Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Top Ten Best Books I've Read Recently

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish!

1. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson










2. Beggars and Choosers by Nancy Kress










3. Tarnish by Katherine Longshore










4. Pax by Sara Pennypacker, illustrated by Jon Klassen










5. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling










6. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl










7. The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey









8. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed










9. The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper










10. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin


Friday, March 25, 2016

Book Review: Peony in Love by Lisa See

12. Peony in Love by Lisa See

I thought this was a sequel to Snowflower and the Secret Fan, so I started out very confused. It was fitting, however, since the main character, Peony, is perpetually confused. Towards the end,  this grates on the reader, who can clearly see where she's wrong. It was a stark contrast with Princess Elisa of the Girl and Fire Thorn books (which I was reading concurrently), who is pointedly not the typical naive girl character.On the other hand, Peony's naivete extends to such an extreme, she becomes an archetype of her own: The Lovesick Maiden of Hangzhou.

Peony is representative of a historical cohort of women who fell in love with a fifteenth century opera, The Peony Pavilion, and, in imitation of the main character, wasted away from 'lovesickness.' In the sense that both books fictionalize Chinese women's history that is virtually unknown outside China (and I don't have a sense of how well it's known within), Peony is a sequel to Snowflower. Instead of illuminating the world of women's secret writing, Peony expounds on the published writings of women that flourished between the end of the Ming dynasty and the beginning of the Mongol rule, specifically in the Yangtze delta area. Peony, the character and the book, shed some light on the lovesick phenomenon as well as work to dispel the myth that historical women didn't write or weren't published.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Blue Chair: Creating Texture by Natalie Goldberg

These details I add are in primary colors, one or two washes, not the deep texture like the chair, the centerpiece, the thing that has gravity, presence, deep dimension, that holds the story. The details around it are human delight, charming fluff, transitory nature, like in a memoir the details point to the structure, which is the chair, the driving force, the reason the whole thing is happening. (212)
--Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing, "Blue Chair Creating Texture."

Every sentence is worth reading, but this is the moment in the book that most stood out to me. She describes painting a chair, turquoise, red, purple, all the colors beneath the final blue. The details around it are reminiscent of her crowded writing room ("on the floor a cup of hot chocolate and that pink cupcake in the silver paper with a red cherry on top") and the texture of the chair becomes the texture of the writing itself ("over time, you learn to cultivate texture, a richness to what you write, adding layers, where you can almost feel the plush velvet").

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Top Ten Books on My Spring TBR

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish!



All these books are currently in my possession, so I'm setting myself up to finish!

1. Pax by Sara Pennypacker, Jon Klassen










2. The Side of Good/The Side of Evil edited by Danielle Ackley-McPhail











3. The Social Life of DNA by Alondra Nelson









4. The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley










5. New Orleans Noir: The Classics edited by Julie Smith










6. A Countess Below Stairs by Eva Ibbotson










7. Empress of the Night by Eva Stachniak










8. Imperial Woman by Pearl S. Buck











9.  The Fifth Queen by Ford Madox Ford










10. Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin


Saturday, March 12, 2016

Discovering Nonfiction

 As a toddler, I literally ate books. It's a trait that characterized the rest of my childhood, figuratively. Each new book was so exciting. Each story became engraved on my consciousness as I read it over and over, the same way I watched Disney movies: Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Little Men, A Little Princess, A Wrinkle in Time, Matilda. I still quote and picture scenes from these books from memory. They formed the landscape of my mind and the context against which I measured my life, and still do.

I wasn't as interested in nonfiction. The closest I came was Little House on the Prairie, the autobiography of Rosa Parks, and Anne Frank's diary. Still, I read far more of the American Girl, Royal Diaries, and Dear America series to satisfy my interest in history than I read actual biographies or memoirs. Who wanted to read the truth when I could read about hobbits singing bathtub songs or an imaginary orphan pretending to float down a river as another imaginary character?

Somewhere between the first Harry Potter book and the last, fiction lost some of its magic. I began reading about an ordinary boy who finds out he's a wizard and finished reading about an orphan hero who completes his mythic journey by achieving resurrection and destroying the ultimate evil. The tropes of fiction were laid bare to me, and I don't blame Joseph Campbell (entirely). Even as a child, I insisted that the father in "The Lion King" was "not really dead" because I knew that was not how stories worked. I turned out to be partially right. Stories, even those I loved, became predictable. I stopped re-reading as much. What I gained in compassion and maturity, I lost in wonder.While I still find the familiar tropes of fantasy comforting and I draw no small amount of pleasure from literary analysis, the pure consumption of my early reading days is over.

Then, I discovered nonfiction.

For years, I've thought of nonfiction as "the boring stuff." But by virtually ignoring the boring stuff for the 20-some years of my existence, it turns out I've preserved a pocket of fresh and surprising treats. I don't know the conventions of nonfiction. I don't know the rules, or even if there are rules. It's true that nonfiction causes me to think, but not necessarily in the same way that I think about tropes. Nonfiction, of the type I've been reading recently (The Happiness Project, The True Secret of Writing) blends more seamlessly into my everyday life, so that even if I'm thinking of myself outside the book, it's how the concepts in the book directly affect my life. There is no analytical mediation, unless I consciously impose it. I'm trained to analyze reading, and I've found I'm no longer able to switch that off entirely when reading fiction, but since nonfiction is so new to me, I seem to be able to flip some sort of honeymoon switch.

If I keep reading nonfiction at the rate I'm going, I know the switch will eventually flip back on and the honeymoon will end. I've accepted that. When that happens, I will be a more knowledgeable and hopefully even more compassionate and mature person than I am now. But, for now, I'm teething like a toddler on that convenient cardboard thing.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Book Review: All Roads Lead to Austen by Amy Elizabeth Smith

7. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Professor Amy Smith takes a year of sabbatical to travel throughout South America and read Jane Austen novels with local book groups along the way. Her purpose is to determine whether South Americans relate to Austen as much or more than Brits and Americans, due to their current cultural similarities and differences with Austen's time. In my mind, it's a strange proposition in the first place and doesn't seem to make much sociological sense, but Smith cites Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran as inspiration, and it's clear she wants an excuse to both read Jane Austen and travel in South America for a year, so she decides to make a book of it.

Honestly, the most interesting parts of the book to me were the chances to "travel" to places I've never been. Smith also makes a point of learning about the literature of each country she visits, which was interesting to me. However, I was disappointed that only three of Austen's books are covered, and my favorite, Persuasion, isn't even mentioned. Also, a couple of Smith's attitudes about Austen really irked me. Not because there's anything wrong with her opinion, but I strongly disagree with her! First, it's clear that Pride and Prejudice is her favorite Austen book. Fine. I love Pride and Prejudice too and it's indisputably the most popular. But Smith goes so far as to say flat out that Sense and Sensibility is not as good. A reader in Mexico asks her if Sense and Sensibility is as good as the P&P movie, and Smith responds in the following manner:

No, I was thinking. No it's not. "Yes, it is," I said. "But it's...different. It's a little slower at the beginning." In other words, no, it's not. (Smith 73)
I like Sense and Sensibility more than Pride and Prejudice. Although I love Elizabeth, I identify far more with Elinor, and I like Elinor and Marianne's relationship far more than Elizabeth and Jane's. Furthermore, S&S has the decided advantage of not containing any insufferable Mr. Darcy's--which brings me to my next issue with Smith.

Smith, somewhat forcefully, seems determined to incorporate her own love story into the book. (SPOILERS AHEAD). Unfortunately, just like most Austen-inspired fiction writers, she decides she needs a Mr. Darcy. And gosh darn if she doesn't get him! Although she has an incredibly sweet lover in Mexico who nurses her through dengue fever, she throws him aside for an unpleasantly tempered bookseller in Buenos Aires. Of course, her love affair is up to her and I have no doubt that, as she claims, she's more satisfied with her choice. Towards the end of the book, she asks herself, "Which one is Mr. Darcy...and which is Mr. Bingley?" (350-351). She describes the two men:

Mr. Bingley is relentlessly cheerful. He looks for the best in everyone...The right fit for Mr. Bingley was sweet, good-natured, passive Jane...[with her Mr. Darcy] I could be my neurotic, judgmental, and cranky self...because he was prideful, combative, and grumpy himself (351).
I can't pretend to understand. If I had to choose between Darcy and Bingley, I would pick Bingley every time. Better a man who's cheerful and kind than prideful and grumpy, no matter how understanding of others' grumpiness. If that makes me a Jane, so be it! But I don't think it works that way anyway. Even an Elizabeth could get along with an even-tempered man, and fortunately, we don't have to choose between kindness and intelligence, generosity and the other qualities that are supposed to redeem Darcy.

Overall, an interesting read, but Austen fans of my persuasion: prepare to be bemused. Darcy fans--get ready to swoon, I guess.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Books Read in February

6. The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling (audiobook)

The Casual Vacancy is a gritty adult novel that nakedly depicts the impact of class warfare in a tiny parish in England. It's definitely a slow burn book that rewards those who continue reading. Not recommended to Harry Potter or fantasy fans, unless you're also a fan of heavy-handed adult lit (I am).



7. All Roads Lead to Austen: A Yearlong Journey with Jane by Amy Elizabeth Smith

Professor Amy Smith takes a year of sabbatical to travel throughout South America and read Jane Austen novels with local book groups along the way. Her purpose is to determine whether South Americans relate to Austen as much or more than Brits and Americans, due to their current cultural similarities and differences with Austen's time. In my mind, it's a strange proposition in the first place and doesn't seem to make much sociological sense, but Smith cites Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran as inspiration, and it's clear she wants an excuse to both read Jane Austen and travel in South America for a year, so she decides to make a book of it.


8. Under the Lilacs by Louisa May Alcott


Under the Lilacs is the first book I officially finished on my e-reader. It's a book I've wanted for years, since I think I've read literally everything else by LMA, except for some blood-and-thunder juvenilia. Like LMA's well-known novels, it's sweet and didactic, and I loved the spunky child characters. This is also the only LMA novel where a dog plays an important role, and I enjoyed Sancho the poodle's storyline, even when I didn't enjoy what happened to him. Overall though, I wish I had read this when I was younger. Though I'm able to enjoy it now, my awareness of the 'preachiness' and how the story was constructed diminished the experience.


9. Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin

When The Happiness Project was over, I wanted a sequel, and Happier at Home delivered. To me, perhaps because I read them so close together, it felt like a continuation of the earlier book. Some of the same topics, like Marriage and Parenthood, were covered, and some of the references she made in the earlier book resurfaced. They're different enough that it's worth reading both, but I would recommend reading The Happiness Project first. Again, it was interesting to see what goals Rubin made and how she completed (or didn't complete) them, and again, I reflected on how I would have gone about things differently!

I'm also looking forward to some of the books on the reading lists for both books; this one, naturally, included a large selection of books about the home.


10. The True Secret of Writing by Natalie Goldberg

More Zen writing advice from Natalie Goldberg. It's fun and relaxing, but also intense, to read through her short, reflective chapters. Observing the way she writes and listening to her writing is the interesting aspect of her books. Like Writing Down the Bones, there's a lot about Zen and especially her Zen master, Katagiri Roshi. I felt this book reflected more on death and dying, probably since Goldberg is much older than when her first book came out. However, the natural progression of her thoughts is comforting and inspiring. Recommended to writers and close observers of life.


11. The Circuit: Progeny of Vale by Rhett C. Bruno



Read my review here.