Thursday, December 29, 2016

Book Review - Whatever Happened to Interracial Love by Kathleen Collins

Born in 1942, Kathleen Collins was a groundbreaking filmmaker, artist, and writer - part of the generation of African Americans, many of whom were "the first" in their respective fields.  Her 1982 film Losing Ground was the first feature-length film directed by an African American woman.  When she died from cancer in 1988, she left most of her documents and other paraphernalia to her daughter Nina.  After years of reconciling and eventually pouring over this cache, Nina began working to get her mother's works reissued, published, or otherwise sent out into the world.  One example of this effort is the short story collection Whatever Happened to Interracial Love.

The collection is composed of 16 stories of varying lengths, from as short as 4 pages to as long as 26 pages.  In the story "When All Love Withers All of Life Cries", the narrator of the story comments that, "the words are only icing; you keep going past the words you got nothing but surprises" (pg. 98), and this quote neatly sums up my feelings.  No matter the length of the story, I was equally engaged, moved, and satisfied.  This is quite a feat, considering that about half of the stories were 10 pages long or less.  The ways that the author illustrates her characters and her scenes had a lot to do with this.  Because of her background in film, she is able to masterfully "show" a scene without doing too much "telling".  The writing is clear and vivid, but without a trace of extraneous language.  This collection is constructed with an economy of words, and a wealth of emotion.

There are many themes in Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, and many of them reappear in multiple stories, but in different ways.  Some of the more prominent themes are gender roles, racial identity, socioeconomic class, beauty standards, romantic/family relationships, artistic endeavors, friendships, and social justice.  I was reminded of John Lewis' graphic memoir trilogy March, because some of Collins' characters travel from their relatively comfortable homes in the North (often  the metro New Jersey/New York area) to help with voter registration efforts for African Americans in the South; these characters often suffering or bearing witness to the violence against such efforts.

One of the most important points to take away from this collection is the lack of white gaze.  The narrators of the stories are all non-white, most being African American.  Even in modern literature, it's difficult to find examples of works that don't contain some degree of white gaze.  Kathleen Collins stares down this white gaze, thereby giving African Americans and others the agency and authority to tell their own stories.

Containing a range of setting, characters, stories, lengths, and themes - I found Whatever Happened to Interracial Love to be a completely satisfying reading experience.  I was wholly engaged throughout each and every story, which is a difficult feat in and of itself.  Considering the stories were written decades ago, the themes are just as relevant in today's society as they were at the time of their inception.  Overall, I was thoroughly impressed with Whatever Happened to Interracial Love, and hope that there are many more works from Kathleen Collins to come.  I will read anything that she has written.

Librorum annis

Monday, December 26, 2016

Holiday Bookish Haul

This past two weeks have been packed full of holiday celebrations for my friends and family, both in person and long-distance.  Last weekend, my partner and I spent the weekend visiting my friends in Washington DC, and their adorable 9-month old daughter Leelee.  My friend's husband cooked a 20lb pork leg in his smoker, and it was possibly the most delicious thing I've ever eaten!  Feasting, visiting, and gifting were the order of the day.

Are you on Litsy yet?  It's a social media app that combines the best of Instagram and Goodreads, with a community of tolerant, thoughtful, and caring bibliophiles.  December 21 was the Winter Solstice, and the day that all participants in the Litsy Secret Santa/Winter Solstice Book Exchange could open their gifts. 

Finally, Christmas Day was spent, first, with my partner and I enjoying a quiet breakfast of homemade bagels, quiche, and tea.  As is tradition with us, we watched at least two run-throughs of A Christmas Story on TV.  Later in the day, we gathered with family to share a large meal, play board games, and exchange gifts.  I must have been on Santa's Good List, because I received so many wonderful things.  Here are my bookish goodies in total -

  1. How the Scots Invented the Modern World by Arthur Herman
  2. In Spite of Everything by Curtis Robbins
  3. Persephone Books book token for a future purchase
  4. The Greek Coffin Mystery by Ellery Queen
  5. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie
  6. March: Trilogy Slipcase Edition by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell
  7. A Woman Looking at Men Looking at Women by Siri Hustvedt
  8. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank

Librorum annis

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Winter of Women

Yesterday, December 21, was the first official day of Winter.  Here in the Northern Hemisphere, wintertime is for coziness and warmth because it's freaking cold and dreary most of the time.  I'm happiest when I'm curled up on the sofa with a warm blanket, a hot beverage, and a good book.  Perhaps a pot of soup is simmering on the stove and a loaf of bread is baking in the oven, but perhaps not.  Whatever the occasion or situation, books are a part of it.

Recently, I was taking a look at my bookshelves.  Actually, I look at my bookshelves fairly often.  I find the act of looking at books to be soothing and relaxing (is it just me?), and where better to do that than amongst the comforts of home?  Upon a recent trip to my shelves, I found myself noticing just how many of my own books are unread.  Normally this doesn't bother me, because it leads to fruitful possibilities when I'm not sure what to read next.  Even if I have many many books yet to read, I'll happily order more, especially if they're by an author I'm excited about or a topic I'm interested in exploring.

For some reason, this time, it bothered me that there were so very very many unread books (I'm talking over a hundred books on my entire TBR).  Thus, I've formed a reading project for myself...and I'm calling it my Winter of Women.  From December 21 - March 20, I will do my best to only read unread books, written by women.  I'm hoping that this three month span of devoted reading will diminish my TBR at least a little bit.  I'll be tagging my social media posts with #WinterOfWomen17 if you want to join in or follow along.

Because this reading challenge will extend over such a long time, I'm not going to commit to a specific list of books.  However, here are some of the books I'm hoping to get to before March 20th:

  1. Swing Time by Zadie Smith
  2. Greenbanks by Dorothy Whipple
  3. At the Existential Cafe by Sarah Bakewell
  4. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
  5. How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti
  6. The Mothers by Brit Bennett
  7. Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston
  8. How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer
  9. Smoke Gets In Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty
  10. William: An Englishman by Cicely Hamilton
  11. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  12. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
  13. The Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante
  14. Mariana by Monica Dickens

Librorum annis

Monday, December 19, 2016

The BookRiot Read Harder Challenge 2016

For the past two years, the folks over at BookRiot have curated a reading list called the Read Harder Challenge.  You can read about the 2015 challenge here, and the 2016 challenge here.  The purpose of the Read Harder Challenge is to encourage readers to expand their horizons into genres, topics, and other criteria which might not be a part of their reading life currently.  To further encourage readers, BookRiot's YouTube channel uploaded occasional videos giving suggestions on how to complete some of the categories.  There are also in-person Read Harder Groups that have popped up around the world, so that readers can talk about what they're reading, and share suggestions with each other.  There is also a Goodreads group, so no matter how you like to talk about books, there's an option for you.

I have completed the Reader Harder Challenges for the past two years, and wanted to share my reading list...maybe it'll give you suggestions for books to add to your TBR!

I'm looking forward to what will appear on 2017's challenge list!

Librorum annis

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Bookish Gift Suggestions

The December holidays are fast approaching, and no matter what occasion you celebrate - be it Hanukkah, Yalda, Yule, Mawlid el-Nabi, Festivus, Christmas, Kwanzaa - or if you just enjoy giving gifts to friends and family, there can be so much choice in presents.  If you have someone on your gifting list who likes books and/or reading, here are some suggestions.  I know I'd be happy to receive any of these!

Antique Book Plates

image of 'Construction Site"
bookplate via Davidson Gallery
These are actual book plates (or reproductions) from libraries around the world.  You'll sometimes find them in bookstores, but will probably have to turn to online retailers like Etsy, and they often come matted and ready for framing.  These would be a beautiful addition to a personal library, or to display anywhere that needs a little bookishness.

Personalized Book Plates 

image of Raven book plate via Etsy
seller Exlibrisstudio
If artwork isn't your gift-ee's thing, maybe she/he would like personalized book plates.  These are typically sheets of adhesive stickers, or stamps.  Some of them are of a cheaper material, but others are as high quality as vintage bookplates.  Stationary stores, sites like Etsy and Amazon, and crafting stores would be sources for product or inspiration.

Book Messenger Bag

image via ThinkGeek
Carrying books can be a drag, but carrying books in a large bag shaped like a book is awesome!  If you have someone on your holiday list who loves reading and is often on the go, this would be a great gift. I received this as a gift last year, and I can honestly say it's a conversation starter when you're walking around with a giant book over your shoulder.

Bookish Pillow

image via ThinkGeek
Do you know someone who tends to fall asleep with a book?  Curls up with a good book and would appreciate some head and neck support?  Maybe that person would enjoy a pillow that is shaped like a book.  ThinkGeek has three book options - Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.  

Book Subscriptions

image via BookRiot
There are so many book and book-adjacent subscription options out there - it seems like 2016 has been the year where this model bloomed and grew.  If your gift recipient is a fan of a particular bookstore, like The Strand or Persephone Books, check their websites to see if they might have a subscription service available.  BookRiot has a service called BookMail.  The Book of the Month Club has various subscriptions on offer, and tends to have special deals available around holiday times.  For the YA reader, OwlCrate is a great option.  LitKit is for those readers who like more experimental writings and hipster-ish bookish items.  For more options, the website CrateJoy lists all kinds of subscriptions, so give it a browse to see if something might strike your recipient's fancy!

Bookish Fragrances & Candles

image via Demeter
Fragrance and candle companies are joining the bookish bandwagon, and creating custom scents that are reminiscent of books themselves as well as book settings.  Demeter Fragrance makes a scent called Paperback, which is available not only as a fragrance but as body lotion, shower gel, room spray, and other items.  I haven't experienced this scent to be able to comment on its accuracy, but I would love to someday.

The brand Commodity makes a fragrance called Book, but with notes of cucumber and sandalwood, it smells more of a drink that one might enjoy with a book than a book itself.  However, in my experience I've found that a combination of Commodity's Wool and Whiskey smells very bookish indeed!  

Frostbeard Studios offers a large selection of bookish candles and wax tarts in scents like Bookstore, Lallybroch, New Paperback, and Wibbly Wobbly Timey Wimey.  Paddywax has a whole catalog of scents based on famous authors' libraries.  So, if you've ever wondered what Leo Tolstoy's library smells like, check out the candle.  There are also lots of options on Etsy for bookish fragrance.

Book-Based Clothing

image of Library Stamp tee via Out of Print

If you're giving a gift to a book lover, and that person wears clothes, consider giving them bookish clothing!  The most well-known purveyor is Out of Print, and they have options for women, men, children, and infants, as well as accessories.  Socks with a silhouette of Sherlock Holmes?  They've got it.  A mug with a print of the tea party from Alice in Wonderland?  They've got it.  A onesie with the cover from Madeline on it?  They've got it.  Some bookstores stock Out of Print items, because their images are so iconic, so check your local bookstores as well as the company's website.  The BookRiot store also stocks some Out of Print items, as well as other custom items, so give them a browse too.  

I hope that this list gives you a starting place for gifting to the readers on your holiday list.  Happy shopping, bibliophiles!

Librorum annis

Monday, December 12, 2016

Book Review - Am I Alone Here: Notes on Living to Read and Reading to Live by Peter Orner

There are some books where the title is completely confusing and, at first glance, out of place...Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men comes to mind.  This is not one of those books.  What you see is what you get with Peter Orner's Am I Alone Here: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read.

The book gives readers glimpses into the author's life, and what books/authors have influenced him.  It's a borrowed book that he never returned to the owner, and Orner is ruminating about his relationship with the borrow-ee.  It's a scene in a book that Orner is currently reading, that brings up memories of a similar scene in his life.  It's two books that, initially might not seem similar, but upon reflection and analysis from Orner, are shown to have quite a bit in common.  By the end of the book, you may feel like you know something about Peter Orner.  However, as is the case with most collections of essays, you may resonate with some of the writings more than others.

For me, one of the most interesting essays was "Eudora Welty, Badass".  In it, Peter Orner talks about his love for Eudora Welty, and how he made a pilgrimage to her home (now a historic landmark) and inspects her books.  He discovers an obscure story in one of her short story collections called The Bride of the Innisfallen called "The Burning".  Welty primarily wrote about the American South, living her entire life in that area.  In the particular story, she did not shy away from confronting the overt racism and other evils perpetuated against slaves.  In particular, the practice of slave-masters raping their female slaves is highlighted - in the context of post-Civil War Reconstruction.  Welty takes on complicated and complex issues that face Southerners with clarity and sharpness.  For Orner, that definitely makes her a badass, and puts this story in the realm of Toni Morrison, Edward P. Jones, and William Faulkner.

Most of the pieces feature at least one book that played a significant in Peter Orner's life, but there are two essays that which are written as obituaries for his father.  His father features in many of the essays in Am I Alone Here as being a source of love, fear, example, and confusion.  One of the most unexpectedly moving essays is "My Father's Gloves", showing how an ordinary object for one person can be a metaphor and important artifact for someone else.

There are over 40 short essays here, each around 5 pages long, which makes it perfect reading while waiting at an appointment, during a lunch break, or sitting on your...throne.   In fact, the writing style is so unpretentious and full of humor, yet well-crafted and thoughtful that you won't realize you're learning something, or feeling feelings, until the essay is over.  This is the brilliance of Peter Orner's writing - it creeps up slowly and without flourish, then hits you over the head.

Am I Alone Here: Notes on Reading to Live and Living to Read is a book that can be approached many different ways for different people.  It's for readers and bibliophiles.  It's for lovers of imperfect people and relationships.  It's for memoir and essay enthusiasts.  It's for humans.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The "Books to Read in Pairs" Book Tag

In mid-November, Jen Campbell created the "Books to Read in Pairs" book tag on her YouTube channel.  You can watch her video here.  Unlike most Booktube/book blog tags, this one has no questions.  The only rule is that you go to your bookshelves and find pairs of books that would be interesting to read together.

Maybe the books address similar topics, or were influenced by the same time period.  Perhaps they were written by the same person, or people in the same family.  Maybe one book was written as a response to or was inspired by another.  The particulars of the pairing aren't concrete, which allows the book pair-er to be creative and inventive.  Whatever the linkage, Jen asks only that you share 8-10 pairings, and discuss why they would be interesting to read together.  

This sounds like great fun, and a unique way to engage with my bookshelves.  Here are my pairings -

  1. The Tempest by William Shakespeare & Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood 
    Hag-Seed is Margaret Atwood's modern take on Shakespeare's classic play.  Set on a small island, The Tempest features the exiled magician Prospero and his daughter Miranda; there are three separate plots that alternate during the play.  Atwood's version features theater director Felix who has been exiled to teaching drama to incarcerated individuals.

  2. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal & Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, both by Jeanette Winterson 
    First published in 1985, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is based on the author's life being adopted by a very conservative, evangelical, Christian couple and discovering herself in that context.  When she develops romantic feelings for a female classmate, for example, her family and their religious order subject the girls to exorcism.  She grows into a woman seeing her self both in opposition to and in the context of this kind of upbringing.  Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal is Winterson's memoir of the same time in her life.  Comparing life through fiction and non-fiction would be a fascinating project.

  3. Flush: A Biography by Virginia Woolf & This Is Sylvia by Sandy Wilson 
     Did you know that Virginia Woolf wrote a fictional biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's spaniel Flush?  Well now you do, and you should go read it!  Flush: A Biography is written as though the dog itself is penning its memoir.  It intertwines non-fiction from Browning's letters and journals, and Woolf's imaginative writings on class, gender, and European society.  This Is Sylvia is the fictional memoir of a show business star cat.  Fictional memoirs of a dog and a cat...yes please!

  4. The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank & An Interrupted Life by Etty Hillesum 
    These are two diaries, written by young Jewish women living in Amsterdam during World War 2.  Anne Frank was 13 when she started her journal, and continued writing it up until her capture by the Nazis in 1944 at age 15.  Etty Hillesum was 27 when she started keeping her diary.  She discussed the increasing Nazi presence and crackdown of the Jewish population, as well as romantic relationships and work that she was involved in before she was finally deported to a concentration camp in 1943.

  5. Middlemarch by George Eliot & My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
    Rebecca Mead has read and loved Middlemarch, and her book My Life in Middlemarch gives readers not only information about her life, but also about George Eliot's life, her classic Middlemarch, and how it relates to her own life.  A life in books book that is thoughtful, well-written, and really interesting.

  6. Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg & Girl and Flame by Melissa Reddish 
    A horrific, murderous, destructive fire might seem a risky subject for a work of fiction, but both Bill Clegg and Melissa Reddish take it on in masterful ways, and in entirely different forms.  Girl & Flame  takes the form of flash fiction and prose poetry, following a woman whose family is killed in a fire, and who saves an ember from the fire and keeps it burning as a visual representation of her memory and her feelings.  Did You Ever Have a Family is a more traditional fiction story of a fire that kills everyone in a family except one, and how so many people in a community are affected.

  7. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott & Marmee and Louisa by Eve LaPlante 
    In Little Women, Louisa May Alcott presents a family that, because the father figure is away fighting in a war, is maintained by their mother - Marmee.  Eve LaPlante's biography of the relationship between Louisa May Alcott and her own mother would give readers some context and insight into the creation of the characters, as well as details about her own life that would enrich the reading experience of this classic, American novel.

  8. The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber & Catch-22 by Joseph Heller 
    Both of these books focus on the ways people relate to bureaucracies, and how those complex systems impact their lives.  Graeber, an economics professor and social anthropologist, examines the mechanics and impact of bureaucracies, and includes references to Heller's satirical novel Catch-22.

  9. The Vegetarian by Han Kang & Animal Liberation by Peter Singer 
    A touchstone of vegetarian/veganism writing, Animal Liberation is Peter Singer's manifesto on adopting a less animal-product-centric existence.  He argues that humans and other animals are differentiated only slightly, so should be valued and treated the same.  In The Vegetarian, the main character decides to no longer eat meat after a series of violent nightmares.  This puts her at odds with her family in particular and her Korean society at large.

  10. The Liszts by Kyo Maclear and Julia Sarda & So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors 
    The Liszts, protagonists of this children's picture book, are a family of people who love to make lists for everything.  One day someone comes to visit who is not on anyone's list.  What will the Liszts do about their lists?  Dorthe Nors' novel is a work of experimental fiction, in that it is made up of long lists.  It looks like poetry, but is truly a series of lists.

  11. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville & Railsea by China Mieville 
    Moby-Dick is a part-adventure and part-encyclopedic story about a ship captain's manic quest to kill the white whale Moby-Dick, who took his leg on a previous journey.  Railsea is basically Moby-Dick, with trains instead of whales, if Moby-Dick was written as a Young Adult novel.

  12. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky & The Mirador by Elisabeth Gille 
    Irene Nemirovsky wrote Suite Francaise about the exodus of Jewish and non-Jewish Parisians during the Nazi occupation during World War 2.  She, herself, was a Jewish woman living in France at that time.  She was arrested by the Nazis in front of her daughters at age 39, and lost her life in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  Her youngest daughter Elizabeth wrote The Mirador as a way to give her mother the life that she never had.

What books would you like to read together, especially combinations that -at first- might seem unrelated?

Librorum annis

Monday, December 5, 2016

Seeing Shakespeare's First Folio

The Folger Library in Washington DC, in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, has curated a series of traveling exhibits.  Called "The Wonder of Will", the highlight of this traveling display is the copy of one of the First Folios from the Folger Library's collection.  There are several, informative and introductory, displays giving an overview of William Shakespeare, his writing, and the impact of his work on the world.  Also included is a short video about the founding of the Folger Shakespeare Library and its namesakes - Henry Clay Folger and Emily Jordan Folger.  The tour is currently making stops in all 50 US states, as well as Puerto Rico and Washington, DC, and locations include historical societies, museums, schools, and a theater.  A nearby university was selected as a stop on the tour, and I couldn't resist stopping by and paying a visit.

The specific site for the exhibit was the second floor of the main library on campus.  After getting a visitor pass, I entered the main room and was surrounded by banners and the historical document, guarded by a rather friendly private security guard.  Here are some highlights from the displays:

Digital reproduction of a First Folio on a touchscreen that users can swipe to turn the pages


Could you imagine if these works had been lost to history?  

First Folio is opened to Hamlet's iconic "To Be or Not to Be" soliloquy

Is the First Folio tour stopping at a place near you?  Check it out here.

Librorum annis

Thursday, December 1, 2016

November 2016 Reading Wrapup

This month, I participated in "Non-Fiction November", which encourages readers to incorporate more non-fiction reading into their bibliographic diets.  More specifically, there were four challenges in which readers could divide their non-fiction reading, meant either as a way to encourage more depth in the subject matter of the books, or as a way for less-seasoned readers to find non-fiction books that might appeal them.  The four categories are as follows:
  1. "New" (recent release, recent purchase, new subject matter, etc.)
  2. "Controversial" (debated subject matter, memoir/biography of a controversial figure, etc.)
  3. "Important" (subject important to your life, necessary to be a more educated citizen, etc.)
  4. "Fascinating" (mind-blowing topic, etc.)
I enjoy quite a bit of non-fiction reading already (mostly historical diaries, essays, and memoirs) so I challenged myself to read 100% non-fiction during November.  Here are the books I read, a bit about them, and into which of the four categories they fall:

The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson

In 2004, as Maggie Nelson is preparing to release her poetry collection Jane: A Murder, she receives word that police believe they have found the man responsible for her aunt Jane's death, decades before.  In The Red Parts, the author explores her involvement in the investigation of the killer, primarily through research for her poetry collection and her experiences as the investigation moves toward arrest and eventually the trial itself.  Through this, the reader is taken, ultimately, on a journey to come to terms with whose life really matters, and how much, in society.

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

The theme of empathy runs throughout the essays in this collection, even though the particular topics diverge from one another quite significantly.  In each of the entries, there is an attempt by the author to see life through the eyes of the people she encounters, no matter how different their experiences have been from hers.  I found that some essays were more successful in this endeavor than others, but overall The Empathy Exams was a satisfying reading experience.

Slavery and the Underground Railroad in South Central Pennsylvania by Cooper Wingert

In this slim book, Cooper Wingert focuses attention to the Underground Railroad in the area of South Central Pennsylvania, just West of the Susquehanna River.  The story begins in the early days of Pennsylvania's founding, and continues through the Civil War and ends just after the passing of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution.  The work is well researched, as evidenced by the combined 20 pages of Notes and Bibliography, but there were problems with the writing style that took away from my enjoyment of the book.

Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft

While often considered to be a feminist masterpiece, this work really is a long-form essay in favor of educating females.  She argues that, because women are the ones who become mothers, they should be well-educated so that they can promote and model healthy behaviors, relationships, and ideals in their children.  In fact, she recommends a national system of education for all children up to a certain age, where boys and girls of all social classes are educated together.  Once they get a bit more mature, lower-class children should be educated separately, to prepare them for whatever employment they will be expected to fulfill.  While this is quite revolutionary for the 1790's, a modern audience may not be in full accord with categorizing this work as feminist.  It is largely a book of its time, but in some important ways more far-looking.

Kill 'em and Leave: Searching for James Brown and the American Soul by James McBride

Ostensibly a biography of legendary performer James Brown, McBride uses it to tell a much larger, heartrending story about American racism, greed, violence, and poverty.  The author begins with telling a tale about how, near the end of James Brown's life, he lived not far from the McBrides in Queens.  McBride's sister Dottie, as a young child, bravely walked up to the front door of Mr. Brown's house, rang the doorbell, and actually met the man.  This, coupled with McBride's musicianship and training as a journalist, meld together perfectly in creating this masterful biography.

Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

In her powerful autobiography, Eugenia Ginzburg shares her experiences of being arrested in 1937, imprisoned, and eventually sent to do grueling manual labor in a Siberian gulag.  She was "officially" convicted as a political terrorist and Enemy of the People.  Naturally, none of this was true - she was part of Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge" campaign.  While her experiences were unbelievably harrowing and heartbreaking, it is her unrelentingly strong spirit that shines through this work.

The Clothing of Books by Jhumpa Lahiri

In this long-form essay, the author discusses her view on all things "book cover".  She leads with a personal story about how she wished that her school had uniforms, like those her cousins wore at their schools in India, because it was more egalitarian.  Then, she shares her strong opinions about the relationship between books, book covers, publishers, authors, and readers.  It was fascinating to realize that the humble book cover is really living at the confluence of art, marketing, psychology, sales, and readability.  While this essay only touches on book covers, it certainly gives readers a glance at an oft-hidden world, and may cause you to look more critically at the books on your shelves.

Negroland by Margo Jefferson

Margo Jefferson gives readers an account of her life, not just as a Black woman in mid-twentieth century Chicago, but as an upper-class Black woman.  Her father was the head of pediatrics at a prominent hospital, and her mother was a socialite.  Because of her family's social status, the author enjoyed a certain amount of privilege, compared to lower-class Blacks.  She was raised to behave in a certain way, to talk a certain way, and to dress/groom in a certain way - all that would differentiate her from the stereotypes of Black People in that time and place.  The Jeffersons were afforded some privilege, but had to work twice as hard and be twice as respectable to maintain that privilege in white society.

An Indigenous People's History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

In this incredible book, the author challenges the enduring, national narrative of the founding of the country.  Instead of the heroic settlers taking on the savage and brutal Indians, the research has proven that the opposite was true.  Indigenous peoples lost their land due to illegal seizure and genocidal activities of the white settlers, with no concern for the legacy and impact of their activities.  Native Americans have historically been seen as an inconvenience to be either assimilated or destroyed.  They represent non-Capitalist traditions and ways of life, which go against American ideals of "progress".  To remove the dominant origin myth and replace it with a historically accurate portrayal of the country's founding and development would mean a significant change in mindset, and coming to terms with the genocidal activities of our founders and family members.  But just because it's difficult doesn't mean it should be done.

Elements of Eloquence by Mark Forsythe

If you've ever wondered if a writer could make rhetoric hilariously informative, here is your answer - yes!  In Elements of Eloquence, Mark Forsythe employs his distinctive writing style that not only elicits laughs but help you appreciate some of what makes great literature, lyrics, lines, and poetry so timeless and endlessly interesting.  Topics he covers include alliteration, merism, rhetorical questions, epizeuxis, and paradox - amongst many others.  You'll learn, you'll laugh, you'll have tidbits to share at parties and social gatherings.  What more could you ask for?


Outlaw Marriages by Rodger Streitmatter

A collection of brief, biographies-in-essay, Outlaw Marriages is a fascinating read.  Each chapter contains the profile of a same-sex couple who made a major and lasting impact on the world, in a time when such couples were not accepted in society.  Some of the names, like Walt Whitman, Gertrude Stein, Tennessee Williams, and Greta Garbo may be familiar, but just as many (and more) are not.  It was inspiring, in a world where same-sex relationships are still denounced by many in society, to learn just how much our culture has benefited from the contributions of these couples.  Spheres of influence range from literature and art, to education and social justice, to music and interior design - and span from 1865 through 1988.

Librorum annis

Monday, November 28, 2016

Black Friday & Small Business Saturday Haul

Black Friday is supposed to be the big shopping day of the year, happening on the day after Thanksgiving.  Shops offer deep discounts on some items, in an attempt to bolster their bottom lines before the end of the year.  More and more retailers are starting their Black Friday sales on Thanksgiving Day, some as early as 3:00pm... with economists coining the term "Grey Thursday".  There is also a recent "holiday" called Small Business Saturday...meant as an antidote to the chain stores and other large retailers who typically rule the Black Friday scene.  It's meant to encourage shoppers to remember their small, local businesses amongst the madness of shopping at big box stores.

From the bookish stores I visited, these are my purchases...

  • Barnes & Noble had advertised for Black Friday that their stores would have limited stock of some autographed books.  I was on a mission to buy Alton Brown's new cookbook Everyday Cook as a Christmas gift for a friend, and I couldn't resist snagging a signed copy of my childhood favorite novel The Giver by Lois Lowry.
  • Barnes & Noble also had a promotion of 30% off all periodicals, so I bought the latest edition of Poetry Magazine, and the Cooks Illustrated compendium of Best Recipes of 2016.
  • I spent a bit of time on Saturday browsing a small, secondhand bookshop and came out with a first edition hardcover of one of my favorite Christmastime novels 2 A.M at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino.  It takes place on Christmas Eve eve and follows a chain smoking, jazz singing little girl, Madeline Altimari, as she lives her life in Philadelphia.  As someone who lived in Philly for many years, I love returning to it and its colorful residents in fiction!
  • A few months ago, I had pre-ordered Zadie Smith's new novel Swing Time from the Politics & Prose bookstore in Washington DC.  If you pre-ordered the book within a certain timeframe, you would be sent a Swing Time matching tote bag along with the book.  This was reason enough for me to buy the book, but then I saw that P&P was hosting the author a few days after the book's release, and she would be signing copies.  In my online order, I asked if there was any possibility that they could hold my copy of the book, so that it could be signed, and then send the autographed book along with the tote bag.  I was prepared for a resounding "nope", but they actually agreed!!  Seriously, their customer service is top-notch...I cannot say enough good things about Politics & Prose; I just wish that I lived closer, so that I could visit them in person.  Although I didn't place my order on Black Friday, the fact that the shipment arrived on Black Friday means that it counts, right?  Right!

Overall, this shopping weekend was relatively productive...I still have a few more bookish gifts to buy before Christmas, but I'm off to a good start.  If you did any bookish shopping during the Black Friday weekend, what did you buy?  Are there bookish gifts you're looking to acquire?

Librorum annis

Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Bookish Thanksgiving

Today is Thanksgiving Day here in the USA, which for many of us involves the following...

Gathering together with friends and family 

Eating a huge meal 

Watching whatever sports teams happen to be playing


Waking up and going Black Friday shopping

It's commonplace, during the meal, for each person around the table to share something for which he/she is thankful.  In that spirit, I would like to share the bookish things for which I am most thankful!

I am thankful for...

  • Authors, writing today, who shine a light where there is darkness:

  • My local bookshops and public libraries, which offer not only a wonderful selection of reading options, but function as safe spaces and gathering places for the community.

  • Persephone Books - A small, British publishing house/bookshop that I first came upon this year, who bring choice reprinted works back into the world, accompanied by dove grey covers and stunning endpapers.  Through Persephone's catalog, I have added two authors to my "Favorites" list: Dorothy Whipple and Mollie Panter-Downes.

  • Translated literature, and the hard-working translators, for giving English-reading consumers diverse perspectives and insights.
  • Litsy - This new app combines the best of Goodreads and Instagram, and is one of the most bookish, supportive, and positive communities on the Internet.

  • My local bookshops and public libraries, which offer not only a wonderful selection of reading options, but function as safe spaces and gathering places for the community.
  • Independent presses - Publishing works that are often more experimental, more unique, and (in my opinion) more interesting than the offerings from more traditional presses.  Thank you for doing your brave work.  You can find a listing (not necessarily comprehensive) of indie book publishers here.

  • Fiction, for telling us as much about ourselves and our world as any of the characters we might find within the pages.
  • Non-fiction, especially those works which challenge the inaccurate, pervasive, dominant, historical narratives in society

Librorum annis

Book Review - An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

As I write this, thousands of individuals are engaging in peaceful protests alongside the inhabitants of the Standing Rock Native American Indian Reservation. They are protesting the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline, an oil pipeline that would traverse directly through the Reservation's only water source. The building project would also desecrate sacred lands including burial sites and ritual grounds. The response by local and state law enforcement has been harsh, violent, and inhumane - following the historical precedent for treatment of Native Americans - as described by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz in her book An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States.

American schoolchildren are taught a specific narrative when it comes to the beginnings of the United States. Based on the concepts of Virgin Land, white supremacy, and Manifest Destiny, they learn that the pilgrims fled religious intolerance in England and came to the New World in search of a better and more tolerant way of life. These pilgrims found vast, untouched wilderness all around them, and took it as self-evident that God wanted them to claim this land to build, conquer, and prosper. Other than a few natives who helped those pilgrims in their first year of life in the new land, the indigenous peoples they encountered were savage, bloodthirsty, war-wagers who had to be annihilated. This narrative, categorized unquestionably by Dunbar-Ortiz as a fairy tale, has been used to justify the treatment of Native Americans for hundreds of years. However, when looked at the situation from a historically accurate, objective perspective it can only be called genocide.

The nations of indigenous people of the Americas had sophisticated, respectful, advanced systems of culture, science, religion, and agriculture. They maintained peace with each other unless war was absolutely necessary. The interstate highways and other major roads that Americans drive upon originated as Native American-built trade and migration paths. By most accounts, they were quite modern. However, because their traditions and methods were vastly different from the Europeans who came to claim the land, they were deemed sub-human and savage. Either they were forcibly removed from their lands, so as not to interfere with the settlers' work in colonizing, or were destroyed through violence, intentional spreading of disease, alcoholism, and mandatory assimilation. Large populations of Indian children were regularly kidnapped from their parents and placed into boarding schools meant to deprive them of their indigenous way of life.

The fledgling American government would often make treaties with the Native American nations, on-paper allowing for some self-governance and land rights. However, when the treaties became inconvenient for the government, politicians and military would often either not enforce the rules or would invalidate or remove them altogether. All the while, under the guise of Manifest Destiny, white settlers decimated the natural resources and lands. Whole species of animals were destroyed to near-extinction. Poor agricultural practices led to the destruction of topsoil, which resulted in the Dust Bowl. Any indigenous people were considered hostile to the growth of the nation; settlers and military members were rewarded with monies for presenting Native American scalps. The bloody bodies left behind, after the scalps were collected, form the basis for the term "redskin" that has been used as a racial slur towards the indigenous people.

While the focus of this non-fiction work is the history of the USA from an indigenous peoples point of view, the author also includes information about the conquest and domination of other areas including North Africa, the Caribbean, Central and South America, Mexico, and the Pacific.  She also incorporates other historical genocides, like the Crusades and the Holocaust, drawing connections between them and the Native Americans.  She draws a direct comparison between the early settlers' imperialistic ideology and the brutal military response to the indigenous peoples, with the fact that American military maintains bases on countries around the world. The budget for these forces is larger than the military budgets of all other countries combined. The fact that the generic term, used by American forces, for enemy lands is "Indian Territory" or more commonly "In Territory", should not be forgotten.

In An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz challenges the enduring national narrative of the founding of the country. Instead of the heroic settlers taking on the savage and brutal Indians, the research has proven that the opposite was true. Indigenous peoples lost their land due to illegal seizure and genocidal activities of the white settlers, with no concern for the legacy and impact of their activities. Native Americans have historically been seen as an inconvenience to be either assimilated or destroyed. They represent non-Capitalist traditions and ways of life, which go against American "progress". This is why the protests at Standing Rock have been dealt with so harshly by law enforcement. To remove the dominant origin myth and replace it with a historically accurate portrayal of the country's founding and development would mean a significant change in mindset, and coming to terms with the genocidal activities of our founders and family members. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean it shouldn't take place.

This is an important book, with a vital message, and is the perfect compliment to today's Thanksgiving holiday.   

Librorum annis


Monday, November 21, 2016

Book Review - Into the Whirlwind by Eugenia Ginzburg

In her powerful autobiography Into the Whirlwind, Eugenia Ginzburg shares her experiences of being arrested in 1937, imprisoned, and eventually sent to do grueling manual labor in a Siberian gulag.  She was “officially” convicted as a political terrorist and enemy of the people.  Naturally, none of this was true - she was part of Joseph Stalin's "Great Purge" campaign.  While her experiences were unbelievably harrowing and heartbreaking, it is her unrelentingly strong spirit that shines through this work.

Ginzburg was a highly educated woman, receiving university training as a teacher, and later heading up the Culture section of a regional Communist Party newspaper called Red Tartary.  She was proficient in literature, poetry, and political theory; could understand some German, and read other languages.  She was solidly in the Soviet Elite social class, as were most of her acquaintances.  This made her, and her family, a prime target for Stalin’s program of intellectual and political repression.

When one of her coworkers was arrested for supposed terrorist activities, she was brought in for interrogation.  The violence she experienced in her interrogation was purely verbal and emotional, as the questioners were not permitted to use physical torture until a few months after.  During one of her interrogation sessions, she was pressured into writing a statement, one that the secret police could use to discover other “enemies of the state”.  She knows that her fate has essentially been sealed, so she decides she has nothing to lose.  She tells her questioner that, “Well, you yourself mentioned the kind of writing I do – articles, translations.  But I’ve never tried my hand at detective novels, and I doubt if I could do the kind of fiction you want” (pg. 58).  She decides that she should at least write something, as the time spent writing would be time without the interrogator’s abuse.  So, she spends hours writing a letter to the head of the secret police, explaining the illegality of the case against her and the methods used for the investigation.  The questioner verbally abused her for this act, but ultimately could not do anything to harm her.  It is this undercurrent of sass and bravery, appearing throughout the work, which endears Ginzburg to the reader.  She understands that she is powerless to change her overall situation, but jabs at those in power when she has the opportunity.

Because she refused to denounce her colleague, or to implicate others, she was tried (in a show-court lasting only a few minutes) and convicted of being a co-conspirator.  She was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment, with a loss of civil rights for 5 years.  Instead of feeling dissolute about her situation, she was almost euphoric because it meant that there was the possibility of freedom and life.  However, this jubilant spirit is tested throughout the rest of the book, because the conditions she endures are horrific at best.

Ginzburg’s imprisonment is described as being “buried alive for a little over two years” (pg. 146).  Ginzburg, as a political prisoner, is kept in almost complete isolation in her cell.  Deprived of much light, company, and fresh air, she is afraid of losing language and her sanity, so she quietly recites poetry and other works that she can recall, and reads whatever books she is able to acquire from the prison library.  This solace in literature serves her throughout the rest of her time in that prison, with its filthy conditions, meager food rations, brutal guards, and the knowledge that all this was for false charges. 

The cruel treatment of the prisoners leads to near-starvation and suffering from a wide variety of malnutrition and constitution sicknesses.  After being in the isolation of prison, the author and her fellow prisoners had to adapt to life in a camp where there is a hierarchy based on the crime.  As political prisoners, they were treated as the lowest form of inmate, and given the hardest and least desirable tasks.  Ginzburg and many of her fellow political prisoners, many of them unaccustomed to heavy manual labor, were expected to fell large trees on very meager rations and terrible living conditions.  The author, herself, was close to death on many occasions, and was saved through a kind-hearted camp doctor. 

Her experience of the camps, and the treatment of the prisoners, seems eerily similar to the Nazi treatment of prisoners in concentration camps.  Although the USSR camps were meant for labor and not necessarily extermination, the incarcerated often died because of the harsh conditions and poor health.  The most critical aspect of this novel is that most of the individuals she encounters in the prisons and camps are of similar social class to her.  Therefore, the reader gets no perspective of what conditions and treatment were like for people from more impoverished conditions and rural areas.  There is also no information about what life was like for non-incarcerated peoples.  These criticisms are accurate, but also invalid because the book was written as her own memoirs of this time.  Into the Whirlwind is important because it bears witness to the ways that the USSR treated its citizens during this time in history.  In a world where political instability is a real possibility, and human rights are violated regularly, works like this remind us of how dangerous those things can be when unchecked.