Friday, January 28, 2011


Title: 1491: New Revelations of the Americans Before Columbus
Author: Charles C. Mann
Year: 2005
Genre: Non-fiction: History
Rating: 2

I don't really make a habit of reading non-fiction, but this is one book that I had been meaning to read for about two years. It was worth it, even though sometimes reading non-fictional facts was like chewing dry bark. 1491 is excellently researched, compiled, and written, the topics all referring back to the main heading and overall idea of the book. Charles C. Mann tells a beautiful, tragic story through the facts of the history of many societies lost.
1491 has a somewhat interesting format. It starts in the present with Mann flying over the Beni, an immensely historical savanna in Bolivia. He comments on the mounds, then moves gracefully into the book itself (that was only the introduction). He first talks about the Native Americans with which we are most familiar- the Wampanoag, Tisquanto's people- and follows their history up until the time of the Pilgrims. Here, the story is engaging and fascinating as Mann weaves together creative non-fiction with the real and true facts of Tisquanto's life. He then moves to talk about the devastating and horrifying effects of disease on the Native American population. Smallpox is a terrifying thing indeed- a weapon that thinking Europeans could never have matched.
Mann shifts from the colonial New England to the great fall of the Inka (I choose to spell it like that because Mann spells it like that, the original spelling), or Tawantisuyu- the land of the Four Quarters, in Peru. He details the Inkan empire extensively, following the stories of kings and their people, of cities and their conquest. They too fell to disease and Pizarro, but they were torn by civil war long before that. But I shan't spoil the entire book for you- these are only the first two chapters.
Mann is a masterful writer, but even he cannot dislodge my inherent dislike for non-fiction. I lost interest in the book somewhere in the chapter called "Pleistocene Wars"- it was not that the facts were not interesting, only that they became a little tedious. He goes on and on for pages about the "Low Counters" and the "High Counters", which makes the book drag heavily in the middle, glutted with too much information. I think he could have gutted the middle section a little bit more, but it picks up again toward the end when he synthesizes the real story of the history with our perception of it.
I really enjoyed 1491. It took me a while to get through, but it was completely worth it, and made me realize my ancestors' mistakes indeed. The Native Americans made their mistakes, but the Europeans' were far more grave and long-reaching. True, the circumstances of the invasion of the Americas is unlikely to be repeated (Mann recounts the Indians' genetic makeup as "virgin soil" for European diseases, uniquely vulnerable), but we can still learn from their mistakes.
I have this one in paperback, and it's pretty affordable at $16.00. I couldn't find it on eBooks, but because I have in paper copy, I didn't look very hard, so I think it likely that it could be found there. I didn't buy this one from Barnes and Noble, either; I got it from a teeny little bookstore in Iowa City, Iowa, so it is likely available in your local Borders' or Bookman's.
Anyway, that's it for today. Happy reading, my dear pageturners!

Saturday, January 15, 2011


Title: Madman
Author: Tracy Groot
Year: 2006
Genre: Christian Historical Fiction
Rating: 2

Now, before you run because of the word "Christian", I must encourage you to stop and take this all in stride. Madman is singularly better than most Christian Fiction (although not as good as The Mark of the Lion series by Francine Rivers) and tells the story of the demoniac of the Decapolis, telling the traditional Biblical text in the form of a gripping thriller.
Madman is well-researched, interestingly told, and gripping in the best literary sense. The writing style is a little choppy sometimes- Groot has an affinity for sentence fragments- but it adds to the thrill and emotion of the story. The plotlines behind the actual story are really fascinating, and it is enthralling to piece together each character's back story and relation to the other characters. Little pieces of evidence are revealed all along the way, and only at the last do you understand fully.
Following the story of a Greek servant named Tallis investigating the disappearance of an Academy of Socrates in the Greco-Roman city of Hippos, Madman begins in the tiny Palestinian village of el-Kursi, the location of the feared madman. Tallis finds that the academy is not only defunct, it disappeared nearly three years before, along with all the teachers that had been personally appointed by his beloved master in Athens, Callimachus. The plot thickens: not only is the school gone, no one in Hippos is willing to admit that it ever existed. Through a slave that he pays dearly, he finds out what happened to four of the teachers: one was murdered in a grisly fashion, another committed suicide, another is a priestess in the temple of the god Dionysus (Bacchus), and the fourth is the legendary madman of Kursi.
As the story progresses, you discover Tallis' terror and fury toward the cult of Dionysus, and through his memories, discovering the deep darkness behind the happy mask of the god of wine and debauchery. Instead of ignoring the Greco-Roman culture like so many Christian novels, Groot uses all of the Greek names for the cities of the Decapolis- Scythopolis for Beth Shean, Hippos for Annaba, Kursi for Golan Heights (although the village is still called Kursi). She uses Dionysus instead of Bacchus, his more Romanized name, as well. Staying with the view of her characters, Rome is barely ever viewed as the center of the intellectual world- Athens still holds that title, at least in Tallis' and Polonus' minds. She also acknowledges the difficulties between the Parthians and the Romans of the time, often mentioning the band of Shamash Eriba as a difficulty to travelers in the area.
Most of the book is purely fiction, a story about Tallis and his fear of madness and the Maenads (nurses of Dionysus). At the end, the story in the Biblical canon is told in breathtaking fashion, inside the mind and soul of the madman. I have never heard a story told so personally, terrifyingly, or touching as that.
Madman is honestly one of my favorite books. I fell a little bit in love with Tallis, picturing his cheerful face with the gap in his teeth, smiling and telling jokes between the disasters of the book. Getting to know his heart and mind is honestly one of the best parts of the book. It drags a little in the middle of the book, while Tallis is waiting for his Forum for Truth to meet, but it picks up speed from there until the end. Several of the characters are really hard to understand- Polonus, Bek, and Samir especially- but that tracks with the story fairly well in the end. Though not nearly as touching and tear-inducing as Beauty, I've read this book plenty of times. Groot's use of the culture of the time, the languages, the attitude toward philosophy, and the overcoming of madness are truly enthralling, and rare amongst Christian writers.
"Quandocumque impellunt, repelle- when they push, you push back. They can't take anything that you don't surrender." --Tallis

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Till We Have Faces

Title: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold
Author: C.S. Lewis
Year: 1956
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 1

"How can we see face to face till we have faces?" --Orual

Without a doubt, Till We Have Faces leaves Narnia with all its bright colors and beautiful words in the dust. C.S. Lewis's deeply humane masterpiece, woven in to the fabric of the Greek legend of Cupid and Psyche, is dark and beautiful, its words twined as deep in our hearts as our very life blood. Wisdom, knowledge, pain and hardship are all as poignant here as in any book, but somehow far more personal.
The story begins with Queen Orual looking back on her life, but she does not waste much time on trivialities: she begins almost immediately, telling the story of how she and her sister, Redival, were the princesses of Glome, an heirless and now-queenless kingdom. Orual's deeply pragmatic voice pushes deep into the reader's mind, making Glome a place truly seen though her eyes, hopes, fears, and prejudices. The story follows how Istra, Psyche, becomes like a daughter to Orual, is sacrificed to the god on Grey Mountain, and finds life there. But I shan't spoil it for you.
Orual, with her often childlike perceptions of everything that happens in the story, reminds me of myself sometimes, which makes her deeply relatable (especially in her casual acknowledgement of her ugliness and perpetual virginity). The Fox, an endearing, fatherlike character, is introduced in the first chapter as a  redheaded Greek slave, long taken from his family and thrown into slavery. However, he is cheerful, and he tells Orual "no man is a stranger if he remembers that the whole world is one city". He is wise, but still beautifully human and faulted, even in the somewhat confusing but fantastic ending scene.
C.S. Lewis' crowning achievement in this book, I believe, is getting me, as the reader, to know the characters as if they are standing next to me. Bardia is a very typical man, and I felt as if I have known him my whole life. Trunia is amusing, but still real in his humor and fears. Orual, however, is the truest- I know her the best; she has become an archetype for mistakes to avoid in my life, but also a heroine to me. And Psyche, of course; Psyche, in her Helen-beauty and wisdom, is the girl you have always loved, been jealous of, and wanted to know so well.
The best rivalry I have read in many books is that between Orual and Ungit. It is a deeply complex relationship, laced with fear and hate, until Orual realizes what she is; hearing the stories from the Fox, she knows to fear Ungit. But she does not know her full capacity until the dazed days of the end, in the second half of the book. The story completes itself so well in that regard that I cry every time in the last chapter.
Till We Have Faces is a fantastic piece of literature, and I commit myself to reading it at least twice a year- it never takes me more than a few sittings. The paperback copies are wonderfully cheap, but the eBook copies run a little pricey at $10.00. But if you have not read this underrated classic, get your hands on it as soon as possible.
"Did I not tell you, Maia, that one day we would meet in my house and no cloud would be between us?" --Psyche

Sunday, January 9, 2011


Title: Beauty
Author: Robin McKinley
Year: 1978
Genre: Fiction
Rating: 1

Beauty is one my personal favourites. It is one of the brightest, most intelligent, and enchanting works of fiction I have ever had the pleasure of reading. I've read it so many times that I've been through two paperback copies.
Beauty is a retelling of the classic French fairy tale La Belle et la Bete, written in Robin McKinley's visionary style from the perspective of the main character, Beauty. Beauty, despite her name, is described as incredibly plain in comparison to her beautiful sisters Grace and Hope. The story tracks the collapse of their family's fortunes in the city and their subsequent retirement to the country, where the events that lead up to Beauty's moving into the castle unfold.
Beauty is an entertaining, endearing character, her ever-intellectual voice becoming the background and colour for the mysterious world of the enchanted castle of the Beast. Beauty is meticulously told- and in other books, this can be an irritating trait; but here, it's gripping and, to borrow the book's vernacular, enchanting. McKinley blends just enough of the fantastic with reality to make the tale seem like something you heard as child, a beautiful fairy tale about the girl who went to save her family and tame the Beast.
From beginning to end, Beauty tells details in just enough colour and description to make you read through the next sentence to find out more about the world that she is living in. There are a few places that, as a fourteen year-old, I didn't understand her references (she refers to the Beast as The Minotaur, Yggdrasil, and Cerberus in some places; in another, she references King Cophetua), but that takes you inside her head all the more. Beauty is the intelligent, humble heroine that all of us want to meet someday in an an enchanted castle in the wood.
Unfortunately, Beauty is not available on eBooks yet (I am writing a strongly-worded letter), but you can find it in Barnes and Noble, Hastings, Border's, or Bookman's if you look in the fiction section. And I recommend that you do so today or tomorrow- this book is completely and totally worth the read, and it won't take you long, either. I once finished it, sighed, turned back to the first page, read it again, and completely enjoyed every word. Robin McKinley's beautiful piece is very much worth the time and few dollars you have to spend on the paperback copy.