Sunday, December 26, 2010

52 Books 2010 Wrap-up

Robin at the 52 books challenge posted these questions for a wrap-up:

Did you reach the goal of 52 books?
: Yes. I didn't blog about all of them, but I certainly read at least that many.

If you didn't, how many did you manage to read?: N/A

What was the last book you read?: The last book I finished was War in Heaven, by Charles Williams. I'm in the middle of 3 or 4 right now.

Did you read from a list and fly by the seat of your pants choosing a different book each week?: I had some books that I wanted to read, but mostly I picked up whatever looked good at the library. When it comes to books, I'm a butterfly. I flit.

Did you learn something new about yourself, an author, an topic?: I learned about a whole lot of things--North Korea, the Crusades, Malawi, and patriarchal Christianity were a few.

How many classics did you read?: I think about 15, but you have to count some kind of minor and odd things as classics. But hey, the canon is not closed, and if I can plausibly say it's a classic, it is!

Did you discover a new author or genre? Did you love them or hate them? This year I discovered Elizabeth Goudge and Kage Baker, and I love them both. And H. V. Morton too!

Name your bottom ten least favorite reads: The Swan Thieves (blech). I can't think of anything else that I really disliked, that I actually finished.

Name a book you simply could not finish: So far, Hayek's Constitution of Liberty. But I'm not beaten yet. (There are lots of books I just don't bother to finish because I don't think they're worth it. Most recently, Enlightened Sexism by Susan J. Douglas. I agreed with her premise but didn't think much of her book.)

Name a book you expected to like but didn't: The aforementioned Enlightened Sexism!

Name a book you expected to not like but did: Hm, I can't really think of one. Maybe I won't open books I don't expect to like?

Week 52: John Bidwell

I wasn't going to write more posts until the new year, but as long as I did last week's I might as well finish off the year with the best, most exciting book of 2010, a middle-grade biography-- John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer, by Nancy Leek.

Unless you live in Chico, you probably won't have heard of Bidwell, but he was one of the first Americans to get to California by crossing over the Sierra Nevadas in 1841. From then on, he was involved in everything interesting that happened in California; he worked and traveled for John Sutter, joined the California Rebellion, nearly started the gold rush a year or so early, took the news of gold to San Francisco, served in Congress, ran for California governor, and founded the city of Chico. He even ran for President on the Prohibition ticket in 1892 (the platform was temperance and women's suffrage--he never had a chance).

This biography is 10 chapters long and full of interesting and funny stories. Would you eat a coyote's windpipe if you were hungry enough? If you were a 17-year-old bride, could you carry your baby across the mountains, with no trail to follow and no shoes to wear? If you were a wealthy girl, would you be as brave as Annie and leave your home and family to get married and live in the wilderness of California? How would you tell the President's wife that she is supposed to share? And why did the lack of a batea keep the Gold Rush from starting for a couple of years?

This is a great book for anyone studying California or pioneer history. John Bidwell is available from Lyon Books, Bidwell Mansion, the ANCHR website, or me. Because Nancy Leek is my mom, and she wrote the book. Yay Mom!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Week 51: Growing Up Bin Laden

Growing Up bin Laden: Osama's Wife and Son Take Us Inside Their Secret World, by Najwa bin Laden, Omar bin Laden, and Jean Sasson

I've read several of Jean Sasson's previous books about the lives of women in Saudi Arabia with great interest, and when I saw that this book was written by her, I knew it would be a worthwhile read. (When I first heard of the book I thought that it would be pretty sensationalistic.) Najwa bin Laden is Osama's first wife, who no longer lives with him, and Omar is his fourth son.

Najwa and Omar both tell their stories from their own perspectives. The text moves back and forth between the two, staying fairly chronological, so Najwa's life dominates the first half of the book, and Omar becomes more prominent in the second half as he grows up and starts to understand what his father is doing.

Najwa starts off with the story of her childhood, but she married her cousin Osama when they were both still teenagers. At the time, he seems to have been a normal Saudi guy--he was still in school, known for being serious, kind, and traditional, and all in all they were quite happy. Najwa lived in purdah from the time of her marriage, which means she almost never went out of her home and really only saw other female relatives most of the time (which eventually includes Osama's other wives). It's interesting, and tragic, to see how her life slowly changed as Osama became more radical and militaristic. She is clearly a very conservative and traditional woman, and at no time does she ever say anything bad about her husband, even as she narrates a life lived in close restriction and ever-worsening deprivation. She was kept very ignorant of her husband's activities and, even at the end, it's unclear how much she knows, as she stays in purdah.

The bin Ladens eventually left Saudi Arabia and lived in Sudan (near the end of their time there, it becomes clear that Najwa has never seen the city she lived next to for years). After that, they moved to Afghanistan, to the mountain of Tora Bora. There, Najwa was expected to care for her large family and even bear more children while living in a old shepherd's hut with no conveniences whatsoever.

Omar's part of the story gives a very different perspective on the same family life. He is the fourth son and appears to have a naturally peacemaking and compassionate personality. As a boy, he could leave the home and go to school, but as a bin Laden son his life was miserable from the start. He was wealthy, and others assumed that he was spoiled, but in fact his father was becoming more and more of an ascetic. The boys were given little attention from their father, but expected to act in unnatural ways (no smiling, no mischief, no fun), live in a nearly unfurnished house without air conditioning, and were frequently beaten. They all had asthma but were not supposed to have modern medicine. They were unmercifully bullied at school by both teachers and students. Omar did not attend school at all after about age 12, and while his peers were receiving world-class educations, he was left behind in ignorance. With his father mostly absent and neglectful, Omar took on much of the responsibility of looking after his mother and younger brothers and sisters. This upbringing warped all the sons, some of whom developed severe problems; Omar seems to have come out of it best.

As Omar got older, his father took him to Tora Bora, expecting to groom his responsible son as a successor. Omar was horrified by the conditions his mother and younger siblings would have to live in and by al-Qaeda's mission. Eventually he figured out how to get his mother and youngest siblings out--knowing that something was going to happen, they left in early September 2001--but most of his younger siblings were not allowed to leave. Their fates are unknown.

I sympathized with both, but Najwa's narrative appealed to me more than Omar's, probably because I am a wife and mother myself, and she really seems like a person I'd like. The social system they lived in trapped both of them for years, since their culture demands strict obedience and subservience to a husband or father. I was very impressed with how they have survived their difficulties. It's clear that both have been severely damaged by their years with Osama.

I would recommend this book if you're interested in issues of terrorism, the Middle East, and women's lives under radical Islam. Jean Sasson has been writing about women in the Middle East for years and has the background to handle this difficult material without making it sensational or inaccurate (as far as I can tell).

Sasson's other books include Princess, Princess Sultana's Daughters, and Princess Sultana's Circle. Those are the ones I've read, and they are semi-anonymous narratives by a princess of Saudi Arabia, describing what it is like to live in that extremely restrictive society. I would recommend them as well, (though I confess I'm sometimes annoyed by Sultana's extremely mercurial temperament!).

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Year of Feminist Classics

OK, clearly my eyes are bigger than my stomach (brain?) when it comes to reading challenges. But this Feminist Classics Challenge is so cool! I have to do it too. This is another one that I can pick and choose from, but they all look interesting. At first I was happy because they had chosen The Feminine Mystique, which is one of those books I've always meant to read, but then they realized they needed more worldwide literature, which is also excellent. Anyway:

The project will work a little like an informal reading group: for the whole of 2011, we’ll be reading a book a month from this list of classic feminist fiction and non-fiction, and each of us will be in charge of the subsequent discussion for three months.

These discussions will be structured as follows: at the beginning of the month, the host in charge of that month will write an introductory post on this blog, reminding participants of what we’ll be reading and providing some historical context.

Then, later that month, she will post a series of discussion questions and invite readers to use them as points of departure for their own thoughts. You don’t necessarily need to answer these questions when sharing your impressions of the book; you may either integrate them in our post or use another approach altogether (and perhaps add to the discussion by bringing up points the host hasn’t thought of herself). Participants can either join the discussion on the comments section or post on their own blogs, which means you don’t necessarily need to be a book blogger yourself to join in.

Finally, at the end of the month, the host will post her thoughts on the book either here or on her own blog, as well as write a round-up post and collect the links of all the participants who decided to join in for that particular title.

Interested in joining us? Remember that you don’t have to commit for the whole twelve months – you’re more than free to pick only the books you’re interested in. Because we want to encourage interaction between participants, we’ve set up an In Linky where you can sign-up. However, you can join in at any time even if you haven’t signed up beforehand.

And here are the titles:

January: A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollestonecraft AND So Long a Letter by Mariama Ba - Amy
February: The Subjection of Women by John Stuart Mill and Harriet Taylor Mill - Ana
March: A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen - Emily
April: Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman - Iris
May: A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf - Ana
June: God Dies by the Nile by Nawal Saadawi - Amy
July: The Second Sex by Simone de Beauvoir - Iris
August: The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston - Emily
September: The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf - Amy
October: Ain’t I a Woman? by bell hooks AND Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism Anthology - Iris
November: Gender Trouble by Judith Butler - Ana
December: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde - Emily

Some of these won't be easy for me to get from the library, so I'll be depending on the magic of InterLibrary Loan.

The Take a Chance Challenge

Here's a funny one that appeals to the part of me that always chooses a mystery present instead of stealing a known one at a gift exchange, even though I lose out every time. The Take a Chance Challenge gives you 10 different ways to randomly choose a book to read:

  • The concept of the challenge is to take chances with your reading by finding books to read in unusual or random ways. I’ve listed 10 different ways to find books below. Feel free to complete at many as you want. However, anyone completing all 10 challenges by December 31, 2011 will be entered in a prize drawing to win a book of their choice from Amazon.
  • The challenge will run from January 1, 2011 until December 31, 2011.
  • Crossover books from other challenges is fine. You can read books in any format.
  • On January 1, 2011, I will post pages for each of the 10 challenges so you can link up your completed posts.

The 2011 Challenges

1: Staff Member’s Choice: Go to a bookstore or library that has a “Staff Picks” section. Read one of the picks from that section.

2: Loved One’s Choice: Ask a loved one to pick a book for you to read. (If you can convince them to buy it for you, that is even better!)

3: Blogger’s Choice: Find a “Best Books Read” post from a favorite blogger. Read a book from their list.

4: Critic’s Choice: Find a “Best of the Year” list from a magazine, newspaper or professional critic. Read a book from their Top 10 list.

5: Blurb Book: Find a book that has a blurb on it from another author. Read a book by the author that wrote the blurb.

6: Book Seer Pick: Go to The Book Seer and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

7: What Should I Read Next Pick : Go to What Should I Read Next and follow the instructions there. Read a book from the list it generates for you.

8: Which Book Pick: Go to Which Book and use the software to generate a list of books. Read a book from that list.

9: LibraryThing Pick: Go to LibraryThing’s Zeitgeist page. Look at the lists for 25 Most Reviewed Books or Top Books and pick a book you’ve never read. Read the book. (Yes … you can click on MORE if you have to.)

10: Pick A Method: Pick a method for finding a book from the choices listed below (used in previous versions of the challenge).

  • Random Book Selection. Go to the library. Position yourself in a section such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Children (whatever section you want). Then write down random directions for yourself (for example, third row, second shelf, fifth book from right). Follow your directions and see what book you find. Check that book out of the library, read it and then write about it. (If you prefer, you can do the same at a bookstore and buy the book!)
  • Public Spying. Find someone who is reading a book in public. Find out what book they are reading and then read the same book. Write about it.
  • Random Bestseller. Go to and, using the True Random Number Generator, enter the number 1950 for the min. and 2010 for the max. and then hit generate. Then go to this site and find the year that generated for you and click on it. Then find the bestseller list for the week that would contain your birthday for that year. Choose one of the bestsellers from the list that comes up, read it and write about it.

I don't know how many of these I'll complete--I suppose it depends on whether I get happy surprises or not.

Victorian Literature Challenge

The next challenge I've selected is the Victorian Literature Challenge. The rules:

This challenge will run from 01 Jan 2011 - 31 Dec 2011.
Participants can sign up at any time throughout the year.

Read your Victorian literature.
Queen Victoria reigned from 1837-1901. If your book wasn't published during those particular years, but is by an author considered 'Victorian' then go for it. We're here for reading, not historical facts! Also, this can include works by authors from other countries, so long as they are from this period.

Literature comes in many forms.
There are so many Victorian reads out there, including novels, short stories, and poetry. One poem doesn't count as a 'book': pick up an anthology instead!

Choose your books.
List your books before you begin, or pick up titles along the way. It's up to you! You can review them if you choose to, but it's not necessary. If you don't have a blog, that's fine! Link to a Facebook, or a page somewhere where you can list what you've been reading. If you can't link up, no problem - feel free to just comment and enjoy.

Spread the love.
Post the reading challenge on your blog - make your own post(s), or stick the button on the side of your page. The more the merrier, after all. Let's build a big community of Victorian literature lovers!

Choose from one of the four levels:

Sense and Sensibility: 1-4 books.
Great Expectations: 5-9 books.
Hard Times: 10-14 books.
Desperate Remedies: 15+ books.

I'm not going to go for a very high level, but I'd like to challenge myself to read a Dickens novel or two that I've never read before, and more poetry. I might get very ambitious and try to read Tennyson's Idylls of the King, in keeping with all the Grail-ness I seem to have been reading lately. But that's the sort of thing I try read and then completely wilt under.

52 Books in 52 Weeks, 2011 edition

Here's the information for the 52 Books challenge for next year. She has included a bunch of mini-challenges, but I don't know how many I'll pursue. The rules:

A new year, a fresh slate. Time to discover some new friends and rediscover some old friends. Make the challenge as easy and casual as you want or spice it up and challenge yourself. Explore a bit, but most of all have fun.

The rules are very simple and the goal is to read one book (at least) a week for 52 weeks.

  1. The challenge will run from January 1, 2011 through December 31, 2011.
  2. Our book weeks will begin on Sunday.
  3. Participants may join at any time.
  4. All forms of books are acceptable including e-books, audio books, etc.
  5. Re-reads are acceptable as long as they are read after January 1, 2011.
  6. Books may overlap other challenges.
  7. Create an entry post linking to this blog.
  8. Come back and sign up with Mr. Linky in the "I'm participating post" below this post.
  9. You don't have a blog to participate. Post your weekly book in the comments section.
  10. Mr. Linky will be added to the bottom of the weekly post for you to link to reviews of your most current reads.

The mini-challenges:

1) Mind Voyages is a science fiction / fantasy challenge to explore the hugo and nebula winners, take side trips through the different decades reading the nominees, check out Philip K. Dick and Robert Heinlein. Also, Since I can't possibly imagine a reading challenge without exploring new releases that come out in 2011, we have the all inclusive Pluto challenge. Links to all the voyages are available on the Mind Voyages blog.

2) Read around the World: I probably did read around the world last year but didn't pay much attention. So this year I'm paying attention to setting. Keep track of where the story takes place and see how many places you end up.

3) Ireland Reading Challenge: or just stick with one country such as Ireland and read books set in Ireland, written by Irish Authors or with an Irish theme. Pick 2, 4, 6, or 12 books to read.

4) Jane Austen Mini Challenge: Read Jane Austen's books -Emma, Pride and Prejudice, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility and Persuasion. All can be found online here.

5) Well Educated Mind Mini Challenge: The Well Educated Mind written by Susan Wise Bauer is a guide to reading the great works. Read 3 books from each category: Fiction, autobiography, history, drama and poetry.

6) New Author Mini Challenge: Read at least one new to you author per month.

7) Try a new genre challenge: Read at least one book in a genre you've never tried before.

8) E-Book reading challenge: read at least 3, 6, 9, or 12 e-books this year.

9) Chunkster Challenge: Chunksters are considered books that are over 500 pages in length. Read one chunkster a month.

10) Read 12 classics in 12 months

If at first you don't succeed...

I'm going to try again. I've read lots of great books in the past couple of months, but I just ran completely out of blogging energy! I'm going to give it another go with a new group of reading challenges for 2011.

A few of the titles that I have completely failed to blog about are:

Growing up Bin Laden, by Omar bin Laden and Jean Sasson

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, by Harriet Jacobs

Nurtureshock, by Po Bronson

Death and Taxes, by Susan Dunlap

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

I Shall Wear Midnight, by Terry Pratchett

The Place of the Lion and War in Heaven, by Charles Williams

A bunch of C. S. Lewis

The Way of Kings, by Brandon Sanderson (it's an ongoing project, since it's 1000 pages long)