Monday, April 28, 2014

Nonfiction | Good Words and Broken Promises

“When people want to slaughter cattle they drive them along until they get them to a corral, and then they slaughter them. So it was with us.”
—Standing Bear of the Poncas

Not so long ago, I embarked on a little personal reading project I called “Westward Ho!” to delve into certain historical topics I wanted to explore. [I thought it was not so long ago…and then I searched the blog archives and found it was actually two whole years ago! Whoops…where did 2013 go??] The most enlightening part of this project was the joint reading I did with Aarti of a book called Lions of the West. Our conversations inspired further exploration of some of the topics addressed in that book, and one of the books I put on my “to-read” list as a result was Dee Brown’s acclaimed Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West.

This book wasn’t exactly what I expected. Some nonfiction narrators (maybe most that I’ve read) keep their big-picture point at the forefront of their storytelling. Their chapters highlight specific pieces of evidence that support their main point, but the narrative always pulls it all together. That way, you don’t get bogged down in details (a real buzz kill, especially if the subject is historical), and you can easily see how all the pieces fit together to tell the story.

Brown doesn’t hold the reader’s hand quite that much in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Instead of mixing detail with broad summary, Brown shares a lot of detail about the persisting incidents suffered by American Indians in the latter half of the 19th century—primetime of US westward expansion. It’s one story after another about particular confrontations in particular places, featuring the stories of such individuals as Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull. I think his method must have been more of the shove-it-in-your-head-with-repetition variety.

The result of this method is that you, the reader, feel the never-ending hopelessness of defeat as the various tribes Brown highlights are demoralized, manipulated, and conquered by the US government. Though it isn’t as easy to read as a more succinct narrative style, the point made is clear. White men were like a plague impossible to extinguish; it was an uphill battle and a losing one at that.

In using his many different examples, Brown is able to show just how uphill this battle was and how many different ways the American Indians tried to approach it. Some peacefully acquiesced to US demands; some went through legal channels to voice their rights; some resorted to warfare and destruction. As rules and regulations were imposed on the country’s native inhabitants, the government disregarded its own rules and promises to them for its own gains.

“To justify these breaches of the ‘permanent Indian frontier,’ the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny, a term which lifted land hunger to a lofty plane. The Europeans and their descendents were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race and therefore responsible for the Indians—along with their lands, their forests, and their mineral wealth.”

Not only did Manifest Destiny assert the God-given right of white men to take over the country, it also actually deemed it destiny of the Indians to give up their land. There’s deceit and greed and manipulation. Settlers and soldiers exaggerated or blatantly lied about the “nuisance” and “violence” of Indians so the government would shoo them off the land, “for safety’s sake.”

The story is sad. It’s really sad. It feels so incredibly hopeless. And it’s really such a terrible part of this country’s humanitarian history that sadly is too often brushed over as just a relic, an inevitable part of the past, when people are still today living and dealing with its repercussions.

Though I still don’t think this book is the easiest or most interesting to read, stylistically speaking, its stories speak volumes, and I think it’s one of the most important perspectives of history to hear and understand.

“Their musical names remained forever fixed on the American land, but their bones were forgotten in a thousand burned villages or lost in forests fast disappearing before the axes of twenty million invaders.”

Friday, April 25, 2014

Fiction | The Battle Between Faith and Doubt

Pop culture just loves to pick on the Mormons. Our cultural oeuvre is full of exaggerated tales of this group that dramatize stereotypes and controversy: Big Love, Sister Wives, David Ebershoff’s bestseller The 19th Wife, and Carol Lynch Williams’ YA thriller The Chosen One. Of all the many portrayals of the Mormon church out there in the realm of literature, Ryan McIlvain’s debut novel, Elders, is probably the tamest. His is a refreshing perspective that focuses on its characters rather than controversy.

Elder McLeod and Elder Passos have been paired together as they near the end of their two-year mission in Brazil. They’re pretty much nothing alike. Elder McLeod is American, outspoken, emotional; Elder Passos is Brazilian, obedient, and devout. As they spend their days spreading the word throughout their community, knocking on door after door, their beliefs and behaviors often clash. They finally find common ground–and start to actually get along—when a beautiful woman and her dubious husband agree to listen to the Elders’ message. As they confront the couple’s questions, though, the Elders have to face their own conflicts and doubts.

The two characters in this book are very well drawn. They contrast off each other perfectly, but McIlvain gives enough detail and history to each that the reader is given insight into the reasons for their opinions and actions. There are a lot of factors in play in this story; McIlvain addresses several themes and sources of conflict.

First, we have religion and McLeod’s and Passos’ own reasons for belief or doubt. Passos lost his mother as a teenager; religion was his source of comfort and guidance during his formative years—the place he found answers and the reassurance that his family would one day be reunited. McLeod grew up in a religious household; his father is a priest [is that the correct term?], and the religious path was expected of him, rather than one he found for his own reasons.

Then we have culture, and here McIlvain adds a compelling deeper dimension to the story of these two missionaries. Set in 2003, just as the US as invaded Iraq, Elder McLeod encounters the harsh anti-American sentiment felt strongly outside US borders. And Elder Passos, on the other hand, serves as that critical eye on that heritage and worldview that comprises much of Elder McLeod’s identity.

McIlvain presses these heavy themes on his young characters that are already questioning their place in the world as they mature from boys to men. I think the writing was excellent, and the author’s ability to affect his characters with both internal and external influences was mastery level. Overall, I thought this book was written very well with just an okay story. I didn’t really like either of the characters, but I appreciated the non-issue approach of the subject matter. Go here for superlative writing, but don’t expect a gripping plot.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Revisiting Potter, Part 5: The Order of the Phoenix

In The Order of the Phoenix, Harry has been spending another long summer with the Dursleys at Privet Drive with no contact from the wizarding world. And that’s distressing, considering his experiences the past spring and the return of Voldemort. A lot happens in Harry’s world in this, the longest book in the series. And when I say long, I mean it. LONG. Too long. Way, way too long! [Seriously, it legit took three entire chapters for Harry to even leave Privet Drive.]

But though it could’ve desperately used a good edit, this installment is just as fun as the rest. I continue to be just as entertained as the first time I read the series! The plot is now getting highly complicated, featuring a more complex array of grown up experiences and feelings—anger, jealousy, confusion, inferiority, uncertainty. And I think that’s the most notable new level reached in The Order of the Phoenix; Harry (and his friends) are seeing things for themselves rather than what they’re told to see. They are forced to make their own opinions about rules; they make decisions based on what they see and feel rather than do as they’re told; and they begin to understand the importance of perspective and gray areas. The Hogwarts student body starts their own secret Defense of the Dark Arts club because they don’t agree with a theoretical rather than practical education. They question the official word coming from the Ministry of Magic, about the “non-return” of Voldemort, and understand that denial is the reason behind this disbelief. And, most notably for our hero, Harry sees a new side of his father in his relationship with Snape, one that has him considering other sides to the story he’s always believed. For this introduction into the complexities of life, I think this book took an awesome step forward.

Since my last installment of “Revisiting Potter,” I’ve moved back home to Nashville, which means I’m now about a block and a half away from my three school-aged nephews. And after years of urging, the eldest, an 11-year-old, has finally decided he’s not too cool for fantasy and is reading the whole Harry Potter series for the very first time! Coincidentally enough, we just happened to be on the same book at the same time, so I thought it’d be fun to get him involved in these posts. It’s fun to hear a younger reader’s first experience with these stories since they’ve held a place in my cultural consciousness for so long!

Meet my nephew Jack, who’s not only reading the series for the first time but is also watching their movie companions for the first time as well!

What were your initial thoughts on this book? How did it compare to the others?

Some parts got too complicated. It switched from one thing to another real quick, and I was thinking his words were thoughts. It was still as good as the others, but it was way too long. They’re all good, though.

What was your favorite part of Book 5?

Probably where he tries to use the mirror and totally shatters it. No no, when Harry tries to use the Cruciatus Curse on Bellatrix Lestrange, because it’s when Harry tries to take revenge. 

And your least favorite part?

Probably when they’re sitting in Grimmauld Place just waiting. Because it’s boring.

Harry showed a lot more emotion in this book than the previous ones. Do you think he’s justified in his behavior? Would you have acted the same way as Harry?

No, I wouldn’t be so moody or at least I would try not to be. I wouldn’t take everything out on my friends. He’s too whiny. “Poor me, if my parents wouldn’t have died, I’d be fine right now.”

What do you think is going to happen in the next book? What do you hope will happen?

Since there’s a 7th book, he can’t die. I’m guessing that Ron or Hermione gets murdered and Snape kills Dumbledore. I hope Harry kills Snape, Voldemort, and Bellatrix. And Malfoy. 

Who is your favorite character and why?

Ron. He’s always “Cheer up, mate!” with his English accent.

And what do you think of the movies so far?

I like them. They’re not as good as the books but still good.

Making his librarian aunt proud.

We’re going to have to do some covert operation to get Jack the next in the series, The Half-Blood Prince, because, as an elementary student, he’s apparently not allowed to check it out from his school’s library; it’s “too violent.” [Censorship!] So join us for the next installment once we’ve defied the system and gotten our hands on it!

Monday, April 21, 2014

Reading Roundup: Women’s Fiction

I remember how huge Adriana Trigiani’s Big Stone Gap was when it first came out; this was a book that women came to Sunday School talking about, read during the week, and passed along to another reader the next Sunday. I maintain that in the year 2000, word of mouth had spread Big Stone Gap through women’s circles of probably many southern church communities. Well, I guess I was just 14 years behind schedule.

Ave Maria Mulligan is our unconventional narrator—at least, unconventional by the standards of Big Stone Gap, Virginia. She’s 35 and unmarried and is such a part of the town that, as the pharmacist, knows just how to handle everyone’s little eccentricities. Her life never seemed unpredictable but suddenly it’s like the stars are out of line and everything new is happening at once, offering Ave Maria new opportunities she never even imagine. I guess I have to go with the church ladies on this one; wonderfully quirky and lighthearted with a main character to root for—I can understand the mass appeal, because you just want to see where Ave Maria’s life leads her. Fortunately for me now in 2014, the success of this one did lead to three more in the series!

So Beth Patillo’s Jane Austen Ruined My Life is one I would maaaaybe consider more as “chick-lit” than “women’s fiction,” because it’s really just a romance at its root. But hey, we’re a judgment-free zone on this blog, and chick-lit is definitely fine by me! (Although, I will complain if some of their premises are just ridiculous!!) Also to note, this book is the first in Patillo’s series of Austen-inspired novels, but they’re each an independent story, not a continuous series.

In Jane Austen Ruined My Life, Emma is an English professor that has just been discredited both personally and professionally—her god of a professor husband has just cheated on her and subsequently that “other woman,” formerly her own TA, has accused Emma of stealing work and calling it her own. To escape, Emma heads to a cousin’s in the London suburbs to regroup and try and find the famed but elusive lost letters of Jane Austen. If you’ve read any amount of chick-lit, you can probably figure out how the plot is going to go, but it’s quick and enjoyable, and the extra mystery of Jane Austen letters is intriguing. Plus, Patillo has a nice, conversational writing style that is lighthearted and not obnoxious.

My favorite of this batch was an NPR-featured book, The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat by Edward Kelsey Moore. This story follows three friends—Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean—from their adolescent life in the 60s to their middle-aged present. They’ve always lived in their same Indiana town with the one constant in their life being Earl’s diner, where you can find them in their same booth every Sunday for lunch.

Though I wasn’t very impressed with this at the beginning, I got so into it that I read the whole thing in about a day. The characters are wonderful; Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean are so incredibly different from each other, and Moore, thankfully, treats them equally, giving life to all three of his characters in vivid detail. The storytelling is compelling with perspective hopping from past memory to present-day, giving the reader the insight needed to understand the depth of Moore’s “Supremes.” It’s obviously a character-driven, rather than plot-driven, story, and the best kind where you barely care what it is that happens because the entertainment is in reading how your characters deal with it. I find it amazing how well this male author voiced three very distinct women characters! The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat tells the story of very normal things happening to very normal (but extraordinary, lovable) individuals with humor, wit, and a lot of heart—much more than just a “fun” read.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Nonfiction | Riding Through Argentina

Before our travels, I scoured the public library’s eBook offerings to find anything relating to our destinations—preferably more than just travel guides. In my search for Argentina, I was happy to come up with a travel memoir by Polly Evans called On a Hoof and a Prayer: Exploring Argentina at a Gallop. This was perfect—here was another experience of a place we were going and, particularly, a part of the culture I had been keen to explore myself; Argentina’s gaucho history was something on my list to discover while there.

From my understanding and experience, the gaucho is one of the remaining peripheral cultures that represent a rural, traditional way of life in Argentina. Much of central Argentina is covered in a landscape known as the pampas—vast grassland that has been cultivated for crops and livestock. The “gaucho” would be known in English as a cowboy, and it’s a culture that has evolved from a renegade gypsy lifestyle of stealing horses to one that maintains the land and promotes horsemanship.

So now that you’ve got a cultural backdrop, I’ll actually talk about the book!

Evans journeyed to Argentina from her home in England with a mission to master horse-riding, a skill she’d always dreamed about, as any good young English girl is supposed to. Here, though, there are no fancy riding outfits, and the style is far from prim and proper. Evans navigates her way through the country’s many regions, learning to ride but discovering the country’s history and culture along the way.

I find myself more wary of memoirs as time passes, following my husband’s line of thinking and finding them often too self-indulgent. I like memoirs that capture a unique moment of time or a unique experience; what do I care about random person’s trip to Europe who thinks herself so cute that she feels the need to share her experience with the world? Evans, though, does a really good job of balancing her own experiences with loads of information on Argentina’s history and culture. This was especially fun to read while actually being there, because I was actually learning and could see things firsthand. For me, this memoir didn’t fall in the category of annoying, because Evans wrote her stories straightforward, without a forced level of comedy or quirk. It’s like she recognizes that her experience wasn’t any more special than another person’s own unique experience, so she used them as a jumping off point to enlighten the reader about a certain place and culture, perhaps inspiring you to explore it for yourself. It was easy, enjoyable, and educational.

Or maybe I’m just slightly biased, because it’s always more fun when you can see it firsthand; but I think Evans is an author I’d be keen to read more from—she’s been loads more places and written much about it.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Reading Roundup: Historical Southern Fiction

Robert Hicks’ The Widow of the South hits close to home, geographically speaking. Set in 1864 near the end of the Civil War, this novel takes one small part of that four year conflict and tells a detailed story of one town, one family, and how they were affected by the most bitter conflict in US history.

The Battle of Franklin was one of the most disastrous conflicts for the Confederacy, resulting in thousands of casualties from just one day of fighting. Carnton Plantation (a real place near Nashville that happens to be a beautiful modern-day wedding venue!) was right in the middle of the battle and taken over by troops as a field hospital to tend to the injured and dying. In Hicks’ story, Carrie McGavock (also a real person) is forced to face the horrors of the war as they literally arrive on her doorstep. As she works with the soldiers and sees the effects of the war firsthand, she finds the strength and passion to stand up for the individual lives that war so caustically simplifies as mere numbers.

This book was partly fascinating just because its setting is one that’s very familiar. And contrary to what you may believe, local Civil War battles are not something we learned in school—so I knew very little about the historic events around which this novel takes place! It’s also fascinating that much of this story, though fiction, is based on real people and places. Hicks clearly thoroughly researched the time and place and created a very detailed account of the affects of this war. That being said, this is a long book, and I thought it dragged in several places. When I say Hicks was detailed, I mean it. I finished with a better opinion of this book than I had during reading it, which is a rare sentiment, but I was left inspired to further investigate the real story on my own. Also, my mom and sister both loved this.

I last read Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns back in my 10th grade English class, and I remembered nothing more other than my mom also reading it and liking it. It was this memory that inspired me to pick it up again and read it as a grown-up.

Cold Sassy, Georgia, is the type of small town where everybody knows everything about everybody else just about as soon as it happens. It’s summer 1906 and the talk of the town is how Will Blakeslee’s grandfather has up and married the young Miss Simpson less than a month after his beloved wife has been buried. Our fourteen-year-old narrator Will finds himself in the middle of the scandal, observing the reactions of the town and his family, and trying to see the subjective side of what’s happening around him.

For one, the time period of this story is really fun. It’s the turn of the century when modern luxuries are a conversation piece. Electricity, indoor plumbing, telephones, automobiles—there’s an excitement in the air about what’s coming next. As a narrator, Will is fascinating to read, because he’s old enough to understand that there’s always more than one way to read a story. He’s trying to view the world from an adult, unbiased perspective, and he gains an understanding that everyone has their own reasons for their actions. That’s a valuable lesson to learn. I’m glad I read Cold Sassy Tree again; it’s an enjoyable, humorous story with a lot of heart. Though, I can’t imagine it appealing to too many 10th graders—not provocative enough!

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Fiction | The Quietest Most Eventful Summer

Gail Godwin’s Flora is a quiet book. There’s no climactic plot line, no gut-wrenching relationships, nor any other real dramatic element. However, this is a book filled with tension simmering to the brim, told eloquently by our precocious 10-year-old narrator, Helen.

Helen is going through one of the rougher patches of her short life—her grandmother and main caregiver Nonie has just passed away and her dad is spending the summer in Oak Ridge doing important war work as WWII draws to a close. While he’s gone, he’s left Helen in the charge of her long-deceased mother’s cousin, Flora. And the personality differences between these two could not be greater.

Describing Helen simply as “precocious” is not nearly descriptive enough. She’s incredibly smart but also intuitive and confident and possesses a haughty attitude more typical of a smart-aleck 16-year-old than of someone her age. She’s mirrored Nonie’s perspectives and attitudes and experiences the world with a more mature level of cynicism, as if she already knows how it all works; she’s realistic and reads people for (what she believes) they are rather than how they appear. Flora, on the other hand, is bubbly and outgoing, but her personality is usually just a mask for her lack of self-confidence. She’s constantly questioning her own thoughts and actions and desperately needs someone to guide her through young adulthood. Channeling a Nonie-level of knowledge and life experience, Helen immediately considers herself superior to the anxious and inexperienced Flora.

With our two conflicting protagonists isolated in Helen’s crumbling old house, Flora explores these clashes of personality between two characters who are each at a poignant moment in their adolescent development and who each desperately need the guidance that Nonie once provided.

I describe this as a “quiet” book, because in this long and uneventful summer is where the meat of the story lies; as the reader, we are constantly assessing and re-assessing the interactions between Helen and Flora with consideration to each’s perspective. Helen is remarkably astute for her age, but we as the reader are able to see that the world according to Helen is still skewed with an immature misunderstanding. These are brilliantly crafted characters that allow a lot to be read between the lines. It doesn’t feel particularly complex as you read, but the story has depth; these characters—their differences, their misunderstandings, their flaws—will stick with you.