Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More Challenges!

I've decided to join a couple more challenges for the summer, just to keep life interesting. :)

First, the Summer Reading Challenge. I've been thinking about what I want to do with this one (it's completely open-ended), and I've finally decided to do another classics challenge. I really enjoyed the earlier one, so I thought it'd be nice to bring them back into my life.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James

Cecilia by Frances Burney

Emma by Jane Austen

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Candide by Voltaire

Cousin Bette by Honare de Balzac

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte

The Scarlet Pimpernel by the Baroness Orzcy

The Eustace Diamonds by Anthony Trollope

Dangerous Liasons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

The other challenge is the Summer Mystery Reading Challenge. The goal is to read 6 mysteries over the summer, but there's a twist: you have to read all new authors! I figure this will be a good way to find some new favourites; you can never have too many mysteries. :)

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

From Doon with Death by Ruth Rendell

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson

Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears

Death at Bishop’s Keep by Robin Paige

So, it's going to be a busy summer!

Monday, May 28, 2007

Special Books!

Here's a meme that's been going around-I stole it from Superfastreader. :)

A book that made you cry: Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls. I finished it during lunch recess in fourth grade, and I just bawled.

A book that scared you: Red Dragon by Thomas Harris. The way that the killer finds his victims is very disturbing! I don't want to give anything away though-it's a great book.

A book that made you laugh: Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. I've read it at least 5 times, and I still laugh out loud. It's hilarious.

A book that disgusted you: Tess of the d'Ubervilles by Thomas Hardy. It was so ridiculously soap opera, sex angst. It is highly unlikely that I will ever read Hardy again.

A book you loved in elementary school: I really liked the Nancy Drew series.

A book you loved in middle school: Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Read it for the first time in seventh grade. My best friend and I, a couple nights before we were both going to move (military brats), had a sleep over where we read the whole book out loud to each other, alternating chapters. It was pretty awesome.

A book you loved in high school: so many. It's difficult to remember, but I think I'd have to go with Gaudy Nights by Dorothy Sayers. Or maybe the Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaardner. Or...ok, I'm going to stop now.

A book you hated in high school: A Separate Peace. Ugh. Easily one of my least favorite books ever. Close runners up: Of Mice and Men (though I loved Grapes of Wrath and Travels with Charley), the Red Badge of Courage, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. Shudder.

A book you loved in college: wait, I still have a few more days in college (graduate on Sat). I'll just go with this year, since it's so hard to pick one. That would be Ishiguro's Remains of the Day. It is one of those books that just blew me away. I couldn't stop talking about it for days.

A book that challenged your identity: Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. I listened to it on audiobook, and I was very, very disturbed by how appealing pediophilia suddenly seemed. As a straight, twenty-year-old girl who loves wathcing Stabler lose his temper on SVU, that was quite disturbing.

A series you love: Laurie King's Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes mystery series. They're my newest comfort books-I know the next one will be good before I even open it up.

Your favorite horror book: Hannibal. The movie was shite, but the book is really, really good. The ending challenges so many preconceived notions (it's not the same as the film ending).

Your favorite science fiction book: I don't really read sci-fi, but I remember being impressed with Stranger in a Strange Land.

Your favorite fantasy: anything by Neil Gaiman.

Your favorite mystery: Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books.

Your favorite biography: I don't read a lot of bios, but Hermione Lee's Virginia Woolf impressed me.

Your favorite "coming of age" book: Little Women. Ok, it's a little old-fashioned, but I still think it's a great girl coming-of-age book. If I have a daughter, though, I'll buy her The Body Project when she starts to enter puberty.

Your favorite classic: Pride and Prejudice. I have three copies. They've been with me to several continents.

Your favorite romance book: well, I don't read actual romance books. But I think that a lot of classics count, and in that case I'm going with Persuasion. All about second chances!

Your favorite book not on this list: Anna Karenina. Love it, love it, love it. I've been refraining from reading War and Peace until I join the Peace Corps, but I'm super excited about it!

Sunday, May 27, 2007

How Novels Work (thoughts)

Oh. my. gosh. A couple months ago, I grabbed a book off my library's two-week collection called How to Read Novel. If you recall, it was not very impressive. So, flash forward to last Friday. I am once again browsing my library's two-week collection, and suddenly I see John Mullan's How Novels Work. Intrigued, I look at the book flap and discover that the book is based on a series of columns he wrote aimed at book club participants about literary criticism for the masses. Hoping against hope that this was the book I'd been looking for, I checked it out.

And proceeded to devour it. It was everything I've been looking for-Mullan introduces literary criticism by actually analysing various new and classic novels. He never 'talks down' to the reader, but he also assumes you have no background in literary criticism (i.e.-me!). I feel like I learned as much from reading this book as I would have from an intro college class-I want to go out and buy it so that I can mark my copy all up. :)

The book is arranged by theme. The chapters are: beginning, narrating, people, genre, voices, structure, detail, style, devices, literariness, and ending. That pretty much sums up what you're going to learn about. :) Mullan has a nice, structured style: the beginning of every chapter summarises his points and outlines what books we're going to look at and what details we're going to find. He keeps the digs at contemporary authors to a minimum, despite his obvious membership in 'literary circles,' which is refreshing. I've probably read about half of the books he analysed; for those that I hadn't read, he gives enough background that I don't feel like I'm missing out. In fact, I have a whole list of books that I now want to read! (see the end of this post) He does a pretty good job about avoiding spoilers until the last chapter, which discusses novels' endings. Fortunately, I had read most of the books in this chapter, but there was one part where I had to actually shut my eyes and turn the page so that a novel I've been meaning to read wasn't ruined!

I'm very grateful to Mullan for providing me the tools to analyse the books that I read in a more detailed and organised manner. I'm hoping that my posts will become more thoughtful, and I almost feel like designing a whole set of homework assignments around the book. Honestly, it is simply stunning. For anyone out there who is intelligent and curious about literary criticism, but doesn't have any kind of background in it, this book is a godsend. It's also just great to read a book by someone who obviously loves reading and loves fiction. :) Sometimes, it seems like fiction is still judged as 'lesser' than non-fiction; Mulland truly shows its power. Highly, highly recommended.

Favorite Passages

The Novel, that most accessible, democratic of literary forms, must establish its contract with its reader. It may be helped or hindered by all sorts of extraneous influences: cover design, encrustations of quotation from admiring reviewers, and the like. But it must also make its own way in the world. (9)

Nothing is stranger or more important in our reading of novels that the sense that we are encountering real people in them. (79)

'Genre' is a word for types of writing; it is also therefore a word for habits of reading. Though novelists might like to cheat expectations, they need readers to have expectations that can be cheated. Genre alerts us to the readerly expectation learned from similar books....Genre does not mean an imposition of rules, but the presence of conventins that may be altered or flouted. (105)

There is plentiful eveidence of novels being read aloud to family and friends in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries...Novelists once needed to consider their novels as scripts for amateur performers, and to give help to a reader aloud. (127-8)

Letters permit an intimacy impossibel in speech. They are most charged with this potential when they belong to a world where codes of propriety are strongest. (256)

The Novel is a genre that would have us believe that its characters might have a life beyond its pages. (319)

Additions for the tbr list: The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene, The Little Friend by Donna Tartt, The Turn of the Screw by Henry James, The Master of Petersburg by J.M. Coetzee, To the Hermitage by Malcolm Bradbury, Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley series, Adam and Eve and Pinch Me by Ruth Rendell, My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett, Music and Silence by Rose Tremain, Cecilia by Fanny Burney, A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (in conj w/ "King Lear"), and The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Fast Meme and Thoughts on Widdershins

I've been tagged by Meli for a short meme that's been circulating. I suppose that's only fair, since she was so cooperative with the 8 things meme. :) Unfortunately, following the rules (turn to the book nearest you, find page 161, copy out the fifth full sentence) led to a rather boring result, lol:

"Did you discover who are the occupants of the guest-chamber?" Holmes asked Mahmoud.

This is from Laurie King's O Jerusalem, the fifth book in her Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. Highly recommended, despite the prosaicness of this sentence. :) Since I'm at the tailend of this meme, I'm not going to tag specific people: if you want to do it, then leave me a comment, and then I'll explicitly tag you. ;) Simpler for everyone!

That being done, I'd like to talk a little about Charles de Lint's Widdershins. I read it as part of the Once Upon a Time challenge: I had never even heard of de Lint before, but he cropped up on a few participants' lists, so I decided to give it a go. I am so, so happy that I did: he's now on my short list of new favourite authors.

Widdershins is apparently what's known as urban fantasy: it takes place in the contemporary, everyday world (I think Canada-it's not explicit, but that's the sense I got) that just happens to intersect with the fairy world. The story follows one woman, Jilly, and all of the humans and fairies that get drawn into her messy presence. There are several plotlines running at once, and de Lint changes point of view (third person, but not omniscient) pretty much every chapter. To prevent confucion, he helpfully titles each chapter by the character's pov. :) The book is amazing: de Lint gracefully examines how humans and fairies deal with emotional trauma AND political intrigue. It's not often you see both in one book; it's even less often that both are dealt with well. However, de Lint is not your average writer.

To me, the best thing about Widdershins was the characters. Most of the time, that's what makes or breaks a book for me: do I want the characters for friends? As far as Widdershins goes, the answer is a resounding yes. I feel as if I know all of these people, and that I want to get caught up in their, slightly off-kelter lives. The characters all have their flaws, so there's none of the perfect heros that sometimes mar on otherwise good novel (am I the only annoyed when everyone in the book is beautiful, smart, witty, and rich?). In fact, Jilly is in a wheelchair! The fairies are not Tinkerbell-there is also a fascinating disparity between the "native" fairies and those who came over with the Europeans. I really enjoyed de Lint's take on the subject.

I don't really want to discuss much of the plot-it's simply too complex to summarize, and I think it'd be better to go into the book with an open mind. However, I highly recommend that everyone read this book. Even if fantasy isn't your thing, this is not stereotypical buff fighter/loony wizard/hot girls/maybe dragons fantasy. It just feels like contemporary fiction, with an unusual twist. I know that I want to go out and read everything de Lint has ever written. In fact, I've already checked out another book of his from the library!

Favorite Passage

No matter how different people looked-cousin, human, fairy-inside they were all the same. It was only what you did with the spirit that made the difference.
Big heart or sour twist.
Generous spirit or miser.
You had a choice.
But you had to make that choice, or the circumstances around you would make it for you. People would decide for you.(445)

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Ladies of Grace Adieu (thoughts)

First off, I lied. I said in my last post that I had completed my Once Upon a Time challenge. Obviously, I forgot about Mr. William Shakespeare! A Midsummer Night's Dream is my favorite play of his-I also own the movie version with Kevin Cline. Since my collected Shakespeare work is at home (vs. at college), I'll have to wait until early June. In the mean time, here're my thoughts on the last of the books.. (I'll review Widdershins, which I loved, within the next couple day. Mythago Wood, which I did not love, will probably get a short treatment whenever I can fit it in!)

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is Susanna Clarke's follow-up to her debut novel Jonothan Strange & Mr. Norrell. This one is a short story collection; Jonathan strange plays a role in the title story, which is fun! The entire world of 1800s England w/ magic is continued from the novel into the short story collection, and several stories reference the Raven King. So, if you've read her first novel, you're on familiar ground. However, it's certainly not necessary to have read the novel in order to enjoy this collection.

Susanna Clarke is one of those authors whose style is either love or hate. Similar to A.S. Byatt, Clarke creates an entire scholarly body of work around her world: the stories might have footnotes referencing imaginery encyclopedias, or introductions by stuffy old academics. :) I, personally, adore this kind of writing. The short story collection is quite varied in tone: some of the tales are set in 19th century Britain, while others are set in Medieval England. This obviously affects dialogue and pacing. In one of the stories, Clarke writes in dialect, although not so extreme as to detract from the reading experience.

All in all, if you've read Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and loved it, you'll love this collection as well. If you haven't, but you're a reader who enjoys A.S. Byatt or British classics, you'll probably love it as well. I've realised, after writing about this as well as Fragile Things, that I don't really know how to go about reviewing short story collections! Oh well-enough said...I just wish that Clarke had about twenty more books published!

Favorite Passages

Above all remember this: that magic belongs as much to the heart as to the head and everything which is done, should be done from love or joy or righteous anger. (7)

So Venetia went along Church-lane to Kissingland and, though it would benefit the dignity of the Female Sex in general to report that she now despised and hated Captain Fox, Venetia was not so unnatural. Instead she indulged in many vain sighs and regrets, and tried to derive such consolation as she could from the reflection that it was better to be poor and forgotten in Kissingland, where there were green trees and sweet flowery meadows, than in Manchester where her friend, Mrs. Whitsun, had died in a cold grey room at the top of a dismal lodging house. (68)

Monday, May 21, 2007


So, I've finished the Once Upon a Time challenge-completed The Ladies of Grace Adieu this weekend. I'm not in the mood to review it yet-I'll just say that it was an awesome read.

I just can't seem to settle on any books right now. I'm started Roth's Everyman, since I read Vonnegut earlier in the term. I'm a third of the way through East, West, a story collection by Salman Rushdie; this is part of my continued quest to read all of Rushdie's works. And I'm a little over a hundred pages into Ishiguro's The Unconsoled, which I chose since I loved, loved Remains of the Day. But as you can tell, none of them are grabbing me.

I just got Freakonomics-maybe I'll start that one. Until then, I just can't seem to committ to anything. *sigh* I wish a book would leap out and grab me!

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Fragile Things (thoughts)

I read Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman as the first part of my Once Upon the Time challenge. I've read most of Neil Gaiman's adult books: Neverwhere, American Gods, Anasi Boys, Smoke and Mirrors, Stardust, and Good Omens. In fact, except for American Gods, I own all of those books! So, I went into Fragile Things expecting to love it.

And I did. Fragile Things is his second short story collection, and it contains a huge variety of styles. However, all of the stories showcase Gaiman's ability to instantly create a convincing world. Since he's a fantasy writer, his stories usually take place in at least a slightly alternate reality, so I'm sure he's had plenty of practice. Still, it's incredible to watch.

I highly recommend Neil Gaiman to everyone: I feel that he transcends genre-writing. He basically writes fairy-tales for adults; it's always good to feed our inner child. :)

Favorite Passages

I was head-over-heels in love, and so, I liked to think, was she. Our affair continued when we returned to England: fizzy, funny, utterly delightful. It was love, I knew, and it tasted like champagne in my mind. (196)

It's a way of talking about lust without talking about lust, he told them.
It is a way of talking about sex, and fear of sex, and death, and fear of death, and what else is there to talk about? (216)

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


J.S. Peyton at BiblioAddict tagged for a meme-my first ever! Here're the rules

1: Each player starts with 8 random facts/habits about themselves.
2: People who are tagged, write a blog post about their own 8 random things, and post these rules.
3: At the end of your post you need to tag 8 people and include their names.
4: Don't forget to leave them a comment and tell them they're tagged, and to read your blog.

*drumroll* Here are my facts...

1. I was born in Athens, Greece. (both of my parents are Americans-they were in the Air Force)

2. My parents got married eight weeks after they met. Twenty-two years later, they're still together.

3. I speak Russian, and I studied abroad in Russia for six months (St. Petersburg and Krasnodar). I want to live in St. Petersburg again.

4. I absolutely love little dogs, and plan on adopting a maltese or toy poodle (both non-shedding) when I have the opportunity. I will dress it in sweaters and I will not apologise to anyone.

5. My favorite dessert is Tiramisu.

6. I have the most wonderful niece/goddaughter in the world: she's fifteen months old and absolutely adorable.

7. I kind of look like Reese Witherspoon-strangers will mention it to me, and one time a Russian really wanted an autograph!

8. I'm joining the Peace Corps this summer.

And here're my tags (I really hope I haven't double-tagged anyone!):

Meli at The Little Book Room

Stephanie at The Written Word.

A Life in Books

Stephanie at Book Buff in Oz

Kate at Kate's Book Blog

Bybee at Naked Without Books

Melanie at The Indextrious Reader

Superfast Reader at Reading is my Superpower

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Southern Reading Challenge

Don't forget to check out the post beneath this, where I talk about picking books in general! But I thought that since I'm raising through the Once Upon a Time Challenge, I thought I'd jump onto the Southern Reading Challenge bandwagon....I've selected five books to give myself a little bit of wiggle room.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker: because one of my general goals is to read more African American lit, and this is a classic.

Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty: Maggie gives high votes to Eudora, and since this is her challenge, I'll trust her! I picked Delta Wedding, because Welty's other books seem too short (less than 200 pages). I love epic books that are about big, sprawling families. Plus, my library has it on CD!

Cane River by Lalita Tademy: kind of a combination of Walker and Welty. I get to read more African American literature and get another epic family tale. I also am fascinated by Louisiana.

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: I've been staring at this book for months. So, this seems like as good a time as ever to add it to the list.

A Steetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams: this is the only unread book I have on my shelf that matches the challenge guidelines. My copy has a very attractive shirtless Marlon Brando on the cover, which should provide an extra boost of inspiration!

Me and My Books

There's a kind-of meme going around about how you choose the books you read, buy, put on the tbr list. Indextrious Reader has an entry up that links to several previous ones. It's a fun topic, so I thought that I'd chime in.

My pre-blogging and post-blogging new book hunting are pretty similar, but the key difference is challenges. Before I started blogging, I would suddenly decide that I needed to read more about a topic/genre/etc. Then, I'd go to amazon, some literary websites, professors who knew about the topic, etc. until I came up with a list of five-ten books. I'd usually try to read some of these immediately, while others are still on my tbr list. Now, I tend to do the same research based on challenges that come up, and I tend to use other blogs as an important resource. Of course, I do still research my own topics sometimes(see the entry with a huge list of non-fic). Other than deciding to bone up on certain topics, I get my tbr from book reviews, browsing the "two week collection" at my college library, and wandering through Barnes and Noble. The latter only applies at home (there's no bookstore here)-I spend hours in B&N, piling books, thinking about them, and then either putting them back or buying them. It usually takes two-four visits for me to actually decide to buy a book.

That's where I'm different from some bloggers-I don't feel a need to possess books. At least, not new books. I prefer to read books from the library, or borrow them from friends. Then, if I really like them, I'll buy a copy for myself. I'm more likely to buy an unread book if it's by an author that I really, really like or if I've seen/heard a lot of positive reviews from people who have similar taste as me. I'm also more likely to buy books that are on sale. :)

I get just as much of a high from checking lots of books out of the library as buying a lot of books. Which is good, considering that I'm a poor college student. The actual reading that I do is a combination of 'planned reading' (i.e.-books I think I should read to expand my horizons/complete a challenge) and 'craving reading,' which is when I'm just really in the mood for a certain genre or author. I've been trying to think of 'chocolate authors' (i.e.-books that are fun to read but aren't great literature), and I'm having a hard time. In high school, it was Tom Clancy, Patricia Cornwell, and David Eddings. But now I'm not sure that I have any regular authors who I don't consider at all literary. The closest, I guess, would be my mystery writers-Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and most recently Laurie King (her Mary Russell series). But I think that all of these authors have true writing ability, as well as great plots. And John le Carre might be a chocolate author.

Well, that about sums up my reading/bookhunting habits. What about you guys?

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Reading Across Borders Challenge Wrap-Up

The Reading Across Borders Challenge was designed by Kate at Kate's Book Blog, but it was unhosted. The idea was to choose books from countries you don't usually read from, and preferably books that had been translated. I completed ten books for the challenge, but there were some substitutions:
Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie(Nigeria) for No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (same country)
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami(Japan) for Kafka on the Shore (same author)
Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki(Japan) for Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (library lost latter)

The others I completed as planned...
Waiting by Ha Jin(China)
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez(Colombia)
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz(Egypt)
The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk(Turkey)
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert(France)
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro(Japan)
House of Spirits by Isabel Allende (I never reviewed it, even though I enjoyed it)

The best book: A tie between The Remains of the Day and Palace Walk. Remains was just stunning. Palace Walk really brought me in to a completely different culture and worldview, which was awesome.
What book could I have done without? Waiting by Ha Jin; you can see my review for why.
Any new authors? Tons! Ishiguro, Jin, Pamuk, Tanizaki, Adichie, and Murakami.
Books I did not finish: none, although it was a very close call with The Black Book.
What did I learn from this challenge? That I really love international literature, and that I should make more of an effort to seek it out. I learned about Nigeria's civil war, which I didn't know about at all, as well as more insight into Nasser-era Egypt.

(Note: thanks to Nyssaneala for the questions!)

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Historical Novels

From Eve's Alexandria, I now want to look into the following...

A Thousand Orange Trees
The Pope's Rhinoceros
The Dream of Scipio
Cloud Atlas
Wave Theory of Angels
Music and Silence
Oscar and Lucinda

Naomi (thoughts)

I read Naomi by Junichiro Tanizaki as my tenth, and final, Reading Across Borders selection. It's been called the Japanese Lolita, and while I can understand that, it was a completely different style of book.

If you've read Lolita, you know that Nabokov seduces the reader. He brings you to a disturbing place: understanding. As a twenty-year-old, heterosexual girl, I suddenly found myself emphathizing with Humphrey. I saw Lolita as a sexual object, and although it's difficult to admit, part of me was quite aroused by Humphrey's descriptions. To me, this was the real power of Nabokov: he brings the reader past judgement, past ethics, past identity, until the reader *is* Humphrey. It's deeply unsettling; I have yet to be able to make myself reread Lolita. I doubt I ever will.

In Naomi, Tanizaki portrays a leachourous old man, but he maintains distance. The reader always has space to judge. The plot is simple: an older man decides to "adopt" Naomi (which is an actual Japanese name-I didn't know that) and raise her into his perfect companion. He molds her into a fetishized, Westernized young woman who has always used sex to get her way. The rest of the book is about her fall from grace in the narrator's eyes.

The strength of Naomi lies in the characters, which are all interesting, and more importantly in the message. The narrator goes from referring to Naomi as a "young pet" to a "whore." Obliviously, he blathers on about his troubles in life. Meanwhile, the reader see the obvious: if she has become a whore, it's because you've made her that way. Tanizaki deftly illustrates (some) men's double-standards regarding women and their behavior. Of course, while the narrator is harshly judging Naomi, the reader is harshly judging the narrator.

This novel impressed me. I wasn't expecting everything that I got: the story has a richness and a flow to it that marks the very best tales. At the same time, it doesn't reach Lolita's dizzying heights. So, don't be scared off of picking up Naomi if Lolita disturbed you; that's not what this book is about.

Favorite Passages

For the modern beauty, an intelligent, quick-witted expression and attitude are more important that lovely features. (51)

I believe that when Antony was conquered by Cleopatra, it happened this way: little by little he was stripped of his resistance and ensnared. (54)

She was no longer chaste: not only did this thought cast a dark shadow over my heart; it also lowered the value of Naomi, who'd been my treasure, by more than half. This is because most of her value to me lay in the fact that I'd brought her up myself, that I myself had made her into the woman she was, and that only I knew every part of her body. For me, Naomi was the same as a fruit that I'd cultivated myself. I'd labored hard and spared no pains to bring that piece of fruit to its present, magnificent ripeness, and it was only proper that I, the cultivator, should be the one to taste it. (161)

"The woman has a mysterious, magical power, hasn't she? (198)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Whoot, whoot!

In honor of me finally finishing my big senior thesis, as well as completing the Reading Across Borders challenge, I decided to bring on a new challenge. And, although it's super late, I chose the Once Upon a Time challenge. :D I saw this when it actually began, but I was too swamped at the time to participate. However, now I feel that I have the time, and reading all of that science fiction made me crave some fantasy!

So, my list is as follows:

Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman: I love Neil Gaiman. A lot. And this is the only book of his I haven't read. I checked it out tonight and I'm already around page seventy!

The Ladies of Grace Adieu by Susanna Clark: I read Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norell in December, and I enjoyed it a lot. So, I'm looking forward to another book by her.

Mythago Wood by Robert Holdstick: saw it on another blogger's list.

Widdershins by Charles de Lint: ditto.

A Midsummer Night's Dream by William Shakespeare: only my favorite Shakespeare play ever!!!

Half of a Yellow Sun (thoughts)

I adored Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoza Adichie. Adichie is a master story-teller, providing the reader with exquisite personal stories wound up in a tragic national one. The story is set in Nigeria during the 1960s. For those who don't know (this included me before the book), Nigeria experienced a horrific civil war from 1967-1970. The book is divided into four parts, two pre-civil war and two during the civil war. However, they don't move in chronological order, instead it goes pre-war, war, pre-war, war. This device allows Adichie to build suspense regarding personal relationships, as well as show the reader just how much people changed during the war. The main characters are non-identical upper-class Nigerian twin sisters and their lovers, one a British guy, the other a revolutionary Nigerian uni prof. The final important character is a houseboy from the bush. Adichie rotates between these five characters' points of view, allowing the reader to view Nigeria from all sides.

This book is so many things at so many levels that it's difficult to do justice to it. As a sister myself, the story of the sisters' relationship rung true for me. One of the twins is (conventionally) beautiful, while the other isn't. They have different personalities as well, and aren't as close as either would like. I also enjoyed the story of Richard, the Brit in Nigeria. As a white man, Nigerians view him as an outsider. However, he eventually some to consider himself Nigerian, learning one of the tribal languages, staying in Nigeria throughout the war, etc. Adichie presents these facts but leaves it to the reader to 'find' the contradictions. The relationships each twin has with her lover spoke to me; the twins are in their mid-20s, and I'm in my early 20s, so I understood a lot of what they were going through. At points, it almost felt as if I was having a cozy chat with some good girlfriends. Meanwhile, the houseboy is struggling to change from his bush roots to a sophisticated city boy. The prof sends him to school, and he's treated like one of the family (albeit, a hard working member). For most of the novel, his story is mainly one of a kid going through adolescense, struggling with who he is, etc. However, towards the end, he is 'drafted' (i.e.-captured) into the military. All of a sudden, this likeable kid is doing some rather unspeakable things. I was very challenged, as the affection I felt for him earlier turned into outrage and horror.

And, of course, the war transcends all of these personal stories. We see the characters go from leading comfortable, upper-middle class lifestyles to being deprived, almost-starving war refugees. Also, for those of us who don't know anything about Nigerian history, the book provided enough background to understand why the civil war occured. In this sense, I feel that the university professor was Adichie's most obvious 'device': since he's plugged in with the revolutionaries, he explains a lot to the reader, often through the houseboy. Of course, I also just didn't like the professor (I didn't think he was good enough for his lover!), so perhaps I'm just insulting him. :) See-this is what was so brilliant about the book. Adichie made these characters real people; I almost want to be able to e-mail them and ask them some more questions.

I highly encourage everyone to read this book. It's an incredible introduction to Nigeria, as well as a well-written novel. To get a taste, look at the selections below.

Favorite Passages

There was something polished about her voice, about her; she was like the stone that lay right below a gushing spring, rubbed smooth by years and years of sparkling water, and looking at her was similar to finding that stone, knowing that there were so few like it. (24-5)

She was used to this, being grabbed by men who walked around in a cloud of cologne-drenched entitlement, with the presumption that, because they were powerful and her beautiful, they belonged together. (33)

Just as she had never seriously thought of having a child until now; the longing in the lower part of her belly was sudden and searing and new. She wanted the solid weight of a child, his child, in her body. (104)

Olanna felt the slow sadness of missing a person who was still there. (345)

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Ilium and Olympos (thoughts)

So, I ended up reading Iluim and Olympos by Dan Simmons as two of my Chunkster Challenges (they come to 1,643 pages-more than War and Peace). It's a two-book series, that should probably be published as one extra-large book, since the action continues seamlessly. As a disclaimer, I'm not a sci-fi fan. While I occasionally read fantasy (mainly David Eddings), I've never enjoyed a science-fiction book.

That being said, I was favourably impressed with Ilium. The plot is complicated, involving three main threads. In the first one, Simmons essentially decides to retell Homer's The Iliad in a sci-fi setting. In the second one, people are on Earth, but their lives are pretty unrecognisable for a twenty-first century human. In the third one, these robots (with some living parts) from Jupiter are flying out to Mars (where The Iliad is happening) and talking about Western literature (Shakespeare and Proust, mainly). Sound weird? Well, Simmons manages his stories pretty well, alternating between the three plots mainly by chapter. It's a good device for maintaining tension. Also, he manages to ground the book by strongly developing a handful of characters in each situation. That way, the reader always has a handle on what's going on. I actually raced through Ilium, occasionally glossing over uber-tech passages, because I truly cared about what would happen to the characters. I thought the plot was a little out of the box, but workable.

So, a little annoyed that Ilium ended so quickly, but curious about the characters' fates, I picked up Olympos. And everything fell apart. Simmons tried to combine The Tempest and The Odyssey in with The Iliad. It was bloody painful. I only stuck with it to see how he would manage to bring everything together. In the end, all of the plots collided, but at the point it felt so rigged and silly that I could hardly keep from laughing. The plot just became more and more outlandish, reminding me of why I don't like sci-fi. I'm not even going to attempt a plot summary; it would take just about as long as the book.

Would I recommend these books? Honestly, no. I would have recommended Ilium, but you can't read it and then not read Olympos. And Olympos is an 892-page waste of time.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Consistently Inconsistent

So, it seems like my blogging has slacked off lately. Sorry about that.

In the meantime, here's an awesome essay in the New York Times about the value of bad books! You'll need a free registration to read it.


I hope to have a review up later, and a couple more in the wings. Lately, I've realized it's my last month of college, and I've been living it up. This necessarily cuts down on reading and book review time. However, I have a fresh batch of scones ready, so a leisurely Sunday is calling my name.