Category Archives: books

Fascinating ancient history

1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus by Charles C. Mann

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book was dense in detail but fascinating. Mann surveys traditional views of pre-contact Americas and shows how recent scholarship has undermined some and challenged others. Several are still unresolved, giving scholars more research to do.

It begins quite slowly, but for me became fascinating in the later 2/3 with the discussion of when and how the first peoples entered via the Bering Straits. Among other things, research has challenged there ever being a narrow window when there was a path between glaciers for them to traverse. Also the date has been pushed back and the three migrations questioned.

The biggest revision is the shift from natives who didn’t disturb nature to natives who farmed and tamed nature to their needs, sometimes successfully and sometimes not. Another revision is the sophistication of civilization achieved. I was also interested in discussions of writing, especially the group who used knots on string, not as mnemonics, but as stories, in a binary system.

The first time history is given, the traditional view was stated more or less as fact with a “gotcha” and introduction of challenges to follow. Gradually the cues that a view was going to be questioned improved.

And the ending sets up the follow-up book, 1493, which I have requested from the library.

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Still Reading

The House of Broken AngelsThe House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The settings are San Diego, Tijuana, La Paz. The patriarch of the family is dying and throws one last birthday party that is combined with his mother’s funeral. I felt like I had attended the party, and the party felt like being at a family gathering as an outsider, trying to remember who belonged to whom and which generation they were. I was amused by a phrase at one point, “in the back room were children of unknown provenance.” To add to the confusion, characters are called by many names.

The first section (the mother’s funeral and the night before the party) and the third section (the party itself) are presented in time slots during which we are given a look into what various family members are doing–interspersed with memories, sometimes inner flashbacks and other times revelations in conversation. The middle section provides earlier family history.

As in any family, there are feuds and misunderstandings, members more and less likeable. All are presented sympathetically. Some of the drama is in the past, some in the present. The pace, never slow, quickens at the end when I couldn’t find a section where I could put it down.

Urrea is a new author to me. Thank goodness I heard him talk and read at Portland Book Festival. Now I have to go back and read earlier novels!

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Time passes. It hasn’t been a quilting slump, but a reading frenzy. Starting with last month’s book group book, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. I didn’t expect to like this one (don’t like football or war stories), but it ended up more about marketing war and personality interaction, so proved interesting. I don’t always make it, but I do try to finish books for a group.  This month’s book was Parts Per Million. The title sounds like there will be large focus on environmental activists, but it turns out mostly about protests to the second Iraq war.  Another book with interesting character interaction–and set in Portland.  It is always fun to recognize landmarks.

I had been sent a review copy of Aging: An Apprenticeship, a collection of essays grouped by the ages of the writers. I’ve learned that collections of essays are best read separately, so finishing this one took a while, but it has been read and reviewed now (here).

This is my stack of owned books that I intend to read “someday.”


They keep getting set aside for library books on hold that come available, some of which have other holds on them so that I cannot renew. So my book reading priorities keep shifting. Occasionally several holds come available at once in spite of my trying to pace them by how many holds ahead of me.  For example I am currently 600th in line for Woodward’s Fear, and I’m guessing that will be about 4 months (there are 100 copies). I have skipped the other “tell all” books, but Woodward is a different matter.

After hearing an interview with Yossi Klein Halevi, I had to read At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden.  I recommend it to anyone interested in interfaith dialogue. Of course as the author admits, it is about encounters with selected, not necessarily typical, members of Islam and Christian communities. All were those interested in dialogue.

I’ve read mostly fiction lately: Map of Salt and Stars, an interesting mix of ancient myth of a mapmaker and Syrian refugees who follow similar travel routes. I enjoy books that intersperse then relate stories of past and present. Lavinia. I had to read that one after learning that Ursula Le Guin took a character that Virgil had named, but left silent, in the Aeneid and created a whole life and story for her. Because I had liked The English Patient, I had to read Warlight when it came out. I was not as impressed.  On first reading, it seemed the 14-year-old section was too long. I was losing interest about halfway through it, but kept on because the blurb promised adult reflections on it for the second part, and it did seem better in the second half.  Of course that kind of book makes me want to go back and reread the first part for cues I’d missed on first reading. And I may do that, but not now. And I reread Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna.  On first reading, when it came out, I’d been so enthralled with the (then unknown to me) history of Rivera/Kahlo/Trotsky that that was all I had remembered. It was like a first reading for the rest of the novel. And that provided an amazing look at how facts could be distorted in the McCarthy era.

And tucked among the more serious books were mysteries by Louise Penny.  I am curently reading the next to the last, so I hope she has another coming out soon.

It’s been a good month and a half.


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Reading The Hundred Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey

The Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian OdysseyThe Hundred-Year Walk: An Armenian Odyssey by Dawn Anahid MacKeen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I knew of the Armenian Genocide in an abstract way. This telling, largely based on journals of one involved, made it so harrowing and vivid. It is hard to imagine marching on while one’s companions drop out to die, being unable to help.  Not only leaving companions behind but marching by bodies of those who had died days before. Thirty plus died in a day.

It is also hard to imagine the thirst, the hunger, the lack of clothing.

And the ruse that they were going back home when they were actually going to be executed, which eventually the deportees realized.

The grandfather’s story was so well told that even though I knew he came out alive, I was on pins and needles as I read challenge after challenge, betrayal after betrayal.

The weakest part was the narration of the author’s journey retracing the grandfather’s. It was a good idea, an important link, but fell flat to my ear. There were a few places where it livened up a bit: in the shop with the women dressing her in a scarf to go into a mosque and the meeting of the family of the Sheikh who saved the grandfather.

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Shifting from ‘Criminal Justice’ Frame to ‘Racial Justice’ Frame in One Book

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Because this book has been around since 2010, information from it has trickled into my awareness. Still, there was much in it that I did not already know.

Alexander (no relation) explicated in detail how laws that sound neutral can be racist in their effect; the drug war involves such laws. The short version: blacks and whites use and sell drugs at about the same rate; blacks are imprisoned with felony charges, whites are less likely to be so charged. Felony charges affect people for life after prison: no public housing, no food stamps, the box on employment applications–becoming outcasts. Whites are less likely to go to jail. The judicial system has made it impossible to win lawsuits claiming racism unless there is overt hostile intent–impact is ignored.

She shows how nothing can change without a change in public consciousness as she traces similarities in slavery, Jim Crow, and contemporary drug-war imprisonments. Attitudes find new ways to express themselves and maintain what she names a racial caste system.

The book is very detailed, as it must be, to show the systemic nature of the racism she addresses, something that occurs on an almost subconscious level. I did find the similarities section of Chapter 5, “The New Jim Crow” to repeat too much of what had been clearly presented before, but when she got to the differences, new information surfaced.

The concluding chapter, “The Fire This Time,” defends her claim that legislative change alone will only open new variations of oppression unless public consciousness changes as well. She discusses other solutions that have not worked, including “color blindness.” The claimed neutrality of “color blindness” serves to mask systemic racism. Rather than becoming blind to color, we need to stop being blind to injustice. We need to learn to talk about race. (This is beginning to happen more in the years since the book’s publication.) She points to a time when slaves and white impoverished workers were divided even though they had issues in common and urges a return to working together.

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A Book Instead of a Quilt

The OrchardistThe Orchardist by Amanda Coplin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This amazing book caught my interest with the first paragraph, and that without the ‘in medias res’ beginning. Oh there was back story, but the actual plot began in Chapter 1 with two girls stealing fruit.

The pace is leisurely for the first two thirds, then speeds up, the style descriptive and immediate. There were few characters, though towns and other activities were implied. The characters were well developed with flaws and virtues–all but one, who had no redeeming qualities.

Much of the book was about ideas never stated (the Orchardist himself, Jane and Della, sometimes Caroline Middey, though she was the most likely to speak) or about inability to speak (Clee). Angeline was more the one who wanted to know than one not communicating. Each had their own type of isolation, though there were also relationships.

The novel deals with aging, birth, the growing up of children, and the diminished abilities of the elderly, always matter of factly, sometimes understated. Never heavy handed philosophizing.

This is a rare book that remains excellent through the ending. (view spoiler)

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Reading Instead of Sewing, Again

Facts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects 20 Blocks First-Person AccountsFacts & Fabrications-Unraveling the History of Quilts & Slavery: 8 Projects 20 Blocks First-Person Accounts by Barbara Brackman

The history is in summary form, but there are endnotes with further sources.

The book opens with a brief discussion of myth Vs. historical method. This is followed by an abbreviated history of slavery from the beginning of the slave trade to emancipation and migration. Although I am fairly familiar with the topic (having read The Great Migration, I learned some new detail (the migration to the plains). And the quotations from diaries and WPA recorded oral histories added an important dimension.

Brackman links each stage of the history to a quilt block by the name of the block, a story telling method she links with the 20th century. The idea is to create a mnemonic for remembering the history.

The block patterns and quilt layouts are clearly explained and illustrated, but she refers readers to other how-to books for basic quilting instructions. She also includes suggestions for adapting the history and sewing to children (in formal and informal settings)  and includes possible discussion questions.

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