Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Top Ten Authors I Own The Most Books From

I remembered answering this question way back, it turns out it wasn't a Top Ten,but a different meme.

1. Jane Austen

I own all six of Austen's novels, plus a copy of Sandition and Other Stories. I have three copies of Pride and Prejudice, three copies of Northanger Abbey, plus two each of Emma, Sense and Sensibility, Mansfield Park, and Persuasion. So that's...15 physical books.

2. C.S. Lewis

I own 11 of Lewis' books, including the Chronicles of Narnia and the Space Trilogy.

3. J.R.R. Tolkien

I own three copies of The Fellowship of the Ring, one of The Two Towers, two of The Return of the King, two of The Hobbit, two of The Silmarillion, and a book of short stories. So that's 11 physical books on my shelves. One LOTR set may technically belong to my dad.

4. L. M. Montgomery

I own 10 of Montgomery's books, including the entire Anne of Green Gables series.

5. J.K. Rowling

I own all 7 of the Harry Potter books.

6. Frank Herbert

I own all 6 of the original Dune books.

7. Madeleine L'Engle

Let's see, I own A Wrinkle in Time, Many Waters, Certain Women, Dragons in the Night, The Joys of Love, A Circle of Quiet-6 total. I've read many more of her books and hope to own them someday.

8. Ann Brashares

I have all 4 of the original Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series, plus Sisterhood Everlasting and My Name Is Memory-6 books.

9. Louisa May Alcott

I have all 3 of the March family books, plus the two Rose books-5 in total.

There are other authors whose books I own two of, but I think those are all the bigger collections.



Saturday, July 26, 2014

Book Review: The Price of Silence by Liza Long

27. The Price of Silence: A Mom's Perspective on Mental Illness by Liza Long



Let me start this review by stating that I am incredibly sympathetic to Liza Long's position. Along with the rest of us, I read "I Am Adam Lanza's Mother" in the wake of the Newtown tragedy. We were all struggling to understand, and Long gave us a small window into an unforgiving existence. Her story is a story that needed to be told, because it affects so many, and because so many of us want to pretend it doesn't.

So when I saw her book available on LibraryThing's Early Reviewer books, I volunteered to review it. I received the book promptly, before I even knew I'd been selected to review it, and dove in. Unfortunately, this book is not the sequel to Long's viral post. Instead, it's a long-winded mishmash of incredibly important topics. It seems that in her rush to expound on all the issues she faces, and the research, and the statistics, she forgot (mostly) the human voice that made her original post so strong. I want to know more about Michael. I want to know more about Liza. And in caring for them, I want to care for other people like them. Instead, Long focused on the nitty gritty facts and facets of the mental illness plight in America, which while entirely deserving of attention, is not as captivating.

Long states in her Introduction that she is "writing for two very different audiences. The first audience knows mental illness and lives with it every day...But I am also writing for a second audience, an audience that is surprised to learn that one in five children in the United States has a serious and debilitating mental disorder, an audience that believes mental illness is something we still shouldn't talk about except behind closed doors." She succeeds in appealing to the first audience, and certainly intriguing the second, though she should consider being more aware of their battles as well. For instance, her empathy with other mothers of children with mental disorders, even including the “infamous” Jenny McCarthy, is legion-“I have a tough time criticizing any mother who makes significant sacrifices [to treat a child in a private, unregulated program] and feels that it worked for her child.” (120). However, her sympathy for mothers of children with physical illnesses is jaded by what she views as an unfair playing field. While her fears are not unfounded, it is ironic and potentially hurtful when she claims that, “If your child had a persistent stomachache, you would expect your doctor to be able to diagnose that condition with a high degree of certainty in a fairly short period of time…Within the space of hours, days, or, worst-case scenario, weeks, you would know what you and your child were facing.” (66) While she may be right about expectations, her declaration is a slap in the face to parents and children who spend months or years investigating physical conditions with no good diagnosis. It is not only parents or patients dealing with mental disorders who share that particular pain. Personally, I complained of severe stomach ailments for three years before I was correctly diagnosed with serious gallstones and inflammation of the gallbladder that required immediate surgery. As a young teen, I was shuffled among doctors for months with my muscle pains before being diagnosed with fibromyalgia.

This is not a one-off moment either. It is one of the themes that she returns to again and again without benefit of insight. Other, more helpful themes include mother-blame (the term “Refrigerator Mothers” is oft-evoked as an example), the dangers of psychotropic drugs, the correlation between mental disease and poverty (not her own experience), the “school to prison” pipeline for behaviorally disturbed students, and the high costs and low availability of long-term mental health care (her most salient point). But, overall, Long consistently rails that mental diseases are not accorded the same attention as physical ones…I think the answer is more complicated. More complicated diseases are not accorded the same attention as more simple ones—and that’s because of what’s easier to understand or treat, not because of prejudice. Now, I am not denying that mental health stigma exists, Long’s story is proof enough. But the prejudice that she sees in the medical world may be more from an inability to understand these illnesses properly than some sort of conspiracy to leave needy children untreated.

Some of her information, especially on how many mentally ill children are sent to jail, is staggering-and therefore important. As she sets out to do, she’s putting out information that the general public does not often see. The Price of Silence is an important read because it’s new in popular non-fiction. But as a written work, it suffers from common features of such books. It drags, it’s repetitive, and it lacks a compelling narrative. This is where Long’s personal story, so effective in her famous blog post, should have starred. Instead, she uses her own experience in brief anecdotes between information dumps and well-meant rants. The more compelling story would have been a fuller portrait of her life and her son, with the information dispersed in more palatable drops. She makes tantalizing references to stories, such as when a friend advised her to seek custody of her sons, or when a leading psychologist responded to her blog post and she took him up on his diagnostic offer. But these events pass without further description, and that’s a shame. Part of Long’s goal is not only to speak for parents like her, whom she certainly vindicates in every possible way, but to explain to those families who are not like hers what her experience is. While the research and statistics she uses are troubling, she misses an opportunity to let this audience more viscerally share her experiences.

Received for review via LibraryThing

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Top Five Characters I'd Want on a Desert Island

I couldn't think of ten, but...

1. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter

Basically, I'm counting on her to bring a bottomless bag with a bottomless supply of books. And she can't read them all at the same time, can she? Also, if that doesn't shake out, i'm sure she's memorized Hogwarts, A History and we could have some fascinating conversation.

2. Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games

Someone needs to do the hunting! And any other survivalist strategy games.

3. Tyrion Lannister from A Song of Ice and Fire

He has some fascinating stories, and I'm sure he could rig up a sewage system if necessary.

4. Silk aka Prince Kheldar from the Belgariad and the Malloreon

He would probably set up an economic system and comically swindle everyone in no time.

5. Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings

Everyone needs a loyal friend, plus Sam can start a garden and cook the taters.




Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Book Review: Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn

26. Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn by Danielle Ackley-McPhail and Day Al-Mohamed
*Available for sale in September*



Baba Ali and the Clockwork Djinn is, as advertised, a “steampunk faerie tale.” The tale of Ali Baba and the forty thieves is retold in a world replete with difference engines, mechanical falcons, and airships. But this precise categorization may limit the story’s exposure-and that would be a shame. Aesthetics aside, this is a universal story about the rippling effects of avarice and its dangers across cultures, magic, and technology.

As in the original tale, forty thieves command a luxurious hoard hidden in a secret desert cavern. In this version, however, the hoard cannot be removed. The protagonist Ali's family had an ancient mandate to guard the now-usurped hoard against the return of the Persian royal family. Without the magical and mechanical prowess of his forebears, Ali's father cannot hope to retake the cave. But his talented second son, Ali, can. Unfortunately, the thieves will stop at nothing to gain the key that will allow them to spend the hoard, which they rightfully guess Ali's family has.

As in other steampunk novels, Baba Ali navigates the rift between the magical and the mechanical. For Ali bin-Massoud, an Arabian transplant to England, however, there is no such rift. The intricate puzzle boxes that his father gifts him are, his father tells the young Ali, “some of the first items to ever combine magic and mechanics.” Ali is a man who grows up to set out saucers for brownies before he begins to tinker in his master artificer’s workshop. Ali's master-mentor is none other than Charles Babbage, who shoulders the role of the proper English skeptic. Babbage's "difference engine," the forerunner of the modern computer, also makes a cameo appearance.

While I have had my doubts about the steampunk aesthetic in the past, the authors' use of it here has opened [the gears of] my mind to the [steam-powered] possibilities. The plethora of unusual objects creates an atmosphere of mystery and curiosity. As with most steampunk novels, many oddly named inventions can be discerned through their Latin prefixes and suffixes (While most Arabian terms can be determined from context, readers can avail themselves of a helpful glossary in the back). The magical/mechanical context allows the authors to get away with some otherwise hokey phrases (“his hand took on the glow of power”) and descriptive passages that further contribute to atmosphere. The very thoughts and feelings of the characters reflect machinery; when in fear, Ali’s “heart [stutters] like a stuck gear.” The technological aspect is welded seamlessly into the texture of the original folk tale, even supporting a crucial plot point on its hinges. The tale is further lubricated with details plundered from the other thousand and one nights, including "Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp."

The novel is also deeply rooted in Arabian and Persian history. Though it begins in Victorian England, the desert and his hometown Wadi Al-Nejd will soon call Ali home (via airship, natch).Playful myth mingles here with a more realist sense of Islam and nineteenth-century Arabian custom. The forty thieves may invoke the classic malapropism “Open Sesame!”, but the characters wear thobes and beshts (inner and outer robes) and recoil at haram (sinful) tattoos. In addition, readers will receive a taste of the still-pervasive customs of primogeniture and paternalism. Enter Ali's older brother Kassim, heir to the family fortune. Unfortunately, he proves an underdeveloped villain whose irrational hatred of mechanics drives the first portion of the plot. While Ali's mechanical talents are an ingenious twist to the story, Kassim's corresponding hatred, essential to the plot, apparently rests on a single childhood memory. Overpowering fratricidal jealousy was not a feature of the original tale, and is hard to account for in the retelling. That said, Kassim's wife Malakeh enables the authors to portray a female character who, while limited, is well able to assert her own desires and schemes, a very satisfying element.

Considering the limitations of women at that time, but also the components of the original story, it is interesting that the authors unite the magical and mechanical in a female djinn (or jinni) who inhabits a mechanical female body. Why would such a powerful creature so domesticate herself? It is, of course, a hyperbole for the clever female servant in the original tale. Why is she so dedicated to Ali? Though a mechanical genius and kind at heart, Ali can play only a bumbling Pygmalion to this superlative Galatea.

The opening somewhat presumptuously invokes "Sister Scheherazade," but as the novel proceeds, the reader becomes as entranced as her famous listener. The authors' version of the Forty Thieves' Cave would have steampunkers selling their souls (or at least their corsets) for a glimpse. But for a novel that's full of things, the message is one that's more consistent with traditional Islam than twenty-first century consumerism. Greed, or the coveting of others' things, can destroy your life. Instead, make your own things and be content. Or, in this case, engineer a charming new novel from an old but trusty engine of story parts!

Received for review from the authors and publisher.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Catching Up

The following are books that I read on planes:

23. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman



When I unexpectedly finished my book before I reached the airport, I frantically searched for something quick, cheap, and light to grab for the plane ride. I picked up a mass market paperback of Neil Gaiman's latest (is it his latest at this point? it's the last one I heard of.)

I wasn't especially fussed with the only other Gaiman I've read, Neverwhere, but the light satirical tone and fantastical quirks amused me enough. I had no idea what Ocean was about, but I figured it was hard to go completely wrong with Gaiman, and perhaps I would finally join his legions of uber fans. The former was a safe bet, though the latter is still a no-go.

As it turns out, Ocean is another book that would make a perfect children's story were it not for a few unfortunate references. Told from a young boy's point of view, it's again a simplistic plot featuring an invasive villain versus a plucky child rather than a stock hero's journey. The child, of course, has magical guidance and there's a requisite treacly sacrifice.

True to form, Gaiman is spot-on with a child's perspective, and quirky creatures and witty dialogue abound. I just don't get the hype, I'm sorry. I intend to try one of the more adult novels next.

24. How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway




The comparison to Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club is almost unavoidable, though this story features a Japanese mother and half-Japanese daughter. I may have actually enjoyed this one more, though I think I'm in the minority, because this is a more cohesive novel about a single mother/daughter pair rather than a more fragmented story about multiple mother/daughter pairs.

Shoko, a Japanese woman with the expected terrible past and shameful secret, marries an American GI and eventually ends up in San Diego with her husband, son, and daughter. Her daughter Suiko marries and divorces early, with a daughter of her own to show for it. As Shoko's health fails, Suiko and daughter Helena must return to Japan on their mother and grandmother's behalf to make peace with an estranged uncle they've never met.

Other reviewers have criticized Shoko's broken English. It sounded realistic to me, as I have met people who sound like her, but others argue that a woman who's spent most of her life in the U.S. would have a better grasp of language. I'm not so sure, I think it depends on the individual.

The most entertaining parts of the book are the excerpts from a supposed guide on how to be an American housewife for Japanese women married to American men. I wonder if there really was such a guide. It clearly depicts the gulf between the cultures, and how much these women sacrificed for the chance that their children would be safer in America. It's a notion (ironically) completely at odds with the dominant American culture of individualism.

Recommended to those who liked The Joy Luck Club and other books about cross-cultural families.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Meditations on the Holy Land and Book Review: The People of Forever Are Not Afraid

23. The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu



What I noticed most about my time in Israel last month was the overwhelming sense of community-that and (not coincidentally) everyone's tendency to force-feed me. In that vein, a friend of mine teaching in Israel for the year lent this book to me during my travels. "You'll give it back to me when I see you again," he said vaguely, and because both of us were feeling just confident enough in our Israeli-Jewish bubble, I knew that I would.

That sense of community persists in this book about three contemporary Israeli women, but in a weird and not quite as comforting way. The blurb on the back of the book is misleading. It begins, "Yael, Avishag, and Lea grow up together in a tiny dusty Israeli village...passing notes to each other to alleviate the universal boredom of teenage life." The blurb implies a togetherness that the characters technically experience, but as the writing makes quite evident, do not feel. From the beginning of the book, Lea is isolated socially from the other two, though it's implied that the three played together as children. When Avishag and Yael have a fight, Avishag yells "I don't even know you!" and Yael takes this to heart. Despite the togetherness of their shared experiences, shared town, shared dysfunctional families, each girl feels alone, and each girl is ultimately presented alone, in Boianjiu's alienating prose.

When the women are deployed as soldiers in the Israeli army, they really are separated from everyone they have ever known. Even here though, there is an unsettling similarity of experience that will haunt each woman for the remainder of the book. This is a society that is intimately familiar with each others' experiences, and yet weirdly isolated for all that. They remember together, but they suffer separately. Each of their experiences are colored by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how to treat the other is a fundamental issue in the book, as it is in Israeli society. Neither the author nor Israel has yet answered the question, though both dwell on it to macabre degrees. It is Yael who expresses a sentiment that I found in some Israelis, one of sympathy and frankly, brotherhood, with the Palestinians. On her base, Palestinian boys from a nearby village begin stealing things. In one scene, Yael describes:

It is the most ludicrous, charming thing I have ever seen.
The fence around the base, by the ammunition bunker, it is gone. Not anymore. Vanished.
Those boys. Those devil boys. They have stolen it.

...
My laughter echoes, across mountains I cannot see in the dark.

(53)

Boianjiu writes in stream-of-consciousness fragments, a format that I have probably mentioned my distaste for in the past. I think the style has its place, as it echoes the rhythm of human thoughts, but it can also be unvarnished, if you will, in a way that some readers find raw and emotionally honest, and I often find unfinished or lazy. Of course, Boianjiu's method is deliberate, and her characters are raw, unfinished, and lazy, and so it suits them well.

My biggest qualm with this book is that I do not feel the characters go through any significant changes, as a traditional novel would call for. But this is not a traditional novel. It is more aptly looked at as a series of short stories or snippets in the lives of Israelis, anchored around the nationally unique army experience. Boianjiu, a young Israeli woman herself who served in the army, hauntingly portrays the effects that army duty can have on impressionable adolescents. But though the army undoubtedly scars Yael, Lea, and Avishag-and brings them back together (that is, to their habitual aloneness-in-togetherness)-they remain the same self-obsessed, melodramatic people that they were at the beginning.

I sincerely hope that Boianjiu's portrait isn't truly characteristic of Israeli society, though it is certainly characteristic of teenagers and young adults. But there is hope. The young people that I met on my trip, both Americans and Israelis, were astoundingly open-minded and caring people, and I will carry the memories of our questions and discussions for a long time to come.





Monday, June 16, 2014

The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert

22. The Best American Travel Writing 2013 Edited by Elizabeth Gilbert



Travel and short stories make a marvelous combination in my book, and so when I found out that Elizabeth Gilbert had edited a compilation of travel short stories, it seemed like a magical combination. In her thoughtful introduction, Gilbert promises "you will not be bored"-and I was not disappointed.

Every single one of these stories is unique and meaningful. I liked some better than others, but I did not skip or skim a single one. For example, bull-running and rooster-eyeball-licking are not really elements I look for in my stories, but I can think of quite a few students who'd get a kick out of it. The story that appealed most to me included "Blot Out" by Colleen Kinder about what it's really like to wear a niqab, a full head and body covering with a grille for eyes to see through. When one of the characters says "the best part was looking strangers square in the eye," I had a glimmer of recognition. It's like staring from behind the safety of sunglasses. Clothing as social shield. My second favorite was a tale of Bedouin kidnappers who characterize their crime as a "free safari." And the best part of all? I could tell you the plot of every story, and each would still be worth reading. The value is in the perspective, the turns of phrase. And to my mind, that's what good writing, good stories are all about.

Entertainment with a global perspective. Now go read these stories. Go on. Now.
(Especially recommended for reading on airplanes, at the beach, or on the bus).