Like stepping stones in a river
July 30, 2014
Title: On Canaan's Side
By: Sebastian Barry
This tender story is told through the reminiscences of Lilly, now in her eighties, who was forced to flee her native Ireland in her early twenties. Her family was caught up on the wrong side of the Irish independence struggle. The lasting and tragic impact on her did not destroy her compassion for others. We wander through her life, in and out of major U.S. cities, alighting on crucial memories like stepping stones in a river.
Both the story and the woman Lilly Bere come vibrantly alive through Wanda McCaddon’s voice. Barry’s prose is lyrical yet simple. Lilly muses about her grandson: "Age ten, he was full of a beautiful intimacy. Age fourteen, he began a long retreating walk into silence. As a child, he was like the library of Alexandria, full of stories and rare items. Then life seemed to burn most of that away, page by page."
This is such a beautiful, nuanced reading, I want to hear it again.
View similarly tagged posts: fiction,audiobook
Posted by April on July 30, 2014 at 8 a.m.
July 27, 2014
Title: The Good Lord Bird
By: James McBride
It’s both a comedy of errors and a serious piece of American history, this description of the desperate, violent struggles of the men fighting to abolish slavery or defend it. The story is told through the eyes of a fictional character nicknamed Onion, a young runaway slave disguised as a girl for survival. S/he is taken up by John Brown and his small army of Kansas Free-staters and is a witness to the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Surviving by wile and misadventure, Onion is an immature character you can’t quite love and can’t quite hate.
In an interview with the National Book Foundation, James McBride said "I wanted John Brown to be as popular in American mythology as, say, Jesse James, who was, among other things, a slave holder and a killer."
In the end, it is John Brown’s intense and soul-deep commitment to the abolition of slavery that leaves me amazed and grateful.
View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on July 27, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.
Gifts, Voices, Powers
July 26, 2014
Title: Annals of the Western Shore
By: Ursula K. Le Guin
While there are three books in the Annals of the Western Shore, and certain characters make more than one appearance, this is not a conventional trilogy. Rather, each book focuses on a different society within the larger geographic region of the “Western Shore.” Ursula K. Le Guin's father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and it's obvious that his area of study had a strong influence on her writing. Indeed, my favorite parts of her fiction are not her individual characters, but the cultures she depicts.
Gifts imagines an “Uplands” (read: Highlands) society of feuding, cattle-raiding clans. Each clan possesses a hereditary magical power—such as the power to cripple a man or blind him—that is enacted through the gaze. Certain lineages may die out while others gain predominance, but on the whole, these powers or “gifts” help maintain an uneasy status quo. Enter a young heir who for some reason is blindfolded, along with his friend who refuses to use her “gift” in furtherance of her family's livelihood, and the story unfolds.
Voices is set in a port city with a world-famous library and a thousand roadside shrines to a multitude of divinities (but no temples). This city, which also has no army, is conquered by desert-based monotheists who believe that both the written word and all other gods are demonic. While this may sound like the premise of a hundred other fantasy novels, Le Guin subverts the reader's expectations repeatedly.
Powers begins in a city-state highly reminiscent of ancient Rome, especially in its depiction of the arrangement in which educated slaves serve as tutors for their master's children. Gavir is a young slave boy being trained to become one of these tutors. However, events bring him into contact with a number of other cultures, including the traditional tribal Marsh society of his birth and a would-be-utopia of runaway slaves who live a Robin Hood lifestyle in the forest. Some of the most fascinating tensions in Powers arise from Gavir's attempts to find uses for his book learning in these largely illiterate but highly complex cultures.
Indeed, all three books meditate upon the importance of literacy and storytelling: Le Guin certainly could be accused of preaching to the choir here, but let's say instead that she knows her audience. “Stories are what death thinks he puts an end to. He can't understand that they end in him, but they don't end with him.”
View similarly tagged posts: fiction,teen fiction
Posted by Xenon on July 26, 2014 at 8:32 a.m.
July 21, 2014
Title: Stuff Matters: exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world
By: Mark Miodownik
Materialism’s redeemed in this polished tour de stuff. For Miodownik, remembrance of things past isn’t evoked by food or scent, but by the steel of a mugger’s knife. Why did the steel blade cut the way it did? What is steel, anyway? Why doesn’t a stainless steel spoon retain the taste of the food in which it’s dipped?
All those Whys of the teenage muggee—the hallmark of a future scientist—continue to fascinate Miodownik. He carries the reader along, so that you, too, can’t wait to get the skinny on glass or concrete or diamonds or paper…the splendid stuff of our material world.
View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction
Posted by curious on July 21, 2014 at 4:54 p.m.