Review: Lives in Ruins

Lives in Ruins, Marilyn JohnsonMost people know a little bit about archeology, or have heard about Machu Picchu, Pompeii, and the pyramids. But what do we know about the people who discovered these places, or any of the thousands of other archeological places of interest around the globe? What makes them obsessed with digging through the dirt an inch at a time?

Lives in Ruins: Archeologists and the Seductive Lure of Human Rubble is author Marilyn Johnson’s search for answers to these and other questions.

Worth digging into

I read one of Johnson’s books, This Book is Overdue!, about four years ago and was impressed by her level of research. So when I saw that she’d written a book about another fascinating topic, I scuttled down to the library and grabbed a copy.

The first thing this book does is eviscerate the romantic notions of archeology. Archeologists are finding great stuff, of course, but they’re slogging ankle-deep through mud, bugs, and red tape to do it.

Archeology is not a profitable job. The education is expensive, the work difficult and sometimes dangerous. Most outsiders don’t understand what it means to be an archeologist, or the value of the things they scratch from the earth.

Lives in Ruins reads almost like a set of short stories. Each chapter follows a different archeologist as he or she fights to discover and preserve the past. My favorite chapters focus on aspects I knew little about: marine and military archeology. I love the idea of volunteers and deployed members of the armed forces educating themselves on how to spot and preserve archeological finds.

Johnson has written another good book, one I recommend you check out — especially if you’re an archeology buff.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. August’s challenge was to read a book in which the season, the elements, or the weather plays a role in the story.)

Review: Witches of America

Witches of America, Alex MarAlex Mar is a writer and skeptic. Like many people in her age bracket, she doesn’t feel a connection to the religion in which she was raised. But she envies those who do — in particular, the witches.

Witches of America is a chronicle of Mar’s exploration of witchcraft, from its (surprisingly contemporary) roots to its current incarnations. Along the way, Mar questions her own biases, as well as asks herself why we believe the things we choose to believe.

Eh…

For most, the term “witch” conjures images of green-skinned women, pointy black hats, or even the Salem Witch Trials. For the modern practitioners of Paganism, it’s a description of what they are.

Mar is a lapsed Catholic interested and confused by witches’ faith in their religion. What makes them choose pagan gods over mainstream ones? Are they different from the rest of us, or remarkably the same? How do they survive in a world that considers any kind of witchcraft evil?

I wanted to enjoy this book, but it couldn’t hold my attention. I don’t find Mar likeable, and many of the people and events she describes are too strange (and sometimes disturbing). I think it’s interesting that people are drawn to witchcraft and are able to find larger meaning in life because of it — but it’s just not my “thing.”

Witches of America would be perfect for those looking to learn more about the history of witchcraft and the practices of the different sects. I’m just not interested in Mar’s hand-wringing over her unsatisfactory professional and love lives.

Review: A Little Princess

A Little Princes, Francis Hodgson BurnettSara has led a life many children can only dream of, surrounded by every comfort and a papa who adores her. She is not eager to attend the English boarding school in which her father has enrolled her, but knows that she should face any adversity like a brave soldier.

When her father dies in India, Sara is left penniless. She must be a servant in the school she once attended, despised by her former classmates, with only her imagination for company.

No matter how unbearable her life becomes, Sara is determined to meet her trials with head held high. “If I am a princess in rags and tatters, I can be a princess inside.”

Simply lovely

I’ve seen the 1995 film adaptation of Francis Hodgson Burnett’s classic about a million times — I’m not sure how I made it this far without reading the novel.

Much like her other novels, including The Secret Garden, Burnett’s A Little Princess is philosophy masquerading as children’s literature. In this case it’s about being who you know you are inside, even when the outside doesn’t match.

Normally I hate a Mary Sue. Sara is so good and sweet that she should be unbelievable as a character. Maybe it’s because she’s got a bit of a temper, or because her life takes such a terrible turn that my sympathy outweighs my annoyance.

I love that her principal forms of escape are books and storytelling. She uses her imagination to help herself and her friends forget, for a time, how hard their lives are.

Like a lot of books from the 1900s, A Little Princess does sometimes feel a bit paternalistic. The characters are black and white (either fully good or fully bad), and the entire premise is a bit far-fetched.

Yet there are some good lessons about facing adversity and blooming where you’re planted. Hodgson clearly believes in the power of storytelling and fantasy to lift us from pain and sorrow, and remind us that there is still magic in the world.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. July’s challenge was all about fantasy and fairytales.)

Quickie Review: Laughing All the Way to Crazytown

We moved 10 days ago. All our boxes are unpacked, we’ve got power and interwebz, the commute to work is smooth sailing.

We also have no washer and dryer, no curtains, and my bank account is lookin’ real sad. Such is life.

Between moving and having a couple meltdowns about moving, I’ve actually managed to get some reading done.

Laughing All the Way to the Mosque

Laughing All the Way to the Mosque, Zarqa NawazA series of short stories by author and television writer Zarqa Nawaz about growing up Muslim in Canada. It’s like Love, InshAllah, but with way more laughs. It’s a peek into a culture about which most Americans know little. Nawaz is an excellent writer, both thoughtful and hysterical. Her television series Little Mosque on the Prairie aired for six seasons in Canada — I need to get my hands on it.

Hex

Hex, Thomas Olde HeuveltThis translated edition of Thomas Olde Heuvelt’s Dutch novel made me as nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs. I was wound up as tight as a drum a few chapters in, and Heuvelt spent the rest of the book winding me tighter. The final few chapters are gruesome and absolutely horrifying. The book’s theme — what is the true definition of a monster? — is intriguing and repulsive. Much like The Seeker, Hex terrified me and I couldn’t put it down until I finished it. So good.

Coming up next on my TBR is…well, I don’t know. I need to make a run to the library to renew my card; maybe I’ll see what’s on display when I go in. If you’ve got any recommendations for me, drop ‘em in the comments!

Review: Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour

Amy & Roger's Epic Detour, Morgan MatsonIt’s been three months since Amy last got behind the wheel. Her father’s death in a car accident fractured their already-fragile family — her brother’s in rehab and her mother has decided to move across the country. And now, Amy has to somehow get the family’s remaining car from California to Connecticut.

Fortunately, Roger needs to get to the East Coast, too. And if they follow the route Amy’s mother planned, it should only take four days. But what is it they say about the best-laid plans…?

Just perfect

The only thing harder to portray accurately than teenagers is grief. Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour does both perfectly.

My heart aches for Amy. She blames herself for her father’s death, and has spent months pushing away the people who care about her most. Author Morgan Matson portrays Amy’s grief accurately and without histrionics — it’s brutal and beautiful.

I also really like Roger, mainly because he’s just a good guy. Plus I think most people can understand the idea of hanging onto a relationship you know is over because you’re scared.

Matson’s book also left me jonesing for a road trip, preferably one with my husband. I’d love to see some of the places she describes, and feel my troubles blow away on the wind. Who wouldn’t want to forget the rest of the world for awhile?

But Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour isn’t about forgetting. It’s about journeys, questions, and having the courage to face your fears.

(I read this book for the Monthly Motif Challenge. June’s challenge was to read a book in which the characters take a trip, travel somewhere, go on a quest, or find themselves on a journey toward something.)