Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Most Read Authors

I love Goodreads for a lot of reasons, and here's one: it created a little link on the side of the "My Books" page with my Most Read Authors. Fun! I clicked on it and was shocked to discover Jane Sorenson at the top. A little known secret about me is that as an adolescent I devoured her series of twelve books about Jennifer Green, in all its ridiculous, born-again-Christian, totally cheese-tacular, intermediate fiction glory. These books were terrible, and yet great, and they taught me all about Haiti.  They are kind of from the Brady Bunch school of kids' art/entertainment. Despite the greatness of the so-sappy-they're-awesome "Jennifer Books," I really was appalled to see Jane Sorenson's name at the top of my list of most-read authors. I realized that although her series had a dozen books, if nothing else I had read at least as many Beverly Cleary and Dr. Seuss books when I was a child but just hadn't rated them on Goodreads. So I promptly went through adding and rating a few more books from those two authors. With no further ado, then, here are my top 13 most read authors:

1. Dr. Seuss & Beverly Cleary  (tie)
2. Jane Sorenson
3. Sandra Scoppettone
4. Elizabeth Berg & Virginia Woolf (tie)
5. William Shakespeare
6. Nelson DeMille & Douglas Adams (tie)
7. Margaret Atwood, Anna Quindlen, Judy Blume & Nick Hornby (4-way tie)

I'm good with the gender balance of the list, but my goodness, it's certainly very white-Anglo-American, isn't it? But, hey, naysayers! Check out all that genre fiction!

Who are your most read authors?

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Honest Abe, Rail-Splittin' and Constitution Splittin'
(but not nation-splittin')

now finished: Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years by Carl Sandburg
next up: The Beach by Alex Garland

So, Abraham Lincoln: a benchmark, it would seem, in my prez bios project. I mean, Abraham Lincoln is a president that other people read bios of, even people who aren't doing a wonderfully dorky read-a-bio-of-every-president-in-order-to-see-where-we-went-wrong project. That means I had a lot of choices, for the first time since Thomas Jefferson, but we settled on the Carl Sandburg.

Have I mentioned that it was originally published in six volumes?  This is one big bio. You can find just The Prairie Years or just The War Years, but I opted for the all-in-one combined volume that Sandburg himself abridged from the six volumes. It was very in depth, and I definitely feel that I spent a great deal of time with Lincoln and learned more about the Civil War than I ever came close to doing in my history classes over the years. I mean, there just isn't time to focus that deeply (unless you're a history major) as Sandburg did in researching and really becoming one with Lincoln's life.

The book has a strange style: it's a little folksy, like Lincoln himself, in relating the anecdotes of Lincoln's way with people, always able to smooth a ruffled feather or talk to anyone or get done what he wanted done without ever strong-arming people or even sometimes letting them realize they were being persuaded to give Abe his way.

Of course, nowadays it's all the rage to reconsider Lincoln's greatness by comparing him to the evil, monstrous, tragic-joke-of-a-president Dubya, because both kind of tossed habeas corpus to the wind during their wars. It's an interesting comparison (I first studied it intensively in my Foreign Affairs and the Constitution class in law school, so it's no surprise to me) but I'm not sure it's exactly spot on.

At any rate, though, the Civil War sure was a bloody mess.

I really, really hate how inevitable so many people thought it was. There should have been some kind of human decency that rose above the sectional slavery struggle. Look, I understand the need to adhere to the Constitution. And I understand that Fillmore, Pierce, and Buchanan, aka presidents numbers 13, 14, and 15, basically did not solve the slavery issue because they disliked it but understood legally that they "couldn't" do anything about it under the Constitution.  And it was true, in its way, that the Constitution protected slavery in the South. But then, simply, the Constitution was flawed. OK? It was flawed. It needed to not protect slavery, just as countries and governments and constitutions and leaders today should not protect slavery (including human trafficking!) or oppression. And the idea that Lincoln (and Grant) knew they needed to open up wholesale slaughter of the Confederate soldiers (also, of course, leading to slaughter of hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers) in order to stop this evil from happening is just so tragic, of them.

WHEN will there ever be a generation that stands up and says war is murder, and war is wrong, and we are going to solve our problems in a different way?  WHEN will we have a leader do that?

It certainly isn't our Nobel Peace Prize winner, Obama.  And my god it was not that lunatic clown murderer from Texas before him.

I agree with the man who so eloquently stated in the documentary The Good Soldier that the generation that finds a way to solve problems peacefully will actually be the "greatest generation."

And then, at the end of the horrible war, after so many have suffered so much, the night of Lincoln's death makes for one of the most gripping episodes I have yet read in any president biography.Well done, Carl Sandburg.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Finally, Abe Lincoln. Is he great?

now reading: Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and the War Years by Carl Sandburg

So I'm reading this bio of Abraham Lincoln, as I continue along with my prez bios project (reading a biography of every president in order to see where we went wrong, a project that was obviously started during the Dubya administration). I realize that for some people Abraham Lincoln has been "next" ever since I finished Thomas Jefferson, or possibly James Madison, since many of us tend to give little thought to the likes of Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, or Zachary Taylor. And, let's not even get started about Millard Fillmore, who is solidly in my top three along with James Madison and my boy, JQA. (That would be John Quincy Adams).

But you see, if you don't read a biography of every president in order to see where we went wrong, then you might find yourself reading a book about ol' Abe without any idea what Franklin Pierce (#14) and James Buchanan (#15) did in the decade before the Civil War. I must say that reading these presidential stories has been even more interesting than I thought it was going to be. The early-to-mid 1800s are a seriously incredible time in U.S. history, with so much going on, and HUGE problems to solve, and so many potentially mad events on the horizon, and the presidents are fascinating.  I have found my study of Abe enhanced by knowing the details of what came before.

I am totally not prepared to launch into any slavery diatribe right now, but my god was that a problem for the nation. Very few saints in the whole ending-slavery thing. For example, Lincoln: not a radical abolitionist. He was much more concerned with keeping the union together, etc., at least as president. It is interesting to read about the folksy, humorous, humble man, as presented by Carl Sandburg. Obviously most of us know Carl Sandburg for his poetry, but he dug deep and spent years creating this six-volume portrait of Lincoln, which he then himself abridged into a six-in-one 800-page volume (that I am now reading).

Obviously, I know how things are going to end, but it is nonetheless a gripping saga getting there.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Download of a Random-A** Story

now finished: The Ghosts of Ragged-Ass Gulch by Bill Pronzini

Every once in a while you just have to listen to something silly...or maybe that's what I'm telling myself because I succumbed to the pressure of the "Free for Members" section of Audible and downloaded this along with a half dozen or more other interviews, shows, and samples last month. This novella (or is it a novelette? That's a problem with downloading free audio samples; you don't actually know how many words/pages you've got. I am still resistant to audio fiction for many reasons, and now I have thought of another one) is about a detective in Northern (waaay northern) California investigating a fire, death, suspected arson and the like in a former gold mining town.

It was enjoyable enough, although I wasn't too fond of the way the male narrator did women's voices. They were like something out of a cheesy variety show sketch. Is that really necessary? We understand that his girlfriend Carrie is a woman, and your weirdly affected not-falsetto does nothing to further this impression in our minds, Mr. Narrator Dude.

This, you see, is part of why I am not an audio book person. I am greatly enjoying my Audible membership for the non-fiction, particularly my idea to listen to a lot of Pulitzer-winning non-fiction books on my MP3 player as I walk and ride buses around Korea, but as for novels (and novellas/long short stories), I still hate being read to. Hate hate hate.

Putting all that aside, this is a simple story that would be a great way to pass the time in a doctor's waiting room, for example. Mostly it just made me hanker for another trip to Northern California some time in the very near future. And, I kept thinking someone might actually secretly have gold in them 'thar hills... alas, no.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

A Pennsylvania President

now finished: President James Buchanan by Philip Shriver Klein(entry backdated to when I finished the book)

Lots of early U.S. presidents were from Virginia. There were also a few from New England and from the Carolinas-Tennessee corridor, and a couple from New York. There was even a "Western" president (you know, Ohio and the Indiana "frontier") who played up the log cabin angle in his campaign years before Lincoln was around. But the 15th president, James Buchanan, came from Pennsylvania, and what I learned from this prez bio is that Pennsylvania politics of the early to mid-1800s were almost as atrocious and horrifying as New York politics.

I've mentioned before that Martin Van Buren basically invented the Democratic party as we know it, with political party loyalty, back room deals, and bizarre trade-off power plays. (He had the help of Andrew Jackson in this, along with plenty of New York politicians.) Well, Pennsylvania was not content to let its neighboring state be the biggest and baddest, and it certainly started throwing its weight around in presidential elections as well.

Now, here I must say that I actually like James Buchanan, and I think he gets a raw deal in how he is remembered. (I mean, to the extent that he is remembered at all.) He was a true success at his law career, and his political career. He made money, and he made connections, but he had loyalty to the place he came from and he supported his family forever, a family plagued with deaths and deadbeats and struggles and extra mouths to feed. This is why his niece and others lived in his household and ended up coming to the White House with him -- that's right, James B. is our famous "bachelor president" who had his niece do all the official society hosting First Lady duties. James had a LOT of experience, serving in Congress and as a Secretary of State, as well as being involved in all the political goings-on in Pennsylvania. People think poorly of him because the South started seceding at the end of his term, and because the slavery question obviously erupted into the biggest event in U.S. history during the next presidency, that of Abe Lincoln.

But our boy Buchanan did his utmost to keep the Union together, and he was deeply concerned with the law. He, like Franklin Pierce and Millard Fillmore before him, was no fan of slavery, but saw no legal way in the Constitution for the president to do anything about it. He also considered secession illegal. Most people at that time were focused on trying to prevent the spread of slavery into new territories; abolitionists were considered dangerous radicals (and, also a threat to the Constitution), sort of like some people jabber about Michael Moore and other righteous crusaders today.

Buchanan also got a raw deal from the Democratic party. Buchanan probably should have been nominated for the presidency earlier than he was. Maybe Franklin Pierce was the Obama to his Hillary? (Although I tend to think of Hillary as more like Henry Clay - hugely important and destined to be president, a foregone conclusion that somehow went awry.) Buchanan got shipped off to Europe during Pierce's presidency, but interestingly that ended up working out in his favor because he wasn't around for those violent, nasty, tearing-the-country-apart years and he was actually able to get the 1856 nomination.

Buchanan was dedicated to the law and I think of him as acting with dignity and maturity in his political interactions. Of course he had his side of things in the heated passions of Pennsylvania politics. But he was also the older, wiser man born at the end of the 1700s, the previous generation that was now passing the torch to a volatile new era.

Furthermore, I learned from this biography how very much Lincoln some ideas of Buchanan agreed  with and even adopted some ideas of Buchanan. There is one part where the author, Klein, includes Buchanan's writing of his main points on slavery, secession, the Union, and the crisis, and then juxtaposes it with Lincoln's later speech of "his" points on slavery, secession, the Union and the crisis. Well my, my, aren't they similar. 

In short, this was another fascinating read and I truly think everyone would benefit from and enjoy reading a bio of every president in order, as I am doing. Note: my favorites are still Millard Fillmore and my boy JQA.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

I left home lots of years

now finished: The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

People who say you can't go home again may not have really tried. At any rate, you can definitely leave home again if you decide you don't want to be back after all.

I enjoyed this novel of Iowa people, life, The Big City, escape, grad school, drinking, cousins, driving, fretting, tragedy, cynicism, hippies, music, war, financial woes, family, "America," and so on.  As I mentioned on my Goodreads review, I really have to like a book that includes the the Iowa Writers' Workshop, Chicago's Clark Street, the Grand Canyon, AND Indigo Girls, don't I? Not to mention the random f***ed-uppery of the characters. Story of my life, much?

But it was not perfect, lest ye plunge in thinking it will be like The Corrections only different but still as good. No. It was lighter and had mistakes. Yes, mistakes! Actual mistakes! Come on, publishing industry: don't give up on editors. All writers need editors. Real writers know this. Books especially need editors. Clearly, I should have a job editing at a major publishing house based on what was allowed to make it into print in this and The Help, to cite two recent examples. In The Year We Left Home, we read that Newhart aired in the 1970s (no, that would be The Bob Newhart Show, not the 1980s Newhart) and "apparent" is spelled wrong MULTIPLE times. How does that happen? These are only a couple examples.

If I got over that (if!), why else would this not be a perfect book? I'm not sure. It features grad school and aimless twenty- and thirty-somethings in all their glory. Grad school people and aimless twenty- and thirty-somethings are my favorite! It also involves people living in different places, which is also my favorite. Not to mention the Iowa/Nebraskaness of it all, which everyone knows I think is the most underrated region of the U.S.  (Not best, underrated. Don't you misquote me.)

There's just something imperfect about it. But it's likable, likable, likable and it sucks you in so you'll stay up reading after you could easily have gone to sleep even if you aren't trying to finish it for your book group, as I was. The characters are all messed up in many ways (oooh, I forgot! There's AA! AA is always fun.) My book group had some dissatisfaction because of the messed up characters, but I greatly enjoyed the heck out of the oh-so-flawed people who populated this book.

I would probably read another of hers.  But get a new editor!

Wednesday, August 31, 2011


now finished: Sisterhood Is Powerful: An Anthology of Writings from the Women's Liberation Movement ed. by Robin Morgan
(post backdated to when I finished the book)

Sisterhood is interesting. And, OK, powerful. Reading an anthology of women's liberation writings from 1970 is a wonderful exercise because it:

1. Offers hope
2. Lets you look at how far we have come
3. Makes you realize how far we also haven't come
4. Could really help some of "The Kids Today" to learn a thing or two about history before they go off half-cocked when jabbering about Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, and so on
5. Could really help a lot of people who have consistently allowed the backlash to define feminism. You know who you are: the ones who say "I'm not a feminist but..." or who have ever once called feminism "anti-male." If that's you, you have allowed the backlash to define feminism, and you would benefit from learning what it is really about.

Sisterhood Is Powerful reflects one specific time period of feminism, the very late 1960s women's liberation movement. It is a fascinating look at the discrimination women faced at work - not just in factories and "pink-collar ghetto" jobs, but also in the professions. It is an exploration of the women's liberation struggle as it related to and overlapped with and separated from other struggles, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the desire for peace in Vietnam. It even has poetry.

The book includes Lucinda Cisler's extremely well written argument about abortion, birth control, and reproductive freedom. Sisterhood Is Powerful has pieces that are guaranteed to teach you something new, such as one about feminism in China. It features high school girls who were taking bold stands against feminism - where are they now? It includes inspiring quotes, galvanizing statistics, and famous feminist pieces such as "The Politics of Housework" by Pat Mainardi, "Double Jeopardy: To Be Black and Female" by Frances M. Beal, and "The Grand Coolie Damn" by Marge Piercy. 

It is an anthology, so you can dip in and out of it, or read one piece a day over the course of a few months in addition to your other readings, like a little feminism devotional.  You don't have to agree with everything written in it, but you can just learn from it. Even an excerpt from the "SCUM Manifesto" is included, not to be taken literally, but to make a point. (A Modest Proposal, anyone?) That's what reading and political dialogue are all about.

Highly, highly recommended!

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Tell it, Genji!

now finished: The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki Shikibu
(this post backdated to the date I finished the book)

Who doesn't love a 1,000-year-old Japanese novel? A world classic! A perfect book to bring on my August vacation to Japan! I am so glad that out of the two books I brought, I read The Waves first, finishing it the day after climbing Mt. Fuji, which was perfect for its life pondering themes. I then started reading The Tale of Genji after having already seen Kyoto, the longtime imperial capital with its megadoses of history, and I was able to appreciate more fully some of the settings in the book: I've been there! I know that mountain/temple! And the like.

OK, so a lot of Goodreads reviewers seem to be angry at this book because its about a snotty little sexist pig prince at court who sleeps around and can even pick out a young girl and "adopt" her to raise until she is old enough (read: adolescent) to become engaged to him. Ewww, right? But not reading this book for that reason would be like banning The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn because it talks about awful things done to slaves. Yes, I know some people want to ban Huckleberry Finn. Those people are stupid.

Anyway, the Lady who wrote this spent time at court and knew whereof she spoke. I love that she wrote this slightly scandalous account. I think she is sly. Then again, some people who got to live at court had fairly good, interesting lives, and it's fun to learn little random details about that, too.

Another reason to read this book, and other old books, is because too many people suffer under the delusion that we in the modern world invent and experience things and that our ancestors didn't know anything, and people really need to realize that there have been great civilizations, intellect, philosophers, artists, and wit for many, many centuries/millennia.

The only problem is that I picked up the cheap Dover Thrift Edition, which, like many editions, is really just the first "book" of the whole many-page saga. So while I read that, I realized I really need to read the whole thing. Otherwise it really is all about Young Prince Genji's sexual escapades. But then what? I want to see what he does as a grown-up. I will be back, Genji and Lady Murasaki!

Friday, August 19, 2011

The Waves

now finished: The Waves by Virginia Woolf
(this post backdated to the date I finished the book)

When we traveled to Japan for a nine-day vacation in August, I was in the middle of reading a thick, heavy James Buchanan biography hardcover, which I left at home in Andong, instead bringing two paperbacks that I thought would be thematically as well as weightedly appropriate for the trip, The Waves  and The Tale of Genji. 

I started reading The Waves by my girl Virginia Woolf on the ferry from Pusan to Fukuoka. How appropriate, thought I, to begin reading The Waves while actually hydrofoiling on waves. Even better, Brian next to me was reading The Beach. I love me some Virginia Woolf and have been working my way through her oeuvre ever since I started Virginia-ing around 1995. I actually don't devour her books too quickly because I don't want to be done. I am sad when I think about the day I run out of VW to-reads. I've read about ten so far. Anyway, The Waves, in case you haven't heard, is mind blowing.

People like to describe it as "experimental."  Doesn't that just scare readers off? Don't some of you immediately mentally check out when you read that word?  (As opposed to the smaller, much smaller, group who immediately became intrigued and pull up Amazon in another window.) It's not experimental like House of Leaves, though, or even like DFW/endnotes. It narrates and tells a story of interacting characters, but what you read is their streams of consciousness, alternating. It is totally genius and it totally works.

It's awesome.

I like recommending Virginia Woolf novels, not that many people ever take me up on the suggestions, which is a shame because I do think about which book I am recommending (they are so different from one another). But The Waves could definitely be recommend to multiple people and I daresay anyone who appreciates a well-crafted novel.  Also, it packs a total "What's-it-all-about?" punch and will make you think about life, your life, your friends' lives, meaning, relationships, and so forth. You read these lives, from youth through old age, and you realize that your life is that, too. (A little bit like Kazuo Ishiguro, perhaps.)

If you're like me, you will fold down many pages because there are passages and quotes that are so strikingly beautiful. Or maybe you're the grab-a-pen-and-jot-it-down type. Or the just-sit-back-and-ponder-that-for-a-second type. Whatever works.

Well done, Virginia Woolf.  I so wish there was an afterlife where I could imagine you and David Foster Wallace talking these things over.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Go Banana!

now finished: Lizard by Banana Yashimoto
(this blog post backdated to the day I finished the book)
I've had Banana Yashimoto on my radar since I first ever started working at Borders that holiday season long ago. I mean, one doesn't easily forget a (pen) name like "Banana." But, I never got around to buying or checking out anything or even for several years figuring out if the author was male or female. Turns out, female. Someone brought a book of short stories, Lizard, to an Andong book swap this summer, and I took it home mostly out of "Why not?" curiosity. 
File under: not bad. It was a fast read, and some of the stories were better than others. Bonus: the stories got better as the book went along, so stick it out through the first two or three. All of the tales seemed to be about alienated or searching people wandering (and riding trains) through their days, and all were about relationships and self in some way. I would read another Banana. 
It also helps, maybe, that this year I have fallen in love with Japan. I was set to be even more appreciative of people hurtling on a subway through the Tokyo night to their suburban enclaves. I was totally tapped in to the mix of emotion, history, practicality, modernity, efficiency, and beauty that infuses everything there. 

I've read a lot of comments that her novels are even better than her stories, so I will check one out. Someday.


Saturday, July 16, 2011

Who Needs the Help?
A Bestseller Backlash Case Study

now finished: The Help by Kathryn Stockett
(this blog post backdated to the day I finished the book)
The very concept of bestseller backlash was made for books like The Help. I discovered bestseller backlash in early 2000 when I was at the beginning of my approximately six-year Borders career. People flock to certain books in a very "nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd" way (thanks, Soul Asylum). And those books are rarely worth the hype. To be clear, a book does not fall into the category of bestseller backlash just because it is a bestseller. There's a certain intangible quality to these books, a certain skepticism about their place on the bestseller list, a certain lack of need to read them felt by me and other Readers, as opposed to the breathless "you-have-to-read-this" masses. Sometimes the bestseller backlash is a mistake and the book is good or even great (The Life of Pi, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, The Dogs of Babel, Freakonomics) and sometimes the book is terrible (The Memory Keeper's Daughter, Who Moved My Cheese?) but most often the book is incredibly average and, much like Top 40 pop music, the throngs of devoted fans are blind to its mediocrity (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo/Men Who Hate Women, Water for Elephants, etc. etc. etc....and, notably, The Help).

The Help has the added bestseller backlash "advantage" of being not just ridiculously popular but also being thought to be important. Social issues, race, the South, the Civil Rights Era, change we can believe in (oops, wrong decade) you can just feel the self-pronounced importance oozing from the reaction to this book. However, it has actually generated some actual backlash (in the world at large) for telling the African-American stories from a very white, very limited point of view. I myself wrote about feminism in The Help because the feminist issues are there, even when the author seems to be oblivious to them, despite having written this "important" novel. And if there is one thing I hate ("one thing?!" - Clue), it is people/institutions that miss their own point. (See also: most of religion.) I have thoroughly enjoyed this blog, which explains a lot of what is wrong with The Help.

The Help straight up gets some things wrong. For example, when people started becoming long-hair hippies. That was one of the first things to rub me the wrong way, when she had a character in Mississippi in 1963 refer to a long-hair Yankee throwing a peace sign. "No way," I thought. That is way too early! In her afterword, which the abovementioned blog calls her Too Little Too Late section, she casually states, "I took liberty with time, like using Bob Dylan's 'The Times They Are A-Changin' even though it didn't come out until a year or two later." Um - why? You specifically set this novel to swirl around the events of 1962-1963, like Medgar Evers, JFK, MLK, etc. And then you decide to go ahead and switch up history - because - why, again? You're just too good for it? You can't think of a song that was out in 1963? You don't really remember this world you are so haughtily evoking, as you want us all to believe you do?

There were other mistakes/willful errors.  And they weren't the only annoying thing about this book. One annoying thing is the condescension inherent in writing this story the way she chose to do. Another is that no one who lives on the colored side of town seems particularly empowered, ever. They just do good things and get patted on the head by the occasional liberal white person. I think Ms. Stockett was trying to do something awesome here, but it turns out to be another bestseller that ought to be anything but.

As I read, I wanted to know what would happen; I am not going to write a spoiler review because I am more concerned with telling you to PLEASE DON'T BUY this book. Borrow it from a friend or the library or whatever, but please do not throw any more money to this book/author/publisher/entity

I want someone to write this novel better. I am fairly certain the author did not at ALL learn the lessons she is apparently trying to teach the rest of us.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Long Time No Nick

now finished: A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

Nick! I missed you, Nick!  Nick Hornby is one of those authors whose words I love so much that I actually don't devour all their books immediately, but instead I move slowly through their oeuvre, savoring it, so that I never run out of books by them to read. Who are "those" other authors, you ask?  Well, at the moment I would say Nelson DeMille and Virginia Woolf and Nick are my solid trinity in that category. It is a lot easier for me to do with those boys, who are alive, of course, and still writing, as opposed to my girl V.W. who is sadly not going to provide us with any more of her writing. I'm going to finish her oeuvre someday soon, plain and simple.

I see echoes of Virginia Woolf in Nick Hornby. That's right, I said it. Not in word choice or style, exactly. And no, not because of the suicide theme. (Although...)  It's more of a sensibility that understands and communicates the life of a Londoner so well, complete with all those inner thoughts, while interacting with people in the world, yet being pensive and kind of removed from others, but not brooding in alienation (a la Salinger). There's something connecting those two. I would love to imagine a meeting between Nick Hornby and Virginia Woolf.

Anyway, A Long Way Down. It has been a few years since I Fever Pitched, but there I was at book swap and someone had brought A Long Way Down  to trade and for me the chance at a free copy of a Nick Hornby I haven't read is a no-brainer. Let me just say that I adored it! It might even be my favorite of his. The perfect lines, the way he nails each character personality as they spew out their pithy takes on the world.

The morbid premise is that four strangers meet on top of a tall London building (I think I should know what building it is he alludes to, but didn't) on New Year's Eve because they are all planning to jump but instead, because they are all there, they don't jump, and the book chronicles what happens to the four of them next. It's a sheer joy to read, while also being full of sarcasm, thoughtfulness, and some true life pondering as well as hope. What more could you ask from a novel? I daresay Voltaire would be impressed.

I'm trying to get Brian to read it. One of these days, he is going to read the Nick. He already means to read Fever Pitch, and I am sure he will read High Fidelity because he appreciates the genius of the movie, so soon, soon he will know the brilliance that is Nick Hornby. Virginia Woolf is a harder sell. (But she shouldn't be!)

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Long Gone

now finished: Long Gone by Alafair Burke

I read this book on my computer, using Kindle for PC. I'm in Korea, and I have yet to find any Alafair Burke books in the bookstores here, and I wouldn't have been able to order a copy in time for her online Long Gone-reading club, and she/her publisher had already hooked me and got me to download Kindle for PC in the first place with the $1.99 electronic Angel's Tip (one of her previous books) a few weeks ago, just like (as Alafair says) a drug dealer hooks the kiddies by passing out samples at the playground.

My point - oh yes, a point - is that this book was on my laptop, and my battery doesn't last too long. Which means I pretty much never unplug my laptop and roam around the house with it to, say, the bed or couch. It stays on my desk. Which means the desk office chair, my work space, not curled up all comfy-like. And yet! I sat there for hours, up past my bedtime, reading Long Gone so I could find out what happens. My point, therefore, is that it hooks ya, the Long Gone, and you keep reading.

I like Alafair Burke's writing style but I also like knowing her personality a bit and seeing it come out in her novel. I am still not a big mystery/thriller person and I sometimes feel like I am the wrong person to judge mystery/thrillers, but then I think that's stupid because why can't we all comment on any "type" of book, but then I remember people who have a preconceived bias against girls-with-guitars talking shite about Indigo Girls and I don't want to be those people and...and....oh, me and my genre fiction woes.

Will you like Long Gone? Probably. It's very New Yorky, but not in a way that's been done to death. If anything it's kind of Sandra Scoppettone New Yorky. (See! I read other mysteries! Sometimes. Every five years or so.) It has lots of different characters who start connecting together. It has people using modern technology for nefarious reasons. It's a good beach read, or a sit-at-your-desk-past-midnight read. It has a thirtysomething heroine. It has snark. Alafair Burke is good with the lovable snark.

And I didn't even have to spot any issues this time...

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

In which I am blessed to receive The Giver

now finished: The Giver by Lois Lowry

I am no longer the only person in my social circles/tax bracket who has not read The Giver. See, this is what happens when you are a thirtysomething who has spent an awful lot of time a)with twentysomethings b)working in bookstores. You realize that there is some book that slipped into the young adult repertoire while you were in college leaving behind childish things, a book that became a modern classic while you were diving into Plath, Sartre, and the like.

For me, that book is The Giver. When I hear Lois Lowry, I think "Of course! My girl Anastasia Krupnik!" Alas, Anastasia has apparently been usurped by dystopian Jonas as Lowry's most famous contribution to literature. Goodreads tells me that the book was first published in March 1993. Yup, I was sitting in a freshman dorm room. Even Brian read The Giver in school. He's only a few years younger than me, but clearly during those few years The Giver did its thing. I'm pretty sure I never saw a summer reading list during my Borders career that didn't include either The Giver, The Things They Carried (I haven't read that either), or both of those books. Even my sister read it a few years ago! She basically stopped reading when she started reproducing, but one day at her husband's school, with the kids being babysat somewhere, she had down time in his office while waiting to accompany one of his choirs, and she picked it up and read it in an afternoon. I don't think there has ever been a book that Brian, my sister, and droves of teenage Borders customers from three different U.S. states have all read that I have not read. Seriously.

Therefore, when I happened upon a copy here at our monthly Andong book swap, of course I snatched it up, knowing I could quickly read it, get it checked off the list, and even give it to one of my middle or high school students at Avalon and not have to have it take up shelf/suitcase space. I read it in two days, of course. And now, what you've all been waiting for, surely: what did I think about it?

Well, it was fine. I know, not terribly enthusiastic, am I? I'm not trying to be anti-YA or anti-dystopia, but I'm not quite going to salivate endlessly about this one. However, I did like it. One thing I really like about it is that there is a lot more going on than meets the eye. I can absolutely see what it has become the perennial middle/high school book. I could probably talk about the themes and characters and plot revelations for days just by myself, let alone with a class and a teacher.

I think three main strengths of this book are:
  • A bold, philosophical idea: that society would envision a "perfect" world as one without emotions and choices, and what this says about the necessity of evil.
  • The slow revelation of the full import of this philosophical idea. For example, you kind of enjoy the first family dinner talking about whether anyone had a feeling that day, or when they report their dreams. But then later you realize it's totally creepy why they're doing it.
  • The steady pacing.
Some have criticized the book for being heavy-handed or propaganda-like. I don't see it. I didn't think it was perfect, but I thought it was interesting and it pulls you along smoothly enough, despite some rough patches when you realize what's happening to people who are "released." I for one would have preferred a clearer ending, because I think every author wants to have the "Oooooh, did (s)he or didn't (s)he?" ending, but not every author earns it.

Anastasia! Are you reading this? I want to know what Anastasia Krupnik has to say about Jonas.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Franklin Pierce

now finished:
Franklin Pierce: New Hampshire's Favorite Son by Peter Wallner

Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union by Peter Wallner

It's interesting to consider what is meant by "martyr for the union." I mean, I personally think it is awesome to be "New Hampshire's favorite son" too, but I can see where many regular U.S.A. folk don't necessarily get all jolly and fascinated about states as I do, so for this paragraph we'll stick to what it means to be a martyr for the union. I can imagine a chorus of talking heads using those phrases in praise of someone who gave his all for the United States. But you know what it really meant, in 1852, 1853, 1854, 1855, and 1856? It meant continuing to prevent the abolitionists from getting very far in abolishing slavery. I say this not as a particular indictment of Franklin Pierce. He was actually a man of integrity who honored his father, tried to rid the government of corruption and steadfastly refused to do things he didn't think the president had Constitutional power to do.

Also, he was not alone. My boy Millard Fillmore before him was also a man who is much overlooked by history, probably partly because he kept the status quo - i.e., the union. The union of slave states and free states who were sliding farther and farther apart, threatening this amazing thing the founding fathers had recently created. And there were others, many others, who might wring their hands and weep and wail and gnash teeth, but really just let slavery keep on keeping on, as it were.

Why? Well, let me tell you this: these two Peter Wallner volumes about Franklin Pierce make it quite clear how very extreme the abolitionists were. I feel like these days in the U.S. we tell ourselves, subconsciously but also through all our institutions and prevailing narratives of society, that the abolitionists and Abraham Lincoln were the Good Guys and the slaveholders and Jefferson Davis and anyone who wanted to not emancipate slaves were the Bad Guys, and there was a clear dichotomy, and it was simple. And to be honest, that was not the case. Abolitionists were largely reviled and shunned, even though we later call them "right."

Abolitionists were the Michael Moore of their day.

They dared to speak truth to power, and even their churches disliked it. The president had no use for them. The state political parties were infuriated that these believers who wanted such a fundamental transformation would threaten the stability of the union, political harmony, etc. Furthermore, it was not actually easy to be the president and just "do something" about slavery. The president was also president of the southern states. The Kansas-Nebraska act and all that followed in "bleeding Kansas" pretty much destroyed Franklin Pierce's political career. Jefferson Davis was his Secretary of War. (I'm glad we don't have that job title anymore - I wish we also didn't have that job.)

Here I must interject. Jefferson Davis was actually smart and kind of awesome. Sure, sure, a few years later he would preside over the less awesome (and less smart?) Confederacy. But during the 1850s he was successful and he cared about the United States and he did some really cool shit, like import CAMELS! real camels! into Texas and the Southwest, newly acquired U.S. land, for transporting military supplies and the like. He sent some armed forces minions to observe the Prussian War and all that went along with it, and they returned talking about camels in the Middle East, and one thing led to another and - so awesome. I really, really want to find out what happened to the descendants of these camels in Texas when the nasty Civil War interrupted and took everyone's attention away from the Southwest camel program.

But seriously, that interjection is also partly my point. Jefferson Davis was not a monster or devil. He wasn't even a Hitler. He was part of the United States. And there were millions and millions of citizens - churchgoers, politicians, family men, family women, business leaders, frontier renegades, and so forth - all of whom were equally convinced that the southern slave holding states' peculiar institution was not something the Constitutional federal government could do thing one about.

And, most of you today would have been willing to go along with that majority, keeping the peace, not shaking things up too much. I know, because I see the way you react to Michael Moore, and truthout, and Noam Chomsky (who might be one of our smartest living humans), and to those of us who speak out against the evil, awful warmongering of the U.S.

Finally, Franklin Pierce was awesome because he went to college in Maine with Nathaniel Hawthorne and then they were BFFs for life. That job in the customs house? Thanks, pal in the federal government. Ditto for the stint in London. Nathaniel even came to Franklin's house to die instead of setting up his deathbed back home with his wife.

I love my presidential-bios-to-see-where-we-went-wrong project.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The Aquariums of Pyongyang

now finished: The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan

Often the titles of my blog posts aim to be descriptive and whimsically clever (like this, or this, or this, or how about this one), but that seems unnecessary if not plain wrong for an entry about The Aquariums of Pyongyang. I mean, it already has its own intriguing title. And it's about the least playful book you're likely to come across, until the next horrifying tale of the North Korean gulag you read.

I've had The Aquariums of Pyongyang on my to-read list for several years, ever since the first time I was preparing to teach English in Korea. Back then, in 2005, I was working at Cambridge Borders (one of the few Borders stores still open in 2011, as far as I can tell from across the ocean) and I would stealthily peruse the novels by Korean authors and the Korean history section while I shelved, floor managed, avoided the manager who was hell bent on my professional and personal destruction, and so on. I had to do it stealthily because I for quite some time did not inform my boss and co-workers that I was plotting to go teach English in Korea and leave them far behind. Of course, it never took long to peruse a Borders' Korean history section because there are, like, five books in it. But one of those tended to be The Aquariums of Pyongyang.

When I lived in Daegu 2005-2006 I met a few English teachers who had read it, but I never got around to doing so. Of course, I was all about reading War and Peace during my first Korea tour of duty, which is what gave birth to this Literary Supplement blog (then called my War and Peace blog, hence the URL) so I actually bought shockingly few new books during that period of my life even though I made at least weekly trips to Kyobo bookstore in Daegu's Junangno district, where I browsed and wrote and sipped coffee and accidentally decided to go to Hofstra for law school. Then, once back in the U.S., other things happened to me and The Aquariums... continued over the years to fall through the cracks between my A-to-Z literary blog project, Infinite Jest, and all that crap my law professors were always encouraging me to read. *smirk*

So anyway, this month I had new motivation to read it because the Books and Booze meetup group in Seoul chose The Aquariums of Pyongyang for the monthly book discussion selection, and I am glad I finally got around to it. News flash: life in North Korea is singularly awful. While that is not even remotely surprising, it becomes more and more infuriating and heartbreaking as you actually spend a few hours a day delving into the details of it.

I suppose it is a bit of a self-selected group that even picks up The Aquariums of Pyongyang in the first place, but it's interesting to note that it has NO one-star reviews on Goodreads. I don't think the book is a literary masterpiece, but I do think that it is a well told story, so you aren't just reading it because you're shocked and wowed and sad and angry and mortified and fired up and depressed and worldly and all that jazz.

After growing up in a North Korean prison camp, where he performed hard labor, watched people die, nearly starved, ate rats, was beaten, lived through diseases, and suffered in myriad other ways, the author ended up defecting and making his way through China to South Korea. This means his family and maybe even some other close associates left behind could have been re-imprisoned or even killed because he left. We don't know. And WHY don't we know?

Because we -- and by that I mean 190+ countries on this planet -- sit around doing nothing and let North Korea go on being a secretive, nasty regime about which it is hard to get accurate information.

Why don't we go inside? We (and by this we I mean the U.S. and some other countries) refuse to have diplomatic relations and an embassy, but we are willing to station 35,000 troops in South Korea and operate a De-Militarized Zone, complete with DMZ tours, for decades. What a waste. A waste of resources, talent, money, time and millions of North Korean human lives.

Why don't we just lay down our weapons and pick up flowers and baskets of food and march across the border? Why don't we just say, listen Kim Jong-Il, we're coming in. We come in peace. Hi. Here we are. Hey everyone, have some food. Let's all sit down and talk and stop with the bullshit posturing and making up stories and labeling each other the axis of evil and whatnot.

As far as I can tell, there are two main reasons we don't do that:

1. We are afraid of China.
2. We are full of shit.

The first one is just so dumb. (It's also very much related to the second reason.) The U.S. cannot get it through its thick head that the world would be a better, happier, more productive, more peaceful place if we would let go of the notion that we need enemies in order to demonstrate our greatness. So instead we demonize China, but meanwhile we make truly evil corporations like Wal-Mart rich by having them produce everything there, and then we get mad at China for not wanting to just drop its relationship with North Korea and come crawling into our lap full of trusting, boot-licking tendencies. God, we suck. Fidel Castro is so right about what jerks the Yanquis are when it comes to anyone daring to stand up to the big bully on the foreign policy block. Ugh.

Secondly, as my book group cohorts kept reminding me, we couldn't possibly just show up at a country's border and spill over the river in a giant, flower-toting, hippie-shaking, peaceful entrance of nurses, engineers, teachers, artists and whoever else wanted to come in peace, en masse, insisting that said country immediately begin an internationally recorded and watched dialogue exposing its inner workings, because that would be a violation of North Korea's national sovereignty.

Isn't that rich? We are willing to march violently into anywhere that threatens our way of life has oil but we are not willing to peacefully march into a country where people are suffering and dying in large part because the world is kept in the dark about the suffering and dying. And then people actually have the audacity to say that the U.S. military does humanitarian military interventions. Really? I'm sure all the young men who have been murdered (yes, murdered) in prisons in Afghanistan and Iraq by U.S. forces, along with the Rwandan genocide witnesses, would love to chit chat with you allllllll about the humanitarian interventions of the illustrious U.S. military. Show me the oil might as well be emblazoned across those patches that say 867th airborne artillery blah-blah whatever those patches say.

Yes, I recommend that you read The Aquariums of Pyongyang by Kang Chol-Hwan. I then recommend that we do something about it.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

I go out walkin' through the miracles

now finished: Korea: A Walk Through the Land of Miracles by Simon Winchester

I finished the book May 10 but am just getting around to blogging about it. Ugh, me and my bloggage this time around in Korea!! What is going on with me? Well, that's another story for another day. Here, let's ponder Simon Winchester. Of course, I knew how awesome he was ever since we had him on The Savvy Traveler but I must confess this is my first time reading an actual full-length book of his. I chose Korea because, well, duh - here I am. The book really inspired me to travel to the southwest coast of Korea, which we did this past weekend.

In Korea, Simon walks through the land of miracles to retrace the path of some 1600s Dutch sailors who were shipwrecked at the southernmost Korean island, taken to the main peninsula on a boat, and marched up to the capital in Seoul where the reigning king informed them they wouldn't be leaving. After eight or so years, they escaped and sailed to Japan. Then, one of them, Hendrik Hamel. wrote the first account of Korea for the so-called Western world.

Fascinating stuff! As is Simon's walk. I like his weaving of history, georgraphy, food, mountains, weather, wistfulness, and getting drunk with random people, even a monk (yes). I like how he lets some of the most egregious actions and characters (young-but-already-jaded U.S. service members who only leave base to go peruse flesh a few miles down the road, for example) speak for themselves. I like his encounter with the DMZ at the end and like even more that after the fact he actually went back to North Korea. I so envy English people like Simon and others who can actually go to North Korea. I am so sad to be an American who can't do it. (A much harsher "can't" than Cuba, I might add. Cuba actually wants us to visit -- we're the only jerks in that scenario. "We" - not me.)

I'll definitely be reading another Simon Winchester, the one wherein he cruises in China, because that's one of our upcoming travel plans, too! I recommend this book to anyone who is trying to learn more about Korea, or doesn't know anything beyond M*A*S*H and Kim Jong Il and kimchi. A lot of "travel narratives" are bad. This one is not.

This book has the uncanny effect of making it seem like a really, really good idea to take a journey across a country on foot.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Literary Blindness

now finished: Blindness by Jose Saramago

WARNING: Thar be spoilers here!!! They don't start until the third paragraph, though!

It was my first Saramago. Blindness has been on my to-read list for quite some time. Funny thing, I actually own a copy in storage back in the U.S., that I picked up off the $1 bargain rack at Borders, a Borders store that's probably closed now. It was a movie tie-in edition, and normally I wouldn't do it, but the $1 rack convinced me. Didn't get around to reading it in the U.S., and now, in Korea, I've found a book group of foreigners that were reading it, so I re-motivated myself - and, necessarily, re-purchased it - and away we go.

Good book. They don't just hand those Nobel prizes to anyone. Yet. It can be really refreshing after months of reading Water for Elephants, frothy memoir, and some-written-better-than-others-prez bios to plunge into an actual, good, true literary novel. It can also make a girl want to abandon all aforementioned contemporary bestsellers, work-required memoirs, and non-fiction projects to read only true, good, literary novels for a while. But I do love my projects, so I'm not abandoning them yet.

Anyway, Blindness. REMINDER: The spoilers start here!!! One thing we discussed at the book group is that some advocacy groups for the blind and perhaps for others with disabilities apparently protested this book for its "depiction of blind people." I find myself in shock that someone could so have entirely missed the point of something. There are about twenty-seven ways in which registering such a protest misses the point. First and foremost, the book is an allegory, and one with many layers of meaning at that. So, the people who are initially locked up, the first few hundred or so to go blind, degenerate into a pathetic, violent state. This is so clearly not a commentary on people who are blind, because it imagines an impossibility, a world different from our own, a society transformed almost overnight. It's asking questions about how we function, what a society that has come to rely on certain things would do if those things were taken away, and what those who have power do with it. I'm like, actually offended by people who miss these points. Someone at the book group pointed out that not everyone uses their intellect, and an advocacy group is speaking on behalf of people who will be thought of poorly by those who don't actually think about things. Ugh.

More spoilers! The other thing we talked about at book group that blew me away was the ending. I mean, the very end, the last sentence of the book, so this paragraph really, truly is a spoiler and I'm begging you not to read it if you don't want the book spoiled. I made an offhand comment at book group when we were discussing the doctor's wife about how everyone would treat her now that she is blind. Someone stopped me and said, "Did you say 'now that she is blind'? She didn't go blind." Shocked, I realized that the majority of the readers agreed with him, and that I had read it differently. The organizer of the book group said a friend of his (who was unable to make it that day) had the same reading of the ending that I did, and he had reacted to her like, "Did we read the same book?" I am marveling that I could read the last sentence so differently, but I totally took it as her turn to be blind. I thought she "lowered" her eyes by closing them, so that the city would still be there in her mind. It makes me want to read the Portuguese and see if that interpretation would make sense in the original language.

There are no more spoilers after this sentence! I highly recommend this book. It has come to my attention that some people have an issue with Saramago's style, and the voice that meanders through long flowing sentences that don't break up dialogue with punctuation nor indicate who is speaking in the traditional "he said" manner. Sigh. I just sigh at people who complain about things like that without actually asking themselves, "Am I reading good writing or bad writing?" While there is subjective enjoyment of all types of entertainment (good or bad), there is - oh, yes, there is - such a thing as good writing. There are good writers and terrible writers. I have sat across from both in writing groups over the years. Guess what? Jose Saramago was a good writer. And I definitely want to read more of his stuff.

I finished this almost a month ago. Man, I am a blog slacker these days.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Strangely Stirred

now finished: A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s by Stephanie Coontz

This book is a look at Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, which is of course the classic 1963 text that kick started feminism in a lot of women's (and men's) minds. I thought A Strange Stirring was quite interesting, and my review of it is on About:

Book Review of 'A Strange Stirring' by Stephanie Coontz

Friday, April 15, 2011

Would "Sara Groan" be too mean?

now finished: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I'm in between presidential biographies - after a very satisfying Millard Fillmore experience, awaiting a two-volume stint with Franklin Pierce - and the time came to read some contemporary novels that have been percolating on the to-read list in my head for a while. I plunged right into Water for Elephants, what with the movie coming out soon and all. And....sigh.

It's never a good sign when the only thing you find yourself telling other people about a book is that you'll read it really fast. (Are you listening, Twihards?) Wanting to know what happens does not mean it is a great book. Does wanting to see a photo of a car accident mean it is necessarily great art? No. Two totally different things going on there.

I don't want to chalk Water for Elephants up to being just another nothing-attracts-a-crowd-like-a-crowd bestseller, but it really isn't the Great American Novel. It has some good ideas, some fun scenes, some good writing, some totally out of place dialogue (more like out of time - sounding decidedly un-1930s), some characters that are flat as a pancake and, bringing it all together, an author who I daresay is getting just a bit too much credit for being an animal rights enthusiast when she apparently has no problem with animals being forced to live in cruel captivity and perform in the circus.

Part of me thinks I shouldn't judge Water for Elephants based on the Sara Gruen interviews I've read, in which she says that extreme animal rights activists are as bad as those abusing animals. The rest of me is puzzled that this woman who is so enamored of the circus and zoos is getting credit for writing an animal rights-themed book.

The main problem with the book has nothing to do with any of this. The main problem is that the two main characters, Jacob and Marlena, who fall in love, are flat flat flat flat flat. In the midst of a circus - a CIRCUS! - a place with the most interesting, crazy, robust, raunchy, drifter, mean, talented, bizarre, drunk, quirky group of characters you've ever seen, this author manages to make the object of our hero's affection have absolutely nothing interesting whatsoever about her. Quite a feat, that. There's also the slight problem that most of these interesting kooky circus freaks and whatnot are men, while the three women characters are the beautiful love interest, the nurse, and the sex worker. Wow, Sara Gruen. Just wow.

I ended up gladly giving it away at our inaugural Andong English teachers book swap and am just a little sad that I spent the money to buy it (and gave Ms Gruen another number to pad her bestseller statistics), and yet I'm not really sorry I read it. This is what makes me miss having ready access to an English library.

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Whither the Integrity of Millard Fillmore?

now finished: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback

All in all I am a fan of Millard. Also, this was a more-than-decent bio that got me even more interested in a.)Millard Fillmore b.)New York politics of the early to mid-19th century c.)Buffalo.

Seriously, Buffalo was where it was AT when that there Erie canal was getting built and opening up waterways and the town was becoming an important port city for shipping and trade. And Millard and his wife just kind of strolled in and became important fixtures of the Buffalo social scene.

Millard took a whole lot of flak from newspaper man and would be president-maker Thurlow Weed over the years. I do not know who today is comparable to Thurlow Weed. He's not even like a Bill O'Reilly - his influence seems even more pernicious. I mean, he really got people to do what he wanted and nominate whom he wanted and he was more like a kind of sinister Oprah.

But Millard, apparently, had integrity. Even in his fights with Thurlow, disagreements with Zachary Taylor, and resolve to keep the union from breaking up over the slavery issue, he always acted with integrity. Who doesn't love a little integrity in a president? I mean, not that we've had that a lot in our lifetimes, but who doesn't love the idea of it?

People joke about Millard, apparently, as being the most obscure president, but I have never thought of him that way. (My favorite obscure prez is Rutherford B. Hayes.) Reading a bio of Millard really shows one that he was an important figure and quite a success at many things in his life, not some random who strolled out of nowhere to the national scene.

Of course, another tragedy struck when his wife died right as he was leaving office. And then his daughter died a year or two (I forget) later. I'm getting so overwhelmed by all these presidential tragedies. Presidents dying in office, presidents dying right when they leave office to settle into retirement, presidents' spouses much sadness!

Three cheers for Millard.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Where's Millard When You Need Him?

now reading: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback

So I'm reading this Millard Fillmore biography, and I'm really into him. He is pretty underrated and I daresay misunderstood. It's really problematic to try to make 20/20 hindsight judgments about any of those guys from the early 1800s, because there is such a temptation to say, "If you weren't trying to end slavery, you were nothing." Obviously, those who were working to end slavery were wise, courageous, sensible and a whole host of other morally right qualities, but the problem comes in defining trying to end. We like to look back from our comfortable vantage point and get all "if-you're-not-with-us-you're-against-us" when there was really quite a lot going on.

Millard Fillmore stated unequivocally that he was against slavery and thought it was reprehensible. As a New York state representative, and later as vice-president and president, he had a problem in that he couldn't figure out a Constitutional way to end it. Basically, my point is that it was really difficult for a lot of politicians during the early 1800s, and we should walk a mile or so in their shoes, or at least read some books about them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before he even got to his presidency he was already an accomplished, well-liked, talented man who got lots of stuff done. Details, numbers, land/bankruptcy/debt law, state comptroller duties, political party unification and other fun tasks were right up his alley. He also read and had fun. And, he was sensible enough to realize religion was unnecessary in a lot of places the evangelical extremists want it shoved into public life. He was also pretty darn magnificent at effecting compromise. Not just the great compromise of 1850, but other compromises that kept parties from splinterting, brought people eye to eye, built alliances, and more. He did not act in vengeance and he rose above some petty crap hurled at him by the likes of Thurlow Weed and his New York political ilk.

In short, we could definitely use a little Millard right now in our own federal government shutdown nonsense.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Make No Mystique

now finished: The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan
now reading: Millard Fillmore: Biography of a President by Robert Rayback
(curiously spelled "Raybach" in many places, but I'm going with what's on the book itself)

I was thinking about changing the name of this blog to "Things You Should Be Reading Instead of Give Me a !@#$&* Break Heaven Is for Real." What do you think? Does that have a nice ring to it?

OK, OK, we'll stick with the Literary Supplement...

So, as I have mentioned previously, everyone should read The Feminine Mystique and those of us who have read it before should reread it. In March, I spent some time with Betty Friedan's feminist classic and remembered how essential it is. That's right, is.

If there's anything that's more annoying than when people say "I'm not a feminist, but..." it's when people say that 1960s/70s feminism was necessary but is now a)not b)over c)both. Actually, on second thought perhaps those are equally annoying. But I digress. Feminism is alive and relevant, and I am happy to report that so is The Feminine Mystique.

Like many people, I became vaguely aware of The Feminine Mystique as a teenager and finally actually checked it out of the library during college, a time when I was doing all sorts of interesting things like abandoning my religion wholesale, kissing girls, visiting Communist nations, and so forth. As it happens, reading The Feminine Mystique is not nearly as subversive as doing those other things. And yet it remains curiously necessary, because we have people posting reviews on Goodreads that say things like, "The women in this book are unhappy because they don't have the gospel and they don't homeschool their children." Um - wow.

I've already written about The Feminine Mystique here, as well as about Betty Friedan's survey that launched her Feminine Mystique project. I'm just going to reiterate today that when you delve back into it for a rereading you might be astonished at how dead on she was about so many ways the tale has been spun -- it's like a giant web of lies from magazines, suburbia, elementary schools, guidance counselors, business, advertising, universities, marriage, and pretty much every force in society, insidious or overt. They spin the lie that a woman's "role" - her divine role, in many cases - is to be a wife and mother. And they never, ever, ever, ever, ever spin the lie that a man's role, divine role or only role (or, a personal favorite, "most cherished role") is to be a husband and father.

Why? BECAUSE THEY ALL KNOW what should be so obvious to everyone: you can be a parent and a spouse and that's NOT YOUR ENTIRE IDENTITY. Your identity is you. Nearly fifty years later, we are still feeding the backlash b.s. in the media and in far too many women's (and little girls') lives. We are still arguing this crap notion of "having it all" and "motherhood versus career" which is the falsest dichotomy that just puts everyone right back into the thick of the problem. Hypocrisy abounds, Betty Friedan totally called it out, and woe unto us if we forget it.

Interesting chapter worth revisiting: I totally forgot that she has a chapter about autistic kids who identify as "things" instead of with normalized human connections. In that chapter, doctors who have researched these cases point out the serious danger in parenting so intensely that the child can't develop, which happens when the mother is not allowed to have her own identity in the first place and is instead shoved into marriage at, like, age 18 after years of being groomed to find a boy and not act too smart around him and never have any dreams of her own and all that nonsense. It was so interesting to read that in light of the whole increasing autism today and stuff.

It's funny that Betty and NOW (the National Organization for Women, and yes, you should know that) became the staid/liberal/establishment feminism as opposed to radical feminist theory that sought to take down patriarchal society, because Betty Friedan was a revolutionary. I love me some revolutionaries.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Doin' Japan and Doin' the Feminist Canon

now finished: Dave Barry Does Japan by (duh) Dave Barry
Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life by Stephanie Staa

Dave Barry rules. We recently went to Japan, my first time outside of Tokyo Narita Airport layovers. Besides the fact that Japan is awesome as a whole, Hiroshima is now one of my favorite cities in the world. We did a lot of wandering there and found many cool little things including an used English book shop with cafe (meaning, also a bar!) where I just had to buy a used book as part of my Japan experience. And lo and behold, they had Dave Barry Does Japan for 5000 yen.

Funny stuff! What I like most about it is how he weaves together a wry look at both Japan and the United States, pointing out that when either culture cries, "You're so strange and different!" it's because it takes two to tango, i.e., one couldn't be strange and different if the other weren't also strange and different coming from the opposite perspective. But he's also just really funny, like about Godzilla, Toyotas, onsen spas, Japanese rock music and more.

I disagree with him about only one major thing, which is that he seemed to think the Hiroshima remembrances of the atomic bombing on August 6 every year were somehow "forgetting" the seriousness of why the U.S. dropped the bomb. He was also offended that at the nighttime gathering in the peace memorial park there were kids running around along the river in an almost festive atmosphere. Well, kids are kids, and they will run around on pretty much any occasion; have you even been with toddlers at funerals? I sure have. And, I don't see how anyone could visit the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and not find the whole Hiroshima remembrance very somber indeed. Furthermore, I don't think there is any justification for dropping an atomic bomb. Even legally, in criminal law, there is a difference between excuse and justification.

All that said, the Hiroshima chapter is a short, serious bit in an otherwise very funny book full of awesome observations and storytelling. I can't imagine it not inspiring someone to go to Japan, but then again, I can't imagine people not wanting to travel there in the first place.

As for Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life, wherein Stephanie Staal revisits the feminist classics of her college women's studies class a decade later, now that she's married with a child and by all accounts an actual adult woman, check out my About Women's History review here.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Anna and the King of Siam

Now finished: Anna and the King of Siam by Margaret Landon
Next up: Dave Barry Does Japan

(backdated to match when I finished the book - sorry it was posted late!)

Sensing a theme yet? I decided to read Anna and the King of Siam in January because I was headed back to Korea, where I taught English to children and the occasional teenager or adult in 2005-06. There's loads to say about returning to Korea - most of which I haven't got around to blogging yet over on my main blog, just give me time - but as I was packing I came across the old paperback of Anna on my shef and decided to toss it in the carry-on. Why not check out another expat-English-teacher-in-Asia, old school style? I never actually bought the book: it was one of a slew of old (50s/60s) paperbacks previously owned by my dad, aunts, and uncle that sat in my grandmother's house for decades until she died in 2007 and I inherited a bunch of the books.

Anna certainly had it harder than any of us random twenty- and thirtysomething teachers today! Never mind online ESL teacher forums or which English-language movie is playing at the theaters, she didn't even have a telephone when she set about educating the children of the king and the ladies of the palace. Of which there were many, because the king was a promiscuous jerk - more on that later. When Anna needed to seek the British consul's help she might have to go by boat on the little river running through Bangkok.

Needless to say, she was a more stalwart soul than us, because she had to be. Also needless to say, the book made me want to visit Thailand like, right now. My other main observation is that the king is a big jerk. I don't really remember the movie musical The King and I that well - Yul Brenner, some kids running around and other prostrating-themselves people, etc. Now that I've read this book I'm not sure I remember the movie at all. Was he this much of a jerk in the movie? I mean, we're talking dozens of concubines/wives AND he has people tortured/killed without much guilt, kind of Dubya-Cheney style.

It was a quick enough read. I don't know that it would suck everyone in, but it is interesting and for sure does one of my favorite things: it reminds 20th and 21st century people (especially young people) that their thoughts and experiences aren't some new modern thing older generations wouldn't relate to. Including galavanting about the world teaching English.