Thursday, June 30, 2011

Question(s) Do you own multiple copies of any book? What are they? Why do you have multiple copies?

My Answer:

I do own multiple copies of multiple books. Most notably, I own two or three copies of every Jane Austen book. Why? Good question, bit of a long story. First, my parents own a copy of Pride and Prejudice, which is the copy I read when I read it for the first time. Then, I decided I wanted my own copy, so I bought one. Additionally, I more recently discovered a copy of Pride and Prejudice that I think came from my elementary school library. Oops. As for the other books, I bought my own copies of Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion and stole my mother's copy of Mansfield Park. Then came college. I bought Northanger Abbey for an eighteenth-century lit class. The next summer, I took a Jane Austen course, and we were required to have a pack of the Norton editions of every book. In sum, I've ended up with 3-4 copies of P&P and two of all the rest.

Monday, June 27, 2011

LibraryThing

I recently joined LibraryThing, and I'm still figuring it out, as there is quite a lot going on, and I'm not the most tech-savvy.

Still, I've added the Currently Reading widget to my sidebar and I've entered in a small percentage of my books, those that I feel are most representative of my taste and my collection at large. At some point, I will get a paid account and enter them all, but that's an endeavor for a long period of time.

Among my most interesting discoveries so far have been early reviewer books that I can request, lottery-style, from publishers. I've done so for June, so fingers crossed! I've also been checking out recommendations based on my books, and I just found my library statistics, which are surprisingly mesmerizing. I've discovered that 52.17% of my favorite books were written by women, 47.8% by men and only 38.1% of the authors are alive, as opposed to the collections of 91% of other LibraryThing users.

Things may be slower as I've started work, but I will try to keep a regular pace. Reviews of the books I'm currently reading will hopefully be here soon!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Question: What fictional character are you (secretly) in love with?

My Answer: Well, it won't be a secret anymore, but my current fictional crush is Peeta Mellark, from The Hunger Games. In the eponymous Games, it's Peeta's public declaration of love for Katniss that makes her a hot contender, and I'd be lying if I said his love for her wasn't part of her attraction to the reader as well. While Katniss isn't sure she loves him back, I was rooting for Peeta all along. Peeta risks (and faces) injury, humiliation, and death to save Katniss, but it's not just this seemingly macho display that makes him such a winning guy. Peeta is genuinely sweet and thoughtful, he's artistic, he's a genius at frosting cakes! He's a charming speaker too, but has no stomach for fighting or betrayal. Even while he constantly tries to protect Katniss, Peeta is the one who truly needs to be protected-and whose goodness is deserving of protection.

Basically, Peeta is everything I want in a guy. Blind devotion to me, but also intelligence, passions of his own, friendly and well-liked. A good baker doesn't hurt either. The dialogue between Katniss and Peeta I found to be frequently touching, and the love (or whatever, on Katniss' side) felt so real to me that if I were her, I'd have been head over heels.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

34. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffeneger

I actually resisted reading this book because it was such a bestseller and garnered the label "romance." I tend to eschew romance and romantic fiction, mostly because swooning ladies, knights in shining armor, and awkward sex scenes are not my idea of good literature. Everybody raving about it made me want to read it less. Well, finally, I caught it lying around my house. It turned out to belong to a friend of my sister's, and it just looked more interesting than anything on my shelf.

The Time Traveler's Wife indeed fits the romance genre better than the science fiction genre in which it is also sometimes placed, but with a caveat-this is GOOD romance. I know, I never thought I'd hear myself saying it either. The time-traveling gimmick makes for exquisite plotting and the back-and-forth through time makes for a compelling tension between Clare, the time traveler's chrono-linear wife, and Henry, her chrono-displaced husband. Niffenegger carefully orchestrates episodes of Clare's and Henry's lives in a fitting, although not always chronological order. Most of the book follows Clare's chronological life, with Henry popping in at odd moments, sometimes more than one of him from different time periods. Both Clare's and Henry's viewpoints are used.

Clare first meets Henry as a child, a strange naked man who keeps appearing in the Meadow near her house and then disappearing. He gives her a list of dates upon which he will appear and she meets him with clothes and food. As she grows older, she falls in love with him and continually attempts to seduce him, but he resists, not wanting to warp her childhood. When she is a teenager, he confesses that someday they will be married. The list of dates runs out, and Clare will not meet Henry again for two years. This time, they meet in real time, which, for Henry, is his first encounter with Clare. Fate runs its course and the two are married, nestled in a close-knit world of dysfunctional families and generous friends. The city of Chicago plays a notable role in the novel as well, and natives will probably enjoy references to local landmarks.

At times, the love between Clare and Henry seems too good to be true, but the outer tension of Henry's periodic disappearances keep it interesting. They struggle with conceiving a child, because they all seem to have inherited Henry's time-traveling gene and time-travel out of the womb and back, causing a series of miscarriages. While Niffenegger's time-traveling is an interesting concept, Henry's involuntary time travel tends to pull him back to events in his own and Clare's childhood, her greatest invention is the love story. She uses careful descriptions of physical touching, feelings, even sexual acts, but avoids the painful nitty-gritty that makes me recoil from most modern romance. Clare and Henry seem comfortable with each other and each other's bodies, they are convincingly attracted to one another, and convincingly wretched when apart.

I would recommend The Time Traveler's Wife as a good read to anyone, I think it has a wide appeal, and while the romance label may be appropriate, it could be hurting how more literary readers regard it.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Question: What was your favorite book at the age of 9 1/2 or 13 3/4? Whichever you remember best.

My Answer:

I remember when I was around 9 1/2, my absolute favorite book was A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle. I borrowed it from the library and read it twice in a row. I talked about it for months. Still, I didn't realize, and I suppose no one knew to tell me, that it was part of the Time Quartet, which I didn't read till years later. And I didn't own a copy of A Wrinkle in Time until last summer when I helped teach it in a Modern Fantasy class for fourth and fifth graders. My favorite parts include the first encounter with Mrs. Whatsit "There is such a thing as a tesseract", Mrs. Who's explanation of a tesseract, like two points on a line being suddenly pulled next to each other, and especially the Happy Medium. I went to see the play last year and just as Meg figured out how to get into her father's cell, the fire alarm went off. It fit in so well, nobody moved until the actors walked offstage!

Sunday, June 19, 2011

33. The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios by Yann Martel

I polished this off in one day of riding around the Metro. The second story in the collection takes place in D.C. as a matter of fact.

The title story unfortunately did not live up to the curiosity its title induced. It felt very typical of the sort of story one might find in a literary magazine, a college boy's account of dealing with a friend dying of AIDS. The Helsinki Roccamatios are a fictional family the boys invent to pass the time and create a distraction. Family events are based on events from an encyclopedia of the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the readers don't get to hear the stories, only the facts, that is the encyclopedia entries, behind them. This was one of those incredibly frustrating stories when you don't want to be reading what you're reading, you want to read the stories the characters you're reading about are creating. They sound a lot more interesting and I wish writers would do that more often.

My favorite was probably the second story, The Time I Heard the Private Donald J. Rankin String Concerto with One Discordant Violin, by the American Composer John Morton. The descriptions of the music were intriguing, and the topic, an orchestra of former Vietnam vets discovered by a young Canadian, at least a little more unusual.

The other two stories are more experimental in terms of format, but not in any particularly transcendent way. The last story, about an old machine that makes mirrors written out of stories, caught my fancy just a bit.

Stories like these can show the author's potential and show where successful authors found their roots. Still, I think they belong in literary magazines and only this author's later success allowed him to publish this book.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Question and a New Book


Today, The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios came in the mail from Bookmooch. I'm a fan of Life of Pi, so hopefully I'll enjoy Martel's earlier work.

On the other hand, I'm thinking of issuing myself a moratorium on new books. I have a few books on my shelves that I haven't read (though most don't really interest me either...) and there's always the library. I really can't afford new books in terms of space or money. Someday.

Now, to another book meme question: What is your earliest memory of reading or being read to?

To be honest, I'm not sure. My parents read to me all the time as a small child, so much so that I memorized books and thought that meant I knew how to read. I remember books like Nicholas the Bunny, Goodnight Moon, One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, a book about little cats that ate cereal, and more. My mom read me the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. The first book I learned to read was about Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street, I remember struggling with it. Later, my dad and I read the Chronicles of Narnia aloud together (I had already read them), and I carried on the family tradition by reading Harry Potter aloud to my little brother.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Book Memes

I obtained a list of book meme questions from http://book-memes.livejournal.com/ and on days when I don't have a book review or thoughts on a book to post, I will answer one of these questions. Please feel free to post your own answers to the question in the comments!

First Question: Which fictional character do you identify with and why?

My Answer:

The answer that always comes first in my mind is Jo March. I read Little Women when I was young and it was a very influential book for me. I remember feeling vividly whatever Jo was feeling, outrage at Amy, responsibility for her family, confusion about Laurie. Jo was exactly the kind of person I wanted to be and who I felt I resembled at heart. Like her, I fought with my sister, loved to act, loved to read and write, hated clothes, liked being outdoors, and was bad at pretending to be someone I wasn't. I've always thought that Jo and I would have gotten on very well.

Monday, June 13, 2011

32. Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau

I read about this book in Hadassah magazine because it was a National Jewish Book Award winner. I picked up a used copy at Harvard Book Store about a month ago, and a few days ago dug it out of one of my boxes of books. The book quickly fit into a comfortable tradition for me, a book like The History of Love, People of the Book, Everything is Illuminated and other modern Jewish fiction. One of the main characters or rather, "the translator," is, like the actual author, not Jewish, but a Catholic raised in Boston. The book takes place in Massachusetts and in Baltimore, Maryland, both places I know well. Even the saga of the book's fictional author, Itsik Malpesh, from Kishinev to Odessa to New York City, feels familiar from my reading,though I have never been to the first two and never lived in the last.


The unnamed translator begins the book with the story of how he came to learn Yiddish, pass for Jewish, and become the translator of Itsik Malpesh. Along the way, he comments on Malpesh's stories from the larger context of Yiddish literature and narrates the rise and fall of his relationship with a Jewish girl under his assumed faith. Malpesh records his memoirs along with several of his poems, and his story is both that of a typical immigrant to the New World and that of a typical character of Yiddish literature. While I am not overly familiar with the genre, I am familiar with the stories of Sholem Aleichem and with Jewish folk tales in general. This perspective allowed me to both expect and accept the pogrom, the necessity of fleeing (really a staple of any journey novel or mythological journey), and especially the repeated encounters with people of legend or people from his past, the constant telling and re-telling of stories, and in general remarkable tongue-in-cheek coincidences. Itsik continues to confront people from his past, and as I was reading, I thought this was meant to emphasize that he and they were all characters rooted in Yiddish stereotypes; the slick man, the lost love, the wise man, the boss. However, in the author interview in the back of the book, Manseau claims that coincidences like this occur and are accepted in real life, when they are rejected as contrived in literature. I was disappointed in this answer, I wanted the coincidences to be symbolic for Yiddish literature in some way. Perhaps they still are. This is why author interviews should not be included!

Overall, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter, was an entertaining and comfortable read. I felt like I learned a bit more about Yiddish literature as well. I wish that the translator had had more of a story, as I was interested in him, but the book focuses mainly on Malpesh. In contrast, it would have been interesting to have more detailed translator footnotes and then his story at the end. I was also interested in what the book would have to say about the concept of 'passing,' a trope in earlier American literature more in regard to race than faith, especially since the real author is a Catholic with an interest in Yiddish lit, but in the end, it peters out into a non-issue. I suppose the focus shifts more into passing in terms of language than in terms of faith, but even in that case, it's explained as a desire to be 'new,' rather than a desire to gain a societal advantage. Recommended to fans of Jewish fiction.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Bookmooch

I'm in a transitional life phase, so to speak, and I just moved back to live with my parents for the summer. As both my home and dorm rooms were overflowing with books and the situation is getting untenable, I've managed to convince myself to let go of those books that I'm fairly sure I will never read again. I've been a member of Bookmooch since 2009, and I just listed 8 books in my inventory, probably more to come.

I've enjoyed being a member of Bookmooch, I've managed to get a few titles I was interested in and more that I found through browsing the Bookmooch inventory. While the selection is not always inspiring, it's a great tool and I would definitely encourage more people to join, so more books can be shared. It's exciting to be notified whenever a book on my wishlist is available, and I have to race to get to it first!

How does this help with overflow? In the long term, not much. However, this way I can build up points for books, sort of an investment for a future time when I have space for more. I also get to maximize space for books that I am interested in and likely to read again.

See sidebar for books I've listed on Bookmooch. Some are books I've reviewed on this blog and I think will interest a wide range of readers.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Trilogy Goes Up in Flame

30. Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

31. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins

I read The Hunger Games, the first book in the trilogy, a few months ago and have been eager ever since to read the remaining two books. This weekend, I went on a binge and read them both in a couple of days.

The best thing about this series, which did not disappoint in either of the sequels, is the protagonist's perspective. While I don't think a different perspective would have hurt and might have livened things up at points, Katniss Everdeen continues to be her cranky, fearful, dangerous, and unyielding self and I can imagine her having written every word. Collins has created a strong female character who is neither a bitch nor a Mary Sue, and that's an accomplishment in my book, besides damn entertaining. I'm not at all like her, but I can still relate to her.

I had a lot of guesses about how this series would go and I was right on most of them. There were a few twists I didn't see coming, one because it was awful and another because it was brilliant. Catching Fire was a disappointment in that its plot essentially repeats the same plot as the first book, which from my view was simply lazy plotting. I guess Collins decided not to mess with a good thing, but I think it dulled the impact and was unnecessary if not boring. Mockingjay is where the good stuff kicks in, and I saw the plot elements that I'd been dreaming of from the beginning. I couldn't wait for Katniss to find out that District Thirteen really exists and is mounting a rebellion against the Capitol. I saw that coming from a mile away, but that doesn't mean it isn't a good plot. It's exciting, a way to get Katniss out of her element, let us see her struggle with a new situation. And it's her reactions that the readers really care about.

The aforementioned brilliant twist occurs in Mockingjay, and it fit in so well, so amazingly with all the themes and messages of the book, it was the perfect trial for Katniss, that's all I'll say. But this is a book that is profoundly about manipulation and betrayal and its effects, and I love the celebration of rebellious nature that it encourages.

What you won't find in the Hunger Games series is a great deal of world-building. As an LOTR and Dune fan, this was disappointing. There are a few futuristic elements, like genetically mutated animals, and of course the political organization of Panem, and hints at the cultures of the different districts, but this is a plot-driven novel, missing the fine details that would make it a classic, for adults anyway. On the same note, while Collins does strive to color in some minor characters, we only really get to know and feel for the main characters, as opposed to other more detailed fantasy series. Overall, I would deem Collins' trilogy a fun, exciting read, but definitely YA.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Case Against Indifference

29. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

I read this book out of curiosity. Out of a desire to say "Look, I read this book, but it didn't change my life. I'm still not a vegetarian!" Now...I think I might become a vegetarian.

I expected this book to show me how the meat industry is horrible. I expected animal mistreatment, threats of infectious disease, threats to the environment. I never though the factory farming industry was a model to look up to. I didn't expect it to be pretty. But what I didn't bargain on were two things. First, the scale of the threat to human health and environment and yes, the scale of the animal cruelty, and Two, Foer's ability to tell a gosh-darn persuasive story and unabashed willingness to tell people exactly what they can do to help the situation. I admit, I should not have underestimated Foer, but I did, and now I'm stuck with the consequences.

What caught my eye as I flipped through was this passage:

"I, too, assumed that my book about eating animals would become a straightforward case for vegetarianism. It didn't. A straightforward case for vegetarianism is worth writing, but it's not what I've written here." (Foer, 13)

This is a deception! It's true that Foer doesn't conclude that everyone should stop eating meat. He concludes that everyone should stop eating factory-farmed meat and animal byproducts. However, this essentially means that everyone would need to become a vegetarian at least most of the time, because what he calls "ethical meat," raised on farms that meet certain qualifications for animal life quality and reduced threat to disease and environment, does not exist in nearly sufficient quantities for current or even reduced meat consumption. I have a problem with his ethics when it comes to lower economic levels. Meat is currently cheap and plentiful, in the grocery stores and fast food joints. People want to eat meat, people are socialized to eat meat. It's not fair to ask people to stop when they don't have access to alternative foods that are probably more expensive. I have to admit though that this doesn't apply to me. I may not have the money or access to buy ethical meat, but I could afford to be vegetarian.

Eating Animals is an entertaining if disturbing read. As opposed to the stats and journalistic interviews that characterized Fast Food Nation, Foer tells a series of stories, about his own experiences as a struggling vegetarian, the food-eating legacy of his Holocaust survivor grandmother, the story of his break-in to a chicken farm, and the stories of factory farmers and workers, ethical meat farmers, and animal rights activists, in their own words. I think Foer's strategic use of others' stories was a clever build to his case. He makes this story a very human one, a human struggle that is too easily relatable. He asks imaginative questions and makes definitive statements that force his reader to think and decide, to take a stand. For example, he looks into the American fondness for dogs and taboo against eating them. "What might be the reason to exclude canine from the menu?" (Foer, 25) he asks. Doesn't a pig have the intelligence of a dog? What about a dog that's not a pet? What about countries where dogs have never been kept as pets and are routinely eaten?

Foer asks questions I never thought to ask, like how much more a genetically altered, factory farmed animal suffers, as compared to animals of hereditary breeding stocks. These animals are born and raised weak, sick, unable to move or procreate. In Foer's words, "We have focused the awesome power of modern genetic knowledge to bring into being animals that suffer more" (Foer, 159).

Foer gets to the heart of why and how this has happened and relates it to the overall problems of our culture. I am sure bell hooks would have much to agree with here:

"We have let the factory farm replace farming for the same reason our cultures have relegated minorities to being second-class members of society and kept women under the power of men. We treat animals as we do because we want to and can." (Foer, 243)

Foer will not let us get away with pleading ignorance, he reminds us that every time we eat meat, we are making a choice.

"We can't plead ignorance, only indifference. Those alive today are the generations that came to know better. We have the burden and opportunity of living in the moment when the critique of factory farming broke into the popular consciousness. We are the ones of whom it will be fairly asked, 'What did you do when you learned the truth about eating animals?'" (Foer, 252)

He doesn't vilify us, he sympathizes with us, brings up Michael Pollan's "table fellowship," reminds us that he too is foregoing his grandmother's traditional dishes, like chicken and carrots. He doesn't say we won't miss out. But he is adamant that there is a right choice to be made.

"If anyone finds in this book encouragement to buy some meat from alternative sources while buying factory farm meat as well, they have found something that isn't here" (Foer, 257).

"When we lift our forks, we hang our hats somewhere. We set ourselves in one relationship or another to farmed animals, farmworkers, national economies, and global markets. Not making a decision-eating 'like everyone else' is to make the easiest decision, a decision that is increasingly problematic...Our straw may not be the backbreaker, but the act will be repeated-every day of our lives and perhaps every day of the lives of our children, and our children's children..." (Foer, 262).

These are the passages that stood out to me. I know my individual decision will not make a difference, but I cannot continue to be indifferent. At least not right now. There is much to be said for meat, I enjoy it, it is part of my family's tradition, it is good for me, it is natural. But none of these arguments overcome the dangers and horrors of factory-farmed meat, which is not natural and is dangerous to my health and future human health.

I dislike the idea of someone else telling me what to do. But Foer's case is not merely well-written, in my judgment, it is right. Not for everybody, but I think it must apply to me. This book is and will continue to be a strong case for vegetarianism and ethical meat for those who choose to listen.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Thoughts on Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism

In Feminism is for Everybody, I was struck by hooks' sharp differentiation between reformist and revolutionary feminism. If you read the passages below, you can see that hooks identifies herself as one of the revolutionary feminists, whom she refers to as "we," while she refers to reformist feminists as "them." Certainly, hooks makes a salient point when she recognizes that achieving the goals of reformist feminists has not ended sexism. One of the complaints of anti-feminists is that women are trying to be like men, what hooks says of the reformist feminists. Revolutionary feminism, as I understand it at least, would change the system so that there is no longer this perception of women trying to be like men-women are trying to be women, are trying to be people. It is these artificial men/women roles that are the problem, in my mind. And these roles result from what hooks is fighting against, a patriarchal society, a hierarchy of domination. Let's take away the idea that power hierarchy is permissible. But what do we put in its place? This is what anarchists and communists have been struggling with for centuries now.

Reformist feminism is short-term, revolutionary feminism is long-term. What about those who think reformist feminism is enough? Don't criticize them, educate them. Accept them where they are. There is a long road ahead and change takes time. This is where I am more reformist than revolutionary, I wouldn't advocate militarism or overnight change. It's just not realistic, in my mind, for achieving the ultimate goal. Instead of setting up a dichotomy of reformist vs. revolutionary, of unilateral vs. multilateral feminism, consider this an ongoing forum, a discussion and negotiation between different views.


"Reformist thinkers chose to emphasize gender equality. Revolutionary thinkers did not want simply to alter the existing system so that women would have more rights. We wanted to transform that system, to bring an end to patriarchy and sexism...The vision of "women's liberation" which captured and still holds the public imagination was the one representing women as wanting what men had. And this was the vision that was easier to realize. Changes in our nation's economy, economic depression, the loss of jobs etc., made the climate ripe for our nation's citizens to accept the notion of gender equality in the workforce." (hooks, 5)

"Reformist feminism became their route to class mobility. They could break free of male domination in the workforce and be more self-determining in their lifestyles. While sexism did not end, they could maximize their freedom within the existing system...Lifestyle feminism ushered in the notion that there could be as many versions of feminism as there were women...Obviously this way of thinking has made feminism more acceptable because its underlying assumption is that women can be feminists without fundamentally challenging and changing themselves or the culture." (hooks, 6-7).