Posts Tagged With: culture

Bookstores in the Digital Age

With the rise of e-readers and the fall of Borders, the fate of physical bookstores is at a crossroads.  On one hand, e-books are more eco-friendly, cheaper, and convenient.  At the same time, there’s just something about the feel of a book, and by extension, browsing through bookstore shelves.

Earlier this week, I went to happy hour with a friend at Kramerbooks, in Washington, DC.  Yes, you heard right.  I went to happy hour at a bookstore, which also functions as a cafe, bar, and live music venue.

The business model at Kramerbooks is something that I believe would work well in maintaining the relevance of independent bookstores.  While the bookstore itself isn’t as large as a chain bookstore, the selection is well-cultivated.  The booksellers are knowledgeable (I had a conversation with one about Margaret Atwood and Ursula K. LeGuin), and one gets a wholly different experience than one does buying books on the internet.  Meanwhile, the cafe and bar make going to the bookstore a social occasion.  Sure, other bookstores host readings and have a community focus, but having a cafe and bar makes it so easy to stay later, relax, and browse.  Furthermore, they increase revenue at a time when most bookstores are in dire financial trouble.

As someone who recently got a Kindle, I’m convinced of the fact that e-books are here to stay.  At the same time, I don’t think that they will ever entirely replace physical books.  I am of the opinion that if publishers worked a bit on the appearance and feel of paperbacks, perhaps by using nicer papers and a variety of unique cover art, that people will still continue to buy and collect them.  However, in a time when e-books are accessible instantaneously, bookstores need to continue to provide an experience that one can’t find in the virtual world.

Categories: Other | Tags: , , , , | 37 Comments

Polish-American Christmas Traditions

Today I’m going to take a break from writing about books, and instead share with you some Polish Christmas traditions.  As my family is part Polish, these are the traditions that I grew up with, and form some of my fondest Christmas memories.

Traditionally, Christmas celebrations begin on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas day.  This begins at dinner, which is known as Wigilia (The Vigil).  Dinner begins when the youngest child spots the first star in the sky.  My family always says that we will do this, but I don’t think that I can recall a year that we were actually able to start on time.  It’s also traditional to save an extra seat for an unexpected guest (or for Jesus), but I’m from a large family, so we generally just add tables as needed for whomever arrives.  Extra visitors are always welcome, and we’ll always manage to find a place for everyone.

The dinner begins with the passing and breaking of Oplatki.  Oplatek is a thin wafer that resembles (and tastes like) a cross between a communion wafer and those flying saucer candies that you get as a kid.  It’s generally stamped with religious images, and comes in a variety of pastel colors.

Each person at the table in order from oldest to youngest takes turns sharing a Christmas wish/blessing, which also functions as a toast.  The person speaking then breaks a piece off of his or her oplatek and passes it around the table, continuing until all the oplatek has been broken and each person has offered his or her Christmas wish.  The oplatek is then dipped in honey and eaten.

Dinner is a feast, albeit without meat.  This is because for much of history, Roman Catholics weren’t allowed to eat meat at all during advent.  This tradition is preserved at Wigilia, where fish is served as the main course.  There are traditionally thirteen courses for good luck (one for Jesus and each of the 12 apostles).  Another must-have dish for Polish-Americans is pierogi, but pierogi originated as a peasant food, so they’re hard to find in modern Poland.  Next there are the prunes marinated in brandy.  One must follow the recipe precisely, making sure that the chef drinks the proper amount of brandy whilst preparing it.  Other courses include marinated mushrooms, sauerkraut, and noodles with poppyseed.  Tradition also dictates leaving a bite of each dish on one’s plate for the angels.

Another tradition on Christmas Eve is to listen to Koledy–Polish Christmas Carols.  The songs themselves are quite beautiful, and very unique among Christmas music as a whole.  Linked below is an example, the song Mędrcy świata, which translates as “Sages of the World.”  The song is performed by Mazowsze, the Polish National Song and Dance Ensemble.  Albums are finally available in mp3 format on Amazon, which is exciting because it used to be very hard to find the traditional Koledy sung by professionals once vinyl records went out of vogue.

Christmas Eve then ends with Pasterka, or Midnight Mass.  Unfortunately, many parishes no longer offer a midnight mass, or push the time to 10pm instead.  If a church has a large Polish-American population, Koledy are often sung during the half hour before Midnight Mass begins.

Another tradition in my family (although I’m not sure where it originated) is to take a piece of  straw from the Nativity scene and to keep it in one’s wallet throughout the next year, to keep one from ever running out of money.  Straw plays an important role in traditional Polish Wigilia and is often placed upon under the tablecloth, as a reminder of the manger in which Jesus was placed, but that can be a bit messy and stir up the allergies.

Wigilia with family and listening to Koledy have always been the parts of Christmas that I enjoy the most.  What about you?  What holiday traditions do you celebrate?

Wishing you all a Merry Christmas (Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Festivus, Soltsice, etc.), and a Happy New Year!

Categories: Other | Tags: , , , , , , | 18 Comments

“War Dances” by Sherman Alexie, Part 1

I decided to break up this book into a couple posts, as it is a collection of short stories and poems.  I picked up this book at the National Book Festival back in September.  Alexie’s novels are often challenged in schools because his writing addresses the problems faced by Native Americans in the modern US.  It doesn’t try to lightly tiptoe around issues such as alcoholism, homophobia, or rape, but rather confronts those issues head-on with a sense of irreverence and humor.  His writing is funny and touching at the same time.  So, without further ado…

The Limited

This poem serves as an introduction to the collection.  It uses the story of a bystander watching a man hit a dog to describe the limitations and power of the poet in society.

Breaking and Entering

The narrator’s home is burglarized, and he confronts the burglar with a bat and kills him.  He then struggles with the results of his action as he watches the media present the case as the violence of a white man against a black youth.  However, the narrator is actually a member of the Spokane tribe and has faced much discrimination of his own life.  This story confronts problems such as inner city crime, racism, and regret in a poignant manner in which one feels that there really is no right answer.

Go, Ghost, Go

This poem describes a Native American student who is taking a university course where the professor has idealized Native Americans to the extreme.

Bird-Watching at Night

This one made me smile.  It is a poem about a young man on a date with his girlfriend who decides to play chicken with an owl while driving.

After Building the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Death Star

This poem explores the idea of children playing war.

War Dances

This is a somewhat longer short story about a man who begins to go deaf in one ear.  His experiences with doctors remind him of a time that his alcoholic father was hospitalized years before.  Normally stories about illness tend to be depressing, but this one is told with a sense of humor, especially in the flashback about the narrator’s father.  I thought that this was extremely well-done, as normally the father would be a statistic–an alcoholic who drank himself to death.  This humorous tribute shows another side of the same story, and reveals the father’s humanity.

The Theology of Reptiles

Two boys find a dead snake in the wood.  This story was spot on on the description of kids playing.  It also made me smile.


This was another personal favorite.  Told in a question-answer format, it explores religion in a Native American family, and the way that many people have stereotypical views of what Native Americans should believe.  It’s irreverent tone is used to make a point on the importance of family.

Ode to Small-Town Sweethearts

A teenager braves driving in a dangerous snowstorm to see a girl.  This story reminded me of growing up in Western Pennsylvania, where white-out blizzards were just a part of winter, but never to be taken lightly.

The Senator’s Son

This was one of the more painful stories in the collection to read, but also incredibly touching.  The narrator is the privileged son of a Republican senator.  He respects his father for his morality.  One day in college, the narrator is involved in an act of violence against a homosexual couple, coming to the realization that one of the men being attacked, Jeremy, was his childhood best friend.  Jeremy recognizes the narrator, but doesn’t report him because he doesn’t want to destroy his father’s political career.  However, Jeremy asks to meet with his former friend, and confronts him with a powerful lesson in forgiveness.  I found myself despising the narrator for what he did, while at the same time recognizing how very lost and confused he is when trying to face the world.  Meanwhile, Jeremy is portrayed almost as a Christ figure, remaining silent because of his own beliefs and ideals.  I think that the primary lesson in this story lies in the power of forgiveness and the need for understanding.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m loving this collection far more than I thought I would.  When I picked up the book, I did so because it was Sherman Alexie’s newest, and I had hoped to include it in a project for my multiculturalism class.  I haven’t read anything quite like it before.  Alexie manages to take very difficult issues and approach them without being depressing, and uses humor to create a greater sense of respect than I think would have been possible if he had written in a more traditional tone.  Stay tuned for Part II!

Categories: Fiction, YA | Tags: , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

“The Left Hand of Darkness” by Ursula K. LeGuin

Ursula K. Le Guin is phenomenal.  A few months ago, I read her novel “The Telling” and loved the anthropological manner in which she describes the culture of her sci-fi worlds.  I had heard good things about “The Left Hand of Darkness,” and was not disappointed.  It is now one of my favorite books of all time.

In a futuristic world, Earth has joined other planets in a collaboration known as the Ekumen, an intergalactic group facilitating diplomacy and trade between worlds.  The Ekumen contacts new planets by sending a lone representative to try to convince them of the merits of joining, on the principle that one person is somewhat innocuous, whereas two people could be interpreted as an invasion.

“The Left Hand of Darkness” tells the story of Genly Ai, a man from Earth who is sent to the planet Winter as the first representative of the Ekumen.  The people on Winter don’t have the same gender divisions that we do, but rather are completely androgynous.  They are only capable of sex during a short period each month known as kemmer, at which point they assume either masculine or feminine genitalia.  On Winter, normal humans such as ourselves are considered to be perverts, because their sexual instincts are never able to be turned off, and they are confined to one gender.  Because of these differences, the social climate of Winter is vastly different than that of Earth.  Rather than viewing the world as a dichotomy, denizens of Winter choose to live in the moment and focus on the greater whole.  Le Guin makes us question the role of gender in shaping society and culture, while at the same time questioning how much of Winter’s culture is instead shaped by the planet’s harsh climate.

Genly Ai must navigate the subtleties and politics of the countries of Winter in order to convince its leaders to join the Ekumen.  While doing so, he must to put aside his own preconceived notions of society and learn to adapt to a new planet, which is easier said than done, as Winter is still in the middle of an ice age.

Le Guin does a masterful job of worldbuilding, creating an entire mythology and history for the planet.  Her descriptions of the icy world are vivid and breathtaking.

I’d highly recommend this book.  Le Guin is the kind of author who can tell a beautiful story while at the same time constantly make you think about your own perceptions of reality.  If you get the edition that I have pictured, I’d also suggest reading the author’s introduction to the novel, as it’s quite good.  It describes her own views on science fiction, and is interesting to keep in mind while reading.

Categories: Fiction, Sci Fi | Tags: , , , , , , | 12 Comments

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” by N. Scott Momaday

I read this book as a part of a class I’m taking this semester on multiculturalism and librarianship.

The book is about Native American culture, specifically the Kiowa.  It tells the story of the author’s journey to visit his grandmother’s grave near Rainy Mountain.  Each page is split into three segments.  Momaday opens each section with a Kiowa myth, then follows up with a segment of historic fact.  He then ties everything together by relating those things to his own experiences and childhood memories, most of which are universal in nature.  He writes in a very straightforward poetic prose, which is easy to read but full of meaning.

There were always dogs about my grandmother’s house.  Some of them were nameless and lived a life of their own.  They belonged there in a sense that the word “ownership” does not include.  The old people paid them scarcely any attention, but they should have been sad, I think, to see them go.

“The Way to Rainy Mountain” is beautifully written and carries profound messages, despite its short length.  The stories of Tai-me, the Sun Dance, and buffalo hunts captivated my imagination, and were told with a great deal of reverence.

I would highly recommend this to anyone interested in Native American literature.

Categories: History, Nonfiction, Poems/Ballads | Tags: , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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