Maira's Books

In January of 2005 I started this blog as a record of books I’ve read as I was afraid I would forget what I have read. I have often referred back to my own blog to remember a book's contents or see what I have read by an author. I have enjoyed passing my books on to friends or recommending books to read. I know I have missed recording some, but in general I try to keep up with what I have read or listened to.

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Location: Kalamazoo, MI, United States

I am a librarian at Waldo Library at Western Michigan University.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Firework Maker's Daughter by Philip Pullman (1999)

I somehow was expecting a bit more from the author of the Goldan Compass trilogy, but since this was a very short - 2CD - listen, I guess it had a few interesting ideas. A girl lives with her father, who makes fireworks and teaches her to make them. Her best friend is responsible for a white elephant, who at times gets covered with graffiti and advertisements. She goes on a quest, etc., etc. Maybe I've just been spoiled by some excellent, innovative writing for young adults, so this just felt formulaic to me, but would probably just be fine for young readers.

Looks like I have to amend this. Turns out, this is probably full of Asian folklore that I did not even realize. The white elephant in the story was given to people the ruler did not like, and they were responsible for feeding it and taking care of it until they went broke - so it was an unwanted gift, that you wanted to give away. This is the actual background to "white elephant" gifts of today.

Sampinjona deriba by Laima Muktupavela (2002)

The Mushroom Covenant is a novel about Latvians going to Ireland to work. At the time the novel was written, I believe there were about 10,000 Latvians in Ireland. The number is currently more like 30,000. Muktupavela went to Ireland herself and worked, to see what it was like. She has a background in history and journalism, so she was very observant, but this is not her story, it is a woman with nothing to lose in Latvia. It is just strange to read about my own people being treated like migrant workers - which they are, though they are educated, cultured, etc., but without the knowledge of English, they appear ignorant to many of the Irish. The interactions between the Latvians living and working together are disturbingly distant. The mushrooms in the title refer to the mushrooms our main characters are picking seven days a week. Sometimes they get paid, sometimes they don't. There are good employers and not so good employers. Muktupavela looks at the various motivations of workers to go to Ireland, and what they do with the money they earn. I think this wave of migration is ripe for all sorts of research.

Alvas kliedziens by Gundega Repse (2002)

I wasn't going to list Latvian books in this blog, but I felt I had to list two that I read during Christmas break. The title of this translates as The Tin Scream - a sound made by tin when bent. I am looking for current Latvian fiction to use in teaching about life in Latvia under Soviets and in the era of new independence. I understand that Repse has based this book on her actual diaries from the time she was eleven to sixteen. Much of it reflects normal childhood ups and downs, but her story is full of small details that differ from our childhoods in the U.S. As she gets older, she has a harder time conforming to what is expected of a good soviet student, and with troubles at home, she starts acting out, which is interpreted as mental illness and she is drugged and eventually hospitalized. The normal childhood story gets quite intense. The book would have to be excerpted very selectively, but it has some important scenes like when some students decide to attend church on Christmas eve, and as they come out of the church, a teacher is writing down their names and they are later called in for interrogations. (Definitely more than just a plain discussion.) I don't think our children understand what it was like under the Soviets.

The Prophet of Yonwood by Jeanne DuPrau (2006)

A prequel to our much enjoyed books The City of Ember and The People of Sparks. Though interesting in and of itself, it left my son and me unsatisfied as a third book to this provocative series.

Imperium by Robert Harris (2006)

I picked this up because I really like Harris' Pompeii. This was about the historical figure Cicero (106-43 BC), an orator, statesman, political theorist, lawyer and philosopher of Ancient Rome, as nicely summarized by Wikipedia. This historical novel actually gave me more than I ever wanted to know about Cicero, but since it was an audio book, I sat through it and actually was glad I did. The novel is narrated by Cicero's slave, who acts as his secretary and scribe, a man who invented shorthand, to capture almost every word Cicero said. I asked our rare books librarian how did all this text from Cicero survive the ages, as I haven't really heard of vast Roman tablet collections. She explained that the important stuff was transcribed over the ages and these transcriptions have survived.

I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of Roman life, and was fascinated by the political process. Much of our democratic process was developed way back then. Though oratory is still very important in our political process - think campaign speeches and state of the ___ addresses, but I am glad we have gotten away from speeches that last hours. (I remember suffering through some very lengthy speeches on Latvian independence days. Wonder if anyone has collected and analyzed those speeches over the years.)