Thursday, December 31, 2015

Book 5: Through The Language Glass

“The cultural significance of blue, on the other hand, is very limited. As noted earlier, blue is extremely rare as a color of materials in nature, and blue dyes are exceedingly difficult to produce. People in simple cultures might spend a lifetime without seeing objects that are truly blue. Of course, blue is the color of the sky (and, for some of us, the sea). But in the absence of blue materials with any practical significance, the need to find a special name for this great stretch of nothingness is particularly non-pressing.” 

Dates read: October 20-25, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Of all the classes that I took while an undergrad at the University of Michigan, there are a handful that really stick out. LING 211, Introduction to Linguistics, was one of those classes. I actually dallied with the idea of making linguistics my minor because I enjoyed the class so much. Although upper-level linguistics pretty quickly disabused me of that notion, I still retain a real interest in linguistics, particularly sociolinguistics.

The Sapir-Whorf theory of sociolinguistics was trendy almost 100 years ago: it suggested that the language we use controls the way that we think. It's an initially intriguing hypothesis with a lot of instinctual appeal. If a language doesn't have a word for a particular phenomenon, or lacks a particular tense, why wouldn't speakers of that language have a hard time conceiving of that phenomenon or that kind of world? Until you realize that some languages, like the Italian I studied as an undergrad, have an entire tense for the remote past, passato remoto, while the English language doesn't. Does that mean English speakers can't conceive of events very far in the past? Of course not. Does that mean that we don't understand implicitly terms like saudade, a melancholy longing for things that are gone and will never come back? Again, of course not, but for a while educated people would have thought so.

Deutscher reinvigorates the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis among a very few limited lines: primarily, he focuses on the idea that our languages impact how we think about color, along with how we process geolocation, and objects in gendered languages. As speakers of a neuter language, we don't think about objects as inherently gendered things. But if you speak a language that thinks of bridges as masculine, like Spanish, bridges are strong and sturdy. If you speak a language that thinks of bridges as feminine, like German, however, you're much more likely to implicitly think of bridges as beautiful and delicate. And color! There's an incredible explanation of the Homeric description of the sea as "wine-dark" that I can't possibly condense, but if you're into this kind of thing, you'll be enraptured.

Fascinating stuff, for a person who has a real interest in psychology and language. If not, probably not a text for you. Since I'm the former rather than the latter, I loved this book and found it incredibly compelling.

Tell me, blog friends...what kind of oddball things do you get nerdy about? 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book 4: Gilded

“We are given moments, and we must choose what to do with them. This is your moment.”

Dates read: October 18-20, 2015

Rating: 2/10

I'm a sucker for young adult lit, and young adult fantasy in particular has a soft spot in my heart (Tamora Pierce's Wild Magic books, for example, are such favorites of mine that I recently replaced my long-lost childhood copies). So when I was shopping through the Kindle sale section and saw Gilded, I thought it seemed like a great fit for my tastes.

And it promised to be based in mythology! I'm a big mythology nerd and have been since I was a kid (my mom got me this book called Greek Myths for Young Children and it was my favorite thing and I still remember it fondly to this day), but I've never been exposed to the Korean mythology background indicated as a basis for the story, so I thought it would be a good chance to learn about that too.

As the rating shows, though, it was a huge disappointment. The book follows the story of teenage Jae Hwa, a Korean girl raised for most of her life in the United States and recently returned to Korea after the death of her mother. Her grandfather is very unhappy to see her, which she assumes to be because he doesn't like his Americanized granddaughter, but turns out to be because as a female born into her father's family, she will be ruthlessly pursued by a demigod until he can pull her into his dimension and imprison her for all eternity.

There's good stuff to work with her: grief for her mother, being torn between cultures, an exciting adventure in another world...and that's on top of the usual high-school plotlines (first love, friendships, coming of age, etc ) that have driven plenty of YA novels for ages. But nothing really works. The loss of her mother and her dual cultural identities are referenced often, but without any real exploration of them...she just notes that she's sad, or that she's confused, and it completely vanishes until she sees fit to mention it again. Her love interest has two identifying traits: he's cute, and he's really smart/education/good at everything. Of course he likes her too, so their only stumbling block is that she's constantly shoving him away because she wants to protect him from getting caught up in her destiny. Which is noble enough the first time, but gets tiresome long before the end of the book. As do her constant interactions with her divine pursuer, who keeps pulling her into his world to remind her he's going to do so permanently...and then she escapes. Again. And again. I was relieved when I got to the end. The book feels like a first draft of something better.

Tell me, blog friends...what did you read recently that was disappointing?

Monday, December 21, 2015

Favorite Books, From A-Z (Almost)

Welcome to Monthly Monday! 500 Books is supposed to be a fun side project for me, so while I toyed with the idea of doing a weekly Tuesday post to go with my Thursday reviews, I decided that I'll do one extra post each month. To give you a little better idea of who I am as a reader, I thought I'd go through from A to Z, and highlight one of my favorite books starting with each letter!

(A)ngus, Thongs, and Full-Frontal Snogging
(D)escendants, The
(F)ellowship of the Rings, The
(G)olden Compass, The
(H)ot Zone, The
(I)s Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?
(J)itterbug Perfume
(K)ite Runner, The

(M)an Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, The
(N)ever Let Me Go
(O)ther Boleyn Girl, The
(P)icture of Dorian Gray, The
(R)ed Tent, The
(S)ecret History, The

(T)hree and Out
(U)nder The Banner of Heaven
(V)irgin Suicides, The
(W)hite Oleander

I did actually have a book I've read for every letter except X, but not ones that I would consider "favorites" per se. I wanted to touch on lots of different genres (young adult, sports, psychology, historical fiction, classics, contemporary fiction...) and not repeat authors, so these aren't necessarily my absolute favorites, but they're all books I love and have re-read.

Tell me, blog friends...have you read any of these books? What did you think of them? What are your favorite books?

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Book 3: Reservation Road

"There are heroes, and there are the rest of us. There comes a time when you just let go the ghost of the better person you might have been.” 

Dates read: October 15-18, 2015

Rating: 3/10

So along with my unquenchable appetite for books, I'm also a voracious movie-watcher. I remember seeing a trailer for the movie version of Reservation Road at some point, deciding it looked sad but interesting, and throwing it on my Netflix queue (where it lingered for a long time because I was constantly pushing up more interesting-looking things). And then when I came across a cheap used copy of the book, I bought it and figured that I might as well read it, because the book is always better, right?

Well, after reading the book, the movie has come off my Netflix queue entirely. Because if the book is better, I can't take the movie. I knew it was going to be depressing going in based on what I knew about the plot: a young boy is killed in a hit-and-run car accident, and that accident has powerful reverberations on everyone involved. Obviously anything dealing with child death is going to be difficult material, but I used to read those Lurlene McDaniel books about teenagers with cancer on the regular, so surely I could handle it.

Turns out, not really. Not because it was too emotionally charged, but because it was boring and uncentered. The story is told in rotating chapters, varying perspective between Dwight (the driver that hits and kills ten year-old Josh), Ethan (Josh's father), and Grace (Josh's mother). The novel doesn't spend enough sustained time with any of the characters to really dig into them more than on a surface level: Dwight feels guilty, but not enough so to jeopardize his relationship with his own ten year-old son by turning himself in; Ethan feels impotent rage at his powerlessness in the situation, and Grace just withdraws from everything. I did find myself wondering why Grace was written in the third person while the men were written in the first person. Did Schwartz not feel comfortable writing first-person perspective for a woman? Is it supposed to be symbolic of her emotional deadening with grief, that she doesn't even have the willpower to view herself as the center of her own story anymore? I'm honestly not sure. None of the characters grows or changes, everyone just stays stuck in their patterns. Which is probably realistic, I can't even imagine what the process of mourning the loss of a child would be like and hope I never have to know. But it doesn't make for enjoyable or even very interesting reading.

Tell me, blog friends...what books that you enjoy are kind of depressing? Are there any subjects you won't read about it because they're too much?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Book 2: Unbelievable

"But physicists initially argued against evolution because it didn't fit their view of the physical world at the time. In order to incorporate Darwin's discovery, cherished views had to be sacrificed. The kind of damage a new discovery inflicts is not merely intellectual, but emotional."

Dates read: October 11-15, 2015

Rating: 3/10

When I was in middle and high school, I went through a period where I was fascinated with the occult. Doesn't every teenage girl go through that stage? I'd be lying if I said I didn't still have a lingering interest in some parts of it (like astrology and tarot cards), but for the most part, it's not something I think about very much. But when this book was on Kindle sale, I read the title and that little teenage girl part of me wouldn't let me pass it by.

Before beginning this book, I was vaguely aware of the Duke Parapsychology in I was aware that it had been a thing, wasn't sure if it still was a thing or anything that might have come out about it. As a reference text about Dr. J.B. Rhine, who founded the Laboratory, and the work of the Lab, this is a very solid work. But much like the Lab and its refusal to trade in sensationalism, the book's steadfast sticking to a "just the facts, ma'am" approach means that it doesn't really go anywhere.

Things like ghosts and poltergeists are the kind of juicy stuff that makes for page-turning reading. It's also the kind of thing that donors gave money to the Lab to research. But Dr. Rhine's primary interest wasn't keeping dollars flowing, it was establishing parapsychology as a legitimate field of research and scientific thought. Seances, mediums, telekinesis...those kind of talents, even if there was some intriguing anecdotal evidence to support them, weren't able to be performed on demand and couldn't stand up to scientific scrutiny. So while they were dutifully investigated, the Lab focused mainly on ESP research and mind-reading with the famous Zener cards. They did have success at these experiments, enough so that that the Parapsychological Association was eventually able to join some scientific groups, but that was about the total of what they were able to achieve.

At the end of the day, I just didn't really enjoy reading the book. It's not really about parapsychology or mysterious happenings, it's about Dr. Rhine and his struggle to gain scientific legitimacy for his work. That's why the rating is so low: it's not poorly written, it's just that ultimately, it's not very interesting.

Tell me, blog friends, what do you think about life after death? Do you believe in ghosts?

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Book 1: Beloved

“Freeing yourself was one thing, claiming ownership of that freed self was another.”

Dates read: October 6-October 11, 2015

Rating: 10/10

Awards/Lists: Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, American Book Award, Time's All-Time 100 Novels, NY Times Best Books of the Year, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Newsweek's Top 100 Books, 501 Must Read Books

I grew up in a small town in southeast Michigan full of white people. In my graduating class of over 300, I can think of four people of color. Slavery and Jim Crow were things we learned about in sterile classrooms, that happened a long time ago and far away.

I went to school at the University of Michigan, where I experienced cultural diversity that I'd never known before. My friends were Indian, Jewish, Persian, Chinese...but it wasn't until I went to law school at the University of Alabama that I started to have friends that were black. And race relations in the South were an eye opener for someone that had lived in what's now pretty obviously some odd little bubbles: first of homogeneity, and then a bastion of progressive politics.

I've read African-American lit before, obviously...Native Son, The Color Purple, and Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Bluest Eye, 12 Years A Slave. But with the possible exception of the last one on that list, none really drove home the harrowing legacy of slavery quite as viscerally as this one.

Beloved tells the story of Sethe, an escaped slave who lives in Ohio with her teenage daughter, Denver, in isolation in a house haunted by a baby ghost. When Paul D, a former slave who was on the same plantation as Sethe, arrives on her doorstep, everything begins to change. Paul D banishes the baby ghost, but just as things start to settle into something resembling peaceful, a strange young woman named Beloved appears outside Sethe's house and insinuates herself into the family to disastrous effect.

The story switches back and forth in time, from Sethe's young womanhood on the plantation to where the story began, even as the present storyline progresses. Horrors only lightly hinted at in the beginning develop fully as Beloved begins to assert her control, showing how Sethe and Denver ended up alone together in that haunted house to begin with. Beloved herself becomes more than just a mysteriously powerful young woman, breaking the people around her down from the inside, she becomes symbolic of the monstrous nature of slavery itself. Sethe, Paul D, and Denver might be "free", but the pernicious legacy of slavery is inescapable.

I found myself wondering as I was reading the book if Toni Morrison had read any Eastern European Jewish folklore, for Beloved reminded me of nothing so much as a dybbuk. True to a kind of folklore style, the novel relies heavily on magical realism, which isn't usually my favorite style of writing (I love fantasy novels, but I like them separately from my regular fiction), but works very effectively here. It allows Beloved to have many psychological lenses through which she can be interpreted without letting the story be set comfortably away from actual experience. Beloved, and Beloved, demands that we confront the real, continuing injustice of slavery. It doesn't let us hide behind long ago and far away.

Tell me, blog friends...what books especially moved you to think about a social justice issue you'd never really thought of before? Do you have any favorite books by black female authors that you'd like to recommend?

Hi There!

Hello, blog friend! My name is Gabby, and this is my blog, 500 Books. When I turned 30, I set some life goals for my next decade. Among them was to keep on with my rediscovery of my dormant love of reading. Since I've been averaging about 50 books a year for the past two years, I figured that was as good a goal as any. So ten years of that would be 500 books. Join me, won't you?