Einstein: His Life and Universe

I have apparently been on a non-fiction kick; after I finished John Hope Franklin’s autobiography, I picked up Einstein: His Life and Universe.  Matthew had already read it.  Again, this is a work of (auto)biography that you find yourself reading aloud to whomever is in the room with you at the time.

This really is an engrossing book, a fascinating look at the ways that Einstein’s personal, professional, and political lives intertwined.  I didn’t quite realize how little he actually contributed to physics after the age of 35, or exactly what a major public figure he was during his lifetime (though perhaps I should have).

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John Hope Franklin: Mirror to America

A couple of years ago Dad asked for this book for Christmas.  And, in the way that books are handled in my family, it was re-gifted to me this past Christmas.

This book should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the history of race relations in the U.S.

Franklin gives us a fascinating view of the civil rights movement from the inside, but with the analytical bent of a professional academic. Stories like his make the history of race relations in the United States come to life in a way that a history textbook just cannot. It’s also interesting to learn about how race relations played out in academe; his stories of prejudice and discrimination even within the academic profession are shocking and illustrate just how pervasive racism was, even within the “ivory tower” of higher education.

Many reviewers have commented on the stilted quality of his writing, and it’s true that it is very dry. I don’t know if it’s a function of his generation or a reflection of his personality, but throughout the book I kept thinking that it read like a letter from my grandfather, who was about 5 years older than Franklin if my memory & math are correct.

George Mikes: How To Be An Alien

My sister gave M this little bit of fluff for Christmas a couple of years ago.  It’s very much a product of its time and place (immediately post-WWII England), but rather entertaining and great for bedtime reading as it’s just little two or three-page commentaries on random things.

Charles Frazier: Cold Mountain

I am NOT a reader of the Civil War novel, not at all.  But we had a copy of Cold Mountain lying around the house and I picked it up.  and then I was completely unable to put it down.  It’s not so much a Civil War novel as it is a novel about two separate journeys.  Inman is trying to get home, Ada is trying to figure out how to be independent when all the odds are stacked against her.  And it’s not clear whether either of them will be successful.

I loved the way Frazier told the two stories along parallel tracks, and kept you wondering exactly how they were going to come together.  You knew they would, but exactly what would happen was, to me at least, a little mysterious.  The ending was so subtle… I held out hope that I might have leaped to the wrong conclusion until halfway through the epilogue, when I sat and counted on my fingers who was sitting down to dinner.  I held out hope in a way that I don’t think either Ada or Inman would have.  But then, I’m not on the same type of journey that they were on.

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Jerome Charyn: Johnny One-Eye

I’ve been letting the kiddo pick my books again.  This time she did a good job – I was looking for some Michael Chabon but instead she pulled Johnny One-Eye off the shelf.

Johnny One-Eye tells the story of the American Revolution in Manhattan through the eye of the eponymous main character, who may or may not be the bastard son of George Washington.  Manhattan fo the time is a city of spies, including Johnny, the “nuns” of Robinson Street (where he was raised until a benefactor got him admitted to King’s College).  In the beginning of the novel Johnny plays both sides, really just looking out for his own best interests but as the war goes on he does take a side.  He runs into any number of important historical figures – George Washington, of course, Benedict Arnold, pretty much all of the British commanders, as well as any number of people who may or may not have actually existed.

It’s a thoroughly enjoyable story, based in the broad stream of events of the Revolutionary War but the details are filled in from Charyn’s imagination.  It’s completely plausible, though, which is a lot of what makes it so entertaining.

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Carol Shields: Dressing Up for the Carnival

I read The Stone Diaries ages ago and so when I was at the library recently I grabbed Dressing Up for the Carnival off the shelf.  Short stories are actually really good for me right now, because it don’t feel bad returning a book of short stories half-read and I don’t forget what was going on in the plot because they’re easily digestible units.

This is a lovely collection of stories – they mostly deal with identity and how people negotiate it.  The first one, “Dressing up for the carnival” reminded me so much of how I used to actively manage my self-presentation (I wonder if Shields has read The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life?).  I liked “The Scarf” because I had an inkling that all was not going to go well but I wasn’t quite sure how, and “Absence” was just very clever.

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Keats’s Neighborhood

I usually write about the books I read, but sometimes you come across a kids’ book that you have to read yourself.  Keats’s Neighborhood really is more for the adults than the kids.  It contains ten of Ezra Jack Keats stories, beginning with The Snowy Day and progressing through most of the Peter/Archie/Louie stories (but not including one of my favorites – The Trip).  That’s all well and good, but we own most of those stories already.  The best part (and the reason it’s more for the adults than the kids) is the introduction and commentary, explaining how a Jewish kid came to be the man who was the first to write a kid’s book featuring a main character who was African American, and the backlash that followed.  It’s an amazing perspective on books that I have loved for as long as I can remember.

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