Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Best Books of 2013 Survey-From Boston Bibliophile

How many books read in 2013?

34, as of December 29th.

How many fiction and non-fiction?

Officially, 3 non-fiction and the rest fiction. However, that's not counting the vast amounts of literary criticism I read this year.

Male/Female author ratio?

21 female and 9 male authors (some were repeats). It's funny, I've gone from slightly slanting toward male authors to strongly slanting towards female authors!

Favorite book of 2013?

The Best of All Possible Worlds, Wanderlust, and Woman on the Edge of Time.

Least favorite?

I mostly DNF'ed books I didn't like this year...so of those I did finish, Patternmaster by Octavia Butler.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?

Having other priorities this year really freed me up to just say "no" to books for pleasure that I wasn't getting into. That would include London Falling and The Wet and the Dry. The former was just not my style, the latter was interesting in terms of content, but badly organized and not as insightful as it could have been.

Oldest book read:

Probably Gerusalemme liberata, published in 1575.

Newest?

MaddAddam came out in September 2013.

Longest and shortest book titles?

The Best of All Possible Worlds; MaddAddam

Longest and shortest books?

A Discovery of Witches; Every Boy Should Have a Man

How many books from the library?

At least 10 (not counting lit crit, of which I had at least 20 out at one time).

Any translated books?

Only poor lonely Gerusalemme liberata aka The Liberation of Jerusalem.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?

Margaret Atwood, and two. Actually, she is tied with Jerry Spinelli, I also read two of his.

Any re-reads?

None that I counted for the blog.

Favorite character of the year?

Elisabeth Eaves, in Wanderlust.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?

Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Lebanon, Israel, Portugal, India, France, Canada, Australia, Peru, the planet Cygnus Beta, the Dominican Republic, New Jersey, England, the planets Urras and Anarres, and the moon Triton.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?

I was definitely encouraged to read Insurgent, The Good Lord Bird, and MadAddam via blog zeitgeist.

Which author was new to you in 2012 that you now want to read the entire works of?

Karen Lord, Preston L. Allen, Marge Piercy

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?

The final two Malloreon books!

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?

I finally read Insurgent, and The Female Man had been on my TBR list for years. Other than that, it was more reading authors I'd wanted to read more of, like Junot Diaz, Jhumpa Lahiri, Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Margaret Atwood.

*Bonus*

How many SFF books did you read this year?

12

How many of the books you read were published this year?

7

Friday, December 27, 2013

Short Story Catch-Up

I have still been reading short stories as per my goal this year (especially on Tor.com), but I've neglected to record a few of them. So, here goes:

Short Story #8 Brimstone and Marmalade by Aaron Corwin
Publisher: Tor.com

Summary:

A little girl wants a pony for her birthday. Instead, she gets a demon.

Favorite Quotes:

"Mathilde knew what 'we'll see' meant. It was one of those special lies only grownups were allowed to tell. When a grownup said, 'we'll see,' it really meant 'never'."

Short Story #9 In the Greenwood by Mari Ness

Publisher: Tor.com

Summary:

"Robin Hood" from Maid Marian's point of view is not so cheery, at least in Ness' rendition. Apparently, I don't like to have my fairy, folk,and mythical tales messed with, as will be evident coming up...

Short Story #10 Psyche's Dark Night by Francesca Lia Block
Anthology: My Mother She Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me Ed. Kate Bernheimer



I bought this collection a few years ago, at the Boston Book Festival, and since then, I've dipped into it occasionally. I've probably read more than half of the stories in the book-and the truth is, I disliked most of them, and was ashamed to admit this. This is because, you see, it's not at all what I would call outright "bad writing." Many of the authors in this book are very well-respected and famous. Rather, I would say that a lot of the stylistic and content choices in this book were simply not my cup of tea. A lot of the stories were altered to be violently and sexually graphic, to turn tables and characterize heroes as monsters and vice versa. Essentially, to complicate fairy tale worlds and bring them down to an earthly level or at least a new kind of confusion, whether in terms of format or content. I didn't like it. But I bet there are many out there who will, so if you think you can handle it, I would urge you to disregard my opinion.

That said, there was at least one story in this collection that I liked very much. It is probably one of the more conventionally written ones, but I thought it was a charming update of the Cupid and Psyche myth. Francesca Lia Block turns Cupid and Psyche into wary online daters, and the conceit works very well with the premise of the myth. Her Cupid and Psyche really demonstrate the human factor though, that is missing in the bare-bones myth. And that's really what I would like fairy tale re-tellings to do-relate it to our world in an understandable way, not add to the confusion and mystification. But to each, their won. In any case, I have found a new author whose work I may want to look into more. That, I think, is one of the many advantages of short stories over novels (of course novels have advantages over short stories as well), to be able to quickly identify authors that you like, without having to invest so much time.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Second Story Books

My friend was in town for the weekend, and we traveled to Second Story Books. I'd been there before, but not in many years.

Second Story Books almost feels more like a warehouse than a bookstore. This feeling was exacerbated as, while we were there, a loading dock at the front of the store was open, letting in air. This was more than an aesthetic choice, as we found ourselves (and other customers) continually sneezing in the midst of the rather musty collection. Mustiness aside, however, the selection was quite impressive and reasonably well organized. I did come across a few grab-bag boxes in the sci-fi section, but they rather added to the sense of adventure and exploration that often accompanies used bookstores (for me, at least). In addition to generous fiction selections, Second Story Books really shined in the non-fiction, references, and antiques sections. Unfortunately, the latter means many of their wares are more expensive than in your average used bookstore, but extra interesting to browse!

While I felt a bit guilty for the three books I picked up, my friend's stack quite dwarfed mine. I asked if I might share her bounty with you as an example of the many obscure gems that might be available (though her selections are mostly representative of the Psychology and Human Sexuality sections). Her books are as follows:


My more meager selections included The Tolkien Reader by J.R.R. Tolkien, Babylon Revisited and Other Stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and The Princes in the Tower by Alison Weir.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Book Review: MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

34. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood



Stories are what makes us human. But which stories? The stories that we tell to ourselves, the stories that we tell to our confidants, or the stories that we tell to our children?

The final book in Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy suggests that it is the last that is most important, and which will have the most lasting and unpredictable effects. It reminds me of Atwood's comment at the National Book Festival about new technologies having "a good use, a bad use, and a use that no one expects." In a trilogy that has opened against an immense background of advanced science and technology, which has both theoretically ruined and potentially saved the world, here is a return to the true building blocks of civilization-and surprise! the most dangerous, powerful, and potent tool of all is the Word, written and spoken.

Toby, the primary point-of-view character, teaches a Craker child how to write, and then thinks, "How soon before there are ancient texts they feel they have to obey but have forgotten how to interpret? Have I ruined them?" Although the Crakers are lab-created people, engineered by the famous Crake not to experience jealousy or strife, it is an open question how "human" the Crakers really are. They prove more than capable of imitation, and burst out into song and hero-worship that their creator did not intend. After all, perhaps the Crakers will repeat the mistakes of their human predecessors. Or, perhaps, they will fulfill their greatest potential. Like each of the first two books, MaddAddam leaves more questions than it answers.

It does, however, wrap up the stories of the characters followed in Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. This time, the sermons and the point-of-view belong largely to Toby, who while she was probably my favorite of the earlier books' three narrators, was not quite up to the vastness of this last book. Or, rather, the vastness it should have been. MadAddam is far more constrained in time and place than either of the previous books, and suffers for it. The story of Zeb, alias Mad Adam, is interspersed here with Toby's, and his adventurous stories are a breath of fresh air, but not enough. Toward the end, there are more and more contributions from the Craker child Blackbeard, but his voice, the voice of the future, is uncomfortably infantile, even when he is grown.

I longed to hear more of Ren and Jimmy, and while upset that Atwood did not reinvigorate their childhood romance, I was even more upset not to get some more at least of Jimmy's humorous narration. The one lucid conversation he has with Toby are some of the book's most entertaining lines. And while I enjoyed learning more about Zeb, I wished also that I could learn more about Ren's friend, Amanda, and about Swift Fox, a character who comes into play (but not enough) in MaddAddam.

Overall, I would highly recommend the trilogy, but The Year of the Flood is probably my favorite of the three.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2013

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten New-to-Me Authors I Read in 2013

1. Karen Lord

I've been raving about The Best of All Possible Worlds all year, and I know it's only a matter of time before I read Redemption in Indigo. Lord has a voice that's both fresh and familiar, and while her writing is simple, she asks questions about the nature of humanity that force the reader to think.

2. Marge Piercy

Although she's not new on the literary scene by any means, Piercy was new to me this year, and while Woman on the Edge of Time was hard-hitting, I definitely intend to pursue more of her work in the future.

3. Joanna Russ

Russ, like Piercy, a feminist extraordinaire, was also new to me this year. I really admire the thoughts behind her writing, even though it is written in a style that I generally find difficult.

4. Elisabeth Eaves

Wanderlust is a book that I just related to so much and will return to again and again. I don't know if I will read her other memoir about stripping, but I am glad I read her.

5. Francine du Plessix Gray

Her writing was charmingly subdued and richly detailed, I would love to read that kind of historical novel again.

6. Preston L. Allen

Every Boy Needs a Man was a surprise to me in every way, even its very arrival. But it was most welcome and I would read more of Allen's work.

7. Samuel R. Delaney

Not new, but new to me, I really liked Triton despite the unlikable protagonist and complicated world (or because of them?) and am eager to read more.

8. Beth Bernobich

I actually only read Bernobich's short story "Thief of War" on Tor.com, but I definitely want to read the books set in the same world.

9. Erin Morgenstern

If she can come up with another world like The Night Circus, I'm in.

10. Torquato Tasso

Tasso is a sixteenth century Italian who wrote an epic about the Crusades (Gerusalemme liberata). He was one interesting dude, I would like to read more of and about him.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Return to Six-Word Reviews

33. A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness



Vampire porn, exquisitely written, starring witch.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

I love Top Ten Tuesdays and all the beautiful aspirations, but I'm not one to set myself up for failure, so let's just see if I can finish the books I set out to read in 2013...

Top Ten Books on My Winter TBR List

From My Fall TBR List:

1. MadAddam by Margaret Atwood

2. Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text

3. Box Office Poison by Philippa Bornikova

From My Summer TBR List:

4. The Wet and the Dry by Lawrence Osborne

5. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankel

6. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell

7. Night Film by Marisha Pessl

From My 2013 TBR List:

8. Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

9. The Seeress of Kell by David Eddings

10. The Sorceress of Darshiva by David Eddings

Monday, December 9, 2013

Book Review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

WARNING: Use of the n-word below, in a socio-literary context. Please do not read if this will offend you.

32. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride



Everyone seems to be comparing The Good Lord Bird to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and I will confess, when I first heard the voice of Onion Shackleford, I heard the echo of the earlier charmingly uneducated picaresque. But Onion is not just an uneducated young boy, nor just a young boy pretending to be a girl (who remembers that scene from Huck Finn?!?), he is a young boy performing both as a girl and as a Negro. And this brings something new to the performance of the novel.

McBride brings home an observation that seems like an aside in Twain. In Twain's day, he probably couldn't do more than allude to it obliquely, but McBride can spell it out to those to whom it may not occur.

There is a scene in Huck Finn where Huck makes up a story about a boat accident and a concerned lady asks if anyone has been killed. "No'm," Huck replies, then adds, "Just a nigger."

Those few words say so much. No one has been killed, just a nigger, who doesn't even count as a person. But in McBride, he elaborates on the view of that unnamed, fictional victim, how did the "nigger" feel about being a nigger? McBride writes as Onion:

"Being a Negro means showing your best face to the white man every day...You just a nigger to him. A thing: like a dog, a shovel, or a horse." (343)

If you are treated and considered as just a thing, it changes your self-presentation. You are not free to be the complicated person that you are, but instead you take on this "Negro" persona, instead you become the thing. Or rather, you act the thing. But because the whole thing is an act, acting becomes second nature. This is where it becomes clear that Onion's disguise as a girl is not merely a gimmick, but a powerful metaphor (and comment on how forced shape-shifting creates liars and tricksters):

"I'd gotten used to living a lie-being a girl-it come to me this way: Being a Negro's a lie anyway. Nobody sees the real you." (318)

There is so much more I could say about The Good Lord Bird. The voice is exquisite. Every word is precisely placed. James McBride is correct in suggesting that this is his best novel, and I say this confidently without having read all the others. But while it is in conversation with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, it also speaks to Cervantes' Don Quixote, to Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey, to many other novels about blackness and otherness and weirdness. It speaks to the history and legends surrounding John Brown, as well as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. It speaks to the truths and the lies that we tell each other today about race and gender and sexual orientation and being human. Above all, The Good Lord Bird is a novel that SPEAKS.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Book Review: The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

31. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood



I didn't realize Oryx & Crake was meant to be a trilogy (and had resigned myself to never knowing what happened after Jimmy went to find the fire), until Year of the Flood came out and I was so excited! I started reading it right away...and then for some reason stopped, and well, I kind of forgot about it. But then MadAddam came out, and so I have finally finished reading Year of the Flood.

Flood is a more expansive and immersive novel than Oryx & Crake, even if it is nominally about two women trapped in separate hiding places after an apocalypse. Toby, trapped in the AnooYoo Spa, has a storyline that demonstrates the evolution of the CorpSeCorps, the corporations that run the world. Ren, younger than Toby and trapped in an upscale sex club,has a storyline that emerges more slowly, but demonstrates the nearer past of the CorpSeCorps and resistance movements. Her storyline also crosses with that of Snowman the Jimmy, from Oryx.

Both Toby and Ren are former members of God's Gardeners, a religious sect that believed in a Waterless Flood, which would wipe the Earth clean of humanity's sins. The God's Gardeners, led by Adam One, are almost like a wet dream of what a religion should be. Sure, they pull weird cultish shenanigans like plain shapeless uniforms and infrequent washing, but all that they do has a purpose. They teach the children to recognize edible plants in nature, to respect animal and human life, but also how to defend themselves. Adam One's sermons mix science with religion, and admit uncertainties and practicalities. And the Gardeners are truly, unwaveringly kind to human beings. And while they are strict vegetarians, they acknowledge that eating animal flesh may at times be necessary to sustaining human life.

Anyone with any interest in dystopia, utopia, apocalypse, biology, technology, animal, and gender politics should probably rush out to read these books right now, if they haven't already. But I want to leave you with a line from one of Toby's sections that I read over and over again. It makes so much sense, and yet I don't think we think like this enough. Toby is observing a group of pigoons (pigs with human neural tissue) that have dug up her garden. She shot one in retaliation, and now she and the pigoons are silent enemies:

"And if we eat pigs, why shouldn't pigs eat us? If they find us lying around." (320)

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind for Thanksgivukkah

I know this Broke and Bookish topic is a few weeks away, but by then it will no longer be relevant-so

Top Ten Books I Wouldn't Mind for the 1 in 75,000 Years Convergence of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving

1. Hild by Nicola Griffith

2. The Lowlands by Jhumpa Lahiri

3. The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

4. The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two by Catherynne M. Valente

5. Dhalgren by Samuel R. Delaney

6. Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

7. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ

8. The Collected Works of Katherine Phillips vols. one and two (out of print)

9. The Annotated Persuasion by Jane Austen, David M. Shepard(or the annotated version of any of Jane Austen's books)

10. Or any other awesome historical, literary, science fiction, and/or fantasy work that I might enjoy

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Book Review: Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir

30. Mary Boleyn: Mistress of Kings by Alison Weir



I've been fascinated with Mary Boleyn since I learned of her existence. Everybody knows the story of her sister, Anne Boleyn, whose charms caused the king of England, Henry VIII, to divorce his first wife and break with the Roman Catholic Church in order to marry her. Everyone also knows the sad end of that story, which culminated in Anne becoming the first of Henry's six wives to be beheaded.

But what is known about Mary? Nothing much, until more recently, with the release of Philippa Gregory's bestselling novel The Other Boleyn Girl. Alison Weir points out that it is this novel, and the movies of the same name, along with the "Tudors" television series, that have propelled Mary out of obscurity, and into what Weir claims is undeserved notoriety. While I am a huge fan of Gregory's novel, it was not my first encounter with Mary Boleyn.

My first knowledge of her stems from a book that is significant in my life for other reasons--it fueled a lifelong obsession with Elizabeth I in particular and Tudor England in general. But when I read Behind the Mask: The Life of Queen Elizabeth I by Jane Resh Thomas, I remember lingering over a passage in the early part of the chapter on Elizabeth's mother, Anne Boleyn, something like "Anne did not want to become, like her sister, the outcast mother of the king's bastard child."

I pondered and pondered over what it would mean to have a sister who had been the king's mistress, who had actually borne his child. Surely one would want to avoid that fate for one's self. Surely one would be angry at a king who would cast one's sister aside-or would one relish at the chance to so obviously triumph in a sisterly rivalry? The story of Anne and Mary was one I wanted to research and write myself, but of course Gregory got there first.

It is statements like the one I read in Thomas' book, as well as the portrayal in Gregory's novel, that Alison Weir calls into question. The popular history on Mary Boleyn claims not only that she was Henry's mistress, but before that, she had been the mistress of Francois I of France. Popular history claims that Mary was so well-known as a loose woman that Francois I called her his "English mare." And popular history claims that her two children, Katherine and Henry Carey, were undoubtedly not the children of her first husband, William Carey, but the bastard children of Henry VIII. Contemporary evidence, Weir claims, does not strongly support any of these libidinous accusations.

The accusation that she was the mistress of Francois I is technically possible, indeed Weir believes it probably happened. Both Mary and Anne Boleyn served in the French court as ladies-in-waiting to Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's sister, during her brief marriage to the elderly French king Louis XII (Francois was his son-in-law and heir). This is documented in records of payment for their services. It seems that Mary came with Mary Tudor to France, while Anne traveled overland from a former appointment at the Dutch court. Weir notes that is sometimes believed Anne was the elder sister because she was sent to court first, but argues that it is more likely that Mary was the elder, as she was the first to be married. In any case, both sisters were present at the French court along with Francois I, who had a reputation for womanizing. However, Weir points out, there is no record of any gossip at the time about Mary and Francois, or indeed about Mary and any other man. It is only much later that a source Weir discredits in other places for being too biased, stated that "Francois I knew [Mary Boleyn] for a whore." Wir argues it is most likely that "knew' was meant in the biblical sense and that Francois I had admitted to sexual involvement with her. But there were many other mistresses that Francois I openly acknowledged and kept for years, and Mary was not one of these. At whatever point he may have become intimate with her, neither of them made it public knowledge. Weir concludes that their affair was probably of very short duration, possibly lasting only one night. She suggests, however, that the Boleyn family knew about it, because Mary was removed from the French court after Mary Tudor went home, while Anne stayed on as a lady-in-waiting at the court of Francois I's first wife, Queen Claude. Weir believes Mary was sent either away or home in disgrace (there are no clear records of where she lived between this time and her marriage to William Carey), and that the Boleyns' repeated disregard for Mary dates from this period. I wonder though, that if there is no contemporary evidence for the affair with Francois and the primary source is discredited in other respects, why assume there was any affair at all?

It is all but impossible, however, to dismiss the probability of Mary's affair with Henry VIII. While it was not well documented during whatever time period it flourished, which Weir thinks was somewhere between two and four years, it was the grounds on which Henry's marriage to Anne was finally dissolved and the discreet subject of a much earlier papal dispensation to marry within the "forbidden degrees of affinity," which would include the sister of one with whom one had become "one flesh," as well as the wife of one's brother (the grounds on which Henry claimed his marriage to his first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was illegal). But the question remains-was Henry the father of Mary's children, or not?

Weir puts forth an intriguing argument that Mary's daughter, Katherine, was Henry's daughter, but that her son, Henry, was not his child. I am inclined to agree with her. Katherine is Mary's firstborn, and it is well known that Henry drifted from his wives, and the mother of his acknowledged bastard, Henry Fitzroy, during pregnancy. Weir thinks it logical that their affair may have concluded with Katherine's birth. Soon after the birth, Henry granted lands and money to William Carey, Mary's husband, which Weir believes may have been for the care of his daughter. He made similar grants for a common girl called Ethelreda, the daughter of his laundress, who was almost certainly his bastard, as nothing else could account for his interest in her. Furthermore, Katherine and her daughter Laetitia Knollys strongly resemble not only Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I (there is no authenticated picture of Mary), but Henry VIII as well. Katherine Carey received a rare appointment as lady-in-waiting to Henry VIII's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, that her social position did not technically warrant, and Henry soon oversaw her marriage to a prosperous courtier. In her later life, Katherine Carey was an especially close companion of Elizabeth I, who may or may not have known that they were probably sisters as well as cousins.

If, as Weir believes, the affair ended after Katherine's birth, the later born Henry Carey is probably the son of Mary's husband William Carey. Weir claims that Henry resembles him in portraits. There was no similar monetary gift after Henry's birth to the Careys. The most compelling evidence, however, is that Henry did have a bastard son whom he acknowledged, Bessie Blount's son, Henry Fitzroy. At this point, Henry still had no legitimate sons and might have needed a bastard son to rule or certainly to prove that he was capable of fathering sons. What cannot be accounted for though, is why Anne Boleyn wanted, and was given, the wardship of her sister's son while her sister was still alive. Weir argues that Anne, in her powerful position relative to the king, was better placed to provide for the boy, but something about Gregory's portrayal of this event in The Other Boleyn Girl rings true. Why would Anne want custody of the boy if he wasn't the king's son?

While Weir's biography, the first full biography of Mary Boleyn, puts the lie to some of the events in Gregory's book and to the salacious rumors swarming in popular history books, I find it interesting that Gregory's and Weir's characterizations of Mary ultimately mesh well. She was a girl who spent her life in her sister's shadow, whose family and lover did not regard her as particularly valuable, bright, or important. And yet, both authors portray a woman who was passionate yet discreet in love, and who, while somewhat estranged from her immediate family (in a letter, she described living in her father's house as being "in bondage"), was warm and confident enough to have a strong relationship with her children and second husband. Certainly, she was the most successful of the ill-fated Boleyn siblings. Mary escaped with her head intact, married for love, lived into middle age surrounded by a loving husband and children, and died in her own bed.

Anne Boleyn's may be the story of a strong woman's meteoric rise and fall, but Mary Boleyn's is the story of a strong woman's slow climb to happiness and freedom. And who doesn't love a heroine with a happy ending?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book Review: The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory

29. The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory. Narrated by Bianca Amato and Graeme Malcolm.



When I first started listening, I was afraid I had gotten the wrong tape. The description was of a young woman begging for a cross, and receiving one from a hated Englishman. She was about to be burned at the stake, and a king whom she had saved would not save her--how did I accidentally get an audio about Joan of Arc?

But it turns out that instead, Gregory uses Joan of Arc as a guiding narrative force in the life of Margaret Beaufort as she uses the water goddess Melusina as a narrative guide to Elizabeth Woodville's life in The White Queen. I found this devise less annoying, as it was evoked less often, and presented more as Margaret's imagination than a "true legend."

I personally enjoyed The Red Queen far more than I did The White Queen. Gregory's true triumph here is the character of Margaret Beaufort. There are few deviations from her narration, and these are read in a male voice, presumably a third-person narrator. Margaret Beaufort does not have the Sight-and she is far more interesting for it.

No, Margaret Beaufort has to cope with what life hands her, and it is quite shoddy. Gregory graphically, but sympathetically describes the horrors of twelve-year-old Margaret's brief marriage to Edmund Tudor and the nightmarish childbirth that brought Henry VII into the world.
Margaret, abused and abandoned as she is, clings to her belief that she is special in God's eyes and that her son will someday be king.

Some might find her character insufferable, but I find her both sympathetic and amusing. It is hard not to pity her in the beginning, and through that pity, one comes to sympathize with a woman whose belief that God supports her is so strong that she will order the murder of two innocent young boys.

Yes, the mystery of the princes in the tower is suggestively solved in this novel. Gregory proposes an intriguing conspiracy between Margaret, then Margaret Stanley, and the Duke of Buckingham, to murder the sons of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville. This would seem to technically absolve the primary suspects, Richard III and Henry VII, though both of these men suffer Elizabeth Woodville's curse on the firstborn son, pronounced in the The White Queen.

The two novels overlap, though The Red Queen spans a greater period of time. The little parallel moments that Gregory has placed in her books are not especially compelling and I wish she would have dispensed with them. The way she has built her Wars of the Roses universe, however, neither book is complete without the other. And both books should have their conclusion in The White Princess, featuring Elizabeth of York, the daughter of Elizabeth Woodeville and daughter-in-law of Margaret Beaufort. I notice, however, that Gregory has embellished the universe with a novel on Elizabeth Woodville's mother, The Lady of the Rivers, and one on Anne Neville, Richard III's wife and The Kingmaker's Daughter.

If you enjoy characters that are highly unaware of themselves, implacably stubborn, and improbably conniving, pick up The Red Queen, or listen to it. I could hardly wait to get to my commute to hear how Margaret would deal with her next dilemma. The historical events here are much better-known and more straightforward than in The White Queen, but the character voice will keep you thoroughly entertained.


Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Top Five Character Names I Love

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Five Character Names I Love

1. Christopher Carrion, Lord of Midnight from the Abarat books by Clive Barker

Doesn't it just roll off the tongue?

2. Rodion Romanovitch Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Besides the alliteration, "Raskolnikov" literally means schismatic, very appropriate for the character.

3. Albus Percival Wulfric Brian Dumbledore from the Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling

J.K. Rowling is a genius for names, but this is one of my favorites! (I think I'm noticing a trend...)

4. Dimple Lala from Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

An unforgettable name!

5. Galadriel from the Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

The name is musical, light, and powerful all at once. Just saying it gives me a thrill.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism Revisited

28. Sexy Feminism by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong and Heather Wood Rudulph



A couple years ago, I wrote a post entitled Thoughts on Reformist vs. Revolutionary Feminism, based on bell hooks' Feminism Is for Everybody. Since then, it's been one of the most popular hits on the blog. It seems that a lot of people are wondering, what is the difference between reformist and revolutionary feminism?

I don't have all the answers or know all the history. But, in my understanding, "reformist feminism" aims to give women equal rights to men, as applied in Western democratic, capitalist societies. Reformist feminists are the advocates of equal pay and of more women in CEO positions and STEM fields. Sheryl Sandberg of Lean In and even Betty Friedan of The Feminine Mystique would be considered reformist feminists. these women are aiming to increase women's presence and power in the workforce, aiming to treat women exactly (or almost exactly, save the contentious motherhood issue) like men.

"Revolutionary feminists," as I understand it, have more radical aims. There are probably a wide variety of aims and not all revolutionary feminists (nor reformist feminists, for that matter) agree on what should be done or how. but the aims of revolutionary feminism include overturning current political and economic systems and instituting systems entirely free of hierarchy. The goal of revolutionary feminism is a world where everyone is truly treated as equals, even regardless of, say, willingness to work or raise families.

When I wrote that post two years ago, I considered myself more of a reformist. Now, I'm not so sure. I'm somewhere in between. Certainly, I don't advocate an immediate overthrow of the government. That would cause far too much chaos and bloodshed. Actually, any bloodshed is too much. But I've begun to think differently about the world since reading bell hooks' book.

That's a very long introduction to the place I was at when I picked up Sexy Feminism at the library. The book, which came out this year, is based on the authors' eponymous website, SexyFeminist.com. Judging from their book and the criteria above, I would classify Armstrong and Wood Rudulph as reformist feminists, but also people who are thinking carefully about what it means to live as a woman in our society.

Unlike hooks' book, which deals with issues from education to reproductive rights, Sexy Feminism tackles, for the most part, the small, everyday issues--waxing, makeup, dieting, and plastic surgery. To be honest, I didn't really relate to a lot of it, and I'm not sure if it's because I'm singularly unfocused on appearance or the authors' research is not as all-encompassing as they appear to think, but in any case, they presented a lot of interesting information on things that some women will do or feel they have to do, for the male gaze or for themselves. That, the authors seem to think, is the real feminist issue-are you doing it for men or doing it for yourself?

One part of the book I found valuable was their discussion of first, second, third, and fourth wave feminism. I didn't even know there was a fourth wave! Repeatedly, the issue of sex-positivism comes up, a sticky issue between second and third wavers. Second wavers, Gloria Steinem among them, think that all porn is anti-feminist, as is stripping and sex work. Third wavers believe in the right to "express their inner slut." Armstrong and Wood Rudulph take, I think, the thoughtful and logical position that, well, it depends.

You can't put on a micro-mini and fishnets and call it feminist. But it's not necessarily anti-feminist either. If that's what you want to wear, if you're doing it to assert your right to dress however you want, well and good. But if you're putting it on for a boyfriend and you don't really feel comfortable or if you think it's the only way you'll get hit on in the bar, well, stop, rethink. According to Sexy Feminism, women do all kinds of things from Brazilian waxes (described in graphic detail and they sound like torture, why would anyone do that, ever?) and nose jobs, because they think it's what men want.

I spoke with my friend about this and she and I agree, YOU DO NOT NEED TO DO ANYTHING SPECIAL TO FIND THE PARTNER THAT IS RIGHT FOR YOU. Armstrong and Wood Rudulph include a chapter on dating, and they compare two of the most influential dating books for women and for men, The Rules and The Game, respectively (I'm not linking because no one should read them). Their parody of the interaction between followers of both was pretty hilarious and telling; the two could never get together because neither would admit to liking each other nor would they agree to see each other at a time or place convenient for the other. The authors admit this, and I will too--these strategies can work. For tricking a man into dating or maybe even marrying you and for tricking a woman into bed. But guess what? These books assume that just anyone is good enough for you. You're better than that and you won't be happy for very long with someone that you don't really know or like, and who doesn't really know or like you. The best way to find a mate, if that's even what you're into? Find someone who likes your hobbies, who feels comfortable interacting at a level that you do. The girls who like to primp will end up with guys who appreciate it. The girls and guys who like to stay at home and watch movies will find each other. Feminist dating means breaking the rules. Armstrong and Wood Rudulph even progressively hint that you can have whatever kind of relationship is right for you, be it long-term monogamy or serial hook-ups. It's okay to go after what you want, but respect the other person enough to be upfront about it.

Armstrong and Wood Rudulph rely heavily on Gloria Steinem to speak for them, even to define feminism, which in her words is "the belief in the full social, economic, and political equality of women and men. I would just add 'and doing something about it.'" They take the last idea to heart in the last chapter, actually called an afterword, on activism and provide lists of activist opportunities. While useful, it's a relatively small portion of the book. They also refer frequently to Betty Friedan, who has been critiqued for identifying problems that were mostly only applicable to upper middle class white women. While Armstrong and Wood Rudulph, in fine twenty-first century fashion, give plenty of lip service support to homosexuality and transgender people, there's not a really full discussion of issues for them and some of the comments about dating "well, this doesn't really apply to lesbians" is frankly untrue. Hierarchical gender dynamics can still come into play in homosexual relationships (not that they do necessarily, but they can). Furthermore, there is very little mention of women of color and no discussion of particular issues or stereotypes they face. This is very much a book for straight, white, upper middle class women.

Then again, the book is not really anything less than it is trying to be. The authors admit to covering primarily appearance-related issues and to being straight, white suburban women themselves, so it is quite likely they know who their audience is. For information on the horrifying things that women will do for appearances and thought-provoking discussion of where feminism and sex positivism intersect, this is your book. Revolutionaries, look elsewhere.


Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: The White Queen by Philippa Gregory

27. The White Queen by Philippa Gregory



So with my two rather new jobs comes an awful lot of commuting. And what better way to pass the time than an audio book? Since I had such success with The Queen's Lover, I decided to pick up some more historical fiction, this time from an author I'm quite familiar with.

Philippa Gregory creates tension in the details. Most of her books deal with well-known events in British history, but she focuses in on minor characters and minor events that pack more unexpected dramatic punches. In The White Queen, the first person protagonist is Elizabeth Woodeville, a minor noblewoman who famously beguiled (some say bewitched) Edward IV into marrying her. What I didn't know was that Elizabeth was already widowed with two young sons when she married the king, making her conquest even more extraordinary. I know the broad outlines of the story, that Edward became king through conquest, and after some years of rule died, leaving behind two sons. Instead of his son inheriting the throne, his infamous brother Richard III usurped it. Richard III, of course, is most notorious for secretly killing the "princes in the tower," Edward and Elizabeth's two young sons. I expected this would form the central tragedy of the book, but then Gregory never makes the obvious choice in these cases.

I don't agree with all the choices that Gregory makes in her books or this one in particular, but I do respect her decision to focus on lesser known events, which prove more interesting for the reader (So interesting, in fact, that today I checked out Alison Weir's The Wars of the Roses, just to see how much of Gregory's story is fact vs. fiction). One of the choices Gregory makes in this book is to intermittently include the legend of Melassina, Elizabeth's supposed water goddess ancestress, who bequeaths "the Sight" to her female descendants. I don't know how I feel about this occult element blending into the historical. Witchcraft is viewed far too matter-of-factly among the characters. While it may be realistic that they would believe in witchcraft, it seems unrealistic that Elizabeth and her mother would practice so openly and her husband and his family be so unfazed. There are references to concerns that witches may be killed if found out, but these never come to serious fruition. The legend itself adds nothing to the story except an inept metaphor and the witchcraft just seems too easy an explanation for certain events, whereas it might have no effect on others. Plus the spells she, apparently successfully, performs make the protagonist appear quite cold-hearted, vindictive, and cruel.

Elizabeth Woodeville is not as endearing a protagonist as Mary Boleyn, Katherine of Aragon, or even Gregory's calculating portrayal of her great-granddaughter, Elizabeth I. Her character is uneven. At one moment, she likes her husband's brother Richard on sight, at another she cannot help but dislike him for no reason she can discern. She similarly takes immediate dislikes to Edward IV's closest friends and family, and turns them into her enemies even before they prove themselves so. Toward the end, her daughter Elizabeth, the future Elizabeth of York and mother of Henry VIII, accuses her of valuing the throne above the lives of her sons. According to Gregory, it's not an inaccurate portrait. The character is not unsympathetic, it's hard not to sympathize with a woman whose brothers and sons are killed or ripped away from her. But she is neither an easily relatable character nor a clearly defined one, and that is an unfortunate flaw in the book.

Gregory does much better with the minor characters in this novel though, and brings them to fascinating life. Elizabeth's brother Anthony is a "philosopher and a man of the world," and his advice and thoughts are some of the most thoughtful and valuable parts of the book. It may have benefited Gregory to use him as a second viewpoint character, which I think she needed in this book. She has Elizabeth frequently describe battles and scenes where she could never have been present, but Gregory feels they're essential, so in they go. Since Anthony was present at most of these events, he could have served as a second set of eyes.

I was also intrigued by Gregory's portrayal of Richard III. He is not a hunchback, merely smaller and darker than his brothers. His presence in scenes are curt and negligible for the majority of the book, but Gregory writes a compelling confrontation between him and Elizabeth toward the end of the book that left me wondering more about her interpretation of Richard. Who was he really and what were his real goals and feelings? And did he really murder those boys? Gregory comes out clearly on one side of the question, even though Elizabeth has room for doubt.

As usual, Gregory seizes on unlikely historical speculations and weaves them into her fiction as fact. Here, where there is so much incentive for a happy ending, I find it doesn't bother me as much. And then, Gregory lets history finish the book for her, ending before the decisive battle to which the later part of the book, or maybe the whole book, is leading up. That story is continued in The White Princess, though for now I've checked The Red Queen out as my next audio book.

Despite my issues with the book and the occasionally uneven narration, I would recommend this to anyone interested in the War of the Roses who would like an easy read. Gregory has a gift for bringing out the inherent sexiness of history.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Top Ten Books I Was "Forced" to Read

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!

Top Ten Books I Was "Forced" to Read

1. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

I must confess, it wasn't my idea to read these books; it was my dad's. He went on so much about how they were his favorite books as a kid and made such a point of telling me that he had his own copies available for me that I finally went ahead and read them. And now, his copies sit coolly on my shelves. For safekeeping.

2. The Source by James Michener

My grandfather took me to a bookstore once and told me I could have any book I wanted. Then he proceeded to steer me toward this one. He told me all about how much he had enjoyed it, and was so full of enthusiasm that I couldn't resist "choosing" it. I'm very glad I did, it remains one of the most interesting books I've ever read and I'm so glad I had the chance to talk with my grandfather about it.

3. The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

My good friend got quite enthusiastic about this book and kept telling me to read it. Finally, she bought it for me for my birthday and I took the hint! Another one that I'm glad I read.

4. The Trixie Belden books

These books had belonged to my grandmother, and my mother hoped that I would enjoy them, as she did as a child. How could I refuse?

5. Dune by Frank Herbert

My friend at camp was reading this book and when she had finished, I was finished with all the books I could stuff into a sleeping bag (and still carry it), so we traded. I really have to thank her for starting me on this incredible journey, all thanks to the limited reading resources at our sleepaway camp!

6. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

I heard that Moby-Dick was the most boring book in the English language. That's a lie, from my perspective anyway. I was "forced" to read it for a twelfth grade English class, but I really ended up appreciating it and still think about it often.

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

So I was pretty terrified of Joyce, but I had to read this for class, and, thanks to my professor, I got through it all right!

8. Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality by Sigmund Freud

I wasn't too fond of what I'd heard about Freud's work, it took a graduate level colloquium to get me to read him, and I'm glad I did. Whatever else, he is a remarkable thinker and writer.

Annnnd...that's all I can think of. The ones that went well, anyway.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Thief of War

Short Story # 7 Thief of War by Beth Bernobich
Publisher: Tor.com

Summary:

Arbija, a daughter of the northern province Vesterlant, has traveled south in disguise, to steal the jewels of the king of the Erythandran Empire. Her family fears that the Empire seeks to conquer their lands, as they did to nearby provinces in earlier years. Our protagonist is part of a complicated scheme that involves enrolling in an ancient University and using magic to disguise her features, while pretending she is a novice in magical studies.

The scope and lore of this novella seem to extend far beyond its contents. The grand lineages, premise, and cast of characters, however, lead to an abrupt and disappointing end. I fervently hope this is only an excerpt from a novel, which I would line up to read! In the meantime, I hope Bernobich does not continue to disguise material of novel proportions in thin novellas!

Favorite Quotes:

"Beauty was one thing. Humor was far more seductive."

Monday, September 30, 2013

The Lady Astronaut of Mars

Short Story # 6 The Lady Astronaut of Mars by Mary Robinette Kowal
Publisher: Tor.com

Summary:

What does an astronaut's retirement look like? In this realistically imagined novelette, Kowal brings to life a retired lady astronaut, living in the Martian colony she helped found. When her age and gender bring one last opportunity to go the stars though, her husband's debilitating disease presents an agonizing obstacle. The story pulls no surprises, but comments gently on double standards and the unique trials of aging.

Favorite Quotes:

"The physicists described it to me like a subway tunnel. The tesseract will bend space and allow a ship to go to the next subway station."

"Posing in my flight suit, with my lips painted red, I had smiled at more cameras than my colleagues."

Friday, September 27, 2013

The National Book Festival 2013: James McBride

I made it to the rapidly filling tent where James McBride was about to speak as a light drizzle transformed into a ferocious downpour. When McBride took the podium, he complained that another author had had beautiful weather, but here he was, having to compete with the rain.

I'd say McBride got the best of that rain though, as he talked about his new book The Good Lord Bird, his love of the abolitionist John Brown, his view that history is more complicated than we think, and his disregard for political divisions (he commented that he was thrilled to see Laura Bush in his audience the last time he spoke at the festival). Toward the end of his talk, he declared his belief that "What God wants to happen, will happen," and gestured. At the moment, the rain, which had been slowing, came to a stop! I don't know about any higher meaning, but McBride has impeccable timing.

Having read and enjoyed his memoir, The Color of Water, in high school I was interested to hear McBride speak at the festival. I came away even more intrigued and excited to read his new book, The Good Lord Bird. During his talk, he mentioned that this book is not the place to look for accurate history, he's trying to get people interested and get them to laugh. Plenty of books have been written about the serious abuses of slavery, he said. You won't find that in his book. He mentioned that he's come a long way since he wrote The Color of Water, which he's best-known for. The Good Lord Bird, he says, is his "best book so far" and he had fun writing it. It helped him, he said, through an "incredibly painful divorce."

McBride gave an especially mellifluous and dialect-infused reading from the book's first chapter. The Good Lord Bird is the story of Onion Shackleford, a young black boy who becomes attached to John Brown's posse in the 1850s. Except that John Brown thinks Onion is a girl and all manner of other hijinks and misunderstandings ensue against the backdrop of pre-Civil War America and Brown's own violent style of justice. McBride said he thinks that Brown is misunderstood, and so is how slavery was regarded in the 1850s in general. Apparently the book includes a parodic portrait of Frederick Douglass, but McBride declares it's all in good fun and he respects Douglass and his work as well.

So far, The Good Lord Bird is not disappointing, except that I can't have James McBride to read me every line!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

London Falls Flat (For Me)

I've been saying I'm going to read London Falling by Paul Cornell.




I'm not. Or rather, I'm not going to finish it.

As soon as I started reading it became clear that despite the promise of dark fantasy and the lure of a former "Dr. Who" screenwriter, this is not a book for me.

The beginning of the novel, at least, reads more like a police procedural, taking place on the dodgy side of London. It features hard-boiled and corrupt cops with Cockney accents. Some readers might eat this up with crumpets and lick their lips. It's just not my cup of tea, and I'm not going to finish it for the sake of finishing it. I gave it the old 50-page try, and if you think you'd like it better, please be my guest!

Seriously.

I will give away my copy, which I received from the publisher, to the first commenter who lives within the continental United States. Comment away!

*Edit* A friend of mine has claimed my copy of the book, I hope she enjoys it!

Monday, September 23, 2013

The National Book Festival 2013: Margaret Atwood

Did you know Margaret Atwood had a Twitter? I didn't.

From one side of a standing room only tent at the National Book Festival, I learned a lot more about Margaret Atwood than I knew before. Her father was an entymologist, The Complete Works of Shakespeare would be her reading of choice on the proverbial deserted island, and she won't divulge her favorite authors or her favorite among her own books.

Atwood did divulge, however, her opinions on genetic manipulation, genre, and the cover of the just-released end to her dystopian trilogy, MadAddam. As Atwood put it, genetic manipulation and other future technological/biotechnological tools have a "good use, a bad use, and a use that no one expected." She spoke in praise of the recent attempt at a lab-grown burger and in support of continuing such projects. Growing up with an entymologist father and her own inclinations seem to have made her quite scientific in thought and opinion. When asked if she had grown up with animals, she pointed out that "everyone does," as they are "all around us and some of them are inside of us." She credited the discovery of microbes with the launch of tales about truly fearsome-looking Martians. In regard to science fiction, she noted that she thinks of genre as mainly a convenience for booksellers and sometimes for readers. "Once you create a box," she said, "sometimes the wrong things will end up in the box." She seems neither to cling to genre nor rebel against it, but accept its existence as just another human imperfection. She was less sanguine about the apparently imperfect covers that went before the current iteration of MadAddam. The first two covers featured flowers and gnomes respectively, neither of which, she regrets, are largely important to her book. Her book might be for the kinds of readers who are "not into flowers and not into gnomes." Either way, she's pleased with the cover that features an egg with a hand-print--so perhaps it's for readers who are into that kind of thing.



I also learned from Ms. Atwood that The Handmaid's Tale is an opera and is going to be a ballet! She said she wouldn't miss the latter. I may have to, but I'm sure it could be quite thought-provoking.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Top Ten Books On My Fall TBR List

Here we go again, Broke and Bookish! I think the best I ever do on these is five out of ten, but here's to aspirations!

Top Ten Seven Books on My Fall TBR List

1. The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

I've already read Oryx and Crake and MaddAddam
just came out, so I have momentum to finish the series! Plus, I'm planning to see Margaret Atwood at the National Book Festival on Saturday!

2. MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood

See above.

3. Wild by Cheryl Strayed

I know I've said this before, but this time I'm planning to see her at the Fall for the Book festival.

4. London Falling by Paul Cornell

I've really been meaning to get on this.

5. Box Office Poison by Philippa Bornikova

The sequel to This Case Is Gonna Kill Me, received for review, and I'm kinda curious to see where this went.

6. The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

It got a stellar review in the Washington Post and he's going to be at the National Book Festival too.

7. Short Stories in Spanish: New Penguin Parallel Text

I picked this up recently at Kramerbooks. It looks like a fun way to practice my Spanish, with short stories from the likes of Isabel Allende and Gabriel Garcia-Marquez.

I think I'll leave it there and make it more manageable for myself.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Book Review: Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

26. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri


Jhumpa Lahiri, whose second novel, The Lowland, will be released on September 24, received the Pulitzer Prize for this debut collection of short stories.

Reading Jhumpa Lahiri's stories is like slipping into an old nightgown or scooping up a bowl of your favorite cultural dish. The majority of her stories follow the intimate lives of Bengali families and take place in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The feeling that her stories produce in me may be somewhat unique, since one of my best friends is Bengali and I spent my college years in Boston. But no matter how foreign the trappings, I find it hard to believe that the thoughts and feelings of her characters would not elicit a sense of familiarity from any human being. The character details are almost painfully thrilling in the accuracy with which she depicts the quiet confusion of her protagonists' lives.

Yet, every time I read a Jhumpa Lahiri story, I settle into it with such feelings of comfort, joy, and sympathy, and then often find myself jerked abruptly out of the characters' lives at the end, with no sense of where they will go from here. Lahiri mimics life so accurately at times that the arc of the story seems swept under a rug, understandably abandoned, like the Christian relics left behind in her story, "The Blessed House." The reader shares in Twinkle's joy as she discovers these "treasures," left around her new home, but worries about her husband Sanjeev's strong annoyance with them. In the end, it's unclear what will happen to the objects, much less Twinkle and Sanjeev's marriage. And yet, Lahiri can be forgiven for details like this, when Sanjeev observes Twinkle's abandoned shoes, "black patent-leather mules with heels like golf tees, open toes, and slightly soiled silk labels where her soles had rested."

The titular story is not even the most interesting, it focuses on an Indian tour guide who also works as an interpreter for a physician. The central conceit does not mesh well with the storyline, and will leave the reader confused and feeling vaguely superior. The best two stories in the collection are the two with the most definitive story arcs: "A Temporary Matter" and "Sexy." The former concerns the dissolution of a marriage and the latter of an affair. "Sexy" features the only adult non-Bengali protagonist, the other non-Bengali protagonist is a small boy with a Bengali caretaker in "Mrs. Sen's." "A Temporary Matter" is the first and most touching story of the entire collection. "Sexy" teaches the most interesting lesson, wrapped up in one short quote from a Bengali child. While I won't ruin that for you, I'll leave you with a quote from an earlier scene; "Miranda went to Filene's Basement to buy herself things she thought a mistress should have...she found a cocktail dress of a slinky silvery material that matched her eyes" [Moment of Silence for Filene's Basement].

Short stories, I feel, are beginning to be more popular again, though still under the thumb of the novel. I've found them to be a great way to enjoy reading these days, as well as experience new and familiar authors. I've now read all of Lahiri's currently published oeuvre, and I'm looking forward to The Lowland, I hope I can expect the same level of character detail and intimacy with perhaps a less understated plot. And yet, there's room in this world for all kinds of writers and readers and if Lahiri sticks to the style that has done well for her, there would still be a variety of literatures in which to indulge.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

In Joy, Knowing the Abyss Behind

Short Story #5. In Joy Knowing the Abyss Behind by Sarah Pinsker
Publisher: Strange Horizons Published: July 1 2013 and July 8 2013

How I Found It:

I followed a link from this post on SF Signal.

There are two parts; the first part links to the second.

Summary:

If you've ever wanted a fantastical treehouse, this is the story for you. Timelines trade off between the present where an elderly Millie watches her husband George dying of a stroke and the past as Millie remembers before and after the mysterious event that quashed George's architectural ambitions. Like George's career, the story feels unfinished, but it does leave the reader longing for more.

Favorite Quotes:

"An ungraceful shimmy brought her into the crow's nest."

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This Villain You Must Create

Short Story #4. This Villain You Must Create by Carlie St. George
Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine Issue: July 2013

How I Found It:

I followed a link from this post on SF Signal.

Summary:

Granite loses his archnemesis and finds that other villains lack panache. When a similarly bereaved supervillain visits his support group, he takes her up on her unnatural offer. St. George's diction is deceptively simple and this literary-infused SF short tale serves up quite a Jamesian twist.

Favorite Quotes:

"'Fire and Ice' is an uninspired poem, cited primarily in self-indulgent fanfiction."

"'Nothing Gold Can Stay' is my favorite and yes, I've written Outsiders fanfiction. Ha!"

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Top Ten Books That I Wish Were Taught in Schools

This week's Top Ten Tuesday is quite appropriate for the start of the school year! There are so many books that I wish were taught...

1. Forever by Judy Blume

Freshman or sophomore English class. Or Health. Just reading this book would be so much more useful than the Health class at my high school was. It realistically depicts the emotional and sexual unfolding of a teenage relationship.

2. Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants series by Ann Brashares

I'd recommend these for junior and senior classes, for similar reasons to above. These books very realistically depict teenage lives in high school and college. I also think that the writing would be an extremely good model for kids to write stories of their own.

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

This book changed my life when I read it in a class (in college) and I think it's a particularly engaging and insightful book on issues from multiculturalism to poverty to nerd culture. Plenty of room for discussion on writing style and content.

4. Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston

A classic at universities, it's equally worthy of injecting into the high school classroom, probably at a senior level, for a more nuanced look at racism and narrator reliability. Pairs well with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

5. Dune by Frank Herbert

The richness of the characters, worlds, and politics, not to mention environmental economics, all make Dune an enlightening as well as entertaining thought experiment. For a freshman or sophomore English or Biology class, and/or a Bioethics elective.

6. Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

I feel like I promote this book for everything, but it would really be great for a junior English class. Parts of it would work well for a Photography class or a class focused on recent history. Besides being a culturally rich and slice-of-teen-life read, it is steeped in a particular historical moment; NYC's South Asian American community in the '90s.

7. The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin

What if there was a world where anyone could be either gender? I feel like this kind of read stimulates critical thinking and leads to productive questions about social paradigms that could lead to fantastic essays.

8. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld

My friend and I were talking about how we learned as kids to please adults and peers and how instead we should have learned to balance others' needs with our own. Prep is an extreme example of what happens when you allow social pressures to rule your life. The intense self loathing and secretive loathing of others that the protagonist engages in haunts me to this day, and sophomore or junior English classes should teach students not to end up like Lee Fiora.

9. The Vagina Monologues by Eve Ensler

Come on. Everyone needs to know more about vaginas and how our society feels about them. Plus, it's a play! Freshies, welcome to high school! (Maybe bump it up to sophomores if they're really giggly).

10. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan

I was debating which Amy Tan book to pick. Almost any of them would be great for cultural reasons, but this one has an especially rich historical component and leaves lots of questions about narrator reliability. Much better than The Joy Luck Club. For freshman or sophomore English class or World History class.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: Necessary Evil by Ian Tregellis

25. Necessary Evil by Ian Tregellis
Publisher: Tor Release Date: April 2013




Ian Tregellis is one of my favorite new authors. The Coldest War hooked me with the first line, "Wizards do not age gracefully." The final book in the triptych, Necessary Evil, is no slouch either for poignant turns of phrase. The protagonist, given his own voice for the first time, summarizes the book poetically; "Who was I but a scarred and sweaty madman railing against the woman who twirled history around her fingers like so much yarn?"

That woman, the "raven-haired demon," the "witch" with "wires in her braids," is Gretel, and she is not only the most fascinating character in Tregellis' triptych, but one of the most compelling villains in fiction. From the first time I learned of her incredible ability to read the future (more accurately, the lines of possible futures) and to shift it one way or another, I wanted to know more. In Necessary Evil, Tregellis satisfies that urge. He begins with a Prologue from Gretel's point of view, "She is five years old when the poor farmer sells her to the mad doctor." It's a story that was traced in the first book, Bitter Seeds, but Gretel's viewpoint makes it particularly creepy. With Gretel's power comes the obligatory discussion of free will, which Tregellis addresses with nuance, but also with flippance. When the old familiar British detective, Raybould Marsh, asks Gretel how her power doesn't negate the existence of free will, she nonchalantly replies, "I have free will." I almost regret though that this book makes clear that Gretel is a clinical psychopath. She's classically selfish and manipulative, with no regard even for the life of a brother who adores her. She was so more interesting when there was the possibility of more humanity in her. However, she does struggle in this book as she never has before and faces the only fear, the loss of her own control, that haunts a true psychopath.

At the end of The Coldest War, *SPOILER ALERT* the world is destroyed by the demonic Eidolons, but Gretel's machinations make it possible for Raybould Marsh to go back in time to the 1940s and create a new timeline where she and (graciously, she thinks) others don't end with the Eidolons. So in this book, instead of one boring British detective, there are two. I will confess, I was more fond of the jaded, scarred, older Marsh than his younger self and actually found him much more likable when given his own voice. The other books are written in third person limited from multiple points of view, but in this one the older Marsh speaks in first person and Gretel speaks in short first-person "interludes" as well. The novel is much more tightly focused on the two characters, which would be a helpful choice for a less skillful author. Tregellis, however, is capable of pulling off more and I missed the attention that the second book lavished on Will Beauclerk, the "guilty conscience" of Milkweed. Rather than a bumbling fool, Will comes off here as more of a genuinely moral compass, as he aids the time traveller Marsh in sabotaging the warlocks who won World War II (with the Eidolons' pernicious help) in "the original timeline."

The title of the book gets at the central question of the series, which is "How much evil is justified before good and evil become indistinguishable?" Tregellis leaves the answer fairly ambiguous. In the original timeline, Britain becomes as morally bankrupt as its enemies when it wins the war with debts paid in the blood of its own citizens. The second time around, Will and the older Marsh derail these "blood prices," at the cost of continuing a war that also takes its toll in blood. In order to ensure that the Eidolons will not destroy the world, all of the warlocks with knowledge of the Eidolons must be assassinated. In order to ensure before that that no one will resort to consorting with Eidolons, all the orphans installed with powers by the mad Doctor von Westarp must die. Not all of Gretel's siblings are naturally murderers or psychopaths like her, they are victims of the Doctor's experiments. But their otherworldly powers attract the interests of the military and Eidolons alike. (Sadly, Klaus, Gretel's biological brother and invisible man, and their frenemy, Reinhardt, the human salamander feature much less prominently in this book than the previous two.) Marsh tells himself that cooperating with Gretel is a "necessary evil," but Tregellis makes one wonder whether it isn't the nature of war, perhaps even the nature of humanity, to be evil despite itself. With two possible futures laid out in his books, it's difficult to tell, which one is more humane, or rather, less evil?

While I agree with other critics that the third volume in the Milkweed Triptych is "satisfying," I would say it didn't ultimately excite me as did The Coldest War. Tregellis has a fascinating cast of characters, a thrilling premise, and a virtuousic gift for language (though he's not immune to abusing his vocabulary, how many times does "chthonic" need to be used, really?), but something is missing in the execution of this last novel. The ending for the characters is too hum-drum for the whiplash pace and existential stakes of the series, and I find myself rooting for a future where Gretel's scheming days aren't finished.


Disclosure: Received for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Top Ten Most Memorable Secondary Characters

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!


Top Ten Most Memorable Secondary Characters

1. Philippa Gordon from the Anne of Green Gables series, specifically Anne of the Island

"Phil" seems like an awesome friend. She's charming, talkative, friendly, and always getting herself into mischief. I'll never forget the time she chose which hat to wear by spinning around with a pin or the time she told Anne, "Nine times out of ten I can outshine you, but on the tenth night..."

2. Art3mis from Ready Player One

Art3mis is a kickass girl gamer who refuses to be sidelined. She fights her own battles and doesn't let romance distract her.

3. Ismene from Antigone

I can never get Ismene's fate out of my head. The poor girl gets hanged because her sister breaks the law. I always wonder what would have happened if Antigone had just listened to her and bidden her time.

4. Hermione Granger from Harry Potter

There's a fabulous cast to choose from in HP, and I'm not likely to ever forget Dumbledore,Fred and George, or Umbridge (UGH), to name a few. But of all these characters, Hermione has to be the most memorable. A witch who's the smartest in her class and, I would argue, a hero in her own right, Hermione is the one who brews the Polyjuice Potion, figures out the truth about the Chamber of Secrets and how to save Sirius Black, neutralizes Rita Skeeter, and ensures the secrecy of Dumbledore's Army, among other feats. She makes one of the biggest sacrifices of any of Harry's friends (erasing her parents' memories) and sticks with him to the bitter end, even when Ron hesitates. In some ways, Hermione is an even more important character than Harry, as an incredibly strong female character in a hugely influential series. Hermione is the one little girls (and boys) will look up to and say, "I wish I were more like her."

5. Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings trilogy

I love Sam. It never fails to amaze me when others don't recognize the critical role he plays in the trilogy. Without Sam, Frodo never would have made it to Mordor. And Sam remains the only person (Hobbit, Man, Dwarf, Elf, or Other) in Middle Earth to surrender the Ring of his own volition. Plus, Sam is just awesome. He loves Elves and everyone of all different races, longs for adventure, and yet is happy in the end to go home and tend his own garden.

6. Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games trilogy

I might get a little swoony here, bear with me. Peeta is the opposite of the stereotypical male love interest. Yes, he's strong, but he's not hyper-masculine or especially skilled in fighting or survival. In fact, he needs to rely on the female protagonist, Katniss, for much of the trilogy. Instead, Peeta is a talented baker and an even more talented talker. It's Peeta that gets onlookers interested in Katniss and he continually saves her with his smooth talking. Plus, his love for her persists and overcomes psychological rather than stereotypical physical obstacles.

7. Mary Musgrove from Persuasion

I think I've discussed this before, but I love Mary Musgrove and her absurd sense of entitlement. She continually complains about how tired she is after her sister Anne does all of the work and insists on being seated before her mother-in-law "because [she's] a baronet's daughter." A valetudinarian on the level of Mr. Woodhouse (Emma) and obtuse on the level of Mr. Collins (Pride and Prejudice), Mary is a true gem.

8. Gretel from The Milkweed Triptych

Perhaps better on a list of most memorable villains, Gretel is unforgettable. The "raven-haired demon" is distinguished by the "wires in her braids" and utterly selfish machinations. With her clairvoyant powers, the mechanically-enhanced witch creates an entirely new timeline that sends the comparatively boring protagonist, Raybould Marsh, into the past. Stay tuned for my upcoming review of Necessary Evil!

9. Duncan Idaho from the Dune series

I didn't get what the big deal with Duncan Idaho was after the first book. I mean, he dies in the first half. But, oh when the later books come around! When the Duncan Idaho gholas (clones regrown from genetic material)take center stage and the characteristic Idaho ethics and grit play out in situations all over the Dune-verse-he's a hard man to forget.

10. Calvin O'Keefe from the Time Quartet and O'Keefe Family Books

Oh, Calvin O'Keefe, my first literary crush. The "genetic sport" is pretty fantastic right from A Wrinkle in Time and I always enjoy running into him in L'Engle's other books.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Top Ten Things That Make My Life as a Reader/Book Blogger Easier

Happy Top Ten Tuesday!


Top Five Things That Make My Life as a Reader Easier

1. Hold That Thought Bookmarkers

For marking important lines without marring my books!

2. Bookmooch

Getting rid of books I don't want/need, getting books I do want/need, and holding points in reserve for books I can get in the future when I theoretically have more space. Yay!

3. My bookcases and my organizational system

Where would I be without my bookcases, where I know how to find each book? (Now if only I could get the rest of them out of the boxes...).

4. Other Readers

I love getting recommendations for books from friends, family, acquaintances, people on the street...I'm not picky.

5. Artificial Light

Thank you Thomas Edison.

Top Five Things That Make My Life as a Book Blogger Easier

1. LibraryThing

I enjoy using the "Currently Reading" feature on my blog.

2. Amazon Associates

I don't ever make money with them, but I like using the images of books. And, if I get clicks, even better!

3. Other Book Bloggers

I get so many ideas and inspirations from other bloggers; Litlove, Boston Bibliophile, and Biblibio, just to name a few.

4. Tor

Whether sending me books to review, providing short stories on their entertaining website, or sending me their deliciously nerdy newsletter, Tor is certainly a boon for keeping up with new publications and publishing news.

5. Top Ten Tuesdays!

So that at least once a week, I have a topic in mind to write about!

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Snow White: A More In-Depth Musical

23. Fairest by Gail Carson Levine



Ella Enchanted remains one of my favorite books from childhood. Unfortunately, Gail Carson Levine has never matched it in years since. Fairest comes the closest.

Aza has dull black hair, pasty skin, and lips a revolting blood-red. She's spent years dodging insults while working in her adopted family's inn. She grows up in Ayortha, the neighboring country to Ella's Kyrria, but unlike Ella, she at least has a loving family and a singular talent. Like most Ayorthans, Aza has a beautiful voice, but unlike anybody else, she can throw her voice and make it come from anywhere, a phenomenon she calls "illusing."

One thing leads to another, and Aza is introduced to the beautiful new queen of Ayortha, who hails from Kyrria and well, has need of Aza's particular talents. The well-intentionedly malevolent fairy Lucinda gets involved and some events get rather gritty for a fairy tale, though it follows the basic story in the end (we're not talking Gregory Maguire gritty, but this is no Disney either).

The book is full of ditties, ballads, and the like that Aza and the other Ayorthans sing. I found the same feature in another, more realistic children's fiction book that I read recently, Louis Sachar's Small Steps. I'm not sure that I care for it in either. Though music is central to both stories, the books really seem to require soundtracks, as the lyrics alone are not generally compelling enough (Fairest may have one or two exceptions). As opposed to Tolkien's songs, which I adore, these ones are not poetry first and so it is hard to experience pleasure when reading, even if reading aloud in your mind. Levine's attempt to turn this book into a musical is a fascinating concept, but ill-suited for the format. I could see it coming off much better in a movie, and she may have one in mind.

My favorite part of the book was the greater delving into the culture of the gnomes. Gnomes, which are introduced in Ella Enchanted, get explored much more thoroughly here and play a central role in helping Aza. I don't know that I care for their silly language though.

Overall, Levine's world-building skills and usage of (non-invented) language are superb and fun to read, but her plots are easy to see through and her characters lack a certain originality that a non-fairy-tale-character might exude. I'll keep reading her, but I don't think this will be a book for my class.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Queen's Lover: A Character Study

24. The Queen's Lover by Francince du Plessix Gray,
Narrated by Edoardo Ballerini and Tandy Cronyn



I don't often listen to audio books, but this may be the book that changed my mind.

The Queen's Lover had been on my TBR list since I read this review. Although after having read (listened to) the book, I disagree with the reviewer's conclusion. Don't read this book for its "wistful romance." Read it for its incredibly detailed, nuanced account of the French Revolution and Europe's response!

Edoardo Ballerini and Tandy Cronyn voice the roles of Count Axel von Fersen and his sister Sophie, respectively. The division of the two voices in the book may have suited it particularly for audio. I also noticed that du Plessix Gray tended to repeat facts and recount moments. The effect was realistic, as that of an older man reminiscing, but may have proved too dull in a book, whereas the reminders proved less tedious when listened to. Sort of like the "pink fingers of Dawn" (my FAVORITE line from The Odyssey. Not.) Ballerini and Cronyn's voices were convincing as the characters down to their Frenchified pronunciations (they were Swedish but spoke French in the home and Axel spent a large portion of his life in France). Also, and perhaps unrelated to the book, both have unusually soothing intonations.

The title and its implications, as so often these days, is deceptive. It would be better titled A Biography of Marie Antoinette by Count Axel von Fersen and his Sister. Not as catchy, but more accurate. The novel does extend after the queen meets her tragic death (hope I'm not ruining this for anyone!), but it's more of an epilogue that fills in the remainder of the narrators' lives.

Is this a love story? I would say no, though there are legitimate arguments to be made for it. I would say instead that it is a memoir of a woman and her moment in time, by her lover. A subtle distinction to be sure, but the time du Plessix Gray's fictional Count spends on describing the setting, the pitiable King Louis XVI, and historical events in France and Sweden belie the idea that this is a novel merely about his love affair with Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna, his "Toinette," his "Josephine." Their love is a backdrop to a larger story of a fatal misunderstanding about the rights and place of monarchs.

The account of Marie Antoinette's youth is dazzling; the parties, the gambling, the clothes, the operas; all are exquisite. And yet, as delightful as the frivolity is, there is something more touching in the account of her family's fall from grace. The qualities that made the queen seem light and frothy are the same that enabled her to meet disgrace and death with kindness and politesse, exemplified in her famous last words after stepping on her executioner's foot; "Pardon me , Monsieur, I did not mean to do it."

du Plessix Gray breathes new life into tired events, making the ill-fated flight to Verenn tight with suspense, despite its known ending. The less-well-known history of Count von Fersen adds another layer of interest to the reader, as he relates his other lovers, his travels, and his relationship with Gustavus III of Sweden. That king seems to deserve a book of his own! I don't know for sure, but du Plessix Gray's work appears to be impeccably well-researched. She includes several letters between Marie Antoinette and Count Axel, and while most of these are fictional, they are based on truth. Letters between the two, written in invisible ink and secret codes, lie still un-deciphered in the French National Archives.*

I recommend The Queen's Lover heartily, but not as a romance nor even really as fiction. It shines as a study in character, as a biography dressed up in compelling voices from the past. And I'd be happy to read more of the same from du Plessix Gray, perhaps she'll tackle Gustavus III in more depth next!




* The Correspondence can be found (in French) on page 18 of this document.

40 AP - Correspondance de Marie-Antoinette. Correspondance de Fersen.
440 AP 1 Dossier 1. Marie Antoinette.
Lettres de la reine Marie-Antoinette à Axel Fersen. Octobre 1791-janvier 1792.
Lettres de Marie-Antoinette à Fersen, copies, la plupart transcrites en chiffre par Fersen
ou son secrétaire et annotées par lui. 28 juin 1791-24 juillet 1792.
Copies, par le baron Rudolf Klinckowström, de lettres de Marie-Antoinette à Fersen, dont
les originaux ont été détruits par lui-même. Septembre 1791-juillet 1792.
Copies de lettres de Marie-Antoinette à sa sœur la reine d’Espagne, à l’impératrice
Catherine II de Russie, au prince Kaunitz, ambassadeur d’Autriche, et lithographie de la
dernière lettre de Marie-Antoinette à Madame Elisabeth, sa belle-sœur. Janvier-février
1792, octobre 1793.
Lettres de Marie-Antoinette à sa mère, l’impératrice Marie-Thérèse, à ses frères Joseph II
et Léopold II, à la duchesse de Polignac, au duc de Choiseul et autres. 1770-1791.
Note autographe de Marie-Antoinette et transcription autographe d’une lettre du
maréchal Frederich Fersen à son fils, Axel Fersen. 1789.
Dossier 2. Fersen.
Lettres de Fersen à Marie-Antoinette. 1788-1792.
Memoranda de Fersen au roi et à la reine. Mars-novembre 1791.
Pièces relatives à Varennes. Juillet 1791.
Pièces après la mort de Louis XVI et Marie-Antoinette. 1794-1804.
440 AP 2 Fourniture d’ouvrages, de gravures, bibelots et autres articles à la Reine MarieAntoinette et paiement de pensions et autres gratifications: notes et mémoires
comptables de Campan, secrétaire de la souveraine et lettres et reçus des fournisseurs.