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.