Tuesday, March 17, 2009

A Voyage Long and Strange: Rediscovering the New World by Tony Horwitz (2008)

I discovered that my favorite writer from last year - Geraldine Brooks, has a husband who is also a writer, so I just wanted to check out what he had written.

This book is an early history of the United States that ends with Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. Though I took my time getting through this, it was a pleasant read. I was definitely interested in this part of our history. In my travels out West I would come across historical monuments or museum displays mentioning the Spanish in the early 1500's - almost 100 years before Jamestown and Plymouth Rock. It all remained very vague to me. Tony Horwitz realized the chasm in his own knowledge between Columbus and the Pilgrims, so he started researching - starting in the library, then turning to letters and journals of earlier explorers. But then he did what I would love to do - he traveled to all the places, retracing the travels of the early explorers, trying to locate the places, visiting archives, museums, historians and regular people who are interested in the local history. The chapters include historical facts he has unearthed interspersed with stories of Horwitz's travels and the people he met, the celebrations he participated in. He expands on the things we might have learned in school or what we are told in tourist centers and how that differs from what really happened.

Horwitz starts with the Scandinavians and there was more than Lief Eiriksson, but seems like New Foundland was just too harsh for colonization, but they kept fishing the shores. Then of course there is Columbus. I remember reading some alternative histories of his voyages back around 1992. I guess it never ceases to wrench my gut on how many native peoples were totally annihilated in the Caribbean. But I just never knew the destruction the Spanish brought about on the mainland. Coronado was violent throughout his travels, but De Soto just wiped out whole Indian tribes throughout the Southeast. 

I marked off a passage which epitomized much of the book for me: "In history class, all we heard about was the Forty-niners and mountain men and Pike's fucking Peak," Walter (an Arizonan who can trace his ancestry to the Spanish) said. "Anglos called us 'chili eaters' and looked down on us as newcomers, even though we'd been there three hundred years before the so-called pioneers came west." (p. 147)  When I looked at the map, it was amazing how much of the US the Spanish explored before the English got there - along the California coast, then NM, AZ, TX, OK, KS then FL, GA, SC, NC, TN, AL, MS, AR, LA and only after all of those was St. Augustine settled.

There were many things that set off my thinking, so I am glad I took my time with this book. I'll just mention one. What were these conquistador guys thinking? They traipse around a huge foreign land without any skills to provide for themselves except to steal from the Indians. Very unlike Louis and Clark who explored with hunters and gatherers. Seems like I've heard this in other historical books and novels - the supply line is critical to armies - and that is what these men were.

Another thing that is slowly getting clearer in my mind, is why, though I learned about Indians while growing up in New Jersey, they didn't really permeate my consciousness until I started traveling West. I didn't realize how many were destroyed - even before the English got here, and that many of the rest were forced westward. I learned about the Trail of Tears when visiting the Great Smokey National Park, but obviously that was not the only time Indians were cleared out of Eastern states. One of the most evil recent men was a registrar of vital statistics in Virginia, who altered records to weed out Indian bloodlines.

All in all a very fascinating story, but Horwitz ends his tale on a melancholy note (maybe not quite the right emotion), when he notes that though he has gathered all these updated facts, people till cling to and maybe need the myths like Plymouth Rock, Thanksgiving turkey and the Fountain of Youth.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Eclipse by Stephanie Meyer (2007)

Stephanie Meyer continues her story of Bella torn between her two loves - vampire Edward and werewolf Jacob. My favorite part was when she attends a ceremony with Jacobs clan and hears the story of how their forefathers got the ability to change into wolves. I knew the vampires would end up working together with the werewolves against the evil from the outside - and I liked that. The description of the fight was bizarre, but interesting. What I couldn't handle was Bella and her obsession with Edward. I found "gaimangirl" on Amazon agreed:

"What in the world do all of these people see in Bella? ... She's whiny, hypocritical, self-obsessed, co-dependent, moody, childish, sulky, I could go on, you get my drift. She has no goals, ambitions, hobbies, dreams, or talents. She shows no interest in the world around her."

I have similar complaints - what does she think she is going to do for "eternity" if she doesn't have a job, an interest, a goal, a hobby? She seems smart - when she was grounded, why didn't she read books, why reread Wuthering Heights a 100 times, when there are so many good books out there? Anyway, I guess I want to see how Meyer resolves everything, but I think I'll wait a while to pick up the fourth book. This is not Harry Potter, where the characters are richly developed. Harry got whiny for one book, but that was just that age, and he got over it.

Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008)

Another incredible book for young adults, that sounded fresh to me. This takes the oft used post-apocalyptic scenario and combines it with reality shows of today. America is reduced to one wealthy city in Colorado and twelve outlying districts that each provide something for the common good. They each have to send a boy and a girl to play in the annual Hunger Games - a survivor type reality show, except the winner is the last person left alive. Our heroine Katniss comes from the impoverished coal mining area in the Appalachians. She has learned to hunt wild game to provide for her family, a skill that increases her chances of survival, but the officials who run the games always provide situations to challenge even the best contestants. There is an underlying theme of standing up to the oppressor, so I was thrilled (and a bit frustrated) when I read after the last page "end of book one."

Charmed (1992) & Enchanted (1999) by Nora Roberts (2004)

I don't think I've read any of her Donavan stories before, but I liked these. The magic is pretty blatant, but it is set in today's world with Wiccan lore thrown in. The Donavan clan are magical folk from Ireland and they fall in love with non-magical people and have to see if their love can survive the revelation that they are different. In Charmed Anstasia is a healer who falls for Boone, a children's book writer and illustrator who moves next door with his daughter. And in Enchanted Rowan Murray rents a cottage from a friend on the coast of Oregon to get away from it all, she befriends a wolf, which she seem to trust more than the neighbor guy, who just happens to turn into that wolf every so often. I liked her finding what she really wants to do with life.