Running Away to Home, La Bella Lingua, Dune, and the Woman Who Laughed at God

I keep starting more books, and can’t seem to finish many of them. But here are a few reviews to start off the year:

Running Away to HomeRunning Away to Home by Jennifer Wilson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having done a very similar thing myself, I enjoyed reading Jennifer Wilson’s account of how she took her family to the Czech Republic in search of her ancestors. I loved all the little details of their acceptance into her ancestral village, and how she and her suburban American family learned a different way of living and seeing the world. However, the book lacked a certain internal consistency and completeness. At times, Wilson simply rambled. And she kept bringing up interesting themes and then dropping them without warning, never to be revisited. The concluding chapters read a little insincerely, almost as if she’d written them before she ever went, and been planning to write the book all along.

La Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting LanguageLa Bella Lingua: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language by Dianne Hales

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I certainly enjoyed reading this book, since I’m as weak in the knees over the Italian language as Hales. However, this is more of a light cultural history of Italy than the “love affair with Italian” of the subtitle. She does attempt to tie the narrative together with little incidents in her quest to speak Italian, but much of it just comes off as bragging about how much time she’s spent on her many Italian vacations. Hales’ prose is also sometimes a trifle too sexual for good taste (although one could argue the same about the Italian language), and it’s all a bit too self-conscious. And she will keep making sweeping generalizations about all the languages in the world, even though it’s fairly obvious that Italian is the only one she’s ever tried to learn. Still, I learned a lot of new phrases and interesting etymologies, and my Italian “cultural literacy” was certainly enhanced. This book is definitely worth a read if you have anything more than a passing interest in Italy and Italian.

Dune (Dune Chronicles, #1)Dune by Frank Herbert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Stunning. Really stunning. I don’t know what’s kept me from reading Dune all these years. I’ve always wondered how George Lucas pulled the genius of Star Wars out of thin air, and now I know he didn’t. The entire feel of the Star Wars movies is there, and several characters and scenes were lifted almost directly out of this book. (I’m a bit annoyed at Lucas now for turning the powerful all-female Bene Gesserit into the male-dominated Jedi. But whatever.) However, Dune stands on its own (as does Star Wars) as a masterpiece. The thematic breadth is epic, the symbolism apt and profound, and the depth and scope of literary allusions quite impressive. It’s a ripping page-turner too. And Frank Herbert knows his Arabic. This book totally made me want to go back to Tunisia and spend some time in the desert looking for sandworms.

Dune MessiahDune Messiah by Frank Herbert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

So, I was warned that there’s a sharp drop-off in the sequels to Dune, but I thought I’d give this one at least a try. It was O.K., but resembled a little too closely the pulp science fiction that kept me from reading Dune for so long in the first place. The main thing I enjoyed, again, was tracing the origins of Star Wars. I can’t say I really liked the plot. Unfortunately, Jessica, my favorite character (and Duke Leto, my second favorite) are both virtually absent from this book. Duncan is just creepy, Alia is . . . strange. Paul is more tragic and haunted than ever, but less likable. And there are no really grand epic vistas here. Herbert puts in some interesting philosophy, but nowhere near the depth of the original Dune. I will probably not be continuing on with the rest of the several books in the series.

The Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish PeopleThe Woman Who Laughed at God: The Untold History of the Jewish People by Jonathan Kirsch
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I eventually got bored with this one and dropped it somewhere between “In the Ruined Citadel” and “Abominable Heresies.” Kirsch revels in the sensational. His narrative is liberally peppered with his own scantily supported suppositions, even as he tries to observe the forms of a well-researched, fairly scholarly work. Still, I enjoyed reading some of his clever theses, especially in the chapter “A Goddess of Israel,” in which he advances the idea that women may have written some of the oldest parts of the Bible.

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What are you reading (or planning to read) this year?