Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies by Bartolomé de Las Casas

This book contains Las Casas's plea to the Spanish throne that they investigate and curtail the cruelties practiced by Spanish citizens on the native peoples of the Americas. Organized geographically first, and then chronologically, the book uses several rhetorical strategies to emphasize the mistakes, cruelties, and horrors the Spaniards have committed in the New World. The book at times details individual actions but denies its ability to recount all the horrors--it will either fall silent or say this example is but one of many. There's a point where Las Casas shows some of the natives' willingness to embrace the Christian religion when it isn't accompanied by violence and cruelty. Las Casas seems to attack these bad actions not only because they show the Spaniards to be more interested in gold than God (and thus leave Spain liable to divine retribution), but also because they are inhumane actions. At times, the book seemed a bit repetitive, but this repetition only drove home the horror of the conquest of the New World.

Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspear

In this mystery Maisie Dobbs investigates the sudden death of an artist just before he mounts a large exhibition. I thought the parts where Maisie shows mystic psychology were reduced in this book and that made the reading experience much more pleasurable for me. I had more trouble than usual assembling all the pieces during the course of the mystery, but as it finished, I thought the solution was elegant and moving (although quite sad). I thought Maisie's personal life was dragged into the story in odd ways. I was also intrigued by the growing interest in class issues (who deserves money? is it fair to spend a fortune on art?) and on the rise of Hitler (as indicated by patterns of art smuggling).

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Enemy Lines II: Rebel Stand by Aaron Allston

In this book Wedge Antilles continues to direct the last-ditch defense of Borleias as Luke Skywalker leads a team to infiltrate Coruscant and Leia and Han move around the galaxy setting up resistance cells. I thought this book did a nice job of wrapping up the plot lines of the previous story. I liked all of the subplots, and I think things are looking better, strategically, now that the New Republic has all but collapsed. As I said before, I think this series is too long, but I'm pleased to say that these characters, as always, look best when the odds are against them.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Borderlands / La Frontera: The New Mestiza by Gloria Anzaldúa

This book is a hodge-podge of forms and ideas. In its mixtures of form (essays, poetry, history, memoir, and myth are forms that come most immediately to mind) and of languages (English, Spanish, and Nahautl) it both demonstrates the problems of living in the borderlands and starts to demonstrate ways that we--by code-switching, by listening, by acceptance--can live best. I particularly liked the sections on the borderlands and on language. Anzaldúa doesn't hold any punches, and a working knowledge of Spanish will help the reader.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

This book resembles a found auto-biography: it purports to be a collection of writings by and about the fictional Harrison William Shepherd. He's practically an orphan from a very young age, but he develops a striking friendship with Frida Kahlo and Lev Trotsky, and, after Trotsky's assassination, makes a new life for himself in Asheville, North Carolina--at least until he's caught up in the Communist witch hunts following WWII. This book is both a delightful bildungsroman and a beautiful, if imaginary, glimpse into the lives of some remarkable historical figures. I would highly recommend this book.

Hush, Hush by Becca Fitzpatrick

I give this book credit for dealing in fallen archangels instead of in vampires. But otherwise, you've got a Twilight-copycat type of book here. There were some mild surprises throughout the story, but I felt like the situations rang false and the characters' actions even more so. Vee, the sidekick/best friend, was a cardboard cut out, and I thought the mythology/powers of the angels was neither clear nor well thought out.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Bilingual Games: Some Literary Investigations edited by Doris Sommer

In this collection of essays contributors begin with a rigorous theoretical exploration of bilingualism and then move to specific examples of how it plays out. The first three essays take as a starting point that in some senses monolingualism does not and cannot exist. Then, essays begin reading various locations and texts to investigate questions of bilingualism in practice. Most helpful to me were the essays dealing with John Sayles's films Lone Star and Hombres Armada and Malinche. I also appreciated that the essays went beyond English-Spanish binaries. Although not all the essays were equally good, it was a great collection

Monday, January 25, 2010

Accidentally on Purpose by Mary Pols

I really enjoyed this memoir. Pols has an engaging style in her writing, and I found that the pages flew by. I particularly liked two aspects of the book. First, I was really moved by her description of her parents' deaths, and by the way that her son, Dolan, helped her put her personal loss in perspective. Second, I really enjoyed seeing her relationship with Matt (the father of her son) develop. While at first it was easy for her to see him as not really having his life put together, she began to understand how her behavior was self-righteous and harmful, and took steps to correct it. I came across the book because I enjoy the TV series of the same name (only loosely based on the book), and I found the book delightful, if more realistic.

The Four Voyages by Christopher Columbus

In this book J.M. Cohen compiles and translates a number of primary and very early secondary sources related to Columbus's four voyages to the Caribbean and surrounding areas. Sources include letters Columbus wrote, digests of his log books, Oveido's history, and Hernando Columbus's history.The sources are edited so as to form a narrative recounting the trips. Aside from the introduction, there's very little editorializing: in a few cases, Cohen explains that other sources (such as de las Casas) tend to take a less favorable view of Columbus.

I was particularly interested in the tension between Columbus's desire to serve God (and convert the natives, whom he considered heathens), his desire to prove himself correct (that the lands he reached were the Indies), and his desire to amass wealth, thereby making the voyages profitable for Ferdinand and Isabela of Spain. Columbus seemed (granting that these accounts are coming in large part from his son) more interested in using the wealth to establish his own worth (i.e. that he had found the Indies) than in personal enrichment. He also seemed to treat the native peoples slightly better than some of the other people involved in the voyages (for example, he writes that while they are not familiar with the technologies possessed by the Spanish, he considers them intelligent, and he often tried to treat with them before starting hostilities or seizing property), although his behavior is only relatively good. Although Columbus was engaged in an involved plan to hide distances traveled from his men during the first voyage so as not to scare them, the book also makes clear how poorly Columbus generally handled his role as leader. Finally, Columbus appeared to become more mystical and unbalanced during the journeys. In all the trips, he displays his navigational skills, but by the third trip he has begun drawing the wrong conclusions from his observations. He is convinced that the world is shaped like a pear, and that Eden is to be found at the stem (located near the areas in which he's been sailing), if only God would let travelers approach.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Shakespeare's Landlord by Charlaine Harris

In this mystery a small-town woman must discover who has killed her landlord lest suspicion fall on herself. The mystery was well-plotted and enjoyable, and the heroine independent despite her scars. I'm not sure how much I enjoyed the way the book delved into her past history--that aspect of the story felt forced (it's actually easier for me to suspend disbelief for someone like Sookie or Harper, both of whom have unexplained supernatural talents rather than or in addition to traumatic pasts).

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson

This book chronicles the adventures of the lovely Pamela, a beautiful young maid who converts her master from a rake to an honorable gentleman through her goodness and virtue. At times Richardson waxes long. Very long. And the gender politics are not always what I would prefer--Mr. B. makes a big point of how a woman can marry up because her husband ought to be her master, whereas if she marries down, she subjects herself to someone below her, socially. Still, Pamela shows resistance to passive acceptance, first in her commitment to virtue over her duties to her master, and later, as her husband gives her a list of rules (48!) that she ought to follow as his wife, she copies them out (for her parents to read) and then gives some gentle commentary. Another part of the book I found useful was the insistence on the connection between the written word (Pamela's journal entries to her parents) and the soul--several characters see these letters as a way to know Pamela. Furthermore, during her captivity, Pamela secrets her writings on her body--emphasizing that reading them without her consent is as much a violation as the other tricks Mr. B. undertakes. Finally, I think the Sally Godfrey story is worth mentioning. It allows Pamela to demonstrate her goodness twice over--first in proving that Mr. B. was a rake who needed to be reformed and second in her generosity in bringing Miss Goodwin (daughter of Sally Godfrey and Mr. B. ) to live with them.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Red Notebooks: True Stories by Paul Auster

In this collection of vignettes, grouped under four headings, Paul Auster uses what he claims are true stories to illustrate life's shocking coincidences. I think they are meant to show the point of writing--some are gathered under the heading "Why Write?" and one explains why Auster always carries a pencil around. While Auster writes with a beautiful touch, and while some of the stories have gorgeous moments, at other times, the collection veers into the false, the unacceptably improbable, and the cliché.

Shades of Grey: The Road to High Saffron by Jasper Fforde

In this book Jasper Fforde starts a delightful new series, set in a world where people are ranked by their ability to perceive color. As Eddie Russett (who's been banished to East Carmine ostensibly for a prank but also has revolutionary ideas about improving queuing systems) soon learns, however, all is not how it appears, and soon he must choose his alliances and friends carefully. Although you can see how dystopic this society is from a mile away, Fforde's unique sense of humor and love of the eccentric make his satire quite enjoyable--perhaps even better than the Thursday Next series.

Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class by Eric Lott

This monograph explores the idea that minstrel shows were more than just a reflection of a racist culture. In its deft analysis, this text uses the historical record, the content of the minstrel shows, and Freudian and Marxist strains of thought to explore the possibility that the content of minstrel shows reflected white, working class Americans' attraction to and theft of slave culture. The book does a good job both demonstrating the development and content of these shows and evaluating the class and racial tensions and relationships that made these kinds of entertainment both possible and enjoyable.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett

In this book a journalist recounts her attempt to get to know a prolific book thief and the bookseller determined to track him down. Although there are lots of helpful details about the methods of thievery and the market in rare books, I found the book repetitive and a bit lack-luster. There was a fair amount of speculation on the habits of collecting, but I would have liked to have seen more. Also, the book started with a story about a rare Kräutterbuch that never really was resolved, and I found that unsettling.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Enemy Lines I: Rebel Dream by Aaron Alston

In this book members of the old Rebel Alliance start making plans to defeat the Yuuzhan Vong without the help of the New Republic, which has been effectively destroyed after the capture of Coruscant. As one of a two-part duology, it ends mid-stream. I enjoyed the development of Jaina's character. A lot of the military strategies and technology parts got tiresome in this one.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

I enjoyed reading this novel. Although most of the action happens in the recent past (insofar as a psychologist's trips to talk to people to understand Robert Oliver, his patient and a skilled artist who attacks a canvas at the National Gallery and then refuses to talk constitues action), the real interest in this book, for me at least, was the story of Béatrice de Clerval, an Impressionist painter who cuts her career mysteriously short. Andrew Marlow, the psychiatrist who narrates the majority of the tale, wasn't entirely sympathetic to me, and I often felt that he was too self-absorbed, at cost to the interest of the rest of the story. Indeed, I'm not sure the set-up is ideal for the story that's being told. Still, I found the Impressionism story very good, as well as the stories told by the two women in Robert Oliver's life. Kostova handles the supense quite well, and the digging necessary to understand the story is quite pleasurable.

I heard Kostova read the Prologue and answer questions about this book. She spoke quite eloquently to the challenges of writing, both generally, and in writing about artists.

A Play of Treachery by Margaret Frazer

In this book we see Joliffe in France while he's being trained as a spy. Although I generally enjoy the rest of Joliffe's troupe, the mysteries surrounding their travels were getting a bit repetitive. In addition to his training, Joliffe is working as a spy in Rouen, the site where England's power in France is massed. He must solve a murder, gets a bit of romance, and uncovers personal secrets that have bearing on affairs of state. This story helps connect the Joliffe we meet early in the Dame Frevisse books to the one who appears in her later stories.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Play of Lords by Margaret Frazer

In this book the political intrigues far and away overwhelmed the mystery. Although the book really brings both medieval London and its characters to life, I felt the mystery was sorely lacking. Instead, the book was much more like an explanation of how Joliffe comes to work for Bishop Beaufort (an allegiance we'll see in A Play of Treachery, I suspect, as well as some of the Dame Frevisse novels like The Bastard's Tale). While the characters are as good as ever, it's just not as exciting for me to read about the theatre troop succeeding, especially since there's no murder (although there is an attack) to tie them down.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett

In this book Terry Pratchett parodies any number of fantasy conventions in his Discworld series. I think the funniest part, for my money, was Rincewind trying to figure out how to harness lightning. The plot isn't terribly important: Rincewind and Twoflower travel around the Discworld (so you get to see a lot of how it works) and it ends on a literal cliffhanger--they've just gone over the edge of the Disc. Definitely funny enough to keep me coming back for the next installment.

The Strain by Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

In this book a renegade vampire launches an all-out war on humanity, starting with New York City. For typical vampire material, Hogan and del Toro handle their story quite well. The plot jogs along and the writing was surprisingly enjoyable. These authors portray vampirism as a disease, one that might be understood by scientists but that will not be cured by science. So far, the love story mixed into the story isn't all that impressive, and I think the Holocaust side of the story muddies the water more than anything else. While quite enjoyable, this book doesn't exactly stand alone--I'm eagerly waiting the second and third installments because the plot's nowhere near to being wrapped up.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Eternal on the Water by Joseph Monninger

I received this book for free courtesy of the Barnes and Noble First Look program. As we're still discussing the book on the boards, the rest of my review is posted beneath the cut.

Monday, January 11, 2010

American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House by Jon Meacham

This biography does what it sets out to do--tell about Andrew Jackson's White House years--very well. I would have liked a little more information about the times before and after those years. This book really developed the idea of Jackson as a reformer, and also focused on Jackson's belief that the presidency should be directed by the will of the people. Also, this work is based mostly on private papers, especially those of the Donelson family (Jackson's wife's nephew and niece), so I felt the personal intrigues section was overdone and the parts about policies and how those politics may have affected the economy (especially in regards to the way Jackson killed the Bank) was underdone. This book definitely made me more curious about Jackson's life and I will be reading more about Jackson in the future.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A New England Nun and Other Stories by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

This collection of stories offers many pleasures. Freeman writes masterful short fiction, often demonstrating the triumph of the human spirit over circumstances that threaten to cause people to choose their worst instincts. The stories value the ability to live in honesty with oneself, while trying to treat others with as much love and charity as possible, above all else. I particularly liked "Dear Annie," The Jamesons, and "The Lost Ghost." I am definitely planning on reading more of this author in the future.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Coquette by Hannah Webster Foster

I found this book to be both like and unlike Samuel Richardson's Clarissa. Although both are novels designed around the seduction of a young girl, this one makes the socially acceptable choice more (although not completely) personally acceptable to the heroine. Also, while Clarissa maintains control of her story even after her seduction by elaborately staging her death, after Eliza loses her innocence, we only see two more letters from her. Like Clarissa, Eliza's problem is that she desires independence, not that she's initially not virtuous. Clarissa, though, has more desire for financial independence, where Eliza really values personal and social independence. There are hints that a society of women would be agreeable to Eliza, but these hints are fairly submerged. Finally, there's an underlying theme of parental disappointment in children.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Grave Secret by Charlaine Harris

In this book Harper Connelly takes on the case that's been haunting her for eight years, although she initially doesn't know that she's headed into familiar and familial territory. When she discovers a woman who dies in childbirth instead of appendicitis, she stirs up questions for a rich, Texas, ranch family. Incidentally, Harper discovers much more about her sister (missing for eight years) during this hunt. This book has more action than the other books in the series, and it ends with plenty of twists. I've enjoyed the Harper Connelly series as much as the Sookie Stackhouse series, and I'm sorry to see it end.

The Tell-Tale Corpse by Harold Schechter

In this mystery Edgar Allen Poe goes to Boston and Concord to try to cure his wife's debilitating illness. He finds himself a guest of the Alcott family, a particular friend of young Louisa May Alcott, and called upon to solve a series of brutal murders. I found the chase fun, although the prose is a little stilted (I find the author's attempt to sound like a nineteenth century author or Poe himself false).

The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien

This volume concludes Tolkien's masterwork, The Lord of the Rings. The story's just as good as ever. I appreciated the indices more than usual this time, though: they contain lots of information about the Third Age before the War of the Ring and the remaining six members of the Fellowship in Middle Earth than I've found anywhere else (although I haven't read all of the books that Christopher Tolkien has published from his father's notes yet, and I have found those that I have read difficult to read). As always a pleasure. I think what I value most about Tolkien is that all his characters, from the great to simple hobbits, have to make hard choices, and finally, the way that the text (and, I hope, readers) judge these characters is by virtue of their choices.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Pardonable Lies by Jacqueline Winspear

The mystery plot in this book was better than the previous two Maisie Dobbs. Maisie must go to France to trace the disappearance of a WWI aviator in a case that becomes entwined with the search for the final resting place of the brother of one of her friends and a murder case in London. There was a bit too much work done by Maisie in this book--I felt like the author relied too much on Maisie's psychological insights (which I still don't buy) and on evidence that wasn't shared with the reader in time for the reader to make deductions on her own. Still, the bits about WWI are exciting and I liked the case itself.

A Play of Knaves by Margaret Frazer

This book is a delightful entry in Frazer's Joliffe series. Here, Joliffe and company get asked to find out what's behind the bad blood in a town near the Berkshire White Horse. The Joliffe stories always seem to have more mystery in them than the Dame Frevisse stories, although these books are all great for their historical content. Frazer has a great way of bringing the rhythms of the past to life.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2010 by Bob Sehlinger with Len Testa

I found this guide reasonbly helpful and entertaining. I do think the hysteria about reservations is a bit over blown (for example, they recommend getting Coral Reef reservations at least 180 days out, but we've had no problems less than 90 days from our trip), and, although we haven't been to Disney World for five or six years, I think the hysteria about how *full* the parks are is a bit overblown as well. The touring plans are for the most part solid, but with the addition of the fastpass system (wherein you make an appointment for a riding time and then ride almost immediately at that time), I think some of the congestion in the parks has eased a little. That said, the strength of the guide is its humorous, yet appreciative descriptions of the rides, the restaurants, and the hotels. The tone makes this book enjoyable reading.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

I enjoyed reading this book again. While the section with Sam, Frodo, and Gollum wending their way to Mordor always dragged for me, this time it went faster. I was paying attention to the way that it's about the relationship between Frodo and Gollum, and how neatly Tolkien sets up and foreshadows Gollum's final role in the story. I also am finding this story to be a lot about storytelling--so many characters think about whether their actions or experiences merit a chapter of the story, but not necessarily in a selfish way.

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt

This book is very like The Forsyte Saga in some ways: a sprawling Victorian novel, committed to following numerous sub-plots (and here, several different families) over a long time span. In telling about these particular families (here, people with artistic inclinations), the novel attempts to tell something about the United Kingdom during its transition from the Victorian era to the Edwardian era. Overall, the book is enjoyable, although I think in some cases it might be too ambitious: there are so many characters, and some of them fade away into nothingness. The novel's interested in giving representative moments rather than working through a big picture, so some ends remain forever loose. Overall, I'm pleased to have read it. For those who found the fake-Victorian poetry in Possession annoying, there's less of it here, although there is a fair amount of storytelling. Booker shortlisted, 2009

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Song of Susannah by Stephen King

This book was not my favorite installment in the Dark Tower series. While I sympathize with the idea of putting the author in the book, and I find the book's bibliomania amusing, here it rang a little flat--as if King were tooting his own horn a little too loudly. That said, the references to other books and other fantasy worlds are some of the best parts of this series, and there was humor in Roland's visit to King. I'll definitely finish the series (the end is so close)--but this series, while intriguing, doesn't surpass some of my favorites like Lord of the Rings (that is to say, I won't be re-reading these books every year!).

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien

I finished my yearly read of this book and I still love it. Most notable to me this time around, I think, was the amount of foreshadowing that happens--I noticed the text ready for Strider's appearance long before Frodo was, and also for Gandalf's disappearance at that. I love this rich world, and always enjoy dipping back in.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Pierre, or the Ambiguities, by Herman Melville

This book speaks to many important concerns in 19th Century American literature. Perhaps most important is the novel's struggle with authorship and originality. These concerns strike me as related to all the incest moments happening in the book: first Pierre treats his mother like his sister, then, when he meets his illegitimate sister, he decides the only way to protect her is to call her wife, and then when his former betrothed comes to live with them, he calls her sister. Even in love, Pierre cannot be original. The novel's also engaged with paintings: they provide the evidence of Pierre's father's infidelity and take on a gothic, supernatural life of their own. Finally, this novel continues the American tradition of presenting two heroines as a light lady and a dark lady. The novel's digressiveness and need to return to the past for completeness reminded me of Tristram Shandy.

Dark Journey by Elaine Cunningham

I found this book to be a typical entry in the New Jedi Order series. Like all the books in this series, it employs multiple perspectives and jumps around from sub-plot to sub-plot. Because the invaders in the series are not Force-sensitive and cannot be sensed through the Force, generally, there's a lot of soul-searching by various Jedi. But as it's the middle of the series still, that soul-searching doesn't pay off yet. I thought the most entertaining sub-plot was that of the intrigues surrounding the Hapan court and Hapan succession.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Birds of a Feather by Jacqueline Winspear

I didn't like this book as well as the first book in the series, Maisie Dobbs. In this installment, Maisie copes with her own lonliness as she solves another case in which tensions and problems from the First World War still haunt London in 1930 (in the midst of its own economic depression). In this book, Maisie (and her mentor Maurice) get more eccentric--she claims she gets insight into others' minds through their postures. I found the psychology to be less than convincing, and I think the book spent too much time with the time period in unproductive ways (although I do like historical fiction) and not enough time with the murder mystery. Also Winspear seemed to withhold key information from the reader, and I found this habit frustrating. Still, despite my concerns, I will continue to read these books; they're entertaining murder mysteries.