Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Velva Jean Learns to Drive, 26/81

In the mountains of western North Carolina, in the 1930s, Velva Jean Hart lives with her extended family in a community rich in folk tradition and seemingly isolated from the outside world. Velva Jean Dreams of one day going to Nashville to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. But Velva Jean's community is not one that people tend to leave. Velva Jean is limited by her age and family situation. With her mother dead and father run off, she is left to the restrictions of her older sister. With age and marriage Velva Jean's dreams of Nashville fade, but she gains a new desire- to learn to drive. This novel follows Velva Jean from childhood into young adulthood. At every turn it seems that Velva Jean is forced to push her dreams aside. Her story is set in Appalachia during the Depression, and we also see the first signs of outside intrusion into these previously cloistered communities. The Blue Ridge Parkway is about to be cut through the mountains. Even if it does not cut through their village, the new road will affect the lives of all around it. This was an engaging book, with a complex plot line and characters. A wonderful read.

Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean Learns to Drive (Plume, 2009) ISBN: 0452289459

Category: Published in 2009, 4/9, 26/81

Red Pottage, 25/81

This 1899 novel, the story of friends Rachel West and Hester Gresley, provides biting satire of the gender and class conventions that governed late-Victorian England. Set against a trio of painful love stories, Rachel and Hester learn the inconveniences and heartbreak of love. Rachel loves an adulterer, and Hester, a writer, loves her new book, whose manuscript consumes all of her time and energy. These pursuits are set against particular Victorian settings: Hester in the vicarage home of her self-satisfied, traditional, high-church brother, and Rachel in the stately homes of rural Middleshire's minor gentry. Both friends feel acutely the emotional and physical restrictions of their situation. None are able to understand Rachel and Hester's friendship, a deep, emotional attachment formed outside the boundaries of heterosexual marriage. Guiding the plot is what is perhaps one of the most ridiculous displays of masculine bravado: a suicide pact between the two lovers of Lady Newhaven. Cholmondeley is biting in her criticism of Victorian society. Somewhat different from other Victorian satirists, she relies upon plot rather than explanation. Cholmondeley doesn't tell us why we should see absurdity in a particular situation; she relies on plot to do that. Written at the very end of the Victorian era, we start to see the seeds of change in gender relations. The very biting quality of Cholmondeley's novel suggests coming change.

Mary Cholmondeley, Red Pottage, (Penguin, 1986) ISBN: 1406845612

Category: Virago Modern Classics 5/9, 25/81

Jewels: A Secret History, 24/81

I must admit, I am captivated by jewels: their shine, their brilliance, their color. Thus, I was excited to read a history of jewels. Finlay's is a social history, examining how human beings have constructed the value of brilliant minerals. This is not a comprehensive study. Finlay has chosen a series of case studies, the research for which took her all over the globe, from Australia, to Russia, to Sri Lanka, to the American southwest. This is quite an interesting book, and it certainly does show that these stones that human beings so treasure have no inherent value. This is evident in the changing fortunes of so many stones, which have variously fallen in and out of favor. It also becomes clear through the course of Finlay's work, that stones have, and do, cause a tremendous amount of human suffering. Indeed, in the long history of gems there has been much more misery than fortune. Finlay's history is clearly narrative in nature. She is concerned with telling some of the most interesting stories behind the jewels. It is not a book that analyzes the larger social forces behind many of these changes. Still, this is an interesting book. Finlay gained access to many places most people cannot. She travelled to some of the most unforgiving parts of the world in search of the people who mine, cut, and sell valuable stones. Any jewelry-lover will likely find this book engaging.

Victoria Finlay, Jewels: A Secret History (Random House, 2007), ISBN: 0345466950
Category: Reading the Dewey Decimal System, 2/9, 24/81

Monday, October 19, 2009

Arc of Justice: A saga of race, civil rights, and murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle (9/81)

Category: National Book Award for Nonfiction Winner (2/9)

Yes, it's true, I've only read 1/9 of the books for this challenge! I'm not planning on finishing, but I figure since I read a book for the challenge, I might as well post about it.
Arc of Justice is the story of Ossian Sweet and his family, and the murder trial they become involved in when the Sweet family attempts to move into a part of Detroit where they are not welcome. The Sweet family is black, and in 1920's Detroit, this means they cannot live where they choose, especially following the race-related violence of 1924 and 1925. When a mob gathers outside of their new home and begins throwing rocks and getting more and more violent, shots are fired, although by whom it is never fully clear. Dr. Sweet had filled his house with friends to help defend it from the violence he knew was coming. When one man in the mob dies after being shot from the house, the eleven people in the house, including Ossian's wife and two of his brothers, are taken into custody and eventually charged with murder.
This book is not just the story of the Sweet family and the trial, however. It is a story of race relations in the northern urban areas of America in the 1920's. Boyle does a tremendous job bringing all aspects of the story together to educate us on this issue. I am continually amazed by how little I know about the history of race relations in this country. This book is a must-read for anyone who wants to know more about our recent past.