Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lost Wife

The Lost Wife, by Alyson Richman

In Prague, in 1938, two young people fall in love and get married just as war is about to destroy everything they know.  Separated by events, they each believe that the other has died, until a wedding many years later, when they recognize each other.

That's not a spoiler because it's how the novel opens.  You read the story to find out how it happened.  Lenka tells her story from the beginning, while Josef tells his backwards. 

It's a gripping novel, and I quite enjoyed it, though it is a little toastier than I really prefer. Richman writes well, and she actually based her novel on a real-life incident she heard of through a family connection--two people really did meet at a wedding and recognize each other as their long-lost spouses.

It's also, as you might expect, a really, really tragic novel.  As Jews, Lenka and her family are shipped out of Prague and end up in Terezin (Theresienstadt) for most of the war.  Josef's family gets out at the last moment, and endure their trials as well.  Josef's life is dominated by survivor's guilt, Lenka's by the trauma she went through.

A good novel, very worth reading, but very sad.

This officially completes my Wishlist Challenge!  I am still reading wishlist books of course--I'm still in trouble.  The challenge was supposed to help me shrink my wishlist, but I've added way more than 12 titles to it since January...

Sunday, September 29, 2013

The New Child Catchers

The New Child Catchers: Rescue, Trafficking, and the New Gospel of Adoption, by Kathryn Joyce

I thought a lot of Kathryn Joyce's previous book, Quiverfull, and so I hoped to get this new title as soon as possible.  Here, Joyce takes on the very very emotionally and politically fraught topic of international adoption, especially as influenced by American evangelicals.

Adoption has become a huge topic in the evangelical world over the past decade or so.  Logically enough, pro-life Christians want to put their money where their mouths are and obey the Biblical commandment to care for the needy, especially widows and orphans.  Told that there are millions of orphaned children living in institutions in poverty, good and well-meaning people want to bring those children into families.  But the reality is not so simple; there are not, in fact, millions of orphaned children with no family to care for them.  There are a lot of children living in poverty, but very often they have family. 

Joyce starts off with Haiti.  Remember how, after the terrible earthquake a few years ago, suddenly everyone seemed to want to bring Haitian children to the United States to adopt?  The assumption was that there were all these children orphaned by the earthquake and that an overwhelmed society would be unable to care for them.  The situation was, in fact, much murkier than that; many children had living parents or family members, but were separated in the chaos--or simply very poor.  Most of them probably didn't need to be whisked away so much as they needed help right where they were.

This is a scenario that has played out in many countries over the past several decades.  There is an enormous demand for children to adopt, and there are many children living in poverty around the world.  Those two facts are not necessarily easily paired up to produce children adopted into happy families.   Where there is a demand, there is an opportunity for profit, and an incentive for corruption.  There are people exploiting both sides and making a profit.  Joyce has got some really tragic stories about adoptions that were too lax or otherwise corrupt.

Joyce talks about adoption in several countries, from Korea to Rwanda.  She holds Rwanda up as something of an example of how governments are currently trying to handle international adoption, by making very sure that each child really has no family, and by working to ensure that each child goes to an appropriate home that can afford the kind of care necessary.   This is a slow process, and therefore very frustrating for the many hopeful people who are sure that there are many children needing to be adopted and uninformed about the entire, very complicated, picture.

I thought it was a good analysis of an incredibly difficult issue.  Joyce is sympathetic to all sides and careful, trying to make distinctions that are not easy to make.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Tales of Mystery and Terror

Tales of Mystery and Terror, by Edgar Allen Poe

Lately I have been reading a lot of really, really tragic non-fiction.  Then I read a novel that was really tragic.  I needed to cheer myself up, so I decided to get into the Halloween and Gothic spirit by reading Edgar Allen Poe's famous collection of scary stories.

I've never been much of a Poe person; I was assigned several of these stories to read in 8th grade and couldn't make head or tail of them.  Reading them now, it doesn't surprise me.  We read "MS Found in a Bottle"--no one explained what an MS was, and the story is practically incomprehensible anyway!   We also read "The Pit and the Pendulum," which was better, though I don't think I knew what the Inquisition was supposed to be, and "The Cask of Amontillado," but without knowing what Amontillado or Masons might be.  Maybe the teacher did explain and I just wasn't listening.

I had read almost no Poe since that time, except for the usual poetry and a couple of mystery stories.  I was curious to see how I would like them now.  On the whole, they were interesting, but I felt the stories suffered from the same problems James Fenimore Cooper had--always using the right word's second cousin and so on.  Flowery wordiness was the style in the 1830s, I know, but having to read an exciting story through a veil of overblown verbiage is tiring.

The story that really surprised me was "Some Words With a Mummy."  I have never read it before and--it's funny!  Several academic types get together to break into a mummy's sealed coffin, and find him to be a bit different than the usual run of mummy.  Then someone has the bright idea of using the "Voltaic pile" to give the mummy--whose name is Allamistakeo--a jolt of electricity, with surprising results.

I decided that I really much prefer M. R. James for creepy short stories, and so I'm re-reading some of those and enjoying them very much.  Sorry, Poe.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Only Beautiful, Please

Only Beautiful, Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea, by John Everard

I ran into this title a little while ago at the library and had to read it right away.  Folks, this is a book about life in North Korea, written by the former British ambassador, and while the other books I've read about North Korea have been about life in the countryside or in prison camps, this is the first time I've run into a book about how the wealthier classes live.

"Wealthier" being a very relative term, of course.  Here, it means the middle- and upper-class people in Pyongyang, who have approved family backgrounds and decent jobs, but it's nothing that you or I would recognize as wealth, because the whole country is slowly crumbling.  Even these people worry about food, and though they get rice every day (while for the poor, rice is a once-a-year treat), they mainly live on rice and kimchi, with some beans sometimes.

Everard had little interaction with the really elite governing class, which lives in a separate enclave and dislikes mingling with foreigners.  Nor was he allowed much movement outside the capital of Pyongyang, so he met few people in the countryside, and of course he never got a glimpse of the worst places at all.

He therefore offers a sort of ethnography--as much as he could figure out, though there was much more
he couldn't see--of the middle/upper-class in North Korea.  That is the first half of the book.  Everard also talks about life in the DPRK for foreigners, which is not easy.

The third section is a short history of North Korea, which I found very useful.  Everard talks about his impressions of how the DPRK came to be such a strange place--part of the Communist Bloc, but never really very communist--more of a Stalinesque personality cult/nationalist dictatorship with a good dose of old 19th century Korean culture (warped) thrown in.  Everard thinks it's more like Nazi Germany or even a massive Jonestown than it is like one of the other (now formerly-)communist countries.  His reports of what those countries thought of working with the DPRK are quite interesting!

The final section explains what the rest of the world has tried to do with the DPRK, and why it hasn't worked all that well (though, on the bright side, there has not been a resurgence of the war).  It's incredibly difficult to figure out what might work.  The DPRK is an intensely nationalist and inward-looking country run mostly by elderly men who still think the way they did during the Korean War, and they reinforce each other in a groupthink spiral.  Any idea from outside is violently rejected, simply on the grounds that it is from outside, and the worst aspects of the regime are the ones that are hardest for them to give up.

Fascinating book, and I would highly recommend it if you're looking to understand something about North Korea.  Other books I have read and found very interesting are Escape from Camp 14 and Nothing to Envy.

The blog you've been waiting for...

In the past few months I've mentioned a few times that I've been working on a group blog project that will focus on classical homeschooling.  Well, it's finally here!  It's still an infant blog, but I hope it will grow and become a helpful resource. 

If you're interested, please hop on over to From Sandbox to Socrates and check us out.  And if there's any homeschooling topic you'd like to learn about, please ask and we'll see if we can write a post about it!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

When Ladies Go A-Thieving

When Ladies Go A-Thieving: Middle-Class Shoplifters in the Victorian Department Store, by Elaine S. Abelson

This is a fairly academic-style discussion of the rise of the great department stores in the late Victorian era (but in America only; no UK here).  Shoplifters were immediately a serious problem, one that was very difficult to address for many reasons.

Abelson starts off with a thorough description of department stores.  She is really good at describing how incredible and tempting they were!  No one had ever seen anything like it before in the United States; everyone was used to little, dark dry-goods stores with a limited selection of goods, and suddenly there are these huge buildings crammed with wonderful stuff all over the counters.  People were dazzled.  Abelson describes the rise of plate-glass windows to give light and then the idea of elaborate window displays, the evolution of shop counters from heavy wood to light glass (which both showed off the merchandise and made it hard to grab), and the introduction of mirrors all over the place (lightens things up, makes space look bigger, attracts people, and makes it easy to keep an eye on shoppers!).

She covers the development of shopping as a leisure pastime, universally considered to be the business and the pleasure of women.  Roles for women were changing, but the Victorian image of middle-class women as delicate ladies of unimpeachable moral fiber only got more popular.  Shopping was one of those issues people argued about all the time: was it a vice, a waste of time and money?  Was it a necessity to the beauty-loving nature of a woman?

Then there is the position of shopgirls, who were poor and lower-class, and therefore under some suspicion as possible thieves, but also entrusted to keep their eyes open for trouble.  Abelson spends a lot of time on class.

Finally we get to the actual shoplifting.  Stores didn't want to make a big thing of it and look weak, nor did they want to alienate customers.  So they were constantly trying to fight shoplifting by keeping eyes open, and hired detective floorwalkers--but they almost never prosecuted.  It was impossible for anyone to admit that middle-or upper-class ladies would steal (which they did all the time), so a theory of kleptomania emerged that happily blamed theft on a woman's natural imbalance and hysteria.  For a well-off woman, stealing was an illness; for a poor woman, it was crime.

This was a fascinating topic, but the heavy academic treatment made it a slow read.  So much time spent on gender and class issues made for a less interesting book.  It could therefore have been shorter and snappier, but I would not be surprised to learn that this is her PhD thesis, lightened up for a general audience.

This is the 12th book on my official TBR list!  I plan to read the other two as well, but this officially fulfills the Roof Beam Reader TBR challenge.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Around the World in Eighty Days

Cool cover, no?
Around the World in Eighty Days, by Jules Verne

My daughters are doing modern world history this year, which means 1850-present, which means we start with the British Empire and imperialism.  They've been reading books like Things Fall Apart (the 13yo), Just So Stories (the 10yo), and Around the World in 80 Days (13yo again).  And since I have always neglected the works of Verne shamefully, I took the opportunity to read it too.

Phileas Fogg, a wealthy London gentleman whose love of routine, precision, and accuracy makes Hercule Poirot look sloppy, suddenly enters a bet that he can circumnavigate the entire world in 80 days.  This is a feat that has only just become possible in theory, and practically no one thinks it is actually possible.  The least delay--a missed voyage or train, a storm at sea--could derail the whole project.  Mr. Fogg and his new servant, the Frenchman Passepartout, set out that very day.  And hot on their track is a detective determined to arrest Mr. Fogg for an enormous bank robbery!

It's an awfully exciting and funny story.  They manage to gain a little time at first on a steamship, but then they lose it again when it turns out that the trans-India railway isn't quite as finished as the English papers have been claiming, and there are 50 miles of jungle to walk through.  Here they gain another companion, too.  Every time something goes wrong, Phileas Fogg remains calm and comes up with some wild solution, but he is also perfectly willing to risk losing his bet to save a life.

You get a great picture of how the world looked to 19th-century Europeans, and how completely amazing it was to be able to travel so quickly and to so many places.  I really enjoyed this book very much, it's a lot of fun.  I should read more Verne; I've only ever read 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and I liked that too.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Random Number Survey

A little while ago Bev at My Reader's Block did this fun little survey, and invited others to do so as well.  I promised to do it, but only after I was done with the 15-Day Challenge, since I don't like to do all memes all the time.  Gotta space 'em out a bit, right?
The Random # Survey is created by Melissa @ Harley Bear Book Blog.
Melissa's rules state:
How to participate:
1. Pick a number.
Keep in mind how many books you have.  If you have one bookshelf like me you may want to keep it between 1-10.  If you're like Book BFF Angela and have a bunch of bookshelves you may want to pick between a higher range like 1-50. 
I used and got the # 8!
2. Go to your bookshelf and count that many books until you reach your number. Answer the question with that book.
(I counted 8 books in and got Delirium).  So I used Delirium to answer question 1. 
3. Count the same number of books from where you left off and answer the next question.
Then I counted 8 more books after Delirium and got The Evolution of Mara Dyer and used that book to answer question 2.  You get the idea...

I am going to use the largest book area in my house, which is filled with literature, history, and all sorts of things.  But the SF/fantasy and children's books and religion and my TBR pile live elsewhere.  Still, it's a largeish shelf, so I'm going to pick a number between 1 and 30, using

The number I chose: 14

1. What do you think of the cover?
Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte.  The cover on my edition--which I can't find online--is an illustration of the story, painted by Edmund Dulac for a 1905 edition.  I do not care for it, sad to say.

2. Write a review in 140 characters or less.
My Antonia, by Willa Cather.  An American classic beautifully evoking the frontier.  Lovely and heartbreaking.

3. How or where did you get this book?

Daguerrotypes and Other Essays, by Isak Dinesen.  I bought it for a Scandinavian lit course focused on Dinesen that I took in my senior year of college, probably spring '95.  I can see that I bought it used at the Cal bookstore (not Ned's, but the official bookstore), and that it had at least two owners before me.
The neat thing about this book is that at some point during class, I doodled an entire song in Danish on the stickers on the back cover (in very tiny writing).  I had completely forgotten this particular song, but as soon as I saw it I remembered, and now I can sing the whole thing.  In fact it is stuck in my head.  It was written and performed by a couple of guys I knew who had a musical duo going and hoped to hit--not quite the big time, but maybe the medium time.  I googled the words and got nothing, so I guess they never put anything up on the Internet once it got started.

4. Who's your favorite character in this book and why?
Silence, by Shusaku Endo.  I cannot tell you, for I have never read this book.  It is waiting for me!  My brother gave it to me after he read it.

5. Recommend this book to a fellow blogger you think would like it.
North and South, by Elizabeth Gaskell.  Lots of people love this novel!  I bet Emily at Classics and Beyond has already read it.  Adriana at Classical Quest would probably enjoy it, and Ruth at An Experiment With the Well-Educated Mind.

6. How long ago did you read this book?
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome.  Hm, at least 5 years ago, probably a little more than that.  It's very fun and I would enjoy reading it again.

7. Name a favorite scene from this book. (NO SPOILERS)
Oh.  Er.  I'm afraid it's The Complete Poetry of Henry Vaughan.  Which I have not even read properly, it's just that at one point I thought it would be cool if I did.  Which is true, but I haven't yet achieved that level of cool.

8.  Open to page 87 and pick a random quote to share (NO SPOILERS)
The Nibelungenlied (prose translation).  "Then the carefree knight rode to his wife, and Hagen lost no time in telling the King how he proposed to master this incomparable warrior.  No man should take treachery to such lengths."
9. How did you hear about or discover this book?
The Other Side of the Sun, by Madeline L'Engle.  Around the time I started college I had a thing for collecting all her books, including the romance novels for grownups, of which this is one.  Sort of like Phyllis Whitney?

10. If you could redesign the cover what would you do?
Sunlight on the Lawn, by Beverley Nichols.  Actually this cover is pretty genius.  It's all scrolly and twee, which is what the book is like.  This is the third in the Merry Hall trilogy, which is about Nichols' renovation of his Georgian manor house and the grounds; this third book is about the people around the place.  Witty and precious.

11. Name your least favorite character in this book and why?
Ivanhoe, by Sir Walter Scott.  Sir Brian de Bois-Guilbert, of course!  Could he be any more hateable?

12. Fill in the blank.  If you like ________ then you should try (Your Book).
If you like Barbara Pym, but want something more cheerful, or if you like Margery Sharp, then you should try Peace Breaks Out, by Angela Thirkell.  Actually you should try a much earlier book in the series, like High Rising or Wild Strawberries.  Peace Breaks Out is (IMO) the last good Barsetshire novel; after that they go downhill.  Be warned that she is an appalling snob, but of course she is; they are comedies of manners.  In fact if you wish for a modern Jane Austen (though, of course, not in that league at all), give these a try.

13. Name one cool thing about this book (under the dust jacket, map, font, photograph, etc.)
In the Wilderness, by Sigrid Undset. This is a vintage Pocket paperback, a first printing from 1964.  I don't think it's ever been read, but all four are inscribed "Elina Holst."  It's the third of four, and I managed to lose the first volume, The Axe, while I was reading it.  I would really quite like to read this tetralogy, so I am annoyed about that. 

14.  Where is it set and would you ever want to visit that world/place?
Letters to Children, by C. S. Lewis.  Visit Oxford and Kilns in the 1950s?  Yes please.

15.  Who is it dedicated to?

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, by Douglas Keister.  "For Sandy: Wife, Friend, and Boneyard Buddy"

I hope a few folks will pick this up and do it too!  Let me know if you do.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

It seems like everyone is talking about the new hot Gaiman title, and for once I am too--at the same time instead of a year late!  I do love Gaiman, though I am a mid-level fan, not an obsessive one.  I've read all his books for years, but I don't buy them the minute they come out or anything, like I would with DWJ.

This is maybe his weirdest story yet, crammed into a small space.  It is typical Gaiman, squared--strange and nightmarish, told from a child's point of view but with the later comprehension of an adult remembering the events--all taken up to a power of 2, if you see what I mean.

The narrator is a middle-aged man who comes back to his home village for a family event, but gets distracted into finding where his old house used to be, and then going up the lane to the farmhouse of a friend he vaguely remembers knowing.  There he is plunged into reliving the experience he had as a small child, when the world turned inside out and this house was his refuge.

It's a gorgeous nightmare of a book.  And really, really strange; it's probably best not to read this as a first Gaiman title.  It makes a great scary Halloween read!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Niels Lyhne

Gotta love that heroic mustache!
Niels Lyhne, by Jens Peter Jacobsen

It's my spin title!

As my mom commented when she saw it, this is the most famous book you never heard of.  It's a major classic of the late 19th century--for literary middle-Europeans interested in Romanticism and Naturalism.  Thomas Mann and Rainer Maria Rilke considered it to be among the greatest of novels.  Henrik Ibsen and Stefan Zweig cited Jacobsen as an influence.  Both Zweig and James Joyce even wanted to learn Danish so they could read this novel in the original!  But J. P. Jacobsen remained obscure in the English-speaking literary world, and Niels Lyhne was not translated into English until 1919, forty years after it was published in 1880.

Note that if you want to read this title, you should get the 1990 translation by Tiina Nunnally, now available in Penguin, not the 1919 translation.

This is the story of Niels' psychological development from a child to a man.  As a child he lives in the country, and he has experiences that stamp him deeply and eventually convince him of atheism.  He has friendships with other boys that mold him, and being of an artistic temperament, he eventually goes to the city, to study and produce some great work that he and his mother both know he is capable of.  But instead, Niels seems to lose direction.  He drifts into a romantic relationship, then travels for a while, and never really develops a clear goal or aim in life.  Through the years (which I'm not going to tell you about, read the book), he drifts.  It's sad.

Throughout Niels' life, he goes through traumatic experiences that convince his friends and lovers to give up the atheistic philosophy that he promulgates, but Niels himself clings to it to the end, which is portrayed as heroic conviction.  (Indeed, I think it might be the only heroic thing about Niels' character
.)  His life is marked with a series of tragedies, but he never changes his mind; I'm not sure that is actually all that good an idea, but it's the determined loyalty to a chosen philosophy in the face of all opposition that is shown as heroic.

Jacobsen was a Naturalist writer, the first in the Danish language, but he retained many traces of Romanticism, particularly in his poetry.  You can see it in Niels Lyhne too; scenes are beautifully, meticulously rendered in poetic prose.  There is not a whole lot of action.  This is all about Niels' inner life.  I said when it came up on my spin that I had a feeling Niels Lyhne was something like The Sorrows of Young Werther, and I was not entirely mistaken.  This is an heir of Werther, I think, but a hundred years later.

Once upon a time I read Niels Lyhne in Danish (so there, James Joyce), and I still have my copy.  I would quite like to give it a try again.

I should note that the pronunciation of Lyhne may befuddle you.  The y is a tight 'u' sound, like the German ü.  Pronounce it like lune as you would if you said Au Clair de la Lune, but place your tongue higher up toward the roof of your mouth to tighten it up a little bit.  Danish is notorious for being mainly vowels--consonants are often silent or de-emphasized.  I looked up a pronunciation guide and was tickled to see it say that: As one of the three major Scandinavian languages, Danish is closely related to Swedish and Norwegian but merits special treatment due to a few important differences in pronunciation. It shares with these languages an almost pathological lack of direct correspondence between letters and sounds, so do the best you can. If it's any comfort, English is probably even harder to pronounce, for those who don't speak it.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge, Day 15

It's the final countdown day!  Today April at Good Books and Good Wine wants to know who my blogging mentors are.  Who do I look up to?

Well, my friend Jenny taught me how to do this in the first place, so I guess she would be #1.  She is not blogging right now though, having left the bloggerverse for law school.

I love reading Bookshelves of Doom.  Even the name is awesome, and Leila keeps us updated on good books, news about book challenges, and plus she sells excellent stamp jewelry in her Etsy store.

Amy at Book Musings encourages me to read books I'm scared of, and since they are always great that makes me happy.

Eva at A Striped Armchair hasn't been around much lately because she is globe-trotting, but her blog is what I'd like mine to be, though it never will.

I read a lot of book blogs, and there are things I love about most of them, so you can all count yourselves. :)  And now I'm finished with the challenge!

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy, by Vikram Seth

I have done it!  I feel so proud.  I think this is the longest book I've ever read, at nearly 1500 pages (it's more like a brick than a book; at one point it actually rolled down my pillow).  And I enjoyed it so much.  It only took me 20 years to get around to reading it, too.

It's 1950 in post-Partition Bengal.  Lata Mehra is the youngest of 4 siblings, and her mother's mission in life is to find a suitable boy for Lata to marry.   Lata, however, is not at all sure that she wants to get married quite yet; she's in university.  And then she meets a boy who pursues her...

From Lata, we move out to meet her family members and connections.  There are four families central to the story, and they all have connections too.  Seth's novel grows to narrate the lives of people at every level of society, from the poorest peasants and workers to the wealthiest landlords.  Hindus and Muslims, traditionalists and radicals, courtesans, musicians, gurus, and Nehru himself are woven together to make a tapestry that depicts Bengali society in 1950.

There is a lot of politics.  Almost too much, but it was really interesting too.  One of the main themes is political tension in Bengal (and the rest of India): was partition a good idea?  How to transition from subjection by the British to independence?  How to help Muslims and Hindus live together?  How to help India's poor people rise up?  In the novel, a politician is trying to bring in land reform by abolishing the zamindari system (a sort of feudal system with princely landlords), and that brings up all sorts of issues.  Seth has a judge ponder on Partition and its consequences:
...those two pages reflected the passage of an empire and the birth of two countries from the idea--tragic and ignorant--that people of different religions could not live together.
I was hooked on Lata's story--eventually, she has 3 suitors to decide between, and she's not sure she wants to deal with any of them--and also the plot revolving around Maan Kapoor, who is in love with the wrong girl and otherwise directionless.  Just as he starts to find a place for himself, it all falls to pieces.  So many other characters have fascinating stories, too.  100 pages before the end, I was really wondering how Seth was going to tie everything up in the time left.

In some ways, A Suitable Boy reminded me of In the First Circle--both used a central character as an anchor for an enormous wandery book that attempts to show a whole society at a moment in time (at about the same moment, too, close to 1950).

Definitely one of my best books of the year.

Come to think of it, a lot of my best books of the year have been gigantic chunksters (OK, not Pamela).  And to think I've been putting them off for all this time.  Good thing I decided to make 2013 the year of the giant book!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013


It's been a while since I've posted this meme, but the beginning of school has been pretty overwhelming.  I have just one thing to show off.  We've been preparing for Banned Books Week at work, and we're taking photos for a rogue's gallery of people caught reading questionable literature.  Here I am, caught in the act, with the awesome sign I made for the project.  I wanted an old-school letterboard, but those things are impossible to find.  There were tons of letters at work, though, because there is a board bolted to the wall, so I stuck them into a piece of black foam core board.

We're actually going to make the photos black and white and then print them out to hang all over the library.  Mine hadn't been converted yet when I emailed it to myself.  I was trying to look serious, but apparently I cannot not-smile.  The other shots were more smiley!  Sigh.

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge, Day 14

Today I'm supposed to talk about deal-breakers.  What will make me quit reading?

  1. Smooshy romance.  I'm not averse to a little romance, but on the whole it's not my thing.  The sloppier or more obsessive it gets, the less likely I am to read it.
  2. TMI.  Too much explicit this or that--violence, gore, sex, language, whatever--is not what I'm looking for.  Scientific gore is OK.
  3. Unrelenting tragedy (fictional).  Life is quite hard enough, thank you, and I read novels to be cheered up, not to wind up depressed about the cruelty of the universe.  Real tragedy has to be read so I can learn about things, but fake gratuitous tragedy, no.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Shopping for a Better Country

Shopping for a Better Country: Essays by Josip Novakovich

Josip Novakovic* is originally from Croatia--well, when he lived there it was Yugoslavia--and he has lived in the US and various other places in Europe since college.  These essays are collected from many years of writing, and though they certainly feature exilic themes and travel, they are about all sorts of things, really.

I like the way Novakovic writes; matter-of-fact and taking everything as it comes.  I liked that he consciously refused to judge countries based on short visits. He writes about his mother and his family--he has a son who plays the cello--about people he has met on travels, and about the difficulties of Russian airports or traveling to Croatia during and after the war there.

A couple of bits I liked:
An old man near my hometown claimed that he had no need to travel.  He had lived in eight countries and in one house.  He remained faithful to the previous regimes, and thus felt like an exile most of his life, without going to the train station.  He still loved the Hapsburg Emperor Franz-Josef.  

[A doctor] probably have many nightmares every night.
Doesn't everybody?
That puzzled me--how could you live without nightmares?  What kind of life is that?
An interesting book, but then I like reading about travel and odd stories.

*On the cover it says Novakovich, in the book it says Novakovic.  If you want to find the book, use the first version, but otherwise the second seems to be preferred.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Holy Is the Day

Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present, by Carolyn Weber

A couple of years ago, I reviewed Weber's first book, Surprised By Oxford.  I enjoyed it quite a bit, so I was pleased to see that she has written a second book, this time about how her faith sustains her in difficulty, and finding joy and grace in the everyday.

She is not kidding around about her trials, either.  Weber starts off by telling about the birth of her twin sons; everything went just fine with the first baby, and then suddenly things were not fine at all and both mother and baby came close to death.  With an opening like that, I was pretty hooked, and continued on to read about the pressures of raising three tiny children while trying to get tenure as an English professor, a sudden move away from academia, and a completely unexpected high-risk pregnancy--and since evidently Weber finished the book before her pregnancy was over, there is no resolution to that story!  (I checked her blog to find out.)

Weber's personal experiences serve as a way for her to dig into questions about how we can cope with the inevitable difficulties of life.  In every chapter, she brings up new spiritual reflections, meditating on how scripture, literature, nature, and those around us teach us about grace.

I think many people--probably women in particular--would enjoy Holy Is the Day very much.  Weber is intelligent, and an insightful and poetic writer.  Once upon a time, Madeleine L'Engle used to write this sort of book, and Weber's writing reminds me of that, so if you like L'Engle, this would be a good choice for you.  I did feel that sometimes she got a little too consciously poetic, but readers who like poetry more than I do will probably be fine with it.

I received a free ARC of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

15 Day Book Blogger Challenge, Day 13

Today's challenge is to describe one under-appreciated book that EVERYONE should read.

You know, I think I'm going to pick a book I just told you about recently: My Family and Other Animals, by Gerald Durrell.  It's a fantastic book, a minor classic that has been unfairly forgotten, and a happily unusual and funny book too.  It will cheer you up when you are sad and educate you about the wonders of animals (even if, like me, you don't particularly care for animals in your house).  It has universal appeal, too.

Bonus points: in my opinion everyone should at least try Diana Wynne Jones and Daniel Pinkwater.  DWJ because she is the greatest, of course, and Pinkwater because he is so completely weird.  But those seemed a little predictable for me--that's what I always say!

What To Expect When No One's Expecting

What To Expect When No One's Expecting: America's Coming Demographic Disaster, by Jonathan V. Last

I've been quite taken up with school and work and all sorts of things, so I haven't been around at all, but I have been reading.  I have a whole bunch of books going on at once, in fact. 

Jonathan Last takes on demographic numbers here, and although I suppose his primary focus is on the United States, he spends a lot of time talking about the whole world too, since sharply dropping birthrates are a worldwide trend.  His thesis is that while population is expanding now, that is not because we are having too many babies; it's just that there are a lot of people getting older and living longer.  Within a generation or two, populations will start shrinking, and by then there will not be a lot of young people to have babies.  The drop in birthrates is so dramatic that prosperity will actually become difficult to sustain--not because of resource scarcity but because of other factors.

Shrinking populations might sound like a good idea to lots of people, since we live in a crowded world.  But Last points out a lot of problems.  If there aren't many young people, it becomes extremely difficult to support all the old people who expect pensions--in fact, economies stagnate and young workers struggle to get by under the pressure.  Creativity and problem-solving is largely the province of the young.  And so on.

Last spends a lot of time on the small factors that add up to discourage people from having babies.  It's really interesting!  He talks about how what kind of place you live in affects your decisions, how culture comes into it, and especially how laws and taxes might discourage people to have fewer children than they otherwise would (car seat laws are a great example; although the people who pass strict car seat laws have nothing but good intentions, it's easy to see that those laws also make it much more expensive to have more than two children, since a parent of 3 kids must purchase a mini-van just to get all the car seats in).  Last talks about how to make legal changes that would make it just a little bit easier to have kids if you want, but all that probably won't help too much when kids are as incredibly expensive as they are now.

Some countries have tried to establish incentives for child-bearing, such as cash bonuses or guaranteed paid leave.  Last analyzes these too, and concludes that while incentives are very nice, they have little effect in convincing people to have more children.  Having a baby is a lot of work, after all.

It's an interesting and fast read.  Last is an opinionated guy, and I wouldn't expect a lot of people to agree with everything he says, but life would be pretty boring if you only read things you agree with.