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Reading My Way Across America: Basketball Under the Big Sky

I haven’t been doing a ton of reading for fun lately, with grading, research, and dissertation-writing taking up most of my time, but I have managed to finish a few books this semester. In addition to being a stellar read, this book gave me a really interesting and fun idea. But I’ll get to that after this review.

Full Court Quest: The Girls from Fort Shaw Indian School, Basketball Champions of the World by Linda Peavy and Ursula Smith is an in-depth look at an extraordinary situation and group of people who have been almost lost to history and memory. Peavy and Smith navigate the reader through life at Fort Shaw, an Indian boarding school in Montana. Fort Shaw was among the institutions set up by the government in order to “civilize” Native Americans in a movement that was later regarded as a cultural failure. However, during the school’s heyday at the turn of the twentieth century, the new sport of basketball took hold in the heart of Josephine Langley, a Native American herself who had been educated on the East Coast. She brought the game back with her to Montana and added it to the physical education regime of the school. It was popular among the students, especially a group of girls who were exceptionally skilled at it, so much so that in the few years Fort Shaw fielded a team, against high schools and colleges from around Montana, the girls lost only once. In addition to playing basketball, they would also perform their own musical entertainment, read poetry, perform tableaus, and ballroom dance with local boys; all in one night. When word of this amazing team spread, they were sent to St. Louis in 1904, where they became part of the Native American exhibits along with Geronimo and others at the World’s Fair.

Along with all the other innovations of the World’s Fair, national and international athletic competitions emerged, reviving the Olympics. In that same spirit, the Fort Shaw girls supplemented their exhibition games at the Fair with a tournament against local high schools. Emerging undefeated against any team they faced, they were declared World Champions and presented with a silver trophy which they took back with them to their school. This level of interaction between Native Americans and white people was highly uncommon and actually revolutionary for the time, and it succeeded in changing many peoples’ preconceived notions about Indians. Even the mainstream media took notice, referring to the team initially with racially-motivated descriptions which got less and less stereotypical, until they were described in the newspapers just as any other team – evolving from “dusky maidens” to “Indians” to just “talented girl basketball players,” earning respect on small and large stages.

The book goes into detail about the early lives of the players, who came together from different tribes across Montana and Idaho to Fort Shaw, working together as sisters in sport. The initial five, assembled by Josephine Langley in 1903, were Belle Johnson, a Piegan; Emma Sansaver, a Chippewa-Cree; Minnie Burton, a Lower Shoshone; and Genie Butch and Nettie Wirth, both Assiniboine. Accompanying them to St. Louis in 1904 were their classmates Genevieve Healy, a Gros-Venture; Flora Lucero, a Chippewa; Rose LaRose, a Shoshone-Bannock; and Sarah Mitchell and Katie Snell, both Assiniboine. They ranged in age from 15 to 19 years old. Together, these ten were unmatched in ability among other girls their age and even girls older than them. At the Fair, they would play exciting, fast-paced exhibition scrimmages, five-on-five, to huge crowds, just like NBA superstars. After the Fair, they returned to Fort Shaw, and eventually parted ways as the school closed only six years later, in 1910.

What I loved about the book were the descriptions of the intense basketball games, and the girls’ relationships with one another and their own identities. Their journey across Montana through North Dakota and the Midwest to St. Louis, and their eye-opening experiences at the World’s Fair, were definitely the most interesting sections of the book. It was as if they were learning as much about the world as the world was learning about them. Even though we get some insight into the girls’ personalities, the first half of the book gets bogged down in details of the girls’ early lives, pre-Fort Shaw, as well as the lives of the superintendent and creator of the school, who was not Native American. When they start talking about the games, the book really picks up, and despite being non-fiction, keeps an exciting narrative all the way through the girls’ return to Fort Shaw from St. Louis.

What happened to the girls afterwards, though, was mostly disheartening with a few bright spots. Although one of them Nettie Wirth, was honored at the World’s Fair in 1962, and another, Genevieve Healy, lived until the age of 93, dying in 1981 as the last survivor of the team, most of them died in their thirties-fifties, including one under “questionable circumstances” and one who was unable to be tracked down entirely. Even sadder was the life of Minnie Burton, one of the team’s superstars (known for her shooting skills, so much so that spectators would chant “shoot, Minnie, shoot!”), who, although she did live to see many children and grandchildren, never spoke of her experience (imagine their surprise when they found out their grandmother was the LeBron James of the early twentieth century!) Fortunately for us, though, and for the authors, who found out about the girls from a team photo in a Montana archive, Emma Sansaver kept a journal and boxes of memories, which she passed down to her children and grandchildren, keeping the story from fading away into history. The authors did a mind-boggling amount of research for this book, contacting descendants of all ten of the players and people who knew them, ensuring that their legacy would live on.

Overall, I learned a ton about one of American history’s most unlikely and underrated footnotes, from a place I’ve neither been to nor even heard of. What these girls from the middle of nowhere did was groundbreaking, and even though all that’s left of Fort Shaw is an arch and a monument of a basketball – not even a museum – I’d still like to go visit it someday.

The idea that this sparked? Well, I had heard of this book and had it on my list for a little while, and ended up finding it in the Historical Society Library, where books are catalogued by country, region, and state. Finding it in the Montana section led me to want to read more from that section, and the Historical Society Library as a whole, with hopes to find more unusual but fascinating historical footnotes. I’m not sure how long I can keep up with this, but I’m going to try to find one historical hidden gem from each state. Now that Montana’s down, I’ve got 49 states to go, and rather than go in a specific order, I’ll ask Siri to give me a number between 1 and 50, and pick states that way.

As I typed that, I did that, and it gave me 7 – so Maryland, my home state, I guess I’ll be in your section tomorrow afternoon.

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China, Can You Hear Me?

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted a real book review, mostly because Reading Like Crazy didn’t work out so great, especially considering that I had to Write Like Crazy to get through the rest of the semester. I have been reading though, mostly for research instead of pleasure. Today, I managed to finish reading an English translation of the Chinese folktale Liang Zhuknown in English as Butterfly Lovers and written by Fan Dai.

Before I get into talking about the book itself, there is the issue of authorship. In the preface, Dai notes that Liang Zhu is a 1500-year-old folktale. So technically, it’s not her creation, but she did credit herself as author. Of course, “Anonymous” generally doesn’t bode well for book sales and library card catalogs, and Dai did translate it, I’m assuming. In general, like other public domain works, the statute of limitations is long gone. Again, Dai is listed as the author on the cover of the book, but acknowledges that it is a folktale. Nonetheless, I will be putting the author on the back-burner for this review, so consider yourself lucky, Dai.

Butterfly Lovers opens in the Jin Dynasty (906-960) in Zhejiang Province, China. Zhu Yingtai is a teenage girl with a thirst for education that is unquenchable by what is at her disposal; like in many cultures, women were not allowed to study in schools past a certain age, so education stopped at a certain point, leaving girls to wait for marriage and children to consume their time. Yingtai, the ninth child and only girl of the Zhu family, implores to go to study at a secondary institution in Hangzhou, proposing that she dress herself as a boy. After much drama and a prophecy, her family consents, with three conditions: one, that she remain disguised as a boy at all times; two, that she return home immediately when summoned; and three, that she must submit to a medical examination upon her arrival to prove her virginity. She agrees to these terms, and, suited up like a boy with her gal pal Yinxin in tow, sets off for Hangzhou.

On the way there, she meets Liang Shanbo and his servant Sijiu, who are coincidentally heading to Hangzhou to apply to the same school. They quickly become very close friends, and upon getting admitted into the school, opt to become roommates, with their servants rooming together next door. Why they didn’t just stick to rooming with their servants, especially for Yingtai and Yinxin who could use the additional privacy, is beyond me, but it builds character for both Shanbo and Yingtai, and heightens the stakes, so there you go.

Over the years, the two grow ever closer, becoming blood brothers. Yingtai spills the beans to Mrs. Zhou, the wise wife of the school’s headmaster, who knew all along, and things get tricky when Yingtai falls ill and Shanbo insists on nursing her back to health almost by force, sleeping by her side until she feels better. It’s a beautiful gesture, but spells trouble for Yingtai in terms of temptation and the discovery of her secret, so she puts water bowls between them to keep them apart, and refuses Shanbo’s help when using the bathroom, for obvious reasons.

Yingtai receives word that her mother is ill, and as a dutiful daughter, announces that she is leaving the school and returning home. Both Yingtai and Shanbo are heartbroken. After Yingtai proposes that they stay together until death, Shanbo starts to get weirded out a bit, but then Yingtai mentions her identical twin sister, who she’s completely neglected to mention all this time, and that Shanbo should go and ask for this sister’s hand in marriage, who will turn out to be you-know-who. She doesn’t plan on keeping this a secret until he gets to her; rather, she gives a piece of jewelry shaped like a butterfly to Mrs. Zhou, and its identical piece to Shanbo, telling him to see Mrs. Zhou the next day, who gives him the other butterfly and tells him the truth. Ecstatic about this news, he heads out, presumably to Yingtai’s home to propose marriage to her.

At the Zhu home, Yingtai arrives to find her mother alive and well but her father waiting with the news that a local, wealthy man named Wencai Ma has asked for Yingtai’s hand in marriage, and he has accepted on his daughter’s behalf. Distressed, Yingtai tells them about Shanbo, even though it’s too late. Even though Yingtai followed all the instructions (well, the virginity thing remains a mystery when Yingtai’s father says that he was bluffing about the medical exam, and that he’ll just take her word for it), she still gets the short end of the stick despite what her parents think is best for her.

Meanwhile, Shanbo shows up not at Yingtai’s home but at his own home, where he tells his parents about Yingtai, and they’re all like, “why the heck did you come here and tell us, go get her before someone else does!” He does so, and shows up at the Zhu home soon after. It turns out to be his lucky day, as Yingtai’s father is away and Yingtai’s mother is enough of a believer in true love that she not only allows them to meet, but have alone time together (a big no-no). Shanbo sees Yingtai as a woman for the first time and falls in love all over again. He proposes marriage, but when Yingtai drops the bomb that he’s too late and she’s been promised away, he gets so sick that he has to go home. You should’ve just followed her, dammit.

Yeah, because that always looks perfect on the first try.

Anyway, more stuff happens, Shanbo becomes sicker, Yingtai sends medicine. Shanbo recovers a little and goes to Wencai Ma to ask for him to change his mind about Yingtai, but is humiliated and emasculated so badly that he gets sick again, and this time he dies. When Yingtai learns of this, she’s angry and upset, and still engaged to be married. She threatens to kill herself rather than marry Wencai Ma, but relents when her parents allow a detour on the way to the Ma village, stopping at Shanbo’s grave in Huqiao County. Arriving at the grave, Yingtai makes a death wish, to be united with Shanbo for eternity. Some crazy mystical stuff happens, and she falls into the grave, which conveniently sprouts a second headstone with her name on it. Now joined together forever, two butterflies – one blue and one pink – emerge from the gravesite, flying together, free. In the epilogue, Yinxin and Sijiu, their servants (remember them?!) return to the grave with a new, joint headstone. They kind of luck out, because not only are they alive, but now that their masters are out of the way, they’re out of jobs, so they marry each other, with Yingtai and Shanbo’s blessing from beyond the grave as the butterflies perch on them. I’m starting to think that maybe this was just an elaborate scheme by those two; you can never trust those sneaky servants.

Oh, Mandy, will you kiss me and instead of this shaking?

Though it’s billed as the Chinese Romeo & Juliet, it’s more like Yentl with a bizarre Chinese twist, only instead of Barbra Streisand belting her heart out on a boat in the New York Harbor, she ends up six feet under. Elements of both stories appear in Butterfly Lovers, but I would not say that it’s close enough to one of the two to outrank the other. Still, overall, it’s a wonderful folk tale with a lot of realistic and valuable information, at least more so than those other two stories. It promotes girls getting education, which is a good thing; no Disney princesses here. The characters are also pretty real, with sitcom-level situations rather than total fantasy, at least up until the very end when Yingtai gets sucked into the earth, but I could see that as a dream sequence, plus it’s a cool visual. It doesn’t sidestep the issues, and the language that Dai utilizes is straightforward enough that a middle-schooler could understand it, and frankly, it has a lot more mileage than R&J. So middle school and high school teachers, if you’re reading this, check out Butterfly Lovers for your next summer reading list.

 

Also, I’m sure that there are some really awesome movie versions out there, so here are a few posters of said productions.

Sing us out, Barbra.

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A Tale of Details

This week has been unusually light on work, so I thought I’d get some decent reading done. That being said, my first finished read of the week is a book I started last week (and should have finished in time for class. Whoops?), The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. As Roy and her book come from India, that makes it an around-the-world challenge book!

Book cover of The God of Small Things, 1997.

One of my first thoughts after reading: this book is not for everyone. If you have a weak stomach, you might not like some of the descriptions nor the subject matter.

I won’t go into too much detail about the plot, but I’ll tell you that though it seems hard to follow, it will make sense once you read the whole book. The God of Small Things takes place in Aymanam, a location now known as a part of Kottayottam in Kerala, a southern state of India, and revolves around a family composed of divorcee Ammu and her twins Rahel and Estha. The timeline continuously jumps around from the 1960s to the 1990s, so the reader makes discoveries along with the characters, who are sometimes unable to see the cause-and-effect pattern. The main incident happens when Ammu’s brother Chacko comes to visit, bringing along his wife Margaret and their daughter Sophie, who is about the same age as the twins. Thirty years later, the family is once again faced with the ghosts that haunt their pasts, as well as an unexpected reunion.

This was Arundhati Roy’s debut as a novelist, and ever since, she’s only written nonfiction. What has been more notable about Roy, however, has been her political activism. In class, we watched a short film about her participation in protesting the creation of a dam that would displace a half million people as well as fail to provide for more irrigation/fresh drinking water. I’m not sure how I feel about Roy; I want to like her, but the film made her come off as pretty militant.

It’s hard to discuss this novel without going into the plot, and since that would give away the ending, suffice it to say that the proof really is in the details.

 

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Flip The Script: Nora Vagi Brash, Which Way Big Man?

As a dramaturg and a PhD student in theater, scripts occupy 75% of my reading, both for class and in my personal life. There are actually theater students out there who abhor reading scripts and prefer monographs and theoretical writings on theatre, and vice versa, but I like it both ways. Theory, criticism, and history can get dry or jargon-y after awhile, and getting lost in a good play is a quick and easy way to mix pleasure reading with a performance in your mind’s eye. It also helps that rare is the play that goes beyond one hundred pages, so if you claim that you don’t have the interest, time, or patience to read a novel for fun, I suggest plays.

For a recent project (okay, one that was due today that I just sent to my professor right now), I chose to look at a play I’d heard of from the island nation of Papua New Guinea. After I had a copy of the play sent to me all the way from Penn State, I found several other plays that fit the category in the library, including one that was in three different booksSo, I switched up my topic, and after reading Which Way, Big Man? I’ve become the newest fan of playwright/actress Nora-Vagi Brash.

I’ve written several book reviews, and I’ve wanted to transition into writing reviews of some of my favorite scripts, old and new, so here’s a new segment I’ve just come up with entitled Flip The Script. Lame, I know, but I couldn’t think of anything better. Remember, my mind is the same one that came up with Masterpiece YouTube and wrote a whole post about puns, so there you go. I’ll include the basics (playwright, year, character, setting, context, etc.), aim to limit my word count on plot description, and include some pictures and commentary. So, without further ado, I present the first episode of Flip The Script right…now.

The Basics

Which Way, Big Man? was written in 1976 by Nora-Vagi Brash, and premiered in Papua New Guinea that year.

Characters (In Order of Appearance)

  • Gou Haia – Public servant and the newly-appointed Director of National Identity.
  • Sinob Haia – His wife
  • Peta – Their servant
  • Hegame – Gou’s cousin
  • Private Secretary – Sinob’s social secretary
  • Papa – Gou’s father
  • Marian – Gou’s typist
  • James – Gou’s clerk
  • Chuck Braggin-Crowe – Businessman, owner of perfume corporation
  • Vi Braggin-Crowe – His wife
  • Saga – A local university student
  • Professor Noual – A linguist
  • Mrs. Ura Kava – A news reporter
  • Dr. Ilai Kamap – An academic
  • News Announcer – News announcer (offstage/recorded)
  • Also, a character named Tau, a co-worker of Marian and James, is mentioned and spoken to, but does not appear in the cast list nor say any lines.

Setting/Plot

1976, the Haia home in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea. Gou has been promoted to Director of National Identity in the newly independent Papua New Guinea, and his wife Sinob plans a cocktail party in his honor. Gou’s father comes from the village to surprise him, much to Sinob’s behest. At the party, Sinob tries to impress her upper-class, white friends while insulting/ appropriating Papua New Guinea’s culture, language, and traditions. Upon seeing her father-in-law along with Marian, James, and Saga smoking and chewing buai, a tobacco-like substance, Sinob lashes out, only to be called out as neo-colonial for exploiting public funds and wearing a dress she had “specially made,” which is a knock-off. Sinob turns her anger towards Marian, calling her a pamuk (adulterer) for dancing with Gou earlier at the party, before slapping Marian in the face, who does the same to her. Gou steps in and she calls him an adulterer to his face and storms off, ending the party and leaving only Gou and his father on stage to reflect on the situation, especially in light of Gou’s new position.

My Thoughts

A great and simple take on colonialism through a postcolonial lens. Brash makes everything pretty clear-cut. It’s the perfect text for a discussion on postcolonialism and I can’t wait to read more from her.

Historical Background

As a nation who gained independence in the latter part of the twentieth century, Papua New Guinea entered a new world, and along with it, a new worldview. The colonizer-colonized relationship dynamic is one that invokes a clear line between who is in power, and who is not. Under colonial rule, there had been less of an upwardly mobile option for native Papua New Guineans. Even with the advent of higher education, the presence of the colonists undoubtedly affected and most likely limited the amount of autonomy the locals could exert over themselves. The House of Assembly established by the people in the 1960s had enhanced the voices of the island’s colonized residents, yet still the conductor’s baton was still held in the hands of the Australian administration. As the 1970s brought the nation ever closer to independence, the opportunities for social climbing increased as more local representation was needed in order to create an efficient and effective transitional government to bridge the gap between colonial status and independence. With independence came a greater emphasis on social class, and the creation of a new Papua New Guinean elite composed of the literate and the educated colonized people using neocolonialism to perpetuate the cycle of exclusion.

Major Themes 

1. Class. Sinob and Gou, of the newly rich, attempting to impersonate their colonizers, and putting down those who are less educated.

  • Sinob and Gou’s servant, Peta, and although they pay for his education, still require him to call them his “master.”
  • Sinob calls Gou’s father low-class, since he has “betel stained teeth” and doesn’t speak English. She also derides her husband for letting him borrow his clean white shirt, since he will only “get it dirty.”
  • Sinob requests that crystal glasses be ordered for the white guests, and plastic cups for the others.
  • Sinob requests hot and cold Western-style appetizers, calling betel nuts “low-class.”
  • At the party, Sinob calls Marian “just a typist” and orders that she refer to her as Mrs. Gou Haia from now on (which she later gossips about with Vi Braggin-Crowe).

2. Cultural appropriation. This is the practice of picking and choosing elements of culture to share, while branding others as irrelevant or less-than.

  • When Papa suggests a singsing or a traditional party with betel nuts and a pig-roast, Gou tells him that a cocktail party is the thing to do now.
  • Sinob insulting the flower that Papa wears in his hair to the party.
  • At the party, while Sinob slams Tok Pisin and other elements of PNG culture and traditions, Sinob wears a dress made of local fabric and cut in a local style, appropriating the style of dress made by islanders and sold in the markets.

3. Language barriers. Sinob and Gou Haia attempt to navigate two interstitial zones: one of formerly low-class islanders who have risen to a higher social class, and another of English, the language of colonialism and the local Tok Pisin language.

  • In the first scene, they speak only in English, but are clearly able to understand Tok Pisin as Sinob barks orders in English at Peta, the servant, who responds in Tok Pisin.
  • In Scene V, upon the arrival of Gou’s father, we see the extent of the lapse in communication between Gou and his father.

GOU: Father! How are you? We – er – weren’t expecting you.

PAPA: Eh! Pikinini bilong mi! Yu tok Inglis. Na mi traim tok olosem. (Ah, my son, you speak English. I’ll try too.) Your house here, is too far up hill and road. My bones tired from walk. Now I find you is good.

GOU: Father, I have been promoted. I’m to be the director of the Department of National Identity. Do you understand?

PAPA: Pikinini, yu tok wanem long dispel? Mi no save. Yu tok Inglis, na mi no kisim as long tok bilong yu. (Son, what are you talking about? I don’t understand. When you speak English I can’t get to the bottom of what you say.)

GOU: It means I’m to be the boss of a big office. The number one boss.

PAPA: Number one, eh?

GOU: Yes. Tonight, Sinob and I are having a party to celebrate (Brash 154-155).

  • In this brief exchange, we  how Gou’s status has affected his relationship with both his father and his native language. Gou greets his father in English, who responds in Tok Pisin before attempting to keep the conversation going in English. Gou’s choice to respond in English rather than in Tok Pisin (which we know he understands, although we have not yet heard him speak) and his word choice increases the distance between the two. Gou’s father, whose confidence and knowledge in English do not match his son’s, switches back to Tok Pisin. Despite the fact that Papa says “when you speak English I can’t get to the bottom of what you say,” Gou continues in English, refusing to switch to Tok Pisin. On top of the obvious master-servant relationship between the couple and Peta, now we see the insinuation of the English-speaking son putting his native father – both his actual Papa and his first language, the language of his fatherland – beneath him.
  • Scene IV. Dr. Ilai Kamap, the academic, brings up the subject of national language. Despite her position as the wife of the man who is now charge of the task force to discover national identity, Sinob is dismissive of the two dominant non-English languages of Motu and Tok Pisin, calling the latter Pidgin, a nomenclature originated and utilized by the English. She calls them languages of the “village people” and that everyone should speak English, citing the current English-based educational curriculum and that it would “cost a lot more to rewrite the texts (Brash 160).” Professor Noual, the linguist, takes umbrage to the idea, but is ignored by Sinob, who has already moved on to a conversation with Ura Kava about her new dress. As Sinob leaves, Dr. Kamap suggests the creation of a language based on the “seven-hundred-plus languages here…which would include elements from each basic dialectal area,” to which Professor Noual points out the fact that this language already exists and is a national language: Tok Pisin.
  • After his wife storms off and the guests take their leave, only Gou and Papa are left on stage. As soon as they are alone, they have a conversation exclusively in Tok Pisin. According to the footnoted translation, Papa excuses himself to go stay with a cousin, but Gou apologizes to his father for his wife’s display and the toll that urban life has taken on him. Papa responds with understanding, but instead of solely blaming city life, also points out to his son how Sinob bosses him around. He then invites Gou back to the village to join himself and Gou’s mother for Christmas, and that they will make a big feast. Gou insists to his father that he and his mother should not spend money on feeding him, to which his father says that he will be ashamed among the village if Gou will not come home for Christmas. As it is late, Gou offers his father the bed in the guest room, but he refuses, preferring to sleep on the hard living room floor. He does so, leading to the closing image of Gou putting a pillow under his father’s sleeping head to elevate it off the floor, and contemplating his new position with the play’s closing line, “[a]nd so…here I am, your son…the director of National Identity.” It is clear here that Gou is caught in the middle, not only between English and Tok Pisin, but between the comfortable bed of the present and his father, the past, happily sleeping on the floor. In this way, Brash leads her audience with the provocative question of reconciling with identity.
  • Character names: The name of protagonist Gou Haia is a homophone of the English phrase “go higher,” referring to his political ambition as well as his rise in socioeconomic class. His wife is an aptly-named snob, both in her name, Sinob, and in her nature. The haughty white businessman and his wife whom Sinob is desperately trying to impress are named Chuck and Vi Braggin-Crowe, alluding to both Sinob’s and their own tendency to “brag and crow” about their position in society and their opinions of the lower class. A case can even be made for Dr. Ilai Kamap, the academic who suggests the creation of a new language for the new nation, as his surname is a hint to the phrase “come up,” indicating that he is also among the newly-risen members of society.

I have more to say but I’ll stop and publish here because I’ve basically just recreated like half my paper, but stay tuned for more on this play. This entry will probably be edited a few times.

Also, anhyeunasayo to my first visitor from South Korea, and to my 10000th visitor (at least according to my Revolver Map), from Kanata, Ontario, Canada. Not bad, eh?

Works Cited

Beier, Ulli, ed. Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: U of Queensland P, 1980.

Brash, Nora-Vagi. Which Way, Big Man? in Voices of Independence: New Black Writing from Papua New Guinea, ed. Ulli Beier. St. Lucia, Queensland, Australia: U of Queensland P, 1980.

James, Adeola, ed. PNG Women Writers: An Anthology. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Addison Wesley Longman Australia, 1998.

Waiko, John Dademo. A Short History of Papua New Guinea. Melbourne, Victoria, Australia: Oxford UP Australia, 1993.

2

On Judging A Book By Its Cover

In an unexpected turn of events, this post is exactly how the title sounds.

This afternoon, I spent an hour that I should have been working on my paper browsing Half-Price Books. If you haven’t experienced the glory of Half-Price Books, or live in a city/country where there is none, find the nearest one and go now. Or, when it opens, since it’s almost midnight here in Wisconsin.

Half Price Books (Lego Version)

Half Price Books (Lego Version) (Photo credit: Diorama Sky)

With ebooks, eBay, and Amazon.com, the bookstore suffered a pretty terrible death. All the little ones died first, then Waldenbooks, Gordon’s, pretty much paring them down to Barnes & Noble and the occasional Borders. But somehow, Half-Price Books emerged like a phoenix from the proverbial pile of ash.

When you go into one of their stores, you never know what you’re going to find. It might be a long-lost childhood favorite, a completely obscure title, or even a box of Edward Gorey note cards. And everything’s – you guessed it – half price. And some things are even less.

So today when I went to Half-Price Books, I looked at covers.

Yes, covers.

An old adage says, “never judge a book by its cover.” Well, they’re wrong.

::gasp::

It’s true. The art of the book cover says something about the book. I’ll start with the types of books I usually buy. For fiction and literature, bright colored covers usually mean chick-lit, or something else light and fuzzy. I can go for these types of books, except when I buy them without reading much about it from the back cover and it turns out to be a Christian Young Adult novel. (This has happened.) For a play, usually the cover will be your standard Samuel French or Dramatists pastel. I always wondered about how those colors got picked for each title. That would be the most fun job ever. Biographies and memoirs usually have the author (or whoever’s being ghostwritten about) on the cover, a move that is vain, but then again, he or she is kind of what the book’s about. Still, there are some wonderful biographies/memoirs with pictures on the cover that do not contain the visage of the subject. Mysteries come in all different shapes, sizes, and colors, but usually if it’s got blood or guns on the cover, it’s not as thrilling as the author would like to you think it is. My favorite mysteries are of the “cozy” genre, not too graphic or violent but fun to follow (and figure out, if you’re that type of reader). For example, Susan Wittig Albert’s China Bayles series is named after plants, the corresponding one of which is featured on the cover, and Laura Childs’ Tea Shop mysteries are done up in a tasteful still-life with a matching color palate throughout. You know you’ve got a hit series when any of your books can be spotted from a mile away. Yes, I’m talking to you, Sue Grafton. Fantasy and sci-fi novels have incredibly detailed covers, emblematic of how intense you have to focus in order to follow them. Travel guides often feature a photo of something that is either too abstract to recognize without a caption, or a picture of something you will most likely never witness if you travel to that place, like the sunrise over Mt. Fuji in Japan, the wild elephants of South Africa, or an unpolluted, moonlit view of any large city in America.  Pop lit often features a black cover with a single image like a mask or a candle or a sewing machine or something, as if to say, “you must be Victoria Beckham in order to open me.” And then there’s your romance novel covers, which run the gamut from beautiful to inane to not-safe-to-leave-lying-around-the-house-during-your-kid’s-sixth-birthday-party. The higher budget the novel and the more bankable the novel, the hunkier the guy/the prettier the girl. Some of them end up looking pretty ridiculous – in fact, there are websites such as this one where you can ogle, gawk, and poke fun at the most awful covers from around the world.

The worst ones of all?

Movie tie-in covers. It’s a sad day when you need freakin’ Leonardo DiCaprio to sell The Great Gatsby, a piece of art with reputation Leo can only dream of even coming close to.