortunate in having had a rather stable climate and despite several episodes of extinctions life still thrives.

You can find out what are the characteristics that enable life to exist here, and not for example on Venus or Mars. Although they orbit the same star, they’re at different locations and have atmospheres that don’t remind the Earth’s atmosphere. Why does the Earth’s atmosphere have just such a composition and not some other?

I found this book interesting, as it introduces the biological, chemical, geological and astronomical aspects that go into making Earth a habitable planet. The author supports the Rare Earth hypothesis, but you can also read about the Gaia theory, which sees the Earth as a living system capable of regulating it’s climate and conditions thanks to life.

This book makes for very good reading. However if you’re hoping that there’s some intelligent civilization somewhere nearby in our galaxy, this book might be a downer, as it makes it obvious that we’d be searching for a long time, if life indeed needs such strict conditions.

I received this book for review purposes from NetGalley.com

Book 117: The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan

PIMG_9613The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan

Finished reading on March 21st, 2014

Rating: 7/10

“The English Teacher” is the third novel in an autobiographical trilogy by the 20th century Indian writer R. K. Narayan.

As the previous books “Swami and Friends” and “The Bachelor of Arts” this book follows Krishnaswami’s life. Now he is working at a college as an English lecturer, is married to the beautiful Susila and has a daughter by the name of Leela.

As the story starts we find out more about Krishna’s work and his opinions about teaching literature.

But then the story continues with his in-laws wanting him to finally live together with his wife and child. First they rent a house and then they’re planning to buy a house, but unfortunately they never get that far, as Susila falls ill.

In order not to give any spoilers I can’t really say much more about what happens next.

This book is somewhat different from the other books by Narayan that I’ve read, as it delves into some-kind of mysticism, that is a little reminiscent of 19th century English writers like the Bronte sisters. The novel’s tone becomes dark and sad.

“Flames appear over the wall…. It leaves a curiously dull pain at heart. There are no more surprises and shocks in life, so that I watch the flame without agitation. For me the greatest reality is this and nothing else… Nothing else will worry or interest me in life hereafter.”

I enjoyed the first part of the trilogy more than the two later ones. However I liked how in the end of the book Narayan resigns from his work and says things that reminded me of J. D. Salinger as Krishnaswami want’s to start teaching children instead of being a part of the college in which, as he sees it, they don’t teach the students to think for themselves but rather produce simple civil servants.

 

Book 116: The Age of Radiance by Craig Nelson

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Would you dare to live in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant? Do you think the world will end in a nuclear holocaust?

The Age of Radiance by Craig Nelson

Finished reading on March 17th, 2014

Rating: 9/10

The Age of Radiance starts quite plainly with the discovery of radiation, and the history of nuclear physics beginning with Röntgen and Becquerel and the Curies and continuing to some of the uses of radioactive elements in atomic and hydrogen bombs and in nuclear power plants. The book also depicts the three best-known nuclear disasters – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima.

It presents a comprehensive history, that sheds light to some of the aspects that normally remain hidden from the eyes of the general public – for example how much did radiation actually influence the health of the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, or what happened on Three Mile Island, the nuclear power plant of which is still in operation.

The Age of Radiance was a very interesting and in some ways enlightening read, combining history, science and eye-witness accounts.

One of the goals for this book was that it would dissolve some of the fears concerning everything that has the world “nuclear” or “atomic” in it, and I think it fulfills that goal, although it is difficult to see why some-one with radiophobia would even want to know more about what they’re afraid of.

However I think it’s definitely worth a read, the writing is clear and easy-to-follow.

Although it was a very good read, I was slightly repulsed by the part about Pierre and Marie Curie. For one, I don’t consider it necessary to have such graphic descriptions of a definitely tragic death under the wheels of a carriage – the gore in that chapter exceeds everything else in the book, which is definitely not what one would expect from a book about radiation that has so many other possibilities for awful and disgusting death and sickness….

The second was Marie Curie’s love affair, which in my opinion was totally unnecessary to even mention it in this book, not just because of the seriousness of the general topic and themes in the book, but because it has no obvious connection to the rest of it.

Except for those two little disturbances the book was excellent.

I received this book for review purposes from NetGalley.

Book 115: The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

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The Little Old Lady Who Broke All the Rules by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Finished reading on March 13th, 2014

Rating: 8/10

When old people start to rebel there’s nothing good going to come out of it.

This book is the story of five pensioners living in a retirement home Diamond House in Stockholm, Sweden. The food is plasticky. They get locked up in their rooms and they rarely get to go out of the home for a walk. In addition they’re given odd pills that make the residents in the Diamond House lethargic and sleepy.

But things are going to change for five of the residents there. Three ladies and two gentlemen have decided to take their retirement into their own hands and show what old people are capable of doing (and what no-one would suspect them of doing). Simple rebellion and sneaking around the retirement home isn’t enough for the main characters and they decide to start on a criminal path.

We meet some lovely characters who have known each other for years having sung in the same choir. They’re all advanced in years beyond 70 and they’re trying to make the years they have left more fun and comfortable.

In some ways this book reminds me of children’s books where there’s a strong group of friends scheming, only children wouldn’t be going for such large projects…

It was definitely entertaining, the plot is fast-paced (although the characters might not be) and there’s plenty of excitement in it.

I would recommend reading it to those who have read and enjoyed Jonas Jonasson’s “The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out of the Window and Disappeared”. Reading both of these will definitely teach you not to mess with senior citizens. 🙂

Book 114: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

How come is Eddard Stark’s leg in a plaster cast, when the general level of science and technology doesn’t seem to be much higher than approximately late middle age the latest?

Camera 360A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Finished reading on March 8th, 2014

Rating: 7/10

There are people who love the series and those who don’t really care much about it, and don’t get why it’s so popular. I was one of the second kind. Now after finishing the first book I’m somewhere in-between.

So basically we have several power-struggles going on throughout the world, and we see it through the eyes of different characters. There are obviously awful characters, characters who are the good guys (or seem to be) and some who don’t fit in either of those categories.

There’s sex and violence so I guess there’s not much more you’d need for a bestseller….

I’m not saying it’s a bad book. There are so many points of view, that at least one will get your sympathy, and since you want to know what happens to them, then you keep reading…

Honestly I’m just happy to have finished reading it, but I have to admit that the ending makes me want to continue reading it, since there’s quite a lot of suspense.

Otherwise though the question of Eddard Stark’s plaster cast… was it just a splint? He shouldn’t be running around, but should be in bed resting, as would be appropriate considering everything else. That’s what bothered me. But of-course it’s fantasy, so maybe indeed medicine advances faster in that world… or it’s just my imagination that puts his leg in a modern cast…

What is this book about?

In general one could say that it pretty well follows an idea that is mentioned several times in the book: “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.”
So we have a cast of characters, who are all connected to one-another somehow. We have the family Stark, who reside in Winterfell. When the King’s Hand (not the real hand, more an assistant guy or something) dies, Eddard Stark is asked to be the new King’s Hand and he leaves with his two daughters Arya and Sansa to go and serve the king, while he leaves behind his wife Catelyn and his sons.

There are however suspicions whether or not the previous hand died or was killed somehow.
One of Eddard’s sons, Jon Snow, is leaving as well and going to the Wall – a border between the Kingdoms and some wild parts of the world, where there are dangerous and mysterious creatures, to keep watch.

But then we have some other people there: a sister and brother who have lost their kingdom and are scheming to get it back (the brother mostly).

Changes are going on in the world, so there’s plenty of events afoot, that you can read about…