Sunday Salon: the OMG-August’s-Over Post
Apparently, August is over! The R.I.P. Challenge has begun, the Summer Lovin’ Challenge is almost over, and last night I had to wear a sweatshirt. So it’s official: fall is on its way. I love fall, don’t get me wrong, but I have no idea where August went this year! That being said, I’ve been doing quite a bit of reading this week. I’m going to review all of the graphic novels in a different post, but that still leaves me with eight books to discuss.
So let’s get going. :D
I read The Painted Drumby Louise Erdrichas part of my 9 for ’09 Challenge, which helps participants read books from the TBR case. I picked it up at a library sale last year, because I’ve heard good things about Erdrichand I couldn’t remember ever reading a bookby a Native American. The book’s in three main parts, each of which has a different focus and narrator, with a final section that kind of wraps them all up. United everyone is a Native American drum with spiritual powers. I expected to adore this book; I love magical realism, I love folklore, and I really enjoy reading literature by authors with wildly different backgrounds. Unfortunately, it fell a bit flat for me…it had a contemporary ‘book club’ feel to it almost, in that I felt the author threw certain things in merely to manipulate my emotions rather than to tell a good story. There arechildren dying and suffering left and right it seems, and only one of those really felt justified. That being said, while the book ended up being ‘meh’ for me, the second part of it was absolutely marvelous. That’s when the narrator shifts from Faye, a part-Native American living out East and working as an estate manager who returns the drum to its original tribe, to Bernard, a Native American who lives on a reservation out in the Dakotas. He tells the legends and stories that surround the drum, and the style had me completely convinced. When Erdich tells tales, it’s as if I’m sitting around the campfire listening, and I didn’t want that part to end. However it did, and I came to a trite third part that, after the majesty of story-telling in the middle, disappointed me. So, I doubt I’ll be reading more Erdrich unless I can find a novel of hers that sounds entirely like the second section of this one. That being said, I think a lot of people who enjoy this one; anyone who enjoyed Mudbound, The Kite Runner, The Poisonwood Bible, The Painted Drumfelt reminiscent. As for me, I’ve got Sherman Alexie’s first novel, Reservation Blues, from the library, and I can’t wait to read another Native American author!
I then read Yes, My Darling Daughterby Margaret LeRoy. While I didn’t read it for the R.I.P. challenge, it definitely fits into that category! In it, Gail, a young single mom who’s struggling to keep her life together, must deal with her four-year-old daughter’s increasingly odd behavior. Like her refusal to call her ‘Mummy.’ And her phobia of water. And her stories about the house ‘she used to live in,’ that Gail’s never been to. Having exhausted other resources, Gail turns to a psychology professor who specialises in the paranormal, and they go off on a quest to determine if Sylvie might just be remembering a past life in Ireland. While I enjoyed this one, I wouldn’t call it marvelous, and the reviews comparing it to Rebeccaare just silly. It isn’t nearly as gothic, the mystery is incredibly obvious, and the writing style is much lower. That being said, I read it through in one sitting and had fun with it!
Then I read a wonderful nonfiction book: In the Footsteps of Mr. Kurtz by Michela Wrong (whose name I misspelled and confused a ridiculous amount of times) for the World Citizen Challenge. Wrong is an Economistcorrespondent who spent a considerable time in the DPRC (then-Zaire) and was in Kinshasa when dictator Mobuto’s fell. The book opens with her experience of that, her worry that there would be a ‘last stand’ in the hotel she was staying in, and what she saw in the streets. She’s a marvelous writer, who can really bring a scene to life, so I found myself engrossed. After that opening, she looks at Mobuto’s life. It’s a generally chronological approach, but the emphasis is a thematic one (for example, one chapter deals with the IMF/World Bank, one with Congo under King Leopold’s rule, etc.). It works very well, and I think she provides enough background information for someone who doesn’t know anything about DPRC to get a good handle on it. Since it’s a huge country in the middle of Africa, and its problems have encouraged destabilisation in countries as far away as Rwanda and Angola, this is an important book for anyone who wants to know about modern African politics. This was Wrong’s first book; she’s since written two more, one focused on Eritrea and one on Kenya. I intend to read both
I then finished up a very different nonfiction read, also for the 9 for ’09 Challenge, Tony Horwitz’s Blue Latitudes. It’s a combination travelogue and biography of Captain Cook, the famous British explorer. Horwitz obviously has a bit of a thing for Cook, so he decided to retrace his journeys. There were things I absolutely loved in this: Horwitz begins his trip by sailing on a kind of ‘living museum’ of Cook’s first ship The Endeavour, so he has a taste of what being a sailor in Cook’s time meant. Throughout the book, he seeks out such forms of odd travel to try to get inside Cook’s head, which was really neat. He’s often accompanied by a Yorkshire-turned-Australian friend named Roger, who’s hilarious. And I haven’t read much about the Pacific Islands, so it was neat that most of the book was centered around them. He even goes to Nieu, a tiny Polynesia country I’d only heard about in connection with refugee issues. Horwitz is strong at bringing people and places to life. And yet, despite all of that, I didn’t rush through this one…there was something that had me constantly checking to see how many pages were left (and it’s over 400 pages long). So I can’t give this an unqualified recommendation, but I can say that I’m glad I read it and all of the good bits far outweighed the boring ones. That doesn’t sound as enthusiastic as it ought to be…I loved the emphasis on seafaring, getting to know countries I’d never ‘visited’ before, and learning more about Captain Cook (it sounds like Forester might have based Horatio Hornblower’s character on his, at least a bit). Anyone who enjoys travel or nautical books should check this one out! :) And I’m curious about Horwitz’s other writing now.
Next up was a slim autobiographical novel (apparently the first in a trilogy) The Blue Sky, by Mongolian shaman Galsan Tschinag. This was an impulse grab from the library’s shelves for me, and I’m happy to say I adored it. Tschinag’s writing is very fluid and natural; I was instantly transported to rural Mongolia and the life of nomadic shepherds. Almost the entire book is very upbeat; while Tschinag’s family faces hardships, his joy in his world far outweights them. I think anyone at all interested in international fiction or coming-of-age stories would love this, and I can’t wait for the other two books. I also discovered a cool publishing company: Milkweed Editions, which will be a marvelous resource for future reading. :D Since it was translated from German, I’m counting it for the Lost in Translation Challenge.
After that I turned to Wilkie Collins, a trusted favourite of mine, and one of his earlier books The Dead Secret as part of the Classics Challenge. It was fun to see a younger Collins in action (this was published in 1857, compared to The Moonstone almost a decade later), as well as a lighter take on themes he explored more thoroughly in The Woman in White (1860) and No Name (1862). This one was pretty much pure entertainment, without the social commentary or shifting narrators (it does shift which character is being followed, but the narrator throughout is third person). I loved every second of it. Collins creates the most marvelous, idiosyncratic characters and then describes them perfectly. I always find it difficult to review book by my favourite authors, because I want to just say go read it now! Who cares about plot or anything? I promise it will be wonderful! So I think I’m just going to leave it at that…if you haven’t read Collins before, I think this would be a great place to start (it’s also shorter than his best-known novels, so there’s less commitment involved). And if you’re already a Collins fan, it won’t disappoint. :)
Meanwhile, I was reading Warren St. John’s Outcasts Unitedfor the Dewey Decimal Challenge (700s). This is a nonfiction book about Clarkstown, GA which is a small town on the outskirts of Atlanta that has become a major refugee resettlement zone in the last couple of decades, and a soccer team started there that’s made up of refugee boys. I really liked the topic, but for a NYTreporter, I was expecting a much more analytical approach. Perhaps I’ve read/studied refugee issues a bit too much, but this felt like completely nonfiction fluff to me. Also, the writing style was so simplistic, it almost felt like a product of a freshman college composition class. There’s one major exception to this: the soccer scenes themselves. St. John is a marvelous sports writer, and I could see the games and big plays unfolding before my eyes. There are lots of these scences too, and I looked forward to each one of them! So I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading about soccer and sports, as well as to those who are curious about refugee issues but don’t have much a knowledge base already.
I next picked up The New Moon’s Armsby Nalo Hopkinson. I put her in my Caribbean Challenge pool, because of Nymeth’s review of another of her novels, The Salt Roads. But my library didn’t have that one, so I grabbed this one without even bothering to read a plot summary. You can imagine my delight when it ends up involving mermaids! And magical realism! And the narrator is a middle-aged woman who still has flings with men and wears high heeled shoes! And she’s also completely anti-homosexuality, which comes up quite a bit in the book and is handled so marvelously (the homosexual characters are portrayed sympathetically, while the narrator comes off looking like the homophobe she is, so it’s evident where the author’s opinion lies). Basically, this book completely and utterly captivated me; usually I read 4 books at once, rotating every 50 pages, but I read this one straight through. And I’m positive you’ll love it too. It’s intelligent and literary while simultaneously being a fascinating page-turner. It’s different from any book I’ve read this year, and I mean that as a compliment. I thought about devoting a whole post to it, since it certainly deserves it, but then I realised I didn’t want to giveaway any more of the book, because it’s so wonderful to not knowing what’s going to happen next. So go read it already.
I was going to review The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman, my first official R.I.P. read, but I’ve decided I want to go more in depth into it than I could here.
I’ll close this post with a brief discussion of my new resolution to read half of my fiction by POC (people of colour) authors, which I made public in last week’s Sunday Salon. Immediately afterwards, I had a bit of a panic attack, not knowing if I would be able to live up to my goals (and I’m behind in my 25% POC nonfiction one, but this week’s Library Loot will fix that). But I did lots of research and put together a really long, really exciting list. And 6 out of 10 of the novels I read this week fall in the POC category. It’s early, but I already love how much broader my reading horizons feel. And not because it’s the politically correct thing to say, but because my favourite thing about reading is being able to peek into lives of characters that are compeltely different from me. I was worried that making such a big resolution would constrict my reading. But it’s done quite the opposite. I was worried I might have to read books that didn’t appeal to me simply because the author was of a certain ethnicity. Instead, I’ve found fantastic sounding books in all of my favourite genres. I was worried that I might read less-than-marvelously-written books simply because of the author’s ethnicity. But I’ve found it’s the exact same as reading white authors-some I love, some I have no interest in reading more of, but that’s ok. I share this with you in case you’re thinking about making a similar reading resolution but being held back by similar concerns. Many of the POC book reviews I see in the blogosphere are YA lit, which is great, but I don’t personally read a ton of YA. So if you’re the same way, and you’d like a book list to help you read more POC authors, e-mail me (astripedarmchairATgmailDOTcom) and I’ll be more than happy to share mine. :) As I said last week, the more blogs review POC literature, the easier it will be to diversify our reading!
Did you read any POC books this week? Did you enjoy them?