Adventures in Reading


Nonfiction: Writing Women in Central America by Laura Barbas-Rhoden, 2003

“Weapons, plots, violence. Lush landscapes and guerrillas. Central America is a site of danger (again), but not because of its revolutions. The danger is in words–the words of women.”

If you’re interested in feminism, literary criticism, women writers, historical perspective, and/or Central America, Laura Barbas-Rhoden’s Writing Women in Central America: Gender and the Fictionalization of History is a feast of information on the Central American authors Claribel Alegría, Rosario Aguilar, Gioconda Belli, and Tatiana Lobo and how these women reinterpret history through their fictional works.

Reading Barbas-Rhoden’s book was peculiar as I’ve never read any of the authors she critiques, but I was very attracted to the subject matter and I enjoy reading literary criticism. Though people frequently ascribe a stark contrast between nonfiction and fiction, Barbas-Rhoden’s book explores how the novel disrupts and adds to historical narrative, and frequently expresses the the silent Other: often women and indigenous populations. (This idea actually played a large part in a paper I wrote about Jane Austen.)

Not being familiar with the authors that are discussed was a definite draw back in that I had no point of reference. On the other hand, Barbas-Rhoden introduced me to some great and thoughtful women writers from Central America.

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Nonfiction: Things That Make Us [sic] by Martha Brockenbrough, 2008

“People who buy grammar books usually don’t need them, except to slam down upon the heads of others…”

After ReadWriteWeb’s article on “Errors By Bloggers Kill Credibility & Traffic, Study Finds,” it was most fortunate for me that I had a copy of Martha Brockenbrough’s Things That Make Us [sic] in my reading stack. Brockenbrough is the founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), which is known for sending out letters to correct everyone from politicians to hockey teams on their grammatical slips.

Embracing pop culture examples, Brockenbrough reviews the traditional language mishaps as well as expanding on some neglected and interesting bits: a list of commonly misspelled words (did you know spelling is linked to genetics?), a section on losing sentence weight like “began/started” and “could/would,” and a nice list of Latin words and usage (including two I regularly mix-up: e.g. and i.e.). Likewise, the book is full of interesting language nuances such as the Chicago Tribune’s attempt at spelling simplification, Jane Austen and JALATIN, and punctuation marks for irony from typographers.

Things That Make Us [sic] is mostly a guide for intermediate language users who already have some grasp on usage. Brockenbrough’s book is a review of grammar and also interspersed with some thoughtful commentary, such as the author’s thoughts on punctuation: “…we first used it to tell people when to breathe as they read out loud, later using it to help silent readers understand syntax. Punctuation isn’t meant to make the author’s state of mind clear. Well-chosen words do that, and the day serious writers turn to punctuation to communicate their ideas be be a :-( day, indeed.”

I confess that Brockenbrough’s book is not the grammar book for me and this has more to do with tone than content. I think language is a many splendored thing, but I believe that few individuals are actually experts and that the vast majority of people live (or struggle) somewhere within the vast spectrum of interlanguage. (Something I’m sure the author would concur with.) Brockenbrough’s tone goes a little too far towards picking on people than sympathizing and being helpful. In her chapter on malapropisms, Brockenbrough says “Mirth does not occur when a grown-up […] reaches into his box of words and pulls out the wrong one,” and though the author does not explicity say she supports this attitude she doesn’t disagree. I think if we embraced our embarassment a little more mirthfully, we might be more open to learning a little bit more.

Conclusion: Tosser.

(Donated to the Writing Center.)



Nonfiction: Assassin’s Accomplice by Kate Clifford Larson, 2008

“…the Assassin’s Accomplice will recover a little-known chapter in American history: the full and dramatic account of the life and trial of Mary Surratt, the woman who nurtured and helped cultivate the conspiracy to kill President Abraham Lincoln.”

Most school age children in the United States can tell you that President Lincoln was killed at Ford’s Theatre by John Wilkes Booth, but did you also know that a conspiracy surrounded the assassination that would lead to the execution of four additional individuals including Mary Surratt — the first woman to be executed by the United State’s government?

Kate Clifford Larson’s The Assassin’s Accomplice: Mary Surrat and the Plot to Kill Abraham Lincoln is part biography, part true crime testament, and part social commentary on the dichotomous roles of women in the Civil War era. Mary Surrat was a widow, land owner, and Southern sympathizer during the war, though she lived in the precariously positioned Maryland. Larson’s research began with the supposition that Mary was not entirely guilty and did not deserve the death penalty, but her research unveils exactly how deep into the conspiracy Mary was.

What I love about The Assassin’s Accomplice is the simple readability. It’s such an interesting topic and Larson conveys the story in such an interesting manner. This is definitely a nonfiction work that was written to be enjoyed by the reader and targeted at a much wider audience than fellow historians. Additionally, the book adds some interesting humanity to the assassination of Lincoln and the trial that followed.

Conclusion: Keeper.



Nonfiction: Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, 2008

If you’re interested in running, or interested in writing, or interested in Haruki Murakami, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running* is “a kind of memoir centered on the act of running” that’s both an enjoyable and thoughtful read. Through this collection of essays and comprehensive journal entries, Murakami reflects on his start at running and novel writing, and how running has affected his life as a novelist.

I wouldn’t say What I Talk About… is one of Murakami’s most enlightening or brilliant works and it doesn’t have a mass appeal, but it does offer a curious insight into his life as an author. With the odd philosophical asides, this was a book I enjoyed and that inspired me to run (despite the cold!) and has re-interested me in reading more of Murakami’s works.

*A play on a Raymond Carver’s short story collection entitled What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.



Nonfiction: In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD

Sourcebooks, Inc. kindly sent me a copy of the memoir In the Land of Invisible Women by Qanta A. Ahmed, MD, which was perfect timing as I had just heard Ahmed’s interview on the Diane Rehm Show and was quite curious about the book. Ahmed, “a British Muslim doctor,” is denied a visa to stay within the United States and quickly makes up her mind to accept a position in Saudi Arabia. Her memoir In the Land of Invisible Women offers a unique perspective of a western woman, professional doctor, and Muslim living within the kingdom.

I feel that most of what I know about Saudi Arabia has been my interpretation of evening news’ sound bytes. Via an original and interesting perspective, Ahmed takes the reader through her experience of Saudi Arabia, particularly in Riyadh [1], where she worked as a doctor for two years at the National Guard Hospital. In the Land of Invisible Women reads as a cross between a medical narrative and a memoir, and also manages to pursue two distinctly interesting themes: a western woman’s experience within the Kingdom and a lifelong Muslim’s interaction with more extreme forms of Islam.

My only complaint about the book regard some structural issues as some chapters read as disjointed. Assumedly the format is chronological, though certainly gaps of time are missing, but the reader at times is expected to make shaky leaps between one handful of chapters, for example, that focus on Hajj season to the next handful of chapters detailing Ahmed’s experience with romance in Riyadh. Relatively a minor distraction, but it did force me to wonder if I had managed to skip pages.

What I most appreciated about this book was Ahmed’s divulgence of her opinion and how she avoided becoming dismissive of other’s beliefs. The author is consistently willing to acknowledge the complex traditions and cultures that, for example, produce both negative and positive responses to wearing the abbayah. Nevertheless, Ahmed still beautifully asserts her arguments and confronts the anti-Semitism, the sexism, and the anti-western attitudes she experienced.

In the Land of Invisible Women gave me a lot to think about, and just not about the complexities of Saudi Arabia but also my country’s, the U.S.A., interactions within the Middle East.

[1] I now have a new appreciation for The Girls of Riyadh, a book I previously shrugged off as so-so pop-literature.

Other opinions: Book Addiction.

Conclusion: Available on Bookmooch.



Libros de Español

Previously I posted that I have started yet another semester of Spanish and have also been enjoying Out of the Blue’s Spanish related posts. Though my blog may suggest otherwise, I really don’t spend all of my time reading lots of great and fun books. Really. I also spend an enormous amount of time grappling with Spanish – a language I love but one that certainly kicks my butt. Today I’m going to take a moment to note two very useful books I’ve found for learning Spanish.

English Grammar For Students of Spanish by Emily Spinelli has been an indispensable guide. I am someone that needs some type of direct correlation between English and Spanish grammar (even if this correlation is only hazy, indistinct, or suggested). Though I have never had any formal training in English grammar (thank you public education) and am very much self-taught, Spinelli’s guide helps the student traverse both languages. So once you figure out what you want to say, you can easily find out how to say it, and it also includes some great exercises and, perhaps best of all, some great study tips.

Mastering Spanish Grammar by Pilar Munoz and Mike Thacker is simply brilliant. This was a recent discovery in my continuing expedition of Spanish grammar. Mastering Spanish Grammar works in a somewhat spiraling fashion where, for example, the student is presented with the basic description and uses of all parts of speech. Each of these sections includes a pretty heft list of activities that I have found useful. After this first round, Munoz and Thacker’s book starts again going through all the parts of speech but at a more advanced level. I found the book completely non-threatening, with great explanations, and cute modernist illustrations.



Nonfiction: Shimmering Images by Lisa Dale Norton
September 27, 2008, 11:30 am
Filed under: book reviews, nonfiction | Tags: , , , , ,

“You’ve always wanted to write a story about your life. You’ve been planning to do it, telling family and friends you are going to do it…but you haven’t done it.

Why not?”

Lisa Dale Norton’s Shimmering Images is a barebones and simplistic instructive-guide to writing memoirs. Shimmering Images gets its title from one of her recommended exercises to help the budding memoirist, which is to use “…a memory that rises in your consciousness like a photograph pulsing with meaning…” All of the activities are based on the work Norton does within the workshops she teaches across the country on writing.

I have no interest in writing a memoir at this time as I’m in my mid-20s and seriously not much has happened that many people would care to read. However, even for the non-memoirist Shimmering Images lends some good advice when it comes to brainstorming and structure. In straightforward instructions with limited detail, Norton provides a great guideline for writing. Though it warns away from more daring approaches to memoir writing, it seems like a good place to start from.

Conclusion: Bookmooching.

Other opinions: J. Kaye’s Book Blog.

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