Thursday, October 22, 2009

Alphabetical List of Reviews by Title

I have a lot of reviews on here, and Blogger only lets me list them by date. I thought, "Well that's not very helpful to someone looking for a specific book!" So I decided to list them alphabetically. This list is by book title; at some point I'll also make a list alphabetically by author (can you tell I'm anal rententive???). You can click on each title to go directly to the review. If you're looking for something that starts with "the" or "a," look under the second word. I'll keep this updated as I add reviews.

1984 by George Orwell
Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
Blessings by Anna Quindlen
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
Finding Angela Shelton by Angela Shelton
Goat by Brad Land
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
The Little Prince/Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Maybe, Baby by Tenaya Darlington
Meeting Mr. Wrong by Stephanie Snowe
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
Misconceptions by Naomi Wolf
My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult
The Ocean in the Closet by Yuko Taniguchi
Out by Natsuo Kirino
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay
Princess by Jean P. Sasson
A Separate Peace by John Knowles
Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David O. Relin
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Wifework by Susan Maushart
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

Wednesday, October 21, 2009



by George Orwell

This post contains spoilers below the fold.

When I first heard about 1984, I assumed it was a science fiction about the physical and psychological toll inflicted on humans by an over-reaching government system, much like Animal Farm (although, I admit, I read that when I was 12 so I may not have grasped some of the deeper themes). What I didn't expect was a philosophy text, a metaphysical journey, questioning the meaning of truth and reality, and exploring how the human mind can simultaneously believe conflicting things, which Orwell calls doublethink but we know it as cognitive dissonance (although there are differences which Orwell outlines, I found cognitive dissonance the easiest avenue from which to explore the concept of doublethink).

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

by Maya Angelou

I had heard of Maya Angelou's book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, mostly referred to as classical American and African American literature, and I was familiar with much of her poetry due to American literature classes in high school. What I did not know is that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is an autobiography that was written on a dare. After hearing her life story, writer James Baldwin and editor Robert Loomis challenged Angelou to write it as a piece of literature. Angelou succeeded so exceptionally that some reviewers do not categorize it as nonfiction. Indeed, I was a quarter of the way through the book when I learned this, and had assumed that it was fiction.

Angelou's story begins in the deeply segregated Stamps, Arkansas, where she and her brother live with her paternal grandmother and her uncle. She speaks powerfully to her and her brother's feelings of abandonment as she describes how they were treated as baggage during their journey. A longing for love and acceptance from both of her parents laces throughout the work, and perhaps even intensifies during the periods where she lives with each of them, separately.

A second theme that Angelou weaves throughout her text is the effect of racism on herself and her brother. When Angelou gets a maid job in a white woman's house, she is re-named Mary by the housemistress, who seems to think it is a compliment. She only regains her name by breaking a favorite dish, then being abused and thrown out. The hurt and fear visited upon the child Maya is apparent through her silent defiance, although it becomes more intense as she talks about her brother, Bailey.

The third theme that Angelou's work engages is the misogyny and sexism which deeply impact her childhood. At the age of 8, Angelou was sexually abused and raped by her mother's boyfriend. The fear and confusion she felt is conveyed by her abuse being intensely connected with death. With this connection Angelou draws a powerful parallel known intimately to rape survivors: namely, that rape is a waking death that will always be a part of you. The fear associated with womanhood follows Angelou through the book and this, combined with a lack of education about her own body - in those days talking about women's reproductive parts was considered indelicate for women - results in her becoming pregnant at 16. The book ends as she passes from naieve, fearful childhood to a womanhood where she can trust herself and her body.

I very much enjoyed reading I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Angelou not only wove her three themes together masterfully, but did so with lyric, humor, frankness and percipience. When I finished the book I was eager to learn what happened next, and I may dig into the sequels soon, although I have heard this particular volume was her pièce de résistance.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace...One School at a Time

by Greg Mortenson and David O. Relin

In 1993 Greg Mortenson expected to summit K2 in honor of his late sister, Christa. What he didn't expect was to fail his attempt, get lost on the mountain twice, and fall in love with a small village named Korphe, impoverished and forgotten by its own country. Mortenson promised the village leader, Haji Ali, that he would return to build a school for Korphe. Thus began Dr. Greg's school-building saga.Mortenson's mission is to breathe life into the forgotten, poor and wor-torn villages of Pakistan and Afghanistan by educating their children, both girls and boys. Not only does he build schools, but he also builds whatever is necessary for the students to thrive in their education, be it bridges, wells, or women's centers. Mortenson helps the villages to build these structures for themselves, a monument that they can put to immediate use and be proud of as a community. Mortenson builds these schools in the face of kidnapping, fatwas, death threats, loss of funding, 9-11, and war. His is an amazing and inspirational story of kindness, learning, and understanding. While the writing was a bit choppy, journalistic and, at times, cheesy, the story drew me in and captured my attention. You can learn more about Mortenson's campaign at the website for his foundation, the Central Asia Institute.

Finding Angela Shelton

Finding Angela Shelton: The True Story of One Woman's Triumph Over Sexual Abuse

by Angela Shelton

Finding Angela Shelton is a quasi-memoir written documenting the making of the documentary Searching for Angela Shelton. The idea behind the documentary was that she would travel around the country to survey women in America by meeting those that share her name, Angela Shelton (I had originally wanted to see the documentary but had a hard time getting my hands on it, so I read the book instead; now I'm more determined than ever to find the documentary). She thought it would be a fun and quirky documentary, however the film soon took another path as she learned that over 70% of the Angela Sheltons she talked to had been sexually or physically abused/assaulted in their lifetimes. A victim of childhood sexual abuse herself, Angela is mired in flashbacks. When she learns that one of the Angela Sheltons tracks sexual predators for a living and lives in the same town as her molester - her father - she knows that she needs to confrot him. When a broken bone has not been treated, it must be rebroken and set in order for it to heal properly. Similarly, Angela must delve into her personal history of sexual abuse and confront her abuser in order to heal both herself and others.

This book really hit me in the gut. While the author's childhood sexual abuse was both similar to and different from mine, many of her feelings and thoughts on her trauma reflected mine. As I sit here, I still cannot say what happened to me and am blushing with embarrassment whenever I write about the subject. But her message is that silence only allows abuse to continue shrouded in a shame that should be felt by the perpetrators but is all to often only felt by the victims. It is a call to action for people to open their eyes to the abuse that is epidemic in our society, for victim/survivors to shout and scream and make ourselves known, because what has been seen cannot be unseen and only when we force people to believe yes we ARE HERE yes we DO EXIST and we are NUMEROUS, will real change occur. Until then, the abusers will have the power through denial, blame and shame.

The Poisonwood Bible

The Poisonwood Bible: A Novel

by Barbara Kingsolver

The Poisonwood Bible begins in 1959 when minister Nathan Price moves his family from suburban Georgia to the Belgian Congo (which we now know as Zaire) to serve as a missionary in the village of Kilanga, which can only be reached by plane or riverboat, since days of travel are required to reach any neighboring village by road. The family soon learns that everything they painstakingly packed to bring with them, including their ideas and prejudices, are utterly useless: Nathan Price is fond of exclaiming "Tata Jesus is bangala!" which is supposed to mean "Father Jesus is Precious!", however in his deliberate ignorance of pronunciation and nuance of the Kikongo language, actually means "Father Jesus is Poisonwood!" His ministry further alienates the local people when he insists that their children must be baptized in a river that is rife with crocodiles, or they will suffer hell. How will the Price children survive when their father has alienated the entire town, the only people who can help them learn how and what to eat?

The story of the Price family is told mostly by the children of the family- Rachel, twins Leah and Adah, and Ruth May (in order of age)- with introductions to each section narrated by the mother, Orleanna. Each narrator has her own unique voice: Orleanna is unobtrusive and bittersweet; Rachel is self-centered, terrified, and humorous; Leah is the moral voice who moves from a child unquestioning of God and her Father to a native African; Adah, who is hemiplegic, writes riddles that pierce the heart of the truth; and Ruth May, who states poignant facts in a way only little pitchers with big ears can. The Poisonwood Bible is an apt interpretation of the old adage that one must bend, or one will break. Some members of the Price family will be broken by Africa, and some will learn to bend to it, as they live through the revolution of the forming of the Republic of Congo, when it flings off the rule of Belgium.

I found The Poisonwood Bible a very enjoyable read. Kingsolver researched her subject well, and is able to write with such nuance that she is able to tell a story that is not only an amazing adventure, but is also philosophical and speaks to modern thought and prejudice regarding Africa. The reader can both enjoy a story and learn something both about themself and the world around them through this novel.

Ahab's Wife

Ahab's Wife: Or, The Star-Gazer: A Novel

by Sena Jeter Naslund

Ahab's Wife is the life story of Una Spenser, the only wife of Moby Dick's Captain Ahab. The novel begins with her exile from her childhood home at the age of 12, when she is shuttled to live with her aunt, uncle and cousin on a lighthouse island in New England. Naslund goes into sometimes painstaking detail of the day to day life of Una with a lyrical style that reflects Melville and other 18th century authors. Naslund wrote the book with the idea to tell the story of 18th century women, since the vast majority of literature from that period barely acknowledge their existence. Una is not a woman to stay at home, gazing worriedly for her lost lover, although she does spend some time doing just that. Throughout Una's adventures, she runs away to become a cabin boy on a whaling ship, marries and divorces a probable schizophrenic, hobknobs with Margret Fuller and Ralph Waldo Emmerson, births and raises a live child and a stillborn, becomes involved in the Abolitionist movement and much, much more. Una's story is as much of an epic adventure as Ahab's.

Ahab's Wife reads in fits and starts; it took me just as long to get through the first 100 pages as it took me to get through the next 400, and slightly less time to get through the last 100 or so. Una's life was punctuated with periods of unactivity and periods of frantic exploits. While I could appreciate Naslund's prose from a literary perspective, it was a bit bourgeois for me. At times it was prose for prose's sake, rather than prose for descriptive or philosophical ends. I also wish Una's philosophical ponderings were a bit deeper than your basic philosophy 1o1 questions. Overall Ahab's Wife was a fairly enjoyable read, if not a quick one, but I found myself constantly yearning for something deeper, as I felt was promised but not quite fulfilled.