Thursday, December 29, 2011

Some light holiday reading

The best used bookstore I know of in my parents' hometown is Goodwill; one of the locations even has a little coffeeshop attached, and if you buy a book you get $1 off pastries. Not bad, not bad.

I picked this title up for a mere 79 cents the other day -- from the clearance rack at Goodwill. That bodes well, right?
"Whodunnit" is right up there with "cyber" on my list of words I hate

But! I am pleased to report that this was a good buy. The book contains a variety of short mystery stories featuring detectives in different periods of history. Many of the stories are republished from Ellery Queen but a few were written for this anthology. As the cover suggests, some of the sleuths are the stars of series, so if you like their stories this collection can be a jumping-off point. To this end, there's a little bibliography suggesting specific books according to their setting. The editor has obviously put a lot of work in and these aren't just public-domain stories collected up to make a quick buck. The bibliography and the introductions to each story make it clear that there is a real human opinion at work behind the selections, which I think makes the whole thing more enjoyable.

Unsurprisingly, given my well-known Roman history obsession, I liked the story starring Decius Metellus best, and I want to read one of the full-length books at some point, whenever I get time. I was really surprised by the number of different time periods represented though. So far I've read stories set in ancient Egypt, Golden Age Athens, republican Rome, imperial Rome, Justinian Byzantium, ancient China, and early medieval Ireland. Some are, I think, a little more "historical" than others, in that some stories seem more interested in exploring the limitations and methods of pre-modern "investigation" than others, which more or less transpose the standard format. It's interesting to see how different authors set about their stories, and the beauty of short stories is that you're never far off from something different.

I'm still plugging away at The Two Towers but this book makes for nice vacation reading. It's like that tray of cookies you can't stop nibbling at, even though you know you ought to be eating up the leftovers from your Christmas party's raw veggie tray.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In dulci jubilo / Let us our gifties show (off)

Alice has decreed that we should all post about the books we got for Christmas, and when Alice says "post" I jump, so here it is, a photo of the books I got for Christmas:

Artist's rendition
Of course it's just what I asked for and I am very grateful and look forward to feeding my Kindle, but I admit it was a little anti-climactic. Especially since my family exchanged a lot of books this Christmas (which is unusual; I don't think a single person got a bottle of brandy or a weapon this year). Boo hoo hoo.

I'm planning to hold onto the card and buy books as I want to read them, how boring is that? I've already sketched out some of the things on the table for me in the New Year; the only addition I have to make is that I, shamefully, still have to buy and read Mindy Kaling's book. Apparently $13 is too much for me. But I'm going to bite the bullet as soon as I've cleared the decks.

The only other book-related present I got was a booklight. I adore the Kindle's non-backlit screen, but even so, there are times when one wants to read in bed without having to get up and switch the light off. The one I got has a big clip to go on a paper book, so I think I'm going to try and return it for one that's more e-reader friendly.

I hope everyone's having a cheery holiday season! The only slight spot on my Christmas has been mom's obsession with HGTV -- who are all these early 20-somethings buying condos?!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

I'm havin' hobbits for Christmas

Christmas (or in my case, the birthday-Christmas season) is a time of excess. Personally I've spent the last couple of days baking booze cakes (yes plural, and both those recipes are delicious), drinking pumpkin spice Irish cream in my coffee, and sewing sequins onto a sweater. Ho ho ho.

The other thing I've been doing, which is in its own way excessive, is re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I passed over the three-volume hardbacks and the paperback omnibus and went right for the pleatherette Big Red One:

Uff da.
It's a nice bright festive red with shiny metallic printing, and satisfyingly hefty. Like the Ring itself, this edition is reluctant to be moved and feels especially heavy when you consider taking it with you anywhere.

Having just watched the Peter Jackson trilogy with Alice, the movies are fresh in my mind --

Break to gush over the Hobbit trailer: SQUEEEE! Martin Freeman was born to play Arthur Dent, Dr. Watson, and Bilbo Baggins, so thank you world for making these happen.

-- certainly much fresher than the books. I have a horrible memory; in fact I think when I saw Two Towers and Return of the King in theaters I had pretty much forgotten the respective books already. The movies are "big" visually, but the books feel "big" in time. What I mean is, the art direction and the use of New Zealand's geography makes it seem like the movies were shot in a real continent-sized place; and while the books certainly have that complete world in them, what strikes me first and most immediately is that there are thousands of years present in and behind the story. Even on a smaller scale, I've just gotten up to the arrival in Rivendell and already years have passed in the main plot. And of course the events of The Hobbit are directly involved as well.

I'm trying to pay better attention to the poems and songs -- as my experiences with AS Byatt will attest, I have a tendency to gloss over this kind of thing to get back to the plot as soon as possible. Aside from your feelings about poetry, I guess you have to like spending time with the characters in order to appreciate this kind of literature within literature. After all, in this case at least, the poems are the characters' way of expressing and enjoying themselves.

Being (hopefully) (sort of) older and wiser since the last/first time I read LOTR, another thing that strikes me is that the characters are very much adults. Frodo is out of his "tweens" almost right out the gate, and the other characters (at least so far) are mature if not actually old. Of course there's an element of growing up, learning, gaining experience to the quest, but it's not a coming-of-age story. It seems even sort of Tolkien-esque to say that the characters' lives to this point have been a kind of preparation for this quest in a broad destiny sort of way.

This frivolous image is your reward for reading this far.
 Anyhow, I am plugging along and hopefully will have more and better thoughts to share with you over the next few weeks. Merry Christmas and happy holidays!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Books on the horizon

It's a dangerous thing to be the book I bring with me on a trip. I usually finish it pretty early in the proceedings, so that by the time I have to decide what's coming back with me, it's looking kind of old and dull next to the shiny exotic new foreign books.

Probably the only book I'll be bringing with me to London next month (other than missals) is my Kindle. Now praise we all our Kindles! This is precisely why I got the Kindle, and let's hope it doesn't have any kind of technical issue while I'm over there. The only potential non-ebook I might have with me is Bel Canto, which I bought at the Open Books sale and is just about the only book I bought there that isn't three inches thick.

The first thing that will probably be on the Kindle for my reading pleasure is Doctor Thorne, by my old friend Anthony Trollope. Being in the public domain is a pretty good argument for picking this series back up, huh?

Also in the free books realm, I've been meaning to re-read some Jane Austen, although my thoughts are a little too nebulous about that to translate into actual reading at the moment. I find that it's best to wait until I'm really, really interested in reading something or else it just drags.

Another possible re-read, crossing over into books that cost money, would be The Lord of the Rings. I've been itching to re-read this for about a year and I think the time might be right. I'm only hesitant because I already own three paper editions (yes, yes) and spending $23 for an ebook version makes me a little... cringey. I'll probably start reading the paper version before I leave and see how far I get.

I'll certainly have Norwegian Wood on there, since Alice is doing another read-along.

The Time in Between is another one that's on my radar. I don't know anything about it except the publisher's blurb -- and that it's got a gorgeous cover/endpaper design in hardback. You know, sometimes you just have to read things because they're intriguing. Aside from the subject matter and art direction, my interest is piqued by the fact that it's been translated from Spanish and brought to the US market. That's kind of a vote of confidence, right?

So that's sort of my reading plan for the next couple of months. Such as it is.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Books worth adding a few pounds to your suitcase (and your credit card bill) (see what I did there)

You know what's a good way to fit books into your suitcase to bring home? Between the ribs of the rolly handle in the bottom. Once I managed to bring 12 books home with me without paying an excess weight fee. Here, in no particular order, are some books I brought from London to the US.

Pie, by Angela Boggiano. I love British dinner pies. Love, love, love. Oh sure, American pot pies are okay, but they tend to be more "creamy soup with biscuits on top". My mother is from the very small area of the US where pasties are common, but other than that, it's unusual to encounter a really good savory pie in the states. So I bought this book in the hopes of being able to produce the thing I love myself. I tried the cheese and onion recipe after much researching and specialty-ingredient shopping and it turned out delicious, even if the crust was a little wonky (my own fault).

The Great British Picnic Guide was actually a gift. It's a pretty sort of book, with recipes and ideas and so on: the sort of thing that makes you forget how unpleasant eating on the ground in the outdoors actually is.

Aubrey/Maturin books are a summer reading staple for me, and searching used bookstores for the next one in the series makes for a nice afternoon. But I'll be honest, I have mostly brought these home because I feel like I need to own one of each cover design.

Kristin Lavransdatter is a three-part novel about a woman in medieval Norway that I started reading because I was in the mood for some first-class historical fiction. Obviously it had to come home with me, it's going to help balance out all the un-classy Georgette Heyer.

It's unusual, really, to come across a book that you can't get in America. And, okay, you can buy The Spirit of Solesmes here, but it wasn't on Amazon when I got it. And it's an outstanding Christian-spirituality book, so I was very glad I shelled out the money when I did.

I can't remember the title or any other identifying information about this next one, and although I'm pretty sure it was exclusive to the British Library somehow it's not on their online shop. It was a small reprint/translation of a sort of domestic handbook from colonial Latin America. How to manage a household, that sort of thing. I know, at this point you're wondering why you even bother reading other blogs when this one is so informative and engaging.

Ok, so I actually bought The Secret Life of Buildings in Manchester but bear with me. Unlike all of the others on this list, this one was pretty disappointing; in fact I didn't make it past the first few chapters. The book claims to be architectural history told in an engaging way that takes into account the way the buildings were used and how they changed over time -- a social history of architecture?! Yes please!! But after reading the essays about the Parthenon, the Basilica of San Marco, and the Hagia Sophia, I was completely non-plussed. The author picks some little point or theme for each building and gives vignettes illustrating how these theme plays out in different phases of its history. But it plays fast and loose with the facts in name of cleverness a little too often for my taste. Furthermore, although these three buildings are religious buildings, the author makes it clear that he has no time or regard for religion. Fair enough, but it's hard to understand the religious design and use of religious buildings, much less how one religion might adapt another religion's buildings, without at least trying to wrap your head around religion beyond just "one superstition is the same as another." But oh! Look at that lovely cover! Even if I had read it and realized its disappointingness before having to wedge it into my suitcase, I probably still would have brought it home, just because of its stylish good looks.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Where is my "Don't Panic" Kindle cover, capitalism?

No, I had not read The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy before, but having practically grown up on a Lord of the Rings message board, I sort of felt like I had. Towels, "42", mice and dolphins, you know. And then I saw the movie version in college with a group of Turkish grad students (an appropriately weird set of circumstances, I thought). But used bookstore to the stars (i.e. me and Alice) Open Books had a nifty omnibus edition of the "trilogy in four parts" for a bargain $7 so here we are.

For the record, I liked the movie well enough, and I haven't come across anything in the book(s) to change that impression. For the most part my reaction to the book(s) -- I've just finished The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and started in on Life, the Universe, and Everything -- has been to ramble along genially, thinking "heh" and "I see what you did there" at intervals. In short, I am not one of those people for whom Hitch Hiker's Guide is a touchstone, change-your-life book.

But! That's not to say I'm not enjoying it. And certainly not to say there aren't moments that make me laugh awkwardly in public places. For instance:
 "We have a thing on Earth..." began Arthur. "Had," corrected Zaphod. "... called tact. Oh never mind"
Ha, very sly.

One of the major problems encountered in time travel... is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveller's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. ... Most readers get as far as the Future Semi-Conditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up.
Yes, yes, so far so wacky.  Adams is full of these little digressions. But then the whole thing just blossoms when a few paragraphs later you're suddenly getting this:
In it, guests take (willan on-take) their places at a table and eat (willan on-eat) sumptuous meals whilst watching (willing watchen) the whole of creation explode around them.
 Ahhh! Genius!

I think your tolerance level for these digressions probably shapes your enjoyment of the book to a great degree. I mean, in a way, the whole book is a series of digressions loosely hung on a plot. Being a very plot-driven reader, my tolerance for all these little wanderings (woo, synonym?) is naturally pretty low. (This is ironic because my mind is always going on digressions.) So while sometimes I find myself skipping ahead a little, I'm sure there are other people who eat them all up with a spoon. But even so, it's generally not too long until I find myself in the middle of an aside that is as funny as the one above, or, cue another example:
It is a curious fact, and one to which no one knows quite how much importance to attach, that something like 85 per cent of all known worlds in the Galaxy, be they primitive or highly advanced, have invented a drink called jynnan tonnyx, or gee-N'N-T'N-ix, or jinond-o-nicks, or any one of a thousand or more variations on the same phonetic theme...
Medium is an interesting issue with the Hitch Hiker's Guide, and it occurs to me that the things that I really enjoy tend to be things that are fairly textually based. I'm assuming the jynnan tonnyx joke never turned up on the radio! although I guess the verb tenses would be just as funny. I can't put my finger on why, but I think I probably would enjoy the digressions in general more in the radio format.

Anyway, I'm convinced that the Ultimate Question is "How many songs about rainbows are there?"

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

He who is tired of London is probably tired of Samuel Johnson quotes too

You certainly don't have to look far for literary whatnot in London; the place is sickeningly thick with bookish sites (and probably cites, har har). I don't think I've ever deliberately sought any of them out - with the possible exception of the time I went with my high school English class, but that was a package thing. And the time I lived 2-3 blocks from Mr Holmes' flat in Baker Street - but that was coincidence. I think you're pretty much always in some sort of literary reference in London, but my point is, I've never sat down with a book and a map and gone to a place for the sake of seeing where some fictional character did something.

I have sought out the British Library, of course, for research purposes but mostly for the food. The catering is all by Peyton & Byrne (IIRC) and it's right up my street as they say. In fact, it has been my custom, on arrival at some awful early hour at Heathrow, to hustle into the city to the BL, where I settle myself on the terrace with a latte and some sort of pastry and watch the English Lit types collect before the main doors open.* Another creature comfort of the BL is the free wifi, which is a wonderful thing to put you on your feet before hauling your suitcase off to your digs.**

Coffee, bun, literary scholars.

So maybe this is shallow, but my mental literary map of London has less to do with "here's Where Nicholas Nickleby lived" or even "here's where Jane Austen stayed" but more to do with, "here's where they always have a big stack of Patrick O'Brian novels" and "this is the best place to sit with a book instead of going to the archive."

Why am I rambling on about this? Because in about a month I'm headed back out to spend a good six month chunk in the ol' Metrop. And right now I'm having a hard time thinking of it as anything but a huge stressor and disruption. A stressor, because it's obviously an enormous and expensive pain in the butt trying to work out banking, housing, etc (all in process, thank you). And a disruption, because one likes one's friends. One is rather inclined to think that one's social future is here, not there. And one is not immune from thinking that spending six months in a foreign country isn't likely to do one's love life much good. Given that this will be my eighth lifetime trip to London, is it so surprising that it's not quite my first choice for a European vacation anymore?***

What gets me through the funk (and the guilt produced by the funk) is thinking about books, oddly enough. Many of my most relaxing memories of the capital are book memories. And one of the purposes in starting this blog was to provide a communications channel and outlet, to make some of that reading less solitary.

So to keep that calm, happy energy flowing, I think I'm going to work up some lists of my personal literary relationship with London: bookshops and reading spots I guess, but maybe also books I've brought home, the books I've brought with, and the books I really, really wanted to buy but didn't. I hope you'll bear with me.

* This follows the cup of tea at the Costas in arrivals and the almost inevitable fumbling to reload the Oyster card - why do I always run that down before leaving?
** I mentioned this to a London grad student once who let loose a bitter rant against tourists and freeloaders who clog up the bandwidth people need to do research. Fair enough, but I am unrepentant, partly because I have a reader's card, na na na boo boo.
*** 1. Vienna, 2. Rome, 3... Ljubljana? Maybe? Anyway, this ain't vacation, it's work, so all my £££ are needed in London.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Children's books

Alice has alerted me to this meme being hosted by The Broke and the Bookish, which is perfect for giving me an opportunity to gush...

Guys, I love kids' books. Kids' books are the best. I love any excuse to look at kids' books and have gone to Lengths to create excuses to buy them. So without further ado and not in any order:

1. Each Peach Pear Plum - there's maybe some punctuation in there - this might be the first book I really remember from childhood. It's by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, so it has adorable illustrations. The text is a little rhyme involving various fairy tale characters, and then you can search for them in the pictures. It's so cute and simple and wonderful.

2. The Jolly Postman - another Ahlberg book with cute, detailed illustrations and fairy tale characters. This one has little letters you can pull out and read, hence the subtitle: Or, Other People's Letters. Little kids will enjoy it, although it's kind of a "learning opportunity" about being gentle with books, and then when they get older they'll marvel at the level of detail and humor.

3. Flat Stanley is now, apparently, a whole media empire or something, with at least two series of early-reader books and a new set of illustrations. I can't find a picture of my old one, but I remember the pictures being black and white and pea-green. Stanley was a favorite bedtime story for Young Julie despite or perhaps because it was very long. At some point mom put her foot down and divided it up into chapters.

4. Dear Zoo - whenever I mention this one to my peers they don't seem to know what I'm talking about. Their loss: it had flaps. Flaps.

5. Flecki Hat Geburtstag - or as you Anglos might know it, Spot's Birthday Party. I spent Pre-K and Kindergarten in an international school in the Netherlands and my dad brought me this from West Germany. I don't remember the German classes we apparently had but I do remember making dad read this to me in German and English.

6. Officer Buckle and Gloria was my brother's book but I loved the pictures even though I was too old for it. If I'm remembering correctly there were lots of little details snuck in (which you might notice as a theme on this list). I could describe the Arthur books the same way.

7. The Berenstain Bears - good lord, we had so many of these. My brother and I learned (or were expected to learn) a large portion of our good behavior from the Bear family. I looked up the spelling of this on Amazon just now and spent a good ten minutes scrolling through the list: "Trouble with Money! No Girls Allowed! The Messy Room! Get in a Fight!"

8. Arty the Smarty and The Blue-Nosed Witch were two of my mom's old Weekly Reader books. She loved those books and I remember giggling when she would tell me about them, and then eventually gramma found them in the attic for me. I giggled because I thought it was goofy that mom would be so excited telling me some dumb ol' story about a fish, but you can bet if I ever have kids, I'll wear my enthusiasm on my sleeve like that. My mother, god bless her, maybe isn't the sort of bookworm I am, but we were always more enthusiastic about books than movies in my house growing up.

9. Usborne Newspaper Histories - I'm giving you a link for these because I think they're a little less well known. It's stunning how these manage to be so good on both a humor and an educational level. Again, they're the kind of thing that kids and adults can enjoy because there are all kinds of details in the writing and imagery. If I recall correctly, the Medieval Messenger and the Egyptian Echo are the funniest ones, but they're all hilarious. There are many imitators and wannabes but these are unbeatable (the "tour guide" types books in particular always fall flat for me).

10. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie - Just plain fun. There are a lot of other entries in this series now, but this is the original. I think if you were to look at all the books on this list together you could piece together my present-day sense of humor.

And, just to round out this list, one book that doesn't rank at all for me: Goodnight Moon. It was not a part of my childhood and has no magic for me. Flat Stanley all the way!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Help: Part Four, Chps 29-End

So. How's 'bout that ending?

Skeeter gets a job in New York, Minny runs away from her abusive husband, Aibileen gets fired, but they're all free. I suppose the unfairness of that corresponds to the unfairness of racism but hot damn.

Poor Skeeter, if she stayed in Jackson unlikable people would dislike her and she'd never get married. If she hadn't been brave enough to write a book she would have had a piddly little job and been mildly uncomfortable in social settings and ended up as a empty headed housewife. That's no picnic but it's not quite on the same level as getting beat up by your husband or raising other people's children to grow up and hate you or being threatened with lynching.

Oh Skeeter, Skeeter. She's young enough that her stupidity and self-centeredness are in character, I guess, but the book only wants to see her as brave and transgressive.

I know you guys will rant about this much more effectively, and I'll come back to the novel, but I wanted to note a couple of things from the end of the book.

The acknowledgements contains one of the best lines of the book:
Thank you to Amy Einhorn, my editor, without whom the sticky-note business would not be the success it is today.

Stockett notes that she "took liberties with time," talking about songs and products in years before they were popular; also "the Jim Crow laws ... [were] taken from actual legislation that existed at various times across the South." Look, I know I'm Janey Stick-in-the-Mud when it comes to historical things but this kind of thing drives me nuts. IT MATTERS. It matters when things happened, but it also matters what laws were in place where and at what time. If you are going to write about Jackson, Mississippi in a specific year and you fudge the laws or whatever, then you are no longer writing about Jackson, Mississippi in that year. Which isn't necessarily a big deal unless your book purports to convey some sort of historical truth. I think, in this case, Stockett's fudging is pretty minor, but in general, if you have to fabricate or transfer historical details in order to tell a historical story, then your story maaaaaay not actually be good history. If Skeeter, in Jackson in 1962, couldn't have heard "The Times They Are A-Changin", but could have had the sense that things were a-changin, then what would have given her that feeling? It's a weak author, in my humble and snobby opinion, who has to make something up.

The autobiographical note, "Too Little, Too Late" makes me wish Stockett would have just written her own memoirs or something, but it also goes a long way toward explaining some of what's wrong with Skeeter. Skeeter is obviously channeling a lot of Stockett's experience, so I guess you could interpret some of her failings as Stockett's own critique of her younger complacency. But the book sets Skeeter up as heroine: she's the one who has the book idea, she's the one who pursues it, she's the one at the center of the project (and the one the maids think of when they worry about it). I get that Stockett wants to show both ends of the story, but Skeeter never gets any blow-back from her obnoxiousness and it makes for a really annoying read.

(Also: Stockett never reveals how old she is, which, again, IT MATTERS, and also, Southern Lady stereotype much?)

So, final thoughts. In the end analysis I thought the book took the easy path in two crucial ways. First of all, the utter evilness of Hilly and the lovelessness of the white Southern mothers. And secondly, Skeeter's lack of religiosity. It didn't quite sit right with me when Skeeter just sort of declares that she never really cared much about religion. (Wouldn't she, in that environment, consider herself at least something of a nominal Christian? Or have a stronger relationship to religion than just "meh"?) In both cases, it would have more difficult to go into detail but it would have enriched the book by miles. Also, relatedly, the sort-of absence of the civil rights movement bothered me. Skeeter (someone who orders banned books from California, remember) has access to a car, easily lies to cover up where she's going, and has been totally alienated from her former friends: how does she have so very little interest in or contact with the civil rights movement? Even if, as I've said before, she only has a strong aversion to it.

The relationship between Aibileen and poor hapless Mae Mobley was probably the best, most interesting part of the book for me. Forget Skeeter and her meal-ticket book; Aibileen's starting to tell Mae Mobley little civil rights stories (Martian Luther King!!! OMG!) was really touching. And I thought it was a sign of how things were changing and might change, in that Aibileen wouldn't have dared, perhaps, to do that before.

Thank you, Alice, for being our brave leader on this read-along journey! Well done with those section breaks, well done.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Gosh, I hate the phrase "Cyber Monday"*

I didn't actually mean to abandon my blog for the last week or two but blah blah blah you don't care.

I'm just popping in today to note that Amazon is having one of their big Kindle book sales today: "more than 900 books" under $5. Nothing from my wishlist is on sale** but it's worth checking out. It looks like there are a few series where all the books have been marked down, so you can get All Creatures Great and Small and various other James Herriot books for $3 a piece. My mom loves James Herriot. There's a whole stack of Boxcar Children books for 99¢ - I wouldn't give a kid an iPhone or an iPad but I'd buy a budding nerd a Kindle loaded with Boxcar Children. Of course Kindle books can be read on other devices, insert sales pitch here.*** Also, here's a book about two women ambulance drivers in WWI which I haven't read but maybe have heard of; anyway, if that sounds interesting to you it's probably a good book.

I suppose I could add also that Amazon lets you send Kindle books as gifts, which I have both sent and received and it seems to work well. You can specify your delivery date so you can order weeks ahead and the recipient gets an exciting email on their birthday. Technology, magic, etc.

I shall be back for The Help tomorrow and hopefully a little Harry Potter post later in the week. I'm also reading The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, so that'll be coming up eventually.

* Really I just hate the word "cyber".
** My number one gripe against the Kindle is that prices never show up on the Wishlist, either on the device or on the computer, which means you have to click through to see what each book costs which drives me BONKERS.
*** I suppose I have to note that links are for your convenience only, I'm not making any money... in general, but also on this blog, which seems like it should be obvious.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Help: Part Three, Chps 20-28

Lawdy, is it that time again?

We're in the thick of it now. Lots of things coming to a head in this section -- Skeeter's relationship with Stuart, Miss Celia's social status, the Terrible Thing Minny did to Miss Hilly, even the book project.

Oh sure, I had some problems with this part (I'm sure you've noticed by now that I'm a little critical). Central among these is in fact the Terrible Awful Thing. You mean to tell me there was actual human fecal matter in that pie?! No. No. My brain will not accept that as a plausible thing. I mean, I've only baked a pie once in my life, but... how would you work... it... in without ruining the consistency of the pie? And... wouldn't it affect the taste and smell? (Related Bill Nye episode.) (Easily distracted.) And when you consider the time and effort... I re-read the pages hoping to come across something to indicate that it was a lie, but... In the end, I so much can't believe this that I have gone full circle to believing it in a sort of magical fantasy land sort of way.

And maybe that's sort of my approach in general to this book now, because for the most part it's got me hooked. I tore through this section, wanting to see what was going to happen next. Even when the author made transparent attempts to manipulate me, the reader, I sort of shrugged past it ("'It's true. There are some racists in this town,' Miss Leefolt say. Miss Hilly nod her head, 'Oh, they're out there.'" - yes, yes, I see what you did there.) I am certainly enjoying Miss Celia more now that she's not just moping around being mysterious. And I thought that Skeeter's parents have become sliiiightly more human.

Plus there was this:

When you little, you only get asked two questions, what's your name and how old you is, so you better get em right.
 Adorable, right?

And this made me laugh:
enough costume jewelry for a whole family of hookers
 So that's me for this week.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Help: Part Two, Chps 10-19

For reals this time.

Things are developing but not in entirely satisfying ways.

For one thing, Skeeter is a little hard to read. Does she know what she's getting into or not? And just when you think her eyes are opening to the realities of the situation it turns out she can't stop thinking about her book, which, let's not forget, is a project that originates in Skeeter's desire for a writing career and not in much of a civil rights concern.

Aibileen lets her head hang. I'm sure it's out of grief for Yule May, but I suspect she also knows the book is over.
I don't get the feeling that the book is a social justice project for Skeeter, really, even after she's been working on it for a while now and learning more about the situation. Do you? I think it's still about Skeeter's career, and I'm not convinced that she gets what it means or might mean to the maids.

Yule May being thrown in prison came awfully suddenly, didn't it? And wasn't it nice of her to write down her whole life story and motivation for Skeeter/us? And then all of a sudden everyone wants to help Skeeter -- and by everyone I mean a convenient thirteen maids. Convenient because Skeeter needs twelve and one of the thirteen turns out to just want to acknowledge some of the uncomfortable power dynamics in this book. I felt like all of this could have been much better handled so that it actually felt like a turning point instead of Insert Turning Point Here. I get that the Yule May thing was supposed to have happened suddenly, it just felt clumsy in the text.

Skeeter's life among the white folks isn't all that much better. When she left her bag behind -- her bag that she was carrying with her everywhere so that no one would see its sensitive contents -- at the League meeting or whatever that was, I was just all: G.T.F.O.

My thoughts exactly, stick man.

And maybe I'm just not paying sufficient attention (that's kind of my M.O. these days) but Skeeter's cautiousness feels really uneven. If anything she relaxes after the bag incident. Even though she's supposed to be a college graduate who wants to support herself with a writing career and who orders banned novels from an illicit press in California -- she just doesn't feel that smart or savvy, I guess. Especially that last bit. Does someone who deliberately seeks out banned books also feel hesitant to think of Hilly as anything but a friend?

I admit that I'm curious to find out whether her Sexy Boyfriend™ is going to turn out to be a secret supporter of Civil Rights. Scenario 1: he's a bigot, dumps Skeeter, and she takes off as a confident professional writer to New York. Scenario 2: he's sympathetic and/or won over by Skeeter's work and everyone lives happily ever after.

I'm glad we have Miss Celia's deal out in the open now (well, for us readers) (although that miscarriage business was harrowing). For some reason I thought it was a little underwhelming still; I guess I was hoping there was going to be something surprising there and there wasn't really. Oh well.

Overall, the book is holding my interest pretty well, but as I'm seeing the plot develop I'm not all that impressed. Entertained, maybe, but not impressed.

The Help: Pride Goeth Before A Fall

Eh heh heh

So last week I was riding high, feeling smug because I was so ahead in my reading for the Help! I have not read The Help! Readalong. Where's that wonderful graphic?

There it is.

In the first week, I got up to chapter 16, so I was feeling pretty smug about finishing through chapter 19 for today. Then a week passed and I forgot about it (reading Harry Potter among other things) until last night. Then I went to a lovely Bach concert, and thought I'd do the reading in the morning. This morning I woke up promptly but then got caught up in foreign apartment listings. And then I watched this video featuring Patton Oswalt:

Reader Meets Author: Patton Oswalt

....which reminded me I was supposed to do something about a book today? Oops. And now I'm going to go to the gym (hurgh) in an effort to jumpstart some dissertation work (urgh) so I am going to try to write something up for tonight.

Mostly I am posting this for Alice, so she has something to read at work and also so she can mock me. Aren't I a good friend?

Monday, November 14, 2011

A couple of loose thoughts

The Selected Writings of Christine de Pizan has been living in my purse for the last week or two as my go-to public transit read. It would make me feel very brainy reading medieval poetry on the bus except that my inspiration was the incomparable "Take Back Halloween" website. Thus I was first drawn to this book by its author's awesome horned headdress.

There are extant portraits of Christine, why didn't they use one for the cover?

I never had much interest in "medieval stuff" as a kid, and the medieval history class I took in college didn't have much impact on me at the time. In the last couple of years though I've had the opportunity to admire some really lovely medieval artwork in London, and the period has begun to grow on me. Now that essay we had to write in college about whether or not "the Renaissance" is a useful historical (as opposed to art historical) period seems much more compelling to me.

Anyway, I haven't gotten terribly far into the collection but it's already clear that Christine was a pretty nifty lady. I'm especially charmed by her work The Letter from Othea. Basically she wrote a mock-antique text along with two commentaries: one literary/historical, and the other moral/theological. Commentaries like these were common literary forms of the period, but here all three pieces were written by Christine. What a fascinating project!

I'm also intrigued by the way she explains ancient Greek deities. Like so:

And because the ancients had the custom of adoring everything that seemed blessed beyond the common level of things, they called several wise women who existed in their time goddesses.
Or here:
Minerva was a very wise lady... and because this lady possessed such great wisdom, people called her a goddess.
Now, if you're a medieval writing about the ancient gods, "by God's grace illuminated by the true faith" as Christine puts it, you can treat them as entirely imaginary literary figures, as real spiritual entities of some kind, or you can pull this little historicizing move apparently. I have no idea whether this insistence on the historical existence of "goddesses" is unique at all, but I do think it's pretty interesting. Maybe that's what's so great about medieval art and literature: even when you know that the stereotypes are wrong, it's still really delightful when you get to see what's actually there.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Harry Thicky Potter Thicky

Yes, that's right, I read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and now I have written you a rambly post about it.

I got through about 300 pages on the first night I picked it up; you can't say it's not engaging. A little breakfast reading and another dedicated evening and I was done.

As I think I mentioned before, I stopped reading the books partway through Order of the Phoenix. I have a vague idea that I might have gone back and finished that one later (I know I own it), but I've still never read Half Blood Prince. I was a little confused in the first couple of chapters of Deathly Hallows, trying to remember who was who (I really did not remember that Tonks was Bellatrix's niece; and it took a while to place Bill) but overall I had remarkably little trouble getting back into the world of the books.

So Harry Potter's kind of a moron, right? That was mostly my feeling through the on-the-run part of the book. Well, ok, through most of the book. I adore Hermione and I felt bad that she was stuck with those two bozos for so long -- I certainly wouldn't want to trust them with my safety. And how is it possible that they still had the whole "We're coming with you argument" multiple times in this book?! I thought we learned the lesson about sticking together in book 1! And book 2! &c... &c... I don't know how Harry expects to get anything done without them, really; especially without Hermione.

If I can't be Hermione, I want to be Emma Watson.
This made me groan aloud:
Harry stepped out from under the Cloak and climbed up onto Ravenclaw's plinth to read them. "Wit beyond measure is man's greatest treasure." "Which makes you pretty skint, witless," said a cackling voice.
It's always satisfying when a character in the text says what you're thinking, even if the character is eeeevil. I mean, Ron tells Harry that saying "Voldemort" summons the Snatchers: Harry says "Voldemort". Harry "hears" Voldemort thinking about how he won't even be able to set foot in Hogsmede without raising the alarm: so Harry takes Ron and Hermione to Hogsmede without apparently even thinking about the dangers. I mean, he basically presents it to them as "we'll go to Hogsmede and then figure out how to get into the castle," as if Hogsmede is sure to be a safe place. Dur.

All that aside, Harry's confrontation with Voldemort is perfection. The reappearance of Exposition-Dumbledore would have been annoying, but I was thoroughly sold by then. I started tearing up around page 700, namely:
Harry looked at his mother. "Stay close to me," he said quietly.

Once Harry realizes what he has to do -- once he knows how his meeting with Voldemort must end -- what can I even say? It's just perfect: so satisfying.

A few assorted character thoughts: It's interesting how Rowling makes Dumbledore and James Potter rather unlikable by the end. Well, "unlikable" is too strong, but she gives them real, concrete sins. Maybe it's because I haven't read Half-Blood Prince, but Snape never quite sat right with me. His motivation of being soooo in love with Lily from childhood just seemed pathetic rather than sympathetic. I had heard about the Molly Weasley vs Bellatrix Lestrange duel, but found it a little underwhelming in practice; although I liked -- nay, loved -- when the professors (especially McGonagall) got to spring into action and show what they were worth. I always thought McGonagall was a tough nut. I remember finding the earlier house elf plots pretty stupid but I thought it was all justified by the house elf business (both Kreacher and Dobby) in this book. I liked that Voldemort's arrogance would lead him to think he'd discovered a totally new place in Hogwarts, when in fact it wasn't a terribly unknown place at all.

Finally, I heart Neville Longbottom. What. A. Badass. He might have one of the best character arcs over the series, no? He starts out as a total nerd, the sort of kid a hero like Harry would pity if he noticed him at all, but as you go you find out what an awesome dude he is, and that he has a family/ancestry as badass as Harry's or Ron's. And it's not so much because he changes all that much -- it's just that you (and Harry) realize who he is and what he can do. Luna's a great character that way too. They start out as oddballs who are easily dismissed, and they don't get to be part of the Inner Circle, but they turn out to be formidable and indispensable.

Sadly, my roommate doesn't have Half-Blood Prince on her shelf, so I'll have to wait before I'm able to claim that I've finished the series, but I'm so glad I read this.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Help: Part One, chps 1-9

Wooo, Alice posted her comments (click below) so now I can post mine.

So! I'm enjoying the book so far! I am intrigued, intrigued I tell you, by each of the three main characters; although the present-tense and switching of narrators I find mildly tedious. Then again, I am very grateful that the entire book isn't written in dialect, so there's that. I'm enjoying the book so much I actually read ahead, but before I crossed the threshold of chapter 10 I made some notes which I shall now share with you all (oh goodie).

Does anyone feel like there are some super easy targets in this book? How cliche is it that all the white mothers are cruel and unfeeling?

I have an issue with the Mister Johnny plot. If Mister Johnny is such an old time Southern boy, why on earth would he be shocked and offended that his wife has hired a maid? Wouldn't he expect it? In fact, wouldn't he have made sure his wife hired someone? I get Celia's motivations in wanting to hide it, but I don't quite get why Minny goes along with it. She seems so savvy, she must realize that Mister Johnny must have an inkling of what's going on, right? And that he must be ok with it, right? Why does she (Minny) think she's actually in hiding from Mister Johnny? Maybe this is just a case of my failing to understand an irrational situation.

I wonder if the book will address Skeeter's Miss Myrtle shenanigans, namely the way she mindlessly uses Aibileen for her own ends and doesn't even pay her. Will Skeeter start to feel guilty? Will someone call her out on it? I don't know who could exactly, but... someone. Maybe she'll become more self-aware.

Finally, I will simply say: I feel for Skeeter and her tallness.

Monday, November 7, 2011

I have not died, nor have I devolved into illiteracy...

... I've just had some stuff going on. I've been reading The Help of course (and finding it much more engrossing than anticipated) and picking at some other things. I had one of those little fits of used-book ordering about a week ago (because of course I don't have enough books) and those have all arrived now. I'm not likely to write a post about the A-Z of Goldwork with Silk Embroidery or Ancient Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Costume, but I might muster a little review of the other two eventually.

One is Better Than Beauty, a reprinted style/etiquette guide from the 1930s. I have a special place in my heart for advice literature; I find it soothing. When I'm especially stressed out, you might find me trawling Google Books for interesting and entertaining snippets of wisdom like, "Dandyism is never more out of place than on the glacier, or among the Norwegian salmon fisheries." Better Than Beauty is a very modern and urbane specimen of the genre and, if you're weird like me, well suited for bedtime reading. (This has been your odd insight into my psyche for the day.)

The other is a Norton critical edition of selected works by Christine de Pizan.

I've got more than enough to read, so of course I'm thinking that what I really want to read is something totally different. Namely: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. My roommate has the first six movies, and last Thursday night as I was waiting for a ride, I caught up by watching numbers 5 and 6 (yes, the ride was exceptionally late). I stopped reading the books, lo these many years ago, partway through #5 (Order of the Phoenix), and while I think I know all of the big shocking things that happen in the books after that, watching the two movies was fun and exciting. Maybe this makes me a bad reader or something, but I think part of my problem was that I was having a hard time feeling the increased tension in the books. I didn't quite get that the stakes were being raised, it just seemed like everyone was getting more overwrought. (That, and Tonks was a horrible, cliche, obnoxious character.) Anyway, whatever was going on with me back then, watching the movies the other night I understood what was going on much better, and now I'm thinking that, rather than borrow the last two movies from people, maybe I should just read the book. Which I would be borrowing from my roommate. Hey, JK Rowling doesn't need my money.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Help: The Helpening

I actually had a moment earlier this week when I wondered what I should read next. Then I remembered that Alice at Reading Rambo has already told me what I'm reading next.

By way of kicking things off, she's posted some of her preconceptions about The Help and rather than increase her comment count I'm being a jerk being self-centered going to post a few of my thoughts over here. Because let's be honest I wasn't going to manage a second post this week otherwise (sigh).

I think the first time I consciously acknowledged the existence of The Help was when the random stranger I talked to in Waterstone's this spring asked if I knew whether it was any good. "Uh, it's popular, I think. It's about segregation?" -- that is about as much as I knew about it.

And since I am a huge snob that was all I needed to ignore it. It seemed like an Oprah book: madly popular among (I assumed) suburban housewives, and Serious because it was about something Sad. I imagined book clubs across the country swooning over it. "Oh my god, you guys! It was like, so sad back then! How could people be so mean?" Yes, I know, I'm a horrible, horrible person.

(But don't worry, because in this story I get my comeuppance.)

So there I was, being superior, and then the movie came out. The reviews I read (e.g.) seemed to confirm what I thought about the book: that it was a condescending, sentimental portrayal of inequality meant primarily to make the reader feel better about herself. But then something strange happened: people I knew went to see the movie. And they liked it. Including a usually rather critical grad school companion of mine, whose work centers on racism and discrimination. Maybe they were wrong. Or maybe there was something to this whole The Help thing that I wasn't getting.

So I am duly chastened for my assumptions and prejudices and I haven't even read the book yet. Well done Stockett!

Anyhow, I am reading away and we'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Unsurprisingly, this book is not for children.

I know I ought to be getting some dissertation work done this afternoon, but I'm having trouble identifying my next steps, so I'm going to tell you about The Children's Book instead. Responsibility!

The first thing one might notice about The Children's Book is that it's huge, and this is not an illusion. My edition is 879 pages long, and the margins and the text are all normal sized. By my rough count, there are about 14 main-character children and nearly as many main-character adults. It sounds crazy to have 25-30 main characters, but that is just the kind of book this is.

"Cast of thousands," as they say
I really enjoyed the book, don't get me wrong, but I would say that anyone less than A.S. Byatt submitting this manuscript would have been told to cut it down, for goodness' sake, don't you know people don't have attention spans anymore? I laughed when I realized (through the acknowledgments) that Byatt dedicated the book to her editor. I think if someone wanted to cut this book down they could find inessential passages to cut -- I skimmed over the historical-context passages in particular -- but at the same time everything that's there makes for good reading.

The book is basically about a group of children and how they grow up; most of them are members of Fabian/aesthetic movement/Arts-and-crafts-type households, but some come from more humble or more "establishment" backgrounds. You see how the children are affected by their parents' and their parents' associates' ideas, actions, and sins. There are secrets and scandals, but they don't dominate the core of the book. The characters are really well-written, and diverse without seeming forced. The only slightly false notes were the two working-class children, Phillip and Elsie; Byatt was a little more solemn with these two, I think, and they come across as a bit more flat. Maybe a little too noble.

It seems very high school lit class to be all, "What is this book about" but I couldn't help but ask myself, what is this book about, anyway? (Don't worry, I will not attempt to discuss Symbolism.) The most immediate thing that leaps out at me is that Byatt is showing how flawed the progressive/permissive movements the characters are part of were. Whether the children embrace or reject or ignore their parents' ideologies doesn't seem to affect their lives much. The world rolls on and goes up in flames in the Great War regardless. The adults have big ideas and bold, radical new ways of seeing the world, but in the end their actions end up being narcissistic. If this were high school I'd say that they fail, on the whole, to be truly radical because they fail to really love the children and put them first.

Overall, I really enjoyed this book: it's heaven for those of us who just like to see how things turn out for people. I got some of the characters confused now and then because I can never remember names, but for the most part -- and I credit this to Byatt -- I kept them straight. "Good writing" is a very difficult thing to define or describe, but this book is full of it, and is a very worthwhile read.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A good book is like a drink of fresh water (?)

Hurgh, urgh. It's been one of those weeks, don't ask me to explain why, I really don't know. I've probably gotten as much if not more done as last week; nothing especially bad or annoying has happened; but my sleep patterns have been slightly off and a fog has settled in.

The shining light has been The Children's Book. It's huge, but I've been happily reading away, and I think I'm down to the last quarter of the book. I think I started it on Sunday? Even if it were Friday, that's ~600 pages in a week, which feels pretty darn good, and is an indicator of how good it is.

Remember Clara and Mr Tiffany which I disliked so much? The Children's Book, to my fascination (if I can use that word that way), has a lot of the same elements. Arty people with unconventional values in the 1890s-1910s. A big international exposition. Real-life famous people like Emma Goldman making cameos. But it is orders of magnitude better. This is something I noted in Possession: Byatt is so comfortable with the past, she handles it and lays it out for the reader in a gently authoritative way. She's the sort of author who doesn't seem to have done a ton of research so much as just described what was around her, which somehow happens to be a different place and time.

Even Homer nods, though, and this happens:
"We have sentimental things, too, in abundance. Schwabing has invented a word for them, a word I like. Kitsch."
But it's a lot more tolerable when it happens for the first time on page 555, and when it's as subtle as this to boot.

If I can theorize a little, I think part of the problem is that Clara tried to make Clara into an outsider through whom we, the readers, could learn about a particular place and time; that's a common enough trope (I recognize it particularly from sci-fi), but it backfires since in fact Clara the real-life woman was not an outsider. It muddied up her character, and obscured a lot of what made her interesting, namely, her expertise and experience. Byatt doesn't bother with this, and so the various characters' connections with the major currents of the day feel much more natural.

Of course there's more that could be said about why Byatt's novel is more successful, but I'm not interested in taking this particular comparison any further; I don't mean to beat up on a book I didn't like, and anyway I'll write up a proper review for The Children's Book in time. But I find these different approaches to history-through-fiction instructive.

Happy Halloween, if that's your thing, this weekend!

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Great minds think alike

Alice posted this on my Facebook wall last night, and dare I say it? Someone stole my idea!

This is exactly what I was contemplating doing with the stack o' books I brought home from the Open Books sale, except I'd be using my laptop's webcam for that extra dose of gritty teenage realism. Maria Bamford's an actual comedian so this is probably funnier. Thank you Alice!

In other recognizing-myself-in-others news, here's an article from the Telegraph titled "The high-brow readers with a taste for low-brow e-books" which reveals that people like e-readers because they can read stupid novels without anyone else knowing. The headline is a weird misfire since it seems to want to snicker at hypocritical posturing eggheads which, maybe I'm wrong, is not a sentiment likely to appeal to readers of the Torygraph. Anyhow, here's a winner of a quote from the company that ran the survey:
“It seems that a lot of people are quite glad that when it comes to ereaders you can’t judge a book by the cover. Perhaps it’s this combination of being able to keep our literary truths discreet coupled with the British reserve that has made the ereader such a hit in the UK.”
This guy is a journalist's dream.

To pull these two items together -- people having the same great ideas, people reading slightly embarrassing books on e-readers -- I will note that I have just bought The Help for Kindle in anticipation of Alice's Help! I Have Not Read The Help read-along. She posted the schedule the other day, go check it out. There are only five days until November and the read-along start, yikes. In the meantime I am reading and enjoying The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt, which I will hopefully have some preliminary comments on soon.

Urrrg, I am really not ready for November!!

Monday, October 24, 2011

Nothing to see here

Generally, I read one book at a time and I finish them. Sure, I'm not the most careful reader much of the time, and often I have to sort of knuckle down to get through the last few chapters, but usually I finish, even if I hate the book. So the worst books are not the books I hate, but the boring books; the books I can't bring myself to finish.

I first started reading Alexander McCall Smith's books while in London doing research a couple of years ago. Now, archives generally don't open to readers before 10:00am and they tend to close around 4:00 or 5:00pm; not only are weekend openings rare, some repositories are only open four days a week for researchers. Plus, archives are cold (generally) and filled with old papers, and I'm usually there in the summer when it's nice out, and hello it's London, so the idea of working for even six hours a day is really pushing it.* What I'm saying is, I tend to have a lot of downtime, which means I'm looking for things to read, and Smith is a goldmine. The guy's written a zillion books, and every used bookstore has a stack. I've stuck to the series that are set in Britain -- Isabel Dalhousie, 44 Scotland Street, and Corduroy Mansions (yes, these are all series; I'm telling you the man is prolific) -- and even when I'm not off being an extremely diligent intellectual in foreign lands, I have picked one or another up when I want something quick and entertaining.

But it seems that the shine is off for me, at least in the Isabel Dalhousie series. I started reading Comforts of a Muddy Saturday a week ago and I'm barely halfway through. It's not the lack of speed that's bothering me really; it's the lack of interest. In the last week, I've found myself forgetting the book at home or deliberately leaving it behind; even when I have it with me, I more often choose to stare at subway ads or check Facebook for the thousandth time rather than get my book out. This is unusual behavior and my brain seems to be sending a message: DO NOT WANT. So I'm giving up and moving on.

Why has this series gone from "unchallenging" to "boring" for me? I think I have to point the finger at the main character, Isabel. Here in the fifth book she's become actively uninteresting to me. Isabel's always been independently wealthy, but now she owns and edits alone the scholarly journal she used to work for (this seems epically, discreditingly weird, but then Philosophy isn't my discipline). She has an adorable baby and so many people and resources to take care of him that she barely needs to do anything. She's still involved with her niece's ex-boyfriend, but the niece seems to have forgiven it, so that's all hunky-dory. Everything's great! The only possible area of non-greatness is her insistence on not tying down her lover/baby-daddy and her neurotic anxiety over their age difference. Meanwhile, he loves her and she loves him and basically no one seems to have any problem with this relationship, so really it's all in her head. Bo-ring.

The philosophy angle of the books is obviously Smith's favorite part, and all of his books that I've read feature lots of introspective characters who think a lot about why people do what they do, and what they should do, and the why's and how's of morality. Isabel, as a professional philosopher, is no exception whatsoever of course. But, being bored by this book, I started getting annoyed at how thoroughly relativistic Isabel's thinking is. In general, you can sum up her little mental monologues as: "What a strange practice that is! Why do we do this instead of that? But then I suppose some people do that instead of this, and they prefer it. What would happen if we all did that instead of this? I suppose it all comes down to the individual situation." Bo-ring. Her one slightly controversial belief is that once she knows of an injustice she's morally obliged to get involved, but this is mostly just a hook to get some sort of plot going. Did I mention that these are technically mysteries? At the time of giving up, I am halfway into the book and we are just now learning about the mystery, and it's just too little too late for me.

Oh alas, it's not fun to find that books you liked well enough have lost their charm. I don't want to diss Smith. I respect someone who obviously loves what he does. He seems like a nice guy putting out nice books, and I really do respect that. I think it's neat how he's dabbled in a kind of revived serial publishing with 44 Scotland Street, Corduroy Mansions, etc. And I really genuinely did like the Isabel Dalhousie books at the beginning of the series. So if you like the series or any of the other series, more power to you, is what I'm saying. But I don't think I'll be pursing them anymore.

* Exaggeration for comic purposes. Please don't not hire me.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Do you like boring books?

Ok, that's not fair. This post is sort of mixing work and pleasure, but a colleague pointed out this site and it seems like a great resource. The New Books Network posts little podcast interviews with the authors of new books in various fields. The "history" field seems to be the original and best filled, but it might be useful subscribing to the RSS fields in the other topics even if there's not much there now.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

"Waiting on" Wednesday: MINDY KALING MINDY KALING

[Oops, forgot the link: there's a meme here by this name, which I sought out basically just so I could gush over this book. Yeah, I'm getting the hang of this "blog" thing.]

Guys, I am super excited for Mindy Kaling's book. I can't explain it. Well, yes I can: Mindy Kaling is hilarious. Any woman who would make Michael Scott say "I like waking up to the smell of bacon -- sue me" is a-okay in my book.
Plus! The title!

Kaling used to write a blog called "Things I Bought That I Love" (which she has now revived on her new website) which was really my first contact with her solo work. As an homage, I would like therefore to offer you today:

Julie's Things That I Bought That I Love: AndesNature Cabernet Crema Antioxidante

So I have to take public transportation to the church I attend, which means that every Sunday I either come charging in late or end up spending a half an hour browsing in the CVS across the street. I'm just paranoid enough to think the employees know that I'm loitering, so I feel the need to wander around a lot, looking thoughtful even though I'm not actually paying any attention to what's on the shelf in front of me. Which is how I ended up in the "Hispanic Care" section this past weekend, which is where I saw this:
This facial moisturizer smells like delicious grape Jolly Ranchers, which is a good thing because if it smelled like wine, you might find yourself in the middle of what can only be called "hijinx". It's got a mousse-y sort of texture, thick and rich but also light and whipped. It sinks in really quickly, which is basically all I ask for when it comes to facial cremes. And it's from Chile! Let's face it, everything is better when it comes from another country.
Get it: in the vaguely racist aisle of Walgreens or CVS.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Another churchy novel, but Catholic nuns instead of Anglican clergymen

Rumer Godden's In this House of Brede is something I've been meaning to read for a long time, and it didn't disappoint. It's a really beautiful novel about a house of Benedictine nuns in England.
The life of the great monastery flowed as steadily as a river, no matter what rocks and crosscurrents there were; Philippa often thought of the river Rother that wound through the marshes of Kent and Sussex, oldest Christendom in England, watering the meadows whose grass fed the famous marsh sheep, then winding below the town to the estuary that flowed to the sea. Brede Abbey was like that, thought Philippa, coming from far sources to flow through days, weeks, years, toward eternity.
The nuns of Brede Abbey are cloistered; they're not the sort of nuns who teach school or run hospitals or bring food to poor families, although they do give food to those who come to their door and produce things like books and church linens. Their primary work, though, is in praying the Liturgy of the Hours. The church prescribes psalms, hymns, and other texts to be prayed at eight specified times throughout each day; now, not everyone, of course, can do this, so the idea (simply put) of nuns like those portrayed at Brede is that they sing the prayers as fully and beautifully as possible on behalf of everyone else. They set themselves apart so that their primary work can be prayer.

There are various plot lines in the books: aspiring nuns and the challenges they face; a financial crisis; personality conflicts; a group of foreign postulants; intrusions from the outside world; and revelations about the nuns' previous lives. But really the focus of the book isn't on any one of these things. It's on the living out of the nuns' contemplative vocation: how do these women spend their time, what do they do? How can they give up their futures and everything they have to live like this, and why? What good does it do? Obviously, I am not a nun nor have I ever been, but the book feels very honest, and like a good representation of the life. There's plenty happening in the book, but not so much that it feels contrived or manufactured. Set over the 1950s and 1960s, the changes and enthusiasms surrounding the Second Vatican Council feature but don't overwhelm the story. If Godden sees "continuity in spite of individual failings" as the characteristic of the monastery, the style and plotting of the book carry that message as much as any individual plot development or moment.

Godden's writing style is interesting; she weaves bits of one conversation into her account of another. I guess you could say there are lots of "flashbacks" except they're very frequent, sometime as sort as one line of dialogue, and there aren't an excess of markers to help you get your bearings as to when and where you are. It's an interesting effect, although I found it slightly disorienting for about the first half of the book. Since In this House of Brede is about a community, this writing style helps to convey the sort of layers of memories and interactions that make up a network of relationships, so once I got used to it, I thought it really worked well.

My copy is the "Loyola Classics" edition, part of a series "connecting today's readers to the timeless themes of Catholic fiction". I think all the books in the series are 20th century, but I might be wrong. Anyway, it has a nicely designed cover, a couple pages of introduction, and some discussion questions. There's also a section of notes about monastic life and terminology, although I thought Godden does a good enough job of explaining Benedictine practices that if you wanted to know more, you ought to just go get a proper book on the subject. And then the "notes" have some odd features themselves. The biggest example I saw was that under the heading "The Miserere" (I don't know where this pops up in the text; there's not any sort of reference system) it says:
The verse: Sprinkle me with hyssop and I shall be cleansed; wash me and I shall be made whiter than snow is used in all Catholic churches before the chief Mass on Sunday when the celebrant comes down the nave, sprinkling the people with holy water.
This, to be perfectly frank, is not really true; it's true of the old mass, but the new post-Vatican II mass doesn't have this "asperges" rite. So I'm left wondering where these notes are from and how old they are! The discussion questions at the end are all right, but overall I was a little underwhelmed with the "Loyola Classics" format even though I think it's a good concept.

When I was planning to spend a weekend at St Cecilia's Abbey in Ryde, one of the places Godden based Brede on, a friend recommended this book to me with the warning that it could make anyone think they had a vocation to become a Benedictine nun - even a man! I've admired contemplative nuns for years, as long as I've known of their existence, and even after St Cecilia's and In this House of Brede I'm sorry to say I don't think it's my calling. But the book is an excellent and engrossing depiction of life in a religious community, and I'm certainly glad to have read it. Although I'm still not sure if it's Brede like "breed" or "bread". I gather there's a movie version; maybe I'll have to get that to find out.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Book sale aftermath: Fuller shelves, emptier wallet

Are you familiar with haul videos? I am, although I'm not sure why. All I know is that somehow, by this time this New York Times piece was published, I was already familiar with the format. Anyway, haul videos usually involve a preteen girl showing off some large purchase of makeup, usually totaling hundreds of dollars. All that happens is that some girl goes through her shopping bag, pulling out each item and waving it at the laptop's webcam, and telling you why she bought it.

Alice and I went to the Open Books warehouse sale this weekend and bought a big box of books (which we then schlepped back to her apartment -- no better argument for ebooks), and I was sort of tempted to make you a haul video. Such is my whimsical mind. However, haul videos are really annoying, basically impossible to sit through, and also I'm not sure I'm ready for my face and voice to be on the internet, although I'm sure my "100 years of British architecture" poster would be a great backdrop. So I'll just give you the run-down verbal-style.

Book sales can be hit-or-miss for me. As much as I like looking through heaps of books as a general rule, sometimes it's just not fun or worth it. Exhibit A is the Newberry Library book sale, possibly/probably the biggest in the Chicago area. It's enormous; it's crowded; there are swarms of dealers; the books are individually priced; and I almost always leave empty handed or with one or two things I didn't want and paid too much for. It's taken me a few years but I'm totally ok with giving this one a pass now, sadly.

The Open Books sale, on the other hand, was delightful. It was crowded, but a fraction of the size of the Newberry, so nowhere near as overwhelming. Having volunteered right there in the warehouse twice (two times) now
I know that the books come from many sources and get a quick sort before they go out. The Newberry books also come from all over, but their philosophy is that as long as it's not moldy everything goes out for sale, in perpetuity. Open Books also gets new or like-new books from publishers, schools, and even Orpah.
Lots of TV references in my book blog today.
But there's one very simple, slightly counter-intuitive thing that makes it especially great, and that's the fact that the books are only sorted into "kids" and "adults". Oh sure, the oversize and coffee table books are pulled aside, but otherwise the fiction and non-fiction, new and used, mingle tantalizingly together. One of the warehouse leaders told me on Friday that they do this because they think it makes people look more carefully. Also because if you put, say, all the cookbooks together, then people are more likely to think "which of these is the best", whereas if they come across a French cookbook in amongst all the novels they might just take it because it sounds good without wondering if there's something newer or with more pictures. Anyway, it's genius, and Alice had to talk me out of the place. I could have kept looking forever.

I bought a lot of enormous novels. The Children's Book (AS Byatt) has been on my list since I read Possession for the first time earlier this summer. I liked Possession because it suddenly made my dissertation research seem 1,000 times more interesting and exciting. I also picked up The Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett) because it's kind of a famous book, right? and it's a historical novel about the Middle Ages and building a cathedral and that's all up my alley. Rounding out the enormous novel stack is a fancy Penguin double edition of A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations (Dickens). These latter two (or three, since the Dickens is a twofer) are direct from Harpo Studios with their "Oprah's Book Club" logo on the cover.
Parks and Recreation, "Born and Raised" - go watch it

I bought Bel Canto (Ann Patchett) when Alice pointed it out - it still has the $14 price sticker on the back, and I paid $15 for 16 books today, so that feels good already. And I bought The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday because even though all of Alexander McCall Smith's Scottish books are basically the same, I am still entertained by them. And hey, the guy has churned out a heck of a lot of books, so who can blame him if they blend together a little.

The only non-fiction book I bought was Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns (Cheryl Reed); you'll see why this one caught my eye with the post tomorrow.

I also bought kids' books for friends' children, which was so much fun. I love kids' books. Two notable buys were The Jolly Postman and Caps for Sale, both big favorites of mine as a small one. The Jolly Postman is fantastic, and has hilarious pull-out letters delivered to various fairytale characters. It's also very British, since the main character is a bicycling postman who has a cup of tea at each stop. As soon as I got home from the sale I got myself a cup of milk and some Oreos and read it again, and I think this one would have to be included on any list of books that have influenced my life. Caps for Sale is a bedtime classic, and while I remember it from Reading Rainbow, my mom remembers it from Captain Kangaroo. Those crazy monkeys! I hope the kids enjoy these as much as I do (although of course I wouldn't be offended if they didn't. Like the ancient Romans I know that the newer generation always has worse taste than my own).

Nothing like a big stack o' books to start off the week!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Friday bonus post! Chicago reading habits survey

The Chicago Public Library has a reading habits survey up here; according to this story the survey is meant to help tailor programs and services to local needs, but they are letting non-Chicagoans take the survey too. (There is a question asking whether you live in Chicago, and if you do, it asks your zip code.) I'm not sure why they'd let Outsiders take the survey; maybe to make points about Chicagoans versus the larger reading community... of the world...? Or just because people get sad when they're not eligible to take surveys?

Anyway, it's a pleasant little survey, and I say that as someone who gets easily frustrated with surveys. It asks you how often you listen to audiobooks and whether you prefer paper or e-books. You get to check all the categories of fiction and non-fiction you've read in the last year and what languages you read them in, and tell them whether you get books from your public library or elsewhere. At no point did I feel like the answer I wanted wasn't there, or that the question was confusing. It even gives you the option of indicating that you get your ideas about what to read from book blogs!

So, if you too feel like patting yourself on the back for all the kinds of books you've read in the last year, go on and take the survey.

Wanting: Cookbooks

Oh, cookbooks. I should really not buy cookbooks. Generally, I look through them, find a handful of things that sound good and (most importantly) doable, copy them out into a notebook, and then never glance at them again. But someday I'll have my Very Own Kitchen and they'll look great on a shelf!

I suppose I ought to write about the cookbooks I have and like (or don't) (or maybe that doesn't fit with the rest of the blog), but instead I have picked through my Amazon wish list and chosen a few really promising titles for this list.

The Silver Spoon Pasta.
Vegetables from an Italian Garden.
Who doesn't love Italian food? Phaedon has been translating and publishing cookbooks from around the world, and The Silver Spoon is the Italian entry, supposedly the best-loved standard cookbook in Italian kitchens. Being an American, though, my eye's on the shorter version, Silver Spoon Pasta. I also like the look of this veggie book; I don't know if it's as "authentic" as Silver Spoon, but it goes through the vegetables by seasons. Vegetables are where my imagination tends to run short, so this sort of thing is appealing.

The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond.
The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion.
The Pioneer Woman's blog and the King Arthur website are two of my favorite online sources for recipes, which is probably why I want both their cookbooks but haven't actually bought either of them. (Oops. Yes, I'm part of the problem.) Both Ree Drummond and the good people at King Arthur are real cheerleaders; they provide lots of step-by-step photos, suggest substitutions, describe techniques, and generally make you feel like you can do it too. Plus King Arthur has a drool-worthy baker's catalog.

At Elizabeth David's Table.
Elizabeth David is maybe like the Julia Childs of Britain, in that she's very famous for introducing foreign cooking in a way that ordinary people could grasp. At least, that's my impression. This is maybe not so much a book I would cook from, but something that would be interesting and educational.

Ratio: The Simple Codes behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking, by Michael Ruhlman.
The Flavor Bible, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg.
I consider myself able to cook in that I can and do produce edible, tasty food on a regular basis, and I can read and follow a recipe. Being able to cook without a recipe, though, is what separates the chefs from the cooks. I don't have any ambition of appearing on the Food Network or writing a cookbook, but just as it's nicer to be able to speak a language beyond your phrasebook, it would be nicer to have a little more fluency with flavors and ingredients. I don't know how much I could learn from these two books, practically speaking, but I think they'd make for interesting reading and maybe I could pick up a tip or two.

Perfect One-Dish Dinners, by Pam Anderson.
I love "one dish". How satisfying is it to have your whole dinner in one dish? The answer is very, both physically and emotionally. I saw a recipe from this book on a blog with step-by-step photos, and I'm quite sure that there are many good things to eat in here for me.

The Pure Joy of Monastery Cooking, by Br. Victor-Antoine d'Avila-Latourrette.
This guy is a monk, and look how awesome his name is! End of story. Ok, so there's more to it than that. I checked out Twelve Months of Monastery Soups from the library, and ended up writing out about 10 recipes that sounded good, which is a really high ratio for me. I am a meat eater, but not all that frequently, so I appreciate having good meatless recipes around. And: monk.

Mmmm. I think I'll have to start making dinner now, but more importantly I suppose I need to print out this list and run it by the library. If I spend all my money on cookbooks, I'll never have a nice kitchen to display them in! That's called having grown-up priorities, kids.