13 August 2014

no frigate like a book #4

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Loving the Little Years by Rachel Jankovic

This is a pithy book written by a Christian mother to five young ones, offering short bites of encouragement and gentle prodding specifically for moms during "the little years." I enjoyed it very much and will return to it in the future. It would be a great gift for a new mama: that is how it came to me, in fact.
"You may have known families who seemed to have it all together. Everyone to his own military bunk. Dinner from the crockpot at 6:00 pm on the dot. Family worship in the living room. Children quietly doing the dishes afterwards. Then, as the children hit their teen years, you start to see that alongside all that organization was some serious neglect and hurt. It is possible to organize your children right out of the church. So while your children are little, cultivate an attitude of sacrifice. Sacrifice your peace fro their fun, your clean kitchen floor for their help cracking eggs, your quiet moment for their long retelling of a dream that a friend of theirs allegedly had. Prioritize your children far and away above the other work you need to get done. They are the only part of your work that really matters."

Freddy and Fredericka by Mark Helprin

I have quoted from this before but I never actually wrote a review. I read it again this month, and it was just as great as the first time around. To sum up, this hilarious book is about the insane Prince of Wales (Freddy), his vapid wife (Fredericka), and their quest to reconquer the United States of America, during which they discover that they are neither insane nor vapid, but instead marvelous human beings who love each other-- and America-- beyond all reason. It's always hard to sum up Helprin but that's the best I can do.

A representative passage:
". . . automobiles are the river of life in this country. When you get one, even this one, you're back in the game, but as soon as you lose one, you're in trouble. Haven't you noticed that? In America, the car is the second chance. They lift you from your troubles and set you into the heartbeat of the country."
"And what is the heartbeat of the country?" Fredericka asked sceptically.

"Being nowhere, on the way to somewhere, with music, on the open road," Freddy told her. "All the rest is the baggage of Europe, sometimes well developed and extended, sometimes not. But this motion, this ongoingness, this rolling, these hypnotic wheels, this particular glory, is exclusively American-- their transcendence."

"Freddy, shut up!"
And one more:
He dreamt of her and she of him. She became his world, and he hers. He found in her, in her body, in her laugh, in the way she moved, in what she said, more than he ever had thought he could find. And she found in him the same.

They had a forbidding lake and supernatural winds. They had night, cold, and the exhaustion of work. And they had the stainless steel vat and their warm bed. One evening, as they stared into the kerosene fire, he said, "We're like poor people, who have nothing but each other, and are happy. What is it called when two people have such a passion only for one another?"
(I actually think Helprin should have shortened Freddy and Fredericka by twenty-five percent. At one point far too much time is spent on a set of secondary characters, causing the Prince and Princess to fall by the wayside, and the story drags. Once we get back to the main storyline, everything vastly improves.)


In the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner

This was a book club selection, one I never would have picked up otherwise. It's semi-autobiographical. We agreed, in our discussion, that its defining characteristic was beauty: though her novel covers the horrendous events of the Khmer Rouge regime during the late 1970s, Ratner manages to leave a lasting impression of lovely things and people. The protagonist, Rami, is supposed to be seven years old but has a deeper, more philosophical understanding of the world than any seven-year-old I know.


Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset, translated by Tiina Nunally

Oh man. This is good. After having this Norwegian trilogy ceaselessly recommended to me for about a year, I finally read it, and found it immensely satisfying.

The characters: Kristin and her strong, sad parents, Erlend with his dangerous charm, Gunnulf and Brynhild and the many others who populate this vivid world. The setting: I knew nothing about medieval Norway beforehand, but thanks to Undset's careful research (and some helpful forewords) I fell straight into it. The fullness: I tend to like long books because they actually finish telling the story, rather than squashing a truncated version into a slim-spined paperback. With the ten-pound doorstops beloved of my heart-- The Lord of the Rings, A Soldier of the Great War, The Count of Monte Cristo-- I can stay in a fictional world long enough to get to know it.

One thing I found especially interesting was the portrayal of women in Kristin's society. On one hand, they were subject to some of the classic prejudices you might think of: many were excluded from political affairs on grounds of a weak intellect, they usually received a second-rate education, and their sexual indiscretions were far more harshly judged than those of a man. On the other hand, a married woman exerted a great deal of authority over her husband's household-- in practice even if not officially-- including land management, servants, finances, and so forth. One of Erlend's first actions as a husband is to fasten a large ring of keys to Kristin's belt, signifying her high place on his estate. It was also illegal to marry girls off against their will, and for those who entered a convent (not always their choice) there awaited a life quite independent of "male control," apart from the spiritual authority of bishops and popes.

One thing I found especially annoying was the names. Kristin is the daughter of Lavrans Bjorgulfsson, hence Lavransdatter as her surname. Erlend is the son of Nikulaus Munanson, and so his surname is Nikulauss√łn. Meanwhile, Kristin and Erlend's sons bear the surname Erlendsson, and any daughters would have been Erlendsdatter. Basically, families don't share consistent surnames and it drove me crazy trying to figure out who was related to whom!


1491 by Charles C. Mann

Jared is probably glad that I finished this book, because I talked his ear off while I was making my way through it. As Mann says, it is about "the Western Hemisphere before 1492," which was
. . . a thriving, stunningly diverse place, a tumult of languages, trade, and culture, a region where tens of millions of people loved and hated and worshipped as people do everywhere. Much of this world vanished after Columbus, swept away by disease and subjugation. So thorough was the erasure that within a few generations neither conquerer nor conquered knew that this world had existed. Now, though, it is returning to view. It seems incumbent on us to take a look.
Two main points stick in my memory: first, the fickleness of "settled science." I've thought about this in relation to other topics, mainly medicine and diet, but it was confirmed clearly here. Mann repeatedly shows how scientists allow their reputations, ideologies, and even political agendas to interfere with objective research or reporting. History is supposedly settled by a particular archeological dig, and textbooks for decades afterwards teach, say, that mankind came to America via a shortlived land bridge-- had a relatively small population-- and led a nomadic, hunter-gatherer type of life. When evidence turns up flatly contradicting that original narrative, the original archeologists throw a fit instead of revising their ideas. As a result, students keep learning an outdated model of history instead of being able to appreciate a more full (and interesting) story.

Second, the enormous scope of humanity. One of Mann's main points is that the Indians were not a passive people, floating in a state of suspended animation and childlike "union with Mother Earth" for millennia. That is the popular image today, one that purports to be respectful but is in reality rather degrading. After all, it is absurd to think that people would live generation after generation in the same manner, failing to grow in any appreciable way. Everywhere else in the world, people philosophized, built civilizations, and shaped their environments. How silly to assume that the Indians did not do the same thing.

As Mann points out, there is abundant evidence to show that-- just like everybody else on planet Earth-- Indians in both North and South America were incredibly numerous before Columbus arrived, that they wrote poetry and engineered sophisticated cities, and that they shaped Nature to fit their own ends. We are rediscovering what they must have achieved, from terracing mile-high slopes of the Andes to turning the Amazon basin into an artificial orchard, and it's pretty fantastic.

I love this, because instead of asking us to "respect the poor Indians" out of guilt, or trying to make us admire their primitive "simplicity," Mann demonstrates that they were normal humans, with just as much dignity and creativity as the rest of us. Too many portrayals of Native Americans paint them as a separate race, either as the noble savage or the uncivilized terror. What about seeing them as people?


  1. Laura Christine13 August, 2014 21:02

    Hi! Stopping by from 5 Favorites. Thanks for the intriguing book recommendations. Of these, I've only heard of Kristen Lavarans-whatsherface. I hear great things about it but haven't had the guts to start it b/c it's so long. Maybe if I can find the 3 volumes individually bound then I won't be so intimidated to start the first one. :-)

  2. Visiting from Five Favorites and I must say I think this is the best book review post I've read. You really made me want to read the books. In fact, I'm writing them down right now. :-)

  3. Bethany Kjergaard20 August, 2014 22:23

    I totally just added 1491 to my audible cart! That'll be September's book. Thanks for the recommendation!

  4. Kristin Lavransdatter is one of my all-time favorites. I've read it twice so far, keeping 4x6 cards between the pages for notes on who is related to whom and how. It's easy to lose track from one volume to the next. But the work is so worth it!