Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Is Multiculturalism Really Worth Fighting For?

28. Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood by Barbara Demick

I'm on an upbeat kick lately, oppression in a closed religious community and a city under siege for refusing to cooperate with aggressive nationalism. Lots of laughs, no? All kidding aside, I feel privileged to have read such poignant appeals to humanity and a little amazed that I happened upon them so close together.

Barbara Demick is the author of Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea, which was a finalist for the National Book Award, and a groundbreaking look into lives shrouded in mystery, based solely on the testimony of refugees. Before that, Demick was a journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and lived in Sarajevo from 1994-1995, chronicling the lives of neighbors on one street in besieged Sarajevo: Logavina Street, home to Serbs and Croats as well as Bosnian Muslims.

Logavina Street was first published in 1996, but it's been re-issued in 2012 with a new preface, final chapter, and epilogue. I received it through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. While I think the original material provides an in-depth look at the war and pierces one's heart for Logavina Street's residents, the perspective provided in the updated material is the most valuable part of the book. Now that we can look at the Bosnian War through the lens of the global economic upheaval that's happened afterward (that's exacerbated ethnic and religious tensions), it's both easier to understand what happened in Bosnia, and more frightening. It's clear that this was not an isolated incident, and it's not necessarily over-anywhere.

Demick's prose is straightforward and not overloaded with gory detail. The few graphic scenes she does include are chosen carefully for greater impact. Be warned, this is a hard read for the tender-hearted. I grew hungry reading about the lack of food and "war recipes" like wiener schnitzel made from stale bread and garlic. I ached for children who thought meat came out of cans and didn't believe water could flow from faucets. The shootings and shelling are aspects of everyday life, and even three-year-olds know to run to the basement at the first whistle. Families spend so many nights in bomb shelters that children become incapable of sleeping in beds. Ultimately, it's the little things that drive tolerant Sarajevans to accept peace at any cost, which was the partitioning of Bosnia into ethnic enclaves.

While a Serbian general fights in the Bosnian Army, and elderly Serbs rally around their Muslim and Croat neighbors, the fact remains that many Serbs at the least escaped and at the worst, let nationalist rhetoric convince them to open fire on their countrymen. On a street where everyone celebrated each others' holidays, there became a new awareness of who was who. Headscarves became more popular, a trend more liberal Bosnians still fear.

In 2011, Demick visits a country where employment is doled out via ethnic quotas. The children of mixed marriages must choose, or list themselves as "other." A young Muslim tour guide tells Demick that "Every Muslim has a dream to live in a united Muslim union," the very opposite of what Bosnians fought for-a multicultural nation.

"Could it happen again?," Demick asks and is asked. She and her subjects cannot give a definitive no. Ethnic divisions hover "like a miasma," over the iconic city of tolerance. And if this is the fate of Sarajevo, what can we hope for the rest of the world? The European Union? American cities? Sure, we got along when times were good. But as money's getting tight and tensions rise, well, isn't partition preferable to war?

The Bosnians think so.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Top Ten Bookish Confessions

This week's Top Ten Tuesday at the Broke and the Bookish is "Top Ten Bookish Confessions (Anything! You dog ear, you hated a book but said you loved it, you have $500 library fines...anything goes!)"

1. More than a hundred of my books are still in boxes from moving out after graduation-last year.

2. The brand new bookshelf that I got for Hannukkah (again, last year) is still in my parents' basement...

3. Even with the new bookshelf, I still wouldn't have shelf space for hundreds of books.

4. I own more books that I haven't read than I can count.

5. I still buy new books anyway...

6. I don't use the library nearly as much as I should and last time I went I paid $26 in fines.

7. I hate Faulkner.

8. I read barely any poetry-and barely any of that is contemporary.

9. I still haven't made a dent in my "list of seminal works to read," which was my reading goal for 2011.

10. I haven't completed (or started) any challenges run by other book blogs.

Ouch. That was negative. Next time, can we list things we like about our book blogs/reading habits?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Bookseller's Last Stand

Yesterday was my last day as a bookseller-at least for a while.

Shortly, I will be on my way to Chicago to get my MA and, if all goes well, on the path to my PhD and cozy tenured professorship (one can dream right?)

I'd been gathering a stack of perspective buys in anticipation and an attempt to ameliorate the specific brand of torture that is the constant passing and shelving and handling of books that you would love to own, but shouldn't buy if you want to keep within your budget (not to mention bookshelf space, but I passed that bar a while ago and never looked back). Anyway, for my last chance to use my employee discount, and with the aid of birthday gift cards, I decided to splurge.

A digital portrait of my loot:

1. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

2. Last Night at Chateau Marmont by Lauren Weisberger

3. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O'Conner McNees

4. My Name is Memory by Ann Brashares

5. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

6. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

7. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

8. The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Monday, August 20, 2012

Unorthodox Reading

27. Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman

I have so much respect for Deborah Feldman. Born into the Satmar sect of Hasidic Judaism in Brooklyn, New York, she left the community with her young son at the age of 24. The amount of willpower and independence that a decision like that took, for someone in her position, is truly staggering. Although I've been paying attention to some of the buzz around the book, I had no idea until reading it how unusual a person Feldman is and how grossly oppressive her life was.

As a Jew, I have considerable familiarity with the religion as a whole, somewhat less with Hasidic culture, and none whatsoever with Satmar in particular. However, Feldman skilfully orients the reader to the Satmar culture through the eyes of an eleven-year-old child. Her first person, present tense narration feels just right for the baffled reader, who may recognize familiar literary characters (Anne of Green Gables, Elizabeth from Pride and Prejudice, and Francie of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn), but will likely be unacquainted with the tensions between the Aroinies and Zollies (supporters of different claimants to the Satmar leadership), the talking carp that warned that Jews should "Seek forgiveness or destruction will rain down on you" in the wake of September 11th, and the various rules for a kallah (bride), which include shaving her head and checking herself internally for bleeding for seven days after a menstrual period.

Feldman, the epitome of the literary outcast, is distinguished from her peers in terms of intelligence, "inferior connections," (she is not, like the royally named Miriam- Malka, a rabbi's daughter, but instead the offspring of a mentally questionable father and deserting mother), and, most significantly an unquenchable curiosity and drive to assert her individuality. She is the Hasidic Harry Potter, defined ultimately by her choices and not the circumstances of her birth. She explicitly makes this connection when writing of the children's books that she sneaks home from the library and hides under her mattress;

"It seems to me that in the literature revolving around children, children who are strange and misunderstood like me, at some point something comes along to transform their lives, to transport them to the magic netherworld to which they truly belong...Secretly, I too am waiting to fall down a hole into Wonderland, or pass through the back of a wardrobe into Narnia." (21)

Me too, Deborah. Me too. And my own slightly misfit, introverted, nerdy childhood possessed few of the strict regulations and saintly expectations foisted on Feldman at a young age. It's no secret that Jews know their guilt (Nu?), but her family takes it to a whole new level. The insufficient kashrut (kosher label) of Hershey's chocolates is the tip of the iceberg, to someone who was repeatedly told English would "poison her soul."

While it's tempting to say that Deborah's oppressive upbringing may have been solely the result of her family and there is no need to blame the entire Satmar community or give them a bad name, that position is disingenuous. If a significant amount of the community did not collude to separate boys and girls in school, to create a culture where education and college are anathema, where nice girls don't have high school degrees and there is a hierarchy to the severity of married women's hairstyles (a scarf over a bald head > bald with a wig > a wig over a few inches of hair growth), where a matchmaker picks a spouse that your family approves and various family and community members openly dissect and criticize your sex life -it is very unlikely that a woman like Feldman would have submitted at age 17 to marry a man she had met for thirty minutes. If she had examples of other people who had gotten out (besides a fictional character like Francie, and her mother, who was essentially forbidden to see her), it's likely she would have gone to college earlier. Instead, from every direction, Feldman was bombarded with ideas and imagery that urged her to conform, that threatened her if she didn't. Deborah Fedman was born into a self-perpetuating cult, and for every amazing oddball like her who managed to escape, there are a hundred children trapped there for life, and all the hundreds of children those hundred will be culturally induced to give birth to*.

Read Unorthodox. Read it for the beautiful passages in which Feldman evokes her grandmother's kitchen. Read it for the strange insight into the psyche of her grandfather, who believes he is protecting his offspring from another Holocaust, and most importantly, keeping their souls pure. Read it for the literary allusions that Feldman weaves with such alacrity into her own life story. Read it to satisfy your prurient curiosity about what the Satmar teach their children about sex and how their repressive systems inadvertently spur devilish homosexuality. Read it because Deborah Feldman is a talented writer who deserves your patronage.

But, most of all, read Unorthodox so that you can help spread and truly understand this message:

"For those of you who shove words like sinner and heretic in my face, the ones who ask, 'How dare you?' let me just say, I dare becuase I am free. I own myself, and so I have full power to make decisions that concern me. And if you want that too, that's okay, because that's something we all deserve. Even if they tell you different."

-Deborah Feldman

*To be clear about my own position, I identify as a Jew and have a lot of respect for Judaism in general as a religion and culture and do not believe it is a cult. However, I believe in free will and individual choice, and I believe that all people, including children, have the right not to be abused mentally, physically, or emotionally and the right to decide whether they want to practice a religion or particular observances of that religion, especially pertaining to their personal welfare. Cults violate those rights.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Special Topics in Calamity Physics

26. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Recommended to me years ago, I've been meaning to get to this book. I've got the "advance uncorrected proofs" procured from Bookmooch, but I assume it's essentially the same as the published novel.

While I knew from the start that this really doesn't having anything to do with physics-it REALLY doesn't. This novel is the unusual life story of Blue van Meer, culminating in her senior year of high school and the mysterious death of her teacher.

What can I say? I'm a sucker for coming-of-age stories, especially those that promise to be clever, witty, and wicked. The Table of Contents is billed as the Core Curriculum, structured into three parts, sub-divided into chapters, and concluded with a Final Exam. The references come thick and heavy, and are the core of the book's charm. A twelve-year-old who fancies herself in Wuthering Heights, and a seventeen-year-old who comfortably alludes to Nietzsche is truly a priceless, if precious, character.

It's almost impossible for any otaku teen or young adult not to relate to Blue's colorful comparisons and unabashed self-centeredness. However, Blue's "friends," who, really, barely deserve the appellation, are harder to relate to and their mistreatment of Blue makes them unpalatable to the reader. The central enigma, teacher Hannah Schneider, who brings Blue together with this clique is fortunately more intriguing. Blue's father Gareth also takes a star role here, somewhat unusual for a parent in a coming-of-age story. Gareth van Meer is neither a stereotypical abusive monster nor ultra-permissive hippie parent, but entirely his own.

Unfortunately, the plot is distracting, and unless I'm missing some of the references (very possible in a novel like this one that is extremely dependent on foreshadowing), neither makes much sense nor is difficult to figure out. Hannah's death is a given from the Introduction, and the vague undertones of why are apparent all along and even the actual vehicle is also apparent, though so implausible that it baffles comprehension.

I suppose, in conclusion, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, is worth reading for its tongue-in-cheek allusions and skillful use of imagery alone, but stripped of its language-there's literally nothing there. The characters don't breathe, the fictional "Stockton, North Carolina," gave me a sense of the author's native Asheville, which I visited recently, but nothing too compelling. Marisha Pessl is clearly a very bright person and talented writer, but this won't be the book that she's remembered for.

Friday, August 17, 2012


25. Doppelganger by David Stahler Jr.

Have you heard of the doppelganger? A whole new class of boogeymen, doppelgangers are creatures that feed off human society. No, not vampires. Doppelgangers, look-alikes, shape-shifters.

Doppelgangers can take on the form of any human they wish-that is, any human they kill. It's just a way of being, as natural as spiders killing insects, or wolves killing sheep. So claims the mother of our nameless hero. But "he" is different. He can't even stand to kill a fly, much less the puppy his mom brings home for the purpose. Can this young doppelganger defy his nature?

This book is sweet and cute while simultaneously haunting. It's a very simple story of a teen coming of age, but a teen with a dark and unique power that has unusual consequences. I read it in one day, and enjoyed it. Though a fast read, it has some deeper issues to contemplate. In what's becoming the traditional YA novel, it blends tough issues such as abuse and crime with simple language and a basic plot.

However, the book does sometimes have the tone of; "Here, kids, this is an age-appropriate discussion of what it's like to be physically and emotionally abused and act that out toward others!" I appreciate what it's trying to do, but I sometimes wonder if it's doing a disservice, past a certain point, not to use the images and words that best fit the subject matter. Doppelganger is a dark little zinger of a novel, though maybe ultimately forgettable.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday-Two for One!

Since I missed last week's Top Ten Tuesday , here are both lists:

Top Ten Romances I Think Would Last Outside the Book

1. Fanny and Edmund from Mansfield Park

I've always thought Fanny and Edmund are the most similar in background and temperament of all of Austen's lovers. I can see them having a very agreeable long life together.

2. Calvin and Meg from A Wrinkle in Time

This is kind of cheating, because L'Engle develops their relationship over the course of several books, and all but said Meg and Calvin were based on her and her husband.

3. Hermione and Ron from Harry Potter

The tension between Ron and Hermione is on from book one. I'll never forget the line in the fourth book where Hermione tells Ron (I'm paraphrasing), "Next time you can ask me [to the ball] first and not as a last resort!" and Ron sputters, "Well, completely...missed the point," or something to that effect, while Harry thinks Hermione had quite gotten "the point."

4. Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler from Gone With the Wind

Ok, I realize they didn't technically last in the book. But I think the passion between Scarlett and Rhett is palpable, and I think they do have the makings of a lasting relationship, if Scarlett hadn't been so unfortunately obsessed with Ashley.

5. Katniss and Peeta from The Hunger Games

The interactions between Katniss and Peeta were so real to me. Especially when you get to know them better as characters, it's evident how well the two balance each other out. Peeta is affectionate and lovable, while Katniss is wary and protective.

6. Katsa and Po from Graceling

The similarity with the names above are a little too coincidental, don't you think? Anyway. Katsa and Po were obvious right from the start. Their shared interests in fighting, integrity, and nontraditionalism make them a good match.

7. Roger and Gay from A Tangled Web

Their love story builds over the course of the book, but it's also just "one of those things floating around the clan, that often turned out to be true." Sometimes family knows you best, and the Darks and Penhallows knew Roger and Gay were meant to be.

8. Laurie and Amy from Little Women

I think they deserve each other and their relationship makes more sense than Laurie and Jo. Amy will let Laurie spoil her.

9. Elphaba and Fiyero from Wicked

Elphie and Yero are outsiders. It makes sense that that shared sense of isolation would bring them together.

10. Henry and Clare from The Time Traveler's Wife

Despite the rather outlandish circumstances, their love is the most realistic I've ever read. They may have met because of time and place, but their arguments and their relationship grows and develops in a way that makes sense on and off the page.

Top Ten Posts I Think Give You The Best Glimpse of Me

1. My Ongoing Project to Legitimize Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature

2. My Preoccupations with British Early Modern Women Writers Featuring Margaret Cavendish and Aemilia Lanyer

3. The Time I Walked 110 Kilometers Across Northwest Spain

4. Why I Am A Vegetarian

5. My Thoughts on Religion

6. My Thoughts on Feminism

7. My Relationship with Jane Austen: Why Persuasion is My Favorite, Why I Hate Emma, and How I Came To Appreciate Mansfield Park

8. Effusions Over Margaret George's Elizabeth I

9. My Internal Turmoil Over My BA in English

10. My Opinion of the Current State of the World

And this is why books are relevant-because just through reviewing books I can discuss every significant aspect of human society; past, present, and hypothetical future.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Night Obscured by Hum-Drum Day

24. The School of Night by Louis Bayard

I've been talking for almost a year about how much I wanted to read this book. But the real truth is-I wanted to read half of this book.

As soon as I heard Bayard mention the words, "school of night," "sixteenth century," and "Thomas Harriot," I was in. Even though, "mystery," "thriller," and "present-day Washington D.C.," were not at all what I wanted to read.

Bayard writes two narratives here, in two very different stylistic voices. I won't pretend that I don't have a clear preference.

One is the story of present day scholar Henry Cavendish, a screw-up ne'er-do-well, recently named executor of his best friend's estate. Best friend and fellow scholar Alonso threw himself into the Potomac. At the funeral, Henry is approached by a skullduggery type named Bernard, who wants the valuable sixteenth century manuscript that Alonso "borrowed" before his death. What is this manuscript, what does it mean, and should Henry give it to Bernard for copious amounts of moolah?

The other story is that of Thomas Harriot, enigmatic sixteenth century naturalist and scientist, and Bayard posits, alchemist and atheist. Bayard takes on the story of Harriot's later years, secluded on the Earl of Northumerland's estate, as he recollects earlier encounters with Marlowe and Raleigh. A fictional character, Margaret, a maid in Harriot's household who becomes his partner in science and ultimately lover, brings a fresh perspective to the scene, that of ordinary Rennaissance women, who maybe longed for something more. The voice in this part of the story is unique, undulating, experimental. It fits the mysterious nature of Harriot and Margaret's experiments and their strange attraction to one another. The odd and unbelievable events that bind together this pair make sense in the context of this voice and are more credible from the distance of four centuries.

The odd and unbelievable events that come to bind Henry Cavendish and his erstwhile paramour Clarissa, however, I found less believable. The narrative, told from Henry's point of view, is nothing special and the events predictably melodramatic. It feels like Bayard brings in every aspect of every thriller ever, and inadvertently manages to make it comically anticlimactic. I was surprised at none of the twists or turns, save the last, which was merely absurd. The only thematic relevance was a parallel with the other story, which I obviously found infinitely more engrossing.

I realize Bayard is a thriller writer, though I haven't read any of his other books. I wish he would throw aside the genre and write the sweeping historical novel of ideas that I suspect he is capable of. Some of the Harriot sequences were excitingly similar to Wolf Hall, and a man with that kind of talent shouldn't waste himself on today's "realistic genre*" fiction.

*When I say, "realistic genre," I am talking about Litlove's definition of genre as books that do not challenge one's comfort zone. The present-day sections of this novel follow current writing-class conventions; first person narrator, short sentences, small words, plot twists that come fast and often, constant action. That will hold interest and is a good plan to stick to for general reader satisfaction-but I think Bayard can defy convention and still be successful.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

The Super Villains' Reunion

23. The Coldest War by Ian Tregellis

Why did Tor send me the sequel to a book I had never read? I pondered this as I sadly prepared to set the book aside in favor of something I was better qualified to review.

But that book just sitting there next to my desk, with its dark doomsday cover, was haunting me. So I cracked it open. And the opening line, "Warlocks do not age gracefully," caught me.

I read on.

The next page had a paragraph stuffed full of the kind of sensory imagery I longed to share with my then-class of kids, who seemed to have a hard time explaining senses other than sight and using words other than "wonderful," "awesome," and, the term they were particularly self-satisfied with, "epic."

Ian Tregellis is Elizabeth Bear writing a Steampunk version of X-Men.

Except his best characters are not the good guys. Tregellis brings to life the Magnetos, the Mystiques, the Juggernauts. His hero could be any old Sherlock Holmes, but his prime super-villain, Gretel, has the aura of the Wicked Witch of the West, the single-mindedness of the Borg Queen, and the capacity for evil of Adolf Hitler himself.

There's no way I could not write about this book. It absolutely works as a standalone novel, although I intend to finish the forerunner, Bitter Seeds, soon (I have already begun it), and will be reading the third in the Milkweed Trilogy, Necessary Evil, when it comes out.

The book reads like a super-villains' reunion. Gretel and brother Klaus, who can walk through walls, escape from Soviet prison to England, the single haven in a Europe conquered first by Nazis, then Communists. There, they meet fellow survivor of the Nazi Reichsbehörde experiments, Reinhardt, former human flamethrower, now reduced to the role of neighborhood Junkman. Reinhardt has spent a decade trying to recapture the Götterelektron, which soaring through wires in their brains, enables their superpowers. They were defeated only by the terrible magic of British warlocks, who summoned demons called Eidolons to bring them down, for the price of human blood.

The juxtaposition of the Nazi technology and the British magic creates a startling comparison between these vehicles of science fiction and fantasy, respectively. Both are defined by willpower. The Eidolons are demons of pure willpower, while the Götterelektron allows the Reichsbehörde cohort to access their Willenskrӓfte (willpower). This is no battle between good and evil; Tregillis is not interested in easy divisions. Each side has paid an unspeakable price in crimes against humanity. While Britain won the war, it lost its soul in the process; a reality chillingly symbolized in the body of a soulless young man.

The precarious post-bellum existence that Tregillis evokes has its few bright spots as well. William Beauclerk, a dashing marplot, and his wife the Lady Gwendolyn, imbue the novel with precious moments of sparkling dialogue. Not quite either a hero or villain, Will’s missteps are far more intriguing than ostensible hero Raybould Marsh’s glum loyalty to Queen and Country. Of the reunited Nazis, not all are as convincingly and uniquely evil as Gretel and Reinhardt. Klaus, for the first time in his life, will embark on a journey that will not include his “raven-haired demon” of a sister.

The Coldest War is a classic second novel, overplaying its villains and leaving its hero in a tight spot. I'll admit I was disappointed with the plotting in comparison to Tregellis' remarkable skills in wordplay and character development, but I still wouldn't miss anything farther from him. The Milkweed trilogy is his first solo venture in publishing, he's also a writer for George R.R. Martin's Wildcards anthologies. I, for one, am hoping he'll step out more often.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Top 10 Characters I'd Switch Places With for 24 Hours

I missed Top Ten Tuesday this week, so:

1. Hermione Granger in Prisoner of Azkaban or Goblet of Fire

Before things got too out of hand, I'd love to explore Diagon Alley, amble around Hogsmeade, and, yes, browse the Hogwarts library. Plus, going to class and using the Time Turner would be cool too.

2. Anne Shirley in Anne of the Island

She always seems to be having so much fun, plus I'd get to go to McGill, Nova Scotia, AND Prince Edward Island.

3. Katy Carr in What Katy Did Next

I'll take one of the fun days meandering around Europe, please.

4. Lisbeth Salander in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I wouldn't want to experience any of the horrible things that happen to her. But on an average day? I'd like to be Lisbeth Salander, genius computer hacker, with awesome tattoos and incredible lovers like Mikhail and Mimi. Plus, I'd love to check out Stockholm.

5. Daniel Sempere in The Shadow of the Wind

I'd like to see Daniel's Barcelona (unfortunately, my own experience with Barcelona was far too brief) and the Cemetery of Forgotten Books!

6. Pippin Took from Lord of the Rings

Who am I kidding? I need to go to Middle Earth, and Pippin gets to go to a lot of cool places without the intense suffering of a lot of his fellows.

7. Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey

Catherine gets to go to Bath and Northanger Abbey and is never in any real danger. Actually, I'd like to take the place of most of Austen's heroines for a day.

8. Mary Boleyn from The Other Boleyn Girl

I'd get to see the Tudor court at no risk to my head. By that token, I might not mind being Anne of Cleves after the marriage was over.

9. Katsa from Graceling

It would be cool to have Katsa's powers for a day.

10. Elizabeth I from the eponymous novel by Margaret George

You knew it was coming.