Friday, July 25, 2008

There is such a thing as too much travel...

Apparently there is such a thing as too much travel. I have been on the road or hosting visitors on and off since mid-May. That's pretty much two solid months of travel and such. Right now I'm in Boston on a research trip. Now, to be fair, I love Boston. I grew up in it's suburbs, so it's my "home city." I love the architecture, I love the shopping, I love the libraries and colleges, and I even love the accent. Whenever I'm in Boston I feel a certain energy that I don't feel anywhere else. Usually, there are few other places I want to be. I appreciate Boston even more now that I have spent the past ten years living in other places-- places much more rural, and places with vastly different cultures, weather, and local quirks. All of that said, and as much as I love it here, right now what I really want is to be back in my house in Washington, with my bed, my books, my furniture, and my normal day-to-day life. I have, after all, traveled to Boston three times in the past two months, for a family function, a conference, and now a research trip. I'm feeling a bit disconnected.

So, today I'll be reviewing a book that deals heavily with themes of disconnection, Clare Morrall's Astonishing Splashes of Colour.

This book tells the story of a woman on the verge of nervous breakdown, precipitated by a recent miscarriage that has left her unable to have children. The main character, Kitty, proceeds to do all sorts of irresponsible things, and it quickly becomes evident that her life is hurtling towards tragedy at warp speed. In the background of all of this is Kitty's disintegrating career, an unusually distant relationship with her husband, and an unusual ability to see and feel colors with great intensity. While I found the book interesting, Kitty was not an entirely sympathetic character. All too frequently, all the reader can do is cringe at Kitty's activities, as they are so obviously misguided, and she is so clearly in need of help. It's difficult to discuss the plot in more detail, as it would definitely give away too much that the reader will want to discover while working through the book. This book presents an imaginative plot, and was an enjoyable read, in spite of the issues raised above.

Clare Morrall, Astonishing Splashes of Colour (Harper Perennial, 2005) ISBN: 0060734469

Wednesday, July 16, 2008


This summer I am hosting a number of visitors up here in the wild woods of the Pacific Northwest. Visitors are always a bit of work, but they also mean that I get some extended vacation time: at least that's what I'm telling myself. In honor of that vacation, today I'm going to highlight a travel book. I'm not travelling this vacation, so I'll leave it to the books to take me there. I've chosen Jan Morris's A Writer's House in Wales. Morris is a renowned travel writer, and in this book she writes about her home with a travel writer's hand.

I really had no idea what I was going to get out of this book, and I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised. Being something of an Anglophile, I know far less about the rest of the UK. I've spend very little time there (though I used to live on the English side of the Welsh border), and much of it remains a mystery to me. This little volume did a nice job of giving a snapshot of the Welsh countryside. This book has no real narrative or plot. It is, as it sounds, a writer musing about her house in Wales, looking at how it fits in to Welsh history and into the countryside that surrounds it. The reader gets a good dose of Welsh culture. This is not the sort of book that can be read in one sitting. I read a few pages every night, and though the volume is short, it took me awhile to finish. Though the author is writing about her home, this is very much travel writing, in that it allows the reader to escape to a totally different place, and experience part of that world. For me, this was a rambling, amusing, and pleasant way to pass some time.

Jan Morris, A Writer's House in Wales (National Geographic, 2002) ISBN: 0792265238

Friday, July 11, 2008

The Honey Thief, by Elizabeth Graver

Today's book is one I purchased after reading the jacket description. I have a thing for coming-of-age stories, and the blurb caught my attention.

The Honey Thief presents a coming of age story of a girl, Eva, on the cusp of adolescence who has recently moved to the New York countryside from the city, in a desperate attempt by her widowed mother to escape a troubling past. The immediate impetus for the move is Eva's series of compulsive thefts. Her mother, Miriam, moves Eva out of the city in an attempt to stop the behavior. For Miriam Eva stealing is much more troubling than just adolescent misbehavior. Why that is is related throughout the book in a series of flashbacks, that tell the story of Eva's parents early relationship and their marriage, before Eva's father's death, several years after her birth. Yet, the country does little to help Eva, and, if anything, her problems worsen. The one mitigating factor for Eva seems to be her introduction to a local beekeeper, who invites Eva to watch and learn about his bees. But through a series of chance encounters the one stable and satisfying part of Eva's life will be endangered too. Eva's story is an interesting one, and the relationship she develops with Burl the beekeeper is an interesting and nuanced one that Graver develops with skill. Ultimately I found the end of this book much less satisfying than the first 3/4 of the text. The ending was a surprise, but unsatisfying. It's difficult to explain why without giving away the ending, but suffice it to say that I found there to be little resolution for the most sympathetic and interesting character in the book. But up until the end the rest of the text was engaging, full of complicated characters and problems. Eva's family is one in which all members are burdened, both by the past and by illness, and much of Eva and Miriam's tell is really an attempt to deal with these problems. Graver is a good writer, I simply wished she'd handled the ending with more complexity.

Elizabeth Graver, The Honey Thief, (Harvest, 2000) ISBN: 0156013908

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And Today's Book Is...

I have been thoroughly enjoying the summer; so many things to catch up with, especially reading. Today I'm highlighting a brand-new book that I read recently. Thus, without further adieu,

Today's book is:

Between Here and April by Deborah Copaken Kogan

The central character in this novel is Elizabeth Burns, a journalist and a mother, who is trying desperately to manage the demands and desires of both. Frustrated both with the demands of her home life, as well as with the path her career has taken, Elizabeth tries to revitalize both by investigating the murder of her elementary school best friend, April. April mysteriously disappeared from school in first grade, and it was never entirely clear to 6 year-old Elizabeth precisely what had happened. When Elizabeth the adult and mother discovers that April was killed, along with her sister, by her mother in a murder-suicide, she turns her investigation to what could have April's mother to take her own life and those of her children. Into this story is woven a narrative of Elizabeth's feelings on her family and career. She has made significant sacrifices as a journalist, her marriage has problems, and she never feels quite adequate as a mother. Bouncing between these two narratives, Kogan shows how Elizabeth's investigation of April's death forces her to think seriously about her own family and career problems. Though the two clearly intersect, this book can be considered two parallel stories involving the same characters. The mystery story- what happened to April- I found to be far more satisfying than the family narrative. The investigation of April's death reads like a fast-paced mystery, and I was gripped to find out what would happen next. It allows Kogan to engage difficult problems, like post-partum depression, and in many ways, April's desperate mother is the most complicated character in this book, The family narrative I found far less satisfying. Elizabeth's problems are common ones, and this novel really did not offer any sort of new perspective or insight. I found this book hard to put down because I was extremely engaged in the mystery of April's murder, but found it somewhat difficult to get through other parts of the book.

Deborah Copaken Kogan, Between Here and April (Algonquin, 2008) ISBN: 1565125622

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Summer Reading

July- a perfect time to dive into all that summer reading I hear so much about. Summer reading has become all the rage. Books are marketed as beach reads, students have books to complete over the summer. By all accounts, summer is definitely a reading season. For someone like me who reads all sorts of strange things (and plenty of not-so-strange things too), and jumps from topic to topic, I don't generally go out in the summer in search of beach reading. In fact, I'm not 100% sure what qualifies as beach reading and what does not. Beach reading to me seems roughly synonymous to chick lit, and that certainly has a place in my repertoire. So, today I'll be reviewing something from the chick lit genre.

Today's Book:

Playing with the Grown-ups by Sophie Dahl

Sophie Dahl is a model-turned writer, and this is her first book. Playing with the Grown-Ups tells the coming of age story of a British girl, Kitty, with a troubled family. Kitty's family includes deeply loving grandparents, twin siblings, as well as a tremendously troubled single mother. Kitty's growth and development is clearly shaped by her mother's activities, which include falling in with a religious cult, acquiring, first, an alcoholic boyfriend, and later, a serious drug habit. Throughout the novel Marina, Kitty's mother behaves erratically and generally inappropriately. She is generally physically and/or emotionally absent from Kitty's life, and Kitty deeply craves her love and attention, which always seem to be directed elsewhere. All of this sounds like the stuff of a tragic documentary, and in many ways it is. The tale of Kitty's adolescence often reads like a runaway train. It's clear that Kitty is setting herself up for unfortunate consequences. It is always clear to the reader that some love and attention from Marina would likely change the course of Kitty's life, though that attention never comes. While Kitty's story is clearly unfortunate, the book is not all dreary. This is in many ways a funny book, with a humorous cast of characters, and there's mirth to add life to a sad tale. While this is a book with some engaging attributes, it also has some significant problems. The characters are sympathetic; I found myself actively reading to find out what happened to Kitty. The story is engaging. Those praises aside, there are problems that outweigh the benefits. The ending of the story is completely predictably, and the author's use of foreshadowing reveals the ending almost immediately. The writing is so peppered with pop culture references that it dates the text, and makes it more arduous to read than it should be. Other reviewers have described the writing as "clunky," and I would agree. The two most significant problems, however, are that first, significant parts of this plot are entirely unbelievable. Second, a number of the most nuanced and important emotional parts of the plot are not part of the writing-- they're simply assumed, ignored. This is especially true of the interactions between Kitty and her mother when all of the major life changes are happening. I have certainly read other British fiction that incorporates these tactics: unbelievable plots, pop culture references (Sophie Kinsella's Shopaholic series comes to mind), but other authors (like Kinsella) use these tactics far more effectively, and produce engaging, readable books. In no small part, I suspect this is because Kinsella, et. al. are writing books intended to be humorous, whereas Dahl is trying to write serious literature. Incorporating these devices simply doesn't work with the dark themes Dahl is trying to address.

Sophie Dahl, Playing with the Grown-ups (Nan A. Talese, 2008) ISBN: 0385524617

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Declaration of Independence Day

On this day in 1776 the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Second Continental Congress. This action officially declared the thirteen colonies stretching from what's today Maine to Georgia free of British rule. It was a tremendously monumental occasion. The colonies had already been at war for fifteen months by the time Congress approved the Declaration. With the benefit of hindsight it's easy to see American independence as destiny, the result of foreordained events. But this was not reality. Colonists approached independence reluctantly. Indeed, significant portions of the British Empire (what's today Canada, as well as the Caribbean) refused to join the mainland radicals in their rebellion. Signing the Declaration was an act of treason on the part of the congressional representatives who did so. On the Fourth of July it's worth remembering just how significant a break from the status quo the Declaration was. I've long thought that the name of the holiday should be changed from Independence Day to Declaration of Independence Day because really, that's what we're celebrating. Independence was a much longer process-- it neither began nor ended on July 4, 1776. Fifteen months of battle lay behind the colonists in July 1776, and five more years would lie ahead. Even at Yorktown independence was not secure. Throughout the 1780s and 1790s the independence of the United States was tested, with both domestic and international challenges. Both of these culminated in Americans' second war for independence from Britain, the War of 1812. Treaty negotiations in December 1815 finally quelled so many of the problems, both domestic and international, that plagued the young United States. It wasn't really until then that American independence seemed secure. So, a rather lengthy diversion, but my point is that on the 4th of July we need to remember that we're celebrating the Declaration, and we need an understanding of why that document was so important. The Declaration was no mere repetition of the frustrations colonists had been expressing during the imperial crisis. Rather, it was new. It blamed the king, not Parliament, for the colonies' troubles. The signers were no mere figureheads. They put their necks on the line, literally, by signing their names to what was by all accounts a very gutsy bit of diplomacy.

If you're looking for a great book on the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the clear choice is Pauline Maier's American Scripture. Maier begins with a travel narrative of sorts, explaining what an early American historian sees when she visits the National Archives, and observes hundreds of tourists waiting to view the document. No other significant document in the history of the United States, she notices, seems to create as much reverence, excitement, and patriotism as the Declaration. While the viewers don't necessarily have all of the history under exact command, they have great respect for the document. How the document came to be, and how it developed such popular acclaim become the subjects of the rest of Maier's book. This book truly is a history of the writing of the Declaration. Maier examines the documents that preceded that of July 4, 1776. She finds that in the months preceding July 1776 localities drafted their own declarations, mini-declarations, declaring the cessation of their allegiance to George III and Parliament. These mini-declarations formed the linguistic and stylistic basis for the national declaration. Producing the American Declaration of Independence was a task that fell to a committee of five, which included Thomas Jefferson, Ben Franklin, and John Adams. The lion's share of the credit for drafting the Declaration is usually accorded to Jefferson, but Maier finds that the committee of five, particularly Adams, was far more influential than previously thought. Ultimately Maier's book is carefully researched and well-crafted. It is beautifully written, and a joy to read. For those who teach American history, as I do, it is an excellent resource to use in an advanced undergraduate class to discuss how to do research and how to write history. I read this book my first year of graduate school and have relied on it heavily ever since.

Practical Details: Pauline Maier, American Scripture: Making the Declaration of Independence (Vintage: 1998) ISBN: 0679779086