booknotes: stuff I've been reading

Given my recent travels and the reading time sitting on the airplane affords, my "to be reviewed" pile of books has grown to a critical mass ... right when I find myself with a bit less time than I had in the spring to write blog posts. So rather than let the responses I had grow stale, I thought I'd do one massive round-up of "stuff I've been reading" to welcome you back from the holiday weekend.

Here goes.

The Pledge: A History of the Pledge of Allegiance by Jeffrey Owen Jones and Peter Meyer (New York: Thomas Dunne, 2010). This is a highly readable, entertaining account of how the pledge of allegiance first came to be written in the 1890s and how, over the course of the twentieth century, it went from being essentially a marketing gimmick for a children's magazine hoping to sell American flags to school children to an activity so enshrined in our national political landscape that questioning it can lead to serious penalties. The one failing of the authors is that, despite chronicaling -- quite critically (and rightly so)! -- all of the ways in which the pledge has been used as a weapon, they end up affirming the pledge as an activity that creates unity. When they've just spent an entire book documenting how it does exactly the opposite. As someone who doesn't know the pledge and never recited it growing up, I can't say I feel less American for the lack -- and I was offended by the implication that learning the pledge is an essential part of growing up in the United States. In the end, though, I'm glad I read it for the history if not the agenda.

Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void by Mary Roach (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010). Having read Bonk when it first came out, I have to say I firmly believe that Mary Roach is one of the most hilarious science writers on the planet. In this book, she tackles the science behind human survival in space ... from the psychological effects of long-term isolation with a small group of fellow crew members to the logistics of bodily elimination ... from the question of sex in space (is it possible?) to what kills space travelers when something goes wrong upon re-entry. Roach is the kid in your college class who was always willing to ask the potentially stupid-sounding questions most of us were too self-conscious to ask, and as a result gets some of the best (and funniest) answers to her queries. Which she then shares with us. Even if you don't think the science of space travel is for you, pick up this book and read the first chapter before giving it a miss.

Changed For Good: A Feminist History of the Broadway Musical by Stacey Ellen Wolf (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011). Wolf takes us through a rolicking, thoughtful tour of American musical theatre (1950s-present), using the recent nation-wide hit Wicked as her beginning and end-point, exploring how the conventions of twentieth-century musical theatre are re-appropriated in Wicked to tell what she argues is a female-centric and potentially "queer" (lesbian) story. As someone who grew up steeped in the musical theatre she writes about, it was a pleasure to explore the history of musicals from this perspective. Wolf obviously knows her musical theatre, and I enjoyed learning from someone who has more intimate knowledge of the form than I do. I would have been interested in more use of audience/fan interpretations and re-appropriations, particularly of the musicals whose narratives seem to be fairly hostile to female characters (Man of La Mancha), or portray women as passive (as in Phantom of the Opera). While Wolf talks about the fan culture around Wicked in depth, she draws primarily on critical reviews to discuss the reception of her other examples. I missed any in-depth discussion of the female characters in Rent which Wolf mentioned as influential but never discussed in detail -- perhaps because it has been treated at length elsewhere.

I also quibbled with some of her readings of Wicked, but mainly because I read Maguire's novel before the musical came out, and so my interpretation of the musical relies heavily on my history with the original text. Wolf's analysis might have been strengthened if she had drawn upon the original novel and asked by certain choices were made in the adaption of the book to the musical stage. For example, she argues that Elphaba (the Wicked Witch) is not portrayed as either a physically disabled Other or an ethnic Other in the musical ... whereas in the novel, she is quite clearly written as an Other who is marked by what others interpret as physical deformity. Her green skin, far from being just coloring, renders her sensitive to water to the extent she must bathe in buttermilk, and there is some suggestion that her genitalia is non-normative. While I understand Wolf's decision to focus on the musical adaptation I feel she missed an opportunity to discuss why certain production decisions were made (I would argue for the sake of mainstream popularity).

His Majesty's Dragon (Temeraire, Book #1) by Naomi Novik (New York: Dell Ray, 2006). A friend of ours has loaned us the first five installments in Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, of which the sixth volume is due out this summer. Set in an alternate universe, the world of these novels is that of Regency England and the Napoelonic Wars ... only with dragons. Imagine Jane Austen crossed with Horatio Hornblower with a dash of Anne McCaffrey's Pern universe and you've got His Majesty's Dragon. Though the series, I hasten to say, does not feel derivitive in the least. Temeraire (the main dragon-protagonist) has the most compellingly charming literary voice I've come across in ages. I'm only to book three so far (Black Powder War ) but have been thoroughly enjoying the ride.

Conspiracy of Kings by Megan Whelan Turner (New York: Greenwillow, 2010). I somehow missed that this book -- the fourth in Turner's Thief series -- came out last year until the last issue of LibraryJournal did a spread on "crossover" young adult fiction -- that is, YA lit that people over the age of eighteen also enjoy. (I personally don't get the division ... I've known adults all my life who read fiction marketed to teens, but I guess it's a new thing to talk about in library circles.)  Don't want to risk spoliers, but suffice to say this latest installment didn't disappoint. It picks up shortly after book three (The King of Attolia) left off and is told from the point of view of Sophos, heir to the kingdom of Sounis, whom we first met in book one (The Thief) but who has never been center-stage to the drama. I was at first disappointed that Eugenides and the Queen of Attolia (the two characters who are center stage in books two and three) did not get more air time, but Sophos' story didn't disappoint ... and intersected in some unexpected ways with the lives of Eugenides, the Queen of Attolia, and the Queen of Eddis.

Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery (1937). Who among us failed to go through an L. M. Montgomery phase? Okay, some of you might have skipped it. But I didn't. I knew Anne of Green Gables since before I could properly read myself, but when I was twelve a friend of mine sat me down and introduced me to the full canon of Montgomery's work ... oh, the romantic agony of it! I fell hard for Emily of New Moon, Kilmeny of the Orchard, for Blue Castle and Along the Shore. Somehow, though, I neglected to read Jane of Lantern Hill and when Hanna found out recently about my dirty little secret she set out to rectify the situation as quickly as possible! It's the same mix of homoeroticism ("kindred spirits" indeed), sneering rich relatives, fantasies about un-broken families and domesticity (at some points verring toward the disturbingly oedipal!), and salvation-via-rural living, specifically on Prince Edward Island, that we all know and love.

1 comment:

  1. So many books.
    Never heard about the Thief series but sounds great