Sunday, April 29, 2007


+ I changed one of my Chunkster Challenges. Instead of reading Lonesome Dove, I read Ilium. I think it's a fair swap, because Ilium was also very long and also in a genre that I don't read (albeit sci-fi instead of westerns). I read it on the basis of a friend's rec-look for my thoughts soon.

+Super exciting news-Hermione Lee (whose glorious bio of Virginia Woolf I read) has a new biography out-Edith Wharton. I adore Wharton, so opening my NYT Book Update to that made my day!

+My reading list for Reading Across Borders is undergoing a slight change as well. Instead of Street of Crocodiles, I'm reading Naomi. My library lost its copy of Street of Crocodiles, which makes me upset, but Naomi seems like it'll be a good read. It's been described as the Japanese Lolita.

+I've slowed down in my reading, which is probably a good thing. After all, I do have to attend to real life sometimes!

Friday, April 27, 2007

Among Schoolchildren (thoughts)

Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder tells the story of a fifth-grade teacher in Massachusetts through one school year. Chris Zajac (a woman) teaches in a poorer region of Mount Holyoke, where most of the class lives in decrepit housing and has parents who don't have time to participate much in their children's lives. Throughout the year, she sets goals for herself concerning various students (whether to draw them out of their shell, or have them master long division). Sometimes she meets the goals, sometimes not; in the latter case, she tends to beat herself up.

The story is told a little strangely; Kidder acts as an omniscient third-person narrator (sometimes taking on the point of view of one of the students), but the reader never really discovers how Kidder found out all of this information. Especially when he's discussing Ms. Zajac's internal dialogue, this makes the reader jump out of the story a bit.

All in all, however, I felt that the book treated everything fairly. It certainly makes you realise just how difficult teaching is!

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Movie of Middlemarch?

Reading the BBC today, I found that Sam Mendes plans to direct Middlemarch. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

On the one hand, the plot could be converted fairly easily. After all, Dickens and Austen have both been on the big screen plenty of times. And it could give more exposure to Eliot's works, which would be great.

On the other, I once read that Middlemarch was the proof that English is a beautiful language. I can't remember where I saw that, but I definitely agree. I loved reading the novel in large part because of the cascade of words. There was a tone about them that I don't think could be easily recreated.

Of course, Mendes directed American Beauty, which was certainly filled with tone. So we'll have to see. What do you guys think?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Cat's Cradle (thoughts)

Since Kurt Vonnegut died, I felt that reading one of his books was the least I could do. So, last Friday I checked out Cat's Cradle. I ended up reading it that afternoon/night, it was so engrossing.

For some reason, I had stayed away from Vonnegut in the past. I tend to avoid all 'new classical American writers' (Vonnegut, Updike,Roth): they always struck me as somewhat negative or pessimistic.

Now I'm eating crow. Cat's Cradle was pretty amazing; I guess it was pessimistic (the characters pretty much end up destroying the world), but it's also amazing. The book is a first-person account of "Jonah" (his parents almost named him that) and events in his life. He's become a convert of the Bokonon religion, which is essentially determinist. So, the narrator sprinkles Bokonon words of wisdom throughout his essentially fatalistic account. Without giving much away, he ends up meeting up with the children of a scientist who worked on the atomic bomb, and eventually they all end up in the Caribbean.

The plot isn't really the point of the book, however. It's the satirically drawn characters that really make the book swing. The whole book is absurd, which is the point. I especially enjoyed the ugly American tourists. :)

I give up trying to explain it. I'm sure much more analytical types would do a better job. So, how do the rest of you feel about Vonnegut? Love him, hate him, avoid him? If you're undecided, I recommend Cat's Cradle as a good introduction; the chapters are super short, which keeps the book moving along.

Favorite Passages

She believed that God liked people in sailboats much more than He liked people in motorboats. She could not bear to look at a worm. When she saw a worm, she screamed.

She was a fool and so am I and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing. (5)

I smiled at one of the guards. He didn't smile back. There was nothing funny about national security, nothing at all. (35)

As Bokonon says, "Peculiar travel suggestions are dancing lessons from God." (63)

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Polysyllabic Spree (thoughts)

It's been awhile since my last post-I've been on a reading streak instead. So, plenty of reviews are lined up, but I thought I'd begin with this one.

I read Nick Hornby's The Polysyllabic Spree in a couple of hours. It's a collection of columns he wrote for a literary magazine over the course of a year about his reading habits. The subtitle pretty much sums it up: A Hilarious and True Account of One Man's Struggle With the Monthly Tide of the Books He's Bought and the Books He's Been Meaning to Read.

I have a feeling that a lot of bloggers will sympathise with that.

I hadn't read anything by Hornby before, so I wasn't prepared for just how funny he is. I was laughing out loud a lot of the time. I feel that my experience living in England made things a little funnier, but really people on both sides of the Atlantic will enjoy this book.

I can't recommend it highly enough: it's a quick read, and I only wish that it was much, much longer. Everyone should go out and read it. :D

Favorite Passages

So this is supposed to be about the how, and when, and why, and what of reading-about the way that, when reading is going well, one book that leads to another and to another, a paper trail of theme and meaning; and how, when it's going badly, when books don't stick or take, when your mood and the mood of the book are fighting like cats, you'd rather do anything but attempt the next paragraph, or reread the last one for the tenth time. (13)

I've got enough to read as it is, so my first reaction when someone tells me to read something is to find a way to doubt their credentials, or to try to dredge up a conflicting view from the memory. (Just as stone always beats scissors, a lukewarm "Oh, it was OK," always beats a "You have to read this." It's less work that way). (33)

Books are, let's face it, better than everything else. If we played Cultural Fantasy Boxing League, and made books go fifteen rounds in the ring against the best that any other art form ad to offer, then books would win pretty much every time. Go on, try it. "The Magic Flute" v.
Middlemarch? Middlemarch in six. "The Last Supper" v. Crime and Punishment? Fyodor on points. See? I mean, I don't know how scientific this is, but it feels like the novels are walking it. (58)

Even if you love movies and music as much as you do books, it's still, in any given four-week period, way,
way more likely you'll find a great book you haven't read than a great movie you haven't seen, or a great album you haven't heard... (58)

Did you know that Dickens is estimated to have invented thirteen thousand characters? Thirteen thousand! The population of a small town! If you want to talk about books in terms of back-breaking labor, then maybe we should think about how hard it is to write a lot-long books, teeming with exuberance and energy and life and comedy. I'm sorry if that seems obvious, but it can't always be true that writing a couple of hundred pages is harder than writing a thousand. (75)

I don't mind nothing happening in a book, but nothing happening in a phony way-characters saying things people never say, doing jovs that don't fit, the whole works-is simply asking too much of a reader. Something happening in a phony way must beat nothing happening in a phony way every time, right? (113)

Zaid's finest moment, however, comes in his second paragraph, when he says that "the truly cultured are capable of owning thousands of unread books without losing their composure or their desire for more."
That's me! And you, probably! That's us! "Thousands of unread books"! "Truly cultured"! (124)

Just for me, here are the books that I now want to read because of Hornby: Pompeii by Robert Harris, Notes on a Scandal by Zoe Heller, The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathon Lemen, How to Breathe Underwater by Julie Orringer, The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut, Old School by Tobias Wolff, Clockers by Richard Price, Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Presumed Innocent, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton, Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy, So Many Books by Gabriel Zaid, A Star Called Henry.

[edited to add more tbr after catching up on blogs: The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland, Bernice Rubens]

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Body Project (thoughts)

I read The Body Project: an Intimate History of American Girls by Joan Jacobs Brumberg in one night. That's how fascinating I found it. Through diary entries and historical/sociological analysis, Brumberg explores the experience of puberty by American girls from the Victorian age to mid-1990s (it was published in 1997). The table of contents reads like this: The Body's New Timetable, Sanitizing Puberty: the American Way to Menstruate, Perfect Skin, Body Projects, The Disappearance of Virginity, and Girl Advocacy Again. That pretty much sums it up. Brumberg writes frankly about everything from Victorian pads to the evolution of the pelvic exam to the various body ideals American girls have striven for. The result is a compulsively readable book that you'll find yourself wanting to share at the most inappropriate times. For example, did you know that Victorians believed that people got pimples by masturbating?!

While discussing the 'sexual revolution' and new sexual freedoms, Brumberg strikes a good balance of opinions. She is not so conservative that she advocates a return to the Victorian obsession with the hymen, but she's not so liberal to always promote free sex. Instead, she takes a thoughtful look at the tradeoffs between the two, and eventuallly concludes that our society has lost its ability to protects its girls at all. I think that this would be a great women's book club book. Actually, Brumberg says in her introduction that part of the goal of the book is reopen dialogue between moms and daughters, and older women and girls in general, about such important aspects of female life. A large part of her theme is that puberty has increasingly become the domain of the public (doctors, corporations, etc.) instead of the domain of private families. There is a somewhat annoying anti-consumerist vibe (it comes off a little heavy handed), but it's not a huge instrusion of the reading experience.

That's about it. I think that pretty much any girl/woman would be interested in this book. It's a very fast read and raises some provocative questions.

Favorite Passages

Adult women were the most important part of the protective umbrella that spread over school as well as extracurricular activities. Whether Christian or Jew, black or white, volunteer or professional, most women in this [Victorian] era shared the ethic that older women had a special relationship to the young of their sex. (19)

Americans, by contrast, generally have no community rituals of intiation or exclusion. And yet this intimate biological event is marked in our own, distincly American way. A century ago, mothers lengtehned their daughters' skirts, or allowed them to put up their hair; today, American girls and their mothers characteristically head for the mall, where coming-of-age is acted out in purchases-such as bras, lipsticks, and high heels, or "grown-up" privileges such as ear piercing. (33)

In a world where the HIV virus coexists with the imperative to "do your own thing" sexually, adolescent girls need to think about sexuality, and its related body projects, in ways that are healthy and realistic. More than any other generation, and at an earlier age than ever before, they must learn to handle the emotional and physical risks that are involved in being sexually expressive in a postmodern, postvirginal world." (143)

The "hands off" attitude of parents and doctors may have been an improvement over the censorious overprotection of earlier times, but it has a negative side in a world where girls' bodies are, literally, more accessible and also more vulnerable. (185)

Library Booty

Look! I finally remembered to bring my camera back to college with me. :) Very excited-now I can include pics of the books that I review.

So, today I was off to the library and picked up six books, five of which were non-fic!

In order:

Away From Home by Lillian Carter is a collection of letters Jimmy Carter's mom wrote when she was a Peace Corps volunteer in India in the 60s (she was already in her 60s as well). Read it tonight, in one sitting.

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby is a collection of columns he wrote about his reading and book buying habits. Read it tonight, in one sitting, and it's pretty amazing. Look for a review!

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende is next for the Reading Across Borders challenge. Super excited about this one-the only fiction I got today.

I picked up The Ambassador by John Shaw because Shaw is an alum of my college, and I went to a speech he gave it about the book in the fall. He followed the life of Swedish ambassador to the US for a year, and this book tells all about it.

Next up is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, for my non-fic challenge.

And, finally, I picked up Coates Redmon's Come as You Are, which talks about the Peace Corps. I'm replacing Happiness: A History w/ this for my non-fic challenge. Happiness turned out to be a history of Western philosophy, which I didn't really need, since I already know quite a bit about that.

In other news, check out my thoughts on Waiting below. Soon to come are reviews of The Body Project and The Polysyllabic Spree.

Waiting (thoughts)

I read Waiting by Ha Jin as part of my international reading challenge. It tells the story of a decade-long love triangle between Lin Kong, Shuyu, and Manna Wu. Lin Kong and Shuyu have an arranged marriage, but Lin Kong, an army doctor, lives in a different area of China and only visits for a week and a half during the summer. Meanwhile, he carries on a chaste love affair with army nurse Manna Wu.

I didn't really enjoy the book. I was fascinated by the setting, since I don't know much about Communist China (I think it's set during the 60s and 70s), so that part of the book satisfied me. The rest, however, left me hollow. The whole book seemed very cynical about love, as if Ha Jin is making a point about the emptiness of life without love. While I appreciate the point, the book didn't throw the reader even one redemptive bone. The setting and the writing style are the reasons I rated Waiting as high as I did; Ha Jin can quickly paint a scene and keeps the plot moving along.

I can't say that I'd recommend Waiting to anyone. It isn't a terrible book, but it doesn't live up to the other books I've read in the course of this challenge. I don't really enjoy reviewing books that I don't like, but here's a much fuller review that I wholeheartedly concur with:

Favorite Passage

Yes, true lovers don't have to stay together looking at each other all the time; they look and move in the same direction. (214)

Monday, April 9, 2007

Virginia Woolf (thoughts)

After three months, I have finally completed my first chunkster challenge, Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee (ok, I finished it last week). I'm not sure if I'm going to complete the chunkster challenge; I've read plenty of books that would qualify, so maybe I'll cheat. We'll see.

Meanwhile, Virginia Woolf is a great biography. Lee uses plenty of excerpts from Woolf's diaries and letters, allowing her to weave together Woolf's life. Furthermore, while moving somewhat chronologically, Lee organises Woolf's life into themes, each of which then becomes a chapter. Examples include "Houses," "Liasons," "Reading," "Selves," and "Waiting." The greater Parts are arranged chronologically. In this way, Lee can explore how Woolf thought about things throughout her life (i.e.-her father) and still tie the book together. I knew next to nothing about Woolf before picking up this book, so the first few chapters were a bit confusing. However, it quickly became less so, and in the end I found myself wondering what was going on Virginia's life now, as if she as a close friend. That's part of why I took so long to read the book.

That said, I only recommend this to people in it for the long haul. If you're willing to committ to a close to 900 page hardcover tome, you'll come away with a good understanding of Virginia Woolf and the forces in her life.

Favorite Passages (most of these are actually other people's quotes, which I've acknowledged)

For we think back through our mothers if we are women. (Virginia Woolf, 79)

She [Julia Stephen] was a woman who believed in working for good, in a practical way, in her immediate domestic circle and through benevolent institutions. (85)

These "prodigies" were extremely nostalgic for their just-ended undergraduate life: they published a little volune of pseudo-classical verse called Euphrosyne as a way of keeping together, they still called each other by their student nicknames, and their letters were full of discussions about whether intellectual standards-or levels of depravity-at Cambridfe had gone up or down since they left. (206)

I do not think that her new existence had "become alive" to Virginia's imagination in those first years. She gave the impression of being so intensely receptive to any experience new to her, and so intensely interested in facts that she had not come across before, that time was necessary to give it a meaning as a whole. (Duncan, Grant, 208)

They say: "Come to tea and let us comfort you." But it's no good.
One must be crusified on one's own private cross.
It is a strange fact that a terrible pain in the heart can be interrupted by a little pain in the fourth toe of the right foot.
I know that V. will not come across the garden from the lodge, and yet I look in that direction for her. I know that she is drowned and yet I listen for her to come in at the door. I know that it is the last page & yet I turn it over. There is no limit to one's stupidity and selfishness. (Leonard Woolf, 751)

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Love in the Time of Cholera (thoughts)

I was excited about Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera. I very much enjoyed One Hundred Years of Solitude, and it seems like every blogger that's read Love in the Time of Cholera adores it. In this, I must say that I am no exception.

For those of you who have read One Hundred Years, the plot line of Cholera will seem very, very straightforward. While there's still a touch of magical realism, Cholera shows a down-to-earth tendency completely lacking from One Hundred Years (imo). I wouldn't be able to say one of these books is better than the other; their styles are too different. Cholera follows the life of three players in a love triangle: Dr. Urbino, Fermina Daza, and Florintino Araza. The book opens when the three of them are septogenarians, so the reader knows pretty quickly that Urbino and Daza married, while Araza continued to love Daza. Then, the book goes back in time to when Daza is fourteen, and fills the reader in on how the characters spent most of this time. It's essentially an exploration of different kinds of love, both physical and emotional, and they affect people.

Marquez knows how to write characters: they're realistic enough to jump out of the page and into my room. The plot also moved along at a good pace; I had trouble putting Cholera down at all. At the same time, his writing is something to be savored: it's unbelievably rich and satisfying. The four and a half pages devoted to the wedding night and following nights are exquisite. The ending is more than satisfactory, which is, what makes or breaks a novel. The reader is happy in the end that s/he's invested so much time.

This isn't a very long review, and it doesn't really do justice to the novel. But, I'm afraid of giving away too much. So, I'll just say that anyone with an interest in love should read this book. And, after all, doesn't that describe everyone?

Favorite Passages

Moreover, a clandestine life shared with a man who was never completely hers, and in which they often knew the sudden explosion of happiness, did not seem to her a condition to be despised. On the contrary: life had shown her that perhaps it was exemplary. (20)

Neither could have said if their mutual dependence was based on love or convenience, but they had never asked the question with their hands on their hearts because both had always preferred not to know the answer. (35)

He was aware that he did not love her. He had married her because he liked her haughtiness, her seriousness, her strength, and also because of some vanity on his part, but as she kissed him for the first time he was sure there would be no obstacle to their inventing true love. They did not speak of it that first night, when they spoke of everything until dawn, not would they ever speak of it. But in the long run, neither of them had made a mistake. (194)

He distrusted the sensual type, the ones who looked as if they could eat an alligator raw and tended to be the most passive in bed. The type he preferred was just the opposite: those skinny little tadpoles that no one bothered to turn around and look at in the street, who seemed to disappear when they took off their clothes, who made you feel sorry for them when their bones cracked at the first impact, and yet who could leave the man who bragged the most baout his virility ready for the trashcan. (212)

Dr. Urbino, for his part, understood that it was impossible to possess his wife as completely as he had on their honeymoon, because the part of love he wanted was what she had given, along with her best hours, to her children, but he learned to live and be happy with what was left over. (267)

Over the years they both reached the same wise conclusion by different paths: it was not possible to live together in any other way, or love in any other way, and nothing in this world is more difficult than love. (270)

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Looking Back

Winter in Summary

A fourth of 2007 is already over. Since winter technically runs from Dec 22-March 22, I'm loosely describing this quarter as such. It's time to look at my reading and blogging!

Total: 37
Non-Fic: 10
Audio: 8
New Authors: 29
Women Authors: 17
African Lit: 0
East Asian Lit: 3
Auto/Bios Read: 1
Five Star Books: 6
One or Two Star Books: 6

Reviews Published: 18
Entries Made: 43
Challenges Completed: 1
Challenges Participated In: 3

So, things aren't looking too bad. I've kept both of my blogging resolutions. As far as reading resolutions, I've recorded all books read and read more East Asian literature. I need to up my African lit and auto/biography reading. My fic:nonfic ratio is 27:10, or about 3:1. This isn't near the 3:2 goal I set for myself, so I'll need to work harder on that. Still, I'm pleased with how I've spent the winter reading. I enjoyed the vast majority of the books that I read (84%). And that's the most important thing!

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Night Draws Near (thoughts)

Night Draws Near, published in 2005, is reporter Anthony Shadid's story of the impact of the war on regular Iraqi citizens. Since he is Lebanonese-American and fluent in Arabic, he was able to become quite close to several Iraqis. The range of voices impressed me: Shadid talks to people of all social/economic classes, religions (and degrees of religious fervor), genders, education, and opinions regarding the US. Essentially, the book focuses on day-to-day life in Iraq; Shadid shies away from an intense analysis of the American politics and administration's books. This makes the book a refreshingly clear look at Iraq's living conditions.

The book begins a bit before the American invasion, when Hussein issued a general pardon for all prisoners (political or criminal). It then looks at Iraqis' expectations of the results of the American invasion; interspliced with interviews and first-hand accounts, Shadid provides the historical background necessary to put everything in context. For example, the 70s were Iraq's golden age: before Hussein declared war on Iran, Iraq experienced oil wealth and a relatively liberal society. Fast forward to 2003: despite the intervening decades, many Iraqis expected America to do nothing short of returning Iraq to that golden period. It seems that one of Shadid's main themes is that such high expectations almost had to result in disillusionment. After this, Shadid fills in the reader with a brief history of Islam, including the Sunni and Shi'a split. Next, Shadid discusses life during the brief actual offensive, and he does a very good job of evoking the feelings of bombs going off next door, electricity going out randomly, and never knowing what's coming next. By now, the reader is about a third of the way through.

During the rest of the book, Shadid focuses on the insurgency but on a deep level. He goes into the historical causes behind the rise of people like Sadr, as well as providing an account of how grassroots movements became so powerful. All in all, he provides a very convincing explanation for the insurgency without ever sounding polemical. I was impressed by the graciousness of all his subjects, by the very humanity that Shadid mangages to bring to life. He includes excerpts from a fourteen-year-old girl's diary, which are quite powerful. Shadid strikes the perfect balance between filling in the picture but leaving the opinion-forming to the reader. This is my very favorite kind of book, one that assumes I am intelligent.

All in all, I highly recommend this book to anyone who's interested in contemporary Middle Eastern culture and politics, as well as anyone sick of the uber-partisan discussions about the Iraq war. Moreover, I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading non-fiction about everyday people; this book has as much of an anthropology-sociology basis as a political one.