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.  

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Book Review - Kill 'Em and Leave by James McBride

Ostensibly a biography of legendary performer James Brown, James McBride uses it to tell a much larger, heartrending story about American racism, greed, violence, and poverty.  The author begins with a tale about how, near the end of his life, James Brown lived in Queens - not far away from the McBride's.  The author's sister Dottie, as a young child, bravely walked up to Mr. Brown's house, rang his doorbell, and actually spoke with the man himself.  This, combined with McBride's musicianship, training as a journalist, love of Mr. Brown's music, and a tip about a contact who might be able to shed some light on the myth of the man, meld together to create the masterpiece Kill 'Em and Leave.

Born into post-reconstruction, abject poverty, James Brown overcame tremendous adversity through luck, unrelenting hard work, talent, and ruthless ambition to become The Godfather of Soul.  The author expertly weaves information about Mr. Brown's life as well as the lives of family members, friends, business associates, and his community to give a portrait of a man who actively didn't want to be known by anyone.  For someone who was, during the height of his career, constantly in the public eye and surrounded by people, he led quite a lonely life.  He trusted no one, especially with his money, and would often portray different personas to different people, and at different times.

He married many times, had multiple mistresses, and fathered a number of children; the total number is unknown but likely to be around 13.  He loved women, but was capable of emotional and physical brutality if they didn't live up to his exacting and rigid standards.  He also was erratic with those who worked for him.  If you were his employee - a musician, manager, radio station secretary, or whatever - you may or may not get your paycheck regularly, and Mr. Brown may fire you just for asking about the money.  He did not trust banks, and would hide money all over the place: Under floorboards in hotel rooms, buried in the ground, in friends houses, etc.  He would accept payment only in cash, concealed in brown paper bags disguised to look like they held sandwiches.  He, himself, never had a clear idea of how much money he had at any given time.

When James Brown died, settling his estate became a nightmare for many reasons.  First, due to his aversion to banks and monetary accountability, nobody had a clear idea of how much the estate was worth.  Second, he did not have a good relationship with most of his ex-wives, mistresses, and children, and his Will left very little money to them.  The bulk of his estate (~ $100 million) was earmarked to be distributed to benefit poor and disadvantaged youth.  However, due to the greed of the family and their legal teams (all of whom were part of an "Old Boys Club" of University of SC Law School graduates and judges), and the racism, cronyism, and and sexism of the South Carolina judicial system - the wishes expressed in his Will have still not been executed.  Many additional lives have been affected in the process of sorting out James Brown's Will, including his business manager, his accountant, and a local newspaper reporter.  As of the printing of Kill 'Em and Leave, there has been no progress in resolving the legal issues, yet the estate's funds are diminishing at a rapid rate to cover legal fees.

One aspect of the book that was especially interesting was how often the author wrote about the difficulties involved in writing the book.  Passages to this effect appear throughout, and add some depth and clarity to the life of a man who was purposely unclear.  The author gets the run-around from James Brown's family members, band members, friends, and basically anyone to whom he speaks.  James Brown was a puzzle wrapped in an enigma - just the way he wanted to be.

Kill 'Em and Leave is an ambitious, engrossing, deeply respectful, and hard-hitting look at The Godfather of Soul and the American society that bore him, brought him up, and ultimately tore him down.  You'll learn about James Brown and his career, mostly through the lenses of those who knew even a part of who James Brown was.  He was a complicated man who lived a complicated life, and while James McBride's book tries to untangle and make sense of it, James Brown is left still very enigmatic.

Librorum annis

Monday, November 14, 2016

Persephone Book Haul

Biannually, Persephone Books adds a few new additions to their collection.  In April of 2016, they republished their spring books: The Godwits Fly, by Robin Hyde; A Lady and Her Husband by Amber Reeves; and Maman, What Are We Called Now by Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar.  I ordered Maman a few months after its release; it seemed to ring similar bells to what I loved about Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky - the firsthand experiences of French citizens during the Nazi occupation.

On the 19th of October, Persephone released their fall selections.  Madame Solario by Gladys Huntington, Long Live Great Bardfield by Tirzah Garwood, and a new collection of short stories by Dorothy Whipple called Every Good Deed and Other Stories.  As someone who loves Dorothy Whipple's novels, I was excited to see a new bind-up of her stories, and decided it was high time to place my transatlantic order.

Living on the East Coast of the US, once I see the "Persephone Books: Shipment" email appear in my inbox, I know that my order will be delivered exactly one week later.  It's like clockwork!  The three envelopes that arrived hold the promise of weeks of delicious, reading pleasure...

The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple 

(Persephone's first published Whipple collection)

Every Good Deed and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple 

(Persephone's second published Whipple collection)

An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum 1941-1943 by Etty Hillesum

(a diary kept in the time frame and city as Anne Frank's famous diary, except that Etty Hillesum was in her late 20's)

I can't wait to cosy up with a snugly blanket and a mug of tea, and read these books!

Librorum annis

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Book Review - Why God Is a Woman by Nin Andrews

In this collection of prose poetry, Nin Andrews takes the traditional gender roles of a patriarchal culture and completely inverts them.  Through this very satirical exploration, Andrews mines her alternative reality so that it, and the source of the satire, can be more clearly seen as the bizarre concept that it is.  While there were some bits and pieces that were highly fantastical, Why God Is a Woman generally portrays the up-turned reality to great effect.

In the land called Island, women hold all of the positions of power.  They automatically get respect and admiration in whatever they undertake.  Most of the women choose to be called Angelina, despite being named something else, because Angelina Jolie is the feminine ideal.  In fact, there are many poems where it's tough to figure out who the females are, or how many of them are present, because they all go by "Angelina".  While the women perform most of the jobs in society, men are expected to stay home and raise the children.  Working men are constantly harassed by females about when they're planning to get married and start a family.

Men also serve as sex objects.  Their outfits consist of loose-fitting tops left unbuttoned to expose the chest and abs, as well as the distinctive Islander tattoo that travels below the navel.  The pants are tight-fitting Lycra, meant to display the thighs and buttocks for the enjoyment of women.  Men are expected to maintain a certain grooming style and body image - very muscular and toned bodies, no facial or body hair, and youthful-looking skin.  Plastic surgery and spa treatments are very popular among the men, and they gather regularly in beauty salons to gossip.

One of the fantastical elements of Island society is that, when a man reaches a certain age, he sprouts wings from his back.  As the wings emerge, the man bleeds and has to wear absorbent pads over the openings.  The size of a man's wingspan is directly correlated to his lovemaking abilities, and a man with small wings is basically an outcast on Island.  The narrator of these poems is a man who had very small wings, and chose to leave his friends and family to live out his life in seclusion.  Through the poems, he is reminiscing about his life on Island, his lost love Angelina, and how much he disagreed with the matriarchy.

I enjoyed Why God Is a Woman for the ways that it played with the stereotypes and gender roles in a patriarchal culture.  However, I found many of these stereotypes to be satirized too obviously and with too heavy a hand.  It was as if the author had a checklist of different critiques and points that she wanted to make, and you could see her ticking each box as she moved through the poems.  I wished there was more nuance to the poetry itself and especially to the messages that were being conveyed.

There are almost 80 individual poems, and 75% of them begin with either "On the Island Where I Come From" or "On the Island Where I Grew Up".  The reason for this repetition wasn't obvious or explained, and did not serve the story in any meaningful way.  As a result, I found the flow to be disjointed and, because of that, the collection didn't feel cohesive.   It could have been shortened significantly and the message would have remained just as clear.

Why God Is a Woman is an interesting and thought-provoking poetry collection.  It clearly lampoons patriarchal culture through examination under a highly satirical lens.  There are some issues with formatting and structure that diminish its message somewhat, but overall it was a very worthwhile read.

Librorum annis

Monday, November 7, 2016

Book Outlet Booktoberfest Haul

From 18-21 October, Book Outlet had its annual Booktoberfest Sale.  Everything on their website was marked down an additional 15%, and there was the opportunity to get a coupon for an addition $5 off the total order.  I had a few books on my Book Outlet wishlist, so I decided to partake in the savings.  For less than $30, including shipping, here are the books I ordered -
  • You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
  • King of the Badgers by Philip Hensher
  • The Utopia of Rules by David Graeber
  • The Red Parts by Maggie Nelson
  • Arcadia by Tom Stoppard

 I'm not sure which one I'll get to first...which one would you choose?  Or is there one that you've been meaning to read too?

Librorum annis

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Time for an Upgrade, or, March of the Penguins

The dimensions of this book almost match up exactly with the size of my hand...quite small.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
has been on my bookshelf for over 20 years; it's one of my favorite modern classics.  I own the book in both e-book and paperback formats because, hey,  I like options!  My paperback edition is a 1991 mass-market with thin pages, tight binding, and very small font.  Summary: Not a pleasant reading experience.

Seriously!!  Look at that teeny tiny print!
When I find myself wanting to re-read it, I almost always go to my e-reader, because it's so much easier to deal with the size of the font when you control it yourself.  I'm a ways beyond college age, but not quite middle age, so my eyesight isn't "going" yet (at least not that I'll admit), but I find myself having to squint more and more to read my mass-market paperbacks.  With this stark realization in mind, I decided that maybe it's time to upgrade Cuckoo.  Not long after, I came across an advertisement for a new collection of Penguin Classics, called the Penguin Orange Collection.

Modeled after the much-loved (but, sigh, not readily available in the US) triple-band Penguin Classics, the Penguin Orange Collection features 12 modern fiction classics, with the traditional orange and white stripes.  In addition, each title features bespoke illustrations that are representative of the stories, as well as deckeled edges and French flaps (so fancy!).  One of the available titles was One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, so it was an easy decision to order it.  And isn't it lovely!

As I'm beyond college age, and with steady employment to boot, I have a bit of expendable income (mostly for books, but also other adultings).  Therefore, in addition to this title, I also picked up a copy of John Steinbeck's East of Eden and Jack Kerouac's On the Road.  Don't they look smashing!

The Penguin Orange Collection was released in the US on October 18th, and it is listed as a limited-edition collection, so get them while they're hot!  I'm so glad I decided to upgrade my old, mass-market paperback for this beautiful penguin! 

Librorum annis