Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Delta Wedding (thoughts) and Sense of Place

And now to return you to your regularly-scheduled programming...
a book review! and a last-minute entry into Maggie's sense of place contest.
Sense of Place: Mississippi Delta

She rode by the thick woods where the whirlpool lay, and something made her get off her horse and creep to the bank and look in-she almost never did, it was so creepy and scary....There were more eyes than hers here-frog eyes-snake eyes? She listened to the silence and then heard it stir, churn, churning in the early morning. She saw how snakes were turning and moving in the water, passing across each other just below the surface, and now and then a head horridly sticking up. The vines and the cyprus roots twisted and grew together on the shore and in the water more thickly than any roots should grow, gray and red, and some roots too moved and floated like hair. (161)

Since I don't live anywhere near Mississippi (shame), I had to find a picture online. In the one I chose, I think that the lighting, and the crowded trees are right; the creepiness isn't as strong as in the passage, since there're no snakes in the picture. So, I'm bending the rules and adding one more image...

Now, on to what I thought of the book!

Before this, I hadn't even heard of Eudora Welty; when I saw that Maggie highly recommended her, I decided to give her a try. Welty's known for her short stories, but I really wanted a novel for the challenge, and I went with Delta Wedding since it was longer than her other ones.

If I could describe the book in one word, I'd choose languid ("Slow; lacking vigor or force"). I mean that in a good way; the story feels very dreamy, and I can imagine laying on a porch, with a fan going slowly overhead, being too hot to even hold my head up for very long. The story is a portrait of the well-off Fairchilds family, who have gathered at their plantation for Dabney's wedding. It's set in the 1920s, and it feels very natural. Welty uses first-person throughout, but she switches which character we're seeing the world with. Thus, the reader gets a really good look at both family dynamics and how the different members see the world.

The richness of the story lies in both how different Welty can make the internal monologues of various characters and in her gorgeous prose. I felt like I was in Mississippi, and I strongly identified with all of the people, even though my background is nothing like theirs. This is a book that catches you by surprise; it feels like nothing is happening action-wise, but several characters go through emotional crises that feel as active as more traditional plots.

Ok, I'm not really getting my point across. I feel like this always happens with books that I really love! I think everyone who loves being immersed in a book, who enjoys character-driven novels, or who loves the South should definitely pick this book up. Reading it felt like eating ice cream on a hot day; a decadent treat that ends too quickly.

Favourite Passages

Grass softly touched her legs and her garter rosettes, growing sweet and springy for this was the country. On the narrow little walk along the front of the house, hung over with closing lemon lilies, there was a quieting and vanishing of sound. It was not yet dark. The sky was the color of violets, and the snow-white moon in the sky had not yet begun to shine. (6-7)

The girls that were old enough, dressed in colors called jade and flamingo, danced with each other around the dining-room table until the boys came to get them, and could be watched from the upper landing covorting below, like marvelous mermiads down a transparent sea. (9)

They were so filled with their energy that once when Laura saw some old map on the wall, with the blowing winds in the corners, mischievous-eyed and round-cheeked, blowing the ships and dolphins around Scotland, Laura had asked her mother if they were India's four brothers. (15)

The Fairchilds' movements were quick and on the instant, and that made you wonder, are they free? Laura was certain that they were
compelled-their favorite word. Flying against the bad things happening, they kissed you in rushes of tenderness. Maybe their delight was part of their beauty, its flicker as it went by, and their kissing of not only you but everybody in the room was a kind of spectacle, an outward thing. (18)

Her brown hair and her dark-blue eyes seemed part of her quietness-like the colors of water, reflective. Her Virginia voice, while no softer or lighter than theirs, was a less questioning, a never teasing one. It was a voice to speak to the one child or the one man her eyes would go to. Tyey all watched her with soft eyes, but distractedly. She was one of those little mothers that the wind seems almost to hurt, and they they needed to look after her. (24)

It was eternally cool in summer in this house; like the air of a dense little velvet-green wood it touched your forehead with stillness. Even the phone had a ring like a tiny silver bell. (51)

It was so hard to read at Shellmound. There was so much going on in real life. Laura had tried to read under the bed that morning, but Dabney had found her and pulled her out by the foot. Now with Volune I of
Saint Ronan's Well inside her pinafore, next to her skin, she went tiptoeing in the direction of the library, where no one ever went at this hour. (69)

The dream Ellen told Bluet was an actual one, for it would never have occured to her to tell anything untrue to a child, even an untrue version of a dream. (84)

Monday, July 30, 2007

"Tomorrow's Wind" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Preface: this is the second poem for bookwookey's challenge. See the caveat from the post below re: my lack of analytical skills!

Tomorrow's Wind" by Yevgeny Yevtushenko

Why am I without joy,
achieving everything,
but grasping
nothing at all?
I dream of the wind
that has overtaken me,
the wind
that has leaped over me.
It shreds
all the telephone lines that sag
from unending chatter,
and all that’s wasted,
all that’s turned sour
it catapults
into oblivion.
All sorts of butwhatifers,
like jelly in jackets,
whirled up in a vortex,
like fallen leaves,
shout down indignantly:
"How come?"
Where there’s no wind,
there’s no faith.
Let clammy red pencils
be strewn
among the reeds,
scattered madly
by tomorrow’s wind.
does not crawl
before idols,
it swirls scraps
of newspapers and posters,
yesterday’s glories,
turning somersaults
over warped roofs.
As if it had swilled
the Decembrists’ hot punch,
the wind flings upward
all the important little papers
that press us down
to the ground.
The wind
under constellations
the garbage
in which the world is bogged down:
which have ridden over people,
which has sprawled on us.
The wind
pulls away from sticky screens
all the bewitched
simpletons and fools,

and without thinking
plants them
like shashlik
on the spike of their beloved TV tower...
Timid youth,
I am preaching to you:
Charge forward,
headlong into the epoch,
without wasting
the wind of history
either on fads
or the flimsy.
new generation
must create
a special wind.
If it doesn’t shake
bits of dust,
young people
should send
an SOS.
is the age for a fresh airing.
In old age
it’s harder to be precocious,
if you put off
being young
in your youth.
Is it possible for you
all to be unfit?
Suck in the time
with a feverous mouth.
The calm will be
inhaled by you,
by the wind
And the wind,
making a gift of itself
to the universe,
is born,
in a burst,
and structures
built on sand
rightfully will crumble.
And I, having reared
these structures not a little,
will look on happily,
blaming no one,
as it withdraws,
arching its mane,
the wind
that has leaped over me.

So, I'm going to be a little more freewheeling in this response!

First, when I was reading through, I thought I'd clarify a couple words for people who might not have much experience with Russia. The Decembrists were a group of Russian noble officers who all fought in the Napoleanic wars. They spent time in Paris after Napleon's defeat, and there they were exposed to Enlightenment ideas. Coming back to imperialist Russia, they formed a secret society to talk about the possibility of reforms. When Tsar Alexander I died, there was confusion over the succession. The Decembrists took advantage of the confusion to take a stand in favour of a constitutional monarchy; when gathered in Palace Square to swear allegiance to the new tsar (Nicolas), they instead demanded Nicolas make reforms. It didn't go too well; Nicolas ended up executing a few of the leaders and sent most into exile in Siberia. In Russia, they've always been a symbol of honour, sacrifice, and reform. :) The other word is shashlik. This is much easier to explain-it's the Russian version of a meat kebab.

I loved this poem, because it seems to combine the hope and despair of the Soviet era. Yevtushenko is considered one of the greatest living poets; this poem certainly shows that. The way he structured the poem, like words were being blown by gusts of wind, was pretty awesome (as is Dewey for telling me the html tag that keeps it that way!). My favourite part is the sentence that begins "Wind does not crawl before idols" and the one that follows it. In this, we see his condemnation of Soviet heros (esp. Stalin and Lenin, whose statues you could find everywhere) and Soviet bureaucracy: "all the important little papers/that press us down/into the ground." But there's also his celebration of democracy with "the Decembrist's hot punch" and "scraps/of newspapers and posters." He celebrates both kinds of democracy: the top-down reforming leaders as well as the bottom-up grassroots change.

Yevtushenko has some incredibly strong images: he makes kebabs out of "simpletons and fools" on their "TV tower," and calls for the youth to "suck in the time/with a feverous mouth." Since the former image is immediately followed by an appeal to youth, it seems like he's showing his frustration at people who fritter their lives away, refusing to step out of their living rooms. His almost sexual description of the youth rising up is matched by a description of the wind being born, "sprawling/in a burst". He portrays the whole process of revolution to be an act of creation; then he addes images of destruction, "structures/built on sand/will rightfully crumble." While this is destructive, it's not violent, the way we might usually imagine revolution.

Alongside this active call to the youth, there's a considerable amount of nostalgia. In Yevtushenko's world, phone lines "sag/from unending chatter," there are "butwhatifers" and the poet argues that "in old age/it's harder to be precocious" (I loved that line as well). There's a sense that he feels he's too old, that it's time to pass the mantle on to the next generation.
Edited to add: the more I think about it, the more I think there's a certain amount of shame tinging his discussion of his own generation. It's interesting...some of my older profs in Russia displayed this type of shame; the kind of, how could we have let this happen to our country? And perhaps the source of his exhortion to the youth-his belief that the people *could* have done something about it. In actuality, though, I'm not sure that they could have. Russia had so many autocratic institutions in place, so when the Soviets took over they could merely expand things. I mean, obviously it wasn't destiny. But right after the revolution, many of the privileged Russians fled, while others stayed. The ones who stayed always blamed those who left. Perhaps they blamed themselves as well.

The way that Yevtushenko blends all of these emotions, and creates the kind of images that stay with you, shows his artistry. He has an exquisite sense of timing and balance that makes reading his poetry a true joy.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Blake's Songs of Innocence

Preface: This is the first poem for the challenge hosted at bookwookey. I don't pretend to be any good at poetry analysis; I took one class in college on writing poetry, because I needed an arts credit to graduate, and I can't draw. My most extensive experience with poetry is memorising famous Russian ones; that started me off, and now I enjoy memorising English ones as well. So, for me the most important thing about a poem is that I enjoy how it sounds; I tend to not worry about the meaning. Keep that in mind as you read my desperate, fumbling attempts over the next week.

"A Cradle Song" by William Blake
(note...here's the original with engravings)

Sweet dreams, form a shade
O'er my lovely infant's head!
Sweet dreams of pleasant streams
By happy, silent, moony beams!

Sweet Sleep, with soft down
Weave thy brows an infant crown!
Sweet Sleep, angel mild,
Hover o'er my happy child!

Sweet smiles, in the night
Hover over my delight!
Sweet smiles, mother's smiles,
All the livelong night beguiles.

Sweet moans, dovelike sighs,
Chase not slumber from thy eyes!
Sweet moans, sweeter smiles,
All the dovelike moans beguiles.

Sleep, sleep, happy child!
All creation slept and smiled.
Sleep, sleep, happy sleep,
While o'er thee thy mother weep.

Sweet babe, in thy face
Holy image I can trace;
Sweet babe, once like thee
Thy Maker lay, and wept for me:

Wept for me, for thee, for all,
When He was an infant small.
Thou His image ever see,
Heavenly face that smiles on thee!

Smiles on thee, on me, on all,
Who became an infant small;
Infant smiles are His own smiles;
Heaven and earth to peace beguiles.

I have to admit: I didn't expect to enjoy William Blake. I really don't like his paintings (number one reason-the colours), so I've always avoided his poetry. When I saw the Poetry Challenge, though, I thought that now would be as good a time as ever to tackle Songs of Innocence and Experience. After all, I feel that everyone *ought* to have read Blake, even if they don't enjoy him! So, imagine my surprise when I found his poetry to be beautiful, and evocative, and touching! For the challenge, I read the whole collection. For posting, however, I'm going to choose one from each part. Why'd I pick "A Cradle Song"? Well, I live with my baby niece, and as soon as I read through the poem, it just jumped at me.

The poem starts out soft and happy...
the first three stanzas are filled with adjectives like sweet, mild, pleasant. The mother seems to be friends with who she's addressing (dreams, sleep, smiles); the baby seems in a good place.

The fourth stanza continues with the soothing diction...
making the reader feel safe, but the addition of the word "moans" introduces something else.

Then, the fifth stanza approaches. It starts out quite positive: Blake repeats the word happy, but that's just him lulling the reader so that the jolt of the last line is all the sharper: "while o'er thee thy mother weep." After almost being rocked to sleep in perfect harmony, Blake goes back on the reader's trust. Now, it seems the mother is unhappy.

However, the closing stanzas clarify this. The mother is thinking about God, and when God became a baby. I'm fairly certain it's not a huge leap to assume that would be Jesus. ;) It closes on a feel-good, Jesus loves us kind of note.

In case you couldn't tell, I like the poem more when you chop off the last three stanzas. That way, you have the really strong (because unexpected) line ending the poem. However, I'm sure that Blake had a point to make; a quick minute at Wikipedia informed me that Blake liked Jesus, but didn't like the Church. Hmmm..apparently he developed his own religion and mythology. Quite interesting. (can you tell we never discussed Blake in my high school? I feel like my complete ignorance about him is embarrasing me) So, I suppose his Jesus references weren't ironic; they were a real sign of his beliefs. You have to admit, it's a nice belief-very rosy. Perhaps that's why this poem was from Songs of Innocence. ;)

Ok, I think I've rambled on long enough. I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to be doing for the Poetry Challenge (I was half tempted to just post the poem and tell people to read it), so I hope I've done my duty. This is definitely a poem that I'll memorise. Perhaps after this challenge I'll be so addicted to poetry that I'll start posting a poem a week. But without the analysis.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Counting Was Never My Strong Suit

So, I swear when I logged in to write a post last time, Blogger told me it was my 100th. But now looking at my published blog, it says that was only post #97. Whoops. Good thing that this is a reading blog and not a math one.

My new spreadsheet has inspired me to work harder at my TBR list. There was hardly any non-fiction on it! So, a la the attempt I made in February, I made a concerted effort to dig up interesting non fiction books. And boy, did I succeed! Including Feb's list, and ones I currently own, I now have 115 non-fic books that look interesting. Isn't that awesome? I've already mooched five of them, in preparation for a personal non-fic challenge. I plan on making a non-fic book pile to kick the challenge off in a month or two. This is all in support of my New Year's reso to read more non-fic. If people want, I'll happily post the list for others who like reading random non-fic. It won't be linked though-that'd be awful, trying to link 115 books.

I'm preparing for the Poetry Challenge, which starts tomorrow. Am rather terrified, but I have my first post written. Am very worried that the other participants are all literary types that will put me to shame. Am reminding myself that challenges are supposed to stretch one.

I'm going to try to get the review of Delta Wedding up later tonight. That way, I won't have to worry about it while I'm trying to finish up the Summer Reading Challenge and do the Poetry Challenge this week. It was such a good book, it deserves a glowing review.

I'm rambling. I think it's in response to attempting to analyse Blake.

Friday, July 27, 2007

My 100th Post!

In honor of 100 posts, I present a couple of pictures...

First, my book stack from yesterday's acquisitions.

From the bottom up
Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson ... I've heard about it on several blogs through the Southern Reading Challenge, so when I saw it for $6 at B&N I grabbed it!

My latest mooch arrived yesterday in the mail, How Reading Changed My Life by Anna Quindlen. Very excited about it!

First full price purchase? Keith Donahue's The Stolen Child. It looks super good, and I hadn't realised it was out in paperback, so when I saw it I just couldn't help myself. Plus, it's highly wishlisted on bookmooch, so if I end up not liking it, it'll be easy to send off. :)

Jane Austen: Her Life and Letters. It was $2. It's Jane Austen. It's written by her nephew. Need I say more?

Katherine Mansfield's Bliss and Other Stories, which I bought because I've been thinking about short stories lately, I've never read anything by a New Zealander, and it was only $2.

I grabbed a Miss Marple-At Bertram's Hotel, despite it not being on sale, because I've been craving Agatha lately. Plus, I intend to have all the Miss Marples in my library one day.

I mentioned yesterday that I was playing with Excel to develop a way to organise my books. Well, I enjoyed being able to sort, but I wasn't happy with the way it looked. Frankly, it was boring. Then, I remembered that I could change fonts, colours, etc. So, pretty soon I had developed a scheme. Author names are green for male, purple for female. Book titles are aqua for fiction, orange for non-fic. TBR is yellow (to get my attention) and TBA (to be acquired) is pink, which also gets my attention. Finally, read is navy blue to stand out from all the other characteristics. The result? I can quickly tell important things about books, and it looks super pretty! I'm rather pleased with myself. ;)

And with that, I'm going to get back to reading.

Oh-almost forgot! I definitely want to do a blog roll game (see blogg-y thoughts post), but I'm not sure what the best time would be. Any thoughts?

Blogging Tips (Meme)

Gentle Reader over at Shelf Life tagged me for a new meme-blogging tips

It’s very simple. When this is passed on to you, copy the whole thing, skim the list and put a * star beside those that you like. (Check out especially the * starred ones.)

Add the next number (1. 2. 3. 4. 5., etc.) and write your own blogging tip for other bloggers. Try to make your tip general.

After that, tag 10 other people. Link love some friends!

1. Look, read, and learn. **-http://www.neonscent.com/
2. Be, EXCELLENT to each other. **-http://www.bushmackel.com/
3. Don’t let money change ya! *-http://www.therandomforest.info/
4. Always reply to your comments. *****-http://chattiekat.com/
5. Link liberally — it keeps you and your friends afloat in the Sea of Technorati. **-http://chipsquips.com/
6. Don’t give up - persistence is fertile. *-http://www.velcro-city.co.uk/
7. Give link credit where credit is due. ***-http://www.sfsignal.com/
8. Pictures say a thousand words and can usually add to any post.**-http://scifichick.com/
9. Visit all the bloggers that leave comments for you - it's nice to know who is reading! **-http://stephaniesbooks.blogspot.com/
10. When commenting on others’ blogs, a few kind words go a long way. – * http://shelflifeblog.blogspot.com/
11. When you're starting out, comment on all the blogs you like to read; that way the bloggers will know that you exist! ;) http://astripedarmchair.blogspot.com

And now I have to tag 10 people, but I find that excessive, so I'm only tagging 7. Of course, I'm sure that some might get double-tagged. If so, sorry!
A Work in Progress
Educating Petunia
Maggie Reads
Reading is My Superpower
Reading Matters

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Blogg-y Thoughts

I've been trying to figure out some blog-related issues lately, so I thought that I'd share!

**The comments thing. Up until now, I've been replying to people's comments on my posts on their own blogs. To me, it made more sense-if I replied on their blogs, they'd definitely see it. However, I've noticed lately that all the other bloggers reply on their own blogs. Plus, sometimes it's weird to have a complete non sequiter comment on someone's post. So, I've decided to start answering on my own blog.

**Blogroll. In the past week or so (since I've feeling ill, which leads to lots of sedentary computer time), I've been looking for more book blogs. I know that there're a lot of great blogs out there that I just haven't stumbled across yet. So, I'm thinking of starting up another blogroll game, a la Dewey, but with a twist: I'd ask participants to leave comments suggesting blogs *not* in my blogroll as well as visiting the ones that are. Of course, I'd have book prizes (though probably not as many as Dewey offered). What does everyone think?

**TBR organisation. How does everyone keep their lists organised? Yesterday, I decided to create an Excel template to let me keep track of books I've read, books I own, and books on the tbr list. I like it, but there's something that feels kind of cold about Excel. You know? Before that, I was using bookmooch to keep track of tbr (whenever a book sounded interesting, I'd add to my wishlist or save-for-later), but I'd get frustrated when the site was down. Plus, I can't sort it the way Excel lets me.

**Challenges. I'm almost done with all the challenges I chose for the summer, so now I'm gearing up towards fall. Anyone run across new challenges they think are awesome? If so, please share! Also, I'm toying with the idea of some kind of short story challenge, but if any one knows of one already existing, let me know!

**A non-bloggy point. My copy of The Virgin in the Garden has gone into hiding. I was only about 50 pages in, but it's still frustrating. Hate it when books run away!

**(edited to add) For some reason, I forgot to mention The Bookworms Carnival hosted by Dewey when it first came out. I enjoyed it a lot, so I don't know how I didn't link it! Anyway, superfastreader is hosting the next one, with a submission deadline of August 10th. I'm trying to figure out if any of the books I've read that 'take my mind off the heat.' Here in CO, I feel like I have the opposite problem (I'm used to San Antonio summers), and I've been immersing myself in hot, humid, glorious summer days and nights!

That about sums it up. I finished The Eustance Diamonds last night and am now in love with Trollope. Once I finish my rave review of Delta Wedding, this one is up next.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Emma (thoughts)

I thought I'd take a break from my desperate, last-minute attempt to finish up the Summer Reading Challenge by August 1st (4 books, 1250 pages to go in 7 days) to talk about Emma.

I have been a devoted Jane Austen fan since I first picked up Pride and Prejudice in sixth grade. I own all of her published works, I talk about them all the time, I stick up for Jane when others try to diss her (yes, it's happened; no, it's not pretty), I make horrified faces at the P&P sequels I see at B&N (Pemberly erotica? we live in a cruel world), etc.

That being said, I hadn't read Emma in about five years. Isn't that sad? I own the Jeremy Northam movie version, and I probably watch it twice a year. But, in my mental rankings, Emma was second only to Sense and Sensibility for my least-favourite Austen. Which means I still enjoyed it more than a lot of other books I own! Nevertheless, when I reach for some Jane to add sparkle to my day, Emma gets passed by. So, when I was developing my list of classics for the Summer Reading Challenge, I decided to toss it into the mix.

Boy, am I glad that I did. I needed her last week, when my illness was threatening to get the better of me, and I was feeling pretty down. Being transported to Highbury for a little while was just what I needed. When Virginia Woolf talked about Jane, she said something to the effect that Austen's genius was the most difficult to catch in the act. (I just conducted a ten minute fruitless internet search for the quote, so maybe I'm imagining it) While that's true, I have to share what I believe to be the most cutting insult I have ever come across, and that to me represents Austen's stunning, but simultaneously subtle, ability with the English language:

"Mrs. Elton, as elegant as lace and pearls could make her, ..." (240)

Ouch. Emma also provides a very satisfying love scene; for me, more fulfulling than P&P's. However, I don't want to spoil Emma for anyone who doesn't know the ending, so I won't share my favourite passages. I'm not sure if there's anyone out there for whom the ending could be spoiled, but I would feel awful about it!

Well, the more I sit here staring at the screen, the more I realise that I don't have all that much to say about Emma. I refused to take so much as one lit class in college, because I worried about 'spoiling' my reading experience. To me, Jane Austen is the master for her characters and her light touch. To say anything more about the story would be silly. If you've never read Jane Austen, you should. Even if you've seen all the movies.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

I Won, I Won!

I never win anything, but I won a book in a drawing for the Summer Mystery Challenge hosted by Reviewed by Liz. Very exciting!

I finished Emma and The Door: expect reviews up soon. :) In the meantime, I was reading in my backyard the other morning, and I decided to take a picture. :)

The view.

My favourite mug. I bought it last year-it's handcrafted and *huge*. I drink tea out of it almost every morning! Do you guys have favourite mugs? The ones that make you feel happy, because they fit your hand perfectly, and hold enough tea/coffee that you never run out, and are gorgeous to boot? I'm always on the lookout for another great mug... I've had my eye on the one at Starbucks that says "Shhh-I'm reading" for awhile now!

Friday, July 20, 2007

Bound to Please (thoughts)

I've a sneaking suspicion that Michael Dirda is a bit of an ass. Why? First, it's that he subtitled his book "An Extraordinary One-Volume Literary Education." And then, well, it's sentences like this....

"By 'literary' reading, the NEA report means almost any work that isn't a textbook or business report. So the category embraces mysteries, chick-lit, adventure novels, westerns, fantasy and science ficion, spy thrillers, possibly even children's books (this isn't clear). In short, almost everthing. Now, although I enjoy trolling in nearly all of fiction's genres-even, on occasion, checking out Harlequin romances, whose fans probably account for most of the people who get through a dozen or more titles a year-I still don't think of these books as, for the most part, serious reading, as literary reading." (xxiv)
-Note the snide remark that most reading Americans must be addicted to Harlequin-

"But those who really care about literature nearly always sit down with a pencil in their hands, to underline, mark favorite passages, argue in the margins." (xxiv)
-Note the charming assumption that if I don't like to disfigure my books, I don't love them-

"Who now among the young aspires to be cultivated and learned, which takes discipline, rather than breezily provocative, wise-crackingly "edgy"? (xxv)
-My favourite assumption from older people: since I'm young, I don't value culture-

"Come the dawn, though, and our good intentions usually evaporate. Why persist with Plutarch or George Eliot or Beckett or William Gaddis when you can drop into a chat room or line up at the multiplex for this week's timeless Hollywood blockbuster?...Instead of actually reading Tocqueville or Henry Adams, we just check out the latest blogs." (xxvi)

That was just the prologue. He also sometimes appends 'postscripts' to his reviews that usually highlight how special Dirda is. For example,
"I still reread The Unquiet Grace every year or two and, even though I recognize its occasional sentimentality and period flavor, continue to find it a mirror to my own heart." (483)

Throughout the actual reviews (culled from almost three decades of the WP Book World) runs the sentiment that Dirda, unlike the 'common' reader, can appreciate the true value of literature. Through his writing, he hopes to raise us uninspired masses into a place where we can bask in his literary glow. Dirda's one of those people who uses 'should' and 'ought' quite often.

Best of all, Dirda is a hypocrite. Towards the end of the book, he includes an essay he wrote on education. Among the prentensious claims and ponderous delivery, he argues for multiculturalism, with sentences like "Our schools should introduce young people to the world's cultural richness and variety..." (505) and "Schools really should take pains to include more work by women." (506) And yet, in a book that has exactly 500 pages devoted to 110 reviews, would you like to know how many authors Dirda looks at who are not from the US or Europe? 3: 1001 Nights, Borges, and de Assis (Brazilian). He also deigns to include 4 women authors to 'balance out' the 106 men. This in a book that claims to provide to any reader a "one-volume literary education." Well, I guess Dirda can always fall back on that well-worn classic: do as I say, not as I do.

So, needless to say, Dirda is not someone I would ever want to run into at a cocktail party. Unlike Nick Hornby (see my effusions on The Polysyllabic Spree, another collection of previously-published reviews), Dirda represents, to me, everything that's wrong about literary criticism.

That being said, I'm glad I read this book, and I'll probably read his other collections of reviews. Why? Quite simple, because he has a comparative literature background and has been reviewing books for longer than I've been alive. The book was a great resource for new (European, male) authors. I have a list as long as my arm.

So, while Dirda and I are certainly not kindred spirits, I'll tolerate his pretensions in order to be introduced to new authors. Of course, as a common reader, I'm obviously unable to appreciate books with the same depth as Dirda. But at least I spend my time with my nose in a book, and not upturned at the rest of the population.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Les Liasons Dangereuses and Cousin Bette (thoughts)

Sorry this review has taken so long-sometimes it's difficult to figure out how to approach a book. For me, Les Liasons dangereuses presented many challenges; not least of which the title! I've used both the English and French versions variously when I talk about it. I'll probably continue to do so throughout this entry! At a deeper level, this book presented still more complexities. I went into it knowing the basic story; I've seen the film version with Glenn Close (and five hundred other stars!) and the modern adaptation Cruel Intentions. However, I haven't seen either movie in a long time, so the various actors weren't stuck in my mind in the roles. My first thought when I opened up the book? "Oh God, it's going to be all letters." I'm not a big fan of the epistolatory novel; I don't mind a few letters scattered throughout a book, but for some reason I don't usually get into books written in such a format. That being said, for the first half of the book, I quite enjoyed reading the different styles. However, it eventually grew old; furthermore, all of the action (considerably racy and exciting) takes place off scene. I expected the book to get my blood going; in reality, the letters kept me comfortably removed from any passion. So, while I'm glad that I read Dangerous Liasons, it failed to meet my expectations.

I think that its most interesting to compare this book to Balzac's Cousin Bette. There are enough similarities to make such an analysis worthwhile: both are set in France, although one is pre-Revolutionary, the other post, both deal with sex and intrigue and revenge, both have a variety of characters that feel sometimes one-dimensional, both have tidy endings wherein the good are rewarded and the bad punished. However, in Cousin Bette the blood pulses. Its plot is far-reaching and organic, but it's centered around Baron Hulst's family and everyone connected to the family members. Balzac draws on all levels of society to people the novel: from the rich merchant friend, to the cheap whores, to the artists, to the cheating gentlewomen, the reader has plenty of scope for imagination. And, of course, there's Cousin Bette, who spends her time manipulating things behind the scenes to bring Hulst's wife and daughter to ruin.

Balzac provided me all of the passion I searched for in vain in Les Liasons Dangereuses. Since de Laclos tells the story through letters, his characters all have time to reflect on their actions. They present themselves in their personal 'ideal light,' and they often have ulterior motives for what they choose to discuss in their letters. In one sense, this is quite fun: it allows the reader to engage a fair amount of psychological analysis. And yet, all of the letters retained a certain 'look at me quality:' even the passion expressed has a plastic wuality. I never 'became' the characters, the way that I inhabited Balzac's creations. I craved revenge with Bette, I fell for the artist with Hortense, I charmed my gentlemen callers with Madame Marneffe. I didn't want to stop reading Balzac, because I wanted to know what happened to everyone; Dangerous Liasons I read more leisurely, since the plot, while compelling in principle, was not presented in a compelling manner. Compare the following passages:

Then I knew love. But how far was I from complaining! Determined to bury it in eternal silence, I abandoned myself without fear, as without reserve, to this delicious sentiment. Each day augmented its sway. Soon the pleasure of seeing you changed to a need. Were you absent for a moment? my heart was sore with sadness; at the sound which announced your return, it palpitated with joy. I only existed for you and through you. (82)

When Hortense had read the letter, and re-read it, she could see only the white paper barred with black lines; only the paper existed in the universe, everything else was darkness. The glare of the conflagration that was consuming the edifice of her happiness lit up the paper, while utter darkness surrounded her. Her little boy's cries as he played came to her ear as if he were in a deep valley and she on a high mountain. To be so insulted, at twenty-four years of age, in the full splendour of her beauty, adorned with a pure and devoted love: it was not a mere dagger-thrust, it was death. (254)

In both of these, the emotions expressed are a little histronic. However, in the first one, the speaker never really loses control; while reading of an 'abandonment to passion,' the reader can't feel the abandonment, the total loss of composure. In the second one, the reader (well, at least me as the reader), immediately begins to sympathise with Hortense. Like her, the reader sees the world blacken around her, barely hears the little boy, feels mortally offended. Look at Balzac's mastery of language, how quickly he evokes Hortense's inner thoughts. Reading such a master is a pleasure!

In the end, for me, it comes down to if I can step into the role of characters in a novel. Balzac deftly brings me into their world, while de Laclos (more through his choice of presentation than any defects of language) leaves me outside the window, looking in. I'd rather be with Balzac every time. :)

Favourite Passages from Cousin Bette

Virginity, like all abnormal states, has its characterisitc qualities, its fascinating greatness. (118)

with lace. She was like one of those luscious fruits, arranged enticingly on a fine plate, which make the very metal of the knife-blade ache to bite them. (183)

To think, to dream, to conceive fine works, is a delightful occupation. It is dreaming cigar-smoke dreams, or living a courtesan's self-indlufent life. THe work of art to be created is envisaged in the exhilaration of conception, with its infant grace, and the scented colour of its flower and the bursting juices of its fruit. These are the pleasures in the imagination of a work of art's conception. (214-5)

"I?" said the Lorraine peassant. "I have seen vengeance exacted everywhere throughout creation. Even insects die to satisfy their need to avenge themselves when they are attacked! And these gentlement," she said, with a gesture towards the priest, "don't they tell us that God avenges himself, and that his vengeance is eternal?" (423)

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Re: Potter

Ok, I swear I'll have a review up soon! In fact, I've discovered a way to approach Dangerous Liasons, and it's through Balzac. :) I just finished Cousin Bette, and I'm fascinated by the similarities and differences between the two.

In the meantime, I really enjoyed reading this post over at Book Chase. Sam quotes from a WP Book World column that I will shortly be running over to read, and shares his own opinion, regarding the Harry Potter phenomenon. This was very timely to my own reading life, as I explain in a (probably over-long) comment on his post. As I am rather lazy (or, should I say, efficient?), I'm just copying and pasting most of it over here, and then expanding.

I read the first 3 Harry books when I was 12, when I still lived in England and before they had become such a pop hit, and I really enjoyed them. I own the first 4, although by the 4th one I was starting to become less impressed. When I finally got around to reading the 5th one, I hated it. A lot. I only ended up reading the 6th one because I went on a road trip w/ a friend and she wanted to listen to it on cd.

So, with that background, yesterday I found myself thinking that I should pre-order the 7th. Why? Well, because I figured if I didn't read it right away, the ending would be given away. So, in preperation, I grabbed the 1st one off my shelf and reread it.

And I came to a realisation. I'm not 12 anymore. I don't care about how the series ends; in fact, I remember almost nothing from the 5th and 6th books. And that made me feel guilty. Was there something wrong with me? Why wasn't I in love with Harry and Ron and Hermione? Why didn't I care when certain very important characters died?

Now, I'm not dissing all of the people who love the series. I'm certainly not dissing adults who read children's books-to this day, I love Anne of Green Gables, Narnia, and His Dark Materials. I'm not even dissing the books themselves. I'm basically just giving myself permission to not enjoy them. And that sounds heretical, even now when I type it. I mean, I'm not a book snob. :) I enjoy my reading fluff as much as the next person. But I'm finding myself aligned with the snobb-ish book critics on this one.

Well, that's about all I have to say on the topic. I suppose I just wanted to contribute to the discussion Sam's opened up. How do you all stand on the Potter phenomenon? Do you dress up and attend the release parties? Do your kids? Do you refuse to read it because it's 'too popular'? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Do any of you feel, like I did, that you *have* to like the books? I mean, these are the books that are making America read again. How could an avid reader not enjoy them? Food for thought.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Quality v. Quantity

Recently, I've been doing multiple shorter reviews in lieu of a longer focus on one particular book. This change stemmed from my realisation that in my last reading quarter, I read 45 books but only wrote 19 reviews. Therefore, I made the well-meaning decision to try to review every book that I read this quarter.

However, I'm now in the middle of Dirda's Bound to Please, and I've realised that I much enjoy writing the longer, more thoughtful reviews. To me, the short ones feel like little more than book reports, and it seems as if many of the books that I'm reading deserve more. Therefore, I've decided to go back to my old style, and not worry about the books I'm not reviewing. I'm hoping that I will find the self-discipline to review more of the books that I truly love, but since the blog is supposed to be fun, I'm not going to stress myself out over it.

What do you guys think? How do you strike a balance between talking about a lot of books, and giving the good books the attention they deserve? Do you find that sometimes, while you're reading a book, you're already mentally composing your review? I do that sometimes. I already have most of my discussion of Blink worked out in my head-I just need to type it out. Meanwhile, though, I'm having less success in trying to figure out how to approach Dangerous Liasons. I can't even decide how much I liked the book! Ah, well. It probably doesn't help that the changing weather has made my fibromyalgia flare up. This is good for reading, but not so good for critical thinking. ;)

Monday, July 9, 2007

A Mixed Bag (The Virgin's Lover, A Sense of the World, The Eyre Affair)

In the interest of my new goal to write at least a blurb about every book I read for the rest of the year, I'm combining a very random selection of books. Bear with me. :) Oh, and in case it isn't obvious, I decided to read The Eyre Affair first; I started and finished it last night (up waaay past my bed time!).

The Virgin's Lover by Philippa Gregory

I'd heard a lot about Gregory but never read anything. So when I saw this in the library, I thought it'd be as good a time as any to check her out; I love good historical fiction. Unfortunately, I wouldn't classify this as good historical fiction. First off, a quick plot summary: Elizabeth is on her throne, but it's a very shaky throne. Her childhood friend Robert Dudley sees Elizabeth, and the love that grows between them, as his way to ultimate power in England. But, Dudley is already married. What will happen? I'll give Gregory this: she knows how to write a good yarn. I read this very quickly, and even when I realised I didn't like it I was already two-thirds of the way through it. So, why did I only give it two stars? Well, first of all I didn't like any of the characters. It's difficult to enjoy a novel when you dislike all the people in it; I didn't really care what happened to any of them. Secondly, it didn't feel like authentic historical fiction; the narrative voices of the different characters (Gregory switches pov) sounded contemporary. That annoyed me. I know that a lot of people really like Gregory, and I think she'd be a good fluff author. This just wasn't my style of fluff. :)

A Sense of the World by Jason Roberts

I saw this in the library's new non-fic section, and since I'm trying to up my non-fic reads, I grabbed it. It's a biography of a late eighteenth-century/early nineteenth explorer James Holman. Holman travelled through the world more than any of his contemporaries, and he was blind. Roberts (the biographer) came across a reference to The Blind Traveller in the course of other research and became fascinated with Holman. Unfortunately, not many papers survive. Therefore, although this is non-fiction, Roberts fills in many of the blanks with his imagination. The book was very well-written; I enjoyed following along with the story. However, from a scholarly point of view, Roberts takes astonishing liberties. Fortunately, history isn't my field, so the liberties didn't bother me. :) Instead, I loved going with this blind man across the Russian Siberia, through the Brazilian interior, and around the rest of the globe. I'd recommend this to anyone who enjoys biographers or armchair travel. In fact, I think it'd make a good selection for Lesley's new challenge!

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I read this book a couple of years ago, and I distinctly remember wondering what all the fuss was about. However, I've heard so many good things about the series in the blogging community that I decided to give it another chance. So, I mooched the first two Thursday Next books. Last night, I cracked open the first one. And I loved it! I don't know how I've changed in the three years since I read it last, but obviously I have. The series takes place in an alternate universe where England is ruled by the Goliath Corporation and literature is a governmental concern. Thursday Next is part of the Literatec, the special ops people who are concerned with any literary crime (forgery, etc.). It's small peanuts compared to other special ops units; however, Next finds herself upgraded when an oddly powerful sociopath who used to be her professor is on the loose. He's decided to begin holding literary characters for ransom; it's up to Next to save Jane Eyre! The story is full of hilarious literary references, as well as just enough romance to satisfy my girly soul. :D I can't wait to read the sequel! If you haven't read this yet, I'd give it a shot.

Whew...so much for the marathon reviewing. I'm working on more in-depth reviews of Dangerous Liasons and The Woman in White. Blogging can be tiring sometimes!

Sunday, July 8, 2007


I tore through The Woman in White-finished it in less than 24 hours. Expect a positive review shortly. :) Right now, I'm trying to figure out where to go next. Delta Wedding? I'm not sure the weather's right for a Mississippi adventure. Another classic? I doubt it'll live up to The Woman in White. I'm enjoying The Door, but it's not grabbing me by the collar and making me read it. So, what to do? I'm opening it up to you guys! If you had the choice, would you read
The Eyre Affair
Bel Canto
The Virgin in the Garden
The Little Country
for fiction?
and for non-fiction
Wild Swans
Galileo's Daughter
Nickel and Dimed
The Assassin's Gate

Thanks in advance for the input. :) And enjoy the latest book pile! Some of these I mooched, but I bought The Assassin's Gate (20% off coupon), Arsinian Tales (on clearance), and Wormwood (ditto) at B&N. Are any of you guys reading great books right now? I'm going to the library tomorrow, so feel free to add some other suggestions. :)

Friday, July 6, 2007

Double Shot of Mystery (The Secret History and Some Danger Involved)

Yesterday, I wrote two long, interesting reviews of my most recent Summer Mystery Challenge reads. But you'll have to take my word on that-the internet ate them. It was very depressing. So now you have abbreviated versions of them!

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I chose The Secret History for my Summer Mystery Challenge after Mullan talked about Tartt a lot in How Novels Work. This certainly isn't a traditional mystery; you know from the prolgoue who is killed and who killed him. The focus of the book is the "why". It's quite interesting to watch the seemingly 'inevitable' chain of events that results in murder. Tartt is very good at bringing the reader in, and making her really understand how normal people end up killing others. I really enjoyed the setting of the book. It takes place at a small liberal arts college in middle-of-nowhere, Vermont. Since I went to a small liberal arts college in middle-of-nowhere, Illinois, I loved seeing all the insularity and quirkiness of such institutions recreated. The insularity is further accented by the narrator's involvement in the Classics department; an elite group of students hand-selected by the professor who take all of their classes together and ignore the rest of the school. Except for the narrator (a poor, blue collar guy who transfers in and finds himself starstruck), the five students are incredibly rich and 'different' from others. While this was a good book, it had some flaws. One little one that just distracted me throughout was the time period. I couldn't for the life of me figure out when the book was supposed to be taking place; Tartt began writing it when she was in college in the mid-80s, and it was published in the early 90s. However, sometimes it felt like it was set a few decades earlier. Quite distracting. Also, the book was about 500 pages. The first 400 went very quickly, and I enjoyed reading them. The last 100 dragged. A lot. Like, painful, just-let-me-get-to-the-end-of-this-chapter dragging. That's my biggest problem with the book; it was in serious need of a good editor. Nevertheless, these flaws just prevented it from getting from that fifth star. I'd recommend this to people who enjoy psychological thrillers, and to anyone who went to a small liberal arts college!

Some Danger Involved by Will Thomas

Some Danger is hands-down my favorite Summer Mystery read so far. It's set in Victorian England. In the Holmes tradition, Thomas has an insanely smart and talented lead detective (Barker) whose stories are told from the point of view of a more-human assistant (Llewellyn). However, unlike Watson, Llewellyn is an intelligent human being; his confusion stems from his newness to the detecting business. Throughout the book, the reader gets to go along with Llewellyn, as he's tossed into a new environment and begins to find his bearings. The mystery itself isn't what you'd call cozy; Barker is called in to find out who's inciting violence against London's Jewish population. The reader does meet a pool of suspects, though, so you can guess who the killer is. Meanwhile, you get glimpses of both Barker and Llewellyn's difficult pasts. Thomas has created very sympathetic main characters, a realistic setting, and a tightly-woven plot. The writing itself is strong as well; not at all fancy but straight-forward and to the point. I'd highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys mysteries or historical novels.

Favourite Passages

The room had built-in bookcases on all sides, from floor to ceiling. Two comfortable chairs in studded green leather flanked an Arabian octagonal table, with an oil lamp. There was a fireplace in marble, with a fendered grate, and a faded Persian carpet that dominated the room in an abstract design of red and green. A ladder on rollers navigated most of the shelves, by means of a circular track. It was all a bibliophile could want. (145)

The most remarkable feature was his eyes, a deep golden color; they regarded you speculatively, as if you were prey. He was quick to smile, but it was a smaile that left one cold. His hand rested on a small glass dome, the kind one uses for watches or trinkets. Altogether, it was as if someone had stuffed a tiger into a suit of clothes. (166)

"What are we doing, sir?"
"That should be obvious. We are getting drunk and hearing the story of your life." (187)

Monday, July 2, 2007

Snapshots: Heart-Shaped Box and French Lessons

As I said in my review of the last reading quarter, I'm annoyed with myself for not reviewing more of the books that I read. I've noticed that, especially now, I tend to save my energy for reviewing challenge books; this has meant that some other great books go by the wayside. So, I'm going to try doing posts with 2 or 3 mini-reviews. Here's the first one!

Heart Shaped Box

Joe Hills' Heart Shaped Box is a stunning piece of fiction. It manages to be both literary and very, very creepy.

Joe Hill is Stephen King's son, but he kept that secret for quite awhile (read more about Hill here). Although they both write horror, they certainly have very different styles and tones. So, if you don't like Stephen King, don't think that Hill is a carbon copy. In fact, I find Hill's writing to be much more sophisticated than his father's.

I picked up Heart Shaped Box from the library, thinking it was a collection of short stories. I don't know why I thought that; it's actually a novel. It tells the story of Jude (a former metal rock star, and now a serial dater of young Goth chicks), his girlfriend Georgia, and their fight with a truly nasty ghost. Throughout the story, seemingly bad guys become good, good guys become bad, both through new revelations to the reader and through personal transformations experienced by the characters.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone who loves a good ghost story, but also to anyone who appreciates just a well-crafted story. I am very impressed; Joe Hill is definitely on my list of authors to watch.

Favorite Passages

"Why do you ask so many damn questions?" he wanted to know...
"I'd rather ask questions," she said, "than answer them." (209)

Danny did not think coke and computers were anything alike. But Jude had seen the way people hunched over their screens, clicking the refresh button again and again, waiting for some crucial if meaningless hit of informations, and he thought it was almost exactly the same. (219-20)

"No plane. Planes are too fast. You can't go south on a plane. You need to drive. Or take a train. You need to watch the dirt turn to clay. You need to look at all the junkyards full of rustin' cars. You need to go over a few bridges." (258)

French Lessons: A Memoir

In French Lessons, Alice Kaplan looks at how French has affected everything she's done and explores various periods of her life when French played a large role. Part of the book is certainly a testament to the intoxication of a foreign language, and to the beauty of French. She provides quite a few passages of French (w/ translations beneath), which is nice for people like me who have studied the language. I agree with her than French is beautiful, and I'm impressed by her aptitude with the language.

However, this book is so much more than that. Kaplan has had quite an interesting life. Her father was a lawyer at the Nuremburg trials, and the book is as much about Kaplan's Jewish identity as it is about studying French. I have Jewish friends, but I'm not Jewish, and this book provided a lot of insight into Jewish culture. I appreciated how deep she took us into her own psyche; it takes a lot of courage to psychologyically strip for strangers!

The first part of the book focuses on her childhood, while the second examines her intellectual development (from college student to studying abroad to grad student to professor). Both parts are well written, though I enjoyed the former a little more. Kaplan captures the essence of childhood quite powerfully. Much of the later book is her attempt to reconcile her fascination with French fascist writers and intellectuals with her Jewish heritage. The book is held together, as it meanders from topic to topic and time period to time period, by a central theme: Kaplan's quest to create an identity for herself. The book contains a powerful truth about the way people actively seek to create their own characters, by cultivating quirks or wearing certain clothes or espousing certain philosophies. I think almost anyone can relate to these truths; I certainly did.

Sometimes, the book dragged a bit, but all in all it exceeded my expectations. This is the first book mooch acquisition that I've read, and I hope all the others are as good!

Favourite Passages

The school encouraged my belief that I had come through my chidhood and that adolescence, too, was behind me. I took up smoking in the smoking room. I drank coffee at breakfast. I studied five hours a day. (50)

Girls with thick manes of hair, the most beautiful girls I had ever seen. French-speaking Lebanese girls. The French-speaking students wore tight wool pullovers, with white shirt cuffs folded over the sweater in a way that made you lust over their wrists, and gold bracelists in rows on their wrists, real good, from the souks of Arabia. (50-1)

Why did I hide in French? If life got too messy, I could take off into my second world. Writing about it has made me air my suspicions, my anger, my longings, to people for whom it's come as a total surprise. There was a time when I even spoke in a different register in French-higher and excited, I was sliding up to those high notes in some kind of hyped-up theatrical world of my own making. (216)

She talked about literature in a way I recognized from my private experience of reading but had never articulated. She didn't worship literature as "high art" the way my high school English teachers did. She didn't drop names. She entered the poem she was teaching. She showed us around. She was baffled by literature, amused by it, suspicious of it. Literauter is essential to survival and impossible to understand. Literature lies and tells the truth about lying. (75)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

The Secret Life of Bees (thoughts)

Usually, I try not to double-post on the same day. However, I wrote the review and I just can't stop myself from sharing it. :) If you're interested in my reading breakdown for the past 3 months, or in seeing my latest bookmooches, then definitely look at my entry below as well!

I didn't expect to love Sue Monk Kidd's The Secret Life of Bees. I'm always wary of best-sellers, so even though I put it on my Southern Reading Challenge list, I wasn't sure I'd get to it. In Barnes and Noble, however, the only copies of The Color Purple they had carried the Oprah book seal (bothing against Oprah-I just don't like things marring my book covers), so I went with Secret Life. Then, it sat in my pile of B&N purchases for a couple weeks, until I decided to pick it up and leaf through it. That casual perusal turned into a day-long marathon reading session; I simply couldn't put the book down. When I finished it, I had that satisfied reader's glow.

But why did I love Secret Life so much? Was it the plot? For those who aren't acquainted with the book, Lily Owens is a precocious just-turned-fourteen-year-old living in South Carolina in 1964. Her mother died (mysteriously) when she was young, leaving her with an abusive (albeit, the lighter end of the abuse spectrum...still bad, but not I-don't-want-to-read-this-it's-so-awful bad) father and a black nanny/surrogate mother, Rosaleen. When Rosaleen gets into trouble with the white racists (the novel is set against the signing of the Civil Rights Act), Lily seizes the excuse to run away from home, taking Rosaleen with her. They set out for a town whose name Lily found on the back of a picture that used to belong to her mother. Arriving, they find protection with a bee-keeping trio of black sisters whose self-sufficiency leaves Lily in awe. That summer, under the influence of these strong women, Lily begins to grow up; she faces everything from falling in love to learning the truth about her mother. I certainly enjoyed the plot; Sue Monk Kidd is good at revealing just glimpses of people's secrets, until it's suddenly time that they come out in the open. The plot moves along by teasing the reader with this information; in addition to the micro-level plot, she also develops a larger plot of racial tensions in the Deep South during the 1960s, which is well-woven and leaves it to the reader to judge. While the plotting was impressive, it was not my favorite part of the book.

Was it the themes, then? Sue Monk Kidd covers everything from racism to feminist theology to the 'greyness' that is other people. Perhaps I should explain what I mean by this last point. Monk Kidd resists the urge to characticture either the good or bad characters. Even Lily's father, whom we start out detesting for not loving and being mean to Lily becomes a flesh-and-blodd character with strengths and weaknesses by the end. The other characters' actions towards Lily, whether good or bad, are slowly explained (as Lily begins to look beyond her own preconceptions), and the reader learns with Lily about the complexity of any human being. This is an important theme, and well-executed. The feminist theology in the book-the bee keeping sisters have their own religion that revolves around a Black Madonna-is also a welcome presence. It's nice to see strong women finding the divine in its female form, instead of empowering only male religious figures. I grew up Catholic, and I always felt more pulled to Mary than God or Jesus, so that part of the book resonated with me. The racism is more in the background, but it does intrude to affect the lives of many of Lily's new friends. As a white girl, Lily hasn't realised how terrifying racism can be, until she sees it firsthand. Interestingly enough, she's usually angry at her black friends for standing up to the racists, which results in them going to jail/getting beat up/etc. instead of just backing down and staying safe. Meanwhile, all of her black friends challenge her own inherent racist views; at one point, she admits to herself that until she met the sisters, she didn't realise black people could be as smart as white people. Rosaleen, while she is Lily's main care giver, resists any Mammy-like stereotypes, berating Lily for thinking she needed to "save" her. The equal attention given to overt and latent racism makes the book quite powerful. For all that, though, you never love a book for its themes!

So, it must have been the characters. Certainly, they're all unique and vivid and most of them are women taking control over their lives. This book is about women: real, loveable women. They don't always do the right thing; in fact, sometimes they don't know what the right thing is. But, they all know that it's important to lead a well-examined life. This definitely appeals to me. Lily is painfully honest with herself, which allows the reader to really enter her life at this period of transformation. Meanwhile, the black women who take her in all end up becoming her mothers, though some are better than others! I'm afraid to talk too much about the characters, because I want you to go meet them for yourself. Suffice it to say, I really wish I could go visit all of them: that's how real they felt.

In the end, I think I loved Secret Life for all of the above reasons. After all, if great characters are stuck in a mediocre plot, or showing hackneyed themes, a book loses its power. Secret Life stunned me for the interplay between all these facets of a good novel; everything felt like it was balanced just so. And the book has a shimmer of magical realism about it, which always makes me happy. Some of the characters feel other-wordly, some of the plot coincidences destined. It's more subtle than Allende or Rushdie's willingness to play with the laws of reality, but nevertheless Sue Monk Kidd certainly adjusts the world of Secret Life. Just a little, but it's enough. Added to that is the book's essential Southerness; most of the story takes place during a South Carolina summer. You can feel the heat, hear the drawls, taste the okra. Sue Monk Kidd knows the South (she's from small-town Georgie, went to school at TCU, and now lives in South Carolina), and she brings you into it. Every woman should go read this book. I know that I'll treasure it.

Favourite Passages

I went off into a daydream about Zach pulling the truck over because he couldn't see to drive for the snow and us having a snowball fight, blasting each other with soft white snow cotton. I imagined us building a snow cave, sleeping with our bodies twined together to get warm, our arms and legs like black-and-white braids. (124)

August had explained to me how when they were children and their special month came around, their mother excused them from house chores and let them eat all their favorite foods even if it wrecked their teeth and stay up a full hour later at night doing whatever their heart desired. August said that her heart had desired to read books, so the whole month she got to prop on the sofa in the quiet of the living room reading after her sisters went to bed. To listen to August talk, it had been the highlight of her youth. (136)

All four of us turned into water nymphs and danced around the cool spray, just the way it must have been when Indians danced circles around blazing fires. Squirrels and Carolina wrens hopped as close as they dared and drank from the puddles, and you could almost see the blades of brown grass lift themselves up and turn green. (168)

That night, in my bed, when I closed my eyes, bee hum ran through my body. Ran through the whole earth. It was the oldest sound there was. Souls flying away. (213)

It is the peculiar nature of the world to go on spinning no matter what sort of heartbreak is happening (279)

Each day I visit black Mary, who looks at me with her face, older than old and ugly in a beautiful way. It seems the crevices run deeper in her body each time I see her, that her wooden skin ages before my eyes. I never get tired of looking at her thick arm jutting out, her fist like a bulb about to explode. She is a muscle of love, this Mary. (302)

And there they were. All these mothers. I have more mothers than any eight girls off the street. They are the moons shining over me. (302)

Spring in Review (and the promised bookmooch pile pic)

Wow! Half of 2007 is gone; how weird is that? Anyway, it's time to look back at this quarter of the year and check out my reading and blogging!

Total: 45
Non-Fic: 13
Audio: 3
New Authors: 31
Women Authors: 20
African Lit: 1
East Asian Lit: 2
Auto/Bios/Memoirs Read: 4
Five Star Books: 11
One or Two Star Books: 6

Reviews Published: 19
Entries Made: 40
Challenges Completed: 4
Challenges Participated In: 7

So, I still haven't achieved my 3:2 fic:nonfic ratio, but at least I've kept it at about 3:1. I'll try to focus more on non-fiction; there is a lot of non-fiction that sounds interesting, but usually it takes me longer to read non-fic than fic. That inevitably skews the ratio! I've done well in the memoirs/bio category, but need to work on African lit and East Asian lit. Maybe I'll organise another Reading Across Borders challenge for myself. I read more 5 star books and the same about of 1 or 2 star books, so apparently I'm getting better at picking out books I'll love! I enjoyed 87% of the books I've picked up since March, which is definitely a good thing. :) As far as blogging, look at how many more challenges I've done! This might explain the tendency to burn out, but I do like how challenges get me to direct my reading. Perhaps the increase in challenges explains the increase in good books? I've done pretty well keeping up with the blog, and posting reviews. I'm behind right now, but I hope to fix that soon. I'm thinking about doing mini-reviews, where I talk about 2 or 3 books that I've read recently, but that I don't have the time to pay a lot of attention to (i.e.-they're not challenge books). This would fix the fact that I've reviewed less than half of the books I've read-that's the most concerning statistic from this quarter for me.

The best part of this quarter was discovering Book Mooch! And in honor of that, here is the bookpile of this week's acquisitions.

Well, that about wraps up this quarterly review. :) I'm going to start July off with a bang as far as reviews go, so watch this space!