Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Books Read in September

47. Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

Finally finished the Wicked Years. Out of Oz finishes the story in some ways, and just leaves it open again. Oh well. I don't know how much closure I expected. Still best read for the dark and amusing riffs on the land of Oz.

48. The Taming of the Queen by Philippa Gregory (audiobook)

One of my favorite of Gregory's, and I've read nearly everything by her. Katherine Parr is, in my opinion, the most interesting of Henry VIII's wives, both because she survived and because she was one of the first women to publish in English. Also, I wasn't aware of the relationship between her and Anne Askew, a contemporary female preacher, a relationship which is central to Gregory's novel. As usual, Gregory takes an inventive approach to history, creating the highest possible stakes drama (as if the Tudors weren't dramatic enough!). I've also felt that Gregory's later books, like this one, and The White Princess, feel more fiercely feminist in nature than some of her earlier works. Henry VIII, despite being central to the plot, is a somewhat enigmatic character in, for example, The Other Boleyn Girl--even when he does terrible things, the crux of her interpretation of his character has remained elusive. Here, she finally comes out and makes it clear what kind of a monster he has become.

49. Bitter is the New Black by Jen Lancaster

I read this twice in less than a month, so it's obvious that I highly recommend it. It's pitched as a modern-day Greek tragedy, a woman at the top who had it coming, and hilariously chronicles her fall. However, although Jennifer makes a joke of her two years of unemployment, it's no laughing matter for those of us who came of age during the recession. Though I don't have her penchant for high-end retail or cosmetics (there's a hilarious yet poignant scene where she tallies, for example, how much insurance her bottles of half-empty nail polish could have covered), it's definitely a story that hit that "there but for the grace of G-d go I" note. Also, this was her first memoir, but she apparently has others that I must read post-haste.

50. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Extremely funny, dry, and droll--read my thoughts here.

51. Inheritance by Christopher Paolini

I finally finished the Inheritance quartet! I'm glad I did. I had many frustrations with the series, mostly that it was overwritten and did too much "telling" instead of showing. However, Eragon, his dragon Saphira (some of the best writing is from Saphira's POV, imo), his cousin Roran, and his friend Arya, to name a few, are memorable characters that represent interesting variations on familiar fantasy tropes. The plot, while predictable, also had some interesting twists and turns. I think Paolini's greatest strength was his ability to play on those tropes to create a believable fantasy world with strong female leaders, new and more nuanced interpretations of "enemy" races, and a strong core of ancient history and magic. The story meets a full heroic arc in the end, and Paolini makes some strong atypical choices there as well. On the whole, it's a valuable addition to high fantasy, and I would recommend it especially to young fans of the genre.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Bookish (And Not So Bookish) Thoughts

1. Two of the bloggers I follow went to Jonathan Safran Foer readings recently, as did I. It's interesting to hear the different takes on him and his work. When I saw him, he was introduced by his mother and his whole family was there! I didn't realize he'd grown up in D.C., so that was quite a surprise. It also made more sense why his new book is set here. He read the passage about the urinal that he's apparently read elsewhere. Although I loved his first two novels, I'm not sure how I feel about this one...I did start reading Here I Am, but I haven't gotten to the urinal scene yet.

2. I missed the National Book Festival and the Baltimore Book Festival and all the other bookish events the weekend before last because I was sick. I hate that I missed Carlos Ruiz Zafon and Ann Goldstein and so many other interesting writers. At least I saw JSF the week before.

3. I just celebrated Rosh Hashanah, and spending that time concentrating on how I can be a better person in the new year made me feel really zen and refreshed. I hope I can keep that up now that I've got a busy couple of weeks ahead (and fasting, of course).

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Favorite Passages from Cold Comfort Farm

I've wanted to read Cold Comfort Farm ever since I learned it is one of Boston Bibliophile's favorite books. Her allusions to it piqued my interest, and while browsing in the library the other day, it caught my eye.

Gibbons' wit suffuses this offbeat, Austen-inspired novel. First published in 1932, it's set in early twentieth century England, when the recently orphaned and consummate cosmopolitan young Flora Poste resolves to rely on the generosity of her country cousins, and furthermore, adjust their lives to her convenience.

Flora remarks to a friend:

I am only nineteen, but I have already observed that whereas there still lingers some absurd prejudice against living on one's friends, no limits are set, either by society or by one's own conscience, to the amount one may impose upon one's relatives (15).

Zingers like these abound, and this gem and the one below were two of my personal favorites. In her equally amusing foreword, Gibbons notes that she has taken the liberty of starring her best passages according to a four-star rating system. Neither of the passages I picked were starred, so you can just imagine! Her quirks extend also to an inventive vocabulary--she refers frequently to "sukebind," a kind of crop whose flower leads to all manner of lascivious behavior. When I researched this mysterious plant, I discovered that it originated with Cold Comfort Farm, along with a number of other terms I'd thought were suspicious!

My other favorite passage, like the one above, has that wonderful ring to it of a truth you've never been quite able to express:
Mrs. Hawk-Monitor had combined two of the essentials for a successful ball (too many guests in a smallish room)...and the fact that most of the people who were present knew each other slightly, all the ingredients for success were present (159).
Gibbons prefaces the novel with a quote from Mansfield Park: "Let other pens dwell on guilt and misery." And, indeed, she does.

Page numbers are from the Penguin 20th century classic TV tie-in edition, published in 1994, which I found in the library. Excuse me while I search for that made-for-TV movie.

Friday, September 30, 2016

Books Read in August

45. Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

This is the third of Gaskell's novels that I've read, and my favorite. Interestingly, it's earlier work than the other two. It seems to me that she was more honest and raw here in her opinions about class divisions. North and South and Cranford also both address divisions between mill workers and mill owners, but North and South is more nuanced, while Cranford is almost a farce. Mary Barton is more radical. Mary and her family (and their friends and neighbors) suffer extreme loss, and the consequences that follow are appropriately drastic. Highly recommended, and unfortunately, very relevant in the present day.

46. A Lion Among Men by Gregory Maguire

Finally, after holding onto the final two books for a few years, I finished the Wicked Years series. A Lion Among Men jumpstarts the story again after the possible ending in Son of a Witch. We backtrack to events that took place during Elphaba's life, and the book focuses on two peripheral characters, the titular lion, named Brrr (also the Cowardly Lion), and Mother Yackle, a soothsayer-turned-nun who hung mysteriously around the edges of the first two books. To be honest, it took me a while to care about these two characters as much as I cared about Elphaba and Liir, but by the end, I was sucked into their importance to Oz and to Elphaba's family. I was excited when Brrr figures again in the final book, Out of Oz, which I finished in September, so that will be in a later post!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Books Finished on Vacation

When I travel, I like to read books related to travel. And, I finally did use my ereader on vacation---after I finished reading the two physical books I brought.

40. Better Than Fiction 2

This is a collection of nonfiction stories by celebrity writers. I found it an interesting read, but nothing was a huge standout. One story has nuns chasing Italian boys away from American girls.

41. Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It

I wanted to read this book as soon as I heard about it, and I found it in the store right before I left for my trip. It's a collection of stories about people inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. Now, before reading Eat Pray Love, I would have thought this was hokey, but now, I can sympathize with the "bathroom floor club," as one writer here puts it. These are more like vignettes, about the moment that changed everything, which at first was disappointing, since each story is only a few pages, but, I realized that each story packs more punch in that smaller serving. Recommended to fellow members of the bathroom floor club.

42. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

I had this on my ereader for quite a while, and finally read it. At first, it reminded me of Elizabeth Bear's writing, the way she drops you into a heavily detailed world with no context. Hurley was a little better about quickly developing the context and the story wasn't quite as convoluted as some of Bear's, but otherwise, I think the comparison mostly bears out. This is one or more highly developed fantasy worlds, at least two of which are "mirrors" of each other, that is, they have people that are the 'same' in different life situations--everyone seems to have the same parents and family line in general, but the history of which groups are in charge is different. And, of course, one world is trying to take over the other. Recommended to fans of "deep" fantasy (those that really want to take the disorientation plunge).

43. Cress by Marissa Meyer

44. Winter by Marissa Meyer

I loved Cinder, and found the Lunar chronicles so addictive that I downloaded the last two on my ereader. However, I may have rushed through them a little too quickly, since I didn't feel like I appreciated the later books quite as much. Of the final two, Cress was my favorite. Meyer did a brilliant job of translating Rapunzel into scifi, and I loved that she explicitly and tacitly acknowledged the darker aspects of that fairy tale. Cress and Captain Throne are also my favorite couple from the series. That said, while most of Winter's arc wasn't related to the Snow White story, when it does come up, Meyer has a clever twist on that too. The "scifi-a-fairy-tale" is a theme I find especially compelling. Lunar Chronicles highly recommended for a fun can't-stop-reading whirl.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Top Ten Fantasy and Scifi TV Shows

I watch so many fantasy and scifi shows--any other fans out there? What shows have I missed?


1. Star Trek

I'm a fan of all the iterations of Star Trek, although most recently we re-watched the first couple seasons of Enterprise (which contained most of my favorite episodes from that show so I'm not sure if I want to continue). I really love S2 E5 "A Night in Sickbay," which features Captain Archer's beagle, Porthos.

2. The X-Files

I didn't watch this in real time, but so far, we're somewhere in, I think? I love Mulder and Scully, especially the one-offs (but, you know, also the continuing stuff). S3E4, when they encounter a real psychic, is one of my favorites, but there are so many to choose from.

3. Babylon Five

I watched individual episodes while this was airing, but I never watched in sequence or really got the overarching plot. If this were airing right now, I guarantee it would be one of the most popular shows on television. Some sharp commentary on government and media and humanity in general, and extremely quirky main characters that nevertheless gel as a cast.

Currently on TV

4.  Game of Thrones

Go Tyrion. Team Sansa. 'Nuff said.

5. The 100

We literally watched this in order to laugh at a whiny teen drama. And, ok, it starts out, and occasionally slips into that. But the moral ambiguity of this show, the ethical dilemmas...there is nothing like it. No one ups the ante like The 100 and I love that there are so many strong female leaders in this show, from Clarke to Lexa to Raven to Indra. And you have to love John "the things I do to survive" Murphy. My favorite show on TV right now.

6. Agents of Shield

This is a fun show, and I love how they play with tropes, and each season gets grittier. Plus, FitzSimmons for life.

7. The Shannara Chronicles

So, I read The Elfstones of Shannara about 16 years ago, and I remember the story pretty well (the ending is hard to forget), but I thought it was straight up high fantasy. Apparently, it's set in a post-apocalyptic world where humans have divided into humans, gnomes, and trolls, and Elves, who apparently were hidden all along, have come out of hiding to rule (and protect everyone from gnarly demons)? Whether this was just made up for the show or not, it makes for a fascinating cultural backdrop, and despite legit whiny teen drama (this is from MTV), it's well worth watching for a fantasy fix. Second season has been confirmed; interested to see if they will continue this story or use another book from the series.

8. Stranger Things

It's classified as "horror" as well as scifi, which I usually shy away from, but this schlocky '80s style scifi is perfect for nostalgic '80s and '90s nerds. Can't wait to see what Season 2 cooks up (I hope a certain number will be back).

Just Started/Considering Watching

9. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

One of my favorite books of all time. I knew the BBC was doing a series, but it just showed up on Netflix! I wasn't that impressed with the first episode, but we're a few episodes in and I'm liking it better. Let's be honest, Jonathan Strange is way more fun than Mr. Norrell, although Mr. Norrell's library and study are objects of my deepest envy. The show did a marvelous job of nailing the aesthetic of the time period (an alternate 19th century England).

10. The Magicians

I read the first book in the series, but stopped because it crushed my childhood too much (made deep dark cynical parody of Narnia and Harry Potter). However, I think I might be willing to give the show a whirl. It can't possibly be as bleak as the book. Thoughts?

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Top Ten Books I Read in School

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish!

Most of these are from college or graduate school, since a lot of the books I read in grade school I had read on my own before we read them in school.

1. Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston

2. Salve Deus Rex Judaeorum by Aemilia Lanyer

3. The Tragedy of Mariam by Elizabeth Cary

4. Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy

5. The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

6. The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

7. Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

8. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

9. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo

10. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli