This year’s Christmas was a merry one for me.  The bulk of my presents were bread making books from friends and family who are quite enthusiastic about my newfound hobby, bread making.  Of course, they are all thinking of the warm home-baked dinner rolls which I gifted them before the Holidays officially began.

To  my delight, I was able to bake really soft clover bread.  For experienced bakers, this isn’t probably anything to crow about; but for someone who has next to nil baking background and has learned about yeast and kneading this past month only from the internet, this counts as a small achievement.  🙂

My latest treasures :

Peter Reinhart’s books (those two at the top) appear to be marvelous condensed courses on advanced bread making made simpler for the home baker.  From quick browsing, I think the book touches a bit on the science behind making bread.

The Bread Baker’s Apprentice in particular, had been awarded Cookbook of the Year by James Beard Foundation Book Awards and Book of the Year by The IACP Cookbook Awards.

The Bread Bible by Rose Levy Berenbaum is filled with wonderfully drawn bread making procedures and techniques, fantastic for novice bread bakers like me.

Classic Breads by Manuela Caldirola , Nicoletta Negri, and Nathalie Aru boasts large mouth-watering photos of many bread types including decorative breads.  Most recipes call for fresh yeast, not readily available perhaps to the home baker but it is just probably learning how to substitute this for the more available instant variety.

Baking by James Peterson is chock full of photos of techniques and recipes with sections on bread, cookies, pies, tarts, etc.

2010 will certainly be a year of baking for me; but I hope this won’t be a year where, heaven forbid, I acquire the average baker’s waistline.  Unfortunately I love to eat what I bake.  😦

Nevertheless, I am so excited to delve well into these books.  I love my Christmas!

Whew!  Finished this book in the nick of time before the end of the R.I.P. IV Challenge.  My copy is an old,  borrowed book from my Aunt Cristie with yellowed pages and the title cover almost falling apart at its seams.  It’s so old that some of you haven’t probably even been born yet when this was published.

So, this is my book for the Halloween season,  my last one for the R.I.P. IV , and my sixth novel down for the Fall Into Reading 2009 Challenge.

Author :  John G. Fuller

Copyright :  1976

This Edition’s Publication Date :  January 1978  (Paperback)

Publisher :  Berkley Publishing Corporation

ISBN-10: 425-03553-0

The Story :

In December 29, 1972, Eastern Airlines Flight 401 crashed into the Florida Everglades en route from New York to Miami.  One hundred one people died including  veteran pilots Captain Robert Loft, First Officer Albert Stockstill and Second Officer Donald Repo.  Miraculously, though, there were some survivors, among them a baby and a dog.  The cause of the crash was attributed to the failure of the flight crew to monitor the flight instruments while trying to solve the problem of an indicator landing gear light.  From a holding flight level of 2,000 feet, the plane  steadily decreased in altitude, imperceptibly until the last few seconds.

This disaster is a true documented story that happened way back in the early seventies.  Significantly, EAL Flight 401 was the first wide body plane to crash and at that time, catalogued as one of the worst airline catastrophes in the U.S.   But what really made this flight so famous were the subsequent reports of apparitions onboard other Eastern Airlines aircrafts which were fitted with good working parts salvaged from the luckless plane.  These ghost stories were well known inside the airline industry.

Flight crew members including some pilots and several passengers attest to seeing Captain Loft seated in the jumpseat a few times, simply looking straight ahead.  The ghost of Second Officer Don Repo, however, made frequent appearances to the flight crew and spoke to them to either warn of impending danger or to show damaged parts or equipment.  At one point,  he was reported to have said that he would never allow another Eastern Airlines plane to crash again.  Although he occasionally appeared in ways that were really hair-rasingly creepy (at one time appearing with only his head in a galley oven) all who encountered the ghosts agree that these spirits were benevolent and were there to protect their flights.

Intrigued with the consistency of the accounts and the fact that Eastern Airlines had resorted to concealment tactics which involved removal of many pages from the flight logbook, repeated subtle company threats and outright denials, the author did extensive research into the encounters to establish whether there really is a life after death and if we all indeed have a soul.

The Review :

The first half of the book details the crash in all its miserable, heart-wrenching detail.  It is quite a gripping account as you visualize the enormity of the catastrophe — how all lives are changed for the survivors, for all the passengers’ families and close friends, and also for the rescuers who have to face the gruesome  carnage.

The ghost stories appear on the second half .  If you’re leaning toward believing their realism, it is positively hairy to know that ghosts appear in 3-D so much so that they appear genuinely alive, like you and me.  More so, that they can chillingly appear with only a body part visible; in this case, only the flight engineer’s head looking at the stewardesses from inside an oven.  Brrrr!!!  (The uniformed man with the opaque white eyes on the front cover actually give me the creeps.)

As entertaining as these ghost stories were, and should have been the life of the book, I lost a bit of interest somewhere around the middle.   I found the number of accounts paltry.  I wish the author treated his readers to a lot more, as he had stated he had a lot of material on 401’s appartions that goaded him to delve into the question of life after death.  So, the middle of the second part does, sadly begin to nosedive a bit with the author’s lengthy account of how he went about his research.  He relates that he discovered mediums in the aviation industry to communicate with the ghosts of the flight crew, dabbled in ouija board, etc.  Although these are supposed to be fascinating in themselves,   his way of writing just didn’t quite make it so.  The ghost stories were those buoying up the flagging narrative.

His account toward the end though, was interesting; but if you didn’t quite believe it, you’d say absurd.

To Read Or Not To Read :

If you’ve even half a mind to believe in ghosts, other dimensions, and psychics, this should kick up your Halloween night, as everything is  purportedly bone-chillingly real.

Funny, The Ghost of Flight 401 is the second semi-non-fiction read I’ve proposed for Halloween. (The Historian would have been my choice though; The book is a class on its own; but I picked it up way too early for the 31st.)   I’m actually not sure whether to categorize this book as fiction or non-fiction; but I’m more inclined to say non-fiction because I do believe in souls and in the afterlife.  Last year,  I reviewed a nail-biting worry into the possibilities of the future in The Cobra Event, a fictitious story running on a lot of very true, very terrifying documented facts.

In A Nutshell:

For his conclusion, Fuller argues on the reality of the apparitions on some of these ff. points:

1.  Pilots involved are all sane, well-adjusted, down-to-earth individuals with excellent powers of observation and definitely not prone to exaggeration.

2.  “There are too many people involved in the story.  They all check out.”

3. “The descriptions given us from widely separated sources are all similar, and in many cases identical.  Most of the parties involved did not know each other, so there was no chance of collusion.”

4. “Groups of people, including passengers, claim to have seen the reappearances.  They could not all have been hallucinating.”

5.  “Why would all crew members we interviewed make this story up — IT’S NOT THAT GOOD A JOKE!

On this note,  I leave it up to you to decide whether Fuller was right or simply a kook.

But whatever you decide, just enjoy the book for what it’s worth.  Have a scary HALLOWEEN

My Mark :  Very Good!

Since I’ve been putting in serious hours in the gym, working to regain my long lost endurance, I haven’t been curling up much in my reading chair.  Sadly, I’ve neglected my TBR pile and this blog after dragging my exhausted self directly to bed night after night.

This book I’ve  picked up, however, was perfect for my frame of mind last week.  I didn’t want to wade through serious text;  so, this little gossip of a novel was just the  perfect shallow read for my brain to happily coast along with.

Author :  Imogen Edward-Jones

First Publication Date   :  2006

First Publisher :  Bantam Books

This Edition’s Publication Date :  2007

This Edition’s Publisher :  Corgi Books

No of  pages :  379

A  frank and often hilarious look up at fashion industry’s underpants, “Fashion Babylon” is an intriguing non-fictional account in a six-month period that marks a designer’s life in between creating collections.  Imogen Edwards-Jones and Anonymous ( the insider who spills the juicy tidbits about our revered designers and celebs), recounts the world of  glamour through a fictitious designer.

What makes the novel so intriguing is that the gossipy anecdotes are all true!  This is a work of non-fiction and only a few names are changed to protect the identities.  But, there are a lot of real names in there, names we do know as fashion icons— Anna Wintour, Kate Moss, Marc Jacobs, to name a few.   Oh, and the book gives us a pretty good idea of how things really work in the world of high fashion and the mind-boggling lifestyle endemic to it.  It is a wonder how many survive the almost daily booze and drugs needed to keep up with all the stresses of deadlines, backstabbing, career and financial precariousness over a single mediocre collection, etc.

Anything and everything  — clothes, accessories, pets, food, hobbies, people– fall into two categories: “cool” or very last season.  “Coolness” is a very unpredictable status which can turn into “last season” in a blink of an eye if the wrong sort of people get their hands on the trend:

“…Stella McCartney’s over-the-knee non-leather boots are a case in point.  They were worn by Madonna on Monday, Posh on Wednesday, and a footballer’s wife on the Friday.  In fashion terms they were dead and buried within a week.

Half of the reason why companies like Balenciaga are always churning out new versions of the same bag is because they are constantly being killed off by the wrong sort of celebrity.  You can imagine how much Roland must have wanted to slash his wrists when he saw Countdown’s Carol Vorderman wearing his dress.  It went from Scarlet Johansson via Cameron Diaz and Rachel Weisz to Carol in three months.  As a result, Scarlett is now running miles from the Galaxy dress.  In the end, I suppose that is the price of having a hit collection.” —- pp. 202 -203

In fashion, image is everything.  That is why…

“…Thousands of pounds of expensive, beautiful clothes are destroyed every year by their own designers rather than being sold somewhere that might tarnish the brand.  Fashion may be about beauty and aesthetic and aspiration, but it is also about the brand.  Brand is everything.  Tarnish the brand and what are you left with?  Why pay  a thousand pounds for a dress that you know costs less than a hundred pounds to make?  Why buy a Chanel bag when there is one at Accessorize that is just as charming?  So, rather than helping out those less fortunate than ourselves, we guard our image and burn the lot.” … p.105

“…You might be starving, drunk and high , with dried-up kidneys and the liver of a fifty-five-year-old alcoholic, but just as long as you can make it down the catwalk looking fabulous, who cares?”…p. 81

And the pervasive exhaustion of it all is partly because…

“Drugs are endemic in this insudstry because it is all about make-believe…You can’t really talk seriously about fashion–there is nothing to talk about.  You can’t just say I have done this great skirt this season.   It’s all about dressing this bitch because she’s cool and she’s going to help my brand.  If she goes out in this dress she is going to give me some kudos, so I have to get up her arse, and then I have to be nice and suck cok with some journalist, and then I have to be nice to this buyer to help my brand.  It is all so soul-destroying….You don’t make friends in this industry.  There is no camaraderie.  There is no one trying to make real connections.  People are parasites.  They do the fashion rubbish talk.  That’s why people are high all the time, to help them escape it all.  They’d rather not confront the reality.   We all live on fresh air, so it has to be high-octane and fun otherwise we would all sit here and say, “I’m not making any money.  What the fuck am I doing?”….p. 181

If you want the insider tidbits on fashion’s characters, this book is chock-full of it.  If you’re a hard-core fashionista, perhaps a lot would be old hat to you by now.  But to the less glamorous of us,  some will be just downright funny and shocking at the same time.  Did you know that…

“Thiery Mugler has an atelier where there is a glass shower by the gym so anyone who is in the gym can work out while watching someone hosing themselves down.”

“…Sienna Miller gets seeded by nearly everyone.  In fact, the girl gets something like twenty-six handbags a month, and they are worth between £2,000 and  £30,000 each.  An estate car comes to her house every week loaded down with dresses, bags, coats, hats, make-up, body products and, more weirdly, candles.”  — p. 134

“Gwyneth Paltrow can’t cope with all the stuff she gets sent out.  She often has parties at her house where she invites all her mates over to go through the piles of freebies on the instruction that they can take what they want.” — p. 134

There’s never a dull moment with this book in hand.  Lightly written with lots of contemporary droll English wit,  Fashion Babylon will delight every gossipy heart that loves fashion and celebrities.  Plus the astonishing revelations behind the backroom of couture is guaranteed to keep you marvelously glued in between covers.

My Mark :  Fabulous!

Sometimes, life does get in the way of blogging. That and large doses of TV miniseries in its various seasons have kept me away from my bookshelf for quite some time. But, I’m glad to be back, dishing out more reviews for you.

After the book, “Waiting” by Frank M. Robinson, the subject of human evolution had piqued a great deal of my interest in human origins. Luckily, I had this book in my collection which has temporarily  satiated my appetite on the subject.

Author : Nicholas Wade

Date of First Publication :  April 20, 2006 (Hardcover)

This Edition’s Date of Publication :  March 27, 2007 (Paperback)

Publisher :  The Penguin Group

ISBN-10: 014303832X

ISBN-13: 978-0143038320

No. of pages :  320

What It Is About :

Before the Dawn” is Nicholas Wade’s dissertation on human evolution. It traces our roots through the infallible footprints of our DNA, bringing us to our earliest known origins which is Africa, and to the first chromosomal Adam who supplied the definable Y chromosome that started the ancestral human population.

The treatise goes on to define how modern man evolved through genetic mutations, made prevalent by natural selection, to include large changes such as vast improvements in intelligence, capacity for language, and increasing behavioral complexity.

Wade states that human evolution is an irrefutable truth than can be proven by DNA:

“…in the past few years an extraordinary new archive has become available to those who study human evolution, human nature and history. It is the record encoded in the DNA of the human genome and in the versions of it carried by the world’s population. Geneticists have long contributed to the study of the human past but are doing so with particular success since the full sequence of DNA units in the genome was determined in 2003.” — p. 2

“As a repository of hereditary information that is in constant flux, the genome is like a document unless ceaseless revision. Its mechanism of change is such that it retains evidence about its previous drafts and these, though not easy to interpret, provide a record that stretches deep into the past. The genome can therefore be interrogated at many different time levels. It can supply answers that reach back more than 50,000 years to the genetic Adam, a man whose Y chromosome is carried by all men alive.” — p.2

“The human genome is a new source of data that enriches all the disciplines concerned with the human past. It furnishes two quite different types of information, one to do with genes, the other with genealogies. “ — p. 6

Wade lays down the main issues covered in the book:

1.  There is clear evidence that the human and ape species are descended from one common ancestry.

2. In response to environmental pressures, human social relations have evolved as a survival necessity. Behavioral developments such as communication, alliances, trust, etc. have arisen as tools to ensure being one step ahead of competition.

3.  Human physical form was attained first before significant changes in human behavior occurred. Bipedalism, increase in brain size, shedding of hair are examples of development toward modern human physique that did not occur simultaneously with advanced human behavior.

4. “Most of human prehistory , occurred in and was shaped by, the last ice age.”

5.  In our evolution, man’s acquisition of the gene that is responsible for our language ability is one of the most important evolutionary gifts bestowed on man. Language has enabled us to form three principal social institutions that have shaped human societies : warfare, religion, and trade.

6.  The ancestral people were too aggressive to live in settled communities as their lives were dominated by constant warfare. Gradually, humans had to evolve into less aggressive individuals in order to be able to live in larger societies with new structures such as social hierarchy, ownership of property, and specialization of roles.

7.  Human evolution has not halted and is continuing to the present day.

8.  “People probably once spoke a single language from which all contemporary languages are derived.”

9.   “The human genome contains excellent records of the recent past, providing a parallel history to the written record.”

The Review:

Wade does an excellent job of explaining human evolution which makes “Before The Dawn” a highly absorbing read.  This book is based on various sources covering a variety of esoteric topics, such as “Ancient DNA Evidence for Old World Origin of New World Dogs”, “The Neolithic Invasion of Europe”,  “Hunter-Gatherers and Human Evolution”, etc.  from which details were culled to create a cohesive, well explained summary for the layman’s understanding of human evolution.  About 367 source materials, most of which have been only recently published (1996-2006) are cited, so the information is guaranteed to be current.

A lot of fascinating facts may keep one glued to Wade.  This is one of his footnotes:

“Most people in Africa and Europe have wet earwax.  But dry earwax is the rule among East Asians.  A team of Japanese researchers has traced the difference to a mutation in a gene called ABCCII….”  —- Footnote no. 153

According to Wade, one can date the invention  of clothing through the time at which the body louse evolved from the head louse.  When body hair started to fall off, the louse was confined to a restricted area of hair–the head.  But once man started using clothing (perhaps animal skins), the louse now had more area to live on but it just had to evolve to acquire different claws to be able to cling to clothing instead of hair.  So, studies into louse DNA to discover when this evolution occured would give an answer to when men took to wearing clothing.  This turned out to be 72,000 years ago, give or take several thousand years.

A very well put-together work, this is not a difficult read for the common reader as long as one does a little research on some of the jargon (i.e. paleolithic, australopithecines, mitochondria, et al.).  Get past it and one should be off on a very interesting educational treat.  Moreover, the explanations are clear and concise, the writing informative without being heavy.  Chapters are also organized and well- laid out so it isn’t a chore to pore through this book.

To Read Or Not To Read:

Nicholas Wade certainly raises questions regarding Biblical writings, most of which center on the Genesis.  It renders the literal story of the Creation and the Christian belief that we are unique and not creatures of evolution, as myths.  This may be disturbing to those whose religious beliefs center on Biblical truths , as these are challenged in the light of current scientific evidence.   But those who are truly interested in human history, biology,  genetics, anthropology,  archeology or even linguistics, or those who simply have an open mind toward the subject of human evolution,  shouldn’t pass this one up.  The range of topics and the fascinating informational asides do add tremendously to one’s store of knowledge while providing entertainment as well.

In A Nutshell :

Since the human genome was unraveled in 2003, this book rests on DNA as the incontrovertible evidence upon which human evolution can sit on and be proven.   Our DNA suggests that not only have we evolved but that our evolution continues and will continue well into the future.

As per Publishers Weekly editorial review: “This is highly recommended for readers interested in how DNA analysis is rewriting the history of mankind. “

My Mark :  Excellent

This novel is Mineko Iwasaki’s memoirs of her life as one of Japan’s finest and most popular geisha of her time.

Author :  Mineko Iwasaki with Rande Brown

Publised:  2003

Publisher :  Pocket Books (Simon & Schuster UK, Ltd.)

ISBN: 0-7434-6900-3

No. of  pages :  334

Her Story :

Madam Oima, the proprietress of the Iwasaki okiya, a highly successful geisha house in Gion Kobu,  was happy to find her successor in the pretty, captivating face of five-year-old Mineko.  She petitioned little Mineko from her parents and thus started the career of one of the most foremost geishas in Japan.

At a very early age, Mineko Iwasaki was trained in Japanese dance, music and the arts  in preparation for an illustrous career as a geiko (geisha) and as an honored successor to Madam Oima.  As Japanese art is obsessed with perfection,  Mineko embraced this cultural virtue as her personal creed so that her beauty and relentless mastery of the arts brought great honor and fortune to the house of Iwasaki.

Although Mineko was always surrounded by beauty and privilege,  her life was a life of  self-imposed hard work to be the best — constant training, rigid self-discipline, and grueling schedules.

Mineko Iwasaki

In her memoirs, the author takes care to point out that real geishas are artists, exceptional in the art of traditional Japanese entertainment, which include the highly ritualistic tea ceremony,  traditional dance forms, and the art of conversation, to name a few.  Perceptions of geishas as stylized prostitutes are Western misconceptions which are rooted in the confusion between courtesans (an entirely different group) and geishas.  Being a geisha is to embody the Japanese art form–bringing Japanese artistic perfection to life.   So a geisha is an artistic entertainer par excellance, nothing more.

Mineko’s memoirs chronicles her years as a geisha until her shocking retirement from the business at age 29.

At present, the author is in her fifties and lives with her husband and daughter in Kyoto,  Japan.

The Review :

Through one geisha’s story, we get to take a good look at the mesmerizing and quite secretive “flower and willow” world.  This is a wonderfully descriptive account of the geiko community that upholds and celebrates the perfect feminine.  This is quite an eye-opener, actually, and casts huge doubts on the credibility of works that portray geishas as women of ill-repute.

Overall, it really isn’t a very compelling read but the author has many little stories that keep one’s  interest up — like the time when Prince Charles autographed her favorite fan, uninvited or when she decided to subtly flirt with the Duke of Edinburgh in full view of Queen Elizabeth II, as a little revenge for the Queen’s refusal to eat even a little of a meal which was meticulously planned for the royal visit (Mineko saw this as an unforgivable breach of etiquette).

As informative and interesting these accounts are, one is left with a feeling, though, that the author never allowed the reader to know her very well.  Perhaps, the author is a naturally private person; and also perhaps Ms. Iwasaki  does not possess the expressive skills of a writer.   Rande Brown, who is named as co-author must simply be a translator and not a real writer as well.  This is quite evident in the way the book is written—simple, sometimes bland and amateurish; but, its simplicity is what makes the book very readable and friendly to those who usually shun memoirs.

On The Side :

A little research into Mineko Iwasaki reveals that the author was the major inspiration for Arthur Golden’s “Memoirs of a Geisha“.  However,  she sued Mr. Golden for libel and defamation of character in 2001.  Mineko claims that Golden’s book twisted her accounts, betrayed her confidentiality and that his acknowledgement of her being his primary source, has earned her the contempt of the present geisha community.  It is Golden’s depiction of the geisha as a highly cultured prostitute that has earned Mineko a lot of flack, even to the point of receiving several death threats for violating the traditional code of silence.  The suit was settled out of court in 2003.

The New York Times and The Independent have better accounts of this dispute.    An interview granted to The Boston Phoenix talks about Mineko Iwasaki’s decision to publish her memoirs, her corrections on the common misconceptions of geishas,  and her early retirement.

In A Nutshell :

Geisha of Gion” has given me the impetus to select  “Memoirs of a Geisha” as my next read.   Despite having been disparaged by Ms. Iwasaki as an inaccurate depiction of geishas, it nevertheless must have been a result of research into geisha culture and interviews of other geisha.

From the pen of a genuine geisha, and not just any geisha but from the best there was, Geisha of Gion“, though, is the work to take seriously.  I consider myself privileged to have learned about this secretive world from someone who had lived in it and is actually in its roster of  legendary characters.

My Mark  :   Very  Good

I had a wonderful month-long vacation in Dubai for the Holidays.  I was impressed with Dubai’s stunningly modern cityscape and infrastructure and the cosmopolitan lifestyle that has made Dubai a true melting pot of  the Middle East.

Because of this, I saw a country of contradictions.  Where else can one see skimpily clad women alongside heavily veiled ones?

This juxtaposition had me intrigued.  I have often wondered then how veiled women or those who have to wear abaayas feel or think about those who never wear them.

So, I just had to buy this book which narrates the true-to-life story of a Saudi princess—a fascinating perspective as it comes from a an Arab woman of note.

Author              :  Jean Sasson

First Release   :  September 1992

Publisher (this edition)        :  Bantam Books  (1993)

No. of pages     :  303

This is the true story of Princess Sultana (fictitious name) of the royal house of  Al Sa’ud, the current ruling clan of  Saudi Arabia.  She tells of her privileged life of mind-boggling riches and of her real life as a woman pinioned by cultural fetters of gender prejudice.

Princess Sultana is a feminist, a woman who feels deeply about the indignity and the precarious  situation of women in Saudi Arabia whose laws and fanatic customs demean, denigrate, and threaten their very lives.  In the milieu of extreme patriarchy where severe punishment is meted for breaking social and religious laws, she is a rare voice, a courageous one, as she has risked her life to tell her story, anonymously, through the author, Jean Sasson.

She recounts her life—how it is like to grow up as a Saudi princess, what incidents she had witnessed and heard of— grave injustices,  appalling torture and punishment done to women, some of whose only sins were falling in love with a non-Muslim or being unfortunate enough to have been raped.

If I was hoping to find some answer to my question on how veiled women feel about thier abaayas,  I did get her opinion.  Of course, this is only one opinion. There should be several, supporting or opposing ones.  I’d love to hear about opposing ones.

Princess Sultana narrates that at the first moments of the first veiling were exciting.  Veiling signifies a child’s transition to womanhood and is practiced as soon as the child reaches menarche.

“For a moment, I felt myself a thing of beauty, a work so lovely that I must be covered to protect men from their uncontrollable desires.”– p.111

But in the next instant, she envies the freedom of those only partially veiled.  (She has to wear a full veil covering her entire face.  I’ve seen women veiled this way in Dubai and frankly, the sight of a heavily veiled woman, who looks like a walking death shroud, did creep me out a bit).

“The novelty of wearing the veil and abaaya was fleeting, though.  When we walked out…I gasped for breath and sucked furiously through the sheer black fabric.  The air tasted stale and dry as it filtered through the gauzy cloth.  I had purchased the sheerest veil available, and yet I was seeing life through a thick screen.  How could one woman see through veils made of thicker fabric?  … my heart plunged to my stomach when I realized that, from that moment, outside my own home I would not experience life as it really is in all its colour…”

“I stumbled over  several children of a bedouin woman, and looked in envy at the freedom of the veil.  Bedouin women wear veils that fell across their noses, leaving their eyes free to examine their surroundings.  Oh how I wished to be a bedouin!  I would cover my face gladly if I could only leave my eyes free to see the inifinite changes of life around me.” — p. 111

Perhaps then, veiled women do feel a certain envy toward those who never have to wear them.  The object of envy would be freedom—freedom to express one’s individuality through their own choices of make-up and fashion; freedom from restrictive clothing;  freedom to revel and have confidence in one’s own body.  These are little freedoms which most women take for granted.   I have sensed sometimes these women’s longing to have the social confidence Western and most Asian women have, an inherited assurance owing to totally different cultural views.

However, I am straying from the subject —which is a review of this book.

Princess is indeed all of these — shocking, fascinating, heart-breaking, outrageous, thought-provoking, unbelievable.  It is mind-boggling to think how ideas and acts, presumed to be medieval, be alive and and accepted in this day and age — the age of information.  The book is simply written, far from being a literary work of note in terms of writing style; but Sasson does convey the story coherently and sequentially well.

For Filipinos, it would be  of interest to know that Princess Sultana makes a lot of references to our “kabayans”, overseas workers who form a significant part of the labor force in Saudi Arabia.

This book is so interesting that it may spur one to read Jean Sasson’s other novels, all of which deal with women in the Arab world.

My Mark :  Outstanding

Author : Mark J. Penn with E. Kinney Zalesne

Release date : Sept., 2007

You pick up a book with a title like this and a back cover listing:

*”People are retiring but continuing to work.”

*”Teens are turning to knitting.”

*“Geeks are becoming the most sociable people around.” ….  You think: “Hey, this sounds just like my friend, Charlie…”

*”Women are driving technology.” …. and wonder, “I am…?”

*Dads are older than ever and spending more time with their kids than in the past.”

You flip to a page and soon become so engrossed in it that you don’t know you’re beginning to smile. Then you start to chuckle. Wait, you do know someone just like that—yourself! Before you know it,  you’ve chortled your way through a humorous chapter.   A lot of the details are plain hilarious!

Mark Penn just has a way with words. His wit lends a lot of levity to what easily could have been one of those tedious analytical tomes for intellectual heavyweights (just a nice euphemism for pedantic bores). He could write fiction and be a hit! He is just that funny.

But don’t let this lead you to thinking that this book is too breezy to be serious reading. Microtrends is a serious analysis. It’s a fascinating account of emerging social behaviors that are or will be powerful enough to influence how society will think, act, and be in the next several years. Penn writes:

“In fact, the whole idea that there are a few huge trends that determine how America and the world work is breaking down. There are no longer a couple of megaforces sweeping us all along. Instead, America and the world are being pulled apart by an intricate maze of choices, accumulating in “microtrends”—small, under-the-radar forces that can involve as little as 1 percent of the population, but which are powerfully shaping our society. It’s just not that small is the new big. It’s that in order to truly know what’s going on,…we need the equivalent of magnifying glasses and microscopes…polls, surveys, and statistics. They take a slice of the matter being studied and lay it open…and inside, you will find yourself, your friends, your clients, your customers, and your competition, clearer than you ever thought you might.”

Microtrends is really about “small ideas that can lead to large changes”. “A microtrend is an intense identity group, that is growing, which has needs and wants unmet by the current crop of companies, marketers, policymakers, and others who would influence society’s behavior.”

Although Penn’s focus is trending American society, he does go further to include similar global behavior. In a global economy, trends spread fast and could become international driving forces that may, in the future, upset or enhance established social norms around the world.

Who should read this book? Those who need to be one step ahead of competition have to watch and be aware of these growing groups whose unique requirements are changing the way things are.  But it would do most of us, “go with the flow” people, a lot of good to be enlightened. Let us not wake up one day and say, “What’s the world gotten into?” ; but say, “ “We’ve  known , we’ve read, and we’ve been watching.”

So, grab a copy. I guarantee an easy, fast read—a page-turner! For a non-fiction novel on sociology, that’s saying a lot! If only more analytical books were written like this, we would all be more “in the know”. Well, hey, maybe Penn just started a trend!

My Mark : Excellent

Author : Deborah Rodriguez

Release Date : Dec. 17, 2007

This novel is a true-to-life adventure of a certified hairdresser from Michigan, Deborah Rodriguez who “in 2002,  helped form the Kabul Beauty School, the first modern beauty school and training salon in Afghanistan” (About the Author page __The Kabul Beauty School).  In a country that has mixed feelings on the moralities of beauty salons (unbelievable but true), Deborah’s achievement is all about overcoming cultural barriers and giving hope.

With a germ of an idea and a “can-do” attitude, she raises sponsorships from U.S. cosmetic companies, sometimes personally funding her classes, and practically doing everything she could think of to get the school up and running___even marrying an Afghan so she could stay protected in a country so hostile to women.

Deborah is one person I would like to meet.  Through her book, she strikes me as a bohemian character, energetic, gutsy, quirky, self confident, uninhibited and above all, a woman with a big heart.  I think I will like her if only for the fact that like me, she enjoys a good book with a margarita or two. 

The Kabul Beauty School is an easy, enjoyable read with a down-to-earth writing style and lots of humor to balance genuine, heart-breaking accounts of the women the author has gotten to know.  Surprisingly, there isn’t a whiff of condescension; just sadness at the fact that women in Afghanistan are going through unbelievable oppression.  But the author’s natural optimism still sees hope through the indomitable spirit of Afghan women.  Amidst the pain of cultural subjugation , these women could still find something to laugh about and to hope for , enough to fight for their own personal betterment. In the author’s unique way, she saw their salvation in perms, hair color, and make-up!

I started reading this book in a cafe where I spent two hours sipping my glasses of soda and giggling my way through the pages.  One of the many hilarious paragraphs that gave me the giggles:

“Then I pointed my scissors at Daud.  He had a haircut that was pretty typical of the Afghan men I had seen so far–a sort of pompadour trimmed short in the back with a wad of hair puffed up on top.  It was like the hairdo Elvis had sported in his most hideous days, when he was wearing those tight leather pants and awful capes made by the Ice Capades people.  I hated it. …..”

“…We begin with the parts of Roshanna that no one will see tonight except her husband.  Traditional Afghans consider body hair to be both ugly and unclean, so she must be stripped of all of it except for the long, silky brown hair on her head and her eyebrows.  There can be no hair left on her arms, underarms, face or privates…We lead Roshanna down the corridor to the waxing room–the only one in Afghanistan, I might add…Many brides are either too modest or too fearful to have their pubic hair removed by others, so they do it at home–they either pull it out by hand or rip it out with chewing gum.  Either way, the process is brutally painful.  Besides, it’s hard to achieve the full Brazilian–every pubic hair plucked, front and back–when you do it on your own, even if you’re one of the few women in this country to own a large mirror, as Roshanna does.”

You will find this book, funny, sad, outrageous, and candid all at the same time.  It may pique your curiosity to learn more about Afghan culture after this book.  It most certainly did for me.  I thoroughly enjoyed every minute reading it.

I pray Deborah will be able to return to Kabul in the years to come, without fear of reprisals for her book or for simply empowering some women to learn a trade.   Her commitment to open opportunities to Afghan women for making a decent living should be an inspiration to all those who wish to make a difference in this world.

My Mark : Excellent