Sunday, March 31, 2013

Fiction: Our Man in Iraq by Robert Perisic

Publisher: Black Balloon
Translator: Will Firth
Date: 2007 (April 2, 2013)
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 202
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: Our Man in Iraq tells the story of a local journalist who sends a distant relative to report on the war in Iraq while he stays at home to sort out his love life and his professional career – all to varying degrees of success. However, as time goes on, things begin to unravel, and he ends up having to fake his missing cousin’s reports while struggling to hold on to his actress girlfriend. The novel is a take on the Iraqi conflict from the other side of Europe, where politics and nepotism collide and the confusing after-effects of the recent Yugoslav wars mix with the joys and trials of modern life. Perisic manages to incorporate some political views and opinions through this novel, but in a deceptively simple way: through the writings of an ‘everyman.'

My review: Our Man in Iraq wasn't quite what I had expected, in that I anticipated more focus on the war in Iraq and less emphasis on the daily life of Toni, the narrator, who remains in Croatia. I didn't really connect with or get into the story until around 3/4 of the way through the novel. It seemed like Toni's situation, as well as Perisic's humor, would be more understandable to those who have first-hand experience with recent Croatian history and contemporary life. The more absurd Toni's troubles got, however, the more I began to see how this could be both a poignant and a funny read. I ended up greatly enjoying the last 50 pages, so perhaps one of these days I should go back to the beginning of the book and read it in that light to see if it's improved.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Add It to the List! 3

One of my favorite things to do while procrastinating on homework is browse through books online. Generally, this results in a large number of books being added to my already-enormous wishlist on GoodReads (2827 and counting). Since such procrastination reduces my reading time left after finally finishing homework, I might as well use it to come up with other blog content.

The Mirk and Midnight Hour by Jane Nickerson (Random House, Mar. 2014)
The sequel to Strands of Bronze and Gold, this time a Civil War-era retelling of the "Ballad of Tam Lin."

If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan (Algonquin Young Readers, 8/20/13)
On lesbian and transgender issues in contemporary Iran.

Homeward Bound: The New Cult of Domesticity by Emily Matchar (Simon & Schuster, 5/7/13)
I think this goes along well with my English class on literary and cultural theory. Also, I can definitely see myself as becoming one of the "smart, high-achieving young women [who] are honing their traditional homemaking skills."

Status: Emo by Eslam Mosbah (American Univ. in Cairo Press, 4/15/13)
Translated contemporary novel from Egypt.

Unexplained Fevers by Jeannine Hall Gailey (New Binary Press, 3/30/13)
Contemporary retellings of fairy tales in verse.

Wool by Hugh Howey (Simon & Schuster, 3/23/13)
Yes, I am a snob and didn't add this to my wishlist until I discovered it was going to be published by a major publisher instead of just CreateSpace or whatever. I just won a copy off GoodReads, so this will hopefully get marked off the wishlist quite soon.

Self-Reference Engine by Toh Enjoe (VIZ Media/Haikasoru, 3/19/13)
Because most of Haikasoru's translations of Japanese speculative fiction have made it onto my wishlist, even if I've never actually read any of them.

Keowee Valley by Katherine Scott Crawford (Bell Bridge Books, Sep. 2012)
Set in 1768 in the Carolina/Appalachian backcountry, involving the Cherokee and the Shawnee.

News from Gardenia by Robert Llewellyn (Unbound, Mar. 2012)
sci-fi novel set in a futuristic (possibly utopian) Britain

Specimen Days by Michael Cunningham (2005)
speculative fiction

Our Arcadia by Robin Lippincott (Viking, 2001)
Historical fiction set in the 1920s, possibly related to a bohemian intentional community. See my comments below on Terminal Velocity.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski (2000)
Even though I'm not into horror, I was going to participate in a reading group for this until schedule conflicts arose. Given how many goods things I've heard of it from members of said group, I went ahead and added it to the wishlist.

Terminal Velocity by Blanche McCrary Boyd (1997)
Memoir of the author's life in a "radical lesbian commune." I'm addicted to all things remotely related to intentional communities and utopianism.

The Great Meadow by Elizabeth Madox Roberts (1930)
Historical romance set in backcountry Kentucky; I'm greatly interested in the early American frontier around the Appalachian area.
Note: Recent upcoming editions include J.S. Sanders and Co. (1992) and Hesperus Press (June 2013).

The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories by Nikolai Leskov (late 19th cent.)
Russian short stories, possibly involving satire and myth.
Note: Recent/upcoming editions include Knopf (Mar. 2013) and Vintage (Apr. 2013).

Friday, March 29, 2013

Historical Fiction: Stalin's Barber by Paul M. Levitt

Publisher: Taylor Trade
Date: December 16, 2012
Format: hardback
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 370
Reading time: five days

From GoodReads: Avraham Bahar leaves debt-ridden and depressed Albania to seek a better life in, ironically, Stalinist Russia. A professional barber, he curries favor with the Communist regime, ultimately being invited to become Stalin s personal barber at the Kremlin, where he is entitled to live in a government house with other Soviet dignitaries. In the intrigue that follows Avraham, now known as Razan, he is not only barber to Stalin but also to the many Stalin look-alikes that the paranoid dictator circulates to thwart possible assassination attempts including one from Razan himself.

My review: I greatly enjoyed Levitt's literary writing. His prose and chose of words is fantastic, which adds to the reading of any book. I also ended up appreciating Levitt's departure from Ravan's story - indeed, at points Ravan seems almost peripheral to the tales of other characters - to explore the lives of others in Ravan's family as they navigate the complexity of Soviet life in the years leading up to WWII. Such a departure opened up the depth of the novel to give a better look at how people lived during that period in the USSR.

At other times, however, the writing got too dense. I wasn't always able to understand the many intrigues surrounding Razan's family and Stalin. And, after a couple hundred pages of nice development, the ending was unsatisfactorily quick and messy. Everything was almost instantly wrapped up, but some questions remained. Overall, Stalin's Barber proved to be a good historical read, but it is perhaps not for the faint of heart (including those with short attention spans).

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Nonfiction: The Lady and Her Monsters by Roseanne Montillo

Subtitle: A Tale of Dissections, Real-Life Dr. Frankensteins, and the Creation of Mary Shelley's Masterpiece
Publisher: William Morrow
Date: February 5, 2013
Format: hardback
Source: BookTrib Review Crew
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 287
Reading time: five days

In The Lady and Her Monsters, literature professor Roseanne Montillo examines the social and scientific background of Mary Shelley's novel Frankenstein. Delving into tales of electrical experiments, body snatching, and the decadence of the Romantics, she places Shelley's life and writing within its broader historical context to demonstrate the many influences that led to the penning of Frankenstein.

While the subject matter was interesting, I found that Montillo's research and writing didn't quite carry through. For one thing, the jumping around between time periods and situations during the initial chapters was confusing. Montillo dramatized some scenes from her subjects' lives, and it was unclear whether this was backed up by research or was simply her putting words into others' mouths. The number of times phrases such as "They must have thought..." or "they should have wondered..." (emphasis added) were used was one of the things that most irked me while reading this book.

Also, it seemed like much of the background lacked substantial connection to Mary Shelley. Sure, medical experiments and body snatching were current topics in Shelley's time, but Montillo didn't provide much evidence of Shelley's actual awareness of and interest in these issues. She discussed them as basically two separate things: on the one hand, scientific experiments tinged with illegal activities that continued decades past Shelley's writing, and on the other hand, Shelley's biography and the publication of Frankenstein. Both subjects seemed to be treated only rather topically. I didn't take much away from the book that I didn't already know. It didn't serve to alter my understanding of the context surrounding Shelley's most famous work, besides perhaps to demonstrate how irritating it might have been to hang around the Shelleys and their friends.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Did Not Finish: Parrot and Olivier in America by Peter Carey

Parrot and Olivier in America is literary historical fiction, set in early nineteenth century America. In many ways, the life of the French aristocrat Olivier mimics the experiences of Alexis de Tocqueville, while his companion in adventures, Parrot, is an older Englishman, the son of a printer.

I think I stopped around page 75 or 100 (but it might have been as soon as page 50) of 400. GoodReads describes the novel as "irrepressibly funny," but if so, I must have given up before reaching the part where the humor starts. I had kind of expected this to be a lighthearted romp through early America, but instead it was quite serious, and the development of the storyline was taking forever. (Parrot and Olivier were not yet embarking on their journey to America when I quit reading.) Also, I found Carey's writing dense and sometimes confusing. Given my current limited amount of time and the stack of books I have waiting for me to read for review, I decided that this is a novel better left for a later reading when I can sit down longer and appreciate it more.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Brief Hiatus

You guys, it's spring break and I just don't feel like doing anything. Nothing that requires effort for me this week. I'll sit around the house, read, sew, scout a few local bookstores, and go to a few mandatory family things, but that's it. No worrying about writing reviews until after the break. See you this weekend! (maybe)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

YA Realistic Fiction: The Right & the Real by Joelle Anthony

Publisher: Putnam
Date: April 2012
Format: ARC
Source: ARCycling
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 280
Reading time: two and a half days

From GoodReads: Jamie should have known something was off about the church of the Right and the Real from the start, especially when the Teacher claimed he wasn’t just an ordinary spiritual leader, but Jesus Christ, himself. But she was too taken by Josh, the eldest son of one of the church’s disciples, and his all-American good looks. Josh is the most popular boy at school too, and the first boy outside the drama geeks to give Jamie a second look. But getting her Dad involved in a cult was not part of the plan when she started dating Josh. Neither was her dad’s marriage to the fanatic Mira, or getting kicked out, or seeing Josh in secret because the church has deemed her persona non grata. Jamie’s life has completely fallen apart. Finding her way back won’t be easy, but when her Dad gets himself into serious trouble, will Jamie be ready to rescue him, and maybe even forgive him?

My review: The Right & the Real kind of surprised me at first because unlike a lot of other novels involving cults, it doesn't focus on a member's time inside the group or the time immediately after she's left. Jamie is mostly involved with the cult on its periphery, attending events with her boyfriend and later her dad; her experiences as being part of the group are not mentioned much. Instead, the book focuses on how Jamie deals with life on her own - and trying to regain contact with her father - as a teenager kicked out of her own home.

Sometimes I found Jamie's naivete and lack of knowledge to be irritating. I mean, even after dating a member of the church for a while, she didn't realize it was a cult until a sudden epiphany during her father's wedding? No one - including said boyfriend - bothered to explain some of the practices of the group, including what was expected of young women who joined? Yes, Jamie was wrapped up in a rather physical relationship with Josh at the time, but still, it seems a bit ridiculous that she didn't have a better idea of what was going on.

But besides this, The Right & the Real was a very interesting and enjoyable read. The perspective was different from that of other cult books, and the plot, though not thrilling, kept moving and easily held interest. I breezed through the pages, wanting to know how Jamie would deal with her many obstacles and whether or not she'd be able to reconcile with her father. Though this was a fun read, it also brought up important deeper topics like religion, addiction, homelessness, and other social issues.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Recent Acquisitions III

It's SPRING BREAK!!! Only 7 more weeks of school afterwards...I'm so looking forward to going home and reading. As you can see, I have a lot of catching up on review books to do.

For review:
The Gods of Heavenly Punishment by Jennifer Cody Epstein (First Look)
Fox Forever by Mary E. Pearson (publisher)
Squee time!!! I absolutely loved The Adoration of Jenna Fox and was so excited that this came!!!
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway (publisher)
Belle Epoque by Elizabeth Ross (author/publisher)
The Lady and Her Monsters: A Tale of Dissections, Attempts to Reanimate Dead Tissue, and the Writing of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein by Roseanne Montillo (BookTrib)
Stalin's Barber by Paul M. Levitt (Early Reviewers)
The Right & the Real by Joelle Anthony (thanks, Christine and ARCycling!)
Review coming Sunday.

Clisson and Eugenie by Napoleon Bonaparte (thanks, Curiosity Killed the Bookworm!)
Yes, by THE Napoleon.
The Mapmaker's War by Ronlyn Domingue (thanks, Under My Apple Tree!)

From Random Buzzers:
The Mirrored Shard (Iron Codex #3) by Caitlin Kittredge
Another sequel I'm SO excited for - except I'm hoping it's not like the 2nd book in the series, which in no way measured up to the awesomeness of the first.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

YA Historical Fiction Review and Giveaway: Strands of Bronze and Gold by Jane Nickerson

Publisher: Knopf
Date: March 12, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: Random Buzzers Ambuzzadors program
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 340
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: When seventeen-year-old Sophia Petheram’s beloved father dies, she receives an unexpected letter. An invitation—on fine ivory paper, in bold black handwriting—from the mysterious Monsieur Bernard de Cressac, her godfather. With no money and fewer options, Sophie accepts, leaving her humble childhood home for the astonishingly lavish Wyndriven Abbey, in the heart of Mississippi. Sophie has always longed for a comfortable life, and she finds herself both attracted to and shocked by the charm and easy manners of her overgenerous guardian. But as she begins to piece together the mystery of his past, it’s as if, thread by thread, a silken net is tightening around her. And as she gathers stories and catches whispers of his former wives—all with hair as red as her own—in the forgotten corners of the abbey, Sophie knows she’s trapped in the passion and danger of de Cressac’s intoxicating world.

My review: I loved, loved, loved the antebellum Southern gothic setting of Strands of Bronze and Gold. It's a rather romantic (in the sense of Romanticism) view of what's portrayed as a decadent, patriarchal Southern aristocracy, but Nickerson carries out this portrayal tastefully rather than sensationally. The society she paints seems realistic, not the showy descriptions of wealth and upright heroines outspokenly moralizing against slavery I've often run into before in historical fiction. And the gothic feel? "Bluebeard" is one of my favorite fairy tales for its intrigue and gruesomeness, and Strands of Bronze and Gold certainly lives up to this with its decaying abbey-turned-plantation, ghosts, and seclusion. The creepy-crawlies just keep running down your back as you begin to realize along with Sophia just what she's tangled up with.

The gothicness definitely kept me fascinated, compulsively reading as I waited to see what the plot had in store. The ending wasn't much of a shocker if you are familiar with the original tale, but it was still gripping. Yet, parts of the novel seemed choppy. Some characters seemed shallow and underwent major changes without much development. There was just this certain feeling of a lack of complete cohesiveness. I highly recommend Strands of Bronze and Gold as a nice read for a rainy day (which will provide great atmosphere!) - it's an engrossing book for the time you're reading, but it didn't leave me with much afterwards. Breeze through, enjoy, and move on.

And, thanks to the Ambuzzadors program at Random Buzzers, I have an extra ARC of Strands of Bronze and Gold to give away! Sorry, but US addresses only, as my parents fund the shipping cost. Just fill out the Rafflecopter below.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And...Random House just released the cover and synopsis for the second book, The Mirk and Midnight Hour! Due for release in March 2014.
From GoodReads:
Jane Nickerson's second novel, also set in the "Strands" world, is based on the Scottish 'Ballad of Tam Lin,' and is set in Mississippi during the Civil War. Violet Dancey, a 17-year-old whose father has left to fight in the Civil War, is forced to confront Thomas, a hurt Union solider near her home. She must decide how to approach the enemy--and how to deal with her growing attraction to him.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Add It to the List! 2

One of my favorite things to do while procrastinating on homework is browse through books online. Generally, this results in a large number of books being added to my already-enormous wishlist on GoodReads (2812 and counting). Since such procrastination reduces my reading time left after finally finishing homework, I might as well use it to come up with other blog content.

Apparently, planning my course schedule for next semester with its depressing lack of the irregularly-taught Southeastern anthropology classes has made me crave books on Southeastern history and culture.

The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23: Folk Art ed. by Carol Crown and Cheryl Rivers (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 6/3/13)

Becoming Melungeon: Making an Ethnic Identity in the Appalachian South by Melissa Schrift (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 5/1/13)
I haven't read much about the Melungeons, though my mom has at least one book on this interesting (and rather unknown) group.

The Blind Man and the Loon: The Story of a Tale by Craig Mishler (Univ. of Nebraska Press, 5/1/13)
I think it's fascinating to be able to trace the cultural and literary history of a folktale.

Alice Morse Earle and the Domestic History of Early America by Susan Reynolds (Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1/18/13)
I've read two of Earle's fantastic books on early domestic America, though they focus primarily on the North.

Southern Heritage on Display: Public Ritual and Ethnic Diversity Within Southern Regionalism ed. by Celeste Ray (Univ. of Alabama Press, 2003)

Selling Tradition: Appalachia and the Construction of an American Folk, 1930-1940 by Jane S. Becker (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1998)
Since I am, you know, considering going to grad school in folklore (after I finish 3.5 more years of college, lol) and love the Appalachians.

Southern History Across the Color Line by Nell Irvin Painter (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1992)
I love history books with challenging approaches, and I'm currently enjoying Painter's biography of Sojourner Truth.

Unruly Women: The Politics of Social and Sexual Control in the Old South by Victoria E. Bynum (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1992)
Sometimes, the most boring titles sound exciting to me. Also, this focuses mostly on the central region of my home state of NC. :)

Doing Literary Business: American Women Writers in the Nineteenth Century by Susan Coultrap-McQuin (Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1990)

The People in the Trees by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 8/13/13)
anthropological novel with a hint of speculative fiction

The Age of Ice by J.M. Sidorova (Scribner, 7/13/13)
genre-bending literary historical fiction, set in 18th-century Russia

The Curiosity by Stephen Kiernan (William Morrow, 7/8/13)
sci-fi romance about a man who awakes in the modern day after being frozen for a century

The End of the Dream by Philip Wylie (1972; reissue Univ. of Nebraska Press, 7/1/13)
Apocalypse brought about by human pollution. :)

After the Ending by Lindsey Fairleigh and Lindsey Pogue (L2, 2/14/13)

The Threads of the Heart by Carole Martinez (Europa Editions, 12/31/12)
sounds like it might have some magical realism

The Gest of Robyn Hood ed. by Robert B. Waltz (Loomis House Press, Nov. 2012)
I guess it makes sense that there is an earliest-known written version of the legend...

I, Nemo by J. Dharma Windham and Deanna Windham (self-published, May 2012)
It's rare that self-published books make their way onto my wishlist, but who can pass up a steampunk prequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea?

Wide Awake by David Levithan (Knopf, 2006)
Set in the near future, but exploring contemporary religious and LGBTQ issues.

The Troll Bridge (2006) and Pay the Piper (2005) by Jane Yolen and Adam Stemple
urban fantasy retellings of classic tales

The Hidden Force by Louis Couperus (1900; various republications)
Dutch East Indies colonial novel

What's made it onto your wishlist lately?

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Realistic Fiction: Oleander Girl by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Publisher: Free Press
Date: March 19, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 288
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Orphaned at birth, seventeen-year-old Korobi Roy is the scion of a distinguished Kolkata family and has enjoyed a privileged, sheltered childhood with her adoring grandparents. But she is troubled by the silence that surrounds her parents’ death and clings fiercely to her only inheritance from them: the love note she found hidden in her mother's book of poetry. Korobi dreams of one day finding a love as powerful as her parents’, and it seems her wish has come true when she meets the charming Rajat, the only son of a high-profile business family. But shortly after their engagement, a heart attack kills Korobi’s grandfather, revealing serious financial problems and a devastating secret about Korobi's past. Shattered by this discovery and by her grandparents’ betrayal, Korobi undertakes a courageous search across post-9/11 America to find her true identity. Her dramatic, often startling journey will, ultimately, thrust her into the most difficult decision of her life.

My review: Oleander Girl started off slow, but it improved. I didn't entirely buy into Korobi and Rajat's romance to begin with. It seemed very Tess of the d'Urbervilles-ish, with Rajat especially loving Korobi in part because of the environment and heritage from which he thought she came. We saw in Hardy that this doesn't work out well, but Divakaruni's novel is not Hardy's, so things turn out a bit differently in this case. At other times, the story seemed very cliche. Girl goes off right before marriage in a version of the quest to "find herself," has some hitches in her relationship that still need to be worked out (but then who doesn't?), and on her journey meets an attractive guy of similar age with whom she has some 'chemistry.' It seems like one can see everything coming, but Divakaruni's book is, again, her own, and so I'll go ahead and tell you that the ending is not quite so cliche as expected.

Despite a rather slow beginning, the progress of the novel soon became gripping as secrets were revealed and important details of both the past and the present emerged. If I was going to have to leave off reading soon, I found myself compelled to skip ahead and see what happened. It helped that the novel alternated viewpoints between Korobi, her family, her in-laws, and others, making this not only Korobi's story, but also that of several other major characters. This added a great deal of depth to the novel, as it allowed for the exploration of other prominent figures as well as an exploration of multiple features of modern Indian society.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Historical Fiction: Temple of a Thousand Faces by John Shors

Publisher: NAL
Date: February 5, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 507
Reading time: five days

From GoodReads: When his land is taken by force, Prince Jayavar of the Khmer people narrowly escapes death at the hands of the conquering Cham king. Exiled from their homeland, he and his mystical wife Ajadevi set up a secret camp in the jungle with the intention of amassing an army bold enough to reclaim their kingdom and free their people. Meanwhile, Cham King Indravarman rules with an iron fist, pitting even his most trusted men against each other and squashing any hint of rebellion. Moving from a poor fisherman's family whose sons find the courage to take up arms against their oppressors, to a beautiful bride who becomes a prize of war, to an ambitious warrior whose allegiance is torn--Temple of a Thousand Faces is an unforgettable saga of love, betrayal, and survival at any cost.

My review: Mostly, I loved the setting and varied cast of characters in Temple of a Thousand Faces. Pre-modern Asian history in general is rather neglected in historical fiction, and it was nice to find a novel, particularly one that is so well-written and researched, with a 12th-century empire at its focus. I also enjoyed how there are several sets of main characters, allowing the story to be told from points of view that include peasants, soldiers, royalty, Khmers, Chams, young adults, parents, prisoners, conquerors, and rebels.

Overall, I found the characters and stories well-developed. I had only a few issues with Voisanne and Asal's romance (because when a woman is given as a slave to a conqueror, there's either harsh treatment and hate or fair treatment and love, right?) and a repetitiveness in dialogue and thoughts towards the end. Though the plot moved at a decent pace, by about page 400 I was ready for things to get wrapped up, just because 500 pages can get long for a novel. But I definitely found the characters' stories to be interesting, enjoyable to read, and informative on the lifeways and events of this period in the Khmer Empire's history.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Sci-Fi: The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach

Publisher: Tor
Translator: Doryl Jensen
Date: 1995 (trans. 2005)
Format: paperback
Source: OU Honors College
Read: for an Honors College reading group
Pages: 300

From GoodReads: Since the time of pre-history, carpetmakers tie intricate knots to form carpets for the court of the Emperor. These carpets are made from the hairs of wives and daughters; they are so detailed and fragile that each carpetmaker finishes only one single carpet in his entire lifetime. This art descends from father to son, since the beginning of time itself. But one day the empire of the God Emperor vanishes, and strangers begin to arrive from the stars to follow the trace of the hair carpets. What these strangers discover is beyond all belief, more than anything they could have ever imagined...

My review: When the reading group for The Carpet Makers first began, I was told by a moderator, "Oh, you're an anthropology major, you'll love how the society is set up in this book." And she was right. The world building, especially in the first chapters, is absolutely astounding. The social structure is complex, the cult of the Emperor is fascinating, and one is left pondering questions of cultural construction and religion. In fact, the musings on religion hinted at by the role of the Emperor and the degree to which the religion of the universe of The Carpet Makers is ingrained in the minds of its people conjure up intriguing questions about religion in our own world.

The structure of this novel reminded me much of The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. Each chapter can stand on its own as a short story, but all the chapters are still tied together somehow. Eschbach's writing also has the same general feel as Bradbury's, with a lot of the stories having...not terribly positive conclusions. Some in the reading group complained of the depressing feel and choppy structure (chapters rarely returned to characters we'd encountered before), but I didn't see these as issues.

The reading group perhaps had the most fun just coming up with outlandish explanations for the odd structure of the carpetmakers' society. Why did they make hair carpets? What happened to said carpets? Why hadn't their culture ever changed? The conclusion to these questions proved rather abrupt; it was almost as if the novel was written entirely just to describe this universe, with the causes behind its practices explained as an afterthought.

Also, the world of The Carpet Makers reminded me of that of Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card (2010). There's this alternation between parts of the same universe where the less technological part at first seems like a fantasy world, while the high-tech one seems more sci-fi-ish. Given that Card was a major advocate of the translation of The Carpet Makers into English, I wonder if there's an influence here?

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Mini-Reviews: College Reading 2.0

The Historians' Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time by Peter Charles Hoffer (2008)
read for the History Sleuth
This ended up seeming like a collection of Hoffer's ramblings about diverse issues in historical study rather than a cohesive 'philosophy of history for our time.' While he did bring up some interesting points and examples, overall I didn't find the book terribly useful. Perhaps it's one to revisit further along in my studies/career?

The Myth of American Exceptionalism by Godfrey Hodgson (2009)
read for the History Sleuth
The first half was really interesting and strong, challenging the historical examples often used to support exceptionalism. Great points, great examination of the roots of the idea. But Hodgson then moved into recent and contemporary politics, so I was lost and bored. I really prefer things that have been dead for a long time.

The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz (1994)
read in connection to American Religion on the Margins
This took me way too long to read (about 3 weeks) given its briefness. But I had issues with the writing, which seemed at times to be either too chock-full of research and information or too over-dramatized. The material was highly interesting, but reading it wasn't terribly enjoyable.