When you are surrounded by books and book reviews all day choosing what to read in my spare time can find me agonizing over many different titles. So how do I choose? Sometimes I will read for fun and entertainment, so my love of a good mystery usually wins. However, I believe the biggest motivator for me is to find books that take me into to the lives and experiences of others in order to understand the world in which I live. Therefore mainly I read biography, history and realistic fiction.
As I write, it is one week until African American History Month, 2011. Most of my understanding of the African American experience in this country has come from books so I want to share some that have been important to me.
Like many other high school students, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, opened my eyes to racial bigotry and its consequences. Over the years there have been many more books that have continued to educate me. To name a few: Alex Hailey’s Roots; Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman; the biographies of Maya Angelou; Alice Walker’s [i]The Color Purple; Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Jazz; Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; and Valerie Boyd’s biography of Hurston, Wrapped in Rainbow.
This past year I have read four titles that have added to my awareness of African American life and culture.
Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez is a novel about the black women who were the enslaved mistresses of their white owners.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot documents the struggle of the Lacks’ family to understand how harvested cells from Lacks, a poor black woman who died from cervical cancer, advanced medical breakthroughs over the last 60 years.
Like Harper Lee, Kathryn Stockett is a young, white, fiction author. Her book, The Help, is about African American maids in the South at the time of the Civil Rights movement.
In Grace of Silence NPR correspondent, Michele Norris chronicles her family’s racial history, she discovered while researching the book she started out to write about race in America.
You don’t have to wait until African American History month to read books by and about African Americans but February does remind us to seek them out and add them to our reading lists.
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In light of the recent popularity of Cory Doctorow’s first YA joint, Little Brother , I decided to re-read one of his earlier works. I chose Eastern Standard Tribe because I enjoy Doctorow’s writings and the premise had seemed a bit wacky at the time. As I suspected, it has gotten more plausible in the intervening years.
The novel’s basic premise is that our high-tech world has created new Tribes, ones wherein its members have more in common by the hours they keep and the types of activities they remotely participate in rather than by proximity, blood, or soil. The main character, Art, is a kind of spy working to advance the interests of the title Tribe. Art is a User Experience consultant for a European communications corporation where he actively designs poor-quality products and services that help to give his Tribe an edge in the global marketplace.
No longer wacky is the idea that people who live in disparate parts of the world “synch” themselves up to each other. At the time of its release, the electronic world was not as seamlessly integrated into everyday life as it is has become. Six years ago, most had never heard of Facebook, Skype, or other advanced social network platforms that are an integral part of today’s social life. Communication between cell phones, PCs, laptops, and audiovisual peripherals was difficult – when not impossible – so that one’s online time was allotted to mostly one thing or the other rather than today’s everything anytime situation
Art confronts very real existential questions about meaning and loyalty throughout the book. The narrative is intertwined in two stories – Art’s present-time incarceration in a mental ward and the months leading up to his current predicament – with each perspective presented in alternating chapters. Doctorow throws in just enough of a mystery twist along the way to give the tale some oomph and enough humor to make Art’s musings less ponderous than they could have seemed.
I would recommend this story for lovers of cyberpunk, “lad lit” (humorous British authors such as Nick Hornby ), and the fiction of Douglas Coupland.
*Download Eastern Standard Tribe or Little Brother for FREE! Thank you Cory Doctorow.*
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Every summer we hear about fantastic beach reads, but aren’t the winter months really when you find that extra time to cozy up with a book? Here are a few frosty picture books to share with the little ones in your life.
Snow Dude by Daniel Kirk
A totally fun riff off the classic Gingerbread Man tale where a snowman heads out on a snowboard and the chase begins.
Snow by Uri Shulevitz
This captures the perspective of the wishful child so beautifully. A boy and his dog watch as one snowflake turns into another and another, never letting the skepticism of the adults who say, “It’s nothing” or “It will melt”.
The Hat by Jan Brett
A hedgehog finds himself stuck inside of a woolen stocking that falls from a nearby clothesline. After realizing that it’s not coming off of his quills, he concludes that it makes a splendid hat. And although the other animals he encounters all declare he looks silly, they too see the advantages of outerwear.
The Snowman by Raymond Briggs
Another snowman coming to life pick? Why, yes! This is a gentle wordless story is filled with magic and play. It’s also animated on DVD which can borrowed from LFPL
Here Comes Jack Frost by Kazuno Kohara
A boy complains that there’s nothing to do in the wintertime. Shortly thereafter that mythical imp Jack Frost appears to show him that fun abounds.
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Bill Bryson, a man of boundless curiosity, apparently enjoys ferreting out every detail about whatever catches his fancy. His early books recounted his travels, always with a humorous twist. His recent books are of a more serious tone, but full of the intense interest he brings to the material he has explored. Bryson is an American who has spent most of his adult life living in England.(During the eight year interlude he spent in New Hampshire, before moving his family back to the “Sceptered Isle”, he managed to write the bestseller A Walk in the Woods , about his experiences on the Appalachian Trail.) Now in staid middle age, he most enjoys puttering about his house and garden in Norfolk. At Home: A Short History of Private Life is loosely centered on his home, a former rectory built in 1851. As he walks the reader through the house, room by room, he ranges widely through the history of the everyday objects found therein. Sometimes Bryson seems to be wandering down rabbit trails, but he is able to bring the detours back home by chapter’s end. He is such an accomplished writer, he held my interest throughout.
The book is packed with all sorts of interesting detail, focusing on the mid-nineteenth century, but ranging far and wide throughout history to explain how homes evolved, and looking at objects found in a home and how they came to be there. While in the kitchen, he speaks of spices and of why salt and pepper achieved the place of honor on tables. He wonders why we say “room and board” and why a fork has four tines. When he looks at his fuse box, you will get an early history of illumination in the home, leading to how electricity developed. In the dining room, you will be told how different sorts of food came to appear on the table and how many servant s a Victorian home kept. In the cellar, he ponders different building materials, from timber to stone to brick. A tour of the study leads to a discourse on mice and rats and the development of traps to catch them. Entering the bedroom leads to explorations of marriage, sex and the role of women, with detours into illnesses and methods of surgery. The bathroom prompts information on the history of cleanliness and of how the toilet evolved. In the nursery we are treated to a history of childhood and in the dressing room, a history of clothing, including wigs. He wonders why jackets have several useless buttons at the cuff, and finds the answer. Bryson completes the tour in the attic with (unaccountably) a look at the history of taxation and at the theory of evolution. Phew! There is far more to the book than I have listed here. One reviewer said he thought Bryson was looking for an excuse to print every arresting bit of information upon which he may have stumbled. (His bibliography runs to twenty pages.) Perhaps so, but it does make interesting reading.
Early in the book, Bryson says the history of private life can be said to be a history of “getting comfortable slowly” (p.135). In the last pages, he points out the enormous changes that occurred during the nineteenth century, the great progress made in getting comfortable. He also notes that our life of comfort in the west consumes enormous amounts of energy. He says, “Of the total energy produced on earth since the Industrial Revolution began, half has been consumed in just the last twenty years” (p.451). This book is food for thought on so many levels and Bryson is an engaging companion with whom to share the meal.
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Having read Rollins’ Get In the Van , I was looking forward to a history that focused on the early years of Black Flag. Spray Paint the Walls came through in those regards. But there was something incongruent about the early chapters. As much as I wanted to know about Keith, Dez, and Chavo, it was uninteresting and slow-paced – not a fitting introduction for a coffee-fueled hardcore band. It read like a textbook. Given the personal nature of Get in the Van, it had a lot to live up to. I enjoyed the chapter about their show at a park picnic so much that I read it twice, but found myself speeding through the first half of the book with little interest.
The intensity increases half way through. It’s such a change that it seems like a different author is writing it - possibly the result of the use of previously published information. Once the Dez era starts, though, the focus falls more on the band. The conflict both with the authorities and within the band make for an engaging history. Dukowski’s influence as a musician, stage presence, and manager was a surprise. Kira had lots of personal passages. But there was an absence of new input from most band members. The facts and figures were presented, but none of the emotion of the moment was there. Such a volatile group should have had an explosive account.
If nothing else, it was a good compilation and a timely publication, with Keith Morris’ band “OFF!” gaining popularity, and Black Flag worship taking hold amongst another generation. I would like to have read more about the extended band “family.” Black Flag had so many offshoots and related bands that I think it really could have demonstrated the influence and community of the music. I also wonder if the British author’s distance from the US may have created a certain noticeable distance from the information. Everything from his description of Hermosa Beach to his incorrectly referring to the Misfits as a California band seemed a bit phony. But I suppose that all of the insiders are probably pretty sick of talking about the same thing after all of these years, so maybe it takes an author from another country to objectively document such an intense bunch of people.
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