Saturday, December 26, 2009

64. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

"It seems like that guy is everybody's best friend," my dad said when I told him I had picked up the first book of Douglas Adams' other series. It's not hard to see why. Adams' talent, wit, and bright though sarcastic personality shine through all of his books I've read so far. He was clearly intellectually engaged, which this book's extensive (and unfortunately, largely impermeable to me) discussion of the relationship between music, mathematics, and computer software shows. I'm in no place to judge whether he's accurate or completely making stuff up, but it sounds complicated enough to me.

Adams has a gift for amusing one-liners that shows up here as well as in all of his hitchhiker books. Unlike the hitchhiker books, this book even ties up neatly in the end. However, the getting there is so confusing and frustrating that I admit I had no patience for it. The Dirk Gently of the title doesn't appear until well over a hundred pages in, and isn't even mentioned for the first five chapters or so. The first chapters introduce the reader to a series of different characters and scenarios that bear no apparent relation. This is a common device, not one I have ever liked, and here it is taken to the extreme.

Perhaps it's because I'm more familiar with them, but I was much more fond of the Hitchhiker characters. Dirk Gently himself is interesting, but not particularly likable. My favorite character, Reg, a Cambridge don, turns out to be nearing senility, which rather than being funny, is disappointing, because otherwise he'd be a modern-day Merlin. Come on, you know how my generation loves magic.

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
is exactly what you'd expect from Douglas Adams not trying as hard as he should have. It's witty in parts, brilliant in parts, dull in parts, and cheesy in parts. I guess you have to take the lumps with the rest.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

63. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

Tita is a kitchen prodigy from the moment she is born. Her thwarted love story is told in monthly installments of recipes. I give Esquivel credit for an interesting format, and the interweaving of food and fiction is well done. The plot is simple, though strange. Tita's formidable Mama Elena perpetuates a family tradition where the youngest daughter, that is, Tita, must never marry and must care for her mother until her mother's death. As a result of this baffling tradition, Tita's lover marries her older sister, just to be near her. Mishaps ensue.

Esquivel is clearly a member of the Latin American magical realism trend. Ghosts are sighted and encounters with the supernatural occur. The simplicity of the story, however, causes it to lack the significance of, say, House of the Spirits, and while the phenomena fits, it just contributes to an overall strange feeling. Read it for the food, the plot is mundane at best, and at worst, absurd in such a way that it feels flawed.

Friday, December 11, 2009

61. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

The last read for Sixteenth Century was intriguing when discussed, but relatively disappointing in reading. Other than a bit of Dr. Faustus and Hero and Leander , this is the first Marlowe I've read. I've heard such favorable comparisons with Shakespeare, but this play at least did not exemplify half the wit or character depth of the Bard's oeuvre.

I find the actual history of Edward II riveting. He was a blatant homosexual, who gave his beloved, Piers Gaveston, all the titles and money he wished for, arousing the ire of his barons. The "noble peers" overthrew the king, killed Gaveston, his ignored and ill-treated queen, Isabella, turned against him in exchange for the love of the usurper Mortimer, and the king was ultimately executed with a red-hot poker thrust through his bowels. When his son, Edward III, came of age, Mortimer was executed and Isabella imprisoned for life. This much is TRUE. What could you do with this as a play?

Marlowe leaves it pretty much at that though, except speeding up the time line, jumbling events a bit, and adding in a few characters. His Isabella is interesting to look at psychologically, she starts out as very sympathetic and remains loyal to the king even when he spurns her. Then, she begins plotting against him and accepts Mortimer's love. Well, can you blame her? Gaveston especially, but Edward as well, start out as pleasure-obsessed and a bit thuggish, but get sympathetic when they're oppressed and executed. Is Marlowe saying that situation determines character?

But the dialogue is only okay, it has its moments, but...in comparison to Shakespeare, even the history plays, I wasn't impressed.

62. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

This beautifully written literary thriller pulls you in and invites you into the exciting literary underworld of Barcelona. Zafon plays with my heartstrings when he describes the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and its concept, the secondhand bookshop where the main character Daniel lives and works, and the fabulous pen that once belonged to Victor Hugo. I'm also a sucker for books within books.

Despite all this, the mystery is predictable and the characters, except for the main character, not as well drawn as I would like or as I suspect Zafon could make them if he tried. Daniel is our young impressionable hero who discovers a mysterious book The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax, whose books seem to be disappearing. The rumor is that a man goes around finding all Carax's books and burning them. Daniel is soon caught up in this and must investigate all over Barcelona to discover the true story of Julian Carax, who is burning his books, and why.

Zafon portrays a Barcelona that is overshadowed by the Spanish Civil War and still experiencing the aftereffects. Daniel's Barcelona is not a safe place, and this is significant to remember. There is also a message about the importance of literature, which could have been stronger. Movies are popular and television is just arriving on the scene, but the mentions of it are at moments where they just seem to occupy space and sound too deliberate. Read The Shadow of the Wind for fun, not for substance.

Friday, December 4, 2009

A World in a Book

60. A Year in the World by Frances Mayes

I don't know if it took me a while to warm up to her writing style, or if it took her a while to warm up while writing this book, but I definitely appreciated A Year in the World more and more as I read it, and it formed a thoughtful, personal, lyrical perspective on place and the meaning of place in a person's life.

I picked up this book that my mother had been reading because the first section is on the author's visit to the Andalucia region in Spain. I am particularly interested in all things Spain at the moment, as I will be studying abroad there next semester. I will be in the Valencia region (yes, as in oranges), but I would like to visit as much of the country as I can. Andalucia is a southern region, where Spanish Visigoth culture collided with Moorish-Arabic culture for hundreds of years. Mayes describes the iconic azuelejos tiles found everywhere, as well as the Moorish half-arches and latticed architecture.

While there is no stated concentration on food, like Anik See whose book I also just read, Mayes seems to be a culinary aficionado, and luscious descriptions permeate the pages of food that she eats in every country and some of what she tries to recreate herself. There are a few recipes, two that I recall from the Scotland section, a friend of hers' mother's summer pudding recipe, and a toffee pudding sauce recipe from a Scottish housekeeper.

In terms of Spain, she especially whetted my appetite for tapas and significantly peaked my interest in flamenco. She also travels to Portugal in the next section, hence my decision to continue, reasoning that I might well find myself there as well. If I do travel there, I hope to meet someone similar to Carlos (pronounced Car-loosh), the chef of a well-known restaurant and baker of an apparently to-die-for chocolate cake, who happily cooks Mayes and her husband a personal Portuguese dinner, and gives them a list of the best, out-of-the-way, seemingly secretive places to dine.

One aspect of the book that I could not get out of my head, and did not contribute favorably to my perception, was the obvious fact that Mayes, her husband, and all of their friends and the people they meet are very wealthy. I might not have noticed this so much in, say, 2007, but in 2009, it's an aspect that can't escape me. Not only are they jaunting over Europe, but they constantly refer to Bramasole, the Italian villa they are restoring (the subject, I gather, of her earlier bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun), another Italian property they are having restored, the three or four star hotels they reside in, or mansion-like homes they rent, the plethora of top-tier restaurants visited and limitless menus they seem to order, and Mayes' constant shopping for evil-eye trinkets, rugs, any native artwork, she buys it all, passionately, but with an obvious disregard for cost.

Mayes is a bestselling author, she's earned her money, but no one I know can afford to travel the way she does. So, while my appetite is whetting for those tapas, I'm planning one or two big nights out when I can have them, and unlike Mayes, I won't be eating dinner afterward. I won't get a churro every day, and when I do travel, I'll be staying in youth hostels and eating at street kiosks, and anything I buy will be a small gift for a family member or friend, carefully chosen. Mayes seems to imagine buying a home in every place she visits, and while I recognize that it's only a dream and part of her overarching theme about learning to belong in a place, it seems just a little bit more possible for her than it should be.

Like I said, I did really enjoy this book, Mayes has a talent for giving a very personal, specific perspective on the places she visits, and she really takes the time and effort to understand different cultures. Her cultural synthesis feels helpful to actually understanding the places. She also quotes from other writers and travel writers about place. One chapter, about southern France, seems to be practically written by Collette. But Mayes' interest in other writers is a glimpse into her influences and why she writes the way she does. There are several digressions about her childhood in Georgia, and how she was affected by that place, and it seemed to strengthen and bolster, rather than detract from, her discussions of other places. She is also the author of many books on poetry, which shows in the lyrical elements of her writing.

I don't know if there are more travel books in my near future, certainly a guidebook on Spain will be purchased, and I plan to read my Zafon book and other Spanish authors if I have time. Any recommendations for must-reads from Spanish authors?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

59. A Taste of Adventure by Anik See

Finally! Finally! I got in some pleasure reading! Anik See is a Canadian journalist who travels around the world on her bicycle and writes about her travels, the people she meets, and especially the food she eats. The book includes recipes for every place she writes about, including Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Patagonia (a region in southern Argentina/Chile), northern Argentina, Georgia, Iran, Turkey, Armenia, and Mexico. She seems to favor southeast Asia and South America and eschews traditional Europe.

The language is simple, and the book is a fun and easy read. For me, the book's biggest asset was See's choice of particularly exotic and unusual locations, and I naturally enjoyed the emphasis on food. I intend to make time to try out some of her recipes, particularly the curries from Malaysia and Indonesia, and her descriptions of Argentina and Chile gave me a yearning for dulce de leche and yerba mate.

Unfortunately, See uses similar effusions to describe each place, and after hearing her declare how she is forever drawn to Patagonia, no place moves her like southeast Asia, no place is more special than Iran-the praise falls flat. I have no doubt that See genuinely felt these intense, life-changing connections to all of these places, but as a reader, I am skeptical because as close as the book can bring me, I can't feel what she's feeling, and on the page, she just looks repetitive and insincere.

Her descriptions also take on too much of a tone of "explaining things to the outsider." I realize that is what she's doing, but I like travel writing to be more subjective, more tied only to one person's experience, because generalizations are so hard to make, and it takes a lot of study to really understand the history and culture of any society. Before she talks about Armenia, she mentions the genocide because she "feels she has to." In my opinion, she doesn't have to. It's a part of history I'm aware of, though that doesn't mean all her readers would be. I just think, instead of discussing it from a historical perspective, when she isn't a historian, she could have brought it up as a conversation between her and an Armenian. She mentions in her paragraph that none of the Turks she met mentioned it at all, while nearly every Armenian did.

She also said something about how Canadians feel defined by their big neighbor to the South, and I didn't really think that was true at all. Maybe they feel it a little bit, but I actually think Canadians are much better liked and respected in the world at large, so I don't know why she would suggest they have an inferiority complex. Of course, I wouldn't be an expert on that. I'm American and I've been to Canada a few times and know some Canadians, but that's it.

For those interested in food and travel, this would probably be an interesting book. It could have been better written, and I hope to find similar books by better writers in the future.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

58. The Caucasian Chalk Circle by Bertolt Brecht

We learned about Brecht's theories and the epic theatre movement in my Theatre and Society class, and then we read The Caucasian Chalk Circle and watched the current production of it at my school.

The plot of the story is about a kitchen maid, Grusha, in the 1940s Soviet Union. The Governor, whom she works for, is killed in a revolution, and his wife flees, leaving their infant son behind. Grusha decides to save the boy and care for him as her own. When a counter-revolution occurs, the Governor's wife comes back and accuses Grusha of kidnapping her son. The judge Azdek, notorious for drunkenness and judgments in favor of the poor, decides on the case.

The story is a parable, meant to illustrate the Communist-type idea that whoever puts effort into a piece of land or raising a child, deserves ownership, rather than the one who merely 'owns' the thing in a capitalistic sense.

While it's a benign message now that we know Communism doesn't work, I've been thinking about how the play applies to today. The idea behind epic theatre is that the audience realizes the play is a play, which they are welcome to analyze. Brecht's tactics include narrators, signs, and interrupting song-and-dance routines. The director of this production used props in a symbolic and obvious manner; a watermelon for the decapitated head of the Governor, two actors holding a rope for a bridge, a stagehand literally droppping paper snowflakes on Grusha's head, and last but not least, a shopping cart of bubble wrap for a bath!

The Caucasian Chalk Circle is interesting in a theoretical sense, but not very relevant to today, and in the end it's a retelling of Solomon and the story of the two women and the child. It's worth seeing, but not really worth reading unless you're a scholar of epic theatre or theatre in general.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair

This weekend, Fri. Nov. 13-Sun. Nov. 15 is the 33rd annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair.

Hours are listed on the web site. I went last year, and had a fantastic time. In particular, I noticed a LOT of Mark Twain as well as Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne, Alcott, Melville-the usual New England suspects. It's amazing just to see these works up close and think about who bought them and read them and owned them, and how they're a part of history and literature. There were also quite a few bookshops from overseas, particularly Britain, but also France, and some of the Scandinavian countries.

I don't think I'll make it this year, since $8 just to see isn't worth it when I've probably already seen most of it and unfortunately can't afford to buy. But if you're a book lover in Boston, and haven't been, definitely go!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Other Reading

I was much comforted to have some responses to my last post! I agree that it is important to re-evaluate why I chose to be an English major, even if I had negative feelings associated with it.

I have not been able to do any reading outside of class in the past few weeks, but I decided to list some of my in-class readings, though none of them are novels. That is about to change actually, I'm on schedule to start reading Gargantua and Pantagruel for Sixteenth Century tomorrow.

In Sixteenth Century, we've covered:

The Defence of Poesie by Sir Philip Sidney, which I greatly enjoyed, even though poetry isn't always my cup of tea. Sidney, one of Elizabeth I's best known courtiers (also Leicester's nephew), wrote this essay defending the occupation of poetry that he has fallen into, first, because, obviously, his occupation must be the best, and then a host of other reasons including that all learning (philosophy, math, science), originally stemmed from the writing of poetry, which stemmed from written language, which stemmed from language itself.

Sidney's Astrophel and Stella sonnet sequence, in the grand Petrarchan tradition. Some of them are pretty funny, I did an analysis paper on Sonnet IX where Astrophel compares his beloved Stella's face to "Queen Virtue's Court," basically saying, "Hey, your face is a building, but I'm
your straw anyway."

Edmund Spenser's sonnet sequence, Epithalamion, also in the Petrarchan tradition. In this one though, the lover actually gets the girl. Ooo subversion! Spenser, also an Elizabethan courtier (sort of, I think he wrote for one of her courtiers, but he was associated with the court), is my old friend from The Faerie Queene, which I haven't yet read in its entirety. I appreciate it, but...it is dense, and very metaphorically confusing.

Shakespeare's sonnets to the Golden Boy and the Dark Mistress. I've read them all before. A lot. But I do think they're better than Sidney's or Spenser's.

Christopher Marlowe's epyllion Hero and Leander. I sort of just read it without thinking about it, and then my teacher made us re-read the descriptions of Hero and Leander, and it's ridiculous. Hero has little mechanical birds chirping on her boots that her maidservant fills with water, a veil of artifical flowers, and bees constantly swarming around her. What a beauty.

In Theatre, we read parts of Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed.His writing style is very clear and well-organized, but that doesn't make his ideas that traditional theatre is oppressive much easier to understand.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

What Do You Do With a BA in English?

My Advanced Writing teacher punched me in the gut this morning. Not literally, of course. But, as is his wont, he likes to question and in class he likes to question the structures of literary education and literary criticism and what we as students are used to.

Today, he decided it would be a great idea to show us a list of undergraduate students who received research grants at our university. We made the observation he intended, that is, in at least the past three years, no English majors have received grants. The majority of recipients were engineering and health sciences majors. Of course, in perspective, there are many more engineering and health sciences students at this school than there are English majors. He didn't even have data on how many English majors had applied versus been rejected for grants.

It's just that then, the conversation devolved, as I'm also sure he intended, into a discussion of how English majors are marginalized at this school, the English department doesn't encourage undergraduate research, and in literary criticism, there's a general turgidity and a perception from the world at large that literary criticism is irrelevant and literature is too accessible or irrelevant to require a profession surrounding it.

I fell right into the trap. The discussion dredged up all my feelings and insecurities about not being considered relevant, being jobless and hopeless and voiceless, all because I'm bad at math, and while I love and respect science, I could never be very successful in it as a career. I just don't work that way. So what's left for me? Is my life meaningless?

I'm pretty sure my teacher didn't intend THAT to happen, but it's the natural progression of questioning English as a field. It's questioning my choice to be an English major and my ability to contribute to the world.

I thought about it and came up with an existential answer. If the world blew up tomorrow, who was more important, the engineer or the poet? Neither, they're both dead and everything they worked for is gone.

I just read an entry on Reading Dangerously from Tales from the Reading Room. It was just what I needed to hear. She's talking about how some books force you to think and evaluate yourself, and how literary training helps to understand difficult literature. She reminded me how books can shock you, hurt you, make an impression, and open your mind. That's why I'm an English major, that's why I love literature. Reading (and writing) is how I work through, process, and deal with life, and how I learn to relate to others.

I want to use this blog to connect with other readers and writers. Thus far, I have been content to keep a record of book reviews, mostly for my own amusement and posterity. From now on, I plan to read and comment more on other literary blogs and hope they will return the compliment. Because we share something precious and we need to contribute to the preservation not only of literature, but discussion and understanding of literature.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Boston Book Festival

I just got back from the Boston Book Festival. What comes to mind first is how well-executed it was for a first time event. I was nervous about there being enough space in panels, especially since it was free and "just show up" instead of even having people RSVP (except for the writing workshops, which I didn't attend). There were certainly a lot of people there, especially for the keynote speech, but I managed to squeeze in every time. I supposed it helped that interesting panels ran concurrently, so people had to decide what to go to. The Old South Church sanctuary was a lovely setting for most of the panels I went to, I didn't go to any in Trinity, which is a little disappointing, because I don't know when else I could get inside Trinity for free!

The panels I attended were; Ties that Bind, Boston Roots, Power of Place, Beyond the Margins, Eat Your Words, and the keynote speech by Orhan Pamuk. The schedule can be found here, if you're interested; http://www.bostonbookfest.org/index.php/events/

The one I actually enjoyed the most was Beyond the Margins, which I didn't even plan to go to. There were a couple of panels on new media, Amazons, Kindles, the future of books etc, which I didn't get to attend. This was about "transmedia," or using different kinds of media to form a unique "fandom" experience. The presenters were Reif Larsen and Tim Kring. Larsen interested me the most, he discussed his fascination with the stories told by maps and diagrams and how different people read them, which of course ties into his new, and I believe, first published book, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet. I want to read it now, and I almost bought it, but I had already bought Day After Night by Anita Diamant (who spoke on the Places panel), and I already have plenty of new books I haven't read yet.

Tim Kring is a producer of the TV show Heroes, and he talked about how it isn't just on television, but online, with commentary and interviews, mobile with texts and games, in print with graphic novels and a magazine, and with several alternate websites that tie into the universe. Being a Star Trek geek myself, I can appreciate this sort of engagement. It reminded me how new technology can bring us together, and how change in the industry isn't necessarily a bad thing. Who knows, maybe there'll be more small, indie writers with audiences due to the internet, just like in music? It's already beginning to happen.

I was happy to see representatives of Harvard Bookstore, the Brattle Bookshop, 826 Boston, the Boston Review, and more Boston-based literary organizations present. Thanks to Brigham Ice Cream too, for the free Rocky Road!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Grokking Stranger

57. Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

I've been squeezing my "pleasure reading" book in between class books for the past two months, and I finally finished it-by turning it into a class book. We got to choose our own text in Advanced Writing, so I decided to try my rudimentary critical hand at Stranger.

My interest in this book originated in a number of places. I was aware of it as a foundational work of science fiction, it was discussed in The Jane Austen Book Club (oddly enough), and the title is a famous quote from Moses of Exodus fame (which I know because of Fiddler on the Roof).

So Stranger in a Strange Land is about Valentine Michael Smith, the child of human astronauts who was raised by Martians. Smith speaks and thinks in Martian, and has absorbed Martian values and culture. He cannot understand humans and in his attempt to 'grok' humanity, tries to bring Martian culture to a select Nest of "water brothers" (i.e. disciples).

I found the concept of grokking very interesting, used in context, it seems to mean 'to understand, ' but as described in the book, to grok is to become one with a concept or person or object. A similar message perpetuated in the book is the phrase "Thou art God," the idea that human beings are, collectively, God. It seemed very realistic to me how Mike first uses the word, and other characters pick it up from him.

Free love is another idea that the book, published in 1961, helped propel into momentum. In the second half of the book, sex becomes very important, and orgies and nudity are frequent occurrences, though all seen through a sort of higher purpose. I don't know if I can agree with this extreme elevation of sex, and I don't know how seriously it is meant to be taken. I guess I can see why Mike might think it is the "greatest good," since Martians don't have a similar sexual experience, but is Heinlein really suggesting that people can only 'grok' each other fully through sexual activity? Another way of grokking, of course, is cannibalism, but I won't get into that...

There is a lot to work with in this text, the treatment and representation of women jumped out at me. On the one hand, the women are intelligent, powerful characters, on the other hand, they're treated as cooks and secondhand citizens at points. There could also be an argument that the women are reduced to sex objects, but due to the elevation of sex, that could be a compliment? I'll be working with these ideas and more to form my argument.

I recommend this book to science fiction fans, and those interested in cults and especially the 1960s in the U.S.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

More Soon...Maybe

56. The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman

Saturday, October 3, 2009

So...I did decide just to continue the count for this year. Especially because I haven't reached my goals for # of books published this year to read, etc. I don't know if I will though, since I'm so busy reading for class. That said, no reviews since I should be doing homework.

54. Fences by August Wilson

I read this for theatre class and we went to see it at the Huntington. I recommend it, though I saw a better version at Arena Stage in D.C. a few years ago.

55. Utopia by Thomas More

I read a different translation several years ago. I thought I hadn't finished it, but everything I remember came from later in the book, so now I think maybe I did. This time, the book made me angry because it sounded so impossible, people just don't work like that, they're not so selfless and humble and obedient. I did like their style of war though, making their enemies fight themselves, and putting out warrants for a few people instead of full-scale war. It is understood to be idealistic, however, I don't think More actually thought people could live like this, he just wanted the ideas to be considered. I still prefer the Machiavelli.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

53. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Machiavelli is officially my hero. The Prince is so straightforward and honest, and, yes, brutal, I want to give him a hug. He sees clearly. Especially in contrast with Castiglione, who stuck to ideals and praised virtue at all costs, Machiavelli blithely exposes the truly successful machinations of rulers.

And yet, despite his base view of human nature, despite his advocacy of war and vice, he is much more humanistic than usually given credit for. The manifesto is succinctly laid out, with sections on how to manage new and old principalities, how to manage armies and people and nobles, how to maintain money and property, and gain power over other principalities. He illustrates each section with an example from antiquity and an example from modernity, demonstrating his education and perception respectively. He values the stability of the state above all, the state that will actually benefit the greatest number of people, even if it need be assured through the destruction of the old royal line.

Machiavelli addresses his book to Lorenzo de Medici, who reconquered his principality from under a government in which Machiavelli held a large amount of power. Machiavelli is unemployed and exiled, and decides to beg for a job through a book so honest, his intentions cannot be misread. He died before it was published, but his last section makes me wonder about the true purpose of the manifesto. He exhorts de Medici to "rise up against the barbarians" and unite Italy, a feat, of course, that will not be completed till nearly three centuries later. Is this Machiavelli's true aim? is his brutal manifesto only a tool to gain the beloved country of the ancients and restore confidence to the people of Italy, so that perhaps he, the clever statesman could rule, or, as before, establish a republic? Did Machiavelli fully believe his own rhetoric?

I read my own views into his work, and my experience of humanity has been much the same, and yet I still see potential, I am still optimistic for change. Was he, too?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Sweet New Year

52. The Book of the Courtier by Baldesar Castiglione, translated by Charles Singleton

L'shana Tova, a sweet new year, to my fellow Jews. If I had started my list at Rosh Hashanah last year, I would have answered my challenge to read 52 books in year. As it is, I started the count on January 1. I could simply continue the list for this year, or I could start a new one for Rosh Hashanah. I will take some time to think about which is the best option.

The Book of the Courtier, was, interestingly, an assignment for my Sixteenth Century British Literature class. The teacher seems to use the "British" part loosely, half of our books are in translation. However, she is correct that these books influenced the English Renaissance strongly and therefore are appropriate for the course. I would prefer to learn international literature anyway, so I should not complain.

Castiglione wrote The Book of the Courtier in 1528, in homage to his deceased prince, Federico, of Urbino, and all the courtiers of Urbino, particularly the Duchess, wife of Federico's son and successor Guidobaldo. Urbino was a very small Italian principality in Lombardy, Duke Federico served as a mercenary for the Vatican against the Florentines as well as vice versa.

There are actually four books, each chronicling the conversation of a successive night at the Court of Urbino. In the first book, the Duchess deputizes the lady Emilia Pia to choose a game from those that the courtiers suggest. She chooses a game to delineate the qualities and behavior of the perfect Courtier. The courtiers then take turns speaking and arguing about what he ought to be. The First Book concerns mostly his qualities, and the Second Book the use of his qualities. In the Third Book, the women pressure the men to describe a perfect Court Lady to match the Courtier. The Fourth Book discusses how the Courtier should behave in love and courtship.

The conversations reminded me of what I imagine would occur in a saloon, or brief intellectual conversations I've had with my friends that I wish lasted longer and for which I wish I could be better informed and much wittier. Castiglione does an excellent job of making the arguments sound natural and the men react, while extremely civilized, very humanly. If theoretical games and endless discussion of love and disparaging versus defense of women in elegant language interests one, this book is a gold mine. I am sure some would find it boring, and I, of course, found their centuries-old logic flawed (mostly in regards to women), but overall it is extremely thoughful, well written, and well worth serious contemplation.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

51. A Brief History of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley

I didn't really intend to read this straight through, it just sort of happened. I reached a point where I thought, I could finish this...and then I had to. It's a comprehensive guide to the British monarchs, but I think I would appreciate something more detailed, with more evidence.

Ashley likes to shake up stereotypes, but he doesn't provide proof for his assertions. That's understandable in a book like this, but when he states that both Bloody Mary and Edward VI inherited congenital syphilis from their father Henry VIII, and Elizabeth I escaped it, I want to know more. I'm somewhat of an amateur Elizabethan scholar, and I've never heard that before. Where did he get the evidence to suggest that? Ashley praises the infamous Macbeth, and seems to think Richard III wasn't all that bad. He criticizes Richard Lionheart and mostly lauds George III. Elizabeth I does escape any unusual censure, though Victoria was apparently only any good because of Albert. William and Mary both get accused of homosexuality.

I haven't read any other standard work on the kings and queens of England (barring several biographies on Elizabeth I), so I don't know how Ashley measures up. Perhaps there is a way to provide more evidence in succinct fashion. Recommended to scholars and as a reference for interested parties.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

New Books!

To celebrate the 50 book mark, I finally went out and used a $50 Barnes & Noble gift card I'd been hoarding. My purchases totaled $50.51, all in paperback, the easier to fit in my suitcase. Perfect, yes?

My selections were:

Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Tongue by Kyung-Ran Jo

The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

Since I've started using Bookmooch, I have three books on the way:

Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel

A Taste for Adventure: A Culinary Odyssey Around the World by Anik See

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency by Douglas Adams

Will I finish all these by the end of the year? I doubt it, since I will also be contending with the formidable list for my Sixteenth Century British Literature course, not to mention my Theater in Society course....but at least I feel secure of quality reads in the forseeable future.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Game of Europe

50. Four Queens by Nancy Goldstone

In the thirteenth century, the four daughters of the Count of Provence; Marguerite, Eleanor, Sanchia, and Beatrice; each became a queen. Nancy Goldstone tells the lives of these four sisters in a straightforward manner that essentially sketches a thirteenth century history of Europe.

Marguerite, the eldest, becomes queen of France, the wife of St. Louis IX. Eleanor, the next sister, is the choice of Henry III, king of England. Shy and beautiful Sanchia is given to Richard of Cornwall, the king of England's brother, who later contrives to be elected King of the Romans, or much of modern-day Germany. Beatrice, the youngest, inherits Provence from her father, and attracts Charles of Anjou, younger brother of the King of France, who briefly conquers Sicily and crowns her queen.

Goldstone characterizes each sister and their respective spouses, as well as important players like their parents, Raymond Berenger V of Provence and his wife Beatrice of Savoy, and their mother's brothers, the influential Savoyards. The book is impeccably well researched, relying extensively on primary sources, and Goldstone represents my favorite attitude in a historian. She asserts facts only, and when she enters the realm of speculation, that is, the feelings of such-and-such in regard to such-and-such, or so-and-so's knowledge of some plot or other, she cites evidence that would support her, and then acknowledges that it cannot be determined for sure. She often uses short descriptions from contemporaries, such as Matthew Paris, an English monk who spent time in the English court and was familiar with the constant news and rumors, and Jean de Joinville, a friend of Louis IX, who wrote the Life of St. Louis. She quotes chronicles kept in contemporary monasteries and letters from the Provencal sisters themselves as well.

The history of thirteenth century Europe is a constant deluge of battles and political maneuevring. Kings, emperors, counts, dukes, and barons fought to defend their land and property, to seize others' land and property, and claim titles, distinctions, and glory. Marriages and the influence of women also make and break alliances. Continental Europe and England are the gameboard upon which they play. For these men and women, secure financially and socially, war and crusades were entertainment. They ostensibly fought for land and money, but any land and money gained was used to make more war.

Their behavior seems so quintessentially human to me. We have achieved a more peaceful world now, perhaps because of the rise of the bourgeoisie. The Provencal sisters' story demonstrates conflict between religion and politics, between smaller and bigger regions and spheres of influence, and most of all within families. Though much more dramatic than comparisons today, Goldstone shows us how much, and how little, we have changed.

Monday, August 31, 2009

49. A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L'Engle

I was devastated when I learned of Madeleine L'Engle's death in 2007. It had been a favorite dream of mine to meet her and tell her she was my inspiration. At that point, I was fairly sure I had read most, if not all, of her oeuvre. Around this time, I entered a small bookstore and ran across A Circle of Quiet. I was excited for another L'Engle book, but as I read, I discovered it was non-fiction, not a novel, and furthermore a questionably organized memoir of sorts. I sadly put the book down and picked up others more interesting at the time. Now, I found this book in my room yesterday and gave it another shot. This time, with expectations adjusted, I was able to finish.

L'Engle describes this book as her "love letter to the world." It is a collection of her philosophies on life, death, meaning, and God, told through memories and examples from her life. This is the first of the Crosswicks journals, written when she is fifty-one, there are three later books in the same vein. Crosswicks is the Connecticut farmhouse L'Engle owned with her husband, where they lived for nine years, and later returned to in the summers while living in New York City during the year.

The key word that L'Engle repeats throughout the book is "ontology", meaning the study of being. She uses ontology as a description of her sense of self, of each individual's "real-ness." Her concept is simple, but hard to understand. L'Engle, whose ideas remind me strongly of C.S. Lewis, was a sort of spiritual, nondenominational Christian (she was raised Episcopalian), who believed in a personal God. While I do not share her beliefs, I very much sympathize with her feelings and her sense of something larger than the self. It was very funny to me that L'Engle elevates selflessness where Ayn Rand emphasizes selfishness, and yet they are both talking about the same thing; the individual taking pride in personal achievement for the good of the community.

L'Engle identified very strongly as both a woman and a writer, and she had a career at a time when women were housewives. She outlines her frustrations at not being the ideal wife and mother, which she feels as failures. It's amazing how many different ideological eras her lifetime spanned, she was born to Manhattan socialites, and probably could have ended up trophy wife, she died in a world where most women have careers and many women are sole breadwinners and heads of households. I loved learning more about her and her life. She speaks passionately about her relationship with her husband Hugh, how they are very different people who fight often, but are more in love than when they married twenty-five years before. It gives me hope. She also writes about her many rejected manuscripts, particularly A Wrinkle in Time, and her realization that she writes, not for success, but because it is essential to her being. I feel the same way. Even if I am never published, writing, and reading, is an essential part of who I am. Thank you Madeleine.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

48. The Bonesetter's Daughter by Amy Tan

Alright, I'm off the re-read road. At least for now. Just being in my childhood room is giving me all kinds of ideas, remembering old favorites, books I've longed for over the past year. But I discovered what I think is the last of a cache of used books I bought last time I was home and didn't finish then. The copy of The Bonesetter's Daughter that I snagged is hardcover and fresh inside and out. Perhaps it was read only once before me. I received thanks from the books I recently sent out to bookmoochers, all remarking on the good shape. I try to be easy on books, I was even more fanatical about it when I was younger. I would open books only a little bit and lean into them, never breaking a spine.

I liked this much better than the only other Amy Tan book I've read, The Joy Luck Club. I think I prefer third person writing in general, except in the case of extraordinary authors like Jonathan Safran Foer. The Bonesetter's Daughter also reveals much more about life in rural China, rather than 1990s America, which I'm more familiar with and therefore find less interesting. I do like that Tan understands the cadence of older Chinese women , that she doesn't romanticize relationships between parents and children, and emphasizes the particular difficulties between first and second generation Americans. These are issues that I feel to be strongly important, even though both my parents were born here, and my father's father, who was born in Germany, picked up English perfectly except for a light lilt. I have worked with many Asian immigrants and visitors from Asia coming here to learn English, and Tan's writing brings me back to those experiences. She also teaches me more about what I don't understand about the past and culture of China.

As with The Joy Luck Club, you don't have to be Chinese to appreciate the relationship of an accomodating middle-aged daughter to her critical, guilt-inducing mother. It's a common trope in any culture. Ruth, the daughter, is predictably easy to relate to, and her relationship to the man she lives with provides a different kind of story, that is both age-old and uniquely American. LuLing, the mother, comes most alive in the stories she wrote about her childhood, that are translated for the reader. There is a mysterious plot surrounding her mother, Precious Auntie, who is the Bonesetter's daughter of the title. However, as I suspect to be the case with Tan, the book is about characters and relationships, not plot. It is simply that a cohesive plot makes this full novel flow more smoothly and express much more, than the series of loosely bound vignettes.Italic

Friday, August 28, 2009

47. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling

This re-reading was a joint venture in comfort and re-examining how many points the movie missed and how it could have been done better. I just read it through in a couple of days, comfort food style, but I couldn't help noticing the writing style differently.

Rowling does an excellent job, at least in this book, of keeping a sense of time and organization in each chapter. She uses descriptions of seasons to pull you through a school year at Hogwarts. Each chapter has its purpose, and its descriptions that hint at and reference earlier chapters and earlier books. The sixth book is well put together. Her pitfalls, overuse of certain adjectives, outlining instead of showing, and her hideously awkward view of teen relationships, are here, but they felt softened this time. I think this may be my first re-read since reading the seventh book. Naturally, I paid much more attention to descriptions of Dumbledore. He is often swathed in purple, described as "tall and thin," the scenes where he tears up at Harry calling himself "Dumbledore's man" and his words in the cave as Harry feeds him the potion, are more significant now. There are also a LOT of references to the barman at the Hog's Head, can't believe I missed that.

I liked the movie, but of course it can't begin to do justice to the book. Ironically, I don't believe it can stand on its own either. I just really like the black-and-white cinematography with Draco Malfoy slinking around...it's like a pretty corollary to the book, but then with random scenes that never happened...but who can help wanting more Harry Potter?

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants

44. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants by Ann Brashares
45. Girls in Pants by Ann Brashares
46. Forever in Blue by Ann Brashares

I spent the past three days reading through the three Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants books that I own (books 1, 3, and 4). I needed to read them for many reasons. One, because my friend and I are writing a book together, which we've been working on for three years, and it's almost done (not counting, you know, the publishing process), and these books were probably our main inspiration. Two, because I just got home for the summer as all of my friends left for school...and, I wanted to remind myself about the complexities of friendship, and also distract myself. Three, because I wanted to remember (and emulate) the truth of Brashares' writing and the style of it. I don't want to copy her, but I want to make sure that our book, in its own way, is every bit as brutally honest, and comforting, and down-to-earth.

I relate to these four girls because their personalities are real, and their experiences are real, and their reactions are real. It doesn't hurt that they also grow up in suburban Maryland. My friend told me that the incredible closeness of these four girls does seem a little unbelievable. And maybe it is. But I want to believe it. And I know, from shreds and bits of my own experiences, that it could be possible. Maybe it's just a beautiful theory, but humans are capable of connecting strongly to each other, even though circumstance seems to rule in the end.

There are lines about each girl in the book that I would apply to myself at one time or other, lines I'm sure apply to many girls and women, especially ones with backgrounds similar to mine and the girls in the book. You can tie each girl into a stereotype; Bridget, the beautiful athlete who doesn't stop till she gets what she wants and lost her mother at a young age; Lena, the extraordinary but shy beauty from a conservative Greek family who wants to be an artist; Carmen, the feisty Latina who's also practical, intuitive, and good at math; and Tibby, the aspiring filmmaker who doesn't want anything to change. But even then, sometimes Lena is bold, sometimes Carmen is shy, sometimes Bee (short for Bridget) is insightful, sometimes Tibby is daring.

People change. Relationships change. The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants do too. And the way you look at a book can change, but it will always be there for you when you need it most.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Right Time Around

43. Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

Even though my class is over, I decided to finish the novels. Mansfield Park was my second least favorite of the Austen books, and I remember thinking it dull, and finding the two main characters "priggish," which, it turns out, is a popular appellation for Fanny Price in a lot of Austen criticism. However, this time, I could barely put it down. I felt a different sort of charm working on me, I found myself relating to Fanny's feelings, loving the prose, the dialogue, the absolute full-ness of this novel.

Austen's novels follow a certain pattern, most everyone is familiar with the fact that all of her novels end in a slew of marriages. But each novel has a different sense to it, a different way of looking at the same themes that pervaded very day life then and now; social class, money, relationships between men and women, relationships between women, art and literature, and education. Mansfield Park, I think, focuses most on family and confusing relationships between family members. Austen shows that sometimes it's okay to hate your family members, and sometimes you can over-or under-estimate them.

Fanny Price is a poor niece who is raised in the home of her wealthy aunt and uncle. Distinctions are made between her and her cousins, so that she grows up humble, modest, used to being invisible, and with a strong sense of gratitude and responsibility. She is similar to Anne Elliot in that she has very decided beliefs of her own, but declines to express it. She is very helpful and accommodating, but will never do what she thinks is wrong. I can see how her behavior, and her dialogues with her equally moral cousin Edmund, seem self-righteous, but because the reader also sees so much of her acute feelings and her inner turmoil, I don't think it's really justified to dismiss her as a prig. Fanny is a moral being, willing to change and willing to see the best in others.

The "villains" in the novel, a brother and sister pair, Henry and Mary Crawford are fascinating, and I found them quite likable, especially Miss Crawford. Fanny and Edmund ultimately decide she is "spoiled" in her senses of propriety and respect, and perhaps she was a bit too fast for Victorian England, but her laughter at authority and scorn for religion would have helped her fit in today. Plus, I can't help liking her for the notice she takes of Fanny.

Mansfield Park was perhaps Austen's homage to her parents. Like Edmund, her father was a clergyman. If you didn't know, cousins Fanny and Edmund end up married. If you think about it more though, it is rather daring for pathetic Fanny to harbor secret love for Edmund so long. The "bad" people end up appropriately punished here, and over the course of the book, the rich uncle Sir Thomas realizes Fanny's worth and the importance of morality, as does his elder son Tom. Of all Austen's couples, I can imagine Fanny and Edmund happiest together in their similar values and their confidence in each other.

Monday, August 24, 2009

42. Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

I've been reading this on and off between Jane Austen novels and final exams, and it had a profound psychological effect on me, at least while reading. I adore Anna Karenina and am only less fond of War and Peace, but I had never heard of Resurrection when I discovered it in the library. It is the last of his great novels, and the most pointed. Tolstoy attacks organized religion, in his case, the all-pervasive Russian Orthodoxy, and the Russian criminal justice system. His protagonist, Dmitri Ivanovich Nekhlyudov, is clearly a self-portrait in respect to his agonizing reflections on morality and social justice.

As opposed to his former two masterpieces, Resurrection is condensed in plot, character, and message. It is Tolstoy's most finely drawn canvas. He focuses primarily on Nekhlyudov, and a handful of other characters, most importantly Katerina Maslova, or Katusha. Like Anna Karenina, she is a fallen woman, but unlike Anna, she is poor and lower-class. Katusha is half-ward, half-servant, in the home of two maiden gentry, and is first seduced by their nephew Nekhlyudov. She becomes pregnant and is turned out of the house, the baby dies, and she embarks under a series of "protectors," and ultimately ends up in a brothel. Nekhlyudov, a rich aristocrat, meets her again as she is on trial for poisoning a customer (she is innocent).

Tolsyoy's descriptions are exquisite, and it is fascinating to watch Nekhlyudov emerge from this unflattering portrait;

"Everything he used-all the appurtenances of his toilet-his linen, his clothes, boots, neckties, tie-pins, cuff-links were of the best and most expensive kind: unobtrusive, simple, durable, and costly (30)."

Without him specifying, we can infer that Nekhlyudov is a dandy, a spendthrift, and thoughtlessly selfish.

After he sees Maslova, he vows to reform. I related to this description;

"More than once in Nekhlyudov's life there had been what he called a 'purging of the soul' (140)."

I wonder if this is part of the human condition, to continually try to reform one's self, and then "time after time the tempations of the world ensnared him, and before he knew it he had fallen-often lower than before (141)."At the end of the book, he appears to be fully reformed, but what if he falls again? It would seem likely, would not it? Would not it seem human?

I also enjoyed Tolstoy's blasting of the clergyman in prison;

"The priest carried the cup back behind the partition, and drinking up all the blood left in the cup and eating all the remaining bits of God's body, and painstakingly licking round his moustaches and wiping his mouth and the cup, briskly marched out from behind the partition (182)."

It's swarming with intentionally gruesome imagery, and certainly a metaphor for the church growing fat off "God." This whole section was apparently covered by the Russian censor, and the first uncensored version was published in England. Tolstoy, however, was a deeply religious Christian, he only criticizes the way Christianity is used.

Resurrection made me wish for a little revelation of my own. I am feeling that I have to change, perhaps I have to change the world, but I must do something. I joined bookmooch.com, but something beyond that!

p.s. This would be book 42!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

41. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

I finished Northanger Abbey for the third time in less than twelve months. Each time, my perspective has changed, each time I'm pleasantly surprised to remember a sentence or detail I missed, and each time reminded of how amusing and magical it can be. I've focused this time on the narrator as a character and on how Catherine, the protagonist, really grows over the course of the novel. Of Austen, she is probably the heroine who changes most, which is saying something. I am also concurrently reading The Mysteries of Udolpho, the primary of the Gothic novels Austen is satirizing.

Northanger Abbey is definitely the easiest read of the six, the best introduction for an Austen neophyte, and even a book I would recommend to people who don't like Austen in general.

I realize I haven't really been writing "reviews" on the Austen books, per se, more just comments and effusions. I guess I feel that people should already have read them, and I only want to record the specific difference in readings that I experienced. So, that's that.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

I Will Always Regret This...

I JUST NOW saw that Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson were promoting their latest Dune book at Boston Public Library last night and at the Harvard Coop tonight. And. I. Missed. It.

However, if you live in Connecticut, New York, D.C., Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Cleveland, Ohio, Toronto, or Boulder, CO, there is still hope. Excuse me while I go call my Dad and tell him not to miss the D.C. event.

Shakespeare on the Common

So, surprise! Comedy of Errors on the Common turned out to be...set in 1930s South Beach Miami. There were a lot of colorful costumes and exemplary dance routines-that had absolutely nothing to do with CoE. It really didn't add anything to the play except distraction.

That said, it was well performed in general. I particularly enjoyed Antipholus of Syracuse's wife Adriana. She had a good mixture of Adriana's strength and yet extreme dejection and jealousy where her husband is concerned. Her sister was well acted too, but her laugh (I'm sure on purpose) was extremely annoying, and she didn't seem like the Luciana I was expecting. I was really looking forward to the Dromios, and though of course their funny parts were focused on, they were turned into kind of pathetic buffoons, when I thought they were smart and witty.

Still, if you're in the Boston area, you might as well go see it, for free, or a small donation. It runs till August 16th, Tues-Sat at 8 pm, Sun at 7 pm.

Monday, August 3, 2009

40. Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare

I have plans to see Comedy of Errors tomorrow night, at free Shakespeare on the Common, so I wanted to familiarize myself with the play beforehand. I've always heard CoE referred to as one of Shakespeare's funniest comedies, though it's certainly not as over-played as A Midsummer Night's Dream (which I have seen thrice).

The play primarily involves two sets of twins who were separated at birth. To make it more confusing, each twin shares a name with his brother. We have Antipholus and Dromio, of Epheseus, as well as Antipholus and Dromio, of Syracuse. Unfortunately, nearly all of the humor revolves around the mistaken identities. Admittedly, this will probably be a lot more amusing onstage (I hope). The Dromios, who are each respectively servants to the Antipholuses, are the "clown" characters, and their lines and puns are truly funny. Even without footnotes, I would have been able to understand some of the humor, but the translations provided in the Signet Classic edition really helped me to fully appreciate it. That's really why I wanted to read the play beforehand, to be up on the meanings and double meanings of Shakespearean slang.

I'll let you know more of what I think after I see the play!

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Story of a Photograph

39. The Soiling of Old Glory: The Story of a Photograph that Shocked America by Louis P. Masur

When I was assigned this book for History of Boston, I was surprised to discover it was first published in 2008. Moreover, I had never heard of the subject of discussion, a picture that exemplified and exacerbated race tensions in 1970s Boston. If you have never seen it before either, here it is.

It's a striking picture, and Masur compares it to other iconic pictures in America's history; Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre and the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. He also compares it to Jesus on the cross. I did not find any of those comparisons overblown. If anything, Masur defends his comparisons more than is necessary (okay, Jesus on the cross might be a Bit much).

Masur does just what he sets out to do, he tells the story of the picture. He gives the background of the busing crisis, particularly in Boston, but also across the nation, that spiked the outbreak of racial tension. Parents, particularly in working-class Irish South Boston, did not want their kids bused farther away to worse schools in predominantly African-American Roxbury. Each side perceived the other as criminal and dangerous. Richer whites could flee to the suburbs, but Southies were stuck. A court decision forced busing in Boston. Masur discusses all the characters involved, though he concentrates largely on the photographer, Stanley Forman, and the victim, Ted Landsmark.

Landsmark was at the time a successful lawyer on his way to an affirmative action meeting with the mayor. He walked into an anti-busing protest by poor, working-class kids from South Boston. One student, Joseph Rakes, had brought an American flag to the rally. When Landsmark was spotted, he was held down, punched, and kicked by other students in the group. As the group's leader intervened to stop the violence and help Landsmark from the ground, Rakes swung the flag at him, and was convicted of beating him with it (Rakes claims just to have brushed him).

Masur describes the incident from the points of view of the photographer, the group leader, the victim, and in an Afterword, the attacker. He was able to interview them all for the book. He also discusses race riots, marches, and public responses in the aftermath of the attack. I am surprised I never heard about this, especially since my parents must have been alive at the time, and even though they weren't in Boston, I'm sure they must know about it. It is frightening to realize how close something like this is to my lifetime. Especially since I now live in Roxbury, which is still predominantly African-American, though Masur claims that the people here now are different or were born after the controversy.

Anyway, if you are interested in learning about the incident and what really happened, I think this is a good book to read. It sometimes gets bogged down in technical details or digressions about more general busing or race related issues, but on the whole, it stays close to the story. Learning about this definitely made me think.

Friday, July 31, 2009

38. Persuasion by Jane Austen

Persuasion is my favorite of Austen's novels, and such a relief after Emma. The heroine, Anne Elliot, is more subdued than other heroines, she has a strong sense of correct behavior, but also a deep sympathy for romance. At twenty-seven, she is the oldest and most mature of Austen's heroines. The novel begins eight years after Anne has been persuaded to give up an imprudent engagement to a man named Wentworth. He is nobody, with no fortune, and she is the daughter of a vain baronet. One of my favorite lines describes the situation, "She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older-the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning (21)."

I catch more and more of Austen's subtle wordings, and the slightly different narrative tone of each book. In Persuasion, I think I caught a reference to the only Shakespeare sonnet I know completely by heart; "Anne could not immediately fall into a quotation again. The sweet scenes of autumn were for a while put by-unless some tender sonnet, fraught with the apt analogy of the declining year, with declining happiness,, and the images of youth and hope, and spring, all gone together, blessed her memory (57)." Am I wrong?

Not only is Anne my favorite heroine, but Captain Wentworth is also my favorite of Austen's heroes, he is without the pride and condescension that usually mars them, in my opinion. Socially, Anne has the highest position, and Wentworth the lowest, in the hierarchy of Austen's characters. (Emma is better off financially though). Perhaps it is his being socially nobody, but a self-made Navy man, that lets him out of the gentleman's trap. When their love story concludes with a letter, how could my heart not be wholly won?

I've heard it said that Persuasion is more melancholy and more subtle than Austen's other novels. I'm not sure I would quite agree, citing Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park for melancholy, and Emma for subtlety. Certainly, Pride and Prejudice is the liveliest and most entertaining, I will not claim those distinctions for Persuasion. I will only argue that it is more mature, and ultimately, more fulfilling, than any of the others.

Nineteenth Century Russia Never Fails Me

37. Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Pushkin makes me wish I could read Russian. I read the Penguin classic translation, translated into English by Charles Johnston, and the narrator uses such amusing language and asides as makes me sure I am missing much from the original. Johnston used rhyming verses, as the Russian rhymes, though apparently there is a non-rhyming Nabokov translation. The non-rhyming version may be more technically accurate, but Johnston contends that rhyming better captures the spirit and intent of the original. I'm inclined to agree with him, if only because I think Nabokov was a pretentious (though gifted) asshole.

Eugene Onegin is ostensibly the story of a jaded Russian aristocrat, who trades his dissipated flirtations in Moscow for a solitary life in the countryside. Our hero, Onegin, is befriended by Vladimir Lensky, who is enamoured of his youthful love Olga Larin. Lensky introduces Onegin to the Larins, where Olga's brooding older sister Tatyana falls in love with him. However, her love goes unrequited. The bitter Onegin, to force his jaded outlook on Lensky, flirts with Olga, and wins himself a challenge to a duel. Onegin kills Lensky, Olga marries another, Tatyana goes to Moscow, and the story leaves off for many years. Finally, Onegin meets Tatyana in Moscow, as his cousin's wife. Now, passion seizes him and he addresses her as she once addressed him. The poem ends with Tatyana's rejection of Onegin.

Yet Eugene Onegin's chief attraction is the narrator, who spends verses on his own opinions and hardships, describing himself as a friend of Onegin, yet careful to consistently differentiate between the two. Is the narrator Onegin, or Pushkin, or someone else? It is evident that the narrator is infatuated with Tatyana, long before "Evgeny" (a nickname for Eugene) sees her value. He speaks of Olga, "take any novel, clearly traced, you're sure to find her portrait: a portrait with a charming touch; once I too liked it very much; but now it bores me every minute (47)." After this one verse on Olga, he devotes five to her sister.

Pushkin's obvious intimacy with French and English literature of his time, and ancient Greek and Roman mythology and philosophy, is even more endearing to me. He often references Byron, as well as Tolstoy, Cicero as well as romance writers like Grandison and Lovelace. His descriptions of feasts, of people and food, remined me of Anna Karenina and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. In him, as in other nineteenth century Russian authors, I think I have found a faithful friend.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A Character Only Austen Could Love

36. Emma by Jane Austen

This is only my second reading of Emma, with good reason. Though I did not despise the book or the character quite as much this time, I am very glad to be done with it (Sort of, I still have a paper to write...). Perhaps it is too long for a Jane Austen novel, or perhaps it's the fact that it's the only Austen novel where the characters remain in the same setting for the entire novel. I think it also has the smallest cast of characters. But the greatest problem is that none, or few, of these characters are likable. And if there is a villain, it is Emma herself.

My favorite characters were the ridiculous characters, the "valetudinarian" Mr. Woodhouse, and the infuriatingly talkative Miss Bates. I amused myself with their antics, particularly in the latter half, when Miss Bates' chatter gives hints to important plot development. Mr. Knightley, though I resented his Darcy-like condescension and superiority, especially in the beginning, I admit is much more of a truly kind and stand-up gentleman than Emma deserves. I warmed to Emma a bit at the end, and she is very kind to her father, but she's so selfish and prejudiced and ignorant...

This book has really only given me a great desire to see Clueless, which we watched clips of in class. It will be interesting to compare, and, I conjecture, not nearly as tedious.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Vonnegut Rises Again

35. Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

This is unlike any Vonnegut novel I've read before, and has restored my former appreciation for him. It was one of his earliest, which probably accounts for the more conventional organization. No disjointed timelines or too abrupt transitions here. Narration only skips between two small casts of characters.

It's hard not to like the discontented Dr. Paul Proteus, an engineer and manager, who watches machines he invented replace men as workers. Of all Vonnegut's dystopias, perhaps this one is most plausible. The world is inevitably quirky, but the characters have the absolute ring of truth about their behavior. I was interested in the economic system of this world, an automated socialism. The images of cities of people with nothing to do, provided for as the machines think best, is haunting.

Even more gloriously realistic is the subsequent revolution. The novel works toward it obviously, so I don't think I'm spoiling anything there. I've read enough Vonnegut that I can predict him, but this time, the characters impressed me, and so did the language. I definitely recommend Player Piano, especially as an introduction to Vonnegut, but if you just never got around to it, it's still a thoughtful read.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Short Reviews

Short reviews for these, they don't deserve (or in P&P's case) need any more.

32. The Shoemaker and the Tea Party by Alfred P. Young

This was for my History of Boston class. It's about a shoemaker named George Robert Twelves Hewes (I believe he was a twelfth child) who witnesses the Boston Massacre, is a significant participant in the Boston Tea Party, and fights in the continental army. He was poor all his life and gained recognition in his nineties for his actions in the destruction of the tea. Two biographies were written about him near the end of his life, and he finally gained fame and his veteran's pension.

Young argues that the phrase "Tea Party" wasn't in official (that is, written) use until Hewes' biographies came out. He talks about politics during and after the Revolution, and how more prominent citizens of Boston wished to forget how they used working class rabble to destroy the tea. It's all about class struggles and selective public memory and blah blah blah. Very technical. I'm interested in history, but really, this seems to me a minute and boring point of argument. I would've rather just learned about Hewes' life and made my own interpretations than having Young's complex, and I'm not sure altogether sound, opinions thrust on me. For Revolutionary historians who really like to nitpick.

33. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

What is there to say that has not been said before? I still don't like Mr. Darcy, though I may have come to see why so many women do. His turnaround at the end is at least mostly genuine, I believe. And Lizzy's feelings for him are well developed, if, I think, wrongly guided! Mr. Collins and Lady Catherine are hilarious as per usual. It was great having people to enjoy that with.

I've come to a different understanding of Mr. Bennet too. I didn't like him as much after seeing how he neglects his family, but at least he comes to realize it. Mrs. Bennet is more of a shocking fright every time. I still sympathize with Mr. Bennet over her. I liked the multiple asides on the Bennets, their relationship and interactions are almost as great as Darcy and Elizabeth's.

Well, there's your Austen gossip for the day.

34. Everything Matters by Ron Currie Jr.

Currie introduces a fascinating concept-a young boy is born with the knowledge that human life on Earth will be destroyed by meteorite when he is thirty-six years old. Knowing this, does anything matter? The optimistic answer, of course, is in the title.

I won't spoil the twist, but I will admit I was disappointed. I think the overall concept is good, but since it is a novel rather than a short story, it needed other ideas to move it along. Instead, Currie focuses on the characters, but he writes them almost one-dimensionally. The extensive use of drugs in the novel is more blase than edgy, and he doesn't even address the moral or perceived moral issues associated with drug use ( I wouldn't have cared what the stance was, I just wanted him to take one). There is just a lot of telling rather than showing, and a lack of complexity, in characters and plot, that again, would have been more appropriate to a short story.

The most amusing character, I thought, was Junior (the protagonist)'s older brother Rodney as a nine-year-old cocaine addict. When Rodney suffers a contrived brain injury from the cocaine use, he's rendered docile and uninteresting, save for his remarkable baseball talent.

Does everything matter? This book doesn't have me convinced. And after all, that's the point, isn't it? The "proof" is interesting and certainly with merit, but I would have enjoyed a more philosophical answer. I am surprised that Everything Matters was as well received by critics as it was and I don't think it deserves any 'best of 2009' awards.

Friday, July 3, 2009

31. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Over the summer, I'm taking a Major Figure course on Jane Austen. The original plan was to read all six novels, but we decided to drop Mansfield Park. I've read all of the novels before, and with the exception of Emma, which I have read once or possibly twice, I've read them all too many times to count.

I finished S&S again yesterday. I actually had a very different reaction to the novel than I've had before. Elinor, the representative of Sense, was always my favorite, but now I really appreciate the Sensibility of her sister Marianne. Austen used 'sensibility' in a very particular sense. To her, it meant an emotional and intuitive intelligence, including taste, culture, and feeling. This use of the word was evident to me from the first without having it outwardly explained, but some people seem to need the explanation. It is, however, not the meaning most people would currently associate with the word. In fact, we use sense and sensibility interchangeably.

Particularly reading Austen, I realize the extent of my literary snobbery. I am very comfortable with the material, and don't really understand when other people find it difficult. I have found different layers of meaning in subsequent readings, but I never struggled with the story or the language overmuch (I do remember learning the meaning of 'sanguine' from reading S&S). Is it really so weird or uncommon to feel this way? Is this an okay sentiment to express to the class? I feel it is not, because others have expressed such problems, but I also feel like their problems are detrimental to the erudite discussions that I want out of the class.

Oh well. It's still very interesting. So, you will be seeing plenty of Austen reviews here for the next month or so. And perhaps a larger overall review at the end.
30. Stolen Bases: Why American Girls Don't Play Baseball by Jennifer Ring

As Ring prefaces her book with the story of her daughter's struggle to play baseball in an equal setting, I'm going to preface my review by talking about my sister. She is the one who introduced me to this book and generously loaned it to me. My sister is a star baseball player. She plays in a women's baseball league as well as a local rec team, where she is the only girl. She also plays softball for her high school and now on a traveling team. The softball was not her choice. It was foisted upon her because there are no girls' baseball teams in high school or college. There are no baseball scholarships for girls. There are no professional baseball leagues for women either. I have always wondered why people are so silent on this subject. I have never considered softball as equal to baseball. Its very name soft ball implies inferiority. It implies that women are not 'hard' enough for the real thing. Jennifer Ring speaks to my anger. She answers my questions, and flares up my bitterness.

Ring is often vitriolic, particularly against one man, A.G. Spalding. She blames him, one of the founders of men's professional baseball, and owner of the sporting-goods store, for deliberately excluding women. She says American women were excluded from baseball twice, first legally, along with non-white men, including Jews and Italians, and then with the advent of softball. As I've heard before, softball was originally a men's game played indoors in bad weather, but was adopted as a less violent and competitive game deemed appropriate for women and girls. Men's baseball organizations have consistently been unhelpful to female players. Little League responded to equality suits with Little League softball.

I agree with Ring in many points; women do not prefer softball by choice, men have created a society that encourages the exclusion of women, and, to remedy this, organizations need to be built from the ground up, to have baseball rec teams and school teams for young girls and then older girls. The question of professional teams for women can barely be bridged yet. I am not blind to her faults, however. I do think she places not entirely deserved brick-tons of blame at Spalding's door. Also, I was surprised that she seems to think most men would willingly exclude girls from private baseball teams, or at least never give them the consideration they give to boys (nor give anyone the consideration given their own sons), but her experiences would seem to justify this.

I was interested in her research into the origins of baseball. I always assumed it derived from cricket, but apparently it came from an even simpler game (from which cricket also derived), called rounders, with varying rules, and played by both boys and girls in England for centuries. Spalding rejected this hypothesis, and insisted baseball was the immaculate conception of the American male. I was interested to learn that Henry Chadwick, brother of Edwin Chadwick, hero of London sanitation, immigrated to the U.S. to become the hero of sanitizing (that is, formalizing rules and disciplining players) baseball.

I would definitely recommend this book, as I have a vested interest in forwarding the issue. Ring also apparently plans to write another book on the subject, based on a more intimate study of current women's baseball teams. My sister went to one of her book signings and was asked for her information, so she might be interviewed for the next book, which would be exciting. In the meantime, I'm rooting for all the girls out there in baseball right now and hoping opportunities continue to grow!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Wait is Longer for a Post-Statistics World

29. The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

First, to boost the scores on my quotas, I am counting this as a 2009 book. No, hear me out. The edition I read had a very long forward written in 2009 that significantly affected the views and relevance of the book. In the wake of the recession, Zakaria has an even stronger argument for the "rise of the rest" and the problems with American overconsumption. Besides, the hardback first edition came out for the first time in late 2008 anyway. So there.

I am attracted to Zakaria's idea of a world working toward economic globalization and more questioning and competition in global politics. I certainly think it's an accurate observation that this is the direction of the future. Actually, I would think it naive for anyone to believe otherwise. But how does Zakaria back this up? With lots and lots of statistics. Now, obviously he needs hard facts to support him, but not only was most of the information probably obsolete when it was published (as Zakaria admits), but I think he could have done a better job of picking and choosing the most relevant ones and building stronger arguments around those. I don't need to know how much the construction of every Chinese city cost. I appreciate his debunking of stats on Chinese and Indian engineering grads (stats include technical schools and students trained as plumbers and mechanics), as it shows how tempered he means his argument to be.

Zakaria is not saying that China will take over the world tomorrow, he's just saying we should form closer ties with the Chinese now, because they are already cultivating local influence and hold most of the world's (i.e. the U.S.'s) economic assets. But most of China is still underdeveloped, underpaid, and experiencing low quality of life.

I was very interested in what he had to say about India. Zakaria makes a few references to his own upbringing there. The world's largest democracy is leaning ever closer to the United States and the West in culture and economic practice. Yet again, he spouted too many statistics. I want personal interviews with Indians; how do they feel? where do they see their country among the powers of the world?

In addition to chapters on China ("The Challenger") and India ("The Ally"), Zakaria discusses the rise of American power (and the analogous rise to British power centuries before and subsequent fall) and American attitudes and behaviors politically, economically, and, to a lesser degree, socially. He has harsh criticism for American politics and the detriments of partisanship. I tend to think both the Republican and Democratic parties have outlived their usefulness, except for the relative stability of their infrastructure.

In the last chapter, Zakaria gets around to the most valuable part of the book. He gives a set of guidelines for how America can improve its image and political efficiency. If Washington is taking notes, I think we'd certainly be better off. Of course, no pundit or journalist should get carte blanche, but we need smart minds working together to create a system that works, not only for the United States, but for the rest of the world too.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Redeeming Cain

28. East of Eden by John Steinbeck

This American fable based on the story of Cain and Abel has often been touted as one of the best, if not the best, Steinbeck novel. I would have to concur. Steinbeck uses the Salinas Valley in California as a symbolic backdrop to the story. In the opening scene, he introduces two sets of mountains, the western range kind and inviting, the eastern range cold and forbidding.

Steinbeck encouraged me to look at Cain and Abel in a different way. As he and his characters note, it is one of the most difficult to comprehend stories in the Bible, probably along with the attempted sacrifice of Isaac. It goes against our notion of what we want God to be. Why did God reject Cain's offering? Although we must condemn Cain for his own action, since he has free will, the Ultimate Father figure seems to have unnecessarily provoked murder by showing favoritism. Then again, the Torah is all about the favoritism of the chosen people. So perhaps the story is not so surprising after all. I digress.

The book is a weaving together and development of characters, who then interact as they must. Most of the characters belong to two families, the Hamiltons and the Trasks. Cal and Aron are the sons of Adam Trask, but before that Adam and Charles are the sons of Cyrus Trask. Both sets of brothers are Cain and Abel types, but the novel and plot comes to focus on Cal and Aron.

I liked all of the characters more than I thought I would when they were introduced. The Hamiltons, especially the father Sam, are more interesting, and offset the initial bleakness of Adam and his sons. My favorite character though is Adam's Chinese cook Lee, through whom can be learned the practices of, and prejudices against, Chinese at that place and time. Lee, though, is interesting as a scholar and as a man who is lonely and finds his solace in other people's children.

What of the mother of Cal and Aron? Cathy is introduced as a monster, a natural devil. Yet, even in her evil ways, there is something frighteningly human about her. The fear in her personality reminded me of The Enemy Within from the original Star Trek series. The one weakness of evil is fear.

Now from the feminist point of view, why present the mother as the devil? Are we really still ripping on Eve in the twentieth century? (Yes, but..) I feel like the evil character could just as easily have been the father. Yes, Cathy uses femininity (whoring) to accomplish evil, but I'm sure he could've shown men's violence, and men's sexual violence, easily. It must be partly symbolic of Eve, but another female character, Abra, redeems this conundrum. Abra is the female equivalent of Cal, a fair mixture of good and evil. Because Aron is so good, he is no more fully human than Cathy. Especially when he is crying and upset, Aron fights back. He is not afraid.

There is much more to the story than an adaptation of a few verses from Genesis. There are the inventions of the Hamiltons, and plenty of philosophy, wars, and business dealings. But Steinbeck cleverly acknowledges the conflict between good and evil, within and without, that really, all lives and all stories concern.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

27. Valencia by Michelle Tea

I am perhaps not the kind of girl that one would expect to be reading a Lambda Award winner for Best Lesbian Fiction. Not because I have anything against lesbians, but I am generally averse to stream-of-consciousness, whiney memoirs, and overkill sex scenes. At risk of gushing, I will say I found Valencia beautiful in language and spirit. Even though it fit all the aspects of a book I would most expect to find contemptible.

The opening seemed to prove my hypothesis, that it would be pretentious and vulgar. Tea describes how "little tsunamis of beer" cascade down her T-shirt one night, as she tries to impress a girl she is crushing on. Typical fucked-up girl memoir, trying to use pretty language to seem meaningful, I thought. Backtracking to why I was reading it in the first place...I saw it in the library and remembered an old friend had raved and raved about it. Figured it was different from my usual stuff and gave it a shot.

You can look at Valencia the way I wanted to when I started reading. There isn't much more to it than San Francisco, dyke life, and drugs. But whether I was in the right mood or what, it seemed insightful and true to me as I read.

Tea describes her drunken, stoned, and sober adventures and her experiences with the girls she chases after. She has long-term and short-term relationships with women over the course of the novel, as well as tumultuous relationships with friends and acquaintances. Tea is an assertive, sometime aggressive, character who pursues life vigorously and impulsively. Through her words, you can get in the head of the loudmouth at the party, who is also the clingy girlfriend, also your angry, volatile, emotional, but lovable best friend.

Perhaps that's what sets her memoir apart. I'm a quiet girl, in awe of girls like her. I feel like many writers are. When she combines her view with her talent for wordsmithing, the result is entrancing. Tea uses the best points of stream of consciousness, a flowing rhythm that expresses thought and feeling, without the frustrating constructions of Joyce, or annoying lack of punctuation or organization like Eggers.

Valencia is for those who can take hard-core lesbian sex scenes and drug abuse scenes, both of which are fairly consistent throughout the book. It's maybe one for aspiring writers too, and maybe later for historians or LGBT theorists and whatnot. I'd recommend it to friends, both male and female too.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Tramping Twain

26. A Tramp Abroad by Mark Twain

I really read this because a) it's Mark Twain, but b) the book I found in my school's library is the ORIGINAL EDITION with what looks like an inscription by the man himself, but must be printed, I guess. I want to steal it, even though it is kind of falling apart. I'm really surprised it's available for loan, I feel like it must be valuable. Though there is a hell of a lot of Mark Twain's oeuvre flying about the antique books world.

I even took it to Revere Beach this weekend, where I decided a nice read on my towel would be preferable to the water. The waves looked good, but I was chilly from my vantage point.

This is Twain's rant on his "pedestrian" tour of Europe. He is all about the personal touch, it's more a catalog of his experiences than a guidebook, but it's somehow still not incredibly insightful into him as a person. Which I am okay with. Twain uses his dry humor, usually effectively, to talk about the people he meets and travels with.

I learned a lot about a very few aspects of European culture at the time. He spends a few chapters on his observations of student duellists in Germany, the ceremony of a French duel, and a memorable chapter on his insomnia. He seized within me a desire to see the Lion of Lucerne, and provided me with a list of castles to check out in Germany and Switzerland. However, I feel that I must take everything he says with a grain of salt.

He purports to give his readers many examples of local folk tales and songs, many of which I suspect he invented. So, of the sights he saw, I am skeptical of what is real or not. I suppose it's worth looking up.

Any bona fide Mark Twain fan will gobble this up, and perhaps elder travelers will appreciate a chance to laugh at themselves. Still, this isn't for everyone, it's a little too dry in places and has no plot to keep it going.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Building a Plot within a Plot within a Plot

25. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

"The small boys came early to the hanging" is the captivating first line. Even though I decided I didn't like this book a few chapters in, I kept reading for nine hundred some pages. Follett is a "hook" writer, he draws you in with a provocative statement, shakes up the plot, and moves on to a different character to shake up the plot again. As far as scope and cast go, it greatly reminded me of a Michener novel, but without Michener's talent for intimate description.

I disliked most of the characters for large parts of the book. I've said before, the characters are always most important to me in the novel. If I can't find a character to love, the book won't be a favorite. What The Pillars of the Earth has going for it most are the time period and setting. Follett chose an interesting and unusual time to write about, 1135-1174. The Middle Ages in England, after William the Conqueror and before Richard the Lion Heart. Obviously, I have some familiarity with the time line, but not much, and only the sketchiest idea of how people lived back then. I felt Follett could have demonstrated more research into the time period, and I wasn't quite satisfied with his portrayal of society, but some of it did ring true. Back to the characters, I did feel that they responded to the brutal politics and social structures of their time. That was probably why they were so despicable!

The main characters include Prior Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, who wants to build a cathedral; Tom Builder, who dreams of building a cathedral; Tom Builder's children Alfred, Martha, and Jonathan; Tom Builder's second wife Ellen and stepson Jack; Aliena, disinherited daughter of the Earl of Shiring and her brother Richard; and William Hamleigh, the usurper Earl of Shiring and notorious villain.

There are others, but these are the characters from whose viewpoint the story (or, stories) take place. There is an overarching plot, the building of the Kingsbridge Cathedral, but many side stories and plot twists that are necessary to keep the reader's interest. Probably the most interesting, and repellant, parts are when Follett writes from the point of view of William Hamleigh, a cruel, sadistic man. I think he succeeds mostly in his portrayal of that character. That said, I think the characters are largely one-dimensional. Everyone has one driving force or interest, except Aliena, who has a few over the course of the novel. Aliena and Jack, a weird boy who grows into a passionate man, were probably my favorites. Prior Philip is the Good character, but he is too manipulative for my taste.

This book would probably be interesting to people who don't read much, it is attention-holding, and especially for mathematical or architectural buffs, there is a lot of architecture stuff and math discussed that I probably didn't "get." I wouldn't consider this literature, but it does fall into historical fiction, a genre I'm afraid is getting trashier and trashier.

Friday, May 29, 2009

24. The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld

I needed a book. Badly. I roamed the Harvard Coop savagely, lusting at recent release tables, pawing at established classics. My eyes rested on a familiar name: Curtis Sittenfeld. I read Prep a few years ago, around a turning point in my life. She helped me wrestle with my inner Lee Fiora, though, truly, I have never been as naturally cruel as that painfully realistic character, no matter how shy or self-conscious. I somehow felt that The Man of My Dreams would be easier to read, and at least I knew it would draw me in. I needed something to give my undivided attention to.

The book is about that need to give, in the main character Hannah's case, love. To a man, specifically. That said, I don't know how terribly appropriate the title is. Prep wasn't adroitly titled either though. Hannah is familiar, another Lee, but in different circumstances. The book shows Hannah's life in flashes, skipping from eighth grade to college to young adulthood. It is far less intense than its predecessor.

As always, Sittenfeld's social observations are spot-on, though they don't feel as edgy anymore. The reader is firmly ensconced in Hannah's head, and I find it hard to believe any middle-class, white female hasn't experienced most of what she does. Alongside her, however, Hannah's sister Allison and cousin Fig seem to be doing just fine, which enhances her isolation. Fig in particular seemed unrealistically written to me. She is the popular, crazy girl that all the guys fall for, but her actions and words don't seem consistent. She's always ordering Hannah around, using her, and suddenly gives her sound and priceless advice. It's unexpected because it's so contrived.

The ending is disappointing, but typical. How else can you end a real novel about a woman struggling with low self-esteem? In a romance, she could catch the guy of her dreams at last, but Sittenfeld, I feel sure, despises that as much as I do. So, it trails off, perhaps on a hopeful note, but it doesn't really matter. If it ended with her death, it would have been preferable to me, but perhaps that's asking far too much labor of the author.