Catch up time…

catch_upLife has been a bit busy lately, so in order to get caught up a bit, I thought I’d do a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading lately. Please don’t think that just because these titles don’t get their very own blog post, these titles are not that great. They are awesome, but in the interests of time and resources, I thought a brief mention would be better than no mention.

Back in September, I finished up a powerful read of “Warriors Don’t Cry”, a recounting of when Arkansas was forced to desegregate its Little Rock Central High School, much to the dismay of a lot of people. There were supporters, naturally, but this is from the viewpoint of one of the young high school students who took courage to new levels when she decided to stick with the desegregation process, scary though it was.

Reading just how badly people behaved during this  time period was heart-breaking and stressful. There was a band of six high school students, all African-American, who were selected to be the pioneers in integrating their school, and once I had read about how just plain horrible some of the people (community adults, teachers and students) were to these brave students, my heart went out to them.

It’s an amazing read that takes you into the very heart of a reluctant Arkansas city’s forced 1957 racial integration of one of its largest high schools, and it shocked me to learn how mean and threatening people were towards people of African descent (and those who supported them).

The author, Melba Padillo Beals, was a fifteen-year-old student at the time, and her recounting of this terrifying time when she was trying to get her education is shocking. (At least it was to me. I knew things were tough for African-Americans during this time during America, but this shows to what levels the opposition stooped to do – against high school kids!)

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Shameful and rather difficult to read, but not half as difficult as it must have been to actually live in those times. A tough but necessary read, especially in the atmosphere of today where it seems as though America is going backwards instead of forwards.

(Linked with this topic is also a short book of essays I’m reading that argues that America is moving towards resegregation… More to come.)

Kaffir_boyWanting to read more about racism, I picked up “Kaffir Boy “by Mark Mathabone (1986), a title that’s been on the TBR pile for quite some time, this one about South Africa’s time of apartheid and how one young black man struggles to escape. This was another toughie to read. It doesn’t gloss over the hardship of life for black Africans who have to live under apartheid, and once you’ve read these descriptions of living in a black township at that time, you realize that this kid’s escape to a better life was actually even more of an achievement. It’s sickening that the world allowed this government to continue with apartheid for as long as it did…

And then, since I rather needed something a little more cheerful to read, I did a quick reread of a collection of Atlantic articles by David Grann called “The Devil and Sherlock Holmes.” (See review of an earlier read here.)

Another really enjoyable and well-written read about how strange people can be across the world sometimes. 🙂

 

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October 2018 Reading Review.

 

Crikey! That month passed quickly! Let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest).

The reads for October included:

  • Young Men in Spats – P.G. Wodehouse (1936) F (no blog post but typical Wodehouse)
  • Swing Time – Zadie Smith (2016) (300 pages read but DNF) F
  • The Vampyre – John Polidori (1819) F/Short story
  • The Best We Could Do – Thi Bui (2017) NF/Graphic
  • Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Marata (2018) F/novella
  • Kaffir Boy – Mark Mathabone (1986) NF/autobio (post to come)
  • The Devil and Sherlock Holmes – David Grann (2010) NF (post to come)

Ongoing project: Just reading. And maybe a jigsaw puzzle. 🙂

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in September7

Total number of pages read: 1,818 pages (av. 260).

Fiction/Non-Fiction: fiction / 3 non-fiction.

Diversity4 POC. 3 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): library books, 4 owned books and e-books.

Future plans include just reading. And maybe a jigsaw puzzle. 🙂

Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata (2018)

convenience-store-woman.jpgTranslated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori.

A very quiet but surprisingly forthright novella about what it means to be “normal”: Who should decide this? How important is being “normal? Should you change to fit the norm or is it acceptable to stay true to who you are (despite how society judges you)?

I’d been wanting to read a book from someone who was from somewhere else (and either about a person of color or by a person of color – preferably both if possible). Despite my steady pattern of integrating POC reading into my book diet earlier this year, I’d rather fallen off the wagon lately, and so was determined to find a title that would fit within those parameters. Sayaka Murata’s short book fit the bill (and more!), so thank you to Kim of Reading Matters who brought it to the fore for me.

This recently published title was a short and punchy read, but its story is told to its completion, being neither over-long or too short, so it was close to a perfect novella read for me. I know – big words, but this title will definitely make my end-of-year list for top reads for 2018. It’s that good.

Living in Japan, Keiko is 36 and has worked at the same convenience story for the past 18 years. She’s perfectly happy with her life of living as a single woman and working in this retail position, but she’s very aware that other people in her life view her as an issue to be sorted out (or a problem to be “cured”).

It seems that in her Japanese world, the choices for women boil down to only two things: either you work a big professional job or you get married to a “salary man”, a guy who frequently overworks and has a position in a high stress field.

However, Keiko wonders why her friends and family see her as a “problem” when, in fact, she’s perfectly happy to be who she is doing the job that she does. She believes that her job is so suited to her, in fact, that it’s in her cells: she was made to be a convenience store woman, no matter what others may say.

One day, getting fed up with being seen as somehow defective, she develops a solution that would please both her fretting friends and family. She asks a former co-worker to move in with her and pretend to be her boyfriend.

In the short term, this answer does get her married sister, her friends and her parents distracted away from her life, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges which have to be addressed.

It’s a marvelous read, written in a very clear and succinct style in an almost deadpan manner. It might even meet the definition of absurdist in terms that it brings a focus on a societal expectation in a fairly rigid society, whilst at the same time, ridiculing the very idea it spotlights…

I think this is best read in one evening, not because the plot is amazingly complex or anything, but because I think you’ll have the best reading experience that way, and can become totally immersed in Keiko’s life and mind.

This is a superficially surface read, but the title has surprising depth and has kept me thinking about it hours after I finished it.

I’m not sure quite why this book is not more well-known (or at least in the circles I have), but I think it’s a wry, witty and profound look at societal expectations and how someone can work around them whilst still staying true to themselves.

Loved it.

 

The Vampyre – John William Polidori (1819)

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An early cover stating the authorship as Lord Byron, when really it was Dr. John Polidori.

Since it’s October and the weather here has finally started to behave in a seasonal fashion (Rain! Getting dark early! Cooler temps!), I thought it might be a good time to look out for a slightly creepy read. Since I’m not a huge fan of horror and gore, I tend to move towards the “cozy creepy” and serendipitously I came across a mention of this early version of blood-sucking vampires. Ooooh. Count me in!

(Plus – I’m a big fan of the original Dracula by Bram Stoker [1897].)

This title, The Vampyre [link to Project Gutenberg], is a fairly short (in length) short story that first appeared in print in 1819, but was actually written in 1816 by Dr. John William Polidori, a traveling doctor connected with that group of Romantic writers including Lord Byron and his small creative gang which also included Percy Shelley and Mary Shelley (although they weren’t married at the time).

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Dr. John Polidori.

The friends (plus their doc Polidori) had been traveling around Germany and one stormy night, the group decided to see who could write the scariest horror story. Out of this challenge arose the classic, Frankenstein: or the Modern Prometheus (as its title is punctuated) from Mary Shelley and this short story, The Vampyre.

There’s a source on the Wiki page that says that this short story came about due to awful weather during that year’s summer when Europe and parts of North America had lashings of rain and was called “The Year without a Summer”… That’s why the literary group got bored and started to write stories. (Apparently.)

[If you read the Wiki page for the Year without a Summer, it’s actually pretty interesting… Caused by a big volcanic eruption in Indonesia, they think. Well, I never…]

And actually, this close association between Polidori and Byron led to some misattribution as to who the original author when this story was first published. (See the top image of the original cover.)

(Fair’s fair though: Polidori’s story was originally influenced by another piece of writing that Byron had done earlier.)

That was sorted out not soon after, and the familiar trope of the vampire as a high-class fiend with a thirst for the blood of high society maidens was born.

Although the idea of vampires (immortal blood-sucking creatures who relied on other humans for their nutrition) was quite a new phenomenon for English lit at that time, the idea had been kicked around in novels and plays (and even an opera) since the early nineteenth century. The earliest seems to be by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who published The Bride of Corinth in 1797, which could be the actual first mention of a vampiric character, but Polidori’s is the first mention in English literature…

Warning: An extremely high number of spoilers abound in the text below.

Back to the story: the plot is very similar to the typical vampire trope (although still new to readers at the time), and follows Aubrey, a young English gentleman, who meets mysterious Lord Ruthven at some parties in London. No one seems to know Lord Ruthven very well (although rumors abound), and Aubrey ends up following him to Rome. After Lord Ruthven seduces a daughter of a mutual acquaintance, Aubrey leaves and travels on to Greece where he meets (and is attracted to) Ianthe, an innkeeper’s daughter (beautiful but not really suitable for the lover of a high-society young man such as Aubrey).

However, love is not to be for young Aubrey. Young Ianthe gets murdered (By whom? Would it be Lord Ruthven? Is, in fact, Lord Ruthven a vampire? Daaa Daaa Dunnn…)

Aubrey rejoins Lord Ruthven (why??) but Ruthven is then attacked and murdered by some bandits. Before Ruthven pops his clogs, he makes Aubrey promise not to tell anyone anything about Ruthven’s life (and death) for a year and a day. Aubrey promises (of course he does).

Aubrey goes back to London and is surprised when Ruthven shows up alive and well. Reminded of his promise to Ruthven, Aubrey stays quiet even when Ruthven is working on seducing Aubrey’s sister. Helpless to rescue his sister, Aubrey suffers a nervous breakdown. The happy couple get engaged – on the very day that Aubrey’s promise to Ruthven about staying silent ends. Oh. My. Gosh.

Aubrey goes ahead and pops his clogs, but not before writing a letter to his sister warning her about Ruthven’s evil ways. The sister doesn’t receive the letter in time. That rascal Ruthven marries her, and on her wedding night, she is discovered, bloodless and limp. Ruthven disappears, never to be seen of again.

Spoilers end here.

So – I really enjoyed this read (and the resulting info I found about it.) This was an unexpectedly interesting trip down some Wiki rabbit holes…!

Note: I had thought this story would be under the Victorian umbrella, but apparently not. Her father, King George III, died in 1820, but Victoria didn’t inherit the throne until she was 18 (1837) and until her father’s three brothers had all died with no issue.

 

In this box are all the words I know…

“In this box are all the words I know,” he said. “Most of them you will never need, some you will use constantly, but with them you may ask the questions which have never been answered and all the questions which have never been asked.

“All the great books of the past and all the ones yet to come are made with these words. With them, there is no obstacle you cannot overcome. All you must do is to use them well and in the right places.”

— The King of Dictionopolis, The Phantom Tollbooth.

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The Power – Naomi Alderman (2016)

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A science fiction/speculative fiction read that turns the typical gender power balance on its head and examines a possible result.

What would happen if women were suddenly given the power in this world? How would they end up treating men and each other? Is absolute power corrupting even for the “gentler” sex?

Published in 2016 (but written during 2014/15 during the early days of the Orange Goblin’s ascendancy), this novel is a book-within-a-book about a world that’s just different enough to be off-kilter for the reader of today.

In this near future, women have developed the ability to pass electricity through their fingertips, which over the years leads them to become the dominant gender. How would this would impact the development of world society over a few thousand years?

This is a memorable read that portrays a rather frightening world that’s evolving as the reader travels with the book’s characters. After decades, perhaps centuries, of being told that women are the “gentler” sex, when they are given power to dominate the world’s structure, do they treat the opposite gender as people think women would treat them?

The novel’s main protagonist is Mother Eve, who has grown up in an abusive environment and develops into the matriarch of a popular worldwide religion, and the book follows her development along with three other characters impacted by this change.

The NY Times book critic, Ron Charles, calls this book “our era’s ‘Handmaid’s Tale’” and others have named it “the millennial’s ‘Handmaid Tale’”, but however you categorize it, it’s a gripping plot that moves along at the speed of lightning (or at the speed of the weaponized electricity coming out of women’s palms).

It’s a very believable tale as well. Who is to say that evolution or biochemical pollution won’t bring change in the human species or others? Whatever the reason, this is an adaptation that completely disrupts the world as we know it.

It starts in teenage girls, and as the girls grow up and as they show older women how to use their (sometimes latent) power, the adults start to understand what it is and how to use it. World politics and current events are impacted to create a whole new society.

The set-up means an end result that is much more nuanced than the two genders just swapping places. The plot turns stereotypes on their sides. For example, there are women who start to dress as men to communicate submissiveness, and there are boys who start to dress as girls to seem more powerful. And then there is the question of rape…

This was a provocative read for me.  Are humans the same regardless of gender, or are they really that different due to their gender?

Interestingly enough, Alderman had already established herself as a bright new star on the writing front prior to this manuscript being published, and as a result and through a Rolex-sponsored partnership, Alderman ended up being mentored by Margaret Atwood herself. (She also thanks Ursula Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler in the acknowledgements so it seems that she was influenced by some very strong writers. Imagine all those conversations!)

(Slightly random aside: It was also one of former President Obama’s favorite reads of 2017… High praise indeed. 🙂 )

This was a thoughtful and disquieting read about a future very different from now. At this time of misogyny and #MeToo, this novel evaluates the power of power itself.

September 2018 Reading Review…

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So another month has passed, and let’s check in with how my reading is doing (just out of interest).

The reads for September included:

Ongoing project: Reading the AP Style Book.

So to the numbers:

Total number of books read in September6

Total number of pages read1,639 pages (av. 273).

Fiction/Non-Fiction2 fiction / 4 non-fiction.

Diversity1 POC. 5 books by women.

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books, 2 owned books and 1 e-book.

Future plans include instituting a book-buying ban until December, finish up the AP Style Book, and read more off TBR. 🙂

 

Me, me, me…

Cover artI apologize for the lack of blog posts lately. The only excuse I have that is remotely worthy is that I’m teaching a new class this semester, which is requiring five billion new PPTs which take some time to put together. (Hyperbole is the best, I think…)

Plus my computer has a mind of its own on occasion and I’ve lost a handful of files which meant I had to recreate them. Grr.

But the upside is that I have a great bunch of students this semester, and I’m also seeing some of my old students from the last few semesters around the building, so I’m enjoying saying hi to them… (Since I’ve only been teaching for the past year, having old students around the building is a new thing for me – I love it.)

In the meantime, I’m getting the new routine sorted out and organizing the work load more efficiently, so all signs point to more blog posts in the future weeks.

I’ve been reading, but just not as much as I did in the summer since there’s been that prep for class (which I don’t mind at all). All the prep also means that I have rather tired eyes at the end of the day, and now I finally understand what my parents and grandparents meant when they said that they were “just resting” their eyes … 🙂

And so, what have I been reading? Well….

I happened to find a brand-new copy of the old kids’ book called “The Phantom Tollbooth” by Norton Juster (1961) which was quite a clever read. The title doesn’t make my Top Ten reads or anything, but it was a fun non-demanding read and just right for the overload at the beginning of the semester.

Image result for troublemaker leahThen, I moved on to something very different: “Troublemaker”, the autobiography by Leah Remini of her years spent in Scientology. Wow. It’s a very strange way of life and costs thousands of dollars to stay in it, but its attraction, I think, is that it provides a home and a direction for those folks who are feeling a little lost in their own lives. It promises so much – eternity, happiness, riches, saving the world – but the personal cost to each individual is immense.

Remini was in the religion due to her mother being a Scientologist, but when Remini was older, she saw the cult for what it really was, and tried to get out. However, if you’ve grown up in the religion, most of your friends and support system are also Scientologists, and the rule is that a Scientologist who leaves the group must be “disconnected” by their friends and family (i.e., they never speak again), so leaving is a big decision for some people. They lose their family, their friends, their entire support system… What a scary risk.

From the outside looking in (the position that I hold), it’s hard for me to see how otherwise fairly sane humans sign up for this, promising their lives to the religion for a billion years (via reincarnation) and spending gross amounts of money to reach the much-esteemed level of being deemed “clear”, the ultimate goal. (Tom Cruise, naturally, is probably up there by now since financial donations help you move up the ladder. In fact, Remini is not very complimentary of Cruise at all…)

So, this was a fascinating read for me, and in the end, I feel badly for the folks who get sucked into this group. Most are not very wealthy and the religion forces such spending on people that they end up declaring bankruptcy on many occasions. However, I try not to judge anyone as they’re just trying to improve their lives (and others) in many cases, but it actually does the complete opposite of that.

Remini gets out in the end and is in the position (socially and financially) that she can escape without having to suffer some of the huge consequences that others may have to endure. However, her mother and others do disconnect her in the end…

Anyway, I found this to be a fascinating read on human behavior…

For another perspective on Scientology, I would suggest “Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion” by Janet Reitman (2011).

 

Incoming…!

The capture from the 2018 FoL Fall Book Sale...

The capture from the 2018 FoL Fall Book Sale…

As tradition holds, I dropped by the annual FoL Book Sale last weekend and caught a few new (to me) titles to add to the TBR. (I know – this is just what it needs, but…. books….)

I ended up mostly in the NF side of the sale, and found these lovelies. It’s interesting that I didn’t go over to the F side, but there you go. I’m into NF these days, and F – I have plenty of those at home. (Except I do also have plenty of NF too, so not sure that reasoning would stand in a court of law. 🙂 Maybe I’ll just stay quiet on that issue!)

To the books (top to bottom in pic):

Bloody Confused – Chuck Culpepper (NF about an American sportswriter who travels to England to try to understand English football… Good reviews.)

Outrageous Acts and Everyday Rebellions – Gloria Steinem.  (NF – essays.) Saw Steinem at a talk not long ago, and her fierce character was impressive.

Time and Again – Jack Finney (the only F that slipped through the goalie.) Time travel.

She Got up off the Couch and Other Heroic Acts from Mooreland, Indiana – Haven Kimmel (NF/bio.) I have read her earlier autobio of her childhood and growing up, and remember it as being hilarious. Hopefully, this title continues with that tradition!

Poems and Sketches of E.B. White – White is adorable and lovely and I have loved his essays…

The Promised Land – Nicholas Lemann (NF about the Great Migration of African-Americans post-Emancipation Proclamation).

Across China – Peter Jenkins (NF – travel book.) I’ve read his other two books about his walking journey across America, and I really enjoyed those.

Majesty: Elizabeth and the House of Windsor – Robert Lacey (NF – bio) I like reading about the Royals every now and then… Plus Lacey is interesting and has a dry sense of humor that slips in.

And then some Kindle titles seem to have sneaked in as well (although obvs not related to the book sale!):

All-American Murder: The Rise and Fall of Aaron Hernandez – James Patterson. (NF – sports). Woah. Does this belong to me, the person who has never watched a whole football game or followed it? Why, yes. I am curious about Hernandez’ story and how it went awry.

American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land – Monica Hesse. (NF.) Seen plenty of good reviews and I love learning about different parts of America, good and bad.

First Plays – A.A. Milne. (Drama.) I really enjoy reading plays sometimes…

Only Beautiful Please: A British Diplomat in North Korea – John Averard. (NF travel about a country which I find to be very curious).

The Power – Naomi Alderman. (F – spec fiction)

Queen Victoria – Giles Lytton Strachey (NF/bio. I loves me some Queen Victoria sometimes.)

And I also picked up a couple of jigsaw puzzles ready for winter. I’m like a squirrel hoarding all her nuts (except that I actually know where most of the nuts are buried). I read an article the other day about how squirrels bury hundreds of nuts in preparation for cold weather, but then they forget where they buried them! (Aww. Bless. Just like me.)

The Book of Books – PBS (tie-in)

bookofbooks.jpgA random find at the library on the New Books shelf, this beautifully produced book was a joy to behold in terms of how it felt, looked, and the photos. It’s a book based on the PBS series, “The Great American Read,” which lists the top 100 fiction titles chosen through a “rigorous national survey” of 7,200 people who were “demographically and statistically representative” of the U.S. who were asked to name their most-loved novel.

This is actually the tie-in book for the eight-part TV series that “explores and celebrates the power of reading” and seems to be part of a “multi-platform digital, educational and community outreach campaign designed to get the country reading and passionately talking about books”. (Sounds like a noble goal to me!) (Haven’t seen this just yet though.)

So, this book does just as it says on the tin: lists 100 book titles, along with some background about the author, the plot, and the historical times, so it’s a very readable eye-friendly collection. I’m not sure if it’s listed in a numerical order of some kind (like a Top Forty would be on the radio), but regardless, it’s a pretty good mix of titles, some that were of no surprise (Pride and Prejudice and Catcher in the Rye) along with some that are not in the usual suspects list: Fifty Shades of Grey, Twilight etc…

(Plus – it’s always nice to read a list of must-read titles and find out how many you’ve already read. Or is that just me? 🙂 )

What was really well done with this title was that it was printed in a great font put on to some heavy glossy paper, along with some great photographs of earlier book covers. It was a heavy book (due to thigh quality production) so more of a coffee table book, but it was a joy to read.

(The only thing to mar the experience was an occasional typo or error in the text. Would have been easy enough to fix with a sharp-eyed editor, but for some reason that didn’t happen. And these weren’t even huge errors. Just ones that someone somewhere should have probably caught.)

So, what were some of the titles? As mentioned, you have the obvious ones (such as P&P and Catcher), but then you’d turn the page and there’d be one that surprised you, not because of the title not belonging on the list (although I’d argue that about a couple), but more because the list strays off the High School Reading List which made a nice change.

Other little treats included in the book are many of the included books’ first lines, occasional lists of themed items such as “Admirable Female Characters” and also the inclusion of some of the “non-traditional” titles (for example, Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever, Kathryn Stockett’s The Help or Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code) so it was a good reminder of some of the other titles that are out there.

So, rather an enjoyable romp through some book titles along with some super-great production values.

(And if you’re curious about which titles made the list, check here.)