Posted on 2006-10-09 09:14:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Howl’s Moving Castle
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Genre: Fiction — Young Adult

Why I liked this book: Old-fashioned fairy tales about magic castles, talking fireplaces, and possibly-evil wizards should, in my estimation, always include an underlying emotional story about how to understand your own talents and find your place in the world.

Shy Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three sisters, and finds herself quite inconveniently cursed to live as an old woman. She realizes she can’t go on as she is, so she marches off to find the Wizard Howl, whose moving castle is usually found skulking outside of her town of Market Chipping. Once inside the castle she finds a fire demon in the fireplace, a sweet-natured apprentice who’s in love with her sister (but which one?!), a flighty wizard who may or may not be evil, and a castle that is nothing like it appears on the outside. Once she’s come to terms with all of that, she finds herself in the middle of a quest for a missing wizard, protecting a family in modern Wales, a search for the King’s lost brother, and the fight against the witch who cursed her. And her role in all of those quests, problems, and fights is nothing at all like she would have expected… nor are her powers.

Diana Wynne Jones, with typical dazzling skill, pulls together what feels like twenty disparate storylines in one neat and tidy climax — as all fairy tales should end. This was a fun, smart, and interesting read, even if it is ‘juvenile’ fiction.

The College Libraries own a copy of this book — check Bearcat for the call number and to see if it’s on the shelf.

Posted on 2006-09-05 20:04:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Farmer Boy
Author: Laura Ingalls Wilder
Genre: Juvenile Fiction

Why I liked this book: Like many young American girls, I grew up reading Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, the fictional and somewhat autobiographical stories of Laura Ingalls and her family as they traveled and built new homesteads in the woods and prairies of America. Farmer Boy is similar homesteader fare, however the central character is not Laura, but Almanzo Wilder, a nine-year old boy who prefers his farm chores to schoolhouse learning. Farmer Boy follows Almanzo as he faces the challenges of living off the land, in a world where if you want to sweep the floor, you first have to make your own broom from the straw that you planted last Spring. If you ever wanted to know how to train young oxen to the yoke, or how to grow a milk-fed pumpkin, this is the book for you. Occasionally reflecting the sexism and brutality of its time, this is a classic that can be read by anyone who has an interest in the life and culture of rural America in the late 1800’s.

The real treat is that Farmer Boy is set in northern New York, outside Malone. The sites and locations mentioned in the book are familiar, as is the extreme weather, political landscape and related events. To make your treat a double delight, I would encourage you to visit the Wilder Homestead in Malone after reading the book. The Wilder Homestead is the birthplace of Almanzo Wilder, the author’s real life husband whose reminiscences about his childhood on the farm became the basis of Farmer Boy. There you can see the original farmhouse and reconstructed barns which were rebuilt based on the archaeological findings of SUNY Potsdam faculty and students. The museum and homestead are full of antique farm tools and household artifacts from the late 19th century. Wilder Homestead tour guides demonstrate many of the artifacts and relate them to events and descriptions in the book. Hurry! The Wilder Homestead closes on Sept. 30th!

Posted on 2006-08-29 13:57:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier
Author: Joanna Stratton
Genre: Non-fiction

Why I liked this book: From the first time I read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, I’ve been fascinated with the pioneer days — with the idea that people would pick up everything they had, leave everyone they knew and loved, and travel to the wilderness to set up a new home, a new livelihood, and a new life. Such a risk! Such danger! From the comfort of my modern American life, it’s always been almost unimaginable. Part of what the Little House series did for me was make the unimaginable into something almost tangible. Pioneer Women does the same thing, but with a harder, less sanitized view of the prairie. This book isn’t written for children, so it doesn’t gloss over the starvation, the danger, the politics, the wars, or the hardship. What it does do is take the heart of hundreds of letters, memoirs, diaries, and personal writings of the women who settled Kansas and share them with the reader — the good, the bad, all of it. The reality.

Letters and memoir are, of course, tinged with the emotions, desires, distance of time, and envisioned audience of she who wrote them, but even accepting those biases these are affecting stories of hardship, perseverance, and joy. I found this a fascinating read, like a window into another world.

Posted on 2006-08-16 11:49:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Slant
Author: Greg Bear
Genre: Fiction (scifi)

Why I liked this book: As a librarian, I’m hyperaware of our continued shift to an information society, an information economy. Speculative fiction that’s set in a future that sees the same shifts I’m aware of is very appealing to me, particularly when it was published in 1998, and seems so very aware of the world we live in now, in 2006 — that prescience is impressive. But Bear’s story is far more than an exploration of just an information society gone awry.

Bear envisions a world in which humanity is almost uniformly ‘therapied’, using nanotechnology and psychological counseling to cure imbalances in brain chemistry, producing a society of happier, healthier, more productive citizens. Those citizens are bombarded with information, from their evolved equivalent of the internet and cable broadcasting — an omnipresent information stream, with billboards customized to each individual’s ‘profile’, ubiquitous handheld communication, computing and media devices, virtual reality entertainment, and endless options for engaging with the information flow around them (if only you can pay!). But Bear’s near-future society isn’t a utopian one; some fundamentalist groups oppose the use of nanotechnology and the unlimited content of the information streams available to citizens, while others rebel against the way that everyone is brought to a forced ‘normal’ state with therapy, and prejudices run amok as people experiment with the options available to them. In essence, the human condition remains the same — discontent, dissatisfaction, and a quest for fulfillment lie underneat the surface of his shiny vision of the future.

Bear is a science fiction master (he’s won both the Nebula and Hugo awards), and has crafted a novel with so many plot threads woven intricately together that it’s very hard to get involved in the book — there’s no sense for the reader of where, exactly, this story is going to go. But when those plots all untangle into one unexpected climax, the effect is staggering. (It’s the kind of writing that prompts me, at the end, to go back and study the book from the beginning, saying to myself, “Oh, he totally set that up in chapter one!”) It’s a book of ideas, taking our present-day trends and extrapolating them forward in an unexpected but entirely convincing way.

I’m still thinking about it, two weeks later — and for me, that’s the sign of a good read!

Posted on 2006-05-24 11:26:00 by potsdamreads

Title:A Woman in Berlin

Why I liked this book: First published in 1954, this book has just been reissued, and is now finding a more appreciative audience. This book was just too vivid an account, too soon after the events, to be welcomed when it first appeared. Berlin during the first weeks of Russian occupation at the end of the war was a harrowing time – especially for the women. The keeper of this journal, an intelligent and perceptive woman, was convinced to publish (albeit anonymously) only after many years. What she had to do to survive, and to help other women do the same, is plainly told. No one is vilified. The journal ends as Berlin begins to claw its way out of chaos. In Crumb Library you will find the original edition of 1954. The author reportedly died in 2001.

Posted on 2006-05-01 12:10:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Persepolis
Author: Marjane Satrapi
Genre: Memoir

Why I liked this book: Satrapi’s memoir of her life from ages 6-13 is a story worth reading in a time when we could all benefit from learning more about Iran, revolutionary governments, and the human toll of war. To quote from the publisher’s description of this graphic novel,

Persepolis paints an unforgettable portrait of daily life in Iran: of the bewildering contradictions between home life and public life and of the enormous toll repressive regimes exact on the individual spirit. Marjane’s child’s-eye-view of dethroned emperors, state-sanctioned whippings, and heroes of the revolution allows us to learn as she does the history of this fascinating country and of her own extraordinary family.

Satrapi’s tale of her childhood is by turns an instructive lesson in the tumultuous political and cultural history of Iran, an extraordinarily funny tale of childhood and rebellion, and a gutwrenching exploration of the cost of war and regime change. Satrapi (and her translators) have written a story that, in conjunction with the stark but never spare black-and-white images, brings a sadly gripping story to life, with enough humor and familiarity that the tragic events of Iranian history don’t overwhelm the reader. But they will probably make you think, and, if you’re like me, make you wish you knew more. (Fortunately, Satrapi has continued the family saga in Persepolis 2 and Embroideries.)

Posted on 2006-04-17 14:23:00 by potsdamreads

Title: The Inn at Lake Devine
Author: Eleanor Lipman
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book: It’s a charming and uncomfortable premise; 13-year old Natalie is fascinated and infuriated by a letter her mother receives from a potential vacation hotel explaining that the best and happiest customers of the Inn at Lake Devine “are Gentiles”. Natalie begins a series of prank calls and letters as retribution against the innkeeper, and when she learns that her friend from summer camp summers at the Inn at Lake Devine, Natalie manipulates an invitation. She learns that, yes, the innkeeper is indeed an anti-Semite, but her sons and husband are not.

And life goes on, taking a tangled, unexpected path for Natalie, which seems to lead, repeatedly, back to the Inn at Lake Devine.

Really, though, the plot is secondary for me on this one. My primary affection for this book comes from the characters, the humor, and the clean, clear writing. I tend to overuse the word “evocative”, but this one was. Even though Pammy appears for a few paragraphs, at most, I knew who Natalie’s older sister was, and I understood her role in Natalie’s life. Her writing on mourning, funerals, and our reactions to death were so accurate to my own experience that I stopped to marvel at the clarity of her description. Lipman doesn’t need a lot of words to convey things like that, because she has used the right words to express her meaning.

A good read, an easy read, a funny read, and a thoughtful read. Evocative. So there.

Posted on 2006-03-23 09:24:00 by potsdamreads

Title:Oryx and Crake
Author:Margaret Atwood

Why I liked this book: This futuristic (and dystopian, it almost goes without saying) novel has been quite a big success. Anyone who has read The Handmaid’s Tale will know that Atwood can imagine her way into interesting futures; and that the ideas underpinning these worlds are usually both disturbing and fascinating.

The tale told here straddles an apocalypse brought on by rampant population growth and technology, especially pharmacology, gone out of control. While the characters are pretty flat, the ideas being played with and the dynamics of the plot make it continuously interesting. Wouldn’t you want the BlyssPluss pill if it were available? It confers protection from sexually transmitted diseases, unlimited libido and sexual stamina, high energy levels, and prolonged youth. There are, it’s true, a few side effects.

But who will control this new world of biotechnological wonders? What would it be like to survive the destruction of our civilization? Could humans, with a few design changes, take a path that would avoid the fate of this world?

If you like speculative fiction, this one’s for you.

Posted on 2006-01-24 11:13:00 by potsdamreads

Title: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress
Author: Dai Sijie
Genre: Fiction

Why I liked this book:

I have always been intrigued by the phenomena of banned books. Why do certain books end up on a banned list and not others? “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” is a lighthearted tale about two city youths banished to a remote rural Chinese village to be “re-educated.” The two friends go to great lengths to acquire and read forbidden Western texts and to woo the beautiful young seamstress in a nearby village. Although political repression and the atrocities of the cultural revolution are underlying dark themes, there is also a sense of light and hope from the joy the two find in story telling and the reading of the banned books. The escapades of the two teenagers and the courting of the little seamstress are timeless, universal and frequently a bit comical.

But I wondered a bit at the list of authors that the two youths risked torture and imprisonment to read? Balzac, Tolstoy, Rousseau, Hugo, Bronte, Kipling? Books I would only likely read as required texts of a college literature class. Not erotic tales like “Lolita,” or “The Story of O” that I would expect teenaged boys to be reading on the sly. So, based on the recommendations of Sijie’s protagonist, I decided to read Balzac’s “Pere Goriot.” I soon discovered why Rodin’s portrait of Balzac is so formidable. Balzac’s tale is tragic, intricate, wordy and neither erotic nor lighthearted. So while I haven’t finished reading “Pere Goriot,” and I still struggle to see why this book is so coveted by the youth in Sijie’s work, it is an interesting read about French high-society, class struggle, consumerism, morality and familial bonds (or lack of them).

I recommend “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress” not only for its portrayal of political repression and intellectual freedom, but as a good, quick read full of comedy and youthful exploits. Best of all, it is a story about how books and storytelling move us and transform our lives.

Click here for reviews of “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.”

Posted on 2006-01-23 12:19:00 by potsdamreads

Title: The River at the Center of the World
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Nonfiction

What I liked this book: I very much enjoy reading travel writing as a way to learn a bit about history, culture, landscape, and people in places I’ve never been. Travel writing is often more accessible than more scholarly approaches to a subject, and it’s almost always more colorful. Winchester’s book on the Yangtze is no exception; he paints wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of the people (rural, urban, military, commercial, Chinese, foreign) that he encounters on his journey, and his appreciation for the unique places he’s visiting, as well as the grandeur of the river he’s travelling, shines though. I also learned more about various moments in China’s history that I’ll be reading more about in some other venue — he sparked my curiosity.

What I DIDN’T like about this book: I’ve read other books by Winchester, including The Professor and the Madman, and Outposts, both of which were focused on very British topics. As a result, I’d never noticed before how personal, how British, how western, his understanding of his subjects is. When he’s talking about Britain, or explicitly about the British Empire, it’s not terribly obvious! But when he’s talking about China, it becomes clear how much his own cultural beliefs are intruding on his observations. He writes with an obvious sympathetic nostalgia about the westerners who tried to open China to trade, and with an equally obvious disdain about the Soviet and communist Chinese forces that impacted the country’s later history — and he glosses over nearly everything in between. And that bias became overwhelming for me — I was hoping for more impartiality, and his politics got in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

So, in total, if you can overlook the author’s personal feelings when they intrude into the narrative (something that, in a travel book, is entirely allowable!), this is a vivid look at a grand river, and the people who have lived on its banks.