Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Moor's Account

 amazon.com
amazon.com

Historical fiction is a really great genre to read, but it seems to be dominated by tales set in Europe, specifically England. At least in my experience. And I will admit, I used to mainly read books set in England because I've always been an Anglophile. However, with my quest to continue to read outside my comfort zone and knowledge set, I've discovered some fairly interesting tidbits of history. For instance, reading The Moor's Account, by Laila Lalami, gave me insight into a much lesser-known Spanish expedition to the New World (aka North America) in the early 1500s, the Narvaez Expedition. Not only is the book about an expedition we don't usually learn about in school, but (as per the title) it's told through the eyes of a black man from North Africa, a Moor, who is a slave. He is the first recorded black man to set foot on the continent. The author lists her sources at the back of the book and I'm really curious to do more research at some point.

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Mustafa ibn Muhammad ibn Abdussalam al-Zamori, renamed Estebanico when he was brought to Spain, tells his story as a member of the Narvaez Expedition to find gold and colonize La Florida, and gives a unique perspective as he talks about present-day events and being a slave to a man of the expedition, Dorantes, but also in how he tells the story of his birth and upbringing as the son of a well-to-do notary in Azemmur, a city in Morocco. He explains, throughout the ill-fated journey, how he came to be a slave, even after he was a slaver for some time himself. As the expedition journeys through Florida and encounter many Indians, things become increasingly difficult, and most of the members of the group die. Estebanico does not get involved in the politics of the Spaniards, instead befriending the Indians when possible, and helping out wherever needed. The group loses their way and ends up in the Land of Corn, which is essentially the modern-day plains, likely Texas. Things become bad enough that even his master says he will grant his freedom if they ever make it out alive. Eventually, after much, much wandering, and many long years, the small group left is rescued and taken to Mexico. There, Estebanico continually reminds Dorantes of his promise, and Dorantes continually puts it off. At this point they have married Indian women and Estebanico is the only one who actually intends to keep his vows after being rescued. At last, Dorantes has refused to let him go free for too long, so Estebanico takes advantage of the fact that he's been asked to lead another expedition, and he and his wife go, leaving no traces behind them.

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Okay so that review is a bit muddled, but to be fair I read the book almost a month ago and took too long to write my review! Also, the story itself is muddled, being a tale of harrowing adventure and certain death, as well as being interspersed with vignettes from the past. And because it was written like a journal, there were no quotation marks, which honestly drove me mad. All other punctuation was great, and I realize this was a stylistic choice on the part of the author, but gah, it was annoying. Anyway, it was a great story, though I have to admit I felt that the author also took a lot of liberty in portraying white Christians as always evil, and the black Muslim as super pious and never taking any part in gruesome or promiscuous acts. But, that is her choice too, and it didn't detract enough from the story to make me quit reading.

So, I did love the book, though it was tough to follow at points. The landscape descriptions were fantastic, and it was really easy to feel the different environments they traveled through. I would encourage anyone interested in historical fiction to pick it up, especially if you have a particular interest in Spanish expeditions. And I would welcome any recommendations for historical fiction that isn't English!




Thursday, June 16, 2016

5 Centimeters Per Second



Ahhh Japan, how I do love thee. Your food, your culture, your music...and your anime and manga. Nothing quite compares, and when people dismiss anime and manga, they're really missing out. It's not "just cartoons and comic books" and definitely not "just for kids". This isn't American Saturday morning stuff, guys, though there's shows of that type. It's an entire art form in and of itself, with multiple genres. There is literally something for everyone. And it really irks me when someone won't even attempt to understand that.

But I digress.

5 Centimeters Per Second is one of the most beautiful and heartbreaking manga I've ever read. I watched the anime first, and happened upon the manga by chance a week later. The title refers to the speed at which cherry blossoms fall from the tree. It's a story that everyone will likely be able to relate to in some way, because it is an all-too-familiar look at friendship and love, and how time and distance can change those things.

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Akari Shinohara and Takaki Tohno become friends in elementary school, bonding over everything from lack of physical prowess to their love of books and science. Their friendship is incredibly strong and a clear love grows as they do. Soon, Akari moves away from Tokyo, because of her parents' jobs. When they are thirteen, Takaki finds out he will be moving very far south, and plans a train journey to go see Akari one last time before he moves. Even though it is March, a huge snowstorm delays the trains and he is hours late, and yet Akari is still waiting for him. They kiss that night under a snow covered cherry tree, and it is the last time they see each other. The letters last for some years, but it becomes hard to relate when they are unable to visit each other.

In high school, a young woman named Kanae has a terrible crush on Takaki, which he unknowingly makes worse because he's so kind. And yet in the back of his mind he is always thinking of Akari. This carries into his adult life where we see him barely relating to anyone, basically living as a shell. His girlfriend of three years cares for him very much, but he can't even see that. The ending of the book (and film) is so sad because at this point we see that Akari has moved on with her life and is soon to be married, and there is a point at which they cross each other's paths...but then a train goes through and when Takaki turns around she is gone. But at this point Risa, his girlfriend, has let him go, and he has begun to realize what he has missed in life.

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Maybe that review doesn't make much sense, but really it's a great story. Before cell phones and social media kept everyone attached at the hip (for better or worse), it took work to keep up a long distance friendship, especially one that blossomed into love so young. Do you ever find yourself wondering where so-and-so is now, and what might have happened if your friendship had stayed the same? Even in the social media saturated world, we still lose connections for whatever reason. But the important thing is to keep on living and not let those things cause us to forget to really live.

Does My Head Look Big in This?



Every once in a while I read a book that I have mixed feelings about. Like, super mixed feelings. The most recent one was a YA book called Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah. And it's not that I didn't enjoy it. Actually it was a fairly quick read that did cause me to reflect on some things. But the cliches, oh my word. There weren't any love triangles, thank goodness, but the whole preppy high school mean girl thing was on full display, as well as the hot-guy-falls-for-average-girl-who-hates-her-image. But if you can look beyond that, and the frustratingly cliche views on Christianity, there is a good story here. And also, maybe I just have a hard time fully liking the whole first-person viewpoint.

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Amal Mohamed Nasrullah Abdel-Hakim is a sixteen year old Australian girl who deals with the regular pressures of high school, but with the added bonus of being Muslim. It had never been an issue before, but now she's decided that she's reached a point in her faith journey where she is ready to wear the hijab, a head covering, full time. It doesn't help that her parents actually discourage it at first. It also doesn't help that it's less than a year after 9/11 and fear of Islam is running very high. And of course she's only been at her school, a prestigious prep school in Melbourne, for one term. So really, it's probably the worst time to be making the choice, but Amal does it anyway.

Her friends don't turn her away, and one of her teachers is even super accepting of it, making sure she has a private place to pray, as well. Throughout the school year, Amal goes through many situations where it's her first time being out in public with a head covering on, and she has to endure a lot of ridicule, but there are also those strangers who are kind enough to realize she's different from radical Islam. And as Amal grows in her confidence, she helps a few others grow along the way. She befriends her cranky old Greek Orthodox neighbor and gets her to smile for the first time in ages, and she helps her best friend's mother see that marrying her daughter off at sixteen is the absolute wrong choice. By the time the school year draws to a close, Amal has a better understanding of herself and how she relates to the world as a Muslim and as an Australian who has Palestinian blood.

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Alright, so I feel like I have to make a disclaimer here that I'm not accepting Islam in the least. I read this book with an open mind, though, and it helped me more to understand that there are differing interpretations within every religion. It's good to know these things, and it's also good to remember that they are people too. And on the surface, this book was a teenage journey of identity, and there's always something worth gleaning there.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

City at World's End


The City At Worlds End by [Hamilton, Edmond]

As many of you are aware, audiobooks are not particularly my forte. I have a hard time focusing if I can't also follow along with the words, plus many narrators are terrible and should never have been chosen. If you can't articulate your words, don't narrate something, thankyouverymuch. Anyway, I've found that the free service LibriVox offers some fantastic recordings, though all of older books because they have to be public domain. I don't mind this because I have a thing for science fiction from the 1950's, and there's plenty to choose from there.

Recently, I chose to listen to The City at World's End by Edmond Hamilton, which was first published in 1951. It was actually a really great story, and I totally believe George Lucas's initial inspiration for Chewbacca came from a character in this book. It's glaringly obvious, in my humble opinion.

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In the years following WWII, there is a fear of more atomic warfare, with whispers of superatomic power. On a sunny June morning in Middletown, Indiana, a superatomic bomb detonates over the city, but it doesn't cause the destruction that had been imagined. Instead, the scientists of the city soon realize they've been thrown into the future -- far, far into the future. The earth is much colder, the sun is much redder, and the constellations make no sense. What follows is a desperate attempt to survive, where thousands of people are frightened for their lives. The people find an empty domed city, and move the population there, and the main character, Kenneston, is able to repair a huge communications device and start sending out a signal, in hopes that there are other humans on earth.

When months later a sleek black spaceship drops out of the sky, not even the scientists whom Kenneston works with are ready to see people and creatures from beyond the solar system. But soon there is talk of evacuation, and the people from the past are desperate to stay on Earth. Kenneston takes matters into his own hands again and soon there's a hope for staying.

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Honestly, I can't give much more of a summary than that, because it's tough for me to remember character names when I can't see them haha. But really, this book was so cool and I enjoyed listening to it. The science isn't very accurate, obviously, but it doesn't have to be, and anyway it gets a serious pass because it was written before we knew much about space.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The Secret Sky



Last week I decided I was going to read through my library's collection of YA lit, from the beginning. It's a rather daunting task, especially as I'm sure there's going to be more than a few that I hate. Also it will take me a long time, given that I won't only be reading YA. Anyway, I jumped in with both feet and grabbed the first two books on the shelf. The first one alphabetically being The Secret Sky: A Novel of Forbidden Love in Afghanistan, by Atia Abawi. It's one that I likely would have picked up even without my challenge. And I was not disappointed, though this book is not for the faint of heart. It tore me apart while I read it.

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The Secret Sky is told from three viewpoints, Fatima, the girl, Samiullah, the boy, and Rashid, his cousin. It takes place in modern day Afghanistan, mostly in a tiny village. Fatima is a Hazara, a Shia, and Sami is a Pashtun, a Sunni. They've known each other their whole lives but of course as they grew, tradition dictated that they would never be allowed to see each other again. Sami was gone off to the madrassa with his cousin Rashid when the book opens, and he returns shortly. Turns out he was disgusted with the teachings there, and hopes for a better world. He and Fatima are so happy to see each other again, but with tradition and culture and religion bearing down on them, they can only meet secretly, which is also completely forbidden. But love grows despite everything, and they end up in a fight for their lives. Rashid is brainwashed by the teachings of the madrassa and he causes much grief for his cousin and Fatima, but not without essentially losing himself in the process.

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Honestly, I don't usually like YA romance because it's all cliche and often way too promiscuous. This novel, however, broke my heart so soundly and I cried. It's not cliche, it's a triumph. It shows the dangers of Islam and how hard it is to live a normal life in the Middle East, particularly as a woman. The things that Fatima goes through...that her own family does to her, it's horrifying. There's death in this book, horrible, unnecessary death. There's so.much.hate. But you should read it. It will stick with you. And it should.

The Last Telegram



Wartime literature is an interesting thing. Especially what's been written to take place during WWII. It seems there's been so much written that we should be exhausted of topics and stories by now. But of course, there's always something else to be written, right? I hadn't read any novels set during WWI or WWII in quite some time, so when The Last Telegram came back to my library one of the times I was working, I thought I needed to read it. After all, it was set in Britain. I always go for books set in Britain. Though this is the first one I've read this year. (Branching out a bit more again haha.)

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The book opens with an elderly Lily Verner burying her husband, and preparing herself to leave her childhood home she's lived in for her entire life. She has a conversation with her granddaughter that sparks off a chain of memories that sends her (and us) immediately back to a sultry July day in 1938. And that's when the story really begins. Eighteen year old Lily is feeling wild and free, but also cooped up and wants to get away from the life she's always known. She wants desperately to go to London. Of course, one things leads to another and she ends up apprenticing at her father's silk mill, that she never wanted to work at. Then the war begins and there's no way for her to leave. Around this time the Kindertransport is going on, and Lily's older brother John wants to help the kids. He and Lily go and pick out three teenage boys to come help them in the mill. Being German, this too ends up causing problems, especially when Lily and Stefan (the oldest) fall in love. When the war starts, Lily's father makes the decision that the mill will begin making parachute silk to stay in business throughout the war, and that causes many rumors to fly that there is sabotage...and it spirals even further from there.

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The Last Telegram is an artfully woven tale of love and loss, country loyalties, and the view of war in a young woman's eyes. It is also, in many ways, a showcase of the silk industry. The author, Liz Trenow, grew up in a silk milling family in Britain, which is why she knows so much about the industry. I found all the facts about silk absolutely fascinating, though others might not appreciate it as much. But honestly, this book was beautiful and very, very sad. It takes a lot for me to cry, and there were a few moments I was definitely ugly crying while reading this. And yet I couldn't put it down. I managed to not even realize how much time was passing one night and read for 3 1/2 hours into the middle of the night (until I finished the book) because I was so entranced.

It's not the best written book I've ever read, and there could probably have been more editing and also filling out because there are a few rather large jumps of time; it's not a long novel but it covers the time period of the entire war. But it's heartfelt, informative, and has a twist near the end that I honestly did not see coming. Definitely recommended. Also would be a good choice for a book club, especially as some editions have questions in the back already.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Beatrice and Benedick



One of my favorite Shakespeare plays is Much Ado About Nothing, particularly because my mom loves the movie from 1993 starring Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson (as well as many other well known actors!), and we've watched it often. So when I was exploring NoveList through my library's website (check your local library and see if they have access to this; it's amazing) and I saw Beatrice and Benedick as one of the recommendations under the criteria I had selected, I looked it up in our catalog immediately. We didn't have it, but one of the others in the system did so I requested it and waited excitedly.

It came in after the weekend and despite the fact that I'm also reading Anna Karenina on my Kindle, I started reading this. And I was in love right from the beginning. First, I was reading this in early April when it was still snowing regularly here in Wisconsin and the book takes place mostly on the island of Sicily in the Mediterranean. I was drinking in the descriptions of the white beaches and blue sea, and all the fresh fruit they ate. Marina Fiorato is actually Venetian but she did Sicily justice.

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If you know anything about the plot of Shakespeare's original play, you will adore this novel. It begins a year before his play opens, when the first meeting of Beatrice and Benedick happens. So much of this first meeting parallels the second one, as they are both so full of themselves and full of wit that they won't admit they are attracted to one another. Each of the other main players are here too, Hero the young maiden, Claudio her would-be husband, Don Pedro the Spanish prince, etc, etc. But there is something sinister going on beneath the fun, and only Beatrice seems to notice initially, guided by a young poet named Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza, who has Moorish blood in him. Many terrible things happen in the year between the title couple's first and second meetings. There's much enmity between the Spanish and the Sicilians, especially on the part of the Moors, who are of a dark skin tone and not wanted, which culminates in the fiery death of one character.. Plus the Spanish are on the brink of their invasion of England across the Channel (which we know from history was an utter disaster). Benedick, to impress Beatrice and possibly win her heart, joins the Knights of St James under Don Pedro and ends up on the fateful journey to England.

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Quite frankly, there is so much going on in this novel, I can't put it much better than that without giving away important plot points. A few direct Shakespeare related things, though, need to be pointed out. First, Beatrice is from near Verona, and it is implied that the tale of Romeo and Juliet is happening at the same time, and is intertwined in some ways, which had me squealing with delight as I realized it. Second, the final few chapters of the book are so wonderful because it's basically the play being told, with many lines word for word, in prose form, and it's one I know so well that it was a beautiful closing. Third, the character of Michelangelo Florio Crollalanza is fascinating. I had initially thought he was supposed to be a created character that "was" Shakespeare within his story. Turns out I wasn't completely wrong. Something I never knew is that there are a few scholars who believe that William Shakespeare was actually from Sicily, named Michelangelo Crollalanza and that after certain events he fled to England and changed his name. Crolla-lanza literally means shake-speare. This theory isn't given a whole lot of credence, but it's certainly fascinating, especially in light of how he did set some plays in Italy.

So I loved the book and am looking forward to reading Fiorato's other novels, though they are not Shakespeare retellings. I encourage you to read this book. It makes you think, and is a fantastic tribute to the Bard.