Sunday, July 31, 2011

July in Review

In July, I managed to complete 11 books. I've already posted about a few of them, and I've got a couple more full length posts coming up. So now, taking the lead from Eva over at A Striped Armchair, I'm going to give you a quick rundown of the rest of them:

Read Under the Banner of Heaven, by John Krakaur, if you're interested in a not-very flattering portrait of the birth of an American religion. Rated***

Read Rebel, by Bediako Asare, if you are interested in mid century writing from Africa and aren't put off by graphic descriptions of violence, and subjugation of women.**

Read The Prince, by Niccolo Machiavelli, if you'd like a sneak peek into the GOP's playbook, or are a fan of The Borgias.***

Read Hotel du Lac, by Anita Brookner, if like you'd like to to cooped up in a dreary, deserted European hotel, making up stories about the few guests who share your plight.**

Read The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follet, if you like thriller-turned-"literature" writers who spend nearly 1000 pages on a topic, with no character development and lots of rape & misogyny.*

Huh. After typing that out, I realized I read some quite crappy books this month. Let's hope August is a bit better! I've already started a couple that seem to be promising. I'll keep you updated!
Oh, and my rating system is posted here.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Lord Help Us

Find it yourself. Ugh.
The Help
Kathyrn Stockett 

Le sigh. What can I say about this book that hasn’t been said already? My book club decided to read this as our next selection. It’s not the type of book I usually read – I don’t like reading the same book as everyone else on the subway.  In this case, it wasn’t just my book snobbery getting in the way. This looked like your classic white-protagonist-swoops-in-and-saves-the-poor-black-folks narrative. But the majority of the group was excited to read it, especially with the movie coming out.

It was exactly what I expected. Skeeter, a recent college grad, daughter of a wealthy cotton farmer, with a trust fund ready to help her snare a husband, is the one who brings "dignity" to the black maids of Jackson, Mississippi. 

Skeeter's complete cluelessness about the world is what crystallized this book's problems for me. She thinks that she can drive to the black neighborhood in her Cadillac, hang out for hours, and not be noticed. She thinks she can keep her position editing the Junior League newsletter after she makes enemies with nearly everyone else in the League. She thinks that Stuart, her sometimes-boyfriend and son of the segregationist state senator, is still going to want to marry her after she tells him about her book project. AND YET. Skeeter is the one with a direct line to a senior editor at a New York Publishing House.  Skeeter puts the maids' stories down, and works so hard editing them so they can be published. Skeeter is the one who provides a way for two young black boys to attend college. Skeeter is the one who convinces the Jackson Journal to hire Aibileen to write the Miss Myrna cleaning column after Skeeter runs off to New York. Skeeter manages to accomplish so much, despite her bumbling, one wonders how she manages.

I suppose that this could be looked on as a commentary on just how disadvantaged African Americans were during the Jim Crow era. On how much institutionalized racism kept people in poverty. It could start a discussion about how oppression still continues to keep a hierarchical society firmly in place. That's not how the book read, though. It read as though I was supposed to identify with Skeeter, and realize - "Hey, if I lived in that time, I'd be a "good" person, too!" Of course, if everyone actually behaved that way, then the world would have looked (and would look right now) much, much different.

The best thing I can say about this experience was I was spared buying it or trying to get it from the library, as a friend lent it to me.

For a much more complete look at this book's problems:

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature / weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week they, and other bloggers/readers, make a top ten list from a given topic.
 This week's topic is...
Top Ten Books Tackling "Tough" Issues

I have a serious problem picking the "top-random-number-thing." My picks tend to center around what I find relevant at the time and what made an impression on me in the past. This list is a combination of fiction and non-fiction. I think there's a little something for everyone.

1) The Poisonwood Bible, by Barbara Kingsolver. This book tackles so many tough issues. US foreign policy during the Cold War, racism, disablism, the role of women, and Christian supremacy, just to name a few. It is also beautifully written. Kingsolver does a masterful job capturing the voices of her four narrators.

2) The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan. This was my first formal introduction to feminism. While the book is highly flawed and quite dated, I remember reading it in astonishment. I was so impressed by Friedan's research. In my mind's eye I imagined her furiously scribbling at the table, surrounding by interview notes, research reports, statistics, and god knows what else, trying to define "the problem that has no name."

3) The Jungle, Upton Sinclair. I had to read this back in AP US History and so should you! Horrifying descriptions immigrants put to work in the dangerous meatpacking industry. This is what the invisible hand gets you, people.  But seriously, I think I may re-read this at some point, especially in the light of the current anti-immigrant and anti-regulation climate expressed by so many here in the US.

Things Fall Apart, Chinua Achebe. This book asks us to reconsider colonialism from the colonized's point of view. I also recommend reading this brief essay by Achebe where he responds to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness.  

5) Sold, Patricia McCormick. This is a heartbreaking tale of a young Nepali girl sold into an Indian brothel as a slave. It's fiction, but unfortunately there are too many true stories like it. This is a good introduction to tough issues for younger readers. There's no reason to wait until after high school to realize these awful things exist in the world.

6) The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley. This powerful profile of the Civil Rights leader made me examine my white privilege. 

Defending the Damned, Kevin Davis. Davis, a Chicago journalist, explores what it's like to defend people accused of murder. In his introduction, he brings up the "cocktail party question"  - "How can you defend these people?" and points out that public defenders feel it's "a provocation, a statement loaded with judgment and preconception, implying that public defending is less noble, that these lawyers must explain themselves whereas prosecutors
 do not." He doesn't explain why prosecutors get a free pass, but he does make a group of public defenders human to his readers.

8) The Rape of Nanking, Iris Chang. Chang exposes the horror experienced by the citizens of Nanking, China, during December 1937. Over 300,000 civilians and soldiers were raped, tortured, and murdered. After WWII, there was a concerted effort to hide this incident.   Chang's meticulously researched book was the first time many people learned about what happened.

Religious Literacy, Stephan Prothero. Prothero explains why it's necessary to have a working understanding of certain religious ideas if you want to understand current American discourse. I see so many people just reflexively spouting certain ideas without an understanding of what they mean. This is a good start if you want to understand religious ideas without religious indoctrination.

10) King Leopold's Ghost, Adam Hochschild. The Belgium Congo was NOT a fun place to be. (That may be the understatement of the year). King Leopold was a master at spin, like so many modern people in power. I liked that this book made us look not only at Belgium's wrongs, but how the world as a whole had no problem exploiting colonies. There are also some insights on the state of African Americans. Reverend William H. Sheppard, a Presbyterian missionary and explorer, was treated as "less-than" in America, even while accomplishing many of his goals in Africa.

So that's my list. If you asked me for another one tomorrow, I'm sure some of the titles would change. This was my first "Top Ten Tuesday," but it won't be my last!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Travelling to a far off island

Available at Amazon
My Urohs
Emelihter King

As I've mentioned, I'm currently trying to complete a couple of reading challenges. To say that getting books from Oceania is a challenge in itself would be a severe understatement. I was happy to find this poetry collection published by Kahuaomānoa Press. According to the "about the author" blurb, Emelihter King was born on Guam, and has spent much of her life back and forth between her native Pohnpei, Hawai'i and Guam. 

The title comes from the traditional Pohnpeian skirt. In a footnote to one poem King states that she is likens the uroh to Pohnpeian culture as a whole. I confess I know pretty close to zilch about Pohnpeian culture, so I was eager to dig into this when it finally arrived from Amazon.

King is at her best when describing slices of life in tantalizing detail. One of my favorites in the volume is "Kool-Aid."


doesn't taste good here in Honolulu
I wanna eat it sweating in the heat,
sitting on a rock,
under a guava tree
with my red-fingered friends
dip, dip our green mango
lick, lick our fingerstongues turning dark red

Gorgeous. I want to be sitting there eating Kool-Aid with her.

My biggest complaint is the gender essentialism in a couple of places. In "Ngih Kohl O" (The Gold Tooth), King talks about young Micronesian men who have gone and taken government jobs, and now come by,
"speaking English while strutting around
with that white man's attitude...
when was the last time you
planted something in the ground
and felt like a real man?"

I understand this is a reaction to colonization - and this is a collection that speaks powerfully to the colonial experience. King is fiercely proud of her culture, and rightly so. But just like colonization is a harmful process, so is reinforcing the idea that "men" and "women" are to act in fixed ways and no one should deviate from them.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Writing History

Available at Amazon
Ten Discoveries That Rewrote History 
Patrick Hunt, Ph.D.

I was wandering the stacks in my local library, looking for something different from my usual reading material, when I came across this slim little volume. Hmmm, I thought, looks kinda interesting. And so I took it home. 

I was pretty familiar with most of the discoveries, like King Tut's tomb and the Rosetta stone. Others, like Ninevah's Assyrian Library, I had never heard of. I'm familiar with The Epic of Gilgamesh and Hammurabi's Code, but never realized the source of their discovery. 

One thing that struck me was how often the priceless treasures Hunt described are located not in their home countries, but in places like the British Museum. When he talks about the Egyptian Museum in Cairo, he makes sure to tell you it may not have air conditioning or air circulation when you visit. He says that Tut's treasures are amazing, but that the museum has them "poorly lit and crammed into cases" and "if the materials...were displayed according to the less-crowded standards of European or American museums, they would full nearly an entire museum of a large city." I got the distinct impression that Hunt thinks these treasures would be better off in such an American or European museum. Considering how much work people like Dr. Zahi Hawass have put into controlling their countries' artifacts, and thus, their cultural heritage, this is insulting, to say the least.

Hunt's privilege shows in other ways, too. For example, at the end of the chapter on the Olduvai Gorge, he quips that 

"...Lucy, who, if she was anything like one of her possible descendants millions of years later, would not be so glib about revealing her age or date of birth."

Was that really necessary? Ugh.

On an unrelated note, I wondered who the audience for this book would be. The chapters are short, and broken down into descriptive subheadings, and end with tidy "conclusion" sections. Hunt writes in a way that feels like you are following along an adventure, seeing what it may be like to find a major discovery. The chapters are more an introduction to their subjects, than comprehensive coverage. They may pique the interest of a reader and lead them to seek more information elsewhere. These features make it seem like high school students would be drawn to the book. However, some of the vocabulary is quite advanced. I'm not saying that students couldn't get a lot from this book, but they may need some encouragement, and a handy dictionary (ha! but seriously, works great). Of course, the more we read and are exposed to new words, the easier they are to understand.

Overall, the book was what I needed at the time. It was something that didn't take a whole lot of concentration, let me learn some things, and kept me mildly entertained. I could read it in small chunks, and didn't weigh down my bag, so it made a good commute read. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Small Stories, Big Punch

University of Nebraska Press

Ana María Shua
Translated by Steven J. Stewart

These beautiful snippets are more like poetry than traditional fiction, or even short stories.  Shua has an incredible eye for detail, and she twists her observations around in completely unexpected ways. Some of the selections are dark, some are pure fun, but all leave you a bit unsettled. Take the following piece, from the section “Monsters.”

Being a Rabbit

All day long I’m a rabbit, and it’s only at night that I recover my human form. So why did I knit you these pajamas, complains my grandma, caressing the large and useless striped earflaps.

You never know where she’s leading you, but once you get a taste for her adventures, you can’t help but follow her inventive musings.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


Welcome to Wandering in the Stacks. As you may have guessed, I’m a reader, a browser, a book store lover. I can’t bring myself to get an e-reader, although I like to go to the stores and play with them!  I tend to be a partially-apologetic book snob. That means that I will probably not be reading and reviewing whatever is on the bestseller list. I like to wander in the stacks of my favorite shops, running my eyes and fingers over the covers, reading blurbs, hoping to discover a hidden gem. Sometimes it happens, often times it does not. I sometimes go looking for a specific title, especially if it’s recommended to me by a trusted fellow reader, or if I need something specific for a reading challenge.

I’m also a feminist.  

What that means:
·         I read books with a critical eye.
·         I try to read books by women, by people of color, by queer people, and works translated by women. Not mutually exclusive categories, of course.
·         My thoughts on books will reflect my feminist musings.
What that doesn’t mean:
·         That I just read books on feminism.
·         I hate books by men.
·         I hate books that are arguably pretty misogynistic, by authors who are arguable pretty misogynistic (why, hellllllllloooooooooo Hemingway.)

If you’re still here, I invite you to Wander in the Stacks with me.