Saturday, November 22, 2014

#Minithon (updated with thrilling conclusion)

I feel the need to record my mini-participation in today's Mini Readathon.
Click for other, more awesome posts
I woke up this morning at about 7am, mostly because my head is full of Sinus Death. And then I had breakfast of sausage links (mini-er than normal grilling sausages), pills (small things, obvs), and coffee (first rule of Minithon is that the coffee is never mini).

My mini reading material of choice this morning was comic books because those have a mini word count. And because when you are feeling a bit beat up and lazy, no one understands better than Hawkeye.

Someone else put this on the internet, for the record
My other reading material today is the London Review of Books, issues of which are piling up on my couch. Although it is printed on satisfyingly large paper, the LRB is in fact made up of reviews and essays, both of which are pretty mini, so there.

And just to amplify the mininess of the day, I actually am probably not doing much reading this afternoon because I promised a friend to help with childcare at an event she's hosting today, so there's further smallness for you. Mini on, fellow mini-ers.

I read volumes 1 and 2 of Hawkeye and loved them all over again. Because, boomerang. Then I went and did my babysitting thing, which took me up to the end of the official Minithon time frame, but I ended up reading about a half of an LRB anyway. I'm a doctor, not a timekeeper! (No, really, I'm a doctor now, Alice isn't just trolling me in some inscrutable, vaguely complimentary way.) And then I watched 30 Rock and knitted. Well done, Minithonners! Let's all drink little airline bottles of booze in celebration.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Haven't we had enough voting this week? -or- Waiting for Goodreads to send my dang sticker

I don't really use Goodreads. I like the scanning of barcodes part (who wouldn't; except probably someone who spends their working days doing that anyway) and I like the idea of having this automagically generated report of what I've read. Furthermore it can be fun and rewarding to enter my page progress. But I don't write reviews, I hate doing stars, I don't really add people as friends, and it's a lot less cool to log in and see what I've abandoned or stalled out on. (Is there a good way to "finish" a book in the sense of quitting it? I haven't played around with it much, but Goodread's interface seems kind of inflexible compared to my usual patterns of reading, which involve a lot of not-reading.)

However, in addition to being a place where people can apparently carry on utterly pointless feuds, Goodreads is a place where you can click on buttons to vote for Book(s) Of The Year. I saw some chatter on Twitter that one book I definitely support had been nominated so I dusted off my log-in and cast my vote. Then I started looking for other books to vote for. When I didn't see any other books I've read as nominees I started thinking up write-in candidates.

And that's more or less when I realized how little I read in the year it's been published. There are a few things, notably Pioneer Girl, that I've read and liked and which qualify. One book, I really wanted to vote for it but the site wouldn't let me. Since I live in a pig sty studio apartment it was sitting in arm's reach, and I checked the publication date: 2014! Or no, wait, 2012; the US hardback came out in 2013 and the paperback in 2014. So fine, you win, Goodreads.

Since academics are slow, and since this is the centenary year, I think The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 still qualifies as a new book, though. It certainly qualifies as a book you should read. In fact, I would go so far as to say that if you want one book to read for the centenary, this is it. That's not a very original opinion; this book has gotten a lot of praise. July 1914 is a quicker, pacier read (and has bigger type), and is essentially narrative, whereas Clark goes broader and deeper, exploring various factors and facets of the prewar world in a more explicitly analytical way. If you are really getting serious about the topic (reading two books qualifies), I strongly recommend getting hold of the review essay by John Deak published in the June 2014 Journal of Modern History titled "The Great War and the Forgotten Realm: the Habsburg Monarchy and the First World War." Most academic libraries, I dare say, have some sort of public provision if you want it, and Deak's review of Austrian history and historiography is invaluable.

Anyway, back to the book. The first chapter of The Sleepwalkers is an overview of Serbian politics in the nineteenth century, which is such an amazing, mindblowing, perfect choice I can, indeed, hardly even. Chapter two then deals with Austria-Hungary and its internal politics. Clark sets the conflict between Serbia and Austria-Hungary front and center, takes it seriously, and is never too eager to sweep it aside in favor of great-power conflicts that must obviously be the real truth. One of the simple but excellent insights here is the way Clark chooses to make an analogy between the Serbian nationalists of the 1910s and modern terrorist organizations. That kind of thing can be tenuous, and at any rate it's liable to become dated, but in this case it's convincing and moreover an extremely effective way to quickly get the reader into the scene. The second section, chapters three through six, treats the international political situation not simply as a matter of international relations or the interaction of policy but a messy tangle of individuals often working at cross-purposes. This is a theme that will resonate with the July 1914 book, but Clark goes into much more detail, focusing country by country with subheadings like "Who Governed in St Petersburg?" and "Who Governed in Paris?" This section deals with a lot of different themes and theories that appear in "1914" literature, so you get wonderful little passages like "A Crisis of Masculinity?" (Side note: Christopher Clark must be superhuman, for all that he's able to cover in this book.) Finally, in the third section, we get back to the July crisis proper. This section covers familiar ground but is able to draw on all the consideration of the preceding 360 pages to really supercharge the narrative.

Guys, I'm fawning over this book, which is so uncool and gets one nowhere in one's career, but whatevs. It's amazing the level of research here and even more amazing how effortlessly it's put across. I put this in my suitcase when I went to Rome this summer, even though it takes up a significant amount of space, simply because I couldn't put it down. It's a long book, I know, but if you like reading history I guarantee you will love this, and however far you get into it you will get a lot out of it.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

"Abroad isn't at all what it was."

The Towers of Trebizond was a Newberry Book Sale purchase that almost wasn't. I picked it up and put it down, and picked it up, rinse, repeat. On the one hand, the camel on the cover is pretty cool-looking; on the other, sigh, that woman is drinking from a Union Jack teacup. Union Jack teacups make me feel a bit tired.

It turned out that my ambivalence about the cover was a premonition. The book follows Laurie, the narrator, a young woman who accompanies her Aunt Dot and Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg on a mission to Turkey to convert Muslims to high-church Anglicanism and introduce the women to freedom, education, and hats. (This was published in the early 1950s, if that description makes you raise an eyebrow.) It's relentlessly comic and intensely Anglican. Let us take as our text:
A group of inhabitants stood by the road as we drove up; they were dark and sad, and they may have been Rogues, but I thought they looked more like those obscure, dejected, maladjusted, and calamity-prone characters who come into Tenebrae, such as Aleph, Teth, Beth, Calph, Jod, Ghimel, Mem, and the rest, and they sounded as if they were talking in that afflicted strain that those characters talk in, and saying things like 'he has brought me into darkness and not into light', 'he has compassed me with gall and labour', 'he has built against me round about, that I may not get out, he has upset my paths', and ' my eyes have failed with weeping, my bowels are disturbed, my liver is poured out', and so on, till all the lights go out and there is nothing but the dark.
Laurie speaks/is written in these long, run-on sentences that convey naivety or something and it got old for me fast. I think she's meant to be sort of "daughter of the house" age, i.e. between 17 and 21? but I don't know, it just bugged me. And then while I get that Tenebrae joke (a) I feel I deserve a gold star for getting it, and (b) it's, like, twice as long as it should be.

I could see the humor on the page but it just didn't connect. Sentences like this:
Father Chantry-Pigg always spoke as if he had just parted from the Byzantines, and was apt to sigh when he mentioned them, though, as aunt Dot pointed out, he had missed them by five centuries.
 make me feel sure that there are people out there for whom this is a cherished book, The Funniest Book On Earth, but for me every recognizable foible or outlandish personality quirk got instantly beaten to death and then ground into powder with Laurie's long sentences and slow-moving paragraphs.

You will not, at this point, be surprised if I say that I got to page 53, mostly by skimming, and then remembered with relief the concept of giving a book fifty pages to grab your interest. I'm disappointed, though, because I was planning to look super smart by making a connection between this book and Scoop. Maybe someday I'll be in a better mood and come back to this, but for now I am moving on.

Monday, November 3, 2014

This post brought to you in a cleft stick

Fun fact: you can be "finishing your dissertation" for a year (or more!) but at some point, you have to actually finish the dang thing -- and it's, like, work. But then, as you wait for the defense and hope hope hope there are five people not hating your work, you have some weird awkward space to attempt job applications and read things again.

When I bought this copy of Scoop at Open Books, having skipped out of a play with Alice like delinquents or possibly discerning theater-goers, she said something like, "you found a pretty-covered Waugh!" It is that exactly; I like these very distinctive editions, although I'm not fond of the fact that they have not even one sentence of plot description on the back. Look, I just want to be sure I haven't read this one before, but I guess I'm just supposed to be sold by the author's name. It's Waugh, what more could you possibly want to know, I imagine the publisher saying. Or it could be ironically appropriate since in Waugh's books actually knowing anything is generally a handicap, and those who can spin a line, go with the flow, bluff their way through, are the ones who get ahead.

Scoop is certainly in that vein; a socialite convinces a newspaper magnate to hire a trendy writer friend to cover a civil war in Africa, but the newspaper ends up hiring a rather Bilbo-ish country life columnist with a similar name and sending him instead. The civil war isn't real, unless maybe it is, although it doesn't really matter as long as the reports being filed at home are exciting enough.

Like A Handful of Dust, this is a book with a sharp, almost contemptuous driving energy. Western ideologues and journalists have concocted the fake civil war, while capitalist-imperialist interests are behind whatever is actually happening. No one operates under any concept of truth or justice, and this is as true in the fictitious Ismaelia as in London. I was reminded of the current fluster about Ebola as I read; hundreds or thousands of people can die in Africa but it doesn't get as much reaction as one death (or one possible ill person!) in America or Western Europe. Waugh's not making quite that point, but he is talking about a similar kind of self-centeredness and callousness.

It occurs to me that I might not describe Scoop as "funny". It is funny, start to finish it's funny; but if I had a dedicated shelf for comedy, it wouldn't get shelved there. (I am tagging this post humor, but that's metadata. Har har.) It's not a lighthearted book, I think. Waugh's writing reads as a bit angry to me, and I'm not entirely sure that I'm right about that. Maybe I'm bringing certain preconceptions about Waugh as a literary writer to the table, or maybe media manipulation, commercially expedient crisis, etc, just don't feel like much of a laughing matter in 2014. But I got this sense from A Handful of Dust too, where Waugh is unsparing in dishing out disaster in the real world outside the London social round. So, consistency in the writer or consistency in the reader?

Monday, August 18, 2014

"That which was supposed to happen had happened"

This is a heck of a book. I suspected it might be: I mentioned to a twitter contact that I'd just taken it out from the library and he told me to get in touch when I'd finished it, because he wanted someone to talk about the ending with. And yet -- almost right up until it happened -- I was still surprised at how taken aback I was by the ending. In the best possible way.

Look, we may or may not know each other, and I certainly can't tell you how to spend your time, but I really think you want to read What Happened to Sophie Wilder.

The central characters, Charlie and Sophie, were intense college lovers at their exclusive liberal-arts-college writing program, and in the novel's present, Sophie comes back into Charlie's life under murky circumstances. The novel alternates between the two of them, unfolding the past both directly and indirectly.

This is a book about lives and narratives: the versions of our lives and others' lives that we construct and tell (think of the title as a question at a party: "Whatever happened to..."), and the relationship between those stories and real events, the march of time. What does it mean when it seems like someone else's story should be to fall in love with, or reconcile with, or help me, but they refuse? Can we know another person the way we know a character in a book? What does it take to change our own story; however sincere a conversion, can it really ever change our path? What Happened to Sophie Wilder effortlessly (!) drew me into these deep waters, as Charlie tries to piece together the plot of Sophie's life and find his own place in it. It's effective at conjuring up all these different layers of narrative and reality without getting in the way of the actual experience of reading; it's only when you get to the (puzzling, contradictory) ending, as you review the whole thing in your mind, that all of this comes to the surface. I guess it's a little like those Magic Eye posters (google it, youngsters): the ending knocks your eyes out of whack, so to speak, and then the thing you were looking at all along suddenly transforms into something deep and textured and surprising.

I'm trying not to give away too much (the unfolding is part of the effect), and so I'm falling into freshman lit major mumbo jumbo and possibly making the book sound weird or hard. It's not; it's an engaging novel that you can happily read on the train. Just as a story about young people figuring out what to do with their lives, it caught and held my interest. Plus the writing is notably good.
I miss that about those days---the freedom to want; the belief that our desires could never disappoint us, so long as we remained loyal to them; the sense that we could choose our fate, as though the absence of choice weren't exactly what made it fate.
And if you think, a novel about twenty-something capital-w Writers in New York City, goodie; I had a similar thought and, hilariously, on the next page it agreed with me:
Outside the world of mean-spirited media blogs no one had any idea who we were. Max secretly faulted me for this, though in truth people were simply tired of comfortable young white guys from New York. I couldn't blame them; I was tired of us, too.
So go get What Happened to Sophie Wilder. Better yet, get it and give a copy to a friend and make a pact to get together and talk about the ending when you've finished it.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Adventures in "giallo" literature

I believe in getting to the airport early for an international flight, but for various reasons I was outrageously early for my flight out of Fiumicino, meaning that I got to investigate all the shops at my leisure (and my wallet's peril). This included a Feltrinelli's outlet -- the Waterstones or Barnes & Noble of Italy -- which had a single, but generous, table of books in Inglese. This is an interesting thing, the forty or so titles in English that make up the selection in an airport bookstore; what would you choose and/or expect? In this case, there were the usual sorts of things, I guess, the supernatural romances, the pinky-purple chick lit, the conspiracy thrillers, the award short-list titles; but also, and I thought this was a nice touch, a selection of novels with Italian connections, whether written by Italians or simply set in Italy. And among these was a detective novel translated from Italian which sounded pretty interesting, but I virtuously chose not to spend my money in such a fashion (and promptly went and spent four times as much-- look, I don't have to explain myself to you). Having arrived home, I tried asking google what that book was so I could look for it at the library, and google suggested the Inspector Montalbano series by Andrea Camilleri. Now, I think the Big G is wrong, I don't think Camilleri is the author I saw at the airport--

"Wish you had Glass now, eh?" - no, really no
--but Camilleri was readily available at the library and so I took out The Shape of Water, the first of this apparently much-loved series.

A man is found dead of a heart attack in his car, parked in an area notorious for prostitution. But of course, the dead man was a political heavyweight, this is Sicily, and it's a crime novel, so it's not so simple as all that.
"Wonderful, eh?"
"I'm sorry, I don't understand."
"It's wonderful, that is, that someone in this fine province of ours should decide to die a natural death and thereby set a good example. Don't you think? Another two or three deaths like Luparello's and we'll start catching up with the rest of Italy."
I found it interesting that the tagline on my edition is a novel of food, wine, and homicide in small-town Sicily, which makes it sound sort of travelogue-esque; plenty of murder mysteries trade on readers'/viewers' interest in the setting, serving up atmosphere along with a puzzle.* In fact, The Shape of Water is a fairly sordid little story of sex, politics, scandal, and death, and while food features from time to time, I wouldn't say it's particularly prominent. The tagline may be drawing on the series as a whole rather than this particular installment.

I didn't call the book "gritty" there because the writing seemed a little too spare for that particular adjective. The quotes on the back compare Camilleri to Hammett and Chandler, so I have a vague notion that this is a matter of style. It wasn't my favorite; in a couple of places it felt flat rather than taut or hard-bitten or whatever. Nevertheless, there were parts that stood out, including passages that were genuinely funny, which as we all know is not easy to do.

At the end of the book I discovered endnotes which explained some of the political references and undercurrents and gave rough dollar values for the lire quoted in the text -- these notes were minimal and genuinely useful, or would have been if there were any indication in the text that they existed! Seriously, no asterisks or anything. Hopefully that was corrected in later editions; pity the translator who went to the trouble of compiling them if not.

In sum, this book didn't totally win me over but then it didn't turn me off either. I have another volume in the series (not the second one, but a later one) and I'm still going to read that one too. I didn't see anything here that would make me particularly love this series the way that readers in other languages apparently do, but neither did I dislike the book. Certainly Sicily makes a unique environment for crime stories, and I thought it was handled really well; I mean, I don't know what would actually be "realistic" but this didn't feel didactic or exoticized. I suppose that's one value of reading a translated book.

* Has anyone else seen Endeavor? The second series just aired on PBS. I never liked Inspector Morse much (although Lewis I like), but Endeavor is pretty gorgeous.

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.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Love and cynicism in a cautiously optimistic place

I have sprinted through two books in the last five days, and it feels good.

The Exiles Return is a book I first became aware of through Persephone but appears to have been published last year by Picador ("appears" = this library copy was published by Picador with a copyright date of 2013) (I am like Sherlock Holmes with the deduction). The Persephone description is really (too?) detailed, but what it shares with the Picador edition is its emphasis on the historical place of the book, the circumstances in which it was written and the historical situation it depicts.

This isn't all that surprising. Exiles is a posthumously published novel about 1950s Vienna, written by a woman with personal and family experience of that city at that time. Early in the book, a character returning to Vienna for the first time after the war arrives by train and is shocked by what he sees:
Formerly, there had been a long and high, cavernous, glazed-in hall into which the trains used to glide; it was old-fashioned, dingy, and yet somehow sumptuously dignified like the well-worn attire of a high-born elderly spinster who has clothed herself once and for all in her best and scorned to change her style. But now there was just -- nothing: an open space where the bombed wreckage of the old station had been cleared away; stacks of building material, steel girders and concrete mixers for the new modern station under construction. Adler experienced a violent sense of shock. It was his first actual contact with the fact to which he had hitherto not given much thought: that not everything would look the same -- or be the same -- as it had looked and been when he left it. I shall have to learn the lesson of the Western Station, he though, and this phrase, repeated silently many times in the coming months, summed up and symbolised for him the situations and experiences he would be having to deal with in the course of his attempt at repatriation.
 Given that it's Vienna, the baggage here isn't just the Second World War, but also Nazism and the Anschluss, as well as the end of Austria-Hungary. The descriptions and blurbs are right: the book does capture a uniquely complex time and place well. There are some passages and incidents -- like the one above -- that really bring the setting alive. Interestingly, I felt that the overtly "historical" aspect of the book slid to the background as it went on (although it never really goes away, of course; it's the setting and creates some of the conditions for the denouement). Again, I don't really like this kind of strawman hypothetical, but I think this is the difference between someone writing a novel about a situation they lived through rather than sitting down to write a historical novel about an Important Time: the latter sort of book would probably keep historically-significant set pieces at the center.

All that being said... and I am not confident of this judgment so let me know what you think if you've read this book... I'm not sure this is all that great a novel. I mean it's fine, I liked it. But the plotlines in the second half were a little meh for me, and I'm not sure Marie-Theres in particular ever really made all that much sense to me as a character. Maybe there's a reason why all the summaries of this book stress the historical side. Or maybe I just read it too fast. (Eee, that's a possibility this time! *flexes muscles*)

Saturday, May 10, 2014

It's beautiful outside! Let's talk about CALAMITY

The first thing to say about this book (Sean McMeekin's July 1914 -- I have this feeling that half the posts I write don't actually identify what I'm talking about) is that it came from Powell's Books, and they are awesome. When I went to see (online) how much this newly published hardcover book might cost, I noticed that Powell's had a used copy listed at a respectable discount. Sweet! So I ordered it. What arrived, however, was a brand NEW book with an adorable note saying that the used copy was no longer on the shelf and so they'd sent me a new one. That is thoroughly awesome.

shiny and eager!

So, on to the content of the book. In my world, the fact that this year marks the centenary of the start of the First World War is a really big unmissable deal, and this book, July 1914, is one of many that have been published for the occasion.

McMeekin's account of the July Crisis that led to the declaration(s) of war has several distinct features. For one, it is almost entirely focused on the highest reaches of government and diplomacy. There are a few mentions of public outcry, public reaction, etc, but mostly it keeps to the point: the men who had the power to actually make or influence the decisions about war and peace. Toward the end of the story, there are mentions of "rumors" and "reports" of border crossings and skirmishes which McMeekin dismisses as "mostly false" without much explanation of what's going on here; but you can't fault the guy for sticking to his own can of historical worms and not opening another. (I'll return to this below.)

Most of the book consists of day-by-day chapters, with a few covering overnight periods. Helpfully, there is a "dramatis personae" in the front of the book as well as a summary timeline. The really delightful thing is that McMeekin is meticulous -- like, meticulous -- with his sources. Time and again his analysis slows down to take into account the time a message was decided on, composed, approved, encrypted, sent, arrived, decoded, (possibly translated,) delivered to, and read by various people. I am totally serious when I say that this is THRILLING. Not just because I am a document nerd, but also because it allows the book to retain suspense even when you know all along that everything's going to end in disaster. McMeekin is not telling a story of dominoes falling but of a constantly shifting landscape in which people are choosing from the options they see on the table, based on the options they wish they saw or hope will be made available to them shortly.

One of the themes of the book is thus communications. McMeekin is constantly pointing out where people are making decisions based on bad, outdated or ambiguous information. (This is where I think it could have been proper to discuss the "rumors" that start to factor into decision- and excuse-making at the start of August. But as I say, that's a whole 'nother kind of research, and McMeekin is quite within his rights to leave it alone!) Individual diplomats and politicians tell lies, make unintentionally misleading statements, deliberately leave their answers vague, send cables at the worst possible times and choose exactly the wrong words. I kept thinking about the speed of modern communications as I read this book, and wondering whether we might consider that to be a factor in the crisis.

McMeekin's book prior to this one is titled The Russian Origins of the First World War which might give you a sense of some of his conclusions here. He firmly refutes the idea that the Germans had some special predilection for war, for instance, and argues convincingly that France and Russia were just as guilty of underhanded war mongering as Austria or Germany. In fact, in McMeekin's view, Germany is often disadvantaged by being too honest and rule-abiding, where her enemies are lying and sneaking around and thus saving face. The epilogue contains a straightforward discussion of blame -- which is nice; by that point I was ready to hear how the author would make his judgements.

Perhaps what comes across most of all is human frailty. These men all have their own weaknesses and interests, not all tied to the national interest (however that might be construed). Fear and anxiety, not least over reputation and one's own political future, all play a role in what gets said, when, and in what tone. I don't have an in-depth knowledge of this subject (the July Crisis or the First World War) so I can only judge the book so far; but I thought it was very worthwhile and informative. Above all, this note of human frailty, so effectively conveyed by a focus on the nitty-gritty and practical aspects of diplomatic communications, is an important counterpoint to easy generalizations about national interest and national character. Fathers Day (also Mothers Day -- #FEMINISM) is coming up, and if a War Book is something that qualifies as a good gift in your household, this is a solid choice. It's a bit complex -- there are a lot of names, and sometimes German diplomats have French-sounding surnames and so on -- but I really was surprised how it sucked me in in spite of that, and it ended up being a compelling read. So maybe not the best choice for my dad, who spends a lot of time in airports waiting for flights (to be cancelled) (poor dad), but for a dad who does lots of reading in an armchair. But YDMV.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

In which my childhood is not ruined

Anne of Green Gables, y'all. Like so many other girls my age, I was obsessed with Anne of Green Gables when I was 10ish. I read all the book in the series multiple times; I don't think I ever owned them but I knew right where to find them in the library. My Victorian dollhouse Playmobil figures were always Anne and Gilbert and family, acting out incredibly dramatic scenes.

I didn't have this puppy, so I would use masking tape to make a house floorplan on my bedroom floor.

When I got to the end of the series, I would start over; at one point I remember feeling vaguely like maybe I should read something else, but ANNE was all I wanted to read, so ONE MORE TIME. That's just the kind of groove I get into now with 30 Rock on Netflix so, as they say in Quebec, plus ├ža change.

For all that, I discovered in conversation with some friends this winter that I had mostly forgotten what the books were about. I mean, I recognized various incidents ("oh yeaaaah...") but I couldn't have summarized anything to save my life. So when I saw this very attractive Oxford Children's Classics edition:

the book magpie strikes again
I thought I should re-read it. Not without some trepidation! You may remember that my re-reading of Nancy Drew was rather disappointing. And in general, what are the odds that a book for little girls published in 1908 wouldn't be embarrassing in 2014?

Actually, as it turns out, the book holds up pretty well! A lot of that has to do with one of Anne's key characteristics: that she is a whiz kid at school. There's no conflict about this in the book; I hate hypotheticals like this, but if it were a historical novel being written today, would the author have refrained from making "Anne is made to feel unfeminine for being smart" a major plot point? As I was reading, I both recognized that this is why I identified so intensely with Anne and also that this book, with its glorification of studying to win top marks, really shaped the way I approached my schoolwork as a kid.

And, not unrelatedly, Gilbert is still such. a. dish.*

Let's review, shall we? Gilbert Blythe (SIGH sigh sigh) is a boy who teases Anne about the color of her hair and she not only schools him good at the moment, she swears eternal hatred. Anne and Gilbert battle it out to be the top student in school on every assignment, exam, etc. Gilbert is clearly attracted to this girl who is so able and willing to fight back. Anne is mostly contemptuous, but by the end of the book they agree to be friends.

Amen amen, my fellow Ameriwomen, you can put away your tired "ooo, Disney princes gave me unrealistic expectations" meme, because that right there is kryptonite. Oh, you mean the most handsome boy in school will only love me more if I whoop him on spelling tests? I CAN DO THAT. And definitely, an antagonistic relationship like that will resolve in mutual respect and eventual love. Oh yes; Gilbert Blythe (SIGH sigh sigh) remains my one and only fictional crush.

* I've never seen the Canadian TV movie (series?), mind you. It seemed relevant to mention that at this particular moment.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Something Different: Something Other Than God

A few points to note before we get started today, class:
  1. This is a review of a Catholic book written for a Catholic audience. Act accordingly.
  2. This post contains links to where you can buy the book, but they are not affiliate links.
  3. This post is being entered in a random drawing for a prize being offered by the author of the book to mark its launch and encourage people to read and write about it. However, the post is not sponsored or anything like that, and the opinions here are 100% my own, blah blah blah.
Now, on with the post... 

It occurred to me this afternoon that the Church gives us saints in response to our desire for celebrities. A celebrity is someone we want to think we know; they represent something — sex, or genius, or a particular system of belief — and we watch them like hawks. We think we know them, and we think we know their story, ignoring the fact that they are human beings like we are, in the middle of an uncertain life with unknown twists and turns ahead. When our celebrities fall or stray from their designated narrative we criticize them, we question or abandon our beliefs and affiliations, we recontextualize and rationalize and talk and talk and talk. We want so much to see particular values played out in someone else’s life, to have someone to point to (not always positively; we want someone to represent wrongness as much as to be our role model). The saints are an answer to this. Their lives have been lived, with all their messiness, but they have lived out particular virtues and heroisms, and we know that they have run the good race. In short, the Church tells us that if we want someone to model for us what virtue and devotion look like, we should look to these saints who are now eternally with God. (True to Philippians 4:8, the Church apparently isn't particularly concerned with providing bad examples.)

I was thinking about this because the book I’m reviewing here, Jennifer Fulwiler’s Something Other Than God (click for links to buy, a free excerpt, a video featuring a man in a banana suit, &c), is an example of a genre I really don’t ever read: the conversion story.

This is the gif Fulwiler made to celebrate the book launch. She is my people.
Fulwiler grew up as an atheist (in Texas, no less), without any real knowledge of religious culture or lore, and her objections were more to religion itself, as a guiding principle in someone’s life, than to any particular doctrine. This is more the culture that I recognize in my own surroundings, and part of the reason why I like reading Fulwiler’s blog. Her explanations and ponderings speak to the kinds of pushback I feel around me, and the currents I feel invited to fall into (that’s a terrible metaphor but whatever). The other reason her blog is so great is because Fulwiler is a funny, lively writer, who’s able to tell a hilarious story in all its absurd glory. She’s been working on this book for years (always a good sign), and when it was finally available to preorder I jumped on it. I also set up text alerts from Amazon to let me know when it was on its way. One of those texts arrived as I was counting down the minutes to a phone interview; if it had been my mother texting to wish me good luck I might have been annoyed at the near-heart attack it gave me, but since it was this book, I was just that much more excited. Priorities.

I was so psyched when it came I had to document the moment. And the tiles in my building's foyer. FEEL THE EXCITEMENT.

If I had to pick two words to describe the writing I might choose “clear” and “tight”. I was seeing reports on Twitter of people reading it in four or five hours, and I believe it. It’s not a quick read in the sense that there’s nothing to it, but in the sense that it draws you in and doesn’t slow you down. Since I’m a grad student I am contractually obligated to (a) like books, but also (b) make critical remarks, and this is really my only criticism: the book is so lean and focused that it can feel, well, too lean and focused. All the description of Fulwiler’s pre-conversion life is centered on her spiritual crises and the questions she had trouble answering within an atheist worldview. I would have liked a little more — I hate phrases like “word painting” or “pen portrait” but fine. I would have liked a little fuller pen portrait of atheist Jennifer Fulwiler, rather than getting it later on as a contrast to whatever was currently happening in the narrative. That being said, this tight focus gives the book a humble quality: it's not here to offer too much interpretation beyond the demands of the narrative. So, in my usual academic way: it's a plus and a minus.

The focus of the book is on the conversion process itself which is wrapped up in several dramatic changes that took place in her and her husband’s lives at the same time. This story is really interesting and relatable, even though it deals with fairly unusual circumstances, and in spite of the (realistic) complexity of all this, it's easy to follow. If you want to know the details, you should buy the book (also available as an ebook).

Which brings me around to the thoughts I opened this post with (eh? eh? I’m a writer). Conversion stories are like memoirs, being autobiographical narratives published while the writer is still alive. (That sentence is mocking me, pointing out that there is a ton of theory on exactly this topic that I have not read, but I am pushing through.) A conversion story could potentially play into a desire to latch onto celebrities, pulling us away from the real spiritual growth that could come from studying the lives of the saints into the roller coaster drama of constantly evaluating someone else’s life and opinions. As I was reflecting on the book, I thought about how difficult it would be to publish a narrative of your life like this. It would be strange to read a book written by a friend, offering her decided-on version of the part of her life which included you, particularly if you were part of the “before” picture. So what’s the point? Given that we don’t want to be idolizing our contemporaries, what’s the point of reading a story like this?

My answer to that question is that a book like this offers a unique kind of faith-sharing, where we can see what thoughts were going through someone else's mind and what challenges they faced, all in the context of a larger trajectory. Each of us is in the midst of our own story, striving to make little before-and-afters out of our faults and failings. Each of us is called to conversion throughout our lives: am I embracing that, or am I just trying to get comfortable? A story like this can also make us reflect on how we are helping others on their own way. Am I the camp counselor who pressures people in my care to conform? Am I the parishioner who celebrates the presence of a seeker?

This isn't a book that has all the answers, and of course it shouldn't be; Fulwiler, still alive (and long may she be) is not a saint, and she wisely isn't setting herself up as a celebrity either.* What it is, is a fascinating story about how — to quote the subtitle — the author "passionately sought happiness and accidentally found it." Something Other Than God is more than just a blog book; for one thing it gives a much more complete version of Fulwiler's story than I ever picked up reading her blog. More importantly, it's also a thoughtful account of how "conversion" means changing your life along with your mind. I enjoyed it just as much as I thought I would, and I can't wait to read/hear other people's thoughts about it.

* I am emphatically not telling Jennifer Fulwiler "Careful Icarus", just to be clear.**
** Mostly I added that footnote so I could link the Careful Icarus clip. I'm only human.