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Showing posts from January, 2011

Week 5: Gods and Pawns

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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

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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 th

So Long a Letter

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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 t

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

Week 4: Strength in What Remains

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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 w

Week 4: Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch

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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 whatsoeve

Vindication of the Rights of Woman

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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 i

Week 3: Planet Narnia and Enemies of the People

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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 entir

The Professor

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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

Week 2: Living Oprah and F. A. Hayek

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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 li

Take a Chance: The Mystic Grail

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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: "R andom 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, secon d-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 ro

Idylls of the King

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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 port

Week 1: Nine Lives

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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,