Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

50. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky

The Perks of Being a Wallflower was recommended to me back in high school and I never got around to it. When I finally did, I thought it might have been too late. Then, I started reading.

Charlie is truly an unforgettable character. His view of the world is heartbreakingly open and thoughtful, curious as a baby and much more articulate. But the atmosphere that he evokes, of one small group, one facet within a high school builds an incredibly intoxicating, and, for me, nostalgic atmosphere. His friends are quirky and interesting, they're real people. And Chbosky seems to know that even when things get complicated, in spite or because of all the intense fear and sorrow that teenagers are capable of feeling, things can still feel like magic, or in Charlie's words "infinite."

I don't think I can write a very unbiased review of this book. To me, it felt poetic, lyrical, pitch-perfect. I suspect those who are fans of '90s indie bands would appreciate the references much more and I do like the distinctly '90s feel, because that's when I grew up too. But I have a feeling it's a book that will transcend the decades.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011


49. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I've been meaning to read Gaiman for several years now, and I finally did. This was the first Gaiman book that was ever recommended to me, and I borrowed it recently from a friend.

Neverwhere is the under London odyssey of a bumbling British straightman known as Richard Mayhew. He is told to beware of "doors," which take their form as a girl named Door from the underworld, whose family has the power to open anything, and for that are slaughtered, leaving her as the only survivor. She is dogged by malicious henchmen from the underworld known as Croup and Vandemar, and seeks protection from the roguish Marquis de Carabas and legendary bodyguard Hunter. Richard is pulled into her world and must leave his ordinary life behind to help her complete her mission to avenge her family and achieve his own desire to return to normalcy.

Gaiman's writing is undoubtedly the best part of the book, he has a wit and penchant for the absurd that for me was deeply reminiscent of Douglas Adams. I especially enjoyed the descriptions of the floating Market, that re-appears in a different location at appointed times. I suspect the book would also be a lot more entertaining for Londoners, as it creates an entire society that takes place in the Underground system and underneath London. One joke I did get (since it is practically forced down your throat, but..) is that the most frightening part of London under is beneath Kensington, a posh neighborhood in London above.

Probably intentionally, Neverwhere is a very simple quest story, with little attempt to disguise or embellish the classical narrative. We have our Trickster(s), our Animus, Anima, and our underdog hero. In some ways, Door might be considered the hero of the story, but Richard is undoubtedly our protagonist. All in all, Neverwhere would make a fantastic children's story, were it not for a few unfortunate references to adult activities. I'd recommend it to the YA set, but not to readers who prefer more complex material.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Top Ten Books I'd Like for Hanukkah

I had to modify this week's topic for the Broke and the Bookish Top Ten Tuesday meme a bit.

Lately, I'm an inferno of book lust, despite a lot less time for actual reading, since I'm working 2-3 jobs/internships, plus grad applications, which are thankfully almost over. I did finish Neverwhere and The Perks of Being a Wallflower recently, which had both been on my to-read list for many years, and am more than halfway through The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. I hope to get reviews up at some point, but we'll see.

1. Divergent by Veronica Roth

Sounds like a great dystopia novel with a kick-ass female protagonist.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

Heard such great things and I am a fan of beautiful, magical writing.

3. The School of Night by Louis Bayard

Heard him speak at the National Book Festival and am totally hooked by a tale of sixteenth century rogues and DC academics.

4. Out of Oz by Gregory Maguire

I loved Wicked, heard Maguire read a passage from Out of Oz, I want it.

5. The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Loved The Name of the Wind, need more awesome fantasy in my life.

6. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

Again, need more awesome fantasy in my life.

7. The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma

Time travel, sci fi, and H.G. Wells, I'm intrigued.

8. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

I hear great things and I know it's time I learned more about Catherine.

9. Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard

I heard her speak and was totally overcome by her passion for her subject. This has to be good.

10. Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Heard about this one from Books on the Nightstand, plus a friend with similar taste loved it, so I expect I will too.

I could go on...

Monday, December 5, 2011

And So It Goes

48. And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

I had the opportunity to meet Charles J. Shields and his wife Guadalupe at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD. The only authorized biographer of Vonnegut was a wonderful speaker, I wished I'd had him to speak the rest of the book to me, for as thorough and direct as his prose is, plus a prodigious knack for hitting all the most interesting details, his speaking was even more entertaining. In the Introduction, he writes of his first attempt to convince Vonnegut that he was a worthy biographer. His initial plea produced a mailed self-portrait from Vonnegut, with the caption “A most respectful demurring by me for the excellent writer Charles J. Shields, who offered to be my biographer.” In person, Shields recalled that it was his wife who "fastened on the word 'demurring'" and convinced him to try again, which he did with success. That little tidbit was left out of the book, as were the details of Shields' personal interviews with Vonnegut, which he described for the audience. However, I really have to admire Shields for keeping himself out of the book to the extent that he does. When reading, it really does feel like you're in the mind of Vonnegut and his friends and family, NOT Shields, just as a biography should be.

The character that emerges from Shields’ portrait is of a petulant, embittered, and attention-seeking man, who felt that his parents and brother misunderstood him, that publishers, editors, and critics undervalued him, and that even his first wife Jane, mother of their three children, never really loved him. Yet, Vonnegut could be remarkably kind, charming, and thoughtful. While teaching in the creative writing program at the University of Iowa, he noticed that the anonymous critiquing sessions that welcomed students from all classes had become a platform for bullies. He suggested that “sections should meet separately…with an instructor to guide the discussion,” that submissions no longer be anonymous, and overly subjective criticism be banned. All of these changes were implemented. Later in his career, after he became famous, a young writer disguised himself as a reporter in order to meet with him. Vonnegut called the young man’s bluff, but met with him anyway and encouraged him to write the article he had claimed to be commissioned for.

The Vonnegut estate would not allow Shields to quote directly from the 1,500 letters that he acquired over the course of his research. When asked at the event, Shields said he thinks they do not want the image of Vonnegut, as the crotchety, Mark Twain-like figure, to change. He concludes in the book that Vonnegut’s decision to adopt the Twain brand was a very deliberate affectation. Although Vonnegut is often associated with the Left due to his anti-war ethos, Shields argues that he was in fact a reactionary and an active capitalist. Vonnegut’s numerous stocks and investments in large corporations support this claim. The content of the letters, however, is pervasive throughout the biography. Two hundred were to Vonnegut’s sometime friend, editor, and agent, Knox Burger, to whom the biography is dedicated. Vonnegut wrote to Burger about his difficulties getting published in the early years, later about the failure to take his works seriously, being “cooped up with all these kids,” and also, about his affairs.

The first serious affair, which began a relationship that would last in some capacity for the rest of his life, was Lora Lee Wilson, a student in one of his creative writing classes at Iowa. Despite his lifelong love of women, Shields shows that Vonnegut held some very traditional ideas about women’s roles, which affected his relationship with Jane, his wife of thirty-four years. While Vonnegut wrote, Jane ran the household and raised the children, including his nephews. Shields writes, “He expected Jane to be a traditional wife who would blend her identity with his.” When they fought, his reaction was to run off and sometimes to chase after other women. Even after their divorce, they remained friends and he continued to write long letters to her. Occasionally, he would write a letter to Jane and then immediately after to a girlfriend. His second wife, Jill, whom Shields was not able to interview, appears in the book as a difficult, demanding woman who wanted to control whom Vonnegut was allowed to socialize with. Their marriage was also fraught with tension and included a few periods of separation.

In addition to the most private details of Vonnegut’s life, Shields also places his oeuvre in a biographical context. Shields notes that unsatisfactory sex is a pattern in Vonnegut’s earlier works, from Player Piano to Cat’s Cradle. “His affair with Loree [Lora Lee Wilson],” Shields writes, “would change the way he wrote about relationships in his novels.” She is the model for Montana Wildhack in Slaughterhouse-Five with whom Billy Pilgrim has a mutually satisfying sexual relationship.

Shields’ rendering of Vonnegut’s life, while not flattering, still manages to be respectful and interested in how Vonnegut captured the imagination of a generation, and continues to capture young minds; “if he had been a fully mature adult, it’s likely he would not have been able to frame young adults’ worldview so well.” From Vonnegut’s own assessments of his self, it’s likely that he would have agreed.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Top Ten Authors I'd Love to Have at my Thanksgiving Table

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesday at the Broke and the Bookish.

1. Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

After reading his new biography (review soon!), it might make more sense if I didn't want Vonnegut at my table. He comes off as bitter, attention-seeking, and womanizing. Yet he still seems like a charming and entertaining dinner guest when he wanted to be, so I'd be interested in conversing with him on a good day. Also, I feel like we might bond over similar pessimistic yet secretly optimistic worldviews.

2. Madeleine L'Engle

It was my dream to meet Madeleine L'Engle, especially because for a long time, she and Vonnegut were the only two authors I liked that were still alive. Both from her books and a taped interview that I have of her, she seems like the sweetest lady, besides being vastly knowledgeable and interesting. I think we would have a lot in common.

3. L.M. Montgomery

I love all of her books so much, and I'd like to think we are maybe similar people. I'd like to talk craft with her, but I'd also just like to listen to her talk about all her visions and intense feelings that beauty inspires in her.

4. Mark Twain

Another man who I'd like to catch in a charming, entertaining mood. Vonnegut's adoption of the Twain "brand" is something that Shields discussed a bit in the Vonnegut biography. But, I would love to meet the author of Huck Finn and talk about his motivations and listen to his amusing observations on any given topic.

5. Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I was deciding between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but I think Dostoyevsky seems like a nicer person and we'd still get to discuss philosophy and nineteenth century Russia. I suppose I'm also assuming that we would somehow be able to communicate, as I don't speak Russian and I'm not sure if he spoke English.

6. Jane Austen

Austen might be a little wallflowerish in social situations, but hopefully I'd be able to draw her out. I'm sure her opinion of the other dinner guests would be exceedingly droll. I also have a feeling she'd love to meet Shakespeare.

7. William Shakespeare

It's kind of hard not to include the Bard on the list. Hopefully, this would put to rest all speculation as to whether he wrote his plays or not. I think he would be equal to the other guests and that of course they would all want to meet him (with the exceptions of Lanyer, who might have known him in life, and Cervantes, who may not have known of him at all).

8. Aemilia Lanyer

Lanyer would be a fascinating dinner companion, I'd want to hear all about her relationship with Lord Hunsdon and meeting Elizabeth I, and especially her views on women's role in society. Plus, we could finally settle whether or not she was Shakespeare's Dark Lady.

9. Gregory Maguire

Maguire is the only live author on my list. I heard him speak at the National Book Festival and was utterly charmed. I think everyone would find him entertaining and I know he's a fan of nineteenth century novelists, so he would at least enjoy meeting Twain, Austen, and Dostoyevsky.

10. Miguel Cervantes

The author of Don Quixote has got to be a riot. Even if he doesn't speak English, we might still be able to communicate a bit. I'd love to see him interact with Shakespeare, who I know was a fan, as well as Twain and Dostoyevsky who both expressed admiration and homage.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Top Ten Unread Books On My Shelf

Clearly, I didn't look at today's Top Ten Tuesday topic at the Broke and the Bookish last night! Otherwise, I would have saved my TBR list. But here are some other books that still lie unread on my shelf, despite my desire to read them.

1. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

Been meaning to read since I attended a panel with Reif Larsen at the first Boston Book Festival.

2. Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

Loved the Sisterhood books, still need to read this, although I'm afraid I won't love it as much.

3. The Room and the Chair by Lorraine Adams

Great story about how I attended a Bookslut Reading for this, which just happened to coincide with my visit to Berlin.

4. Sandition and Other Stories by Jane Austen

Been meaning to read these forever, and recently picked up a copy in a used bookstore.

5. King of the Murgos by David Eddings

The second book of the Malloreon, the follow-up series to the Belgariad, which I loved.

6. Demon Lord of Karanda by David Eddings

The third book of the Malloreon.

7. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl

Recommended to me a long time ago and received from Bookmooch, but haven't read it yet.

That's all I can think of at the moment, sure there are more somewhere, probably in boxes....

Monday, November 14, 2011

Settling the Dust

46. The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
47. The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Since I last reviewed a book, I've had a lot going on (more on that in a moment). A friend left his copy of The Subtle Knife in my car, so I took the opportunity to reread it. I read His Dark Materials back in middle school, I picked up The Amber Spyglass the week it came out. Since then, I've reread the first book, The Golden Compass, a few times, but not the other two.

I hoped I'd have something profound to say, but while the hierarchy of angels and Pullman's objective in vilifying the Catholic Church appear more clear in a second reading, to say nothing of Lyra's "sexual" (I put quotes because it's more love than sex oriented) awakening, there's not quite as much going on as I remembered. Still, this mysterious Dust that surrounds adult sentient beings, this conscious matter, dark matter, angels, what is this? It feels like a forced collision of science and religion that has hope, but doesn't ultimately work. Or perhaps, very likely, I'm misunderstanding something.

In settling my own personal Dust, well, there seems no end in sight. I have a new part-time job, a slightly older internship, grad school applications, and I was studying for the GREs and GRE Subject Test in English Lit, but those are thankfully over. I recommend Princeton Review and beginning to study more than a few weeks in advance...

Don't know when I'm going to have time to read, but on the TBR shortlist:

And So It Goes Kurt Vonnegut: A Life by Charles J. Shields

by Neil Gaiman

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
by Stephen Chbosky

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno

The last three are on loan from friends and thus higher priority than all the books I own that I have yet to read.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Top Ten Books That Were Out of My Comfort Zone

Today's Top Ten Tuesday at the Broke and the Bookish:

1. The Theory of Everything by Stephen Hawking

I challenged myself to read this, and the first time, as interested as I was, I couldn't wrap my head around it. The second time I got through and understood a lot better, although much of it is still beyond me. Still, I'm interested and appreciate Hawkin's effort to write simply, so I know I will read this again someday.

2. The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

Not the type of thing I normally read, this was for a 16th century British literature class (even though it's Italian), but I really loved it. It wasn't an entirely quick or easy read, but funny in parts and very thoughtful.

3. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov is a master of language, so that in itself is difficult, but the subject matter was really what was out of my comfort zone. I'm glad I read it, but I can honestly say it made me distinctly uncomfortable the whole time and I definitely never warmed to Humbert Humbert.

4. Neuromancer by William Gibson

This weird compendium of technobabble eventually overcame me, I just couldn't get past all the new universe/technology distractions to the story.

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

I was very intimidated to read Joyce, and he's not really my cup of tea, but I got through it and really learned a lot about reading in general as well as Joyce's style and intentions in particular.

6. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

Faulkner and I just don't get on. I can't get past the dialect and confusing language and organization in general. Didn't finish, maybe another time.

7. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers

What a title! Stream of consciousness drove me crazy, but I got through it. I've met Eggers though and he was so nice, it made me want to try one of his other books, despite not really digging this one.

8. Angels and Demons by Dan Brown

Not the kind of thing I usually read, with good reasons. One of the most boring and predictable books I've ever read.

9. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson

Again, I don't usually read thrillers, but this one got such high praise, I picked it up and really enjoyed it. So, just goes to show you shouldn't write off an entire genre.

10. Sookie Stackhouse novels by Charlaine Harris

"Trashy", chick-lit vampire books are not really my cup of tea either, these are fluffy, but amusing reads, if you can ignore the recaps of all the silly, dramatic events that have gone before.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Top Ten Books I Had Strong Emotions Over

Love the topic, Broke and Bookish! I also really like Readerbuzz's interpretation.

1. Twilight Saga by Stephanie Meyer

I read the first chapter of the first book, but I've read summaries, reviews, and feminist outrages on all the books because of how big the series got. I've also had to deal with 10-12 year-old girls telling me how romantic Edward is or how hot Jacob is. So. From what I've seen, terrible writing. But worse, millions of young girls are getting close-minded, sexist, and downright dangerous messages about how they should negotiate relationships with men. In conclusion, I have very, very strong feelings about these books without really having read them.

2. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

The first Faulkner novel I failed to get through. Maybe I'll give him another shot sometime, but just. Ugh.

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

SOOO good! Read it now!

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

We had an intense love/hate relationship, but we made it through.

5. The Magicians by Lev Grossman

This book made me so angry and fascinated me so much at the same time. It destroyed my childhood, but I couldn't stop reading.

6. Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress

One of the most brilliant books I have ever read. Seriously.

7. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

I got so deeply immersed in this, despite or because of hating the protagonist.

8. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

So lyrical, so poignant, every time I read it I find something new.

9. Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Cute, quirky, and heartbreaking.

10. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

If he were older, Huck Finn would be my boyfriend (not really, but...maybe).

I've been trying really hard not to use the same books over and over for everything, because then obviously Lord of the Rings and Jonathan Strange would have made this list.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Favorite Book Quotes

Question: What is the novel you find most quotable or what are five of your favorite quotes from novels?

My Answer:

"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Prospero, in The Tempest. And, okay, it's not a novel, but this is definitely one of my favorite quotes and one of the ones I think of most often.

"It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man possessed of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." This has to be one of the finest wrought and most memorable first sentences in literature, from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

"There seems almost a general wish of decrying the capacity and undervaluing the labour of the novelist, and of slighting the performances which have only genius, wit, and taste to recommend them."
-Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

"She had been forced into prudence in her youth, she learned romance as she grew older-the natural sequel of an unnatural beginning."
-Jane Austen, Persuasion

Austen's words are so insightful, memorable, and snidely clever all at the same time...

“Sometimes we wear masks, sometimes we can be ourselves, sometimes the masks are truer than the faces." -The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory

Gregory also often has insightful statements about her characters, particularly Elizabeth I.

I have a lot more favorite quotes, but I'll stop there. Please comment with yours!

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Top Ten Books for Halloween

Here's my go for this week's topic at the Broke and the Bookish.

1. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Still one of the scariest books I've ever read. I'll never forget staying up all night thinking that the madwoman was coming to get me.

2. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

After the whole Jane Eyre debacle, there was no way my mom would let me touch Frankenstein. Naturally, I snuck around and got my hands on it anyway. I didn't find it nearly as scary, I was more interested in how he got those dead body parts to reanimate anyway and feeling sorry for the poor abandoned monster.

3. The Ghost Writer by John Harwood

An old creepy mystery that I read as a kid.

4. The Oxford Book of Scary Tales

These are the ghost stories I'd scare my little sister and her friends with, I used to bring it out every Halloween and every camping trip.

5. Falling Up by Shel Silverstein

Shel Silverstein is frightening. I'll never forget the poem about the man who grew old standing in the corner of a classroom and especially not the little line on the flap about disappearing into the covers if you looked too long...I never looked again and even hid the book in the back of the closet for a while.

6. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

The perfect antidote to creepy tales, with that amusing Gothic style leading only to parody a more conventional, but still hostile, reality.

7. The Mysteries of Udolpho by Ann Radcliffe

I didn't actually finish it (someday), but it's a Gothic classic.

8. The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

The first Gothic novel, an enjoyable chill but not really scary.

9. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

Du Maurier is the queen of Gothic, her books, and definitely Rebecca, her best known, is frightening not because of what happened, but why and how.

10. Lost by Gregory Maguire

I've yet to read it, BUT it seems like a perfect Halloween read; specters, A Christmas Carol, and Jack the Ripper are involved.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Children's Books Giveaway

I've gotten some beautiful copies of children's books from the class I help teach in the summer, but this also means I have some duplicate copies. All books are like new or lightly used. If you know a young person who would really enjoy one of these classics, leave a comment with your answer to the question, which book you are interested in, and your email address. Sorry, I am only willing to send within the continental United States. Winners will be chosen randomly. Entries will be accepted until Nov. 1 and winners will be announced in November. Covers are as pictured!

Redwall by Brian Jacques

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

The Little Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery

Question: What was your favorite book as a child?

My Answer: I think I've already answered this or a similar question. My favorite book from childhood was A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle, closely followed by The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis and all the Chronicles of Narnia, the Anne of Green Gables books by L.M. Montgomery, and Little Women and its sequels by Louisa May Alcott. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien were my favorite from about seventh grade on. Now that I think about it, these books also probably have the biggest impact on how I think about the world and the kind of books I want to write someday.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Top Ten Books Whose Titles or Covers Made Me Buy Them

This week's topic at the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books Whose Titles Or Covers Made Me Buy Them.
Another topic that challenges my usual way of thinking about books! Because...I really DON'T judge books by their cover.

That's not entirely true, I'm sure there are some subtle things that will make one cover catch my eye over another, but I'm not very aware of it, and I tend to pick up books that a) I've already heard about from a friend/fellow book blogger/newspaper review or b) are in a topic or genre I'm already interested in. If I do pick up a random book, I'm more likely to judge it by the blurb on the back or a quick skim of the first few pages than the picture on the front cover. That said, here goes.

1. Gloriana's Torch by Patricia Finney

I saw the cover in the library and was immediately intrigued when I recognized the Armada portrait. I might not have noticed it otherwise and I'm glad I did because this was definitely one of my favorite books this year.

2. Elizabeth I by Margaret George

Notice a theme here? I actually didn't choose this book because of the cover or title, I knew I wanted to read it the moment I heard about it because of its author and subject. However, if that hadn't done it for me, the cover would have.

3. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

The title really had me guessing, unfortunately the stories didn't live up to the anticipation. But also, I read it because I loved Life of Pi.

4. The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I'd already read The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy, and I saw this really nice hardcover, gold-edged copy from Barnes & Noble, so it's not exactly a case of arresting cover art, but definitely the nice packaging encouraged me to buy it.

5. My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

Again, another nice Barnes & Noble hardcover in the bargain bin caught my eye.

I can't think of any more right now, I look forward to reading everyone else's lists!

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Top Ten Books I Wish I Could Read Again for the First Time

This week's Top Ten Tuesday at the Broke and the Bookish is Top Ten Books I Wish I Could Read Again For The First Time. Usually, books that I love, I just want to read again, period, and I often find I get more out of a second reading. Still, there is a certain pleasure in reading for the first time.

1. Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The first time I read LOTR, I savored it and loved it and just enjoyed spending time in every place and with every character and I got INCREDIBLY emotionally invested, and it's never quite the same, even though I pick up on more in subsequent readings.

2. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

I just loved being pulled along by the wit and sparkle, and yes, I knew they were getting married in the end, but I had no idea how that was going to happen. I also kept waiting for what I considered enough vindication for Darcy, never really got there...

3. Harry Potter 1-7 by J.K. Rowling

An experience like no other, because of all the hype and the fact that everybody I knew was reading it too, it really was magic.

4. The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Also a magical reading experience, especially because I didn't get all the Christian allegory stuff back then, so I could just relate to the characters and laugh at the narrator and marvel at the strange creatures.

5. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

It's funny because the first time I read Huck Finn, I just enjoyed it so much, I was totally riveted by the adventurous nature of the story and admiring of Huck and Jim and had no idea about the implications of anything. I've also loved analyzing it later, but it's a very different experience.

6. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I remember hanging on every word, wondering what feat of imagery and language would occur next. I just remember thinking it was sheer beauty.

7. Dune by Frank Herbert

Much like with LOTR, I had an incredibly mesmerizing experience where I got very attached to the characters and very interested in the inner workings of the universe.

8. His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

I'd never read anything quite like it before, nor have I since. It was a fantasy world that really made me think in delightfully philosophical ways.

9. Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I was entranced and couldn't wait to see what twisted thing would happen next.

10. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

I know, I also put this on my list of books I want to re-read, but reading it again for the first time would be better because then it could be new again...I just wanted this book to go on and on forever. I'm really hoping she'll write a sequel.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Reading Women, Personally

45. Reading Women: How the Great Books of Feminism Changed My Life by Stephanie Staal

Reading Women is neither more nor less than it claims to be. The memoir-in-books begins with a quote from Virginia Woolf; "When a subject is highly controversial-and any question about sex is that-one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one's audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions, as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncracies of the speaker."

Staal, despite what I perceived as limitations in her interpretations of the texts, fulfills the conditions of the quote admirably. In her Author's Note she explains, "Let me be clear that I approached these books as neither critic nor scholar but rather, as Virginia Woolf put it, 'the common reader.''" I suppose this is what ended up being particularly disappointing for me, because, without knowing it, I had expected and hoped for a much more insightful analysis of texts like Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex and Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique, rather than highly personal reactions to Beauvoir and Mary Wollstonecraft as people, and well-known critiques of Friedan. I haven't read these texts myself, and I do intend to, and Staal does provide a useful introduction in terms of biographical context and summary, but she goes no further. I didn't find Staal's personal story compelling either, it's unfortunately a familiar one. Admittedly, I might feel differently were I a wife and mother myself, but while I'm not unsympathetic to her, her motherhood and marital troubles explained her interest in feminist texts, but she didn't actually show how the texts changed her life as far as the way she related to her husband and daughter. I'm not necessarily saying she should, but I felt that was what the book was claiming.

When Staal thinks "So what?" in response to Judith Butler's Gender Trouble (which I have read in part), I have a lot of trouble relating to her. When it comes to issues like queer gender and sexuality, pornography and sex bloggers, Staal and I are just not from the same generation. She does give me a view into women who are against pornography for feminist reasons, but it's not one I can wholeheartedly agree with. In regard to Erica Jong's Fear of Flying, I learned "for all its vaunted sexuality...there was a lot of talk...but not much action," which is perhaps something I would be interested to learn from a book review, but really doesn't say how the book helped propel feminism or what points it has to make. For me, there were two problems with Reading Women; not the depth of analysis I wanted and a lack of personal connection to Staal.

The most valuable part of the book for me was the reading list for the Feminist Text classes that Staal took. While many of the books that Staal discusses would have been on my feminist to-read list, there are others, and particularly articles, I might never otherwise have heard of. If I found her book less than compelling, she does succeed in spurring my interest in some of the texts she reads. I also appreciate the list of other books that Staal recommends.

In the same way that I feel Staal's book chronicles extremely personal and simplistic reactions to feminist texts, I feel that my reaction to her book was also very personal. I can see where another kind of reader would find Staal very valuable. I also see where someone who relates a lot more to Staal's life experiences and concerns would better appreciate the memoir aspect of her book. Something to keep in mind when reading my review.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Top Ten Mindblowing Book Endings

This week's topic for Top Ten Tuesdays at The Broke and the Bookish is "Top Ten Book Endings That Left Me With My Mouth Hanging Open (because of the cliffhanger or because it the ending was MINDBLOWING, etc. Be careful with spoilers on this one! :P)."

First of all, what a great question! Second, this is kind of difficult for me to answer for two reasons; 1) I'm unusually good at predicting endings and 2) I don't tend to read for plot, but for character, detail, language, world-building, insight into humanity etc. Therefore, a lot of the books I read simply do not have surprising endings, because that's not the point. Still, I'll try my best.

1. The Giver by Lois Lowry

I remember reading The Giver for the first time and crying at the end. It is still one of the few books that has ever made me cry. I had not predicted the ending at all, but I liked it. I was also a lot younger when I read this, though, so this was before I was particularly good at guessing endings.

2. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

While the ultimate ending and most of the twists didn't surprise me, there was one climactic event that did blow my mind, but I won't reveal which one it was.

3. The Beautiful and the Damned by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Fitzgerald is very much a writer to read for language, detail, and observations on the human condition, but the actual ending of this book did surprise me because the rest of the book seemed leading clearly in one direction. I think the point though is that whatever the outcome of the supposed quest, the nature of the relationships in the novel were going downhill. I hope that's not too much of a reveal?

4. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin

Especially at first, I found Martin very unpredictable. Basically, all the books just end in outrageous and violent places, so I've come to expect that even if I can't predict all the actual events.

5. The Time Traveler's Wife

When I first began reading the book, I would never have guessed the ending, but toward the end of the book, it is revealed how it is going to end, it just remains to see the details, which is one of the exquisite things about this book and its careful non-chronological structure. I'm not sure if that qualifies though.

6. Chapterhouse Dune by Frank Herbert

This is the last of the six original Dune books. Dune is the most complete universe I've ever encountered (yes, including Middle Earth, as much as it hurts me a little to admit it), and this book just ends in an absolutely awesome place.

7.The Belgariad by David Eddings

The basic plot is predictable, as is the ending, but the actual climax is pretty epic.

8. The Farthest Away Mountain by Lynne Reid Banks

Again, not unpredictable, but just awesome. This was one of my favorite books as a child.

9. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

You know exactly what's going to happen, but I'm fond of how Levine does the ending. Another childhood favorite.

10. The Stranger by Albert Camus

Another where you know what's going to happen, but the character's reaction is pretty damn surprising.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tudor Treasure

44. Elizabeth I by Margaret George

Like her Autobiography of Henry VIII, Margaret George's Elizabeth I is a foundational text in Tudor fiction. Every moment of this book was an absolute pleasure to me, and I have devoted many hours to reading about Elizabeth Tudor and Elizabethan England, both fiction and non-fiction. George writes with the authority and thorough consideration of the queen herself, and brings to life arresting portraits of many Elizabethan figures, particularly the underrepresented (in Tudor fiction and biography) Letitia Knollys and the ubiquitous William Shakespeare, but I also reveled in her portrayals of the Earl of Essex, Sir Walter Raleigh, Sir Francis Drake, William and Robert Cecil, Edmund Spenser, and lesser known figures like Admiral Charles Howard and his wife Catherine, nee Carey.

As soon as I saw that George was coming out with this book (it came out in May), I wishlisted it on Amazon. Then, I received it as a graduation gift from my aunt! I had been saving it to read for an auspicious time, when I found out that Margaret George was going to be at the National Book Festival. I started reading right away and was a couple hundred pages in when I met George, got my book signed, AND attended her panel and got to ask her a couple questions during the Q&A sessions. I've realized I turn into a babbling fangirl at these events, but I think I managed to convey my appreciation, especially for the vast amount of research that George does and incorporates so masterfully into her novels. One of my questions was about her interpretation of Elizabeth's character. George's Elizabeth seems more logical, calm, and authoritative than many Elizabeths I've seen in the works of Philippa Gregory, Rosalind Miles, Robin Maxwell and others. I asked her if this is her view of Elizabeth's essential character or a character that she developed when she grew older, as George's book covers the last 15 years of her life, while the other books tend to focus on her younger years. George's answer was that she sees Elizabeth as always having been very self-collected, self-aware, and that she doesn't think she ever really lost control. She believes that "semper eadem" (always the same in Latin) was a motto that fit Elizabeth well, despite Elizabeth's famous changing of her mind and notorious fits, these, she seems to think, were calculated acts. This interpretation interests me, as this is the type of Elizabeth I would like to believe in. I don't like, or find realistic, these uber-romantic portraits of her that some people have. No doubt she had emotional needs like most people, but she clearly ruled with her head, not her heart.

The book is told from the points of view of Elizabeth and her estranged cousin Laetitia, or Lettice. The two never meet throughout the book, except for one occasion, which I suspect is a narrative invention of George's, but I would really like to know for sure. If my assumption is correct, then the "confrontation" scene is part of what I've observed to be a trope of literature about Elizabeth that pits her against another woman, typically Mary, Queen of Scots, but in Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth, it is Amy Dudley, who actually is a stand-in for Lettice, as Scott plays with dates and situations. Dudley was Leicester's first wife, whom he married openly during the reign of Edward VI, but when she died young under suspicious circumstances, he later had an affair with and then secretly married Lettice without Elizabeth's knowledge. It was this marriage that, when discovered, drew Elizabeth's infamous ire and permanent banishment for Lettice.

The book opens with the imminent arrival of the 1588 Spanish Armada, but actually numerous Armadas threaten England throughout the book, only to be vanquished by weather and bad luck. These are all historically accurate, just little commented upon. The other perpetual threat throughout the novel is the Earl of Essex, son to Lettice, stepson to Elizabeth's beloved Leicester (whose exit is soon after the first Armada), and courtier and rumored lover to Elizabeth. George (and rightly so, I believe) makes little of the supposed love affair, except for one scene that she explains as pure invention, although it provides great insight into Elizabeth's character. George's answer to the virginity question, one she answered both in her panel and in the book, is that Elizabeth did indeed remain a virgin, for practical reasons. Instead, George shows Essex in a truly historical light; he was a petulant spoiled boy filled with dreams of military glory, whose appeal and bids to the populace made him a threat. His own deluded beliefs about his deserts at Elizabeth's hands and then depression at her rejection of him seemed to have even made him a bit deranged in the end. George carefully builds up Essex's interactions with Elizabeth, his long store of non-achievements, and his activities that grow ever more seditious and treasonous. In the book, he is compared to Mary, Queen of Scots in the level of threat he draws, because he is young, handsome and strong and actively courts common favor. Elizabeth could not have him playing her own game against her. I have studied some of the ballads surrounding Essex at the time and these alone make me understand why he was considered so dangerous.

A delightful aspect of this novel is George's obvious rapport with Shakespeare's works and how this leads her to interpret his character as well. Several of Shakespeare's plays feature in the novel; at court, in the theatre, and in dialogue between the characters. In an unlikely but charming twist, she makes Lettice Knollys Shakespeare's Dark Lady (especially unlikely, I think, due to Lettice's red hair, and also, would she stoop so low?) and the Earl of Southampton the Golden Boy of the sonnets. While the latter is more likely, she does in this way sidestep the possibility of Shakespeare's bisexuality and instead keeps his relationship to Southampton as a patron and as a fellow lover of Lettice. Even when not reciting from his plays, George's Shakespeare uses the language one imagines he would, if he talked in a slightly more modern vernacular. I hope she takes him on as her next subject, I would be fascinated to see what she could do with Shakespeare's life.

George concentrates on important aspects of Elizabeth's life that few of her other fictional historians seem to spend much time on. For example, she focuses on the relationship between Elizabeth and her favorite ladies-in-waiting, especially her cousin Catherine Howard (Carey), and Marjorie Norris. Other women rarely figure in tales about Elizabeth, except as adversaries. Yet, Elizabeth was constantly surrounded by women in her private chambers, it's amazing that no one else has found them important enough to more than mention. George places more emphasis on Elizabeth's adventurers, like Drake and Raleigh and their voyages. All of her privateers, not just the best-known, Drake, but John Hawkins, Martin Frobisher, Sir Richard Grenville etc., get at least a mention here. Admittedly, these men get a lot of attention in non-fiction, like The Pirate Queen by Susan Ronald, that I've also been dipping into lately, but in fiction it's all about the Virgin Queen's alleged lovers. Burghley, Cecil, and Walsingham are not particularly original here either, but they've been delved into enough. A recurring theme in George's book is Elizabeth's feeling about the legacy of Henry VIII. In her panel, George explained that Elizabeth separated her father into "the man" and "the king," and as a king, she revered him and craved his approval. I can imagine her father did cast quite a shadow over her life, but how much she wanted to be a part of his legacy and how much she wanted to distance herself from it is another question. She kept his religion, but reversed his policies on war and spending; in many ways her court tried to follow his in grandeur and artistic pursuits though.

Read this book; fans of historical fiction, anyone interested in the Virgin Queen, anyone who loved Wolf Hall, anyone. It's a long book, but deftly written and organized. Just when you're tired of one narrator, the story shifts seamlessly to the other. This is another fictional biography, as great or greater in scope, understanding, and wit as the earlier book.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Top 10 Books I Want to Reread

I'm participating again in Top Ten Tuesdays, there are so many great topics coming up.

This week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, is Top Ten Books I Want To Reread. This is easy for me, as I want to reread every book that I've ever really loved. I haven't been focusing on re-reading much lately, but I'll list the books that I would most like to re-read in the near future.

1. Emily's Climb and Emily's Quest by L.M. Montgomery

I already talked about how the TV series sparked my interest in going back and re-reading the books, and I can always use some L.M. Montgomery to make me feel better.

2. The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

I wanted to re-read these as soon as I read them, but I was too swamped with reading for school back then. Now, I have a new reason to re-read them-I'm taking the GRE Subject Test in English Literature fairly soon.

3. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I know I read it very recently, but I want to read it again right before the movie comes out in March 2012.

4. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway

I've wanted to re-read this since I got back from Spain, I have a feeling it will mean a lot more to me after that experience, especially the way the characters speak.

5. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I really enjoyed Moby-Dick the first time I read it, for a class, but I want to savor it more slowly.

6. Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes

My professor told me this is a good book to read at every stage in your life, and I think I've reached a new stage.

7. The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

I think reading this in conjunction with Don Quixote and building on everything I've learned since I read this book could be a very fun experience.

8. Anna Karenina

I need to read Anna Karenina again. There is nobody like Tolstoy.

9. The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

I want to go through The Idiot more slowly and get more out of it.

10. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell

Because it was just so good.

There are plenty of other literary canon type books that I need to re-read or partially re-read soon, like Paradise Lost, Gulliver's Travels, the Aeneid, the Iliad...

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Festivals in DC/Baltimore Area

This weekend is a bonanza for book lovers in the Washington DC/Baltimore region. Three book festivals were/are going on this week and weekend.

The Fall for the Book Festival
, sponsored by George Mason University and The Writer's Center in Bethesda, MD, among others, had events all over the DC area this week.

I attended the event with Amy Tan on Tuesday. It was a long drive for me, but well worth it. She read from her new book, The Valley of Amazement. She spoke in the voice of her character, an aging courtesan speaking to a younger virgin courtesan that she is training. It was as if the character took over her body, she assumed a tone of instruction, "I may be old, but remember, when I was 19, I was one of the ten beauties of Shanghai..." She kept glancing significantly at the audience. The older courtesan warns the younger that if she does not want to "wear out her insides," she will learn a song for every suitor and how to play on the emotions of every type of man. It's definitely a departure from her earlier work in terms of raciness, as she admitted, but it's actually inspired by her grandmother, whom she believes may have been a courtesan. I got my copy of The Bonesetter's Daughter signed and I told her it was "awesome." I feel really silly about that. I mean, yes the book was good, but "awesome" is not the right word and doesn't in any way convey what the book meant to me. I was thinking about how there isn't time at these things to say anything significant. I might as well not have met her at all. I think next time (as in, tomorrow!), I'll write a letter and give it to the author. That way, I don't take up any time and they can read it later if they want and know how much they meant to me. I don't know if I'll actually have time to fulfill this meaningful intention though.

The Baltimore Book Festiva
l, which unfortunately I won't be able to attend at all is going on today Sept 23-Sun Sept 25.

This weekend, I'll be at the National Book Festival both days. I've never been able to make it before because I've been in Boston. I'm so excited for the lineup, I will definitely be catching Toni Morrison, Gregory Maguire, and Margaret George, whose book I'm reading right now, and there are so many other good authors to choose from. I might also join the LibraryThing meetup.

If you're in the DC/Baltimore area, check these out this weekend!
43. Brisingr by Christopher Paolini

I have a lot of mixed feelings about the Inheritance Quartet (formerly Trilogy). On the one hand, there's something there. There are interesting characters, a classic fantasy plotline, and a clear interest in exploring fantastical cultures like those of Dwarves, Elves, and "Urgals," a less sinister stand-in for Orcs or Trolls. On the other hand, a lot of it is obviously derivative (of Tolkien in particular) and events feel contrived to an extreme degree. I read Eragon after the movie came out in 2006 and liked it enough to read Eldest. I thought Eldest was much better in terms of language and organization, and I enjoyed the inclusion of Roran's story and point of view. Then, Brisingr came out in 2008. I went to the store and bought the book the week it came out. I started reading. I put it down. And I haven't picked it up again until now. I got through about the first third of the book and it just wasn't holding my attention. This time was better and I got through the whole thing, but there were definitely moments when I was just like "All right, I'm not really enjoying reading this right now."

Our orphan/under-dog/misfit hero, dragon rider Eragon, his cousin Roran, and dragon Saphira open the book on a quest to rescue Roran's beloved Katrina and slay the evil Ra'zac, who killed Eragon's uncle and Roran's father,Garrow, and Eragon's mentor, Brom. Meanwhile, Nasuada, leader of the Varden, the resistance against evil king Galbatorix, moves to consolidate her position and begin the war against Galbatorix with an unsteady alliance of Dwarves, Elves, Urgals, and Men. One thing that can be said for Paolini is his book is almost aggressively egalitarian; Nasuada is female, as is Queen Islanzadi of the Elves, Urgal women hold power over the men, and some of the Dwarf clan chiefs are women. When Katrina is rescued, she is described as a strong woman who looks capable of rescuing Roran if their situations had been reversed, but unfortunately her character is not further developed beyond being the object of Roran's affection. Saphira, of course, is the best developed female character in the book and I think Paolini's best and most unique feature. In this book, he speaks from Saphira's point-of-view, which, while it seems to be interjected randomly, he at least does a convincing job of. Although, I think he characterizes Saphira well enough in her dialogue with Eragon and he should keep that up.

One of the reasons I might be more critical of Paolini than other authors is that I consider him a contemporary, I'm only a few years his junior, and we were clearly raised on the same diet of fantasy literature. So, I'm going to pretend I can speak to him directly.

The "Beor Mountains" and the "Strait of Melian"? Come on, Chris, your homage to Tolkien is glaring. I like that you had the idea that Orcs can be people too, I really do. I like your version of the Dwarf clans But does everything really work out that neatly? Really? I get that we need another father-mentor figure sacrifice, goodness knows we haven't had as many as J.K. Rowling, but reversing a revelation from another book? Not cool. Contrived. That's the only word for it. You could have done something really cool with what you had, instead you backtrack. The new revelation? Awesome, except I'm confused. I thought when humans died, their dragons died too, but not vice versa? But now this book makes it sound like it's only "likely," not always. Check into it. You've got to re-read your own backlist.

This book is teeming with so many obvious hints of what's coming next, but all of the fragments just don't hold together that well. I get that there's another book coming and you need to make references to all these random strangers, but Eragon's quota of chance encounters is definitely overdrawn. Angela is my favorite. I love her, I really do, and I love that she's based on your sister (although how that could be scares me a little). But she needs to take a front-and-forward role, right now. Stop dancing around it. She better be Galbatorix's sister or something and know how to defeat him. And yes, Elva scares me, are you happy now? Because who knows if she's going to be a friend or foe-oooo what now.

Final comments: Cut the random skipping around of viewpoints. If you're going to use different viewpoints, use them regularly and with purpose. I don't care how often Roran and Katrina cuddle. Watch the run-on sentences. Eragon and Arya-build it up more, give them more than one scene, not just snippets. I don't see how you're going to pull this whole mess together in just one more book, but good luck.

Recommended to fantasy readers, other readers should probably leave it alone, there are much better representations of the genre.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Blogger Hop 9/16-9/19

Book Blogger Hop

This week's Book Blogger Hop question is:

“As a book blogger, how do you introduce yourself in your profile?”

My Answer:

I like to stick to the essentials so that people know the important things, but don't have to spend forever reading my profile. I mention my credentials (I'm a BA in English), a couple interests I have outside of books (travel and friendship) and my favorite types of books, so readers will know what type of books I am likely to review. I really am all over the place, but if I focus anywhere it is on 16th Century Brit Lit, 19th Century Brit Lit, and Science Fiction/Fantasy. I think it's better overall to err on the side of less information than more, because if anyone wants more, they can ask and I'm happy to answer!

Emily of New Moon and Portrait of the Artist as a Child

42. Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery

Recently, I discovered on Netflix that Canadian TV had produced a television series of Emily of New Moon. I had gobbled up the Anne of Green Gables books as a child and when those were done, I turned next to the Emily trilogy. What a treat! If Anne was exquisite, Emily was divine. Anne and Emily are both aspiring child writers growing up on Prince Edward Island, but the Anne stories are really about Anne's adventures and friendships more than her writing. Not so with Emily. While there are still delightful childish adventures, Emily is very much a book and a trilogy about a writer coming of age. Some chapters are written entirely in Emily's voice, in her Jimmy-books, notebooks given to her by her cousin Jimmy in defiance of her tyrannical Aunt Elizabeth. We get to see some of her poems and hear about the stories she is writing. One can only imagine that the more subdued Emily is a closer portrayal of L.M. Montgomery's own development as a writer, especially since they share many of the same flaws, including overly "fine" descriptions and a prolific use of italics!

Upon discovering the TV series, I had to watch it. And upon watching the TV series, I had to reread the books. Within one week, I had watched more than half of the 13-episode first season and re-read the first book. I am now in the middle of the second book, Emily Climbs, which has been a more daunting proposition for me as I don't actually own it. I remember procuring the second and third books from the library as a kid, but the library near me doesn't seem to have it anymore, so I am reduced to reading it online. Thank goodness for Gutenberg Australia, who seem to love L.M. Montgomery as much as I do. I am happy to report that the TV series sticks very close to the spirit of the books, and while it does take liberties in embellishing stories from the book or inventing its own stories, the story arcs fit in almost seamlessly with Montgomery's style and themes. The characters and overarching plot remain the same.

All this brings me to my central question. What should the childhood of an author look like? Emily is relentlessly fanciful and invents all kinds of imaginary friends, like the Wind Woman, and assigns personalities to trees and houses. Imaginary friends and anthropomorphizing nature are also elements of Anne's character. Both girls are orphaned and oppressed by uptight, domineering women, though Aunt Elizabeth is certainly more formidable than Anne's Marilla. Emily is forever scribbling, she describes a sense of rapture that she calls "the flash" that occurs when she views a particularly beautiful natural spectacle or meets someone fascinating. She writes poetry and epics, favoring absurdly romantic plotlines. [Aside-While L.M. Montgomery's style of writing could certainly be called romantic in its emphasis on sensitivity to nature and beauty, she writes about the ordinary life she must have known, not the knights and ladies, priests and nuns that Emily invents. In that way, she learned well the lesson that Emily's mentors try to teach her, though it looks like she never could curb all of the "fine" detail. It's funny, because in some ways I do consider it a weakness in her writing, that she has to describe every sunset and every field, on the other hand it's as if the text itself is aligned with the mood of the characters.]
Emily's gift in writing is acknowledged repeatedly throughout the book by characters who know what they are talking about; Emily's father, a failed journalist, a Catholic priest she encounters, a family connection and older friend Dean "Jarback" Priest, her friends Teddy, Perry, and Ilse, and of course Cousin Jimmy. What I wonder is: did Lucy Maud Montgomery believe that only fanciful, sensitive children could be writers? Did she believe that suffering in childhood was necessary to a budding writer? Did she believe that writers were born and not made?

Another interesting angle to explore is another author's portrayal of a young writer's childhood; James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Stephen is shown as unusually impressionable and sensitive, and the book ends with writing from his journal. Stephen does not consciously scribble like Emily, but the thoughts in his head often sound wild and romantic. He is obsessed more with the sounds and sensations of the city of Dublin than those of nature, but that reflects his urban upbringing. Why did both authors seem to arrive at the conclusion that sensitivity is intrinsic to the nature of the artist?

As an aspiring author, I've often compared myself to Anne and especially to Emily and fallen short. While there are numerous childhood scribblings, none of them, I feel, have really any merit whatsoever. In recent years, I've barely written anything creatively and what I have is mostly drivel. I have lots of ideas, but not the time or patience thus far to put them into practice. Was I sensitive as a child? Yes, but in a way that simply resulted in me being very hurt all the time and no good poems to show for it. I was less tuned in to people than I was terrorized. As I got older, I developed a rather thick skin, which I think has been very good for me. However, I do very much admire L.M. Montgomery and consider her a model for things that I would like to write someday. I hope my lack of a tragic, overly imaginative childhood hasn't doomed me.

What do you think a writer's childhood should look like? Do you agree or disagree with Montgomery's portrayal?

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday

I know, I've really been getting on the book-meme train here. I'm going to try out Top Ten Tuesdays from The Broke and the Bookish.

This week's top ten is in honor of Book Blogger Appreciation week:

Top Ten Books I Read Because of Another Blogger

My Answer:

I think quite a lot of books I've read or want to read are because of other bloggers, but I'm not as good at keeping track of where these recommendations come from. Some aren't necessarily from the blogger I was reading, but from someone else in the Comments section or a link I followed. So, I'm only listing books I definitely know I read because of another blogger.

1. The Believers by Zoe Heller

I know I read this because of the review I read at a Commonplace Blog.

2. A Clash of Kings and A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I continued reading A Song of Ice and Fire after Biblibio assured me it gets better. While I found the style similar, it was enjoyable to get to know the characters better.

3. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell

I read about Cranford on Wuthering Expectations and I am very glad I did. I was very pleased and more Gaskell is definitely on my list.

4. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

I know I heard about The Hunger Games on a blog, but I can't remember where I heard about it first. I feel like all the YA blogs were buzzing about it around the time Mockingjay came out.

5. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

I did know about this book before, but I definitely decided to read it sooner rather than later after I read Litlove's review.

That's my half of a Top Ten Tuesday!

Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Blogger Hop

I've been trying to read more book blogs lately and I ran across the Book Blog Hop. This looks like a great idea to me and it will be a good way to find new blogs every week.

Book Blogger Hop

So here's the link for this week's Hop and this week's question is:

“Many of us primarily read one genre of books, with others sprinkled in. If authors stopped writing that genre, what genre would you start reading? Or would you give up reading completely if you couldn’t read that genre anymore?”

My Answer:

I wouldn't say I primarily read one genre of books, unless you count a category as wide as "fiction." I definitely read way more fiction than nonfiction. Other than that though, I read contemporary fiction, literary fiction, science fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, classics, fiction from different periods and cultures, and occasionally drama and poetry. Once in a while I read nonfiction on a topic of scientific or sociological interest, or a biography. The only books I really don't read are mysteries and thrillers and I have read a few of those. So....if writers stopped writing fiction, well, I'd just read the backlog! But if there were no more fiction, I would read significantly less. If people stopped writing science fiction, I would be sad, but there's so much other stuff out there that it probably wouldn't slow my pace.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

41. American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

As you know, I've been looking forward to this one for a while, especially after I snagged it recently in a bargain bin. Sittenfeld's Prep was a book that made a big impression on me and made me vow never to be like her passive-aggressive protagonist, Lee Fiora.

American Wife has a much more likable protagonist in Alice Blackwell,the fictional counterpart of Laura Bush. The novel chronicles Alice's life at four addresses, her childhood home in Riley, Wisconsin, her bachelorette pad in Madison when she works as a school librarian and meets husband-to-be Charlie Blackwell (fictional counterpart of George W. Bush), her home with Charlie and their daughter in a Milwaukee suburb when she considers leaving him, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when she's re-considering her choice to stay silent on issues where she disagrees with her husband the President. Like Prep, this novel is written in retrospect and often re-counts events out of order. While I enjoyed the thoughtful commentary this enabled, and these comments were often the best part of the book, the continuous switching back to an earlier time or explanations of the past to make sense of the present were jarring. I think there could have been a much more linear storyline without sacrificing the retrospective commentary.

I think Sittenfeld manages here to create a complete and complex character in Alice Blackwell, someone who, if not entirely representative of Laura Bush, is reflective of certain characteristics of some American women and wives of the elite in particular. Alice is quiet, bookish, and not particularly political, but she has ideas, passions, and priorities of her own. She falls in love, really in love with Charlie Blackwell, and the portrayal of their courtship is achingly sweet and real. She does assert her opinions to Charlie in private, though she agrees never to contradict him in public, a deal that she is comfortable with for a long time. Sittenfeld delicately inserts into the storyline issues like homosexuality, abortion, religion, racism, sexism, and class privilege, but these themes make sense within the context of Alice's fictional life and seem to arise naturally. This is not a black-and-white story, and Sittenfeld understands that, although perhaps she makes Alice Blackwell a little more conflicted than she might actually be.

The line that I think best sums up the complications of Alice Blackwell and perhaps of a segment of American women is; 'If I am diffident, then my diffidence stems in part from my aversion to arriving hastily at decisions. (519)" She continues, "During the lead-up to the war, I sincerely didn't know what I thought the right course of action was; I read articles for both sides and I found convincing arguments in each." If Charlie Blackwell is confident, if he is naive, simplistic, pigheaded, his wife is too thoughtful to go ahead with such momentous decisions. I think this might partially be how we socialize boys and girls, where boys are encouraged to be impulsive and girls are encouraged to consider everyone's feelings. There are still some even older ideas that women concern themselves with private, domestic life while men concern themselves with public life. Add to this the particular circumstances of Alice's life and it's no wonder she feels the way she does. I can't fault Alice in this book and even Charlie is charming in his love for his wife. Sittenfeld reminds us again that people are people and nothing is as plain as the news media would have us believe.

Recommended to fans of literary, character-driven fiction , although it may be more palatable to those of a liberal political persuasion.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Which Austenian Heroine Are You?

I am Elinor Dashwood!

Take the Quiz here!

I think perhaps I am most like Elinor, though I'd rather be an Elizabeth Bennet or an Anne Eliot. What Austenian heroine are you?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

40. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind had been recommended to me with exceptionally high praise. I looked forward to it, but I also feared that my expectations were raised too high.

They were-and they weren't. The Name of the Wind is no Lord of the Rings. It is no Harry Potter. It has entirely its own magic, or should I say sympathy?

Kvothe (prounounced like "quothe," now isn't that just lovely to say?) is our protagonist, our orphan underdog hero. Rothfuss opens the book with a silent inn, "a silence of three parts," in a small provincial town apparently on the edge of a large, dark crisis involving demonic forces. There is more than there seems to the quiet innkeeper "Kote" and when he encounters the traveling scribe Chronicler, he is convinced to tell our main character's story, his story.

I have not read much epic fantasy told in the first person, so Rothfuss gets originality points here. His chapters are short and well-organized. His language is clean and precise. I often complain about this Hemingway-esque language in science fiction and fantasy books, but Rothfuss elevates it to an art form. He does it right. He says what he means to say, carefully, evocatively and briefly. I will admit that is more than can be said for Tolkien, though I'm fond of his syntactical structure myself. He repeats descriptions of characters and I was exasperated with the word "maudlin" by the end, in the same way that Martin's books made me sick of the word "craven." But, with Rothfuss, I felt his repetitions were deliberate and in keeping with his storytelling schtick, a touch of Greek epic if you will.

One thing I found especially brilliant is Kvothe's upbringing among a troupe of entertainers. His parents are actors and musicians and he grows up on stage. I have never met with a better way to introduce a reader to a new world. There is no extensive exposition, but no slow confusing build-up either, all the necessary information about the cultural values and myths of "The Four Corners of Civilization" is contained in songs and play dialogues that are related in the beginning. Of course, there is a sense that there is more to learn and by the end of the book we have still not learned all that is referred to. A perfect set-up for a trilogy. But this book stands on its own as well, there are a series of smaller and bigger quests and resolutions. The small cast of characters is easy to keep track of and while minor characters are not as fully developed as I'd like, they are more than stick figures.

We observe Kvothe's formative years, he must lose his parents and end up living rough on city streets for a while, where have I heard that one before? Oh yeah, and then he gets into the school for wizards. Except, in Kvothe's world, "arcanists" don't perform magic, they perform "sympathy," making bindings between objects to light candles, for example. And of course, the more advanced students can learn "naming," which is what Kvothe really wants, how to call the name of the wind and bend it to his will. Rothfuss plays on a lot of familiar themes on the power of words and the danger of power. Then there is the Girl, Denna or Dianne or Deanna, the wild, enigmatic love of Kvothe's life. The knight's got to have his lady.

I would absolutely recommend The Name of the Wind to fans of fantasy and I will certainly be reading the rest of the trilogy. I'm even going to go ahead and call this Fantasy Literature, because it is a little different and I feel like it shows a very serious artistic effort and besides being entertaining, it...lives.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Mailbox Monday

I have acquired a couple of books in the past two weeks, both at independent bookstores, I am proud to say, which makes me feel a little less guilty about giving into temptation. The first I bought at Busboys & Poets in D.C. It was my first time there and I will definitely be going back. While the restaurant is larger than the bookstore (and boasts plenty of vegetarian and environmentally sustainable options), the selection is quite specialized and charming. I noticed almost no recent bestsellers, instead the largest sections were on Poetry and Food Politics, with plenty of History, Social Justice, and a Literature section with focus on more obscure and international writers. I picked up an interesting-looking novel by Nigerian author Ngugl wa Thiong’o.

Wizard of the Crow takes place in a fictional African country under a dystopian dictatorship. From glancing through it, I can tell that it has elements of magical realism and intrusive narration that I will love.

I picked up The Name of the Wind at Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, where I've spent many happy hours of my life and will hopefully spend more. I've had The Name of the Wind recommended to me quite a few times lately. I'm actually finished reading and my review should be up soon.

Friday, August 26, 2011


Question: What are five books from your "to be read" stack. What makes you select a book for your “to be read” stack?

My Answer:

I feel like I have more books on the TBR pile right now than I have in a long time. Partly, this is because it was recently my birthday and partly it's because I've recently been indulging in book-buying much more than I should because it's one of the few things that makes me feel better in the midst of a current personal crisis.

So, five books...American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld, The Collected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen, Elizabeth I by Margaret George, Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares, and Reading Women by Stephanie Staal.

These days, my TBR pile grows largely from reviews on other book blogs, but also from newspaper reviews, recommendations from friends and colleagues, and plain old browsing. In the future, I may start taking LibraryThing recommendations into account and at least once I did order a book just from browsing on Bookmooch.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

An Addictive Mishmash of Horror

38. A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin

39. A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

I've been obsessively reading these sequels to A Game of Thrones, but after looking back at that review, I have to say my comments overall are rather similar.

A Clash of Kings introduces us to a few new point-of-view characters. We have Davos, also known as the Onion Knight, who is sworn to serve Stannis Baratheon, brother to the late King Robert. If the accusations of incest between Robert's wife Cersei Lannister and her twin Jaime are true (and we readers know they are), Stannis is the rightful heir to the throne. This doesn't stop younger and more charming brother Renly Baratheon from claiming the crown nor does it stop Cersei crowning her son Joffrey in the name of his alleged father. With Eddard Stark dead, his son Robb becomes the King in the North, a move that none of the claimants to the Seven Kingdoms like since it removes half their would-be territory.

Of course, we're still rooting for the Starks, but now we get a viewpoint into what's going on with Stannis, and it's scary. Melisandre, a priestess from faraway Ashai, wins the king's ear with the power of her god, R'hllor, the Lord of Light. Previously, we've had the "Seven" gods of the South, more clearly defined in the second book (The Mother, the Father, the Warrior, the Maiden, the Smith, the Crone, and the Stranger) and the nameless old gods of the North the Starks pray to. We've also got a viewpoint into Theon Greyjoy, formerly the Starks' ward, now returned to his father, the onetime Iron King, in hopes of an alliance. The Ironborn have different plans and Theon is driven to the deepest and most unforgivable of betrayals.

Meanwhile, our old friend, and my favorite character, Tyrion the Imp, becomes the King's Hand in his father's name and moves to skilful political and military wrangling that delighted my heart. The second book in the series is better structured, kinder to the characters, and a place where I really came to enjoy them, even the despicable Theon I found amusing.

What I love most about this series is that I find it unpredictable. Especially with fantasy and sci-fi, I can usually predict what's coming next. Not with George R.R. Martin, at least not in the second book. However, A Storm of Swords, while still engrossing, was not nearly as enjoyable for me. I think it's because I've finally caught on to how Martin does things and also because I'm beginning to detect small flaws and inconsistencies, and a number of printer errors in my copy didn't help either. While after the first book, I expected all minor characters to die sooner or later and I wasn't holding out hope for a good deal of the major characters either (one of my predictions is that none of the major characters from the first book will be alive in the last, but we'll see), but now I'm seeing that every move leads toward escalated conflict, to an insensible degree. I understand that is most of why the series is so addictive, because there's always the tension of what will happen next, but I often don't like what happens next (but yes I am having an emotional reaction, which is some success for Martin), and most damningly, characters' actions aren't making sense to me in terms of how they've been characterized. Lord Tywin, father to Cersei, Tyrion, and Jaime, seems especially erratic, as does Jaime, who now emerges as a likeable POV character. I don't get what Stannis' deal is in this book nor the Hound and Arya gets less and less likeable and more and more screwed. I don't like that Tyrion's not in power either and how he gets treated seems very odd and just to mess with the readers.

Probably, the characters' motivations and complications are all very clear to Martin and I was able to make a lot of predictions based on clues earlier. Like, I'm not surprised the Hound turned out to do something good, I know Ser Jorah was reporting on Dany and I kind of suspected that Whitebeard was Barristan Selmy. But. Motivations for certain actions still don't seem clear to the reader and I think it's more a function of trying to add in as much action and gratuitous violence as possible than of showing how complex the characters are. I could be wrong, this could be deeper than I know. The only way to know is to read all of it, though it's not all out yet. Still, I'm taking a break from A Song of Ice and Fire for now while I'm stewing and I'll get back to it later.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

37. Eon by Greg Bear

Eon is a quirky book of epic proportion. On the cover, the Washington Post is quoted, "Eon may be the best constructed hard SF epic yet." While I'm not sure I can agree with Dune in mind, Eon is definitely hard SF that still remains likable, understandable, relatable to us non-math/tech/science people who still enjoy sci fi. In its scope and weirdness, it reminded me of Neuromancer, a book I tried to read a year and a half or so ago, but it was just too immersed in its own strange reality for me to get into.

Like many SF writers, Bear uses short, direct, and sometimes clunky sentences to describe his characters and his world. Few of the characters are fully fleshed out, even the main characters seemed stock-ish to me. Brilliant young woman, hardened administrator, disaffected Russian, etc. However, what makes this book crackle is the plot and the ideas behind it. Bear's imagined futuristic human society is also fascinating and creative.

The readers enter a world on the brink of nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. A mysterious asteroid enters Earth's orbit, and NATO organizes a team to investigate. Rumours abound about the wonders found within, but it's all kept top secret, and the Russians are only allowed to participate after four years. Our main characters are the hardened administrator who is charged with the deepest of secrets, Lanier, our young ingenue, Patricia Luisa Vasquez, our Russian dreaming of the stars, Mirsky, and our futuristic new world guide, Olmy. I wouldn't be giving much away if I say that nuclear war does break out and that our heroes, with Olmy's help, will have to contend with the futuristic society somewhere inside the Stone, as they call the asteroid.

This is a novel about the endless possibilities of the universe and the endless varieties of how humanity can divide itself. Bear, instead of going utopian or dystopian, accepts humanity and its divisions and shows how if we truly accept each other, we let each other go our separate ways. I don't know if that message is his definitive answer to the Cold War, but that's what I got from it. Please read Eon if you love SF, and especially if you're a physics geek, I think you'll really get a kick out of it. But if you're not, never fear, it's still an enjoyable ride.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Specious Origins and Opinions

36. Origins of the Specious: Myths and Misconceptions of the English Language by Patricia T. O'Conner and Stewart Kellerman

I'm back from vacation, where I managed to get a lot of reading done, of which this is the first. Although there are two authors, the book is written in O'Conner's voice and I will refer to her as the author.

This systematic breakdown of contemporary (and primarily American) English usage declares the true history of popular language faux pas in an attempt to establish the legitimacy or illegitimacy of rules such as "No prepositions at the end of a sentence," and "No split infinitives," as well as words like the ever-bastardized "ain't", and the true origins of words and phrases, including how bad bad words really are and why.

Interestingly, O'Conner comes out against some of the best-known "rules" of the English language, both "No prepositions at the end of a sentence" and "No split infinitives" are Latinist add-ons that she claims make no sense for English. O'Conner constantly belittles those poor eighteenth and nineteenth century schmucks like Alexander Pope and Samuel Johnson, who tried to make English "more like their beloved Latin," in O'Conner's words. She even knocks on British spellings, like "colour" and "centre" and "realise." These, she claims, are Norman French endings or affectations imposed by later Francophiles. While I'm personally fond of the way those spellings look (call me an Anglophile), I do feel it's rare and riveting to see a defense of American English, and she goes so far as to say that the American accent is closer to that of sixteenth century Britons than the accent of Britons today.

The most upsetting myth to be dispelled, for me, was that "marmalade" did not come from "Marie's malade," a concoction made for Mary, Queen of Scots. O'Conner shows that the usage was common much earlier, and that another version of the tale claims the "malade" was for Marie Antoinette! Guess she didn't have marmalade with her cake! (And the "let them eat cake" tale is far older than poor Maria Antonia, as I hope you all know).

O'Conner defends some mispronunciations (even the much-maligned "nucular") and begs her readers to expunge others, like "neesh" for "niche" (it's pronounced "nitch"). While her research on many word myths and origins is commendable and compelling, O'Conner seems to combine an odd blend of prescriptivist and descriptionist language standards. O'Conner's English scorns foreign impositions, particularly French and Latin spellings and pronunciations, but applauds or at least accepts modern changes in meaning and pronunciation, as long as the (American) majority has put it into use. To me, she seems to fight a strange battle, for an American English that clings to Anglo-Saxon roots and selectively incorporates modern slang, but rejects slightly older impurities. An interesting book indeed, but not without its own misconceptions.