Top Five Underrated/Hidden Gem Books I’ve Read In The Past Year

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. I’m excited to complete this week’s challenge, because I often read lesser-known or underrated works. These books were not published in the the last year.

1) Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff (review is forthcoming)

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This play is a romance between a hearing and a deaf person. It also brings awareness to the challenges deaf people face in a society that considers deafness a disability.

2) Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

A memoir about flight, friendship, hope, and loss. Definitely not as read as Le petit prince, but just as exquisitely-written.

3) Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

Arms and the Man by George Bernard Shaw

Unfortunately, I didn’t review this play after I read it, so I’ve forgotten a lot. But I remember enjoying it. The dialogue is strong and witty. It has a lot of ratings on Goodreads, but I don’t think it is as widely-known as Pygmalion. This is my third Shaw play. Saint Joan (another lesser-known play) is my favorite, but Arms and the Man is still fantastic. I hope to read/reread more of his plays in 2017.

4) The Albigensian Crusade by Jonathan Sumption

The Albigensian Crusade by Jonathan Sumption

I am putting this book on the list to bring attention to the author. Sumption is not only a justice on the UK Supreme Court but also an author of popular histories. He is most known for his multi-volume history of the Hundred Years War. But his history of The Albigensian Crusade is an engrossing introduction to one of the greatest atrocities in Western history. The Albigensians were dualists living in southern France in the 13th century. The crusade launched in the region was basically a genocide. A disturbing book, but very well-written. Unfortunately, I never reviewed this book.

5) Julius Exclusus by Erasmus

The Julius Exclusus of Erasmus by Desiderius Erasmus

Erasmus is known for his Praise of FollyJulius Exclusus, written before Folly, is not only a critique of Pope Julius II but also a commentary on politics and leadership. It is quite funny though the satire is a bit too in-your-face. Erasmus claimed that he never wrote it, but his contemporaries and modern scholars believe that he did.

The New Jim Crow on MLK Day

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of ColorblindnessThe New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander is a reminder to white Americans that racial injustice is alive and well in the United States. Martin Luther King Jr Day should not simply be a day when Americans remember and celebrate the life of a civil rights activist – as if the Civil Rights Act fixed everything. It should also be a time when we reflect on how far we have yet to go. Martin Luther King’s dream has not yet been realized. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, but racism still exists in America.

But most of it is more subtle and more structural. Certainly, there are Americans who still hate blacks (ex. the Charleston massacre), but most would like to think that they are colorblind. Michelle Alexander argues convincingly in her book that our criminal justice system is not colorblind. The War on Drugs has perpetuated racial discrimination in this country, but non-black Americans have no problem with a prison system almost entirely made up of blacks. Whites do drugs at the same rate or at a higher rate as blacks, but police do not patrol their neighborhoods. Whites are not stopped and frisked for drugs, so whites are not found with drugs. Black men are shot down by the police who have been trained to associate blacks with violence. Unfortunately, because the Supreme Court assumes that our country is colorblind, claims of racism are dismissed. Our unjust structures are not considered unjust by our courts, so the system continues unchallenged. This is the new Jim Crow because like the old Jim Crow, black men with a prison history lose their voting privileges (often, for life), cannot get employment, are disqualified for food stamps, and may not even be able to get housing. Our country found the perfect way to strip blacks of their rights without overtly discriminating against them.

On this MLK Day, consider purchasing or borrowing from the library The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. We are not colorblind. Unfortunately, I don’t have much hope things will get better under Trump.

“Although drunk driving carries a far greater risk of violent death than the use or sale of illegal drugs, the societal response to drunk drivers has generally emphasized keeping the person functional and in society, while attempting to respond to the dangerous behavior through treatment and counseling. People charged with drug offenses, though, are disproportionately poor people of color. They are typically charged with felonies and sentenced to prison.”

“When black youth find it difficult or impossible to live up to these standards – or when they fail, stumble, and make mistakes, as all humans do – shame and blame is heaped upon them. If only they had made different choices, they’re told sternly, they wouldn’t be sitting in a jail cell; they’d be graduating from college. Never mind that white children on the other side of town who made precisely the same choices – often for less compelling reasons – are in fact going to college.”

Literary Miscellanea: The Diary of a Country Priest Book-to-Movie

Image result for journal d'un cure de campagne filmThe Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos was my favorite book of 2016. Unfortunately, it seems like the English translation is not very good. I have noticed that, in general, French does not translate well into English. If you can read French, I highly recommend you read this novel.

There is, however, a 1951 film adaptation of the novel. The director is Robert Bresson. Although it is a French film, you can watch it with English subtitles. Journal d’un curé de campagne (film) is a black-and-white, slow-moving drama about an unnamed country priest who tries to minister to a wealthy family in the village. He is pious and somewhat of an idealist. The people he tries to help are not interested in religion. The curé’s spiritual director and the other parishioners are convinced that our country priest is a womanizer and a drunk.

Because the roman is a series of diary entries, there are numerous voice-over segments in the film. I didn’t mind the voice-overs. So much of what the priest experiences cannot be shown on screen. There were scenes in the book I wish were more emphasized in the film. For example, the curé’s spiritual crisis is pretty underwhelming.

Perhaps, the most irritating aspect of the film is the presentation of the country priest. He doesn’t have a personality. His facial expression remains the same throughout the film. Even a suffering man experiences different emotions from time-to-time. The country priest is pitiable but not very memorable. I prefer the priest in the book.

The cinematography is exquisite. A black-and-white film is perfect for the story because Journal d’un curé de campagne is a character-study. I prefer character-centered and philosophical films in black-and-white.

Overall, Journal d’un curé de campagne (film) is a beautiful production in its own right, even though I personally prefer the book.

Top Ten 2016 Releases I Meant To Read

I have a few books to review this week, but today I’m going to do the Top Ten Tuesday tag hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. The theme is: “Top Ten 2016 Releases We Meant To Read But Didn’t Get To (But TOTALLY Plan To)”. My blog is dedicated to the classics, but I do want to read more modern books this year. My 2017 goal is to read at least 5 published since 2000. I’m not going to go into why I’m interested in each book. You’ve probably heard of them, but I will link the titles to their Goodreads pages in case you haven’t. They were all published in 2016.

1) The Tidal Zone by Sarah Moss (hyped but probably for good reason)

The Tidal Zone

2) Another Day in the Death of America by Gary Younge (true stories of people killed by gun violence during a 24 hr period in America)

Another Day in the Death of America: A Chronicle of Ten Short Lives

3) My Name is Leon by Kit de Waal (fiction that deals with race and adoption)

My Name is Leon

4) The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria by Janine Di Giovanni (all about the Syrian civil war)

The Morning They Came for Us: Dispatches from Syria

5) Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance (a memoir about the author growing up in a white working class family in America)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

6) The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby (fiction about the refugee crisis)

The Optician of Lampedusa

7) Homegoing by  Yaa Gyasi (it has been so hyped that I’m a bit scared to read it)

Homegoing

8) Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 by Carlos M.N. Eire (clearly my kind of book)

Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650

9) Charlemagne by Johannes Fried (I briefly reviewed his book on the Middle Ages last year; again, this is my kind of book)

Charlemagne

10) The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (a memoir about the author’s relationship to a gender fluid individual)

The Argonauts

Bookish Pet Peeves Tag

Tags seem perfect for the start of a new year. A book I recently finished prompted me to do the Bookish Pet Peeves Tag. I don’t like tagging people because I don’t want to annoy anyone. If you want to do the tag, feel free to do it and put the link to your response in the comments. I think this tag was created by The Broke and the Bookish for Top Ten Tuesday. Without further ado, here are my 5 bookish pet peeves:

1) Books with deckled edge paper

I utterly loathe deckled edges!! My copy of Don Quixote had deckled edge paper. Because the pages stuck together, I couldn’t flip through the book to find my favorite passages. It is useless to underline and write in the margins of books with deckled edge paper.

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2) Dust jackets

I mostly buy paperback books not only because they are less expensive and lighter than hardcover books but also because they don’t come with dust jackets. Dust jackets easily slip off.

3) Obnoxious highlighting in used books  

I generally don’t care about the condition of my books. I will buy used copies with highlighting, marginal notes, or broken spines. I underline and write in the margins of nearly every books I read. I believe in reading with a pencil. However, I don’t want the whole book highlighted. Obnoxious highlighting not only makes the book look ugly, it is a counterproductive practice. Highlighting alone doesn’t help you study. You must take notes if you want to remember anything you’ve read. Highlighting is only appropriate for marking favorite passages. But what is the purpose of highlighting the whole book?

4) Introductions with spoilers

Many of the works I read come with very informative introductions. I know now to read them after I finish the classic, but I wish editor’s essays came at the end of the book rather than at the beginning. They almost always give away the whole plot. Maybe the editor could include a spoiler warning in appropriate sections of the essay. I understand that a note about historical context might be appropriate in the introduction to a classic, but I don’t want to know the whole story before I read it. I do appreciate, however, the work editors and translators do to make a particular classic accessible to a modern English-speaking audience.

5)Now a major motion picture” on non-movie covers

I am not opposed to movie covers. If I like the film adaptation, I sometimes buy the book with the movie cover. But, if the book does not have a movie cover, I don’t want the cover to remind me that the book is now a major motion picture. If I didn’t buy a copy with a movie cover, I may not have liked the film adaptation. For example, I bought a Lord of the Rings box set without the movie covers because I don’t like the films. However, the cover of The Hobbit has a note saying that it is now a major motion picture. I don’t want to be reminded of the movies when I pick up The Hobbit. The box set is beautiful except for this irritating note. I have even considered replacing my copy of The Hobbit.

What are your bookish pet peeves? I didn’t discuss writing style or plot. That’s for another post.

Don Quixote and Aristotle

In Chapter III of the Second Part of Don Quixote, Bachelor Sansón Carrasco, Don Quixote, and Sancho Panza discuss the First Part of Cervantes’ work. One of the questions addressed is the difference between poetry and history.

“Even so,” responded the bachelor, “some people who have read the history say they would have been pleased if its authors had forgotten about some of the infinite beatings given to Señor Don Quixote in various encounters.”

“That’s where the truth of the history comes in,” said Sancho.

“They also could have kept quiet about them for the sake of fairness,” said Don Quixote, “because the actions that do not change or alter the truth of the history do not need to be written if they belittle the hero. By my faith, Aeneas was not as pious as Virgil depicts him, or Ulysses as prudent as Homer describes him.”

“That is true,” replied Sansón, “but it is one thing to write as a poet and another to write as a historian: the poet can recount or sing about things not as they were, but as they should have been, and the historian must write about them not as they should have been, but as they were, without adding or subtracting anything from the truth.”

The debate that these three men are having centers on an Aristotelian question, treated heavily by 16th and 17th century humanists. In chapter 9 of his Poetics, Aristotle writes:

But it is evident from what has been said that it is not the province of a poet to relate things which have happened, but such as might have happened, and such things as are possible according to probability, or which would necessarily have happened. For a historian and a poet do not differ from each other because the one writes in verse and the other in prose; for the history of Herodotus might be written in verse, and yet it would be no less a history with meter than without meter. But they differ in this, that the one speaks of things which have happened, and the other of such as might have happened.

The poet’s job is to relate what might have happened while the historian’s job is to give an account of what actually happened. But what does Aristotle mean? During the Renaissance, writers try to systematically describe a verisimilitudinous play (i.e. a play that presents events as they might have happened). The 17th century humanist Nicolas Boileau even applies Aristotle to non-theatrical poetry in his Art Poétique (Art of Poetry). The debate concerning the difference between a poet and a historian is also a debate about the role of the public. What does the public expect from a poet vs. from a historian?

Don Quixote, as part meta-fiction, is not only a satire on courtly romance but also a commentary on Renaissance values such as verisimilitude. What does the public expect from a history of Don Quixote? If the story is about a knight errant, should it follow tropes found in the courtly romances that Don Quixote‘s audience know so well? How should Don Quxote act? Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are at once ignorant and self-aware. They behave irrationally, but they know what readers of courtly romance expect. They try to realize in their own lives what a knight or a squire never did historically but might have done poetically. What is ironic about the above conversation is that Don Quixote seems to know that the heroes in his favorite stories were idealized and mythologized, yet he attempts to imitate them anyway. Sancho Panza definitely knows what the public (i.e. Don Quixote) expects because he frequently lies about events to fool and please his master.

Top 5 Favorite Books of 2016

This is certainly my favorite post of the year. I read 47 books in 2016. Below is a list of my top 5 favorites, with my most favorite book at #1. I also included 2 honorable mentions.

1)  Journal d’un curé de campagne (Diary of a Country Priest) by Georges Bernanos

I read this book at the start of 2016, and upon finishing it I knew that this would be one of my favorite books of the year. This is “slice of life” literary fiction at its best. The Diary of a Country Priest is the journal of an unnamed country priest living in France between the two World Wars. This is a thought-provoking and moving look at parish life in the wake of one of the greatest atrocities in history. Our country priest is neither exceptionally holy nor exceptionally sinful. He is simply human. This is a book that I know will stay with me for the rest of my life.

2) The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

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This is definitely the most important book I read in 2016. I never understood why racial justice activists were so concerned about the War on Drugs until I read The New Jim Crow. Michelle Alexander exposes the racial bias in the American criminal justice system. I am pleased that this book is on many reading lists. I regret not having reviewed it earlier. Alexander demonstrates convincingly that the War on Drugs grew out of white resistance to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After incarceration, Blacks often don’t have their voting rights restored to them. Due to their prison record, they can’t find employment, get housing, or receive food stamps. This is the New Jim Crow. Every American should read this book.

3) Terre des hommes (Wind, Sand and Stars) by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

This is one of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s flight memoirs. Airplanes today are quite safe. Plane crashes are rare. For the holidays I’m sure many of you flew to meet loved ones or to get away from the cold. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a pilot for the airmail carrier Aéropostale at a time when air travel was dangerous . It was not uncommon for pilots to lose friends in the business. This memoir is a celebration of life and friendship. It is the most hopeful book I read all year.

4) Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

This book is part mystery, part philosophy, part literary theory, and part Franciscan history. The detective is a Franciscan friar named William of Baskerville who allows his knowledge of the philosophy of William of Ockham (a 14th century scholastic) to inform his investigation. This is the finest historical fiction I have ever read. This is a dark and twisted story in more than one way.

5) Augustine of Hippo: A Biography by Peter Brown

St. Augustine was the bishop of Hippo Regius (modern-day Annaba, Algeria) in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. He is without doubt the most influential figure in Western Christianity. But it’s Peter Brown’s storytelling that makes this biography so wonderful. I definitely will be rereading this work in 2017. Augustine was a complex and controversial man. Brown’s biography made me feel like I was in Augustine’s basilica hearing him preach. A great accomplishment. It convinced me to listen to Augustine’s 1184-page City of God on audio book.

Honorable Mentions

1) Orlando: A Biography by Virginia Woolf

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This is a book about Orlando, a gender nonconforming poet and playwright. The biography begins in the 16th century and ends in the 19th century. Orlando has to navigate a world of strict gender and sexual expectations. But this book is not exclusively about gender and sexuality. It is  also an exploration of Renaissance and early modern historiography and storytelling. How should Orlando’s life be told? Can we ever know who Orlando really is? Virginia Woolf’s works are challenging, but this book is one of the most accessible.

2) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

Image result for don quixote edith grossman

I must include this book on the list. Although it was longer than I would have liked, Don Quixote was both an entertaining and thought-provoking work. It is metafiction about the lives of a knight errant named Don Quixote and his squire Sancho Panza. If you are trying to tackle this book, I suggest you think about it as a short story collection rather than a giant novel. Edith Grossman is an incredible translator.