Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Classics Challenge Wrap-Up

A Reader's Journal hosted the Classics Challenge. Participants chose five classics to read during January and February. I read all five of my original choices:

1. The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins
2. Middlemarch by George Eliot
3. Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen
4. Lady Audley's Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
5. Daisy Miller by Henry James

The best book: oh no, I can't really pick. All of them but Daisy Miller were stunning, in their own ways.

What book could I have done without? Daisy Miller by Henry James. I just don't think that novellas are for me!

Any new authors? Yep-Wilkie Collins, Isak Dinesen, and Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

Books I did not finish:

What did I learn from this challenge? That I really need to incorporate more classics into my life. More importantly, I realised that good classics have universal themes and characters that fit right into my 21st century life.

(Note: thanks to Nyssaneala for the idea to have questions!)

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Another One for the TBR List

Now, I desperately want to get my hand on Randall Jarrell's Book of Stories . This quote was on A Different Stripe.

There are many more sorts of stories than there are sizes. Epics; ballads; historical or biographical or autobiographical narratives, letters, diaries; myths, fairy tales, fables; dreams, daydreams, humorous or indecent or religious anecdotes; all those stories that might be called specialized or special case—science fiction, ghost stories, detective stories, Westerns, True Confessions, children’s stories, and the rest; and, finally, ‘serious fiction’.... For there are all kinds of beings, and all kinds of things happen to them; and when you add to these what are essential to the writer, the things that don’t actually happen, the beings that don’t actually exist, it is no wonder that stories are as varied as they are.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Norwegian Wood (thoughts)

I now realise that I've already read Murakami: I checked out his short story collection, The Elephant Vanishes, a few years ago. I didn't really enjoy it, however, so I'm glad that I didn't remember.

Because Norwegian Wood was an amazing experience. The plot is a little erratic; it follows the narrator's experiences in his first and second year of college. More specifically, it follows his amourous experiences. While the plot is a bit loose, the strong characters keep the book together. I didn't like the narrator that much, but the girls were fascinating. All of the characters are a bit 'off,' or kooky. In fact, at one point the narrator visits a girl who is living in a retreat for somewhat-insane people.

Murakami uses their kookiness to look at life, and what's considered normal. He doesn't smack you over the head with it, though. Instead, he quietly challenges societal norms. I think part of why I enjoyed the book is that I go to a liberal arts college. It's a really small college, and it's almost as full of kooky characters as the book. Especially considering that almost all of the characters are college-age, I just immediately connected with it.

There were only two things I wasn't sure about it. First, the ending is really, really unsatisfying. I still think that this is one of the best books I've read this year, but I really wish Murakami would rewrite the ending. My other hesitation is more complicated. I read Murakami for part of my international reading challenge. And the book is set in Japan. But, it doesn't really feel like it is. I didn't learn that much about Japan from reading it. But, these are slight quibbles for a stunning book.

If you want a fun romp through young, complicated love that carries more profound undertones, you can't do better than Norwegian Wood.

Favorites Passages

"How much do you love me?" Midori asked.
"Enough to melt all the tigers in the world to butter." (265)

"There's no need to raise your voice here. You don't have to convince anybody of anything, and you don't have to attract anyone's attention." (106)

As she had said in her letter, she looked healthier than before, suntanned, her body firmed up from exercise and outdoor work. Her eyes were the same deep, clear pools they had always been, and her small lips still trembled shyly, but overall her beauty had begun to change to that of a mature woman. Almost gone now was the sharp edge-the chilling sharpness of a thin blade-that could be glimpsed in the shadows of her beauty, in the place of which there hovered now a uniquely soothing, quiet calm....I felt as drawn to her as ever, perhaps more than before, but the thought of what she had lost in the meantime also gave me cause for regret. Never again would she have that self-centered beauty that sems to take its own, independent course in adolescent girls and no one else. (109)

"Hey, Watanbe, are you mad at me?"
"What for?"
"For not answering you, just to get even. Do you think I shouldn't have done that? I mean, you apologized and all."
"Yeah, but it was my fault to begin with. That's just how it goes."
"My sister says I shouldn't have done it. That it was too unforgiving, too childish."
"Yeah, but it made you feel better, didn't it, getting even like that?"
"OK, then, that's that." (249)

Interesting Articles

Book Buff in Oz posted links to a couple of articles today. I highly recommend reading the second one: you can find my thoughts in that comments section. :) It's about reading, and the conflict between 'low-brow' and 'high-brow' books. I found the conclusion especially true: "This is what I would say to any reader: If you give a book a good go and it doesn't sweep you up, don't worry, don't feel guilty. Put it down and try another one. You might come back to that first book, perhaps years later, and find some magic that eluded you the first time. And if it does sweep you up, however surprising and disturbing that might be, don't worry about whether the world considers it treasure or trash: go for the ride."

The New York Times had a really good essay today called "Rediscovering Alexander Herzen." Anything Russian, of course, has a soft spot in my heart. I was impressed with how well-written the article was (yes, even for the NYT). This passage really struck me:
"Herzen regarded the world with a cool, ironic eye. It is the source of his comedy. But he burned with a sense of the world’s injustices. His denunciations of the bourgeoisie match Marx for vituperative heat. The petty, calculating side of British and French middle-class life repulsed him. Italy, with its spontaneity and warmth, was more to his taste — more Russian, in fact."
In America, I've noticed people think of Russians as cold. Russians feel the same way about Americans. Having lived in Russia, I can see both sides. Americans are friendlier to strangers, smile more, etc. But Russians bring more immediate passion to their friendships; Russians accepted me more quickly than Americans tend to.

Friday, February 23, 2007

In Cold Blood (thoughts)

I went into Truman Capote's In Cold Blood with very high expectations. I loved the movie Capote, and several people had told me how much they enjoyed In Cold Blood.

When I read it, though, I ended up being disappointed. It is a good book. The story itself is fascinating, and Capote took the time to dig into the background of all the different people. For those who haven't heard about it, In Cold Blood was the first 'true crime' book; so it's nonfiction told in a ficiton way. Capote describes a crime that took place in Kansas, and the lives of the victims, criminals, and townspeople both before and after the crime. You get all possible details of everyone's life; at the end, you don't find yourself with any left-over questions. The story itself is automatically compelling; who isn't interested in crime? Now, be honest! There's a reason news programs tend to focus on it. So that's the good part of the book.

It is not, however, a great book. Quite frankly, I was unimpressed by Capote's writing style. He writes ridiculously convoluted sentences, using multiple commas, semi-colons, colons, and dashes. It often gets in the way of what Capote is saying. In fact, In Cold Blood often becomes boring, despite its fascinating subject matter. In the end, I had to force myself to finish it.

So? I'm not sure if I would recommend this book or not. I'm glad that I read it, since it's one of those 'seminal works' in contemporary American lit (well, I think so anyway). But the last part was a real struggle. The opening I really enjoyed; then closing, not so much.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Daisy Miller (thoughts)

I realised that I hadn't review my fifth and final classics challenge, Henry James' Daisy Miller.

I first 'heard of' Henry James in a novel I read last year by Colm Toibin called The Master. Toibin basically writes a somewhat-fictionalized account of certain parts of Henry James' life. That novel was so interesting, I decided I wanted to read some of James' actual books. So, this summer I read The Ambassadors, which I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Classics Challenge rolled around, and it seemed natural to put some James on my list. Originally, I was going to read Portrait of a Lady. But, then I was worried that with the other challenges I had bitten off more than I could chew. Added to the fact that Daisy Miller is what made James famous, I went for the novella instead.

Now, I'm wishing I had stuck with Portrait of a Lady. I mean, I enjoyed reading Daisy Miller, but I think I prefer James when he has space to stretch out and take a couple of deep breaths. I missed the slow development of character, the teasing glimpses of plot, that The Ambassadors won me over with. I also felt as if I didn't really understand the *world* of Daisy Miller: there was no flesh. While I enjoyed Daisy and the narrator's characters, I didn't feel that they had much opportunity to grow.

So, in the end Daisy Miller was well-written, but way too short to satisfy me. The ending was very abrupt (don't want to give it away, for those who don't know it), and the reader is left wondering what the hell just happened. It also carries a hint of allegory, though I'm not sure what kind. I'm not sorry that I read it, after all it took under an hour to read, but I wouldn't recommend it to people who love classics because of all of their detail, their tidy endings, and their slow-moving plots. This felt almost like a modern novella. Also, while I love novels, and adore well-written short stories, the novella seems like an unhappy offspring, who got its father's nose, and mother's eyes, and yet isn't as pretty as either.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Just a blah day....

This is one of those days, where every move feels like it's been torn out of me, and all I want to do is curl with a cup of tea and a book. I've been feeling under the weather for going on three weeks now, and it's all just starting to get me down.

In better news, last night I started Norweigan Wood by Murakami (Kafka on the Shore was checked out) and am really, really enjoying it. I'm also about a third of the way through Madame Bovary and enjoying that as well.

I've been working on reviewing In Cold Blood, so look for that. I'm also going to review Laurie King's second book in the Mary Russell series, which will be lots of fun.

In the meantime, though, I'll be dragging myself through the rest of today.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Go Thrillers!

Just read's review of Patrick Andersen's The Triumph of the Thriller. It was an awesomely validating review for those us that enjoy detective, espionage, or crime novels (Andersen's definition of thriller). I highly recommend reading the review: now I'm going to have to hunt down the book!

Find the review here:

Friday, February 16, 2007

How to Read a Novel (thoughts)

I've been a bad little blogger, not updating for almost a week. I didn't really feel like reviewing Inheritance of Loss, so I just avoided the blog in general. Finally, I've decided it's easiest to just explain that I don't like reviewing books that I didn't enjoy, it depresses me, so I'm not going to do it.

Since my last post, I've been on a bit of a reading kick, leaving plenty of material for reviews. And, trust me, most of them really deserve reviews. Today, though, I'm going to talk about a little book I picked up off my library's new collection shelf.

How to Read a Novel by John Sutherland is a nonfiction book, mainly about the author's views on reading. The book is hypothetically constructed around helping someone (I can only assume an alien, see next paragraph) choose a book to read (more than actually reading it). In practice, this is mainly a conceit so that Sutherland can divide his impressions on books and reading.

The book has one big drawback: the 'advice' sections are mind-blowingly ridiculous. Unless Sutherland's audience is an alien who has never been to a bookstore, a lot of what he's written is pointless. He tells you that the year of publication is on the copyright page and has a helpful picture of a copyright page with the publication year pointed out. I think even kindergarteners know about the copyright page. His point-out-the-obvious apprach doesn't end there; most of his 'advice conclusions' at the end of the chapter are just as unhelpful. For example, discussing genre fiction, his final advice to the reader is to look at one's shelves, and figure out which genre one enjoys. Then, go buy more of it. Gee, thanks. The other issue I have with the book is how misleading the title is. It should be called How to Buy a Novel. There is an entire chapter weighing the choice between hardcover v. paperback. However, there is no chapter on literary theory, literary styles, etc.

That being said, I'm glad that I read this book. His discussion of the process of choosing a book at the bookstore rang very true, and in many ways his prose is like chatting with someone you just met in Barnes and Noble. A very learned, Book-Prize-committee-chair someone who is a trifle condescending. The book includes a lot of background about bookmaking, bookbuying, and book popularity through the ages. Sutherland also looks at some novels more in depth, putting them in their social mileau, or examining them for similar themes. It's also a quick read. So, if you're willing to overlook the sillier sections, I think the book's worth reading for the historical digressions. Just don't expect to learn how to read a novel. :)

Oh, and be sure to check out the back cover. It's tongue-in-cheek hilarity!

Favorite Passages

Titles, it seems, often set out to inaugurate a game between author and reader-a game which, if the novel works, will add immensely to the reader's pleasure. (93)

One of the disadvantages of viewing, or previewing, a screen (film or TV) version of a novel, particularly a classic novel, is that it can 'fix' your mental imagery too rigidly-infringe your privilege as reader of casting the aprts, setting the scene and playing out the narrative yourself. (236)

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Non-Fiction Finds

Warning: this is a very long list! I did some internet research and just went with any book that sounded remotely interesting. Feel free to leave suggestions as comments: they'll be much appreciated! (the stars are for me; they tell me that my library has it)

Among Schoolchildren* by Tracy Kidder
Nathaniel's Nutmeg by Giles Milton
Longitude by Dava Sobel
The Guns of August* by Barbara Tuchman
The Body Project* by Joan Jacobs Brumberg
Nickel and Dimed* by Barbara Ehrenreich
Courtroom 302 by Steve Bogira
Death at the Priory by James Ruddick
The Cruelist Miles by Gay Salisbury
Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil* by John Berendt
The Omnivore's Dilemna* by Michael Pollan
The Dead Beat by Marilyn Johnson
The Girls Who Went Away by Ann Fessler
Parting the Waters* by Taylor Branch
Freedom Riders* by Raymond Arsenault
Trickster Travels by Natalie Davis
My Bondage and My Freedom* by Frederick Douglass
The Souls of Black Folk* by W.E.B. du Bois
The Children of Henry VIII by Alison Weir
Elizabeth's London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London by Liza Picard
A Short History of Progress by Ronald Wright
Tree: A Life Story by David Suzuki
The American Way of Death Revisited* by Jessica Mitford
Boss* by Mike Royko
Enrique's Journey by Sonia Nazario
Queen Isabella by Alison Weir
The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart
Happiness: A History* by Darrin McMahon
Self-Made Man by Norah Vincent
Emergency Sex: and Other Desperate Measures by Kenneth Cain
Born on a Blue Day by Daniel Tammet
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
Out of Isak Dinesen in Africa by Linda Donelson
The Assassins' Gate: America in Iraq* by George Packer
The Tarot: History, Mystery, and Lore by Cynthia Giles
Booknotes: Stories from American History by Brian Lamb
The Trouble with Physics by Lee Smolin
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop by Lewis Buzbee
Seek: Reports From the Edges of America & Beyond by Denis Johnson
Bush Hat, Black Tie: Adventures of a Foreign Service Officer by Howard Simpson
Long Walk to Freedom* by Nelson Mandela
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
French Lessons by Alice Kaplan
Gandhi An Autobiography
Behind Embassy Walls: the Life and Times of an American Diplomat by Brandon Grove
Making the Corps by Thomas Ricks
American Diplomats by Stuart Kennedy
Runaway Slaves* by John Hope Franklin
Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
The Russia Hand by Strobe Talbott
Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell is This?* by Marion Meade
Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Silk Road: Monks, Warriors, and Merchants by Luce Boulnois
A Great Improvisation* by Stacy Schiff
Oscar Wilde* by Richard Ellmann
Seven Ages of Paris by Alistair Horne
The Audacity of Hope* by Barack Obama

Friday, February 9, 2007

The Remains of the Day (thoughts)

The Remains of the Day bowled me over. Ishiguro's prose is nothing less than exquisite. The story is quite simple: Stevens, an old school English butler, is travelling to Cornwall to meet with his old housekeeper. Along the way, Stevens keeps a journal, in which he reminisces about the past (between the world wars, when he served Lord Darlington) and discusses various aspects of butler-ness (chiefly, dignity).

Ishiguro never lets Stevens' 'mask' fall, so to speak: the reader discovers everything through a dignified butler lens. Thus, it's up to the reader to go between the lines, and truly flesh out the story. I, personally, find this an incredible gift; it's not often that an author is willing to draw the line, and trust his reader to do the rest. For me, Remains of the Day affirmed that subtly is a beautiful thing.

So, part of the book is Ishiguro's masterful creation of the butler's internal world. The other part is the actual story. This contains two main threads: Lord Darlington's activities during the interwar period (and through Darlington, Ishiguro questions England's appeasement policy) and the relationship between Miss Kensington (housekeeper) and Stevens. Both threads are powerful, mainly because Ishiguro tells both through isolated events. The scenes he chooses to show, and the order in which they're presented, prove Ishiguro's mastery of storytelling: I don't want to say too much, but the slow evolution of Stevens' depiction of Darlington hits the perfect chord with me.

As powerful as the Darlington story is, it's Miss Kensington that will slowly, agonizingly break your heart. The ending is the only possible one; that doesn't make the sadness any less palpable. I cried. And it was satisfying.

My hat is off to Ishiguro. Everyone should go read Remains of the Day. As for me, I'm off to track down his other books.

A Representative Passage:

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however suprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity'. (43)

Thursday, February 8, 2007

Quick Update

No time to review now, but a preview of things ahead:

+expect a glowing review of Remains of the Day

+look for a not-so-glowing review of Inheritance of Loss

+I'm trying to increase my non-fic reading, but I don't really know how to find good non-fic; so, join me on the hunt!

Sunday, February 4, 2007

Lady Audley's Secret (thoughts)

I devoured my fourth classics challenge, Lady Audley's Secret, starting it Thursday night and finishing it Friday evening (would've been sooner if not for pesky classes and homework). It was just what I needed at the time: the good characters all end up happily, the bad ones unhappily, and in the middle is a lot of gothic English.

In brief, two gentlemen go to visit the Audley estate, where a new, much younger wife is conquering all of the small village's hearts. However, one of the gentlemen myseriously disappears, causing his friend to begin to investigate. The more the friend looks into things, the more it appears that Lady Audley is not what she seems...

The 'mystery' of the novel is painfully obvious for the reader, as well as for the friend doing the investigations. The plot isn't really the point; instead, the heart of the novel is in the characters, all of whom are very finely drawn. From the kind-hearted but lazy friend, to his fox-hunting, 'gypsy faced' cousin, the characters manage to be both stereotypical and immensely human. I loved curling up with them all. The writing is quite good; Braddon knows how to balance her sentences, and I really enjoyed her language. She managed to sketch the settings for all of her characters without getting bogged down in unnecessary detail. In fact, the novel feels very modern: it could've been historical fiction, instead of a classic.

All in all, I highly recommend this for when you just want to escape. Nothing in the novel is particularly serious, and you'll end up with the feeling that all is right in the world.

Favorite Passages:

For you see Miss Lucy Graham was blessed with that magic power of fascination by which a woman can charm with a word or intoxicate with a smile. (6)

"Why don't I love her? Why is it that although I know her to be pretty, and pure, and good, and truthful, I don't love her? Her image never haunts me, expcet reproachfully. I never see her in my dreams. I never wake up suddenly in the dead of night with her eyes shining upon me and her warm breath upon my cheek, or with the fingers of her soft hand clinging to mine. No, I'm not in love with her; I
can't fall in love with her." (334)

Friday, February 2, 2007

Out of Africa (thoughts)

Out of Africa was my third classics challenge read and by far the most challenging. Her prose makes me weak in the knees; her laten racism draws me back up.

The book itself is a memoir of Dane Isak Dinesen's life in Africa. I looked up Dinesen a little after I read the book; I'll talk about her life later.

Dinesen is a beautiful writer. She's really good at creating a scene and capturing her feelings. The book doesn't really follow a chronological order, except for the last chapter about her preperations to return to Denmrk. Instead, it's a random collection of vignettes; sometimes, Dinesen spells out the 'lesson,' but usually she leaves that for the reader to determine. At the same time that I revelled in her prose, some of her morals horrified me. After all, she's writing when Kenya was still a colony, when Kenyans were 'Natives,' and when big game hunting was a popular sport for gentrified Europe. So, in between her discussions of the majestic mountains, or the orphaned gazelle that she helped raise, are passages about killing lions, wildebeest, etc. or patronizing observations on 'the Natives.'

I'm a vegetarian, so I feel that I'm fairly far at the sensitive end to descriptions of hunting. And, believe me, there were times when Dinesen turned my stomach a bit. But she also showed me, for the first time, *why* people hunt. Do I think that hunting is moral now? Absolutely not. But the discussions of hunting shouldn't scare anyone off of reading the book; they aren't very plentiful, mainly just passing references to her youth or friend Denys. I can't truly comment re: her discussion of 'Natives,' since I'm white. I didn't agree with them, but they didn't destroy the book for me. I feel that Out of Africa is a window into a certain kind of privileged, self-absorbed life style, led by a woman of unexpectedly profound insight. For me, this insight was worth the occassional offensive passage. But, the reader should go in aware that the book contains racist ideas.

Thus, Out of Africa challenged me more than I ever expected to be challenged. Dinesen truly brought me into her mind; I saw with her eyes, judged with her morals, and loved with her heart. I only wish that this book was longer.

After looking up Dinesen online, I discovered some interesting facts (that you would never know from reading the book). Her true name was Karen Blixen, and she moved to Kenya because of her husband. He gave her syphilis early in their marriage, but they stayed married for nine years, when he left her. Her 'friend' Denys was actually her lover; however, their relationship was rather complicated (i.e.-he was bisexual, and more attracted to men). Apparently, the movie Out of Africa focuses on these facts. So, if you've seen the movie, don't expect the book to be anything similar.

Really, I think that Dinesen's words are the best way to convince you that you should read Out of Africa. Because you really should.

The chief feature of the landscape, and of your life in it, was the air...The sky was rarely more than pale blue or violet, with a profusion of mighty, weightless, ever-changing clouds towering up and sailing on it, but it has a blue vigour in it, and at a short distance it painted the ranges of the hills and the woods a fresh deep blue....In the highlands, you woke up in the morning and thought: Here I am, where I ought to be. (4)

Here lay before you a hundred miles' gallop over grass and open undulating land; there was not a fence nor a ditch, and no road...There were low thorn trees regularly spread over the plain, and long deep valleys with dry riverbeds of big flat stones, where you had to find a deer-path here and there to take you across. After a little while you became aware of how still it was out here. Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the existence of a person who had come from a rushed an noisy world, into a still country. (98)

Still, by his presence, he turned my home into a chosen, comfortable corner of the world. (223)

Denys and Kanuthia pulled up their sleeves and as the sun rose they skinned the lions...We sat on the short grass and ate and drank. The dead lions, close by, looked magnificent in their nakedness, there was not a particle of superfluous fat on them, each muscle was a bold controlled curve, they needed no cloak, they were, all through, what they out to be. (231)

The flamboyant red Acacia flowers in the gardens of Mombasa, unbelievably intense of colour and delicate of leaf. The sun burns and scorches Mombasa; the air is salt here, the breeze brings in every day fresh supplies of brine from the East, and the soil itself is salted so that very little grass grows, and the ground is bare like a dancing-floor. But the ancient mango trees have a dense dark-green foliage and give benignant shade; they create a circular pool of black coolness beneath them. (298)

In the long yeas before them, will the Giraffes sometimes dream of their lost country? Where are they now, where have they done to, the grass and the thorn-trees, the rivers and water-holes and the blue mountains? The high sweet air over the plains has lifted and withdrawn. Where have the other Giraffes gone to, that were side by side with them when they set going, and cantered over the undulating land? They have left them, they have all gone, and it seems that they are never coming back.
In the night, where is the full moon? (299)

Men, I think, cannot easily or harmoniously envy or triumph over one another. But it goes without saying that the bride triumphs over the bridesmaids, and that the lying-in-visitors envy the mother of the child; and none of the parties feel the worse on that account. (392)

If I know a song of Africa-of the Giraffe, and the African new moon lying on her back, of the ploughs in the fields, and the sweaty faces of the coffee-pickers, does Africa know a song of me? Would the air over the plain quiver with a colour that I had on, or the children invent a game in which my name was, or the full moon throw a shadow over the gravel of the drive that was like me, or would the eagles of the Ngong hills look out for me?