Friday, September 28, 2012

A More Diverse Universe Tour: Field of Honor by D.L. Birchfield

This is the first year that Aarti over at Book Lust has hosted the More Diverse Universe reading tour, featuring speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy, magical realism, and all the really weird but really cool things in between) written by non-Caucasian authors. I think this is totally FANTASTIC because I have a great interest in speculative fiction, especially sci-fi, that is written by people who are not white English-speaking Americans, Brits, etc. (I've made a 7-page list of such novels, too, if anyone would like a copy...) As I have only one such novel with me at college (sad, isn't it?), I chose to read Field of Honor by D.L. Birchfield for the event. Birchfield is a Chickasaw-Choctaw Native American whose other works include Black Silk Handkerchief: A Hom-Astubby Mystery and How Choctaws Invented Civilization and Why Choctaws Will Conquer the World.

Publisher: Univ. of Oklahoma Press
Date: 2004
Format: hardback
Source: BookMooch
Read: for A More Diverse Universe
Pages: 236
Reading time: three days

Patrick Pushmataha McDaniel, half-blood Choctaw, has been hiding from the U.S. Marine Corps for ten years, ever since he deserted during the Vietnam War. When his secluded Oklahoma valley home is overrun by the U.S. military on some kind of secret investigation, he stumbles upon an underground Choctaw civilization. What follows is McDaniel's entanglement in the culture and politics of this hidden, high-tech community where the traditional ball games rule.

It's important to note that Field of Honor is intended to be rather bizarre satire, because after realizing that, one can accept just about any weird, unrealistic thing that happens. And there are many weird, unrealistic things that happen from the beginning to the end of the book, so just sit back, suspend your disbelief, and enjoy the strange ride. I found Birchfield's satirical gibes at American politics, history, and culture totally hilarious, though I think giving them away would ruin the enjoyment of surprise. The Vietnam War, of course, comes under attack, as does the English language, North American colonialism, Anglo-American heritage, 20th-century presidents, Texans, and many, many other subjects. It's quite fun. At the same time, the novel also teaches a great deal about Choctaw culture and history, albeit in a very unique and unexpected way.

The only issue I had with Field of Honor was I would have liked it to be longer. McDaniel is becoming embroiled in the intrigues of this underground Choctaw group, but the book ends soon after without much closure. There's no resolution to what's going on with the Choctaws, even though some of the issues could have disastrous consequences for both them and others. It's a rather quick and unsatisfying conclusion to an otherwise very well-developed and engaging novel.

Friday, September 21, 2012

In My Mailbox #36

One month at college, and already my measly two shelves are groaning.

For review:
The Order of Odd-Fish by James Kennedy (thanks to the author and his publicist!)
On page 100. Completely wacky, but fun.

Thanks, Laura's Reviews!
The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer
Penhallow by Georgette Heyer
The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer

Purchased for class:
The Epic of Askia Mohammed by Thomas A. Hale
The Epic of Kelefaa Saane by Sirifo Camara
I'm writing a paper for African Civ relating West African epics to historical processes, starting with Sundiata from the Mali Empire.

Goodwill purchases, because, OMG!, the local store here actually has a decent selection of books:
Legends of the Rhine by Wilhelm Ruland
The Under-Dogs by Mariano Azuela
In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
Been on my wishlist for a while as one of those sorta weird adult literary sci-fi-ish novels.
The Kingdom of Matthias by Paul E. Johnson and Sean Wilentz
Nonfiction about a 19th-century religious group/cult thing.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

For free:
World Literature Today is so awesome - when I went to their book club, they offered up more free books! Again, I love college...
Good Offices by Evelio Rosero
The Green Corn Rebellion by William Cunningham
Voyage to Kazohinia by Sandor Szathmari
Aaaaaahhhhh!!!! I can't believe I found this!!! Hungarian satiric dystopian novel from 1941; the English edition just came out in July and I'd never even heard of it before!!!!
Wild Unrest: Charlotte Perkins Gilman and the Making of "The Yellow Wall-Paper" by Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz
The Prophecies by Nostradamus
The Irresistible Fairy Tale: The Cultural and Social History of a Genre by Jack Zipes

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Historical Fiction: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

Publisher: Ecco
Date: September 2011
Format: hardback
Source: purchased
Read: because the author came to speak to my Classical Mythology class
Pages: 370

Exiled to Phthia, the awkward young prince Patroclus becomes the close companion of Achilles, the son of a mortal and a goddess. Achilles is strong, the best warrior among the Greeks, while Patroclus prefers the art of healing. When Helen of Sparta is taken to Troy and war breaks out, both men are pulled along the path of fate, a path that will greatly test their bond and honor for the next ten years and end with great sacrifices.

From my previous post, you will know that I didn't particularly enjoy reading The Iliad. The Song of Achilles was, therefore, an excellent companion book to read along with the original epic. Miller develops Achilles and Patroclus's adolescence wonderfully, delving further into their relationship as well as the prophecies and complexities surrounding their eventual involvement in the Trojan War. She also provides a historical depth to the behaviors and attitudes of the Greeks that completely jives with the background we were given in the mythology course. Considering how hard I found it to concentrate on The Iliad, I found this novel to provide an emotional connection to the epic; it made the original story much more human to me. The Song of Achilles focuses not on the usual great heroic deeds and divine shenanigans of Homer's work, but instead on the oft-neglected but completely human social and emotional intricacies and issues faced by the warriors as they try to navigate fate, honor, and relationships during a tumultuous time.

Classic Lit: The Iliad by Homer

Publisher: Univ. of Chicago Press
Translator: Richmond Lattimore
Date: c.8th century BC (1961)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: for my Classical Mythology class
Pages: 490
Reading time: interminable (or, really, about three weeks)

I'm guessing that most, if not all, of us are familiar with the basic premise of The Iliad. It's the tenth year of the Trojan War, and the Greek hero Achilles refuses to fight after being dishonored by the Greek commander, Agamemnon. What follows is a long description of battles and the petty actions of the gods as the Trojans fight the Greeks, with the ultimate goal of the Greeks losing and having to be dependent on Achilles so that he must rejoin the fight. Of course, *spoiler alert,* Achilles will eventually kill Hector, the Trojan hero, which leads into what is apparently left out of the book but which everyone already knows, that Achilles is then killed and the Greeks win the war through use of the infamous Trojan Horse.

My take: The Iliad is boring. I couldn't keep my mind on it at all, which meant I would read several pages and have only a fuzzy idea of what was going on and who was saying what. It seemed like just a lot of dense rambling on - this list of who killed who, this list of who's fighting on which side and what their great attributes are, this extended metaphor comparing a hero to some other creature. Snooze fest. With the exception of about two books in the middle, I zoned out most of the time. Sure, there were some really nice lines here and there, but mostly it seemed like just a lot of meandering around about nothing, drawing out things waaaay too far. My favorite part? I thought Hera boxing Artemis's ears was hilarious. The Classical Mythology prof kept saying this is the greatest piece of literature in the Western canon. Personally, I much preferred Beowulf.

For more of the world's epics, check out this list:
Beowulf trans. by Seamus Heaney
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight trans. by Marie Boroff
Sundiata by D.T. Niane, first and second read

Monday, September 17, 2012

Fiction: Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry

Publisher: Vintage
Date: 2002
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for the WLT book club
Pages: 430
Reading time: five days

From GoodReads: Rohinton Mistry’s enthralling novel is at once a domestic drama and an intently observed portrait of present-day Bombay in all its vitality and corruption. At the age of seventy-nine, Nariman Vakeel, already suffering from Parkinson’s disease, breaks an ankle and finds himself wholly dependent on his family. His step-children, Coomy and Jal, have a spacious apartment (in the inaptly named Chateau Felicity), but are too squeamish and resentful to tend to his physical needs. Nariman must now turn to his younger daughter, Roxana, her husband, Yezad, and their two sons, who share a small, crowded home. Their decision will test not only their material resources but, in surprising ways, all their tolerance, compassion, integrity, and faith.

My review: I wasn't sure how much I would enjoy Family Matters because, in many ways, it's just not my usual cup of tea. I picked it up anyway, however, because the author will be on campus this semester, and I wanted to get in on the book club organized by World Literature Today (1, because I'm interested in world literature, and 2, because the monthly book selections are free). Anyway, while I've enjoyed the couple of other Anglo-Indian novels I've read, I wasn't sure I'd enjoy this one about an elderly man's family drama.

My misgivings aside, however, I ended up loving Family Matters. The first part of the book absolutely grabbed at my heart. It's rare that I manage to make a truly personal connection with a novel, but Nariman and his family's situation spoke directly to what my grandparents, mother, and aunts and uncles are currently going through with my grandmother's deteriorating health. Sadly, I've found it difficult to empathize with and pay attention to some of the family's current issues, but reading this novel allowed me to finally gain a decent perspective on what, exactly, a lot of my adult relatives are dealing with.

Besides my personal connection, though, the novel was fascinating and engaging in other ways. Through the story of this single extended family, Mistry succeeds in conveying many of India's, and especially Mumbai's, modern issues within a very relatable frame. Most readers can identify at various levels with the quarrels, closet skeletons, and everyday struggles faced by Nariman, his children, and his grandchildren: such is family life. Mistry adds to this the corruption of Mumbai politics, the ethnic and religious tension between India's many peoples and faiths, and the conflict between tradition and modernity, without letting any of these aspects take control of the main story. The family in the novel is Parsi, a group originating from Persia who follow the Zoroastrian religion. One of the many reasons why I found Family Matters so informative was because I was almost completely unfamiliar with the Parsi community, not to mention their position in India and potential conflicts with other groups. Thus the novel was very educational for me in addition to being a very realistic portrayal of a modern, urban Indian family.

The only thing I really disliked about the book was the ending. The epilogue, at a relatively long 30 pages, left me with little closure. Some of the same issues start popping up again, and I felt like Mistry would perhaps have done better by writing a sequel that explores these even further. The next part of the family saga could certainly work well if developed into another novel.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

YA Sci-Fi: Safekeeping by Karen Hesse

Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Date: September 18, 2012
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 291
Reading time: two days
*spoiler alert*

From GoodReads: Radley just wants to get home to her parents in Vermont. While she was volunteering abroad, the American People's Party took power, the new president was assassinated, and the government cracked down on citizens. Travel restrictions are worse than ever, and when her plane finally lands in New Hampshire, Radley’s parents aren’t there. Exhausted, her phone dead, her credit cards worthless, Radley starts walking.

My review: I am a huge fan of Karen Hesse's historical novels, so I was quite interested to see how she would do with a dystopian novel. Though Safekeeping, unlike many of her books, isn't written in verse, it carries through her sparse writing style and is uniquely illustrated with her own black-and-white photographs.

Overall, though, I didn't enjoy Safekeeping as much as I have Hesse's other books. The sparse prose was familiar, and, as always, Hesse effectively uses that style to convey emotion and empathy, but I wanted a bit more backstory. I felt like I never truly got to know the characters because I wasn't totally aware of their backgrounds. At the end, too, I was dissatisfied with how things resolved. I felt like, though the things that happened were placed that way to set up the essential backbone of the story, different details could have been used or things could have ended in other ways that would have made more sense and provided more closure. For clarification, highlight the spoiler if you so choose: Radley basically goes on a wild goose chase. Her parents were dead before she returned from abroad, and the police she thought were after her were just trying to tell her about what happened. Obviously, it was necessary for something to set up her experiences for the majority of the book, but I thought everything could have been handled differently. Anyway, Safekeeping is an interesting read, especially as its style and tone differ so much from other recent YA sci-fi releases. It's just not quite as outstanding as many of Hesse's other works.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

In My Mailbox #35

I haven't posted in three weeks, so it's a bit long...

For review:
Safekeeping by Karen Hesse (publisher)
I've finished reading this and will be posting a review within the next week. I didn't find it as good as Hesse's other novels, but it was an enjoyable and worthwhile read.

The Iliad by Homer
Currently slogging through this for Classical Mythology.
The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
Also for Classical Mythology, as Miller is coming to speak to the class this month!
Africa in World History
Textbook for Survey of African Civilizations. I love learning about all the ancient and pre-colonial ones!
The Seed is Mine by Charles van Onselsen
Also for Survey of African Civilizations; it looks like a biography of a South African sharecropper spanning most of the 20th century. 
Fiction: An Anthology ed. by R.S. Gwynn
For Intro to Critical Reading and Writing. I'm not particularly enamored with this anthology; though there are some interesting stories, most seem to be your general intro to lit fare. I'd already read around ten of them on my own or for other classes...

Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
The Honors College here has informal reading groups each semester where they give you a free physical copy of the book (50% of the reason why I'm doing Honors College, lol). 
Postsingular by Rudy Rucker
I'm doing two reading groups this semester.
Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
The World Literature Today periodical runs a monthly reading group that also gives away free copies of the books being read. I love college.

At home:
I'm away at college 1100 miles away, so some of the books I win in giveaways, etc. are just getting sent to my house. I'll get to read them at the end of the semester...
The Death Cure and The Kill Order by James Dashner (Random Buzzers)
If I can land a copy of The Scorch Trials, I shall have the entire Maze Runner series!
Mothership by Martin Leicht and Isla Neal (thanks, Lori at Pure Imagination!)
Looks like corny YA sci-fi. Should be interesting. 
Insatiable and Overbite by Meg Cabot (thanks, Little Miss Drama Queen!)
Because I have been an avid Meg Cabot fan in the past and want to see how she tackles vampires.
Shadows by Ilsa J. Bick (thanks, Cialina at for this and the next two!)
I haven't read Ashes yet, but I really want to...
Bumped by Megan McCafferty
One of the many dystopias I've been trying to get for a very long while.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I've heard great things about this novel, of course.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Classic Lit Re-Read: Sundiata by D.T. Niane

Series: Longman African Writers
Publisher: Longman
Translator: G.D. Pickett
Date: c.13th century (1965)
Format: paperback
Source: BookMooch
Read: for Survey of African Civilizations class
Pages: 84
Reading time: two days

I originally read Sundiata last summer (2011), and you can find my first review of it here. It's interesting to see how my thoughts differ upon two different readings. Honestly, I don't remember much from the first time, and my comments about it then are not always what I thought about it this time.

A little backstory: Sundiata (alternately spelled Sunjata) was the founder of the Mali Empire around 1230 AD. From the Mandinka ethnic group, he returned from exile as a young man to lead his allies in battle against Soumaoro, an evil sorcerer-conqueror. The epic is primarily about Sundiata's childhood and adolescence in exile as well as his victory over Soumaoro as he builds his empire in West Africa.

What stuck out to me this time: It's important to note that I'm currently slogging through The Iliad, which I think is slow and boring (more on that when I finally finish it and can write a full review). So, as I mentioned in the original review, Sundiata is very refreshing as an epic because it is not at all slow and boring! It's short, there's action, and the writing/translation reads very easily. I believe I enjoyed the book more this time than last - I was really getting engrossed in the story, excited to see what would happen next and how Sundiata would be able to face and then triumph over his troubles. On the scale of epic excitingness, Sundiata ranks up with Beowulf (the good translation by Heaney) and not down with The Iliad...

Of course, since I was reading this for a class, I was also analyzing a little bit throughout the book. 1) There's an interesting interplay between Islam and the traditional Mandinka religion. It's noted by somewhat later travelers such as Ibn Battuta (more on him later, too) as well; though West Africa adopted the Islamic religion, it did not adopt Arab culture. This creates some weird contrast when you have Sundiata being compared to the Mandinka hunter god while he fights "the bulwark of fetishism against the word of Allah" (p41). 2) The epic is kind of like the Arthurian legends - it's hard to tell how much to take as fictional story and how much to take as accurate historicity. Supernatural elements, for example, make sense in a cultural context, but modern readers have issues taking them as actual history. 3) The epic is propaganda. There's this whole current running underneath where Sundiata is set up THE ENTIRE TIME as being a great ruler because he demonstrates various king-like abilities in a bunch of different situations. Meanwhile, Soumaoro is portrayed as quite a cold-hearted, cowardly villain. Well, they say history's written by the winners...

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Classic Fantasy: Tarzan Series by Edgar Rice Burroughs

Title: The Return of Tarzan
Series: Tarzan #2
Publisher: Ballantine
Date: 1913 (1984)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: because I enjoyed Tarzan of the Apes a few years back
Pages: 220
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: Tarzan had renounced his right to the woman he loved, and civilization held no pleasure for him. After a brief and harrowing period among men, he turned back to the African jungle where he had grown to manhood. It was there he first heard of Opar, the city of gold, left over from fabled Atlantis. It was a city of hideous men - and of beautiful, savage women, over whom reigned La, high priestess of the Flaming God. Its altars were stained with the blood of many sacrifices. Unheeding of the dangers, Tarzan led a band of savage warriors toward the ancient crypts and the more ancient evil of Opar.

My review: Why is Burroughs' pulp fiction so good?! I greatly enjoyed reading the second book in the Tarzan series (by the way, there are twenty-four official novels); at almost a hundred years later, the writing has aged only a little. There are, of course, the usual details and stereotypes that are now viewed as racially and ethnically offensive, but these can generally be skimmed over as simply products of their time. Another possible drawback is how melodramatic Burroughs' writing can be at times, though, at least in this case, I found it actually added a bit of humor to the novel. (I think there were times, especially towards the end, where Burroughs was intentionally trying to be funny; I was like, "Wait - did he actually just make a joke?!")

I won't speak as to any anthropological and primatological errors in the story; I'm sure there were a multitude. Some of the premises behind Tarzan himself as well as other aspects in this novel (like people surviving over a week in a lifeboat without ANY food or water) seem ridiculous, but the book remains quite entertaining because it's just such a fun read. The plot is constantly moving, and the action is exciting. As mentioned previously, there's lots of laughs, though possibly they're not all intentional. I really think Burroughs quit taking the story seriously in the last fifty pages, and he seemed to especially dislike William Clayton, Jane Porter's betrothed. On to the next book...

Title: The Beasts of Tarzan
Series: Tarzan #3
Publisher: Ballantine
Date: 1914 (1983)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: because I enjoy the series
Pages: 160
Reading time: three days
*spoiler alert*

From GoodReads: Now that he was the rich Lord Greystoke, Tarzan became the target of greedy and evil men. His son was kidnapped, his wife had been abducted, and Tarzan was stranded on a desert island where he seemed helpless. But with the help of Sheeta, the vicious panther, and the great ape Akut, Tarzan begins his escape. Together, with the giant Mugambi, they reach the mainland and took up the trail of the kidnappers. Tarzan sought his wife and his child - and he sought such vengeance as only a human beast of the jungle could devise. But the men Tarzan sought had fled deep into the interior - and the trail was old and well-hidden.

My review: The third book? Not as good as the second. It's still an enjoyable read, but I didn't like it quite as much. Burroughs was definitely intentionally making jokes at the beginning. The start was hilariously ridiculous, so much that I'm still wondering whether or not the author takes his books seriously. You have the most evil, narrow-minded villains in the history of evil, narrow-minded villains - really, even moderately successful villains should be smarter than these guys. Plus, their idea is to drop off Tarzan's infant son in Africa and have him be raised by cannibals. Stop and think for just a moment here: how are they going to convince cannibals to raise a strange child without eating him, much less actually access these cannibals without getting eaten themselves?! And then Tarzan repeatedly shows up to save the day, surrounded with his posse of an African native, a black panther, and a dozen apes. In a canoe. Because apes and panthers are great paddlers.

So the beginning is all fun and laughs, well, interspersed between all the serious action-y bits, anyway, and the rest of the novel continues in typical Burroughs fashion. Again, the plot is exciting and holds even modern readers' attentions. Otherwise, though, this book didn't seem quite as well-written as some of Burroughs' others. At times the story felt rushed, and then it seemed like it just kept going and going and going. Everything's moving along great for a time, people are rescued, yada yada - and here comes another bad event, chase sequence, battle, etc. It seemed like the author was just trying to make a longer book, when really, a shorter one that wrapped everything up faster might have been better.

The edition that I read had an irritatingly large amount of typos. One of the ship's names was misspelled at least three times, for example.