“Americans. They think everybody is snowflake. Only one snowflake. Only one you. But in Korea we think like snowball. Everybody snowball.” Yun-ji packed an imaginary snowball in her hands, then lifted it, palms up, as if offering Billie a present. “You see? Snowball.”
Both of them looked at Yun-ji’s hands holding nothing.
“Snowball,” Yun-ji repeated, then looked at Billie, at her unhappy mouth, at her face that looked like it had been bleached, and she pictured that soldier sitting in the tank, listening to head phones, maybe reading a Rolling Stone magazine, then the call coming in over the radio, the hurried attempts to think of an excuse, some reason why he didn’t see two fourteen-year-old girls walking down a deserted country road in South Korea.
“Never mind,” Yun-ji said and dropped her hands.
There are a lot of levels to this book. It’s a book about cultures and differences, but it’s also a book about the similarities that underlay human societies. In the end, our humanity trumps our differences and enables us to reach out to those who seem at first unreachable.
It’s about women and men, their relationships, their failure to communicate. The endless misunderstandings arising from these failed efforts — or failed lack of effort. It’s also about the assumptions we make based on appearance and how terribly wrong are the deductions we make based on what we think we see. And how we use bad information to make our choices. And finally, the pain that results from choices — even when the choices are the best available.
The story takes place in South Korea. Billie, a young American woman, is in the country to teach English to grade school children. She has come there with her friend, lover and partner and shortly realizes she is pregnant. It’s as wrong a time in her life to have a baby as there possibly could be and probably the worst possible place she could be — far away from her home and isolated by distance and culture. The story is told in the first person by Billie as well as two other first person narrators, both south Korean. Yun-ji is a young woman approximately the same age as Billie who also becomes pregnant and a man named Moon who is divorced and suffering through a painful separation from his son.
All the characters deal with problems springing from damaged relationships and miscommunication, misunderstanding, problems with parenting, pregnancy and abortion. Despite cultural differences, in the end the pain is very personal — and remarkable similar — for each. There are no simple, happy answers.
It’s well-written and held my interest from start to finish. Whether or not the book will resonate for you may depend on your age and stage in life’s journey. For me, it was a trip back in time to the bad old days before Roe Vs. Wade made abortion a viable choice. Of course, one of the issues made very clear in the book is that the legality of abortion doesn’t make it less of a gut-wrenching, life-altering decision. Anyone who thinks abortion is the easy way out should read this. Whatever else it is, it’s not easy.
It’s a good book. Strongly written, presenting highly controversial issues in a deeply human context.
The Korean Word for Butterfly is available in paper back and Kindle.
Jefferson and Hamilton: The Rivalry That Forged a Nation
Publication date: October 1, 2013
One of my professors in college was Broadus Mitchell. He was the foremost Hamiltonian scholar of his day, author of multiple biographies of Hamilton and associates. Not surprisingly, my freshman year at Hofstra’s New College with Broadus Mitchell was an intensive study of Alexander Hamilton and the founding of America. The textbook was (surprise!) one of the several biographies of Hamilton authored by Broadus Mitchell.
When I was given the opportunity to review this book, I was intrigued. I wondered what the author could tell me I hadn’t read elsewhere and if he could tell the story better or differently, perhaps offer some fresh insights.
I have patience with history books. I don’t expect it to read like fiction. Much to my delight, John Ferling’s opening chapters in which he compares and examines the youth, upbringing and psychological makeup of both men is beautifully written — entertaining and lively. Perceptive. Astute. What drove them, what inspired them to become the men who built America.
All was going swimmingly well for me until the war began. The Revolutionary War.
I am not a war buff. I was not expecting a play-by-play of the revolution. But there it was. Battle by battle, troop movement by troop movement. I could feel my brain switch to off. I’m not sure why the full details of the war are included. Aside from showcasing Hamilton’s military career (doable in a few paragraphs), it adds little to my understanding of either man. As far as I’m concerned, it mainly adds hundreds of pages where a page or two of summary would have sufficed.
If you are a military history buff, you will want to read it. I’ve read other accounts of the military side of the Revolution and this is as good or better than any other book I’ve read on the subject. Perhaps that’s the reason I didn’t want to read it here. It’s your choice. You can choose to skim sections. It’s a long book and there’s plenty of excellent material to engage you. When Ferling is writing about the character and personality of his two extraordinary subjects, he’s brilliant. It makes everything else worthwhile.
Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton were two of the most influential men in American history. The author said it well when he commented (sorry, this isn’t a quote … I’m paraphrasing) that there are lots of statues dedicated to Jefferson, but we live in Hamilton’s world. True enough. Hamilton was the consummate advocate of a strong central government with economic control through a central bank. Jefferson advocated extreme individual freedom, leaving most government to local authorities.
It amuses me that Hamilton is the darling of the conservatives while Jefferson is a liberal ideal. Given Hamilton’s belief in strong central government and Jefferson’s preference for isolationism, individualism and decentralization — well, it pretty much defines our nation’s problem with cognitive dissonance.
If you’re a serious history buff, there is much to like, even if not every part of the book is equally gripping .
It is said that “Both men were visionaries, but their visions of the United States were diametrically opposed.” That may have been true in 1780, but it has long ceased to have any relevance. The strands of their initially opposing philosophies have twisted into a single ball. Both strands are necessary to our American dream.
Jefferson and Hamilton is the story of the struggle — public and ultimately personal — between two major figures in our country’s history. It ended when Alexander Hamilton died in a duel with Aaron Burr, Jefferson’s vice president.
Worth reading for sure, but it’s not light entertainment. This is history buff material. Fortunately, there are still a few of us around.
Of all the reviews I’ve written, I’ve gotten the most feedback on this one (especially on Amazon), both pro and con. I didn’t expect that kind of response and it’s a pleasant surprise. Apparently there are still people out there interested in history, interested enough to argue about it. I find that very encouraging. Maybe there’s hope for our future after all!
About the author:
John Ferling is professor emeritus of history at the University of West Georgia. He is the author of many books on American Revolutionary history, including The Ascent of George Washington; Almost a Miracle, an acclaimed military history of the War of Independence; and the award-winning A Leap in the Dark. He and his wife, Carol, live near Atlanta, Georgia.
The first mention of either the Lady of the Lake or Ninian (Niniane, Vivian, etc.) is to be found in the late work Prose Merlin. Her character remains much the same through to Sir Thomas Malory, who simply makes the story more complex. In all the stories that name her Ninian is a fully developed character. She is the original owner of Arthur’s second sword and later becomes Merlin’s pupil.
However, as with many aspects of the Arthurian literary world, there are serious gaps in reasoning with her story, and these gaps suggest a very different origin for her. For instance, Merlin somehow knows she will betray him, but teaches her anyway. The romances explain that he does so because he loves her, but that sounds like more of a rationalization of something not understood than an historical fact that is.
The end of her story is that Niniane does trap Merlin in a cave the moment her studies are over. He is left there, alive (again, no serious explanation). It certainly is not out of malice for Arthur. Ninian takes over as his counselor for the remainder of his reign and does her best to help him. She is also one of the four women who takes him to Avalon. That is the extent of Ninian’s literary career. Clearly her original character and the transformation have been hidden by chance and misunderstandings.
Uinniau was a prominent ecclesiastic of sixth century Britain who may have been Columba’s teacher. He was known as Ninian in Welsh saints’ lives or Nynia by Bede. However, much of Scotland has place-names derived from his proper name of Uinniau. This Uinniau was known for three things mainly. First, he was one of the most knowledgeable persons of his age. Second, he was a great teacher who made his monastery of Whithorn was a primary center of learning in Britain. Finally, it is known that he would occasionally go on a retreat to a nearby cave, known as St. Ninian’s Cave, which was several miles away from his monastery.
Ninian would eventually became the form by which Uinniau was exclusively known. In fact, the process must have been an early one. Bede, writing in 725, knew him only by that name. It was an unfortunate circumstance that Ninian was a Celtic name, and the romance writers who would treat Arthur on the continent spoke Germanic and Latin languages. The unfamiliarity with Celtic would lead to confusion over his gender, and he became a she there.
Arthur was an attractive figure in the literature of the Middle Ages, gravitating all manner of figures, motifs, and stories to him. In previous blogs I have mentioned the attraction of the Myrddin (Merlin) legend and the figure of Urien. The same sort of fate awaited Uinniau. Long before Arthur had become a figure of romance, Uinniau’s dominant name-form had become to Ninian. For the Celtic speaker that was still a male name, but for continentals it was female.
That change from male to female, from independent ecclesiastic to intelligent layperson was where Uinniau became a different literary figure. Once Uinniau was a part of the Arthurian universe, his reputation for intelligence would have drawn him to the already established Merlin; in an irony of history a lunatic (Myrddin) became the teacher of one of the best-read people of the age (Uinniau). Once that transformation was accomplished, the latent aspects of Uinniau’s memory easily made their way into Arthurian the tales, and Merlin was trapped in the cave Uinnau had used as a refuge.
I won’t pretend to know how Ninian became the Lady of the Lake. However, she would not have begun her Arthurian career that way. She would have started off as Merlin’s pupil and successor with the qualities of her historical precursor intact. She was associated with a lake only by Robert de Boron, an author that I have discovered in my research was not one to stick with his traditional sources. It is possible he knew of some Celtic tale which he used to enhance Uinniau’s mythology. It is equally possible he used something more contemporary. That part of the history of the Lady of the Lake we may never know.
From my favorite blog, one of my favorite mysteries … partially solved, but leaving enough unanswered questions to hold my interest. I love this stuff. If you have never visited TALLWCH, you are missing a treat. Check it out at - http://tallhwch.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/niniane-the-lady-of-the-lake/
See on tallhwch.wordpress.com
Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delany
Open Road Integrated Media
Publication Date: January 7, 2014
In The Recombinant City, A Foreward, William Gibson says of Dhalgren:
It is a literary singularity … a work of sustained conceptual daring, executed by the most remarkable prose stylist to have emerged from the culture of American science fiction.
I have never understood it. I have sometimes felt that I partially understood it, or that I was nearing the verge of understanding it. This has never caused me the least discomfort, or interfered in any way with my pleasure in the text.
It caused me discomfort. A lot.
Maybe if I’d read Dhalgren in 1975, I’d have liked it more. I was 28, part of the youth culture, active politically and close enough to my college days that Dhalgren would have resonated and had context. But that was nearly 40 years ago. The world and I have come a long way since then.
When Dhalgren was originally published, I didn’t read it. I was working, taking care of my son, possibly too stoned to focus on a page. It was like that. Back then. Hey, how old are you? Have you qualified for Social Security? Almost there? Minimally, you have your AARP card? If not, you probably won’t understand this novel — and even if you are old enough to have been there back when, you may find — as I did — that the time for this book has passed.
To use an analogy, I read Thomas Wolf’s Look Homeward Angel when I was 14. I adored it. Pure poetry end to end. Five years later, you couldn’t have paid me to read it. The story was perfect for an adolescent trying to grow up in a world that didn’t understand her but was irrelevant to a young, married woman in the suburbs. Context counts.
The writing is beautiful and the analogy to Wolfe not accidental. Like Wolfe, Samuel Delaney wrote prose that is pure poetry, rich with symbolism. Nonetheless, this isn’t a book I would have chosen at this point in my life. I might have loved it at a different age and stage.
The story centers on a bunch of kids in a city called Bellona in which something very strange and evil occurred. Exactly what? Well, something. The TV, radio and telephones don’t work. Signals don’t work. People have reverted to a sort of feral hunting society, in an urban way. The Kid (whose name may or may not be Kidd) comes down from the mountain. He meets other kids. They talk about stuff. Poetry. People. Random events. Think Thomas Wolfe on purple haze with a beer chaser. Beautiful words, haunting images. Poetry that never ends and a plot that never begins.
The publisher puts it this way:
In Dhalgren, perhaps one of the most profound and bestselling science fiction novels of all time, Samuel R. Delany has produced a novel “to stand with the best American fiction of the 1970s” (Jonathan Lethem).
Bellona is a city at the dead center of the United States. Something has happened there…. The population has fled. Madmen and criminals wander the streets. Strange portents appear in the cloud-covered sky. And into this disaster zone comes a young man–poet, lover, and adventurer–known only as the Kid. Tackling questions of race, gender, and sexuality, Dhalgren is a literary marvel and groundbreaking work of American magical realism.
It may be all those things and I’m not sufficiently intellectual or appreciative of art to enjoy it. After the first couple of hundred pages, I found it meandering and more than a bit pretentious. But to be fair, it’s a matter of taste. I have friends who really liked James Joyce and actually read Ulysses, not the Cliff Notes. Go figure, right?
This edition includes a foreword by William Gibson as well as a new illustrated biography of Samuel Delaney.
Dhalgren is available in paperback, hardcover and Kindle.
Spirit of Steamboat: A Walt Longmire Story
PENGUIN GROUP Viking
Viking Adult – 161 Pages
A holiday tale from the New York Times bestselling author of the Walt Longmire mystery series, the inspiration for A&E’s hit show Longmire
“It’s a question of what you have to do, what you have to live with if you don’t.”
As Sheriff Walt Longmire is reading A Christmas Carol in his office on Christmas Eve, he’s interrupted by a mysterious young woman who claims to know him. And Lucian Connally, Walt’s predecessor who now lives in a retirement home.
She is indeed a ghost of Christmas past. It takes Walt a while, but when he sees the scars, one that runs across her forehead, the plastic reconstruction work around her mouth and nose — he remembers. When the young lady is introduced to Lucian, he claims to not recognize her … but it’s not true. He knows who she is. They both do and soon, Walt is deep in memories of the hellacious blizzard of December 24, 1988.
It’s the story of a rescue, a decrepit B-25 bomber named “Steamboat.” How, after three people die in a terrible crash, a girl survives, in desperate need of immediate medical care far in excess of what this small, snowbound community can provide. How Lucian flies that old, leaky plane through the worst blizzard in memory — while Walt, the doctor and a co-pilot white-knuckle onward against all odds.
It’s a novella with a lot of back story for the ongoing Longmire series. It’s a touching Christmas story, full of valor and determination in the face of impossible odds and an epic storm. The girl will die if they can’t beat that blizzard — and they are not about to let her die.
If you have read, or are in the process of reading the Longmire series — or if you are following the story via the A&E television series, this is a worthwhile addition to your reading. It’s available from Amazon and on Audible.com.
SPIRIT OF STEAMBOAT is a wonderful, inspiring holiday read — an excellent read any time!
- LONGMIRE Will Be Back for Season Three Says A&E GM/Executive VP David McKillop (tvruckus.com)
- A&E’s ‘Longmire’ Officially Renewed For Third Season (m.deadline.com)
In a future a few thousand years from now, Jak Jinnaka and his pals are having a grand old time. Partying hearty and ignoring everything he’s supposed to be learning at school, he hasn’t spent any time or effort thinking about the future. Any future, but especially his own. His got a great best friend, a gorgeous girlfriend and no responsibilities.
But that ends abruptly the day his girlfriend, Sesh, is kidnapped. He’s beaten senseless and discovers the world is nothing like he thought it was.
It’s a brand new reality. The beautiful, free-wheeling party girl Sesh is Princess Shyf of Greenworld, heiress and only daughter of the rulers of a powerful kingdom. Jak’s Uncle Sib is not merely the kindly old guy who controls the family money, but a legendary spymaster. Now, it appears Jak is about to enter the family business with no training or time to think about possible repercussions.
It’s the first book in a new series obviously aimed at a teen audience. As was Harry Potter, so I didn’t consider its youthful skew an obstacle to enjoyment. I did sometimes find it a bit young for me … but I also found it witty and frequently laugh-out-loud funny. Barnes’ observations on society and culture is razor-sharp.
The characters are fun and interesting. They grow and change, something I always appreciate in a book. This was promoted as being along the lines of Heinlein’s young adult literature, but Barnes writes nothing like Heinlein. I like Heinlein — that’s not true. I love Heinlein. But I like Barnes too. You don’t need to lure me with promises of “another Heinlein.” I don’t need the incentive. I’d read it anyhow.
The book takes a long time to catch fire. Barnes has created a world and needs to explain it. I’d prefer he showed us more and told us less because the book plods for the first half. After that, it takes off and steps out lively.
Not only has Barnes invented a world, but he’s invented a language. It uses a lot of words that are sort of English, but not really. We’re supposed to figure out what they mean by context and mostly, I did. Eventually. It would have been easier if he had included a short glossary or footnoted the words or … just used English. I don’t think the unfamiliarity of the language added anything but confusion.
That being said, I enjoyed the book. It dragged in the beginning, but the end was fast with plenty of action. Predictable? I didn’t think it was all that predictable … no more than any other book of this type I’ve read. It has a lot of potential as a series and I’ll be interested to see where Barnes takes it.
- Review: The Duke of Uranium by John Barnes (koeur.wordpress.com)
- Gulf, by Robert A. Heinlein, Reviewed. (stuartaken.blogspot.com)
- Book Review of Schulman, The Robert Heinlein Interview and Other Heinleiniana (1991) (stephankinsella.com)