I loved the mingling of folklore and history in Ohiyesa's Old Indian Days. One of my favourite stories in this collection was The Chief Soldier which...moreI loved the mingling of folklore and history in Ohiyesa's Old Indian Days. One of my favourite stories in this collection was The Chief Soldier which recounts the Dakota War of 1862 from the point of view of Tawasuota, the chief soldier of the title. The beginning of the story is depicted beautifully: the Indian warrior with his children, watching the family of settlers across the river. The story is poignant and does not take sides, simply showing how high the price of war is. I also liked the romance, The Love of Antelope and the two Winona stories which describe what it meant to be a Sioux woman. I appreciate the fact that the author chooses to talk of both men and women and their roles in Sioux society, and of heroes both male and female.
As always, the book was such a great read because of Mr. Eastman's writing. He's such a natural storyteller and it is easy to simply flow into the stories he tells. I wish I could hear these stories being told aloud.(less)
I really wanted to like this book more. It seems such an interesting idea and yet it could have been a lot more engrossing.
Part of the reason is that...moreI really wanted to like this book more. It seems such an interesting idea and yet it could have been a lot more engrossing.
Part of the reason is that Bill Bryson tends to ramble. This is understandable given the wide scope of the book, but his vision of fitting human history into the rooms of his house doesn't come together as neatly as it might have, so you find yourself going back to subjects that you thought were done with a few hundred pages ago. Then again, the book more or less limits itself to Victorian era Britain and North America, with occasional forays into other times and places. I'm not particularly interested in the Victorians - imperialism, sexual repression and bad personal hygiene aren't fun to read about even if steampunk and Sherlock Holmes aren't all that bad. I understand that trying to cover the entire history of the world would have been unwieldly but the narrow geographical scope had me losing interest, especially when he devotes half a chapter to staircase accidents.
Couple that with the fact that the chapters on the bedroom, the bathroom and the nursery are either positively depressing or positively disgusting and you don't feel too cheery by the time you get to the end of the book. Suffice it to say that the next time I watch a period film, all I'll be able to think of is that none of the people wearing pretty ball gowns and dashing away on horses had regular baths, that their moral compasses were skewed when it came to a lot of things, including children and the poor and that if they ever got sick, they would be better off dying than going to a doctor. Of course, you already know that, but it's worse when Bryson reminds you with full force that if Gabriel Oak or Heathcliff ever existed, they would stink to high heaven. I wonder if generations to come will ever react to our lives today with such horror? All the same, never have I been more happy to be born in the twentieth century and living in the twenty-first.
On the plus side, I love all the little tidbits and trivia that Bryson has dug up and I have to say that I commend his research - the bibliography cited is huge. I like how he shows that history is often random and nonsensical, made up by people and not events. It gets a little depressing when you realize how often history books ignore the real heroes and how often history-makers are total jerks. Still, there are plenty of good people and inspiring stories about, particularly Joseph Paxton and Lancelot Brown (Brown's letter to his wife was one of my favourite bits of the book).
I can't fault Bryson's writing, it's hilarious and insightful and he does keep you entertained for the most part. If not for the things he says, this book was worth reading for the way he says them.(less)
Another find from Project Gutenberg. The last anthology of folklore I had read was Charles Eastman's Wigwam Evenings which was meant for children. I l...moreAnother find from Project Gutenberg. The last anthology of folklore I had read was Charles Eastman's Wigwam Evenings which was meant for children. I liked that book, but I have to admit that it's good to read folklore from a more mature point of view as well. I enjoyed reading about little details of Blackfoot life: from quotidian concerns like the piksun to the number four, which seems as significant in the stories as the number three, for example, is in other folklore.
My favourite stories in this collection were The Wolfman, Kut-o-Yis, The Blood Boy and The Camp of the Ghosts. I also liked the stories about the different societies and those featuring Old Man. The latter seems to be the Blackfoot version of Iktomi; the story of the The Red-eyed Duck is almost identical to the Sioux story about Unktome and the ducks that I read of in Mr. Eastman's book. I also liked the appendix, The Ancient Blackfeet, which gives a sense of the people behind the stories.(less)
I discovered Sherman Alexie on the Never Ending Book Quiz here on Goodreads (it's becoming a good source of new books for me). I wanted to read The Lo...moreI discovered Sherman Alexie on the Never Ending Book Quiz here on Goodreads (it's becoming a good source of new books for me). I wanted to read The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven but since I couldn't find that book, I decided on this one instead.
Reservation Blues had me hooked from the start, when Robert Johnson and the devil (in his guitar) walk onto the Spokane Indian Reservation and meet Thomas Builds-the-Fire. My favourite thing about the book were the characters. Finally, real people with real hopes and fears, virtues and vices. Not antiquated, Hollywood-approved versions of themselves. Mr. Alexie refers to the restraining power of this farce throughout the book: "Indian men have started to believe their own publicity and run around acting like the Indians in movies". I like the fact that the characters seamlessly blend universal experiences - I could definitely relate to them in a lot of ways - with their Indian identities. It was also interesting to read of them as distinct tribes with their own distinct cultures, such as when Father Arnold wonders why the Spokane aren't hunting buffalo: "... Indians were always hunting buffalo on television" and is told "It was those dang Sioux Indians. Those Sioux always get to be on television.". I loved Thomas; he is such a genuine, decent man and I loved the way his relationship with Chess Warm Water develops: "Thomas smiled at her. He had just met the only Indian who told stories like his". But I also found myself caring about Victor Joseph and Junior Polatkin and their friendship. It's a testament to Mr. Alexie's skill in drawing believable characters that he can create bullies with depth - not just Victor and Joseph, but also Michael White Hawk. I also liked the minor characters: The Man-Who-Was-Probably-Lakota (I have a feeling I'll meet him again in another of the author's books), the backward driving Simon, Mr. Alexie's version of Robert Johnson, Big Mom, even Thomas' dad during his impromptu basketball match against the tribal cops.
The magic-realist tone of the book is rich and absorbing - whether it is the music that sets fire to everything, the Fed Ex guy, Thomas' stories, the character's dreams or the horses. I found the latter a frightening, fascinating element in the story and the scene in the beginning of the book with Big Mom and the screaming horses is powerful and chilling. Even the ironical names of some of the characters - Sheridan and Wright, Betty and Veronica - give an oddly phantasmagorical feeling to the book, especially towards the end. I liked the unsettling humour and the way the fantastic throws reality into even sharper relief - which after all, is the sign of magic realism well utilised (and a relief from the superficial acid-pixie nature of many books in the genre).
The book doesn't gloss over all that isn't pretty: the poverty and alcoholism on reservations, substandard government rations and unemployment, the hopelessness experienced by so many young Indians and the duplicity of mainstream culture which is willing to accept Indians - as long as they're not too Indian. The ending - or at least, the events leading up to it - gave me the blues, naturally, but it was well-written and it felt real. What happens to the band's music deal is more common than imagined: Indians and non-Indians alike can discover that artistic integrity and music industry turnovers don't go hand in hand. Thomas' reaction on receiving Betty and Veronica's letter is moving, especially when you note the contrast between their lyrics and those of the band's that start off the chapters. Junior's fate: how many times has it already happened to Indians on reservations across the country? But for me, the most heartbreaking - there really is no other word for it - was the scene with Victor in the end: "That little explosion of the beer can opening sounded exactly like a smaller, slower version version if the explosion that Junior's rifle made on the water tower." When I first read it, it seemed ominous but perhaps his "Fuck it, I can do it too" is more optimistic than I imagine? I sincerely hope so; that there is some hope for him in the end, too. I liked the tone of the last words, optimistic without being complacent. They say that yes, life is hard, tragedies happen but sometimes, you just got to be happy you survived and try and make it better.
I don't know how much reservation life has changed in the sixteen years since this book was written, but Wikipedia tells me that reservation Indians are more likely to live in poverty than any other demographic, even now. There's still high unemployment, suicide and alcohol and drug abuse. I think in that case, books like Reservation Blues, books written by American Indians themselves become all the more important: so that the people in the statistics can become real and their problems discussed with logic and dignity.(less)
I strayed off to Project Gutenberg's Native American shelf after I found Navajo Silversmiths on the Art one. I have to say that I'm discovering a whol...moreI strayed off to Project Gutenberg's Native American shelf after I found Navajo Silversmiths on the Art one. I have to say that I'm discovering a whole wealth of excellent reading material here.
This book really spoke to me because of the ideas in it. Ohiyesa, or Charles Eastman states that he hasn't attempted to write a scholarly treatise, merely a recollection of the spirituality of his Sioux roots. I am a little wary of books that attempt to describe Native American spirituality and religion: too often they're a superficial twisting of facts to New Age ideologies without trying to really understand the people behind the faith. However, since Mr. Eastman was brought up in this culture, I feel safer taking his word for it.
It's true that the book feels idealistic and almost too poetic, but perhaps that is the cynic in me; I haven't been able to associate religion with sense. But the ideas and philosophies of the native peoples - at least of the Santé Sioux tribe that Mr. Eastman belongs to - make perfect sense to me. I was surprised at how much my personal philosophies corresponded to the ones described by Ohiyesa. One point in particular resounded with me: "To the untutored sage, the concentration of population was the prolific mother of all evils, moral no less than physical. He argued that food is good, while surfeit kills; that love is good, but lust destroys; and not less dreaded than the pestilence following upon crowded and unsanitary dwellings was the loss of spiritual power inseparable from too close contact with one's fellow-men."
He refers to this as the reason why the native tribes of North America did not build cities or conquer nations and it makes perfect sense. The freedom that accompanies such a life would surely create a purer faith. As he writes, "The native American has been generally despised by his white conquerors for his poverty and simplicity. They forget, perhaps, that his religion forbade the accumulation of wealth and the enjoyment of luxury. To him, as to other single-minded men in every age and race, from Diogenes to the brothers of Saint Francis, from the Montanists to the Shakers, the love of possessions has appeared a snare, and the burdens of a complex society a source of needless peril and temptation."
I liked the chapters on The Great Mystery and Barbarism and the Moral Code, although the entire book was a pleasure to read. I am really no expert on Native American culture and religion, so even though the philosophy in the book made sense to me and was worthy of admiration, even emulation, I can't say how accurate it is. I don't know if the Sioux really had no priests (I would understand perfectly their reason for it) and if their Sun worship, for example, was purely symbolic. Since I have little knowledge myself, and have much more to read and learn, I will assume that this is how it actually is.
I certainly appreciate Mr. Eastman's attempt to present the beliefs of his people without pretension or attempts at exoticism. Then again, he doesn't shrink back from the transcendental, poetic nature of the faith: "He who rides upon the rigorous wind of the north, or breathes forth His spirit upon aromatic southern airs, whose war-canoe is launched upon majestic rivers and inland seas—He needs no lesser cathedral! That solitary communion with the Unseen which was the highest expression of our religious life is partly described in the word bambeday, literally "mysterious feeling," which has been variously translated "fasting" and "dreaming." It may better be interpreted as "consciousness of the divine."
Ohiyesa acknowledges the xenophobia of the white settlers without giving in to bitterness. He talks of a missionary who after talking of the Gospel to a tribe, refused to hear their own beliefs. He chooses to take the higher moral ground by describing them simply as "... the first missionaries, good men imbued with the narrowness of their age."
The only drawback of the book is its brevity; it ends rather abruptly. A pity, because Mr. Eastman writes beautifully, with honesty and insight: "The logical man must either deny all miracles or none."(less)
This is one of the books I got from Project Gutenberg's Art bookshelf. I've always loved Native American jewellery from the South West United States b...moreThis is one of the books I got from Project Gutenberg's Art bookshelf. I've always loved Native American jewellery from the South West United States but I especially love Navajo silver and turquoise and I was hoping this book would give me some insight into this art form.
The book is unfortunately, too short to give any details on Navajo silvercraft; not surprising since it is only a report. Washington Matthews is a tad patronizing but on the whole, he points out the inventiveness and hard work of the Navajo. His writing made me appreciate a whole new aspect of these craftsmen beyond their artistic achievements. As he points out, the Navajo silversmiths often worked with rudimentary tools, sometimes scavenged from Fort Wingate or Pueblo settlements. I think their refusal to be constrained by circumstances makes their work all the more impressive and really defines their artistic spirit. The next time I moan about not being able to afford Canson board or Sennelier oil pastels, I'll remind myself that the Navajo silversmiths used awls repurposed from broken knives and set up their own forges to make their works of art. (less)
Only Kurt Vonnegut can write a book about not writing a book and get away with it. Almost.
Timequake is basically an essay on time, on destruction and...moreOnly Kurt Vonnegut can write a book about not writing a book and get away with it. Almost.
Timequake is basically an essay on time, on destruction and on free will thrown in together with a loose tale about a timequake that sends everyone back ten years, Kilgore Trout storylettes and plenty of trademark Vonnegut quotable quotes ("... AIDS and new strains of syph and clap and the blueballs were making the rounds like Avon ladies run amok.")
I found the theme of free will interesting. Vonnegut compares World War II to a timequake: he describes his time as a soldier as a suspension of freewill. How many of us are living in a timequake even now? Do we really make decisions because we want to? It seems that giving in to your desires is the easiest thing in the world, but I've discovered that it's much easier to do what you think you "should" than to do what you love.
The little Trout stories sprinkled through are always interesting to read, as is the fact that Vonnegut pegs Trout's death down to the age of 84; Vonnegut, bless his soul, died at 84. So it goes. On the other hand, this book feels essentially incomplete: the characters, the plots never come into their own. At times, it feels downright lazy.
So, why did I like this book? Because it's honest, unpretentious and direct. In that Vonnegut always reminds me of Mark Twain and through Twain he presents his other theme. Twain said, "I have never wanted any released friend of mine restored to life since I reached manhood." Vonnegut says, "For practically everybody, the end of the world can’t come soon enough." Is this the reason why we have wars, why we simply choose to wipe out entire races? That we are, at the heart of it all, ashamed to live? (less)
This is the kind of book you want to start again right after you've turned over the last page. Few books have made me feel that way, since the books o...moreThis is the kind of book you want to start again right after you've turned over the last page. Few books have made me feel that way, since the books of my childhood anyway. And for me, this is where the magic of the book lies: it makes you a child again.
To Kill a Mockingbird reminded me why I love reading. There is so much real humour in it, the writing so gentle and yet so straightforward and the musical Southern language everywhere. When Scout says, "Until I feared I would lose it, I never loved to read. One does not love breathing." I could relate immediately because that is exactly the way I feel about painting. Words and scenes stay with you long after the book is done: Scout's first day at school, Atticus and Tim Johnson, the children's artless disarming of the mob, Boo Radley's first and final appearance.
Scout, Jem and Dill reminded me that I had a few golden summers myself, growing up. And their fear and fascination for Boo Radley was more familiar than I expected. When I was little, I would go visit my grandmother in the summer and there was a Boo Radley-like lady who lived next door. No one in the world had scared me before and no one has ever since. When I was no longer six years old, I realised that what my siblings and I were terrified of was only an old lady with more tragedy than witchcraft in her poor life.
Harper Lee's characters are her greatest strength. Atticus Finch is a gem of a character. He is a good man, he simply cannot exist in this world but he is believable. And then you have Mr. Dolphus Raymond who shows a curiously reversed sort of courage, choosing to fight hypocrisy with cynicism.
I LOVE Little Chuck Little and his chivalrous handling of Miss Caroline. I wish he had a bigger part in the story. It's the little things about being a child that Ms. Lee captures so well, such as Jem telling Scout about the "Dewey Decimal System" in force at school and the way she readily believes her big brother. At the same time, Ms. Lee doesn't patronize the children - or the reader - by making them bland and infantile. She recognizes the fact that children can be as cruel or as kind as adults. Sometimes they make the same bad judgements. Sometimes they recognize what is wrong and why before the adults do, like Dill did at the courthouse. Sometimes they feel helpless in the face of wrong and like adults, they use anger to mask it, like Jem did.
It's not just the obviously likable characters that are drawn with depth. Even people like Mrs. Dubose or Mayella are more than simple antagonists. They remind you that there are few true villains in this world: you can't be perfectly bad any more than you can be perfectly good. There are narrow-minded and bigoted people in this world; their actions cannot be justified but they may have redeeming qualities. It is easy to forget this fact. Mrs. Dubose is downright vile at times but she shows courage in the face of weakness and I can respect that. Mayella shows none, but one cannot help but feel sorry for her. The red geraniums seem a trivial fact but for me, they were a powerful depiction of Mayella's state. Is it very much better than that which comes to the innocent man she accuses?
I like the basic decency that runs through the book but honestly, as a crusader for equality, I wish Ms. Lee would have made more of an effort. The black characters are mostly uni-dimensional victims. Even Calpurnia doesn't break the "contented slave" mould. The bulk of the argument - at least on part of the grownups in the book - for treating everyone equally is because it's kind or virtuous, not because it is logical. Even Atticus - unimpeachable in almost every other regard - says that it's more of a sin to cheat a black man because of his "ignorance". I think that when you treat someone equally, it means you don't differentiate against him, whether positively or negatively. So yes, while I believe the book has its heart in the right place, there may be better treatises on equality and discrimination.
To Kill a Mockingbird itself is so sincere, however, that it is easy to set aside one's doubts. In any case, I think the chief lesson in this book is not only standing up for what you feel is right but more importantly, doing it when your friends and family don't agree with you. That itself requires a great deal of courage, moral or otherwise.(less)
I wouldn't have read this book if it weren't for the constant Goodreads Book Club ads. Once I did, though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that...moreI wouldn't have read this book if it weren't for the constant Goodreads Book Club ads. Once I did, though, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it did have some of those elements that interest me after all. I love reading about time: it's the only true constant in human lives. So, I was looking forward to see how Jennifer Egan expands on the basic theme of this book: "Time’s a goon, right? You gonna let that goon push you around?".
I liked the structure of the novel, the loosely interconnected stories. It was interesting to discover minor characters tucked away as protagonists in later pages, to see their journeys in the future and past. Egan's writing is sometimes quiet and beautiful: "... What moved Ted, mashed some delicate glassware in his chest", sometimes quick and witty. I am somewhat undecided about the infamous PowerPoint chapter. I like the concept and the title, Famous Rock and Roll Pauses reminded me of something Debussy once said that I love, about music being the silence between the sounds. Still, the writing was often self-conscious and pretentious (a grown woman, not a 12 year old is more likely to use the words "primordially cute"?) and this is one of the reasons that the book couldn't enchant me despite it's subject.
This book seemed like a more sophisticated version of Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveller's Wife in a lot of ways. Both are about time and both have an interesting approach ruined by unlikable characters and pretentious writing (although there's less name-dropping in Egan's book). Sasha is just not believable: when teenage girls run away to become groupies, more often than not, they are more likely to end up without a kidney somewhere than travel around Europe and Asia. On a side note, I don't understand the recent trend I've noted in a number of books, of quirky-but-troubled-pale-redhead heroines. These writers (it may be a coincidence but they're almost always female) seem to use physical appearance as a shortcut to character development, instead of you know, actually spending time giving a character depth and personality. Frankly, the offbeat redhead is as tired a cliché as the dumb blonde and the sensible brunette. As for the other characters, Jules is interesting until you have to plough through the tiresome rant that is his escapade with Kitty Jackson. Lou is never anything more than an old lech. To be fair to Egan, she does have some sympathetic characters, like Scotty, La Doll or even Bosco.
The tone is often depressing, as looking back on the passage of time is and Egan reminds the reader constantly of what time can do: "... such universal, defining symbols made meaningless by nothing more than time". However, there is also redemption. Egan doesn't forget the circular nature of time. Time taketh away, and time giveth.(less)
I remember watching bits of the movie adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars as a kid and being drawn by the name and the setting (at the time, I didn't...moreI remember watching bits of the movie adaptation of Snow Falling on Cedars as a kid and being drawn by the name and the setting (at the time, I didn't know the place I was getting obsessed with was the Pacific Northwest).
Since then, I've read other books by David Guterson. Not that he is exactly a bad writer but it was the setting, not the stories themselves that attracted me. I find this one possibly the most readable of his books so far. He excels when it comes to describing the sometimes savage, sometimes tranquil beauty of the Northwest through the fictional San Piedro Island. I like how this is often entwined with human lives, such as Kabuo imagining his spirit roaming abroad on San Piedro's wood paths or Hatsue's walk on the forest floor, "a map of fallen trees that had lived half a thousand years."
The writing is less self-conscious and though the dialogue and love scenes can be a little clumsy at times, they're nowhere as cringe-worthy as the ones in Our Lady of the Forest. In fact, some of them are rather sublime, like Hatsue and Ishamael's first encounter in the cedar hollow, the green light of the forest and Ishmael's bittersweet realization that, "... this was happening and would never again happen in just this way no matter how long he lived." Guterson conveys the constructive and destructive power of love without overdoing the sentiment - these are believable rather than fairy-tale like romances. He also brings to life the Second World War and its aftermath, whether in Ishamael's harrowing experience in the Pacific Theatre or the more subtle psychological effects on veterans like himself, Kabuo or Carl Heine.
As always Guterson creates well-defined characters that offset some of the weakness in his writing. Ishmael is a wonderfully layered protagonist, especially towards the end. As someone who who wanted to like everyone "but just couldn't find a way to do it", his shortcomings are realistic, his actions recognizably human. Hatsue seems cold but it is easy enough to view the story from her perspective. And I'm glad that Kabuo is more complex than simply the husband of the woman Ishamel once loved. In fact, Guterson devotes energy to many less important characters, making them stand out in their own right, like Nels or Fujiko or even the lovely little scene where a Filipino husband throws his Japanese wife a bouquet of roses when she and the other Japanese are led away to be interned.
The story can be a little slow in the beginning and tends to ramble about at times. And yet like the last line in the book - "... accident ruled every corner of the universe, except the chambers of the human heart" - for all its awkwardness, the book is surprisingly striking.(less)
I didn't dislike this book but I can't say I really liked it either. I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing, and the book is filled with sumptuous litt...moreI didn't dislike this book but I can't say I really liked it either. I liked F. Scott Fitzgerald's writing, and the book is filled with sumptuous little phrases like "frosted wedding cake of the ceiling" and "yellow cocktail music", wives like "an angry diamond" or the "pale gold odor" of flowers and the "gray-turning, gold-turning light".
However, like many of the characters and indeed, the age that Fitzgerald describes, the book seemed mostly style with little substance. The ending is moving but I felt like the story was half-told, merely skimmed through so that its point and purpose is lost in the roar of the 1920s.(less)