Sunday, October 5, 2014

A Fragrant Message

34. Messenger by Lois Lowry

"It was a quick and fragrant touch to his lips that gave him courage."

-Messenger, Lowry, p. 113

Lois Lowry's prose is stark. As opposed to the pyrotechnical language of Catherynne Valente, Norton Juster, or even Suzanne Collins, Lowry's stories feel almost naked. And yet, it is their barrenness that highlights what is truly important.

When I read The Giver many, many moons ago, I long recalled the definition of "apprehension" that Jonas mentions in the first few pages. It is that particular word that captures Jonas' state of mind, and the reader's state of mind for most of the book. Likewise, in Messenger, the word "fragrant" is distinguished among its more simple compatriots. It is important that the lips are fragrant, because they stand in contrast to the growing corruption in Matty's town. (Matty, a character first seen in Gathering Blue, is the protagonist in Messenger).

Messenger is not as iconic a book as The Giver, perhaps because the secret has already been given away. We know there is "something rotten in the state of Denmark," even in the (more genuinely) utopian-like community Jonas has fled to. My "Hamlet" reference seemed appropriate there, but it's actually the far more disturbing (in my mind) "Macbeth" that is referenced in the book. "All my pretty ones? All?" will echo in your mind when it is done. Though not quite as captivating, this is the more realistically somber book that Lowry teased us with at the end of The Giver.

I read it in a day, and yet it's a book that lingers in subsequent weeks. It's not like the experience of savoring Shakespearean puns or Valentean tongue-twisters, but it's like a subtle perfume that remains even when other scents overpower it. A message. Quiet, but fragrant.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Top Ten Tuesday: My Fall TBR List

My fall TBR list is quite short this year:

1. Whatever I feel like reading.

I've taken on quite a workload this fall, and so anything outside of work will be purely auxiliary.

Probably, a lot of articles, short stories, re-reads, and impulse library grabs will abound.

However, it would be nice if I read some of the yet-to-be-read books on my shelf, namely:

1. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

2. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Top Ten Authors I've Only Read One Book From But NEED to Read More

Thank you Top Ten Tuesday, I feel like this is always happening to me!

1. Karen Lord

I read The Best of All Possible Worlds almost two years ago now, and I still need to read Redemption in Indigo. At least I'm not too far behind!

2. Marge Piercy

I really loved Woman on the Edge of Time, I imagine I would enjoy her other works as well.

3. W.G. Sebald

I really enjoyed The Rings of Saturn, have been meaning for years to check out his other work.

4. Elizabeth Gilbert

I found Committed to be a very thoughtful read, and The Signature of All Things is sitting on my shelf. Maybe I'll even get around to Eat, Pray, Love one of these days.

5. Karen Joy Fowler

The Jane Austen Book Club is one of my favorite books, but I wasn't really riveted by the idea of the next couple of books she put out. The latest sounded interesting though.

6. Philip Pullman

Not sure if this counts exactly, since I did read the whole His Dark Materials trilogy, but I haven't read anything after that and I really want to read The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

7. Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I read The Shadow of the Wind, but haven't read the other books, though The Angel's Game is in my collection.

8. Catherynne M. Valente

I read the first two Fairyland books, but I need to read her adult novels.

9. Deborah Feldman

Unorthodox was one of my favorite books of 2012, and she just came out with Exodus this year. And-again, yay!-I'm not too far behind.

10. Tanuja Desai Hidier

Until last month, Hidier only had one book out, Born Confused, one of my favorite books of all time, but which I'd long since given up on a sequel to. And then, magic, the end of last month, the sequel came out and I got to see her at the National Book Festival. And Bombay Blues is tucked away until a someday soon when I need it!

Saturday, September 13, 2014

As Good As New by Charlie Jane Anders

Although I've been reading more collections of short stories, I'd stopped reading as much individual short fiction as I did last year. My primary source has been, and for a while I wasn't very impressed with the offerings. But I decided to take a chance on "As Good as New" since I recognized the author name, and the plot description intrigued me.

"As Good as New" is one of the cleanest, most satisfying short pieces I've read in a while. Marisol, a playwright turned medical student, is possibly the only person to have survived the end of the world. Holed up in a panic room, she eats frozen dinners and watches "The Facts of Life." And then she finds a genie in a bottle.

Read it if you like classic, thoughtful stories. It's pared down, with just two characters, and just one clear plot with a couple of underlying ideas that underscore the whole piece. Enjoy!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Enchantress by Maggie Anton

33. Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Enchantress by Maggie Anton

*Published Sept. 2, 2014*

Hisdadukh is a charasheta, or enchantress, who is learned in the ways of healing and protective magic. She is the daughter of a historical Talmudic scholar, Rav Hisda, who is himself learned in priestly magic. In Anton's world, the wives and daughters of Talmudic scholars have an equivalent brand of magic that they use to protect their families and communities. It's an interesting portrait of feminine power in a highly misogynistic era.

Anton is known for her earlier historical novels on the daughters of Rashi, arguably the best known Talmudic scholar. The Enchantress is the sequel to Rav Hisda's Daughter: The Apprentice. Although I have not read the first book, I was able to get into the story fairly easily. That said, I think my knowledge of the eponymous viewpoint character would have been deeper if I had read it. Many of the events in the earlier book are referenced here.

The book is heavily steeped in the apocrypha of Judaism and Talmud. I recognize some of it, but I'm not knowledgeable enough to judge the historical accuracy of it. In any case, the presentation of demons and angels as real entities is grounded in Biblical and folkloric representations, though in this day and age, it comes off as fantastical. The interactions with these creatures and the numerous discussions of Baraitot, rabbinic teachings, were the most captivating sections of the book to me.

Early in the book, Hisdadukh teaches a Baraita to her prickly love interest, Rava (also a historical scholar):

"What is taking vengeance and what is bearing a grudge?" I asked. "Revenge is when one man asks another to lend him a sickle and the second refuses, then when the second man asks the first to lend him a shovel, the first one says, 'Just as you wouldn't lend me your sickle, so I will not lend you my shovel.' This is taking vengeance."


"a grudge is when one man asks another to lend him a sickle and the second refuses, then when the second man asks the first to lend him a shovel, the first one says, 'Here it is. I am not like you who did not lend me your sickle.' This is bearing a grudge."

The content of the Baraita cleverly references Hisdadukh's awareness that Rava bears her a grudge for long ago refusing to marry him. In this new novel, she hopes to re-capture his interest, for she realizes it is their fate to be together.

I understand that many people will be repulsed by the nature of their relationship and by both characters', though notably Rava's, misogyny. What I would say is that this book is rooted in a historical period and in a religion, and furthermore particular interpretations of that religion, and to both of them, their relationship is perfectly consensual. It may not be what a modern woman longs for, but in Hisdadukh's context, a man who respects her arcane practices and even trusts and consults her learning, is a lot to be thankful for.

While there is an underlying plot throughout the novel, it's almost an excuse for this fictional biography. Once past the drama of Hisdadukh and Rava's reconciliation and marriage, the book slows down. Anton skips and glosses over years and events, but the events she does show don't necessarily relate to the underlying threads, and she seems to feel the need to mention events that she didn't think worth portraying. This makes for a lot of telling rather than showing, and oddly jarring moments.

For example, Hisdadukh's slave Leuton is a recurring character who features in many events. She braids Hisdadukh's hair, advises her, and accompanies her in difficult moments. Though the character is never fully developed, it's very off-putting when she is finally disposed of in a a couple of afterthought sentences:

"Leuton, who'd served me loyally since Rami's death, had died after a distracted carter crushed her against a wall, and I couldn't replace her."

Goodness, what a violent death! You would think there would at least be a scene to describe it, and a scene of mourning. But that's it. Leuton is never mentioned again.

The Enchantress is, at best, an imaginative investigation into what a Jewish sorceress' life, if she really existed, might have entailed. At worst, it is a dragging, improbable, misogynistic Talmud-era riff on the far more engaging The Red Tent. It really depends on your view. Personally, I'm intrigued enough to try one of the Rashi's daughters novels, and I would recommend The Enchantress if you have a strong interest in the period or in Judaism.

Note: While a number of obscure Hebrew words are scattered throughout the book, there is a thorough glossary in the back.

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Top Ten Books I Want to Read But Don't Own Yet

I'm a little late with Top Ten Tuesday...

1. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin

2. The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

3. Marriage, A History by Stephanie Coontz

4. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

5. Messenger (And Son) by Lois Lowry

6. Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

7. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

8. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones

9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

10. The End of Men and the Rise of Women by Hanna Rosin

(Now the real question is how many books do I want to read that I DO own...)

Monday, August 25, 2014

August Updates

Just Finished:

Well worth reading, it was an impulse library grab, which just goes to show that random browsing is still an effective method for choosing books! It reminded me of when I used to go to the library as a kid. The experience of reading also felt relevant and impactful, in a way that most books haven't since I reached young adulthood. Maybe this is the payoff for scrupulously avoiding non-fiction throughout my childhood? Anyway, review to come.

A purposeful library grab, this read was also well worth it. I may also have cried because I will never write with Karen Russell's innovation and grace. A stuttering mouth becomes a "stubborn syllable engine." Oh perfection! I will be grokking this one for some time to come.

Currently Reading:

It's an ARC from LibraryThing, coming out in September. I'm liking it so far, it does an excellent job of immersing the reader in Talmud era Persia-although there is a lot of misogyny about the period to dislike.

Next Up: