Strange & Norrell, Wine to Water, The Egyptian Revolution, and The Dream of the Celt

This week’s book reviews (with the exception of #1, which is just an irresistible indulgence) are dedicated to people who want to save the world.

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is an absolute delight: witty, intelligent, exciting, and original.

I am addicted to footnotes (I even like reading annotated critical editions of novels), so I adored the abundant tongue-in-cheek scholarly footnotes in Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell. I also appreciated the length. No matter how quickly you read, you won’t be finishing it in an afternoon. At over 1000 pages, there is just so much of this book to love.

The interweaving of real history, 19th century British culture, and wild magic was seamless and satisfying. The characters are fascinating, quirky, and eminently memorable (the male characters, at least. The female characters are decidedly stereotyped and mostly minor. For that reason I would not compare this to a Jane Austen novel, as some have).

The book is full of quotable lines (“Can a magician kill a man by magic?” Lord Wellington asked Strange. Strange frowned. He seemed to dislike the question. “I suppose a magician might,” he admitted, “but a gentleman never would.” ). There are lots of hilarious scenes, and it’s deliciously unpredictable. I’m almost ready to pick it up and read it again right now.

Wine to Water: A Bartender's Quest to Bring Clean Water to the WorldWine to Water: A Bartender’s Quest to Bring Clean Water to the World by Doc Hendley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While wondering what (if anything) to do with his life, bartender Doc Hendley decided to go to Darfur for a year on a mission to bring clean water to villages affected by the ongoing violence between rival Sudanese factions.

Hendley’s prose is a little rough, but his unstudied informality is actually endearing. Behind the gruff biker rebelling against his straitlaced religious past (his father is a “preacher man”) is a genuine person awakening to what he has to contribute to the world.

Although I enjoyed some of the more exciting incidents, like getting shot at by Janjaweed militias, my favorite parts of the book were Hendley’s introspective moments, and his totally unselfconscious meditations on life, his Christian faith, and the paradoxes of international development.

The organization Hendley formed, Wine to Water, currently provides clean water in nine countries, with a focus on sustainability and local cooperation. If you’re interested in hosting a Wine to Water fundraising party, you can check out the website here:

Revolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, a MemoirRevolution 2.0: The Power of the People Is Greater Than the People in Power, a Memoir by Wael Ghonim

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you’re looking for an insider’s account of last year’s Egyptian Revolution, you won’t do better than this. Wael Ghonim was not only an eyewitness to the events of the revolution, but also a key figure in it. An executive with Google, he used his marketing experience to effectively spread the message of revolution to the youth of Egypt, break the fear barrier, and bring hundreds of thousands out on the streets.

A good portion of the book is made up of primary source documents, in the form of posts he made on the wall of the Facebook page he created to mobilize the youth of Egypt. His passionate Facebook appeals work synergistically with his personal narrative to create a riveting, very immediate reading experience. I felt like I was living the Egyptian Revolution along with Ghonim.

Although Ghonim’s at times overblown prose might seem excessive to readers unfamiliar with Egypt and Egyptians, just go ahead and suspend your disbelief and take him seriously, and you’ll be rewarded with an inspiring look into the mind and work of a modern-day hero.

The Dream of the Celt: A NovelThe Dream of the Celt: A Novel by Mario Vargas Llosa

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read the first 50 pages of this book in the original Spanish, but then switched over to the English translation because #1 I’m too lazy to spend that much time with the dictionary and #2 it was just too weird to picture this Irish guy speaking Spanish.

I really liked the intermittent flashback format, because it gave the book (and the main character’s life) coherence. Whatever the later controversies of his life, Roger Casement has my respect and admiration for his tireless and self-sacrificing quest to rid the world of injustice. Over a couple of decades, he courageously persevered in exposing the Rubber Barons’ horrific abuses of native peoples in the Congo and Peru, despite death threats, severe illness, and extreme emotional strain.

The last third of the book, which deals with the struggle for Irish independence, is not as readable. Casement’s claim that colonialism in Ireland was essentially the same as in the Congo is not really credible. Still, I have a soft spot for Irish revolutionaries, and I am so glad that he can rest in peace now knowing that his country is free.

The work is subtitled “A Novel,” but it reads much more like a biography. I wish that Llosa had included something at the end to assist the reader in separating fact from fiction. I’d like to know how much the Roger Casement I grew to care about is like the real one.

Although the “Black Diaries” are admittedly an important part of the plot (and I think it’s sick and tragic how the British government made use of them), I didn’t really appreciate reading so much out of them. Llosa’s claim that they were authored by Casement but largely fantasies rather than descriptions of real exploits seemed a little weird, but I’m not really qualified to judge its merits.

Advisory: For those who, like me, are prudish to some degree, be aware that there is some sexual content (i.e. the contents of said “black diaries”) in this book.

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2 thoughts on “Strange & Norrell, Wine to Water, The Egyptian Revolution, and The Dream of the Celt

  • July 6, 2012 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks for the reviews. I am adding these to my summer reading list. Not only that, I am going to try to be a better writer when I write reviews for you.


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