Thursday, April 29, 2010

Reading is the new plant blogging

Maybe its because I'm super sick and suspect I'm really just suffering from super awful allergies, but I can't bring myself to do a plant post right now. I did go shoot a bunch of things yesterday and then had to go to bed a 8pm - coincidence? I think not.

Instead, I've been reading like a fiend. Thanks to my super sweet friend I had the afternoon to myself yesterday, to blow my nose in peace. Between naps I finished 2 books which I were so good I want to stop strangers on the street and insist that they read them. Immediately. But since we don't do that here in the genteel South, you get to hear about them instead.

First, I Am An Emotional Creature by Eve Ensler, of Vagina Monologues fame. What I wouldn't do to be able to go back and give this book to my 14 year old self! I can't wait to give it to Caitlin, although I am grateful that homeschooling and our vagabond life has preserved her childhood innocence a bit longer than most American girls. Ensler, as ever, has captured the potential, the pain, and the incredible beauty of female existence and presents it in gripping narrative, haunting poetry, and fierce war-cries. I'm buying a copy now, for me, and another, to save, for the right moment, for Caitlin.

Second, Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth. Chris was fortuitous enough to meet Kashmira years ago when she and her daughter engaged him to tutor them in Sanskrit. Kashmira had three books out then, and was gracious enough to visit our homeschool book group to talk with the kids about her works and career. All of her novels address the experiences of Indian children, albeit in very different circumstances. (She has also published 2 picture books, My Dadima Wears a Sari and Monsoon Afternoon, which beautifully portray the very special relationship between grandparents and grandchildren.) Boys Without Names introduces us to Gopal, a boy from Maharashtra (the second state we lived in in India) who is kidnapped and forced into slavery in a factory in Mumbai. Now before you skip ahead in disgust, let me assure you that Kashmira has a rare gift and is able to portray ugly realities in a way that is safe and appropriate for young readers. Her other books have dealt with the immigrant experience, arranged marriage, and child widows. Each is as accessible, absorbing, and gentle as you could hope, and offers a chance to learn about and develop compassion for children whom on the surface may seem very different, but who are in reality, just like the children reading the books. She is not only broadening horizons, she is opening hearts, and I am grateful to have such books to put into my children's hands.

Though not finished in the last 24 hours, I also want to mention A Young People's History of the United States by Howard Zinn, with Rebecca Stefoff. Caitlin has asked for it for a birthday gift (yay, homeschooling!) and I'm looking forward to reading it (and re-reading A People's History of the United States) along with her this summer. Zinn describes the book best himself:

My history... describes the inspiring struggle of those who have fought slavery and racism (Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, Fannie Lou Hamer, Bob Moses), of the labor organizers who have led strikes for the rights of working people (Big Bill Haywood, Mother Jones, César Chávez), of the socialists and others who have protested war and militarism (Eugene V. Debs, Helen Keller, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, Cindy Sheehan). My hero is not Theodore Roosevelt, who loved war and congratulated a general after a massacre of Filipino villagers at the turn of the century, but Mark Twain who denounced the massacre and satirized imperialism.

I want young people to understand that ours is a beautiful country, but it has been taken over by men who have no respect for human rights or constitutional liberties. Our people are basically decent and caring, and our highest ideals are expressed in the Declaration of Independence, which says that all of us have an equal right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The history of our country, I point out in my book, is a striving, against corporate robber barons and war makers, to make those ideals a reality — and all of us, of whatever age, can find immense satisfaction in becoming part of that.*

Last, I want to mention two novels that I have recently loved. Almanac of the Dead by Leslie Marmon Silko and Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. There are the obvious similarities - both written by Native American women, both unrelentingly dark and both pulsing with the aftermath of the European theft of the Americas, but the differences are worth noting as well. Almanac is truly an epic, while Shadow Tag is gaunt and sparse. Where Almanac is fantastical, Shadow Tag is grittily, brutally real. As the reviews surely point out, neither book is for everyone, but for me, they are two of the best I've read lately, and perhaps in the case of Almanac, ever. (Bear in mind though that I love Wolfe and Bukowski and Garcia Marquez and Fuentes, and that magical realism will never ever be a dirty word in my house...)

*Roll your mouse over the Zinn quote and you'll discover all of the people he mentions, plus the Declaration of Independence and the Filipino massacre are all linked to the appropriate Wikipedia article - just in case you want to brush up on your history right here and now!

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