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Review: Trojan Tales: Voices from Afar

Trojan Tales: Voices from Afar by Edward J. Nield My rating: 2 of 5 stars I have no doubt that Nield knows the cycle of Tr...

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America

Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this because I am teaching The Fire Next Time.

It's one of those books that I find hard to review. I think everyone in America should read it, and if I had a magic wand or the power of the Force, I would make everyone read it. But writing that sounds flippant despite it being true.

What Kendi (with the aid of his wife he thanks quite a bit) does is trace the development of Racist ideas in America. He does this in part by challenging the standard definations of some words and terms. This is done early on in the book, so you know extactly what Kendi means when he uses words like antiracist, racist, and assilmation later. It's true that some people (gives certain Orange being and family the stink eye) will say that the book doesn't deal with racism towards white people - but really? Honesty, if you read the book, that question is answered. (Though in fairness, Kendi limits, or seems to do, the defination of racism as towards black. Racism towards Native Americans and Asians is mentioned but only in how racism towards or by such groups is connected to racism towards Blacks. But this limiting matches what Kendi sets out in the introduction).

Kendi traces racism though various major public figures in America, even pre-Independence. Jefferson of course is here, but so are Angela Davis, DuBois, Mater, and Garrison. In some ways, the weakest section is Davis, almost like this section could be a whole book in and of itsself, mostly because at that point it almost feels like Kendi is hitting a check list. Yet the first four sections are engrossing and stacked with facts. So, is the last section despite it's checklist feel. In the interest of fairness, I am from Philly, and Kendi's brief, very brief, mention of the Mumia case is enough to get anyone in Philly a bit annoyed for a wide variety of reasons. (I am of the he is guilty but the system/time was extremely racist group. Honesty, there are better anti-death cases out there. Does Mumia get the attention because he is well read and a good speaker? Is that class or the extradorinary Negro racism that Kendi talks about). It was puzzling because Kendi calls Mumia is a political prison, but Kendi doesn't mention Move and the bombing of that group (done by the police, and which ended in the destruction of a neighborhood), an event that surely seems far more political and raicst.

But this book gives the reader so much information and so much to think about. It really should be required reading for everyone in America. Quite frankly, if you are teaching about Civil Rights, Slavery, or African-American culture/literature, you should read this book before teaching the subject matter.

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Thursday, October 26, 2017

Review: A Married Woman: A Novel

A Married Woman: A Novel A Married Woman: A Novel by Manju Kapur
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s famous “Well Behaved Women Seldom Make History” has a point. History tends to ignore or undervalue those who are nameless and do the chores. In other words, let’s took about Socrates but give Xantippe a bad rep because, you know, for nagging about where the grocery money was coming from. Grocery money is so not important. In some ways, this is also true about books. We prefer to read novels with people doing things, discovering things, whacking things, screwing things.

Okay, maybe screwing people and not things, but you take my point.

Kapur’s novel, A Married Woman, is a well-behaved woman novel, a story about stories we don’t usually considering important or even worth reading about. There’s a reason for this. Conflict sells for a variety of reasons, yet we are missing something with conflict all the time.

Kapur’s novel about a married woman does have conflict, though it is a largely internal struggle. Ashta is making her way through life – a desire to be who she is, or to at the very least discover who she is – as well as to follow the traditional roles that are laid out for her. What happens are conflicts between duty and art, the survival of a marriage and the discovery of a new passion. These conflicts are played out with a backdrop of Muslim/Hindu conflict.

The book is quiet. In fact, it is hard at times to feel as if something more major must happen. It isn’t so much that nothing happens, but that what happens is very much real. Strangely, the weakest part of the book is the section that is Ashta’s voice. There is something off about those diary entries.

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Review: Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe

Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe by Kapka Kassabova
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so thankful that My Book Box had this book for a selection. This is quite honesty of the best books I have read all year. I want to read Kassabova’s poetry. I am so happy that I read this. And without My Book Box, I very much doubt that I would have read this.

Border is part travel memoir, part personal memoir, and part social history. It chronicles the area between Bulgaria and Turkey, looking at myth, legend, and survival as the towns and people move from Cold War to democracy. Each chapter is preceded by a small brief discussion of a word and its meaning.

The book is wonderful because of the use of language. Kassabova describes a woman who was criticized for her accent “She never spoke a word of Bulgarian again. For a time, she fell between languages” (146).

There stories that she tells, like the story of the white legged maiden, or Kassabova’s own retracing of a crossover route, used to move, illegally, from East to West. There are bits about gardens, about refugees, about how past funnels into present.

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Sunday, October 15, 2017

Review: Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition

Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition Island of the Blue Foxes: Disaster and Triumph on the World's Greatest Scientific Expedition by Stephen R. Bown
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley


For some reason, I like reading books about white men going into cold places and dying. Except Norwegians, for some reason my brain believes Norwegians should always make it out alive. I’m not sure why, but it does. I blame National Geographic Museum in Washington DC for all this because I saw an exhibit there about Scott and Amundsen.

This book is about a Russian trek, led by a Dane Vitus Bering (yes, that Bering). Truthfully, when we read about those treks, at least in the Eastern part of American, we tend to focus solely on the British during crazy things. It was refreshing, therefore to read about Russians doing crazy things. It should be noted that I am not an expert on this topic.

Brown does a very good in keeping the reader engaged. First, he sets up the scene, allowing the read to understand the circumstances that the large group of men were dealing with. Unlike the British, the Kamchatka Expedition had to deal with official who had little desire to help the leaders, making food and supplies difficult. The failure of the expedition, it seems, was also that due to politics.

Brown doesn’t hesitate to illustrate the flaws of some of the members of the expedition, but he also shows the good points. In particular, is Stellar who is at once infuriating, yet he is vital to the survival of those who make it.

Perhaps that is the greatest strength of this history – unlike many such book it doesn’t play favorites but presents humanity struggling in a dangerous situation of its own making.


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Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Review: The Infernal Library: On Dictators, Their Books, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy

The Infernal Library: On Dictators, Their Books, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy The Infernal Library: On Dictators, Their Books, and Other Catastrophes of Literacy by Daniel Kalder
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

I have to admit, I almost didn’t request this title from Netgalley. It wasn’t that the topic, a study of works by dictators, didn’t sound interesting. It did, but there also seemed a possibility for dryness, and I really wasn’t in the mood. But I requested it anyway.

I am very happy I did. Mr. Kalder, I am sorry for thinking it would be dry.

Honesty, you know you are in good hands when the book starts, “This is a book about dictator literature – that is to say, it is a book about the canon of works written or attributed to dictators. As such, it is a book about some of the worst books ever written, and so was excruciatingly painful to research.”

Kalder took one for the team, and quite frankly, we should repay him by reading this book.

The book isn’t so much literary criticism; though Kalder does not shy away from calling a bad book a bad book. For instance, on The Green Book, “it is not merely boring, or banal, or repetitive, or nonsensical, although it is certainly all those things. It is quite simply, stupid . . . “.

And he is fair, for Kalder notes of Mussolini’s bodice ripper (which isn’t really one apparently) that it is readable.

His survey of literature starts with the Russian revolution and includes present day dictators. Kalder is also as funny as, well, Monty Python.

What Kalder does is look at not only what the writings reveal about the dictators, but also why people didn’t take the books seriously as warnings of things to come. He points out that some people should have known better. He also connects it to the thinking and control process, showing how the works did reflect the personality of each man (and they are all men). He also addresses the weird beliefs that make their way into the books – Hussain had strange ideas about bears.

The book is an entertaining journey into some really strange minds that produced some really bad literature. Luckily for the reader, Kalder read it for us.


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Sunday, October 8, 2017

Review: Middlemarch/Personal Canon

Middlemarch Middlemarch by George Eliot
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Eliot is one of those writers who I always forget how good she is. It’s not that I ever forget she is good, it is just that forget the high standard she has for most her work. The exception in this forgetting is Adam Bede, and this is no doubt because it was the first Eliot I read (thanks to Alistair Cooke).

I first read Middlemarch in either college or grad school. I recently re-read because of a line in the New York Times Book Review.

To call Middlemarch feminist would be wrong, though in many ways she is a proto-feminist. At the heart of the novel is the character of Dorothea and the idea of marriage. If Doretha was Catholic, she quite easily could have become a nun. But she isn’t, so the avenues opened to her are a bit slim. She wants to do good works, and to improve people’s lives. At beginning of the novel is she able to do this with a help of a suitor, a suitor she doesn’t know is a suitor, and later in the novel, she has the possibility to do it another way. This of course soon changes.

The theme of the novel, in part, seems to be the idea of marriage, for marriage does concern much of the part. At first, it is merely Doreatha’s marriage to Casaubon, who is older and who she hopes will teach almost like a father. Then it is the marriage between Lydgate, a doctor who wants to do good, and Rosamond, whose brother Fred forms part of a third marriage with Mary Garth.

The question of marriage is more a question what a good marriage is. Doreatha’s first marriage, really isn’t a good one. But it is not entirely her husband’s fault and in fact, very few of her friends (in fact only her sister and James Chettam) try to talk her out of it or express doubts about the marriage.

In many ways, the true right people in the novel are Mary Garth and Celia Brooke, Doretha’s younger sister. Mary is the dependable and intelligent daughter of the Gareths. She is prudent. The most imprudent thing she does is love Fred, who at the start of the book has a good heart but is a bit too much flash and imprudence. Celica is Doreatha’s younger sister, less religious, more sensual, but also more observant. She watches before she speaks. She may not be as good or holy as Doretha but she is not a bad woman. Mary too watches. This makes those two women better able to handle the society that constrains them.

Doretha is not able to handle society in the same way. Her marriage options are frowned upon whether she marries for the right or wrong reason. And unlike Lydgate, who marries an illusion, a pretty thing that he does not see as human or understand fully as human. He does not watch enough. Neither does Doretha at first.

Eliot’s suggestion that she is trying to write or example a modern life of St. Theresa is interesting because Dortha, like Lydgate, doesn’t quite come what she could have been.

Of course, that is, in part, the purpose of Eliot’s book, showing us the bonds – both prison like and fond – that society puts on us.


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Sunday, October 1, 2017

Review: Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air

Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air by Harold Bloom
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Disclaimer: ARC via Netgalley

Anthony and Cleopatra is my favorite Shakespeare play. It didn’t really attain this title until I was in graduate school. There is something not only wonderful about the character of Cleopatra in Shakespeare’s play but also because it is a love story with a political theme. Everyone remembers Cleopatra but very few remember that political component.

Like all of us, Harold Bloom has fallen for Cleopatra. Hard. After reading his slim volume on Hamlet, I thought Bloom wanted to have an affair Gertrude, but now I think there is something of a threesome going on between Bloom, Gertrude, and Cleopatra. One can’t really fault him for that.
Bloom is at his best and most piercing when he links Shakespeare’s Cleopatra to the idea of ebb and flow of the Nile river. This is a brilliant observation. It actually does much to explain aspects of Cleopatra’s character and then also ties both Cleopatra and ebb/flow into Anthony’s character. It is quite interesting.

There are also problems with it. In many ways, it is difficult for a female reader to forget that early on in his book, Bloom writes that Cleopatra “cunning beyond male thought”. Now I am looking at an early electronic galley, so hopefully that word male will be removed. As it stands, it is jarring. It almost forces the female to reader out of the book. A strange feeling considering the subject is a woman.

It’s true to note that Shakespeare’s audience would have been male, so Bloom is undoubtedly correct on a basic level. Yet, the narrow focuses weaken his point, especially the level point in connecting Cleopatra to the water.

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