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.