Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is a history book (and Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for History in 2001) that I’ve had for a long time and finally got around to reading (because a local bookstore was hosting a discussion of it). It’s very readable and takes an unusual approach to history by focusing less on events than on relationships. It begins with an account of the Hamilton-Burr feud (and the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death). It then looks at an earlier dinner that Thomas Jefferson supposedly hosted between Hamilton and James Madison, the result of which was an important policy compromise. And so on, concluding with the troubled friendship between John Adams and Jefferson that apparently mended itself after Jefferson left the Presidency. Ironically, the two men died on the same day, July 4, 1826.
All That She Carried by Tiya Miles was my book club’s selection for this month. I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it tells a compelling story about slavery, and if you haven’t read about the horrors of slavery in the US it is a good place to start. (We don’t need to teach “CRT”–just assign a couple of books like this and people will get the idea of how badly slaves were treated by whites.) On the other hand, if you have read about slavery, as most educated people have, this book adds only some texture to the story–the interesting detail of how enslaved women might value needlework in some kind of coping mechanism. But what I found lacking in the book is that its central narrative revolves around speculation. As much as the author tried to get concrete evidence of who the main players in the story were and what happened to them, that evidence is mostly lacking. As a result, much of the story is a work of the author’s imagination. It could have been done this way, for this reason, etc. It’s all plausible, but not really history. And yet the book won the National Book Award.
My Teacher is a Martian by Jared Turner and John Pasden is a book in Chinese written at a very elementary level (a “Graded Reader”). Although my knowledge of Chinese is more advanced than required for this book, I don’t do a lot of reading in Chinese and decided it would be good practice. I’ve read another of the books in the “breakthrough” level of the Mandarin Companion series and most of one in Level 2, so I think I’ll move on to Level 1 before resuming work on the Level 2 books. This story is fun–two young students become interested in the stars and jump to the conclusion that their teacher is from Mars, so they set about trying to learn the truth. Given that only 150 characters are used, there is a lot of repetition, which can be a little tedious. For example, the two kids have names made up of three characters, and after a while I ignored the names because they were used in full many times in each paragraph. Good practice, I suppose, for learning to read a little faster.
The Fur Hat by Vladimir Voinovich was first published in 1989 but for some reason I was given a copy of it last year. The author is an exile from the Soviet Union and the book is a bizarre satire of life there, focusing on a particular writer. The writer in question is an unobjectionable sort who writes nothing controversial and has published eleven books about “decent people,” as he insists. When the writers’ union to which he belongs announces plans to distribute fur hats to writers, he knows that he will be given an inferior hat because he is held in low esteem. In fact, it turns out they plan to give him a hat made from house cat fur, not even rabbit fur, and this sends him over the edge. The satire is marked with humor but also a serious critique of the USSR and anti-semitism.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston is a remarkable piece of writing with dialogue in dialect that can be difficult to read on the page. Fortunately, I also had the audio book (narrated brilliantly by Ruby Dee), so that helped, and in fact that was my primary text. This is the story of Janie who has returned “home” after being away for some time, and her friend Phoeby questions her about all the rumors the other women have been spreading her. So Janie tells her the story of her life—the early part of which Phoeby presumably already knows, because it happened before they met—including what happened when she ran off with a younger man, Tea Cake. That is the part of the story that becomes very exciting, as she and Tea Cake have quite a life in the Everglades.
Win Me Something by Kyle Lucia Wu is one of the novels for the panel I am moderating at the Virginia Festival of the Book in March. The theme of the panel is an exploration of what family is, and this book certainly fits the theme. The narrator is Willa Chen, a young bi-racial woman who is recounting her year as a nanny for a nine-year-old girl whose wealthy family lives in Tribeca in New York City. Willa feels almost but not quite part of this girl’s family and becomes attached, which is understandable because she feels unattached from her own family—divorced parents who have remarried and started second families. There’s no plot to speak of here, but Willa’s internal struggles as she reflects on the meaning of family are engaging.