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Trashy Books

I've been on a trashy book kick since I've been home from school, probably because I just got back from one of the most intense semesters of my life, reading and otherwise. After sifting through a lot of dense philosophy and High Literature (what I'm calling Joyce and Faulkner, probably my two least favorite authors not counting the likes of Dan Brown), I was craving a re-read of The Devil Wears Prada and finally read Sister of the Dead , a macabre fantasy novel a friend bought me several years ago that never looked appealing at any given moment. Well, it was honestly pretty horrible, although the author did incorporate some Elvish, which has to score some points. What I don't get is why science fiction and fantasy almost always have the best ideas, but more often than not sub-par writing. Why don't great ideas and great skill naturally go together? I've been privileged to read mostly the best; Tolkien, L'Engle, and books I've read more recently like J

Book Round-Up for 2010

So I left off in July with No. 32, but my summer reading didn't end there. Unfortunately, I've lost the list, but I know I read Woodsburner by John Pipkin (33), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (34), and Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley (35) by Alison Weir. That brings the total to 35 for the summer. In September, before classes had gotten too intense, I managed to read some books I'd gotten earlier from Bookmooch, Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky (36) about her rape and the trial that followed, which I was primarily interested in for background on The Lovely Bones , and Company of Liars (37) by Karen Maitland to see how she re-imagined The Canterbury Tales . I would call it more closely a riff on some of the ideas of The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron , a group of people on the road with a common goal from the former, and people hiding from the plague from the latter. However, the format was very much that of modern fiction rather than poetry or a

Second Annual Boston Book Festival

I attended the Second Annual Boston Book Festival yesterday and enjoyed it as much as the first year, if not more. The sessions I attended were: Israel/Palestine: Novel Approaches; Crimes & Misdemeanors; My Mother she Killed Me, My Father He Ate Me; It Books: YA Fiction; and the Keynote with Joyce Carol Oates. The first session I attended, Israel/Palestine was EXTREMELY intense, it featured Alan Dershowitz and Susan Abulhawa, ostensibly talking about their novels. I arrived more than halfway through Dershowitz's talk, when he was explaining the historical screw-ups of peace negotiations with Arab nations, resulting in Palestine only being able to offer Israel "peace in the east" and not on any other border, especially not the peace with Iran that is desperately needed. He then finished with a reference to his book, Trials of Zion . Abulhawa began with explaining the plot and characters of her book, Mornings in Jenin . She then want on to discuss her strong feelings

Official Hiatus

I have not written here since July, although my reading life has actually been quite active, I was also very busy in other parts of my life, first with work, then vacationing, then cleaning my room, and finally moving back to Boston, where I have a new lovely apartment with a spectacular view of the Boston skyline. Once I stopped writing, it was hard to start again and the list of reviews to do became too intimidating. I have read a couple of books that have been on my must-read list for a while, including Woodsburner by John Pipkin and Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed.I had actually heard John Pipkin speak about his book at the First Annual Boston Book Festival last year. This year, however, I have taken on a lot of responsibilities, including Editor-in-Chief of my school's literary arts magazine and a class where I will be reading Joyce, Kant, and Nietzsche. Therefore, I will put the blog on hiatus until such time as I really feel an interest (an

Book Avalanche!

29. Redwall by Brian Jacques This is the first book in a series that was around when I was a kid, but as it was popular with those I considered less sophisticated readers than myself, I scorned to read it, and in hindsight missed out on a carefully crafted, archetypal "animal fantasy" that would probably have been helpful to my development as a reader and writer of fantasy. Fortunately, it's not too late, and I recently read this mouse-centric tome with the excuse that we are teaching it to the kids in our summer program Modern Fantasy class. Redwall is primarily the story of the small novice mouse Matthias, of Redwall Abbey, and his triumph against the war-mongering rat Cluny the Scourge. Classic references abound, as the old sage gatekeeper mouse is called Brother Methuselah and the pink fingers of dawn rise more than once (oh Homer, could not your Muse have left us to ponder that in peace, just once or twice?). Matthias itself brings to my mind a reference to the or

Toledo

During our time in Madrid, we took a day trip to Toledo, the ancient capital of Castilla and Leon. Toledo is breathtaking and steeped in history, I wish we had spent more time there. The medieval walls of the city and many of the medieval structures are still present and catching a sight of Toledo seemed like stepping into thirteenth-century Castilla. We saw the cathedral, as well as the two remaining synagogues from the fourteenth century. We went inside Sinagoga del Transito, whose size and opulence astounded me, since I had come to expect an ultra-low-key Jewish presence in Spain, where there is one at all. Case in point, the synagogue I attended during my semester abroad was the first floor of an apartment building, with no markings on the outside door. Anyway, Sinagoga del Transito, was built in the beautiful style of Moorish architecture though decorated with Hebrew lettering as opposed to Arabic. It is now the Museo Sefardi, a museum of artifacts from Sephardi communities not ju

Madrid

We were in Madrid from May 12-16, which turned out to be a very exciting time to be there. We arrived the night Atletico Madrid won the European Cup in football (soccer in the US). We stayed off Gran Via, the heart of the city, and all around us cars honked, people shouted, waving flags out of windows, running down the street in jerseys and Atletico Madrid colors, it was pandemonium, or shall I say, fiesta! Before I came to Spain, I greatly underestimated the significance of fiesta-in Spain, fiestas involve parades, all night parties (I'm talking coming home at 1 in the afternoon the next day), stages in the street, costumes, and firecrackers in abundance. Also, of course, dancing and liberal amounts of alcohol. So we arrived on the cusp of not one, but THREE fiestas. Celebrating the Atletico Madrid victory, celebrating 100 years of Gran Via, and celebrating the day of Madrid's patron saint San Isidro on May 14. That day, Gran Via was blocked off and swathed in blue carpet.

Catching Up

I've been reading faster than I've felt like blogging these days. Here's the list, and some quick comments: 25. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson I actually read this on the plane over from Madrid. It's the second in the Millenium trilogy about Swedish journalist Mikhail Blomkvist and especially the disturbed and brilliant young researcher and computer hacker, Lisbeth Salander. This book concentrates much more on Lisbeth's character and continues Larsson's probing of violence against women, and other crimes, in Sweden. What keeps these books from just being (amazingly well-done) thrillers is Larsson's obvious desire to use them as a wake-up call against how women are abused in his country, and around the world, every day. He explores many angles of the problem and uses hauntingly real characters like Lisbeth to demonstrate the psychological consequences, even as she stunningly conquers her own victimhood. Personally, I LOVE Lisbeth's char
24. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov I'd received this from Bookmooch some time ago, but never got to it before leaving for Spain. Bulgakov apparently reached cult status in Russia, due to this twentieth century Soviet era novel. He does not seem to be as well known in the US, but probably not among the ranks of the most obscure either. My summary of this book could be one sentence: The devil pays a visit to Moscow. The devil is actually in the details. Bulgakov was writing while highly aware of the probable censorship he would receive. The book can be abstract and surreal a lot of the time, but the writing itself is straight forward, which is really all I ask. The important comparisons and allusions being made here, I would say, are in the 'feel' of the book. At first, the characters who encounter the devil or supernatural occurrences are not believed by the public or authorities, and the smart ones say nothing as they know sticking their necks out will onl
23. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell I've been MIA for a month now, but mostly with a good reason. After my study abroad program in Spain ended, my boyfriend and I met in Madrid for a three-week trip traveling in Spain, France, and Germany. Expect posts soon about our travels in Madrid, Toledo, Marseilles, Lyon, Paris, Munich, Fussen, Koln, and Berlin, as soon as he relinquishes the pictures! I first heard of Cranford from Wuthering Expectations , and it piqued my interest immediately. I bought it and took it with me to Spain, but kept it in reserve for when my library access would cease. As it turned out, I didn't have time for reading while traveling, so it was the first book I read on my arrival home. I enjoyed this slim novel for many reasons. First, it possesses many of the characteristics I most value in fiction; a clear, witty narrative, focus on unique characters, and above all, truth in portraying the interactions and behaviors of people. Elizabeth Gaskell's writ

Fez

Last weekend I went on a crazy trip to visit my friend who is studying Arabic in Morocco. Her university is near the city of Fez, so I arranged to fly there so she could meet me at the airport and take me around. With my fantastic travel luck, the plane ended up stopping in midair and informing us that due to bad weather in Fez, we would be landing in Casablanca instead. Thus, I took a five hour night tour of Morocco on a bus full of Spaniards, arriving at Fez airport around midnight Moroccon-time. Thankfully, my wonderful friend was there to meet me,otherwise I probably would have spent the night in the airport since I don't speak French or Arabic and didn't know where our hotel was.I've learned my lesson. Never again will I go anywhere without being prepared for ending up somewhere completely different or for much longer or anything. Obviously. Anyway, I had a wonderful time in the Fez Medina, the enormous walled-in old city that is now shops and mosques as well as parts

Cordoba

Cordoba, capital of the Moorish stronghold in Spain for centuries, a thriving city characterized by religious tolerance and scholarly excellence, was conquered by the Castilians in 1243. The Mezquita, or large central mosque, was preserved, against the Church's wishes, because the Spanish monarchs revered Moorish architecture. In the center, a cathedral was constructed and the building still serves as a cathedral today, as well as a popular tourist destination. The physical juxtaposition of the two styles is breathtaking, but to me, it doesn't represent the coming together of two major religions. instead, it represents organized religion's desire to dominate. After the Christians came in, any semblance of tolerance was ended and the remaining Moorish population and the city's large Jewish population were persecuted in various degrees until they were officially expelled in 1492.The remains of the Jewish neighborhood are now tourist attractions as well, including the sy

Sevilla

Over spring break, after the Camino and before the volcanic ash, I took a solo trip to Sevilla and Cordoba in southern Spain. Cordoba was the capital of Moorish Spain, or al-Andalus for centuries, and Sevilla was the home of the Almohavad dynasty in the magnificent Reales Alcazares. Both were reconquered in the thirteenth century by Fernando III of Castile. The Gothic cathedral in Sevilla was built on the remains of a mosque that fell down in an earthquake. La Giralda, the mosque tower, is the only part still left standing, and the Catholic monarchs left it, only adding La Giralda, the eponymous weathervane, on top. The Reales Alcazares also had a significant Mudejar makeover (Christian architects using typically Moorish styles), much of which was added under Pedro IV (also the Cruel) and for the wedding of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Isabella and Fernando spent a lot of time there, and Isabella doled out monopolies for precious cargo from the Americas from her position in Sevilla,
22. Le Morte DArthur by Sir Thomas Malory I finished reading this some time ago, but I have been rather busy with travels and schoolwork. I'm a bit of a connoisseur of Arthurian legends, but until I read this, I had not made it to any of the older classics. I've read modern spins like Marion Keyes' The Mists of Avalon and Bernard Cornwell's The Winter King . I've also read T.h. White's The Once and Future King , which I can now tell is heavily based on Le Morte DArthur although obviously much more modern in language and organization. Malory was writing in the fourteenth century, and his source material, among others, would have been Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote about the Kings of Britain in the twelfth century. Monmouth is generally recognized as being the first definite mention of Arthurian legend in writing. I found it interesting that Malory ends each of his "books" with a plea for the reader to pray for him, the author, since he wrote the bo
Due to a toxic mix of volcanic ash, make-up work, and beautiful beach weather, I've been neglecting to update. My friends and I were initially stranded in Prague last Saturday, we took a train to Vienna where the airport was still open, and as soon as I had bought a flight out, that shut down too. I finally got back to Spain on Wednesday in time for all my final papers and projects. Final exams are next week. My camera died, so I have no photos of Vienna or Prague, but both were beautiful and wonderful in different ways. I only really had a day in Prague, but I spent plenty of time, broke, in Vienna.In Prague, we did the New Prague tour run by Sandeman's New Europe. I recommend the free tour. Tip the guide at the end, he's worth it (and he'll ask you for it too). The highlight for me was seeing the old Jewish Quarter, with the NewOld Synagogue where the Golem still lies in the attic, waiting for the day when he is needed once more. I hope that day never comes agai

Camino de Santiago de Compostela

I am back from five days on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela. I walked 110 kilometers through the Galician countryside on the ancient pilgrimage that has had a huge revival in the past 20 years, despite the fact that fewer and fewer Spaniards identify as religious Catholics. The Camino has existed at least since the ninth century, when the remains of St. James the Apostle, were "discovered" at Compostela. The legend goes that St. James, known in Spain as Santiago, came to Galicia to proselytize and established the first Christian community and church in Spain. Galicia is the northwest region of Spain above Portugal, where Gallego is spoken, a language similar to Portuguese, and one of the four official languages of Spain. Santiago then returned to Rome, where he was beheaded on the orders of Herod Agrippa. His disciples are said to have brought his remains back to Galicia and buried him at Compostela. In the ninth century, Santiago is said to have risen from the grave a
19. The Hundred Secret Senses by Amy Tan There was another Amy Tan book on the shelves of the library at my Spanish university, and as Tan is rapidly ascending to comfort food status in my view (joining the likes of Madeleine L'Engle, L.M.Montgomery, and Louisa May Alcott), I savored this morsel, since who knows when I'll find the next? I liked this book the best yet, so the trend continues, and part of the reason is because there is a significant deviation from previous books. Instead of an uncertain daughter who is alienated from a critical mother with a tragic past, this book is about the relationship between two sisters, told primarily from the point of view of the younger sister, Olivia. Olvia, or Libby-ah, as her sister Kwan likes to call her, is half-Chinese, half-American, whose Chinese father dies when she is young, leaving his American wife with the revelation that he has another daughter in China, whom he would like her to bring to the States. Instead of exhibiting
16. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson I wanted this book like a bag of candy. I'd seen it around bookstores in the States, but then I went to see the movie "Los Hombres Que No Amaban Las Mujeres" (Men That Don't Love Women) in Spain. The movie was made in Sweden, but I saw it dubbed in Spanish. I really liked it and was impressed that I was able to understand it fairly well,allowing for my mediocre level of Spanish. The author is Swedish and died, I believe, before his trilogy, beginning with this book, became internationally famous. Anyway, so the movie was good, even though the violent rape scenes are still haunting me. The book, I knew, had to be better. And I was right. This is a mostly character-driven thriller, maybe a bit predictable in terms of plot, but since I already knew the ending, I couldn't analyze it for that. It also drives home a strong message about the prevalence of abuse of women and the problems of too much government in soci

Valencia: Las Fallas

"Las Fallas" means fireworks in Spanish, and the people of Valencia take this annual weeklong celebration very seriously. Las Fallas culminates on March 19, the Day of San Jose or Dia del Padre. Beginning on March 15, the neighborhoods of Valencia bring out their Falleras, extensive elaborate displays made of cardboard and paper maiche, that will go up in flames the night of March 19. Firefighters are on standby with hoses, though generally they hose down people who look too hot! Firecrackers are everywhere, I went to Valencia on March 18, and very few minutes would go by without a firecracker going off, some too close for comfort though I avoided being singed. I also joined the crowds for "La Mascleta" a fifteen minute barrage of uninterrupted fireworks that turned the sky grey and covered the crowd, including me, in bits of debris. No such thing as a safety barrier for Spaniards! I also can't get over their love of parades, we watched each neighborhood bring a
13. La Casa de Bernarda Alba (The House of Bernarda Alba) by Federico Garcia Lorca Garcia Lorca, is one of Spain's best known poets and dramatists. He is also famous for his short and tragic life, he was shot by Franco's soldiers in 1936, at the age of 33, both for his political leanings and his sexual orientation. The House of Bernarda Alba is one of Lorca's most famous plays and the last to be written before his death. It wasn't actually performed for the first time until almost thirty years after it was written, and that in Argentina. The play depicts the life of one household of women in Andalucia, Lorca's native region and the subject of most of his plays and much of his poetry. Lorca also wrote poetry about the gypsy life in Spain, in the collection Romancero Gitano and about his depression during the two years he spent in New York, Poetas de Nueva York . Bernarda Alba is the mother of five daughters, under whose tyrannical thumb she keeps daughters, serv
11. Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather I love Willa Cather. My Antonia is one of my favorite books. Unfortunately, I think it is her best as I did not like this one quite as much, and I liked Oh Pioneers! less. So, my relationship with Cather's work is the inverse of my relationship to Amy Tan's work, I suppose. Still, I enjoyed Death Comes for the Archbishop as I believe it was meant to be, the stories of some persons of interest in a place of interest. Cather doesn't dress this novel up, it is simple and honest human experience, with no other plot. And this, she achieved in complete sentences! I wish some of the experimentalist modernists and stream-of-consciousness whatnots had read Cather or paid attention to her if they did. As I was reading, I felt that she had just the right combination of detail, neither too sparse nor too florid, and she related stories of the characters as they would occur or be contemplated upon in real life. The Archbishop of th

Barcelona

Barcelona, I hardly met ye. After my weekend in Barcelona, I feel, well, not really much, about the city. I saw some promised Modernist architecture, learned about the origins of the city and of Catalonia in general, and that St. George is the patron saint of Catalonia as well as of England. My pictures came out awful as always, but my favorite sight was Gaudi's mash-up in a building of the legend of St. George and the dragon. The edifice is composed of skull-shaped windows, and strategically placed scales and claws, and on top the piercing lance of the sainted George. Menus all over the city contained English and Catalan. I had a delicious and large dish of Thai food my first night, and ate at a Catalan restaurant, Origens, my second night. The stuffed aubergines were fantastic, and hopefully I can recreate them. I didn't manage to get pictures of these, but I snapped a shot of my Patatas Braves tapa that I ate right before we left.
9. Dune by Frank Herbert This time, I opted for a re-read on my long bus trip to Barcelona. Dune , in my opinion, is to science fiction as Lord of the Rings is to fantasy. Frank Herbert created a world that can stand entirely on its own, possibly even more so than Middle Earth, and achieves the great feat where so many authors falter: a book with rich characters that do not suffer at the expense of the plot, and vise versa. Paul Atreides comes from a long line of honorable, loyal Atreides Dukes on his father's side and a mysterious and powerful female organization, the Bene Gesserit, on his mother's side. When their family is given the planet Arrakis, or Dune, to hold for the Empire, the only planet where the universe's most powerful commodity, the spice melange is harvested, they know it is a ploy on the part of their ancient enemies the Harkonnens, particularly the current head of the family, the diabolical Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. When inevitable tragedy strikes, Pa
6. El Caso de las Chuches Misteriosos I promised to read a Spanish book outside of class, so I did! Okay, it's a book for second-graders, but you know what? It was great for my Spanish reading level. I wouldn't have picked it up, but my "intercambio" (language exchange) partner got it for me from the library. I'm glad I read it, because it made me realize I need to practice reading Spanish like I practiced reading English. I can't start with the great literature overnight. I may be an adult, but my Spanish level is probably below that of a Spanish-speaking six-year-old. So, I must read accordingly, however uninteresting, I could feel my Spanish reading skills improving. This was about a little girl who decides to leave sweets in her neighbors' mailboxes anonymously and when someone else starts leaving anonymous poems, she investigates. You may see more of these, please don't laugh! I don't know if I should really count them or not, but this was