Thursday, April 29, 2010

Literary Culture and U.S. Imperialism from the Revolution to World War II by John Carlos Rowe

In this book John Carlos Rowe investigates a variety of American cultural texts, from Charles Brockden Brown to Zora Neale Hurston, to examine the relationship between US imperial projects (both at home and abroad) and the literary work of these texts. Although this book is fairly wide-ranging, Rowe does a sophisticated job of categorizing each author's relationship to imperialism, always demonstrating that America's imperial history is closer than we usually remember and also more continuous (our colonization of the Other within our borders is related to our imperialist gestures beyond our political bounds). I think that he dismisses Brockden Brown's and Poe's use of the Gothic as a formal element (and one that obstructs our ability to read the texts as imperialist) too quickly.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

A Trewe Relacyon by George Percy

In this account George Percy tells of the settlement at Jamestown, paying particular attention to relations with the Native Americans and the famine that devastated and almost destroyed the colony. Percy's interest in defending his own actions rings clear through the text. There's also an interesting move in the beginning when Percy insists that Virginia's sufferings are common--indeed similar to those experienced by the French and the Spanish.

The Female American by Unca Eliza Winkfield (Anonymous)

This book combines elements of Robinson Crusoe and John Smith's account of the happenings at Jamestown--particularly the Pocahontas parts. A young woman, daughter of a Native American princess and an English colonist, is educated in England, but briefly returns to America with her father (her mother having died quite some time ago). Her father dies in America and Unca Eliza decides to return to England again, but she's left on a deserted island by a scheming captain. I'm particularly intrigued by the ways that gender play out in the text: she's left with a full set of instructions on how to live on the island (because how could a woman figure it out on her own?), but she ends up playing God to teach the locals about Christianity; she lives self-sufficiently and happily on the island and expresses to her cousin SEVERAL times her intention only to marry someone who can shoot the bow and arrow as well as she can (he, being an English cousin, cannot), and yet, when he shows up on the island with a convoluted story as to how he found her, she marries him anyway. Another strange point is that although Unca Eliza seems to have little interest in material wealth for herself (she chooses to remain as a missionary on her island instead of going home to enjoy the colonial wealth her father accumulated), she sends all the golden religious artifacts that she finds on the island home to her family--thereby stripping the island of its religious and material heritage. All in all, a strange and delightful book.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ylesia by Walter Jon Williams

This book fills in an adventure at an isolated battle in the Yuuzhan Vong War. We get to see Thracken Sal-Solo and Jacen and Jaina, and I enjoyed reading about the battle (it reminded me a little of the Thrawn books).

The Joiner King by Troy Denning

In this book most of the young Jedi who survived the Mykyr assault find themselves drawn to an alien presence in the Unknown Regions, much to the dismay of the Chiss, who take the expansion of this alien people as a sign of aggression. I thought the story was pretty well done, although there's something beneath the surface that's still not quite clear to me that's driving the plot forward. I am enjoying the non-movie characters more and more as they develop.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Poppy Done to Death by Charlaine Harris

This mystery finds Roe dealing with the murder of her sister-in-law. I thought it was OK as far as the mystery went (the newer series are better), but pretty good with character development. I was left wondering why her little brother had shown up throughout the whole book--there wasn't a great answer there.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Black Atlantic by Paul Gilroy

In this book Paul Gilroy stages an intervention in debates over modernism to contend that the Africanist experience is an important one that's often left out or not accounted for. He picks up Du Bois's notion of a double consciousness and claims that music is a particularly good place to see the Africanist and Europeanist influences. But rather than centering on one type of experience, Gilroy seeks to decenter culture and work against nationalist readings of culture born in a vacuum. I found this book really helpful as an introduction to ways to think transnationally.

Last Scene Alive by Charlaine Harris

In this mystery Robin Crusoe and Martin's estranged son Barrett come back into town in connection with the production of a mini-series based on a novel Robin wrote about the events in Real Murders, but things quickly head south when the leading lady is found dead. I feel like this novel was enjoyable in that Roe got to be much more comfortable with herself. I also felt like it had better suspense than some of the previous novels in this series.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Fool and His Honey by Charlaine Harris

This murder mystery is very interested in family. How much do blood ties count? What does one owe one's family? How can one protect them? The murder mystery part was OK--there were random bits thrown in, and even the last plot twist seemed a bit extreme. Overall, an enjoyable book.

Monday, April 19, 2010

The Borderlands of Culture: Américo Paredes and the Transnational Imaginary by Ramón Saldívar

This book uses the works of Américo Paredes as a test case to illustrate a transnational imaginary which creates a Greater Mexico on the North American continent. The first two chapters establish the theory of transculturation on which the book relies and give a history of Paredes in his own words. The following chapters, with more and less success, read Paredes's works in the larger cultural context to show this transnational imaginary at work. There were definitely points where I found myself wanting more attentive close readings, but I think this book is constructed in a very smart manner.

The Epiplectic Bicycle by Edward Gorey

This quirky story tells the adventures of Embley and Yewbert, two children who are hitting each other with croquet mallets when they encounter a mysterious bicycle, with a force of its own. I appreciated the way the creepy bits of the tale (for example, the bicycle seems to move on its own, and time passes differently in different parts of the tale) were normalized. Strange but delightful.

The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám by Edward Fitzgerald

This long poem is something between translated and inspired. Its quatrains touch questions of nature and love, but the theme most interesting to me is the sense of time passing--a carpe diem theme. I enjoyed this collection.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Journal of Madame Knight by Sarah Kemble Knight

This book recounts a journey undertaken by Madame Knight, a widow, in order to settle a relative's estate. She boldly travels by herself and with her cousin, bickers with various service providers, and makes notes about the places she visits (especially New York) and the people she encounters (especially Native Americans). There's not a really strong narrative thread to this work, but it tells of an interesting journey.

The Unifying Force by James Luceno

This book concludes the New Jedi Order. Thank goodness. It answered questions about why the Yuuzhan Vong are invisible in the Force (although I think if you think too hard, you might realize that it doesn't make too much sense). By this point, I was mostly just glad the series was over, even if it did take an implosion to bring it about. I think the good point of the series, though, was to get me attached to characters beyond Luke, Leia, Han, and Mara Jade.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Emperor's Code by Gordan Korman

In the latest entry in the 39 Clues series Dan and Amy go to China. Although they're separated for most of the story, they slowly but surely come to realize whom they can trust. I really liked the chance to see more of Jonah Wizard (whose appearances are amusing). I'm also increasingly intrigued by Nellie--she's clearly serving two masters, and it's strange that Dan and Amy (who are usually so sharp) haven't quite put it together yet. I'm eagerly awaiting the last two books in the series.

Dead over Heels by Charlaine Harris

This mystery features a dead body landing in Roe Teagarden's yard and a series of creepier and creepier events. The ending is a real surprise, but the plot getting there was a bit clunky. These novels aren't quite as well developed as Harris's later books.

Faulkner, Mississippi by Edouard Glissant

I found this book to offer a beautiful series of readings of Faulkner's works. Prompted by a drive to Oxford, Mississippi, this book reflects particularly well on race and the past in Faulkner's stories. It reads more like an essay or a reflection than a critical argument, but its insights are no less sharp for its tone.

God's Patients: Suffering and the Divine in the "Canterbury Tales" by John Bugbee

This dissertation reads “The Clerk’s Tale,” “The Man of Law’s Tale,” “The Franklin’s Tale” and “The Physician’s Tale” against the 12th century writings of Bernard of Clairvaux. Especially relevant are the relative moral worth of passive and active behaviors and the types of oaths and laws that must be followed in order to live a moral life. After an introductory chapter on methods, the dissertation gives close readings of the tales before applying Bernard. I think the strengths of this book are the attentive readings, the easy to follow style of the prose, the interdisciplinary approach that reads literature in dialogue with philosophy and theology, and the clear juxtapositions of Chaucer and Bernard. I would have liked to have seen the thesis (which actually ends up claiming that Chaucer has a clear ethical agenda, at least on the question of obedience to God’s will) stated in the introduction instead of in the conclusion, and I think the dissertation wasn’t as fully engaged in a modern critical conversation as it might have been (there’s an interlude that deals specifically with one critic and an appendix that treats another one, but the real meat of the analysis within the dissertation focuses on the philosophy and the stories).

New York: the Novel by Edward Rutherfurd

This book presents a long view of the history of New York by telling parts of the stories of several fictional families. I learned a lot about the city and a lot about various parts of history. I thought the book was especially good on the colonial period, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War draft riots. While the city remains the main character, I thought the book spent too much time on upper class characters generally--they tended to be better developed and to occupy a greater part of narrative time. All in all, a book well worth the read.

Tituba of Salem Village by Ann Petry

This young adult book also deals with Tituba's story. Certain parts are clearly repeated (again, Tituba is bought from Susanna Endicott in Barbados), but her relationships with various characters has changed and it ends almost immediately after the trials. I liked the idea of Tituba being a good weaver--the word "text" has Latin roots related to weaving fabric (so text and textile are related words)--and her weaving seems to compliment her story telling. I also liked the addition of Pim, the stowaway who is sold into indentured slavery. This book was both intriguing and entertaining.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem by Maryse Condé

In this book Tituba tells her own story, which deconstructs the book's title--Salem's only a part of the tale, and not the most important part in Tituba's own mind. The story has a sly sense of humor--it introduces anachronistic concepts like feminism and racism and even brings Hester Prynne to a Salem Jail cell at the same time as Tituba. Although I found the book's tone disconcerting at first, I grew to like it more and more as I thought about it. It's definitely a book you have to accept on its own terms.

The Julius House by Charlaine Harris

I quite enjoyed this murder mystery. I thought there was a good mixture of red herrings and hidden clues, although I still think Roe's husband is pretty creepy. This novel may be one of the best of Charlaine Harris's Aurora Teagarden series.

Messy Beginnings: Postcoloniality and Early American Studies edited by Malini Johar Schueller and Edward Watts

This collection of essays makes the case that it's fruitful to talk about postcolonial theory and Early American Studies together. While I found some essays more relevant and helpful than others (Jennifer Greeson's essay on Crevècoeur, Michael Drexler's essay on Charles Brockden Brown, Leonora Sansay, and Haiti, and Geoffrey Sanborn's essay on Hawthorne stand out), the collection is sharply researched and opens new possibilities of thought. I found the introduction particularly helpful as well, both in laying out the stakes of the project, thinking about what has gone before, and in situating the essays in relation to each other.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond

This book uses a broad approach to explain why some human societies are able to conquer others. For Diamond, it all comes back to environment. He contends that some environments are more conducive (both in their climate and in the naturally occurring potential crops and domestic animals) for food-production and farming than others. Human societies in these environments, then, are more likely to become farmers and sedentary than mobile hunter-gathers. Farmers, in turn, develop diseases (from close living with animals), systems of writing (because food can be stockpiled allowing for people to do other things than worry about their next meal all the time), complex systems of government, and metallurgy and other technologies. I applaud this book for its ambition and its style (very easy to read and entertaining). I could see it skipping and over-simplifying in places, though, and I think its broad scope is thus both a strength and a weakness.

Monday, April 5, 2010

A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture by Venture Smith

In this account Venture Smith dictates his life story from his youth in Africa to his enslavement in New England to his purchase of freedom for himself and his family and his entrance into the slave-holding economy. This narrative is intriguing in part because it helps defamiliarize typical narratives (Venture remembers his past in Africa, unlike most slaves who write in the 19th century, after the legal slave trade had been abolished, he never learned to read or write, he never lived in the US South, and, after buying his freedom, engaged in the system of slave-ownership himself), and in part because it gives a fascinating account of a highly capable man's ability to market himself--an early example of extreme self-possession.

Black Hills: A Novel by Dan Simmons

I found this book to be a fascinating account of Paha Sapa, a Lakota man who finds himself present at several key moments in Western history, including the Battle of Little Bighorn and the construction of Mount Rushmore. There's a definite fantasy/sci-fi slant to this novel, as Paha Sapa has extraordinary powers of perception and lives with Custer's ghost. I thought the ending was a bit deus-ex-machina, but otherwise, I found this book both beautiful and enjoyable.

Three Bedrooms, One Corpse by Charlaine Harris

This mystery was enjoyable but nothing terribly special. Roe, with lots of time now that she's inherited money and quit her job at the library (a bit prematurely, if you ask me), is learning the ropes at her mother's real estate firm, when a series of murders shakes the real estate community. There's a new boyfriend, and a neatly plotted tale, but in the end, it wasn't as good as Harris's later series.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Mort by Terry Pratchett

This book is nothing short of hilarious. Death takes on a boy whom no one else seems to want for an apprentice, and while this boy, Mort, definitely doesn't fit in to his father's world, the job with Death really suits him. This book has humor and adventure and is definitely the product of a very smart writer. I enjoy these Discworld novels quite a bit; they just keep getting better.

Memorable Providences by Cotton Mather

In this book, which Rev. Samuel Parris possessed during the time of the witchcraft trials in Salem, Cotton Mather gives the account of a bewitching in Boston. A woman named Glover is accused, confesses to, and hangs for being a witch and tormenting a family and its children. I'm interested in the particular interest Mather pays the particularities of the witchcraft--apparently exposing the children to any form of the Bible (whether written in English, Latin, Hebrew, or Greek) can cause the witch/devil to torment them. Also, the torments apparently stop at night. This book adds an interesting perspective to the events in Salem (which happen just three years after this book is published).