Friday, April 29, 2011

Victorian Literature: The Heir of Redclyffe

The Heir of Redclyffe, by Charlotte Yonge

Charlotte Yonge was a tremendously popular mid-Victorian novelist who wrote very moral and wholesome family stories. She's not well-known now, but her books are fun to read.

The Heir of Redclyffe is Yonge's first and most melodramatic work, and also one of her most popular. The story focuses on one family, especially the two older sisters, Laura and Amy. Laura is older--classically beautiful, angelically good, eminently sensible, and very influenced by her older cousin Philip (who is handsome, intelligent, influential, and pompous). Amy is only a little younger, but everyone considers her to be the cute, silly, snuggly one.

Their family welcomes a distant cousin, Sir Guy, into their home. He has just lost his guardian and is now without a family. All of his clan is infamous for their ungovernable tempers, and Guy lives in fear that he will turn out the same, though he is a very nice young man. Cousin Philip is convinced that Guy is hiding secret vice under his idealistic exterior...

The interactions between these four and the rest of the family is a long story, but I'll give you one hint--selflessness and the folly of pride are the main themes.

Week 17: Sapphique

Sapphique, by Catherine Fisher

I finally got my hands on the sequel to Incarceron! Yay! But I don't want to spoil the story. So: it's more dystopia. And it's pretty good; there's so much YA dystopia out there right now that quality is hard to find, and I think this is closer to the top of the heap than the bottom.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Week 17: Unbroken

Unbroken: a World War II Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand

I had a hard time putting this book down; it's an amazing story. This is the biography of Louis Zamperini, young punk, Olympic athlete, bombardier, POW, and survivor. You spend a lot of time wondering how on earth he survived.

Zamperini grew up in Southern California, and as a kid he was a total punk, a rebel without a cause. But in high school he started running, and turned out to be incredible at it. At the time runners tended to be older, and he was unusually young when he went to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. He planned to do better in 1940, but the war got in the way, and that's when the story gets really exciting.

This book is getting a lot of buzz right now, and deserves it. It's very much worth reading. And thanks to Julie in Austin for recommending it to me!

I had a hard time figuring out where to put this one on my map, but decided that majority rules.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Week 16: The Dirty Life

The Dirty Life: a Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love, by Kristin Kimball

It's another organic farming manifesto! I like reading books about how to get back to the land; I just don't think I'd be any good at it myself, since I'm a rotten gardener. (Sorry Mom.) Come the Apocalypse, I plan to survive by sewing and educating children in exchange for food.

Anyway, this is the story of a typical ironic New York writer who falls in love with an organic farmer with radical ideas. They move to upstate New York, to a run-down 50-acre farm, and turn it into a sort of uber-CSA farm. The Dirty Life describes how the author met her husband and how they started the farm. It was pretty enjoyable, but there was way more information about their relationship than I needed.

This isn't a how-to book, though, it's a memoir. And it's pretty good if you like that sort of thing, which I mostly do, as long as it doesn't have made-up stuff about utopian Neolithic societies! Next up: Farm City, about an organic farmer in the Oakland ghetto. She's sounding kind of smug, though...

Week 16: The Sons of Heaven

The Sons of Heaven, by Kage Baker

The final Company story shows what happens when everyone gets to 2355--the Silence, beyond which no one knows what will happen. The whole thing is now so complex and bizarre that it can't really be described to people who haven't read the series, and if you're halfway through it you won't want the story spoiled, so that's all I'll say. I enjoyed it pretty well, though.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Take a Chance: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, by Mark Haddon

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.)

I picked this title from the 25 Most Reviewed Books list, and yep, it was the only one I hadn't read that I was willing to read. I'd heard lots of good things about this book, but had never felt like I particularly wanted to read it.

And it turned out that I liked the book a lot. It's a novel written from the perspective of a 15-year-old boy with fairly severe autism as he tries to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor's dog. His naivete and inability to understand the world (which he finds overwhelming, scary, and illogical) bring you in. It's easy to be fond of Christopher. At the same time, it's easy to understand that his parents--who are very ordinary people--find it tremendously difficult to deal with him. Their natural parenting instincts don't work. You can't hug a kid who finds physical contact to be scary and the opposite of comforting. The reader is allowed to see into Christopher's mind, but his parents are not.

As Christopher pokes around trying to figure out who killed the dog, he uncovers a whole lot of other information that shakes his world very badly. He has to figure out a lot of new things, and it's very hard for him, but it's also an accomplishment.

One thing that struck me about the book was that none of the people Christopher meets during his adventures seem to realize the obvious: that he can't function like other people. They tend to assume that he's just weird or rude or purposely infuriating. I find this a little puzzling, because I think that autism is now well-known enough that at least some people would be able to figure out that a kid who acts like Christopher does is autistic, or at least that he has some mental issues.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Feminist Challenge: Herland

Herland, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Charlotte Gilman Perkins was a Victorian feminist writer, most famous for her rather creepy short novella The Yellow Wallpaper. Herland was published serially in her magazine, The Forerunner, and was Gilman's attempt to show that only feminism and socialism could produce a just and peaceful society. Three men on an exploring trip find a long-lost civilization where, amazingly, there are no men. (The men were killed off 2000 years ago, and the women are miraculously parthenogenic, all descended from the single woman who developed that trait.)

This women-only society is the most peaceful and advanced ever seen. Without the constant pressure of sex roles, the women have banded together and planned their society. After over 1500 years of work, they have accomplished much. Motherhood is the focus of their society, which is centered around the children, and everything is done collectively. Working together, the women have eradicated disease, perfected education, psychology, and agriculture, and produced a society with almost no crime. They know little of the outside world, of course, but they are very wise in all other ways. And, not being burdened with expectations about feminine frailty, all of them are remarkably strong and athletic.

Of course, being a utopian novel, it's all rather idealized. Gilman wanted to sell socialism along with feminism, and she imagined the best result--an impossible result, given that human beings are supposed to make up the Herland society. She used some Victorian progressive ideas that proved less than beneficial in practice: physical problems and bad characteristics have been weeded out by selective breeding, and criminal or anti-social acts are treated as illness instead of choice. (The problem with treating disapproved acts or beliefs as an illness was summed up very well by C. S. Lewis: "For if crime and disease are to be regarded as the same thing, it follows that any state of mind which our masters choose to call ‘disease’ can be treated as a crime; and compulsorily cured. It will be vain to plead that states of mind which displease government need not always involve moral turpitude and do not therefore always deserve forfeiture of liberty. For our masters will not be using the concepts of Desert and Punishment but those of disease and cure. ...Even if the treatment is painful, even if it is life-long, even if it is fatal, that will be only a regrettable accident; the intention was purely therapeutic. In ordinary medicine there were painful operations and fatal operations; so in this. But because they are ‘treatment’, not punishment, they can be criticized only by fellow-experts and on technical grounds, never by men as men and on grounds of justice. ")

Herland offers some really interesting ideas to chew on, though. The women of Herland have never had to worry about femininity or attracting men, or differentiating themselves from men in any way. The narrator of the story points out that in his own American society, women and men feel the need to differentiate themselves from each other, and so each side exaggerates certain characteristics and tends to see each other as women and men, instead of human beings with various preferences and talents. The women of Herland are all primarily human beings, and are unable to relate to the three explorers in any other way. (This reminded me of Dorothy Sayers' book, Are Women Human?, which I reviewed a couple of months ago.) Two of the men adapt, but one cannot; he simply can't get away from his ideas about women, and fails to learn the lessons of Herland.

This was a really interesting and thought-provoking book to read. I am just having a very good time with this reading challenge!

PS: On my map of reading, I put this book into remote Brazil, where the explorers find Herland, but I feel like I'm cheating; there's nothing that's actually South American about the book, and in fact Gilman makes it clear (embarrassingly) that the people of Herland are of European descent.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Week 15: 2012 and the End of the World

2012 and the End of the World: the Western Roots of the Maya Apocalypse, by Matthew Restall and Amara Solari

Lots of people are talking about 2012 and whether it's a significant date--there are a couple of hundred books on 2012 and whether we'll have a catastrophe, a rebirth, a galactic awakening, or something. Maybe the world will end! This short, somewhat scholarly book analyzes the roots of the apocalyptic 2012 fuss and shows where it came from.

Most of the time, people will just say "The Mayan calendar ends in December 2012!" You then have to assume that the Maya had secret esoteric knowledge that allowed them to predict the end of the world. It turns out not to be so exciting; the Maya probably weren't thinking about the end of the world at all. They liked to do calendar math, and one calendar they developed--the Long Count--had a very long cycle. It seems that they began the count nicely far back in the past, so that they would be comfortably in the middle. But they conceived of the world as existing in a cycle of death and re-birth, so the end of the Long Count would pretty much mean the beginning of another one.

People have mixed this up with the Aztecs and our own Western tradition of looking for the apocalypse--it wasn't the Maya who made a habit of predicting the end of the world every few years, that would be us. So this is a nice little introduction to the ideas and Mayan literature that got twisted into all the fuss about 2012.

Week 15: Kingdom Coming

Kingdom Coming: the Rise of Christian Nationalism, by Michelle Goldberg

I saw this recommended some time ago, and got it on ILL. Michelle Goldberg explains a bit about the Christian movement called dominionism, along with some other elements of conservative Christianity in America. I found the book quite helpful for understanding those issues.

Because the book dates from the Bush era, it's now a bit outdated as far as presidential politics goes. Quite a few of Goldberg's statements had unintentional double meanings that applied to current affairs as well. An example: This is how democracy starts to degenerate--with a breakdown of legal authority, government deadlock, and leaders who use the chaos to seize unwarranted powers. A liberal society (in the classical sense of the word) requires politicians willing to follow their own laws or, if they don't, institutions to hold them accountable. It requires leaders who will abide by the rulings of judges and, conversely, judges free to issue rulings that displease politicians. Otherwise some people are above the law and others, inevitably, are below it. (p. 178)

It gave me the impression that we're watching the country swing back and forth between two corrupt factions; neither is acceptable to a majority of people, so we just keep switching in hopes that a change will help.

Towards the end, Goldberg's own biases became much more obvious. She's a writer for Salon (or was, at the time) and has the politics that you would expect from a Salon writer, so while I think she tries to be objective at first, it kind of breaks down. It's an interesting book though, and I think more of us who aren't conservative Christians should be doing more to understand the people who are.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Victorian Literature: Barchester Towers

Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope

Barchester Towers is the second book in Anthony Trollope's Barsetshire Chronicles. I enjoyed the first book, The Warden, a couple of years ago and have always meant to read the rest of the books. Barchester Towers was so enjoyable to read that now I'm really looking forward to reading the rest of the books!

This particular story focuses almost entirely on the clerical population of Barsetshire. A new bishop is installed, and he is under the thumb of his wife and her chaplain, one Mr. Slope. Much of the story revolves around the question of who is to control Bishop Proudie and Mr. Slope's constant scheming to arrange matters according to his preferences. The old guard of Barsetshire is horrified by the new faction, but can do little to combat it. Meanwhile, Mr. Slope and a couple of other gentlemen are vying for the hand of the young widow Mrs. Bold (who was also in The Warden).

Quite a few of the names in Barsetshire are familiar to me, because I've read Angela Thirkell's novels for years. She took over the fictional county of Barsetshire in the 30's and wrote piles of humorous stories set there. They are a lot of fun--very comedy-of-manners--though I think they're only really worth reading until the end of World War II (Peace Breaks Out is the last good one, in my opinion). And Thirkell is an incurable snob. Anyway I recommend them, and once I'm done with Trollope I think I'll have to re-read a lot of them in order to find all the descendants and jokes that I never caught before.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Week 14: Radical Homemakers

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture, by Shannon Hayes

I had heard a lot of good things about this book and I was looking forward to reading it, but I have to say that I am disappointed. "Radical Homemaking" is all about becoming more self-reliant and building a community, reclaiming old skills and getting out of the rat race as much as possible. I'm all for that stuff and I expected to like this book, where Hayes talks about "Radical Homemaker" convictions and interviews a bunch of people for their insights.

I think it was the tone that got to me. The first part of the book is all social history and philosophy, but the very first thing Hayes claims is that back in Neolithic times, there were egalitarian, goddess-worshiping matriarchal societies that were peaceful and so on, until they were destroyed by the more violent patriarchal nomadic tribes that came in and killed them all, starting a competitive culture of greed and imperialism that continues to this day. Well, there isn't a shred of proof for those utopian matriarchal societies; they're hypothesized from those "Venus" statuettes found in archaeological sites.

Then Hayes gets to Darwin and his disregard of women, but she only quotes a historian with theories about Darwin's thoughts. If Darwin "explicitly stated" something, then by all means, quote him!

Anyway, there's quite a lot of meandering through history, disparaging everyone except Betty Friedan and farming families, and generally being against convenience and corporations. It made me want to feed my family McDonald's for dinner (I never set foot in a McD's if I can possibly help it). I mean, yes, there are environmental depredations and corporations that do unethical things. But all a corporation is, is a bunch of people. People don't always do good things.

After that she interviews a lot of people about what they do, and it's probably more interesting than I thought it was, because by then I was pretty turned off. However, she lists some good skills like independent thinking, willingness to learn and jump in and make mistakes, and so on. I got one good quotation out of it: "...anyone who seeks to do things for themselves must have fortitude and a high tolerance for failure." (p. 221)

So I didn't care for her tone. But maybe you'll like it. It might be a good idea to read the second half first.