Thursday, June 28, 2007

Canadian Mothers

I have a longish book review of a new Canadian book out on The Whole Mom webzine, if you're interested in motherhood, Native peoples and politics. The book is Until Our Hearts Are On the Ground: Aboriginal Mothering, Oppression, Resistance and Rebirth, edited by D. Memee Lavell-Harvard and Jeannette Corbiere Lavell - "an eye-opening and diverse collection of papers published by Demeter Press, the publishing division of York University's Association for Research on Mothering in 2006."
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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Birchbark House: Book Review

So I followed up my reading of Caddie Woodlawn (written in 1935 by Carol Ryrie Brink), which was set in 1864-1865 in western Wisconsin, with The Birchbark House, which was written by Louise Erdrich and published in 1999.

The Birchbark House is set in northern Wisconsin (on the shores of Lake Superior) in 1847, but like much of Caddie Woodlawn, a lot of the story is timeless. It is the story of a seven-year-old girl dealing with an annoying younger brother, a bossy older sister, and some quirky relatives. The character descriptions (along with the beautiful landscape descriptions and the fascinating portrayals of everyday life) really made the book something different and wonderful for me. And Old Tallow reminded me more than a little of Grandma Dowdel, one my favorite characters ever in a children's story.

I loved Erdrich's illustrations, too.

I would recommend this for kids of any age, except that there is a sudden, devastating death in the middle of the book. It is heartbreaking, and it isn't something that can just be skipped by not reading a couple of chapters, because much of the second half of the story deals with how Omakayas (the main character) comes to terms with her loss. This part is actually very beautiful and uplifting to read, and reminded me of one of my favorite books from college - Return to Laughter, by Elenore Smith Bowen, which also describes smallpox in a small community. But some younger or more sensitive kids may not be able to deal with this story as well as older children, so I'm going to say it is best for kids eleven and up.

Erdrich also has a beautiful children's book aimed at younger kids, and set in contemporary times, that older kids may like, too, called Grandmother's Pigeon. It is a nice follow-up to The Birchbark House, because it shows that Native Americans don't just exist in the misty past along the shores of Lake Superior.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

Caddie Woodlawn

The real Caroline Augusta Woodhouse,
from The Wisconsin Historical Society's site on Caddie Woodlawn

So I just posted a rather lengthy review on this 1936 Newbery winner here, over at The Newbery Project.

One of the parts that I didn't write about there (because you know, I've already gone on and on past many people's attention spans) was how Caddie and her brothers take this generic Indian item (a "scalp belt", which I have no idea if even existed among any Native peoples in Wisconsin) and re-name it and make a sideshow out it. It's a nice metaphor for the co-option of Indian culture by American society in general.

As an archaeologist working in the U.S., of course, I was accused of this and much worse. It's not so black and white (and red), though, and it's another point that could be discussed when kids read Caddie Woodlawn. How much have we progressed since its publication in 1935? Are media portrayals of Indians any better today, or are people just being politically correct and thinking the same old thing that their grandparents thought?

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Monday, June 18, 2007

A Dog Post

There's an interesting post on AAIO on the dog park for Ann Arbor debate. With one cranky exception, even the people who don't particularly like dogs see the importance of having such a park. I don't think I've ever seen such agreement amongst the commentators there - on a positive issue, anyway, there have been plenty of snarky posts where everyone is happy to join in abuse. As far as I can tell from reading a recent newspaper article and the posts at ArborDog, the reasons that there aren't a public dog park in Ann Arbor already are:

- NIMBY issues (dog parks are ugly and/or dirty, increase traffic, people are just going to let their dogs run off-leash in parks anyway so why bother, and dog parks are dangerous, and won't someone think of the children?)

- painfully slow city bureaucracy - with funds available for fences at some parks but not others

The increased traffic and parking might be an issue if people actually do travel to use the dog park (negating the next objection). I don't really think that people who come to use a dog park are going to let their dogs run off-leash outside the park - they're already traveling a bit just to use an area where their dogs can be off-leash safely, so what's the point of letting them loose just outside the dog park? From what I've seen at other dog parks, the dog owners that use dog parks are generally more responsible than your average dog owner. They understand that dogs need exercise and socialization, and they often have taken their dogs to obedience classes. Bad dog owners can't let their dogs off the leash even in a dog park, because the dog doesn't understand "come", and their dogs won't drop the ball when they retrieve so why bother to throw anything, and they just don't have time to do more than let the dog out in the backyard a couple of times a day anyway.

I don't think that dog parks are any more unsightly than baseball fields, soccer fields, or playgrounds, and we certainly have plenty of those around. They need a lot less maintenance than any of those park facilities, too. Basically, all a dog park needs is fencing (and not really expensive fencing, either), parking (already available at many of the parks), and a garbage can. Shade is nice, but not necessary.

And I don't think dog parks are dangerous, either. You could certainly argue that happy, exhausted, and well-socialized dogs are safer to be around that neurotic, hyperactive dogs, and that dog owners are less likely to let their dogs off-leash in other parks if they have somewhere that they can do it legally. The dog park in Saline (see below) co-exists with both a children's playground and some natural areas, and during many hours spent with my kids on the playground, we've never had any problems with dogs. And the few times that I've been in the dog park, we didn't have any problems with children.

I don't understand the difficulty in putting a fence up at an existing park. The City of Ann Arbor Parks & Recreation department owns 147 parks, and they can't find one area with an acre to spare? I'm still mad at them for taking down a perfectly good chain-link fence at Scheffler Park, and replacing it with a rustic split-rail wooden fence. The chain-link fence made the park playground safe for little kids, which I assume is part of the point of having a playground. It must have cost a bit to pull out that fence and replace it with the new fence - which had the great advantage of being easy to mow under, even if it didn't keep toddlers from ducking under the rails and out onto Platt. I know that quite a few letters and e-mails to the Parks department were shrugged off, so maybe it shouldn't surprise me that dog owners are getting the shaft now.

Anyway, we're lucky to live near two dog parks now - one run by the city of Saline Parks & Recreation department, in Mill Pond park (in the back of the park, on the Saline river), and one at the corner of Textile and Pleasant Lake Rd. (kitty corner from the Washtenaw Farm Council grounds), part of the Copper Leaf Crossing vet's office/pet supply store.

Sadly, my dog is now too old to benefit from a dog park - at well over 14, she doesn't want to wrestle or chase rambunctious younger dogs any more, and she just doesn't need so much exercise. I remember spending hours throwing a tennis ball or a frisbee in Leslie Park when she was young, calling her quickly and putting the leash on her anytime a car entered the park or when a kid came wandering over from Arrowwood. We not only picked up our dog's poop, but offered bags to other dog owners who seemed like they were going to ignore their dog's waste, and often picked up other's people's dog poop and the occasional diaper thrown into the parking lot. My retriever mix also excelled in collecting plastic bottles, which we turned in for the deposit or recycled. We were responsible scofflaws who didn't hurt anyone.

Zoe still acts like a puppy when we put the sprinkler out, though, even in her old age. Here she is last Sunday, the hottest day of the year, when she was running through the water with my kids.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Selling Out

As you may have noticed, I'm giving Google's AdSense a try. We'll see how it works out, but with paid employment not being plentiful here right now (hey! Michigan's first in the US in unemployment!), and since AdSense is based in Ann Arbor - well, we'll see. I'm only willing to sell out so much.

It may make me blog more, which would be a good thing, as I've been lazy now that summer's here. Now excuse me while I go pick strawberries from our yard and put them on ice cream, with a little whipped cream and dark chocolate, and sit out on the deck and watch the corn grow and my kids catch butterflies and baby grasshoppers.

Missing May and The Higher Power of Lucky

Check out my review of Cynthia Rylant's novel about the loss of a parent over at The Newbery Project: Missing May. It's a beautiful book, but I think it is better suited for older kids - at least around age 12. The Higher Power of Lucky (this year's Newbery winner - Missing May won the award in 1993) is also about loss and a search for meaning, but it is much lighter in tone and the grief is a little more distant. It was fine for my ten year old, whom I now like to call "ma puce".

Friday, June 15, 2007

Fair Weather and The Devil in the White City: Book Review

My book club read The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, by Eric Larson this month - a re-read for me, although I confess I only skimmed most of the parts about Daniel Burnham the second time around. Since I grew up in Chicago's hinterland, I'm interested in history, and my grandmother had a little souvenir glass with the script "World's Fair 1893" on it, it was not hard to find at least some of this book fascinating. Other parts of Larson's book included a bit too much name dropping, heavy-handed foreshadowing, or were too gruesome for some of us.

Over a pitcher of sangria, my book club agreed that Larson really should have included some good maps in the book. Luckily, much of this information is available online, at sites like the University of Chicago's The Columbian Exposition, or the Chicago Historical Society's site. And this is a good place to also recommend one of my favorite books ever on Chicago: Nature's Metropolis, by William Cronon - though my brother says it has too many footnotes, I liked every one of them.

Anyway, I had recently read (and was blown away by) Richard Peck's A Year Down Yonder as part of a group blog about the Newbery award winners, so that when I saw that Peck had a children's book that took place during the World's Fair, I decided to check this one out, too.

Fair Weather was a wonderful book. In fact, I thought that it provided a more compelling description of the fair and its historical importance than The Devil in the White City, at least partially because Peck didn't try to include such a mass of facts in there. And it's not like I prefer easier (or children's) books more - Nature's Metropolis (see above), although one of the best-written works of environmental history that I've ever read, still isn't really an "easy read."

One of the things that surprised me when I re-read The Devil in the White City was how little I had retained after three years. On the other hand, I don't think that I will have any trouble remembering several of the scenes from Fair Weather for many years - partially because of the beauty of the writing.

I know that it's not really fair (no pun intended!) to compare a piece of historical fiction aimed at 8 to 12-year-olds to a New York Times non-fiction bestseller - but Larson's work is so well-known and (deservedly) widely appreciated, I can't help but put in a plug in for Peck's gentler work. Frankly, I've been surprised at how very much I have been enjoying all of the children's books that I've been reading for The Newbery Project.

Although there is no mention of H.H. Holmes (aka Herman Mudgett) in Fair Weather, the book does acknowledge the darker side of Chicago - in an age-appropriate manner:

We had us a good supper at the Old Vienna, though Granddad warned us not to order the bratwurst.

"Chicago's a meat-packin' town," he explained, "and once in a while a workin' man will fall into the grinder and come out as links of prime smoked sausage."

Lottie swallowed hard.

But we made a hearty meal out of sauerbraten, sour potato salad, and vinegared cucumbers. Over our heads the terrible wheel creaked. Across the Midway dancing girls writhed like serpents. (p. 68)

Peck's five page "Note from the Author", titled After the Fair, concludes the book with the most interesting and succinct summation of the fair that I've read (and that includes Devil in the White City and many scholarly and popular articles and essays). Even if you don't have the excuse of having kids that are the right age for Fair Weather, I definitely recommend it.

Here's an excerpt from the end that illustrates Peck's writing, and some of the enduring fascination that Larson and so many others see in the fair:

As we turned up into the sky, you didn't notice the straining and the clanking of that terrible wheel anymore. The great exposition began to fan out below us and all the pavilions were like frosted wedding cakes. It was the White City on blue lagoons against the endless lake. Golden statues caught the last of the setting sun. Then like sudden morning the electric lights came on. If I could show you anything, I would show you that. The searchlight turned, and everything was washed in light like there could never be darkness again. (p. 131-2)

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Monday, June 11, 2007

Nine Parts of Desire: Book Review

Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks, is a book that I wish I'd read a couple of years ago.

My book club (and I) read March - Brooks' 2006 Pulitzer prize-winning novel - this year, and I really enjoyed it (despite the fact that I never liked Little Women all that much), but I thought that Nine Parts of Desire was every bit as good as March. Though as non-fiction, it is obviously a completely different animal. If you ask me (and it's my blog, so in a way you are asking me), Brooks is pretty damn talented, doing both of these things so very well.

The title is from a famous quote by Muhammad's son-in-law (founder of Shiite sect):

Almighty God created sexual desire in ten parts; then he gave nine parts to women and one to men.

Part of the reason that I liked Nine Parts of Desire so much is because of the way that it complements all of the other books I've read about the Middle East over the last few years. Books that it seems that every second person in the US is reading right now. Books like Reading Lolita in Tehran, The Bookseller of Kabul, Kabul Beauty School, The Kite Runner, and (as soon as I move to the top of the library reserve list) A Thousand Splendid Suns.

Brooks' book gave me a much broader perspective on women in the Middle East, and a lot of history that helped make women's roles in the other books more understandable. As much as I enjoyed the other works (except for several parts of Kabul Beauty School, where I repeatedly wanted to ask the author wtf she was thinking), each of those books presents a glimpse of women's lives, while Nine Parts of Desire provides the range and depth that put the other books in context - both in terms of time, and culturally and geographically.

Although it's non-fiction, Nine Parts is quick, easy read. Since all of the chapters are short pieces on the women that Brooks met in the different countries where she worked as a journalist - including Iran, Saudi Arabia, Eritrea, and Jordan - it is easy to pick the book up and then set it down frequently, as may be needed if you are trying to read while dealing with children or a job or any other pesky book distractions.

Brooks examines how these women feel about a bunch of different topics (with some skillfully placed interviews and anecdotes), such as dress (especially different forms of veils), marriage, sexuality, children, revolution, sports, and education in the different chapters. For example:

Like most Saudi homes, theirs had two entrances - one for men, one for women. I arrived at the high-walled villa one night for a party. White-robed men moved to the front door. Their wives, black-veiled and clutching colorfully dressed toddlers, made their way to an entrance at the side.

Each door opened on a large, sofa-lined salon, the women's decorated in floral pink cottons and plush carpet; the men's a more austere and formal room. The two groups didn't mingle. But there was one male guest the hosts particularly wanted me to meet....When I returned to the women's salon, the man's wife winked at me. "You just did me a great favor," she said. "My husband loves to talk politics. And talking politics to a woman is sure to have made him aroused. Now I can't wait to get him home. I know I'll have great sex with him tonight." I blushed. The woman laughed. "You Westerners are so shy about sex," she said. "Here, we talk about it all the time." (p. 40)

There is a useful glossary and a comprehensive index, in case you want to know the difference between a burka, hijab, and chador, or find the spot about Queen Noor's courtship. Furthermore, reading Nine Parts of Desire should go a ways towards stopping its readers from making sweeping generalizations about Muslim women.

The only serious drawback that I found is that Nine Parts of Desire was published in 1994 and obviously written a year or so earlier. It is interesting and rather depressing to see how well Brooks predicted current fundamentalism and strife in the Middle East. But it is also more than a little frustrating, because at the end of the book, you really want an update that covers the last 13 years. So Ms. Brooks, if you read this - how about a new edition? I'd say the time is definitely right for it.

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