Sunday, December 12, 2010

Reading Notes: A People's History, Part IV

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Chapters 16 - 20: World War II through the Seventies. What a turbulent thirty years.

World War II--the fight against totalitarianism, racism, fascism, and militarism around the world, to "step forward as a defender of helpless countries." But Howard Zinn, being the cynic that he is, questions the real motive of American involvement. It's fact that American involvement in the war began with Pearl Harbor, when we were attacked and our link to the Pacific economy was threatened. The country rallied behind the idea of fighting for liberty, justice, and democracy. But Zinn points to how well the United States was representing liberty, justice, and democracy within its own borders--the armed forces were still segregated and blacks were still discriminated against for jobs; the status of women was little better than that of the Fascist countries we were fighting; and anti-Japanese "hysteria," as Zinn calls it, swept through the government. Zinn argues that American involvement in the war was more economic and more power-driven, despite this being a non-imperialistic war, than war propaganda of the time led the public to believe.

After reading the chapter on WWII and its immediate aftermath, I thought a great simultaneous read would be Tom Brokow's The Greatest Generation. Zinn is incredibly pessimistic and one-sided in his criticisms of the country, but his research is also very convincing. I read this book and I start to hate America. The weakness, though, in this section covering 1941-1960 is that Zinn just goes on a diatribe about how WWII had motives other than the ones the public rallied behind and he leaves out the collective conscience of the public (which he usually thoroughly analyzes!). I learned from Zinn that America quickly developed a military economy because it proved profitable (which I did not realize since I was not alive in the fifties) but what was the mindset of the American people at the time? Whether or not they were pawns in the war games of government and big businesses, the war generation is usually highly regarded as self-sufficient and united behind a cause.

Then we get to the sixties and everything just seemed to explode. Social issues had reached boiling points in society--women's rights, civil rights. Legislation that protected equal rights was not enforced. On top of the social unrest amongst the American public, the "Establishment" was tied up in international affairs. The Socialist and Communist movements across the globe--in Korea and the Soviet Union--threatened the Capitalistic society of the United States, and, as we know, the US got involved in foreign conflict to assert power and ensure continued international economic success. The Vietnam War and all its controversy seemed to be the culmination of all the conflict of the post-war era.

Now, before reading this, I am certain I could not tell you the reasons for US involvement in Vietnam (and I'm sure many would argue, "Yes, exactly!"). But even Zinn is brief in listing the reasons, and this man is not usually concise! One brief mention from a primary source states, "The countries of Southeast Asia produce rich exportable surpluses such as rice, rubber, teak, corn, tin, spices, oil, and many others.." But we all know the Vietnam conflict was presented to the public as a fight against Communism. No matter the reasons, I think this is one of the most fascinating eras of American history to read about. Massive protest and rejection of government, rule and order; critical opinion voiced loudly (very loudly); a rising suspicion of government and big business, and a strong belief in self.

And from what I gathered from the final chapter on the seventies, it sounded like an awful time of low morale and shitty government. The whole Vietnam affair made a joke of the United States, and those running the country strove to reassert American power at the expense of its people. The public was already distrustful of the government after Vietnam and political scandals like Watergate only reinforced this distrust. The American political system had been established--economy was key and the corporate class had the power.


" channel anger into the traditional cooling mechanism of the ballot box, the polite petition, the officially endorsed quiet gathering." I think the point Zinn is trying to prove is that the ballot box doesn't lead to change; action leads to change, violent or not.

"...In a capitalistic society...if work is not paid for, not given a money value, it is considered valueless." The root of the issue with homemakers.

"What kind of government or society would spend millions of dollars to pick upon our bones, restore our ancestral life patterns, and protect our ancient remains from damage--while at the same time eating upon the flesh of our living People...?" Sid Mills, a Native American, October 13, 1968

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

World Party: The "Pat" situation as it appears in Trebizond

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November's country in the World Reading Challenge was Turkey. I decided to search NYRB's collection, because I figured I could depend on them for some authentic world lit. So, one stroll over to Idlewild and I walked out with a copy of Rose Macauley's The Towers of Trebizond.

This is one of those books that I feel a review can't do it justice. Not because it blew me away with out-of-this-world amazingness but because it has so many angles to it. It's serious. It's religious. It's a statement. And it's actually quite funny.

Laurie is the narrator, traveling through the back country of Turkey—from Istanbul to Trebizond—with quite an eclectic English group. Aunt Dot, the middle-aged Anglican free spirit with a camel, out to reform middle Eastern views of women; Father Chantry-Pigg, traveling entirely to convert Muslims to Anglicanism; and occasionally Halide, an independent Turkish woman reformed from Islam yet preparing to marry a Muslim man. Throughout their journey, they come across many policemen who think they are spies and Billy Graham on tour with Southern evangelists. Quite the adventure.

It took a bit to fully get in engrossed its pace and language, because the writing has the quality of someone verbally telling a story. Lots of sentences full of commas that just seem to keep going, like the narrator suddenly remembered something else to say. It allows for a great subtle sense of humor, present in what-would-be the narrator's "under his/her breath" comments.

If you picked up on my ambiguity around the name "Laurie," that was intentional. Because to be honest, I STILL don't know the gender of the narrator. I read the entire book assuming it was a man. Laurie could certainly be a manly English name (c'mon, Hugh Laurie!) and the life Laurie leads is definitely not something I would expect of a 1950s English woman—traveling alone, socializing with men, drinking, training monkeys (yes, training monkeys). Yet, Laurie has a lover—a man—which came as a surprise to me at the end, particularly because that would mean this was 1950s English gay literature and it would seem far ahead of its time. But then I am reading other Goodreads comments on this book and people are using that same surprising ending to determine Laurie is, in fact, a woman. So I have no idea, and I'd rather leave it at that right now than research it. I gotta give props to the author for creating so ambiguous of a character! But like I said, this book has a lot to offer and could stand for a good second read down the road.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Study break!

Ah people, I am sorry. I know it has been boring on here lately as I have been in the middle of my Howard Zinn reading project that is currently dragging me down as it's hit a slow, boring point. I promise I will write about a book that does not involve American history this week—Rose Macauley's The Towers of Trebizond, my November pick for Turkey in the World Reading Challenge. And I'm currently in the middle of Pinnochio, Idlewild's December book club pick, and it's a bit different than the Disney movie...

So for now, I know this is a bit late, but how was everyone's Thanksgiving? My parents visited me and we hit up the Macy's parade...good times! I've been primarily using my old 35mm camera for a few months now, and it's so fun to retrain myself to use film. I feel the style of taking pictures is so different; you have to be a little more selective with your shots, because they're limited! Photography has turned so instant with digital—and I've gotten so used to that—that the anticipation of developing your film and reliving moments you'd forgotten about is so satisfying!

It's Christmas tree season!

Friday, December 3, 2010

Reading Notes: A People's History, Part III

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I'm not going to bore you to death with a long dissection of chapters 11–15. Why? Because I was bored to death with these chapters.

The previous 10 chapters had me constantly going, "Oh, good point...oh I didn't think of it from that perspective...yes." (And I'm saying that as if I had a pipe in one hand and a monocle in the other.) But this section, covering from post-Civil War to the Depression had one point. ONE. And Zinn repeated his "thesis sentence" about a billion times throughout 150 pages just by rearranging some words and changing the dates.

The rich keep getting richer at the expense of the poor, and the government uses war to distract lower-classes from organizing and rebelling. 

By this point I've come to the conclusion that this is the theme of this book, because it's been the focus of all 400 pages of it I've read so far. In the seventy years covered in this section, it went like this:
  1. Labor class gets exploited and people get angry.
  2. People start to rebel and go on strike.
  3. The government responds violently OR gets the country entangled in some war or foreign affair to distract people from the issues at home.
  4. War ends, people remember they're still angry with their own country. Cycle begins again.
At one point while reading, I just started to mark all the times Zinn rewrites his thesis in different words, so my book is filled with little margin notes that just say, "AGAIN??"

My biggest complaint about this section is that lots was going on in the country at this time, but he only writes about Reconstruction, WWI, and the Depression as they relate to labor disputes. So actually, I'm understanding this book is a very one-sided perspective. Now, I know it's easy to paint it black and white and say the working classes were victims of corporations, but there are a lot of people somewhere in the middle between the poorest of the poor and the richest of the rich. And all these perspectives are completely ignored. 

So that's all I have to say on that.

  • J.P. Morgan began business before the Civil War, during which he bought five thousand rifles from an arsenal for $3.50 each, then selling them to a general in the field for $22 each. They were defective and shot the thumbs off soldiers using them, but a federal judge upheld the deal as fulfillment of a valid legal contract. Scumbag.
  • In the 1890s, alliances between farmers began the Populist movement. They created a political party that was anti-elite and against mainstream parties, got some representation in the government, and spread new ideas and a new spirit—reminds me of the whole Tea Party hubaloo. And just to note, the Populist movement crashed and burned before 1900.
  • One interesting point I did not realize: all our international issues began because America was way overproductive and produced more than we could consume. So we searched for foreign markets. Or took them by force. So, see! That whole fighting an -ism (ideal) is just fluff propaganda to get the masses involved. Really, it's about money.
  • When did the term "socialism" get the connotations it has today? Because according to this, EVERYONE was a socialist in the early half of the 1900s. I'm convinced the majority of people saying Obama is a socialist have no idea what the word means. I mean, the socialists DID foster the "Progressive Era," which is a GOOD thing. We have socialists to thank for housing codes, health codes, and food/drug codes. My health and living conditions thank them.
  • W.E.B DuBois' "The African Roots of War" from the May 1915 issue of the Atlantic Monthly may be a good/important read.
  • "A socialist critic would go further and say that the capitalist system was by its nature unsound: a system driven by the one overriding motive or corporate profit and therefore unstable, unpredictable, and blind to human needs" (p 387).
  • "People organized to help themselves, since business and government were not helping them in 1931 and 1932" (p 394). We usually hear of FDR as a saint, saving the country from the Depression, but according to Zinn, he didn't have as immediate of success as we would expect. Oh hey look at that. A recession can't be fixed immediately. Things like this are why I think historical study is necessary—so people can learn from the past and gain a better grasp of how to deal with/react to present situations.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Reading Notes: A People's History, Part II

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So I'm a couple days behind schedule...but it was a holiday weekend and my parents were visiting!

Chapters 6 through 10 cover post-Revolutionary War to the post-Civil War era in American history. So many groups in America were angry during this time period—women, Indians, slaves, farmers, workers, poor whites. The only group that was living easy was, of course, the upper class, and they aimed to keep it that way. The period before and after the Civil War involved a lot of manipulation by the elite to benefit their economic wealth and support a growing nation. Each of these five chapters have the same point but are pretty individual, so this will be long. I'm thinking it will come together later with 20th century reform, though.

Chapter 6, "The Intimately Oppressed", WOMEN—

What's interesting is how the status of women evolved as a result of the capitalistic environment of the new nation. A chain of events:
  1. Europeans brought to America a capitalistic society that sharply contrasted the egalitarian society of the Native Americans.
  2. “Societies became based on private property and competition in which monogamous families became practical units for work and socialization.” A “cult of domesticity" was created for the woman…a way of pacifying her with a doctrine of ‘separate but equal’—giving her work as equally as important as the man’s but separate and different.” A common theme in history books.
  3. Many women in the early 1800s refused this idea and began to rally behind causes such as equal rights, voting, abolition of slavery, and, especially once women were a strong part of the factory workforce, labor reform. And these are the strong women of history that we know—Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Harriet Tubman—proving the point of one author: Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History. Of course, women wouldn’t gain the right to vote until 1920, but that’s neither here nor there…

Chapter 7, "As Long As the Grass Grows or the Water Runs," INDIANS—

A simple cause and effect here. A) Americans wanted to expand their territory. B) These lands were already occupied by the native Americans.
“Indian removal was necessary for the opening of the vast American lands to agriculture, to commerce, to markets, to money, to the development of the modern capitalist economy.” 
It’s that money thing again. President Andrew Jackson took charge of this mission and, in a series of conniving maneuvers, turned Indians against one another to weaken their defense and take their land. Zinn talks about this a lot. I don’t think he likes Andrew Jackson. He may be upset with how many times I’ve been to his home, the Hermitage, back home in Tennessee….Anyway, it’s interesting because basically, it was a tactic of “civilizing” them—introducing them to western thought and forcing them to abide by national and state laws—that led to the disintegration of their own cultures and, along with it, their solidarity. Which I’m sure was Jackson’s evil plan.

Chapter 8, "We Take Nothing By Conquest, Thank God," MEXICO—

Texas was part of the Union after 1845, of which the Rio Grande may or may not have been the Texas/Mexican border. Either way, President James Taylor decided to move troops into this debatable area just to provoke Mexico. And it did, obviously. He wanted Mexico's territory (present-day New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, Arizona, California, and part of Colorado). And he got it by moving in and taking it, all in the name of “manifest destiny”—because God wants the American people to spread over the entire continent as they multiple, spreading liberty and democracy to more people. Yes, God wants it. In the end, America provoked Mexico into a war, forced them into surrender, and then “bought” the land for $15 million as if the statement, “we take nothing by conquest…Thank God,” were actually true. Ha!

Chapter 9, "Slavery Without Submission, Emancipation Without Freedom," SLAVES—

The Civil War has always been tied to the issue of slavery, but it's a bit more complicated than that. Yes, there had been rumblings to end it prior to war—outlawing slave importation, slave rebellions, abolitionist causes. But there were many other people in the country suffering from their own economic hardships, and the nation couldn't unite behind this one cause. This is why Abraham Lincoln is important:
“Such a national government would never accept an end to slavery by rebellion. It would end slavery only under conditions controlled by whites, and only when required by the political and economic needs of the business elite of the North. It was Abraham Lincoln who combined perfectly the needs of business, the political ambition of the new Republican party, and the rhetoric of humanitarianism….Lincoln could skillfully blend the interests of the very rich and the interests of the black at a moment in history when these two interests met. And he could link these two with a growing section of Americans, the white, up-and-coming, economically ambitious, politically active middle class.”
In so many words, once the South seceded, the North fought to keep those territories and resources, and the issue of slavery was tied in as part of that crusade. And once Southern slaves abandoned their work to fight with the North, the South’s resources were crippled, leading to defeat. However, the emancipated slaves didn’t find much freedom after the war as whites began taking control of the South again, violence against blacks escalated once the slave profits of the old South disappeared, and most states still did not allow blacks to vote. The Civil War is a lot more complicated than grade school textbooks let on, always pinning it as a clear-cut, black-white issue. This is one of the most interesting chapters so far.

Chapter 10, "The Other Civil War," FARMERS AND WORKERS—

The people of America were agitated before the Civil War with many groups suffering at the hands of the wealthy. The gap between rich and poor was widening, technological advancements were lowering the value of human labor, farmers and workers were rebelling, immigrants flooded the country spurning racial hostility as a substitute for class frustration. This movement was put on hold when the country was sidetracked by the Civil War in the 1860s, but only briefly. As soon as the war ended, people quickly began to focus on their own survival, forming labor unions and organizing strikes against unfair business practices. For decades after the Civil War, the “common man” was struggling for his rights and equality as promised to him by the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But it was a disheartening period, exacerbated by economic depression, and as Zinn states, “…working people learned they were not united enough, not powerful enough, to defeat the combination of private capital and government power.”

People are angry and starting to actually act on it. We'll see what that action leads to as we enter the 20th century. But, enough for now...

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

When Kafka was the rage and West Village real estate was cheap

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The most recent discussion of the Idlewild book club focused on Anatole Broyard's Kafka Was the Rage: A Greenwich Village Memoir. For all you New York enthusiasts out there, listen up.

Here's how it goes according to Broyard's story—

Broyard was a WWII vet from Brooklyn who returned to New York after the war and moved to Greenwich Village to become a part of its literary and artistic movement (sort of early rumblings of what would become the "beat generation" but much less "anti-academic"). Broyard moved in with Sherri, an eccentric woman who presented herself more as performance art than a realistic person. For a young and naive veteran, Sherri opened doors to a world of art, academia, psychology, sexuality—all those "movements" credited to the Village at the time.

And in reality—

Broyard was a WWII vet from Brooklyn who returned to New York after the world and moved to Greenwich Village. But, he had also just divorced his wife, with whom he'd had a daughter. So that whole "naive war vet" facade was not too accurate of a portrayal. And while Sherri is a real person (and apparently really as crazy as she seemed), his relationship with her should by no means be interpreted as a "love story" (despite the book's two sections being title "Sherri" and "After Sherri"); she served a vessel, carrying him from one place in his life to the next.

Really though, the details about Anatole's life are not what's in focus in this short memoir; it's called "A Greenwich Village Memoir" for a reason. He uses his own story, maybe loosely, to describe the Village scene—a scene in which late night conversation at pubs was intellectual in nature; books were highly desired and coveted commodities; West Village rent was extraordinarily cheap (!!!). And though the credibility of some of the occurrences is questionable in Broyard's own life, his story certainly could be true of this place and time. The detail and personalization with which he writes his scenes—particularly of parties and clubs and various locations around the city—are very effective.

Broyard wrote this memoir 40 years after the fact, right before his death at age seventy in 1990. Forty years is a long time during which one's memory can fade or rewrite personal history, so we'll probably never know the exact "truth" of his own story. However, this memoir is incomplete; it contains an epilogue from his wife, indicating that Anatole was planning another chapter dedicated to the death of his father which would've perhaps shed some light onto the truths of his own life...

While this book is an interesting portrait of a moment in NYC history, the author's biography has proven to be equally as interesting. In fact, much discussion has been focused on him since his death when it was revealed that Broyard was actually part black (of Louisiana Creole descent), a fact that he mostly hid all his life and certainly omitted—or at least cleverly masked—in this novel.

An interesting article to serve as a follow-up to this memoir can be found here, titled "The Passing of Anatole Broyard," an essay in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man (pub. 1997).

Another note for NYC history enthusiasts: check out Ephemeral New York, a recent happy discovery!

Friday, November 19, 2010

Reading Notes: A People's History, Part I

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History is a tricky thing to study and certainly a difficult thing to interpret and analyze. Think about it this way—an event happens and individuals walk away from it with their own experiences; this is simple enough. But then time passes. Memories fade. Later events change the dynamic or meaning of earlier ones. Individual interpretations differ. But the history is still recorded. Well....who records it? From whose perspective is it told? We often accept textbook history as unbiased, straightforward fact because what other option do we have when there's only one book sitting in front of us? And with things long since past, does it really matter if all the complexities and nuances aren't related along with the dates and places?

This is the major thought behind Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States—to view history from the perspective of the masses instead of the powerful few who inevitably record history to their own liking.

Zinn starts the story of American with Columbus' discovery. And not with his "heroism" for which we celebrate a national holiday but with his massive genocide of native peoples and exploitation of their land. In the opening chapter, Zinn pretty much concludes that America was built on land of unjust bloodshed—the obliteration of a "savage" culture for the sake of progress, automatically labeling them as "inferior" without ever taking the time to determine how true that assumption was.

Yes, this all sounds incredibly extreme and pessimistic because it is—Zinn is not a positive guy. But I think it's an interesting and important perspective to consider.

Beginning in chapter two, "Drawing the Color Line," Zinn determines that one thing influenced the behavior of early Americans from its discovery to its founding and independence—money.


  • The slave trade was justified, even by religious groups, because of its economic benefits. 
  • The strong distinction between the rich and the poor was manipulated and strengthened to preserve the social arrangements of the "Mother country." 
  • The unprivileged groups—slaves, Indians, and poor whites—were numerous and had the potential to be very powerful, but the upperclass pitted one group against another, in the form of racism and class scorn, to avoid a united uprising. 

Despite internal conflict, the ruling class of the new colonies found that by manipulating language and creating a false sense of patriotism and unity, they could persuade everyone to direct their rebellious energies towards England in a fight for independence (which would, of course, economically benefit the upperclass). Even if men were not behind the cause, the opportunity to enter the war as a soldier and exit with more money and an improved social status—in other words, economic reasons—was motivation enough to unite against Britain.

Some notable, underlined statements:
"We have a forecast of the long history of American politics, the mobilization of lower-class energy by upper-class politicians, for their own purposes. This was not purely deception; it involved, in part, a genuine recognition of lower-class grievances, which helps to account for its effectiveness as a tactic over the centuries."
"Indeed, this became characteristic of the new nation: finding itself possessed of enormous wealth, it could create the richest ruling class in history, and still have enough fore the middle classes to act as  a buffer between the rich and the dispossessed."
" mechanics, laborers, and seamen, as well as small farmers, were swept into 'the people' by the rhetoric of the Revolution, by the camaraderie of military service, by the distribution of some land. Thus was created a substantial body of support, a national consensus, something that, even with the exclusion of ignored and oppressed people, could be called 'America.'"
"...[The Constitution as] the work of certain groups trying to maintain their privileges, while giving just enough rights and liberties to enough of the people to ensure popular support."

This first section of the novel concludes with one basic idea: governments are not neutral; they represent the dominant economic interests, and the United States was essentially founded on exploitation of the lower classes by the upper class. I think this book is definitely one capable of inciting completely polar reactions. There are reactions like this one that find Zinn incredibly whiny and pessimistic. And then there are reactions like this one that find Zinn's words to be more truth than the words in any other history book and declare this a must-read for every American.

I'm not sure where I fall in all of this, because I kind of see both sides. I think it is important to read a perspective that is unknown or rarely seen, yet Zinn is just another opinion; he has his own biases, and this book is full of them. He is essentially taking primary sources and drawing his own conclusions, which is something anyone and everyone has the capability of doing. And he does take into account and acknowledges that actions taken by our ancestors need to be viewed and judged in the context of their own times. I'm going to enjoy this history lesson from a different perspective, but I don't think it should be taken as fact any more than any other history textbook.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Where was Betsy-Tacy during my childhood? Part 3

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Moving right along in my little Betsy-Tacy project—I just finished the next two in the series, Betsy Was a Junior and Betsy and Joe (books 7 and 8, if you're keeping track!).

So...are Betsy-Tacy fans everywhere going to shun me if I say I didn't absolutely love these?

Now let me explain! These books cover Betsy's (and Tacy's and Tib's) junior and senior years of high school. When I look back at my own late years of high school, I remember having fun but I also absolutely shudder at my level of immaturity—in terms of how I related to my peers and how I presented myself. And I thought I was soooo mature, so far above every other 17-year-old. I mean, I read books for fun! And I listened to jazz and I liked old movies! So as I read these two, particularly Betsy Was a Junior, I just cringed as I thought about my own experiences.

Betsy said throughout Betsy Was a Junior that she was "growing up," and I get the impression that is not something Betsy wants to do. Well, we're exactly alike in that regard (I could make a very long list of ways I'm still a 12-year-old at heart)! Julia's left home for University, and Betsy is determined to fill that void  by being as mature as Julia is—filling the Ray house with music, acting mature and mysterious around boys, presenting herself as sophisticated. But Betsy is still Betsy and despite her school year resolutions, she gets caught up in frivolous fun with the Crowd. The girls start a sorority, emulating Julia's college experiences, but they lack an understanding of how exclusive their group seems to their peers and, in turn, earn a poor reputation. Between incidents at school and at home, Betsy realizes that all of her unsettled feelings stem from disappointment with herself! And this disappointment is what finally leads her on the path to growing up. Betsy always gains self-awareness when she actually has the time to we hope this time it will stick!

And then next up is Betsy and Joe which, honestly, I found a little...dare I say...tedious? I just felt like nothing happened until the end! Julia was out exploring the Great World in Europe; Betsy's crowd had mostly given up childish parties and games, so everything felt routine; and about three chapters were devoted to a single football game, which didn't seem to have much of an overarching point! The real fun and tension lay, of course, in Betsy's relationship with Joe, which is always either swell or on the rocks (yes, I said swell!). The point I think was made in this one was that hey, Betsy's not trying to grow up; Betsy has grown up. She's a 1910 high school graduate planning to attend the U in the fall. We've followed Betsy as she's expanded her world to beyond the Big Hill and now (eventually) beyond Deep Valley and, more notably, her childhood.

A discussion with my neighborhood friendly Betsy-Tacy enthusiast informed me that many B-T fans find Betsy Was a Junior pretty hard to read. I'm wondering if junior year is just universally a tough year for everyone, because it was by far the worst in my adolescence. It definitely was the year of growing up, for both me and Betsy, as you have to start thinking for the first time of what's next, of life beyond what you know. And that can be very scary. So while I say I didn't enjoy these two titles as much as previous ones, maybe it's just because they remind me of that horrible unsettling feeling that comes with maturing!

On a final note, there were a couple great lines that caught my eye:
"Miss Cobb struck a note and said, as she had in previous years to Julia and Betsy, 'This is middle C.' Betsy liked that. She always liked things to go on as they had before."

"People were always saying to Margaret, 'Well, Julia sings and Betsy writes. Now what is little Margaret going to do?' Margaret would smile politely, for she was very polite, but privately she stormed to Betsy with flashing eyes, 'I'm not going to do anything. I want to just live. Can't people just live?"

...and the great final line of Betsy and Joe. But I'll save that for next time so as not to spoil the ending for you!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Don't know much about US history.

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Photo credit: Flickr

So I'm probably in the minority here...but, I value my high school education more than my college one. For me, college was a lesson in experience, and yes, I got a whole lot out of it. But I learned that practical life and career stuff. It's the high school kind of learning that makes me feel...well, educated. Math equations and sentence structure and important dates and places....I like learning substantive information where you either know it or you don't, instead of the analytical, subjective stuff you have to do in college where you're measured against everyone else in your class.

Since it's been about six years since high school, my brain has been aching for some learnin'. Therefore, I am embarking on a big reading project—Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States.

I've had this book since senior year AP US History where we had to read excerpts here and there...and I thought it was so boring and pointless. I thought it was just my left-leaning, aged hippie history teacher trying to spread his "liberal agenda" to Tennessee's 11th and 12th graders (because I was completely apolitical at the time and was wary of any side). And unfortunately for my teenage self, I completely lacked the analytical questioning skills required to read this book (didn't learn those until I guess I did get something out of it!), nor did I really care to spend the time on it. Please, it was SENIOR YEAR. I just wanted the facts I'd need for the AP test and then to get the hell out of there!

So now I am reading it chapter by chapter in full marginal note-taking mode. I'll be taking this five chapters at a time and posting on every Friday. I have the 2003 edition, so there are 25 chapters. If anyone else is interested in embarking on this mission with me, as little or as much as you want, I invite you to join. The schedule I'll (try to) stick to:

November 19: Chapters 1–5 — roughly, Columbus to Revolutionary War
November 26: Chapters 6–10 — Independence to the Civil War
December 3: Chapters 11–15 — Post-War to The Depression
December 10: Chapters 16–20 — WWII to the 1970s
December 17: Chapters 21–25 — The 1980s to the "War on Terror"

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Wait, you mean Avenue C hasn't always had hipsters?

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One of the things you always hear living in NYC is, "Oh, the city has changed so much." I'm fully convinced that statement is a some kind of special phrase used by NYC residents—no matter how long you have been a resident—to prove, "Hey, I am a New Yorker and I know it so well that I know its history, too." I've lived here six years, four of which were spent in the Greenwich Village bubble that is NYU. So trust me when I say I don't know firsthand how the city has changed so much. But because I'm quickly approaching that ten-year mark which will then unofficially deem me a "New Yorker," I find myself quick to use this phrase as well—as if I have actually spent decades here and can see the gentrification of neighborhoods and the crime rate drop (or, apparently, be back on the rise, as I am now hearing around town).

So while I have seen no noticeable changes in the past six years, I can assure you things were very different 20 or 30 years ago. Times Square used to be disgusting (in a different way than it is now...more drugs, less tourists); the Meatpacking District actually was meatpacking before it had drug dealers, prostitutes, and the Mob, BEFORE it had trendy restaurants and nightclubs; and the Lower East Side, once housing immigrants, was full of drug dealers before it was full of the hipsters that currently reside there. And this drug-infested Lower East Side (or specifically, Alphabet City, which one could argue is more East Village than LES, because the LES is technically below Houston) of the seventies and eighties is the one in which author Josh Karlen was raised and reflects upon in his memoir, Lost Lustre. Karlen lived during a very specific moment in this neighborhood's history (and every NYC neighborhood has a colorful history) that, in a way, led it to what it is today. Cheap rent attracted the bohemians that created the strong music scene (think CBGBs) of these two decades, for which the neighborhood is still known.

But enough about NYC history—Lost Lustre is a great blend of the memoir of a person and of a place. It's Karlen's individual story, but his experience was entirely dependent on his environment. Surviving as a middle-class white kid in a neighborhood that was primarily lower-class African American and Latino was no easy task for Karlen. He describes how fear and defense dominated his mindset; you couldn't count the number of times he was mugged on only two hands. His reminisces, told in an essay sort of format, range from his innocence of the sixties to being dropped in a new environment where he's afraid of walking after dark, to the rise of the East Village music scene and the ease of underage drinking, to his first teenage love and his adjustment to life at a midwest college.

Karlen must be a talented writer, because I was so sucked into a place and time I never experienced that I felt like I knew it intimately. His attention to detail—something like describing how the light hit a room—perfectly set a tone to take the reader back in time, to put the reader in Karlen's own memories.

As I was reading this, I intuited two things about Karlen:
  1. He's a hopeless nostalgic. And I mean that in the way the phrase "hopeless romantic" is used, as a good thing, which indicates someone who treasures memories and uses his experiences to learn and grow as an individual.
  2. He probably has more issues with his adolescence than he is letting on.

And after a couple of email exchanges with the author, in which I asked him if there was, in fact, anything he "got out" of his experiences, he summed up his feelings quite well:
"If there is anything positive resulting from growing up in Alphabet City in the 70s it is only in the sense that any negative experience tends to broaden one's view of the world, expand one's vistas, however dismaying they may be. I often felt that the drugs, violence, poverty and Latino culture surrounding me, a white, middle-class kid, on Avenue C, gave me early on a broader context of seeing my life than those of my middle-class, New York school friends...
...In writing my book, I sought only to convey my own personal experience of growing up in that particular time and place, and for me it was mostly a dark and difficult time, partly because growing up is difficult anywhere, and partly because in downtown New York we were allowed to run it out to our furthest limits without any real boundaries in a city that was itself struggling to survive. So while I do have a certain nostalgia for pieces of my adolescence in New York, and I write of them in the book, it's very much mixed with other feelings that are not especially fond. I hope I managed to convey both the light and the dark of those growing up years in New York, if not equally, at least in proportion as I felt them then, and see them in retrospect."

For both memoir fans and NYC enthusiasts, this is a must.

This is a stop on Lost Lustre's TLC Book Tour. To hit up its other stops, visit this list.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Reading Notes: More tea, please.

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Photo Credit: Flickr
I know my first comments on Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea were less than stellar. And surprising to me, a lot of you agreed! But literally, about three pages after I left off my comments, things picked up, and I ended up finishing this book on the subway, trying to hold back tears so I wouldn't be that crazy person crying on the subway. I know. I was as surprised as you.

Yeah, so the dual author thing is still kind of weird (though I hear that Mortenson is the only author on his next book, so maybe the dual author thing was common criticism). But I wonder if writing from a first person perspective on this whole experience would make it sound more...narcissistic. And my thoughts are—it probably would.

So a lot happens in the second half of this book. Mortenson gets held quasi-hostage for a few days; he seriously expands his school-building efforts thanks to the formation of an official foundation, the Central Asia Institute; and 9/11 happens and changes a lot in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Suddenly, he's not the only American interested in the region, as the cities he frequents are now flooded by news media. But the contrast of intentions between Greg and everyone else is like night and day, which is pretty telling in how our nation thought and reacted immediately after an attack. One reporter who happens to meet Greg and hear his story ends up writing an article in Parade magazine that seriously boosts Greg's notoriety. While the funds in his foundation's bank account receive a big surge, he also gets a lot of threats and negativity about his efforts from a conflicted, sensitive American public.

I finished this book feeling both inspired and frustrated, which is how, I'm sure, a lot of people walked away from it. And it wasn't frustration from anything about the writing or the structure—I forgot all of that once I got into the meat of the story. It was that this is such an inspiring story, such evidence of how (as lame and cliche as it sounds) one person can make a difference. But what's frustrating is that people don't care. Some people have such a limited view of the world that they don't realize the logic in Mortenson's efforts; and the people in charge don't see how small gestures are more effective than sweeping, expensive power-trips. And beyond mentality, most people will never take such risks to do something like this (myself completely included).

So I am left here in my comfortable, privileged apartment feeling completely inferior and unhelpful. But, that's why there are people like Greg Mortenson who can share their story, hopefully enlighten a lot of people, and get enough continued support from the people like me who aren't about to pack up and head to the Middle East to keep doing what he does.

I think if I was a librarian or a high school teacher, I'd make this a book club selection or required reading. Because, it's a story that contains a great look at a different perspective, which is something I think is always necessary to seek out and explore. I actually do want to read his follow-up, Stones into Schools now.

Monday, November 1, 2010

For the rest of 2010, I shall read...

Um, can you believe it's already November? I am not ready for 5+ months of frigid cold in which my skin doesn't see the sun. Last week was marvelously warm and now it's 38 degrees. And I am notorious for my hatred of the cold. I walked in my office this morning and people looked at me with concern and slowly asked, " are you feeling about the weather?" Yeah. I'd rather be in bed. And that's probably how I am going to feel for the next five months.

So anyway, it's nearing the end of the year, and I had big reading goals for 2010. BIG GOALS. But when I look at my bookshelves, I see lots of books that I was supposed to read in 2010 and just haven't seemed to get around to yet. A couple of them are extra long, which is most definitely going to prevent me from tying/surpassing 2009's record of number of books read in a year, but I really want to get these done.

On my list:

  • Lost Lustre by Josh Karlen — the current book I'm reading for a TLC book tour. As a NYC resident, I am really enjoying it so far because I know the places he's talking about.
  • New York by Edward Rutherford — seriously, it's been on my shelf for more than a year, and for all of 2010, I've been "saving it" for some undetermined time in the future when it will be perfect for reading. First that was a beach vacation. Then it was summer. Then it was a trip in September. I guess the time is now.
  • A People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn — I started reading this a couple months ago, since I'd only read snippets in high school. Have a strong desire to get a history lesson, so this is a must.
  • The rest of Betsy Tacy — even though I almost wonder if I should save some instead of speed through them. Once I'm done, there are no more left! There are other non-Betsy Tacy novels by the author, though, right?

Any books you're trying to squeeze in the next two months?

Friday, October 29, 2010

Reading Notes: After one cup of tea, we're still strangers.

Photo Credit: Flickr
My reading experience of Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea (my October Afghanistan pick for the World Reading Party) is taking a lot longer than expected. I'm sure it's partly due to moving and that when I get home from work, I spend time unpacking or straightening up rather than reading. Also, my commute is shorter, so I have less time to read on the subway (not gonna lie...kind of a bummer; never thought I would want a longer commute). But mostly I just can't seem to get into it.

A friend's husband recently read this book and raved about it. I thought I'd feel the same in that do-good warm and fuzzy kind of way, while also getting a thrill out of enjoying a good nonfiction work. But you know the thing? I'm a little more than a third done, and the real author, David Oliver Relin, just won't shut up about Greg Mortenson. Seriously, with the detail and descriptions he gives, it's like hero worship here. And all these descriptions would be fine if you felt like it was Mortenson writing his first-hand experience, but it's weird reading someone's story, the someone who gets top billing in author credits, and it's written from another person's perspective. Why not just write it from first-person, Mr. Mortenson? It is your story.

Also, he hasn't even started building the damn school yet, and I'm on page 130 out of 331. I get that it's a process. I get that you went through a lot of trouble and many setbacks to fulfill your dream. And I have so much respect for your motivation and dedication. But at the same time, in all these pages, I'm finding out more about the specific materials needed to build a bridge and build a school, when I'm not a contractor and I don't care about that stuff. I want to know, in depth, about how the people of Korphe felt, how Mortenson interacted with them, what exactly drew him to this village over all the others. I'm reading words, but I'm not feeling anything yet. And this is the kind of stuff that could make me bawl just from sheer overflow of emotion. So far, I think it's the writing's fault.

Hopefully we'll become friends after another cup of tea.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Umm...this isn't autobiographical, is it?

I must say. I was a little wary of Hummingbirds after reading the synopsis in conjunction with the author bio. I will present both to you, in edited form, so you understand.

"...Seasons change and tensions mount as the students, longing for entry into the adult world, toy with their premature powers of flirtation. The deceptive innocence of adolescence becomes a trap into which flailing teachers fall, as the line between maturity and youth begins to blur."
"Joshua Gaylord has taught at an Upper East Side prep school for the past ten years."

A story about teacher/student flirtations written by a teacher just seems a little...too close to home.

But fortunately, that's not all it was about. Hummingbirds peeks into the private life of a few conflicting characters. Two senior students—Dixie and Liz—who couldn't be more opposite; and two male teachers—Leo Binhammer and Ted Hughes—who share the status of the only male teachers in an all-girl prep school. Dixie and Liz can't stand each other because they're so different. Dixie is more the superficial queen bee, while Liz is the intelligent type that sneers at Dixie's lack of depth. But really, they each just feel threatened by the other as each sees characteristics in the other that she lacks. And Leo and Ted...well, the thing is, Leo's wife once had an affair with an academic dude at an academic conference. Turns out, it was Ted, and Leo puts the pieces together and realizes this. But Ted doesn't. So our Mr. Binhammer—the real main character of this novel—feels really threatened and inferior but forges a bond with Mr. Hughes in that self-torturing, sadistic kind of way. And it's like you're just waiting for things to explode.

I only had one real problem with this. Thanks to the author's bio being so similar to the characters he was writing, and the big picture of him featured on the back cover, I had a really hard time picturing anyone other than Joshua Gaylord as Leo Binhammer. It's like when you the film version of a book and the image of the actors are afterwards inextricably linked to the characters they play.

It's clear Gaylord is such a literary nerd, and I would've killed to have him as an English teacher in high school (my high school's English department was embarrassingly weak). He peppers his novel with literary references to novels and authors and poems...such a booknerd's dream! The characters he crafted are interesting because...well none of them are really interesting. They're just insecure individuals who inevitably dwell on details—meaning, they're self-centered in that way in which they're concerned about how they appear (to others) in any given situation. And in each duo, the conflicting characters were kind of the antithesis of each other. Such a lot that could be analyzed in Mr. Binhammer's English class.

Bottom line: solid literary fiction. And hopefully not autobiographical.

This is a stop on Hummingbirds' TLC Blog Tour. For a list of its other stops, visit here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010


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Why yes, that was a howl. A howl in honor of The Mysterious Howling, the first book in The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series by Maryrose Wood.

I can't quite figure this book out. It's only 160-odd pages and has several cute illustrations, but it also has all kinds of literary references that most children would not know. Is it a children's book? A childrens-esque adult book? Or does it belong somewhere in the middle? (Officially, I see the publishing world officially classifies this as 'children's,' but I don't quite believe them.)

Anyway. You know that little phrase about kids who are so wild, they must've been "raised by wolves?" Well we're all pretty sure that's what happened to the three children known as "the Incorrigibles." Found as three scraggly, beastly children in the woods by the wealthy and newlywed Lord Ashton, the Incorrigibles—now known by the proper names of Alexander, Beowulf, and Cassiopeia—are living in the enormous Ashton Place under the guidance of Penelope Lumley. Miss Lumley—or Lumawoooo, as she is affectionately called—just graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Girls and has taken on her first governess job at the whopping age of fifteen (yes, fifteen!).

My only complaint is....(highlight to read text)

BOO to a 'to be continued' ending! TV shows are allowed to do that because the next episode is only 7 days away, but not in a BOOK when it could be a year until the next one is published. I really hope she's trying to redefine the 'series' template by concluding this story in the next one, while also starting another 'to be continued' mystery...otherwise it just seems lazy!

However, on top of having some awesome illustrations by Jon Klassen, this story is just too cute to not like. It's the 19th century governess story told with a twist and lots of howling thrown in. Penelope is the resourceful, spunky hero stories like this need, and the situations have just the perfect amount of outlandish thrown in. Definitely a book I would've liked as a kid and, because I'm still a kid at heart, also enjoy as a super-old twenty-five year old. (It was just my birthday on Saturday. I'm still a little bitter I've officially reached my 'mid-twenties'.) If I had a kid, I'd make him/her read this. And that's what my future children have to look forward to—mommy forcing books upon them.


Thursday, October 14, 2010

Where was Betsy-Tacy during my childhood? Part 2

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I know, I know. It has been a while. Both in terms of blog posting and reading Betsy-Tacy. That's just what happens when you get a promotion and move apartments at the same time.

So yes, it only took me three months, but I finally moved on with the Betsy-Tacy series, many thanks to the fine people at Harper Perennial who sent me Heaven to Betsy (packaged with Betsy in Spite of Herself) and zero thanks to the NYPL for not having it in their collection.

Last we left off, Betsy, Tacy, and Tib had just made it downtown as twelve-year-olds. Downtown! What a big world it is! Now, though, Tib has moved back to Milwaukee, and Betsy and Tacy have started high school at Deep Valley High. Betsy has also turned into quite the googly-eyed boy crazy teenage girl. She's quite unlike her old self, though I guess that's the relatable part about her—what teenage girl doesn't become unrecognizable when she hits high school? Tacy, on the other hand, is completely unfazed by boys  and serves as a nice balance to Betsy.

Moving on to sophomore year in Betsy in Spite of Herself, our lovable Betsy finally becomes self-aware. She has decided that she's on a mission to change herself, and a trip to Milwaukee to spend Christmas with Tib seems like the perfect opportunity to do so. Except two weeks pass, and Betsy isn't really any different. Disappointment with herself finally leads her to believe, maybe it's better to be true to yourself. Or something cheesy like that.
  • Starting with Heaven to Betsy, Vera Neville took over Lois Lenski's illustration job to give the Betsy-Tacy books a bit more of a grown-up feel, and that's pretty much how you could sum up the progression of the series. As the characters age, so do the writing and illustration styles. It's almost like the illustrations are more candid shots than posed photographs, if that makes sense. 
  • Like always, Maud Hart Lovelace based her characters and events on things that happened in her real life. One great thing about these Harper Perennial editions is that the backs of the books include tidbits of info on the author and her life, including photos!
It is so fun to see how teens amused themselves 100 years ago. But you know what's also fun? It doesn't seem like it was 100 years ago. Riding in buggies, playing the piano and singing at parties, and riding the train don't seem that odd, and I think for that, I have the world of literature to thank. I grew up reading Anne of Green Gables, Little House on the Prairie, and dozens of other books that took place long before my time, so this "old-timey" way of life seems perfectly familiar. It's kind of the same reason I was never at a loss as a kid when the power went out, or why I currently have zero need for a phone that can basically tell me how to live without ever looking up from the screen—I can deal with a technology-less life (well, somewhat) because I know that millions of people have lived without these modern technological amenities and survived just fine.

It's a little eerie as I read these two books, because I can fully remember how similar my mindset in high school was to that of Betsy's. She forced herself to wear perfume and walk with a "Barrymore droop." I tried to drink coffee and read biographies on movie stars that were long dead before I was even born (I still think coffee is gross, though the old movies were a legit interest). It's all these phases you go through as you mature and experience more, as your world grows bigger, just as Betsy's is. And it's interesting to see how the world overall is expanding—or rather, "getting smaller"—throughout these novels, just like with Betsy's own insular world. Trains and automobiles and telephones...Betsy's living in the middle of it all, gaining freedom in a world that is allowing more of it.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The party has officially begun again.

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You know what I am totally psyched for? The rebirth of the World Reading Party! Jill over at Fizzy Thoughts partied too hard the night before (or was a party pooper...I opted for the nicer 'party' pun) and put the challenge up for grabs. And luckily, Suzi at packabook picked it up, tweaked it a little, and changed the schedule, giving me lots more time to plan my books and (maybe) actually read them! My participation the last go around included only one lonely title.

The NEW 2010–2011 World Reading Party:

November – Turkey
December – Greece
January – Iran
February – England
March – Ireland
April – Jamaica
May – Pakistan
June – Russia
July – Spain
August – Thailand
September – India

And I already have some ideas. Afghanistan: Three Cups of Tea. Already own it, but haven't yet read it. Easy! Iran? Persepolis! Have needed to read that for a while now. England: gotta read some Georgette Heyer. And I'm really excited to discover Russia. I'm only bummed Palestine isn't on the list, because I've been wanting to read Mornings in Jenin for a long time, and this would've given me motivation.

Idlewild, you will be seeing me soon.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Art of the Ideal Bookshelf

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I stumbled upon these little gems during my daily interactions with the internet. Ideal Bookshelf is an ongoing project by artist Jane Mount in which she paints sets of books. There are cooking sets and Typography sets and children's book sets...a set that can be really representative of the individual or just be someone's favorites. You can even commission her to paint your favorite books through her Etsy site.

Very cool. I'd love to fill a reading nook with these paintings.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Napoleon Dynamite may be an inaccurate representation of Idaho

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I mentioned a couple weeks ago that I recently read Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn thanks to an awesome recommendation from Erica at Harper Perennial. Apparently she is known in her office for loving this book. So in my mind, I said, a) this book had one fan who was so passionate for it that her name is associated with it, and b) it's about middle-of-nowhere Idaho, and how often do I read or see things about Idaho? Certainly not very often.

Ooh, this was just the kind of novel I love. Lots of characters who lead very different lives but are all so well-developed that you know, and feel for, each of them intimately. They all overlap somewhat but are rarely substantial in each others' stories. Kind of like Love Actually, where all the characters in the movie know each other somehow but have independent lives and stories.

Oh but Lake Overturn certainly isn't like Love Actually in any other regard. Lake Overturn is a little dark and certainly somewhat serious. For all these people, ranging from middle school students to a bus driver to parents to an ex-con who wants to be a surrogate mother, Lake Overturn is sort of a coming-of-age story. They all grow and learn and experience. Some end up better off than others. And behind all these individuals and their stories, there's the overarching theme of a student's science project, which gives the novel its title. Partly metaphorical, partly fun science project mystery—it's a very fitting title.

All in all,

I liked all of the characters. They all had faults, but they were all completely and astoundingly human.

My interest never waned, because the characters were so diverse in terms of age and situation. No main character was like another. Despite the lives of nine (or so) characters seeming like a lot to grasp, they all flowed together seamlessly, and it never seemed like too much. And I really knew enough about each of them to really care how they ended up.

This is a great literary work.  I mean great. I want more. Please write more, Mr. McIntyre.

This takes place in the mid-80s in Idaho, but I did not get a Napoleon Dynamite vibe. Lucky for the state of Idaho, I have more than just Napoleon Dynamite representing it in my knowledge base.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Listen to me on That's How I Blog!

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Did you know that I was last week's guest on That's How I Blog? If yes, kudos to you for being a frequent listener of Nicole's awesome show. If no, don't fret...I'm telling you about it now!

You can listen to our hour-long discussion about fountain Cokes, cats, and Harriet the Spy at this link.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Idlewild Discussion on why Palace Walk reads like a European romance novel

Last night's Idlewild book club meeting was on the epic-ly long novel Palace Walk, which is part one of a literal epic—a three-parter titled The Cairo Trilogy for which author Naguib Mafouz won the Nobel Prize of Literature. The impression I get from this book is that some people find out amazing and some just find it "meh."

Initially upon finishing, and during book discussion, I generally found it "meh." Palace Walk focuses on one family living in Cairo before Egypt's Independence from Britain in the early 1900s (around the time of World War I). The father is domineering; the mother is submissive; the daughters race to get married first; the older sons try to build their own lives while really just following the path of male stereotypes of the time; and then there's little Kamal, the youngest, the most innocent, the ray of sunshine in an oppressive household (oppressive thanks completely to Papa Bear).

The book's 500 pages tell little more than that. It's simply a day-to-day portrait of ordinary individuals (or, as I'm guessing for the time, what would be middle- to upper-class individuals). The characters, with the exception of the eldest son, are all one-sided and completely stagnant in terms of growth or development. They each fit a stereotype. Al-Sayyid Ahmad, the father, is overbearing and harsh—the villain of the novel—but those are expected characteristics based on the historical setting. Likewise, the mother, like all other women in the story, have no role in society outside the home, as expected based on this society's treatment and opinion of women 100 years ago. To me this seemed somewhat soap-operatic, somewhat a European character novel. It seemed so full of stereotype that I felt it lacked authenticity. I didn't really learn anything about Egyptian society of 1917 beyond what I could have inferred from history lessons.


  • The father was the villain, but unlike Disney movie villains, we understood his mentality and his thought-processes. He wasn't just "the villain." Strict inside the home and lighthearted outside seemed to be his modus operandi. Points to the author for creating transparent characters. 
  • Kamal just never matured in two years. Not sure what that was supposed to represent. Think this was mentioned in discussion but was probably distracted by wine/pita chips.
  •  The daughters marry and become property of their husbands' home, thus virtually eliminating them from this story of Al-Sayyid Ahmad's household. Typical of society?
  • Why has this not been a BBC or Masterpiece Theater production? Much discussion of this during book club.
I'm not too motivated to read the other two in the trilogy until reading some basic bios on the author. His politics seemed to so highly influence his writing that I wonder if all I mentioned early about the style seeming European and full of stereotypes was his method of criticizing Egyptian culture. Knowing this historical context makes the writing somewhat more interesting. [Apparently Mahfouz was stabbed in the back (literally, not metaphorically!) in the 90s by a fundamentalist because of his support of Israeli/Palestinian peace talks. And he was 82 years old!] Maybe this story was more "shocking" in the 1950s when it was written (thought it wasn't translated to English until the 80s), but it seems a little run-of-the-mill now.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

BBAW: Unexpected Treasure

Today's topic for Book Blogger Appreciation Week is to write about a book or genre you have tried thanks to the influence of another book blogger.

Well, hmm.

My reading tastes are scattered anyway, that it doesn't take much to inspire me to read out of my comfort zone. This past year has probably been my most diverse, genre-wise, thanks partly to my "world-lit" book club and partly to a recent increased thirst for knowledge. Looking back on my 'read' list of 2010, there are a couple of things on there that were inspired by another blogger. After all, the number one thing book blogs give me are new recommendations!

Early in 2010, I was looking to try some graphic novels but didn't really know where to start. I don't like the fantasy/action stories that I'd always thought most graphic novels were, but then I read a review for Craig Thompson's Blankets over on write meg! While I didn't exactly agree with Meg's opinions of the book, it did jumpstart my graphic novel kick. Since Blankets, I've read French Milk, Carnet de Voyage—both of which I enjoyed more than Blankets—and Fun Home, which is one of my favorite reads of the year.

Another series I started thanks to bloggers is Betsy-Tacy! Quite frankly, I was surprised I'd never heard of these in my childhood, but better late than never, right? I breezed through the first four back in July before getting bogged down with reading assignments. But have no fear, numbers five and six are patiently waiting on my shelf and next in my queue after I finish my current book club book. I also discovered that the Betsy-Tacy community is quite welcoming!

And most recently, I devoured Vestal McIntyre's Lake Overturn, thanks to a raving recommendation from Erica at Harper Perennial. I love reading books about places I know little about or don't experience in my day to day life, and when she described this one as taking place in small-town Idaho, I was immediately intrigued. That's all it took, because Idaho...well, I have zero connection to that state and have no idea what it's like. I loved it, and look for my comments on it next week.

Who else has had some fabulous finds thanks to blogger recommendations?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

BBAW: Meet Jenny!

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This week is Book Blogger Appreciation Week, and in my inaugural post to join the festivities, I'm happy to introduce to you Jenny from Supernatural Snark! Jenny started her blog just this past June and already has quite a following. I've had the pleasure of speaking with her, and she's answered a few questions so we can all get to know her a little better.

Describe yourself in a sentence.
I’m a twenty-something girl who loves reading, graphic design, boxer dogs, and a well-developed sense of sarcasm.

Top three pet peeves?
  1. Being late without so much as a phone call. I can’t adequately express in words how much it drives me crazy when people are late and don’t call or even bother to apologize when they finally show up. Sometimes things happen and that’s understandable, but please call and let me know!
  2. Entitlement – having more money, a better job, better looks, etc. does not make you better than someone else. A little humility goes a long way.
  3. This is more of a personal one directed solely at my husband. He says “ribbit” (think frog) when he belches and it’s nauseating.

Who’s on the top of your list for a dinner date?
Hmmm. Are we talking real or fictional dinner dates? Real I’d have to say my husband. Or Gerard Butler. Or Hugh Jackman. One of those three for sure. Fictional I’d have to say Bones from Jeaniene Frost’s Night Huntress series.

What is your favorite language other than your native one?
Probably Spanish because that’s the one with which I’m most familiar after English, though I can read it far better than I can speak it.

Do you have any bad habits?
I would like to answer no, but that would most likely be a lie. My husband tells me I have a terrible habit of relocating things he needs. He says I lose them. I say I put them someplace that later eludes me. I like things to be neat and organized and he doesn’t mind putting things wherever, so I have a tendency to move his items in an effort to tidy up and I don’t always recall where I put them.

Are you a morning or night person?
Definitely night. I would much rather stay up late reading or working than waking up early to do those same things.

One place you could go and live forever and be perfectly happy.
I think I could be perfectly happy in Italy. It’s gorgeous and they have delicious food. I’m pretty sure I could live forever on pasta and gelato.

Are you a spring, summer, fall, or winter girl?
I’m a winter girl. I love snow. I’m always the person rooting for snow when everyone else is praying it stays away so they can drive to work in under an hour. Perhaps it’s because I work from home and therefore don’t have to go anywhere in the snow, but instead can stay warm inside and watch it come down. I have 2 dogs that adore it as well and it’s hilarious to watch them hop through huge snowdrifts.

Have any guilty pleasures?
Paranormal romance novels. I love them and I’m not embarrassed to read them in public. I see people give me the double take when they see the title or cover image, but I think they’re great reads.

Tell me your token “funny story”!
I think I’ve told everyone I’ve ever met this story in addition to posting it on my blog, but it always makes me laugh when I tell it:

My dogs and I are going on our daily walk down a neighboring street where a house recently had some severe fire damage and was under construction. The house is swarming with shirtless, sweaty construction workers and as I'm walking by a loud whistle rings out. I do a quick once over of myself and determine that I must be having a "pretty" day (aside from the bag of poo I'm holding. Poo is most definitely not sexy). Go me. Then I hear this:

"Wow, those are really beautiful dogs."


Clearly, my self-assessment a minute earlier wasn't entirely accurate, and I was not, in fact, having a "pretty" day. We continue on our walk and I get home and call my husband to fish for a compliment. Nothing fancy. Something along the lines of "I think you're better looking than the dogs" will do. Instead, peals of laughter come through the phone. Apparently my husband thinks this is the funniest thing he's heard, well, ever.

What’s your dream job? What’s your real job?

My dream job would be to work for Disney Pixar on their animated films. I adore those movies and think it would be a blast to watch the story come to life and know I had something to do with it.

My real job is graphic design. I primarily design wedding invitations and related stationery, but do the occasional corporate branding job (logo design, business card/brochure design).

Very Important!! Coke or Pepsi?

What book would you like to be a character in?
I would love to be a character in Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments/Infernal Devices series. She does a beautiful job with her world building and her characters are full of humor and depth and I would love to meet any one of them.

Top 3 favorite books ever.
I’m going to have to alter this question slightly and do my favorite book series ever, because I don’t think I could narrow it down to just 3 books! I can barely limit it to 3 book series.
  1. The Black Dagger Brotherhood by JR Ward
  2. The Fever Series by Karen Marie Moning
  3. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

What are some of your interests OUTSIDE of books?
I’m a big movie buff. I actually went to school to study film and photography, so Hollywood has always been fascinating for me. I also used to ride horses when I was younger and did so competitively all through college, but haven’t been able to lately as much. Horses will always be a passion of mine though!

It's such a relief to know that Jenny, too, prefers Coke over a Pepsi...makes her a winner in my book! Go check out her blog, Supernatural Snark, and welcome her to the book blogging community!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

In Conclusion: An Angsty Anthropology

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Hilary Thayer Hamann's Anthropology of an American Girl is one of those books you pick up and are like, "Whoa. This will be a challenge." Because it's 600 pages and hardbound...mega heavy and not small purse friendly.

But, it's also the kind you start and hope will be a great, long ride. A chunkster by its very definition.

Eveline Auerbach is the "American Girl" of this novel—a high school student of the late 1970s. Hamann takes us through a handful of Eveline's adolescent/young adult years as she finishes high school, attends NYU (shout out!), and, essentially, grows up in the pre-technological early 1980s.

I say Eveline "grows up" in this novel because she does. But it's not that first foray into maturity that comes in your mid-teens...its that second big jump that doesn't feel as monumental because it doesn't come with a driver's license or the ability to vote. This is the "growing up" that comes with emotional turbulence, when your little bubble bursts and the world suddenly seems bigger and scarier and everything seems more real, when you suddenly realize that you are living as part of the world and not just observing it. For Eveline, this came through her relationship with Rourke, a college age-ish guy who helped with the yearly high school drama production.

Eveline seems to me to be the kind of girl that claims to be soooooo misunderstood, that is, if she cared enough about herself to self-identify. She's introspective and notices everything. For the span of the novel, it's like she's trying to find her own identity but finds it easier to just meld with the people around her. From the author's tone, Eveline constantly sounds mopey. She seems depressed to the point where she's just apathetic, rolling with life rather than actively living it. For this reason, I never really liked Eveline. It took her about 580 pages to stand up and participate in her life. She reminded me a lot of Noa Weber who just couldn't get over a guy she was never really with. I never understood how Eveline's life could be so affected by this relationship, because it was never described in great detail...or at least great enough detail that made me care and sympathize with her.

But oh, you know what was lovely? Hamann's language. Her words cause you to gently drift through this novel.

"He wanted me to know he regretted using words on me so soon after using words on them and that the words reserved for me were different words" (p 176).

"Being in love is like leaning on a broken reed. It is to be precariously balanced, to teeter between the vertical and the horizontal. It's like war: it's to demand of one's sensibilities the impossible—to expect paranoia to coexist with faith, chance with design, to enlist suspicion insensibly in certain regards and suppress it blindly in others" (p. 276).

"Maybe a deer has feelings, maybe the origin of a child is in the protoplasm; frankly, it's impossible to know. And yet, people keep trying to assign logic to sensation and consciousness in beings and entities other than themselves" (p. 377).

Also, you know what else is cool? This novel was originally self-published and was more recently picked up by Random House. Sweet little success story there.

I did enjoy this one. Quite a lot. Despite not really liking Eveline, I wanted to know how it all turned out. A worthwhile chunkster.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A bit of absence...

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It's been a while because of....NEW BABY! Not mine, but my sister's! I spent a long weekend in Nashville, arriving just in time for Andrew Luke at a whopping 10lb 13oz. Exciting beginning to what was a fabulous trip home.

I'm trying to hop back on the reading wagon, but between soccer training, nice weather, and trying to coordinate an apartment move, my time seems to fill up a lot faster.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In Conclusion: Can being run over by a truck make you a happier person?

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Remember when I was talking about memoirs and how they seem to fall into two categories: self-indulgent and...not as self-indulgent? Well after reading a pretty self-indulgent one, I found one in my huge to-read queue that is taking over my work desk that seemed to have a more interesting premise. And that's what usually draws me to memoirs in the first place—the setting or circumstance has to sound like it can just naturally make for an entertaining story.

So I settled down with Heather Lende's second memoir, Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs: Family, Friends, and Faith in Small-Town Alaska. [Apparently you're allowed to write more than one memoir, seeing as how Rachel Shukert did the same. I should start writing my own series of memoirs.] Her first one—If You Lived Here, I'd Know Your Name—introduced the reading audience to the tiny Haines, Alaska, where Lende lives with her husband and children (though it didn't introduce me, because I haven't read it). Her newest one chronicles various aspects of small-town life after a serious accident, namely, her own—getting run over by a truck while out for a bike ride.

I liked this. It's kind of a "mom" book, one of those that's thoughtful and inspiring. And despite my aversion to religious brouhaha in literature, I actually didn't really mind the Bible quotes and references, because...well, I guess I just tried to view it from her perspective. She was giving her own account of an incident and what helped her, personally, get through it. Who am I to shrug off religion in that case? And she threw out the word "fuck" a few times when talking about her "fucking broken pelvis," so I really enjoyed the balance there. I kinda want to hang out with her now.

But that whole bike incident thing...yes, MAJOR deal, but it didn't, by any means, take over the novel. Lende uses it as a jumping off point to highlight life and faith in a very small-town...a very small-town way the hell out in Alaska. Where life is COMPLETELY DIFFERENT and TOTALLY INCOMPREHENSIBLE to me. Like how she kills a freaking bear from a treetop, preserves fish and stuffs them in jars (...yuck?), and makes her own jam (ok, that one may not be that strange...). And how the community is strongly tied to tradition and custom (which is really interesting), as seen in her anecdote of townspeople raising a ginormous totem pole carved by a local Chilkat (Native Alaskan). And how people come from different places but feel the same range of emotion. Dealing with shit—it's kind of a community builder.

Alaska. Jesus, I can't imagine living there. I'm glad someone can handle it with aplomb.

Review copy provided by the publisher.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Reading Notes on Cloud Atlas, Pt. 3: Discuss

Just as I expected, this book made for great book club discussion. Everyone had an opinion. Everyone preferred certain segments over others. Everyone had a unique experience with the book.

But figuring out how to sum it all up is proving more difficult than I thought.

In fact, the publisher clearly couldn't even sum it up, as the back cover blurb reads:

"A postmodern visionary who is also a master of styles and genres, David Mitchell combines flat-out adventure, a Nabokvia love of puzzles, a keen eye for character, and a taste for mind-bending philosophical and scientific speculation in the tradition of Umberto Eco and Philip K. Dick. The result is brilliantly original fiction that reveals how disparate people connect, how their fates intertwice, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky."

Have you ever read such a summary that says absolutely nothing?

So it may just have to come down to this: Cloud Atlas cannot be summed up. To get something out of it, Cloud Atlas requires a discussion or analysis or maybe a re-read if you have no one to discuss with.

The one thing most of us could agree on is that Mitchell used a unique format to tell the story (some found it more appealing than others; some found it gimmicky). Because each story is told in a different genre of literature, chances are you'll find one that is appealing to your reading tastes. Historical fiction, noir thriller,'s quite the variety. To me, splitting the stories in half increased the appeal, as each was left as a cliffhanger begging me to finish. And in my experience, I was much more interested the second time around, when things started to come together.

While pieces of individual stories came together, they never really came together as a whole. We were left questioning, "OK. What was the point of all that?" While I understand his overall point to the novel, why did it take him 509 pages to say what he pretty much concluding on the last page? Mitchell apparently isn't one to blatantly point things out; it's subtle and somewhat open to interpretation.

Like this comet birthmark I mentioned earlier. What was the point of that? Not much, except to hint that this one soul reincarnated. But that was apparently a literary reference to a Japanese (?) work, of which I would've had zero clue. See why I say this is too smart for me? And I still have to question why things like that are necessary. So that pretentiously smart people can discuss and impress themselves and each other when they catch a literary reference?

One conclusion we seemed to come to was that this was a book amount moments. It's a collection of stories where we don't necessarily get an entire picture of the characters and situations. We can't say we really know all the characters Mitchell created. All are faced with decisions; some choose the high moral ground and some don't. It doesn't necessarily tell us their character, instead merely how they reacted in a certain moment. And we see how these moments and decisions affect the future, even in the tiniest ways.

There are a lot of themes thrown around; things like power (though I would like the woman who said that to please explain rather than throw around the word "power") and greed and morals and human behavior and, essentially, the self-destruction of the human race. Pretty big, discussion-worthy ideas. But is this book going to be considered a master work of literature in ten years? Eh. As someone noted, it's very a much a work of the early 2000s. Whatever that means.

[Read my earlier thoughts on Cloud Atlas: Part 1 and Part 2.]