Sunday, August 24, 2008

Hold Your Head High, Ladies

33. Everyone Worth Knowing by Lauren Weisberger

Weisberger, the queen of modern chick lit, is definitely an author worth knowing. I read The Devil Wears Prada about three years ago after it had been a bestseller for quite some time. I'm the first to admit I tend to be a book snob, but though I may kid, I feel strongly that you should never be ashamed of what you are reading. Unless it is The Da Vinci Code. No. Kidding, really. Anyway, I was blown away by the quality of the prose and the product lust it inspired even in my staunchly anti-materialistic self. I've been looking forward this summer to another such delicious "trashy" read and carefully selected this one.

Everyone Worth Knowing is the kind of "good negative press" for public relations that The Devil Wears Prada was for fashion magazines. Bettina Robinson is a much more likable and stronger protagonist than Prada's Andy. Weisberger also made her secondary characters, Bette's best friend Penelope and gay uncle Will, strong, but to the cost of the lethal boss-and-coworker characterizations that dominated her debut. I think it was probably smart on Weisberger's part to play down that bit though, because she could never equal her portrayal of Miranda Priestly, rumored to be modeled on her own boss at Vogue. There are a few sly references to the fashion industry embedded in the book however, and public relations is certainly connected to that world and no less glamorous. What Weisberger does best is help her readers imagine themselves in a career that, no matter how the main character seems to hate it, seems thrilling and somehow above the ordinary. In Everyone Worth Knowing, she completes the fantasy and provides Bette with a seemingly perfect man, whom she attains after a series of requisite complications. The way Bette's public and personal life are entwined make the complications of a slightly different nature, but in the end, it's the same old story. I thought the love interest as a character was not well developed and the way he leaves Bette in the lurch for months and never apologizes did not seem ideal to me. Also, there is another man that she appears to be dating in order to boost her job, whose hiatus in the closet seemed very unrealistic. I greatly enjoyed Weisberger's use of romance novels as a motif, it reminded me of Cervantes' references to novels of chivalry. She sends a message loud and clear, women should never be ashamed of what they want, even if it is as cliche as a handsome, dashing stranger who will sweep you off your feet.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Easier to Understand Than The Torah, New Testament, and Qur'an Put Together

32. Children of the Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

I read the English translation of this Egyptian novel published in 1959. I wanted more information on the author and a couple things in the book, and I found out that due to some sort of agreement between the author and a faction of the Egyptian government, this book is published abroad, but not in Egypt (it is published in Arabic in Lebanon however). Children of the Alley is an unabashed retelling of Biblical stories beginning with Adam, and continuing through Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, and a mysterious later character, as set in an Egyptian neighborhood. The names are different and the stories deviate slightly, but the allegories are clear. The narrative is far more straightforward, realistic and in keeping with a pessimistic interpretation of human nature than the holy books themselves. The God figure is Gabalawi, the father of Adham, and once he kicks out this beloved youngest son, he remains locked in his mansion for centuries while his descendants live in the alley below and fight over his estate. Gabalawi's long life is the only point in which credibility is stretched, otherwise there are no miracles. The style of the first section is elevated and hard to get into, but once the Gabal (Moses) section begins, the reader can become more invested in the characters and the writing style is more captivating. What I found most interesting were Mahfouz's deviations from the familiar stories that reveal his more subtle (though nothing is particularly hidden, as the back cover suggests) thoughts on human behavior and spirituality. The last character, Arafa, seems to be the equivalent of a modern scientist perhaps, part Einstein and part Nietzsche. I shared the surprise of another reviewer (linked to below), that Qassem (Mohammed) was not the last character in the cycle, as Mahfouz's Muslim upbringing would seem to necessitate. This novel would be a good text for someone engaged in religious or Middle Eastern studies, and for people interested in those topics.

An interesting analysis of the book:

I also found a blog of the same title about modern Egypt:

Kill Or Be Killed

31. Dogs by Nancy Kress

Kress is an award-winning science fiction writer, and I was excited to read one of her books, though apprehensive about the topic. A virulent plague attacks dogs, inducing them to violently bite and kill humans, even beloved owners and especially children. The plague is spread through the bites, and guess what? a form of the virus can be transmitted to bitten humans. The disease affects a suburb of D.C. and Kress tells the story from the viewpoint of a variety of townspeople. This book is so formulaic, it almost made me sick. If you have read any mystery or detective novel, ever, you know all the characters, you know who did it, and you know how it ends. Praise on the back of the book states that the characters "wrestle with a moral and ethical dilemma." I saw no evidence of this conflict in any character. Each was decided, from the outset, how to behave, whether to kill dogs in a bloody rampage, or save them at all costs. The only conflicts were external. One thing that particularly bothered me is that Kress has one character, the American wife of a Muslim man, bemoaning prejudice against Arabs, and then, lo and behold, there is an Arab terrorist involved. Why attack a stereotype and then propagate it yourself? I was initially worried about becoming attached to the dogs or other characters, and then watching them die, but that was certainly not a problem. None of the characters are compelling, and the dogs are mostly skimmed over, except to be cursorily described as "old" or "pitiful." I would recommend you skip this one, and I'm now rethinking reading any of Kress' other books, even the celebrated Beggars of Spain.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

There Is Shit In Your Meat

30. Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

A friend of mine at sleepaway camp read Fast Food Nation back in 2003. We all listened bemused as she cited statistics such as the fact that Ronald McDonald was superseded only by Santa Claus in recognition among children. Schlosser investigates every imaginable aspect of the horizontally and vertically integrated fast food industry. He discusses issues like manipulation of immigrant (and other) workers both in slaughterhouses and restaurants, the dangers of foodborne illness in the likes of E. Coli 0157 : H57 and salmonella, and the effects of corporate power on the economy. Schlosser methodically takes the reader through every part of the slaughterhouse process. Even though I had never read a book on the subject before, most of what I learned was not new, though this time it was presented in a more personal manner. Workers are poor and often inept, or forced to work faster than they can while maintaining proper hygiene protocol. Meat is contaminated with feces or "shit" as Schlosser puts it, and cow stomach contents. Due to the consolidation of the fast food industry, one infected cow can infect meat distributed to thousands of restaurants all over the nation and consumed by millions. That is probably Schlosser's strongest argument against such uniformity, that it makes the dissemination of pathogens easier. I was also not surprised that until recently, the USDA purchased the lowest quality meat from slaughterhouses to serve (where else?) the nation's schools. My favorite part of the book was the section describing Schlosser's visit to a scent manufacturer. Fast food, because it is freeze-dried and otherwise processed, is tasteless, so compounds are invented to infuse fast food with specific flavors and make them taste good. I honestly think this is unbelievably cool. Using this technology, we could make anything-even lima beans-taste good! Although I agree with and applaud Schlosser's mission-to reform the fast food industry and economy-his reporting is not flawless. He repeatedly attacks Republican politicians and the Republican Party in general for accepting money from fast food or slaughterhouse companies. However, he cannot prove any correlation with their voting records or any related corruption. In the updated edition's Afterword, he notes this criticism and admits that his attacks are circumstantial (though he stands by them), and that some Democrats were guilty of this as well, which he had neglected to mention. I also checked his footnotes and sources in the back and was interested to see that many of his statistics and assertions were of his own creation, based on other information and his observations. I think it is somewhat misleading to present that as fact, though I suppose someone has to figure out statistics. All in all, it was easy to read and contains important information, still relevant almost seven years after its original publication.

Monday, August 18, 2008

The List To Date

27. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

I've wanted to read this for years, ever since I read about it in a Jane Austen book. It actually fit in very well with the Backgrounds course I took this past semester. Boccaccio was a contemporary of Dante's, and like him, a 13th century Florentine. The language seems rather modern, but I'm sure that's a result of the translation from the Italian. This book is an 80/20 mix of the Canterbury Tales and the Inferno respectively. Six young Florentine noblewomen choose three young Florentine noblemen to accompany them in their flight to the countryside to avoid the raging Plague. Each day, a different member of the company is the "queen" or "king," whose chief duty is to set a story topic for the day, and at the appointed time, everybody relates an appropriate tale. The book is almost entirely composed of these stories, all folk tales that would echo something in the minds of readers even today. Most of the stories take place in Italy and particularly Florence, most mock the clergy and variate on themes of Love, which in these stories may as well be synonymous with adulterous sex.

I find it so interesting that adultery seems to be so accepted in these stories, if conducted discreetly. The obvious reason would be that in that place and time, marriages were arranged by families and/or for money, not love. However, why couldn't it be pointing to the same thing as more current theories of polyamory, for example?

One thing I noticed about Boccaccio, is all his stories, even the tragedies, are so light. The language is ironic and the details are ridiculous. In one, a girl buries her dead lover's head in a potted plant she carries around with her everywhere. He delights in trickery, some of very unsavoury nature (making a woman lie naked in the hot sun with no food or water till her skin peels off) and some more harmless (convincing a man he is pregnant), The tales are all the epitome of earthy, about sex and money and friendship. The characters range from noble to penniless.

What I especially liked is there were so many different pints of view. For every story in favor of adultery, there was one against it. For every story favoring the trickster, there was one where the victim triumphed. There were many more stories about dishonest, lascivious, or bumbling clergy, but there were a few wise, kind ones in the mix.

The very last story is nearly identical to one of the earlier stories in The Canterbury Tales. In fact, I'm almost certain I found a sibling to each Canterbury Tale contained in the Decameron. Chaucer wrote in the fourteenth century, so Boccaccio outdates him, but I doubt either man actually invented the gist of any of the stories, but rather shaped them and used them for their own purposes. The story is about a rich man who decides to marry a poor girl and then "tests" her by taking her children away at birth, pretending to have them killed but really sending them away to be fostered, and finally pretending to have his wife put aside in favor of a younger one, who is really their daughter. Yeah, really messed up right? Except, of course, the wife passes the test and they live happily ever after. But, I thought, why is that the last story? What's the real message? I thought more carefully, and it reminded me somewhat of one of the Biblical prophets, Hosea, I think, whose wife kept running off, but he took her back anyway, and it was supposed to be a parallel with God and Israel. Well, what if this was a twist on that and God was the rich man and humans, or, I suppose, Christians were the woman?

Which brings me to the final point I wanted to discuss, that Boccaccio addresses this book to women and the majority of the characters are women. Boccaccio writes in his prologue about how he seeks to please and entertain women, and in his epilogue that the book is for women, because they have the time to read something of that length (it is over 800 pages in small print), and also that, though the stories are a bit uneven and some are not very good, it will be suitable enough for the less perfect, less intelligent sex. The book as a whole professes to assume that women are inferior, as some of the female characters explicitly state, but the many strong and brilliant female characters would seem to belie that. Then again, there are also plenty of airheaded bimbos within its pages. I am going to decide though, that Boccaccio viewed that as as much of a joke as he seemed to view every other part of the human condition. The Decameron, as a whole, seems to say, there are a lot of different people out there, different ways to conduct yourself, all you can do is make the best of it, for Fortune is your mistress. I said that would be my final issue, but I'll just note that Fortune, as so often, is a huge theme here too.

What is about simple tales that comfort us so much and why are they told and retold again? Certain things, like Love, always seem to be relevant.

Sorry this review is so disjointed, I just have so much to say. This is a book to read over a long period of time, easily put down and picked back up. I really want to read more from this time period.

28. The Ultimate Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I recently bought the nice gold-edged hardback copy that various students and coworkers have been mistaking for the Bible all week. I always just want to say 'Yes' and leave it at that ;) I read The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy a year or two ago and enjoyed it, though not as much as I expected to. The Hitchhikers' Guide is not philosophically profound or emotionally touching, it is simply amusing. As a comedy, it is some of the best I have encountered. The sequels continue the tradition of the original, the books float on a combination of Adams' irreverence and the scope of his imagined material. His galaxy, or more accurately conglomeration of universes, which he terms the "Whole General Mish Mash" is an exercise in breadth, not depth and works well for his purposes. Various planets, species, and phenomena can be introduced to serve as one liners and then forever dismissed or referred to later in passing. I see why this was so successful as a radio show, it is a succession of never ending adventures with no real purpose but the action itself. That said, it does grate somewhat as a novel, since readers are at least conditioned to expect some sort of resolution or plot organization. Each book ends far too easily, evidence of Adams' lazy style, but fortunately he makes it work. Although many of his outlandish new coined phrases were annoying to me, there were several gems to be found as well. I particularly liked the phrase "the long dark teatime of the soul," which is actually apparently the title of another of his books. The characters are disappointingly flat , especially against the universe's exciting backdrop,and he never takes the opportunity to develop them much. Only the two-headed brilliant and barmy Zaphod Beeblebrox can match the galaxy for flair, and I was sad when he was excluded from the last two books. Of course I also dig the Brit colloquialisms.

This is actually five books in one, and with work, took me nearly two weeks to read, setting me back on my goal. So, therefore, while I am counting this as one book now, I am not above going back and counting it as five if needed.

29. Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World by Verlyn Flieger

The instructor for the Fantasy Lit class I assisted this summer lent me this book. It took me awhile to get into it, due to the complex discussions on, "A Man of Antitheses," "Eucatastrophe," "Dyscatastrophe," essentially meaning Tolkien's theories on the origins of mythology and language (notably that they are inextricably linked), the parallel inextricable link between dark and light that he also believed in, the sources from which he derived those theories, most prominently fellow Inkling Owen Barfield, and the author's proof for all such assertions taken from Tolkien's own dense but fascinating writings. Due to my own personal interest in all these topics; mythology and language, the metaphorical light and dark, and above all The Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, I did come to greatly appreciate Flieger's analysis. The arguments build on one another and take time to digest, but for the true connossieur, it is worth it. The central argument, which all the other arguments lead to and complement, is that the languages in Tolkien's world begin with words that encapsulate multiple meanings and gradually splinter into more specific terms (as Barfield and Tolkien believed occurred in our world), and that Tolkien's use of light in the book mirrors this splintering and both represent a natural diminishing of all that is good and pure. There is, of course, so much more to that, but I would have to write another book to fully explain my interpretation of hers. The latter half of the book is almost entirely concerned with analyzing the Silmarillion in terms of this theory, although there is one last chapter on how it relates to the Lord of the Rings and especially the character of Frodo. What I most appreciate is that Flieger clearly illustrates why Lord of the Rings, and the whole Silmarillion, is essentially tragic, as I've been trying to explain for years. If you got through all that, you may want to take a shot at the book. If not, don't worry, I won't blame you (just make sure you've read Lord of the Rings, I won't even insist on the Silmarillion).

Further Reviews in Bulk

21. After Elizabeth: The Rise of James of Scotland and the Struggle for the Throne of England by Leanda de Lisle

An aunt of mine decided I needed to move past the Virgin Queen and this book was the official family attempt to wean me off the dangerous obsession ;) To be honest, I never knew much nor cared to know much about James, that Stuart scion who ended the glorious Tudor period. The one thing I'll say for this book is it proved to me James of Scotland is an interest well worth pursuing in his own right. Lisle presents him as a clever and calculating young man, uncouth among friends and reserved among strangers, he was fiercely Protestant but dearly loved his Catholic wife (even though their marriage was arranged), and openly took several male lovers. His wife Anna is fascinating too, she was a Danish princess who married James when she was 14 and he was in his late 20s, but even at that early stage managed to exert her civilizing influence on the court. The book chronicles closely the last two years or so of Elizabeth's reign, James' journey from Scotland to England, various plots against him that never occurred and the trials of the plotters, and James and Anna's coronation. This is an oddly specific time period for an entire book (literally less than five years), so I believe I was justified in expecting more analysis. Instead, I got some excellent characterizations of Elizabeth, James, Anna, and contemporaries, descriptions of public mood, and the admittedly exciting events surrounding the plotted kidnappings and/or murders. However, I also got a lot of unneeded minutiae on politics, including largely irrelevant French, Spanish, Dutch, and Venetian politics. There was no new controversial information and no long cohesive argument to tie the book together. Lisle insists throughout the book that Elizabeth had become terribly unpopular and describes many scenes of effusive welcome for James. At the end, she seems to begin an argument that James is now unfairly overshadowed by Elizabeth, and then contradict herself saying that he became unpopular and the people adored their previous Queen. Keep in mind she has not attempted to make an argument for over three quarters of the book. The first couple of chapters set up a premise that James had a more difficult succession than historians today now believe, but the contemporary accounts she quotes state just the opposite, that they are astounded at the peaceful succession in town after town. That idea is also paid quick lip service too at the very end. History needs much more analysis than this book had to make it interesting, in my opinion at least. In the future though, I would be interested in reading more about James and his lovers or the impact of his bisexuality on the royal court. I don't know if bisexual is the correct word though, for he seems to have gone entirely for men with the exception of Anna, with whom he had around seventeen children.

I mightily enjoyed this last sentence, " The contrast between the vulgar James and the iconic Elizabeth was so startling...The respect in which the English crown was held was thus diminished and the nation that shaped and worshiped Gloriana has never forgiven him for it (289)."

All in all, I could not get into this book like a work of fiction and it's taken me far more days than I would have liked to get through it. I'm also attempting to read The History of G-d, another nonfiction, this one about the evolution of the idea of G-d from the earliest Jews to the latest Muslims. I am not used to reading nonfiction and it is usually difficult for me to get through. do other people find this as well? Does anyone have any recommendations for quick and interesting nonfic reads?

22. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

As Breakfast of Champions was lacking from my father's otherwise robust Vonnegut collection, I read this instead. I hope Breakfast of Champions is better. It was at least the quick read I was looking for, I picked it up today and it took me under three hours. There is something to be said for a simple, irreverent style. I bet Vonnegut is popular for people with ADHD, and I mean that as a sincere compliment to the man. The first part of this book though slid by on typical Vonnegut style alone, and for someone who's read a lot of his work, it was disappointing. No aliens even to brighten it up. Mr. Rosewater is Eliot Rosewater, an inheritor of millions turned an odd sort of philanthropist. He sets up an office with two phone lines, one where people call and he listens to them, advises them, and often hands out small amounts of money, and the other for fires. When he gets a fire call, he presses a button ringing the siren he paid to have installed over the firehouse. It's hard not to love Eliot Rosewater, but in more of a generally appreciative rather than passionate way. The book does become a statement on humanism, another typical Vonnegut theme, but in a less compelling manner than his other books. In the end, this is an almost fairy tale like corollary to Slaughterhouse Five, and lacks the big ideas and bite I'm accustomed to.

23. A Late Divorce by A.B. Yehoshua

Karen gave me this book to read, and as I usually enjoy her selections, I was excited for this eponymous novel about an Israeli family. There was essentially one problem with it. One problem of mega-disaster proportions, in my mind. It is a stream-of-consciousness novel. Last time I read one of those I seriously contemplated traveling to California with the sole purpose of throttling Dave Eggers. Non-grammatical run-on sentences in prose BOTHER ME. I realize this is a New Age style, it illustrates the language of thought, conveys a certain poetry and rhythm. I'm just immune to it I guess. I live for the well-organized sentence. That aside, this is a character focused book, which I appreciate, and I did find most of the characters strikingly well drawn, particularly the seven year old boy, grandson of the divorcing couple. Each section is written from the point of view of a different character, all but one members of the family. There is even, surprisingly, a plot, which I followed along expectantly only to discover...that it is not resolved. and by not resolved I mean however the situation ends, it is only hinted at. the ending of the book felt really random to me, like just the ending of another section. I did not appreciate that at all. I like ambiguous endings, but not endings where some sort of direction is not even suggested. I think probably if i went back and cobbled together a lot of symbolism and characters melding into other characters, I could probably come up with something vaguely coherent, but it's not even worth it. and if I don't want to re-read it, ever, that really is the death knell.

24. The Silmarillion by J. R. R. Tolkien

I read the Middle Earth mythology for a third time because I wanted to remember all the names and relationships again. The Silmarillion is about history, getting a sense of the world of Middle Earth rather than about the characters or a tightly drawn plot, which makes it hard to read. It's also forever referring to language and giving everything and everyone a million names, but come on, the guy was a linguist or should I say philologist. I just happen to dig this sort of thing. I like remembering and knowing minute details about history and characters and genealogy. The best story is that of Beren and Luthien, the first Man/Elf couple although this time the story of Tuor and Idril, the second Man/Elf couple was a close second favorite. Interesting how it's always a man falling in love with an Elf maiden, never a woman with an Elf man, isn't it? I love Huan the Hound in the Beren story. Also I had forgotten that Fingolfin, a Noldorin (branch of Elves basically exiled from Valinor aka Eden) chief usually overshadowed by big brother Feanor who created the remarkable Silmaril jewels, is awesome because he battles Morgoth, the original Dark Lord, one-on-one. That's right, Sauron is just Morgoth's vassal. I might need to get Children of Hurin now, even though that story is part of the Silmarillion, I want to see if there's a more fleshed out version.

25. The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo

This was the only book we're teaching in Modern Fantasy that I hadn't read yet, so now I have. I'll be rereading the others, The Fellowship of the Ring and The Golden Compass, in due course. This is an adorable mouse tale with a narrative style reminiscent of Lemony Snicket only more cutesy and less conspiratorial. It could definitely be a series. A castle mouse is inspired by his love for the human princess and faces their mutual enemy, rats. It's maybe a fourth grade reading level at the most, but it was satisfying to see those tiny chapters fly by. I would have enjoyed a little more complication and character development, but it's a good gateway book for fantasy. Definitely one to recommend to elementary schoolers of your acquaintance.

26. The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I read this book once in seventh grade, this is my first re-read since. I had a rather hazy recollection, except for one very specific quote, because the idea it contained BLEW MY MIND and continues to do so. However, I read much of this as if for the first time and I think understood it better, though not wholly. In contrast to Tolkien, Pullman's language is simple and his world significantly less developed. Lyra, the protagonist, a familiar urchin-sans-parents, exists in a universe alternate to our own. I think Pullman deserves a special category in fantasy for this, as it is not quite "fantastic," that is between our world and another, like Narnia or Hogwarts, and yet cannot qualify as "marvellous," or in a self-contained world like Middle Earth. Lyra grows up in Oxford, England, and yet it is an Oxford in a world the Catholic Church still dominates, science and religious studies are both known as theology, the Tartars are a threat to Europe, and more supernatural-seeming deviations like witches and talking polar bears abound. The prime difference is that humans have a visible animal soul and companion, called a daemon. Children's daemons change, but adults' become fixed. This represents the fixation of character and identity that we believe is settled at some vague coming of age point. Essentially, Pullman introduces fascinating concepts in an interesting way, but I don't think ever fully satisfies or explains all of them. Certainly not in The Golden Compass, but I have read the other two books as well, and while I found them interesting, remember no definitive clarification, only further mysteries. Such is life, one could argue, but I think he could have made more of an effort. I remembered loving Iorek Byrnison, a talking bear, and he is still my favorite character, though Lyra is very likable and there are other interesting minor characters. Actually, I think minor characters are a particular talent of Pullman's, he doesn't bring in too many, and those he does, he develops just enough to make the reader wonder, but not lose track of the story at hand. I should probably see the movie soon now, I was holding off until I could re-read the book, and am pleased with my forbearance though it was more circumstantial than an effort of will.

The aforementioned favorite quote:

"He raised his wings and spread them wide before folding them again.

"There," he said, "I have just brushed ten million other worlds, and they knew nothing of it (188).""

One of my kids was asking me questions about some of the more difficult ideas, elementary particles called Dust that might represent Original Sin, and motivations of certain characters, and after I had answered her to the best of my ability, she said, "I think your daemon would be an owl, because you're very smart."

She said it very matter-of-factly too, and I don't think it was brown-nosing, because I don't grade her. I consider it one of the best compliments I've ever received.

What do you think your daemon would be?

The List Continued

16. The Lady Elizabeth by Alison Weir

Once again, I remain convinced that Weir should stick to history and forgo fiction. This book just came out this year, soon after her only other novel about Lady Jane Grey, which I read last December. Her main character is far too precocious at an early age and, very surprisingly, this book took some large liberties within technically historically accurate parameters. The author's note at the end of the book actually defends all of the choices Weir made that I disagreed with, which shows that she realizes the problems even though she feels justified. Ironically, that made me feel more justified with my criticisms since Weir is such an accomplished historian! The way she writes just doesn't work for a story however. She includes details, but all of her dialogues and descriptions of characters' thoughts and feelings feel so stagnant and contrived. I don't get a feeling of Elizabeth's true character even, passionate or guarded, deceptive or forthright, until the last couple sections. Elizabeth's sister Mary shifts suddenly from sympathetic to cruel and back. Actually, maybe that characterization is accurate, but the way she shows it is awkward. The last couple sections, with Elizabeth under Mary's reign feels much more realistic than the rest, but the crazy suggestions earlier on just make me balk at the work as a whole.One thing that interested me is Weir's Elizabeth is much more kind and honest while still being strong and clever than any Elizabeth I have met in fiction before. The Virgin Queen tends either to be portrayed as brilliant and heartless or heedless and passionate. but that's my SIP [Senior Independent Project] talking. I might come back to this book if I do any further studies on Elizabeth's portrayal in fiction, but otherwise I'd let it and its sister-book alone, and go read Weir's histories.

17. Trapped Inside the Story by Leslie Cohen

My grandfather saddled me with this book because we're supposedly related to the author. Which is probably as likely as us being Kohein but I digress. The author writes the Holocaust memoir, as told to her, of a Jewish girl, Sonya Hebenstreit, who survives in Nazi occupied Poland. She is 12 when the Germans invade and is the only survivor of her family of five. Sonya's story is different from many others I've read, she does not survive the camps or being shut up in one place for years. Instead, she lives in the ghetto hiding from roundups, buying and selling on the black market, and eventually moves around living with different people and pretending to be a Polish girl whose papers she obtains. At first, I wasn't very impressed, but as I got further, I became more and more involved with the story. It is written in the present tense which is at first awkward and noticeable, but ultimately adds to the urgency of the character's situation and atmosphere. Sonya is a very sympathetic creature and I'll admit to tearing up at points.

It's funny, I went through a stage around eight or nine when I read Holocaust memoir after memoir. My parents didn't like it and I had to hide the books from them. I've avoided those books in the past few years though, with the exception of Night, and they upset me more easily now. I feel so connected to the characters, I always did. They are me. I have had dreams and delusions where I've thought the Holocaust did or has happened to me. It did happen to members of my family. My father's father and his parents and brother were on the last ship out of Germany accepted at Ellis Island. We know there are things they never told us, and very recently we found something my great grandmother had written about Kristallnacht, when their shop was burned and her husband was taken. But it's even more real to me than that. In every generation, you shall say to your children, I was a slave who came forth from Egypt, the Haggadah tells us, and that is how I feel about the Holocaust.

Continuing with this particular book, there is a running gimmick of stories Sonya has known since childhood and her imaginary conversations with the characters. It was sort of interesting, but more could have been done with it or it could have been left out. I don't know if I'd recommend this exactly, but well, why not? I hate to depress people, but maybe you should read this if you feel in need of getting a grip on what's really important or balancing yourself in a world that's not nearly as nightmarish as the character's.

18. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

This is actually my first re-read of this epic conclusion. I've read books one-four more times than I can count, and the fifth and sixth a couple of times each. I went in to see how valid the criticisms I had the first time I read it were and of course to see what else I could get out of it. I find I'm generally kinder on a second read than the first, perhaps surprisingly.

This time, the wandering around in forests didn't bother me as much, I remember thinking that dragged on way too long. I really don't like the opening chapter with the Death Eaters at all. She's already done the whole "view from the other side" thing in opening chapters before, this just feels gratuitous. Kreacher's transformation from evil to wonderful is still too abrupt. in general, I just feel like she focused on a lot of the wrong things. I wanted to see Umbridge die or at least be defeated, I want to know more about what went on at Hogwarts earlier in the book, and I want more testimony to Snape's brilliance and innate goodness. Snape just wasn't exonerated enough for me, which is a shame, because I really want to like him more than I do. And his death is just pathetic. However, I do after all like the way she portrays the difference between Harry and Hermione's intelligences. Harry does figure out a lot on his own without Hermione's help, even despite it, in this book, and he becomes likable again after being a brat in the fifth and still a little whiny in the sixth. Last time I thought Hermione just knew way too much, all of a sudden, and was too organized, even for her, but now I can kind of see most of it working. Plus, the whole Ron/Hermione ship does build for most of the book, so it's not random when they kiss, although it's such an awkward time...I still think she killed too many people unnecessarily. Fred should have lived, naturally, and at least Tonks as well if not Lupin. The epilogue is still kind of silly and I will always wish it was Harry/Luna instead of Harry/Ginny, but maybe Luna is too cool for Harry. Even though I'd read it before, tears still came to my eyes for Fred and I still did an involuntary fist-pump for Neville slicing off Nagini's head. I understand better the whole scene with Dumbledore when Harry's "dead", and it just fits with the epic tradition and this time it did seem to me to be more about Harry figuring things out on his own and projecting Dumbledore rather than a visit with the "real" Dumbledore. I still agree with my opinion before that there are just some things about Dumbledore I didn't want to know, but after all he did become a genuinely wonderful person and teacher.Overall, I just care about all of these characters so much and obviously that's a great achievement in itself. The plots are largely, but not completely, predictable, but Rowling's world is just so full and vivid that I honestly do think Harry Potter is a classic for the ages. I hope it stands the test of time, and yes, they're not the greatest or best written books ever, but they are the books our generation will remember forever.

19. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

I started at midnight, couldn't put it down, and finished in the wee hours. I'm tempted to call this novel "cute," but the author would probably find that demeaning. It's obvious she was trying to create a meaningful story about female power and the racial tensions of the 1960s. Lily Owens is a girl who lost her mother in a terrible accident, and the book begins with the accident and other exciting events in quick succession. Then the book calms down, and in my mind, remained mostly serene from then on. I wasn't really expecting that, but it was a nice break from heavier books I've just been reading. "Bad things" happen later on, but for some reason I got this sense of peace with it, probably due to the almost insensibly sanguine character August Boatwright. This woman just seems to take everything in, accept it, and make the best of it. She's not very realistic in that sense, but it works for this book, which has an underlying mysticism. One of the recurring motifs is the Black Madonna or Virgin Mary, but August as much as says at one point that it's not even about Mary really, just the sense of something watching over you, that can come from within. My only criticism would be that it's not very realistic and things work out too neatly, but even that's not really a criticism because it gives you a sense of hope. The truth in this book comes from the hopes of people at that time and in our time for people of different races and genders to finally accept each other.

20. The Salmon of Doubt by Douglas Adams

This is probably one of the best posthumous collections I've ever read. I also just learned that I pronounce 'posthumous' wrong, probably because I've never had much cause to say it aloud. Douglas Adams is the wonderfully hilarious author of Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fame, and who passed away in 2001 at the age of 49. I also learned that he has a daughter who is now just 13, which makes me very sad. In one of those serendipitous connections (or perhaps not, I learned Adams was also friendly with the likes of Paul McCartney and Michael Nesmith), he was good friends with the brilliant biologist and notorious atheist Richard Dawkins. I knew this, since The God Delusion was dedicated to Adams, but it's brought up many times in the collection so I just thought I'd mention it. The collection is very well organized, in my opinion, for a bunch of random articles and stories. A few of the articles are by friends and contemporaries about Adams, but the majority of the book are examples of Douglas' wit and imagination. It really gives a feel for the kind of person he was in the eyes of himself and those who knew him. "The Salmon of Doubt" was supposed to be the title for the book he was working on when he died unexpectedly of a heart attack. I would recommend this to anybody who loved "Hitchhiker's Guide," but really it's so funny and light I'd recommend it to anyone. You can't help but be interested in Douglas Adams and his quick, glib, out-of-nowhere humor. In other news, I shamefully admit that I must read the rest of the Hitchhiker books.

More Labels

I can't figure out how to edit the last post because I forgot to include some labels for the post before THAT, so here they are.

*Note to self: Rethink labeling all the titles.


The labels for this post are actually for books from the previous post.

The List

I started this list in January on a private blog, and it gradually grew into a series of reviews. Some of the books I never got around to reviewing, in the midst of the school year, but I have included them anyway.

I have no restrictions on genre and was not trying to aim for any type of cohesion among my choices. I have tried to read more nonfiction this year, since I tend to stick exclusively to fiction.

I am counting both books that I have reread, because if I really like a book, it will be reread, and books I read for school, because if I didn't, I would never reach 50.

Without further ado:

1. The Mighty and the Almighty by Madeleine Albright

I've been reading this non-fiction book, largely concerned with diplomatic situations in Islamic-majority countries, off and on for a while and finally finished it. The writing style is very clear, the angle is openly biased toward a liberal viewpoint, but I was okay with it. Obviously, some of it is naively upbeat, but it's a good starting point for discussion.

2. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

The alleged English major book club chose this as our first expedition, however I have yet to hear of a concrete meeting time. Anyway, I received the book from lovely Tuesday afternoon and finished in the wee hours of this morn. Please take into account classes, reading for classes, and the fact that I had a lengthy presentation due in class yesterday, and you can conclude that this novel is intoxicating. I was honestly expecting a Dan Brown type novel, all plot and no substance, but I was partially wrong. The language is simple, but not in-your-face Hemingway imitation. What is most attractive about the book is of course the immersion in Afghan culture. I am also intensely grateful that the culture is not oversimplified or too politicized. The book does not shy away from harsh topics and addresses them with some understanding. One of the characters, Rahim Khan, exists for the sole purpose of being a preachy guide for the protagonist, and that annoys me. The characters are all too clear-cut. The novel does not deviate from a very familiar formula; protagonist grows up idyllically, then something changes it all, protagonist regrets past, returns to redeem himself. All the plot twists were predictable from a million miles away. I would recommend this book as a deeper read for someone who normally sticks to fluff (which is probably why it's so popular), but there are much better books out there with similar themes.

3. The Iliad by Homer

4. The Odyssey by Homer

5. Oedipus the King by Sophocles

6. Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

7. Candide by Voltaire

8. Lysistrata by Aristophanes

9. A Woman Soldier's Own Story by Xie Bingying

So my Chinese Civ teacher made a test on this book count for more points, because everybody did only "okay" on the midterm. Which means, since I'm unhappy with my B+ (yeah yeah shut up), I figured I should actually read the book. So yesterday I did. Read the whole thing cover to cover, only skipping a few descriptions of flowers and sunsets. THIS WOMAN IS FASCINATING. Even more so because the fact that she was even able to write her entire life story is so rare. Chinese women have next to no voice until the twentieth century. No kidding. That's why this course on Chinese women focuses the first half on a couple thousand years of Chinese history and the entire second half is just the last hundred years. In her story, I was able to see the abuse of ordinary Chinese women, footbinding, fieldwork, all the weird arranged marriage customs, that we could only discuss in general terms in class. I could see all the revolutions in China through the eyes of a soldier and a student, she is right in the thick of whatever's happening at the moment. Then she returns home after being a SOLDIER, and her family imprisons her for months until she is forced into an arranged marriage that she later escapes. She's an entertaining writer, the pace is quick, and every moment is exciting. The English version is translated by her daughter and her daughter's husband, so it's probably very accurate. I really recommend this book, especially to history buffs.

10. The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I've had this book since my last birthday and finally found time to read, I finished on the plane over here. I loved Eva Luna, so I was looking forward to reading for a very long time. It's very similar to Eva Luna, both books are essentially enlarged descriptions of quirky characters over the course of one or more lifetimes. Because of my seminar, I was able to discern the influence of Don Quixote that more or less pervades most Spanish and Latin American literature. The chapters are stories that work together or separately. I am particularly fond of character development, so maybe that is why I like Allende so much. The later part of the book becomes very political, which I don't usually like, but Allende conveys very well the terrible situation in her country, Chile. One of the main characters, Clara, is clairvoyant, and in homage to her, the book also reveals the fates of all the characters prior to their actual end. That technique builds anticipation and takes focus from the plot to the characters. I liked the remarkable way the book came together cohesively and purposefully in the end. If you like weird characters and magic and don't mind some tragedy, you should definitely read this.

11. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

I forgot how absolutely HILARIOUS this book is. I read it once or twice around middle school age and remembered the very basic gist and that I really loved it and preferred it to The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, which I also liked. I had to read it again for my Don Quixote seminar, so this time I was looking at it in a completely different way. I really see how it relates to DQ, in the fact that it's an episodic journey of two characters and that many of the episodes echo DQ, and the characters share traits of both DQ and Sancho. The other thing that struck me is how quintessentially American this story is. I know people often say that about it, but it's not just because it's written in dialect or takes place on the Mississippi River, though that's part of it. The themes of lying and trickery and rebellion against authority are such basic American problems and ideals at the same time. That is what Tom and Huck represent. The most honest character in the book is Jim, the runaway slave. And that's another statement about American society, of the time, yes, but it has modern applications. If you have time, this is a book well worth rereading as an adult. The goings-on seem so much more absurd and I'm sure my roommates think I'm nuts because of the number of times I cracked up while reading this.

12. The Exploits & Adventures of Miss Alethea Darcy by Elizabeth Ashton

Yes, I'm bad, I know. I had a twenty page paper due and two labs and other little chores, and I was already sick and tired, and instead of doing it all, I read a book. This is Escapist Me. I needed a break. I still need one. And I won't get one till maybe this weekend, and I should be working on my Chinese Civ final essays then anyway, and studying for the Backgrounds and Genetics exams, that will both be killer nitpicky. But that's my life. Miss Alethea Darcy, daughter of Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam, has an exciting life. Ashton says all the things Austen never dared say (sodomites! flagellants! What is with her sexual deviance obsession?), widens the horizon of the historical period (OMG, Napoleon was just defeated at Waterloo!?), and is slightly less sarcastic, but otherwise does a fairly accurate imitation of Austen's style. This is your typical, maybe a tad more intellectual, historical romance thriller. This is for you if you've had a long day and just want to forget about it and immerse yourself in an easy, quick read.

13. A Daughter of Han: The Autobiography of a Chinese Working Woman by Ida Pruitt from the Story Told Her by Ning Lao T'ai T'ai

I'm catching up on the books I sped through so I could write my Chinese Civ essays on them. This one is the true story of a woman born during the very end of the last Chinese dynasty, the Qing. She was born into a very poor family and her life essentially gets progressively worse. She lives in a world steeped in Confucian tradition, but with whispers of change all around like the opium smoking that consumes her husband and the book ends in her old age as the Japanese invade Manchuria. The character has some spirit in her, but not enough to offset the unrelenting difficult circumstances of her life. This is probably a good source of information for scholars on the period, but otherwise not particularly captivating. The first person viewpoint is appropriate, as is the largely chronological order of events. That said, anyone interested? I'm selling! (Friends can have it for free).

14. Growing Up in the People's Republic by Ye Weili with Ma Xiaodong

Yay Chinese Revolution! Actually, this a very different take from the strongly negative, victimized literature I've read on the period before. This is non-fiction, in a very unusual format. The book is a conversation between two women who grew up in similar circumstances in the PRC and met as adults attending universities in Boston. It sheds light on the strange incident at the Beijing Normal Girls School where students abused teachers to the point of killing a teacher and set off a wave of female violence against authority, supported by Mao's government. The authors attempt to explore various lenses through which to view their childhood, and youth, one of which is gender. Growing up, they had no concept of themselves as women since they were treated and expected to be the same as men. Girls were encouraged to have short hair, wear plain unobtrusive clothes, and become soldiers and laborers. Even though I had an idea of this, I never thought before about the affect this might have on that whole generation's identity. I have always thought of myself as female, albeit equal to males in every way, I feel different from them. These girls did not. They're not sure whether this was positive or negative and neither am I. They do seem to express longing for some sort of female identity, but look down on more modern Chinese feminization movements that sexualize women. Parts of this conversation are very interesting and thought-provoking. Some of it rambles or is dry, but I think it is worth it to get through it. If you're interested in the PRC of the '50s and '60s at all, this is a must-read for a more fair and balanced look at the Communist Revolution in China and Chinese women in the Mao era. I might be persuaded to part with this book as well, for a price, or free on loan.

15. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I finished last night, been reading for almost a week but it's 607 pages. I sort of felt early on that the ending wasn't going to be concrete, so I wasn't disappointed when it wasn't. The main character, who narrates most of the story, is a Mr. Toru Okada. Murakami is a best-selling Japanese author, by the way, and the story takes place in Tokyo. This was my first book by him and I'm sure I'll be reading more. Murakami has a very clipped, clean writing style that usually makes the reader feel disconnected, but here there is enough detail and delving into the characters' minds to avoid that. It addresses popular themes like the blurring of fiction and reality, fate, and identity. The characters seem to develop an interesting theory that their bodies are containers for a few different identities throughout their lifetime that either become or obliterate their "real" selves. The villain is a true original and totally evil. The Japanese invasion of Manchuria seems to play a significant role in the novel, but I think it's just used as an example of violence and inhumanity, not really a statement on that war in particular. I would really recommend this novel, but only if you're comfortable being confused.