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I found this a bit outdated in terms of style and research - I know there's not a whole lot of material by women from this region/time period, but it still bothered me how most of the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