Tag Archives: nonfiction

The Turquoise Ledge, A Memoir by Leslie Marmon Silko

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To begin my review, I’m actually going to start with a seemingly off-topic recap of a scene from one of my favorite HBO shows, Girls. I tried to find a YouTube clip so that I wouldn’t have to recap, but had no such luck. This season, Hannah is a creative writing graduate student in Iowa. In the workshop of her first story, she is slammed by her peers for several reasons. One student starts going off about how her story disrespects the perspective of the main male character. Hannah has already had a very hard time not speaking up and defending her story, but just about bursts at the seams whenever this fellow talks about the male perspective. Hannah asks just to say one word, but the professor still won’t let her speak up. She says it anyway. “History,” she said, “History didn’t really focus on the female perspective.”

turquoise2In my graduate class, Native American Women’s Autobiography, I am essentially learning all the ways in which history has silenced or tried to silence the Native American/indigenous perspective. And in particular, the perspective of indigenous women. The Turquoise Ledge by Leslie Marmon Silko is the first actual piece of memoir/autobiography that we’ve read (everything else so far has been theory and analysis). Already, Silko’s prose, her circular narrative style, and the way in which she discusses the immense damage “the man and his machine” have caused the environment and her people at the same time as describing the beauty of nature around her. Just a warning: there are a lot of rattlesnakes in her memoir. Rattlesnakes are sacred to her people (she is Laguna Pueblo) and to other peoples she mentions in her memoir. Silko focuses her memoir on her interactions with nature around her, with rattlesnakes, her birds and dogs, even the rocks and the stones with turquoise that she finds on her morning walks. In an interview, Silko states that she wrote her memoir in order to pass knowledge of an older way of life onto a younger generation. Her memoir acts not only as a memoir, as spiritual reflection, and as a history of Arizona and New Mexico, but also as a guide for how to watch out for and respect rattlesnakes, how animals survive a desert drought, among other things. If you haven’t been exposed to very much Native American or indigenous contemporary literature, I would really suggest reading The Turquoise Ledge. I feel like I’ve learned a whole new historical perspective from my class and from Silko’s writing. Someday, when I’m not reading for class, I plan to read her novel Ceremony.

Below is a picture of a rare, blue rattlesnake, which Silko mentions seeing:

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This is a picture of the mountains near Tuscon, the main setting of Silko’s memoir:

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(Both found on a Google image search)

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Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks

ireland-fridge

“The nature of hitching, especially when encumbered by a kitchen appliance, is such that you are reliant on others. We mayn’t expect it, but there may come a time in all of our lives when we have to hitch, either physically or figuratively. It doesn’t matter how important, wealthy or talented you are, if your car breaks down somewhere and you are forced to stick out your thumb and hitch, then your fallibility and the fact that you are no better than the next person will become abundantly clear to you. You need someone else’s kindness to take you to safety.” ~p.182

 

Tony Hawks receives a drunken bet that he cannot hitchhike around the circumference of Ireland with a fridge within a month. Later, a sober Tony decides to take the bet. What ensues is a hilarious journey, which includes but is not limited to: resident drunks playing spoons, a fridge party, a bachelor festival, and a fridge blessing from a mother superior.

This non-fiction book about Tony Hawks’ journey around the circumference of Ireland with a fridge was a perfect, fun, summer read. Hawks’ writing was engaging and in places I laughed out loud. I’ve been wanting to visit Ireland for a long time (not with a fridge, just with a suitcase) and through Hawks’ memoir I felt I gained an understanding of the culture and spirit of the country. With a fridge in tow, the author seems to have gotten into a lot of shenanigans–and ALL of them are hilariously rendered. Round Ireland with a Fridge is a book that will make you want to go on an adventure–and made me think about how important it is to have adventures, to step outside of the box (or small, box-like, kitchen appliance) and do something slightly silly, dangerous, or fun. How else do we learn anything in life?

I will be picking up another book by the same author, Playing the Moldovans at Tennis, not because I know anything about tennis, but because I enjoyed Hawks’ writing so much.

Also, I learned about this book from this Vlogbrothers video: 18 Great Books You Probably Haven’t Read.

 

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An Experiment in Criticism by C.S. Lewis

AnExperimentInCriticismAn Experiment in Criticism, 1961

My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough….But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like the night sky in the Greek poem, but is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do. ~C.S. Lewis  (140-141)

In this work of literary criticism, C.S. Lewis wants to achieve the thought experiment–what if, instead of judging books to be good or bad, we judged the reading of a book to be good or bad? What happens when the paradigm in literary criticism is flipped and instead of looking at the value of the content (literature, music, or art), we looked at the value of how it is perceived, how it is enjoyed. I particularly enjoyed this thought experiment and how Lewis describes a good reader as one who “receives” the literature, rather than “uses” it. I enjoyed his description of the different types of “castle-building” by readers of fiction or fantasy. I won’t lie that most of his literary references (aside from Jane Austen, Dickens, Arnold, Aristotle, Morris, and some of the Greek/Roman mythology and tragedies) I hadn’t read. But as this is really a work examining how to examine works of literature (instead of actually examining specific works), it didn’t stop me from appreciating this book. I checked this out from the library, but I think I really need to have a copy of my own. There are definitely passages that I would like to return to. I had a very difficult time finding just one quote I wanted to share in this post–I had three or four in mind. I also really appreciated Lewis’s views on Children’s literature and Science Fiction: two traditionally marginalized categories of literature.

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June 26, 2014 · 9:47 pm

Tolkien & C.S. Lewis: The Gift of Friendship by Colin Duriez

Tolkien & C.S. LewisColin Duriez recounts the extraordinary tale of friendship between J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. Both authors are extremely important to the genre known as fantasy fiction and they both had such an incredible influence on each other. Without Tolkien, Lewis might never have become a Christian (and therefore, the Chronicles of Narnia might never have been born) and without Lewis’s constant encouragement, Tolkien might have only kept Middle Earth and his amazing invented languages a private hobby.

 

 

I especially appreciate the “vignettes” that Duriez uses to start off each chapter. These vignettes are imagined conversations or scenes from the lives of Tolkien and Lewis, but are all based on recorded events from their lives. I thought that they really added something special to this book of biography/literary criticism. Duriez does delve into some of Tolkien’s and Lewis’s work and provides analysis. However, I thought that his writing style on the whole was compelling and very clear, so you don’t need to be an Oxford don yourself to enjoy this tale of friendship. I think it’s incredibly sad that Tolkien and Lewis weren’t as close in the final ten years of Lewis’s life. However, I agree with Duriez that despite their many differences, they had many affinities, even in the end. I enjoyed learning about the lives and friendship of Tolkien and Lewis so much that after reading this comprehensive telling, I feel like I almost know them personally! I especially enjoyed some of the images Duriez gives us from historical accounts–Tolkien riding his bike to Oxford in academic robes and Lewis exclaiming “Wow! What a book!” about Les Liaisons Dangereuses–ever the constant reader even on his death bed. After reading this, I definitely want to read some of the literary criticism of both men and I have been meaning to read The Four Loves and Till We Have Faces forever. I would also like to read Lewis’s science fiction starring the Tolkien-esque Cambridge don Ransom.

Lewis & TolkienWhat can I say? I really love both of these authors and their contributions to fantasy. I will continue reading about them and definitely plan on picking up Duriez’s The Inklings.

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The Magician’s Book by Laura Miller

magiciansbookThe Magician’s Book examines the world of the Narnia books and the great mind that created them, C.S. Lewis. This book is part biography, part literary analysis, in addition to the author’s (Laura Miller’s) personal history with the Chronicles of Narnia. Laura Miller read and loved the Chronicles as a child. As a teenager, she learned of their Christian symbolism and the apology and beliefs of C.S. Lewis and felt betrayed. How could she love something that was intended to convert her to a belief she had already rejected? With this in mind, Miller studied Lewis as well as the Chronicles to gain a deeper understanding into the series and what went into creating them.

I really, really enjoyed this work of non-fiction. Although it contains some literary analysis, it isn’t strictly a work of scholarly criticism and the writing is very fluid and fast-paced. The author also put a lot of herself, her own experiences and beliefs into the book. That made it perhaps an even more compelling read (although I am, strangely, one of those weird people who reads literary criticism for fun). It is very clear up front that she is no fan of Christianity and seeks to look at the Chronicles of Narnia as stories that contain more than a mere “allegory” (a term that is not even properly applied to the Chronicles, I do have to give her that) for Christianity. And indeed, I must agree with her. Lewis drew on a wealth of literary and mythological influences to tell his story. His characters aren’t mere shadows, mere placeholders for virtues or vices. He built a richer world than that. However, every now and then her invective against Lewis and Christianity is sharp (especially towards the Catholic church). Every now and then, as a Christian reader and someone who is a fan of Lewis and his writing, I couldn’t help but think “ouch!” Every great writer has flaws, and Lewis is no exception. However, learning about the flaws of the writer and his writing didn’t necessarily ruin my admiration for both C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles. If anything, this book sparked my interest in some of Lewis’ writings of literary criticism, which I haven’t read yet, but I plan to. For all of his shortcomings, Lewis was a fascinating man (though he might disagree) with a brilliant mind. And his friendship with fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien is certainly of interest to me. My next non-fiction endeavor is a book solely dedicated to their friendship.

It’s no surprise that Lewis makes the top of my Old British Man Crush list (and he loved the Romantics–we ARE soulmates!)

C.S. Lewis

I mean, c’mon, look at that face. And the jacket. I’m in love with his jacket alone.

 

 

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Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
If you’re a native English speaker and you’ve ever had to take a foreign language class, you’ve probably scratched your head a couple of times while pouring over tables of verb conjugations and asked–my goodness, why is English so weird? It’s a Germanic language…..that acts nothing like German. It has Romantic influences and yet…looks nothing like a Romance language.  John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue tells the tale of English and its unorthodox history from Proto Indo-European to Anglisc (with a bit of Cornish and Welsh) to the Vikings, to the wonderfully mixed language we speak today. This is no boring grammar book, though. McWhorter’s history of English is interesting and engaging. I especially found the chapter on how Celtic languages changed Old English to be fascinating. Ever since visiting Scotland this summer, I have taken a special interest in how Celtic language and culture has survived, despite the Celtic people being marginalized and enslaved. I also really enjoyed the image of Germanic languages being like different species of deer–but English being like a dolphin (they’re still both mammals….but so very different). If you are looking for a great non-fiction read about English (that is actually fun to read), look no further!

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January 26, 2014 · 8:13 pm

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone

A Long Way Gone is the memoir of Ishmael, a child soldier in the civil war in Sierra Leone. Ishmael recounts his days just before the war started, and just after it started, when he and various groups of other young boys would travel alone, trying to find a safe place or word of their families. At first Ishmael and his older brother traveled together, but they became separated. Ishmael then traveled alone for some time and was lost for some time in the jungle. Ishmael almost finds his family when he and a group of boys from his school hear that refugees from their home are located in a nearby village. However, there is an attack on that village on the very same day by the rebels, and Ishmael accepts that he is now alone in the world. He and the other boys travel to a village that is occupied by the army. At first the army does not make them fight, but eventually the army recruits them, gives each boy an AK47 and a rousing speech about how the rebels must be destroyed, since they were responsible for the deaths of the boys’ families, and Ishmael’s time as a child soldier begins.

Ishmael’s memories are recounted in such honest, simple, but powerful language. Although there are passages containing gruesome imagery, it is difficult to put this book down. Although Ishmael’s story might not be identical to that of a teenager living in America today, the themes found in his memoir are universal. They include the loneliness of growing up, the pressures of authority, and most important of all: the hope of rehabilitation after witnessing and experiencing immense violence. At first Ishmael is hesitant when he is given the chance of rehabilitation at a UNICEF center for children who fought in the war. He and his friends are recovering from the abuse of multiple drugs as well as trying to come to terms with what happened during the war, the unspeakable violence that they saw and did. However, even throughout this the book did not feel too heavy or the language too dense. The book ends with Ishmael having to flee the country because of the war. I would have liked him to continue his memoir with his remaining young adult years, which he spent in New York, but the book ends before this.

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January 20, 2014 · 11:26 pm