Saturday, August 29, 2009

Benjamin Franklin on the Art of Eating edited by Gilbert Chinard

I was in Philadelphia for work back in March and on a day off went to an exhibition of some of Charles Darwin's personal papers at the American Philosophical Society. On my way out, I picked this book up on a whim because it sounded interesting and because it was only available directly from the APS.

The first 40 pages were written by Gilbert Chinard, who I guess works
(or worked) for the APS. Some of Franklin's writings about food and a few of his recipes make up the rest of the book. far a I could tell anyway. At various points it was confusing as to who was doing the writing. I was hoping for commentary and footnotes on each of the recipes, or at least on some of them. I thought I would get some interesting analysis. I didn't. This book was a big let down.

Fortunate Son by Walter Mosley

Fortunate Son read like a parable of American life. It is a story about two unlikely brothers. Tommy is a delicate little black boy with all sort of health problems. Eric is his polar opposite, a big blond-haired, blue-eyed boy who seems excel and nearly everything. Although they spend only a short time together before they are pulled apart, their spirits are connected. They each left an indelible imprint on each other that they carry with them, until fate causes their paths to cross again.

Mosley is fast becoming one of favorite living authors. He has done no wrong by me yet (Devil in a Blue Dress and 47). I am amazed by his ability to address powerful, difficult subjects with his simple prose, while at the same time telling a story that grabs you.

This was an excellent read. I regret not writing a review when it was still fresh in my mind.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Stuart Little by E. B. White

I read The Trumpet of the Swan a couple of years ago for the first time since I was a small child. I really loved E. B. White's animal trilogy as a kid and decided that I would also reread Stuart Little. White does a great job of mixing together everyday life and the absolutely absurd. In The Trumpet of the Swan, it was people quickly getting over a swan that could communicate with humans by writing on a chalkboard that hung around its neck. In Stuart Little, it was a woman going into the hospital to have a baby and giving birth to a little mouse. As a kid these were the kind of absurdities that kickstarted my imagination, unlike the acid-trip absurdities of Lewis Carroll.

When Stuart friend Margalo--a bird--goes missing. He decides that he must try to find her. He leaves his family and sets out to locate his friend. The story ends rather abruptly, with Stuart heading down a country road, still looking for his friend.

One of my favorite exchanges was when Stuart was trying to convince a man who owned a tiny sailing ship to let him captain it across the lake. The man asks Stuart, "Are you sober?" as one would of any potential sailor. Stuart replies, "I do my work." Brilliant.

While Stuart Little did not hold up quite as well as The Trumpet of the Swan, it was still a fun read, and remains a great kids book.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

I remember reading somewhere that this is considered a classic work of science fiction, and that other writers, impressed with Abbott's story, have written spin-offs and sequels. This piqued my curiosity, and after Brent and Liz read it and had generally positive things to say, I decided to give it a go.

The main character of the book is A. Square, who lives in a two-dimensional world. Abbott spends a large portion of the book describing this world and the rules that govern it. Whit its rigid caste system and strict rules of social interaction, this "flatland" bears many similarities to British society during Abbott's time (the late 19th Century). A. Square has a dream in which he inadvertently wanders into a world that inhabits only a line. The world is governed by rules and social mores, just as the world in which A. lives. The inhabitants of the line world simply cannot comprehend that A. has more than one dimension. After a few unsuccessful attempts, A. gives up trying to explain it to them and simply leaves miffed and amused at their lack of understanding. However, when A. is visited by a sphere from a three-dimensional world, he fails to understand until the sphere lifts him up out of Flatland, allowing him to look on it from above. But A. soon realizes that he is unable to convince other from his world that his experience did, in fact, happen. Some of the older, more learned inhabitants of Flatland who remember events such as this happening in the past actively try to stifle A.

I suspect when Abbott published Flatland that it was rather controversial--it being, at least in part, a pointed satire of British society. However, this is not what intrigued me about the book. Neither was I taken with Abbott's writing style, which was quite utilitarian, like the writing of a mathematician who finally puts pen to paper on the novel that has been kicking around in his head for years. What Abbott is able to do is provide a clear example of how people deal with the unknown, often choosing to deify or to demonize that which they cannot comprehend.

Monday, August 24, 2009

A House for Mr. Biswas by VS Naipaul

He had lived in many houses. And how easy it was to think of those houses without him! At this moment Pundit Jairam would be at a meeting or he would be eating at home, looking forward to an evening with his books. Soanie stood in the doorway, darkening the room, waiting for the least gesture of command. In Tara's back verandah Ajodha sat relaxed in his rockingchair, his eyes closed, listening perhaps to That Body of Yours being read by Rabidat, who sat at an awkward angle, trying to hide the smell of drink and tobacco on his breath. Tara was about, harrying the cowman (it was milking-time) or harrying the yard boy or the servant girl, harrying somebody. In none of those places he was being missed because in none of these places had he ever been more than a visitor, an upsetter of routine. Was Bipti thinking of him in the back trace? But she herself was a derelict. And, even more remote, that house of mud and grass in the swamplands: probably pulled down now and ploughed up. Beyond that, a void. There was nothing to speak of him.

In many ways, A House for Mr. Biswas reads like an ancient epic, or one of Plutarch's Lives. It's scope is certainly massive; it follows its main character, Mohun Biswas, from his birth to his death. But Mr Biswas, as he is called, even in infancy, is hardly an epic character, instead a characteristically weak man who seems to be surrounded by humiliation and misfortune who marries--almost by accident--into a domineering family, the Tulsis, in the Indian community of mid-century Trinidad. They provide him with work, but control his existence with cruel indifference, and his ultimate goal is to buy or build a house of his own so that he might no longer have to depend on them.

The power of A House for Mr. Biswas lies in Naipaul's subtle, reserved style. The book seems rather plain and underwritten, but a single word of Naipaul's can do heavy lifting. In How Fiction Works James Wood cannily points out that that "Mr"--as in Mr Biswas, by which he is always referred, though other characters are called by their first names--is an honorific that once had value but now has become common and meaningless. Mr Biswas reads prodigiously and encourages his children to become learned, and sleeps in a bed always referred to by its brand name, "Slumberking," but his reality, his meekness and insignificance, are always prevalent.

In awarding him the Nobel Prize in 2001, the Nobel Committee compared Naipaul to Joseph Conrad; the irony not being lost, I'm sure, that Conrad would probably have regarded Trinidad as unfavorably as he did the Congo. But A House for Mr Biswas is a quintessentially postcolonialist novel, in which the strangely convoluted ethnic history of Trinidad is a significant factor--colonized by the Spanish, British and Dutch, replete with ethnic Africans and Indians. In another one of those subtle twists of vocabulary, Naipaul describes how the schoolchildren of Trinidad consciously choose to call their parents "Mommy and Daddy" instead of "Bap and Mai" as a reflection of their English education. But I admit I wasn't thinking of Conrad when I read it; instead I was thinking that something about it struck me as similar to Russian authors like Pushkin, Chekhov, and Tolstoy, the latter especially in the way Naipaul fills the narrative with about a billion characters.

I am happy to report that the novel, though I was sure it wouldn't, has a relatively happy ending. It isn't perfect by any means, but in the end it is a great pleasure to see Naipaul vindicate Mr Biswas in some way.

Three more fun-sized reviews

Toll the Hounds
by Steven Erikson
This is the eighth installment of Erikson's The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a series of fantasy novels so epically nerdy I feel like I should be reading them wearing Spock ears, a retainer, and a wizard's cloak. Erikson releases the penultimate novel, Dust of Dreams in August and I think I'll do a comprehensive Malazan review after I finish that. Simply put, if you're a fan of fiction writing you should appreciate this series. Like I said, it's really intense high fantasy, but the world and mythology that Erikson has created for this series is truly astounding.

Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Ignoring how silly it is for me to try and critique Shakespeare, I wasn't really in love with this play. I'm a huge Shakespeare fan and I've read almost all of his major plays but this is the first history of his that I've read. Perhaps it's because he's bound by a set course of events (to some degree) but I feel like there just wasn't a lot going on behind the text here. Maybe I didn't read it closely enough or didn't have a good enough understanding of the subtext... But Antony and Cleopatra came across to me as a simply, straightforward retelling of a tragic, beautiful love story. Frankly I think HBO did it better.

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
I came close to writing a full-length review for this one but decided against it/to be lazy. The Book Thief tells the story of a young German girl growing up in Nazi Germany during World War II. It's an interesting read, narrated by Death, with a structure unlike anything I've come across before. It's sort of your typical WW2/Holocaust story, it pulls all the right heart-strings and has just the right amount of hope mixed in with despair to keep you emotionally invested. I even got a little misty-eyed at the tragic finale. I feel like this book is probably best suited for the 14-18 year old age range, but I definitely enjoyed it and would recommend it to anyone.

Monday, August 17, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

9th July, 1946
Dear Sidney,
I knew it! I knew you'd love Guernsey. The next-best thing to being here myself was having you here -- even for such a short visit. I'm happy that you know all m friends now, and they you. I'm particularly happy you enjoyed Kit's company so much. I regret to tell you that some of her fondness for you is due to your present, Elspeth the Lisping Bunny. Her admiration for Elspeth has caused her to take up lisping, and I am sorry to say, she is very good at it.
Dawsey just brought Kit home -- they have been visiting his new piglet. Kit asked if I was writing to Thidney. When I say yes, she said, "Thay I want him to come back thoon." Do you see what I mean about Elspeth?
Love, Juliet

Writer Juliet Ashton is living in London shortly after the Second World War when she receives a note from Dawsey Adams, a native of the British Channel Island of Guernsey (like the cows!) He saw her name written in a used book he bought and admired it so much that he looked Juliet up to tell her so. And so begins a correspondance between Juliet and the denizens of Guernsey - some of them anyway, mostly the members of a curious club called the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. The book is an epistolary novel telling about the very real occupation of Guernsey and the other Channel Islands by Hitler's army in WWII. The letters describe various hardships, kindnesses and acts of heroism on the island during the five-year occupation. They are written directly to Juliet, who is planning to write an article, and then a book, on the occupation. She eventually becomes a pen pal to practically the entire island.

Each of the topics covered in the letters from the Guernseyites to Juliet is related to something that actually happened in the war. The book is fiction but the starvation endured by the islanders, the curfews and strict punishments imposed by the Germans, the concentration camps in Poland that islanders were occassionally sent to, and even the sending away of all the island's children just prior to the occupation were all factual events. Only the personal lives of the Guernsey inhabitants are totally ficitionalized.

The letters find Juliet at a crossroads in her life; 32 and alone, she is practically a spinster by 1940s English standards. She has recently begun dating a roguish American who admires her good looks and fine pedigree and not much else about her. Her paramour is not pleased by Juliet's decision to move to Guernsey to research her book, which has increasingly revolved around the life of one woman. Elizabeth McKenna was the center of the Literary Society in Guernsey, until she was imprisoned in a concentration camp in Europe for hiding a young Polish boy from the Germans occupying the island. There, she dies after striking an overseer for beating another woman.

When Juliet moves to Guernsey she finds herself spending more and more time with the island batchelor Dawsey Adams and Elizabeth's orphan daughter Kit. At book's end, Juliet dumps the American, marries Dawsey and they adopt Kit. Hurray!

This book was a super quick read, partly because it was an engaging novel, and partly because I was in Honduras. Sadly, the original author died before the book was published. Her niece finished it and published the book.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson

The next thing I saw was the telephone. I stood in the middle of a drunken crowd and I called 911 because I needed help. All those visits from Officer Friendly in the second grade paid off. A lady answered the phone, "Police, state your emergency," and I saw my face in the window over the kitchen sink and no words came out of my mouth. Who was that girl? I had never seen her before. Tears oozed down my face, over my bruised lips, pooling on the handset. "It's OK," said the nice lady on the phone. "We have your location. Officers are on the way. Are you hurt? Are you being threatened?" Someone grabbed the phone from my hands and listened. A scream--the cops were coming! Blue and cherry lights flashing in the kitchen-sink window. Rachel's face--so angry-- in mine. Someone slapped me. I crawled out of the room through a forest of legs. Outside, the moon smiled goodbye and slipped away.

I walked home to an empty house. Without a word.

(Spoiler alert: This book is difficult to talk about without revealing certain things.) There is a canon of literature that belongs solely to middle and high schools that I didn't even know about until I became a teacher, at least here in New York. Some texts, like Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird overlap with that other canon, the canon of American universities; others, like The Giver and other YA books are relatively popular and well-known otherwise. But there are some books--like Sandra Cisneros' House on Mango Street--that, for whatever reason, seem to exist only in schools, or at the very least, have a popularity as educable texts that vastly outweigh their presence in bookshops.

Speak is one of those books. I had never heard of it until I started teaching; now, it seems to be everywhere. Part of this, I imagine, is because it is a narrative that takes place mainly in a high school, covering the freshman year of a girl named Melinda Sordino. Sordino is an Italian world that means "mute" or "dumb," and appropriately so, as Melinda has problems with communication in general--unable to talk in class, unable to make friends, unable to communicate with her parents. She enters high school viciously unpopular. All of this can be traced back to an incident that happened at the end of the previous school year, when Melinda went to a party where she became intoxicated and was sexually assaulted by an older boy, a boy who happens to go to her new high school and winks at her whenever she walks by. Her former friends, some of whom got into trouble when the cops arrived at the party, have turned her into a pariah.

This is heady stuff. I liked this book a great deal because it does away with one of the most insidious misconceptions about youth: that childhood is a simpler time, an idyll where real problems don't exist. Middle and high school, in case you have forgotten, can be devastating, and to go through an issue like Melinda's is certainly crippling. Anderson deserves all the credit in the world for writing a book for young adults in which an issue like rape is seriously discussed. No wonder that the book is frequently challenged, as if the rush to insulate our children from evil does anything but teach them they have nowhere to turn in times of real crisis.

I read this book in about an hour and a half, but as brief as it was, I felt it was very powerful. I am considering teaching it next year, depending on the grade to which I am assigned.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Confederates in the Attic by Tony Horwitz

The Vicksburg siege produced other oddities. The Confederacy experimented with camels, and one colonel used a dromedary to carry his personal baggage until a Union sharpshooter killed the animal. There were also Vicksburg´s famed caves, dug by civilians as protection against the Union bombardment. Some of these burrows became elaborate affairs, furnished with carpets and beds and serviced by slaves. But most were crude, crowded dugouts that one resident described as ¨rat holes.¨Like the soldiers, civilians also saw food supplies dwindle to a meager daily ration. When beef ran out, they ate mule meat, frogs and rats.
Tony Horwitz´s book about the Confederacy´s lasting legacy makes for great reading. Horwitz has met some of the strangest people and relates some of the oddest facts I´ve never heard about a war we all studied in high school. Horwitz, posessing an interest in the War Between the States (I´m going to try and work in as many Civil War euphemisms into this article as possible) since childhood, sets off on what turns into a multi year mission to examine several aspects of the war and its effects on the South today.
Horwitz begins his journey with a troupe of Confederate reinactors led by Robert Lee Hodges (named after the South´s most famous general, and generally dismissive of ¨farbs,¨or those who only take their reinactments halfway). As he travels throughout most of the South, he happens upon the Sons, Daughters and Children of the Confederacy, a group that allows him to see just how reticent some Southerners are to let the War of Northern Aggression go unmemorialized. Horwitz´s travels turn into an exploration of anything and everything having to do with the war, including but not limited to the Confederate flag, Southern Jews, race relations in Southern Kentucky, and the Klan. He even relates a story from Vicksburg of a minie ball, a type of shot, that passed through a soldier´s genitals and into the abdomen (and presumably uterus) of a nearby woman, impregnating her. Or so her mother said when confronted with her unmarried daughter´s pregnancy.
This book was full of interesting facts and stories. My copy is completely dog eared from trying to pinpoint funny stories, and I´m leaving it here in Honduras with Wheeler, an 82 year old missionary who is interested in the War of Northern Aggression. It took me a while to read because while interesting, it was dense. And had the uncanny ability to put me to sleep after about 5 pages. Read it if you like historical nonfiction or the Civil War. Otherwise, it may not hold your attention. I thought Horwitz´s writing style was similar to Bill Bryson...this book is written travel log style.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves

Belisarius was far too respectful a subject to argue with his Emperor that he had never done him any evil; and swallowed the reproach. It was his view that so long as a man acted uprightly and according to his own conscience such insults could not harm him. There is a Christian saying, that to forgive your enemy and to return good for evil is like heaping coals of fire upon his head. Justinian's hair was constantly being singed by the warmth of Belisarius's unexampled services... Time after time, Belisarius accomplished the seemingly impossible, and Justinian felt more and more humiliated to stand so heavily in his debt. I shall have more to write upon this head before I have done.

A little historical background: It is common enough knowledge that in the 4th Century AD Rome was besieged by foreign invaders, eventually deposing the last Roman Emperor in 476 and launching the world into what we now know of as the Dark Ages. This is only a half-truth, though. At the time, the Roman Empire was split into two parts, the Western Empire, with its capital at Rome, and the Eastern Empire, with its capital at Constantinople. While the Western Empire was supplanted by barbarian control, the Eastern Empire continued for another 1000 years, twice as long as the "Roman Empire," its citizens all the while calling themselves Romans.

For much of this century-long period, the Eastern Roman Empire, which we usually call the Byzantine Empire, was confined to Asia Minor, modern-day Turkey. But for a brief period under the reign of Justinian, the Empire stretched its holdings to Greece, Italy, Spain, and North Africa: almost the sie of the original Roman Empire. A lot of the responsibility for conquering those areas fell on Belisarius, a legendary general in Justinian's service.

In Count Belisarius, as he did for the Emperor Claudius in I, Claudius and Claudius the God, Robert Graves turns a historical figure into a pretty compelling fictitious character. Belisarius' feats as a general are pretty incredible: beating the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Goths in Italy without ever losing a major battle.

One of his more interesting accomplishments is the put-down of the Nika riots in Constantinople. Apparently, in this time, there were two major chariot racing factions in the Empire, the Blues and the Greens. These people took chariot racing so seriously that not only were these factions about sports, but they even controlled local politics, acting as odd surrogates for political parties, but also having some of the traits of street gangs. A riot between these two factions (named after the Greek word "nika!" or "win!") broke out in the stadium which almost cost Justinian the Emperorship until Belisarius bribed the Blues to leave and then massacred the Greens.

The strange thing about Belisarius' story is that time and time again, Justinian, partly because he was jealous of Belisarius' success and partly because he was worried that Belisarius would try to have himself crowned Emperor in Constantinople or King in Italy, treated Belisarius like shit. Belisarius was under constant scrutiny, maligned by his subordinate officers and repeatedly charged with sedition. Ultimately (this isn't really a spoiler since it's FROM HISTORY) one of these charges stuck and Justinian happily had Belisarius' fortune stolen from him and his eyes put out, reducing him to a blind beggar. All the while, Belisarius had never once quarreled with the Emperor or disobeyed him.

At first I though that compared to Graves' depiction of Claudius, Belisarius came off a little flat, and maybe he does. But I think that there is something really interesting going on--apparently the division between the Blues and Greens was so deep that they each took sides on the prevailing religious question at the time, which was an argument about the nature of Christ, whether he had dual natures (the Orthodox Blue position) or just one (the "Monophysite" Green position). Graves does a good job of making these arguments seem very academic and petty. What it took the entire book for me to realize was that Graves was setting up Belisarius as a living, breathing model of Christ--being the single selfless man in the world, enduring unending abuse from everyone around him, while the rest of the Empire argues violently about an essentially meaningless dogmatic question.

I think for many people this review was probably really boring. If that's true, I wouldn't recommend this book to you. However, I did like it quite a bit, so if you're a fan of historical fiction I think you should check it out. Though I would read I, Claudius first.