May 2006 Books

May 5, 2006
Explorer’s House: National Geographic and the World It Made by Robert M. Poole

I saw this in the bookstore and was pretty intrigued by it, enough to put it on my hold list, at least. I had no idea that Alexander Graham Bell was at all involved with National Geographic, also known as the best magazine in the history of the world. In fact I had no idea that for a long time it was a family-run thing. This reads a little bit like a gossip mag story and quite a lot like the history of about a hundred years in American history during which ideas of the place of the media in the world changed quite significantly, not to mention the idea of “exploration.” All of which is fine by me.

May 7, 2006
Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich

Yeah, I don’t know. I am in the exact perfect demographic for Ehrenreich’s work and I feel I should support her because she’s published with one of the professors at the school of social work and I do agree with what she’s saying, about the slow eradication of the middle class, and I even think she’s an effective writer. But getting through this book felt like exactly that, getting through it. I guess I shouldn’t expect much more from a book about the horror that is job searching, right?

May 11, 2006
The Wild Girl by Jim Fergus

I don’t know much about the Western genre but I was initially glad to see that parts of this story were written from a Native point of view. Sadly, that was about the only part I really liked. The characters seemed very stiff and formulaic to me and I found myself disappointed with the story from the beginning. And also, I would like to register my annoyance with narratives that purport to be written as journal entries but are written in a voice that is wholly inappropriate for a) the narrator him- or her-self and b) inappropriate for a paper journal entry. I am allowing here, for nuances of personality and time and place and so on and so forth. But seriously, what seventeen-year old writes like this, in his own personal private KEEP OUT THIS MEANS YOU journal: “The high desert air is cool and still, one of those limbo days that seem neither winter any longer nor quite yet spring. The sun is low on the western horizon, lighting the pale mountains to the east with soft color but without warmth. The town itself has that feeling of abandonment which has become so familiar to me in my travels, a scruffy, down-at-the-heels border town with empty storefronts, broken windows and deserted streets (p. 41).” And then, a couple of paragraphs later, ”There…I have just finished weeping, sitting in the car parked on the side of my street in Douglas, Arizona, on my seventeenth birthday bawling like a damn baby. It’s the first time I’ve cried for my parents…the first time I’ve cried for myself…and now I’m all hollowed out.” Okay, well, that does sound a little more realistic, depending on how emo the general teenage population was in 1932.

May 22, 2006
My Uncle Napoleon by Iraj Pezeshkad

I think I saw one of those staff recommendation cards at the bookstore and put it on my hold list. It’s this big huge story about this big huge crazy family in pre-Shah Tehran…an area of the world I know next to nothing about other than what I’ve read in Persepolis. This book was made into an extraordinarily popular TV show in Iran, according to the foreword, and it’s easy to see why: the characters are very much themselves, if that makes sense. In fact a lot of the story reminded me of Pride And Prejudice…not the plot, necessarily, although in many ways one big crazy family is very like the next, regardless of context…but in the way that I felt I instantly got to know each person in the story, that I could nod my head and think, “Yeah, Asadollah Mirza would say that,” or “Can you just SHUT UP FOR ONE MINUTE, Mash Qasem?” It took me a little while to get some of the sense of humor but I did end up liking the sheer ridiculousness of Dear Uncle Napoleon and of course I loved Asadollah Mirza (like every other woman in the book). Also, the usage of “San Francisco” as a euphemism for sex was just really funny to me for some reason, and I’m afraid I’ll blush the next time I tell someone I’m going there for a visit. I felt like it took me a long time to read this and sometimes I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to make it, but I’m really glad I stuck through some of the slower bits of the nascent love story and through all of Dear Uncle Napoleon’s pontificating because it was a super fun story, just plain enjoyable to read.

May 23, 2006
The Curse Of The Singles Table: A True Story Of 1001 Nights Without Sex by Suzanne Schlosberg

A friend gave this to me the other day with the observation that “you seem…angsty“. I guess I am angsty, but not necessarily about being single. No, I’m angsty about not being the kind of single where you’re a succesful magazine writer with her own condo in LA with a ton of frequent flyer miles who gets paid to go to Club Med and who has a charmingly quirky family with members who seem to have been culled directly from Central Casting. I’m more the kind of single where you take the bus to your low-paid but sort of karmically-rewarding work every day and go to bellydance and out to dinner with your friends a lot. (And I can say with great pleasure that I’ve never been seated at this possibly mythical “singles table,” either, but this may because my friends who get married are too cool to have such a thing at their weddings.) Anyway. I am angsty about the fact that I haven’t found a way to capitalize on my state of singledom by getting a sweet book deal where I basically write about how hard it is to be so fabulous and to live my jet-set lifestyle, which would be ever so much better if only I had a…sigh…man to complete it. Maybe I’m being a little hard on Suzanne Schlosberg, who did write a very readable and well done book, I have to say. But it just kind of kills me that the book ends with the realization that, like, you have to be happy with yourself, you know? And then love just happens, you know? Oh, and? That the epilogue involves her breaking her 1001-night streak with the man she ends up…you guys, this is so sweet…MARRYING! Yay! I guess I am not totally opposed to marriage, but I have to say that I hope my own epilogue says something more along the lines of “Reader, I became Benevolent Dictator of my very own island nation.”

May 26, 2006
Clever Maids: The Secret History of The Grimm Fairy Tales by Valeris Paradiz

This was a very quick and enjoyable read; just what the title says, it documents the collection and creation of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, which is right downstairs in our living room bookshelf as I write this and which I sort of want to be reading right this minute. I liked the use of phrases like “folkways” and “collective unconscious” which made me feel pretty smart, as well as the contextualization of the collection within the era of the Napoleonic Wars, which made me feel kind of dumb as I realized I really don’t know anything about history at all. But I like reading about it in general, especially if it’s presented through a specific lens, in this case the growing nationalization of Europe, with all the changes in personal and political identity it brought about. I was also interested to learn the role that women played in building the compendium: first, that the Brothers Grimm basically just wrote everything down and put it together…and also that, contrary to what I’d assumed, the people from whom they were getting these stories weren’t the little old woodcutter ladies that are so often depicted in the tales, but basically the Grimm brothers’, like, middle-class next-door neighbors. Ooh, also, you know how people always say how violent and gruesome those stories are, what with evil stepmothers getting thrown into spiked barrels and eveil stepsisters getting covered in boiling pitch? Not a new criticism! People said that when they were published, too! Interesting, right? Yes. Well. All in all, a nice palate-cleanser of a read before I get into another of the stack of big heavy hardbacks I have by the bed…and maybe I will dust off my big red edition and dip in every now and then before bed.

May 30, 2006
Always Coming Home by Ursula K. LeGuin

I have read my copy…a cheap pulpy one…of this book so many times that the front cover is just about to rip off. I don’t remember the first time I read it, late high school or early college, maybe, but I do remember being absolutely smitten by the precept: an imaginary archaeology/ethnography of a people who don’t exist yet who lived a long time ago. It’s hard to explain. I have tried to introduce this book to a couple of people (usually by saying “You have to read this”) but as far as I know, no one else has really got into it or even liked it, let alone loved it the way I do. It’s poetry and linguistics and history and anthropology and social commentary and metaphysics and speculative fiction and a whole lot of other things, messily and non-narratively (or maybe multi-narratively) put together in such a way that I really believe that the Valley exists, that the Kesh are people the way I’m a person, although of course the whole point is that the Kesh aren’t people the way I’m a person. Sometimes when I read this book before bed I spend a couple of minutes as I fall asleep thinking about the Valley, about the houses and the trees and the animals and the people there. I always imagine myself walking along the Old Straight Road, for some reason. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read this book, but I feel I always see it from a new perspective, that I always…at the risk of sounding ridiculous, here…learn something new. This time I thought a lot about the idea of being very grounded to a specific, physical place in the world, of having a relationship with that place. I can’t talk about it too much more for fear of sounding like a big ol’ hippie. A long time ago I actually wrote Ursula K. LeGuin a fan letter, if you can feature it, and she wrote back, and since then I’ve always wanted to spend an hour just sitting and talking with her. Things are getting a little tense with me lately, as I get closer and closer to leaving, so I was very glad, this week, to have the comfort of this book right on my bedside table, whenever I needed it.

1 comment

  1. Okay, I give in! I just put Always Coming Home on my library hold list. It was when you called it linguistics that did it. My current favorite linguistics fiction is Babel-17 by Samuel Delany, but more is good too. Yay books! (And yay your superpower of making me add stuff to my library hold list.)