Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Bone Gap by Laura Ruby

From the get-go you know this is going to be a different story with the first line of chapter 1: The corn was talking to him again. A mix of fairy tale, Greek myth, mystery, science and realism, Laura Ruby creates a tale of her own that doesn't quite adhere to any one genre. I'm not sure how my realistic, non-fantasy reading buddies would like it (Angela and Karen). It worked for me and reminded me a bit of a young adult version of "Breadcrumbs," by Anne Ursu. Layers of meaning are honeycombed throughout the plot making for discussions on abuse, bullies, definition of beauty, treatment of women, disabilities, parental absence, peer pressure, and more. The imagery, word choice, and symbolism found in the bees, names (or lack of), agrarian setting, and myths of past literature enrich the plot and make for a page-turner targeted toward middle school, high school, or adult readers. This goes on my burn-the-dinner list.

Eighteen-year-old Finn O'Sullivan doesn't look anyone in the eye, but the small town of Bone Gap accepts his idiosyncrasies until the day Roza disappears. As the only eye-witness, Finn watched her leave and is not sure if she went of her own free will or was kidnapped. Finn along with his older brother, Sean,  try to cope with two people abandoning them in their lives. Their mother had left them for an orthodontist a few years earlier spoiling Sean's plans to go to medical school and leaving Finn in his care. Finn can't describe the man Roza left with in great detail and blames himself for letting her go or not rescuing her.

The various points of view include Roza's story that takes a magical turn when her abductor does the impossible of creating alternate worlds and answering her any wish, (except the only one that matters which is to set her free). The author shrouds Roza in mystery slowly unveiling her past, providing good pacing and tension. When a magical black horse shows up and Finn takes interest in Petey, an unattractive peer, the mystery or myth starts to unfold and take shape drawing all the different elements and genres into a satisfying ending.

*spoiler* I'll try not to reveal too much of the plot.

Comparisons with the Greek myth of Persephone and Roza are obvious. Persephone represents the harvest and fertility of vegetation. Much imagery is devoted to Roza who can grow anything in the boy's garden, goes to school for botany, and whose plants wilt and die after she leaves. In the myth Persephone's beauty draws unwanted attention from other gods and when Hades kidnaps her she becomes Queen of the Underworld. Roza's preternatural  beauty causes her to be abducted by a man in a black SUV who gives her anything she wants but won't let her leave his domain; there is even a reference to pomegranates. Roza has had to deal with unwanted attention from men in the past and she reflects on it while imprisoned.

When a magical black horse shows up at Finns house, he and Petey take some midnight rides that don't seem quite real as the horse leaps distances that are impossible. I knew I was missing the significance of this reference and it wasn't until I read a Maile Meloy's New York Times article  did she remind me that Persephone's mother, Demeter, went in the form of a black horse. She's referring to the myth where Poseidon raped Demeter when she was searching for Persephone; they were in the form of horses and she became pregnant from the episode. The river in the book is surreal too and reminded me of the River Styx.

The subplot of Finn falling in love with Petey and the idea of beauty evolves throughout the story. Roza and Petey are judged by their appearances but the two do not let the world define them as such. Roza is competent and practical. She can stitch up a gash, grow enough food for the three, and jump out of a moving car to save herself from unwanted attentions. Petey, who is considered ugly, determines that she is interesting, even beautiful, inside. The way Petey reflects about this through the science of bees is fascinating and not overly technical.

Finn and Sean, as characters, must deal with male expectations. Sean is expected to be a conventional hero and save Roza, but he is broken and hurt inside from being abandoned by his mother. Finn, being good-looking and "pretty", is attracted to what society would label an unattractive girl. Both boys have to come to terms with societal versus individual expectations and find the courage to be true to themselves. The author's deft character development is one of many elements well done in this tale. Don't miss it.

5 Smileys

Friday, September 2, 2016

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien (BBC radio dramatization)

Three strikes in three decades is my score for trying to read, "The Lord of the Rings." The pacing at the start puts me to sleep. I struggled with "Slaughterhouse Five" as a college student, but later listened to the audio book  and was able to finish it. Ditto Shakespeare. This audio book on "The Fellowship of the Ring," was a winner and the dramatization included music and sound effects that slammed the door on my problems with pacing or focusing issues. I listened each night on the elliptical machine and found it hard to turn off. A study in high fantasy with a classic hero in Aragorn and a common hero in Frodo.

Frodo Baggins, a Hobbit, lives a comfortable life in the Shire and has inherited the Ring of Power from Bilbo Baggins, the hero from "The Hobbit." When the wizard, Gandalf, comes to his house and reveals that the evil wizard, Sauron, is after the ring to control all the earth, Frodo sets out to destroy the ring. He is an unlikely and simple hero aided by friends, including the most heroic of the men, Aragorn. The task of the ring falls on the weakest of them, a hobbit who would prefer not to sacrifice himself, but he rises to the occasion and is the only creature able to resist the ring because he is not drawn by desires to seek power and worldliness. His naivety and simpleness make him the best candidate for success at destroying the ring as Gandalf and Aragorn both know when Frodo offers the ring to them and they realize the the power would be too tempting for them. Frodo's lack of desire for power makes him the best candidate for the quest.

I read a terrific book, "A Hobbit, A Wardrobe, and a Great War: How J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis Rediscovered Faith, Friendship, and Heroism in the Cataclysm of 1914-18" by Joseph Loconte that shows how the Lord of the Rings trilogy is an allegory for World War I with the Hobbits similar to common soldiers and Aragorn and Gandalf similar to military and political leaders making decisions regarding the war. It is a fascinating look at history and analysis of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis's novels. It was one the main reasons I decided to try and read the book again. The hobbits are like the common soldier and don't really know what danger they are approaching, but they have each others backs no matter what and are willing to die for one another. Gandalf and Aragorn are like the world leaders involved in the war.

I still think the start is slow before launching into the quest and picking up in excitement. But this time the audio book helped me be patient. I think Tolkien's in-depth background development of the Shire is to show the domestic contentedness of the hobbits and their lack of desire to be heroes. They are drawn into a battle that they have no desire to be a part of. Because they like simple pleasures and are not tempted by power as most of the other characters in the book, they show the common person as being the hero and this allows the reader to empathize with them.  Aragorn proves his king-like qualities not by physical strength but his handling of the hobbits when he first meets them by playing on their fears and then using wit to ingratiate himself before revealing his letter from Gandalf.

It's the hobbit show, not Aragorn's victories in battle, that save and endear the reader. Frodo incorporates the high qualities of Aragorn's world and the hobbits because he is the wisest and bravest in that he is humble and admits his fears but still strikes forth on the quest to destroy the ring. This is why he is chosen for the task. Only he can resist the corrupting power of the ring to at least get it to the edge of the fire until powers beyond his control destroy it.  Even Frodo cannot resist the temptation of the ring. Tolkien's world building, character development, linguistic genius is astonishing in its brilliance, as most of you know. If you are having problems getting through a book, try an audio book. It felt like a home run this time round. 

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough

On a date with my husband 33 years ago we went cross country skiing at a challenging and hilly course. He had skied the Birkebeiner in Wisconsin and was on the cross country ski team in high school. On one steep, icy hill my ski went out of the track into the opposite one for oncoming ski traffic going up the hill. Straddling both tracks and yelling I had a spectacular crash at the bottom that released my skis like javelins in all directions. He skied down the hill like he was on ice skates, swished both skis together to a full stop and extended a hand to help me up. My cross country skis have a high or stiff camber that allow me to fly down hills completely out of control at high speeds. Great fun. Orville and Wilbur had problems with camber in the second design of their plane as experiments up to that point had a camber ratio that affected stability and caused the plane to crash. Their patented wing warping design had them experimenting with the camber to discover the ideal ratio for their gliders. The camber issue made me think of all my skiing fiascos.

One strength of this book is showing how the Wright brothers experimented, tested, improved, and did not give up in their pursuit of flight. They represent the engineering design process that educators teach to students in elementary school and up. And the author mixes in the human side of the Wright family with their aeronautical achievements to make a highly readable, educational, and entertaining book. As public figures, Orville and Wilbur did not seek nor celebrate fame, but were true to their sole purpose of learning to fly. Their sister Katharine was high-tempered ("wrathy"), opinionated, loyal, and caring. She was the spitfire of the three and added color to the the brothers' story. Wilbur was brilliant and Orville a mechanical genius. The family had arguments but was mainly close and supportive over the years.

The Wright brothers had a successful bicycle business for many years before the idea of flight consumed much of their time. They built a glider and tested it at Kitty Hawk, a rugged island on the Outer Banks of North Carolina where the wind always blew. Living out of a tent they refined and tested their planes eventually succeeding at flying one. They added an engine later in the designs. Katharine helped manage the bicycle business while teaching at a nearby hospital and Charlie Taylor ran the shop while they were at Kitty Hawk as well as being critical in building the engine the Wrights' used on one of their gliders.

Once they had accomplished successful flights, the Wrights had problems with legitimizing their claims of success with the U.S. government. Part of this was their way of going about business. The brothers were afraid of others stealing their ideas and were waiting for a patent so they would not fly for anyone unless the interested party signed a contract before their demonstration. The U.S. government was not interested in their proposition, but France was and Wilbur went there for demonstrations and a contract. The publicity made the U.S. take interest. Later the U.S. army offered a contract and Orville provided demonstrations. After a serious crash, Orville was nursed back to health by Katharine while Wilbur continued with demonstrations in Europe. Orville and Katharine joined Wilbur in Paris and they met with kings from different countries and other influential people. They were a sensation and enjoyed the fame while their father, a Bishop, continually reminded them to stay grounded.

The Wright brothers were self-educated and persevered no matter what the set back. Their educated father had an extensive personal library that allowed for the children to read the likes of "Dickens, Washington Irving, Hawthorne, Mark Twain, a complete set of the works of Sir Walter Scott, the poems of Virgil, Plutarch's 'Lives,' Milton's 'Paradise Lost,' Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' Gibbons' 'Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,' and Thucydides. There were books on natural history, a six-volume history of France, travel, 'The Instructive Speller,' Darwin's 'On the Origin of Species,' plus two full sets of encyclopedias." Once back in the U.S. the brothers, particularly Wilbur, spent many years on patent lawsuits that David McCullough skims over. This is a fairly short book and is not highly technical. This may appeal to some and to others they might want less camber. The pacing and mix of technical and human side of the Wrights was just right for me. See if it's Wright for you.

5 Smileys

Friday, July 1, 2016

The Killer Angels (The Civil War Trilogy, #2) by Michael Shaara

Michael Shaara brilliantly mixes historical facts with fictional elements to create complex characters set during the Battle of Gettysburg. Most of the story is through three characters' point of view: General Robert E. Lee who commanded the Rebel army, Lieutenant-General James Longstreet who commanded a corps, and  Colonel Joshua Chamberlain who commanded a Union regiment. The complexities of the men are captured by Shaara who shows their inner conflicts over loyalty, friends, and professionalism.

The individual characters show broader themes on the effects of leadership in military, conflicting values, and desire for honor, to name a few. Robert E. Lee was revered by the troops and willing to die for him. Even Longstreet, who disagreed to the core with Lee's strategic decision, would not forsake his post nor go against Lee's commands. General Lee reflected an old way of life that had its roots in England where gentleman, honor, and chivalry prevailed in a ruling elite or aristocracy. The North had its money in cities where any individual could become wealthy without the stronger class distinctions of the South. While the war is known as being fought to free the slaves, it was more complex in terms of an old way of life being threatened by a new way. Some of the minor characters such as Stuart and Fremantle enforce this notion while also adding some comic relief.

Longstreet did not fight for a cause and Lee chastised him over it. The two reflect the professionalism they felt toward each other as soldiers and while he was loyal to Lee, he did not fight for a Cause, but fought to win. He was a complex man that wanted to fit in with his soldiers but he was a frontiersman and not an aristocrat; thus, feeling separate from those around him. One wonders at Longstreet's lack of commitment and inability to communicate with Lee regarding statistical numbers of climbing the hill. He was brilliant with military tactics and far ahead of the times, but couldn't seem to be heard by Lee or other leaders. Yet the two relied on each other and cared deeply for each other's well-being. While other aristocratic leaders like Pickett were enthusiastic about leading the charge of the Gettysburg hill, he later blamed Lee for the death of over half his men. Longstreet knew that the chance of winning was statistically low, but hoped the loyalty of the soldiers toward Lee would produce a miracle. Instead, the Rebel army never recovered from the Battle losing many of their commanding officers and proving Longstreet right.

The Union soldier Joshua Chamberlain, who was a professor at Bowdain before enlisting, shows the only character that was actually in the battle. Lee and Longstreet observed from a distance while Chamberlain led a regiment. He had respect for the enemy and admires their courage. His leadership when the Union soldiers repelled the Rebels from flanking the army showed bravery and wit that made a big difference in the Battle of Gettysburg. He led his soldiers by following three tenants: be courageous, be decisive, and care about his soldiers. He also has a brother in his regiment and shows the difficulty of relying on him and wanting to protect him at the same time.

Chamberlain shows that he does have a Cause: "He had grown up believing in America and the individual and it was a stronger faith than his faith in God. This was the land where no man had to bow. In this place at last a man could stand up free of the past, free of tradition and blood ties and the curse of royalty and become what he wished to become. ...Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was. Here you can be something. Here's a place to build a home. It isn't the land - there's always more land. It's the idea that we all value, you and me, we're worth something more than dirt. ...What we're all fighting for, in the end, is each other." He was fighting for freedom not only for blacks but from the old way of life or traditions carried specifically by the English.

While Lee and Longstreet are a look into generalship, Chamberlain reveals what it is like to be in the midst of battle. Studying the complexities of the characters gives a microscopic look into what reflects the bigger issues in military leadership and fundamentals of combat. I didn't realize that this is book 2 in a trilogy. It is not necessary to read book one. I was able to follow the story and characters, although I read it on an eReader and could not see the maps detailing the battle. That was a bit frustrating. A fascinating read that is incredibly well-written about the Civil War.

5 Smileys

All Our Yesterdays (All Our Yesterdays #1) by Cristin Terrill

This had potential but the focus on the romantic subplot over the time travel weakened it and made for some slow reading, particularly in the beginning. Marina is sixteen and comes from a rich family where the dad works all the time and the mom is unhappy with her inability to be successful as an artist. Marina makes friends with James, the neighbor, a couple of years older than her, whose parents died and is being raised by Nate, his Congressman brother. James has a 168 IQ and is working on his Ph.D. He struggles with relationships except with Marina and Finn, a friend from school. When a tragedy happens, Marina and Finn are there for James as they try to unravel the mystery.

I would have liked more focus on the mystery or time travel than the romance. There are too many gaps in it and the end rushes the answers rather than slowly unveiling them throughout the plot. The beginning pacing with Em was good but it went from clues into the romantic subplot. Marina has a girl crush on James but by the end it is supposed to be deeper, only it doesn't make sense after all he's done to her. In the beginning Marina's storyline as a young and shallow person is weak compared to Em's that is full of tension. I thought the tension got lost during the romantic subplot and some of the plot twists obvious. Except the ending. That was confusing and poorly done with flashbacks. Finn's background relationship with James isn't really explained. James is out of school but the two met in school? Except he's a new friend. Perhaps I missed something.

There are some stereotypes that left me uncomfortable. Marina's parents are one dimensional self-centered people, while Luz is the motherly type in Marina's life. This is not developed. Marina wears dorky pajamas Luz gave her over to James house that shows actually how much she loves Luz. There are more instances but they are few and far between. Also, the author tells the reader how Marina feels more than shows and it works against creating a complex character. The first person point of view also works against giving rounded characters. James becomes a one dimensional character and Finn isn't developed enough to understand his motives except being in love with Em. Time travel books and movies are found in abundance and when done well can be very interesting, but this one misses the mark for me.

3 Smileys

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond

I collapsed after reading this. What a slog. Good, but dense, detailed, and darn long. I don't particularly care for Jared Diamond's writing style. He's detailed, scholarly, and repetitive. There is so much information I had to take frequent breaks and snatch some quick reads in-between chapters. I almost abandoned it a few times but then I'd find a different chapter interesting and get hooked again. Diamond has solid arguments for explaining why societies collapse and while fascinating, he's overly detailed in spots - at least for me. His thesis shows five factors that influence the collapse of a society: environmental damage, climate change, hostile neighbors, decreased support by friendly neighbors, and society's response to environmental problems. The book is full of great information and I can see recommending students to read certain chapters, but not the whole shebang - unless they are persistent readers.

Many of the societies he examines collapsed because of their fragile environments. While Diamond doesn't play judge and is sympathetic toward those who made decisions that were wrong and caused the downfall of their societies from ancient to modern times, he is judgmental against those who obviously don't care about the environment, who "rape-and-run" making quick cash and leave environmental disasters for citizens and governments to clean up. He balances this analysis of greedy businesses with stellar businesses whose good practices show how everyone can benefit when a company creates a product that respects the environment.

"Environmental determinism" looks at the physical environment such as climate and geography trying to determine how it affects societies. This concept has had negative press over the years and has led to some people using racism or superiority of intellect over other cultures based the oppressor being smarter than the suppressed group of people. Diamond is always refuting this and he also takes his studies further looking at multiple aspects of a hypothesis that include climate, geography, botany, science, economics and more. It is one reason his books are so dense and slow to read. But they are fascinating and require thoughtful reflection.

He has quite a few great quotes and I would have expanded on them if my Nook eReader hadn't deleted all my highlights. I will try to remember some from my bad memory. The genocide in Rwanda was a product of land disputes, deforestation, exports, and too many people living in extreme poverty. There was a direct correlation between starvation and increased crime. Diamond explains how the ethnic violence was not based solely on ethnic hatred but tied in with land disputes. The argument is compelling and interesting. Australia's fragile environment is a great chapter to read as well.

Diamond discusses the rarity of a leader who has the courage to anticipate a potential problem and take steps to solve it before it becomes a crisis. "Such leaders expose themselves to criticism or ridicule before it becomes obvious to everyone that some action is necessary." Think of all the leaders you've come across in your life that surround themselves with people that tell them what they want to hear. The ability to listen to criticism and use it constructively and not be corrupted by power is not the norm.

I thought "Collapse" and "Gun, Germs, and Steel" both had first chapters that were hard to get through. This one is too detailed on Montana and slowed the pacing. The ancient societies that collapsed were not quite as interesting as the modern ones as his analysis is more complex because he has more information to prove his hypothesis. The author is quite brilliant and worth reading.

3 Smileys

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

We are moving to South Africa so I thought I had better read this bestseller from 1948. I listened to the audiobook performed by the actor, Michael York. His incredible voice changes helped me visualize the characters; however, I should have read the book as my weakest learning style is auditory and it took me awhile to get the African village names and characters sorted. The Reverend Stephen Kumalo, who lives in Ndotsheni, a village in eastern South Africa, receives a letter saying his sister, Gertrude, is ill and he should come to Johannesburg. Kumalo hopes to find his son, Absalom, who has also gone to Johannesburg and he has not heard from in a few years. In Johannesburg, Kumalo is assisted by Msimangu, the priest that sent him the letter, and the two set off to find Gertrude and Absalom. Along the way they see economic and social conditions that gave rise to apartheid. Alan Paton's writing is lyrical and full of emotion; a social protest novel that reveals the political and social issues of the time. I think it would be good paired with "Things Fall Apart," that shows the breakdown of the tribe from a black man's perspective; whereas, "Cry the Beloved Country," is from a white man's perspective that reveals postcolonial attitudes of liberalism and Christian paternalism.

Kumalo and Msimangu are good men that travel from place to place observing how the black man has lost "his tribe" and support system since white men has colonized Africa. Kumalo comes from the country and views the city as a corrupting influence on young people. Traditions with a chief as head of the tribe and support system of others members who teach moral behavior has been replaced by the white man's influence and this is represented in the lawless city of Johannesburg. The result is corruption as people live in fear.

Kumalo begins his journey rooted in the old ways and once he travels to Johannesburg he discovers that the world has changed and he must change with it. The erosion of African society is symbolized in representations of a barren land and the erosion of the red soil that bleeds into the rivers like an open wound. Stephen Kumalo's home is decaying with his sister turning to prostitution and his son committing murder. Kumalo clings to the old ways at first realizing that he must change by the end to adapt to a changing world, but he suffers terribly along the way and like Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Kumalo must lose his son, sister, and family before gaining a new one. He realizes that he must reach out to help those in need or suffering and give to them selflessly; hence, creating a new tribe.

Kumalo meets his brother, John, who has rejected the tribe but who has an incredible voice or speaking ability that others listen to, but he is corrupt and only thinks of himself. He is hollow and unreliable as a friend or relative. A foil to him is Dubula, a man that is the voice of the boycott. His motives are unselfish and Kumalo and Msimangu realize that he would make a great leader because power would not corrupt him. He's morally stable, unlike John Kumalo. Many times throughout the novel the power of corruption is brought up and it is the self-sacrificing men that are held up as examples to emulate.

The economic and deplorable social conditions are revealed throughout the journey, but it is mainly through James Jarvis that the white person is supposed to recognize actions he or she can take to help mend the gap with blacks. James Jarvis is a country man like Kumalo and when his son is murdered he reads his notes discovering his son thought deeply about the racial problems and was trying to change the world to be a better place. James is changed and decides to work for a solution toward helping the tribe. He introduces a man that shows the blacks agricultural methods that will help till the soil or heal a broken land by beginning something new for the blacks.

When I read, "Huckleberry Finn," as an adult I could see why others took offense at the stereotypical portrayal of blacks. In Paton's novel, the whites are superior and the blacks are left with the whites making morally correct decisions to benefit them. Stephen calls James Jarvis an angel because he's showing the natives agricultural techniques and he's building a new church which allowed him to remain a pastor there. This is supposed to help them with the tribal displacement but it is always the whites in this story that have the knowledge and vision for the tribes. Paton wanted South African natives to embrace Christianity because this would lead to moral living and he suggests farming as a way to get back in touch with the land.

I've been reading Jared Diamond's book, "Collapse," about elements that lead to a society's demise. Poverty, over farming, deforestation, climate, and environmental issues are usually significant factors along with different catalysts that cause the collapse. Paton focuses mostly on moral decay and the break down of the tribe. While Paton's attempt to change racial injustices is noble, his story shows at the same time the attitudes of the day full of colonial views of an enlightened Western civilization replacing a barbarian one. Many find his book outdated because of his portrayal of blacks. For further reading on this topic, I put the article at the bottom of the page. This is a story that will lead to plenty of discussions.

5 Smileys

Source: Paternalism, Ideology, and Ideological Critique: Teaching "Cry, the Beloved Country" Author(s): Patrick Colm Hogan
Source: College Literature, Vol. 19/20, No. 3/1, Teaching Postcolonial and Commonwealth Literatures (Oct., 1992 - Feb., 1993), pp. 206-210
Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press Stable URL: Accessed: 08-06-2016 15:44 UTC