Friday, November 30, 2007

Guest Blog--Daddy's Climbing Tree by C.S. Adler

While the bookrater is busy interviewing for a job, I thought I would add a review of a children's book that I just finished. I am not sure why I was attracted to this story of a young girl whose father dies while jogging in a hit and run accident. Is there a morbid side to me? And I am not sure that I remember very much about being a child. After reading the story, I have a tendency to think I am far more like the grieving mother/widow who keeps saying to her angry, bewildered child, "Don't do this to me!" How centered on my own world am I? Can I not see the grief and the struggles of even those who I think are closest to me? I am not sure if Adler has the vision of the world from a child's perspective right or not, but she certainly understands the grief and anger that we feel when we lose someone or something vital to our personal lives. I wept buckets over Jessica's quest to find her father because she is convinced that he would never leave her. I am just uncertain whether the tears were for Jessica's loss or the wish that I had a father like Jessica's. I wonder if children reading this story think the same thing.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Anglo-American Literature Presentation, Part II

In the current political environment, Americans abroad are equally as unpopular as they were 135 years ago. An article in the London Telegraph describes Americans as:

“Loud and brash, in gawdy [sic] garb and baseball hats, more than three million of them flock to our shores every year. Shuffling between tourist sites or preparing to negotiate a business deal, they bemoan the failings of the world outside the United States. The reputation of the “Ugly American” abroad is not, however, just some cruel stereotype, but – according to the American government itself – worryingly accurate.”
-Sherwell, P. (2006, April 16). Speak softly, don’t argue and slow down. Telegraph.

Americans themselves remain incredibly unpopular abroad, but does literature still reflect this unpopularity? Or has the literary American abroad changed in the last 135 years?

Along these lines, I also have an interest in Levinas’s theory of otherness. Because Levinas can be rather dense,

“the simplest definition of Otherness [is] anyone or anything that is not me. . . . [O]therness is defined by difference, typically difference marked by outward signs like race and gender. As such, otherness has also been associated predominantly with marginalized people, those who by virtue of their difference from the dominant group, have been disempowered, robbed of a voice in the social, religious, and political world.”
- Onbelet, L. (2000). Imagining the Other: The use of narrative as an empowering practice. McMaster Journal of Theology and Ministry.

To explore this topic, I will reference three contemporary, award-winning novels: Fieldwork, Everything is Illuminated, and The Red Passport. Many other novels would work equally as well, but I have limited the scope of this presentation because of time limitations.

Using these three novels (please link to my reviews of each for more information on the novels themselves), I came to several conclusions about the contemporary American abroad. The literature has:

  • An awareness of American cultural imperialism. Although cultural imperialism continues (e.g., the American missionaries in Fieldwork), the literature is aware of both its existence and its damaging effects.
  • American characters who emphasize the otherness of the local characters. For example, Jonathan Safran Foer in Everything is Illuminated tells Alex, his Ukrainian guide, that he should follow his dreams. Alex feels acutely aware that dreams are a possibility for Americans and not Ukrainians.
  • American characters who sense they do not belong in the local culture but blame the indigenous culture for not conforming to American standards. Ironically, it is Fieldwork’s anthropologist—Martiya—who despises the Dyalo tribe she is researching. She lies and manipulates the people into conforming to her American ideals.
  • Some American characters who have a sense of not belonging to the local culture, a sense of otherness. Leslie, an American with Russian heritage in The Red Passport, wants desperately to be accepted by the locals when she moves to Russia. She constantly reminds them of her Russian heritage, that she is one of them. However, the Russians see her only as an American who can never understand what it is like to be Russian. Although American, Leslie feels disempowered by her Russian neighbors.

If anyone actually made it through this excruciatingly long two-part presentation, I would appreciate any suggestions or comments you may have on the topic.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Anglo-American Literature Presentation, Part I

The time has finally come to make my presentation on Anglo-American literature. As I mentioned before, I have chosen to talk about literature relating to the American abroad. I have come to a few conclusions that I will now share:

First, there is a long tradition of literature about the American abroad. In the nineteenth century, authors such as Henry James (The American), Edith Wharton (The Buccaneers), and Mark Twain (The Innocents Abroad) wrote on the topic.

Even in the 1870s, Americans were far from popular abroad. Note this excerpt from the London Saturday Review of Mark Twain’s Innocents Abroad, October 10, 1870:

"Every traveler on the continent has met the American tourist and formed some opinion of his merits . . . They are the people who do Europe in six weeks . . . They are gloriously ignorant of every language but their own, supremely contemptuous of every country that had no interest in the Declaration of Independence and occasionally, it must be admitted, as offensive as the worst kind of Cockney tourist. . . . The American is generally the noisier and more actively disagreeable . . . He is vulgar, and even ostentatiously and atrociously vulgar, but the vulgarity is mixed with a real shrewdness which rescues it from simple insipidity. We laugh at him, and we would rather not have too much of his company, but we do not feel altogether safe in despising him."

In general, in the literature about Americans abroad, there is

  • A contempt of Americans by the local population;
  • The suggestion that Americans are good hearted yet bumbling socially and notoriously “close minded”;
  • An underlying sense of American cultural imperialism. (By cultural imperialism, I mean a powerful nation dominating indigenous cultures and languages with its own culture and language.)

If this was the attitude towards Americans abroad in nineteenth-century literature, what is the attitude in contemporary literature? (See Part II)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

A Deadly Game of Magic

The only reason I read A Deadly Game of Magic by Joan Lowery Nixon is because it was free. Granted, most of the books I read are free—from the library. But I was actually able to take this book on an overseas flight.

I read other Joan Lowery Nixon books as a teenager—and I enjoyed them. Either I had no taste in books at the time or Deadly Game is just a stinker. (Since Lowery Nixon is an Edgar Award winner, I hope it’s the latter.)

In the book, four high school students are trapped in a rainstorm. Although the plot—about a demented magician—is unbelievable, the real problem with the book is the dialogue.

The teenagers simply do not sound like teenagers. Teena, in particular, spouts platitudes and clich├ęs like a middle-aged woman: “You got guilt all over your face like jam” and “Looking at you is like staring at a window with the shade pulled down” are my favorites. I have never heard anyone talk this way—especially not a teenager.

The book’s romantic” scenes are equally as uncomfortable. Lisa, the narrator, describes her crush, saying, “I watched him leave the room, his long, slender body moving easily, and I wanted to follow him, to touch him.” Is this really how teenage girls think?

Deadly Game is a fast and harmless read. But with so many other books out there, it is also a waste of time.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fieldwork

I am easily distracted by working in a library. Rather than actually work, I could spend hours flipping through books—particularly those on display. That’s how I found Fieldwork by Mischa Berlinski.

In the novel a fictional Mischa Berlinski, a freelance writer living in Thailand, researches the story of an American anthropologist convicted of murdering an American missionary in Chang Mai. Much of the story recounts what Berlinski learns during his research—both about Martiya van der Leun, the anthropologist, and David Walker, her victim.

The author Berlinski, who worked as a journalist in Thailand, has a clear appreciation for the country. His descriptions of the landscape, people, and language feel authentic, including a particularly humorous and realistic description of learning to speak Thai.

Although the subject matter—murder—is surely depressing, the overall tone of the book is not. Berlinski does an excellent job of keeping a balanced tone and melding the plot with descriptions of Thailand and the work of American missionaries.

This book was nominated for this year’s National Book Award, and it deserves the distinction. Although the book is not outstanding, it is an interesting, well-written read.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Guest Blog--New Moon and Eclipse

I bought New Moon last week, hoping for an engaging read since I haven't read a really addictive book lately. Unfortunately, New Moon was so engaging (or left me with such a cliffhanger) that I paid full price for Eclipse because I had to find out what happens to the three main characters.

Even though I was compelled to read these two books, I can't say I was thrilled with them. Meyer takes a lot of pages to get her story out. I also find Bella, the girl who every male loves, to be a weak female--no self confidence, fainting spells, lots of whining. Maybe Bella is really Meyer, and Meyer is writing about the teenage life that she wishes she had? Just a theory.

I also find the love lead, Edward, to be very flat. He is perfect--in every way. Patient, controlled, always loving. He's so perfect that he's not real for me.

Even with those criticisms, the books kept me glued. I wanted to know what would happen between Bella, Edward, and Jacob. I can't say I am entirely satisfied.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Guest Blog--Lone Survivor

Posted on behalf of GenuineClass

Lone Survivor by Marcuss Luttrell is the worst book ever written about American military heroics. Luttrell and four other Navy Seals are caught in the mountains of Afghanistan. The other Seals are killed by the Taliban, but a Taliban village takes Luttrell in and helps him until he can be rescued by the army.

Luttrell spends 200+ pages writing what he could have explained in 20. This is not to diminish the sacrifice of our men and women in the armed forces, but the narcissism and obvious bias against liberals and other members of the American public make the author sound like he sacrifices for only those who agree with him and his politics, forgetting that American ideals include free speech and freedom to choose. Luttrell suggests that only red-blooded Texans are worthy enough to call themselves Americans. According to the author, all others should be executed.

Honestly, I did not read the whole thing because I was too busy skimming through Luttrell’s nonsense to get to the parts that mattered.

I would recommend this book to any of America’s enemies—both foreign and domestic—because it is perfect propaganda for the polarization of American political ideologies, suggesting that it is either all or nothing.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Train to Potevka

During a weekend trip, and a long drive, I caught the tail end of an interview with Mike Ramsdell about his book A Train to Potevka.

According to the interview, Ramsdell was an American spy in the Soviet Union during the Cold War and decided to tell his story. He discovered, though, that he couldn’t get his manuscript past the CIA censors so self-published A Train to Potevka as a work of fiction.

Several months later, I saw the book for sale at Costco and couldn’t resist the opportunity to read it. Ramsdell’s story sounded absolutely intriguing.

However, a good book requires more than just a good story. A Train to Potevka has potential. It has the plot, the adventure, and the intrigue. What it doesn’t have is a seasoned storyteller. There is a reason this book is self-published.

I must also confess there were times when I felt very alarmed for Ramsdell and for the CIA for recruiting him. He makes several elementary mistakes that absolutely shocked me.

First, he leaves his belongings unattended on a Soviet train and seems bewildered that someone stole them. Really?

Second, he gives a Soviet man a large bill to buy him bread and is surprised when the man absconds with the money. Again, really? I would imagine that anyone with an ounce of commonsense—let alone a CIA agent—would know better than to do either.

I admire Ramsdell's willingness to expose his flaws. I admire his ambition for writing the book. However, as a work of literature, A Train to Potevka leaves much to be desired.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Bel Canto

I mentioned several titles in my book list that I have not reviewed on this site. Now seems like the perfect opportunity.

When people ask me for book recommendations, I always mention Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. This PEN/Faulkner Award winner well deserves the recognition.

I read Patchett’s The Patron Saint of Liars several years ago. A good friend gifted the book to me, and she obviously liked it. I was interested in the story—a married, pregnant woman leaves her husband and enters a home for unwed, pregnant girls—but I felt a distance between me and the characters. I simply could neither relate to nor care for any of them.

Bel Canto suffers from none of Patron Saint’s issues. Although Bel Canto has a large and diverse cast of characters, I cared for them all.

The book takes place during a hostage crisis in an unnamed Latin American country (a thinly-veiled reference to a similar event that took place in Peru). A mishmash of people gather at the vice president’s mansion to hear a well-known soprano perform, and a group of terrorists/revolutionaries (depending on your perspective) takes them hostage. As such, the characters include diplomats, businesspeople, interpreters, negotiators, and revolutionaries. Patchett magically makes all these characters appear both real and sympathetic.

Not only is Bel Canto a good read, but it also raises many ethical questions. Although the book was published in mid-2001, its discussion of terrorism is prescient. As a reader, I felt conflicted over the act of “terrorism.” Are the characters really terrorist? Are their actions justifiable? Can I label someone a terrorist when I know her story? when she is a person and not just an act?

Simply put, Bel Canto is a must-read book.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Book List

First, I must express my sincerest gratitude to my readers for book suggestions. They will be invaluable to my research.

Below is a list of books I have read in the last several years about Americans abroad. This list does include books that fall into the category of creative nonfiction. I have not yet decided whether to include this genre. In addition, I must also mention that some of these books are far from literary masterpieces (i.e., The Train to Potevka).

Once again, I would appreciate any feedback on this list (presented in alphabetical order):

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Guest Blog--"The Pied Piper" by Nevil Shute

Since we were going to be traveling for three days, I looked on the free book cart at the American Library for a paperback to take with me. I found an older edition of a novel by Nevil Shute. The Pied Piper is the story of an elderly Englishman who gets caught in the flight of refuges as Germany invades France in 1940. Mr. Howard has agreed to take two young children back to England with him. As he struggles to reach Paris and la Manche/the English Channel, he acquires more stray children under his protective wing. I do not think that I have read the story before or seen a movie version and yet the images in Shute’s story were very clear. I found Shute’s style of telling the story in retrospect reassuring since as a reader I knew from the outset that Mr. Howard had successfully made it out of war-torn France. Perhaps part of my enjoyment in reading this novel is that we have been living in Paris and have recently visited the D Day beaches. This is not a great novel but one with unexpected heros who captured my heart.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

A Call to Readers

I will be presenting in a few weeks on Anglo-American literature. This is a dauntingly broad topic, and I have debated and contemplated and bent my brain deciding how to approach it.

Finally, I decided to focus on my ongoing interest in the American experience abroad. How do Americans cope outside of their natural habitat? And how does this experience compare to those had by non-Americans in the United States? I have a few thoughts on these questions, but I will keep those for the presentation.

However, I do have a request for both my loyal readers. What books have you read (or heard of) that relate to this topic (an American abroad)? Any suggestions or thoughts on this topic would be much appreciated.

I have compiled a list of books, and originally planned to post them here, but I will leave that for a later date because I don’t want to influence any of your ideas. I look forward to hearing from you.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

London Calling

For a person who hates shopping, I spent a lot of time in London’s shopping districts last week. Suddenly, I wished I’d paid much more attention to Becky Bloomwood’s bad habit in the Shopaholic books. Because of Becky, shopping at Marks & Spencer (M&S to those in the know) actually meant something to me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember any of her other favorite haunts.

Reading and travel go hand-in-hand. Not only do I love to read as I travel, but actually visiting the setting of many books (not to mention movies and television programs) makes a city mean even more. Here are a few other “literary” spots I hit last week:

Of course, now that I’ve had a taste of London, I need to read a few other classics like The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. If only I could visit the settings of every book I read.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Tess of the D'Urbervilles

First of all, much thanks to notaconnoisseur for taking over the blog while I vacationed in London for the week. I credit notaconnoisseur for my reading fanaticism—though I will never achieve her level of voracity.

As a self-proclaimed reader, one of my favorite stops in London was the British Library. I was particularly drawn to the special collections area that includes many rare texts, including Thomas Hardy’s handwritten manuscript of Tess of the D’Urbervilles.

The first time I encountered Tess was in a high school English class. My immediate reaction to the book was dislike. Everything goes wrong in Tess’s life, and I found her troubles depressing and self-fulfilling.

My English teacher insisted Alec raped Tess, but I was a teenage-know-it-all and knew the relationship was consensual. Why, I reasoned, would Tess return to Alec if he raped her? And what was so bad about him in the first place?

As I’ve mentioned before, I always root for the wrong man, and no matter how despicably Alec acted, I wanted Tess and Alec to be together. I found Angel insipid and hypocritical. He was much better suited to Tess’s younger sister, Liza Lu.

I thoroughly disliked the book and placed it on my most-hated list.

Fortunately, I have read the book several more times since leaving adolescence. Age does wonders for perspective (though Jane Eyre insists that wisdom is not a result of age alone but “depends on the use you have made of your time and experience”).

I now realize that Tess is not just foolhardy, and Alec is not a charming rake. She is young and impressionable. Regardless of what she feels for Alec, he has power and control over her.

Angel, on the other hand, is still insipid and hypocritical.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Guest Blog--"Death in the Truffle Wood" by Pierre Magnan

On my most recent stab into crime, I picked up a new book published in 2007. It is written by French author Pierre Magnan and very recently was translated into English by Patricia Clancy. Since I am currently living in Paris, it seemed like a natural choice. Death in the Truffle Wood was originally published in 1978. Now I remember 1978 very well. However, this novel feels as if it was written in rural France many years earlier than that. It felt as if it was not just a different culture and country but a whole different time period. Is it just that rural France is stuck in another century? Well, I guess that doesn’t quite work because this is a different century. When I checked out truffles online I discovered that truffles are still apparently dug up by pigs. And are a luxury most of us cannot afford. However, despite the references to the Resistance in WW II and tractors in the fields this still felt otherworldly to me and a little as if I was reading about the 19th century. If you are into witches and superstition this might be a book you would enjoy. At least the people in this novel took murder very seriously and felt grief for the loss of the victims.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Guest Blog--"Dead Kilt" by Kaitlyn Dunnett

My fifth attempt at crime solving brought me across the Atlantic to Maine. Dead Kilt by Kaitlyn Dunnett is an okay read but I figured out who the murderer was before the crime was committed. It just had to be the really annoying character who so obviously disliked the heroine. And sure enough it was. When I checked Ms. Dunnett online I discovered that she has written several children’s books. I am not too surprised. This was about that level of sophistication.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Guest Blog--Two mysteries by Anthony Berkeley

After reading Gwen Moffat, I tried Anthony Berkeley. I read two of his Roger Sheringham mysteries. They were originally written in the 1920s and have been republished since 2000. Murder in the Basement and The Layton Court Mystery both baffle the British police force but are solved without too much problem by author and gentleman Roger Sheringham. Sheringham finds it unnecessary to let the law enforcement arm of Britain know who the villains are. I am tempted to try a third novel by Berkeley just to see if he always is so willing to let murderers go without facing responsibility for their crimes. He doesn't seem the least bit concerned that the murderer might decide to get rid of someone else who is standing in his/her way. I miss Hercules Poirot who never approved of murder.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Guest Blog--Two Mysteries by Gwen Moffat

During the past few weeks, I have read several mystery novels. This has been definitely a dry spell in my mystery reading. I am a fan of the cozy mystery and am always cautious of current writers who seem to feel that sex and bad language are needed to sell their novels. However, I have hit a low with the recent books I have read. I tried two novels written by Gwen Moffat: Miss Pink at the Edge of the World and Lady with a Cool Eye. Gwen Moffat is an expert mountain climber and her heroine is an older woman who still is spry enough to climb. Both of these novels are set around murders committed with climbing as a background. The stories themselves were not too bad, but I discovered that I simply could not see the setting of the books in my mind. Are the cliffs off Scotland and Cornwall just too unfamiliar to me or is the author just unskilled? I am not sure which. I have read books where I felt I was there and could see everything. All of the elements I usually appreciate in a mystery seem apparent and yet I really did not enjoy either of these works by Ms. Moffat.

Monday, November 5, 2007

A Room with a View

First, I must be clear that I started reading A Room with a View before this week’s episode of The Office. Although I would gladly join the Finer Things Club, it did not inspire me.

Instead, I found this book at my apartment and decided it was high time I read it. I started it as a teenager, but when I discovered the film version—which I adore—was so faithful to the book, I didn’t see the purpose.

I enjoyed A Room with a View, but this is a case of the film spoiling the book. The Merchant-Ivory production is so good that the book has to pale in comparison. Of course, if I had read the book first, I might feel differently.

For example, one of the most breathtaking, beautiful, and romantic scenes in all cinema is when Lucy Honeychurch stumbles into a field of violets, in Italy, with Puccini swelling in the background, and George Emerson kisses her. Sigh.

According to the book, “George had turned at the sound of her arrival. For a moment he contemplated her, as one who had fallen out of heaven. He saw radiant joy in her face, he saw the flowers beat against her dress in blue waves. The bushes above them closed. He stepped quickly forward and kissed her." The images are lovely, but the film clip has shaped all my romantic ideals.

I was also struck by the portrayal of women in the book. Cousin Charlotte and Eleanor Lavish are pathetic, Mrs. Honeychurch doesn’t believe females are capable of writing books, and even Lucy is described as vapid and empty headed. Lucy breaks off her engagement to Cecil Vise under the pretext of embracing her freedom, of maintaining her individuality as a female. Yet, she really ends the engagement because she is in love with another man.

I can only hope that Forster is commenting on female stereotypes and not simply contributing to them.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Play Dirty

I chose several books today from the library for my “weekend” reading. Not surprisingly, they were all serious and potentially depressing. While I was browsing, though, I came across Sandra Brown’s latest romantic-thriller Play Dirty.

I felt torn. Depressing v. mindless. Heavy v. froth. Ultimately, I remembered my promise to myself to lighten up. I checked out Play Dirty.

The book is certainly a light read. I am a slow reader, but I’ve already finished it. It is also a page turner since I read it in one sitting. However, it is also one of those books I’m just plain embarrassed to admit I read. (That I’m writing about it shows how much respect and trust I have in my few readers.)

Griff Burkett (talk about a name) is a former quarterback and ex-convict. Laura Speakman is a rich and married woman. Naturally, the book has murder, misunderstandings, and romance (if you find lust romantic).

Like I said, Play Dirty is a quick and mindless read. It’s not the kind of book I would ever recommend to anyone else. However, I can understand why someone else would read it. It takes no time, brains, or emotional commitment.

And I’m just wishing I checked out the other books from the library. Sigh.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Paperbag Princess

I spent the day visiting French chateaux. I noticed several young women getting all goo-goo at the idea of being a princess. Imagine living in such opulence? Imagine having a room to sleep in, another to dress in, and a third just to store clothes.

I have never wanted to be a princess (or queen, for that matter). Just imagine all the responsibility, the public appearances, the scrutiny of my looks. I could not handle being royalty.

However, if I were a princess, I hope I would be just like Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess.

This children’s book is one of the most empowering stories I have ever read. Elizabeth is a princess, but she is not defined by her princess-ness. She is clever, intelligent, and self possessed. She does not need Prince Charming, or any man, to take care of her, to rescue her. She can handle things herself.

This is one book I not only plan to read to my children (knock-on-wood) but one I will insist on reading.