Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Grapes of Wrath

As I've mentioned before in high school I decided I did not like John Steinbeck at all, but two years ago I discovered that I did. I just finished The Grapes of Wrathand would say it's my favorite of the three I've read. (The other two are The Red Pony and East of Eden.

This book is one of those famous novels that even people who haven't read know a bit about. I knew it was about an Okie family, the Joads, who must leave their farm in the dust bowl in search of work. Yet in my mind I thought the book was written about a period of history in the late 19th century. Wrong. It was written about the depression era and that made it more interesting or made me throw out any other preconceived notions. I also thought it was this long opus, but it was 476 pages and not a hard read.

Steinbeck masterfully writes in Okie dialect. In lesser hands, that would make for annoying reading. While it was hard at times to not correct their English in my head ("It's something not somepin") it works here.

I felt I learned a lot about history and the real affects of supply and demand on the labor market. It's not esoteric, it's truly a matter of life and death, when 5000 workers show up for a job that requires 1000. Like Ironed Jawed Angels I was reminded how tough it was (and I know to an extent still is) for certain segments of American society to get a break.

The ending was quite powerful. Nothing's wrapped up, but it's dramatic.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Another one of those stay up until it's finished books.

To be honest, I did start reading it a while ago when the movie was still playing in the theaters but since I wanted to follow my modus operandi and read the book after I saw the movie, I wasn't reading it whole-heartedly.

Having since thrown in the towel on the movie first, book second thing, I picked it up again after I finished Isaac's Storm and devoured it.

Pullman creates a familiar yet strange world. Texas is a country, Norway is Norroway. Animals talk.

And the heroine is 11 years old.

A la Harry Potter (must I mention Harry Potter?), this is no light-hearted romp. There is tragedy and darkness. But through it all, Lyra shines.

On to Book II . . .

Friday, February 22, 2008

Isaac's Storm by Erik Larson


Another of those books that I picked up to read for a few minutes before falling asleep, only to put it down much later, having finished it.

Isaac Cline was one of the early forecasters with the US government as it was attempting to establish its weather service. To someone accustomed to all the bells and whistles available to weather forecasters today, it was quite eye opening to read about the science of meteorology in its infancy. It was commonly held that attempting to predict the weather was folly.

Larson ably brings together the myriad factors which combined to allow the hurricane of 1900 to blindside Galveston. He discusses how the US government's contempt for and racism towards the Cubans, who had vastly greater experience with hurricanes, set the stage for the misjudgments regarding the path of the hurricane or even whether or not the hurricane was a hurricane.

By plumbing the perspectives and experiences of sea captains in the hurricane's path, Larson adds a layer of appreciation for the extent to which the storm was unforeseen. Larson also weaves in the personal story of Isaac and his brother, Joseph, whose relationship was yet another casualty of the storm.

Well-researched, the book also stands as a treatise on the phenomenon of hurricanes.

Monday, February 18, 2008

More Than a Native Speaker

If you're going to teach English for a year or two overseas and you've never taught before or haven't taught EFL, get More Than a Native Speaker, an Introduction to Teaching English Abroad.It was a great resource when I was in Japan and I bought it to help the ETAs here. Already they've raved at how comprehensive and articulate it is.

Don Snow tells the reader everything necessary about language learning, teaching various language skills and thriving and surviving in a new culture. Of course he discusses culture shock, as everyone does, but he also addresses "culture fatigue" or the mood that hits when one's just tired of being "the foreigner." His anecdotes on his experience in China and Russia were pertinent.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Gag Rule

Gag Rule: On the Suppression of Dissent and Stifling of Democracy is a good book for any citizen, patriot, or someone with a fondness for real democracy in my humble opinion. Published in 2004, Lewis Lapham’s book is a bit dated, but still worth reading since the US government is still restricting, curtailing and prying into citizen’s lives in an alarming fashion. Some of Lapham’s information, e. g. his outrage at how Bush lied his way into the war in Iraq is old hat. We all know this, don’t we? But there are some fresh facts.

Lapham recounts how dissent and the free press have been suppressed during the Civil War, during McKinley’s presidency (he appears to give 43 a run for his money), and during and after WWI when journalists who didn’t just print the party line were jailed. Lapham reminds us that democracy is usually messy, brash and unwelcomed, when it’s in its true state and that “dissent seldom walks onstage to the sound of a warm and wel-comed applause.” He exhorts us to speak out anyway since that’s the only way real democracy stands a chance at survival.

The fourth chapter, “Democracy in Irons” struck me as needlessly preachy. I felt scolded for not voting or being apathetic, when hey, I do vote, I do write my representatives and I do read the papers and even subscribe, when in the US to Harpers, which Lapham edits. Maybe my skin is too thin, but I do think Lapham should realize that the average person who buys a book with this title wants more dissent and more involvement in politics.

If you read this little book, do not skip the many footnotes. They’re gems and even merited underlining.

Other People's Love Letters, edited by Bill Shapiro

After happening upon and illicitly reading a girlfriend's love letter, Bill Shapiro became intensely interested in love letters, what they say about a relationship at a given moment, why people write them, why people save them and why people don't.

He wondered about real people's love letters, those love letters that captured all the complications of love.

So he asked people to share their love letters with him. And they did.

Some of the letters are sweet, some are sad, some are angry.

The voyeur in me enjoyed reading them but since all of the letters published were published with the author's consent, the voyeur in me was left wondering about the others, the ones for which the authors withheld consent, what were they like . . .

The Jefferson Bible, The Life and Morals of Jesus by Thomas Jefferson

In compiling a stripped down version of the New Testament, Jefferson omits all supernatural references and compiles excerpts from all four Gospels into one chronological tome.

Jefferson admired Jesus' system of morals and abhorred what he saw as the corruption of the doctrines of Jesus so he set out to ". . . place the character of Jesus in its true and high light, as no impostor Himself, but a great Reformer of the Hebrew code of religion . . ."

Thus, The Jefferson Bible is familiar and yet strange. It ends, abruptly for those of us acquainted with the supposed divinity of Jesus, with his burial.

For Jefferson, the point was not what Jesus' followers made of his life and death but what Jesus himself did and said.

They [Jefferson's views of Christianity] are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and very different from that anti-Christian system imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinions. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense in which he wished anyone to be: sincerely attached to his doctrines in preference to all others, ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Atonement by Ian McEwan

I found the book less confusing and easier to follow than the movie. This is possibly because I saw the movie first, but more likely because the book with its internal dialogue is better able to communicate a sense of time. While both the book and movie use flashbacks to flesh out episodes from various characters' perspectives, the artifice is clearer and works better in the book.

The book is broken up into three parts and an epilogue. Since I knew the plot, I struggled through Part One with a feeling of dread. The inescapability of it all almost prompted me to put the book down more than once.

Yet, once I reached Part Two, I was engrossed. As usual, the book, being so much richer than the movie in communicating motivations and thought processes, provided a degree of detail which made Cecelia, Robbie and Briony, among others, easier to understand. Being privy to Briony's sentiments and emotions allowed me to more fully understand her actions.

I basically read Parts Two and Three and the Epilogue straight through last night. While I liked the movie's epilogue, I liked the book's epilogue better. I understand that including it would have made the movie too long but I enjoyed the additional resolution it portrayed.

I'm not sure that I'll read any additional Ian McEwan. I'm not sure that his point of view, his darkness, is something I'm entirely comfortable with. But that's probably the point.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

LSAT Prep Books

I used several study guides to prepare for the LSAT, which I took on Saturday. I do recommend the books LSAC puts out as they contain really past questions. However, the best guide was Kaplan LSAT 180 2007-2008 (Kaplan Lsat 180). It's got a bit of attitude so it's not so dry and they do feature good explanations and offer useful strategies. I used McGraw-Hill's Conquering LSAT Logic Games 2edwhich was fine, but some of the questions weren't that realistic, they were too easy to be on the test.


I'm rereading James Joyce's Ulysses for my online bookclub. The first time I read it was in a college course with a professor from Ireland who was wonderful and helped bring this dense, though brilliant work to light. I am trudging through it. There are parts where one can breeze along, but not many. I won't reveiw Ulysses as it's clearly a masterpiece, but I do question whether a writer should try to write in such a way thtat those who haven't a command of say ancient Greek or an indepth knowledge of every mythology in the world. To spend 10 years writing something that you know most people won't finish seems rather a poor use of one's talent in a way. We know Joyce is smart, so is the obscurity necessary.

He was a pioneer of stream of consciousness, but now that that's something people are aware of, I read the passages of Bloom's thoughts and think, this really isn't the way people do think. It's not quite so filled in with facts and explanations because one doesn't have to explain much to one's self.

I will say Proust is a more enjoyable read than this is now. I wish I had a copy with footnotes. That would make a world of difference.

I do think the best way to read this is in a class where you meet at least weekly to make sense of the plot and themes. I find i keep forgetting what happened.