What I'm reading lately...

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Allen Gathman


Adams vs. Jefferson
Carter Beats the Devil
The Egyptologist
The Forge of Heaven
11/11/04 -- Just finished reading The Stupidest Angel by Christopher Moore.   This isn't Moore's best, which I'd say would be Lamb, but it's entertaining nonetheless.  If you liked the characters from his other books, many of them appear together here in a "Heartwarming Tale of Christmas Terror."  Fun, but pretty clearly written to a) sell as a Christmas present and b) plug his other books. 
11/9/04 -- The Last Continent by Terry Pratchett.  Yet another Discworld book.  I bought it and Jingo from Amazon together.  This one features Rincewind, one of my favorite characters, and a venture to the continent of XXXX, which appears strangely similar to Australia.  Rincewind and a group of other wizards careen through prehistory, the present, and an island with its own evolutionist God. 
11/7/04  -- Read Jingo by Terry Pratchett.  Another Discworld novel, this one about an island that suddenly appears in the Circle Sea and threatens to provoke a war between Ankh-Morpork and Klatch.  This one features the City Guard, who are the only force for sanity in the face of war fever, and Lord Vetinari, whose Machiavellian scheming helps to save the day. 
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell: A Novel10/30/04 -- Robin bought Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell a while ago, and then she finished it while I was reading Beckwourth, so I just now got a chance to read it.  It's a great book -- a story of an alternative 19th century England where magic works, but has fallen into disuse.  The only magicians are academics who study magic that used to be done in the past, and their petty squabbles are exceedingly familiar to anyone who's been to a meeting of any academic society.  When a real magician, Mr. Norrell, turns up, he isn't accepted by these academics with any warmth.  He eventually acquires a student, Jonathan Strange, and their often adversarial relationship culminates in the kidnapping of Strange's wife into Faerie.  The book is exciting, intelligently written, and incisively satirical, prodding the military, government, the aristocracy, and academia.  At the same time it is a serious exploration of love and friendship. A unique and worthwhile book. 
Life and Adventures of James P Beckwourth As Told to Thomas D. Bonner10/25/04 -- While reading History of Black Americans, vol. 2 I came across a mention of James P. Beckwourth, a "Negro mountain man" of the American west.  I got his "as told to" autobiography from Kent Library:  The life and adventures of James P. Beckwourth by T.D. Bonner. 

Beckwourth was a fascinating character; born to a black mother and a white father in 1798, he was apprenticed to be a blacksmith but ran away, and eventually made his way to Colorado and other areas of the western mountain and plains states.  He became a chief of the Crow tribe, as well as a scout for the U.S. Army.  While this account of his life is widely considered to stretch the truth somewhat, historians agree that he did live a remarkable life. 

It's an interesting read -- obviously Bonner didn't record Beckwourth's own words, but couched it in florid 19th century prose, which actually gives it a sort of peculiar charm.  It's also not particularly artful -- events occur that I kept imagining foreshadowed something or other, and then turned out just to be incidents with no narrative significance at all, which made the book seem more realistic in the end. 

I was often reminded of Thomas Berger's Little Big Man; the eponymous hero of this novel is adopted into the Sioux and eventually serves as a scout for Custer.  The language and attitudes of Berger's characters seem so reminiscent of Beckwourth's story that it seems certain he must have read it.  Apparently plains Indians really did talk about people getting "rubbed out," an expression frequent in both books that I previously had associated with gangsters. 

A real peculiarity of Beckwourth's autobiography is the fact that it never makes any mention of his race.  Although the edition I read is part of the series "American Negro, His History and Literature," the book itself leaves the impression that Beckwourth was white -- he even refers to another adopted native as a "mulatto."  Beckwourth displays a casual attitude toward killing, particularly killing of Native Americans, in this book. He appears to be, if not racist, certainly "culturist," as he frequently denigrates Native Americans, both his enemies and his friends, only to idealize them and their way of life in the next breath. How much of this is Beckwourth and how much his "editor," we can't tell. The end of the book is jarring; he marries Pine Leaf, the warrior woman whom he has wanted throughout his time with the Crow, and then almost immediately abandons her and goes back to "civilization" with hardly a second thought.

All in all, this book is filled with raw, rough-edged adventure, and provides some genuine insights into the American West. While its cultural biases are difficult to empathize with today, they serve as a reminder of just how different our attitudes have become in 150 years or so. Worth reading.


10/15/04 -- I read the History of Black Americans, vol. 1 last summer; finally got to volume 2 this month.  Volume 2 takes us from "The Emergence of the Cotton Kingdom to the Eve of the Compromise of 1850."  As with the previous volume, Foner's perspective emphasizes the active role of black Americans in their own history.  He spends considerable time critiquing various historians' approaches to slave life in the cotton plantations, showing both the brutality and degradation of slave life as well as the continuing theme of rebellion, escape, and resistance by the slaves.  He also follows the bitter struggle for rights by free blacks; most Southern states wound up exiling them to the North, but they were discriminated against there in subtler ways.  His account of the growing abolitionist movement, and its champions both black and white, is particularly worthwhile.  The struggle against bigotry was fairly obvious; less so were the internal squabbles between different abolitionists over issues such as colonization to Africa and suffrage for women. 
Song of Solomon10/9/04 -- We always ask students in the first course for biology majors to name the last book they read voluntarily.  I see a lot of John Grisham, lots of Nicholas Sparks, a scattering of Bibles, but I'm always interested in the oddballs.  This time was the first that a student mentioned Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, a book I read long enough ago that I really don't remember much of it.   Our copy is a first edition, and I hate to put any more wear on it, so I went to Bookfinder and found a used trade paperback copy.  I was pleasantly surprised, finding that my memory of the book didn't do it justice.  The story of Milkman Dead and his journey from the city deep into his Southern roots, is richly symbolic and full of iconic characters.  A wonderful book.
10/8/04 -- I just re-read A New Christianity for a New World by John Shelby Spong.  Spong is Episcopal bishop of New Jersey, and has written a number of books on Christianity. In the preface, Spong recounts how he was influenced many years ago by John A. T. Robinson's 1963 book Honest to God.   I found this particularly striking, because I also happened onto Robinson's book some time later, and I found a source of hope in the fact that an Anglican bishop would say that it wasn't necessary to take the myths of the Bible literally in order to be a faithful Christian. 

Spong continues Robinson's mission to "Christians in exile," trying to point the way to a Christianity that will speak to people with a modern world view.  Neither author is proposing any really radical new theological positions; all of that work was done by 20th-century theologians such as Bultmann, Tillich, and Bonhoeffer.  The problem, and the reason that I found Robinson's work so startling, is that most practicing clergy, though they've studied the theology in seminary, never share it with their congregations.  Academicians like Bultmann never really made much effort to reach the people in the pews. 

As a consequence, many people assume that in order to be a Christian one must "believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast," to borrow a phrase from Lewis Carroll.  Other works by Spong address the problems of literalism (Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism would be a good choice).  In this book his goal is different; rather than criticizing the problems of Christianity, he proposes what Christianity could be like if it were freed from the literalized myths of past millennia.  It's a very hopeful work. 

10/5/04  Re-read a few more Pratchett books. 


9/28/04 Just finished reading An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, by Henry Wiencek.  Bill Eddleman loaned this one to me -- I guess he's on a Washington kick.  It's a very evenhanded and thorough treatment of Washington's changing attitudes toward slavery, informed by his letters and public statements as well as his actions and a careful examination of the financial dealings of his estate and those of his relatives.  Wiencek's main thesis is that Washington developed over time from an apologist for slavery to an opponent, though he was unwilling to weather the political ferment that open opposition would have caused.  He freed his slaves in his will, but was unable to free the majority of slaves at Mount Vernon, which were Martha's dower.  It appears that Martha and George must have disagreed strongly about slavery toward the end of his life.  The book is moving and readable -- not a "revisionist history" attempt to stain Washington's reputation, but a careful attempt to get at the actual facts. 

9/23/04 - I got Sisters of Salome by Toni Bentley from Kent Library.  Bentley was a dancer with the New York City Ballet for 10 years, and wrote a book based on her diaries called Winter Season.  This one was prompted by her experience finding that George Balanchine frequented a Paris club with nude dancers.  She even tried a stint as a dancer in a New York strip club herself.  The book is actually a feminist history of stripping, in a sense.  In particular, she looks at the way that stripping was legitimized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries through the medium of Salome's "dance of the seven veils," invented by Oscar Wilde in his controversial play.   Bentley recounts the stories of Maud Allan, Mata Hari, Ida Rubenstein, and Collette, all of whom danced the role of Salome in various venues.  She treats them all in a sympathetic but honest way, revealing their varied motivations and degrees of artistic and personal success.  It's engaging and slightly titillating as well as revealing of some of  the sources of modern erotic sensibilities. 
9/22/04 - Okay, so I re-read another Terry Pratchett book. 
9/21/04 - Tomorrow's the first day of fall.  I'll see what I start reading then.
Reading Summer 2004

Reading Spring 2004

Reading Jan-Feb 2004

Reading December 2003

Reading Fall 2003

Reading Summer 2003

Allen Gathman

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