Vikings and Valkyries – these two words can conjure up a lot of images, especially today with the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. But the real Vikings and Valkyries (real Valkyries?) were much more interesting, and although the Vikings we are referencing here were alive more than one thousand years ago. Even so, we’re still learning about how they lived, worked, and fought. In 1878, in the Viking village of Birka, the bones of a Viking warrior were discovered. The figure was determined to be a warrior based on what had also been buried with the figure:
an axe blade, two spearheads, a two-edged sword, a clutch of arrows, their shafts embellished with silver thread, a long sax-knife in a bronze-ringed sheath, iron bosses for two round shields, a short-bladed knife, a whetstone, a set of game pieces (bundled in the lap), a large bronze bowl (much repaired), a comb, a snip of a silver coin, three traders’ weights, two stirrups, two bridles’ bits, and spikes to ride a horse on the ice, along with the bones of two horses, a stallion and a mare.
Estonian folklore revolves around women, and while its pagan culture was warlike, women were not excluded from that facet of life.…The Estonian language … like all Finnic languages, … uses only one personal pronoun—no she, he, or it, just tema.…Estonian women and men wore identical jewelry—unlike in neighboring lands, where men, though gaudily bedecked, had their own jewelry styles. Likewise, weapons are found in up to 30 percent of female graves in tenth-century Estonia, along with nongendered objects like tools, implying that women had equal access to power.In Estonian society, power was corporate. It resided, not in one individual, but in a council. The power of a single council member was limited—even if that councilor was the king or war leader. A charismatic war leader from a strong clan could persuade and encourage, but the decision to go to war rested with the council.Nor could the council be co-opted by the men. Property, in Estonian society, was also collective; clan-based, it was passed down through the female line. According to a law recorded in the thirteenth century, when a man marries “he shall then let all his goods follow his woman. If he wishes to leave her, he will lose arable land and goods.” A man joined his wife’s family, which made daughters as valuable as sons—or more valuable. In folklore, the mother of an only son is derided as nearly childless. To raise her status, she must bear a daughter.This clan-based society where power was shared and women were esteemed was confusing to the Christians like Snorri Sturluson and Saxo Grammaticus who wrote about it in the thirteenth century. The church disapproved of—and had worked hard to eradicate—such societies for hundreds of years. Man was meant to rule woman, Christianity taught. A single God-anointed king was meant to rule society.
I received a digital copy from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
Hummingbirds. Is there any other species of bird that so immediately conjures up images of shimmery colors and blurry wings?
Author John Shewey provides a rather thorough look at the group of birds known as hummingbirds, as well as looking at the individual groups of hummingbirds.
This is a coffee-table-style book, meaning that it is rich with photos and relatively large text, making it easy to pick up and look at a photo and read just a little bit. It also implies a kind of veneer quality to the material – covering enough to look good without getting too thorough or in-depth. This is probably a pretty apt description, but I also want to be clear … I liked this book. We don’t always need to get deep into the science of ornithology to enjoy a book. Those kinds of books are also available to those who want it.
When you pick up a book about hummingbirds, you want to be able to look at a lot of pictures – to see the colorful variety of the species, and this book definitely provides plenty of remarkable photos.
The book is broken down into six chapters. The first chapter is explores “Hummingbird Trivia: Facts, Fictions & Folklore.” I found some of the trivia interesting, specifically the Aztec interest surrounding the birds. The more I watch and learn about hummingbirds the more I realize how appropriate it was that the Aztecs had a hummingbird war god (‘Huitzilopochtli’). Those little birds are very aggressive!
Perhaps because I already have a hummingbird-friendly yard, I didn’t find the third chapter (‘Planting and Landscaping for Hummingbirds’) as useful. Shewey breaks this down quite a bit, identifying hummingbird-friendly plants, which zones those plants thrive in, and why the birds like these plants specifically (with lots of photos, remember).
The chapter ‘Hummingbirds of the United States’ starts with “The Big Eight” – identifying the most common hummers found in the United States and for each bird Shewey provides: Identification; Status Range; Habitat; Voice; Behaviors; and Similar Species. And with each is also a map of the bird’s range for breeding, migration, winter, and year-round. This section was probably the most helpful to me.
There is also a chapter called ‘Hummingbirds on the Road’ which is more like an appendix as it features a “Viewing Hummingbirds, State by State” guide. I’m not sure how these locations were chosen. In my state, nine parks or refuge centers were listed, but I think many more parks and centers could easily have been included. There is also a listing of hummingbird festivals for the dedicated birder.
The book concludes with a quick look at hummingbirds that don’t make it to the United States. Again, the photos are a delight to look at.
Looking for a good book? The Hummingbird Handbook by John Shewey has a lot of useful information but is primarily a book full of really great photos of an incredible type of bird.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Hummingbird Handbook: Everything You Need to Know about These Fascinating Birds
author: John Shewey
publisher: Timber Press
hardcover, 240 pages
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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1973: Rock at the Crossroads
author: Andrew Grant Jackson
publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
hardcover, 448 pages
Ellison’s anger and angst and pomposity was fun, or at least identifiable for the teen me. And over the past few years I’ve purchased his entire catalog of available works in digital format so that I can read them again. This is perhaps an unusual place to start, this collection of essays since it was his fiction that first attracted me, but in many ways it was my reading The Glass Teat that first got me interested in reviewing. Long before I started this book review blog (which I’ve been doing for eight years now!) I’ve been a reviewer of art shows for a local paper, a reviewer of books for West Coast Review of Books magazine, and a reviewer of live theatre for a Los Angeles newspaper, and I can pretty much trace it back to my having read this book.
The Glass Teat is a collection of essays and reviews from Ellison’s column of the same name in a Los Angeles newspaper where he reviewed and mostly disparaged the current slate of television shows (current from the late 1960’s to mid 1970’s mind you).
A few things struck me on this reading.
1) This doesn’t stand the test of time too well. The programs he talks about are now fifty years old. Do we really care that in 1968 Ellison thought that:
The two shows that really tell us where it’s at are The Outcasts and Mod Squad. These are the shows that dare to take the enormous risk of utilizing black folk as heroes. These are the shows that win the title hands-down for this being The Year Of The Shuck.
Not only are the shows out of date, but the idioms Ellison uses so frequently are also out of date. Ellison wrote to the people, here and now, of his time. He spoke to them as if he were one of them (he’d take issue with my “as if”) but 50 years later, we are not one of ‘them’ (even if we were back then).
2) I was a little surprised at how often Ellison’s supposed television review column devolved into rants. Rants about the television industry were probably in line with the topic of the column. Rants about how he was treated by other industry insiders was marginally in line with the column theme. Rants about politics, “the Man,” and ‘square’ school administrators who don’t approve of his language and aggression when visiting high schools seemed a bit outside the parameters of a television review column. But it’s Harlan Ellison. He pretty much did whatever he wanted and if he got shut down for not playing by the rules, it would just give him something more to rant about.
3) And my last impression here was noticing just how egotistical Ellison was. It’s certainly no secret he thought highly of himself, but it really comes through in these essays where he is wronged and maligned by others who don’t recognize him when he’s right. It’s kind of made me wonder about my younger self – the one who really ‘dug’ this guy.
Despite my above comments, I generally enjoyed reading this – mostly from a nostalgic point of view. But I really look forward to re-reading Ellison’s fiction.
Looking for a good book? The Glass Teat is a collection of mostly television reviews and essays by Harlan Ellison. Those who remember television in the 60’s and 70’s may find it fun to look back on what one cantankerous writer thought of television programs of the day.
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The Glass Teat
author: Harlan Ellison
publisher: Open Road Media
Kindle Edition, 279 pages
I have an undergraduate degree in theatre and am familiar with the works of Eugene O’Neill, having read or seen (or both) most of his body of works. I was only passingly familiar with O’Neill the man, the writer, from brief bios in college text books.
I’ve been working in the arts for four decades and I’ve seen a lot of changes in how arts organizations approach the business of presenting arts programming. Treating the arts as a business is probably the biggest change I’ve seen. This might seem like an obvious direction, but I’ve known very few artists who are wise with a business sense, and fewer still who enjoy the business side of the arts.
Most arts business books I’ve come across have been about “producing” – gathering teams and resources in order to present your chosen art form. But to truly look at the business side of an arts organization one needs to understand the organizations strategic plan. What’s a strategic plan you ask? Well author Michael M. Kaiser has some answers for you in this book.
Kaiser takes the reader through, step by step, with all the essential processes to creating an arts business. One of the key ingredients is having and understanding the strategic plan. And yet this is surprisingly not as easy as it might sound.
The information presented here comes from actual instances of strategic planning and not simply ideal-but-unrealistic proposals. And while none of us reading the book are actually planning on running The Kennedy Center or The Metropolitan Opera, it is most beneficial if we were to proceed as though we were. Even the small town community theatre or symphony orchestra should be treated as professionally as possible and that starts on the business end, with a solid strategic plan.
Looking for a good book? Michael M. Kaiser’s Strategic Planning in the Arts is a must-read for anyone working in an arts organization and wants to see it step up to the next level.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.
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Strategic Planning in the Arts: A Practical Guide
author: Michael M. Kaiser
publisher: Brandeis University Press
hardcover, 200 pages
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Barnum: An American Life
author: Robert Wilson
publisher: Simon & Schuster
hardcover, 352 pages
We recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the first Apollo moon landing. For those who missed it, there was plenty of buzz surrounding the event, with a release of high-definition video footage as feature-length documentary film, and plenty of books about the historic event. I followed much of it, read many of the books, and so I didn’t think I was going to learn many new things about the Apollo program with this book, but I wanted to read it because the event was memorable for me.
I was wrong. I learned a lot.
I didn’t know that there had been another spacecraft (not of U.S. origin) orbiting the moon when Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were in orbit and the lunar module was about to make a descent.
I didn’t know who manufactured the spacesuits used for the first lunar expedition (and how they were chosen).
I didn’t know that a 25 year-old student with a notebook of handwritten notes had the power to abort the mission in the very last seconds and was asked if they needed to abort.
These are just a couple of items that come in the early pages of the book. Author Charles Fishman touches on many subjects, but gets pretty in-depth on a few, such as President Kennedy’s thoughts and support for the Apollo program, and some of the mechanics of how the venture was put together.
Because computers and computer technology are so prevalent today (how many teens don’t have a cell phone?) there are generations of people out there who don’t remember or don’t know that computers in 1968 were the size of warehouses. The process of designing a spaceship and lunar landing module, with all the necessary parts, for a mission that really our best scientists only had theories as to what was needed, is just incredible. The story of the computer – trimming down a warehouse sized device to a cubic foot, with the power to plot and re-calculate course adjustments and fuel burn (today’s counter-top microwave has more computing power than the Apollo space flight onboard computer) was quite fascinating.
I’m of the right age to really appreciate this book. A child of the 60’s, I can still remember where I was and my reactions to watching the grainy, black and white footage of Neil Armstrong landing on the moon and the interminable wait for him to go out and walk around. Learning more about all that had to happen to make this momentous event, is a treat.
For my children, who grew up in an age when man had already been to the moon, where we’ve retired space shuttles, and we have SpaceX and re-useable booster rockets, and are planning a mission to Mars – this seems like antique mechanics and about as much fun as reading ancient history in school.
But this is a book I would recommend and a book I will reference when talking about NASA and space and our future exploring the solar system and beyond.
Looking for a good book? Charles Fishman’s One Giant Leap is an excellent resource and history of how we got to the moon.
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One Giant Leap: The Impossible Mission That Flew Us to the Moon
author: Charles Fishman
publisher: Simon & Schuster
hardcover, 480 pages
Most of us in the Western world know that out of respect for the United States we shouldn’t but products made in China. But our reasons probably differ slightly. We’ve likely heard that Chinese workers earn a substantially low wage and they work long hours, which is how China can undercut other countries and their exports. And it’s possible … possible … that we’ve heard the term “slave labor” in connection with the Chinese work force. But what does that even mean?
In 2012, a woman in Oregon opened a cheap Halloween headstone decoration that had been purchased at K-Mart. But inside the packaging was a letter – a plea for help – from a Chinese prisoner forced to make and package the cheap, strange decoration. The letter is written in both Chinese and broken English.
Feeling the need to do something, the woman reported the note to a local newspaper, and to Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Council, and Anti-Slavery International. Getting a response was not quite so easy.
Enter investigative journalist, Amelia Pang. Amelia proves she has the resources and the tenacity to dig deep into the story.
Through a great deal of work, Pang uncovers the name of the prisoner who wrote the note (she identifies him by using a pseudonym) and tells his remarkable story of a very bright man holding tight to his religious belief. Unfortunately, his religious thoughts are contrary to the official Chinese stance and so he’s sent to a prison for ‘reform.’ His prison is a well-known facility for providing labor for a wide variety of products. There are no protections for prisoners (no masks or goggles or any kind of gear that any other worker in the world might have provided) and the expectations – the required goals – for prisoners is unrealistic. Most prisoners get about three hours of sleep at night because it’s the only way to meet their daily goals.
Pang gives us the in-depth story of this particular prisoner, his refusal to spout the Party religion, his punishment – pushed to near death, his ultimate release, and his harsh, brief life after. But she also gives us the broader story. We hear similar stories from other survivors (not surprisingly, it’s all the same for women prisoners, plus continued gang rape) and even get a peek at the idea of selling body parts.
This is not an easy book to read. It is horrifying. it is reminiscent of the stories we heard coming out of Nazi Germany after WWII, except that this is now. This is going on in our lifetime, and it is being encouraged by us!
Although China hasn’t gone to great lengths to hide these prison ‘reform’ camps acting as slave labor for industry, they have done just enough to make it difficult to track or prove and so, while most large corporations unofficially know that the Chinese labor making their products might be shopped out to these camps, they don’t look too hard and can justify using Chinese labor.
One of the things Pang reminds us is that it is our buying habits … our need to have the newest thing, our need to have a different thing, our need to have fast and cheap … that has created the need for this kind of labor. We are to blame for this.
It’s easy for us to blame the Chinese. It’s easy for us to blame corporations that have their products manufactured this way. But as long as we buy these products, this practice will continue. Will it change anything? Unfortunately probably not.
While shopping this Christmas there were times I picked up an item, saw the “Made in China” label and thought to myself, “I don’t really need this stocking stuffer” and put it back. Did it make me feel better? A little. Did it make a difference? Probably not. But if enough people think the same way….
The book is an excellent bit of research and writing. It will make people uncomfortable and therefore many won’t even read it, but for those who prefer to be informed, this is a must read.
Looking for a good book? Made in China by Amelia Pang it is a tough, thorough look at Chinese slave labor and how we support it with our own shopping habits.
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Made in China: A Prisoner, an SOS Letter, and the Hidden Cost of America’s Cheap Goods
author: Amelia Pang
publisher: Algonquin Books
hardcover, 288 pages
I know next to nothing about dragonflies and damselflies but I’ve been very interested in learning more, and when I saw this book available, I was eager to request a copy. The title, Chasing Dragonflies, really spoke to me, and I love the painted rather than photo cover.
Chasing Dragonflies is an apt title as author Cindy Crosby seeks out new dragonfly and damselfly experiences the way bird watchers will take trips with the hopes of catching sight of a new bird to add to their lists.
But Crosby’s journey is almost too personal. It sometimes appears cathartic – particularly as Crosby reflects on her cancer, aging, and family. She nicely ties these thoughts to the peaceful pursuit of dragonflies (and damselflies). And as a memoir, I really enjoyed this book and Crosby’s quite poetic language.
As a “Natural History” (part of the book’s subtitle)? This is a little less clear.
There is some solid science and fact woven into this “Personal History” but it filters out a bit behind the personal accounts and poetic language. We never quite leave the feeling that this is personal reflection, even though it comes from someone with some science acumen.
It’s easy to get hooked on this book. I was drawn in by this passage in Crosby’s Prologue:
I’m inspired by how dragonflies are both tough and fragile; fierce and mild. They each fly for only a few short weeks, yet the species is still around after others have disappeared from the earth. They are cannibals who may eat one another, yet you can safely hold one in your hand. As they transform themselves from water creatures to creatures of the air, they are vulnerable to the predation of frogs or birds. A falling leaf may damage their newly unfolded wings beyond repair. Yet when those same wings harden, they are strong enough to carry many of them thousands of miles in migration.
I often see dragonflies when I’m out in the summertime in my Minnesota stomping grounds. I’ll even see them at times as I sit on my back deck. And always I wish I knew a little more about them. Now I do. Know a little bit more about them. What Crosby does best, though, is to pique my interest so that I might do some further research.
The artwork by Peggy Macnamara is perfect, capturing the tough but fragile nature of the dragonflies and the reflective science of Cindy Crosby’s writing.
Looking for a good book? Chasing Dragonflies by Cindy Crosby is a memoir of a natural science researcher – tough and resilient (both Crosby and the dragonflies she chases).
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Chasing Dragonflies: A Natural, Cultural, and Personal History
author: Cindy Crosby
artist: Peggy Macnamara
publisher: Northwestern University Press
paperback, 248 pages
I almost missed reading books by Gary Paulsen. His books came out well after I would have been interested in reading his kind of adventure stories, and my children had interests in other themes and genres. Fortunately there was a teacher or two who required my children (and their classmates) to read Hatchet – and I often tried to read what they were reading (if I wasn’t already familiar with the book) so that we could talk about.
I enjoyed it and quickly read many of his other books. Which of course brings me now to this, Paulsen’s narrative autobiography.
This is one of the most unusual biographies I’ve ever read. It does not read like a biography. It does not read like a memoir. This reads exactly like one of Paulsen’s adventure tales. This means a couple of different things.
First, this means that the book will be easily read and devoured and enjoyed by the same audience that reads Paulsen’s novels This younger audience is already familiar with how he lays out a plot and narrates a story. He spends most of his time here relating about his early years – the same age as Brian from Hatchet or Russel from Dogsong.
The second thing this means is that Paulsen had an extraordinary childhood. The subtitle, “Surviving a Lost Childhood,” isn’t just hype to make the book sound more interesting.
Before he was even school age, Gary was witness to the horrors of war. He lived in Manilla where his military father was stationed. His father was mostly absent – which was probably a good thing. When he was home, Gary’s parents were abusive alcoholics – worse together than separate. He learns at this time to fend for himself and to not trust adults.
He is shipped off to live with and aunt and uncle – the first time he’s ever shown any warmth or caring – and it is here, through the gruff manner of his uncle that he learns how to venture safely outside in the wilderness.
But just as he is learning to trust in his family foster parents, his mother and father move back to the United States and want him ‘home.’ A young child doesn’t have much say in this, and most would assume that being with his real mother and father is best for him.
Not much has changed in their behavior and when he’s not stuck living in the corner of a cold basement, he is living outside, sleeping under the stars.
Another positive, memorable moment in his early life is when he discovered the public library and the kind librarian (whom at first he didn’t trust because, like all adults, she must have had a secret agenda) who exposes him to the many worlds found in books, and encourages him to write down his own thoughts (when he tells her all the inaccuracies in the books he’s read).
It’s a powerful autobiography, and more than just a little depressing. Paulsen saw, and experienced, more terrible things before he was a teen than most people will in a lifetime.
This will definitely appeal to anyone who’s read a Gary Paulsen book, and it might very well reach a new audience who will come to discover some of his classic books because of this biography.
Looking for a good book? Gone to the Woods, Gary Paulsen’s autobiography is quite possibly more adventurous and frightening, more a tale of survival, than his classic children’s books.
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Gone to the Woods: Surviving a Lost Childhood
author: Gary Paulsen
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
hardcover, 368 pages