Monday, February 26, 2007

Black April

By Julia Peterkin

Big Sue is the cook at the Big House. She only works a few months a year as the owner just comes during hunting season. Nevertheless, Big Sue feels like she needs some help. So she gets a boy to help out, a boy named Breeze. Breeze has a lot to learn and when he makes a mistake Big Sue gives him a whipping. Breeze misses his mom but he is fascinated by the people and the doings of his new community. One of the people he is fascinated by is April. Despite his feminine name, April is a man and he is the foreman on the plantation and possibly Breeze's father, though he never admits it to Breeze. He is a good foreman and is respected by the men who work under him. April likes the ladies, despite being married. One of the ladies he likes is Big Sue. Big Sue and April's wife get into a fight and Big Sue hits the wife so hard she dies. April has enemies and one of his enemies puts a conjure on April and he becomes very ill.

Although I enjoyed Scarlet Sister Mary and Green Thursday I didn't like this story as well. It is mostly about the boy Breeze, but towards the end, the story switches to April. It makes for a rather disjointed tale. The author introduces a new character towards the end of the novel, Joy, but doesn't tell us much about her. She suddenly marries her to April and then April shortly becomes ill and it all seems contrived. This story just doesn't flow as well as the other two books did. Still, it is enjoyable reading about these people, although I kept hoping someone would give Big Sue a boot in the butt.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Laughing Boy

By Oliver LaFarge

Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1930, Laughing Boy is a story of young love between a Navajo man, Laughing Boy, and a Navajo woman, Slim Girl. Laughing Boy is a passionate young warrior, he loves to gamble, race horses, and craft beautiful silver and turquoise jewelry. He is also very spiritual and tries to live a balanced and devout life in the Navajo way. Slim Girl, although also a Navajo, was taken away as a youngster and sent to school where she learned to live like a white woman. She learned to "walk the Jesus road" and became a Christian. But at the start of the novel, she has turned her back on all that and is now seeking to be a true Navajo. In Laughing Boy, she sees the Navajo man who can lead her back to her roots. Laughing Boy finds her to be appealing too and they are married, even though his family advises him not to marry her. They have heard some bad things about Slim Girl.
Turns out Laughing Boy should have listened to his family. Because Slim Girl has a "lover," a white man she does not intend to give up even though she is newly married. She doesn't love the man, in fact, she hates him deeply. But he gives her money and she wants money. She has a dream of using the money to build a new life for herself and Laughing Boy, way back in the wild Navajo country, far from the unwanted influence of the white people who are trying to change the Navajo culture.
At first Slim Girl and Laughing Boy are completely happy. But as time passes, Laughing Boy begins to understand that something is not right about his wife and their marriage.

I enjoyed this story. The spirituality of Laughing Boy is inspiring and touching. I felt sorry for Slim Girl and for the anger and resentment she had to the outsiders who tried to make her one of them. I sympathized with her struggle to learn the traditional skills of a Navajo woman. And, knowing 1930s morality, I was not surprised at the ending.
If you like reading about different cultures, you will probably enjoy Laughing Boy. I don't know how authentic the portrayal of Navajo society is, but it seemed to ring true to me. I enjoyed this book and recommend it.

Manifold Time

By Stephen Baxter

Imagine the far, far future. The universe is coming to the end. Humanity has traveled from Earth to fill the galaxies of the universe. But despite their vast knowledge and advanced development, they are helpless to keep extinction from overtaking them. But maybe there is a way to escape! What if they could somehow manipulate the past and change the course of history? So they build a device that allows them to affect people way back in 2010, causing super-intelligent children, called blue children, to be born. These blue kids get together, despite the best efforts of the government to stop them, and they build a fabulous device, a device intended to change the destiny of the whole universe.

After reading this book, I will probably never read another book by this author. I really didn't like this book. For one thing it is too "techie." Take, for example, this typical passage: "In ordinary matter, it seemed, atomic nuclei were made of protons and neutrons, which in turn were made of more fundamental particles called quarks. But the size of a nucleus was limited because protons' positive charges tended to blow overlarge nuclei to bits. But quarks came in a number of varieties. The ones inside protons and neutrons were called ... 'up' and 'down' quarks. If you added another type of quark to the mix, called 'strange' quarks ... then you could keep growing your positive-charge 'nuclei' without limit..." The book is crammed with this kind of jargon. But beyond that, I just found the book depressing. Turns out the only way to save the future for humanity is by ... destroying it! That's what the device the blue kids set off does, it destroys the universe! So that new universes can be created, ones that are friendlier to life and intelligence. I guess the death of humanity is Baxter's idea of a happy ending.
The only part of the story I enjoyed was the bio-engineered intelligent squid. Sheena the squid was fascinating and I like reading about her and her descendants. Too bad they were only a minor part of the story.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Green Thursday

By Julia Peterkin

After reading and enjoying Scarlet Sister Mary I decided to read the other two books of Peterkin's available at the local library. Green Thursday was Peterkin's first book, published in 1924. It is set in the same South Carolina low country and is also a story featuring the Gullah people she knew so well.
Green Thursday, also called Maundy Thursday, is the day before Good Friday, and was the day Jesus celebrated the Last Supper before his crucifixion. It used to be considered a holy day, a day when a person did not work, like Sunday. But Killdee has a problem: the weeds are taking over in his farm fields. He fears if he doesn't keep after the weeds, he will lose his crop. So even though it is a holy day, Killdee hitches up his mule and plows up the weeds. He takes a break for lunch and puts his old mule, Mike, in the shed with some corn to munch on. But before to long, Mike is down on the ground, suffering from colic. Killdee rushes out to tend to Mike only to hear his wife's frantic cries. Their toddler, Little Rose, has fallen into the fire! The baby is so badly burned she soon dies. Killdee feels guilty, afraid that his disrespect for the holy day has brought the wrath of God down on his family. Yet he wonders why God would smite an innocent baby instead of the guilty one, Killdee himself.

The small book follows the lives of Killdee, his wife Rose and Missie, a girl Killdee got to help Rose take care of their new son. Like Scarlet Sister Mary it is a fascinating look at life as it used to be lived not so long ago.
Sometimes the dialect is a bit confusing, but with a little effort, it is a book that is well worth reading.

Cesar's Way

By Cesar Millan

Cesar Millan is not, as he says, a dog trainer. He is a dog rehabilitator. He takes dogs with issues, whether they be phobias, obsessions, or aggressiveness and turns them into calm, submissive dogs. He won't tell you how to train your dog to sit, stay or heel. What he will do is show you how to be a good dog owner and to maintain your dog's psychological health by being the calm and assertive pack leader that all dogs need.
According to Cesar, messed up dogs get that way because their lives are unbalanced. Their owners too often treat their dogs as little people. But dogs are not humans, they are animals. Try to understand a dog from a human perspective and you will have a messed up dog. What dog owners need to do is understand that their dog is a pack animal, and the pack dynamic rules a dog's life. All dogs need to be in a pack, be that pack composed of other dogs, or sheep, or humans. If a dog's pack is composed of humans, it is imperative that the humans maintain dominance over the dog, for the well being not only of the dog but of the family it lives with too. Dominance doesn't mean beating or abusing the dog. It simply means that the person is the leader and the dog is the follower. To be a good leader, a person must be calm and assertive. Assertive is not to be confused with aggressive!
Cesar has a three point program that compliments the calm assertive leadership role the dog owner needs to maintain. The three points are: exercise, discipline and affection, in that order. He says that the best thing you can do for your dog is make sure it gets plenty of daily exercise. Take your dog for a good long walk, or take it jogging or some similar aerobic activity. He recommends an hour to an hour and a half exercise daily. Next is discipline: make the rules and enforce them consistently. Least important is affection. Affection should only be given when the dog is calm and submissive. Giving affection when a dog is upset and distressed is a human response but just confuses or misleads your dog.
It enjoyed this book and found it informative too. I already knew that the dog owner is supposed to be the pack leader. I didn't really understand about the calm and assertive behaviour needed to be that leader. Or that people tend to give affection when calm assertiveness is what is really needed.
If you own a dog and want a better relationship with your dog by understanding what your dog truly needs, then you will probably benefit by reading Cesar's Way. I recommend it!

Friday, February 16, 2007

Scarlet Sister Mary

By Julia Peterkin

Pulitzer Prize winning novel of 1929, Scarlet Sister Mary is the story of young love gone bad. Mary, a young Gullah woman is deeply in love with July Pinesett, a handsome, lively, engaging young scamp. Mary is a good girl, member of Heaven's Gate Church. Heaven's Gate Church has very strict rules about how their members behave, disobeying those rules will result in no longer being a member of the church. After being baptized at age 12, her name was changed from Mary to Sister Mary, or Si May-e in the local dialect. But Mary's passion for July and his charming ways made her forget about the church and its rules. As a result, on their wedding day, Mary was already pregnant, much to the shock and disappointment of Maum Hannah, the woman who raised Mary. The morning of the wedding Mary and Maum Hannah discovered that a rat had been nibbling at Mary's wedding cake, a sign of bad luck. Another sign, that night, after the wedding, July spent the whole evening dancing with Cinder, Mary's rival. Mary got so angry she started dancing by herself, even though she knew dancing was forbidden by the church and would cause her to lose her membership. Talk about the writing on the wall; there was no way this marriage was going to prosper. After their baby is born, July starts to get bored being married and begins to spend his nights away from their home. Scared she is losing him, Mary gets a love charm to use on her husband. But before she has a chance to use it, July takes off with Cinder, leaving Mary alone to fend for herself and the baby, Unex (short for Unexpected). Weeks, then months go by and July doesn't come home. Mary is beside herself, neglecting herself and her little one. Then one day she notices how thin and silent her baby has become and she gets a grip on herself and gets back to normal. But she uses the love charm to attach June, July's brother, to herself. Time passes and Mary takes many lovers and has many children by them. She enjoys her lovers but declares that there isn't a man alive worth shedding a tear over. She claims that if July came back to her in a pine box, not a drop would fall from her eyes. Then after an absence of almost twenty years, July shows up on her doorstep.
I really enjoyed this book. Maum Hannah, Si May-e, Budda Ben are all interesting and charming characters. Even though Julia Peterkin wasn't black, she has such a feel for these people you would think she was. The Gullah dialect is a bit hard to follow at times, even though Peterkin simplified it to make it understandable for her readers. Also, despite the emphasis given to Christianity in the book, it is still an entertaining story, unlike most "Christian" novels. The religion isn't off-putting or sappy or phony like so much inspirational literature. In fact, when the book was released, one church banned it, saying it was obscene!
One of the best things about the book is the portrait of the daily lives of these recent descendants of slaves. Mary's mother & grandmother were both born on the old plantation which is in ruins by the time of the story. The people live in decrepit shacks, the windows have no window panes, they cook over a fire in the fireplace. Everyone keeps some livestock: chickens, a few goats, maybe a cow. They grow most all their own food and they raise cotton as a cash crop which they pick by hand. No one has electricity in their houses or indoor plumping. Water has to brought in by bucket. It is a amazing look at life stripped to the essentials. Scarlet Sister Mary is a book that is well worth reading.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Early Autumn

By Louis Bromfield

In Possession, Bromfield weaves a new tale about strong women, dashing men, and dull husbands, themes he dealt with in his first two novels. He ties this story to the previous two by having Sabine Cane from Possession and Lily's son from The Green Bay Tree appear in this novel in supporting roles. Early Autumn won the Pulitzer back when it was published in 1926. The main character is Olivia Pentland, the beautiful, strong wife of Anson, a real cold fish. They live at Pentlands, a big house built by the Pentland family; old, wealthy Boston aristocrats. Olivia's marriage is a sham, as Anson has shown no interest in her since the birth of their son some 14 or so years before. Anson is obsessed with the Pentland family history and is writing a book about it. Olivia is just kind of drifting through life until a handsome Irishman moves nearby. This man, O'Hara, is smitten by the beautiful Olivia and he is determined to win her. Will Olivia betray her marriage for a last chance at happiness? Or will she put her duty to her family first?
Unlike his first two novels, I enjoyed this one. Olivia is a good person, kind and loving to her family. Upon her shoulders fall the burdens of running the house and taking care of her sickly son, her alcoholic father-in-law, her demented mother-in-law and also dealing with the intrusive and critical Aunt Cassie, a mean old maid with her nose in everybody's business. The Pentland family has a very high opinion of itself. But Olivia discovers there are more skeletons in the Pentland closet than the insane old woman locked away in the old north wing.
This novel stands on its own just fine. It is not necessary to read the first two in order to enjoy Early Autumn. I really only had one problem with the novel. In The Green Bay Tree Lily's son loses his leg in the war. But in this novel, his leg has somehow grown back and is described as only having been wounded. That kind of inconsistency is irritating and makes me wonder if Bromfield had forgotten what he wrote in the first novel. But other than that, Early Autumn is a fine and engrossing story.

Possession

By Louis Bromfield

Written in about 1925, Possession travels territory already covered in Bromfield's first novel, The Green Bay Tree. In that story, a minor character, Ellen, is helped out by the novel's heroine, Lily, who lets Ellen stay with her in Paris while Ellen studies piano. In the second novel, Possession, Bromfield looks more closely at Ellen and follows her life and her struggle to remain in control of her own destiny.
Hailing from the same home town as the beautiful and wealthy Lily, Ellen is a poor relation of Lily's. But Ellen also a very gifted pianist whose driving ambition is to leave her home town forever and establish herself as a famous pianist, known throughout Europe and the USA. Even though Ellen has very rich relatives, for some reason, they decline to help her continue her training. Ellen has surpassed her teachers and needs to go to New York and Paris to finetune her craft. The only way she can find to escape is by a hasty marriage to a chance-met fellow from New York. After she is married, she realizes that her new husband truly loves her, a feeling that she does not reciprocate. Instead, she becomes enamored of Richard Callendar, who is passionate, desolute, wealthy and exotic, everything Ellen's husband is not. Knowing her husband's devotion to her, Ellen declines Callendar's attentions, finding she just can't inflict such a terrible wound on her loving but weak husband. Callendar, in a fit of pique, marries Sabine Cane, an old friend. Then Ellen's husband dies and she is free to go to Paris, to Lily and also to where Callendar and his new wife have settled.
Ellen is a cold-blooded character. She is so obsessed with her career and her ambitions that it is hard to like her. The way she used her poor husband was really not attractive. I didn't really care about Ellen. Later on, when she reunites with Callendar and discovers just how depraved he is, she only gets what she deserves.

What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam

By John L. Esposito

What is with these Islamists? Are you puzzled by this religion that seems to preach hate and intolerance? Then you may find this book very helpful.
John Esposito is an expert on Islam. He has written many books on the subject. He is a University Professor and past president of the Middle East Studies Association. He knows and respects Islam. This book is a kind of primer about Islam. It presents the basic facts about this major religion in an easy to read and concise format. The book is presented in a question and answer style. So if you have just a few questions, you can look in the front of the book, find your questions and read just those sections you want to know about. Even if you think you know the basics of Islam, this book still contains information you might not know. I didn't know about the Islamic banking system which is not based on credit and interest like Western banks but is based on a sharing of profit and loss.
This is a good reference book and an important addition to the library of anyone who is interested in religion or who is concerned about Islam.

Kiln People

By David Brin

What if you could send a copy of yourself off to work every day while you stayed home and enjoyed yourself? Or make a copy to do the housework or mow the lawn or go to school and take your exams? Imagine if you never had to spend time doing all the boring yet necessary stuff that clutters up your life!Instead you just let your copy handle it and you can spend your precious time doing the things you really want not the things you have to do. That is the basis Kiln People.
The story revolves around Albert Morris who lives in a world where people make cheap, clay copies of themselves, called dittos or golems, to handle all the boring tasks of life while they sit back and play. Albert is a "ditective," a detective who specializes in tracking down criminals who copy other people's dittos, a copyright infringement. Albert is on the trail of Beta, a ditto bootlegger he has been trying to run down for some time. He has also been hired to investigate the murder of the inventor of the ditto process.
I started out really liking this story. The whole concept the ditto people is such a cool idea. The future society that Brin depicts is complicated and fascinating and very strange. The story swings between Albert and two of his copies who are helping him solve the case, which was fun to read. But then towards the end of the story, Brin gets too repetitive in retelling the story from the different view points. I didn't care for the trip into transcendence and really didn't care for the cavalier way Brin just dismisses life after death. (According to him, our souls when we die try to reach transcendence but fail.) Also I just didn't get the ending, which I found confusing and ambiguous.
Overall, I would say, despite the problems I had with the novel, it is worth reading because Brin's golems are such an appealing idea and because it is an engaging look at a future society.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Raven

By Marquis James

Who was Sam Houston? I suppose most folks know he was the man that Houston, Texas was named after. I suppose most know that he had something to do with the founding of Texas. But beyond those two items, I didn't know anything about Sam Houston. Well, now I do. Sam Houston was the driving force behind the annexation of Texas to the United States. He was also the founder of Houston not just its namesake.
The Raven is the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Sam Houston. It traces his early years in Tennessee, his sojourns among the Cherokees, his early political career in Tennessee, his failed first marriage and his subsequent immigration to Texas to escape the disgrace attached to that failure. Up until that time, Houston had been a colorful and interesting character. But he really came into his own in Texas. During his terms in office, he guided Texas with a sure and certain hand. Towards the end of his life, forseeing the difficulties that the Civil War would impose on not only Texas but the whole South, Sam Houston stood nearly alone in opposing the entry of Texas into the Confederacy.
Though a bit dated in its style,The Raven is a very readable and informative look at Sam Houston.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Earth Made of Glass

By John Barnes

Giraut and Margaret Leones are diplomats sent on a Special Operations mission to the world of Briand, a hot & heavier than normal gravity planet with two engineered earth cultures who hate each other, the Tamils and the Mayas. The Leones are there to see if they can keep these two peoples from annihilating each other and eventually bring them into the vast, interstellar culture of human settled space. These two cultures were originally planted on Briand with the idea of preserving a valuable part of man's early history. But due to unforseen circumstances, the cultures have developed a deep intolerance for each other and a conviction of their own vast superiority over each other. The Leones have their work cut out for them, dealing with the planet's hothouse climate and heavier gravity, the local's bigotry and violence and their own failing marriage.
I didn't like this story. The two cultures were stupid, each so convinced they are the last word in perfection. Margaret was a pill, mad at Giraut because he isn't loving enough and mad at him because he is too loving! The guy can't win with her. The Tamils and the Mayas are both blind to the fact that neither is an authentic recreation of their original cultures and neither has any claim to being the arbitor of truth. But mainly, I didn't like the story because it is all talk and no action until the very end. All these people do is stand around and flap their gums. Boring!

The Battle for God

By Karen Armstrong

This interesting book takes a look at the root causes of the development of religious fundamentalism in the three main monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It starts by explaining the history of these three religions and how they changed over time in response to changing culture. Then it looks at how fundamentalism has become such a powerful and mostly harmful force in the world today. Armstrong's theory is that fundamentalism arose as a response to fear and a loss of identity as people faced the secular & technological trends of modern society. Rejecting mainstream, worldly values, people sought to create a return to a simpler, purer life through a study and application of precepts taught in the scriptures of each different religion. However, in their fear of losing themselves, they overreact with violence and intolerance, justifying their hate-filled doctrines as vital to the survival of their religion and to the ultimate perfection of society in their search for a Godly culture. Of course, each fundamentalist regime sees its path as the only true path to God and all others as deceived and tools of Satan.
Fundamentalism in the three religions has followed a very similar path, amazingly so. The basic arguments put forth by fundamentalists in all three are pretty much interchangeable.