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.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Historical Fiction: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: August 20, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 420
Reading time: about a week

From GoodReads: Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857, when the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry’s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town—with Brown, who believes he’s a girl. Over the ensuing months, Henry—whom Brown nicknames Little Onion—conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the great catalysts for the Civil War.

My review: To begin with, The Good Lord Bird has an interesting and (mostly - it does, after all, include the violence that follows John Brown) enjoyable story. You have a young slave kidnapped by an incredibly insane Brown and forced to pretend he's female because Brown fails to realize the kid is male. Re-christened Onion, he accompanies Brown and his men for several years until the whole thing at Harper's Ferry, so readers get a great overview of the events that led up to the raid as well as the raid itself. There's also some name-dropping interactions with such figures as Frederick Douglass (you will never again think of him in the same way) and Harriet Tubman. Add in some occasional humor, and you have a pretty good novel.

But it's not really that simple. McBride has several messages running underneath the plot that make the book so much more awesome. Identity is one, especially given how Onion is viewed by almost everyone as a girl for years. But mostly, there's the idea of how abolitionists such as Brown didn't, perhaps couldn't, really understand those they were trying to help. Brown consistently believes that both enslaved and free blacks will just run over to help him end slavery, little realizing the social and psychological complexities that influence their actions and decisions. With this novel, McBride provides a much different view on anti-slavery efforts than the one we're usually taught that focuses on white abolitionists and a few famous black figures. It turns a pretty good historical novel into an utterly fantastic one.

Issues: At least in my ARC copy, there seemed to be a lot of inconsistencies between ages/year ranges and, especially, how/when people died during the raid and its aftermath. I'm not sure if these were intentional or just typos.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Recent Acquisitions XI

I feel like such a book glutton. But this post covers the past couple of weeks, not just one. Not everything is pictured; some went straight to my house rather than to the dorm.

For review:
Big Egos by S.G. Browne (publisher's blog tour)
See my review here.

The Rose Throne by Mette Ivie Harrison (thanks, Confessions of a Book Addict!)

From Honors College reading groups:
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

From World Literature Today Book Club:
I came for Lam's book and left with 9 more.
Birds of Paradise Lost by Andrew Lam
Limit by Frank Schatzing
Translated sci-fi!
The Last Man Standing by Davide Longo
Translated sci-fi!
Tears in Rain by Rosa Montero
Translated sci-fi!
Without a Net by Ana Maria Shua
Translated...I'm not exactly sure what genre!, but Shua's been on my wishlist for a connection with spec fiction.
Waiting for the Barbarians by J.M. Coetzee
Another one that's long been on the wishlist.
Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood
Pleasure by Gabriele D'Annunzio
Record of Miraculous Events in Japan: The Nihon ryoiki
Sensibility: An Introduction by Janet Todd

Purchased for class:
Memory in Culture by Astrid Erll
The Ghosts of Berlin by Brian Ladd
Tourists of History by Marita Sturken

Purchased used:
Evelina by Fanny Burney
The Children of the Abbey by Regina Maria Roche
18th century gothic!!! And I don't believe there's even a modern edition, so I thought this was quite a steal, despite its condition, for $1.
Wylder's Hand by J. Sheridan Le Fanu
The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
Memories and Visions of Paradise: Exploring the Universal Myth of a Lost Golden Age by Robert Heinberg

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Nonfiction: Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel K. Richter

Publisher: Harvard Univ. Press
Date: 2001
Format: paperback
Source: purchased
Read: in connection with a Native American Ethnohistory class
Pages: 253
Reading time: one week

From the back of the book: In the beginning, North America was Indian country. But only in the beginning. After the opening act of the great national drama, Native Americans yielded to the westward rush of European settlers. Or so the story usually goes. Yet, for three centuries after Columbus's arrival, Native people controlled most of eastern North American and profoundly shaped its destiny. In Facing East from Indian Country, Daniel K. Richter keeps Native people center stage throughout the story of the origins of the United States.

My review: Facing East from Indian Country is probably one the best history books I've read in terms of its accessibility combined with the quality of information it contains. I was impressed with what Richter set out to do with the book and how he accomplished it. As someone who already has an interest in early/colonial America, this was a fantastic introduction to the Native American ethnohistory of the period. While Richter discusses specific examples rather than write a complete survey of eastern Native history from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the examples allow him to draw generalized conclusions that connect together to provide a broader picture.

And that broader picture is...just wow. The major points seem to be that Natives originally welcomed Europeans into their world, willingly integrating them into their diplomatic and economic systems. Problem was, Europeans wanted to do things their own way, and despite Natives' attempts to come to terms with European ways, Europeans increasingly wanted to distance the societies. Another point is the role of the French and Indian, or Seven Years', War in defining the attitudes and policies that formed the events of the late eighteenth century and later as the colonies became their own country. It's amazing - and awful - how everything, both smaller details and global movements, combined together to eventually lead to bloody conflicts and the removal of Native Americans from the eastern U.S.

Is this book perfect? No. It's only one author's interpretation of history, for one thing, and I'm sure parts of his thesis are arguable depending on how one looks at historical sources (or which ones are studied). Occasionally, the examples Richter used seemed long and drawn-out, especially with how complex political and military situations could be. As usual, the examples are also heavy on English interactions in the Northeast, though I was happy that there was some discussion about Spanish exploration as well as much more about the Cherokee, Creek, and other major Southeastern tribes. Overall, I found the book easy to read and highly informative, a fantastic introduction to the relationships between eastern Native Americans and European settlers in colonial America.