Read Harder #3: Unfamiliar Fishes

1 02 2015

Once you have seen Hawaii, it is hard to shake it off. Hawaii captures the imagination, so foreign and so familiar. We have visited Hawaii twice since moving to Japan, and we will miss the close proximity when we move back to America. So when I needed to choose a book about native peoples for the Read Harder challenge, a book about Hawaii was a no brainer.

I have enjoyed several of Sarah Vowell’s other books, so I was eager to check out Unfamiliar Fishes. In this book, Vowell’s recounts the tumultuous period between the arrival of the first Westerners and the ultimate annexation of Hawaii. The time scale is shockingly short for such an extreme change in circumstance. Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to annexation, only 120 years had passed.

Visiting Hawaii means slowing down; everything seems a bit more relaxed. Which makes the rapid course of events even more amazing. The native Hawaiians are initially cautious but interested in adopting elements of western culture. Despite being a terrible choice for the climate, Hawaiian nobility were soon wearing black, Victorian clothes. Covering up also served the needs of the mail “civilizing” force, Protestant missionaries sent to convert the “heathens.”

In fact, more so than the many sailors that pass through the Hawaiian islands, it is this group of missionaries that shape Hawaii’s course to Americanization. Many arrive with good but imperialist intention. However, after a few years, when support for the organization that sent them wanes, the missionaries must find new lines of work. Many turn to business or politics, shifting their focus into influencing more than just the spiritual life of Hawaii. Descendants of these missionaries will eventually overthrow the monarchy and successfully petition the U.S. to take over.

Vowell’s descriptions of the beautiful places and cultural objects of native Hawaii provide a great sense of what exactly was lost when Hawaiian autonomy was taken away. The wistful writings of Queen Liliuokalani during and after her overthrow and imprisonment are nonetheless gracious and warm.

If you are looking to understand more about Hawaiian history, this is a great opening. My one pet peeve, however, is that the book contains no chapters. It is a 230 page meander through history, which can make it hard to follow at times and difficult to refer back to specific sections for information.


Not Your Average Princess

4 01 2015


I just finished another book. Though it doesn’t fit well into the Read Harder challenge, I liked it so much I thought I should share. I picked up Princess Academy – Amazon because I have enjoyed several of Shannon Hale’s other books. B loves The Princess in Black, and I have enjoyed her Austenland books. (Go check these out!)

I was expecting a fun take on the princess trope, somewhat like The Princess in Black, but Princess Academy is a complete departure. To start with, the girls in the titular academy are not, in fact, princesses. It has been foretold that the prince will marry a girl from a small mountain territory. To prepare the simple country folk for low country life, all eligible girls must attend year-long princess training.

For a children’s book, this story is full of nuance. Many of the girls struggle with whether they would even want to be the princess, facing competing pulls of home and power. Miri, the main character, searches for ways to use her newfound knowledge to benefit her community.

There’s a wee bit of action, a lot of heart, some convincing mystical elements, and a wide range of emotions. This book well deserves its Newberry Award.

Read Harder: The Prague Cemetery

2 01 2015

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/1c5/35856733/files/2015/01/img_0094.jpgWe are kicking the Read Harder challenge off with a bang! My first book, The Prague Cemetery – Amazon by Umberto Eco is a doozy. It is a dense, dark, historical novel exploring the rise of Anti-Semitism. So why did I choose it first?

Well, for starters, it had been sitting in my Kindle books for a while, and I am hoping this year to really work through my digital and physical book shelves. But what really grabbed me is the general framework of the novel. A man, Simonini, wakes up to realize he can’t remember the previous several days and at the same time discovers that he is sharing his house with another man, AbbĂ© Della Piccola, of whom he also has no memory. The two never meet but begin piecing together their recent and distant pasts by writing notes back and forth.

The concept is brilliant. The mystery holds. The characters are unlikeable, pretty much without exception. The conclusion is fairly satisfying. However, I felt like the book was bogged down with way to much detail of all the bizarre conspiracies (and conspiracy theories) relating to the Jews, Jesuits, Masons, and others. However, it that is your kind of thing, I think you would love this book.

The Prague Cemetery is filling the “originally published in another language” category for me. Eco released this book in his native Italian, with an English translation published the following year. Perhaps Italian readers would be more familiar with the historical and political details of the first half of the book (lots on Garibaldi), but I found it fairly accessible. I appreciated Kindle’s integration with a dictionary and Wikipedia to help me fill some of the gaps.

Bottom line: Check out The Prague Cemetery if you love digging into historical details and conspiracy theories.

Read Harder #1: Challenge Accepted

2 01 2015

Happy New Year! 2015 is under way, and with it, a new reading challenge for me. This year I am undertaking the Book Riot Read Harder challenge. The goal is fairly modest — 24 books in a year. What makes it challenging is the breadth of reading selections. Books are chosen from 24 categories (age of author, geographic location, genre, etc.), encouraging each reader to pick up something that is a bit of a stretch.

The world is overflowing with media, things to read, watch, hear. Ironically, the greater the options, the more likely it is that you will find your perfect little niche — and stay there. This year I am branching out, reading books that have been on my list for years and books I have never heard of. It is my sincere hope that I come through 2015 having learned more about the world, and about myself.

Stay tuned. I will briefly update as I complete each book. I also plan to provide a children’s book selection for each category so that kids can join along.

Care to join me?