Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Classic Lit: The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press
Date: 1752 (1998)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: because I usually like 18th century novels
Pages: 380
Reading time: months and months

From GoodReads: The Female Quixote, a vivacious and ironical novel parodying the style of Cervantes, portrays Arabella, the beautiful daughter of a marquis, whose passion for reading romances colors her approach to her own life and causes many comical and melodramatic misunderstandings among her relatives and admirers. Both Joseph Fielding and Samuel Johnson greatly admired Lennox, and this novel established her as one of the most successful practitioners of the "Novel of Sentiment."

My review: I finally made iiiiiiitttttttt. I didn't think I would actually reach the end - I've made several pushes to try to finish over the past semester, and only by shear dint of volume have they paid off. A breakdown of my reading:

This summer: The first 100 pages started off strong. As one would assume from the title, there are rather strong, obvious, and humorous ties between The Female Quixote and Don Quixote. The latter is a parody of chivalric romance, while Lennox's work takes the same general premise and applies it to French romances. Hilarity ensues. But after about the first 100 pages, the plot goes on repeat. We realize at this point how odd Arabella is and how much drama her strange views and behaviors will create, so let's just skip to the ending, right? When I realized there were still over 250 pages left, however, my reading slowed significantly.

This semester: When you're having a busy semester, nothing is less inspiring for your extracurricular reading than for the little amount of time you have to be occupied by a boring novel. I just didn't even bother to try continuing this until classes ended.

Winter break: Since I had gotten to somewhere between page 250 and 300 during my summer reading and a couple of half-hearted attempts at either end of the semester, I was determined to get this book over with. I had hoped it would eventually pick up at some point. It didn't. I hardly know what I was reading, since I zoned out a lot. There were too many words and pages for the actual stuff that was occurring, so I don't think it mattered all that much, anyway. This might have been a decent read had everything been condensed, but as it stands, The Female Quixote is the most dense and needlessly long-winded 18th century novel I've ever read.

Last note: It might have helped if modern readers were familiar with the works being satired in The Female Quixote (I mean, a lot of the stuff from Don Quixote is still floating around), but I've never heard of any of them and assume they're all long out-of-print. The constant references to a couple of key works were utterly lost on me.

Mini-Reviews: More Fiction

I read the first two of these at the end of the semester and lacked the energy to write longer reviews. The inclusion of the third is simply laziness.

Emma by Jane Austen (1815; Norton Critical Edition 2012)
Not my favorite of Austen's novels, but a decent read. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, though Emma eventually grew on me. It was interesting to see how all the romances played out, because I had pretty much everyone pegged with the wrong person at the beginning. The reading group billed this as "proto-feminist," so I kept looking for such messages while reading but didn't find a whole lot; instead, it just kind of confused me on Austen's intent in writing.

Without a Net by Ana Maria Shua, trans. Steven J. Stewart (July 2012)
This is a collection of 99 of Shua's "microfictions," a writing form with which I was unfamiliar. The stories all have a circus theme, but there's some really cool deeper messages in a lot of the stories about the human condition, the relationship between author and reader, etc., plus elements of surrealism and fantasy. With every story only a paragraph or two long, I felt like a lot of these cool messages struck me for only a short time, and then I was moving along to the next page. What Shua is writing is neat, but it's too brief to leave much resonance.

The Lais of Marie de France trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante (12th cent.; trans. 1978)
This book proved to be a nice break from my classics slump - I would love to find more collections of lais! This translation is great, very clear and easy to read. The lais (like short stories in verse, often relating to Breton folklore and Arthurian stuff) are enjoyable, and I found them quite fun in connection with my Arthurian lit course this semester. The similarities to folkloric styles and motifs were also a draw.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Did Not Finish: Better Off Without 'Em by Chuck Thompson

Subtitle: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: August 2012
Source: GoodReads First Look

From GoodReads: In Better Off Without ’Em, the biggest book of his career, Thompson offers a heavily researched, serious inquiry into national divides that is unabashedly controversial, often uproarious, and always thought-provoking. By crunching numbers, interviewing experts, and traveling the not-so-former Confederacy, Thompson—an openly disgruntled liberal Northwesterner—makes a compelling case for Southern secession. Along the way, he interacts with possum-hunting conservatives, trailer park lifers, prayer warriors, and other regional trendsetters, showing that the South’s perverse church-driven morality, politics, and personality never have and never will define the region as a fully committed part of the United States. Better Off Without ’Em is a deliberately provocative book whose insight, humor, fierce and fearless politics, and sheer nerve will spark a national debate that is perhaps long overdue.

Why I couldn't finish: I read the introduction, first chapter (on religion), and half of the second chapter (don't really remember what that was on, I think politics). And then I gave up because I just didn't want to continue and didn't see much point in doing so. Yes, some of the content in the book was interesting, but my issues with it all far outweighed any enjoyment I was getting from reading.

1) Overgeneralization. Thompson paints the far-right quirkies (uber-conservative evangelical Protestants, Tea Partiers, Obama conspiracy theorists, etc.) as the typical Southerners, leaving no room for those of us who view such people as relatively harmless crazies. I grew up in small towns in rural North Carolina, I think I know Southerners fairly well. Yes, there's a lot of the crazies, but there's also a lot of us (particularly in the younger generations) who just move along, shaking our heads, when we encounter these people.

2) Offensiveness. I could perhaps excuse the overgeneralizations if Thompson was at least funny. I expected this to be rather like Confederates in the Attic (which, as a reenactor myself, I find uproariously funny and true to experience in the bits discussing reenacting), but Thompson's way of writing unapologetically sets out to offend every type of Southerner solely on the basis of his or her region of birth.

3) Poor argument. The whole thesis of the book has something to do with, to paraphrase, "since Southerners do their own thing that the rest of the U.S. doesn't/shouldn't like, wouldn't it just be better if the South was a separate country?" Except Thompson's logic often fails, with much inclusion of non sequiturs and little relation back to the original thesis except for brief token mentions at the end of the chapter.

The end result: If I ever attempt to read this again, it'll be a long time coming.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

YA Sci-Fi: Contaminated by Em Garner

Publisher: Egmont USA
Date: July 23, 2013
Format: hardback
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 330
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: After the Contamination—an epidemic caused by the super-trendy diet drink ThinPro that turned ordinary citizens into violent, uncontrollable creatures—the government rounded up the "Connies" to protect the remaining population. Now, two years later, the rehabilitated are being allowed home, complete with shock collars that will either control, or kill, them. Velvet Ellis has struggled to care for her ten-year-old sister since her parents were taken in the round up. When she finds her mother in one of the "Kennels," Velvet resolves to do whatever it takes to put her family back together. But the danger isn’t over. It’s beginning all over again…

My review: One expects zombie novels to be fast-paced and full of gritty, morbid, bloody zombie-killing action. Not so with Contaminated. The novel reveals the "humanity" of zombies, reminding us that the genre doesn't have to be all thrillerness and blood-and-guts fighting. I found it a rather refreshing difference, actually.

This is not to say that the plot of Contaminated is boring or slow, because it isn't. The story is very well-paced as well as well-written. The characters have depth and are engaging. They're dealing with issues not unknown to readers - having to take care of younger siblings, balancing family, work, and school, dealing with close family members who have various severe illnesses (the changes in Velvet's mother are a lot like a gradual reversal of Alzheimer's). The novel is very perceptive of some current social issues and negative cultural trends, and I found the book interesting in as much for its ways of examining these to various extents as for its actual storyline.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

YA Sci-Fi: The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: September 24, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 320
Reading time: one day

From GoodReads: A civil war rages between the Glorious Path--a militant religion based on the teachings of a former US soldier--and what's left of the US government. Fifteen-year-old Callum Roe and his younger brother, James, were captured and forced to convert six years ago. Cal has been working in the Path's dog kennels, and is very close to becoming one of the Path's deadliest secret agents. Then Cal befriends a stray dog named Bear and kills a commander who wants to train him to be a vicious attack dog. This sends Cal and Bear on the run, and sets in motion a series of incredible events that will test Cal's loyalties and end in a fierce battle that the fate of the entire country rests on.

My review: This is the first book by Jeff Hirsch that I've read, and, overall, I enjoyed it. It was a fun read for a rainy day. The plot starts out fast-paced, intense, and exciting, and it continues in this style throughout the novel. I liked the religious elements of the dystopia, since religion is one aspect very relevant to today that I think could be explored a lot more in the recent YA dystopian genre spree.

But, otherwise, I had some issues with the story. Cal and James's ages are given as pretty young, but their characterizations and actions mark them as far more mature. In the most succinct and obvious example, at one point Cal is about to send 13-year-old James off on a road trip hundreds of miles long by himself (forgetting that James of course hasn't learned to drive). I felt like the Path's methods of control weren't very fleshed-out; it's one thing to nominally take over vast swaths of the U.S. and another to actually change the views of all the occupants there so that there's not the constant threat of internal rebels. Some of the dystopia's characteristics seemed to get lost during the course of the story, like the Path's supposed lack of reliance on modern things. I also tired of just how much the setting and characters present changed - let's please stick with one or two sets and quit switching around. Still, the novel wrapped up well, ending on a perfect note for a standalone.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Retellings: Havisham by Ronald Frame

I'm back! Two weeks is a long time for me to be quiet on the blog, but I was studying for final exams (and, what occupies even more time, procrastinating on studying for final exams) and then recuperating from a busy semester. And of course, my family continues to stay busy throughout the break, which doesn't help matters any. But on to more relevant things, like book reviews...

Publisher: Picador
Date: November 2012 (UK); November 5, 2013 (US)
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 356
Reading time: about four days

From GoodReads: Before she became the immortal and haunting Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, she was Catherine, a young woman with all of her dreams ahead of her. Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer. But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall—HAVISHAM—a reminder of all she owes to the family name and the family business. Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers elegant pastimes to remove the taint of her family's new money. But for all her growing sophistication, Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything—her heart, her future, the very Havisham name—is vulnerable.

My review: I read and reviewed Great Expectations last semester, so the original story is fairly fresh on my mind. I found that Havisham did not seem to really add much to Dickens' novel. Yes, it gives a greater backstory for this most eccentric character, but it did not provide anything that I found particularly innovative or insightful. I thought that the details that were different were just that - details - though some metafictionally bits about Pip writing a novel over all of this were kind of cool. I ended up seeing Havisham less of a retelling and more of just a period novel. The descriptions of material culture were great, and I got a wonderful sense of upper-crust culture and society during the time period. That, for me, was more enjoyable than Great Expectations from the perspective of another character.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

YA Fiction: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: May 2011
Format: hardback
Source: blog giveaway
Read: cleaning up that ubiquitous TBR pile
Pages: 390
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner. What's a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

My review: I've been looking forward to reading Beauty Queens since it came out, given that it appeared to be a fun novel mocking beauty pageants by placing contestants in a Lord of the Flies-esque situation and seeing what happens. And this is, in a nutshell, still a good way to describe the novel, but the book is so much more than this, so much deeper. It's feminist-y satire and cultural critique, going beyond the beauty pageant and image-obsessed culture to examine pretty much all aspects of American society, all while being uproariously hilarious. Seriously, I spent the past four nights laughing out loud and trying to convince my women's-and-gender-studies-potential-major roommate that she absolutely must read this book.

So, yes, the cultural criticism is a major - and fantastic - part of the book. I think we should read novels like this in literary and cultural theory classes because they put such critical analysis into terms normal people can actually understand (cough cough, Judith Butler, I'm pointing at you). But all of this satire is perfectly interwoven with a pretty stellar plot. The inclusion of adventure novel/film tropes to the point of near-surrealism just adds to the general hilarity. About the middle of the book, I was wondering how much longer everything was going to keep up, but this slower part was quite brief, and the momentum of the story largely kept up for the entire ~400 pages. Excuse me, but I must now go push Beauty Queens onto all of my feminist, gender theory-studying friends (and just everyone in general)...

Perhaps my favorite gem of many great lines from this book (this particular one is coming as advice to a pageant contestant): "You can tell story of how much you wish to be mother someday. People like to hear about your future plans for ovaries" (p 82).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Last Reading for the Semester

Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life by Herbert Pleij; trans. Diane Webb (2001)
Meh. It was interesting...and then it got long and rambling and repetitive. I'm not really even sure what the thesis was, but the book was basically just examining any aspect of medieval life possible to examine in relation with Cockaigne texts (major emphasis on Dutch ones) for 400+ pages. If you're interested in the subject, perhaps just read the first bit of this and then skim the rest?

Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South by Robin Beck (Jun. 2013)
This was right up my alley because it's specifically about the Native American groups that became the Catawba in the Piedmont Carolinas, and Beck has worked with the Berry Site (Xuala/Joara & Ft. San Juan) in Burke County, N.C. It's the most recent research on this region/time period, seems to be well done, but there were some new ways Beck interpreted the sources, especially on migrations and group continuities between some of the population movements, that appeared to my little untrained eyes possibly questionable.

Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux by Gary Anderson (1986)
This biography takes a "life and times" approach for various parts of Little Crow's life, since there's not always that much info directly pertaining to him. I'm not a huge fan of biographies, but this was interesting, at least, and I definitely learned more about Dakota life in the mid-19th century and specifically the Dakota War of 1862. I didn't really catch on to all the differences between Dakota, Lakota, Sioux, and individual bands, though, which could get confusing.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Recent Acquisitions XIII

I think it's been at least a month since I did one of these posts. I have all of two weeks left in this semester, and then, hopefully, a month of reading!

For review:
Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay by Llyn de Danaan (Early Reviewers)
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak (Early Reviewers)
The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed (TLC Book Tours)
See my review and giveaway of this here!

The Wilful Eye (thanks, vvb32 Reads!)

From Random Buzzers:
Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan
Gated by Amy Christine Parker
Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal
Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Purchased at a campus book sale:
Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Bloodroot by Amy Greene

From WLT Book Club:
The Song Seekers by Saswati Sengupta
Legend of the Walled-Up Wife by Ileana Malancioiu
Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Casares
One Good Story, That One: Stories by Thomas King
A Short History of Indians in Canada: Stories by Thomas King
Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide by George E. Tinker
Madness of Waiting by Muhammad Hadi Ruswa
Fairy Tales Transformed? Twenty-First Century Adaptations and the Politics of Wonder (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies) by Cristina Bacchilega
Revisioning Red Riding Hood Around the World: An Anthology of International Retellings (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies) ed. by Sandra L. Beckett
I can't wait to have time to start reading this - definitely one of the best books I've picked up from WLT, given that it's been on my wishlist of international speculative fiction!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Blog Tour Review & Giveaway: The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed

Publisher: Plume
Date: September 24, 2013
Format: paperback
Source: TLC Book Tours
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 340
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: The thirteenth child conceived of miserable Irish exiles, Katie O’Toole dreams of a different life. Little does she know that someone far away is dreaming of her. In 1747, savages raid her family home, and seventeen-year-old Katie is taken captive. Syawa and Hector have been searching for her, guided by Syawa’s dreams. A young Holyman, Syawa believes Katie is the subject of his Vision: the Creature of Fire and Ice, destined to bring a great gift to his people. Despite her flaming hair and ice-blue eyes, Katie is certain he is mistaken, but faced with returning to her family, she agrees to join them. She soon discovers that in order to fulfill Syawa’s Vision, she must first become his Spirit Keeper, embarking on an epic journey that will change her life—and heart—forever.

My review: Early American captivity narrative from the Pennsylvania frontier? I am so totally into this. An epic journey across early Historic Native America? Even better. My one wish is that the author would have included some kind of historical note. I think the historicity of this novel is, overall, pretty good, but there were some aspects I wondered about, among them being the likelihood of an epic journey literally across North America, but most especially how much any of the Native groups in the novel are based on specific tribes rather than being simply ahistorical, imagined amalgamations.

Kudos to the author for including Irish (and there were some hints that the dad was Scots-Irish, perhaps?), English, French, AND Spanish characters, though I felt like sometimes they were all rather stereotypically drawn.

The actual story. Oh my gosh. Did I mention the epic journey? It's so well-written, and the twists and action of the plot are perfectly worked in. The romance, also, is very well-developed and, I thought, tasteful - it develops quite naturally; no insta-love here! I loved how Katie is thrust into this new situation in which she must deal with so many foreign things, and she manages everything with a realistic mixture of success, failure, and confusion. The portrayal of the cultural misunderstandings and misinterpretations that arise and just how different are Katie's world, experiences, and perceptions to those of her companions is so perfect. The only thing that irked me a bit towards the end was a shift in focus from the journey and the whole Spirit Keeper thing to Katie's relationship with another character; it seemed like Katie's personal transformation and some of the messages of the novel shifted along with this change. But perhaps a sequel is in the works in which some of the original themes return?

Giveaway: Thanks to TLC Book Tours, I have one copy of The Spirit Keeper to give away to a lucky winner! Contest is open to US/Canadian addresses only; ends December 10, 2013.

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Thursday, November 21, 2013

Mini-Reviews: An Eclectic Mix of Fiction

Wigalois by Wirnt von Grafenberg (13th cent.)
trans. J.W. Thomas, 1977
Surprisingly, I haven't been all that thrilled about my readings for Arthurian Lit this semester. Wigalois was a welcome change from that! The story seemed like one of the most cohesive and best-written for the works we've read in class, and I found myself finally enjoying just reading the assigned text. The only annoying bit was how much Christian moralizing is included.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson (1959)
I was surprised at how different this was from We Have Always Lived in the Castle. I found most of the characters irritating, some quite comically so. Such comic relief was odd, but very entertaining, against the otherwise really creepy storyline. I enjoyed this novel a good deal and thought the resolution, as well as the explanations of events, was much better than that of We Have Always Lived in the Castle.

Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Casares (2003)
I'm terrible at reviewing short story collections. Maybe because of the "short" part, I can never develop enough feelings and words to explain much about what I thought. I enjoyed reading this collection. It's contemporary fiction set around Brownsville, Texas, and the experiences described are fairly everyday occurrences. Casares has a nice writing style that makes interesting these rather mundane subjects, but there weren't any stories that particularly stuck out to me.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

A More Diverse Universe: Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik

It's that time of year again - this is the second annual More Diverse Universe event, focusing on speculative fiction by authors of color and hosted by Aarti over at Book Lust. I participated last year with my review of Field of Honor by D.L. Birchfield (one of my favorite reads last year!), and this year I'm reviewing Utopia by Arabic author Ahmed Khaled Towfik.

Publisher: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing
Translator: Chip Rossetti
Date: 2008 (trans. 2011)
Format: hardback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: for A More Diverse Universe
Pages: 160
Reading time: about two hours

From GoodReads: A grim futuristic account of Egyptian society in the year 2023, Utopia takes readers on a chilling journey beyond the gated communities of the North Coast where the wealthy are insulated from the bleakness of life outside the walls. When a young man and a girl break out from this bubble of affluence in order to see for themselves the lives of their impoverished fellow Egyptians they are confronted by a world that they had not imagined possible. 

My review: Utopia brings back many of the elements of classic dystopian novels: social criticism, frightening possible visions of the future, and pessimism. This particular novel is particularly aimed at Egyptian society; not knowing a great deal about events there over the past few years, I thought a lot of the messages could equally apply to any country or region. This is a brief book, but its vision is powerful and terrifying. The entire novel is an interesting read, but the ending in particular struck me by its lack of redemption for society. This deep pessimism is what really separates Towfik's Utopia from other recent dystopian writings that see themselves as needing to offer an ending with some goodness to a story rather than focus entirely upon prophetic examinations of socio-economic and political issues. The surprise of the conclusion made the book fantastic and utterly depressing to me at the same time.

Maturity factor: general content, non-explicit rape

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Children's Historical Fiction: Who Comes With Cannons? by Patricia Beatty

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: 1992
Format: paperback
Source: book sale
Read: because it's set in my home state
Pages: 186
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: When Truth Hopkins's father dies, she goes to live with her uncle and his family on their North Carolina farm. Like Truth, the Bardwells are Quakers. They oppose slavery but refuse to take up arms in the civil war that is now being waged to end this inhuman institution. Then one day, a runaway slave takes refuge on the Bardwell farm and, to Truth's amazement, her uncle hides him from the slave catchers. Even more puzzling, he asks her to accompany him when he delivers a wagonload of hay to a neighbor late that night. This ride, and the wagon's real cargo, involve Truth in a mysterious and dangerous underground movement -- and reveal how she can help further the cause of freedom without the use of a rifle.

My review: It took me a while to readjust to the simplicity of children's literature, and I am still not sure exactly how I feel about how oversimplified things could be at times. At the beginning, especially, the dialogue seemed stilted, and not just because of the typical Quaker "thee's" and "thy's." There is not a particularly large cast of characters, with the result that the Southern characters, with the exception of Truth's schoolteacher, are either Quakers or rather stereotypically-drawn, die-hard Confederates (and all men, at that). Also, the fact that this ~175 page book covers all years of the Civil War means that there are major time gaps, sometimes at points where I wished daily life and other events could have been more fleshed out.

But otherwise, this is a sweet story about a young girl finding courage and her own voice during a pretty bad time in American history. I particularly appreciated the novel's emphasis on Quaker experiences during the war as well as its portrayal of North Carolina's Battle of Bentonville, both of which are uncommon in the other Civil War fiction I've run across. And while slavery and the Underground Railroad are common themes in children's historical fiction, I think it's rare for a novel to include abolitionists also traveling along the Railroad. There are still more aspects of this book that are unusual, like visits to a Union prison for Confederate POWs and mentions of former slaves going to Liberia. And while I am not a huge fan of token appearances by such famous personages as Frederick Douglass and the Lincolns, as well as the simplified nature in which Sherman's March in particular is portrayed, this is a pretty cool novel that moves past the most famous battles and aspects of the war to describe the experiences of someone who, rather than taking sides in the conflict, is caught completely in its crossfire.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Yet More Nonfiction

Because all I seem to be doing this semester is research for research papers/projects (I'm up to four papers and one project now). There's not even a lot of normal homework, just an inordinate amount of reading for what the final products will be.

From Chicaza to Chickasaw: The European Invasion and the Transformation of the Mississippian World, 1540-1715 by Robbie Ethridge (2010)
Ethridge focuses on the groups that would become the Chickasaw, but a great deal of the book is on the Southeast in general. I would spend 45 minutes taking notes on the five or so pages in a chapter that dealt particularly with my area of study - the details for each region are that fantastic. Makes for some dry reading at some points if you're not interested in absolutely everything going on, but extensive and well-written.

Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber (Sep. 2013)
I'm not big on religious/inspirational books because, well, I'm not really religious. I did enjoy Bolz-Weber's memoir for the most part, though I didn't find her theological musings particularly deep (then again, I kind of skimmed them). There were times when I just loved the quirky, humorous ways she described her life experiences, religion, and spirituality. Such moments seemed to drop off the farther along I read, though, and so this turned out to be a decent read, but not very remarkable overall.

Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur-Trade Society, 1670-1870 by Sylvia Van Kirk (1983)
I found this a bit outdated in terms of style and research - I know there's not a whole lot of material by women from this region/time period, but it still bothered me how most of the book is women's history from the male perspective. Also, I found the coverage/analysis of the topic rather superficial overall and confusing in terms of chronology, and I wish the author had actually explained the organization/terminology of the fur trade companies. The content was interesting, just not quite of the same quality as the other history books I've been reading.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Children's/MG Fiction: Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye

Publisher: Simon Pulse
Date: 1997
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for book club
Pages: 270
Reading time: a couple of days

From GoodReads: The day after Liyana got her first real kiss, her life changed forever. Not because of the kiss, but because it was the day her father announced that the family was moving from St. Louis all the way to Palestine. Though her father grew up there, Liyana knows very little about her family's Arab heritage. Her grandmother and the rest of her relatives who live in the West Bank are strangers, and speak a language she can't understand. It isn't until she meets Omer that her homesickness fades. But Omer is Jewish, and their friendship is silently forbidden in this land. How can they make their families understand? And how can Liyana ever learn to call this place home?

My review: This is a book that I think I would have enjoyed more at a younger age, just because I feel like I would have identified more with the main character during my middle school years in particular. Liyana is an interesting character - compared to those that I am used to in YA novels, she seems simultaneously younger, more naive and sheltered but also more thoughtful and sophisticated. Her creativity and writing, calmness, occasional loneliness, and musings are aspects that I would have been drawn to in my younger days because I identified with them.

Perhaps because of this characterization, I felt like I had about outgrown the audience range of this novel. It's a nice book, of course, and has some good messages about community and acceptance and getting along with each other despite any differences, but it just flows differently from what I am now used to. I am used to aspects of the plot and of characters being explored more than they are in this novel, where Omer and other friends feel flat and the potential central conflicts flash by with relatively little effect. Fifteen years after the book's initial publication, I also struggled to place the events of the novel in context: are they taking place a couple decades in the past, or in the 1990s, or are they still realistic for Palestine in 2013? The stories and messages within Habibi are certainly still relevant, but, as an older (i.e., not child/tween) reader, I found it difficult to truly engage with the characters and plot as well as to fully figure out their connection with current events.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Recent Acquisitions: Book Sale Season Edition

It's that time of the year again for campus book sales! Unfortunately, the university library's was not as utterly fantastic as it was last year (much fewer books and older, not-as-great selection), but I can always find plenty of interesting things to pick up!

For review:
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (thanks, ARCycling!)
Better Off Without 'Em by Chuck Thompson (First Look)
Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas (First Look)
The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch (First Look)
Contaminated by Em Garner (Early Reviewers)

From the Honors College:
The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
Emma by Jane Austen

Anthropology department sale:
Who Comes With Cannons? by Patricia Beatty
Local interest historical fiction - Quakers in North Carolina during the Civil War.
Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology by Kenneth L. Feder
The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of "Cargo" Cults in Melanesia by Peter Worsley
Their Number Become Thinned: Native American Population Dynamics in Eastern North America by Henry F. Dobyns
Arrowheads and Spear Points in the Prehistoric Southeast by Linda Crawford Culberson

University library sale:
Nomansland by Lesley Hauge
Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska
Dora by Sigmund Freud
Primitive Art by Franz Boas
The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life by Emile Durkheim
Early American Almanac Humor by Robert K. Dodge
"I Sing for I Cannot Be Silent": The Feminization of American Hymnody, 1870-1920 by June Hadden Hobbs

And then I came back to the uni sale when I heard it was $1 for whatever you could carry:
Encounter at Easton by Avi
Moon-Child by Derek Walcott
On the Historical Novel by Alessandro Manzoni
The Death and Rebirth of the Seneca by Anthony F.C. Wallace
The Muster Role of Coronado
Major Writers of Early American Literature by Everett H. Emerson
The American Adam by R.W.B. Lewis

Local public library sale:
Pitiful on the nonfiction this year, but good on the novels.
Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith
A Journal of the Flood Year by David Ely
Solaris by Stanislaw Lem
Jim the Boy by Tony Earley
Local interest historical fiction: Great Depression.
Louisiana's Song (Maggie Valley Novels #2) by Kerry Madden
Local interest historical fiction: 1960s Appalachians.
War Woman by Robert J. Conley
Possibly local interest historical fiction; also 16th century/early Historic Cherokee, so right up my alley with what I'm studying right now.
Persian Letters by Montesquieu
The Grandissimes by George Washington Cable
Germinal by Emile Zola
Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen
The Octopus by Frank Norris
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Democracy in America by Alexis de Tocqueville
The Maid of the North by Ethel Johnston Phelps
North Carolina Legends by Richard Walser
Trivia or a Collection of the Wit and Whimsy of Early America

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Classic Re-Read: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Publisher: Everyman's Library
Date: 1847 (1991)
Format: hardback
Source: Honors College
Read: for an informal reading group
*spoilers alert - this review assumes the reader already has a basic knowledge of the plot*

From GoodReads: Orphaned into the household of her Aunt Reed at Gateshead, subject to the cruel regime at Lowood charity school, Jane Eyre nonetheless emerges unbroken in spirit and integrity.  She takes up the post of governess at Thornfield, falls in love with Mr. Rochester, and discovers the impediment to their lawful marriage in a story that transcends melodrama to portray a woman's passionate search for a wider and richer life than Victorian society traditionally allowed.

My thoughts: My previous experience with Jane Eyre is reading an abridged version in the 2nd grade and the full version in 6th grade, meaning I didn't actually remember a whole lot about the book besides its most basic framework. I did, however, watch the 1996 film version back in mid-August, which led me to then obsessively watch YouTube video clips from the two 1990s and two 21st-century adaptations for a weekend. (Side note: My favorite Jane is from the 1996 film; my favorite couple/romance is from the 2006 mini-series, which I desperately want to watch in full.)

Anyway, I loved Jane Eyre in 6th grade, but it took me a while to get into it this time. (Then again, I seem to be in a years-long classics slump, so I wouldn't entirely trust this opinion.) Villette, which I read in 10th grade, is one of my favorite books because of the characterizations, so I was a bit disappointed in what I saw as differences in character between Jane and Lucy Snowe. Jane, for all her stoicness and independence and putting-off of emotions, can also be annoyingly sanctimonious and fragile. Perhaps this reflects the contradictions in all of our personalities, but it came off as out-of-place juxtapositions to me.

And the romance? I thought that the films' development seemed choppy due to having to cut out scenes and details, but no, I found, to a lesser degree, a lack of development in the novel as well. I think this is, quite simply, due to my coming in with expectations of how modern novels develop romance (gosh, I really need to go back on a classics diet!). I just couldn't always see the attraction between Rochester and Jane, though it did grow on me - Jane Eyre might not have become my go-to book for when I'm feeling a bit lonely and want to read some romance, but it worked as such for the couple of weeks our reading group took to complete it.

Charlotte Bronte's writing. I love it. Again, I remember the writing in Villette and Shirley more fondly, but those were written after Jane Eyre, and I haven't yet re-read them. There were some moments in the novel where the writing seemed just all amazingness and angst and genius, like the scene where Jane is debating whether or not to leave while Rochester pleads with her. You see Jane's inner struggles and feel with her, yet her negative reply to Rochester cuts to the bone and, if one had not seen into Jane's thoughts, would have appeared utterly cold and heartless. It was definitely my favorite part of the book.

Also, there's so much in Jane Eyre that makes sense only if you've already read it or at least know what's coming. I've heard of the references in the novel to "Bluebeard" before, but they seem to be simply random, insignificant details unless you know Rochester's secret and realize the references are actually pointing rather obviously towards the existence of his wife, locked up out of sight. These and other intimations of what's to come add an eerie, creepy air to the book; I had not realized before how much prophetic signs and superstitions play into the plot.

And so, my conclusion. I was disappointed that I did not enjoy Jane Eyre as much as I had remembered or expected, but it was still a pretty great read. I found myself reading through my newly-developing English major's eye and often finding the craft, the references, the messages more fascinating and entertaining than the plot itself. My appreciation for this novel, then, now comes more from Charlotte Bronte's excellent writing among 19th century authors than from a simple enjoyment of a good story.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Gothic Fiction: We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson

Publisher: Penguin
Date: 1962 (2006)
Format: paperback
Source: Honors College
Read: for an informal reading group
Pages: 146

From GoodReads: Taking readers deep into a labyrinth of dark neurosis, We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a deliciously unsettling novel about a perverse, isolated, and possibly murderous family and the struggle that ensues when a cousin arrives at their estate. 

My review: Mary Katherine "Merricat" Blackwood and her older sister Constance live with their disabled Uncle Julian in their family's old mansion, largely isolated from the other inhabitants of their village. The rest of their family was murdered six years previously, and the villagers view the sisters with antagonism. When long-absent cousin Charles arrives at their home, a struggle ensues that will drastically change the lives of the remnants of the Blackwood family.

The debates in our reading group for We Have Always Lived in the Castle centered primarily around how insane the characters are/are not and why Shirley Jackson wrote this novel. It was, of course, quite a fun discussion group. I believe we all ended up being unanimous in thinking of Jackson as one really messed up, emotionally unstable lady who hated both outside society and what she was perhaps expected to do at home. Much of this novel seems to be exaggerations of daily life and fears - Constance is agoraphobic and focuses on cleaning the house and cooking, Merricat is stuck in a never-changing childishness, Julian is stuck in time at the time of the family's poisoning, Cousin Charles is concerned only with money and material things. I found myself identifying with some of Merricat's quirks, but in her they are expanded upon until they become central to her strangeness. Jackson has a way of making even the mundane appear sinister, as with old canned goods described as potentially lethal, an eighteen-year-old imagining, like a child, her family worshiping rather than punishing her, and the decay of a summer house. The novel succeeds in being creepy simply because of how it twists the nature of things that, in unexaggerated forms, are quite average, and because of how it leaves the reader without much benefit of explanation - the situation in the book simply is what it is; there is no deeper reason for the way things have happened.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Mini-Reviews: More Nonfiction

Same as the last batch of mini-reviews: books that I have read in connection with class assignments.

Memories & Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age by Richard Heinberg (1985/2007)
For starters, this is from a theosophical publisher, so I kind of took everything with a grain of salt. I thought some of his anthropological arguments stunk of romanticism and not-so-great scholarship, in particular. The comparative folklore parts were interesting but got old after a while. Heinberg did have some fascinating things to say, though, so it's worth a read if the subject catches your interest. 3 1/2 stars

A New Order of Things: Property, Power, and the Transformation of the Creek Indians, 1733-1816 by Claudio Saunt (1999)
This started out super-strong, with very meticulous research and good lengths for chapters (I'm reading most nonfiction books at a rate of a chapter per day, so yes, this is important, and it also relates to the issue of too little vs. too much information). By the end, though, I was flagging. It seemed like the author wasn't doing quite as much with the last chapters and giving as complete a picture as could have been possible. 4 stars

Pendejo Cave ed. by Richard S. MacNeish and Jane G. Libby (2003)
Pendejo Cave is an archaeological site in New Mexico that claims to have pre-Clovis evidence of Paleoamericans going back tens of thousands of years, which makes it pretty controversial. This book, published by Univ. of New Mexico Press, is basically a 500-page site and analysis report. As such, I found it extremely technical - this is one you read if you're seriously researching the subject, not just because you think Southwestern archaeology is fun.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Recent Acquisitions XII

For review:
Christian Nation by Frederic C. Rich (Early Reviewers)
It's somehow connected to It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis (i.e., my favorite dystopia EVER), so I had to get it!
Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce (ARCycling)
Circle Reforged #3. This is at home, so I won't get to it until Christmas, probably.

From Honors College informal reading groups:
Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint by Nadia Bolz-Weber
Just made the connection between this coming out on Tuesday before our reading group started and our group having a late start. Kudos to the moderator of the group on being really current.
Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman

From WLT Book Club:
Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
Forest of a Thousand Daemons: A Hunter's Saga by D.O. Fagunwa
Dark Company by Gert Loschutz
The Novel: An Alternative History, 1600-1800 by Steven Moore
This probably counts in the best books I've gotten from WLT. Tired of history-of-the-novel books that focus on the same few famous novels? This one surveys 400 more obscure works of fiction from the first centuries of the genre as a genre. There's a companion book as well that covers the period before 1600. And these are chunksters - 700  and 1000 pages each.

The Juan Pardo Expeditions: Exploration of the Carolinas and Tennessee, 1566-1568 by Charles Hudson
I read most, if not all of this, for my senior project research paper a couple of years ago. Time to revisit it for another paper, though it's one of the very few books by Hudson that the uni library doesn't have for some reason.

Purchased from Bookoutlet.com:
I tried to hold my book expenditures here to $3 or less per book when the site (formerly bookcloseouts.com) changed names and had a 25% off sale; it mostly worked.
A Short History of a Small Place by T.R. Pearson
Blindness/Seeing by Jose Saramago
Desolation Angels (The Big Empty #3) by J.B. Stephens
First Light by Rebecca Stead
Man of War: My Adventures in the World of Historical Reenactment by Charlie Schroeder
The Angel Maker by Stefan Brijs
The Boy from Ilysies (Libyrinth #2) by Pearl North
The Hunger Pains by Harvard Lampoon
The Patron Saint of Butterflies by Cecilia Galante
We Are Gathered Here by Micah Perks
Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Short Stories: Birds of Paradise Lost by Andrew Lam

Publisher: Red Hen Press
Date: March 2013
Format: paperback
Source: World Literature Today Book Club
Read: for the WLT Book Club
Pages: 200

From GoodReads: The thirteen stories in Birds of Paradise Lost shimmer with humor and pathos as they chronicle the anguish and joy and bravery of America’s newest Americans, the troubled lives of those who fled Vietnam and remade themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. The past—memories of war and its aftermath, of murder, arrest, re-education camps and new economic zones, of escape and shipwreck and atrocity—is ever present in these wise and compassionate stories. It plays itself out in surprising ways in the lives of people who thought they had moved beyond the nightmares of war and exodus. It comes back on TV in the form of a confession from a cannibal; it enters the Vietnamese restaurant as a Vietnam Vet with a shameful secret; it articulates itself in the peculiar tics of a man with Tourette’s Syndrome who struggles to deal with a profound tragedy. Birds of Paradise Lost is an emotional tour de force, intricately rendering the false starts and revelations in the struggle for integration, and in so doing, the human heart.

My review: I am not, as I have probably mentioned before, an overly huge fan of short stories. I have rarely managed to muster more than a lukewarm reception for them, so I am not the best judge of a collection's worth.

I did, however, enjoy Lam's work. There is no precise reason I can place my finger on as to why I enjoyed the stories, other than that I did think they were well-written. Lam is certainly able to effectively condense all he wants said into a relatively brief amount of space; the stories are very self-contained and usually feel complete. Perhaps what I most appreciated, though, was the broadness of experience represented in this collection. It was a little strange to me that, as part of a recently-published book, the stories are about earlier immigrants rather than those who have come over or who have been born during my own generation. Yet the stories cover old and young, male and female, wealthy and poor, successful and struggling. There's several stories with GLBTQ characters. But at the same time, all of this is understated - it's not obvious that the author is trying to be particularly broad or inclusive. There are just tales of ordinary people's life experiences, told succinctly and simply, that carry a power beyond their deceptively understated style.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Nonfiction: Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman

Subtitile: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: February 2012
Format: hardback
Source: Honors College
Read: for an informal reading group
Pages: 252
Reading time: about 4-6 days

Synopsis: This is the memoir of Deborah Feldman, a young woman who grew up in the ultra-orthodox Satmar Hasidic Jewish community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, New York. The daughter of a mother who left the community and a mentally-disabled father, Deborah was raised by her grandparents. She married in her late teens and had a son but found it increasingly difficult to adhere to her community's strict rules and expectations for women and for wives. Deborah's memoir is her story of growing up in the Satmar community and of her eventual decision to leave it for a college education and a new life for herself and for her son.

My review: I found Unorthodox enlightening. I am interested in insular religious communities such as the Hasids, and Feldman provides an intimate glimpse into the beliefs and practices, both public and private, of the ultra-orthodox Satmar group. I thought that, overall, she provided a good balance between describing the community and describing her own negative reactions to it without necessarily vilifying the group and its practices as a whole. I also appreciated the stark openness with which Feldman describes her marriage in particular, including her and her husband's initial difficulty in consummating their marriage as well as other issues in their relationship.

The first part of the book was well-developed, and I felt like readers gain a broad picture of what Feldman's childhood and adolescence were like. The second half of the memoir, though, was much different. Events seemed more compressed, like there was a lot that was left out about Feldman's personal transformation and the factors that caused the change. There were several questions that I, and the other members of the reading group in which I participated, were left with about some of the details of Feldman's and her family's lives. In particular, I wish we had heard more about her mother's story (though, of course, that story is perhaps not Feldman's to tell), since it later appears more complex than "simply" being caught in a bad marriage and feeling like a misfit in the community.

Note: The paperback and hardcover editions have two different epilogues, since the paperback was published some months later and Feldman decided to include more about her life since the initial publication of her memoir.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sci-Fi: Rivers by Michael Farris Smith

Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: September 10, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 333
Reading time: four days

From the back of the ARC: A climate shift in the years following Hurricane Katrina has ravaged the Gulf Coast like never before. In response to the unrelenting storms and widespread devastation, the federal government instituted a boundary known as the Line, below which citizens can expect no aid. Those who stay behind do so at their own peril. Shattered by the loss of his wife and unborn child, Cohen has been unable to abandon their home, risking exposure to violent storms as well as roving mercenaries who prey upon survivors. One day he is attacked and left for head. His house ransacked, all his carefully accumulated food and supplies gone, and the few precious mementos of his wife and child now in the hands of strangers, Cohen summons his last reserves of strength to forge a new life above the Line. And to avenge all that he has lost.

My review: For most of the book, I felt like there was not much about it that distinguished it from other post-apocalyptic reads. The premise is different and interesting - I like speculative novels that play off of current issues - but, overall, the plot just didn't seem unique or memorable. If anything, it conjured up stereotypical ideas of Westerns with lots of shooting and a slightly chauvinistic air towards women.

The women in this book: they all seemed flat to me, but then, so did pretty much all of the characters. A group of women end up being central to sections of the plot, yet they are largely treated in relationship with their interactions with men - the one who falls in love with Cohen, the ones who are used as baby-makers for the man who keeps them captive, the one who lost her brothers or her husband. Cohen ends up with plenty of guns, yet instead of handing them out to the small group of women to help defend themselves, he hides the women away, unarmed, and relies solely on an inexperienced teenage boy as his companion in defense.

The one thing that ended up truly intriguing me about Rivers was how the "main character" seems to subtly switch partway through. The reader thinks he or she knows who Cohen is, but the further the book progresses, the less we seem to hear directly from him - we certainly don't learn all his secrets - and the more we hear from the character Mariposa. The conclusion to the story, especially, is a change in focus that in some ways makes me wonder whose story we were reading in the first place.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Nonfiction

Or, why I have not been posting much lately. For this round of mini-reviews, all books were read in connection with writing research papers or doing other projects for my classes this semester.

The New History in an Old Museum by Richard Handler and Eric Gable (1997)
Can you say underwhelmed? I felt like Handler and Gable largely wrote about matters only tangentially related to the "new social history" critical approach that Colonial Williamsburg had recently adopted. The book was largely a criticism of the organization and blather about corporate stuff. Yawn. I wanted more practical information, like on actually using the approach in interpretation and public history.

Native Carolinians by Theda Perdue and Christopher Arris Oakley (2010)
(earlier edition pictured)
The beginning of this was written at a ridiculously low reading level that made it annoying to read. The rest, however, provided some great information. Despite the briefness (70 pages) of this little book, I found that much of the content was new to me. I only wish it covered more post-colonial tribes in depth than just the Cherokee and Lumbee.

The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape by Brian Ladd (1997)
I was just kind of slogging through this one until I read The New History in an Old Museum and realized how much better Ladd's writing is. My problem with Ghosts of Berlin was simply the vast amount of information that made for rather long and mind-numbing reading, though if you're interested in German/urban history, WWII/Cold War legacies, or Berlin, you would probably have a much high appreciation of all the information that's presented.

Indian Wars in North Carolina 1663-1763 by E. Lawrence Lee (1997)
This book would be okay if it wasn't so outdated. The writing style is typically 1960s - extremely Anglocentric and overly simplistic. There were several passages that just made me cringe because there's this underlying mentality of us (English) vs. them (a noble-but-kind-of-backward lost culture). Overall, though, I don't think much of the information is outdated, so at least in that regard it's a decent, brief, cheap introduction to the subject.