Review of Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia

Lavinia

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


As one who does not enjoy science fiction, I didn’t think I would ever read Ursula Le Guin. However, she decided to apply her talents at world-building to bring to life Aeneas’ wife Lavinia and pre-Roman Italy, and gave me an opportunity to experience all that makes her Le Guin. Lavinia has a very minor part in The Aeneid, but as Le Guin cleverly plays upon the literary present, Lavinia still exists and can tell her story. Lavinia is a princess fated to marry the warrior Aeneas and she must follow the standards for such a woman, but since she also lives in pagan times, she must follow the will of her gods. These two goals are brought into conflict, and her life is guided by piety, meaning responsibility beyond oneself. Living piously does not guarantee an easy life; guided by the poet Vergil, Lavinia’s decision to reject all of her suitors in favor of a foreign warrior leads to war and bloodshed as her suitors feel betrayed by her. While this novel is about female strength, it also just as much about what it means to be a pious man. Le Guin’s Aeneas is an answer to toxic masculinity; he is the embodiment of how to be a strong warrior merciless in battle, but also be tender, loving, and circumspect with the ability to set aside his ego when things do not go his way.

I really enjoyed this novel, and I really liked Lavinia herself. She feels very human as she tries to live both in her society and beyond it.



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Fall in Love with Eric Newby

Love and War in the Apennines

Love and War in the Apennines by Eric Newby

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Prior to seeing the collection of Eric Newby books at the bookstall at the Tavistock Pannier Market, I had never heard of him. I now realize two things: I should have purchased them all, and I am kind of smitten. In this memoir of being an POW in Italy during WWII and then a fugitive from the Germans after the Italian Armistice, he recounts what life on the run in Italy is like. It’s a pretty surreal experience. Not only does he meet his future wife, he is helped by many Italians who risk their lives and livelihoods to feed and shelter him when they themselves have so little. He writes with warmth and humor about those he met and his experiences in the Apennines.

I was not expecting this type of memoir. Normally when I think of POWs or people in hiding from the Germans, I think of terror and fear, of which there is quite a bit here, but I wasn’t expecting the humanity or the beauty of the mountains. Newby brings the setting to life to where I felt I was there. His writing and reflections reminded me of Laurie Lee’s “As I Walked Out One Summer Morning” and his descriptions of the Spanish people right before the Civil War. During the Spanish Civil War and WWII there were many people of the Resistance who helped people cross the Pyrenees, and while those journeys are written about, I have not read a first hand account of them and have wondered how such a journey is made. Newby fills in that gap with the Apennines. I was also not expecting this to be funny, and Newby has a wry sense of humor and finds the absurdity in many of the situations he is in.

While I am smitten with Newby, I love those who worked to hide him. The Italians he met seemed to straddle the old and new worlds. They worked without electricity or running water; they relied on homegrown remedies for illness; they maintained the art of storytelling; yet they were modern and savvy to keep abreast of what is happening in the war and in their area– enough to keep Newby safe for most of the remainder of the war. They used both worlds to their advantage. I kept thinking that with our reliance on our phones and GPS, we would be absolute toast in the Apennines. They also had generous spirits– much of what many our country today could learn from: they took someone who was once the enemy into their homes and fed him when they had so little. They helped him without any expectation or desire of reward. Newby mentions that after the war the British government tried to recompense them for their generosity and bravery, but they did not want money; they most desired to hear from those they helped save.

Let Newby take you back in time and renew you with the best parts of humanity.



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Review of If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World

If Cats Disappeared from the World by Genki Kawamura

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


It was a combination of being a little wine-drunk (meaning I had a half a glass) on a Friday night when I received an email from Amazon recommending this book. My already tenuous defenses were down, and that is how I came to own a book with the most depressing title. The premise of this novella is that the narrator learns that he is going to die soon and the devil (wearing loud Hawaiian shirts) offers him a deal to have something disappear from the earth for each day of extended life. The narrator thinks of all of the useless junk in the world and agrees. However, the devil is in the details as he, not the narrator, gets to choose what goes. This leads the narrator and his cat Cabbage on a week-long odyssey into reflecting on what makes life worth living and examining the worth of our own lives, blah, blah, blah. I’m so over this trope. It’s like a Japanese “Tuesdays with Morrie”, and I always feel a little emotionally manipulated by such books. They are specifically crafted to evoke to get readers to reflect on mortality, come to the same conclusion, and shake up their lives. I do not need a book to remind me about death and mortality; they are my constant companions and are on my mind all of the time. It’s a bit of preaching to the choir.

However, this is probably one of the most upbeat Japanese novels I have ever read. If you’re not familiar with the Japanese aesthetic, it’s always a bit quirky and depressing with a subtle humor. This book is all three, but more so. While I might roll my eyes, the messages in this book are important: how we spend our time, who makes our life meaningful, what things bring us joy, how we let routine and habit take over, and how we let our relationships fall to the wayside. It is a cute and clever novel, and do not let me, Ms. Death and Despair, prevent you from reading it. Your life might depend on it.



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Review of Killers of the Flower Moon

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI

Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


If there are things in your life that need to be accomplished, then you should probably not read this book, because nothing will get done. However, I did not let that deter me! This is an engrossing and disturbing tale about the systematic murders of members of the Osage tribe for their oil headrights and the money that came with them in the 1920’s. In conjunction, Grann shows how the case to solve the crimes also helped establish the FBI. He brings all of the players in this little known part of American history to life and conveys the immediacy of the fear that gripped the Osage community and the federal agents that investigated the crimes. I had a hard time putting the book down; it had the pace of a crime thriller with its twists and turns, and I learned a lot from it. For one, I did not know that the Osage had so much money– they were fantastically wealthy, and I did not know how much the government limited their rights to spend their own money. They were made to be wards under white guardianship, and this made them vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. The extent of the crimes against them took my breath away.

As I read this book, I felt the frustration I often feel when I read historical works: that history does not stay in the past. We like to think that the racist ideals that lead white people to brazenly commit orchestrated crimes against people of a different race are over, but as white nationalists continue to have a louder voice in this country, the attitudes that lead those to kill the Osage because they thought they were inferior still prevail. I know this is not a profound thought; we just need to turn on the news to see it is so. Sometimes I think some people think that such incidents are discrete and isolated, executed by one person at a time. Grann reveals how much of the abuse was supported by laws and many of the white community working together against the Osage. Racism of the past and racism today are not just result of people’s attitudes, but the result of the laws, policies, and codes we have in place to keep people “in their place”. People can never truly be free if the system works against them. I read a one-star review of this book (not on Goodreads), and the reviewer cited the book as something people on the Left would gobble up and criticized Grann for not providing enough “context” and for applying today’s values on the past. One might conclude that this reader thinks that racism and discrimination was/is okay and it’s only part of the Leftist agenda that it’s now wrong to kill and exploit others. This review dispirited me as we like to think (or I like to, anyway) that if we confront people with documented facts and human stories that they will understand, but some do not want to understand. They are some of those who keep history present.




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How Paris Became Paris: A Review

More often than not, I will come back from visiting a place and then read a random book that turns out to be chock full of information about the place I just got back from. This is typically followed by lamentations of “Why? Why? Why didn’t I read the book before I left for the trip?!” And then a reflection on life’s unfairness: “How was I supposed to know that a Teddy Roosevelt biography would tell me so much about New York?” Or “I was that close to the Jardins des Plantes?!”

Fortunately, the gods of Amazon took pity on my poor soul and deluged with my inbox with recommended reading about Paris, where I am headed today. That is how I ended up with a copy of Joan DeJean’s How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City. It was with great joie de vivre that I tore the book out of the box, ready to devour its contents. I flipped open the book and noticed the print was… small. Sigh. C’est la vie.

  The small type was compensated by lots of fascinating pictures and many big ideas. It is the perfect kind of book to read before visiting a city– especially Paris. When I think of how Paris became Paris, I think of Baron Haussmann and Napoleon III and the tearing down of old Paris and building the one we know and love today. But DeJean takes us out of the the 19th century and firmly places us at the dawn of the 17th century to show us how Paris went from a cramped, dirty hovel to being the City of Light that set the trend for how all cities should be. Baron Haussmann just improved on the design.

We take for granted everything that makes a city a city: public spaces with park benches, promenades along river fronts, places for people of all classes to mix, streetlights, distinct neighborhoods, the sense of style, shopping, and postal service. This mode of living is commonplace to us now, but four hundred years ago they were a part of a French revolution: a revolution on what it means to live in city. This was not a grassroots movement as it stemmed from forward thinking monarchs who realized that Paris itself could be a crown jewel and a reflection of their status as rulers.

The Pont Neuf bridge serves as a metaphor for the effects of all of the Parisian innovations. Built in 1604, it defied the typical bridge purposes by being made of stone instead if wood and not having any homes or stores built upon it. It was a connection between places, with nature, and ultimately, with people. Traversing the Seine through the the Ile-de-Cite, it was built to allow both carriages and people across. The stone construction allowed for heavier cargo and brought more trade through the city; to allow pedestrians safe passage, it included new raised paved walkways. This design was so new that there wasn’t a word for it. Today we call them sidewalks. The lack of buildings encouraged the public to stop during their walks and enjoy the view of their meandering river. Parisians flocked to this bridge; it became the epicenter of news, performances, commerce, and a place to just be. People from all walks life could meet together, to see and be seen.

Each innovation, in its own way, succeeded in this endeavor. The open spaces of the Tuilieres and Place Royale, the quais along the riverfront, expanded paved roads, mixed use buildings all brought people together. The use of streetlights enabled people to stay out after dark with less fear of crime; shops and cafes stayed open later. Since it took its counterparts in other countries almost a hundred years to fully implement lighting, it gained its moniker “City of Light”. As Paris became the fashion capital, newspapers and the advent of fashion magazines and fashion plates helped export Paris to the world. Plate glass windows, textiles, and a new level of commerce brought about boutique stores and a new hobby called shopping. Visitors from around Europe flocked to Paris to partake in its unique, cultured city life, and other cities worked hard to catch up to its modernity.

How Paris Became Paris is not just an enjoyable read for anyone heading to that city, but for anyone who is interested in how civilization turned the corner from Medieval life to the modern world. For this traveler, I look forward to enjoying the sidewalks, the boulevards, the bridges and parks, knowing how these simple daily pleasures helped transform the world we live in.

Challenges of an Ordinary Life: A Book Review or Two

“Hey, Ms. L, are you going to see Pride and Prejudice with Zombies?” my student asked.  This  is a much asked question as all of my students, family, and friends know how much how much I LOVE Jane Austen’s P&P.  Not as well known is how much I do not like zombies. It is a trend that I wish would finally die already. Along with vampires, werewolves, ghosts, and all the others.

“I just want stories of ordinary people dealing with ordinary life,” I replied at the end of our conversation.

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My wish was granted in Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn, a coming-of-age story about Eilis Lacey, a young woman who leaves her small town in Ireland in the 1950’s to seek better opportunities in Brooklyn.  What it lacks in the brain-eating undead or the repartee of Elizabeth and Darcy, it makes up in quiet reflection as Eilis navigates her new life, customs, and people as she finds both love and herself. Like her ocean voyage from Ireland to the States, her path to adulthood is fraught with undercurrents that threaten to keep her off-balance.  Toibin centers the novel on the daily details of Eilis’s life and her weighing of each new experience for what it means and determining what kind of life she wishes to have.  She wrestles with her choices, their consequences and effects on others.

My Goodreads list reminded me that I have read other novels recently about ordinary people: Jojo Moyes’s  Me Before You and Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, and it made me wonder why Brooklyn resonated with me so much more.  Both novels connect to Toibin’s theme of life and how to live it.  Me Before You is an immensely readable novel about Lou Clark, a character similar to Eilis in that she is used to living a small life but is thrust into one greater as she begins working for Will Traynor, a quadriplegic.  Will makes Lou question what she want out of life as he himself has decided what he wants from his.  Of course, romance ensues.  Such stories can easily be made saccharine and sentimental, but Moyes keeps the reality centered in the daily routine of caring for a quadriplegic and the physical struggles quadriplegics face. Nothing comes easily for Lou as she makes many of the assumptions about quadriplegics the reader would make.

Nothing comes easily for the characters in Little Bee either.  The main character, Little Bee, escapes to England from the war in Nigeria and searches for the only people she knows there, a couple who she met on a beach years before.  Little Bee’s arrival changes the couple’s life forever, especially for Sarah whose purpose in life has gone astray by her previous choices and consequences.  Chris Cleave can write beautiful prose, but it seemed like he was trying very hard to be profound and show that the affects of war on children is an issue.  It may have also been the fact that I read Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and had watched Beasts of No Nation, unflinching and immediate accounts of child soldiers in African wars, right before I read Little Bee.  The cards were stacked against him.

So what is it about Brooklyn that separates it from other novels about ordinary people?  It is, I figured, about ordinary events.  Eilis doesn’t have her life changed by a quadriplegic or by war; she immigrates to America.  While many of us have not moved from one country to another, many of us have moved to areas vastly different from where we’re from.  We have had to learn new ways of doing things, meet new people and determine them to be friend or foe, experience different weather patterns, figure out how to fit in in ways that are authentic to us, and suffer from homesickness.  If we return to the place we called home, we see it with new eyes and have to ask ourselves if it is really home anymore.  Does it reflect the kind of life we want to live?  Are its values our values?  At some point we have to come face to face with ourselves, that we are not the same person who moved away.  We had to stand on our own two feet and prove ourselves and come to terms with life and how to live it on our own. In the end we learn how to make our own lives a little less ordinary.

 

The WWI Book Club: The War That Ended Peace

A snippet from a recent conversation:
Guy: Downton Abbey is just a crap period drama.
Me, hackles up: It’s a very well-done “crap period drama” that prides itself on historical accuracy.
Guy: Ooohhh, what is it? Victorian England?
Me: It takes place between 1912 and 1924.
Guy, perplexed: What historically interesting happened in England then?
Me, choking: Uhh… WWI, dude!
WWI, dismissively: Why would they focus on WWI? England wasn’t affected by WWI.

Needless to say, he isn’t part of the WWI book club I belong to (although maybe he should be). When I relayed this to the club’s other member, her response mirrored mine: “WHAT?!? How can he say that?!?” followed by much sputtering.

So, yes. This “club” is only made up of the two of us. How many lines of people do you see who want to spend a year reading about WWI? Yeah, that’s what I thought. I can imagine what you’re thinking, “Where’d you guys meet? A nerd convention?” She and I have been friends for several years and belong to another book club together (an art book club, to up the nerdiness ante). We had often talked about spending a year reading books all about one subject, but since we both have interests that reach far and wide, which subject to choose? We knew that we both had studied WWI before and decided that we could further our knowledge. It is also apropos as we are in the hundredth anniversary of that war.

How does one embark on such a feat? (Because maybe you’d like to start a book club of two…) Like the generals in the war, we needed a plan of attack. However, it couldn’t be like the Schlieffen Plan that didn’t allow for change or revision. It also had to fit into our daily lives that include other book clubs (and in my case, teaching). We have decided to read eight books: four works of history and four memoirs that represent different perspectives. Since the works of history tend to be longer (600+ pages), we will take two months to read to read them, while the shorter memoirs get a month. We meet once a month to discuss what we’ve read. The way I found some of the titles was by searching a book about WWI on Amazon and seeing what others purchased; I’d click on one from that list and it would lead me to another list and so on and so forth. Based on the descriptions, I’d add it my interest list. Goodreads also provided many recommendations.

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Our first book was Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace: The Road to 1914. MacMillan’s premise is to understand why and how Europe, which seemed to be moving towards a society of peace and progress, all of the sudden blew up into total war. So imagine a 1900 map of Europe under a microscope through which MacMillan’s eye peers and studies the minute actions at play under the surface. Like a scientist she gathers the information to discover the under-lying symptoms of the disease of war. She provides in depth character studies not just of the leaders, but also of society in how the growing labor movements, the rise of public opinion, and the shifting roles of the aristocracy helped prime people for war.

Often times in history classes one hears generally about alliances, militarism, and nationalism, and then boom! one day Archduke Franz Ferdinand, some dude from the Austria-Hungarian Empire is killed by some anarchist in some city and all of Europe falls apart. It’s a tenuous reason for millions to die and the possible end to Western civilization at best, but MacMillan does an excellent job showing how these forces developed and reacted over time through different countries’ decisions and skirmishes in Morocco and the Balkans to finally end in war. She tries to weigh how much of the war was the fault of “great men”– those in power– and that of forces hurdling towards conflict. Between 1900-1914, European nations had consistently used bluff and brinkmanship in their skirmishes, and each time they got closer and closer to war, and while she proves that they always had choices to avoid war, was it ultimately inevitable?

What I found most interesting was how many people had the foresight to understand what a long, bloody battle this war would be. Unfortunately, none were in charge of the militaries or countries and their views were often discounted.

MacMillan’s style is clear and easy to read. Each paragraph has a clear point followed by interesting and relevant evidence. She has a knack for finding interesting and funny quotes and for connecting issues if the past to issues in our modern times. The first half of the book sets up her argument on the state of Europe and the second half proves it (for us, the first half was more interesting as the second half was more military talk and policy). I highly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand how countries at peace can suddenly end up at war.

March memoir: e.e. cummings’ The Enormous Room

Readers: What book (or novel) about WWI do you recommend and why?

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Being a nerd, I didn’t want to show up to book club with nothing to say…