Friday, March 8, 2013

5 Things - My Favorite Books

I'm doing my 5 things list a little bit differently this week. Instead of bringing you things from around the internet, I thought I'd focus a little more heavily in on things in my actual life for a few weeks. So we're going to be doing a few 5 things lists that are more focused on the things Jason and I already have, do, or love.

So I thought I'd start with the greatest love of all; I disagree with Whitney Houston's take on this. To me, the greatest love is books.

Just... books.

All the books.

I often tell people I read the way people breathe; it is like oxygen and I need to read to survive. Our house is full of books, so many that we don't have enough shelves for them and some are still unpacked (well, until we get the shelves built in the living room... then hopefully we will have some room to start adding to our collection again! Also Jason's eye just twitched when he read this, I guarantee it.)

So, here are 5 books that I have in my life:

 1. Favorite Book, Non-Fiction:

This has been one of the most interesting books I've ever read.

Jared Diamond goes into great depth and detail on several "vanished" societies - as well as societies that very nearly collapsed but made choices to save themselves- exploring what happened to them and what choices that that particular civilization made that contributed to their collapse or success. Easter Island is one of the best sections of the book; not only does Diamond lay out how the famous Easter Island heads were made and moved (because, despite popular contention, that mystery has long since been solved), but also what made them deforest their own island until it became nearly uninhabitable.

He also looks at the ancient Pueblo known as the 'Anasazi' in popular circles, the Maya and Aztec civilizations, historic Japan in the Tokugawa era, Tikopia, China, Henderson and Pitcairn islands, and the Viking settlement at Greenland. Diamond goes very in-depth, and ends the book with a look at the Rwandan genocide and how it resembles the failing societies of the past and what choices could be made to save it, as well as modern deforestation.

His chapters on Viking settlements in Greenland is great. Even if you just pick it up at the library for this section alone, it will be utterly worth it. He compares the settlement to a similar settlement that took place on Iceland at around the same time, and what choices Iceland made that allowed it to survive and thrive as compared to the Greenlanders, who died or faded away.

I pick this book up all the time, and consider it invaluable research just to have that knowledge in my head. I love nonfiction books, but this is definitely my current reigning favorite.

2. Cookbook:

This is a new cookbook of mine, a Christmas present that has been one of the best gifts I've received. As a warning note, this is not a cookbook to pull out when you want a fancy dinner party. These are back-to-basics recipes, from pot roast and rabbit to making your own farmer's cheese to pies, cakes, cookies, and casseroles.

Marie is a native of the Northeast, and many of her recipes are somewhat cold-weather-centric, but I have found them super helpful even here in upstate South Carolina.

These are recipes that rely heavily on garden and farm-produced foods, as it should be. Vegetables are focused on what would be in season. There are sections on cheese-making, canning, curing meats, and all kinds of preservation methods.

I've been making it a point to make at least one recipe per month out of that month's section. Her basic herbed biscuit recipe has become a mainstay in our house already; a perfect, easy side. Just make the recipe, add whatever random cheese bits go with your dish, and BAM.

Her goulash was great as well, and she has lots of notes on what you can use if you don't have certain ingredients in your pantry already.

Right now I'm in the process of brining my own corned beef for corned beef and cabbage next week, using her brine recipe. There's also a Boston Cream Pie recipe that I'm holding onto until Jason's birthday, when I will be bribing my friend Sarah to help me make it since it's his favorite dessert food. And because she's better at desserts than I am, and eminently bribe-able.

I have fancier cookbooks, but this one's a great resource for the basic stuff, and especially if you have your own vegetable garden.

3. Favorite Book, Fiction:

I know, I know, I'm sure you're completely shocked. I've no doubt the surprise has just rendered you speechless.

I am a horror reader. I love reading different takes on horror stories, and Bram Stoker wrote one of the great genre-defying novels. His is by no means the first vampire novel, and it has by no means been the last, but it is one of the greats.

His Dracula set the standard for many vampire stories to come; a good man ends up victimized by a powerful vampire, who he flees from but cannot escape. The vampire begins to prey on the good man's friends and family, and they band together to find a way to beat him.

Stoker's writing keeps up a good pace, and his epistolary style (the novel is a series of letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, clippings, and other documents rather than existing inside any one character's head) allows him to tell a wide-ranging story without sacrificing detail. It is very much an old style of dialogue and characterization, though, which may be difficult for modern readers who are less used to archetypal characters and more used to shades of gray. This is very much a black and white story about good vs. evil.

But it's also a fantastic horror novel, and probably my favorite book I own.

4.  Currently Reading:

I've had this book for some time and picked it up before, but I feel like I'm gaining a lot more from it this go-round. Maybe I'm just in the right place mentally for a book this full of detail. Craig Childs here studies the 'Anasazi' or ancient Pueblo peoples, working to decipher their lifestyle and why they seem so suddenly, historically speaking, to have vanished from the grand civilization they built.

"Anasazi" is a word that doesn't honestly make much sense as a label for the people who lived in the great cliff-dwellings built into the landscape in the Southwest, and Childs notes this early on. "Anasazi" is a word the Navajo used to describe the people who had lived there once upon a time (they were mostly gone from the cliffs by the time the Spanish came and started sticking random names on things), and it was not a label that cliff-dwellers would have used for themselves, as it was... not flattering. The descendants of the people who lived in these buildings are still around, and it seems oddly unkind to tell them that we will decide what their ancestors were called, when they have perfectly good names for themselves.

On the other hand, you'd probably appreciate it if I don't go into a rant about the disrespectful and occasionally frankly offensive nature of naming conventions when it comes to Native peoples and places... so I'll stop now.

What Craig Childs wrote here is a travelogue, of sorts; he is moving from pueblo site to pueblo site, and along the way we hear about archaeological digs, destruction, and what history has been pieced together from the artifacts, geologic studies, and from the stories of the locals themselves. Oral history is a neglected study, to be honest; we assume too readily that stories are just stories, with no basis for reality.

His writing is beautiful, and he describes the Southwest with the zeal of someone who has fallen deeply in love. The opening chapters alone, in which he describes hopping into a flash flood outside a canyon and letting the rush of muddy water and debris carry him in, is exhilarating.

This book is definitely worth a read to anyone who likes archeology and has an interest in the American Southwest, which has been an archaeological goldmine that was too shabbily treated for too long.

5. Favorite Book, Children's

The Giver by Lois Lowry and A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle.

Yep, it's a tie.

Actually, if I allowed myself to do this, I would pick something like seven kids' books and call them all my favorite. I am an avowed lover of books for kids, even into adulthood. Odd and the Frost Giants is the newest as far as publishing date I've picked up. I tell myself I'm building a library for my future children.

I tell myself a lot of things.

In this case, though, I only allowed myself to pick the two and call it a tie.

I don't even know what a seven-way tie is called. Is there a name for that?

The Giver is dystopia done right. Lowry writes from the perspective of Jonas, a boy growing up in the Community, a society of peace and harmony. He is raised by people who are not, strictly speaking, his parents; it doesn't work like that. His little sister is not his biological sister; she was assigned to the family when he was young. Details are given out sparingly at first, as needed. Because we are in Jonas's head and he has lived here his whole life, there are dark undercurrents to society that only become truly apparent as time goes on and Jonas himself learns how to see the world in a way he could not have imagined before.

There; I'm not giving anything away. This book should be read by adults as well as children. It's probably Lowry's finest writing. A coming-of-age story in a world where no one is allowed to choose anything for themselves.

The ending is a heartbreak, but by that I don't mean to say it's a bad ending. It's... perfect.

As far as A Wrinkle in Time is concerned, it's straight science-fiction that has an oddly fantasy feel to it.

Meg is an unusual main character for a young-adult/kids' book; she's a mouse-haired nerd girl who wears huge glasses and has anger and self-esteem issues galore. The child of brilliant scientists, Meg finds herself simply unable to fit in. She doesn't think she is smart enough to fit in with her parents, her twin brothers work hard to be as absolutely middle-of-the-road normal as possible, and her littlest brother Charles Wallace is a certifiable genius child, who seems to be the only person who understands her.

Then Meg's father disappears, and she discovers that he's alive... but not on Earth.

L'Engle was an excellent writer, and any one of her books is a perfect example of great writing for kids. She manages to tell a complicated story about the nature of time, space, family ties, and not judging by surface appearances without talking down to kids, yet is perfectly understandable to them. A series of her books deal with Meg, Meg's family, and her life. I own most of them and am trying to own them all.

I just keep running into this problem where I have no more room for books.

So there; there's this week's 5 things. I'm going to try to do this weekly. Hopefully I can come up with something vaguely interesting for next week's edition.

If I can't, I'll just spam you with photos of my dog. That seems to be working really well so far.

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