I like to think that summer reading is a time to catch up on all those fine things we couldn't read while taking those stuffy university courses where only the serious stuff got read. With summer, we can (perhaps only temporarily) set aside the serious reading, let our hair down, put our feet up and lounge in the bathrobe, enjoying a light read. Leisure reading isn't supposed to be hard, after all. If the point was to think, we'd stay in classes. No, summer is a time for "something I can ignore." But sometimes this weird thing happens where I just can't let the serious stuff go. Basically, I'm often still too uptight and humorless to indulge exclusively in the light and fluffy stuff. And then there are times when words are too hard and I just want pictures - for that there are photography books to look at and admire, though I know nothing about photography. I guess summer allows for anything. Whatever your taste, summer is a time of personal indulgence - at least, it is for me, since I still live at home and avoid any real responsibilities.
Because I'm a geek, I have a list of everything I read this summer, to give a little context to the selections below. There were several nice reads, but only five will receive special recognition here. The winners are:
BEST PICTURES: Ordinary Lives - Rania Matar
Rania Matar's photos of contemporary Lebanon and the people who live there are some of the coolest shots of modern Islamic culture that I've yet seen. These portraits of Muslim women (and some men) living their lives in the bombed out, war-torn cities of Lebanon are hardly the images you find on Fox News - most of Fox's viewers don't know where Lebanon is anyway. Ordinary Lives shows something that, when you think about it, should be quite obvious: the ordinary citizens of Middle Eastern countries like Lebanon are living their lives, in the same general manner that anyone does; you work, have a family, have fun together, go shopping, go to church, listen to iPods, and anything else that the average person might do. But these ordinary lives are living amidst piles of rubble and destroyed, yet still occupied, buildings. Her photos always seem display more than one possible story, which is a helpful reminder to those of us (meaning all of us) who are prone to forget that life and people are complicated. They contain more than one story and deserve to be seen and treated as human beings rather than as just faces in the crowd, or worse, collateral damage.
BEST MUSICAL ACCOMPANIMENT: The Wilco Book - Wilco & Dan Nadal
What's better than a book with soundtrack included? The Wilco Book is an example to all books about artists and bands in how to really please your audience (or just to get them to buy your book): Include a disc of otherwise unavailable material. This doesn't seem like such a bad move since some musicians (i.e. Elvis Costello) have made claims that there's nothing more useless than writing about music. If the music is the center, then stop talking and just listen. While I appreciate the passion behind such statements, I think there's a place for writings about music. However, I still feel that the disc of outtakes and experimental recordings from the A Ghost is Born sessions really is the best part of The Wilco Book. The pictures, interviews, and essays are also interesting and worthwhile to any Wilco fan. But if turning the pages does seem like too much effort, then just hit 'play' on your cd player and enjoy the reason you wanted to read this book in the first place.
KYLIE AWARD: Then There Were None - Martha H. Noyes
Kylie was responsible for four of this summer's reads, either because she lent me her copy (Goth Girl Rising and The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead), chose it for our monthly reading selection (Howl's Moving Castle), or gave it to me (Then There Were None). All four are very fine reads, but Martha Noyes' short book about the disappearance of native Hawaiians due to American colonialism was the most affecting. It blends photography, historical information, quotes, and poems to give a short, concise, and substantial account of this under-addressed event. The book is more interested in illuminating and expressing the emotions that surround the event, than in presenting a dry historical account that points fingers and demands justice. Its intention is not to stir up anger or controversy, but more to give voice and feeling to a people and culture that have been diminished, overlooked and forgotten, left now to serve only as a tourist attraction. Despite its size, Then There Were None, packs one hefty punch. It contains enough information that I felt completely satisfied, while hoping that someday I could learn even more about Hawaii.
REAGAN AWARD: Don't be Afraid, Gringo - A Honduran Woman Speaks from the Heart: The Story of Elvia Alvarado - Medea Benjamin & Elvia Alvarado
Elvia Alvarado loves Ronald Reagan. Really. She's a big fan of the man who supported a corrupt government that repeatedly oppressed the peasant population of Honduras by taking away their land, denying them jobs and food, and imprisoning, torturing, and killing numerous lower class citizens who spoke out against this foul abuse of power. Alvarado is an impoverished Honduran woman who, through grassroots education and social activism, became a principle player in the lower class movement to reclaim stolen land and begin empowering women and working class citizens with the tools and know-how to survive in a country where all the wealth went to the upper class landowners. Don't be Afraid, Gringo is her story, in her words. The language is clunky and I guess what you would expect from someone who didn't make it past the fifth grade (there was no money to go on further). But the language also has a simple eloquence and straight-forward honesty that transforms these clunky thoughts into brilliant insights on the struggle for survival, recognition, and dignity. Alvarado is a voice from the working class Honduran - a voice that most Americans, including Ronald Reagan, have never heard. As a result of Alvarado protesting and peacefully fighting for the impoverished masses, she has been branded a Communist, arrested multiple times, and even tortured by her police captors. But still she has survived and continues to work towards establishing her vision of democracy. Some of the book's best moments are Alvarado's thoughts on what a real democracy is and how she doesn't think Reagan is interested in establishing real democracy in Latin America. Ronald Reagan not interested in spreading democracy? Isn't he supposed to be the All-American President and poster-boy of all things Democracy? Not for Elvia Alvarado, and her observations are great and her use of real life experiences to show the injustice of the American-backed Honduran government are some of the best I've read. The book was first released in 1987, while Reagan was still President, but looking at conditions in Honduras (and all through Latin America) today show that there is still a lot of work to do to improve the conditions of the working class citizens. America's destructive involvement in Latin America is a shameful example of contemporary colonialism, and while I'm sure America has done some good down there, accounts like Elvia's show that, most of the time, America's self-interested intervention into Latin American affairs has hurt most the people who deserve it least.
BEST BOOK NOT ABOUT COLONIALISM: Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones
For whimsical young adult fantasy, Howl's Moving Castle is one of the most charming stories. It often doesn't feel like there's much of a story at all, rather it just ambles along, often sitting back and taking its time, simply enjoying watching Sophie interact with these humorous characters. I liked just watching her interact with Calcifer, Michael, and Howl so much that I didn't really care if the story ever went anywhere. Almost like Sophie herself, I kept forgetting that she actually wasn't supposed to be an ornery, yet endearing old woman, and that there really was an obstacle for her to overcome. Jones' style is light and fun, but never void of substance. She has a point to this novel, but she has a rather round-a-bout, light-hearted way of expressing herself. My only issue is one of taste: she uses too many adverbs, especially in the first half of the book. By the latter half, she reigns in the adverbs pretty well. This is a small complaint, and one that I'm very willing to overlook so as to spend more time thinking about all the great things about this book. I know this is a popular book, and I'm aware that I'm a late-comer to Diana Wynne Jones' work - so how good this book is might only be news to me. But it's a fast read, and a fun read; so, if you have the time, I'd recommend revisiting this lovely world.
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