Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Trashy Books

I've been on a trashy book kick since I've been home from school, probably because I just got back from one of the most intense semesters of my life, reading and otherwise. After sifting through a lot of dense philosophy and High Literature (what I'm calling Joyce and Faulkner, probably my two least favorite authors not counting the likes of Dan Brown), I was craving a re-read of The Devil Wears Prada and finally read Sister of the Dead, a macabre fantasy novel a friend bought me several years ago that never looked appealing at any given moment. Well, it was honestly pretty horrible, although the author did incorporate some Elvish, which has to score some points. What I don't get is why science fiction and fantasy almost always have the best ideas, but more often than not sub-par writing. Why don't great ideas and great skill naturally go together? I've been privileged to read mostly the best; Tolkien, L'Engle, and books I've read more recently like Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and The Last Light of the Sun.However, whenever I've delved into what's considered teenage boy fare, I haven't been impressed. Readers of fantasy deserve better and we will find it.

But I've digressed. The point is, trashy books can be comforting. They take the pressure off and you can forget about yourself and immerse yourself in the characters' lives. "Mind candy," I've heard them referred to. I really don't consider myself the type who goes in for this sort of reading, but as my academic reading gets tougher, trash begins to look more and more attractive. Something to consider when looking to spend my B&N giftcards.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Book Round-Up for 2010

So I left off in July with No. 32, but my summer reading didn't end there. Unfortunately, I've lost the list, but I know I read Woodsburner by John Pipkin (33), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (34), and Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley (35) by Alison Weir.

That brings the total to 35 for the summer. In September, before classes had gotten too intense, I managed to read some books I'd gotten earlier from Bookmooch, Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky (36) about her rape and the trial that followed, which I was primarily interested in for background on The Lovely Bones, and Company of Liars (37) by Karen Maitland to see how she re-imagined The Canterbury Tales. I would call it more closely a riff on some of the ideas of The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, a group of people on the road with a common goal from the former, and people hiding from the plague from the latter. However, the format was very much that of modern fiction rather than poetry or a group of stories, and the stories are primarily told from one point of view. There is also a much more malicious element alive in this book than its forebears, which explains the title.

Then school reading caught up with me, and I've decided to include essays and novellas, though not poetry, as I can't remember how much or all of the specific poems we read for my Survey of American Lit 2 class. Poetry included Whitman, Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot , and more.

38. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Not my first time reading it, but first time for a class. I had much more sympathy for Edna this time around. However, I don't know if she would do much better in today's society, her young self was so impressionable, it seems inevitable she would be trapped, especially as a woman who decided to have babies she didn't really want. Today we still think motherhood comes first, is that an opinion we should re-examine?

39. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman

I had never been assigned or heard of this story before, though it's apparently taught in some high schools. I don't think the woman goes mad, she just takes a metaphor too far and projects her self-image and self-understanding into the wall-paper, understandable under the circumstances. Eff the hysteria cure.

40. Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams

The only Williams play I'd read before was The Glass Menagerie, this is apparently more like A Streetcar Named Desire. It boils nicely down to class and gender issues, and how none of the protagonists quite fit their role in life.

41. Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy by Hannah Arendt

The spectator is more important than the actor, judgment can coincide with obedience, and the law should correct for unscrupulous actors. That's what I learned. Also, don't read this unless you have to or have an academic interest in the subject.

42. Observations on the Beautiful and Sublime by Immanuel Kant

The first section is food for thought, but Kant's extrapolations in later sections simply confirm sexual, national, and racial prejudices of the day and really lowered Kant in my esteem.

43. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

I've been frightened of Joyce for quite a while now, but I buckled down and read this for my Lit theory class. It wasn't as scary as I feared, but I don't think Joyce will end up being a favorite for me. I can see how his writing is beautiful and skillful, and re-reading passages helped me discover the meaning in them. The book as a whole though was difficult to get through and while I'd say I could pick out some general themes (bildungsroman, the development of personal autonomy and the role of the aesthetic, the pernicious influence of religion), I wouldn't say I understood a lot of it. A book to try again another day.

44. "On the uses and disadvantages of history for life" by Friedrich Nietzsche

An odd and thought-provoking essay on the interpretations of history and how they (mostly negatively) affect the present and ideas for coping with history while living in the present. Sadly prescient on how the Germans believed their history and culture proved them somehow superior.

45. "The Soul of Man under Socialism" by Oscar Wilde

Pithy and conversational, it doesn't hold together well, but is vastly amusing and reflective of Wilde's state of mind. He suggests that in the future machines will be used for all manual labor and men will be free to pursue art.

46. Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

This book took me most by surprise. Ostensibly a memoir of one man's walking tour of England, it's actually a journey into Sebald's mind as reflected by the outside world, and he jumps from memory to imagination to re-imagined history with circular references to silkworms, Rembrandt, and Thomas Browne. It seems to explore the importance of history and imagined history on life and living memory, and will assuredly be a book to re-read in my future.

47. Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde

A perfect prelude to our semester discovering tricksterism in American literature, Hyde introduces us to the trickster in many guises and tricksterlike traits and elements from mythologies, literatures, and folk tales worldwide. An enjoyable book to read (albeit a tad repetitive), for class or no.

48. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Enough said. My favorite work of American literature, the book and its author are tricksters supreme.

49. Tracks by Louise Erdrich

This was my first book by Erdrich, and I was suitably intrigued. The plot was enjoyable, and the characters forced me to do a lot of thinking, from a trickster point of view and otherwise. I would read her other novels that deal with the same family.

50. Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston

What luck that this should be No. 50! Monkey is a complex but not unintelligible work, and while others found the protagonist Wittman a controversial figure, I sympathized with and found him quite likable. He's certainly arrogant, but no less smart and creative for that. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read this, i would never have heard of it if not for my trickster class.

51. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This had been on my list for a while, but I finally read it for my trickster class. This is probably my favorite new read of the year. Diaz combines Spanglish, references to all my favorite fantasy and sci fi books plus comic books and other geeky/nerdy references like Star Trek and weaves it into a cohesive, enthralling narrative about Oscar and his family. At first, I wished Oscar were the book's narrator rather than the family friend Yunior, but having Yunior as narrator adds another layer of mystery and a point of reference for typical Dominican-American culture against Oscar's fantasy world. I learned a lot about the mindset of the Dominican Republic in the Trujillo regime and I think Diaz is truly doing something new through transforming magical realism into a new American genre-focused literary art. This is the work that will help turn science fiction into literature besides adding to the cultural diversity of today's American literature. Plus, it is a GOOD BOOK. If there is one book I will recommend to all my friends this year, this is it.

52. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

This is a very new book, that I probably wouldn't have read if not for, again, trickster class. It helps to read this book as a series of Chinese myths and parables about some of the same characters that are reinvented for an American world and audience. It's a new way of looking at the world (in American literature at least), fun and quick to read, but a little more there if you choose to go back and read it again.

53. The History of Love by Nicole Kraus

This had been on my to-read list for years and I finally got it from Bookmooch. I don't know if it quite lived up to my expectations, but it was worth the wait. This was a book that really experimented with what it means to read between the lines, in terms of punctuation and creative formatting, and like Jonathan Safran Foer's work, was an apt choice for the subject and characters. The stories are neatly woven together and interesting in themselves, but what really got me about this book was how it was written and why and several times I had to stop and think. This could be termed a Holocaust book, but one that kind of skirts around the main event, focusing more on human effects, but not the atrocities themselves. It's a way of looking at the Holocaust that I feel is becoming more common and has its merits, like how scenes surrounding sex are so much more evocative than describing the act itself. Still, is it avoiding the horrors through not describing them directly? Or is a deeper truth still being conveyed?

54. The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

I had strong expectations for this book, which were not quite fulfilled. I remembered Liss as a great writer of characters as well as mystery, but these characters were not as compelling or believable as some of his earlier works. Liss does a good job of inserting his fiction into historical fact, and his mystery is such that the reader always feels like he's a step ahead. In truth, Liss knows just what he wants the reader to know when, and for the most part, he succeeds. I figured out most of the plot points about halfway through, but I usually peg mysteries in the first chapter, so I'll give him points. His choice of main villain is poor and stereotypical, but his cast of "heroes," one of whom, I could argue, is the true villain, is more complex. I was disappointed that this wasn't about the real Whiskey Rebellion and also that his two main characters just didn't seem to act like real people. Perhaps I've outgrown Liss or maybe he just lost his touch on this one.

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

My third re-read, I had to identify what wasn't right vis-a-vis the movie, although truth be told, it was my favorite of all the films so far and the most accurate since the first movie. It's interesting how in this book Harry finally figures some things out without Hermione or before she does, the only times before or since, I'm sure!

And that's it for 2010, maybe I'll have a couple more up my sleeve before New Year's, we'll see.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Second Annual Boston Book Festival

I attended the Second Annual Boston Book Festival yesterday and enjoyed it as much as the first year, if not more.

The sessions I attended were: Israel/Palestine: Novel Approaches; Crimes & Misdemeanors; My Mother she Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; It Books: YA Fiction; and the Keynote with Joyce Carol Oates.

The first session I attended, Israel/Palestine was EXTREMELY intense, it featured Alan Dershowitz and Susan Abulhawa, ostensibly talking about their novels. I arrived more than halfway through Dershowitz's talk, when he was explaining the historical screw-ups of peace negotiations with Arab nations, resulting in Palestine only being able to offer Israel "peace in the east" and not on any other border, especially not the peace with Iran that is desperately needed. He then finished with a reference to his book, Trials of Zion.

Abulhawa began with explaining the plot and characters of her book, Mornings in Jenin. She then want on to discuss her strong feelings that novels are in many ways autobiographical, and that hers certainly are, although all of her characters become their own people as well. She says that one of her main characters spent three years in an East Jerusalem orphanage, as she herself did growing up. She then continued to discuss her aim of representing the true Palestinian people, with their own culture, flaws, and luminaries. She started saying some pretty shocking and controversial things, in a calm, matter-of-fact voice, she stated that "the Palestinian people are slowly being wiped out of existence," that they are suffering from "the cruelest military occupation in the world," and that "every human rights group that has ever witnessed the situation there has said the same."

Dershowitz actually remained quiet for this, but when it was his turn, insisted on providing a "counter-narrative," and asserted that the masssacre in Jenin, which Abulhawa's book is about, was fictional. Abulhawa asserted that it was based on truth, and she herself had been there to see it. The debate devolved into name-calling and interruptions, primarily on Dershowitz's part, with Abulhawa calmly taunting him, reading from a list of quotes, which he claimed to be false, and garnering audience applause.

I think Dershowitz came off looking far the worst, as he tried to use rhetoric, as well as simply defaming Abulhawa, to turn the situation around. I was embarrassed to have him representing a side I mostly agree with, and Abulhawa and her appalling accusations came off rather well.

I don't know what the truth is, I don't know if there was a massacre in Jenin or not. I believe that Abulhawa believes it happened. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. It depends what you call a massacre. The Boston Massacre killed five people. I left with the intention of reading Abulhawa's book sometime, if only to get the view from the other side. She claims her book is not one-sided, but she admitted her only Jewish characters are "haunted by the atrocities" of what they have done. She also called Dershowitz's Arabs "stick-figures" and "cartoonish," which may well be true. I wonder if it is possible for people so far on either side of the debate to really represent the other side in a realistic way.

Moving on, I did make some nice purchases, I got the anthology of modern fairy tales, My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me, and got it signed by the editor and two of the featured authors. I also got an English translation of the work of Liliana Ursu, a Romanian poet, from Zephyr Press, based in Brookline, MA that publishes poetry in translation.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Official Hiatus

I have not written here since July, although my reading life has actually been quite active, I was also very busy in other parts of my life, first with work, then vacationing, then cleaning my room, and finally moving back to Boston, where I have a new lovely apartment with a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. Once I stopped writing, it was hard to start again and the list of reviews to do became too intimidating. I have read a couple of books that have been on my must-read list for a while, including Woodsburner by John Pipkin and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.I had actually heard John Pipkin speak about his book at the First Annual Boston Book Festival last year.

This year, however, I have taken on a lot of responsibilities, including Editor-in-Chief of my school's literary arts magazine and a class where I will be reading Joyce, Kant, and Nietzsche. Therefore, I will put the blog on hiatus until such time as I really feel an interest (and have the time) to revive it. I intend to continue reading others' blogs, and perhaps concentrating more on commenting, since I will not be doing writing of my own, at least for a while.


Monday, July 12, 2010

Book Avalanche!

29. Redwall by Brian Jacques

This is the first book in a series that was around when I was a kid, but as it was popular with those I considered less sophisticated readers than myself, I scorned to read it, and in hindsight missed out on a carefully crafted, archetypal "animal fantasy" that would probably have been helpful to my development as a reader and writer of fantasy. Fortunately, it's not too late, and I recently read this mouse-centric tome with the excuse that we are teaching it to the kids in our summer program Modern Fantasy class.

Redwall is primarily the story of the small novice mouse Matthias, of Redwall Abbey, and his triumph against the war-mongering rat Cluny the Scourge. Classic references abound, as the old sage gatekeeper mouse is called Brother Methuselah and the pink fingers of dawn rise more than once (oh Homer, could not your Muse have left us to ponder that in peace, just once or twice?). Matthias itself brings to my mind a reference to the original Maccabee (father of Judah, hero of Hanukkah), but that might be a stretch too far. Or perhaps not. In any case, Matthias is the spiritual successor to Martin the warrior, whose legendary sword he goes on a series of quests to find. Meanwhile, Jacques develops a charming cast of woodland heroes and villains, with comic foibles, roving allegiances, and above all, revealing names ranging from rats Redtooth and Cheesethief to Constance the Badger and Basil Stag Hare (a rabbit, in case any one is in doubt). Jacques' writing is clean and complete, and with such a large amount of characters, his transitions between them and the "keeping track" factor is minimized with careful chapters and textual signals.

It's no wonder our kids loved it and got into the characters in an almost Harry Potter-esque fashion. I also like that Jacques does not shy away from death, though his systematic destruction of all the villains is a little too indulgent. Continuing the series may not be worth it for me (though I'm sure i would enjoy it), but for kids in the 8-12 range, this is top-quality, maybe even worth devoting a summer to.

30. Elfsong by Elaine Cunningham

This is a Forgotten Realms book, from my boyfriend's childhood stash, as I was in the mood for some comfort fantasy. It's got little depth in plot or character, but the world is sufficiently surprising to make it entertaining and the characters are mostly likable and understandable. The writing isn't too bad, it has a bold descriptive quality. I wouldn't really recommend it, but not the worst thing to pick up on a lazy day either.

31. The Black Cauldron by Lloyd Alexander

I'd read this when I was younger, and all but forgotten everything about it. This is another book we're doing with the kids so I read it for a refresher. I also hadn't realized before that it was part of a series, the second book at that.

The books are apparently based on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but the characters all seem to possess vast quantities of red hair. The protagonist is Taran the assistant Pig-Keeper, who along with his sidekicks the tomboy Princess Eilonwy and subservient, oddly-syntaxed twig and leaf man Gurgi, sets out to recover the Black Cauldron of the evil Lord Arwan. I have left out that this is at the behest of Taran's apparent former liege lord Prince Gwydion as well as the Wizard Dallben, who is raising him, and in the company of a couple others including the dwarf Doli of invisible powers and proud, irascible Prince Ellidyr.

Their journey leads them to Orwen, Orgoch, and Orddu, three enchantresses probably not gratuitously reminiscent of the Three Fates, where Taran pays a price for the evil Cauldron, which creates mindless undead soldiers, so that he can destroy it. The fellowship is betrayed, but one of the traitors redeems himself in ultimate sacrifice. Does this remind you of any other modern epic?

While Alexander's creation does, despite my allusion, have a plot and characters all its own, it does lack the depth of Middle Earth and certainly the strength of writing that Tolkien displayed. A nice book for children, but nothing for an adult to take seriously.

32. The Human Stain by Philip Roth

This is my first Philip Roth book, finally. I have to say, I both see and don't see what all the fuss is about. The book, which, from what I hear, shares this quality with his other books, is simultaneously a sweeping and focused canvas of typically American issues. The Human Stain is about uniquely American puritanism, in matters of morality and of race.

It is a book of ideas, but it is also a book about people. Roth does not let his characters lose their individuality, even as they represent issues of foreignness, multiculturalism, feminism, racial passing, veteran issues, and battered women. They come to represent these issues, but because they are so complete, they never fully can. They are always stained, tinted, with something else, other ideas and influences, and their own ideas about themselves and their identities. Using the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal as a backdrop to the affair of a retired college professor of seventy-one and an allegedly illiterate cleaning woman of thirty-four is a clever idea, and it works. Purity is all about perception, for no one is totally pure, though in Roth's world, no one is totally corrupt either. Even his villains are sympathetic characters whose struggles with their own purity of identity lead them to lash out at others.

The more I think about The Human Stain, the more I appreciate it. I do have to note though that with all his diversity of character, Roth's writing is not for the uneducated. It is erudite and complex, written in the language of academia it writes about. As for Roth's legendary alter-ego narrator Nathan Zuckerman, I'm reserving judgment on him. I have a feeling I don't know the half of it.

Thursday, July 8, 2010


During our time in Madrid, we took a day trip to Toledo, the ancient capital of Castilla and Leon. Toledo is breathtaking and steeped in history, I wish we had spent more time there. The medieval walls of the city and many of the medieval structures are still present and catching a sight of Toledo seemed like stepping into thirteenth-century Castilla. We saw the cathedral, as well as the two remaining synagogues from the fourteenth century. We went inside Sinagoga del Transito, whose size and opulence astounded me, since I had come to expect an ultra-low-key Jewish presence in Spain, where there is one at all. Case in point, the synagogue I attended during my semester abroad was the first floor of an apartment building, with no markings on the outside door. Anyway, Sinagoga del Transito, was built in the beautiful style of Moorish architecture though decorated with Hebrew lettering as opposed to Arabic. It is now the Museo Sefardi, a museum of artifacts from Sephardi communities not just in Spain, but all over the world. Jewish graves from all over Spain have also been brought there to rest. It is sad that this is the largest body of evidence in all of Spain to suggest the rich Jewish history and culture that once existed there. However, it was very exciting to be able to see it. I could have spent much more time digesting the information available there.

First pictured is the cathedral of Toledo. Next, a house in the Moorish style, then a view of Toledo and surrounding countryside. Finally, the Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, which was converted into a church.

Thursday, July 1, 2010


We were in Madrid from May 12-16, which turned out to be a very exciting time to be there. We arrived the night Atletico Madrid won the European Cup in football (soccer in the US). We stayed off Gran Via, the heart of the city, and all around us cars honked, people shouted, waving flags out of windows, running down the street in jerseys and Atletico Madrid colors, it was pandemonium, or shall I say, fiesta!

Before I came to Spain, I greatly underestimated the significance of fiesta-in Spain, fiestas involve parades, all night parties (I'm talking coming home at 1 in the afternoon the next day), stages in the street, costumes, and firecrackers in abundance. Also, of course, dancing and liberal amounts of alcohol.

So we arrived on the cusp of not one, but THREE fiestas. Celebrating the Atletico Madrid victory, celebrating 100 years of Gran Via, and celebrating the day of Madrid's patron saint San Isidro on May 14. That day, Gran Via was blocked off and swathed in blue carpet. Crowds were immense and many dressed in traditional costumes. We saw several little girls in what we could have sworn was the same pink and white jumper-like dress. Stages were set up, and we watched Argintinean tango for a while, then backed out of the crowds and ran into a group of older dancers doing traditional Madrid song-and-dance with outfits to match. It was glorious.

Other highlights of our stay in Madrid including running into several book fairs (I badly wanted some beautiful leather volumes of Don Quixote, but they would not have fit in my backpack), various flea markets including the somewhat notorious El Rastro (our pension hostess warned us of thieves, as did all websites and guidebooks, we took care and were not robbed), and a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho, that we meant to return to and photograph and never did.

Palacio Real Madrid, the eighteenth century palace of Spain's first Bourbon king, Felipe IV.

The Bear and Tree (Oso y Arbol), the symbol of Madrid.

Lago Estanque in Parque Buen Retiro.

Palacio Cristal (eighteenth century greenhouse) in Parque Buen Retiro.

Argentinean tango that we watched from the crowds at Gran Via.

Madrileno dancers and a couple from the crowd joining in!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Catching Up

I've been reading faster than I've felt like blogging these days. Here's the list, and some quick comments:

25. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson

I actually read this on the plane over from Madrid. It's the second in the Millenium trilogy about Swedish journalist Mikhail Blomkvist and especially the disturbed and brilliant young researcher and computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander. This book concentrates much more on Lisbeth's character and continues Larsson's probing of violence against women, and other crimes, in Sweden. What keeps these books from just being (amazingly well-done) thrillers is Larsson's obvious desire to use them as a wake-up call against how women are abused in his country, and around the world, every day. He explores many angles of the problem and uses hauntingly real characters like Lisbeth to demonstrate the psychological consequences, even as she stunningly conquers her own victimhood. Personally, I LOVE Lisbeth's character (couldn't you tell?) and I'm sad I'll only get to spend one more book with her.

26. Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind

I have to say, this started off as extremely generic and one-dimensional fantasy, but it gets impressively complicated and terrifying by the end. What this book has going for it is sheer shock value. Recommended to teenage boys.

27. Foundation by Isaac Asimov

I was disappointed in this groundbreaking scifi classic. I should have read it when I was younger and less familiar with the genre. Foundation is all plot. The great psychohistorian Hari Seldon maps out the future of a colony he establishes, the Foundation, before the Empire as everyone has known it for 12000 years finally crumbles. Without Foundation, Seldon claims, there will be a chaotic interregnum of 30000 years. With it, it will be reduced to only 1000. The book follows the inhabitants of the Foundation planet, Terminus, at intervals when "Seldon crises" occur, or Foundation must battle for its survival in the most statistically predictable way. All the characters are stock and used simply for a purpose, for the reader to learn their clever idea of how to weather the latest Seldon crisis and compete with internal and external political opponents. The only reason I can think of that this was so influential is that Asimov looked quite a bit farther into the future than most people were when he was writing, and his ideas involved a human race that occupied multiple planets throughout the universe. Asimov was writing in the '40s to early '50s, and other ideas like his don't come in till the '60s with Dune and Star Trek.

28. Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I enjoyed this more than I expected to, and liked it better than Brooks' People of the Book.. The story is based on the town of Eyam, in Derbyshire, England in the 1600s, where the townspeople shut themselves off to contain the plague for a little over a year. Brooks tells the story of that year through her vibrant fictional narrator, Anna Frith. Frith is a maid to the local minister and his wife, who are the strongest forces behind the decision to quarantine. While much of what Anna has to relate is traumatic and may seem far-fetched, I think Brooks did a very accurate job of portraying the physical and psychological aspects of plague. The book shows a lot of research and also a lot of inspired imagination. I would recommend it to fans of non-romanticized historical fiction.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

24. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

I'd received this from Bookmooch some time ago, but never got to it before leaving for Spain. Bulgakov apparently reached cult status in Russia, due to this twentieth century Soviet era novel. He does not seem to be as well known in the US, but probably not among the ranks of the most obscure either.

My summary of this book could be one sentence: The devil pays a visit to Moscow. The devil is actually in the details. Bulgakov was writing while highly aware of the probable censorship he would receive. The book can be abstract and surreal a lot of the time, but the writing itself is straight forward, which is really all I ask. The important comparisons and allusions being made here, I would say, are in the 'feel' of the book.

At first, the characters who encounter the devil or supernatural occurrences are not believed by the public or authorities, and the smart ones say nothing as they know sticking their necks out will only result in unpleasant investigations and interrogations. Plenty of this goes on, before the police, who are really only lesser devils in the characters' lives, decide they have a 'case' and try to figure out what is really going on. The irony, and strange feeling that builds, is that the devil coming to Soviet Moscow is really not so hard to believe at all. It's really not that more terrible or unusual than your neighbors spying on you or people being carted away in the middle of the night, never to return. Whatever the devils can do, it may be extraordinary, but is it really worse? What is really more odd or unnatural?

There's also a side story, being written by the main character, the Master, about Pontius Pilate. The story interests the devil extremely. The point of that seems to be about the eternal balance of good and evil. Is the tired Pilate, "the wicked procurator of Judea," really so different from Yeshua ha-Notsri, the peace-advocating philosopher?

The Master and Margarita got much more exciting in the second half, while the first part is more of a build up. Bulgakov also has a much more abstract style than the nineteenth century Russian greats, but the times he was living in were quite different.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

23. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I've been MIA for a month now, but mostly with a good reason. After my study abroad program in Spain ended, my boyfriend and I met in Madrid for a three-week trip traveling in Spain, France, and Germany. Expect posts soon about our travels in Madrid, Toledo, Marseilles, Lyon, Paris, Munich, Fussen, Koln, and Berlin, as soon as he relinquishes the pictures!

I first heard of Cranford from Wuthering Expectations, and it piqued my interest immediately. I bought it and took it with me to Spain, but kept it in reserve for when my library access would cease. As it turned out, I didn't have time for reading while traveling, so it was the first book I read on my arrival home.

I enjoyed this slim novel for many reasons. First, it possesses many of the characteristics I most value in fiction; a clear, witty narrative, focus on unique characters, and above all, truth in portraying the interactions and behaviors of people. Elizabeth Gaskell's writing reminded me strongly of Jane Austen. She uses funny observations and sardonic remarks to convey the circumstances of the world and society that she lived in. Of course, the two authors did not write far apart, Gaskell was only half a century after Austen and they would have had many of the same cultural and historical influences. However, in my opinion, Gaskell's material is braver and more groundbreaking than Austen's. I still prefer Austen's writing style, but I have to really admire Gaskell in her choice of subject matter.

She writes almost exclusively about women and she dares to tackle economic issues and make them more central to her book, and more tragic than even Austen does. Austen solves her heroine's money woes by providing them with wealthy suitors, Gaskell does at last provide a destitute heroine with a comfortably situated brother, but only after quite serious reviews of economic woes. Gaskell also addresses death early and often, which Austen usually shunts to the side, as happening either before or after the meat of her story. Her characters are not young and not even very smart. She lets the reader laugh at their foibles, but also shows how such women can be sweet and inspiring after all.

Cranford, the story of an anachronistic, occasionally deluded, and altogether naive town, of older genteel ladies, is both hilarious and historically relevant, as it rose from the pen of an author who deviated more than others from women's literature in the Victorian era, and her lack of focus on a romantic plotline is rather extraordinary, even today.

Sunday, May 9, 2010


Last weekend I went on a crazy trip to visit my friend who is studying Arabic in Morocco. Her university is near the city of Fez, so I arranged to fly there so she could meet me at the airport and take me around. With my fantastic travel luck, the plane ended up stopping in midair and informing us that due to bad weather in Fez, we would be landing in Casablanca instead. Thus, I took a five hour night tour of Morocco on a bus full of Spaniards, arriving at Fez airport around midnight Moroccon-time. Thankfully, my wonderful friend was there to meet me,otherwise I probably would have spent the night in the airport since I don't speak French or Arabic and didn't know where our hotel was.I've learned my lesson. Never again will I go anywhere without being prepared for ending up somewhere completely different or for much longer or anything. Obviously.

Anyway, I had a wonderful time in the Fez Medina, the enormous walled-in old city that is now shops and mosques as well as parts of the Qurayni University. Fez is the oldest city in Morocco, according to one of our taxi drivers, it was founded by the Prophet's nephew. I visited the tannery where the many leather products are made and got to see handwoven Berber carpets and blankets, and the famous woodwork and jewelry. I drank Moroccan mint tea and ate plenty of tagine, as well as Moroccan breads, a very thin flat bread called missamin and a soft baguette-like bread. For breakfast, fresh-squeezed orange juice came with the tea I ordered and missamin came with honey and apricot jam.I also learned some Arabic, my favorite being "meshy-mishkil" meaning nevermind or no problem. That's technically Moroccan Arabic though, the word in classical Arabic is slightly different.

Enjoy the pictures! And, yes, I can now officially say I have been to Africa.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Cordoba, capital of the Moorish stronghold in Spain for centuries, a thriving city characterized by religious tolerance and scholarly excellence, was conquered by the Castilians in 1243. The Mezquita, or large central mosque, was preserved, against the Church's wishes, because the Spanish monarchs revered Moorish architecture. In the center, a cathedral was constructed and the building still serves as a cathedral today, as well as a popular tourist destination. The physical juxtaposition of the two styles is breathtaking, but to me, it doesn't represent the coming together of two major religions. instead, it represents organized religion's desire to dominate.

After the Christians came in, any semblance of tolerance was ended and the remaining Moorish population and the city's large Jewish population were persecuted in various degrees until they were officially expelled in 1492.The remains of the Jewish neighborhood are now tourist attractions as well, including the synagogue where Moses Maimonides once worshipped. Maimonides was born in Cordoba, though his family fled to Egypt and finally to Israel. The synagogue reminded me strongly of the beautiful, intimate Sephardic synagogues I saw in Israel. Today, there is a statue of Maimonides nearby, and a plaza and hotel named after him.

Here are my pictures of the Mezquita and Maimonides' synagogue.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010


Over spring break, after the Camino and before the volcanic ash, I took a solo trip to Sevilla and Cordoba in southern Spain. Cordoba was the capital of Moorish Spain, or al-Andalus for centuries, and Sevilla was the home of the Almohavad dynasty in the magnificent Reales Alcazares. Both were reconquered in the thirteenth century by Fernando III of Castile.

The Gothic cathedral in Sevilla was built on the remains of a mosque that fell down in an earthquake. La Giralda, the mosque tower, is the only part still left standing, and the Catholic monarchs left it, only adding La Giralda, the eponymous weathervane, on top. The Reales Alcazares also had a significant Mudejar makeover (Christian architects using typically Moorish styles), much of which was added under Pedro IV (also the Cruel) and for the wedding of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Isabella and Fernando spent a lot of time there, and Isabella doled out monopolies for precious cargo from the Americas from her position in Sevilla, located securely up the river from the coast. I fell in love with the palaces and gardens of the Reales Alcazares, most of which are kept up from the original. It is technically still a royal residence today.

In fact, the reason my camera died before I got to Vienna is because I took so many pictures in Sevilla.

Here are pictures from Sevilla, I'll get to Cordoba in my next post.

Monday, May 3, 2010

22. Le Morte DArthur by Sir Thomas Malory

I finished reading this some time ago, but I have been rather busy with travels and schoolwork. I'm a bit of a connoisseur of Arthurian legends, but until I read this, I had not made it to any of the older classics. I've read modern spins like Marion Keyes' The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King. I've also read T.h. White's The Once and Future King, which I can now tell is heavily based on Le Morte DArthur although obviously much more modern in language and organization.

Malory was writing in the fourteenth century, and his source material, among others, would have been Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote about the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century. Monmouth is generally recognized as being the first definite mention of Arthurian legend in writing. I found it interesting that Malory ends each of his "books" with a plea for the reader to pray for him, the author, since he wrote the book in prison.

There are a lot of Christian references so that Arthur was not remotely pagan at least in Malory's interpretation. However, the stories of the holy Grail etc. all point to a very Christian kingdom. there is little explicit mention of Camelot and the founding of Camelot, though there is the Round Table. The books center on one or another knight, starting with Arthur, but all of them skip back and forth between various knights. Also, often a knight's story would abruptly leave off, and whatever happened to him would be later obliquely referred to and eventually explained in the best tense. This especially annoyed me with the deaths of Sir Lamorak and Sir Tristram, each of which could have been a marvelous story on its own.

For the first time, I was able to read the full history of Sir Tristram and La Belle Isode, of which I knew only the bare bones. I also learned that Elaine, daughter of Sir Pellinore and Sir Galahad's mother, is a different person from the Maiden of Ascolat, also named Elaine. The latter, however, is the one who died and had herself placed in a barge to Camelot to announce that she had died for Sir Lancelot's love. The first Elaine also died, presumably for Lancelot's love, but the manner of her death is not explained. I also liked that there is a full book on Sir Gareth, who is my favorite knight of all, dating from TOFK. However, T.H. White messes a bit with how he dies. In his version, he dies in Sir Lancelot's defense, in Malory's, Lancelot accidentally kills him without knowing who he is.

That brings me to the extremely confusing code of honour and chivalry in the book. Modern versions are much more straightforward and whitewash a lot of the violence and sniping and cruelty between the knights. It seems that it gives honour to defeat knights whom you do not know, but it is not honourable to defeat or even to fight knights that you do know. However, the exception to this rule is if you do not tell your name, which Lancelot especially is famous for, but all of the knights do it. If an unnamed knight defeats his friends, he gains "much worship." Likewise, it is okay, though regrettable, to kill your friend if you did not know who he was. If you did know, you should be shamed. However, it is never okay to kill your brother, even if you didn't know it was him. there are various sets of brother knights throughout the books, some who kill each other accidentally, attempt to kill each other, or who must kill in order to avenge the other brother's death.

Another confusing thing is that Arthur, who actively supports the adultery of Sir Tristram and La Belle Isode , does not seem to know about Lancelot and Guenivere. To everyone else, it is no secret, but Arthur refuses to believe. In fact, the first time he even thinks about it is when he receives a vicious letter from King Mark (La Belle Isolde's husband) in this vein. It appears he goes to the grave believing in his queen's fidelity.

Adultery seems to be tacitly approved of, though from a Christian angle it is wrong. During the quest of the Holy Grail, Lancelot gives up this sin, but resumes it again later. Then, when Arthur dies, Guenivere becomes a nun and refuses to look on Lancelot ever again. I suppose that makes it okay because they atone for their sins. In Isolde's case, however, her husband is awful to her, but there seems to be love between Arthur and Guenivere so that, to me, makes adultery less justified. Another interesting gender observation, Sir Galahad and Sir Percy de Gales are referred to as "maidens." This shows that, at least in Arthurian legend, Christianity values male virginity as much as, or more than, female.

All in all, I'm glad I read it and I plan on reaching further into medieval Arthuriana, now that I'm feeling more confident with the language and structure.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Due to a toxic mix of volcanic ash, make-up work, and beautiful beach weather, I've been neglecting to update.

My friends and I were initially stranded in Prague last Saturday, we took a train to Vienna where the airport was still open, and as soon as I had bought a flight out, that shut down too. I finally got back to Spain on Wednesday in time for all my final papers and projects. Final exams are next week.

My camera died, so I have no photos of Vienna or Prague, but both were beautiful and wonderful in different ways. I only really had a day in Prague, but I spent plenty of time, broke, in Vienna.In Prague, we did the New Prague tour run by Sandeman's New Europe. I recommend the free tour. Tip the guide at the end, he's worth it (and he'll ask you for it too).

The highlight for me was seeing the old Jewish Quarter, with the NewOld Synagogue where the Golem still lies in the attic, waiting for the day when he is needed once more. I hope that day never comes again, but still. It was also very moving to hear the guide talk about the Pinkas Synagogue, where the drawings of children from Terezin, a concentration camp that the Nazis used for propaganda. The truth is though, the Jews in the Czech Republic had it bad long before the Nazis. The ghetto wasn't opened till nearly the end of the nineteenth century. It's scary to think about.

On our way out of Prague, we saw the Jubilee Synagogue, which is the most lavish synagogue I've ever seen. It's still active, as are some of the others, but it's actually outside of the Jewish Quarter. It made me happy to see it, as I don't think a synagogue would ever be that obvious in Spain.

In Vienna, I recommend the Habsburg palaces; the Hofburg and Schonbrunn; which I really wanted to see and am glad I did. We also went to Schonbrunn Zoo, one of the world's oldest. I took the tour at the Hofburg, and my favorite part was just seeing some of the kitchen tools used and table settings and hearing about the courses they ate and how everything was decorated. There were separate pastry and confection kitchens, not to mention kitchens for individual members of the household. The Habsburgs' sheer extravagance and number of possessions is mind-boggling. I can't imagine how amazing it would have been to be a server there, or to be an assistant pastry chef...

I also recommend Nashmarkt, the open-air food market, where most of the foods were actually Middle Eastern. All of the stands sold olives, dried fruit, nuts, soft cheeses, various kinds of hummus, and falafel. There was borek, baklava, kebabs (available on every street corner just like bratwurst), and more cheeses, fruits, vegetables, and breads. I had flattenbrod, a flatbread so excellent I bought it twice. A word of advice though, Nashmarkt closes at 6:30 pm and isn't open on Sundays-along with every other grocery store in Vienna.

While stuck in Vienna, I engaged in some indulgent reading. My excuse is that these were my friend's books and I was too broke to buy any of my own. They're both series books, that I could go either way with continuing. My gut tells me they're not worth it, but something else just wants to chill out and have a little fun.

20. The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

A fantasy romp in an interesting world that the author has used before. The characterizations are good and you feel attached to the main characters. The plot is so-so.

21. From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris

This is the eighth book in the Sookie Stackhouse series. My only previous knowledge was that it was about vampires in the American South and the TV show True Blood is based on it. Now I feel like I know the whole series without having read the other books. That's kind of scary and I know her repeating all the plot lines would have annoyed the hell out of me if I had read the rest of the series. As it is...the narrator can be funny, which helps, otherwise it reads like the soap opera it is. Harris is good at what she does and her world is creepy and fascinating. It's just not very literary, it's all an emotional ride.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Camino de Santiago de Compostela

I am back from five days on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I walked 110 kilometers through the Galician countryside on the ancient pilgrimage that has had a huge revival in the past 20 years, despite the fact that fewer and fewer Spaniards identify as religious Catholics.

The Camino has existed at least since the ninth century, when the remains of St. James the Apostle, were "discovered" at Compostela. The legend goes that St. James, known in Spain as Santiago, came to Galicia to proselytize and established the first Christian community and church in Spain. Galicia is the northwest region of Spain above Portugal, where Gallego is spoken, a language similar to Portuguese, and one of the four official languages of Spain. Santiago then returned to Rome, where he was beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa. His disciples are said to have brought his remains back to Galicia and buried him at Compostela. In the ninth century, Santiago is said to have risen from the grave and performed miracles for Spain, including the defeat of the Moors at the Battle of Clavijo, earning him the nickname Matamoros (Moorslayer). Santiago was declared the patron saint of Spain, and Pope Calixto II in the tenth century declared a Holy Year, also known as a Jacobeo Year, every time St. James' Day coincided with Sunday. 2010 is a Jacobeo Year, so the sins of all pilgrims in this year will be absolved.

The Camino is probably the hardest thing I've done in my life so far. I walked through epic mud, rivers, in hailstorms and rainstorms, through forests and fields, beside roads, up and down hills. I learned not to think about how much farther I had to go, I just followed the yellow arrows through tiny rural towns and the middle of nowhere, thought about issues of ethics, my future, my personal relationships, anything to distract from the pain. I met many fellow pilgrims from all over the world including France, Germany, and Korea. Everybody had different reasons for the Camino, few of them exclusively religious. I was also observing Passover for most of the Camino, but I still managed to enjoy traditional Galician foods like Caldo Gallego, a soup consisting of cabbage, potatoes, and greens, and beef, which was everywhere, as Galicia is cow country. On my last night, when Passover was over, I tried Tarta de Santiago, a cake flavored with almonds and lemon and dusted with powdered sugar. The Camino taught me that I really can do anything, I can walk much farther than I ever thought possible, and when I think I'm going to keel over, I can keep on going.

When we finally reached the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, it was hard to believe it was over. I watched a pilgrims' mass, and at the end, they swing a big bottle of incense called the botafumiero. It was hard to get a picture with so many people and also it was swinging back and forth, but I tried.

Here are some pictures of the Galician countryside, my beautiful and perilous friend, and the outside and inside of the Cathedral of Santiago. The outside I have pictures of is Baroque, dating from the eighteenth century, but the original cathedral is Romantic architecture, dating from the tenth century. Unfortunately, the most famous Romantic construction, the Portico de la Gloria, was closed during my visit. I have pictures of two sides of the Cathedral, the Azabacheria or Northern facade, and the traditional entrance, the Obradoiro or Western Facade. There is also a photo of the Quintana fountain outside of Platerias, the Southern facade.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

19. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

There was another Amy Tan book on the shelves of the library at my Spanish university, and as Tan is rapidly ascending to comfort food status in my view (joining the likes of Madeleine L'Engle, L.M.Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott), I savored this morsel, since who knows when I'll find the next? I liked this book the best yet, so the trend continues, and part of the reason is because there is a significant deviation from previous books. Instead of an uncertain daughter who is alienated from a critical mother with a tragic past, this book is about the relationship between two sisters, told primarily from the point of view of the younger sister, Olivia.

Olvia, or Libby-ah, as her sister Kwan likes to call her, is half-Chinese, half-American, whose Chinese father dies when she is young, leaving his American wife with the revelation that he has another daughter in China, whom he would like her to bring to the States. Instead of exhibiting Chinese criticism and pessimism, Kwan, when she arrives, already 18 years old to Olivia's six, oozes love and affection, as well as stories about ghosts and past lives that frighten young Olivia. The book begins when the sisters are older, and Olivia resents the guilt and obligation that Kwan's kindness nets around her. The story also centers on Olivia's relationship with her estranged husband Simon, a Hawaiian-American who writes ad copy for Olivia's photographs in a public relations business they share.

The book is interspersed with the tales of Kwan's past life as a Hakka mountain girl who finds refuge with white Christian missionaries. The one-eyed girl Nunumu forms a friendship with the American Miss Banner, who isn't really Christian at all, but abandoned by her lover in China, she has nowhere else to go. The story takes place in the late nineteenth century, after China had been divided into spheres of influence and rebellions against foreigners and ethnic minorities were brewing. The story sets a good backdrop to the story in the present life, and within the story, Miss Banner tell stories to entertain people when she is supposed to be translating sermons into Chinese. The blur between reality and fiction occurs more strongly in this book than in any of Tan's others that I've read, but I don't think the reader is really supposed to sort that out, rather to accept it with Chinese resignation in a world that, after all, nobody really understands.

I strongly recommend The Hundred Secret Senses, especially to fans of magical realism and cross-cultural fiction.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

16. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

I wanted this book like a bag of candy. I'd seen it around bookstores in the States, but then I went to see the movie "Los Hombres Que No Amaban Las Mujeres" (Men That Don't Love Women) in Spain. The movie was made in Sweden, but I saw it dubbed in Spanish. I really liked it and was impressed that I was able to understand it fairly well,allowing for my mediocre level of Spanish. The author is Swedish and died, I believe, before his trilogy, beginning with this book, became internationally famous. Anyway, so the movie was good, even though the violent rape scenes are still haunting me. The book, I knew, had to be better. And I was right.

This is a mostly character-driven thriller, maybe a bit predictable in terms of plot, but since I already knew the ending, I couldn't analyze it for that. It also drives home a strong message about the prevalence of abuse of women and the problems of too much government in society and too much corruption in business. It's funny, but you (or I, at least) always think of Sweden as somehow being a happy, rich country above ugly problems like rape or fascism. Not that I really know much about Sweden, just that they're semi-Socialist and doing well financially. But Larsson's characters know a more dangerous, more morally bankrupt society. I'm not saying it presents the Swedish government as evil, I think it also shows the benefits of living in such a generally civilized place.

The "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" is Lisbeth Salander, labeled a social misfit from childhood, she is saddled with a legal guardian, despite the fact that at age 24, she is a computer genius and earning plenty of money with her skills. Mikhail Blomkvist, a financial reporter, is the primary protagonist, and after falling for a scam that a big company sets up after he tries to investigate their operations,he leaves his magazine Millenium, and is offered a job by Henrik Vanger, head of another powerful corporation who is obsessed with finding the killer of his long-missing niece Harriet.

I've been recommending this book to all of my friends, as it's a fast-paced, enjoyable read, good for distraction, but still making you think a bit about serious issues and a different side of life.

17. La Familia de Pascual Duarte (The Family of Pascual Duarte) by Camilo Jose Cela

This has been my favorite of all my readings for my 20th Century Spanish Lit and Drama class. Jose Cela's novel is creepy and entertaining and simply well put-together. I love subterfuges of authorship and pieces of stories to put together (a la Don Quixote), so this "history" pleased me in that way. The bulk of the novel is written by Pascual Duarte himself, while he is serving a prison sentence for killing a man, which is the only crime of his not explained in the text. Pascual reminded me in some ways of Humbert Humbert though not nearly as despicable, charming or educated. In fact, Pascual, who is supposed to be a poor uneducated man, sounded a little too crafty at times, but I think that is part of the subterfuge of the novel. It has been edited by someone who "found" the manuscript, even though the person who first received it ordered it burned after his death.

Pascual Duarte's life is a series of rages and anger and odd observations. His parents, whom he hates, fights constantly, and the only one with any power over them is his sister Rosario, who runs off to become a prostitute. He has some small happiness with his first wife Lola, but leaves her when he feels the need to kill his mother, whom they are living with. After a series of other misfortunes, he does eventually kill his mother, where the story ends.

I don't know exactly what this novel is supposed to mean, perhaps to illustrate the life of a poor Spanish man and explain or explore his violence, and what kind of environment produces this kind of behavior. I thought it was definitely very interesting, and I will perhaps return to it sometime down the road.

18. Beloved by Toni Morrison

I knew what Beloved was about before I read it, but I don't think I can sufficiently describe how evocative and brilliantly written this book is. Morrison brings slavery to life in a way I have never read it before. She focuses on how slavery affects families, your sense of self and ownership, but she shows the emotional scars in a way that feels very modern...

Beloved is not only the daughter Sethe sacrifices for love and freedom, but she is all the children sold from their mothers, dropped into the ocean, forgotten, because nobody knows their name. Morrison shows how slavery took away love, even mother-love, because it was just too painful.

As a white person, a book like this is a reminder of how ugly people can be to other people, and even though my ancestors immigrated to the US after slavery, I know they and I have benefited simply from the color of our skin, because where some people are still prejudiced against for their skin color, others have the advantage. Like with the Holocaust, I don't know what to do though, except remember and behave without racism and any small thing that comes in my way to do, I will do.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Valencia: Las Fallas

"Las Fallas" means fireworks in Spanish, and the people of Valencia take this annual weeklong celebration very seriously. Las Fallas culminates on March 19, the Day of San Jose or Dia del Padre. Beginning on March 15, the neighborhoods of Valencia bring out their Falleras, extensive elaborate displays made of cardboard and paper maiche, that will go up in flames the night of March 19. Firefighters are on standby with hoses, though generally they hose down people who look too hot! Firecrackers are everywhere, I went to Valencia on March 18, and very few minutes would go by without a firecracker going off, some too close for comfort though I avoided being singed. I also joined the crowds for "La Mascleta" a fifteen minute barrage of uninterrupted fireworks that turned the sky grey and covered the crowd, including me, in bits of debris. No such thing as a safety barrier for Spaniards! I also can't get over their love of parades, we watched each neighborhood bring an offering of flowers to the Virgin Mary and literally everyone in the neighborhood wore traditional Valencian dress and walked along with their baby carriages and you can be sure the babies were trussed up too. My friends and I got caught behind the parade route and feared we would miss our bus back, luckily it too was delayed due to crowds, and we made it. Here are my pictures of the lovely Falleras, the traditional bunuelos de calabaza of Valencia (fried pumpkin doughnuts), and the paraders in Valencian dress. I saw some of these same Falleras burning on the news this morning!

Monday, March 15, 2010

13. La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) by Federico Garcia Lorca

Garcia Lorca, is one of Spain's best known poets and dramatists. He is also famous for his short and tragic life, he was shot by Franco's soldiers in 1936, at the age of 33, both for his political leanings and his sexual orientation. The House of Bernarda Alba is one of Lorca's most famous plays and the last to be written before his death. It wasn't actually performed for the first time until almost thirty years after it was written, and that in Argentina. The play depicts the life of one household of women in Andalucia, Lorca's native region and the subject of most of his plays and much of his poetry. Lorca also wrote poetry about the gypsy life in Spain, in the collection Romancero Gitano and about his depression during the two years he spent in New York, Poetas de Nueva York.

Bernarda Alba is the mother of five daughters, under whose tyrannical thumb she keeps daughters, servants, and her own aging mother. Bernarda's strict ideas of propriety and social class are the constraints against which the inhabitants of her house define themselves, either succumbing knowingly or unknowingly, or rebelling openly. The tension comes to a head when the youngest daughter Adela insists on loving the intended husband of the oldest daughter Angustias. The young man is marrying the older sister because she stands to inherit considerably more money. Although Adela has her way, she cannot escape the consequences of defying Bernarda.

The play became considerably more interesting to me when a fellow student suggested that it was meant as a portrait of the impending political situation in Spain. To me, it appeared more a portrait of the repression and self-repression of women of a certain class at that time in Spain, a worthy yet tired theme.

14. Daisy Miller by Henry James

I'd wanted to read this novella for a while, ever since it was discussed in Reading Lolita in Tehran, and when I finally spotted it on the library shelf in the "Literatura Norteamericana" section, I decided to go for it. It was a quick read in an excellent style, leaving me with plenty to think about.

I really enjoy Henry James' novellas, but I can't seem to get through any of his novels. I've tried The Bostonians and The Ambassadors and had to stop reading both because I was just too bored and had to spend too much time dissecting the language. Normally, I like that kind of thing, but I think Henry James is just a bit over my head for now. This gave me hope that I can try again in the future.

Daisy Miller is about a young man, an American raised in Switzerland and his encounter with the young lady of the title, a young American lady improperly fond of the company of men, among displays of other social vulgarities. He is drawn to her, but also judges her constantly. There are several themes at work; the different social standards for men and women, social differences between Americans and Europeans, and also a sort of high school-ish feel of cliques and exclusivity that Daisy threatens and one feels is the real reason she is thought to be improper. In the end, the reader can be the one to judge the narrator and I, for one, was not kind in my thoughts! However, I definitely recommend the novella as thoroughly enjoyable.

15. The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger by Stephen King

I had never read Stephen King before. At one point, I had some sort of idea he was intimidating, another time that he was beneath my notice, and finally, that I would get around to him, but I had better things to read in the meantime. Well, I got around to him and don't regret it. I think I would even continue reading the Dark Tower series.

In some ways, it's very standard fantasy, but it's well-focused with just a few characters and settings and pointed symbolisms to work out. This is definitely escapist, in that it addresses all the hardest things to face about life in an environment where it seems appropriate to face them first. The Gunslinger is a mysterious character, whose past we learn about while he is chasing a Man in Black, who presumably has some answers, across the desert. The character is interesting. He's sympathetic, but ultimately everything falls to his one goal and ambition, to find the Dark Tower.

King writes in an afterword that when he wrote the book, he was unsure of many things he alluded to or hinted at. I look forward to seeing what he comes up with.

Monday, March 8, 2010

11. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather

I love Willa Cather. My Antonia is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, I think it is her best as I did not like this one quite as much, and I liked Oh Pioneers! less. So, my relationship with Cather's work is the inverse of my relationship to Amy Tan's work, I suppose. Still, I enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop as I believe it was meant to be, the stories of some persons of interest in a place of interest. Cather doesn't dress this novel up, it is simple and honest human experience, with no other plot. And this, she achieved in complete sentences! I wish some of the experimentalist modernists and stream-of-consciousness whatnots had read Cather or paid attention to her if they did.

As I was reading, I felt that she had just the right combination of detail, neither too sparse nor too florid, and she related stories of the characters as they would occur or be contemplated upon in real life. The Archbishop of the title is Father Latour, a relatively young French priest who is assigned the "new" archdiocese of New Mexico when it becomes part of the United States. These parts had already been Catholicized long before, but the old institutions were out of repair and most of the people had not received religious instruction in a generation or two. Father Latour, and his friend, Father Joseph Vaillant, who accompanies him, were real historical figures whom Cather found interesting. She evokes an intriguing Mexican and Indian culture and landscape for them to encounter, and she seems to be as familiar with this territory as her own Midwestern lands, where she grew up and her other novels are set. One can imagine Cather learning and falling in love with the land in order to write this book.

I've read some criticism suggesting that the relationship between Latour and Vaillant is meant to be homoerotic. I wouldn't discount that notion, there are hints that Latour, at least, feels more strongly about Joseph than he should, but I also believe that their relationship could be a portrayal of what a true friendship could be like. Father Latour exemplifies the isolation that I think everyone feels without their closest friends, but Father Vaillant is the sort of person who at least appears to make friends everywhere. I think people like that might secretly feel just as lonely as everyone else, but I guess Cather didn't.

I think I might have gotten more out of this book in a class, but as it is, I'm glad I finally read it.

12. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Where to start? I really enjoyed this, I'm into dystopias and scifi and not only does Atwood combine the two (a frequent combination, but still), but she has plenty of amusing mutants and genetic products etc. that sound almost possible to the bio geek side of me. I really appreciate a science fiction author who knows her stuff, and she at least knows her history of evolution extremely well and is quite good at faux-genetic technobabble, shall we say.

Snowman is the last human on Earth. At least, so far as he knows. However, there are a strange mutant people, whom he calls the Children of Crake, with many helpful genetic modifications. The book flashes between Snowman's present and his life leading up to the present, focusing particularly on his friend Crake and lover Oryx. I'd heard it said that Jimmy (Snowman's real name) is annoying and Oryx and Crake are more interesting, but on the contrary, I found him an apt and charming narrator, whose character I liked and related to. I couldn't imagine anyone else telling the story.

Atwood offers a convincing portrait of a Malthusian future where population growth and supply demand have finally outrun even the best of human ingenuity, with sickening video games and web sites, false empirical utopias within a greater devastation (the elevation of the elite at the expense of the masses), and finally a twisted mastermind, Crake, who destroys it all and creates his own DNA-encoded utopia. But what occurs to me about Crake's method is the gist of a quote I once heard somewhere, I can't remember where, it could have been Richard Dawkins or something else, but that to be truly viable, the genome needs to be able to err, to make mistakes. A human intelligence would create perfect beings if it could, but perfection cannot adapt. The Children of Crake are built to survive in a certain kind of world, but one disaster, the same disaster repeated enough times, could wipe them all out, because they could not learn from their mistakes. Fortunately, we can and that's a fact dystopias like Atwood's strive to remind us of before it's too late.

Thursday, March 4, 2010


Barcelona, I hardly met ye. After my weekend in Barcelona, I feel, well, not really much, about the city. I saw some promised Modernist architecture, learned about the origins of the city and of Catalonia in general, and that St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as of England. My pictures came out awful as always, but my favorite sight was Gaudi's mash-up in a building of the legend of St. George and the dragon. The edifice is composed of skull-shaped windows, and strategically placed scales and claws, and on top the piercing lance of the sainted George.

Menus all over the city contained English and Catalan. I had a delicious and large dish of Thai food my first night, and ate at a Catalan restaurant, Origens, my second night. The stuffed aubergines were fantastic, and hopefully I can recreate them. I didn't manage to get pictures of these, but I snapped a shot of my Patatas Braves tapa that I ate right before we left.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

9. Dune by Frank Herbert

This time, I opted for a re-read on my long bus trip to Barcelona. Dune, in my opinion, is to science fiction as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Frank Herbert created a world that can stand entirely on its own, possibly even more so than Middle Earth, and achieves the great feat where so many authors falter: a book with rich characters that do not suffer at the expense of the plot, and vise versa.

Paul Atreides comes from a long line of honorable, loyal Atreides Dukes on his father's side and a mysterious and powerful female organization, the Bene Gesserit, on his mother's side. When their family is given the planet Arrakis, or Dune, to hold for the Empire, the only planet where the universe's most powerful commodity, the spice melange is harvested, they know it is a ploy on the part of their ancient enemies the Harkonnens, particularly the current head of the family, the diabolical Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. When inevitable tragedy strikes, Paul and his mother, Lady Jessica, are forced to brave the desert and the curious desert people, the Fremen.

On this reading, I focused on how and why Paul fulfills the legends of the Bene Gesserit and the Fremen, and how he accepts and rejects the role. I paid more attention to figuring out the fictitious origins of religions and how they are related. I also could now look at a lot of the characters with more of their histories in mind, after reading Dune: House Atreides, by Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson. Of course, Dune was the original book, so I also think those two interpreted some of them wrong.

I'm glad Dune was still gripping to read and I could still respect the writing content and style. I think I must have been twelve the last time I read it, and it would have been a shame to lose my fond memories. Now, the only problem is I want to read the entire series again!

10. The Kitchen God's Wife by Amy Tan

I just like each Amy Tan book I read better than the last. Even though this book reminded me strongly of the other two books of hers I have read, The Joy Luck Club and The Bonesetter's Daughter, all three concern Chinese mothers and daughters and the mother's secret shameful history of oppression, this book tied together better and held some very keen observations about life and people.

The passage that made me want to yell, "So true! So true!" was this one:

"I saw that my husband did this laughing-scaring game not just with me, but with his friends. And I also began to see that what he did was wrong, cruel, but no one else seemed to see this.

...He accused and tormented, shouted and threatened. And just at that point when you did not know which way to move, he took the danger away, became kind and forgiving, laughing and happy. Back and forth, this way and that. Of course, we were confused, fooled into thinking we always wanted to please him (223)."

Maybe it's not good, but I read Amy Tan and find her oddly comforting for moments like that, when someone else seems to understand the subtle, nasty things people can do to you with or without realizing it. Things that you feel and find difficult to acknowledge. Things that make you feel guilty, even if you don't know why. When Tan says it aloud, it's like she's releasing it for you.

I also liked the legend of the Kitchen God's wife and how this mother and daughter actually do get closer at the end.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

6. El Caso de las Chuches Misteriosos

I promised to read a Spanish book outside of class, so I did! Okay, it's a book for second-graders, but you know what? It was great for my Spanish reading level. I wouldn't have picked it up, but my "intercambio" (language exchange) partner got it for me from the library.

I'm glad I read it, because it made me realize I need to practice reading Spanish like I practiced reading English. I can't start with the great literature overnight. I may be an adult, but my Spanish level is probably below that of a Spanish-speaking six-year-old. So, I must read accordingly, however uninteresting, I could feel my Spanish reading skills improving. This was about a little girl who decides to leave sweets in her neighbors' mailboxes anonymously and when someone else starts leaving anonymous poems, she investigates.

You may see more of these, please don't laugh! I don't know if I should really count them or not, but this was the first one and I was proud!

7. Lights of Bohemia by Ramon Maria del Valle-Inclan

We read this play, in English translation, for my Spanish Literature course. It was printed side by side with a Spanish translation, so whenever the English got too colloquial, I looked over to the other side to get an idea of what was really going on.

These fifteen scenes occur over the course of a night and morning and the last three scenes over the next couple days. Maximo Estrella (Estrella meaning star, he is nicknamed Mal-Estrella, or in the English translation, Ill-Starred Max), is a bohemian Modernist poet (these terms get thrown around a lot) turned old, blind, and poor. His "friend" Don Latino constantly praises him, all the while taking him out to bars and bleeding him of any money he has left or could hope to gain. Some proletariat protests occur while they are out, Max gets involved and briefly jailed. Eventually, Don Latino takes Max home only to leave him to die in the cold on the doorstep of his home. Obviously, this is supposed to be a nuanced reflection on the bohemian life, it just feels highbrow and cold. It's hard not to sympathize with Max, on the other hand, he seems to bring trouble on himself.

The play feels stereotypically Spanish; pessimistic and devil-may-care. I didn't much enjoy it, but as a representative piece of Spanish Modernism and the period leading to the Spanish Civil War, I'm trying to get interested. I'll see what my teacher says next time we have class.

8. Tongue by Kyung Ran Jo

A novel in translation, this time from Korean, I expected to like more than I did. The protagonist is a cook whose boyfriend has left her, who works through her depression, finding solace in her cooking, and culminates in a glorious act of revenge. It sounded fascinating, but unfortunately there's not more to it than that book jacket description.

I enjoyed the discussion of food, but the protagonist-narrator was way too preachy and forceful with the food/love/sex metaphors. Really, you can be more subtle with that. We get it. It was too sparse for my taste, I guess. It could also always be the translation, partly at least. There were delicious detailed hints and then no rounding out of characters, not enough explaining of relationships. I understood what happened in the end, but man was it boring and anticlimactic the way it was written. I hate to say it, but in the hands of say, Nabokov, this could have been a really good novel. In Kyung Ran Jo's hands, it has a lot of information about food and it's a great revenge fantasy, but it's just kind of...flat.