Saturday, September 25, 2010

Week 40: Red Odyssey and more dystopia

Red Odyssey, by Marat Akchurin

In 1990, the USSR was staring to fall apart. Perestroika wasn't going all that well. And there wasn't a lot of news coming out of Central Asian countries, so writer Marat Akchurin, a Tartar, decided to take a road trip to see how conditions were. He visited every Central Asian country--Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Azerbaijan, and so on--talking to friends and strangers in every place he went.

Like most Americans, I know next to nothing about the Central Asian republics, so I learned a lot from this book. I had no idea of the devastation and misery the Soviets brought to these countries--economic, environmental, and cultural. Though the book was by no means all depressing--there was lots of good stuff too, don't be turned off by that.
My online friend Amira, who is about to take her family to Uzbekistan to live, recommended Red Odyssey on her blog. Thanks Amira! I'm really glad I could read Akchurin.

Incarceron, by Catherine Fisher

Yes, it's more dystopian YA fiction! I may expire of a surfeit of the stuff. Incarceron's pretty good, though. It's practically science fiction, set in a far future, centuries after a devastating war. After the war, leaders put at least half the population--all the criminals and difficult people--into a closed prison system called Incarceron. The rest live in a mandated historical fiction world where modern technology, knowledge, and medicine is forbidden (though sometimes still used on the sly).

The story is told from two perspectives--Claudia, the Warden's daughter, lives in a luxurious prison outside Incarceron, where she is about to be forced into marriage with the Queen's son. Finn is an inmate who thinks he came from Outside--or maybe he just has epilepsy. Both need to escape from their lives.
This is a two-book story, and the next one comes out around Christmas.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Week 39: It's Dystopian YA Novel Week!

Everyone likes a good dystopian novel, right?

The Maze Runner, by James Dashner

Thomas is dumped into the Maze with a wiped memory. He joins a crowd of boys who spend every day trying to find a way to escape their prison, which changes every night and has killer monsters as well. They've been trapped there for a couple of years, but just after Thomas' arrival, everything changes.

I really enjoyed this one, it was exciting and fast-moving, with a substantial plot. The sequel comes out in October!

Unwind, by Neal Shusterman

The Second Civil War was fought over the issue of abortion. In order to end the fighting, everyone compromises with the Bill of Life, which makes life inviolable from conception to age 13. However, from 13 to 18, a teenager may be sentenced to Unwinding--which isn't death, because every part of the body is preserved and transplanted. Connor's parents have signed the order to have him Unwound because he's always in trouble, Lev's parents raised him as a tithe--destined from birth for Unwinding--and Risa is a ward of the state, doomed by budget cuts. All 3 manage to escape and are living on the run, and their separate stories make up the plot.

It's an interesting premise (if totally farfetched, but dystopian plots have to be that!) and well-written. I liked it.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Week 38: The Sari

The Sari, by Mukulika Banerjee and Daniel Miller

I'm always interested in anything from India, and I've been wanting to read this study of the cultural meaning of the sari for quite some time. When I started working at Butte College, I was happy to find it in their collection. It's a great book, really interesting. It addresses the difficulties and pleasures of mastering the art of sari-wearing (and it really is not easy), the different ways it can be used, and the meaning of the sari as a somewhat political garment which has come to represent an ideal of Indian unity.

Wearing a sari well is difficult enough that being able to do it well lends you an image of dignity and power. So women in business wear what you could call 'power saris' which project their authority. At the same time, saris are standardized into uniforms all over the country; hostesses at hotels, policewomen, and even soldiers wear them. And again, most poor women wear saris to work as cleaners and fieldworkers and for all sorts of labor.

You will most likely change your sari a few times a day, even if you are not wealthy; a worker may have one to wear at work and one for home (rather in the way that many of us have outdoor shoes and house shoes that are 'clean'), or you might change after doing something dirty. Women also often sleep in comfortable cotton saris, which must be quite a feat.

Saris are also symbols of marriage and maturity. Girls don't wear them, and there is a whole section on the popularity of the salwar kameez for teen girls. Most Indians would say that a woman is most beautiful and elegant in a sari--it is the most dignified and most feminine garment there is, instantly conferring romance and mystery. (You may notice in some Indian movies that a girl might start off in athletic or skimpy clothes, maturing into a love interest when she puts on the sari that shows her in a new light--Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is an example.)

So there was quite a lot to learn and I really enjoyed it. :)

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Week 36: Cousin Kate and The Machine's Child

Cousin Kate, by Georgette Heyer

This is one of Heyer's famed Regency novels, and it's one I enjoyed. Kate is, of course, a poor and independent orphan of gentle birth. She is trying to earn her living as a governess, but her old nurse writes off to an estranged aunt, who sweeps Kate off to a country manor for a reluctant life of luxury. But the aunt has a sinister plan...

The Machine's Child, by Kage Baker

Another installment in the Company series, which is still going strong.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Catching up a bit...

Spenser's Images of Life, by C. S. Lewis and Alastair Fowler

Near the end of his life, C. S. Lewis moved to Cambridge University. There he planned to produce a book based on his lectures about Edmund Spenser, but it was never written. He left lecture notes, which Alastair Fowler turned into this book--you can tell that it wasn't really written by Lewis, but that the ideas and certain turns of phrase were his.

I always like to read Lewis' literary criticism, and while I don't know if this happens to everyone, he always makes me want to read the works he writes about. Every time I read Lewis on The Faerie Queene, I want to read it myself--and then I look at the actual poem and wilt. It's too hard! I can barely understand what Spenser is even saying, much less what message he's trying to convey! You want me to read how many cantos of this??

Anyway, even if I can't quite read Elizabethan epic poetry, I can enjoy this book that explains a lot about what Spenser was trying to do. And it inspired me to go looking--I've always thought it would be a great help if there was a lavishly illustrated edition of The Faerie Queene, preferably done in a Howard Pyle style. And there is one! Walter Crane did it in the late Victorian era, and you can get the illustrations in a Dover art book.* And there is even an old book of "Stories from the Faerie Queene" for children, like Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare. I've ordered it; maybe that will help me, and the kids will enjoy it.

*You can also get the whole thing in a fancy edition from the Easton Press for $400, which makes me wonder who on earth would buy such a thing. Really, who?

I enjoyed the Spenser book so much that I decided to finally read this book, which I've had for years but have put off reading, because like most modern people--even literature majors--I don't like Paradise Lost and don't particularly want to. Because it's really hard to read and anyway Milton was an awful man, repressing his poor daughters all the time.

As you might expect, Lewis pokes through all that, shows that Paradise Lost is a badly-maligned, if flawed, work of genius, and manages to make you actually want to read, enjoy, and understand it. Even if you're not going to tackle the epic, I'd recommend anyone to read the chapter on Satan, which deflates all the conventional wisdom on Milton's depiction of the fallen angels.

And no, I'm not going to try to read Paradise Lost just now. But I'm more willing to give it a try someday, and I am at least convinced that I would be better off if I did.