Saturday, January 23, 2010

El Castillo de Santa Barbara

The Castillo de Santa Barbara looms over the small modern city Alicante. The castle is a fortress dating from 900 AD. The original occupants were Muslim kings. However, the castle has hosted Romans, Iberians, notably Felipe II in the sixteenth century, and was occupied when Alicante was captured by Napoleon and also by Franco's army in the Spanish Civil War.

The legend of the castle, which we learned after our long walk up (during which we learned the above historical facts), is where the name "Alicante" derives from. The Muslim king had a beautiful daughter, Cantara, who was of age to marry. Two noble Muslim brothers each wanted to marry her. The king told them to go and bring him back something so precious he could not find it anywhere else. Whoever brought him the precious gift could marry Cantara. Ali, the first brother, wrote love letters to Cantara while he was away. The other brother did not, but he was the first to return with a precious gift, spices from India. The king was pleased and arranged for Cantara's wedding to this brother.Ali arrived back on the day of the wedding, and seeing what was happening, threw himself off the highest tower of the castle. Cantara, who had fallen in love with Ali from his letters, saw this and followed suit. The town comes from their names Ali-cante.

Even more, from the beach , it is possible to see the profile of the castle on the mountain, known as "El Caro del Moro," or "The face of the Moor." The Moor is Cantara's father whose sad profile gazes down on the town in eternal regret over what he did to his daughter.

My pictures aren't very good, but I plan to go to the Castillo again on a nicer day and take better pictures. Stay tuned!
2. A Tangled Web by L.M. Montgomery

A Tangled Web is one of my favorite books, certainly one of my most frequently read. Since I didn't bring my copy with me to Spain, I was happy to find it for free online, at Project Gutenberg Australia.

The Darks and Penhallows are an idiosyncratic clan living on Prince Edward Island. Aunt Becky, or Mrs. Theodore Dark, nee Rebecca Penhallow, the "not particularly beloved" head of the clan is the owner of the old Dark jug, a hundred year old artifact with sentimental value, though some want it for prestige within the clan or because they feel they deserve it through descent. Aunt Becky decides to have her last fun "this side of the grave" and leave the jug with a trustee for a year, along with an envelope containing a name, or instructing him to choose according to certain criteria. The book covers Aunt Becky's announcement, and then the year after her death and the extraordinary happenings among the clan because of the jug. L.M. Montgomery has such a wonderful way of making each of her large cast of characters come to life. She can explain the motivations of a complex life in three sentences, and then spend a paragraph describing the moon. Oh L.M. Montgomery.

For me, it's just a very comforting book. I love certain lines and certain characters and I have fun imagining everybody. Give it a read if it sounds like your kind of thing.

3. All the President's Men by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein

This is of course an American classic. It should be required reading in schools. Before this, I in fact knew very little about Watergate, it happened before I was born. Basically, I knew that some guys with some connection to Richard Nixon broke into the Democratic National Party's office in the Watergate Hotel and were caught trying to wiretap the phones. This led to the resignation of Nixon, and jail time for several of his advisors. That's really all I knew.

I knew the media had played some role, but I wasn't aware of the huge role The Washington Post ("my" newspaper, by the way) played and how much their reputation risked on it. All the President's Men is written in a style that I found unlike most of my usual reads, though quite appropriate and what one would expect of two journalists.

The book starts off right as Watergate breaks and doesn't stop until all the "President's men" have been taken down. It does stop before Nixon's actual resignation. It is purely action-driven with not a moment of down time. There are few wasted words. I was surprised Woodward and Bernstein chose to write in the third person, but I think it was a good choice. It is amusing hearing about how the two originally disliked each other. Even that tension, which colors the story, is noted briskly, i.e. (my paraphrasing)"Woodward was like this and thought this about Bernstein, vice versa, and continue with the news." A list of characters and their roles and connections to Nixon is included, and my edition includes pictures also. I have the 2005 version, which was re-issued when it was revealed that W. Mark Felt, #2 FBI man, was Woodward's mysterious high-level informant, known in the book as "Deep Throat."

What makes all the journalistic intrigue better is the fact that it is true. It sounds crazy how Woodward and Deep Throat would meet. Woodward would signal by putting a red flag on his flowerpot, then take two taxis or walk part of the way to a garage where Deep throat might or might not meet him. Or, to signal a meeting, Deep Throat would circle the #2o on page 20 of Woodward's personal newspaper. But maybe I'm giving the good parts away.

It's just interesting to see the strategies the journalists use, some of which weren't ethical, in my opinion. They won the Pulitzer prize because they were right, but what if they were wrong? Taking on the most powerful men in the nation on corruption charges-that's a heavy thing, life-ruining if it couldn't be proved. I guess this is the book that has inspired many people to be journalists. I know it doesn't sound encouraging to me! I do admire Woodward and Bernstein and I enjoyed reading about what they did as a cohesive book. I wonder what it would have been like to follow their stories and then read the book. Probably very juicy. Recommended for fans of American politics or fast-paced novels in general.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Alicante Province, Spain

Views from the mountain village of Guadalest

The Casa Orduna is built into the mountain, it belonged to a noble family in the sixteenth century.

The beach is in the fishing village of Villajoyosa.

The hot chocolate and churros were magnificent, we ate them in Campanillo, another village. There's a premiere chocolatier shop there. The hot chocolate was the thickest I've ever had in my life, it was almost fondue.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

FOUND! Missing woman in Haiti-Have You Seen Her or Can You Call?

The missing woman is in orange holding her baby. She is my friend's sister.

My friend Chacha wrote this:

Her name is Juliette Thercy and her phone numbers are and She lives in Delmas 36. She is 5'3' and about 130. If someone picks up just say "Ah-low Juliette" (Hello Juliette). If someone responds please say "Ray-lay sair-oo Chacha" (call your sister Chacha). Please call me if you hear a voice. Also the tall woman wearing the brown outfit is my friend Gabie, she is the Executive Director of Sonje Ayiti "Remember Haiti" a non-profit in Haiti that helps Haitians empower themselves in Haiti. She is also in Port-au-Prince and I haven't been able to talk to her but she's alive and may know my sister's location. The boy holding my niece is my sister's cousin and he loves to do my niece's hair and he is so sweet. We keep calling and calling and sometimes I get a ring other times the "earthquake message" but if you call we may increase our chance of reaching her.

My phone number is and you can give that number out as well. I also have another close friend who is missing and if he is safe he may be able to help. His name is Herns Dede and he works at Digicel his number is: He lives in Petionville. It's so weird, I just saw him this past friday and now he's hard to reach. Please keep him and his family in your thoughts.

EDIT-She has been found alive and well!

Saturday, January 9, 2010

1. The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, Jerusalem, and Sicily by Nancy Goldstone

I read Goldstone's book Four Queens last year and was impressed with her scholarly work and the relative obscurity of her subjects. Here, Goldstone picks another little-known historical figure and places her within a tapestry of her time period. I had never heard of Joanna I, Queen of Naples, previously, though she is apparently notorious for murdering her first husband and being a key player in the Great Schism of the Catholic Church in fourteenth century Europe.

I did not enjoy this book as much, both because I found the subject less interesting (though still interesting) and Goldstone's scholarly style seemed to have suffered a little. I felt she made many more assumptions with this book than the previous book and her conclusions about the opinions of the Queen,her advisors and family members, and the various Popes who figure largely in the book, appeared far from obvious to me.

I also felt a little let down, as Goldstone begins with an arresting prologue about the Queen's entrance into Avignon to defend herself against the accusations of plotting her husband's murder , and then never follows up in detail. The whole story is generally explained, but I wanted the scene before me, I want to know what she said, not just that it was convincing.

It is more than possible that those words are not preserved, for though the public defense would have been recorded, Goldstone explains in her source notes that records and letters of Joanna's are hard to find, a huge collection of which was lost to Nazi marauders in World War II. Her sources are drawn from copies made by a graduate student who studied those documents before the war. He did not, of course, copy everything. Goldstone suggests that this is why she is the first to write a biography on Joanna in English in the past hundred years.

Like in Four Queens, Goldstone makes use of contemporary voices to describe Joanna's court and the political and economic situations in Italy and Europe at large. These voices include the prominent writer Boccaccio and legendary poet Petrarch, Niccolo Acciaiuoli, Joanna's advisor, banker, and diplomat, who immortalized himself in a biography Goldstone assures us is the epitome of self-aggrandizement, and others.

The value of Goldstone's work is to re-introduce a long forgotten historical figure (at least among those of us who are not medievalists), and to explain the circumstances of her reign and the religious, political, and socio-economic conditions of her time period and place. This is almost as much a history of the Great Schism as it is a history of Joanna, and also a history of Joanna's Angevin family, descended from the youngest of the four queens, Beatrice, and her husband Charles of Anjou.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Feliz Ano Nuevo!

Speaking of cultures and society, I leave for Spain on January 9.

Instead of continuing as a book blog with a specific goal for number of books to read in a year, Space Station Mir will become a chronicle for my adventures in Spain. Expect a post for each new place that I visit, with pictures! I also plan to continue reviewing books, however I will not make a set goal for number of books to read this year.

I do pledge myself to read at least one book in Spanish that was not assigned for a class.

In terms of my goals for 2009, I was not diligent enough in keeping track of them. Looking back, I've fulfilled some of them and not others. The greatest trend in my reading this year, which marks a huge deviation for me, is that I've read more non-fiction than I think I've read any other year in my life. I've finally developed the ability to sustain interest in non-fiction other than biographies. For a while, biographies were the only non-fiction I ever read, with the exception of Richard Dawkins books.

My goals for 2009 were:

1. 5 nonfiction
2. 10 books published in 2009
3. 5 science fiction
4. 1 book of poetry
5. 5 books translated from a language other than English

My results:

1. 17 non-fiction
2. 5 books published in 2009 (don't ask me who deserves what award!)
3. 5 science fiction (right on target...phew! Also, not counting fantasy or there would be more)
4. 0 books of poetry (unless you count my school's literary magazine. I read tons of published and unpublished poems for that.)
5. 9 books translated from a language other than English

This year, I surpassed my overall goal of 52 books, and read 65 books, more than one per week on average!

Thank you for reading and I hope you continue reading in 2010!

Last Book for 2009

65. White Teeth by Zadie Smith

My last book of 2009, a Hannukah gift from my father, was an interesting end note. While the tooth theme was a bit too understated to be part of the title, in my opinion, Zadie Smith does an admirable job of weaving together an interconnected story of three families in London in the 1980s and 1990s.

Archie Jones and Samad Iqbal are old buddies who served together in World War II. Both marry (in Archie's case, re-marry) young wives who provide them with children growing up in the strange new age. Samad, a Bangladeshi Muslim, agonizes as he sees his twin sons, Magid and Millat, moving away from the tradition that he so idealizes and fails to adhere to in his own life. His wife Alsana is a character, though she is young, she is defiant and opinionated, prejudiced against both Samad's idealization of tradition and her sons' rejection and permutations of it. Archie's wife Clara is from Jamaica, raised a Jehovah's Witness, from which she rebelled. Their daughter Irie is a beautifully average character, with her father's equanimity, but some of her mother's spirit and desire to improve in the world. The third family, given less attention, are the Chalfens. Millat and Irie are caught smoking with their son Joshua and sentenced to be tutored by Joshua's parents. The Chalfens are upper middle class, intelligent, smug, interfering. They're likable and infuriating at the same time, as they try to improve Irie and Millat and wind up frustrating everyone.

The narrative voice in this book was one of the best parts. There are reflections on the characters' thoughts and actions, one particularly stuck with me, dealing with the real significance of tradition. Why is it so important? Shouldn't we question rather than obey blindly? Or do we need to learn to submit, as we must in the end submit and surrender our lives? Smith seems to conclude that life is naturally chaotic and cyclic, a fact that must be embraced. She also deals with the mindset of young second generation Muslims and other Asian immigrants, and why "radicalization occurs" as she would put it. She deals with the problems of a fractured group identity, a trend I expect to see more of in years to come.

Novels like this are good examples of why literature is still important. We're still using books to work out large social and cultural problems.