Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Cities of the Dead by Joseph Roach

I found this book both helpful and intriguing. Roach posits that we gain a lot by investigating what he calls circum-Atlantic culture. He is particularly interested in memory, performance, and grief--and the way these three topics are related by the process of surrogation. Although the book centers around New Orleans and London, it allows its focus to encompass broader areas of inquiry as they're applicable, and, perhaps as a result, the organization of the text isn't quite as clear. Still, Roach's book gives a fresh approach to theorizing questions of race and cultural interactions in the (here, mostly anglophone) Atlantic world.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Final Prophecy by Greg Keyes

In this book there was a lot less jumping around and fewer subplots than in the past few New Jedi Order books. Tahiri, Corran, Nom Anor, and some rouge Yuuzhan Vong go to Zonama Sekot, where we (the readers) get this close to finding out what's going on, and then the character who's figured it out dies. There's another battle at Bilbringi, but you can tell that the plot's just marking time while the Zonama Sekot stuff happens. A quick read. I must say, I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out in the last book.

The Wonders of the Invisible World by Cotton Mather

I found this account of the Salem Witch Trials fascinating. Mather's position (as one of the religious elite at the time, and strongly in favor of the trials, but not actively involved in them himself) is quite interesting because by the time he writes this account public (and official) opinion, which initially supported the investigations has started to sour. Mather gives a very careful justification of the trials in his introduction, and then proceeds to make cases against five people accused of witchcraft. You can easily see (if you choose to read the trials in this manner) what the community and accusers stand to gain politically and socially through these accusations, and this text also does a great job of supporting the idea that the witch trials are the interior, psychological twin of the religious fight for the community's soul that manifests externally as the Maine wars with the Native Americans.

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

In this mystery Maisie faces a lot of changes as Maurice's health begins to fail, Billy's wife comes home after her stay in an institution, and James Compton comes back to town. She's liaising with Scotland Yard in this case, which is one of the better ones as far as the murder mystery parts of this series go, to try to figure out why an American working with a British cartography unit was murdered in the trenches during World War I. I also liked the final developments in Maisie's personal life--they made her seem more human.

Force Heretic III: Reunion by Sean Williams and Shane Dix

In this book the Tahiri split personality plot (finally) comes to an end, Jag, Jaina, Han, and Leia hold off an invasion of a communications outpost with Admiral Pellaeon's help and some Ryn back up, and Jacen, Mara, and Luke finally find Zonama Sekot. I really liked the Zonama Sekot parts (especially the news that Anakin Skywalker had been there before). I'm also glad that this series is slowly, but surely, winding down--I think it wears on one's patience a bit...

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647 by William Bradford

This book contains William Bradford's retrospective account of the Pilgrims' settlement at Plymouth Plantation. The beginning portions of the book, which give the account of how the Pilgrims came to New England via Leyden in Holland, and their struggles in the first winter, and their dealings with the Native Americans through Squanto's help were all familiar to me as they match (more or less) the story that gets told about the Pilgrims. The later parts, including all the difficulties in dealing with the investors in England, the bad behavior of some of the colonists (which ends up being presented in surprising detail), and the growth of the colony (and of people coming to other places in New England) was more of a surprise. The prose is remarkably clear to the modern ear.

Among the Mad by Jacqueline Winspear

In this mystery Maisie Dobbs gets called in to help Scotland Yard defuse a terrorist threat to London. I particularly enjoyed the back and forth between Scotland Yard and MI-5 and the introduction of Inspector MacFarland. I thought there was a bit more wrapping up after the mystery had been solved than was really necessary, although I liked the twist at the end.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Demystifying Dissertation Writing by Peg Boyle Single

I read this book because I had seen the author give a talk on the topic. The book has a number of practical tips. I think it's particularly strong on time management and on encouragement (both in the idea that you can write a dissertation and in the idea that you should be making decisions and embracing ownership of the project yourself). I've already started applying some of her ideas (like not checking email until after I've done my writing for the day) and I'm finding them useful.

A Bone to Pick by Charlaine Harris

In this book Aurora Teagarden finds that she's inherited a problem (more accurately, a skull) along with money and a house when she learns that Jane Engle left everything to her. As Aurora investigates how Jane came to possess the skull, she also learns a bit about the neighborhood into which she's moved. I don't think I liked this one as well as the first one in the series.

The Lost Books of the Odyssey: A Novel by Zachary Mason

This book is a collection of vignettes that re-imagine and fill in gaps (and sometimes create new gaps) in the Homeric stories of The Iliad and The Odyssey. I really loved reading this book. It's strengths are in its willingness to imagine and re-imagine stories, in its familiarity with its source material, in its playfulness, and in its beauty and meticulous ear to the beauties of the English language. I checked this book out of the library, but I will be buying myself a copy to keep. One of the most enjoyable books I've read all month.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Cleaving by Julie Powell

This memoir confirms the niggling sense I got from Julie and Julia, namely, that Julie Powell has a selfish streak a mile wide and an overinflated sense of her self-importance. I found the parts about the craft of butchering really intriguing, I was pleased to find recipes in the book, and I even enjoyed most of the parts about traveling. Unfortunately, the narrator's character in this book is utterly irredeemable. I don't necessarily mean as a person, although she consistently shows no respect for her husband, her on-again, off-again boyfriend, or even herself (while she is justifiably proud of her butchering and cooking skills, I don't think someone who likes herself could treat one, much less two, men with such cruelty). Instead, while the book, I think, is striving to show how Julie learns to live with herself, flawed and all, Julie doesn't experience any growth as a character. I can't say that I'm disappointed, because my expectations weren't high to begin with, but neither can I recommend this book.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Thereby Hangs a Tail by Spencer Quinn

In this book Bernie and Chet's new case is to protect a show dog who's recently received a threat. Generally, the dog-as-narrator bit works pretty well, although there are times when I'm frustrated that Chet can't communicate with words, and times when I'd like more information that Chet can't know or understand. However, this conceit keeps the author from doing that annoying thing where the detective shares that he or she is having thoughts but not the content of those thoughts. The story was pretty well plotted, and there were plenty of good red herrings to be dealt with. Overall, an enjoyable read.

Real Murders by Charlaine Harris

In this murder mystery the small-town librarian who discusses true crime with some friends once a month for fun finds herself in the middle of a killing spree which makes most of the members of the crime group victims or suspects. This book was very entertaining, especially because it connected historical murders to the fictional ones, and well-plotted, but the main character isn't much of a detective--she stumbles into the answer. Still, I'm looking forward to more from this series.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Towards a Transatlantic Aesthetic: Immigration, Translation, and Mourning in the Seventeenth Century by Joanne van der Woude

This dissertation, completed in 2007, is extremely successful on many counts: the book based on it is under full review at the Harvard and Chicago University presses, Dr. Van der Woude is an an assistant professor at Harvard, and the dissertation itself identifies and then fills several gaps in the critical conversation surrounding the Puritans and early American culture and literature. This dissertation takes as its central problem what van der Woude sees as a lacuna in current scholarship: it simply doesn’t account for the immigrant experience, the multi-lingual nature of early European settlement in North America, a true Transatlantic perspective, or Native roles in shaping colonial aesthetics. The central problem was easy to find: it’s located very near the beginning of the introduction and this dissertation does a good job of keeping its central problem in mind. After the introductory chapter, which lays out the methodology and begins to work on some of the theoretical questions, the dissertation moves into six chapters that focus on a variety of different genres to explore Early American aesthetics of telling (confessional, conversion, and captivity narratives), singing (prosody and polyglot harmony), and mourning (elegies). While all the chapters work together well, this dissertation is definitely on the bulky side. It’s also uneven bulk in some ways: the mourning section feels particularly underdeveloped. I suspect I’m not the only one with that feeling, since the book prospectus which Dr. Van der Woude has posted online redistributes the chapters so that there are two on each of her sections, cutting one from the telling portion (one that was geographically isolated from the rest of the dissertation) and adding one to the mourning portion. Another deficiency presumably addressed in the book is the dissertation’s lack of a conclusion. In the book, there’s an epilogue which compares the American colonial experience to Dutch-Koisan interactions in South Africa. In addition to the book, she’s gotten two articles and eight presentations out of parts of this material. Generally speaking, though, as an Americanist, I find this to be a lucid and engaging presentation of a compelling argument. I think the close readings are done attentively, and then intelligently situated in a colonial context that gives her work relevance beyond its immediate scope.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

A briefe Relation of the Discovery and Plantation of New England by Sir Ferdinando Gorges

In this account Sir Ferdinando Gorges offers three types of observations about the settlement of New England. He starts with a history of settlement (which actually reads a lot like the sixth part of John Smith's Generall Historie) and then gives a part on the natural resources of the land (to encourage further settlement), and unique to a lot of the early English accounts of the settlement of North America, a theoretical explanation of the government practiced in the colony.

A True Relation of Such Occurrences and Accidents of Note as Hath Hapned in Virginia Since the First Planting of that Colony, which is now resident in the South part thereof, till the last returne from thence by John Smith

In this account of what happened in Virginia's early history, Pocahontas's famous rescue of its author, John Smith, is nowhere to be found. The text, however, reveals more than it means to about the author's captivity. Its tone is justificatory, and Smith appears to be lying or exaggerating in several places. This piece is enjoyable both in its place in the (self-constructed) Smith legends and in the process of filling in the gaps and lacunae in the text.

A True Discourse of the Present Estate of Virginia and the successe of the affaires there till the 18 of June, 1614 by Ralph Hamor

In this account Hamor gives a history of the early settlements in and around Jamestown. Of particular note is Hamor's account of the Pocahontas story. The famous scene from John Smith's Generall Historie where Pocahontas intervenes in Smith's execution is nowhere to be found, but we do get several accounts of her marriage to John Rolfe--love story, political match, and conversion narrative. There's also a history of what went on in the colony and some material which seems to encourage further investment and colonization.

Memoir of Hernando de Escalante Fontaneda Respecting Florida Written in Spain, About the Year 1575 by Hernando Escalante de Fontaneda

In this memoir we receive an account of the captivity of Hernando Escalante de Fontaneda, who was a creole shipwrecked in Florida on his way to Spain for his education. In parts, this memoir is strangely cool: the death of his brother is passed over very quickly, for example. Also, while the memoir describes the geography and peoples of the land, if we choose to read it against the grain, one could imagine a convincing scenario in which Fontaneda is actually writing to discourage Spanish colonization, to protect the people with whom he's been living for more than half his life. Stylistically, this text is not the most exciting I've ever read, but it offers a unique perspective on early American settlement.

The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles by Captain John Smith

In this document John Smith gathers and edits a collection of accounts of English experiences in North America. I'm interested in this book's generic mixture: it's part economic treatise (how expensive would it be to fit out an expedition/colony and fish in North America), part history (of Roanoke, Jamestown, Plymouth, and Bermuda, no less), and part natural history/ethnography. I think this mixture is related to the fact that the colonial experience is pretty new to the British at this point, and they're still making sense of how to understand it. There's also a great vocabulary list giving an account of native words. Many are related to warfare and to the presence of the English. I'm also interested in how much of this treatise Smith hasn't authored himself (there's a lot of first-hand accounts from other people to fill out areas where Smith wasn't) and in the presence of the Pocahontas legend (notably absent from Smith's earlier work about Virginia). All in all, a fascinating read.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

In this book the Mysterious Benedict Society sets out on its own to foil Mr. Curtain's nefarious plots concerning the Whisperer. This book is on par with its predecessors: I think it's a very inventive idea and I know that I would have loved it as a little kid, but the prose plods too much to make the reading as enjoyable as it should be. Sticky is still whitewashed on the cover, as well.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Force Heretic II: Refugee by Sean Williams and Shane Dix

In this book we see Leia, Han, Jaina, Tahiri, and Jag Fel return to Bakura where the Sri-ruuvi Imperium poses a new threat while Luke, Mara, Jacen, and their team search Chiss space for Zonoma Sekot. Meanwhile Nom Anor (whom I'm actually starting to like, at least to despise) foments more trouble for the Yuuzhan Vong by developing the pro-Jedi heresy. I'm intrigued by the connection between the Sri-ruuvi and the Yuuzhan Vong, and I liked seeing Chiss space and more of the Fel family, but this one took me a while to read. I think the fact that there are not chapters, but parts, slows things down. I'm looking forward to this crisis's end--only three books to go!

The Ninth Daughter by Barbara Hamilton

This book imagines Abigail Adams working to solve a brutal murder and the disappearance of one of her friends. The mystery was really well plotted, and I enjoyed the historical ambiance of the story. I thought the author did a good job representing both the realities of the time period that are easy to forget (for example, the way that most travel had to stop after darkness fell) and the complicated political situation of the time (I especially appreciated that she didn't just make all the British soldiers bad and all the Sons of Liberty noble). All in all a satisfying mystery, and I look forward to reading more from this author.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

This book examines the ways that war can change one's values--as it shows two women making decisions that they would never have made in peacetime to protect a third. I found the story engaging, especially Frankie Bard's pursuit of the story of what was happening to Jews throughout Europe after her flatmate died in the London Blitz. I thought the story about Harry Vale and the U-boats was a bit tacked on and disappointing. All in all, an enjoyable read, but neither the best First Look nor the best book about World War II that I've ever read.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Gothic America by Teresa Goddu

In this monograph Teresa Goddu argues that American Gothic literature cannot be understood outside of a raced context, especially the historical context of slavery. She offers fine readings especially of Crevecoeur's Letters from an American Farmer, Charles Brockden Brown's Arthur Mervyn, and Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance. I thought the book was a little weak in unity towards the end: the first three chapters really show how a series of Gothic texts increasing trouble the idea of the nation state. But the last two chapters felt a little bit like a grab-bag: let's see how women fit in (although I was intrigued about the idea of veiling and I thought there was good work on public/private spheres going on), and what do African American texts do to the Gothic. I think her central idea of slavery being the root of an American Gothic is right, and I was particularly interested in the ways she related to the formation of the nation state, contagion, and the place of Native Americans to that Gothic. Overall a very helpful book.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Force Heretic I: Remnant by Sean Williams and Shane Dix

I really enjoyed this book. There were definitely parts that were copying heavily from plot lines first developed in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back when Han and Leia go to Cloud City, but I enjoyed the familiar feel. I also loved seeing Admiral Pellaeon again; between these books and the newer Timothy Zahn books, I have more respect and admiration for Thrawn and his crew than ever. This storyline is incomplete, but I'm chomping at the bit to get to reading the next one of the Force Heretic books.

Shakespeare's Counselor by Charlaine Harris

In the final book in the Lily Bard series, Lily starts going to group therapy, but things quickly turn sour as it becomes clear that her counselor is being stalked by someone who's getting increasingly scary (a woman about to join the group is murdered in the counselor's office). Maybe not the best Lily Bard, but it sees her off into a new marriage and a new career (she's on her way to becoming a private detective). It also allows her to confront her fears about her vulnerability. I enjoyed this series, if not as much as the Sookie Stackhouse or Harper Connelly books.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Last Witch of Langenburg: Murder in a German Village by Thomas Robisheaux

This book recounts the trial of Anna Schmeig, the last woman tried and executed for witchcraft in Langenburg, now part of Germany. This book does an excellent job of taking an historic incident (this particular witch trial) and, using the techniques of microhistory, showing how that incident reflects larger regional insecurities. Robisheaux does an excellent job contextualizing the political, social, and religious lives of the people in Langenburg at this particular time. I also thought the book did a particularly fine job in its handling of witchcraft. Instead of rushing to condemn the courts, the book took the period's assumptions and procedures about witchcraft at face value, and demonstrated the presence of the rule of law, and showed how the players accepted (and in one case ignored) the law's specific requirements. The part that was missing, however, was a modern assessment of the crime. Was Anna Fessler really poisoned by arsenic? Did Anna Schmeig really commit the murder? Was she trying to murder her son-in-law and daughter instead? I wanted more information (perhaps even speculation) from the author.