Sunday, June 30, 2013

Driving the Saudis by Jayne Amelia Larson

Several months ago while listening to NPR, I hear about this book, Driving the Saudis by Jayne Amelia Larson.  The author was being interviewed and I was fascinated with what she had to say.  Ms. Larson had spent seven weeks as a chauffeur for a family of Saudis that were vacationing in Beverly Hills.  This week I was finally able to read her book documenting those seven weeks and what a harrowing experience it was!
Ms. Larson was an out-of-work actress/ producer and had begun driving as a chauffeur as a side job.  When an opportunity to drive a Saudi family arose, she jumped at the chance because she had heard that these families often presented their drivers with extravagant tips at the end of their stay.  The rumors were that she could receive $5,000- $20,000 in cash and possibly even expensive gifts if she were to impress her clients.  This was no easy accomplishment.  Ms. Larson was required to be on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week for the full seven week stay.  She was to drive anywhere and for anyone that security sent her way.  While she never drove for any of the Saudi men, she was assigned for a time to drive the royal hair dresser. He preferred to make the two hour trip every night to the casinos in Palm Springs, stay all night at the slot machines and then she had to drive him back to Beverly Hills early every morning.
When she wasn't driving the hair dresser, she was driving one teenage princess or another.  The family arrived in town with millions of dollars in cash.  Each day, Ms. Larson witnessed the shopping excursions that lasted all day and visited only the most exclusive designer boutiques.  One of the chapters is even entitled "How Many Hermes Are Too Many?".  In another chapter, she says, "I saw that most of the Saudi teenage girls were also dressed in thousands of dollars worth of fashionable clothing they were ultra-chic mini-versions of the older women.  Saudis buy over 75 percent of the world's haute couture, so I guess they start the girls off young."
Ms. Larson also took the opportunity to learn what she could about the family and it's culture.  Although she was not supposed to ask questions, she found people who were willing to explain how things worked.  For instance, she was surprised to see that the women were not covered when they were in town.  "...they looked like a bunch of Brazilian hotties going nightclubbing.  Many of the women were scantily clad in Versace, Gucci, and Prada..."  It was explained to her that outside of the Kingdom, they could wear whatever they pleased.  She also had many discussions with the more religious, and therefore covered, servants.  She learned a lot about the five pillars of Islam.  One of the young girl's nannies, Malikah, became Ms. Larson's friend and shared many of her beliefs.  "She accepted that each person must come to God in her own way and that this must be done in her own time, and Malikah was content to practice her faith as it suited her without casting aspersions on those around her who were less pious." 
In the end, Ms. Larson worked so hard and so many hours that she began to look sickly.  She lost so much weight that her clothes were hanging off her body and she was exhausted.  As the departure day for the family approached, she looked forward to the big fat envelope that she hoped would hold her tip.  She was relieved when the family's 747 finally lifted off the ground.  She had spent nearly two months as a fly on the wall.  She saw millions of dollars spent on luxury goods and plastic surgery, she watched ambitious servants attempt to work their way up in royal favor and often push others down in the process, she learned about a culture that she had never before experienced.  This was a quick read and an enjoyable one.  I'm not the biggest reader of non-fiction, but this one was more like listening to a friend gossip.  Pick it up, I think you'll like it.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein

Oh, my.  This book.  To call The Art of Racing in the Rain  by Garth Stein a dog book would be a colossal mistake.  While the book is narrated by and told from the point of view of Enzo, a dog, this is not a book about a dog.  This is a book about a family of which Enzo is an important member.   Enzo's owner is Denny, an aspiring race car driver.  Denny and Enzo love to watch racing videos together and much of what Enzo knows about life he has learned through racing.  Enzo also watches other television and as his philosophies develop, he shares them.  For instance, his opinion on evolution: "So what if man's body evolved from the monkeys?  Whether he came from monkeys or fish is unimportant.  The important idea is that when the body became 'human' enough, the first human soul slipped into it."
Enzo believes that his soul is as near to human as possible.  After watching a documentary about reincarnation, he feels certain that his next life will be in the body of a man and he is ready.  The book begins at the end.  Enzo is very old and struggling to keep up.  It is clear he has very little time left in this world.  (For this reason, I did not give this book to a friend of mine that I know loves dogs as her lab is now 14 years old.)  Enzo then proceeds to tell us what his life has been like from the beginning, how he came to live with Denny and what it was like for him when Denny married and had a daughter. 
Enzo is a kind soul.  He is wise.  He is unselfish.  He stands by as a witness as Denny's life falls apart and at times Enzo even helps direct Denny's path, keeping him from danger and regret.  I admit that I am not much of a dog person, though we have had a dog for the last three years.  He is sweet, but I am not as attached to him as my children and husband are.  And yet I would be the last person to say that our dog doesn't have a soul and his own personality.
Oh, if only we could hear his thoughts.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

I have read about this book in so many places over so many years that I felt I just had to read it.  I Capture the Castle  by Dodie Smith was written in the 1940s and has been praised in the same category as Jane Austen.  It took me a little while to realize that the entire premise of the book is that a young girl, Cassandra, is keeping a journal to hone her writing skills.  By "capturing the castle" on the page, Cassandra hopes to someday become a great writer.  She documents her family's tragedy and triumphs, telling the story of how they came to live in a beautiful old castle, how her father had spent time in prison, how they currently live in near poverty.  The excitement begins when two wealthy single young men (you know what Jane Austen has to say about that) move in to the estate nearby and take an interest in Cassandra's older sister Rose. 
I must say I was slightly disappointed that I didn't enjoy this book nearly as much as I had hoped I would.  It was a bit of a slow read and I really hoped for more for the characters.  I will pass it along to a friend of mine who also happens to love Jane Austen and see if she can help me see the error of my ways.  Have you read this one?  Am I wrong for not falling in love with it?  I would love to hear what you think.

Entwined by Heather Dixon

Last week, I reread a book that I loved last year, Entwined  by Heather Dixon.  You can read my original review here.  This book is so sweet and so much fun.  I really can't recommend it enough.  It was written as a Young Adult novel, but everyone I know that has read it has enjoyed it as much as I have.  If you are looking for something light to read by the pool or at the beach this summer, pick up this one.  Then come back and tell me how much you loved it.  I promise you will!

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obreht

This month's book club selection is The Tiger's Wife  by Tea Obreht.  Set in a Balkan country after many years of war, a young woman, Natalia, attempts to discover the truth behind the stories her grandfather has told her all her life.  Central to these stories is her grandfather's treasured copy of The Jungle Book.  Like the layers of an onion, this story is really one story inside another inside another.  Each character has a past and Obreht explores them thoroughly.  There is Natalia's story, her grandfather's story, and then there are the tales of The Tiger's Wife and of the Deathless Man.  Each of these have multiple dimensions that add depth and texture.  Natalia, along with the reader, is on a mission to discover if these old legends she has heard all her life are just folklore or if they are really true. 
To be honest, I don't actually know a lot about the Balkan States or the many wars that have afflicted the area over the last century.  War is in the background through much of this book, but the details of the wars are not the focus.  Myth, superstition and legend are all a major player in this book, almost as if they are another character.  The Tiger's Wife has been critically recognized and was named one of the ten best books of 2011 by the New York Times along with many other literary honors.   I will say that while it is a good book and I liked it, I didn't love it.  It captured my attention and I read it in only four days, but it is unlikely I would feel the need to read it again. 
Have you read The Tiger's Wife ?  What did you think?