Monday, January 31, 2011

All Things Shining: Reading the Western Classics to Find Meaning in a Secular Age by Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly

This book begins by positing that we have lost meaning in our secular age. It goes through the highlights of Western history (including Homer, Hegel, Kant, Aristotle, Plato, Dante, and Melville) to establish what we've lost. Finally the authors suggest that if we can reinvest our everyday actions with purpose, we can approach a secular form of meaning. Their argument isn't totally convincing to me, but I found the process of reading the book quite enjoyable, and the readings they offer thought provoking.

The Black Book of Buried Secrets by Rick Riordan

This book is a compendium of information about the 39 Clues that ties up some loose ends from the previous book and is meant to keep readers ready for the next part of the series, which will continue in April and then re-launch in August. If you're obsessive about learning the whole story, you'll enjoy this book, but I wouldn't read it just for its own value.

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

This book concludes the story of Nine-Fingered Frodo and the Ring of Doom. I noticed this time around, in addition to Sam and Frodo's awareness of their role in the story, how the story matches neatly: Frodo loses a finger to end the story just as Sauron lost one to start the story. The loss of the finger also echoes the way Beren lost his hand on his quest to recover a Silmaril. The appendices are much easier to read when you're familiar with Tolkien's work in The Silmarillion. I found the story of Aragorn and Arwen (in Appendix A) particularly moving this time.

The Two Towers by J.R.R. Tolkien

This book divides its energies evenly between the events that begin to stir Rohan and Gondor as the remaining members of the Fellowship come into their bounds and Frodo and Sam's journey to Mordor, with the help of Gollum. This time through, I was particularly struck by the foreshadowing with regard to Gollum's role in the adventures. I was also much more aware of the logic of Frodo and Sam's journey (sometimes I hesitate to start Book IV, but not this time!).

Thursday, January 27, 2011

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass's second autobiography is much longer than Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass despite the fact that only ten years elapsed between the two books. This book, while it treats Douglass's life through 1855, still focuses mainly on his life as a slave. There's much more description of his life in slavery, though, and in some senses it's less personal--there are several chapters devoted to various aspects of how the slave system works, on the plantation level.

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

When I reread this book I was particularly attentive to the scenes of foreshadowing and the revelation through dreams. There were several moments that I had not paid a lot of attention to in previous readings that revealed a lot about what was going on at the time, if you know where to look. I also noticed the meter of Tolkien's songs--there's a lot of tetrameter. I'm excited to press on into Rohan and Mordor.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave by Frederick Douglass

In this book, the first of three autobiographies that Douglass would write, Douglass writes about his experiences as a slave. He spends a lot of time dealing with how he learned to read and write and his decisions to stand up for himself (against Mr. Covey) and to escape to freedom. He doesn't detail the escape itself so that other enslaved persons could still use that route. The book is brief, but moving.

Moon Palace by Paul Auster

There is something both absurd and beautiful about this book, whose protagonist, Marco Stanley Fogg, after the death of his uncle (his only remaining family) drifts through college and life, eventually wasting away to almost nothing, until he is saved by a girl he's met once and his college roommate, and takes a job that leads him (temporarily) to the family he didn't know he was missing. There's a great deal of playful imagination in the book, and the West looms large--the same sort of West that fills the middle chunk of Willa Cather's The Professor's House. The image of the moon, too, fills the pages of the book. The tone of the book was very inviting; I could barely stand to put it down. I am looking forward to reading more of Auster.

Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Gabaldon

This book continues the story of Claire Randall, who travels to the 1740s at the end of World War II through a stone circle in Scotland, and her husband, Jamie Fraser, who finds himself increasingly implicated in the Jacobite Rebellion despite his intentions. Although the book is quite hefty, and the framing story set in 1968 Scotland could have used a little more time, I enjoyed this book. I'll be continuing to read the other books in the series.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral by Phillis Wheatley

This collection of poetry covers a wide range of topics. Most of the poems are religious and meant to console the reader for losses suffered during this earthly life (many poems feature dead loved ones waiting for the live in Heaven). The poems are mostly written in heroic couplets. Wheatley uses some really beautiful imagery to express herself.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

In this book Maya Angelou recounts her childhood. We get to see the Great Migration at work--Maya's parents moved to California, and sent Maya and her brother to live with their grandmother in Arkansas after their divorce, though the children make trips north during their childhoods. I particularly liked the portrait of Maya's grandmother, whom she called Momma, and the portrayal of family life.

The Trials of Phillis Wheatley by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In this book, which Professor Gates developed from a lecture he gave, Gates looks at the critical reception of Phillis Wheatley from her own day (both her trial in front of eighteen of Boston's most upstanding citizens, who concluded that she did write her own poetry and Thomas Jefferson's disparaging assessment of her work) to the present. I appreciated both the reading of Wheatley's poetry and the placement of Wheatley in a larger cultural context. Also, because the book is based on a lecture, it was a quick read.

Equiano, the African: Biography of a Self-Made Man by Vincent Carretta

In this book Vincent Carretta fills out the picture Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa gives of himself in The Interesting Narrative. Carretta is at his best when he gives information not available to the reader of Equiano's autobiography: historical details that place the narrative in context, and details about Equiano's life after publication and the publication process itself. I found the material helpful. I was a little disappointed that Carretta was unwilling to take a strong stance on the contentions that Equiano was born in South Carolina. Carretta provides all the evidence on both sides, but sidesteps the question of which side is correct, and, more disappointingly, sidesteps the question of what's at stake. Despite these qualms, I enjoyed reading this book and was glad of the perspective it provides.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

This book collects five stories and two essays by Octavia Butler. The stories are challenging, because they're often set in different societies (the title story focuses on an outpost of humans who have developed a parasitic relationship with a host species) or in a different version of our society (two focus on disease--a psychological disorder that happens to children whose parents took a miracle drug for cancer, and a world where people are losing their ability to hear and read)--and it often takes almost the entire story to figure out what's happening. I really enjoyed these stories, which all focus on what constitutes a family, what does it mean to love another being, how do we communicate with one another, and how do we cope with disease. All in all, a brilliant collection.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

This book gets easier and easier to read each time that I read it; Tolkien's world of Middle Earth (and beyond) is so rich that it takes a long time (and multiple readings) to get locations and people straight in my head. This time the stories fit together more clearly, but the stories were also more sad: I think I'm starting to see the characters in the stories as people (despite the lack of clear narrative arc). It was also easier to read this after getting back into Tolkien's style with The Hobbit, instead of launching into the opus with The Silmarillion and half-forgetting the charm of Tolkien at his narrative best.

Monday, January 17, 2011

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

I enjoyed reading this book again. I find it an easier way to ease into my annual re-reading of Tolkien's Middle Earth materials than The Silmarillion. This time around, I particularly enjoyed seeing it both as a children's book and as a mixture of genres (poetry and prose, adventure and fantasy). I also noticed in particularly the various strategies Gandalf uses to convince others to do as he asks: the reflecting strategies of getting the dwarves invited to Bilbo's for tea and them all to Beorn's for shelter and aid, and the way that he leaves so that Bilbo can assume leadership of the venture (and provide the crucial Arkenstone that allows everyone start talking--and thus be able to unite against the threat of the Goblins and Wargs at the last moment).

Deeply, Desperately by Heather Webber

This book is an easy read, and the mystery in it is not bad, if nothing to write home about. I enjoyed the banter between Lucy and Preston, the reporter, but I found the break-up-the-engagement plot overbearing and tedious. Good for a quick read if you're not planning on working too hard.

The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

I decided to read this book based on Brandon Sanderson's tweets, and because I've been thinking about reading this series for a while. I'm glad I did. I really liked the way the series split up the role of the young male protagonist into three, so we're not really sure who's going to be the main mover and shaker. I also thought dividing the main group traveling worked well. I enjoyed the references both to the mythos surrounding the King Arthur legend and to Middle Earth. Overall, I'm looking forward to the next book in this series.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace

This book is epic, on the scale of something like Moby Dick or War and Peace or Ulysses. Various sub-plots, which involve the Ennet Drug Recovery House and the Enfield Tennis Academy (whose founder, James O. Incandenza, but known to his family as Himself, committed suicide by sticking his head in a microwave oven, after completing an entertainment known as Infinite Jest so compelling that it causes viewers to stop thinking about anything else while they view it), proliferate throughout the book. The version of the near future presented in the book is fun to entangle, bit by bit, so I'll avoid saying too much about the plot. I think it is fair to say that the novel presses on the conjunction of entertainment, pleasure, and communication, and examines how we connect with those around us. It's a bit of a challenge to get all the way through, but it repays the effort put into it.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik

This book became much more compelling in its final third (as an exploratory party in Australia finds a new method of Chinese shipping after all sorts of trouble). I appreciate that Novik is doing a lot to keep the books from becoming repetitive (Laurence and Temeraire's association with Britain is questioned, for one thing, and the locales keep changing), but because the plot started as a wild goose chase, it was hard to get into it until all the threads came together at the end. I will still read the next book when it comes out, but this series definitely started with its strongest book.

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson

This book tells the story of the Great Migration (the movement of African Americans out of the South to cities in the North and West from about 1915 to 1975) through the lives of three of its participants: Ida Mae Gladney, George Starling, and Robert Pershing Foster. The individual lives were fascinating, the story of the Great Migration definitely needs to be told in a comprehensive way, and it was incredibly clear that Ms. Wilkerson has done incredible research to get the book off the ground. Still, I found the book a bit clunky--there was a lot of back-and-forth between the three stories (which weren't always presented in strict chronological order) and editorial here's-what-was-happening-specifically segments. I also felt that the prose was embroidered a bit (possibly to make the book more appealing to a non-academic audience). In principle, I feel that making history relevant to the widest possible audience is essential. In the case of this book, the prose style at times turned me off. Still, I was impressed by the depth of research and the book's ambitions (which were fulfilled in its contents, even if I wish the form had been more to my liking).

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

In this book Marco Polo claims to describe the fantastic cities of Kubla Khan's empire to the Mogul emperor. Instead, it seems that he's always dancing around the memory of Venice, which overshadows these incredible (and constantly changing) cities. I really appreciated the book's work in thinking through what it means to know a city.