Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Wild, Weird, and Wonderful by F.W. Glasier

Wild, Weird, and Wonderful by F.W. Glasier

In both glory and grit, these remarkable photographs give us the American circus during the most vibrant period in its history, capturing both the intensity of the routines and the spirit of camaraderie of the performers. Glasier's work was unique in many ways, not the least of which was the offhand elegance he allowed his subjects, even the wonderful animals. His striking portraits make us recall the sober and revealing work of August Sander. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 4 stars
Trigger Warnings: racist/ableist language

There’s probably going to be an influx of circus-related books on the blog, as I’m writing an honors thesis about the circus this coming school year and have to do lots of research. I was really excited when I found this book, because it covers the time period I’m working with (turn-of-the-century) in photographs. It’s surprisingly hard to find old photos of the circus, particularly the kind of photos I want from the time period I want.

These photographs were all really cool, and the captions, when possible, gave a lot of details about the who, what, where, when, and why of each photograph. It was not at all a text-heavy book, but it’s a good companion to reference books and books like Queen of the Air, which I hope to read and review in the near future.

In the captions there is some language that could be considered racist or ableist. I appreciate the efforts to keep early 1900s circus jargon intact, but I did wonder sometimes about the manner in which that was done.

If you have any interest in circuses, or even turn-of-the-century Americana, this book is worth a look through. It won’t take too long, and the photographs really are a fascinating look at daily life for circus employees of that era.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark. (Blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 5 stars
Trigger warnings: death, nightmares, animal death

This book was amazing, and I hope I’m actually able to get my thoughts down in a coherent manner, because really my reaction is: dskdkdsfsldsfjkfdjfgjdsfjldskfddsfjksogood.

For starters, I loved the fact that we didn’t know the narrator’s name. This is a narrative technique that doesn’t always work, but here it did, partially because it just made me picture Neil Gaiman as the narrator, and he really worked as the narrator.

I loved the way the story unfolded, from the set up at the beginning, to the unfolding of past memories, to the surprising conclusion (a conclusion which I definitely will not be spoiling). The story’s structure left me surprised but not confused or left behind, which can be challenging to do.

I think the unnamed narrator is someone that many readers can relate to--he is an avid reader himself, and that influences so many of his decisions. Because most of the book takes place when he is a child, this characteristic felt realistic and not like a cop-out, which I think would have happened if the narrator, as an adult, was still referencing books all the time.

I loved Lettie and her family. I loved their toughness and their timelessness. I loved that we never really get clear answers about the Hempstocks and what they do, what they’re there for. I loved their farmhouse.

I even loved the shortness of the book (bear with me here). It’s not that I wanted the story to end, because I certainly didn’t, but there’s something romantic about short, powerful novels. And from my own experience, brevity is challenging. It’s easy to fill 400 pages, much harder to cut that down. Kudos to Gaiman for writing such a brilliant little book.

Ugh, this review feels so...lacking after my initial emotional reaction to The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Just read it. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Quiverfull by Kathryn Joyce

Quiverfull: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement by Kathryn Joyce

Kathryn Joyce's fascinating introduction to the world of the patriarchy movement and Quiverfull families examines the twenty-first-century women and men who proclaim self-sacrifice and submission as model virtues of womanhood—and as modes of warfare on behalf of Christ. Here, women live within stringently enforced doctrines of wifely submission and male headship, and live by the Quiverfull philosophy of letting God give them as many children as possible so as to win the religion and culture wars through demographic means. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: misogyny, domestic abuse, religious abuse

After being fascinated by the culture of the Westboro Baptist Church in Banished, I thought I’d give Quiverfull a try to look into the Christian patriarchy movement. This is a movement that gets surprisingly little attention, despite its increasing numbers and downright subversive potential. Quiverfull did an excellent job of satisfying my curiosity about this movement.

One thing that I loved about the book was the sheer number of interviews that Joyce managed to get. By using direct quotes from those within or formerly within the Christian patriarchy movement, Joyce not only gave herself more credibility, but I felt that the book was more balanced. Clearly, the author did not agree with the movement, but I also didn’t feel like she was just ranting against it the whole time. By providing quotes from people on both sides of the movement, I felt like the author left some room for the reader to come to their own conclusions.

I was also intrigued to see detailed reasons for why the Christian patriarchy movement believes what it believes. Through the interviews and Joyce’s own research, I was exposed to the biblical passages that these families most often follow to the letter, along with interpretations of what those passages mean in today’s society. It was nice to get all that background information laid out in such a detailed manner.

I do think the title of the book was a bit misleading, since not all Christian patriarchy families also follow the quiverfull philosophy, and there are only a few chapters that discuss the quiverfull lifestyle. I would have been interested to hear more about that, but the lack of information and interviews there may have been outside the author’s control.

I think this book could be triggering for anyone who has had particularly nasty experiences with organized religion, particularly with Christianity. There are several women interviewed in the book who discuss being advised to “fix” a marriage by being a proper wife even when their husbands were abusive. The book is also chock-full of misogyny from those in the movement--the evils of feminism are brought up several times in both interviews and quotes from pamphlets and books from within the movement. Joyce herself is clearly feminist, and these sexist notions come from the movement and not the author.

I recommend Quiverfull to anyone who is concerned about extremist Christianity or who is merely curious about American Christian culture and the different forms it can take. Quiverfull is a fascinating glimpse into a culture that is all the more interesting because I disagree with its tenants so much. It is a well-researched and gripping read.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea

Mermaid in Chelsea Creek by Michelle Tea

Everyone in the broken-down town of Chelsea, Massachusetts, has a story too worn to repeat—from the girls who play the pass-out game just to feel like they're somewhere else, to the packs of aimless teenage boys, to the old women from far away who left everything behind. But there’s one story they all still tell: the oldest and saddest but most hopeful story, the one about the girl who will be able to take their twisted world and straighten it out. The girl who will bring the magic.

Could Sophie Swankowski be that girl? With her tangled hair and grubby clothes, her weird habits and her visions of a filthy, swearing mermaid who comes to her when she’s unconscious, Sophie could be the one to uncover the power flowing beneath Chelsea’s potholed streets and sludge-filled rivers, and the one to fight the evil that flows there, too. Sophie might discover her destiny, and maybe even in time to save them all. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 4 1/2 stars
Trigger Warnings: OCD/Compulsions, alcoholism, animal death, neglectful parents, bullying

I’m not going to lie: this was a fairly dark book. It was gritty; it was dirty (and I don’t mean smutty; I mean there was a lot of dirt in the book). But for all of that, I found it surprisingly hopeful, and not just in the sense that it ended on a hopeful note. What I mean is that this book gave me hope for the future of humankind.

Despite the magical realism present in Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, I felt that Sophie’s destiny really resonated with a lot of things that are actually happening in the world today.  Sophie’s job is to, in a manner of speaking, rid the humanity of its darkness, of the sorrow and hatred and violence. Reading that, I thought of the bees that are dying from the use of pesticides and fungicides, America’s problem with gun violence, the violent revolutions currently taking place in South America and the Middle East. For some reason, the idea of an almost-high schooler taking the plunge to save us all despite her doubts and fears and the fact that she’s fighting her grandmother gives me hope for the future. Maybe it’s the fact that the solutions to these problems will likely come from today’s youth. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe I should move on to a different point before I get super-political.

The first couple chapters of Mermaid in Chelsea Creek were a little slow, and I almost didn’t finish the book because of it. However, I’m definitely glad that I did, and the pacing does pick up a few chapters in.

I loved the references to the Polish language and culture. I come from a very Eastern-European family, and you really don’t see a lot of that heritage showing up in contemporary (or even historical) YA novels. It seems to me that whenever “heritage” is important to a character, it’s English, French, Irish, Italian, etc. (Taking a moment here to check my white privilege. Eastern Europeans may not show up as much in books as Western Europeans, but I know it’s more than those of non-European descent). I loved seeing phrases in Polish. I loved the shout-out to immigrant culture and the pain of losing language and culture.

While reading, I encountered phrases and passages that reminded me of Francesca Lia Block’s writing, which for me was great, because I love that writing style. It isn’t for everyone, but I can imagine that fans of Block or magical realism in general will have no problems with the writing style.

I’ll admit I was slightly disappointed to realize that this wasn’t a self-contained book. It’s not that I don’t want to read more, because I really do. I just get a little tired of so many YA series/trilogies/etc. Speaking as a writer, self-contained works are a greater challenge, at least for me, and I’m dying to see more in the market. can bet your ass that I’m going to read the sequel when it comes out.

I put quite a few trigger warnings at the top of this review. Quick breakdown: Sophie’s best friend is a germaphobe who scrubs her skin raw when she feels dirty (this happens a lot due to the places in Chelsea that she and Sophie frequent). There is a character who is an alcoholic, although his page-time in the story is minimal. Several animals die towards the end of the book. Sophie’s mom, while she certainly isn’t abusive, is not particularly affectionate towards her daughter. In many instances this is noted by a lack of compassion and understanding coupled with neglect. There is a scene where Sophie confronts some boys who bully her. I can’t recall if there were any insinuations of a sexual nature, but I think there might have been (I already returned to the book to the library, so I can’t look it up. :/). Despite the numerous trigger warnings, I really do consider this book to be quite hopeful. I whole-heartedly recommend it, and I can’t wait for the next book.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Banished by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

Banished: Surviving My Years in the Westboro Baptist Church by Lauren Drain and Lisa Pulitzer

NOW A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER You've likely heard of the Westboro Baptist Church. Perhaps you've seen their pickets on the news, the members holding signs with messages that are too offensive to copy here, protesting at events such as the funerals of soldiers, the 9-year old victim of the recent Tucson shooting, and Elizabeth Edwards, all in front of their grieving families. The WBC is fervently anti-gay, anti-Semitic, and anti- practically everything and everyone. And they aren't going anywhere: in March, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the WBC's right to picket funerals. 

Since no organized religion will claim affiliation with the WBC, it's perhaps more accurate to think of them as a cult. Lauren Drain was thrust into that cult at the age of 15, and then spat back out again seven years later. BANISHED is the first look inside the organization, as well as a fascinating story of adaptation and perseverance. 

Lauren spent her early years enjoying a normal life with her family in Florida. But when her formerly liberal and secular father set out to produce a documentary about the WBC, his detached interest gradually evolved into fascination, and he moved the entire family to Kansas to join the church and live on their compound. Over the next seven years, Lauren fully assimilated their extreme beliefs, and became a member of the church and an active and vocal picketer. But as she matured and began to challenge some of the church's tenets, she was unceremoniously cast out from the church and permanently cut off from her family and from everyone else she knew and loved. BANISHED is the story of Lauren's fight to find herself amidst dramatic changes in a world of extremists and a life in exile. (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG-13, 3 stars
Trigger Warnings: emotional abuse, familial abuse, religious abuse, homophobia

The Westboro Baptist Church is pretty well-known today as an organization that pickets funerals and spews hate and negativity, particularly targeted at gay people. When I heard that a former member of the "church" had written a memoir of her time with the organization, I was really interested in seeing what she had to say.

I have to say, I love how balanced the book was. Of course, Lauren Drain left the WBC for a reason, so the book wasn't completely unbiased, but I thought that she painted a compelling picture of her state of mind while she was still in the WBC and how that deteriorated over time. I appreciated recognizing the abuse of her father even while she was explaining how she justified his words at the time.

I also liked being able to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church as people and not just picketeers. I vehemently disagree with everything they stand for, but I appreciated seeing their good sides as well as the bad. Humans are complex creatures, and it is easy to forget sometimes that even people we disagree with are good and bad.

I was particularly intrigued by Drain's portrait of the leaders of WBC. For example, before reading this book, I had no idea that any of the Phelps had jobs outside of the WBC. It didn't surprise me to find out that most of them were lawyers, however.

Due to the nature of the Westboro Baptist Church, the book may be upsetting or even triggering to those on the LGBTQ spectrum, survivors of emotional abuse, those who have had bad experiences with organized religion, and those who are or know people impacted by Westboro Baptist Church's pickets, especially those with ties to 9/11. Even so, the book is a fascinating read for anyone who is curious about the Westboro Baptist Church and would like a rare inside perspective.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Copper Girl by Jennifer Allis Provost

Copper Girl by Jennifer Allis Provost

 Sara had always been careful.
She never spoke of magic, never associated with those suspected of handling magic, never thought of magic, and never, ever, let anyone see her mark. After all, the last thing she wanted was to end up missing, like her father and brother.
Then, a silver elf pushed his way into Sara's dream, and her life became anything but ordinary. (blurb from Goodreads)

 Rating: PG-13, Did not finish
Trigger Warnings: stalking

 I tried to make it through this book for the sake of my review, but I just couldn't. I feel like there's a lot of potential in the story, but the writing just didn't live up.

 First of all, I don't know why, but I was under the impression that it was a YA novel. It most certainly isn't--for starters, the protagonist is definitely not a teenager, and a few pages into the book, she takes her underwear off while eating lunch in her office's courtyard. Definitely not YA (also, don't get me started on my hatred for the word "panties").

 In the first chapter, I felt jerked around by not knowing what time or place we were in. Sara starts off at a normal job, then there's a mention of robots, and then the magic comes into play. I don't necessarily want everything on the table when I start a book, but I like having some details to understand the world, and I simply didn't get that. By the time I did get some answers, they came in the form of Sara, as the narrator, interrupting the flow of action to explain things, in italics, to the reader. That sort of telling is forgiveable once, in my opinion, but it happened in the second chapter, too, and this time it carried on for over a page on my e-reader (it could be different in a printed book).

 Starting in the second chapter, I ran into an annoying amount of typos and random capitalizations. Most of the time I could still follow along with what was meant, but there were a few times when I couldn't. I also found myself rolling my eyes when Sara explained that she was a member of one of the most powerful magical families and was strong physically and smart...had the writing before this reveal been better, I might not have, but on top of everything else, it seemed like Sara was quickly becoming a Mary Sue.

 The last straw and main reason I stopped reading the book was because twice the first two chapters Micah, the hot elf guy that I bet you anything Sara falls in love with, stole Sara's panties underwear. I think the author was trying to be sexy, but all I felt was creeped out. This wasn't some game Sara and Micah were playing where both parties were consenting, it was a guy stealing a girl's underwear. Underwear that she had previously been wearing. Creepy.

 Again, I think there's potential here. I like the idea of magic being outlawed as a reaction to an equal rights movement. I think that's fresh and interesting. However, with the writing the way it is now, plus the creep factor, I just couldn't finish it.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh

Fear by Thich Nhat Hanh

 Without fear, we are able to see more clearly our connections to others. Without fear, we have more room for understanding and compassion. Without fear, we are truly free.
—from Fear

 Most of us live in a constant state of fear—of our past, of illness and aging and death, and of losing the things we treasure most. But it doesn't have to be this way, promises Zen master and Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh.

 Drawing on a lifetime of mindfulness in action, Thich Nhat Hanh shows us how to use the practice of living in the present to acknowledge and embrace our fears, recognize their origins, and render them powerless. The world-renowned Zen teacher guides us through practical exercises for transforming fear into clarity. The worries of the past and the anxiety of the future disappear as we discover the power of the present moment. Not only are we are able to handle challenging emotions as they arise, but we can summon feelings of well-being and contentment, no matter what the unknown may bring.

 Rooted in the moment, we have the capacity to restore balance and happiness and be present with what is beautiful and affirming inside us and around us, every day. (blurb from Goodreads)

 Rating: G, 4 stars
Trigger warnings: none

 This has been a summer of reading several Thich Nhat Hanh books. What can I say: I love the guy. I love his peaceful demeanor that is clear even in his writing. I love the strides he’s made to make the mindfulness practice more accessible to non-Buddhists. After living in his monastic community for a week, I’ve gotta say that I love that, too.

 One of the things that I love about Thich Nhat Hanh’s books is how similar they all sound...they all have the same calm tone that makes it feel like you’re reading a section of an incredibly long work. Others may dislike the quality, but I like it.

 Fear, as you may have guessed deals almost entirely with fear and anxiety in life. I loved Thay’s focus on acknowledging the child within us, a practice which I believe should be employed more often, whether that is calming the child or embracing the child and doing something fun and silly.

 I find myself continually frustrated with the way that books like this seem to ignore the realities of emotional states caused by mental illness--sadness caused by depression, fear caused by an anxiety disorder, that sort of thing. I think it’s too easy for a book like this to insinuate that if your anxiety isn’t being helped by the advice in the book, then you aren’t trying hard enough. I will say that the book kept me engaged enough that I didn’t feel that anxiety while I was reading. Once I had finished, I still felt frustrated that the fact that it’s ok to be anxious was never brought up. There is still a lot of stigma to mental illness, and books dealing with a topic like anxiety that don’t even bring up diagnosable illness aren’t helping to erase that stigma.

 That being said, I give mad props to Thay for not making me frustrated while reading. And really, that’s my only criticism with the book. I loved the tone and the gentle nature of the writing. I never felt attacked or blamed for feeling the way I feel. It was a short, enjoyable, and thought-provoking read. I recommend Fear to anyone who likes Thich Nhat Hanh, his writing, or Buddhism in general. I issue a note of caution (though not *quite* a trigger warning) to those suffering from an anxiety’s likely you’ll still enjoy the book, but you may find yourself frustrated once you’ve finished.

 Again, Fear is an excellent book, and its short length makes it a quick read, although it’s message will definitely last a long time.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Hyrule Historia by Shigeru Miyamoto

The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia by Shigeru Miyamoto

Dark Horse Books and Nintendo team up to bring you The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia, containing an unparalleled collection of historical information on The Legend of Zelda franchise. This handsome hardcover contains never-before-seen concept art, the full history of Hyrule, the official chronology of the games, and much more! Starting with an insightful introduction by the legendary producer and video-game designer of Donkey Kong, Mario, and The Legend of Zelda, Shigeru Miyamoto, this book is crammed full of information about the storied history of Link's adventures from the creators themselves! As a bonus, The Legend of Zelda: Hyrule Historia includes an exclusive comic by the foremost creator of The Legend of Zelda manga - Akira Himekawa! (blurb from Goodreads)

Rating: PG, 3 stars
Trigger warnings: violence

Anyone who knows me knows that for as much as I love videogames, my love of Zelda trumps that by like 10 times. Or something like that. I love Zelda. About once a month I spend an afternoon or evening on Youtube searching for Zelda top tens and theories and stuff like that. This isn’t something just sort of happens...on a regular basis (I might be a little obsessed, ok?). So when I heard that Hyrule Historia was coming out, and that it had an official Zelda timeline, I knew I had to read it. I was even more excited when I found out that my local library had a copy (libraries are awesome, btw.)

I knew going into this book that the timeline alone was a good reason to get the book. I was absolutely not disappointed with that section of the book. I loved seeing how all the games fit together. As you might expect, that section does contain a lot of spoilers for all the games in the franchise, so skip it if you don’t want to be spoiled. It does only cover main events, though, so if you have yet to play a certain game, the timeline won’t reveal all the details. The timeline itself is incredibly detailed, with names of eras, which games take place in those eras, and little facts in the margins. Some details I really appreciated were about the Hylian text that shows up in several of the games.

The entire first section of the book dedicated to Skyward Sword. Which is...ok, I guess. I haven’t played Skyward Sword yet, and I understand that they put in so much information about it because it’s the newest games, but that’s the sort of information that I wanted on all the games. To me, Hyrule Historia is a lot like Harry Potter: Page to Screen, and so it would be like if that book had had an entire third of the book on just the 7th and 8th movies. Great information...but at a cost. Still, it was all really interesting and made me even more eager to get my hands on a copy of Skyward Sword.

The final section of the book is full of concept art. Again, I love it. I love the glimpse into the process. I love seeing the various Links and Zeldas in one place, to see how they changed over time. But, again, I wanted more equal coverage. I understand that for the earliest games there is probably less concept art because of the technological limitations, but there was a good ten pages of Twilight Princess art and half that for Ocarina of Time.

Overall, I loved the information presented in Hyrule Historia, and I loved the art and all of the little trivia tidbits. I wish there had been less of a focus on the most recent games in favor of something a little more equal. Ocarina of Time is my favorite Zelda game, and while the timeline covered it quite well, I really wanted more concept art and other information. I am interested in seeing if there is a new edition released after A Link Between Worlds comes out later this year.

This book is a must-read for any fans of Zelda, as well as for family and close friends who want to be able to talk Zelda with a gamer (hint hint, family)...Despite some disappointments, it really is worth the read.