Saturday, November 6, 2010

Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips For Better Writing by Mignon Fogarty

Did you know it's grammatically incorrect to start a sentence with "hopefully?" I was writing an email to a coworker this week and caught myself making that mistake. Fortunately, I've been reading Grammar Girl so I was able to correct the sentence. Not that my coworker would have cared or even noticed, but I can't help myself. I'm a grammar nerd. I find language endlessly fascinating.

Grammar Girl's book is a great resource for hard-core grammar nerds or anyone who cares to write properly. I think it would be a great book for college students. Mignon Fogarty's writing is very accessible, much more so than the style guides I had to buy for my college English courses. She has some great memory tricks to remember grammar rules. One of my favorites was her tip for remembering when to use "whom."

It's a simple memory trick-- we'll call it the "him-lich" maneuver. It's as easy as testing your sentence with the word him: if you can hypothetically answer your question with the word him, you need a whom.
Here's an example: who/whom do you love? Imagine a guy you love-- your father, your boyfriend, Chef Boyardee. I'm not here to judge you. The answer to the question Who/whom do you love? would be "I love him." You've got a him, so the answer is whom: whom do you love?

You'd be surprised how often I've thought of that trick since I first read it. It's quite handy.

The whole book is full of useful grammar advice and tips, and it's really a fun read. I highly recommend it to everyone. The copy I read came from the library, so sadly I'll have to return it, but I've added it to my Amazon wishlist. I'm hoping someone will buy it for me for Christmas so I can have a copy at hand for all those times I need an answer to a grammar problem.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin

In 1993, climber and slacker Greg Mortenson attempted and failed to climb K2, the world's deadliest peak. He found himself lost and weak in the Himalayas of Pakistan, where he was cared for and befriended in the impoverished remote village of Korphe. In Korphe, far from the government center of Pakistan, 84 children took their lessons outdoors on a frosty ledge. They shared a teacher with a neighboring village and scratched their lessons into the dirt with sticks. Mortenson made a promise to build the people of Korphe a proper school and he's been building schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan ever since. That first school cost $12,000 and a teacher cost a dollar a day.

Mortenson's story is amazing. He lived out of a storage unit and his car in Berkley working odd shifts as an ER nurse when he was saving money for the Korphe school. All he really had was a little luck and an indefatigable will to help the children of Pakistan. He fell ass-backwards into some money, getting a wealthy benefactor and later some much deserved press. He shook a lot of hands and drank a lot of tea in Pakistan and figured out how to get things done in some of the most inaccessible parts of the world (hint: let the locals tell you how it's done). Basically, Mortenson is my new personal hero.

The writing in the book leans towards the overly sentimental, towards hero-worship, and does that thing where the writer tries to tie two things together unnecessarily. I barely noticed any of that because I was really busy crying and worshiping. The plight of children and especially girls in these remote, poor, and often violent areas is deplorable. And as Americans, we basically just make it worse all the time. "Dr. Greg" might be the only purely positive force coming from the U.S. so we all owe him one.

So, the book was really educational for me since I have really no knowledge of the area outside of what I see The Daily Beast headlines and the personal stories of the people of Pakistan are heart-breaking. The best bits of the book break down the way that the Taliban uses education and the shortfalls of Middle Eastern governments to recruit entire generations of extremists. Secular education really looks like the only way to win the war on terror. Books not bombs people.

I really recommend the book and beg the critics and naysayers to judge the content, not the style. And then go give Mortenson and the Central Asia Institute all of your moneys.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Just After Sunset: The Gingerbread Girl and Harvey's Dream

While Willa was a disappointment, The Gingerbread Girl and Harvey's Dream are much much better.

The Gingerbread Girl is much longer than Willa was, almost twice the length, and it takes much more care in describing the characters and the situations. The Gingerbread Girl is more what I would consider to be classic Stephen King. Don't get me wrong, there is nothing supernatural in this story. The only monster is human. It tells the story of Emily, who takes up running to cope with the death of her infant daughter, Amy. She runs runs runs, as fast as she can to get away from the emotionally painful past, and ends up running right into the clutches of a mad man. This was one of those incredibly suspenseful stories where you start skimming paragraphs instead of reading because you just want to find out what happens already!

Harvey's Dream is a very simple story about a husband explaining his dream to his wife. King works his magic in making even this simple, rather mundane task suspenseful. I didn't like it nearly as much as I liked The Gingerbread Girl, but I didn't predict the end halfway through, so it's already way better than Willa.

I'm a few pages in to the next story Rest Stop, and I will have a lot to say about that story when I finish it. I also just finished reading Noises Off, but we'll wait to see if I'm cast in the play before I review it here.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Fun Home - Review II

Miranda already reviewed Fun Home.
I loved this book. I've not been a graphic novel (or comics) reader, aside from the odd Doonesbury, but this was so accessible. The drawings add so much nuance to an emotionally heavy story.

Fun Home feels like a cathartic exercise Bechdel went through in order to reconcile her complicated relationship with her father. Alison Bechdel is the renowned author of the comic (and website) "Dykes to Watch Out For". The story paints the disconnect between Bechdel's 70's/80's awareness and openness about her sexuality against her father's lifelong secrecy surrounding his own homosexuality.

You feel for Bechdel, she's so obviously torn between this "otherness" she and her father share, this common experience and shared heritage and the cold reality that her father was a philandering husband and a distant parent. She wants to connect with her father, and does in some ways, but she cannot escape the heartbreak, the lifetime of disappointment he put her mother through.

And then he dies. Bechdel never resolves these feelings about her father. He's gone, and she's young, though she seems older than her years in the context of the story.

As for the medium, I found one aspect particularly effective. In various chapters, Bechdel revisits some of the same scenes and events. In some cases we're shown the same scene, or room or character from a different angle, we get a more complete visual. In others Bechdel uses the same frame, the same graphic and caption, but the context gives us deeper insight. In both cases we are given a second chance to experience the event and it gives these episodes from Bechdel's life so much weight. You feel all the conflicting emotions, the history that makes a moment personal. It's fantastic.

This is a powerful story, certainly worth reading and revisiting.

Just After Sunset by Stephen King: Willa

I picked up this collection of Stephen King short stories at a garage sale this morning, and I just finished the first story, Willa. I'm a King fan, and I don't think I've written about him here before. I have several of his books on my "To Read" shelves, including Under the Dome, which I've already read about 200 pages of, but since that's still only about 15% of the book, it may be some time before I've worked up the energy to tackle that again. A collection of short stories seems to be the perfect option for me right now, since I seem to have trouble finishing books that I start. I like to blame the fact that I work with books all day, five days a week (I'm a cataloger at a library), so when I get home I usually don't want to curl up with another book. I'd like to blame my job, but it's probably the fact that I'm lazy and have a short attention span. So it's nice to have some bite-size fiction to get me back into the swing of being a Reader again.

That being said, I was decidedly underwhelmed by Willa. It's not that it's badly written, it's just kind of obvious. (Spoilers) It's a story about a group of ghosts who don't know they're ghosts, and how two of them figure it out and try to convince the others. But, in the beginning, we're not supposed to know they're ghosts either. The thing is, if you've ever read King before, or really any type of supernatural/horror fiction... you know what's going on from page one. There's minimal conflict, and not really much going on. I just read a review though that says that Willa is the worst story of the bunch, and King himself admits as much. Hopefully the next story will live up to what I expect from Stephen King.

Reviews forthcoming: Going in Circles by Pamela Ribon, In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan, and Noises Off by Michael Frayn.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Why Girls are Weird by Pamela Ribon

My first version of this entry didn't have any sort of description of the plot of the book, it just started straight out with what is now the 2nd paragraph. But since I realize it's dumb to assume that the 7 followers who aren't Abby already know the plot, here's the summary from Amazon: "When Anna Koval decides to creatively kill time at her library job in Austin by teaching herself HTML and posting partially fabricated stories about her life on the Internet, she hardly imagines anyone besides her friend Dale is going to read them. He's been bugging her to start writing again since her breakup with Ian over a year ago. And so what if the "Anna K" persona in Anna's online journal has a fabulous boyfriend named Ian? It's not like the real Ian will ever find out about it. Almost instantly Anna K starts getting e-mail from adoring fans that read her daily postings religiously. One devotee, Tess, seems intent on becoming Anna K's real-life best friend and another, a male admirer who goes by the name of "Ldobler," sounds like he'd want to date Anna K if she didn't already have a boyfriend. Meanwhile, the real Anna can't help but wonder if her newfound fans like her or the alter ego she's created. It's only a matter of time before fact and fiction collide and force Anna to decide not only who she wants to be with, but who she wants to be."

I first read Why Girls are Weird when I was 19. Nineteen is a weird age. You're out of high school, so you feel like you should be all grown up. You think of yourself that way. But really, you're still a teenager. Judging by the passages I had underlined my first time reading it, I was most definitely a teenager, in every sense of the word. I'm pretty sure this is not the first time I've reread Girls, because I remembered some of the passages too clearly for this to be only the second time I've read it. But for the intents and purposes of this review, we're going to go ahead and pretend that I'm rereading it for the first time in 6 years. It feels that way, at least.

I bought this book the first summer I worked at my favorite summer camp. Something you must understand about camps is that they are almost entirely staffed by young people, late teens to mid-twenties. Hormones, sunshine, close quarters... you see where I'm going with this. I had my fair share of unrequited crushes, which really colored my first reading of this book, and when looking at the passages I underlined, it shows. Ribon wrote that Anna K was feeling left out of love while all her friends are getting married, and I underlined it. I laughed at myself when I saw that underline this time through because I'm pretty sure I only had one friend who got married by the time we were nineteen, so it's not like I was being left behind in anything. I was just being dramatic. And immediately after laughing at 19 year old me, I was overcome with mortification. Not only had I underlined passages that don't actually pertain to my life in any way, but I underlined them IN PEN, and I have LOANED THIS BOOK OUT. I'm... I'm so embarrassed. But to those of you who read this book and saw my underlines and wondered what the hell I was on about: I was nineteen, and being a teenager is weird.

So how did I react to the book now, now that I'm really a grown up (mostly), in a healthy romantic relationship? I wasn't as affected by the romance plotline. It was still interesting as it ever was, and I had actually forgotten a lot of the details of Anna and Ian's relationship. And I think with the added perspective of actually having been in real relationships, the actions of the characters make much more sense. But the biggest difference of all: This time, I was much, much more affected by the stories of Anna and her dying father. Three months ago I lost my beloved grandfather, and I would come across parts in the book that would make me want to shout to those around me "This! This is how I feel!" There is a part not too long after she finds out her dad is really dying where she says she wishes she could go back to when "things were simpler, [...] when being a daughter had nothing to do with watching someone slip silently away. I wanted to go back to when a father was someone big and strong, an invincible man who never let anything get in his way." Yeah, I know how that feels. I loved the part where she wishes she could wear a sign that says "I'M IN MOURNING" so people don't give her strange looks when she's crying in front of frozen foods. Maybe I should make a sign like that, because I'm going to have to brave the Fathers Day section at Target next week to buy my dad a card. All those cards for Grandpas...

Mourning is weird. Even though it was sad, reading about Anna's mourning was cathartic. I don't remember crying during the gynecologist scene the first time I read this book, but this time I was sobbing. Anna has to go to a new doctor for the first time, and the doctor has to take a medical history. For the first time she has to say, out loud "My father died of heart disease," and she breaks down. I haven't had to say it yet, but eventually I will have to do some sort of medical history or something, and I will have to say it. Out loud. "My grandpa died of lung cancer." It's weird just to type it.

I don't know what my favorite single line was the first time I read Why Girls are Weird, but I know now. When Dr. Sanji tells her: "It's sad when our daddies die. Makes us one less person inside." :'(

And I have to say, Tiny Wooden Hand is still freaking hilarious. Also, if you want to turn this post into a drinking game (and really, why wouldn't you?), drink every time you read the word "weird."

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex by Mary Roach

Bonk is our second Roach book. It does not disappoint. Excessively foot-noted with tidbits like "nasal congestion is actually an erection in your nose", Bonk is hilarious and educational. As it turns out, after centuries of scientific study, we don't know that much about something totally fundamental to the future of our species.

The researchers Roach encounters (and whose experiments she and her husband participate in) are kind of a strange lot. But you have to value the work they do. I'm glad someone is out there studying how to have better sex.

Roach reviews the research done into human (and often animal) sexuality as far back as records are kept. Some of her juicier finds are at the U.S. Patent office, and others are in the strange opinions of Victorians, Catholic dogma, urologists' offices, and doodles in Leonardo DaVinci's engineering drawings.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who enjoys science, history or (God forbid) sex. Mary Roach is a great author who makes sense of scientific jargon and puts herself into all kinds of strange, potentially humiliating situations for her reader's benefit.

Bombay Time by Thrity Umrigar

Bombay Time is a novel about a group of old friends who live in the same apartment in Bombay. It's sort of a coming of age novel, not just for the characters, but for their city. The city is growing and changing, it's more violent more impoverished than when the residents of Wadia Baug were young.

The story is told through a series of flashbacks. Each chapter is presented from the point of view of a different character. In the present, the group is gathering for the wedding of one neighbor's son. In the flashbacks, characters are taken back to a pivotal moment in their life, generally when they were in their teens or twenties. For some characters we are taken through a many years and others just a few traumatic months. The juxtaposition of these wide-eyed, ambitious youths with their faded, wrinkled present day ghosts is paralleled in the changes in the city from a bustling, hopeful place to a violent, dirty, dangerous city. The shine is certainly off of both.

The character development and relationships of this group is certainly Umrigar's strength. She investigates the tense and difficult moments that change the trajectory of each life. The style is good, each character has their own voice, their own perceptions which are confirmed or shown to be false in other chapters. I found the only disappointment was in the ending, which was narrated by the same character as the first chapter. He is the only person who finds closure or redemption. I was left feeling a bit unfinished, I wanted that final resolution for each Wadia Baug resident. But possibly the author's point is that the second look isn't necessary. The old men and women are set in their ways. The emotion of the wedding and the brief brush with violence they see there leaves them unchanged. We know the characters well enough to know what they'll be doing in the morning.

Umrigar does an excellent job bringing Bombay to life for an outsider. Made me want to see more into India.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Eating the Dinosaur - Chuck Klosterman

I heart Klosterman. This is a geek I'd get along with. For one thing, his writing style sounds like my inner monologue. He's sarcastic and obsessive about things that less geeky people couldn't care less about.

This particular tome definitely skews into the metaphysical. Klosterman seems quite hung up on the construction of reality. Or the impossibility of reality. On irony and our inability to communicate with genuine people (like Canadians). It sounds complicated and boring, but it isn't. It's like me making every life event relate to Sienfeld or Friends.

His essay on how progressive the NFL is left me a little cold (even with extremely detailed foot-notes, there's only so much you can absorb if you haven't spent the last 2 decades watching SportsCenter daily). The essay on time-travel was equally detailed, to the point of being almost unfollowable, but if you love Back To the Future (and seriously, who doesn't?) the first three-quarters is priceless.

Also notable - interviews with documentarians, tales from Klosterman's days in Fargo and what may be enough evidence to arrest him for being a peeping tom. Lengthy commentary on how much we've failed to learn from the Unabomber (hint: he's crazy, but not wrong).

As with all his books, I enjoyed this immensely and recommend it to anyone who suspects that their reality is a figment of their imagination.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Fun Home by Alison Bechdel

Yes! I finished a book in a reasonable amount of time!! I'm pretty sure I finished this one in 4 sittings, spaced out over a few weeks.

This is the first graphic novel I've ever read. Can you really call it a "novel" though if it's a memoir? Isn't "novel" associated with fiction?? Anyway, I really enjoyed Fun Home, except for the last chapter. I haven't read James Joyce's Ulysses, so the many many allusions and metaphors are completely lost on me. I'm sure they're very intelligent, but sadly, I'm not intelligent enough to completely get it.

I'm really tired right now and I'm on my way to bed, but I wanted to blog about this before I forgot. My absolute favorite part of the book is the last page of the first chapter. Alison is talking about her father's death and how even though she was 19 when he died, she felt that his absence radiated retroactively back through all her memories of him. She says it's the opposite of how an amputee feels phantom pain in a missing limb: her father really was there all those years while she was growing up, but she ached as though he were already gone. The last image of the chapter is incredibly moving when taken in with the description of feeling like her father is already gone. It's a picture from high above their yard, with Alison and her father with their backs turned, moving away from each other. I found it very powerful, and with that page, I finally "got" graphic novels. The words and the pictures play off each other and create something that is more than the sum of its parts. The missing limb metaphor could have worked in a traditional novel, but I wouldn't have gone back to that page to reread it 7 times if it hadn't been accompanied by the images. The images make a clever turn of phrase in to something special. I wanted to scan the page, or at least the last image, to include with this post, but I have already passed the book on to the next reader.

And now I'm going to bed.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Going In Circles by Pamela Ribon

pamie's third book!!

This is a novel about Charlotte Goodman whose marriage is breaking up after only a few months. She's moved out and become unhinged. She's so detached from her life that she internally narrarates the action. And then she makes a new friend and discovers roller derby and is able to eventually start living again.

Going in Circles is, I think, a departure from Ribon's previous novels. It still has that very personal aspect, the reader is fully inside the neurosis of the protagonist. It's believable in the details and well-written in that signature Ribon style. It lacked the hilarity though. I think this book was sadder. Not sad like Why Girls are Weird with the death of a parent that left me sobbing in the backseat of my parent's SUV as we roadtripped to Iowa. But, gloomy.

Charlotte is really Broken, just like her derby name - Hard Broken. And it's sad. And you feel for her. There are some scenes sprinkled with humor, the dark scenario lighened with some silliness, but overall this is a much more somber look at someone's life. Alternatively, Charlotte is a grown-up. She doesn't seem petulant or irresponsible or moody. She seems like she's been run over by a Mac truck. She also isn't as insecure as previous Ribon characters, possibly because her circumstances are so much more dire. I think this story shows growth from Ribon.

Totally enjoyable reading (contrary to what I just wrote about it being sad). I read it in a day and I learned about roller derby and I laughed out loud once and cried a little, and what more do you really want in a book? I heart pamie, and as always look forward to her next endeavor.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

cunt Revisited

Well, it has officially been (more than) a year since I started this all-female author experiment. The Lincoln book took so long to read it's been more like 13.5 months.

Anyway, I decided it might be fun to bookend the experience by rereading cunt. Plus I think the blog's rating was down to like PG. Not cool.

On second read, the book is still awesome. Not quite as awe-inspiring, but there was a ton of stuff I'd forgotten. So much I had resolved to do that is still un-done. New resolution is to reread cunt yearly. Also to put all the recommended reading from that book onto my to-read list.

Dear Inga, I still love you.

Here's my opinion about the experiment.

1) Great experience, I didn't feel like I was missing out at all. The only time I felt a pang was when my significant other left a pile of books at my place that he's already finished (and gushed about). But you know what? That pile is still there, with all of my unread books some of which are still by chicks. In fact, my Kindle is loaded up with Maya Angelou and the new Pamela Ribon is being sent to my as we speak. You can't exhaust the field, there is so much worth reading by female authors and we should all make the effort to ensure we don't miss out.

2) Great experience. My feminism feels strong and fit. My brain feels clever. I intentionally tried to read some classics, some youth lit, some science, some history, some fiction. It was glorious. In the last 13 months of my book-reading, nothing anti-woman has happened in my world. I have felt close to my books, they get me and they love me.

3) Great continuing experience. Reading books by women makes you want to read books by women. Every book I've read has made me want to read more by that author, more on that subject, more in that genre. I have a few books by men that I thought I'd be so psyched to read, like at the end of Lent and now I'm like, 'whatev, I'll get to them eventually.' More Girl! I also want to tweak my magazine reading to get more Girl and my movies to see more Girl producer and director and writer credits. I want to listen to music written, performed and produced by Girl. I want to fill my house with Girl art and consume more everything made by companies run by Girls. Tragically, without making a pointed effort the current mix is nowhere near even.

So!! I think I might give all my friends cunt for their birthdays and offer them access to my Girl! library, should they want to try this experiment. Cuz they should.

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

So, Abraham Lincoln was the man. Apparently there was a reason we spent so much time talking about him in middle school social studies, and it wasn't because I went to public school in Illinois. Well, not completely.

First of all, I should mention that I read this on my Kindle. The print version must weigh 80lbs. This is a long one.

Secondly, I have to say that Lincoln has become my favorite president and the Civil War has become my favorite war. I want to read more about the war and the leaders involved and the Confederacy. This is clearly a compliment to Goodwin. This book pretty much rocks.

For one thing it isn't a biography, but a quadruple biography. Goodwin traces not only the life and career of our 16th prez, but those of the other 3 Republican presidential hopefuls. All three men joined Lincoln's cabinet creating his "team of rivals". See? It's a clever title.

Anyway, the book is freaking fantastic. It's the best kind of history book, excruciatingly well researched but not bogged down in the facts. It really focuses on the personalities of the important people of the time and draws the reader into life in war-time D.C. Did you know they had to get messages from the front by easily sliced telegraph lines? Yeah, life before texting sucked. The book also does the opposite of that thing that made high school history super boring, which is presenting the events as inevitable. Even with my public-school education I knew that (spoiler alert!!) the North won the war and Lincoln was assassinated, but Goodwin weaves together the dry facts of the war with the colorful emotions and impossible decisions Lincoln was faced with in such a way that I was on the edge of my seat thinking "What's gonna happen?!?!?"

One thing that particularly got me was the racial climate at the time. Probably the recent read of Uncle Tom's Cabin served as a comparison. As a Northerner (or "winner") we're sort of taught that the Union was all abolitionists, who (obviously) were for equality. So not true. Pretty much no one wanted freed slaves to be citizens, vote, mix with white folks or have any rights whatever. Some people thought we should ship them back to Africa or South America where they could eradicate a native population, colonize and start their own civil war. Classy, America. Even Lincoln didn't think mixed races could coexist. It's the most bizarre thing. In context, it wasn't that long ago that this-the most racially diverse country in the world-thought the only way to have two races in one place is to enslave one of them. People wanted to keep the Irish out.

The other stunning thing to me is the evolution of the American attention span. Y'know those "American-style" debates they are trying out in Britain? Think back to the last one you saw. Each person gets something like two minutes to make their argument and one gets a 30-second rebuttle. In those actual Lincoln-Douglass debates (for Senate) they each spoke for two hours. No soundbite. No 4 second blip. Two hours of nuanced, detailed discussion of issues people care about. Farmers came in and stood in the hot sun the whole day to observe this. Can you imagine? I haven't sat through anything longer than 2 hours since "LOTR: Return of the King" opened. We live in a sad world. It's no wonder we're stupid.

I can't recommend this book highly enough to people with an interest in American history and strong arms (or an e-reader).

Monday, February 22, 2010

Her Fearful Symmetry - Audrey Niffenegger

This is the second UBC book from Niffenegger. This chick is into the supernatural.
Her Fearful Symmetry is sort of a mystery books. It features two sets of twins, American twenty-somethings Julia and Valentina and their English mother and aunt, Edie and Elspeth. At the opening Elspeth dies and leaves her apartment in London to the younger twins. Edie and Elspeth are estranged, haven't seen each other in decades, and Edie is forbidden from visiting Elspeth's apartment if the girls move in.

The girls are sort of a codependent dichotomy, Julia is strong, healthy and forceful and Valentina is ill and weak-spirited, but longs for independence. Elspeth the ghost is ever-present in the apartment and Niffenegger spends more time than you'd expect on the science side of the afterlife. She explains it from Elspeth's perspective as Elspeth discovers her ghostly nature.

As the story develops, there's an expected rift between the twins as Valentina falls in love with Elspeth's depressed boyfriend who lives in the apartment below and Julia befriends the obsessive compulsive that lives in the apartment above. Eventually, the story takes a bizarre supernatural twist and the truth behind the Edie/Elspeth rift is revealed.
I am not really a mystery-reader, so I'm not totally familiar with the usual plot devices, but I was pleasantly surprised by this book. There were some obvious red herrings and some leading foreshadowing, but the twist was still a surprise. While I had guessed the truth, I hadn't guessed the whole truth, nor did I see the ghostly hijinks coming. It was fun and I was amused by all of it.
As with The Time Traveler's Wife, Niffenegger gives the characters what they want and then makes them suffer for it a bit. The ending was far from happy, but when I finished I realized I wasn't sure who the protagonist was. The characters are each flawed, but their actions often belied their character so it was hard to root for anyone in particular.
I definitely recommend this book, it's a quick read but has a lot of interesting perspectives on death and truth and hurting the ones you love.
If they decide to make this into a craptacular movie like they did with Time Traveler, I'm hoping they cast the Olsen twins as Julia and Valentina. They are the right age and look and it would be an awesome way for them to reunite on screen. In what would definitely be a horrible movie.

The Petticoat Commando by Johanna Brandt

Interestingly, all of Amazon doesn't have a summary of this book. Which is unfortunate because my tenuous relationship with historical facts is going to make it hard for me. I didn't pay attention to the details while I was reading and it seems like a lot of work to look them up now.

Okay, so in the early 1900's there was this war, right? in the Boer region of South Africa. It seems to have been between the Boer (who may have been Danish settlers) and the British. Whatever, all the historical context is pretty much irrelevant because the story is about this young woman, Hansie and her mom who were badass spies.

Hansie and Mrs. Van Warmelo were living out in the country, their house is totally surrounded by British encampments and they spend a few years of the war sending out secret correspondence to Europe and harboring spies and stealing shipping information. The book is largely sourced from Hansie's secret diary that she kept during this time, written entirely in invisible ink. Which is cool.

Unfortunately, Brandt doesn't just quote the diary (for reasons unexplained) and instead covers the entire story in short anecdotes. There is basically no narrative arc, or plot to speak of. Now, it's nonfiction so I understand that there's only so much you can do, but it was a little hard to follow. Also, she seems to have reported these anecdotes slightly out of chronology, favoring to group some stories because they involve the same characters or the same type of missions. Not terrible, but it kind of leaves you hanging.

Brandt also writes like an excitable, emotional woman who faints all the time. Lots of extraneous exclamations over the suffering of others and lots of exclamation points. This seems to be a trend with women writing non-fiction in the pre-women's lib days. Not a fan. It's like Lifetime Original Programming for Books. Stories about Women, For Women, By Women.

Anyway, I liked this book and it covered places and events with which I was completely unfamiliar (thanks public school!) so I feel like I learned something. I'd consider reading more about the Boer war because it was interesting how closely controlled information was. Censors read all incoming and outgoing mail so the events of the war were largely unknown in Europe, even though the fighting sides were both European.

If it tilts your opinion, you can download this book for free on Kindle.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Shelf Discovery: The Teen Classics We Never Stopped Reading - Lizzie Skurnick

Skurnick is a blogger for and has a literary blog called Old Hag. This bodes well for me enjoying her work. Shelf Discovery is essentially a curated collection of "book reports" about all the books we all read way too many times.

Personal favorites include every book Madeline L'Engle ever wrote for teens and From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The style of the book is very bloggy - conversational, shortish chapters, inside jokes. Skurnick also manages to refocus my old favorites through a generous feminist lens. Most fun, she shows how silly parents, teachers and general alarmists are when they worry about the influence of television and Lindsay Lohan. There's more hormone-filled sex-ed in your average Judy Blume novel than I got in 12 years of public schooling!

This book is sort of a nostalgic love-letter to my early teen years and I nostalgically loved every page of it. I highly recommend this if you spent age 11 with your nose buried in a book.

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe

Unsurprisingly, this is a pretty depressing book about slavery. From the perspective of a non-racist living in a post-slavery country, this book is really preachy. Stowe is susceptible to long-winded passages condemning slave-owners and the Northerners who don't intervene.

As a period piece, this book is still brilliant. The character and depth of Stowe's arguments and story display the nature of America in those years before the Civil War. Stowe is generous with her characters, there are kindly slave-owners, disinterested slave-owners and viciously cruel slave-owners. And there are pious, kind-hearted slaves, and clever slaves and slaves that are as cruel as their masters.

Stowe is a little generous to her sympathetic readers as well- some of the slaves reach freedom and happiness. This happy ending is really emotional and rewarding (and, yes, I teared up.) In the end, the lesson comes with the heart-breaking failure of the most worthy, most harshly-treated slaves, and this also is extremely affecting.

The book's style and use of phoenetic dialog made it a slow read for me, but I did enjoy it to the extent that one can enjoy reading about the disgusting, inhumane treatment of his fellow man. Recommended as an academic read.