Saturday, July 21, 2007

All done

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Got it at approximately 4 pm this afternoon (after making four trips to my office since I forgot to have Amazon deliver it to my house).

Finished it at 11:37 pm.

And, yes, I cried.

A couple of times.


When I joined the Great Books Foundation, among other things I got a free novel from a list. I first asked for Emma, and then something else, and then something else. all my choices from the list were out of stock so I wound up with Justine.The first book of Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet, Justine begins with a lot of promise. The first few pages show masterful writing and an intriguing story of a man who goes to an island with a young girl he's supposed to care for. Later he describes what brought him to this point.

However, I soon detached from the main characters, the narrator, Melissa, his girlfriend, Nessim, an aristocrat in Alexandria, and his enigmatic wife, Justine. They were all so despondent and lost, yet except for Melissa rather priviledged. Self-absorbed rich people can be done well. F. Scott Fitzgerald and Evelyn Waugh succeed with this mileu.

I can't say this is a bad book, it just wasn't my cup of tea at present. Some of the writing is beautiful, (I liked perspicacous* lines like "He had not really changed inside. He had merely adopted a new mask" (p. 241) which shows insight, but there were also too many pedantic or unbelievable lines like "her voice grew furry and moist . . ." (p. 225). Just how does someone's voice get "furry"?

The setting should have been vivid for me. It wasn't. I have no vision of Alexandria on the eve of World War II. When there's an exotic setting, I need to vicariously experience it. He does describe various places, but I soon forgot them.

Well, on to something else. I won't be reading the rest of this quartet.

*I'm studying for the GRE, which I'm taking Wednesday so I'm going to throw around some pedantic lingo myself. Yet if I were writing a novel, I'd edit it out at some point.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

No Footprints in the Sand - A Memoir of Kalaupapa by Henry Kalalahilimoku Nalaieula

Wow, what a different perspective.

Henry is a naturally positive person and this shines through on every page of his memoir. The same undercurrents are present but Henry makes lemonade while Olivia Breitha in My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa communicates her anger. Their different temperaments help explain why Olivia broke so totally with John Tayman, the author of The Colony, while Henry did not. Olivia internalizes perceived slights and insults. They just bounce off Henry. It's ironic since Tayman's message is really much more aligned with Olivia's.

Since Henry had a co-author, Sally-Jo Bowman, his book is much more polished than Olivia's.

Henry's book made me wish I had visited Kalaupapa when he was a tour guide for Damien Tours. It would have been a great experience.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith

I love Anne Lamott's writing. She's a joy to read. Her Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith was a delightful collection of "crabby optimistic" essays on raising an adolescent, surviving the Bush administration, and finding the blessings in receiving a free ham that one doesn't want. She's so funny and so real. She does blend crabbiness with optimism so you get hope that you can trust, not hope that's saccharine and stupid.

Click here for an excerpt.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Rick the Librarian's Blog

Blogger listed this blog as a blog of note: ricklibrarian. I read through it and liked his reviews (as a librarians he discovers wonderful books that I've never heard of) and he seems to have some special book search devices in the sidebar that are worthwhile.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

The Glass Castle

Bridget's review of this book impressed me and then when I got home in June my mother was praising it so I had to read it.


I vaguely remember seeing the author on a talk show describing her shame of having homeless parents who were impossible to help. Reading The Glass Castle filled in the picture of dysfunctional, crazy (literally-IMHO), whimsical parents, and resourceful, brave kids.

Jeannette Walls was one of four children. Her parents were drifters, who flouted conventions to the extreme and to the detriment and danger of their family. (Really they're lucky all the kids survived.) The father believes he'll invent a way to extract gold from rocks or invent something that'll make coal burning more effective and cheap. The mother has a teaching certificate, but really wants to paint. If the world could just appreciate their hidden "genius" seems to be their hope.

I try to reconcile or juggle idealism and pragmatics. This pair had no concept of the practical. Thus the family lives in one dilapidated home after another complete with leaks, bugs, mold, rotting wood, you name it. Sometimes there's food, often not, so the kids have to forage through garbage cans to eat. Occasionally the mother ate food that she'd secretively hidden from the kids.

The father's drinking, gambling and visits to brothels further hurt the family. He constantly took money from them to carouse, money the kids earned from odd jobs and babysitting that they tried to save so they could one day escape.

All suggestions Jeanette and her siblings made to better things were rejected. All complaints about the lack of heat or food or clothing were met with ridiculous urgings to be more positive or creative.

Early in the book I thought this family was like Paul 's of Mountain over Mountain. His father sold their house and moved the family into a school bus (parents and four kids). Wrong. Those parents were just colorful. The kids always had food and some stability.

Here the parents are a constant "challenge" (what a euphemism) for the children. The one thing they gave them was a love for reading and respect for knowledge so that the three oldest were able to use that to succeed.

As I read I soon went from just thinking "what a crazy family" to "how can people do this to their children?" I felt real indignation. The mother brushed off Jeannette's report of how her uncle tried to molest her and the father used her sexuality to gain a gambling advantage. When confronted by Jeannette after that episode, he shrugged it off saying he knew she could handle herself with the scumbag gambler. Jeanette was still in middle school at the time. (I often had to ask myself as I read, "Isn't she just 10? or 12?")

While this is a chronicle of abuse, it also shows the strength and determination of the three oldest kids who could band together and survive this horrid parenting that was often wrapped in a free-spirited joy of life by people who believed their own PR.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Olivia, My LIfe of Exile in Kalaupapa by Olivia Robello Breitha

In the Colony, John Tayman focuses on a handful of more contemporary residents of Kalaupapa, one of whom was Olivia Robello Breitha.

After becoming aware of Breitha's falling out with Tayman and disillusionment with his book, I decided that, in the interest of equal time, I must read her book also.

Breitha's book is a heartfelt, primary source accounting which borderlines on defensiveness while regaling the reader with stories, most of which serve to dramatically underline the inhumanity of the experience.

In this way, Breitha and Tayman seem to be soulmates. So, why did Breitha object so vehemently to Tayman's book?

Breitha, who passed away in January of 2006, was a prickly, proud woman. This comes through time and again in her writing. As best as I can tell, her reaction to Tayman was born out of the sentiment that "Only I'm allowed to talk bad about my (fill in the blank)." The exiles of Kalaupapa were victims of an inhumane system and lacked control over so much in their lives that they desire to control their stories and to not be portrayed merely as victims by others.

Breitha balances each episode of victimization she recounts with another episode wherein she flouts or challenges authority.

The writing is raw and amateurish but the authentic voice of a survivor of Kalaupapa rings through.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment by David Edmonds and John Eidinow

In a bit of a continuing on with a theme, having recently read The Courtier and the Heretic, I jumped at Rousseau's Dog when I happened upon it at The Tattered Cover in May.

A wise move.

Reading of the follies of these two "great thinkers," these two revered men, humanized them for me and brought me past the usual one dimensional assessment of great men to the confirmation that great men are often great in spite of their foibles.

Rousseau's Dog is the story of the falling out and resulting bitter enmity of Jean Jacques Rousseau and David Hume.

I read fascinated and a bit disgusted as Rousseau's paranoia led him to concoct a conspiracy where there was none. I grudgingly came to the acceptance that Hume's faults also contributed to the outcome in large measure. I ended up with the thought that some things are inevitable.

Edmonds and Eidinow present just enough of these two men's philosophies to introduce the reader to their dramatic differences and just enough to perhaps whet the reader's appetite for a bit more research.

While I have seen it disparaged in literary reviews, notably Janet Maslin's review in the New York Times, I was quite intrigued by the beast referenced in the title. I enjoyed puzzling out the dual significance of Rousseau's dog or dogs as it were.

In contrast to the Courtier and the Heretic, I did not slog as much while reading Rousseau's Dog. With more of a focus on the events which transpired and less of a primer on the philosophers' contributions to the field, Rousseau's Dog was a more engaging read.

After reading and digesting it, I perused the back cover and was struck by the truth of the blurb from the Boston Globe, "[a] beach book for the brainy set, engaging and erudite."

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Consulations of Philosophy

My friend Kyoung Sook, who's working on a philosophy doctorate, read this book a few summers ago and I planned to read it.

Since modern philosophy I've encountered is so dense and esoteric, I'd forgotten that I like philosophy and that originally it was written by Greeks, Romans, Medieval Europeans, in an accessible, dramatic prose for all educated people to enjoy. In 2005 and 2006 a few of my colleagues had formed a discussion group to read and talk about Plato's The Republic, Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, and Marcus Aurelius' Meditations. I've enjoyed all of them and intend to read more Greek philosophy. Still I wanted to move ahead in time. Boethius, who lived in the 6th century, is a bridge from the ancients to the Europeans.

Like Socrates, Boethius was imprisoned for causing trouble. In this book Lady Philosophy visits him in prison to help him sort things out. This dramatic dialog is an engaging means of drawing in the reader and keeping her interested. Boethius was a Christian, who loved and believed in philosophy. Lady Philosophy presents a number of interesting ideas such as why it's worse for a criminal to go unpunished that to be punished. That idea would never go over now, but it was interesting to follow Philosophy's argument on that and her explanation of the difference between eternal and perpetual, etc.

Can philosophy be fun? Yep, Boethius was, though Socrates and Aristotle are more useful.

The Vicar of Wakefield

I read Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield for my online bookclub. A few years back I saw a BBC version of his She Stoops to Conquer and I really found that engaging. This novel didn't measure up to the play.

I found the beginning charming, but as I moved through it, I saw some weaknesses. This is the story of a hapless country vicar and his family. A lot of their misfortunes in the first part of the book are quite funny. However, so much plot, such as the son's adventures, were related through exposition, a weaker means than through a switch to the son's direct point of view, which is a more modern way of narratingm, but also more interesting. Either just leave the events to what readers directly learn or

I wished the characters had more depth. The family members are rather stereotypical and by the end of the story I didn't feel I really knew them. In the end, I'd say it's a second tier classic. It is humorous, especially Vicar Primrose's cluelessness as to how interesting and important his sermons and writing are. He was like the sort of stodgy minister one finds in say Pride and Prejudice. It can be a fun character.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

The Colony by John Tayman

All authors have an agenda. Some are more successful than others at balancing out their presentation of their material but slant is inevitable and unavoidable.

Reading The Colony on the heels of Moloka'i places the differing perspectives of the two authors in stark juxtaposition. Alan Brennert tells a story that downplays the hardships faced by the exiles on Molokai. John Tayman details a history of the settlement fraught with suffering.

Neither is necessarily inaccurate.

Tayman is clearly trying to make a point. He is attacking a system, inspired by fear and ignorance, which segregated innocent victims of a disfiguring disease. In chapter after chapter, he provides graphic examples of the wrongheadedness of the policy of segregation. His is an indictment of the system which dehumanized those infected with the leprosy germ.

In order to accomplish this end, he highlights the sensational accounts of the time which inspired fear in the general population. He repeats the contemporary descriptions which often use terminology now seen as highly insulting and offensive. He describes how Jack London was used in an attempt by those trying to encourage Hawaiian tourism to publish a white-washed portrayal of Kalaupapa.

And yet, even while focusing on the horrors, Tayman manages to also tell an inspiring tale of survival, perseverance and even hope by spotlighting individuals' stories. Rather than simply presenting the data and facts regarding the settlement, Tayman wisely brings us the stories of a number of the people affected by the Hawaiian government's misguided attempt to halt the spread of the disease. Tayman introduces us to people who faced outrageous circumstances with grace, humor and faith. I came away with a feeling of deep admiration for these individuals.

Due to Tayman's agenda, The Colony has inspired some controversy. Three of the individuals portrayed in the book, two of whom had been cooperating with the author, have denounced the book in no uncertain terms. Tayman briefly mentions these issues in his Notes and Acknowledgements and a little internet research brings up newspaper articles with more specifics.

I can't imagine, though, that any writer of recent history can possibly please all those affected by the history being presented. It appeared to me that the complaints were based on an inability to separate Tayman's criticisms of the policies from his admiration for the majority of the residents of Kalaupapa.

There is additional criticism of Tayman and his publisher due to their choices for the cover photography on both the hardcover and paperback editions. The hardcover edition featured a photograph of Italian cliffs while the paperback edition, while at least using a photograph of the cliffs of Molokai, flips the photo and (at least according to this website) doesn't credit the correct photographer.

I find these issues troubling in that, in my opinion, lack of attention to these sorts of details are likely to be indicative of a further lack of attention to detail. Attention to detail is important in a well-researched historical work.

Tayman does an admirable job of accomplishing his purpose in a way that is readable and engrossing. Moloka'i presented a rose colored glasses view of the settlement and The Colony provides a view which reminds the reader that while it's a beautiful place and the residents don't want to leave, they didn't originally go there willingly either.

If I am able to visit Kaluapapa as hoped, I will be careful with references to The Colony. The bookstore there does not carry the book, bowing to the wishes of the remaining residents.

Sunday, July 01, 2007

More on Kalaupapa

In preparation for our bookclub discussion of Moloka'i by Alan Brennert, I proceeded to do some superficial internet research on Hansen's disease and on Kalaupapa.

I came across a letter written by Jack London which largely corresponds with Brennert's depiction and the book, The Colony by John Tayman and two NPR interviews which presenting a contrasting picture of Kalaupapa.

After listening to both Terry Gross' Fresh Air interview and Renee Montagne's Morning Edition interview with John Tayman, it appears that Alan Brennert's depiction of Kalaupapa is fairly idealized or, at least, glosses over the depravity that existed in the early days of the settlement.

I'll report more once I have had a chance to read The Colony.