Friday, January 19, 2018

Pioneer Girl

 Whichever comes first, the apocalypse or a North Korean missile attack, the first thing that goes into the survival kit is our set of Little House books written by Laura Ingalls Wilder. From how to butcher a pig to entertaining one’s children without electricity, the books are quintessentially survival manuals.

In the meantime, I will distract myself from such likelihoods possibilities by checking off the boxes on this year’s Read Harder Challenge. Published posthumously in 2014, Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography of Laura Ingalls Wilder (edited by Pamela Smith Hill) meets the first challenge.

Ironically, since this year’s challenge is sponsored by Libby (an ereader mascot/app), this hardcover book is the size of a phone book. Well-worth hauling home in person from the library, Wilder’s autobiography is enriched by pages (and pages) of annotations, illustrations, photographs, and maps.

Many of the stories included in Pioneer Girl will be familiar to readers of the Little House series. Written around 1930, the book is a chronicle (originally filling six Big Chief tablets) of Wilder’s life from starting from when she was two until she was 18. Even though the stories are familiar, Hill argues that this version provides the reader with access to the “intimate, conversational, and unguarded” perspective of Wilder herself.

However, what I found even more interesting was the introduction – the backstory – of how Wilder came to be the writer we all revere today.  Hill chronicles the writing career (and publishing connections) of Wilder’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane. Since Lane and her parents lived on adjacent properties in the Missouri Ozarks, Lane was able to serve as editor, and critic, for her mother’s writing projects.

With an eye on the marketability of her writing, Lane was accustomed to fictionalizing true stories. Therefore, one version of Pioneer Girl includes an account of the Ingalls’ encounter with a family of mass murderers on the Kansas frontier.  Although such a family existed, they would not have crossed paths with the Ingalls. Despite the embellishments, this version never found a publisher. Instead, Wilder was encouraged to take the stories she wrote for Pioneer Girl and adapt them for a juvenile audience.Thus, the book we know as Little House in the Big Woods was accepted by Knopf in 1931. 

The rest is history. And possibly kindling if necessary. 

Friday, January 5, 2018

“Youth isn't wasted on the young, literature is.”

Quirky literature, perhaps more than most. This past year has been light on quirky reads. I’ve expanded the list to include a few that evoke the peculiar rather than the zany.

Butterflies in November by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir
“You need a cemetery to go through life.”

Be Frank with Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson
“Sometimes just explaining your predicament--to a bartender, a priest, the old woman in a shift and flip-flops cleaning the lint traps in the Laundromat dryers--is all it takes to see a way out of it.”

Perfect Little World by Kevin Wilson
“It amazed Izzy the way the children rushed through so many complicated emotions without space between each one. Everything rose so quickly to the surface and then subsided, like firecrackers, and what had originally been so jarring to her, their unguarded emotion, now filled her with great comfort, that anything, no matter what it was, would eventually give way to something else.”

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
“Good and evil are a great deal more complex than a princess and a dragon . . . is not the dragon the hero of his own story?”

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore
“The sense of falling did not touch her, not as long as her body was between the hands of this boy who felt steadier in the air than on the ground.”

Friday, December 29, 2017

Are ye not struck with shame and mortification?

With two days to spare, I checked off #17 of the 2017 Read Harder Reading Challenge – read a classic by an author of color – with Sold as a Slave by Olaudah Equiano. 

This short memoir, an excerpt from a longer work published in 1789 called The Interesting Narrative, recalls Equiano’s capture in Africa, separation from his sister, and service –as a slave – in the royal navy, and treatment under various owners. He writes, “Every circumstance I met with served only to render my state more painful, and heighten my apprehensions, and my opinion of the cruelty of the whites.”

The mature tone of the narrative makes the reader forget that at the time these events take place the writer is not yet 12 years old. Remarkable is the number of times he mentions a kindness of his masters. After converting to Christianity in his later years, he seems truly puzzled that any man could think that holding himself above another was what God intended.

Tragically, this practice persists today. Kevin Bales in his TED talk How to combat modern slavery tells us this:


“The average price of a human being today, around the world, is about 90 dollars. They are more expensive in places like North America. Slaves cost between 3,000 to 8,000 dollars in North America, but I could take you places in India or Nepal where human beings can be acquired for five or 10 dollars. They key here is that people have ceased to be that capital purchase item and become like Styrofoam cups. You buy them cheaply, you use them, you crumple them up, and then when you're done with them you just throw them away.”

Read more in Bales’ book Blood and Earth: Modern Slavery, Ecocide, and the Secret to Saving the World.

Is your New Year’s Resolution to read more? Join me in the 2018 reading challenge.

Friday, December 22, 2017

"Trying not to set the atmosphere on fire"


Not knowing anything about the X-Men, I picked up the comic book Storm (by Greg Pak, Victor Ibanez, Scott Hepburn, Ruth Redmond, VC’s Cory Petit, and others) solely due to her day job - “Headmistress of the Jean Grey School for Higher Learning.”

The first few pages reveal her backstory: “Ororo Munroe aka Windrider aka Princess of N’Dare aka Queen of Wakanda aka Storm.”

In this particular volume, Storm protects villagers from resort developers, finds a group of missing kids (only to find out they want to be missed), and returns a rebellious student to her home in Mexico. Storm feels it’s the right decision since, like her, “She’ll lose and find where she belongs a hundred times.”

We also get a glimpse of her relationship with Logan (aka Wolverine).  As he sets out for his mission in a downpour, she sweetly gives him a patch of dry sky. She assists and old friend (enemy?) who’s invented a rain machine for drought-stricken Africa. Fearing the weather machine will tempt someone to abuse his power, Storm smashes the machine to force the inventor to work as a team with the people to rebuild it.

As mutant of the X-Men, if you haven’t already figured it out, Storm has the power to control the weather.  When she discovers Logan’s death, her grief lights up the world.  With Logan gone, she gets involved in a battle between underworld clans.  Not content to stand in the background and look tough, she does, indeed, make it rain. 

Friday, December 15, 2017

“Just take calm”

Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish was one of the few books published by a micro-press I could find at my library to meet this week’s challenge.

Zou Lei has just been released from jail. In the United States without papers, she scrapes together enough cash with restaurant jobs and redeeming bottles to pay for rent and food. The daughter of a Chinese soldier, she’s intent on staying strong by running and improvising workouts in the park and alleyways on her breaks.

Skinner has just returned from Iraq after a third deployment. Wandering around the city, he crosses paths with Zou Lei outside the noodle shop where she works. They begin hanging out, both desperate for human contact. Some days he makes it to the gym, but most find him getting high or drunk or manic from his meds.

Slated on the cover as the “finest and most unsentimental love story of the new decade,” each page of Lish’s novel seems to edge the reader closer to an inevitable tragic ending.  It doesn’t disappoint.

“Micro-presses are like microbrews. You’re trying to make something powerful and delicious, often in your basement with weird, smelly equipment.” – Kevin Sampsell, Future Tense Books

For more powerful titles, try these shops in Chicago, Seattle, and Brooklyn. Or browse online.  

Friday, December 8, 2017

Boxers and Saints

With less than a month to go, and five topics remaining on my reading challenge, it’s time to get creative. Companion graphic novels Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang meet both challenge 19 and challenge 24. Two down, three to go.

I vaguely remember mention of the Boxer Rebellion from World History class in 9th grade. I’m not sure we we’re presented with any facts apart from the number of foreigners killed in the conflict. Yang tells the story from two perspectives, that of a young boy whose village suffers in the name of justice wielded by foreigners and from a young girl who converts to Christianity.

Boxers follows Little Bao who joins the Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists. Inspired by the heroes of Chinese opera and protected by his household Gods, he discovers how to tap into an inner strength. As the battles become bloodier and deciding who should die becomes more complicated, the righteous voice of his ancestor threatens to drown him. He falls in love with a fellow a solider, Mei-wen, a young girl who has been leading a small army of village girls. He betrays her trust when he sets fire to the library to gain access to the foreigners’ enclave. Mei-wen reveals the true depths of her compassion when those whose wounds she treats are revealed to wear the cross around their neck. Little Bao doesn’t survive a retaliatory attack by the foreigners.

Four-Girl, unwanted at home, seeks solace (and snacks) from a Christian healer in the second volume Saints. She decides to fully embrace her reputation as a “devil” and become a “foreign devil” or Christian. In baptism, she takes on the name Vibiana and draws on the advice of Joan of Arc, who appears to her throughout the novel. The expression on the priest’s face when Vibiana announces her intention to be a priest is priceless. Eventually she decides she should train as a “maiden warrior” to fight against the Society. Faced with death at the hands of Little Bao, she asks for a few minutes to pray. In the end, she refuses to renounce her faith.

Bloody and bawdy, mystical and spiritual, these novels capture the tension between loyalty to country and faith in one’s beliefs. 

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Seven Books a Reading

Christmas Bundle (Hannah Swensen Mysteries) by Joanne Fluke  
Set in small town Minnesota, these mystery books may be formulaic, but always comforting – kinda like the sugar cookies you bake each December.  

The Friday Night Knitting Club Series by Kate Jacobs
Single mom Georgia Walker runs a yarn shop in Manhattan. The group that gathers to meet every Friday knits their stories together along with their latest projects. Georgia’s daughter Dakota becomes entwined in the lives of the knitters as her own begins to unravel as the books progress.

The Gift of the Magi by O. Henry
Credit card maxed out with holiday spending? Can’t find work as an elf? This book is free. You may have been forced-read this story in high school, but it takes on new meaning whether reading it again as a newlywed or someone who’s been in a relationship for years.

Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
“But instead I am applying for a job as an elf. Even worse than applying is the very real possibility that I will not be hired, that I couldn't even find work as an elf. That's when you know you're a failure.” 

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
Arriving in Paris in 1937, Andras is ready to begin his studies in architecture. However, he is blissfully unaware that his world is about to crumble. Before that, the matchmaking plan to set him up with the daughter of a family friend is foiled when he falls for the mother. Their lighthearted moments on the ice rinks of Paris soon become a distant memory as the persecution begins in earnest.   

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
I received this book for Christmas year one year and spent the rest of the holiday break feverishly binge-reading this tale of Camelot told by the women. 

Winter Street Series by Elin Hilderbrand
Always a reliable beach read, Elin Hilderbrand usually sets her stories of romance and friendship on Nantucket Island at the peak of summer tourist season. With her Winter Street series (Winter Street, Stroll, Storms, Solstice), she follows the Quinn family over four consecutive Christmases.