Friday, August 29, 2008

A Few Short Stories

Tonight, I got on the topic of short stories with a few family members. I’m not exactly sure how it came up, but I love the fact that in addition to chatting about movies, TV, and Michael Scott-esque bosses, we can also discuss literature.

Because I tend to be a know-it-all and always have something to say, I had to recommend a few of my favorite short stories:

  • Good Country People”: If you haven’t read this classic Flannery O’Connor short story about a “spinster” and a bible salesman, you must. I always include it in my literature classes because I enjoy re-experiencing its ironic twist with my students. To see their reactions—both horror and glee—is an absolute pleasure.
  • The Lottery”: The short story by Shirley Jackson came up during a conference I attended last week. I could have sworn one of my colleagues suggested reenacting this story with his students. If you have read it, you will know what an alarming suggestion that is. If you haven’t, and you want to know why I was stunned, you better read it soon. After all, you never know when your number will be called.
  • The Things They Carried”: I first used this Tim O’Brien short story in a class comprised of current and former members of the military, which made it all the more resonant. The story takes place during the Vietnam War, and the title literally and figuratively refers to those things the soldiers carried. Literature is at its most beautiful when it touches the reader on such a personal level.
  • Pantaloon in Black”: This William Faulkner short story is perhaps my all-time favorite. Unfortunately, I can’t find the full text online because it deserves to be read by a wider audience. Many readers may be more familiar with Faulkner’s “The Bear” or “A Rose for Emily.” The last image in “Emily” is absolutely classic, and I remember clearly my shock, disgust, and delight the first time I read it. “Pantaloon” is far different from “Emily” and “The Bear.” The story of a black man’s grief over his wife’s death, and the reaction of the white community, is profoundly emotional and progressive.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Speaking of politics, USA Today reviews Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife. Alice Blackwell, the book’s protagonist, is “loosely” based on Laura Bush. How a librarian could marry a playboy, I will never understand.

  • Are you tired of reading books and just want to write your own? Check out Keri Smith’s Wreck This Journal, which gives the reader/writer ideas for constructing—and deconstructing—her life story. I’m buying this book for my 13-year-old niece and will report back on its success (or lack thereof).

Wednesday, August 27, 2008


Amy Bloom’s Away is a story of epic proportions, yet it is told within the confines of a few hundred pages. Such brevity is odd considering the novel’s scope but is well-suited to readers with little patience for never-ending sagas (like me).

The novel begins in the 1920s as twenty-two-year-old Lillian Leyb arrives in New York from Russia. She leaves after her parents and husband are murdered in a pogrom; her young daughter is missing and presumed dead.

In New York, Lillian copes with life as a recent immigrant, but everything changes when she receives word that her daughter, Sophie, might still be alive in Siberia.

Lillian does what she must both to survive and to wend her way back to Russia. In retrospect, her morals are often suspect, yet every decision she makes feels natural and appropriate for her particular situation.

Along the way, Lillian finds herself in a variety of bizarre locations, including a brothel and a prison, and associating with an unusual cast of characters, including a con-woman and a pimp.

Characters routinely enter into and depart from Lillian’s life. In a charming and creative twist, once a character exits, Bloom gives a brief rundown of his or her life after Lillian. Inexplicably, Bloom does not project the future of some characters, and I found this neglect both perplexing and disappointing.

I was also disappointed that Bloom never truly develops Lillian’s character—or rather, never lets the reader into Lillian’s soul. Bloom seems more interested in the situations Lillian finds herself in than the woman herself. Ultimately, though, I came to care for Lillian, her compatriots, and her quest to find Sophie.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008


If the real Turkey is anything like the Turkey in books and movies, I must be insane to be moving there. (In other words, watching Midnight Express was not my most brilliant idea.)

Author Maureen Freely grew up as an ex-pat in Istanbul and sets her latest book, Enlightenment, there. Freely has an intimate view of the city, but the book’s setup is convoluted in the extreme.

“M,” the narrator, is an American who also grows up in Istanbul. During high school, she falls in love with the son of a Turkish diplomat, Sinan. After M moves back to the U.S., Sinan dumps her for another ex-pat, Jeannie.

Fast forward thirty-plus years. Jeannie contacts M, a journalist, after Sinan is arrested by Homeland Security in the United States for terrorist activities. And that’s just the beginning. The narrative revolves around spies, revolutionaries, murder, and terrorism, among other things.

Enlightenment is well written and fascinating, but I ended up plodding through it because the story simply makes my brain ache. M skirts around issues. She is vague and deliberately obtuse. She hints but never fully reveals. And I find this manner of storytelling frustrating, disingenuous, and just plain mind-numbing.

That being said, Enlightenment is an intriguing, though frustrating, mystery. Freely gives a captivating glimpse into an unstable Istanbul and the lives of the nefarious ex-pat community (if she’s to be believed, the U.S. is to blame for many of the country’s problems). This book is excellent for anyone with a lot of patience and a desire to be dragged willy-nilly without any satisfactory payoff.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Guest Blog-Cheating at Solitaire

I haven’t decided whether Jane Haddam intentionally means to insult her readers by belittling people who read for leisure or not. Whatever the case, she manages to extol education and demean the characters in her story who do not have formal education and who read romance novels.

Haddam’s latest novel Cheating at Solitaire is about the world of fleeting celebrity and the photographers who pursue those famous or infamous individuals. There are three thinly disguised characters in this book. Kendra Rhode plays the part of Paris Hilton, and Stewart Gordon plays the role of Patrick Stewart of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The other two characters, Arrow Normand and Marcey Mandret, are interchangeable for Britney Spears or her ilk. Maybe if I were better read, I would recognize who the history professor in the story is supposed to be.

The story takes place during the fall and winter when a movie is being filmed in a small resort town on an island off Cape Cod. The town which closes most of its businesses in the winter is accustomed to the summer visitors and the prestige that their old family money gives them. However, the off-season police department is unprepared for the onslaught of paparazzi that invade the town on the heels of two “twits” who are featured in the new movie. When a young man is found dead on the beach in a severe storm, Stewart Gordon travels to Philadelphia to engage the services of his old friend retired FBI agent Gregor Demarkian. One of the two young women in the movie has been arrested for his murder, and Gordon is convinced that she is not guilty of being anything but brainless.

“The paparazzi almost were rampaging hordes but it wasn’t their rampaging that worried Gregor. It was their state of mind. They seemed to live in a world where common human decency had been abolished, as matter of policy” (p. 342). This almost sums up the sometimes shocking events in this mystery.

After making disparaging remarks about people who read for entertainment, I found one of the small ironies of the book is that Haddam has a hard time keeping some of her facts straight. A young local photographer is drugged, and his right hand is severely mutilated. Later in the book, the victim wakes up and finds that his LEFT hand is bandaged and in pain. The story explains the reason that Jack has to be placed on the third floor of the small hospital is because there are flu cases in the rooms on the 2nd floor so the doctor wants him kept away from them. Being on the top floor is essential to the events in the book. However, Haddam seems to have forgotten the patients with the flu because suddenly the hospital becomes empty except for the one patient on the 3rd floor and one nurse on duty at the end of the corridor. Oh well. When you have written so many bestsellers, it must be hard to keep the storyline straight.

I like the Armenian detective Gregor or Kregor Demarkian. I guess I won’t give up on his author yet.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Thanks to Guest Bloggers

I just returned home from a week in Washington, D.C. for work. Many thanks to the guest bloggers who kept this site running for the week.

Guest Blog--Know Your Power

Speaker Nancy Pelosi's personal and political history, Know Your Power: A Message to America's Daughters, is an interesting read about how Pelosi became the first woman Speaker of the US House of Representatives. I was recently working on Capitol Hill and grew to greatly admire Speaker Pelosi. Although I found Know Your Power not to be very inspiring or eloquent, it is a straightforward biography about this mother of five and her pathway to the most powerful position in Congress.

Pelosi was raised in a very political family in Baltimore where her father, Thomas D'Alesandro, Jr., was a member of the US Congress and later mayor of Baltimore. Pelosi was surrounded by powerful and influential people throughout her life and almost seemed destined to eventually run for office. Married at a young age of 23 to San Franciscan Paul Pelosi, Pelosi put aside her plans to attend law school so she could start a family. The Pelosis had five children in six years, and Nancy Pelosi became a stay-at-home mom until her youngest was in high school and Pelosi was voted into the US Congress.

Know Your Power also dives into the politics of politics, something that may not appeal to all people. I personally love to hear about the craziness of Capitol Hill but wish Pelosi had given more details on her feelings about the difficulties of being a woman and a member of Congress, rather than just positives. Reading Know Your Power did leave me feeling that if Nancy Pelosi can become the first woman Speaker of the House, I can definitely work toward all of my goals and dreams, including family, education, and civic service.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Guest Blog--The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring

Over a year ago, I heard Alex Chadwick interview Richard Preston. They were talking about Preston’s new book The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring. As I drove along, I was fascinated to hear about a new unexplored environment hundreds of feet above the ground in a redwood forest. What would it be like? New species of lichens and mosses existed there. Preston said that when you were in the canopy of a redwood you could not see the forest floor or the sky above you. More than anything I wanted to see photographs of this unexplored world.

I spent about 8 months away from home last year and almost completely forgot about both the book and the author. Recently I found it among the new books at Clics. Preston is the author of the bestselling non-fiction book The Hot Zone. He is an experienced writer, and he identifies this book as being narrative nonfiction. The story of the discovery of the world’s tallest tree is without doubt a love story. It is the story of the love and passion of many people who have dedicated their lives to science or to the exploration of redwoods. It is also the love story of scientists Stephen Sillet and Marie Antoine.

The book begins with telling about Sillet’s first climb into a redwood tree in 1987 when he was 19 years old. On a camping trip in the fall, Steve and his friend Marty impulsively decided that they were going to climb a redwood tree. Typically, a redwood does not have any branches to climb on until about 150 to 200 feet off the ground. That’s roughly 20 stories off the ground. The only way into the redwood was to climb a smaller tree and leap from the top of it into the lower branches of the redwood. Needless to say, neither or them had any rope or climbing gear. After yelling frantically at the two climbers, Scott Sillet, Steve’s older brother, resigned himself to the death of his younger brother. He sat on the ground waiting for him to fall.

There was no way that I was going to quit reading. Partway through the book, however, I decided that I needed to see more than the few illustrations by Andrew Joslin. I spent an afternoon searching the web. I started with The New Tribe climbing gear site. When I saw what a tree climbing saddle looked like and other items of climbing gear, the narrative began to be more clear to me. Richard Preston has pictures online of the redwood forest and some of the individuals in the book. An afternoon of reading the vita of Sillet and Antoine and seeing photographs of the redwood forest made reading the book so much more vivid.

By 1978 about 97 % of the redwood trees in America had been cut down by logging companies. As the Congress grew closer to passing a bill that would protect the remaining redwood forests and create a national park, logging companies worked day and night using powerful lights because whatever they had cut down, they could haul away later according to the new law. The tallest redwoods are 2000 years old. Two hundred years from now, today’s seedling will be a very young tree.

At the tops of the redwoods, there are gardens growing. The trees generate soil which accumulates on their branches. Not only mosses and lichens grow in that soil but rhododendrons, laurels, huckleberries and other species do as well. Trees grow in the arms of trees high above the ground.

Preston’s book lags at times, and I was not as interested in Sillet's love life as Preston seemed to think I should be. However, if nothing else, reading The Wild Trees will leave you feeling that you have a responsibility to protect the earth that we have inherited and will pass on to our children and grandchildren.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Guest Blog--Another Look at Stephenie Meyer's Newest

Breaking Dawn, Stephenie Meyer’s fourth installment in the Twilight series, left me without many regrets that the saga is now over. I was never a huge fan of Meyer’s writing ability, but I found myself strangely addicted as I read each of the three prequels to Dawn. I had none to little of that addictive feeling, or satisfaction, this time around.

On the positive side, Meyer is very creative. The elements of the vampire and werewolf worlds that she dreams up are really amazing.

I also enjoyed Bella more in this book than I did in the prequels. I always found Bella’s fainting and overall wimpiness annoying. I was pleased to find a Bella with strength this time around. (Bella still annoys me a bit, and I still believe that Bella is Meyer’s wish fulfillment of herself—including the 110-pound body and now perfect looks.)

On the negative side, Breaking Dawn wasn’t the page turner that the three previous novels were. It took me almost two weeks to finish the novel, and I wasn’t compelled to pick it up as I was with New Moon. Why? I believe it’s the lack of romance and romantic tension. Even as a non-teenager, I loved the Jacob-Edward rivalry. I loved the tension as Jacob wrapped himself around Bella to keep her warm while Edward sat outside the tent fuming at Jacob’s thoughts. ALL of that is missing from Breaking Dawn.

I also can’t get over Meyer’s sexual encounters between Bella and Edward. I give Meyer credit for not being explicit, but I still cringe thinking of the teenage audience reading the book. Meyer makes sex sound like an unearthly event rather than what it really is. I have never known two people, both supposedly virgins, who had mind-blowing sex the first time around, as Bella and Edward supposedly did. I fear that Meyer is making sex look far more attractive than it really is—and I know a lot of her audience is too inexperienced to know better.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Guest Blog--Absalom, Absalom!

My summer syllabi had me writing only one essay, which seemed fine to me and my two busy editors, The Aspirant and Blogger. Yet, my wily professors filled the void of term papers with an avalanche of assigned reading.

Assigned reading for history majors is not exactly exciting reading. It consists of journals, diaries, and historiography as dry as the hardtack the historian authors are describing. It has caused me to long for the likes of Tom Clancy, John Grisham, or even Stephenie Meyer, to lighten my heavy reading load (I obviously have no problem lowering my standards).

Just when I started to pine for an essay on the merits of Southern honor I was relieved to be assigned Absalom, Absalom! by Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner of Mississippi. Mr. Faulkner paid off with a superbly written and memorable novel that clarifies and illustrates as much or more than the other half-dozen books on the South written by Yankees and Rebels alike.

Absalom, Absalom!'s title is a reference to the Biblical son of King David, and Faulkner uses the Old Testament and Greek tragedy as inspiration to explore the family relations, sins, history, and misunderstanding of the Sutpen family and the residents of the made-up Yoknapatawpha County, MS.

To be honest, reading Faulkner is hard - really, really hard. I almost picked up my book Southern Honor in exasperation but was rewarded for my patience. Faulkner's love of words and extra long sentences were a hurdle, but the map, glossary, and list of characters in the back of the book help to establish who each character is and their purposes in the novel. By persevering, I was able to become engrossed with the lives of the Deep South and was mesmerized by the art of one of America's greatest writers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Guest Blog--Short Stories by Juanita Brooks

I was fortunate enough to find two volumes that had short stories by Juanita Brooks here at the university library. Both are long out of print, I am sure.

In the collection Great Western Short Stories edited by J. Golden Taylor, Juanita’s short story follows one by Willa Cather. “The Outsider” is an autobiographical story about the writer as a young girl.

An unnamed man comes to their small town to talk to some local Native Americans about taking advantage of an educational opportunity. The Outsider stays in the Leavitt home and brings a breath of the world beyond their tiny community of pioneer Mormons to the curious young girl. She has always been taught that out there was a place of darkness to be feared. The Outsider quotes from books and politely participates in their desert life.

He attends a Saturday night dance with Juanita and her mother and against all of the conventions sits beside the two of them on the girls' side of the meeting house. When the final dance comes, the Outsider leads Juanita to the dance floor. She is young and has never danced before. He tells her to relax and not to look at her feet, and he leads her effortlessly around the floor in a waltz. When she wakes the next morning, he is gone, but she has tasted the sweetness of unknown literature and a mysterious world that she is determined she will one day experience for herself.

The other book is a collection of short stories written by Juanita Brooks. Frontier Tales: True Stories of Real People was published by Utah State University Press in 1972. The stories are written with the kindness of someone who knows these people and loves them. The characters’ courage and strength is portrayed along with their quick wit and humor.

One story is about Ann Chatterly Macfarlane. One morning, a squaw runs into her home carrying a two-year-old boy. The woman begs Ann, “Hide him, hide him.” Ann instinctively pops the little boy under her hoop skirt. The little boy "stepped his feet on hers" and hangs onto her legs. The squaw runs out the back door, and three braves burst through the front. The angry braves hunt everywhere for the child while Ann continues her work, moving about the small house. The braves leave the house, but they seem to sense the boy is there, and they continue to watch Ann’s house.

When her husband comes home for lunch, she tells him the situation about the little boy who is still under her skirt. He takes some bacon to the Indians camped across from their home in an effort to appease them. The group finally leaves town that afternoon, but it isn’t until the next day that the toddler’s mother returns. Brooks says, “The little fellow made no outcry or protest, but ate the food that was offered, and rested quietly in the arms of his new mother. But his joy to see his own when at last she did come was beautiful to see.”

All of the stories are well written and interesting, making this book a little gem. I would be delighted to add it to my own book collection, but unfortunately it has entered the realm of rare books. I feel very lucky to have found it in a university library and had the chance to enjoy it.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Say You're One of Them

Child prostitution in Kenya, genocide in Rwanda, child slavery in Gabon. Uwem Akpan does not shy away from heartbreaking reality in his short story collection Say You’re One of Them.

Akpan, originally from Nigeria, is a talented and innovative writer, but his subject matter is not for the weak-of-heart or those who enjoy living with the delusion that life for a majority of the world’s population is pleasant. Akpan writes from the perspective of children, which makes the book all the more difficult to bear.

Two strong stories begin and end One of Them: “An Ex-mas Feast” and “My Parents’ Bedroom.” In the former, Kenyan parents take horrific advantage of their children—a 12-year-old daughter supports them through prostitution. The latter takes place during the Rwandan genocide. Children with both a Hutu and a Tutsi parent watch their own relatives attack their family.

Akpan reveals the darkest aspects of humanity, but he also contrasts adult greed with the purity of children. Clearly, people are not born evil; they are made that way. In “What Language is That?,” surprisingly written in second-person, two six-year-olds in Ethiopia are barred from each other because of their parents’ religious differences. The children cannot process such divisions and secretly maintain contact with each other.

Reading these stories is both difficult and a pleasure. Akpan brings an exciting perspective to English-language literature and is an excellent advocate for Africa’s children.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Remember JK Rowling? The Tales of Beedle the Bard will be released December 4. Get in your library queue now. Or follow the rest of the nation and preorder it on Amazon. Currently, the book is #8 and #16 on its bestsellers list.

  • New releases this week include Sandra Brown’s Smoke Screen and Faye Kellerman’s The Mercedes Coffin. I first read Brown when she was a romance writer, but I like her even better for her thrillers.
  • David Carr appeared on The Colbert Report last week to promote his memoir, The Night of the Gun, about life as a New York Times columnist and “cokehead.” Colbert asked him which was more damaging, drugs or The Times? Carr might change his answer since The Times review describes the book as “flat.”
  • Obama Nation will be #1 on The New York Times bestseller list on Sunday. NPR reported on the anti-Barack Obama book which perpetuates rampant falsehoods about the presidential candidate, including ties to Islam and drug use. I can't believe this book is a bestseller, and I am afraid of and for our nation (and don’t even get me started on the U.S. response to the Georgian invasion). USA Today gives an overview of political titles, including Obama Nation.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Breaking Dawn

I hesitate to write anything specific about Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn because I don’t want to risk spoiling the book for others (though surely if you are going to read it, you’ve done so by now). As such, I will just make general observations.

In the last year, some of my hatred has faded, and I no longer feel so passionately vehement in my dislike of Meyer’s series. That is not to say that Meyer has improved as a writer, she has not, or that the series has improved, it has not. I guess I just don’t have the energy to fight against the phenom anymore.

Breaking Dawn is divided into three parts, and Meyer once again falls into the trap of simply writing too much (and having editors too weak to help her cut out the fat)—the book weighs in at around 750 pages.

If Meyer had ended Dawn after part two, I would have celebrated her achievement—or at least improvement—as a writer. If she had stopped, she would have succeeded in ending the series on a high note. The final scene in the section satisfactorily (although disturbingly) ties up the love triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob.

Unfortunately, Meyer apparently couldn’t stop herself. The final section, which comprises half the novel, is a resounding failure. It is bursting with tedious details about clothing, furniture, and “hunting” and oodles of underdeveloped characters that I found impossible to either care about or keep track of.

In theory, part three features the final conflict, but I have never read such an anti-climactic climax in my entire life. Meyer has always struggled with action sequences, and this time it’s as if she didn’t even have the strength to attempt it.

Meyer does have the strength to write about sex. And the book is oozing with it. Although she restrains herself enough to spare us from graphic descriptions, she does an even bigger disservice to her young readers. Meyer completely idealizes and glorifies sex. I am not an expert on the topic, but I envision millions of little girls who are going to be sorely disappointed when they discover that sex (particularly teen sex) is not instantly and mind-numbingly satisfying.

Wow, I guess I do still feel passionately about this book. Although Dawn is supposedly the last entry in the series, Meyer strongly implies she has at least one more book left in her. So I guess that means our one-sided rivalry lives on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Three Movie/Book Reviews

Last week, I caught up on my literary movie adaptations, watching three films based on books: The Other Boleyn Girl, Persepolis, and The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2.

  • Okay, I can’t really comment on how faithful The Other Boleyn Girl is to the book because I never actually finished it. Philippa Gregory’s historical novel is so long, so tedious that I just couldn’t do it. In at least one respect, the film is an improvement on the book because it runs under two hours. But because I’m not exactly qualified to review the movie in terms of the book, I will only say that as a movie, it leaves much to be desired. First, I know Henry VIII had serious female-issues, but he surely must have thought about something other than sex at some moment of his life. Right? Second, the movie (or maybe really the book) could have been a bit (okay, a lot) more historically accurate. Watch it on DVD if you must, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
  • The animation in Persepolis is delightful and absolutely consistent with the Marjane Satrapi autobiographical graphic novel. Although it is faithful to the book, word-for-word faithful, the movie lacks much of the novel’s emotional depth and resonance. I was also surprised that the film covers both Persepolis and its sequel, which I have not read. As such, I much preferred the second half of the movie because I could not compare it to the novel. This film is for adults, and I recommend it for fans of anime, graphic novels, or those interested in Iran’s revolutionary history.
  • Two of my sisters and I went to The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 on Wednesday when it first opened. All three of us have read the entire series and were excited for the film. Clearly, we weren’t the only ones. The whole theater was full of females with not a single male in the room. In fact, the highlight of the experience was when a young girl booed loudly after watching a preview for Star Wars The Clone Wars. Amen to that. If only the movie lived up to all of our expectations. The biggest problem, of course, is that the filmmakers tried to stuff three novels into two hours. Too much in too little time is, however, just one problem. Perhaps the biggest disappointment is major changes in Bridget’s storyline. I can be honest. My favorite part of the series is the romance. I can be a sappy female, so I was sorely disappointed when Bee went from two romances in the final book to none in the movie. Excusez-moi? As a “chick flick,” the movie is enjoyable. As an adaptation of the series, not so much.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Guest Blog--Juanita Brooks by Levi S. Peterson

A new book about the 1857 Mountain Meadows Massacre is coming out this month. Massacre at Mountain Meadows written by Glen M. Leonard, Richard E. Turley, Jr., and Ronald W. Walker is scheduled for release in less than two weeks.

I read an article about the tragedy printed in the official magazine of the The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and have no real desire to know more about it. Richard Turley authored that article.

However, as I chatted online with family and friends about the Massacre, the name of Juanita Brooks came up. She wrote an historic book that was originally published in 1950 by Stanford University Press based on diaries and court records. It is titled The Mountain Meadows Massacre and is still in print.

One of the unique characteristics of the new book is it is written by historians associated with the LDS Church. At the time that Brooks's book was published, she was not at all sure if her written words would jeopardize her standing in the Mormon Church.

When one of my friends mentioned her son-in-law is a descendent of Juanita Brooks, I was curious about this woman and looked up information about her on the internet. She was born in northern Nevada in 1898 and grew up in a small rural Mormon community, and yet she earned a Master of Arts degree at Columbia University in New York City in 1929. Who was this extraordinary woman?

Fortunately for me, the Geisel Library has a copy of Levi S. Peterson’s book Juanita Brooks: Mormon Woman Historian. Without all of the appendices, the book is over 400 pages long, and I have faithfully read every word, rather than skimming it as my husband recommended. I have been left with the overwhelming sense that I am privileged to have become acquainted with this unusual woman.

Anyone who is Brooks's descendent can be very proud of that fact. She was an incredible individual who worked hard as a mother, wife, and historian. She never betrayed her own sense of personal integrity. She grew up in an era where LDS historians put their pioneer ancestors on pedestals. Any history or mention in a journal that would have tarnished the haloed or hallowed depiction of those ancestors was hidden away or rejected. Brooks stood fast in her efforts to edit and publish journals with all of the original misspellings and idiosyncrasies.

After reading the biography by Peterson, I realized Brooks never did accuse Brigham Young of ordering the deaths of the Franch party from Arkansas. She did, however, use documented evidence that he was complicit in the cover-up that followed the massacre of about 120 unarmed individuals.

One of my favorite quotes from Brooks is: “There is No such thing as good writing; there is only good re-writing” (p. 388). Her life was spent in constant revisions and frequent rejections. Her early years were a struggle but by the end of her life she was recognized as one of the outstanding historians in the state of Utah.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Guest Blog---Gogol Who?

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri follows Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli as they leave India to begin a new life in the United States. They start a family and struggle to assimilate in the country of their children's birth.

The oldest child, Gogol Ganguli, is named after Ashoke's favorite Russian author and struggles for decades with this strange name that holds no meaning for him. Lahiri follows Gogol as he embraces and lives an American life while struggling with the native culture of his parents, a culture he cannot understand.

I found the characters in Namesake difficult to like and struggled to feel sympathy toward Gogol and his selfish desires to separate himself from the Bengali culture.

The only characters I cared for were Ashoke and Ashima. I felt sympathy for them as they struggle to begin a new life in the United States while living so far away from the security of family and culture. Ashoke, an MIT professor, is endearing to me, but I can't tell if it truly is the character or the fact that my own father is an academic.

The scenes in India, the explanations of the culture, and the sneak peak into bustling Calcutta are thoroughly enjoyable and help to keep the novel interesting.

Overall, Namesake is an enjoyable read but is not as remarkable as the reviews proclaim it to be. I enjoyed Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies much more.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Book Buzz

  • What book is popping up everywhere I look? No, not Breaking Dawn (okay, yes, Breaking Dawn). Sherrilyn Kenyon’s Acheron, yet another vampire book.
  • Okay, let’s talk Breaking Dawn. The book is topping the bestsellers lists, but I didn’t get my hands on a copy until today. As such, I’ve tried to avoid reading anything about it. For anyone who is interested, though, here is a review from Booklist; USA Today claims “fans light up over saga’s end”; this article from MSN gives the pros and cons of the series, asking the question “Does ‘Twilight’ Suck the Brains Out of Teens?” (my answer: yes); and I suspect this review from Los Angeles Times (which contains spoilers) doesn’t exactly love the book.

  • Outgoing American Library Association President Loriene Roy shared her list of “essential” reads on NPR Tuesday. I haven’t read any books on her list, so I suspect I won’t be the ALA President any time in the near future.
  • Are you dying for some more lists? Slate featured “The 10 Oddest Travel Guides Ever Published” (I've read exactly zero) and The Guardian “Top 10 graphic novels” (I've actually read the top two).

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Turkish Reflections

After reading a culture guide on Turkey, I discovered a review on Amazon recommending Mary Lee Settle’s “destination book” Turkish Reflections: A Biography of a Place. I immediately bought the book, but my eagerness quickly disappeared after I opened it.

Settle travels throughout Turkey and concentrates on the places she visits rather than the people she meets or the Turkish culture. Unfortunately for me, I am much more interested in human-human interaction than human-landscape interaction. As such, I found the writing pedantic and dry. I did, though, come away with a few interesting bits of information.

First, Turkish verbs have more than forty tenses, including tenses for fairy tales and gossip. Although this language sounds magical, I am afraid I’m never going to learn it. Forty tenses! I can currently count to ten, say “dog” and “cat,” and that’s about it. I will be a wiz at the market if I want to buy seven puppies.

She also remarks on how hospitable and polite the Turks are, something I’ve heard from numerous people. After leaving Turkey, Settle writes that she was so surprised when a hotel clerk in D.C. was rude to her that she burst into tears. I guess I better work on my manners.

At times, though, Settle comes across as either incredibly naïve about or simply patronizing towards the Turks. At one point, she visits a market where a man is making bootleg jeans. He attaches designer labels to the jeans, but Settle claims it was not in a “dishonest” way (143). Excuse me?

Much more disturbing and offense is the way Settle downplays and even seems to excuse the Armenian Genocide. She suggests that “history is invented”; if Armenians would do their research, they would see that the Turks viewed the Armenian alliance with the Russians as a treasonous act (67). And thus, I gather, the genocide was justifiable? I don’t even know how to respond to such statements.

I enjoy travel books and programs, but I’ve also discovered I like them even more after I’ve been somewhere. Just the other day, I watched a Rick Steves program on Normandy. Because I have been there, the scenes were more beautiful to me. They meant something to me. So maybe after I’ve lived in Turkey, I can come back to Turkish Reflections and the book will be more than just a dry travelogue.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

City of Thieves

Lev is a thief. Kolya is a deserter. The two meet in prison while awaiting their executions—except they are given one chance to live. If they can find a dozen eggs. In the middle of winter. During the Siege of Leningrad.

City of Thieves
is an apparently fictionalized account of a few days in author David Benioff’s grandfather’s life. His grandfather, Lev, narrates the tale, and it is unclear what, if anything, is based on actual events. He and Kolya encounter thieves, cannibals, prostitutes, and enemy soldiers in their attempts to find the elusive eggs.

Although Lev narrates the tale, he is not the hero. He is only seventeen during the story, but he reads, sounds, and acts like an old man. Instead, the heroic distinction goes to Kolya, a charming, talkative, literature- and sex-obsessed Russian soldier. He and Lev carry on incredibly clever dialogue, including multiple discussions of bowel movements, and I admit I am more than half-in-love with Kolya.

Benioff is a smart and engaging writer. I even learned a few tips from the book, including: in a knife fight slash, don’t stab. He is such a good writer, in fact, that it is easy to forget history.

For example, in the book, the Russian soldiers are the heroes and the German soldiers vicious enemies. However, from everything I’ve read, when it came to torture, rape, and brutality, the Russian army put the Germans to shame. Yet, I easily came to care for and sympathize with a Russian soldier and an NKVD (the precursor to the KGB and responsible for carrying out Stalin’s purges) agent. The beauty of reading, I guess, is that it opens a window to individuals rather than the collective.

Unfortunately, the ending is a bit of a cop-out, a bit manipulative. However, even that is not enough to mar such a smart novel.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Guest Blog--The Girl of His Dreams by Donna Leon

Since we arrived in San Diego six weeks ago, I have been waiting anxiously for the UCSD Library to process the new Donna Leon mystery, The Girl of His Dreams. I have been checking online regularly, and finally there it was in the stacks at the Geisel Library. Unfortunately, a few necessary things in life such as walking on the beach and eating out for lunch have kept me from reading it nonstop since I picked it up.

Leon’s books usually revolve around current problems in society. This time, the story is about the death of Ariana an eleven-year-old Gypsy, or to be more politically correct Rom, girl. Her family travels with a group who came into Italy following the break up of Yugoslavia. Both of her parents have UN refugee identity papers. And all three of their children were born in Italy.

Brunetti is haunted in his dreams by the face of this fragile little girl who fell from a roof into the canal in Venice and drowned. As he endeavors to look into her death, he is confronted by many different preconceived ideas about the nomadic group of which she is a member. There is no doubt that she and probably one of her siblings were housebreaking at the time of her death. On her body are found a wedding ring and a watch which are both engraved. The common practice of the Rom is to send their children to pickpocket or housebreak in search of gold jewelry that can easily be converted to cash. If they are under 13, the police do not detain them or prosecute in any way. The children are simply returned to their parents again and again and again.

As always when I read Leon, I was drawn into the life and views and feelings of Commissario Brunetti and his family. The books depict a life in Italy where corruption in government and society is accepted practice and is expected. Brunetti strives to navigate through these dangerous waters while trying to retain his own personal integrity and views that all people are deserving of being protected by the laws of the nation.

Today the European Union is struggling with growing prejudice towards immigrants. They have changed the face of nations and have influenced the world they have moved into. Frequently, the Europeans are resentful of the crime and demands upon social welfare that seem to have increased with the immigration of peoples from Africa and Eastern Europe. Italy is currently in the process of fingerprinting the Rom or Roma who live in their nation. Of course, this has sparked controversy about violating their human rights.

Frequently, Leon’s mysteries end without justice being served or any real resolution to the problems facing her characters and us the readers. Pretty much the way life really is. In this novel, there are several problems which challenge Brunetti and some of them have very satisfactory endings. As always, Leon has left me much to think about beyond mystery novels.

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Non-Review

I have a confession to make. Although I am currently reading several books, I haven’t finished a single one. As such, I can’t exactly write a book review today. However, I do have several excuses for why I haven’t read a book. In deference to your time, though, I will limit myself to two:

(1) For the last several weeks, I have been working on and revising my paper on international genocide literature for children. As luck would have it, not long ago I heard an interesting report on my local NPR station. Two researchers (Roberto Posada and Celcilia Wainryb) were interviewed about their recently published article on the effects of war and violence on children. Naturally, I had to read the article and even cited it in my paper.

Most interesting to me was the conclusion that children raised amid war and conflict develop a heightened sense of revenge, which tends to perpetuate the cycle of violence. I found this conclusion particularly interesting in relation to Jean-Philippe Stassen’s graphic novel about the Rwandan genocide Deogratias (the book that inspired me to start writing this blog in the first place). At the end of the novel, Deogratias sets out to avenge the murders by poisoning those he believes responsible: a French (or perhaps he’s Belgian) “peacekeeper,” a Hutu soldier, and a European clergyman.

(2) On a lighter note, I have also been frantically trying to organize my life since I am moving out of the country in exactly seven (7!) weeks. I own massive amounts of books and have been trying to make some sense of them. Below are several pictures of my book disarray. I welcome any recommendations for organizing and storing these books for the next year (or two).

Now that my excuses are made, I need to dash and read a book. Ciao.