Sunday, January 30, 2011

Week 5: Gods and Pawns

Gods and Pawns, by Kage Baker

It's about time I got back to the Company series! I only had two left at the library, and so I waited a while so as not to finish them quite yet. I waited so long that another volume came out.

Anyway, Gods and Pawns is a collection of short stories set in the Company universe. Since it's about immortal cyborgs working throughout history, Baker could write an infinite number of short stories with nice episodes of Company work. Some of the settings here include Hearst Castle in 1933, San Francisco in 1850, England in 1774, and a lost civilization in Bolivia in 1650. It's another good addition to the series.

Week 5: Spies of Mississippi

Spies of Mississippi: the true story of the spy network that tried to destroy the Civil Rights Movement, by Rick Bowers

In the 1950's, as activists were working against segregation, the governor of Mississippi allowed the creation of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission: a body dedicated to spying upon integrationists and anyone who might sympathize with their cause. As the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum and national attention, the Commission paid informants and sent spies into every meeting. It also produced quite a bit of pro-segregation propaganda and worked hard to stop integration with underhanded tricks.

Bowers' YA-level book describes the Commission's work within the wider context of the Civil Rights Movement, and about half the book is dedicated to simply explaining segregation and integrationist activism, all of which will be completely alien territory to anyone who hasn't studied it before. This makes it a good primer for a teenager on the Civil Rights Movement, and quite useful to adults as well. I don't know a lot about it myself, so most of the material was pretty new to me and I learned quite a bit.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

So Long a Letter

So Long a Letter, by Mariama Ba

I have to thank the "Year of Feminist Classics" project for introducing me to this book! Mariama Ba's novel is a long letter from one Senegalese woman, Ramatoulaye, to her best friend Aissatou. Both women lived for years in marriages they thought were happy, until their husbands each took younger second wives, as allowed by their Islamic religion. (It doesn't seem to me, however, that either husband truly acted the way an Islamic man is supposed to act.)

The women respond differently to their husband's actions; Aissatou leaves her husband and gets a job abroad, while Ramatoulaye, a teacher and mother of 12 children, chooses to stay--but her husband abandons her anyway. Ramatoulaye writes her long letter just after her husband's death, during a prescribed period of mourning.

I was very interested in the writer's portrayal of polygamy in her society. Both husbands have faithful wives who work hard to serve them, as their culture demands. Ramatoulaye has 12 children, a full-time job, and a house to run, and she speaks of her husband with love. Yet he and Aissatou's husband both spring the second, younger wives on their first wives; there is no warning, just a family friend bringing the news that the wedding is already over. Aissatou's husband claims to feel that he has to marry the girl out of duty, since his mother (who dislikes Aissatou's background) has raised her to become his wife. He promises that he will treat both wives equally, but Aissatou is not about to put up with this, and she simply packs up and leaves. I understand her reaction, but I understand Ramatoulaye's very different response too.

Ramatoulaye thinks seriously about leaving, but--despite her family's disapproval-- decides that staying is a better choice for her. She prepares to share her husband according to religious duty; but he deserts her and the children and never comes near. In a way, this gives her a satisfactory resolution, since she has the result without the difficulties of divorce.

Ramatoulaye never stops loving her husband, though of course she is angry at his betrayal, and ridicules his obsession with the young Binetou, who was their daughter's best friend. Ramatoulaye, a believer in following the heart over material considerations, portrays the younger wife as something of a victim of her more blameable ambitious mother. She feels that Binetou was pushed into her position and isn't truly happy being married to a much older man, despite the luxury she lives in.

Ba manages to explore a lot of territory in her short novel--besides polygamy, she looks at unwed pregnancy and the tactics women will resort to when they can find no other way of ensuring security for themselves and their families. Mariama Ba attacks the social strictures placed on women in her society while honoring the ways they choose to cope with their situations.

Reading Around the World!

Howling Frog Books has gone global! I can make a google map of all the books I read this year, so it's easy to keep track of my reading around the world mini-challenge. How fun is that? I color-coded the markers to match various challenges.

View Reading around the world in a larger map

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Week 4: Strength in What Remains

Strength in What Remains, by Tracy Kidder

You always know that Kidder is going to come up with something good. This new-ish volume focuses on a young man named Deo as he arrives in New York City, a Burundian refugee with a couple of hundred dollars in his pocket and almost no English. The narrative jumps back and forth between Deo's new life in New York (virtually homeless, delivering groceries, but getting a foothold and gaining friends) and his past in Burundi (his rural childhood, medical school, and the war that destroyed his country). With the help of friends who realize his intelligence and potential, Deo attends medical school in the US, joins Paul Farmer at Partners in Health, and begins his efforts to bring medical care to the people of his homeland.

The war and genocide in Burundi is not nearly as well-known as the slaughter in neighboring Rwanda, but the countries have two branches of the same root problem. Burundi is also a former Belgian colony with a mixed Hutu and Tutsi population, and though events took a different direction, they were quite similar.

This is a great book, and if you're interested in global poverty and what can be done about it, Kidder is a good author to read. I'd recommend that you start with Mountains Beyond Mountains, an earlier book about Paul Farmer.

Week 4: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch

Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch, by Alice Hegan Rice

This odd little book was once considered an American children's classic, a bit like Five Little Peppers. Published in 1901, it was an instant hit and was made into a play--and later on a film and radio series. Since then it has sunk into obscurity and no one hears of it now, but 50 years ago it was in every library.

Mrs. Wiggs and her children live in the Cabbage Patch, which is a shantytown outside a city modeled on Louisville, Kentucky. They are in dire poverty, and though Mrs. Wiggs is a determinedly cheerful woman, things are looking bleak. Almost the first thing that happens is the tragic death of her oldest son, who has been the man of the family for some years. After that things improve a bit, and the Wiggs family has comedic adventures and trials, helped along by a couple of benefactors--who, of course, get to have a romantic happy ending.

Here's a scene from the 1934 film, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to anything in the book. W. C. Fields is in it!

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft

This is the first book in the Year of Feminist Classics, and Mary Wollstonecraft could be called the first feminist writer. She dashed her book off in 6 weeks, and it was fairly well received for some time, until her private life became known after her death in 1797.

The book is passionate and scathing. Wollstonecraft has so much contempt for ordinary women of the middle and upper classes that it's a bit hard to get past, but it's clear that she considers them to be spoiled by bad education and a society that taught them to be strictly ornamental. She rails against the upper classes for their luxury, idleness, and immorality, and would have them earn their living. The poor she would elevate and educate; middle-class industry, economy and comfort is her ideal.

Wollstonecraft wants very much to put her thesis on rational grounds, and appeals to first principles: if God made people in His own image, then surely it is wrong to stunt the mental and spiritual growth of His daughters. With this argument, she is going against centuries of established Christian dogma, and using the church's own rules against it. She was a devout Christian, belonging to a radical group that included romantic poets such as Coleridge and Blake, and she brings religion into her argument much more than I think many of her contemporaries would do.

I wonder if her insistence on rationality is perhaps partly a reaction to Rousseau's romantic ideas. Wollstonecraft spends enormous energy on her disputations with Rousseau's philosophy, which she vilifies at every turn (to my entire satisfaction). Rousseau did not actually give much thought to women at all, but when he did it was only to consider them as beautiful objects to rule over.

I also thought that her aversion to romanticism might come from her own experience. The contrast between Wollstonecraft's ideals in her book and her personal life is strong, but then her choices led to suffering--so maybe she was searching for something that would work better.

The book is not very organized; it's obvious that she wrote the whole thing in one go, and the flowery circumlocutions of the Georgian era do not make her words easy to read (though she makes an effort at simplicity, the 18th century idea of simplicity is still very convoluted by modern standards). The bones of her argument come down to that she wants children of all classes to be well-educated together--boys and girls both. Girls should be allowed to run and play, and taught to use their minds. If men were more moral, and women more educated, both could be equal partners in life, supporting each other in friendship.

I think this is very much a book worth reading, though it is not at all in tune with modern tastes. Wollstonecraft served as an inspiration to feminists throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, but it's much more difficult for us to understand and sympathize with her.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Week 3: Planet Narnia and Enemies of the People

Planet Narnia: the Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, by Michael Ward

Countless Lewis fans and scholars have speculated about whether the Narnia books were written according to any system or just sort of dashed off as a hodgepodge of imaginative fun. Several symbolic systems have been proposed--the seven sacraments? the seven deadly sins, or the virtues?--but no theory ever really stuck until a couple of years ago, when Michael Ward came along. Ward's thesis is that the Narnia books were written to accord with one of Lewis' favorite symbolic systems--the seven medieval planets.

Planet Narnia devotes a chapter to each planet, first describing Lewis' scholarship and poetry about each one, then how each is treated in the Space Trilogy and finally given the fullest treatment in a Narnia story. Ward decided to invent a new word for the way each planet suffuses its story, never appearing in full view but always informing the atmosphere and mood of the entire book.

If you're unfamiliar with the philosophy and symbolism attached to the planets in medieval cosmology, all of this will be completely strange. Lewis wanted to bring that symbolism back; he felt that modern ignorance of it was a great loss. In particular, he wanted to bring Jupiter back as a symbol of particular ideas and feelings which are now lost to us. This does not mean that he believed in astrology as we now know it; he loved the medieval image of the universe, and believed that it was very valuable for reasons other than scientific advancement. His point was philosophical and religious.

Even though The Discarded Image is one of my favorite books (so I should have known better), I was skeptical when I first heard of this planetary theory. Ward's scholarship is completely convincing; I think he's absolutely correct about it. Planet Narnia is dense and does not go quickly, but it is really enjoyable and I learned so much. (When I went and looked for links, I found that he has written a simpler, less scholarly version called The Narnia Code.) It's well worth reading several times. If you are a fan of C. S. Lewis at all, this book is a must-read. I am not kidding. Go read it now.

Enemies of the People: My Family's Journey to America, by Kati Marton

Kati Marton's parents were well-known journalists in Hungary in the 50's. They were friends with Americans and worked for Western news outfits. They were open anti-Communists. They were well-educated and really kind of elitist, they wore natty clothes, and they even drove a fancy car. The surprising part is that they were not arrested sooner, but the Hungarian secret police felt that they would lead to good information--after all, where could they go? The Martons were under constant surveillance, and everyone they knew was pressured to inform on them. Eventually they were arrested and interrogated for months--Endre Marton, the father, spent 18 months in prison--and then let go. The Martons got out of Hungary and ended up in America, where they were watched by Hungarian spies and the FBI as well.

Having survived so much (I haven't even mentioned the war!), they were determined to become ordinary suburban Americans and forget the past. They told their two daughters very little--not even that they were Jewish. But when Hungary's government changed, the secret police files were declassified, and Kati could go and see all the files on her unusual parents.

Kati Marton is also a journalist, and she tells her parents' story--and her own--in a series of flashbacks interspersed with her modern research and efforts to find some of the people she knew long ago. It's a fascinating story: her Hungarian childhood, with physical and intellectual luxuries other children couldn't know, but which also brought constant hostility and danger--and then her parents' struggle to do their work and cope with the immense strains on them.

So, it was a great book that gave me a lot of insight into a part of the Cold War that I didn't know much about, and I recommend it. It also counts for the "Read Around the World" challenge for Hungary.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Professor

The Professor, by Charlotte Brontë

I know I'm posting a lot and it's a little crazy, but I'm trying to get a lot of reading in before the semester starts and I go back to work. So bear with me, I'll disappear soon enough.

I picked up Charlotte Brontë's first novel, The Professor, at the library--I've enjoyed her books, but I've never read this one. It's written from her own experiences of studying and teaching in a Belgian school and her unrequited love for her married teacher.

The story is about a young Englishman, an orphan, who doesn't get along with any of his relations and ends up teaching English in Brussels. He is surrounded by people he doesn't care much for (in fact he is practically a misanthrope), but a hard-working young teacher catches his eye. As they get to know one another, they find mutual sympathy in an un-English country.

The heroine is quite unusual for her time. As you might expect, she is plain. She is also very intelligent and hard-working, and she insists on working even after her marriage, and after bearing a child. She is a middle-class working mother. I'm not sure I've ever run into that in a Victorian novel before. She is Brontë herself, so I suppose she represents what Bronte herself wished for: the intelligent teacher for her husband, and a fulfilling professional life as well.

I'm afraid Brontë displays quite a bit of typical English prejudice in the book, though to be fair, flaws in the English national character are also highlighted. The protagonist complains of Flemish dullness, French immorality, and English waste, and makes innumerable comments on physiognomy and character. The anti-Catholicism is awful (the heroine turns out to be Swiss-English and a Protestant). So that was a serious flaw in the book; it was much more constant here than in most other Victorian novels I've read.

Brontë wrote this novel with the determination to make it completely realistic. Her protagonists are not beautiful or socially successful. They have to work hard for their living, and there are no romantic coincidences or anything like that. It's not a long book and I read it quickly. I enjoyed it, and sympathized with the characters, but it's definitely not my favorite Brontë novel. That would be Jane Eyre, and if you bring in the other sisters, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Week 2: Living Oprah and F. A. Hayek

Living Oprah, by Robyn Okrant

This is one weird book. It's one of those Year-Long Projects, where the writer does X for a year--living Old Testament rules, buying only absolute necessities, etc.--and then writes about it. Robyn Okrant decided to live according to Oprah's dictates for a year. She watched the show, read the magazine, got the emails, and if Oprah said to buy it or do it, she did. This resulted in a huge list of ongoing life directives, plus having to do a study course on a Eckhart Tolle book (a fate worse than death!).

I picked this book up because I found the idea of giving all your decisions over to a talk-show host to be pretty horrifying. I could not do that at all. Okrant knows it's horrifying, but she also likes Oprah and wanted to do it as a sort of research/art project on women's lives.

One thing Oprah wants you to do is to spend a lot of money. The financial aspect of this project was huge, at least to my eyes. Okrant kept saying that she lives on a tight budget, but she spent thousands on this, and I was kind of appalled (our current dire finances probably influenced that--to my mind, she wasted a lot of money). I hope her book royalties make up for it. Oprah also wants you to live within your means, eschew consumerism, and not waste money. She wants you to eat healthy food (and gives out expensive recipes), but also pushes cupcakes and ice cream. Oprah wants you to get rid of clutter, and also to put out knick-knacks, decorate your home, and buy lots of stuff. Oh, and you need to dress way better, and don't think that's cheap. In other words, Oprah is a living women's magazine, constantly pushing contradictory messages that are meant to remind us that we are fundamentally not OK and need to buy lots of stuff to help us improve--even if it's yet another book on decluttering or how to save money.

Okrant recognizes these contradictions, and ponders them often, but also insists that Oprah genuinely wants to help people and probably doesn't do it on purpose. I'm not so sure about that, but then I'm not an Oprah fan. (I've never watched an episode, but I've seen a few clips here and there.) I don't actively dislike her either, I guess. But Oprah does not really figure largely in my personal universe, except when I'm in line at the store and examine the magazine cover for Photoshop mistakes.

Okrant does get some pretty good things out of the year. She loses weight, tones up, her house is a bit neater, she has a few moments of insight. On the whole, however, trying to follow all that advice is hugely stressful. It's tiring, and she doesn't see her friends as much. Her husband should get an award for his patience (I think she calls him Saintly McSainterson at one point). And towards the end, she described herself as lacking her usual vibrance and enjoyment. In an interview for Forbes, she answered a couple of questions:

Following all of Oprah's advice for a year took you a total of 1,202 focused hours--about 75 full days, excluding sleep. What was it like?

It was incredibly draining, and it made me really sad. It made me sad to think of how many hours I've lost--even when I wasn't doing the project--to blindly following advice and listening to what other people tell me I should be doing to create my own happiness. I wondered how many hours other women have lost in the course of their lives to that.

How many women do you think follow Oprah's every word?

I hope none. There are shades of the ridiculous in what I did. There was irony. I wanted to provide an extreme example of what we do on a daily basis.

So it was an interesting book. One of my favorite parts was Oprah's advice for living frugally and greenly for a week, which included: not going out to eat and eating your leftovers, drinking filtered tap water instead of bottled, turning your thermostat way down to 69 degrees, and limiting your showers to 8 minutes maximum. All of these seem like ordinary life to me, especially the shower rule; since I've lived in drought-ridden California my whole life, I'm surprised by anyone who takes more than 5 minutes to shower--and if you were really doing it right, you'd only have the water on for half that time.

The Constitution of Liberty, by F. A. Hayek a giant book. I thought the Road to Serfdom was difficult to read, but this one is harder and took me most of a semester (I found it in September in the college library). However, it is well worth the time and effort it takes to read it. It was published in 1960, but every few pages I would run into bits that were directly applicable to current affairs; it was a bit uncanny how very well Hayek understood the direction things were going in and where they would end up. I found it very relevant to the US in 2011.

Hayek analyzes liberty and how it works in great detail. The first section deals with the theory of liberty, the second section covers historical developments in different countries, and the final section gets practical (and easier!), talking about specific elements of a welfare state and whether they can co-exist with liberty. He talks quite a bit about how old-fashioned socialism of the Russian type, with the state taking over all industries, is being discredited and replaced with social-justice/welfare-state ideas that are easier to implement, but which will have a similar effect in the long term.

It should be noted that Hayek uses the terms 'liberal' and 'conservative' in the older European sense, as in classical liberalism (Thomas Jefferson and co.) and aristocratic conservatism. He is a very abstract writer and virtually never uses concrete examples, so he is dense and not easy to read.

Hey, look at that--the National Review put The Constitution of Liberty at #9 on a list of "The 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century."

And for your edification and enjoyment, a music video:

Friday, January 7, 2011

Take a Chance: The Mystic Grail

The Mystic Grail: the Challenge of the Arthurian Quest, by John Matthews

This is my first 'Take a Chance' book, and it was #10 on the list: "Random Book Selection. Go to the library. Position yourself in a section such as Fiction, Non-Fiction, Mystery, Children. 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." I picked that option because most of the rest require you to pick the title before you get to the library, and I was already there.

I went to the non-fiction section and decided to go to the second-to-last aisle, left-hand shelf, second-to-last section. I thought I would choose the smallest book in that section, because I knew it was going to be history and I didn't want to get a gigantic tome. Good thing too, because it turned out to be the section on the modern British royals and I could easily have gotten stuck with one of the biographies of Princess Diana. Diana books took up two shelves. British history came after that. The second-smallest book was 1215, a book on the Magna Carta that I've already read (and it's quite good), but the smallest book was The Mystic Grail, by John Matthews.

It's one of those artsy little books with lots of paintings and woodcuts, following the history of the Grail quest. It's nice enough, though schmaltzy in spots (for example: "It is only our failure to inquire more deeply into the nature of our own spirituality that prevents us from realizing the vision of the Grail in our lives"). Still, it has some good quotations from older sources and lots of nice paintings, a few of which are even not by pre-Raphaelites. My favorite candidate for sugariest painting is "Lancelot and Guinevere," by Herbert James Draper, which I've put below for you.

Idylls of the King

For the Victorian challenge, I wanted to finally get around to reading Tennyson's Idylls of the King, which inspired so many romantic girls to name their children Gareth, Geraint, Lancelot, and Elaine. I've had a copy for years and never gotten around to picking it up, because long narrative poems are not really my thing. The Idylls are separate long poems, each telling one of the stories of King Arthur. It looks to me like Tennyson uses Malory as his main source, though he changes some things around. He makes the whole thing into an allegory of the human soul as well (though I found that to be clearest at the beginning) and as the poems progress, there is more and more doom hanging over the Round Table.

I liked the poems well enough and was interested to see some of the changes Tennyson makes to the stories. One of the most striking Idylls was "Merlin and Vivien,"--though I can't quite say that I liked it. Vivien (sometimes known as Nimue) is never portrayed as a particularly wonderful girl, but Tennyson really went to town on making her as sly, treacherous, and malicious as possible. I was interested by a little detail, though, that no one else will care about--in one of my favorite mystery series, the detective is fond of quoting Tennyson, especially "trust me not at all or all in all" and "It is the little rift within the lute, That by and by will make the music mute, And ever widening slowly silence all." Both of these turn out to be from Vivien, quoting a song from Lancelot--which is interesting. And within the poem itself, it's Lancelot and Guinevere who are the little rift within Camelot's lute, who cause the eventual demise of the Round Table. Vivien comes back to play her part in that, too.

The later idylls get quite dark--and more difficult to understand--as the Round Table falls apart. Courtesy and chivalry wane after so many knights are lost on the Quest of the Holy Grail, and newer knights are not as civilized. Then Guinevere's and Lancelot's adultery becomes more and more known, undermining the ideals that Arthur has worked to set in place. Arthur himself is portrayed as too idealistic, demanding super-human perfection and purity from his knights while blind to the disloyalty of his wife and best friend. Tennyson dedicated most of the Idylls to Prince Albert (though posthumously) and explicitly compared Albert to Arthur, which must have made Victoria happy.

My copy of the Idylls suggested some other poems by Tennyson to compare to the text, so I also read The Lady of Shalott and St. Simeon of Stylites. I tried to read The Two Voices, but it was just too much for me; it's very long and despairing. I'm also supposed to read Gray's Elegy--maybe tomorrow?

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Week 1: Nine Lives

Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India, by William Dalrymple

I found this at the library where I work and of course I had to read it. Dalrymple describes nine different people, devotees of their religions, and talks a bit about how traditional practices in India intersect with the modern world. The nine people are: a Jain nun, a Dalit worker who spends three months of every year dancing in the role of a god, a devadasi (dedicated/sold as a child to the goddess, which means she's a prostitute), a man who sings an ancient epic, a woman who lives at a Sufi shrine, a Tibetan Buddhist monk living in exile and penance, an idol maker, a devotee of Tara (more famously known as Kali) who lives in a graveyard, and a Baul singer. Several of them live on the edges of society, in self-imposed poverty; some were raised to their work, others chose it in defiance of their families.

Dalrymple tends to concentrate on lesser-known traditions; though several Hindus are profiled, only one could be called mainstream, and there are no Muslims, Sikhs, or Christians at all. Some of the practices described go back a thousand years or more, but are in some danger of disappearing now, between a modern uniformizing of Hinduism and an Islamic movement towards conservatism. On the other hand, it's consistently surprising how tenaciously many modern Indians cling to old traditions. It's a really interesting and well-written book, so if you're interested in Indian religions, this is an excellent book to read.

Post-note--I guess this title would count towards the 52 Books "Read Around the World" mini-challenge. It features India and Tibet. Since I like to read about other places, I'll try to keep track of the countries I read about and see what happens.