Thursday, April 27, 2017

Explaining Things

Science can be hard.  Even the most basic concepts involve specific terminology and jargon that are often challenging to understand.  What if there was a source out there, providing scientifically accurate information about complex topics, but in language that was available to most English speakers?  Look no further than Randall Munroe's new book Thing Explainer.  The conceit of the book is that it does a deep dive into things like nuclear energy, cellular structure, and the periodic table, but does so only using the 1,000 most frequently used words in the English language.  A list of these words appears at the end of the book.

What the author does masterfully is take multifaceted, often technical ideas and explain them in the most simple language.  This allows people of all language and education levels to learn and appreciate the concepts.  You won't need an advanced degree in engineering or chemistry to be able to understand the things that are explained.  What truly make this book special are the illustrations that appear on each page.  Resembling blueprints, they highlight the component parts of each item, like the parts of a rocket in the photo at left.  These chunks of text also are crafted from the 1,000 most commonly used English words.

When I mention that the author uses simple language, I'm not being facetious.  Instead of human cells, the author refers to them as "tiny bags of water you're made up of", a rocket is an "up goer", and the periodic table is "the pieces everything is made up of".  The verbiage is incredibly simple, which on one hand is really helpful because it widens the population who might comprehend and appreciate the science.  I could certainly imagine these items appearing in science textbooks.

On the other hand, I wonder if there comes a point when you simplify topics to such an extent that you mitigate or diminish the value of the knowledge itself.  At what point does the concept lose significance and meaning, when described in such base terms?  By simplifying the text so excessively, and adhering to the restrictive language conceit, is there any harm being done to the intricacies and nuances of the scientific accomplishments?  If the purpose of Thing Explainer is to function as a gateway for further, more in-depth scientific study, then I wholeheartedly praise its brilliance and acknowledge its place in the scientific community.  But, if this book is read as a definitive handbook, without additional scholarship or investigation, then I worry that the depth and breadth of scientific inquiry will be negatively impacted.

To be able to distill complex processes into the most basic language is quite a feat.  It broadens the audience for people who might be interested in more specialized concepts but lack the specialized education to fully appreciate them.  Thing Explainer demonstrates the skill of the author, not only in the language but also the clear and concise diagrams that accompany that language.  The drawback is that this simplistic language limits the practical information that is presented.  It's almost kitsch; simple language for its own sake.  I enjoyed the book, and would consider it most appropriate for a younger reader who is interested in science and technology.  For a more adult reader, especially one with a basic science education, this book may read as a bit juvenile and silly.

Librorum annis

Monday, April 24, 2017

Greenery Street - A Rare Thing Indeed

It's always a dilemma for me when reviewing books published long ago. Even less than a century ago, the culture is quite different. The author has been wholly influenced by that society, and the writing is not only from the time but reflective of it. Assumptions exist; things which are accepted then might now be challenged. The world of the story seems familiar, yet at the same time foreign.  And how do you approach these books?  Do you allow yourself to become immersed, and accept the situations and characters as they are presented - as if you were a reader of that time?  Or, do you turn a critical eye to the work and analyze these points from a modern perspective?  Which is the more fair and responsible way to reflect, being fair both to the author and the story?

These are the questions that I grappled with as I read Greenery Street by Denis Mackail.  Originally published in 1925, my edition was reprinted by Persephone Books in 2002.  I am reading it in 2017 America, which leaves a 92 year gap and the span of the Atlantic from the author's experience to mine.  It was the interwar period, and life was relatively peaceful in Britain.  The world was a much different place, indeed.  Taking this into account, I shall undertake to present two reviews: One summarizing the book and analyzing it in terms of the author and his life, and another from a modern, Western reader's perspective.  It is my hope that, in combining these two, that a fuller picture of the novel shall become clear.

The story is conducted by an invisible, unnamed narrator.  This narrator picks up the readers and transports them to the exact moments that it wants us to see.  There are also numerous asides and explanations of things that we would otherwise now know, and things that the characters themselves wouldn't know, such as the inner worlds of the other residents of the neighborhood.  It also gives voice to the location itself, Greenery Street, which functions as a minor character within the scope of the novel. 

When we meet the main characters, Ian Foster and Felicity Hamilton, they have been secretly engaged to each other after knowing each other a few months.  There is such a strong and certain attraction between them that they both realize quickly that they must marry.  Their first relationship hurdle is to gain the approval of her parents, who have yet to be introduced to Ian.  He is subsequently invited to a dinner at her family's home, an event which is so spectacularly awkward and uncomfortable for all parties.  Felicity's father is so non-committal and avoidant of the issue at hand that he does not even broach the subject of his daughter, even though he and Ian spend nearly an hour together alone after the meal.  Felicity is convinced that this is a good sign, and tacit consent to their nuptials.  There is no need to inquire to Ian's parents, as they are absent from the novel.  His only parental figure is a governor who managed a trust in the boy's name, and from which he received some money in addition to his office job in insurance brokerage.

The narrator then skips us ahead to when the couple have returned from their honeymoon, and are desperately trying to find a home.  Through a series of comical events, they find themselves at Greenery Street, and have their first experience with the London real estate process.  The houses are described as being quite small, with compact rooms and somewhat dingy and haphazard construction.  They are also referred to as perfect for young, childless couples.  In fact, the narrator gives us the piece of information that tenants usually only stay a year or so.  Once they are expecting a baby, they begin to see Greenery Street anew and realize the ways that the house will no longer suit them.  They see its flaws and shortcomings, when those things are blissfully ignored during the post-wedding haze of house-shopping.  The Fosters hurriedly settle on 23 Greenery Street, and move in immediately. 

The street itself is likely a reference to the location in Chelsea where the author and his wife lived, Walpole Street.  The street is lined with attached, identical brick row homes. They each have short stoops and narrow balconies.  If you look online, you can see images from the street today, and other than the surfeit of automobiles parked on the street, you can imagine it has not changed much since Denis Mackail's time.  In fact, from a modern perspective they seem positively palatial, especially for in that area of London.  There is a park nearby, Burton Court, where you could imagine the Fosters walking their Pomeranian dog, Ajax. 

Felicity is presented as a rather mild-mannered, quiet, infinitely polite young woman.  As a newlywed, she is moving from a situation where she was under the care of her parents, to one where she is in charge of a household.  As she and Ian are upper middle-class, they naturally hire two servants, a cook (Gertrude) and a housemaid (Ellen, but nicknamed The Murderess because of her menacing appearance), to work for them.  Although Felicity is in charge of the home, these two women are the ones who actually do the work.  The reader never learns much about them, except through the actions that Felicity and Ian discover.  First, near the middle of the novel, Felicity comes upon Ellen passionately kissing the grocery man on the steps.  She is so shocked that she retreats and pretends as thought the situation never happened.  When she tells Ian about it later, he is in shock that anyone would find the housemaid attractive enough to kiss in that way.  One of the central conflicts of the second-half of the novel is whether or not one of the Fosters should speak to Ellen about her behavior, or even to relieve her of her post, and if so how that discussion should be carried out.  This becomes even more dire when Ian discovers Ellen drinking his whiskey, late at night.  He, too, says nothing and takes no immediate action; he simply returns to the bedroom and tells Felicity. 

This conflict is the aspect of Greenery Street that I found the most frustrating and the most interesting.  Both Ian and Felicity have never been in charge of other people before, and they are of a gentle nature, so it's no surprise that they have difficulty establishing their roles.  They complain constantly about the poor quality of service, or the amount of money the servants spend on food and other goods, yet cannot bring themselves to take action to bring about change.  Felicity, especially, is good at rationalizing and explaining away any misdoings.  Even when presented with concrete evidence of stealing and conspiring amongst Ellen and Gertrude, the Fosters are not able to agree on a course of action.  Their inactivity is, in small doses, comical and entertaining, but as it continues repeatedly throughout the rest of the novel, becomes almost infuriating.  Yet, knowing the characters and their temperaments, it cannot be completely surprising.

It also gently illustrates the class divides in English society at the time.  The fact that little time was spent with the servants indicates that the newlyweds were not concerned with them a great deal.  There was no particular concern for their lives and goings-on; they were the servants, and as long as they were performing the prescribed duties no one paid them any mind.  They were almost like furniture of other background features of the home, despite the fact that they were just as much human as the Fosters.

As I read, I began wondering more about the servants themselves.  All we know of them are their first names.  Who were they before they came to work at 23 Greenery Street?  What did they do with themselves when Felicity and Ian were not paying attention?  We learned, at least, that The Murderess was involved with the grocery man, but how did that relationship come to be?  What I've discovered is that I would greatly enjoy reading a companion novel, if one were to be written, about the lives of the two servants in Greenery Street.  To explore their lives and independent voices would give more depth and interest to a story that is much like the Fosters themselves: Polite, reserved, and quite measured in its emotion. 

In addition to the conflict with their household staff, there are other problems that arise for the two main characters.  Most of these are quite petty and all of them resolve themselves nicely and neatly by the end of the story.  Such is not the case, however, for many of the minor characters with whom the Fosters interact.  There are marital problems between Felicity's elder sister and her husband, which cloud parts of the story and are left mostly unresolved.  The manager of Ian's fund passes away in a train accident. Felicity's father becomes seriously ill with influenza.  Although Greenery Street is most definitely a story of the happy beginnings of a joyful marriage, almost as seen through rose colored glasses in a sweet fog, it is not so twee as to completely ignore life's realities.

I found Greenery Street to be a sweet, comfortable story.  There is such a strong bond between Ian and Felicity that none of the more common, external pressures of the world weigh much on them.  There are no temptations of infidelity, nor particular dissatisfactions from one towards the other.  Being that this work is encompassing the first few months of their marriage, one wonders how the rest of their relationship will play out.  What financial woes, estrangements, or other problems might work themselves into this happy arrangement in the years to come?

The Fosters are learning what it means to be adults: Marriage, budgeting, social and familial obligations, and developing self-confidence and fortitude.  It's not always easy living with another person, figuring out how to manage a household, or succeed at an office job.  Felicity has difficulty with even the most basic math, and runs into trouble with purchasing more than her account has funds to cover.  This hints at the type of education that females of her social class received - mostly social graces, and very little science or math.  Yet, she and Ian are so well suited that, despite their occasional quarrels, hurt feelings, and secrets, they forge ahead together in love.  And it is love which is at the core of Greenery Street, and what makes it such a joy to read.  A rare thing indeed.

Librorum annis

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The "Spring Reading" Tag

I recently saw that one of my favorite Booktubers, Mercedes (MercysBookishMusings), had published a video called the Spring Reading Tag.  You can watch her video here, as well as the one from the originator of the tag, Amy Jane Smith.  It started me thinking about my own springtime reading, and so I decided to take on the questions myself.

What books are you most excited to read over the next few months?

There are two books that I've pre-ordered, as they aren't released until early May here in the US, and I'm so excited for them!  The first is the latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare Series, Tracy Chevalier's retelling of Othello called New Boy.  In this story, a diplomat's son Osei (Othello) arrives in a new school and is an outcast, yet forms a relationship with a popular girl in the school named Dee (Desdemona).  Ian (Iago) is another student at the school, who can't stand the thought of Osei and Dee being together, and takes extreme measures to end the relationship

The second book I'm anxious and excited to read is David Sedaris' latest release, called Theft By Finding.  It is a collection of the author's diaries, journals, and other ephemera from 1977-2002.  I absolutely love reading these kind of books that live in the spaces between memoir and general non-fiction; I recently read Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante and loved it, so I have high hopes for this book being a wonderful addition to the rest of my Sedaris collection.  He's so funny, and I can only hope that the funny isn't just in his finished products, but in the early writings too!

What book makes you most think of spring?

The sense of hope, peace, and renewal that are prevalent throughout One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes make it my choice for a book that evokes spring feelings.





The days are getting longer - what is the longest book you want to read this season?

There are a big bunch of doorstoppers that I have on my TBR as part of various reading challenges.  One of said challenges is to (re)read all of the 26 books in the Penguin Drop Caps series, which includes Middlemarch (912) and Moby-Dick (688).  I have also been meaning to get to Alan Moore's Jerusalem (1184), the omnibus His Dark Materials trilogy (1102) by Philip Pullman, and IQ84 (944) by Haruki Murakami. I would love to plow through all of these in 2017!

What books would you recommend to brighten someone's day?

 For someone who's down in the dumps or in need of cheering, I would immediately suggest three books: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson, Garlic and Sapphires by Ruth Reichel, and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.  Although they all have conflict and some dark moments, they are wholeheartedly uplifting and will make you smile at the characters' adventures and mishaps.

Spring brings new life in nature - what is a book that doesn't exist, but you wish did?

I didn't even have to think about this one.  I absolutely loved Marilynne Robinson's Gilead trilogy, and one character, whom we are introduced to in the book Home, is Jack Boughton.  The reader is given snippets and bits and pieces of his life, which goes against most of what his family and community expected of him.  He married a black women from the South, and are living a very bohemian and unconventional life thus far.  We don't really get much depth and detail of his story...I want that story!

Spring is a time of growth - how has your reading grown and changed over the years?

As my social and political awareness has grown, so has my reading.  In years' past, I would stick mostly to the classics of the Western Cannon, mostly reading authors who were male, white, and dead.  Now, I am much more interested in new releases, especially when those books are written by women of color and published by small, independent presses.  I look for diversity in the characters  and social justice throughout.  I've also broadened into stories told in unconventional ways or through non-traditional forms, like A Visit From the Goon Squad, and A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing.
Another way my reading has changed is that I am reading graphic novels/memoirs, and listening to audiobooks regularly.  I obtain most of these (especially the audiobooks, because they're so spendy) from my local library, but I will purchase some if I really, really love the story and would re-read it.  My absolute favorite graphic memoir is the March trilogy by Representative John Lewis, about his life growing up in the Jim Crow era in the American South, and becoming a leader in the Civil Rights movement.  One of my favorite audiobooks is Einstein's Dreams, written by Alan Lightman and narrated by Grover Gardner.  It's soothing and fascinating all at the same time - a fictional exploration of Albert Einstein's coming up with theories of relativity, time, and space.

We're a couple of months into the new year - how's your reading going?

I always set my Goodreads goal at 52 books, which would equate to 1 book read per week.  It's mid-late April, and I've read over 40 books so far.  I'll definitely exceed my reading goal, which is good, but I'm hoping to be successful in my reading challenges.  The first is the aforementioned "Penguin Drop Caps" challenge - I've only read three books so far, which isn't great.  I'm also participating in a "Book BINGO" challenge, where I have to read books in different categories on a BINGO-type card, and finish 5 in a row either across, down, or diagonally.  I'm happy to report that I've completed that challenge already!  My last reading challenge is to complete Book Riot's Read Harder Challenge.  I've completed about 65% of that so far, and I'm hoping to be 100% done by the end of July.  Here's hoping for much success and fulfillment in my reading throughout the rest of 2017!

Any plans you're looking forward to over the next few months?

I'm going to be in NYC next weekend, during which Independent Bookstore Day just so happens to fall, so I'm expecting to do a little bit of bookstore tourism and purchase some interesting books and bookish goodies.  Other than that, I plan to read and relax for the rest of springtime.

And that's it for the Spring Reading Tag.  If you're interested in answering these questions, consider yourself tagged!

Librorum annis

Monday, April 17, 2017

Book Review - Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin

I have to admit that it's been very difficult to engage with Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto.  I tend to shy away from the kind of name-limiting, line-in-the-sand tomes as this one.  However, in our current political climate of alternative facts and non-empathy, I decided it was the right time to give this book a chance.  The title certainly is provocative - for someone who, until recently, was known widely as "Bookslut", it is a bit odd to think that she wouldn't be a feminist.  She spends the rest of the book clarifying her titular statement; she IS IN FACT a feminist, but not in the way that is most commonly encountered. 

Jessa's main point of contention with the widely-used terminology of the word "feminism" is that it is seen as something to be universally accepted.  She argues that things which are commonly accepted are the least threatening, unoriginal, and ineffective.  Feminism, therefore, needs to be radical and uncomfortable.  It should be something that only the most passionate and invested people will desire to perpetuate.  You won't need to buy that organic, fair-trade, cotton shirt with the phrase "feminist as f*#k" printed on it, because people will be able to tell by your words, actions, and lifestyle choices that you are a feminist, rejecting the patriarchy. 

The reason that a feminist needs to be unapologetically radical is because, for too long, mainstream feminism has tried to make equality within the current system its goal.  Having more women CEOs, more women having successful careers in male-dominated fields, etc. is seen as making inroads for equality.  However, the author argues, the system is still patriarchal and built around inequality.  A woman may be the CEO, but if her company relies upon sweatshop labor - inhumane conditions with little/no compensation - how is that promoting equality?  How is that feminism?  Is it essentially different having a woman in charge vs. a man?  Jessa says no.

Believing in equality means understanding that men and women are not fundamentally different.  Although society conditions women to be more empathetic and emotional, they are not absolutely so; men are just as capable of emotional engagement as women.  Therefore, men are not the problem.  The patriarchal system is the problem.  In order to achieve full and total equality for all people, there needs to be a new system.  The author argues that the needs to be a new way of organizing and living, in order for feminism's ideals to truly be achieved. 

This is where, in my opinion, Jessa's book falls short.  She makes repeated claims for a revolution where feminists, those who are ready to make radical changes, overthrow the current, patriarchal system and replace it with something better.  However, she presents no ideas of what that new, feminist system could look like.  There are bread crumbs throughout the book: Fair wages, rejection of gender roles, inclusivity of those with disabilities, severing the relationship between physical attractiveness and societal/self-worth.  Lots of great and important points are made, but there is no attempt to frame these within a more concrete vision.  

Throughout the nine chapters of Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, the author speaks in quite wide generalizations.  There are mentions of some feminist theorists, but nothing more concrete and specific.  There are many assertions, but without much in the way of support.  In this, the book reads less like a manifesto and more like a rant - a fine line, perhaps, but one that I found a bit off-putting.  It's also interesting to think of how this book's publication fits into her arguments.  Jessa posits that patriarchy is closely tied to a capitalist society, and therefore feminism should partake in something non-capitalist.  However, she chose to publish this book about feminism within the confines of American publishing - a system that relies on and benefits from capitalism for its very survival. 

While there were many interesting points to take away from Jessa Crispin's Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, I was left wanting much more.  It was disappointing to read a book that repeatedly calls for the creation of a non-patriarchal, non-capitalist society yet offers nothing in the way of concrete ideas.  I certainly agreed with some of the points that the author made, but found her generalizing and sweeping statements to take away from the impact that a work like this could have had.

Librorum annis

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Tell Me How It Ends!

Valeria Luiselli is an author whom I've "discovered" in the past year. I first heard about her book The Story of My Teeth during the Tournament of Books in 2016.  Ever since, I've hoped to have the chance to see her in person.  With books published by small presses, it isn't guaranteed that authors will go on large-scale book tours, so I had resigned myself to traveling somewhere at a distance if I wanted to eventually meet her.  About a week ago, after finishing her most recent book Tell Me How It Ends, I decided to check out her publisher's (Coffee House Press...seriously, they're awesome!) website, to see if she was going to be on tour.  While not a book tour stop, I was delighted to see that she was going to be a guest of Wilkes University, which is only a short drive from where I live.  She was a guest lecturer throughout the day, and that evening she was reading from her book and signing copies.  I decided that this was my chance, and so I took it.  I grabbed my day bag, filled a travel mug with coffee, and hit the road to Wilkes-Barre.

Copies just waiting to be bought and read!

The event itself was quite small-scale, although it was publicized.  There were less than 50 people in attendance, and I suspect that I was the only one who wasn't in some way associated with Wilkes University.  It was held in the Salon of Kirby Hall, which was a Victorian style building that is home to the University's English Department.  There was this beautiful, marble fireplace next to my seat; even though the temperatures were near 80F, I wouldn't have minded a roaring fire because it was so picturesque and romantic.

A sneaky-pete shot that doesn't begin to do it justice!

The Chair of the department, Dr. Mischelle Anthony, made a few opening remarks then introduced Valeria.  The author read from her immigration-themed longform essay, then took questions from the audience.  All of the questions were either about Valeria's experiences as a court translator, that current state of US immigration, or her work with Hofstra University.   It's clear that she is a natural storyteller, by the way she writes and also how she speaks.  She answers your questions, but crafts her responses in interesting and compelling ways - you can't help but be in raptures listening to her!

Aren't those glasses just the most! 

Afterwards,  we convened in the lobby where there were light refreshments and a table where the author was signing her books.  More coffee and a cookie?  Yes please!  Valeria was incredibly sweet and engaging, and was attentive and chatty to everyone.  She seemed very down-to-Earth and generally interested and enthusiastic to be there.  There are some authors whom you meet, and that meeting drastically diminishes your opinion of them and their work.  Maybe they act aloof, pretentious, or like they're doing you (the reader) a favor by being there.  That was definitely not the case here; I really enjoyed meeting Valeria Luiselli, and will buy whatever she publishes subsequently so as to support her and her work.

Thank you so much to Valeria, to Coffee House Press for publishing her work, and to Wilkes University for sponsoring the event - making it possible for me to meet her.  It was a wonderful event!  Here is my review of her latest book, Tell Me How It Ends... 

Tell Me How It Ends, this brilliant little book, is a searing exploration of immigration, not only from the author's own experiences but also from those of the children she met during her time as a translator in the New York Immigration Court.  Luiselli, who is a Spanish-speaking Mexican, was working on this book during the period of time when she was waiting for her Green Card to arrive, so that she could reside permanently in The States.  Her particular story represents adult immigration to the USA, with the assistance of a lawyer and her rising literary fame.

In her volunteerism, she interacts with a variety of children who are hoping to stay in the country, having risked their lives to escape devastatingly violent situations in their home countries.  The particular group with whom the author works begins this process by asking the child a series of questions on a form.  Because Luiselli is fluent in Spanish, she is a translator, taking the child's answers and writing them in English.  Depending on the responses, a child may be eligible for asylum or another special status, and eventually a Green Card and, perhaps, citizenship.  If the answers are "wrong" (based on the requirements of the legal system and immigration rules) the child may be deported.  She knows that something as simple as a poor word choice, or a child's inability to articulate something fully/clearly may make all the difference in whether or not he/she can remain in the USA.  However, she cannot alter what the child says during the interview.  The author constantly wrestles with the weight of this while she is translating.

Through the lens of these children's experiences, Luiselli sheds light on the real, gritty realities of immigration.  Families may spend their entire savings, or even go into debt, to pay a "coyote" to guide the child through their home country, to the Mexican border where they ride a freight train nicknamed "The Beast" which carries cargo from the Guatemalan border to the US border.  Surviving this train ride is no easy feat - children may be discovered by train/cargo employees, kidnapped and/or raped, detained by the local police, may fall off the train (sleeping, losing footing, etc.) and be injured or killed, among many other possible fates.  For any children to survive this journey, often carrying no money or supplies, proves just how dire their home lives were and how much they want a chance at something safer and better.  Risking everything to escape, only to be deported back again, is a heartbreaking proposition.

Those children, who do reach the US border, aren't interested in sneaking into the country and living here illegally.  To do so would make life extremely difficult, not only because it would be very difficult to find gainful employment but because it would be impossible to undertake the formal, legal immigration process in the future.  Instead, they surrender themselves to the US Border Patrol as soon as possible after setting foot in the country.  They are funneled into detention facilities called "iceboxes" not only because they are overseen by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), but because they are kept at an extremely cold temperature.  If children have family already in The States, they are able to live with them while they await the next step in the immigration process, which involves the legal system.  This is the part where Luiselli became involved with the child, through the intake process.

The work itself is structured loosely around the questions that she asks during the interviews she conducts.  Questions include "Why did you come the United States?", "With whom did you travel to this country?", "What countries did you pass through?", "Has anyone hurt, threatened, or frightened you since you came to the U.S.?", "Are you in touch with anyone in your home country?", and many others.  As Luiselli lists each question, she delves deep into the realities that are contained within, and what the implications of a child's responses might be.  She also includes observations of her own, her interviewees, and those of experts; statistics; and historical information to provide support.  It's incredibly impressive that the author is able to accomplish this level of depth, breadth, and emotional appeal in such a short work.

While there were episodes of interviews from many different children, the main example was from the first child whom the author translated.  Known as "Manu", he was awaiting his appointed court date, and Luiselli was performing the intake process, so that he could be given legal representation.  His story forms the heart of her exploration into what is wrong with the US immigration system.  Manu left Honduras after he was threatened to join a violent street gang, and his best friend was murdered right in front of him.  His aunt funded his trip with a coyote, and he survived the arduous journey across Mexico on La Bestia.  After being detained in one of the "iceboxes", he flew to his aunt in Hempstead, on Long Island and enrolled in school.  However, the gang that caused his flight had a presence at his school, and he was experiencing similar dangers there as he did at home.

The title of this book comes from a question that the author's daughter asked her about the children she interviewed.  She wanted to know what happened to them, and if their stories had a happy ending.  Often, the best that Luiselli could offer is "I don't know", but she always hoped for better.  By the end of the book, the reader learns a bit more about Manu's particular situation.  It leaves with a slightly hopeful note, but just slightly.

For those who aren't well-informed about the realities of immigration, Tell Me How It Ends is an awakening.  The dominant political rhetoric in the US does not at all reflect the realities, and actively avoids admitting culpability in the root causes for this immigration.  They are fleeing their home countries because there is no future, except for violence and poverty.  They are willing to risk everything for a chance at a better life.  If that isn't the American Dream, then I don't know what is.

Librorum annis

Monday, April 10, 2017

Visiting Dupont - Kramerbooks & Afterwords

I'm no stranger to bookstore tourism, which you can read about here and here.  I had plans to spend a weekend in Washington D.C. recently, so of course I had to check out the map to see if there were any bookstores nearby.  It turns out - there were!

As I had already visited the other iconic bookstore of the area, Politics and Prose, I was so excited to pay a visit to Kramerbooks & Afterwords!  When my Uber dropped me off outside, I was struck by just how small the space seemed, and how many books there were.  Once inside, however, I saw that there was much more than meets the eye.

The space itself feels cavernous, with high ceilings stacked high with a huge selection of books.  On the walk from the entryway, there are books piled on tables and displays.  It feels like you've entered a literary wonderland.

I spent most of my time scouring the fiction section, which took up a whole wall.  There were the paperback copies of books you'd expect to see in any bookstore, like "the classics" and other perennial favorites.  What I was delighted to find was that, hidden amongst the populace were a surprising selection of books from very small presses.  It's funsies just to be around books, but encountering new-to-you things is the real reason I love visiting bookshops.  I walked away with three books from indie presses -

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin (McSweeney's)
Tell Me How It Ends by Valeria Luiselli (Coffeehouse Press)
The Revolutionaries Try Again by Mauro Javier Cardenas (Coffeehouse Press)

In the very back of the bookshop is a dedicated cafe, serving coffee, cocktails, and meals.  Unfortunately, I didn't have time to try it out, but I will make a point to do so on my next visit. The shop is open from 7:30am-1:00am every day, except Friday and Saturday when they're open until 3:00am - so I have no excuse not to stop in next time I'm in town. Thanks for a great first experience, Kramerbooks!

Librorum annis

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Winter of Women 2017 Wrapup and Reflections

In the later part of 2016, I took stock of my reading habits.  I've been interested in reading more books written by women and people of color, however my reading wasn't reflecting it.  So, I made a decision and created a reading challenge for myself.  Beginning on December 21st, the first day of winter, and ending on the first day of spring, I would read only books written by women.  You can read more about the impetus to the project here.  And because I good track record of completing projects when I give them not only a deadline but a catchy title, I decided to name this my Winter of Women 2017.

I didn't read very much between December 21 and the end of 2016, with holidays and their various requirements of my time.  I only managed to read two books, and 2AM at The Cat's Pajamas is one that I re-read every year on Christmas Eve eve, because that is the book's setting:

  • Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  • 2AM at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino

January was packed full with my teaching a night class at the local university, my birthday, and some very busy hours at my day job.  However, the #24in48 Readathon took place in January, so I was able to cram a bunch of books in there and bump up my month's reading...

  • A London Child of the 1870's by Molly Hughes
  • Unmentionable: The Victorian Lady's Guide to Sex, Marriage, and Manners by Therese O'Neill
  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham
  • M Train by Patti Smith
  • Difficult Women by Roxane Gay
  • The Summer Without Men by Siri Hustvedt
  • Other Stories and Other Stories by Ali Smith
  • The Grownup by Gillian Flynn
  • The Closed Door and Other Stories by Dorothy Whipple
  • Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh
  • Sad Animal Facts by Brooke Barker
  • The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
  • Ms Marvel Vol. 1: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona

February is Black History Month, so I decided to focus exclusively on books written by Black women during this month.  The only exception is the poetry collection by Claudia Emerson, which I began reading in January and finished in February. Despite it being an outwardly busy month, with not much time for reading, I finished some great books...

  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Love Is Love: A Comic Book Anthology to Benefit the Survivors of the Orlando Pulse Shooting by various writers/artists
  • Late Wife by Claudia Emerson
  • Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
  • Like One of the Family by Alice Childress
  • Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston
  • Freedom Is a Constant Struggle by Angela Y. Davis

I had initially decided that I would conclude the #WinterOfWomen17 project on March 21, which is the first day of Spring.  However, March is Women's History Month, so I decided to extend my female-only reading through the end of March.  Life has calmed down significantly this month, so I was able to read the most books yet of any month in 2017...

  • Glaciers by Alexis M. Smith
  • Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley
  • To Bed with Grand Music by Marghanita Laski
  • Frantumaglia by Elena Ferrante
  • Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Towada
  • Hope in the Dark by Rebecca Solnit
  • The Mothers by Brit Bennett
  • Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
  • Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
  • Things We Lost in the Fire by Mariana Enriquez
  • Dear Ijeawele or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
  • The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante
  • Dark Sparkler by Amber Tamblyn
  • Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto by Jessa Crispin

Whew, those were a wholelotta lists!  Here's what this whole project looked like, at a glance:
37 books read
3 poetry collections
10 books by women of color
13 non-fiction/essay collections
3 graphic-based books
8 short story collections

Why take on a targeted project like this, limiting myself in what I could read?  What could it possibly accomplish?  Why bother?

First of all, it wasn't a hassle or hindrance to find books written by women.  They are available everywhere, brought out through all manner of publishing.  There were no libraries, bookshops, or other retailers where I couldn't find female authors' work.  I'll admit that, although I had more than enough books to read for the whole project on my own shelves, I also borrowed some from my local libraries.  New releases, backlist, older was a delight and a joy deciding which books to read every month.    

Second, I wanted to make a concerted effort to make my reading more female-centric.  Most of my literary education was made up of books written by men, including those that are commonly regarded as "classics" or "books everyone should read".  The reasons for this kind of classification, and their overwhelming masculinity and dudeliness, befuddle me.  I wanted to explore a variety of women's voices to discern if there were significant differences between them and those of their male comrades.
After completing #WinterOfWomen17 I believe wholeheartedly that women authors (and women in general) are just as capable, talented, empathetic, curious, scholarly, artistic, creative, and deserving of praise and attention as men.  Both genders write in all the styles, and do so successfully.  Fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and any other form written by women is not any less valuable than those written by men.  Will I make it a permanent change - only reading books by women for the rest of my life?  Decidedly not.  Not only do I have many male authors' books sitting unread on my shelves, but there will be new/republished works I will certainly be interested in reading.  However, I will think a little more before I blindly reach for a book written by a male author.

Librorum annis

Monday, April 3, 2017

Kory Stamper and Word by Word

Last week, I had the opportunity to attend a reading and book signing for Kory Stamper's non-fiction book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries.  The author, who lives near Philadelphia, held this event in the Parkway Central Library branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia.  The event was rescheduled from March 14th, because that day the East Coast got a hefty dose of snow.  The fact that it was rescheduled was the only reason I could attend - I had already scheduled that day off of work, so I didn't have to worry about missing anything to make the trek to Philly.  I'm so glad that I attended, because the author was both entertaining and engaging, and answered lots of burning grammar and lexicography questions from the audience.

Do you read a dictionary, just hoping to find an error?  Do you love words, and bemoan the inclusion of such things as "phat" and "OMG" into modern dictionaries?  Do you enjoy learning about how the English language became what it is today, and considering where it may be going in the future?  If so, then you will love Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. 

Throughout the text, the author sets out to accomplish four things: 1. Explain and explore lexicography to an audience who may very well be clueless, 2. Highlight the day-to-day tasks that culminate in new editions of Merriam-Webster dictionaries, and 3. Dive into the history of English language use in the past/present/future.  She is successful on all three counts, and peppers her writing with enough subtle and snarky humor to make even the most grammatically snobbish person crack a smile. 

While she explains lexicography, the author redresses the misconception that most of us have about dictionaries.  They are not bastions of the "right and proper" words that all English speakers must use.  In centuries past, dictionaries did serve that purpose to a certain extent, but such is not the case now.  The job of the lexicographer is to include words, which have to meet specific criteria, as they are used in our speech and writing currently.  He/she does not edit out a word because it may be offensive (curse words), morally reprehensible, or opined by some as slang or a non-word ("irregardless").  As long as the word meet the dictionary's basic criteria, it is eligible for inclusion.

Working at the Merriam-Webster office, nestled in Springfield, MA, reads like an introvert's dream come true.  There are great pains taken so that human interaction is kept to an absolute minimum.  Most correspondence takes place via email.  Casual notes or queries, like where to go for lunch, are passed from editor to editor via color-coded slips of paper.  Chatter and extraneous sounds are discouraged.  The intent is for the lexicographers to spend their brain power reviewing existing definitions which may need updating, considering new entries for a future dictionary, and responding to customer comments and questions.  The author spends chapters discussing exactly what it means to be a lexicographer at Merriam-Webster, and delves into some of her more memorable, and memorably frustrating, experiences.  For example, during her month trying to edit the definition for the word "take", she had spent hours and hours making serious piles of notecards that she would need to refer to during a later stage of the defining process.  That night, the cleaning crew toppled over her work, forcing her to re-do everything. 

Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is divided into 14 chapters, as well as an epilogue, acknowledgments, notes, bibliography, and index.  Sprinkled throughout the text are footnotes, most of them giving shade like "No matter how book smart, we are all idiots at seventeen" (pg. 5), and the gem "Jimmy Carter spent his time in the U.S. Navy working on propulsion systems for nuclear submarines, acting as an engineering officer of a nuclear power plant, and actually being lowered into a nuclear reactor core that had melted down in order to dismantle it.  To my mind, he has earned the right to pronounce "nuclear" however he damned well pleases" (pg. 211).  There are other footnotes that are structured like dictionary definitions, giving the meaning(s) of a word as well as its pronunciation.  The Index alone is hilarious to read, just by the key words that the author uses to structure it.  But would you expect anything less from such a dictionary-minded person?

Overall, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries is a book that is not only informative about English words, grammar, and dictionaries.  It is deeply personal and speaks to the ways in which language intersects with other areas of our lives.  If you're someone like me, who had to memorize the prepositions (in alphabetical order, to the tune of "The Mexican Hat Dance") and can still recite it perfectly after 20 years, then you should read this book.  If you don't understand what all the fuss is about when it comes to grammar, then you should read this book.  It's the author's blend of info and hilarity that makes this a standout read.

Librorum annis