Saturday, July 19, 2014

Nothing to declare

I am back!

You probably didn't even know I was gone, but I was: two weeks in Rome. It was grand. (Unintentional Grand Tour pun? No one will believe it.) I had this fine book with me, letting me impress my friends with borrowed knowledge:

It's a bit heavy, being printed with colored pictures on nice paper, and the author sometimes seems to assume that just telling you the name of the architect or artist is enough, but it was a lifesaver enough times to make lugging it around worthwhile. The pages on the Vatican Museums were essential (omigosh the Vatican Museums are ENORMOUS) and unlike most guidebooks I looked at, this one gives plenty of time to all the zillions of churches you're obviously going to want to visit.

Even better, I bought this book with the gift card from when my Something Other Than God post won the drawing at Conversion Diary.

It's a major award!
Even if I had spent my own money though: worth it. I think I will be revisiting the Blue Guide series for future travels.

Now, I must get unpacked, do the laundry, and get reading something so I can post again in a reasonable interval. Hashtag: summer.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

"'How nasty,' I said tactfully."

Margaret has agreed to marry Syl; well, not so much agreed, as remained silent when he asked and he's taken it from there. Syl is twice her age -- he's her mother's contemporary -- and it's plainly obvious that Margaret's embarrassed and repulsed by him, but she's paralyzed and desolate and meanwhile the wedding is drawing nearer and nearer. What is going on with Margaret? And who is going to put a stop to this?

The Summer House [by Alice Thomas Ellis; there are a lot of other The Summer Houses out there] is a "trilogy" -- three novels that describe the events leading up to Margaret's wedding day from different perspectives. It seems more correct to call it a "triptych" but that's pretentious and I defer to the publisher. Anyway, the first novel (...novella? I'll stop now) is from Margaret's perspective, the second from Syl's mother's, and the third is in the voice of Lili, a free-spirited half-Egyptian friend of Margaret's mother. I don't know how to describe it -- the books manage to unfold incomplete information in a way that you don't necessarily realize what you don't know; so that, for instance, you think you have found out what has traumatized Margaret... and then you find out a little more which colors your initial understanding... and then you find out more which turns the whole thing on its head. Even just finding out someone's true motivation feels like a sea change. It's dramatic and subdued all at once in a way that feels, somehow, very true to life.

When I got to the last twenty pages I was completely gripped and had to bring the book with me to finish it. The pattern of the three novels is a little counterintuitive: you start with the person most closely involved in the planned wedding and move out to the wedding guest; but then, as you'll see, you are also paradoxically moving from the person who knows least about what's going on to the person who knows the most. There's some dark stuff here, definitely, but I think this makes a good summer read. Plus: it has "summer" in the title and it has those sweet teacups on the cover of my copy.

Friday, June 20, 2014

DVDs are basically books now, right?

...complete with the faint air of obsolescence that comes with physical media nowadays.

Ivanhoe's going... great... in the sense that I keep seeking out other things to read and forgetting that, technically, I already have a book going. And recently I've devolved to watching moving pictures in order to avoid reading it; which means I've disqualified myself for At least she's reading! No sympathy please; I'm not even reading. (Except for the sociology articles, travel guides, and various spiritual books.)

First of all, you will be pleased to know that I have now seen Anne of Green Gables: The Sequel (or as I like to think of it, Anne of Green Gables 2: The Gable-ing). What a thing of glory. If I had seen that in my prime Anne years, I would have been a dead duck. The dresses, the hats, the red hair, the monkeyshines, the GILBERT. I seriously appreciated how the film ended right after Anne and Gilbert get engaged, because what else is there?

Nothing. There is nothing else.
I watched it with some other girls (also a bottle of bourbon and a pan of brownies) (#adults) and there was spontaneous clapping and cheering at the end. Also, one of us (*ahem*) shouted "Gil, no, I've been such a fool!" during The Gazebo Scene, and there was much speculation about the poofy hairstyles. So all in all, a massively rewarding four hours and I might need to own that and watch it weekly now.

Switching tracks... did you know there's a BBC version of the Barchester Chronicles? I probably should have known; I probably would have guessed it; but I didn't know it specifically until Super Hans brought it to my attention. Yes, I was lying around watching Peep Show (which is really too explicit for me and I have to skip over lot of scenes but it's still funny so I keep coming back), and the show's resident lover of crack brandished a DVD of Barchester Chronicles as the perfect viewing material for a hard-partying gig at a music festival. "Don't pigeonhole me, dude," quoth Super Hans. "Ecclesiastical politics when you're high. These guys really knew how to do a fucking number on each other." I laughed really hard, but I was also thinking, "oh, I want to watch that."

I should state that I was not high at any time when I watched this. The Super Hans joke did elevate my enjoyment of it though. The DVDs I got from the library had a stale B.O. smell that was as inexplicable and improbable as it was intense, so I sort of imagine a graph of people who have checked these out as looking something like this:

Yes, indeedy, there is a very young Alan Rickman in this. (The designers of the DVD cover have given him pride of place; they know where the money comes from.) The series itself is enjoyable although I don't know how hard it would be to get into without a prior appreciation of the books. This is the kind of dry-toast costume drama that gives costume drama a bad name. It's all pretty sedate and low-key, without excessive attention to things like "pacing" or "tension". There are scenes that end really abruptly and others that are weirdly drawn out; at one point a character calls over another character and we watch her walk across the lawn in real time for no particular reason. The production values are charmingly low; my favorite example is that in some of the London scenes there's a background track that sounds exactly like what you get in one of those "old timey Main Street" museum exhibits.

[clatter clatter clatter] [watermelon watermelon]
But the actors are all good and do a good job bringing the characters to life. I liked seeing the apoplectic Archdeacon "in the flesh", and Alan Rickman does a great job as Mr Slope, which is important given that he carries so much of the story. He delivers a really smarmy proposal in a delightfully smarmy way and gets a good smack for it, so that alone is worth the price of admission. (Price of admission in this case =  $0, support your public libraries.) Netflix could suggest this and the 1995 P&P (you know whereof I speak) together under the heading of Hilariously Awkward Clerical Proposals. The first two episodes cover the book The Warden, and much like that book, they give a good introduction to the characters and local politics but the real fun comes from episode three onward so don't give up on it too soon. I could endorse just starting with episode three if you feel confident in your ability to just figure out the context clues.

So a win all the way around with my movie watching this week: I got to pass the time revisiting some favorite characters and not reading Ivanhoe, plus now I know what I'll bring with me in the tour bus if I ever become a drug-addled musician -slash- what I'll watch on Friday nights if I ever become a live-in teacher at a boarding school.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

At the intersection of "oriental" buffets and western homesteads

Lee Lien, uncertain about her identity and future, and faced with an implosion in her Vietnamese family, goes investigating a favorite childhood author, making connections between her own immigrant background and an American cultural icon along the way.

On one level that premise seems a bit trite, but in practice Pioneer Girl gets it right.

I've had this title bookmarked (read: lounging on my Amazon wish list, because capitalism has thoroughly subsumed my life and ambitions as a reader) since Meg reviewed it as an ARC. The blend of fact and fiction makes an interesting premise for a book, and it's done in a really light-handed way. Lee's life and family problems have that touch of reality to them, where things aren't always clearly defined and problems (including research problems) aren't always "solved" in any sort of final way. On the other hand, you have convincing fictional research about real women, positing a secret baby given away for adoption. You learn about the careers of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Rose Wilder Lane (real), the Lien family history (fiction), and the Vietnamese/Asian experience in the Midwest (real), while Lee researches Rose's secret baby given up for adoption (fiction). It's really well blended, where a couple of times I flipped back to read the author's bio just to remind myself that Beth Nguyen is not Lee Lien and therefore it's probably not totally scandalous to be revealing Rose's baby in a novel.

Right, I'd better go study this some more.

In her review, Meg writes "I had some feelings about Rose’s secret child, but I Had Feelings over the improper archival methods." It's true. Lee steals a few things during her research and I had to put the book down at one point, this was so upsetting to me.

There should be warnings on books that feature scholars doing this kind of thing. I was made happy again, however, when one of Lee's friends points out that she's going to have trouble publishing anything based on stolen materials. THANK YOU. It gets glossed over a bit (at the end, Lee's working on an article but it's not clear how she's going to get over the theft problem) but my eternal thanks to the author for acknowledging this. One thing I liked, otherwise, was how realistic Lee's research was: she's drawing plausible conclusions but you can see how thin the evidence is even as you are drawn along with agreeing with her interpretations.

I picked this book up and finished it the same day, which is a testimony to how good it is. It does a great job linking "American" and "non-American" experiences, collapsing those categories along the way: the mobility of immigrants and pioneers, the drama of success and failure along very small margins, the strain these things place on family life, and the difficult expectations created for the next generation.

Friday, June 6, 2014

This book is much funnier than I am, so this post was always going to be a little bit of a let-down

I really like the title of this book, let's just get that out of the way up front.

more orange in real life
Him Her Him Again The End of Him was given to me by (of course) Alice (my go-to local book blogger). I see it was published in 2007, while I was still an undergrad; so it's an extremely recent book in other words. *cough*

On the back, Melissa Banks says it "may be the funniest book I've ever read. The funniest." Well, I dunno about that quite, but it is very funny. The story is narrated in the first person by a hapless young woman who meets a fatuous philosopher in grad school at Cambridge and deludes herself for years that he loves her and isn't just using her in increasingly transparent and egotistical ways. It's a funny set up done well, with the humor coming not only from the plot and the writing (wording? you know: quotable lines and suchlike), but also from the gap you can see forming between reality and the narrator's version of events. I was slightly disappointed that the plot and the settings (Cambridge, sketch comedy shows in New York) were a bit predictable/stereotypical, but the execution is so good it's nothing I couldn't get over.

Books about grad students who turn out to be totally clueless and fail to live up to expectations and end up exasperating their supportive parents might just be a little bit too close to home for me to really gin up a lot of enthusiasm, though. I think it's safe to say that everyone has fears about their life, about awful things that could happen or that things in general might not "turn out". Obviously it's not great any time you get reminded of those fears and anxieties, but somehow it's a little more sad when you find those feelings mixing in with your enjoyment of a book, especially one that is (I can't stress this enough) really funny.

Can you even believe how depressing I'm managing to make this post about a humorous book that I'm writing on a Friday? I swear I don't do these things on purpose.

There is really no reason for this to be a gif, internet, stop showing off
But then, I suppose one of the Purposes Of Literature is to make you think about things that might be scary and to work through some of that anxiety in a fictional context. And I have to admit that while I certainly wouldn't want to be the heroine of this book, since finishing it and thinking about it, I have felt slightly more secure about not being her. Although if I really don't want to be her I should be writing my introduction instead of this blog post (whoops).

Well, there you go. Good talk, guys.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Books I inflict upon myself, part one

In my mind, there are definitely some books that No One Reads. Oh sure, maybe some freaks in literature departments (I wouldn't put anything past an English major), but for the rest of us, we get the gist from Wishbone episodes and we're fine, really.


The main effect that this belief has had on my life is that when I meet someone who has read one of these books, and they recommend it, I feel irresistibly drawn to also read the book. This has happened to me now twice in the last [period of time] [dammit, Jim, I'm a blogger, not a calendar], with mixed results.

Instance the First is Les Miserables. This was brought on, as you might guess, by the movie version of the musical. Hashing it out with girlfriends afterward ("at what point do you think someone started to regret casting Russell Crowe?") it emerged that one of us (not me) could make comparisons to the book. "Oh, the bishop character is so much more wonderful in the book," she sighed, and my fate was sealed.

I honestly cannot remember when I started or finished Les Mis. There's a post here that suggests I was halfway through as of September 2013, so maybe I was done by Christmas? Anyway, reader, I read it.

My first strong takeaway was that the creators of the musical did an impressively good job. Granted, I'm not a real deep thinker when I'm watching things, but the one time I saw the musical and the couple times seeing the film, I felt like it all made sense. Reading the book, I realized how much the musical writers kept in, all the little nods to storylines and character developments that play out at greater length in the book.

The second thing has to do with the infamous digressions. Someone had told/warned me about these: Hugo just spends pages and pages talking about sewer systems or something equally tedious while you're waiting to find out whether Jean Valjean gets rearrested or whatever. Now, granted, I was pretty shameless about flipping through these, but I felt like I understood what Hugo was doing here (beyond being self-absorbed). The digressions pause the action and drop you back in at a different angle. It seemed to me they were creating these almost contemplative spaces in the narrative, inviting the reader not to simply plow ahead absorbed in a fictional world, but to take the time to reengage with the characters as fellow inhabitants of the real world. Maybe it just felt like dipping out and back in because I wasn't really reading the digressions though (heh). Anyway, I still thought they were obnoxious (get on with it man).

So that was Les Mis, and now I've started Ivanhoe, which so far is... Ivanhoe-y. But I'll do you a separate post for that one.

Try not to look too excited, boy.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Summertime, and the reading is series

I can't help it, I like a good series. I think I hinted at this, at least, in my Anne of Green Gables post; I have that sort of gotta catch em all compulsion when it comes to book series. (See also the Dragonriders of Pern books.) (Oh, Pern.) Here in adulthood (?) however, I have learned that it's okay to just move on and not finish the series if I feel like it. One advantage of this is that you don't get caught in an obsessive-compulsive reading cycle (always a plus); another that I've discovered recently is that it's really nice to come back to a series when you've been away. So here are three series I've picked back up in the last week or so.*

So, first up: the SPQR series by John Maddox Roberts. I read a couple of these on Kindle a few years ago and enjoyed them, and recently I saw fellow classics nerd and all-around cool person Meg was reading them, so off I went to the library. After a rather frustrating hunt through the forest of Nora Roberts books (I like to get my books off the shelves myself like an honest woman, but this experience convinced me of the superiority of placing holds), I grabbed volume 6 here, the library not owning 3-5.

These are such fun books. They manage to balance the conventions of detective stories with a historical setting that doesn't have detectives or modern policing in a way that's fun and effective and not at all tedious. There are some blatantly exposition-y passages but I didn't mind them; it's all directly related to the plot and it's ancient Rome so maybe I'm just more willing to give it a pass in general. The main character (and narrator) makes me laugh, he's such a perfect grouchy, cynical Roman.

More historical mystery: the Max Liebermann series was the first thing I wrote about on this blog! I see in that post I wrote:
I liked them, and would have kept going for probably another couple of books if this were 2014 and there were another couple of books in the series.
I remember when I got to the end of the available books that the stories were starting to feel same-y, and I'm pleased to report that taking a couple of years off helps address that problem. Death and the Maiden has a high-level-government-conspiracy thing going on as well as a cameo by Mahler (admittedly easier to achieve when you're writing a novel) and the SVU-level psychoanalysis I noted in that first post. I didn't really follow the conspiracy plot very well, and I'm not sure that the book was all that successful on the whole, but I did like being back with the characters, so this series and I can part amicably until the next time I stumble across a new volume.

And finally, which it's only THE GREATEST SERIES OF ALL TIME. You and Dr. Huang can draw your own conclusions from the fact that I, the compulsive completist, stopped reading these two from the end expressly because I didn't want to be done with them. However, as I had picked up the above series I decided it was time to finally read the last two Aubrey/Maturin books. The Hundred Days was a nice reminder of how much I love these books, even if, in itself, I didn't think was the finest installment of the series. I have to go back to the library for Blue at the Mizzen, but in the meantime I'm re-reading Desolation Island which is one of the ones I own (the first couple chapters with Jack on land just kill me).

I suppose there's also the published chapters of 21, but I don't know how I feel about those. (Basically, they published what Patrick O'Brian had written of the latest book at the time of his death, if you don't know what I'm talking about.) But a few chapters, without an actual book, and without any sort of revisions, isn't all that appealing to me. I don't get much out of fragments. But then I'm sure my completist impulse will compel me to check them out anyway.

Proud to share reading tastes with Ron Swanson

I hope you're all feeling the joy of warmer weather; I've been reading outside quite a bit this long weekend, it's madness.

* Each of these books I read in about a day. I'm telling you, I'm having this crazy-awesome reading moment.