Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Top Ten Favorite Heroines from Books (Since Last Time)

1. Bitterblue from Bitterblue by Kristin Cashore

Bitterblue is memorable, not because she's the bravest or the strongest, but because she tries hard, even if her skills are more fit for a spy than a queen! Any girl making her way in the world can relate, and especially children of abusive or emotionally manipulative parents.

2. Breq from Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

Breq may or may not be female, but everyone in her society is referred to by a feminine pronoun, so we'll give her a pass. Breq is uniquely committed to justice, responsible, loyal to a fault, but also strangely cold. I'm a fan.

3. Fire from Fire by Kristin Cashore

Fire is a deeply haunting character whose pain is not easily forgotten, but she is also able to forge her own path despite her past. Perhaps this is a trait of all Cashore's protagonists, but they all manage to feel different. Katsa is the most defiant, while Bitterblue is young and confused. Fire is physically young, but even in her youth, older and wiser than both.

4. Cleopatra Selene from Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran

Selene is another character who is able to rise from the ashes of a painful past. Her past is not of her making, however, and her compassion and sense of justice carry her through all kinds of suffering.

5. September from The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

September is wild, and defiant, and weird. She's a child, but more perceptive and interesting than many adults.

And Some Older Heroines I Didn't Mention Last Time:

6. Rose from Eight Cousins and Rose in Bloom by Louisa May Alcott

Rose is determined to be an independent, accomplished woman, no matter what society tells her.

7. Emily from Emily of New Moonby L.M. Montgomery

Emily is talented, and never gives up her dreams of being a writer.

8. Sara from A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Sara is strong no matter what her circumstances. She's remarkably kind, creative, and resourceful.

9. Elphaba from Wicked by Gregory Maguire

Elphaba is prickly and independent, but committed to justice, no matter the cost.

10. Claudia from From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Claudia is perceptive and clever, getting herself and Jamie into the museum, and eminently practical in her choice of running away locations.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Against the Country

7. Against the Country by Ben Metcalf



Ben Metcalf's Against the Country is a novel distinguished by two attributes: its virulent attitude toward untamed terra firma and its excessive use of parentheses. On both counts, it is entertaining, but not as deep as its elevated vocabulary and precise punctuation might suggest. The editor, however, and/or the author, are to be highly commended on the appropriate if ample use of commas, semicolons, colons, and the aforementioned parentheses. Footnotes are, mercifully, contained, if not brief. Popularly compared to southern Gothic, Metcalf's narrator has at least a superior reliability to most of Faulkner's, and the prevailing mood, while depressing, does not quite reach the lugubrious depths of O'Connor. It's a book I suspect many raised in the country could relate to, if they were not likely to be outdone by the aforementioned vocabulary. At any rate, it encourages the rest of us to remain, if not happily, more safely ensconced in our ivy towers (or suburban homes, as the case may be).

An (uncharacteristically brief) but otherwise representative passage below *WARNING FOR USE OF OFFENSIVE EPITHET*:

My father was greatly concerned in those years that I might turn out to be a faggot, though only marginally more so than my mother seemed to be, the two of them sharing, through the auspices of my mother's work with juvenile offenders (and my father's long congress with tool-belted speed freaks), a perfectly common suspicion that the root cause of all deviation from the familial norm, and certainly of all "attention-seeking behavior" was bound to be drug use, and beneath that, a latent homosexuality.
(p.128)

If sentences like these are your delight, and country ignorance and the search for escape thereof are your cup of tea, have at it. I enjoyed toiling with the lexicon myself, and found the subject matter surprisingly bearable, if only due to the narrator's histrionic disdain for it. Beyond that though, I found it offered little beyond the excesses of hatred. I would have appreciated a more nuanced examination of the issues the narrator faced, or hints at a solution or redemption. It's being billed as a novel about rural America, which it is, but it felt more personal than epic in nature.

The promotional material I received asks: "Was there ever a narrator, in all our literature, so precise, so far-reaching, so eloquently misanthropic, as the one encountered here?"

To that, I would say Curtis Sittenfeld's Lee Fiora easily fits those criteria, I'll give Metcalf's narrator a boost though for "eloquence" (as he tries so very hard), but take him down a notch on "far-reaching."

Other narrators that fit the criteria come to your mind? (Please don't say Holden Caulfield).

Received for review from LibraryThing Early Reviewers

Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Finds-Literally!

Walking through my workplace last Friday, I found a sign for "Free Books" next to a pile. I picked up these:







Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Top Ten Book-Related Problems I Have

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

1. Not. Enough. Time.

(to read all the books, that's what time is for, right?)

2. Spend more time savoring the book I just finished...or start reading the tempting new book?

3. Or read polyamorously? How many can I read before I can't give adequate attention to the rest?

4. Suitcases that are too small for all the books I want to read

5. Paperbacks vs. Hardbacks

Cheap and portable or beautiful and durable?!? The eternal conundrum. Don't even bring in matching series.

6. Matching series.

Is it more important to get the book I need NOW or wait till I can get the same edition I have the rest of the series in? Ugh.

7. Library vs. Bookstore

Free for three weeks or not-free and mine forever?

8. Bookshelf space. 'Nuff said.

9. Laughing aloud in public places

10. Needing to discuss a book...and nobody else you know has read it

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda

6. Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments by Michael Dirda

It is entirely apt, actually poetic, that I discovered this collection in a used bookstore. Throughout these pages, Dirda leads us down labyrinthine library steps, through bookstores forlorn and flourishing, to conferences focused on Wodehouse and Faulkner, to his own private paradise sabbatical featuring the The Tale of Genji. He is always in quest of the cheapest, most covetable, most elusive quarry--the books he wants to read.

Readings is a collection of essays that appeared in The Washington Post Book World from 1993-1999. Although they could easily be read separately, reading them together produces a pleasing mental marinade. For example, Dirda's emphasis on the physicality of books in each of his essays becomes all the more clear, even more so against a modern backdrop. In 1993 or 1995 or even 1999, it might not have stood out so much that Dirda is preoccupied with old paperbacks and books of correspondence and drools over a fellow book collector's plethora of palimpsest-style signed editions (signed to this author, for this author, owned by so-and-so-and-so-and-on). But now his preoccupations are both quaint and retro-cool.

He remembers searching for years for particular novels or collections, such as I Am Jonathan Scrivener. As an older adult, he "[pounces] like a rabid marmoset" on Queen Lucia, a book he had been wanting. Then he decides he wants the rest of the out-of-print series, so he "[begins his] usual search-and-acquire campaign in the Washington area's secondhand bookstores." But when his "infants" ask for a new computer for Christmas, he realizes that he can use the Internet to find his treasure.

Part of the allure of "booking," as he terms it, for Dirda (I suspect), and myself, is the hunt--searching over the course of years, investigating boxes and piles, usually able to turn up SOMETHING you've been longing for, due to the infinite nature of book lust. In Dirda's columns, books that he's desired for years take an added significance.He recounts when he heard about particular books and from whom, when and where he found them, and when and where he read them. These are moments that are very familiar to me, but I'm already starting to recognize myself as an anachronism, Dirda as a kindred spirit from another era.

If you're a reader's reader, this is a book for you. And I can think of no better mission than declaring that the best way to savor this experience is to go to your local used bookstores or library used book sales (or scour the Internet, if you have to) and ferret out your own used paperback copy.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Love InshAllah

5. Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women Ed. Ayesha Mattu & Nura Maznavi




Along the bookstore tour of the DC/Baltimore area, I introduced my friend to Busboys and Poets on 14th & V St. Though it's sadly more of a restaurant (or happily, the food is quite good) than a bookstore, it still has a uniquely curated collection of activist literature and poetry. In fact, the last time I'd been there, I almost bought Love, InshAllah, because a girl I knew from high school was published in it. Instead, I surreptitiously read her story and left, because I couldn't justify the expense. This time, I decided to splurge (the main difference between now and then being that I can count on having employment).

Love InshAllah fulfills two of my reading goals this year: more short stories and authors from a minority group. On these fronts, it is quite successful. These stories are exactly what they claim to be, experiences of American Muslim women from a variety of backgrounds. This is not great literary writing (though, I think, personally, that my acquaintance's is the best, but I won't try to bias you). It is more moments in these women's lives, related to their experiences with love, sex, marriage etc. What I did not expect is that many of these women are converts to Islam, and in retrospect, I can't believe I didn't realize that, of course, that would constitute a significant proportion of the American Muslim experience. There are also women born into Muslim families, originating from South Asia, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Africa, as well as the Middle East.

I would recommend Love, InshAllah to those interested in learning more about the American Islamic experience, particularly in regard to love, sex, marriage, LGBT issues etc., and also to those who have lived through it, I imagine this book would be especially affirming. I applaud the authors' mission, and have also enjoyed reading their ongoing blog, where many of the authors featured in the book have follow-up stories like this one.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

The (Not Quite) Twelfth Disappointment

4. The Twelfth Enchantment by David Liss



I've been trying to figure out why this novel just didn't click for me. It's set in Victorian England, it's got magic, and it's written in a style reminiscent of Austen. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell , which I would describe similarly, is one of my favorite books of all time. The Twelfth Enchantment is definitely the most boring book I've read this year (which is not saying much yet, but I imagine I'll say this in December too).

I was a big fan of David Liss' The Coffee Trader, and I really wanted to like The Whiskey Rebels, but maybe I'm just going to have to accept that, for me, he was a one-hit wonder. I most frequently complain about writing style, but it's not that. It is derivative of Austen, and that bothers me a little, but I've been known to appreciate homages, so it's not that. I had to re-read my review of The Whiskey Rebels (#54), and I realized--it's the characters.

They're awful.

Lucy Derrick, the protagonist, is so blah. She doesn't want to be forced into marriage-wah wah. There's something special about her that only certain special people notice. These special people, by the way, are Lord Byron (yes, THAT Lord Byron) and Mary Crawford (yes, THAT Mary Crawford). Then there's Jonas Morrison, who Lucy hates because he once convinced her naive young self to run off with him (but then he didn't marry her OR take her virtue, so--what? Yeah). And there's this servant called Mrs. Quince who utterly hates Lucy because they once tried to read tarot cards together--character motivations here make no sense, people.

There's a bald Wickham and Darcy bait-and-switch, an evil Mr. Collins and undead Lady Catherine, and every Austenesque/fantasy twist that can be randomly thrown in is (except-thank goodness-we don't go to Bath). I just didn't care about any of it, because the characters weren't real to me.

I don't know. Liss has a gift with words. He usually has a gift with plots; I think trying to steal from Austen here threw him off. But whatever this is, he is way off his groove. Or maybe I'm just in a cantankerous mood. Anyway, I wouldn't recommend it, but if you're less cantankerous than I am about Austenesque plots surrounding a non-Austen-worthy heroine, I won't stop you.