Thursday, January 7, 2010

Read in 09

This listing follows the one began in Read in 08 and lists books in the chronological order I read them during the year. As before, I recount only those titles I read in full.

Ratings given follow the system established for the Red Wing Area Branch (AAUW) Book Club: 5-best; 4-top 20%, 3-middling, 2-less than average, 1-bottom. Other designations appear as BC – Branch Book Club selections. SF – Stratford Festival plays. YA-Title written for teenage or younger readers.

Will Weaver, Memory Boy (2006). YA After a massive volcanic eruption in which civilization begins to crack, Miles, a teenage boy, and his family leave the Twin Cities in the hope of more security in northern Minnesota. Miles’ past experiences, as recalled, help them on to a safer place. 3

Sandra Dallas, The Persian Pickle Club (1993). BC The Pickles are not your typical quilting club; or, are they? They’ve been meeting so long in Harveyville, Kansas that by the dirty thirties days of the Great Depression, they have some second generation members. Queenie, who tells the story is one, and Rita, her opposite – a sophisticate from Denver – is a newcomer. Rita tries to settle in, but discovered bones of a murdered man divert her attention to solving the crime. Characters of the quilters, however, take prominence and Rita learns far more than she expected. A very delightful book. 4

Cormac MCarthy, The Road (2006). Few books are as gripping and excellently written as this one. The story of a unnamed man and his young son heading south in hopes of escaping an apocalytptic winter takes the breath away by sheer power of suggestive language and the horror of incident after incident. Though the premise is the same as Memory Boy above, McCarthy puts that naive book to shame. One of the best, an absolute 5.

Khaled Hosseini, A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007). BC Two Afghani women, differing in age by a generation, background and early experience, find their fortunes come together in the brutal days of the Taliban. I grew amazed how Hosseini, with only The Kite Runner to his credit, could master this a compelling story with such command and meaning. The richness of Afghanistan’s history, peoples and poetic culutre comes through alongside the poverty and brutality. 4

Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (1813; edited by Vivien Jones, 1996). BC For years I put off reading Austen, whom I judged wrote for women. It took broadcasting her novels to get me going and realize how accomplished, insightful, and satiric she was. I think of Persuasion as her most accomplished novel until I read Sense and Sensibility or Pride and Prejudice that also jostle for first place. Her books always seem to be about money or the lack of it and the necessity of marriage for women who are not willing to settle for just anything. But they are all about character of which no two are ever alike. 5, of course.

Avi, Crispin: the cross of lead (2002). YA In the time of Edward III, the high middle ages of 14th century England, Asta’s son, known later as Crispin, finds himself not only orphaned but a public enemy and on the run. Puzzled and afraid, Crispin barely survives on his own until taken under the wing of Bear. This independent and enterprising older man helps him onward to further adventures and confident acceptance of himself. Too much razzle-dazzle for me. 3

Avi, Crispin: at the edge of the world (2006). YA As Crispin and Bear continue their precipitous flight from the feudal powers after them, I thought all would be resolved and Crispin would gain not only ability with his knowledge and self-acceptance, but some restoration of his rightful place in society would follow. Instead, much time is spent in the rescue of the mysterious girl, Troth. Disappointing. 3

Beryl Markham, West with the Night (1983; first published 1942). BC Markham was the first person to fly across the Atlantic, east to west, before Lindberg flew first west to east. We hardly ever hear of her, yet she was famous in her own day. Growing up motherless in Africa where hee father raised horses, she pursued her own education and interests and in mature years wrote of them. That writing is fantastic, vivid, arresting and beautiful. We learn of lion attacks, native wisdom, majestic racehorses, and the awesome grandeur of piloting through the bush. A stunning book, worthy of much greater attention. 5

Karen Cushman, Catherine, called Birdie (1994). Catherine is the spoiled teenage daughter of a feudal lord who does everything she can to avoid being married off to an old baron against her will. She tells her own story by running comments on the calendar’s day by day designation of which saint it remembers. The book is jaunty but often silly. I wished Catherine would get more of a grip on life instead of being saved by a deus ex machina at the end. Though a Newberry Honor Book, I give it a 2.

Karen Cushman, The Midwife’s Apprentice (1995). YA Brat, latter called Beetle, is as feisty as Catherine but slowly becomes more estimable. She begrudges her poor situation but finally by observation and clever initiative takes on more worth. It’s a slow process, but a quick read. This Newberry Medal Book gets a 3 from me.

Karen Cushman, Matilda Bone (2000). YA Matilda is as oblivious of her station as Catherine and as slow to wake up as Beetle, but goes through the same slow progress. The medieval setting, which is why I read these books, comes through here, primarily regarding the primitive and nonsensical practice of medicine. 3, begrudgingly.

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Children of Hurin (2007). Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has a lot to do with the restoration of his father’s work in sequencing more fully the legends and tales antecedent to The Lord of the Rings. This story, though appearing sketchily in The Simalrilian and Tales appears here as a novel. It has the ring of Tolkien’s awesome prose and proceeds as continuous high tragedy. I liked the pace and style of it as the unfortunate Turin works through Morgoth’s curse upon him and all his family. 4

Doris Lessing, The Grass is Singing (1950). BC This was Lessing’s first novel and the only one I have read. I was surprised how good it is. We know the outcome from the beginning, but we don’t know why. By filling in the great blank of motivation and misunderstanding, Lessing captures our attention and interest into the complex of character, station, aspiration and regret between the Rhodesian farmer, his sorry wife, and the black servant who tends to her. 4

William Shakespeare, Macbeth (ca. 1606; Mowat & Werstine, 1992). SF I had not read Macbeth since senior year in high school nor ever seen it acted. However, we were going to see it at Stratford, and coincidentally the St. Olaf College President, a former English Professor, invited class reunion planners to his seminar on the play. The discussion of the Macbeths and their motivations increased our interest. In this read, Macbeth appeared to quickly fall to temptation while his Lady obsessed over it until her own doom foreshadows his due end. 5

Edmond Rostand, Cyrano [de Bergerac] (1897 ; Burgess, 1998). SF One of my long-time favorites, seen only previously on film and television versions. This more complete script makes greater sense, especially of Roxanne showing up at the battlefront and of Cyrano’s death scene. 5

Jean Racine, Ph├Ędre (1677; Rawlings, 1961). SF Contrary to Euripides’ Hippolytus and Renault’s The Bull from the Sea, where Phaedra otherwise schemes, here Christian conscience wracks the stepmother. We can only understand Racine's drama by knowing the influence of Jansenism on his views. Consequently, because of all the rampant handwringing over Phedre's illicit attraction, I did not care for it as much. 4

Anton Chekhov, Three Sisters (1901; Dunnigan, 1964). SF I must have seen this some years ago because I vaguely remember it. It reminded me of Cherry Orchard in setting and interpersonal dynamics but with a different story line. Chekhov’s technique in these dramas was to unravel an unrelenting drama of stressful changes over time propelled by action that happens off stage. The power of a Chekhov play, though it was never fun to read or watch, grows on you with reflection. 5

Robert Lawson, Mr. Revere and I (1981; 1st published 1953). YA On his famous ride, Paul Revere rode a horse named Scheherazade. At first, she is the very proper British horse of a foppish regimental officer. Through rough circumstances, Scheherazade becomes a member of the Revere family. She tells all; though her prim voice continues, her attitudes change over time as she begins to see the merits of the colonists and their revolution. One of the best YA novels and historical send-ups I have ever read, and very delightful. 5

Edward F. Droge, Your Intelligence Makeover (2005). Droge, who eventually earned a doctorate, began as a poor student. Now he lauds learning and in this book proposes easy steps to demonstrate it. I found the book seriously flawed in concept and execution, starting with the diagnostic tests to gauge areas of strength and weakness. I read it because books of this kind appeal to me, but I cannot recommend it. 2

Burn this Book; edited by Toni Morrison (2009). Intellectual freedom is one of my primary interests, and when I saw this brand new book already remaindered for $4.00, I bought it at once. According to the subtitle eleven “PEN writers speak out on the power of the word.” They may be our shining lights – John Updike, Orhan Pamuk, Nadine Gordimer, etc. – but their contributions – mostly new with some older – are uneven, some with factual errors, some flat, some without much relevance. Considering all he went through with a fatwa on him, Salman Rushdie’s seemed weak. The exception was Russell Banks, “Notes on Literature and Engagement,” who contrasts novels of social influence with novels of insight thanks to authorial identity, a quality not to be sacrificed to public expectation. 3

Michael St. John Parker, The World of Charles Dickens (1999). This is really just a pamphlet, but amazingly informative in a few thousand words and apt illustrations. I think you would have to go to London to buy a copy; I was lucky that a friend made the trip and gave it to us. 4

Daniel G. Amen, Magnificent Mind at Any Age (2008). I read this in preparation for a session on brain research, but Amen has a lot to him. Magnetic resonance imaging has advanced recent brain science by allowing us to see activity inside the skull that we could approach before largely by introspection or behavioral observation. He tells the basis of his research, most of which gets at dysfunctions, but the bulk is solid advice for healthy living, brain development, and continued learning – all with “skills, not pills.” I put a chapter of this book to work in my article “Success.” 4

Sandra Dallas, The Diary of Mattie Spenser (1997). The discovery of a pioneer woman’s diary in Territorial Colorado leads to following her life over her first two years there. Then her aged granddaughter’s perspective gives satisfying context to what happened after. Mattie emerges as a spirited woman with high hopes from marriage and a new life. Hardship follows, but Mattie persists where many of the women and some of the men of her acquaintance do not. Children die; men go wayward, but Mattie survives. Dallas is excellent at character with engaging stories and convincing background. 4

Edmund Cooper, The Overman Culture (1972). Michael Faraday and his classmates live in a contrived world, populated with figures from the past. Not only are the children named after historic figures with Queen Victoria and Winston Churchill their contemporaries, but war with the Germans goes on somewhere outside their shell. Gradually, Michael and his chums determine they are flesh and blood while their parents, teachers and others are “drybones,” entities that cannot bleed. Their discovery of an abandoned library takes them farther on the path to learning the wider context to human existence, but not until their persistence leads to a confrontation is all explained. 3

Edmund Cooper, The Cloud Walker (1973). Humanity has been to the brink of self-inflicted extinction twice before. In the third age of humankind, Kieron struggles against the luddite ethos that endeavors to avoid the same past progression that leads to annihilation. Apprenticed as an artist, Kieron dreams of flying and experiments with kites and balloons. Only protection from his feudal lord keeps him from an inquisition’s imprisonment and worse. And only after Kieron’s tactical advantage of balloon-borne bombs ruin a fleet of pirate invaders does the course of history alter once again. 3

Edmund Cooper, Five to Twelve (1968). Dion Quern, born in 2025, rebels against the order of his world. A quirk of late 20th century feminism and attendant birth control has led not only to twelve female births for every five males, but a shift in power. Women are in charge and that power gives them control of longevity drugs. Dion is caught while burgling a woman’s apartment, but Juno likes his spirit and keeps him on as a sport for sex and then as a contracted partner because she loves him. Dion is never happy about his situation; he falls into plots against the female establishment, and bickers with Juno throughout the novel. Only when he has been brainwashed for all his crimes and without memory of his past does he experience a glimmer of future change. 3

For a further analysis of these three Cooper novels, click on Edmund Cooper.
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