Thursday, May 27, 2010

Belong to Me by Marisa de los Santos

I am not a poet. In general I'm not even a fan of poetry. Yet Marisa de los Santos, who is a poet, uses incredible poetry in her descriptive novel. In fact, she breaks most of the rules writing guides tell struggling authors: she uses too many adverbs, she uses cliches with aplomb, and she lets her characters ramble. But put all her idiosyncrasies together and de los Santos writes a very compelling story. What makes the writing work is that each character has his/her own distinct voice.
Cornelia likes cliches and wandering thoughts.
Dev likes logic until logic no longer works.
Piper likes order until order falls apart.

Call me a book snob, but I am not a huge fan of "women's literature." Too many stories revolve around marital problems and children's health. I find them redundant and the authors often work too hard to pull at my emotional strings. Belong to Me does have some of those characteristics and yet I did not find them overwhelming the plot. The story stands strong even without the marital problems and the children's health issues.

Maria de los Santos has the rare skill to write from the perspective of very different individuals convincingly. To tell the story from the perspective of two women who hate one another on sight and yet grow to become friends is a challenge. As a reader my immediate opinion of Piper was disdain and yet by the end of the novel she had redeemed herself through her experiences and her growing acceptance of Cornelia and different ways of seeing the world. De los Santos writes Piper's haughtiness and changing nature realistically.

One of the best aspects of the book was the surprise. I didn't see it coming at all. The author does a great job laying out all the clues buy not alluding to the idea that the information is clues until the reader is hit with what is really going on.

On the other hand, she did wrap things up a bit too neatly for my tastes. In the epilogue she alludes to problems and discord but yet everything is tied up with a neat little bow. A little more discord would have rung more true - although who doesn't want to see all the characters happy at the end?

I would consider this book a good summer read: it makes one think, but not too hard. It has conflict and plenty of sadness - it did make me cry, but yet lots of redemption too.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

I would love to teach an Environmental History class - personal interest and student intrigue. However, I do not have an academic background in the field. Starting from scratch is a daunting task but I am curious enough about current environmental issues to dive into the field on my own. Last year I read The Gentle Subversive, a biography of Rachel Carson which I found enlightening - she is not an individual I ever heard about growing up (and I grew up in an environmentally conscious area). But living down the road from the Rachel Carson Homestead her name has come up more often recently.

I have checked out Silent Spring at least twice from the library but it took until this month to actually tackle reading it. I am NOT a scientist. I never liked science at school so reading a book about chemicals, full of acronyms and lengthy discussions of the impact of pesticides on human and animal populations seemed daunting. One of the great appeals of Carson's work is she takes a very heavy topic and makes it feel significantly less daunting. I understood a greater portion of the science than I had feared I would. She makes the topic of DDT and the destruction of the environment understandable. While Silent Spring is weighted with scientific and academic studies to prove her her points about the rapid destruction of the balance of the ecosystem I did not find my head spinning (too much) with jargony terminology.

When I discussed environmental history with another scholar, she pointed out Carson's book is a primary source. As a historian I recognize the book is dated. There are anachronisms in how she speaks (Carson did not live in the PC 21st Century) and a lot has changed in environmental awareness because of her book. I noted certain facts she included because I would like to know if they have changed in the past 40 years - in particular her information about the FDA caught my attention because that agency name comes up frequently in current discussions about Slow Food and Better School Food conversations.

Is this a book I would recommend to everyone?

No. I think there are more timely books to read now which discuss current environmental issues. However to someone who wants to understand the foundations of the current environmental movement its still relevant. Honestly for my needs I think the biography was more useful because I did gain a better understanding of how Carson fit into the scientific world discussing the balance of nature. Nonetheless, I feel more educated having read her words and seeing how good she was about taking a complex issue and writing about it for a non-scientific audience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

After the Wall: Confessions from an East German Childhood and the Life that Came Next by Jana Hensel

(One of my goals this summer is to pick up new scholarly books in my field - something I have not done since graduating and enjoying a respite from academia. I can't promise they'll be as exciting as my usual fiction entries but I am enjoying the foray back into history.)

[The last "true" GDR kids] trends amounted to nothing more than a staged performance of individual withdrawal from public life, a refusal to participate, and, to a certain extent, collective boredom. In cliques, everyone looks and feels the same. Internal unity was more important than external individualism. Such was the schizophrenia of everyday life in the GDR. You had to participate without attracting attention, to function within the system without actively collaborating or supporting it. All representatives of the state and other public functionaries were viewed with distrust and distaste. So people tended to keep the private sphere - where they could truly say what they thought - strictly separate from the public one. (160-61)

I saw Jana Hensel's memoir listed in a catalog of recent history books and decided it was worth a read. I think the quote above reflects the ideas she tried to get across in her book: the difficulty of acknowledging a GDR past while inhabiting a post-reunification present.

I haven't picked up much new history lately and this caught my fancy. While I have studied material culture in the two Germanies, discussed the fall of the Wall, and watched post-Wall films like Goodbye Lenin and The Lives of Others, I have not read anything scholarly about post-1990 German reunification (although Timothy Garton Ash's The File broaches this topic).

Hensel's memoir is less scholarly and more frenetic outpourings of thought, but it nonetheless encapsulated core ideas about the difficulties of reunification. I am similar in age to Hensel and like her had not yet completed high school when the Wall fell in 1989. At a crucial stage in personal development introducing an entire new past, present, and future will most assuredly change how a person sees herself. Hensel's goal in writing After the Wall is to point out to Germans the difficulties of assimilating to West German models without having to renounce her communist heritage. Thinking back to the sense of euphoria in the early-90s and my own views of the two Berlins when I saw them in 1995, I found Hensel's frustration with the lack of understanding West Germans showed for her early life intriguing. She neither lauded the GDR and cried over its demise nor did she dismiss it as a an outdated failure. She acknowledged it was merely the world she knew.

Critics of Hensel argue she spends too much time navel-gazing and reiterates the same points ad nauseum. Admittedly, the book could use some polish (And I must briefly ask who placed the pictures in the book. Very often they had a tangential connection to the storyline but no real necessarily relationship. They seemed to have been included merely to break up the text and make is seem less scholarly). But as a history of memory and remembrance I think it is a great tool which could be used successfully in a post-Cold War college classroom. Not to mention the book is a quick and easy read written in a very casual style - a bonus for students who are not invested in dry academic reading. I am trying to figure out a way to incorporate excerpts into my own classes.

Sold as Zonenkinder (Children of the Zone) in Germany, it received tons of attention and praise. The translation includes a short history of the GDR for a non-specialist but also a very useful commentary by the translator. In fact, the notes should have appeared at the beginning as they give the reader useful information for understanding the book (and they take a journalists perspective and give it the needed scholarly twist).

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

I feel as though everyone I know and a LOT of people I don't know have read The Help. Everywhere I turn I see raving comments and reviews of this amazing book I simply *have* to read. I will be honest; the more people tell me I must read a book the greater my cynicism scale rises. I find all too often the books that get the most attention are over-sold and good but in no way amazing. (Think of it like the Star Wars trilogy. Everyone told you how amazing the new movies were going to be and you saw tons of ads showing cool special effects shots, but when you actually watched the movies you were necessarily disappointed. There's only so much hype any story can take before it become impossible to live up to its own reputation.)

So, I picked up The Help wanting to enjoy it but wary it would disappoint. By and large, it didn't. I really enjoyed reading Stockett's view of 1960s Mississippi. One thing I noticed off the bat was I had no idea of the plot of this "amazing" story. For all the raving I had heard, not a single person had explained the basic plot. I had a light bulb moment of realizing who "the help" meant.

In my opinion Stockett's greatest skill is creating believable characters. She had a wide variety of personalities, socio-economic backgrounds,and education levels all stuffed into Civil Rights era Jackson, Mississippi and yet I did not feel any of the characters was a stereotyped cardboard cutout. They all had depth and personality which made them feel real. In her short monologue at the back of the book, Stockett talks about her difficulty writing genuine feeling relationships between White- and African-American characters that didn't sound too Gone With the Wind. I think she was successful in creating an honest and sympathetic view of the love that develops between caregivers and those in need of the care. Each woman in the story has a unique story which dictates who she is and why she sees the world as she does. Yet Stockett does not fall into the trap of grouping characters into an "us" and "them" dichotomy. The closest she has to a wooden character is Hilly and that is only because as a reader we never see the world through Hilly's eyes. A wise choice on Stockett's part as I think it would be difficult to write such a staunchly racist character in today's world and make her at all sympathetic.

My favorite storyline probably involved Minnie and Celia because it was one of the most unexpected. I thought I had figured out Celia and Johnny's relationship and was relieved when I hadn't. I liked the story Stockett wrote much better.

The reason I can't give this book my overwhelming praise and stated "by and large" was the historian who I just can't turn off. Having recently read Precious and seen The Blind Side (and moreover read commentaries and critiques of both the books and the movies) I have a growing awareness of the difference in mainstream views of African-American life and more sidelong stories. While Stockett did a "good" job recreating her world, she was careful. She did not show the horrors she could have shown. She played it safe. Her book was written for and is being appreciate by a white, middle-class, safe audience. She is not going to rock any boats with what she wrote. Overwhelmingly her readers can walk away feeling good about themselves without having to question their own personal morality. The Help is almost a sanitized version of The Color Purple or Beloved.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Living Dead in Dallas (Sookie Stackhouse #2) by Charlaine Harris

I looked at all the books on my bookcase and had no desire to read any of them. Nothing peaked my interest despite the fact that I bought most of them. Instead I put the second Sookie Stackhouse book on reserve at the library. I read Dead Until Dark out of sheer basic curiosity; I saw part of a True Blood episode and found myself intrigued.

It turns out Harris writes a pretty good paranormal mystery and I was happy to read another one. I am not running out to buy the next six books in the series nor am I pushing True Blood to #1 on my Netflix queue. However, I will continue to read the books and one of these days I will get around to watching the series.

Harris does a few things I really appreciate which makes her series worth picking up. The heroine does not fit any stereotype. She is neither the stereotypical middle-aged protagonist of many cozies, nor is she the heavyset yet cute heroine of the chick lit genre. Sookie makes no apologies for being lower middle class, rural and relatively uneducated.

She isn't afraid to introduce as many paranormal creatures without apologizing for how and why she includes them. The world she creates is standard Americana with a twist: it is neither overly fantastical nor is it overly shocked by the creatures that appear.

Finally, Harris seems to have fun writing and doesn't take herself too seriously. She uses light fun humor throughout her book.

In Living Dead in Dallas Sookie and Bill fly to Dallas, stay in a vampire hotel, and infiltrate an anti-vampire Fellowship. Sookie gets kissed by Eric, wonders about Sam, and meets a slew of mythical creatures. Fun, light, enjoyable.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

I am a confirmed bibliophile: I love to read. I absorb books.
I am a European historian: I am trained to ferret out the nuances and recognize there is no *T* truth.
Once in a while my two worlds collide. The book Those Who Save Us spoke to both of my personalities and at times they argued, at odds about the power and appeal of Jenna Blum's book. In this post I will talk about Those Who Save Us as a powerful novel. I wrote a post on my other blog talking about Those Who Save Us as truth-based historical fiction.

Those Who Save Us is the story of a mother and daughter both trying to understand, overcome, and possibly forget about their experiences in World War II Weimar, Germany. Anna, the mother, lived through the War as a young mother doing what she had to to protect her daughter. Trudy, the daughter, is a German historian, who is trying to understand the Germans and how and why they acted as they did during the War. The story jumps back and forth between the lives of the two women - one in the 1940s the other in the 1990s. As the two stories merge, the reader has the omniscience that the two women lack which makes the story tragic because of the characters' inability to speak and explain.

Blum tells a compelling story of love and hate. Self-hatred plays a strong role in the understanding of the two women. As I read, I suddenly understood why the field of psychology and self-analysis blossomed in the thirty years after World War II. Both of these women desperately needed an outside person to absolve them of their individual guilt. The self-immolation is centered around the character of the brutal ObersturmfΓΌhrer who takes Anna as his mistress. Trudy believes the Nazi Officer is her father and hates herself for her heritage. Her field of study becomes a personal psychological attempt to understand her own life and absolve herself for her family's actions.

The finale of the novel is uplifting but Blum does not fall into the Hollywood trap of wrapping everything up into a neat little box. Questions are answered but everyone is not completely forgiven and happy.

Blum has a history working with Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation. She has a good working knowledge of the Jewish (and some German) experience during the Holocaust. That comes through clearly in her novel and the reminiscences of the Germans in the story are honest, brutal, and well-written. My angst about the book revolves around her descriptions of average Germans outside of her main character. I find Blum's writing less frustrating than I find her representation of Trudy who as a historian, even 13 years ago in 1997, should have had a more nuanced and "shades of grey" view of the German people. I am a product of my own schooling and my professors did an incredible job of showing the Germans as Ordinary Men NOT Hitler's Willing Executioners. Blum could have used a touch more understanding.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Push by Sapphire

(Don't let the cover you fool you. The novel inside is Push. Publishers re-covered it and titled it Precious because the movie was titled Precious rather than Push. The only difference as far as I can tell is this edition includes a reader's guide and a picture of the movie actor.)

I have had Push on hold at the library since February. I finally broke down and bought my own copy this weekend because I really wanted to read it! Once I had the book in hand I read it in two sittings. It's not long but more than that it's a story that needs to be read continuously. It would be a difficult book to put down after reading only a page or two at a time.

I would be hard pressed to say I *enjoyed* reading Push. The story is far from enjoyable - the plot revolves around a 16 year old girl who is pregnant for the second time by her father who has repeatedly raped her. Her mother beats her upon discovering Precious' first pregnancy at the age of 12 for "stealing her man." It's a sad look at life in contemporary Harlem. However, I am very glad I read this book.

I first heard about Push as a suggested book for high school students in an inner-city school. Having finished it, I can understand the logic behind choosing this book. For many contemporary students, the issues Precious deals with are more true-to-life than what Huck Finn encounters (sadly). I am torn as an educator however. Sapphire writes the book from the perspective of an illiterate teen: the spelling and grammar is non-existent. In an English class, while I can appreciate the use of slang and dialect, I would never want to give students the message that writing so poorly is a good way to get a book published. I would still want my students to write correctly. I do think it would be interesting to pair Push with a classroom study of the Harlem Renaissance. Precious lives on Lenox Avenue and talks about Langston Hughes. Using the book as a commentary on what has or has not changed in African-American society might be really relevant.

As an aside, the style of the book reminded me of Daniel Keye's classic story Flowers for Algernon. Like Charlie, Precious's dialogue, writing, and ability to express herself grow throughout the novel, showing the impact of her new education.

All in all, not a light beach read by any stretch of the imagination. But a worthy story that deserves to be told.

* * * * * * *

Adding a final note. I watched The Blind Side this evening and really enjoyed it. Curious about the accuracy of the film, I started researching it online. I ended up reading an article talking about why The Blind Side has been a better-received film than Precious: an interesting discussion about social perceptions and presentations of young African Americans in mainstream media. But, to the point, I found an NPR article about Sapphire I wanted to share. At the very least I feel like my impressions of the writing are justified knowing Sapphire has an MFA and is versed in American literary traditions.