Sunday, September 30, 2007

Summer in Review (and a little, bitty bookpile)

Crazy how fast time goes; it's time for another of my quarterly summaries! For those who're recent readers, some of the more random-seeming stats are based on my New Year's resoluations. Also, I go by the sun calendar for these quarters, which is why I consider July, August, and September to be summer. :)

Total: 53
Non-Fic: 17
Audio: 3
New Authors: 34
Women Authors: 21
African Lit: 0
East Asian Lit: 0
Auto/Bios/Memoirs Read: 6
Five Star Books: 18
One or Two Star Books: 8

Reviews Published: 38
Entries Made: 73
Challenges Completed: 4
Challenges Participated In: 13

Whew! Well, on the reading front I read more than I have previously. I stayed pretty steady on new authors and women authors, which is good. Since I didn't start my non-fic challenge until August, I'm still not maintaining a very high nonfic:fic ratio. That's ok though-at least I'm reading more non-fic! I did awfully on the African and East Asian lit front; checking my Reading Across Borders II list, I only have one book for each on there. Maybe I'll be able to find some more at the library, or on bookmooch. I didn't like 15% of the books I read, which is higher than usual, but almost all of them were non-fic. I guess I don't have my guaranteed non-fic authors the way I do fiction. I did give a whopping 33% of the books I read 5 stars, which is pretty awesome. :)

The biggest changes this quarter were on the blogging front. I went from 18-19 reviews/quarter to 38, which is double! I also went from averaging around 40 posts/quarter to 73. I'm not sure why this blog suddenly became an almost daily thing in August; I actually became busier then than I'd been during the rest of the summer. Perhaps all of those challenges are spurring me on to do reviews. Either way, I'm pretty happy that I'm reviewing so many more books (72% of the ones I read). Part of it has to do with the fact that now I'm willing to do multiple shorter reviews, which seems an effective way of talking about some of the books.

Now, for what you've been waiting for! I went to B&N tonight, and I completely intended to just curl up in a comfy chair and read the book I brought with me. Somehow, these books hopped in my bag!
First up is Tithe by Holly Black. I've heard good things about this one, and I'm collecting YA lit in preperation for Dewey's 24 read-a-thon. Plus, it's this gorgeous trade paperback book for a mere $7! Gotta love the YA section; I saw several other books that I'll probably be going back for soon.
Then there's Nocturnes by John Connolly. I've seen his latest novel, The Book of Lost Things reviewed on several blogs, but Meli's review really got me hooked. Of course, us poor Americans have to wait a couple of weeks for it to come out in paperback. So I was browsing B&N's popular fiction table (which had a very interesting collection of international crime/mystery that I was coveting), and came across this. Isn't the cover awesome? It's a collection of short stories, and the back describes it as "a daring, utterly haunting anthology of lost lovers and missing children, predatory demons, and vengeful ghosts...In these stories, Connolly ratchets up the tension to almost unbearable0and irrestible-levels." Um, does this sound like a challenge we all know and love? That's what I thought! Have a sneaking suspicion Connolly will become a new favourite author, so I'd better start collecting now.
Finally, I've been craving George Eliot lately. I was orginally going to grab Middlemarch, which I read earlier this year, for a reread. But, it made more sense to get Daniel Deronda, since I hadn't read it before. I'm loving the pink colour, and the delicious 710-page-before-endnotes length.

And that's my latest booklust...the three poppets had to wander in and see what all the fuss was about. :) Now y'all need to post some pics of your latest book buys so I don't feel so guilty!

Short Story Sunday (and two book giveaways)

Wow-trying to visit all of the sites in the R.I.P. II challenge has been interesting; I have a feeling my blogroll's going to grow. I already try to read all of the reviews posted (of course, now I'm woefully behind), but there turned out to be quite a few blogs that hadn't posted reviews to the list. It was fun getting to see so many different styles of book blogging! Yes, I visited all the sites today; I was pretty much stuck in bed, so I alternately watched that documentary on the spelling bee (I was supposed to be watching a great Gregory Peck movie, but Blockbuster got confused), visited blogs, tried not to touch my nose (I got it pierced! not why I was bed-ridden), and read. I'm happy to report that I finished all my goals for September! Coming soon will a review of the summer quarter and a pile of books for October. :)

Before I get to the short stories, I'd just like to point out that there are a couple book giveaways going on right now. Superfastreader is giving away a copy of Auralia's Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet. All you have to do is fill out a simple form (name, e-mail, website) to be entered, and it's open to the whole world until Oct 5. :) Then, Gentle Reader over at Shelf Life is generously offering an extra copy of The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. For this one, just leave a comment by October 2nd.

And now, without further adieu, this week I read "The Idol of the Flies" by Jane Rice and "Judgement Day" by Flannery O'Connor. They were both on the longish side, and I have no idea why the second one was included in a horror anthology.

"The Idol of the Flies" by Jane Rice

I've never heard of Jane Rice (one of only two in the anthology), but her story was very disturbing. Basically, this little brat named Pruitt makes the lives of all the adults around him miserable for no apparent reason other than evil. He finds out their weaknesses and then shamelessly uses them to bring about hurt and sadness. He has this odd relationship with flies as well. I won't tell you the ending, but this story was quite difficult for me to read. I don't like stories about people who deliberately hurt others; it makes me just too sad. It was well-written, however. My favourite passage in this one gives away the ending, so I won't share it here.

"Judgement Day" by Flannery O'Connor

As I said before, this one didn't really seem like a horror story at all. The weirdest it gets is a dream, but it's not like the dream comes true or anything! This was my first story by O'Connor, and I was very distracted by the constant use of the n-word. I know that this is an issue for a lot of people in her writing, and I expect that if I were to read a collection of her short stories I'd grow used to it, but as it was it felt like I got a little shock each time I read one. When I read, I hear my inner voice reading aloud in my head, which was what made it so difficult. Honestly, I can't say that I got a very strong impression of what the story was about with that constant distraction. Nevertheless, the writing style itself was quite strong, and I definitely plan on reading more of O'Connor one day.

Ok-I'm being a bit rambly tonight: probably the pain killers. Hope everyone had a good weekend!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The House Next Door (thoughts)

It's been awhile since my last R.I.P. II review! And, since my Little Black Poppet came in (he's currently's taking awhile), and Carl's challenging everyone to bloghop, this post seems doubly appropriate.

I read The House Next Door by Anne River Siddons in one night: it's definitely one of those books that grabs you and doesn't let you go. Nevertheless, I have hesitations about recommending it, because it feels, well, evil. I was left with a very bad feeling that took about a day to dissipate. I suppose I'm just not used to horror novels like this, but I'd caution would-be readers that Siddons will get under your skin.

The book is told in first-person, and most of it is set in the recent past, with Col recounting all of the events that led up to her and her husband's decision to talk to People magazine (this is disclosed in the foreward; I promise, no spoilers here). Col lives in an affluent suburb outside of Atlanta, and she is very upset to hear that the plot next door has been bought, and that a modern-style house is going to be built there. The house goes through three families, which each make up a different part of the book, with each story getting progressively creepier. The last one involves an abusive husband, and it was at that point in the book that I began to feel almost physically ill. I know that might sound silly, but I had a very intense reaction; it certainly surprised me!

Eventually, Col and her husband realise that the house is evil; then they have to decide what kind of action to take to try to save future buyers from the house. I won't give away the ending, but it's definitely a good one.

So, there's a lot of positives about this book: it's written well (in his intro, which I didn't read until after I finished the novel, King calls the style Southern Gothic), the characters are interesting, the house is spooky, the plot compelling. Nevertheless, I really wish I'd never picked this one up. I don't even like looking at it; I'm hoping someone'll bookmooch it soon. Siddons did her job too well; while I'll definitely be looking at other books she wrote, I'm very glad this is the only work of horror in her oeuvre. Definitely gave me the shivers, so very R.I.P. II appropriate.

Favourite Passage
"If you think daugher and Daddy are creepy, you ought to catch the sonny-and-Mama show," Kim said. "The mother of the groom was there when I went to see Pie, and she couldn't keep her hands off poor old Buddy. Smoothing his hair, and straightening his tie, and saying what a soldier he'd been about the whole thing, and not once even looking at the bereft little mama, who was glaring daggers at her. She's the soldier in the family; looks exactly like Douglas MacArthur. And he was practically peeing on the rug with gratitude. If you ask me, there's something Tennessee Williams about the whole tribe of 'em." (60)

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Non-Fiction 2-for-1

First of all, did anyone else watch The Office season premier this night? Oh. My. God. I expected it to be good. But it just blew me away. I laughed hysterically at times. I almost grinned my face off in happiness at others; at a certain point, I actually pumped the air with elation. I don't do things like that. But, seriously, The Office is just getting better and better every season.

Ok, gush over. Time to talk about books! (I'm so behind on reviews)

Recently, I've read both Reason for Hope by Jane Goodall and Stiff by Mary Roach. They aren't really connected, but since I'm never going to catch up unless I combine books, there you go.

First, the Goodall book. It's a memoir that grew out of an extended interview discussing Goodall's continued optimism in the face of so much tragedy. I found it a very nice read; rather like talking with an intelligent, caring person who has seen a lot more of life than I have and has some good advice. I recommend it. :)

Favourite Passages

I lay there, part of the forest, and experienced again that magical enhancement of sound, that added richness of perception. I was keenly aware of secret movements in the trees. A small striped squirrel climbed, spiral fashion in the way of squirrels, poking into crevices in the bark, bright eyes and rounded ears alert. A great velvet black bumblebee visited tiny purple flowers, the end section of his abdomen glowing rich orange red each time he flew through one of the patches of sunlight that dappled the forest. It is all but impossible to describe the new awareness that comes when words are abandoned. One is transported back, perhaps, to the world of early childhood when everything is fresh and so much of it is wonderful. Words can enhance the experiment, but they can also take so much away. (79)

One thing I had learned from watching chimpanzees with their infants is that having a child should be
fun. (87)

So here we are, the human ape, half sinner, half saint, with two opposing tendencies inherited from our ancient past pulling us now toward violence, now toward compassion and love. Are we, forever, to be torn in two different directions, cruel in one instance, kind the next? Or do we have the ability to control these tendencies, choosing the direction we wish to go? (143)

I thought, as I have thought throughout my life, how lucky I had been in my own childhood. Because I had grown up during World War II, the luxuries now taken for granted by middle-class Westerners were, quite simply, unavailable-except at exorbitant prices on the black market. I had learned the true value of food, clothing, shelter-and life itself. Along with my contemporaries I had moved into a postwar world in which self-reliance was a necessary quality. We did not feel it was our right to have a bicycle, a television, a dishwasher, and so on; those were things you saved up for, and were proud of because they were earned by the sweat of your brow. (197)

Even if we only
suspect that other living beings have feelings that may be similar to our own, or not too dissimilar to our own, we should have doubts about the ethics of treating those beings as mere "things" or "tools" for our own human purposes. Even if all animals used are bred especially for our use-in the labratory, or for food, or for entertainment-does this make them, somehow, less pig? less monkey? less dog? Does this deprive them of feelings and the capacity to suffer? If we raised humans for medical experiments, would they be less human and suffer less and matter less than other humans? Were human slaves less able to feel pain, grief, and despair simply because they were born into slavery? (224)

Now, for Stiff. Some of you may recall my disappointment with Roach's other book, Spook. I didn't have high expectations going in. In fact, if I hadn't mooched it before I read Spook, I wouldn't have read it at all. And I would have missed out on a great book.

I don't know if Roach had a different editor or what, but all of the problems in Spook were missing from Stiff. Instead, Stiff was a compulsively readable exploration of what happens to bodies once their owners have left them behind. There were some slower chapters, and I did have a problem with Roach's callousness towards animal testing (esp. after reading Goodall, which had reaffirmed my utter abhorence of it).
Another group tried putting a new type of protective boot onto the hind leg of a mule deer dor testing. Given that deer lack toes and heels and people lack hooves, and that no country I know of employs mule deer in land mine clearance, it is hard-though mildly entertaining-to try to imagine what the value of such a study could have been. (152)
Nevertheless, I found Roach very caring of her human subjects, and the topics were all interesting. Those are you who are squeamish might want to avoid this one; Roach visits the Tennessee body farm to learn about decomp and isn't afraid about sharing all the disgusting details. She also made an unfortunate comparison between human brains and one of my favourite foods (not going to share to spare y'all) that I really wish I could forget. With that caveat, though, I highly recommend this to anyone curious about death.

Favourite Passages

I ask Dennis whether he has any advice for the people who'll read this book and never again board a plane without wondering if they're going to wind up in a heap of bodies at the emergency exit door. He says it's mostly common sense. Sit near an emergency exit. Get down low, below the heat and smoke. Hold your breath as long as you can, so you don't cook your lungs and inhale poisonous fumes. Shanahan prefers window seats because people seated on the aisle are more likely to get beaned with the suitcases that can come crushing through the overhead bin doors in even a fairly mild impact. (127)

There is her heart. I've never seen one beating. I had no idea they moved so much. You put your hand on your heart and you picture something pulsing slightly but basically still, like a hand on a desktop tapping Morse code. This thing is going wild in there. It's a mixing-machine part, a stoat squirming in its burrow, and alien life form that's just won a Pontiac on
The Price is Right. (179)

She explains the difference between rotting and composting, that the needs of humans and the needs of compost are similar: oxygen, water, air temperature that does not stray far from 37 degrees centigrade. Her point: We are all nature, all made of the same basic materials, with the same basic needs. We are no different, on a very basic level, from the ducks and the mussels and last week's coleslaw. Thus we should respect Nature, and when we die, we should give ourselves back to the earth. (263)

Kimbooktu's Bookish Meme

I was actually going to post a meme I found over at Bookeywookey's (the reading one, not the blogging one), but then I checked my e-mail and the lovely Bybee has tagged me for a different meme all the way over in South Korea. :) So, I'll publish the other one next week!

Hardcover or paperback? Why? Trade paperback, for several reasons. I love the texture of the covers, they stay open the best, and they don't aggravate my fibro (muscle condition). Best of all, they don't have dust jackets! (my book nemesis...I seem to lose them or rip them just by looking at them)

If I were to own a book shop I would call it... I'd probably name it after a tarot card. I'd love to have a coffee shop/book store combo called The Hanged Man with a picture of that tarot card. The Hanged Man represents taking a voluntary break from the craziness of life, so I think it'd be appropriate. In the tarot card, he's hanging upside (from his ankle) looking quite happy. :)

My favourite quote from a book (name it) is... This is a tough one. I like a lot of quotes. I'll just pick one at random. "How much do you love me?" she asked. "Enough to melt all the tigers in the world to butter." From Murakami's Norwegian Wood. Isn't that just adorable?

The author (alive or deceased) I would love to have lunch with would be...I think Neil Gaiman. I love mythology as well, so it'd be a great conversation. But I'd love to have lunch with a bunch of authors!

If I was going to a deserted island and could only bring one book, except from the SAS survival guide, it would be...what an awful idea. One book forever? Probably War and Peace, since I haven't read it yet, so there'd be a fresh reading, and it has enough characters to keep me occupied. Plus, it takes place in cold Russia, which might serve as a nice contrast to a deserted island. And I'm positive I'm going to love it, since I just adored Anna Karenina. (the only reason I haven't read it is that I'm saving it for the Peace Corps)

I would love someone to invent a bookish gadget that hmmm...oh! I know! that froze time so that I could read in peace for as long as I wanted before work. And chores.

The smell of an old book reminds me of...reading? peace? I mean, it just smells like heaven to me!

If I could be the lead character in a book (mention the title), it would be...Elizabeth Darcy, nee Bennet. She's smart and pretty, but a bit of a spitfire, and she ends up with a rich, handsome, loving husband living in a great part of England. Pretty happy life, I'd say. :)

The most overestimated book of all time is...I can't think of one.

I hate it when a book... is written by an author that doesn't trust the reader. You know, the kind of author that whallops you over the head with the information, because s/he isn't sure that you'll pick up on it on your own. These authors tend to use too many adverbs.

And now for tagging five people....let's see....
Eloise of Eloise by the Book Piles
Sarah of Loose Baggy Monster
Poodlerat of But what these unobservant birds
Petunia of Educating Petunia and
J.S. Peyton of BiblioAddict

Have fun! (of course, if anyone I didn't tag wants to do this one, leave me a comment and I'll add you to the list!)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Quick Addition

Several people have mentioned that the Woolf short story I reviewed Sunday sounds good. It definitely is, and it's a short, fast read. So, I went ahead and found an online version. Read away! (and then come back here and tell me if you love it as much as I do)

Fast Food Nation (Chp 1)

Preface: I've decided to make Tuesdays my Fast Food Nation day; the book has ten chapters, an introduction, an epilogue, and an afterword, so this feature will go into December. I'm hoping to make the posts a center for thoughtful discussion about the issue, but if that doesn't happen at least I know I'm getting the word out. :)

Chapter One: Notes

This chapter talks about the men who created the biggest fast food chains today, as well as the origin of the whole phenomenon of fast food.
+It started in southern California.
+Originally, fast food restaurants were like Sonic and catered to a teenage clientel; owners wanted to shift to a family-based clientel so that they would've have to worry about teens doing dumb stuff.
+The McDonald brothers designed standard fast food techniques:
[They] eliminated almost two-thirds of the items on their old menu. They got rid of everything that had to be eaten with a knife, spoon, or fork. The only sandwiches now sold were hamburgers or cheeseburgers. The brothers got rid of their dishes and glassware, replacing them with paper cups, paper bags, and paper plates. They divided food preparaion into seperate tasks performed by different workers....For the first time, the guiding principles of a factory assembly line were applied to a commerical kitchen.
+Oddly enough, McDonald's and Hell's Angels were founded in the same year, in the same area. :)

Chapter One: Thoughts
I only found this chapter mildly interesting; I've never been interested in business, so I wasn't really taken by the various stories of entrepeneurs (sp?). Of course, seeing how few notes I took, I bet y'all guessed that. I did enjoy Schlosser's brief forays into cultural history (that's my unofficial term for it).

What struck me most about this chapter was the assembly line restaurant idea. Schlosser points out that thanks to new, idiot-proof techniques, fast food places didn't have to hire talented short order chefs, and they also didn't have to hire waitresses. This whole dumbing down of jobs, which then justifies lower wages, bothers me. I mean, I know in principle that many economists like it because it increases efficiency, but I've never been an efficiency kind of person. Before this, I bet short-order chefs enjoyed their job, or at least got some kind of rush from the variety. Afterwards, doing to the same thing all day, it can't be interesting work.

This was a very short chapter, thus the short post, but I promise next week's will be really, really interesting. It's all about how the fast food industry feeds off of children; guaranteed to get your blood boiling!

Monday, September 24, 2007

I Read Banned Books

Here's a mini-challenge that I'll definitely be participating in: Banned Books Week. Caliista is inviting everyone to read at least one banned book between September 29th and October 6th. She also provided a link to the ALA Banned Books project, and there I discovered a new thing to covet:

Banned Book Bracelets: kind of pricey at $18 (if your wrist is small like mine, you can get the $12 kid's one, but it has kids' books), I absolutely love the format of this one, but for some reason it's coming up as 'unavailable at this time.' Get your act together, ALA! They also have a super-cool tote bag. Tempting. Anyway, here's my possibilities pool (with any luck, I'll get to them all):

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
I wanted to read this for the Southern Reading challenge, but it managed to slip under the radar.

The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
I think I'm the only person who never read this. Interestingly enough, my library shelves this in adult fiction.

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
This one has been tempting me for awhile, so now might be a good time to fit it in!

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Short Story Sunday

I read three short stories today: "The Gray Man" by Rebecca West, "The Cyprian Cat" by Dorothy Sayers, and "A Haunted House" by Virginia Woolf. I enjoyed them all, however they weren't really scary. Haunting, not scary.

"The Gray Man" by Rebecca West

This story could have been very scary, however the style of narration prevented this. The narrator tells about a vacation where she became very ill and was placed in a nursing home. While there, she becomes sleep deprived and experiences a very disturbing, prophetic dream. I wish that West had upped the creepiness factor, but it was still an interesting story.

I felt obliged to watch the trees outside my window and their behaviour in the sunshine and wind, to note the characteristics of every person who spoke to me, with a quite disagreeable intensity, and I was so fatigued by this constant effort of apprehension that there was no continuity in the working of my brain. Every moment of consciousness was distinct and unrelated to any other. Instead of being a stream my mental life was a string of disparate beads.

"The Cyprian Cat" by Dorothy Sayers

I love Sayers' Lord Whimsey series, but I'd never read any of her short stories. After reading this story, I definitely want to remedy that! In this story, the narrator meets an old friend and his new wife for a little vacation. However, the narrator finds the vacation town absolutely overrun by cats at night; since he detests cats, he decides to buy a pistol to scare them off. But it is odd how the cats only come out at night, and his friend's new wife goes to bed so early and is unresponsive until morning... This was definitely a fun story, but I wish there was a little more background. I think that the idea could have easily been expanded into a novella. Still, makes me look at cats differently!

I tried to distract my mind by looking at the girl. She was worth looking at, too-very slim, and ark with one of those dead-white skins that make you think of magnolia blossom. She had the most astonishing eyes, too-I've never seen eyes quite like them; a very pale brown, almost amber, set wide apart and a little slanting, and they seemed to have a kind of luminosity of their own.

"The Haunted House" by Virginia Woolf

This is a very short story, more of a sketch in fact. It's only two pages long, but it's quite heartwarming. Two ghosts wander around a house, remembering all of the places where they were in love, and wishing blessings on the current occupant. It definitely makes you smile, and since it's Woolf the language and style is beautiful. This was probably my favourite of the three. :)

"Here we slept," she says. And he adds, "Kisses without number." "Waking in the morning-" "Silver between the trees-" "Upstairs-" "In the garden-" "When summer came-" "In winter snowtime-" The doors go shutting far in the distance, gently knocking like the pulse of a heart.

Embers (thoughts)

I've been in a hardcore reading mood lately; I've read two books straight through (not even time to list them under 'Currently Reading') and I'm a third of the way through another. Thus, I have a plethora of books to discuss: seven, in fact. And all of them have been exceptionally good.

Nevertheless, Sandor Marai's Embers jumped to the front of the line. Why? Quite frankly, it contains some of the most stunning writing I've ever read. Marai is a Hungarian who, despite being exiled in America, only wrote in his native tongue. Considering that Hungarian happens to be one of the world's more obscure languages, this prevented his work from receiving much attention. Recently, his works have been 'rediscovered' and Knopf is bringing them out. Embers was the first to be translated into English (in 2001); however, it was translated from the German and French versions, not the original Hungarian. Knopf's subsequent releases (Conversations in Bolzano and The Rebels so far) are translated from the original.

While Ember's history makes the English feel a little choppy in the beginning, the translation soon straightens itself out, and by the first thirty pages I realised that I had come across something beautiful. In structure, it rather reminds me Ishiguro's Remains of the Day: a lot of first-person narrative, looking back over the past, all occassioned by a reunion with a long-lost companion. Both books had the same current of wasted life and regrts. While Ishiguro's book left the philosophy between the cracks up to the reader, however, Marai brings the philosophy out into the open.

The idea is simple: an old Austro-Hungarian General, living on his Hungarian estate, prepares to meet his closest friend after a gap of forty-one years. Actually, I'm going to just quote from the back of the book, "Over the ensuing hours host and guest will fight a duel of words and silences, accusations and evasions." This pretty much sums it up, except the word 'duel' is slightly misleading; the friend barely ever talks, so the last two-thirds of the book (it's only 200 pages long) are a monologue delivered by the General. And yes, as a septogenarian, the General indulges in quite a bit of philosophising.

But please don't let this scare you away! Along with the achingly-written philosophical passages, there's a plot that rather creeps up on the reader. Before I knew it, I couldn't put the book down, because I had to find out how it was going to end. I refuse to tell you anything about the plot, because Marai uncovers it slowly and masterfully; if you choose to read this book, I highly recommend avoiding any discussions of it until after you've finished it. Even the back cover, which I didn't read fortunately, contains a spoiler or two. The gradual climb in tension is exquisite. And if you aren't hooked by page fifty, I'd be shocked.

The ending of the book left me utterly satisfied; in fact, the entire book felt perfect. I came away with the same afterglow I felt after reading The Remains of the Day, slightly dazed by the author's skill.

I highly, highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys an author that appreciates his readers. That was a bit convoluted, but I think you get the gist. Marai has created a stunning piece of literature, and I want to read more by him very, very soon. A real treat, as well as a shorter read (it took me less than two hours). Check out the passages below to get a sense of his writing (I've put a spoiler alert before the very last one, which hints at part of the plot).

Favourite Passages:
...he thought only in decades, anything more upset him, as if he might be reminded of things he would rather forget... (6)

"For twenty-two years they have been living in this town which reeks like some squalid den where passing traders spend the night-a smell of cooking and cheap perfume and sour bedding. Here they live, and never utter a workd of complaint. For twenty-two years my father has not set foot in Vienna, where he was born and brought up. Twenty-two years and never a journye, never a new piece of clothing, never a summer outing, because I must be made into the masterpiece that they in their weakness failed to achieve in their own lives. Sometimes when I am about to do something, my hand stops in midair. This eternal responsibility. I have even wished them dead," he said very softly. (47)

"The truth is precisely what I don't know."
"But you know the facts," said the nurse sharply.
"Facts are not the truth," retorted the General. (73)

"The wind stirs, too, at this moment, gently, carefully, like the sigh of a sleeping man as he sense the return of the earthly reality into which he was born. The scent of wet leaves, of ferns, of crumbling tree trunks, of rotting pine cones, of the soft carpet of fallen leaves and pine needles slippery from the dew, rises up from the earth to assault you like the smell of two lovers locked in sweat-soaked embrace. A magical moment, which our heathen acnestors used to celebrate deep in the forest, worhsipfully, arms outstretched, facing East: earthbound man in the eternally recurring, spellbound expectation of light, insight, reason." (132)

"Ours was a friendship out of the ancient sagas. And while I walked in the sunshine of life, you chose to remain in the shadows." (139)

"I think that perhaps you have gone mad. I think perhaps it is the music. One cannot be a musician and a relative of Chopin and escape unpunished." (157)

"One always wants to repay the gods with some of one's good fortune. For it is well known that the gods are jealous, and that if they five a mortal a year of happiness, they immediately enter this debt on the ledger and demand repayment at the end of life with crippling interest." (162)

"Things do not simply happen to one...One can also shape what happens to one. One shapes it, summons it, takes hold of the inevitable. It's the human condition." (170)

"Since then I have never met a single person who responded so completely to everything: music, an early morning walk in the woods, the color and scent of a flower, the well-chosen words of an intelligent companion. Nobody could stroke a beautiful piece of cloth or an animal like Krisztina. Nobody took such pleasure in the world's simple gifts: people, animals, stars, books-everything interested her, not in any exaggerated way, not with apedantic outpouring of learning, but with the unprejudiced joy of a child reaching for everything there is to see and do. As if everything in the world was relevant to her, you know?" (176)

"I hate music....I hate this incomprehensible, melodious language which select people can understand and use to say uninhibited, irregular things that are also probably indecent and immoral. Watch their faces and see how strangely they change when they're listening to music." (178)

"Yes-revenge. That is why I neither killed myself nor allowed others to kill me, and that is why I have not killed anyone myself, thank heaven. The time for revenge as come, just as I have wished for so long. My revenge is that you have come here across the world, through the war, over mine-infested seas, to the scene of the crime, to answer to me and to uncover the truth together. That is my revenge." (183)

"What do you think? Do you also believe that what gives our lives their meaning is the passion that suddenly invades us heart, soul, and body, and burns in us forever, no matter what else happens in our lives? And that if we have experienced this much, then perhaps we haven't lived in vain? Is passion so deep and terrible and magnificent and inhuman? Is it indeed about desiring any one person, or is it about desiring desire itself? That is the question. Or, perhaps, is it indeed about desiring a particular person, a single, mysterious other, once and for always, no matter whether that person is good or bad, and the intensity of our feelings bears no relation to that individual's qualities or behavior?" (211)

**spoiler: don't read the following quote unless you've already read the book**

"She died because you went away and because I stayed but never once went to her, and because we-the two men to whom she belonged-were more despicable and proud and cowardly abd arrogant and silent than a women can bear; we ran away from her and betrayed her by our survival." (209)

Saturday, September 22, 2007


My Saturday morning became considerably brighter when I found a package from SlaughterHouse Studios in my mail box. Yes, that's right, I've adopted two poppets.

As mentioned earlier, I ordered a Little Purple poppet and a Little Black poppet from Lisa Snellings Clark (the artist). This was quite an event for me: I had to sign up on eBay and everything! Right off, I wasn't sure how to take advantage of the cheaper shipping with multiple purchases; so, hesitantly, I sent an e-mail off to Lisa. She responded incredibly quickly and explained what I needed to do. Very nice of her! Then, I opened my beautiful package this morning (look at the little Poppet houses! and the super-cool ceramic hand! and there was a personalised thank you note from Lisa!), and imagine my surprise...
I found a Little Blue poppet had snuck in instead of a Little Black one! Once again, I was a little hesitant about e-mailing Lisa, but I've been coveting the black poppets for awhile now; so, I sent off a message offering to send the Little Blue one back in exchange for a Little Black (although it really hurt my heart to 'reject' the Little Blue one). She responded in a couple of hours, and with such a kind offer. Not only will she send out a little black poppet on Monday, but the little blue poppet is mine as well! From our brief e-mail exchange, she seems like a very cool person; I encourage everyone to run over and buy a poppet (they're very reasonably priced-$10 for the purples, blues and reds, $13 for the black).

Obviously, after the new poppets arrived, I had to figure out names for them. At first, I focused on the purple; I knew that she was a girl, but I had no idea how to name her. I went to a couple name sites, but nothing was really jumping at me. Then, inspiration struck. May I introduce you to...

Coraline Jane. Here she is with her namesakes: a spunky little girl created by Neil Gaiman and the amazing Jane Austen. Coraline came first; I realised that I could finally write my review of it, and then I realised that Coraline was the perfect name-elegant yet unusual-for my little poppet. Plus, I could honour one of my favourite authors! While looking at her, Jane popped into my head, and Coraline Jane just has an irrestible ring to it.

And here is the Little Blue Poppet, whose fate hung in the balance for a few hours...

While I immediately knew that Coraline Jane was a girl, I'm still not sure about Little Blue Poppet's gender. Therefore, its name is Wilkie Eliot. Wilkie for Wilkie Collins, who I thought was a girl until earlier this year. Eliot for George Eliot, a woman who write as a man. Both are also great authors, and Eliot especially captures a bit of the melancholy that the Little Blue seems to have, while Collins' gothic imaginings seems possible in Little Blue's life. After all, its very arrival here was a mistake! Wilkie Eliot is definitely a bit older than Coraline Jane and very indulgent of its little sister. :)

I certainly plan to post about Neil Gaiman later today, but for now, I think Coraline and Eliot say it best:

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Mariette in Ecstasy (thoughts)

In keeping with the cloistered theme, I thought I'd spend today discussing Ron Hansen's Mariette in Ecstasy. I first read about this book on the Duke alumni reading club (no, I didn't go to Duke; I can't remember how I found out about the club). It sounded good, but also kind of obscure, so I didn't think anymore of it. Then, when I was looking for books for the Book to Movie challenge, this was on the list; I checked with my library, and I was able to ILL (for free!) a copy. Thus, I had high, but vague, expectations as I opened it up.

I knew that the book was set in a convent, in the early 1900s, in upstate New York. I also knew that a young girl would enter the convent, and apparently experience mystical religious acts. That was about it.

The best and most surprising feature of the book was the style; Hansen uses everything from lists to journal entries to interviews to simple third person narrative to tell the story. The book feels like a collage. In lesser hands, this could have been a disaster, however Hansen really pulls it off. The first things the reader sees are a "Directoire des religieuses du Couvent de Notre-Dame des Afflictions" (a list of all the convent members, with their age and job) and a schedule of "The Winter Life of the Sisters of the Crucifixion." In addition to instantly creating an atmosphere for the reader, these lists come in handy throughout the story as references; it was quite nice of Hansen to put them up front so I didn't have to search for them. Then, the reader is led into the story through a series of observations, rendered in simple, standalone sentences, that feels like a mediation.
Limestone pebbles on the path in the garth. Jasmine. Lilac. Narcissus

Mother Celine gracefully walking, head down.


Mooncreep and spire.

Ears are flattened to the head of a stone panther waterspout.
Slowly, the sentences become paragraphs and characters are introduced. The effect of this writing, for me at least, was to really slow me down. I began to concentrate on every word of the story, and I built up quite a detailed mental image of the convent.

The main plot arrives when Mariette Baptiste enters the convent as a postulant. She takes her devotion very personally, carrying on a personal relationship with Jesus, and wanting to suffer as he suffered. She's also beautiful, and at just seventeen, some of the older nuns feel quite wary of her. As the book wears on, Mariette's experiences become more and more extreme; the nuns divide into two camps: either Mariette is a saint or a shameless faker. Meanwhile, the resident priest is trying to discover if a miracle truly has occured.

Essentially, Mariette in Ecstasy is a study of group relationships. It's fascinating to watch the various nuns take sides, to hear what they say and why, and to see the convent's atmosphere become poisoned. Hansen does an incredible job of sweeping the reader into this, so that you feel the discomfort of the priest, the skepticism of the nuns, the pure belief of Mariette. The writing throughout the book is powerful, and the only reason it didn't get 5 stars was the ending. Hansen didn't really seem sure what to do about it, which was a little frustrating.

Nevertheless, I'd highly recommend this book to everyone. It's a short read (179 pages in hardcover) and definitely a page turner. The characters are sharply drawn, but Hansen is one of those authors who trusts the reader, and leaves gaps for her to fill in. My favourite kind of book-engaging, thoughtful, fascinating. It will echo in my mind for some time.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

A Morbid Taste for Bones (thoughts)

I read A Morbid Taste for Bones by Ellis Peters as part of the Unread Authors Challenge. I had mooched it awhile ago, based on several bloggers liking it, and then it languished on my shelves until this challenge brought it up!

Morbid Taste is the first in a series of medieval mysteries, centering around Brother Cadfael, a fifty-something monk who used to be a crusader. Now retired to a quiet life of praising God and gardening, Cadfael demonstrates a profoundly pragmatic outlook on life. In this book, the reader follows him to his native Wales, with a group of monks who are on a quest to recover the remains of Saint Winifred and bring the bones back to the monastery. When murder strikes in the small village, Cadfael must single-handedly find the killer, restore some people's reputations, and play match-maker. Fortunately, he's up the challenge!

When I began this book, I was very concerned. Quite frankly, it was rather dry; I prefer my mysteries to be on the entertaining side. I was all ready to be disappointed, but when I got to about page 50, the pace suddenly picked up. Several very likeable characters were introduced, subtexts began flying, and I couldn't turn the pages fast enough. This is a short book, at just under 200 pages, and I savoured the reading. Once Peters finds her groove, Cadfael is a really fun 'detective,' paternally supporting his friends and quietly laughing at his self-important fellow monks. I also loved that it was set in Wales. I mean, I never get to go to Wales in books!

I must confess, a large part of the appeal to me was the monks. When I was little, I was quite sad that girls couldn't become Jesuit priests, as that seemed the ideal career(yes, I was raised Catholic), and I always felt that if I'd lived in the Middle Ages, I would have been a monk. I don't know why I have such a fascination for them, but I certainly do. The Middle Ages is also my favourite age in European history, so I was quite excited to find a series set in that time period!

Ellis Peters, it turns out, is the pseudonym for Edith Parteger, a Brit who wrote extensively (more on her interesting life). There are a total of twenty Brother Cadfael books, and as the author has passed away, there are no more to look forward to. However, the nineteen should occupy me for some time.

As you might have noticed in my reviews for the Summer Mystery Challenge, I am quite picky about my mysteries. I love Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers; I need to read more Ngaio Marsh. Last Christmas, I discovered Laurie King's Mary Russell series (see bookeywookey's excellent thoughts on the first one), and that quickly became a favourite. This summer, I found myself really liking P.D. James. All of these authors have several things in common: tight plotting, somewhat 'cozy' (James is the closest to thriller), compelling characters, and damn good writing. I'm happy to say that Ellis Peters has now made it on to my short list of dependable mystery writers. If you enjoy well-written mysteries, or the Middle Ages, I'd highly recommend giving A Morbid Taste for Bones a try!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Fast Food Nation (introduction)

I finished Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser on Friday night, and I immediately began thinking about my review. I knew that I couldn't praise it high enough; the engaging writing style, the important information, the humane objectivity to be found in this book is, quite simply, amazing. This book shows why non-fiction is so important. It raises essential issues, deftly introduces the evidence, and allows the reader to evaluate everything in bright light. How, then, to review it? I suddenly realised that this book needs more than a review: it needs an audience. The topics discussed in this book are very important to me (and it was even more fun to read about Colorado Springs, as a newcomer to the town!), so I've decided to follow Dewey's model. She discusses a non-fiction book chapter-by-chapter, providing notes and her personal reaction (currently, she's working through Perfect Girls, Starving Daughters by Courtney Martin).

I've decided to make Tuesdays my Fast Food Nation day; the book has ten chapters, an introduction, an epilogue, and an afterword, so this feature will go into December. I'm hoping to make the posts a center for thoughtful discussion about the issue, but if that doesn't happen at least I know I'm getting the word out. :) And with that, I'll be discussing the Introduction this week.

Introduction: Notes

+The workers of the top-secret Air Force base Cheyenne Mountain have Domino's delivered.

+"In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food; in 2001, they spent more than $110 billion. Americans now spend more on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos, and recorded music-combined." (3)

+"On any given day in the United States about one-quarter of the adult population visits a fast-food restaurant." (3)

+"Adjusted for inflation, the hourly wage for the average U.S. worker peaked in 1973 and then steadily declined for the next twenty-five years." (4)

+"An estimated one out of every eight workers in the United States has at some point been employed by McDonald's. The company annually hires about one million people, more than any other American organization, public or private. McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes-and the second largest purchaser of chicken. The McDonald's Corporation is the largest owner of retail property in the world." (4)

+"The typical American now consumes approximately three hamburgers and four orders of french fries every week." (6)

+"The current methods for preparing fast food are less likely to be found in cookbooks than in trade journals such as Food Technologist and Food Engineering. Aside from salad greens and tomatoes, most fast food is delivered to the restaurant already frozen, canned, dehydrated, or freeze-dried." (6-7)

+"I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible for every social problem now haunting the United States. In some cases (such as the malling and sprawling of the West), the fast food industry has been a catalyst and a symptom of larger economic trends. In other cases (such as the rise of franchising and the psread of obesity) fast food as played a more central role. By tracing the diverse influences of fast food I hope to shed light not only on the workings of an important industry, but also on a distinctively American way of viewing the world." (9)

+"Fast food is heavily marketed to children and prepared by people who are barely older than children. This is an industry that both feeds and feeds off the young." (9)

+"During the two years I spend researching this book, I ate an enormous amount of fast food. Most of it tasted pretty food. That is one of the main reasons people buy fast food; it has been carefully designed to taste food. It's also inexpensive and convenient. But the value meals, two-for-one deals, and free refills of soda hive a distorted sense of how much fast food actually costs. The real price never appears on the menu." (9)

+"Hundreds of millions of people buy fast food every day without giving it much thought, unaware of the subtle and not-so-subtle ramifications of their purchases. They rarely consider where the food came from, how it was made, what it is doing to the community around them. They just grab their tray off the counter, find a table, take a seat, unwrap the paper, and dig in. The whole experience is transitory and soon forgotten. I've written this book out of a belief that people should know what lies behind the shiny, happy surface of every fast food transaction." (10)

Introduction: Thoughts

I was surprised at the opening, a description of Cheyenne Mountain Air Force base. I'm actually going on a tour of that soon! But I quickly became more serious. For me, the most striking points Schlosser brought up were the sheer popularity of fast food and its appeal to children. The size of McDonald's was pretty staggering as well! When we were little, my sister and I played soccer. My dad coached my sister's team, and they needed funding. So, in return for money, her team was named the Mickey Dee's. At the time, it seemed pretty harmless. My favourite two passages are the last two quotes I listed. I like that Schlosser doesn't try to pretend; he freely admits that fast food tastes good. I personally don't like a lot of fast food, but I love Wendy's Spicy Chicken sandwiches. Oh-I should probably give a brief background of my own eating history, so that y'all know where I'm coming from. I became a vegetarian at 16, and at 19 I took an eight-month hiatus. Two of those months were spent in the States, getting my system readjusted to meat, and then I went to Russia (I stayed with families, in a very non-vegetarian friendly culture, hence why I started eating meat). On getting back in December (of 2005), I became a veggie again cold-turkey. Then, in April of this year I started eating meat again in preparation for the Peace Corps. I'm probably going to West Africa, and it would be culturally difficult for me to be a veggie there. So, I'm currently a reluctant meat-eater. My dad hunts once a year, so we always have elk in our freezer. In fact, he's getting back tomorrow with this year's meat. Thus, most of the red meat I eat tends to be game. In restaurants, I tend to default to the vegetarian stuff (I love tofu! and bean burgers!), but sometimes I'll eat chicken. We don't eat out all that often, but we tend to go to chains like Chili's and Olive Garden. As far as fast food, sometimes I'll go to Wendy's (and get a Spicy Chicken sandwich) and more frequently I'll go to La Casita (a four-restaurant Mexican chain in Colorado Springs), where I get two or three bean and cheese tacos. I probably go to La Casita once a week, Wendy's every two or three months, and out to eat at other restaurants twice a month. Whew-ok that wasn't so brief. But I thought it was important for y'all to know where I was coming from! That's probably enough for this week. :)

(Very) Short Story Sunday (Monday): Sinclair and Christie

I've read two more of the selections from Witches' Brew, both of which were rather short. The stories are definitely becomeing more creepy as I move along closer to present day. :) This week, I read "Where Their Fire is Not Quenched" by May Sinclair and "The Lamp" by Agatha Christie.

The former is a somewhat moralising story about a woman who finds herself in Hell. Essentially, she has to repeat the same act, where in life she destroyed love, over and over again. I was incredibly creeped out by the idea of having to relive a bad experience, that you've spent years trying to forget ever happened, for eternity. Ugh.

The latter is a traditional ghost story; you pretty much know what's going to happen, but it's creepy anyway. The ending was quite abrupt; I think that the story could have done with a few more pages to really flesh it out. Nevertheless, a fun, easy ghost read. Nothing particularly deep or psychological about it.

And that pretty much sums it up!

Monday, September 17, 2007


+I'm so sad that I missed Short Story Sunday. :( So I might have to go read a couple stories, come back, and post about them. I ended up crashing at about 8.30 last night, after a very full day, so that explains that.

+When did this blog suddenly become an almost daily thing?! For a long time, I just posted a few times a week, but now I feel bereft if I miss a day. And I have less free time than I have had since June. Weird.

+The new Book Carnival is up: the Classics. Book Nut did an adorable organisational job. And just to remind everyone, I'll be hosting the December one with the very broad theme of "non-fiction." It's not for awhile, but keep it in the back of your heads. ;) Don't know what I'm talking about? Well, go check out Dewey's description already!

+It got really cold here. But I'm actually very excited about it, because it gives me the excuse to wear tights! And drink a ton of hot tea! Plus, the weather feels very R.I.P.-y.

+Speaking of which, I really need to go read those short stories already.

+Oh! And I'm really sorry if some of you read my blog via a blog feed; I've accidently published a post that's planned for tomorrow twice now. :( Both times it happened because I didn't notice the cursor disappeared and hit the enter button. Sorry again.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

The Rest Falls Away (thoughts)

Before I get to the review, just wanted to let everyone know that Dewey has posted guidelines for the 24-hour-read-a-thon she's sponsoring! It'll take place October 20th (a Saturday), and there are a myriad of ways to participate. I definitely want to be a reader, although I'm not really looking forward to waking up at 7 am on a Saturday (mountain time). Everyone go check it out, and mention my name, because then I get to one of Dewey's Most Awesome People Ever (MAPE). :p

On to the review!

Notice the fast turn-around time on this review, the first of Colleen Gleason's vampire series, entitled The Rest Falls Away. ;) For those of you not participating in the R.I.P. II challenge, or who have managed to overlook all of the other reviews, the series is based on the author's curiousity about what life for Buffy (from TV) would have been like if she lived in the Victorian era. I am quite torn about this book, actually. Perhaps all of the glowing reviews I read beforehand built up my expectations a little too much.

Here's the thing. I found it a very enjoyable fluff read. It had a lot of humour, like
Victoria considered the stake for a brief, delicious moment, then regretfully rested it on the table. She had four new polished ash stakes, each to be painted a different color so that they could complement her various gowns. Verbena had suggested ivory, pink, pale green, and blue, and was advocating further decoration using flowers, feathers, and beads. (84)
Oh yes, because we all know how our vampire-killing weapons must coordinate with our outfits. ;) There are several comedic devices used throughout the book; one of the most fun was the chapter titles. I also thoroughly enjoyed the tea parties of the three matrons of society, particularly a certain one's progressively larger crusifixes! The characters were all fun to get to know; not what I'd call particularly deep, or *ahem* realistic, but fun. My favourite is Verbena, the ever-resourceful maid. She kind of reminds me of a nineteenth-century MacGyver, whose talents also include hairdressing. And I'm not gonna lie, there are some passages in the book that explain why it's kept under the 'Romance' section; two of the characters at least seem to qualify this series for the upcoming Swoonworthy Challenge. Take this introduction of a Marquess
Lady Gwendolyn had not exaggerated. Well-turned did not begin to describe the man who stood before her, raising her gloved hand to his lips. He stood as tall as any man in the room, his rich brown hair gleaming with strands of gold as he tipped his head to press a kiss to the back her hand. "If you have not yet greeted everyone, may I dare hope there might be a dance left on your card?" His voice matched his looks-clean, calm, smooth-but his eyes carried a different cadence. Something that made her feel very warm.

But then, Gleason goes and pulls the rug out from under me. It's like you're happily enjoying cotton candy, eating it too quickly because you just can't help yourself, and and suddenly you take a bite and the cotton candy tastes like dill pickle. I am Very Unhappy about the turn one of the characters took. All of you who've read the book know exactly what I'm talking about. I don't feel as if Awful Things should happen in a fluff book; isn't there some unspoken rule about that?

My more serious hesitation as to this book is the writing style. I was frustrated by the author telling me things, instead of showing me them. For example,
"Just what did you think you were doing, Victoria?" he snapped, stalking toward her.
So just in case I didn't pick up from the abruptness of the actual dialogue that this guy snapped, I'm told it. And just in case I didn't figure out that snapping means the guy's probably mad, I'm also told he's stalking. This is an especially easy trap for Gleason to fall into because she uses a rotating third-person point of view.

Despite these writing flaws, the book is a very enjoyable high-adventure romp, and for a first book, the heavy handedness is perhaps understandable. In summary: read this book if you're good with a heavy-adventure, somewhat-sexy piece of funny-for-all-the-right-reasons, plot driven fluff piece. Don't read this book if you only read Serious Literature, or expect extraordinary writing or deep character development.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Death at the Priory and Misc.

First of all, Stephanie is having a book giveaway! Aren't they just the best? (note to self: have a book giveaway on one-year anniversary) This one is for a copy of Veil of Roses by Laura Fitzgerald, who is signing the copy.

And speaking of book giveaways, my prize for SQT's book giveaway came in today.

Whoot! It's a short story collection based on vampires and birthdays. Yet another addition to the R.I.P. II book pool! Thanks so much SQT. If y'all haven't visited her site, it centers on sci-fi and fantasy, so it's given me a bunch of new reading ideas.

And speaking of vampires (gosh, this post is going quite smoothly), I finished The Rest Falls Away. I also have a review typed up. However, I'm kind of nervous about publishing it. I enjoyed the book, but I also had some issues with the writing style. And it seems like everyone else doesn't have a bad word to say about it, and I don't want to be a wet blanket!

And on that note, I'm going to clunkily transition into tonight's review: Death at the Priory by James Ruddick. I read this for my ongoing non-fic challenge (also known as: Eva decides to torture herself for the rest of 2007). It was a short read, ending at page 189. I chose this book mainly because of its subtitle: Sex, Love, and Murder in Victorian England. And let me tell you, there was quite a bit of the first and last of those but not so much love.

First of all, I thought that a priory was where a member of the clergy lived. Apparently not. The priory in question was owned Florence and Charles Bravo, a newly wed couple whose *cough* marital bliss was ended by the fatal poisoning of Charles. The author, Ruddick, spends the first half of the book on the background of Florence and the events surrounding Charles' death; the second is devoted to Ruddick attempting to solve the crime. As much as I wanted to enjoy this book, about a crime that Agatha Christie called "one of the most mysterious poisoning cases ever created," I just didn't.

I felt that Ruddick went in a little too much for the sensational bits of the story, and he made wild generalisations about Victorian women that weren't backed up by any footnotes. I'm beginning to realise that an easy way to tell if I'm going to enjoy a non-fiction work is the length of the bibliography and the presence of footnotes or endnotes; this one is only three pages long, and it doesn't include *any* general works about Victorian history. That absence is definitely felt throughout the book. I also felt he was rather lurid; in the middle of a discussion about the power struggle between Florence and Charles, he suddenly tells the reader that
Florence made 'grave charges' against her husband over their sexual relationship, claiming that he 'engaged in a persistant line of conduct'. The conduct, it was convincingly alleged, was an*l intercourse.
What?! I mean, I don't think of myself as a prude, but I feel that Ruddick could have found a more tactful way to introduce the topic. He also discussed it quite a bit; while I understand that he finds in it an important motive for murder, since he never tells the reader *how* the conclusion that it even took place was drawn, I found his dwelling on it pretty excessive.

The other problem I had with it centered on part two: when Ruddick decides to figure out who did it via a close examination of the evidence. From the selective way he presents the evidence and, even worse, interprets them, the reader instantly sees his bias. He often defends his assumptions by calling them 'self-evident,' when I found an equally plausible alternative that was never discussed. Let me show you what I mean. When discussing the possibility that Florence's former lover, a doctor who gave the housekeeper a mysterious bottle of poison a bit before the murder, could have done it, Ruddick examines the trial transcript of the lover's testimony.
"Did you put tartar emetic [the poison] into the bottle which you gave Mrs. Cox [the housekeeper]?"
"I had no tartar emetic to place in the bottle. And any suggestion that I did so, from whatever quarter it may come, is a wicked and infamous falsehood."
"Have you ever sed antimony, in your professional capacity?"
"Not for thirty years, not since I went to Malvern. I have not had a grain of it in my possession since 1842."
"Did you have anything to do with Mr. Bravo's death, either directly or indirectly?"
"Upon my solemn oath I declare I had nothing to do with Mr. Bravo's death, either directly or indirectly."
It was a convincing rebuke, firm and forensic.
That last sentence is Ruddick's. I didn't see anything particularly stunning in that testimony; I mean, how many guilty men on the stand are like, "Oh, now that you mention it, I did murder him!"? Ruddick then goes on to offer the definitive evidence of the doctor's innocence:
I discovered that Gully [the doctor] had founded Worcestershire's first Co-Operative Society. He also donated to the poor. He had set up medical charities. I also discovered that he had become chairman of the local council. Everywhere I looked, I found public memorials enshrining his philanthropic character. Cora Weaver, a local historian, told me that when Gully had recovered from a serious illness in 1863, the entire population of the town threw a party to celebrate, parading through the streets, and finishing with an address at his front door. Under these cirumcstances it seemed ridiculous to believe that he was behind Bravo's death.
Because someone who donates to charity is incapable of killing a man? Especially a man abusing a former lover? Really? To me, that seems quite plausible.

That kind of fallacious argumentation made reading this book quite painful; I was internally shouting at Ruddick much of the time. I can't really recommend this book, either as a portrait into Victorian life (since Ruddick didn't do his research) or as a good true crime story. However, it has inspired me to look into the case a little more, in the hopes that a better treatment of it exists.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

A Good Day

Today was one of those days that just leaves you smiling.

First, my amazon order arrived...

Although, seriously, look at how awful a packing job they did! They just tossed the books in and added some brown paper. Poor books. :( Now they'll be loved. (the books are: The Rest Falls Away and Rises the Night by Colleen Gleason, The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio, Marked by P.C. and Kristin Cast, and Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrless; I'll talk more about them later).

Then, I finally broke and bought a poppet! Actually, two poppets: I wanted the Little Purple Poppet to have a friend, so I also got a Little Black Poppet. (if you have no idea what I'm talking about, go here, and if you know what I'm talking about and want to get one, go here.

Now, I've decided to wait to review Coraline until the poppets come in, so I can take a picture! Yay!

Then, I spent seven hours with a good friend who I hadn't really seen for a couple a weeks. Good day. :)

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Latest Acquisitions

I realised I haven't posted a book pile in awhile! So I suppose the time has come for my latest confessions. :)

First, a member of bookmooch was running a 3-for-1 deal, and I saw two books that'll be great additions to the R.I.P. II challenge (if I get through everything else early). The Italian Secretary by Caleb Carr is described as a gothic take on the supernatural Holmes from Hound of the Baskervilles. I adore Laurie King's take on Sherlock Holmes, and I don't expect Carr to live up to her, but this one sounds much spookier. I'm not a Holmes purist, so I'm just hoping for a good story. :) I also grabbed a *gorgeous* edition of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which isan awesome take on Dracula. I read it for the first time last year (borrowed it from my mom), and that I've been meaning to buy a copy ever since. Since I got another free pick, I went with Tracy Chevalier's The Virgin Blue, which I've seen recommended here and there. I'm not sure what to expect, since I really didn't enjoy The Lady and the Unicorn, but a friend who's read both assures me that The Virgin Blue is much better. Plus, that happens to be one of my favourite colours!

I ended up mooching quite a bit this past month. I grabbed War in a Time of Peace by David Halberstam after reading about him at Book Chase. He sounds like a great writer, and this book which sounds really interesting and discusses US military action taken during the Clinton era (i.e.-peacekeeping, a topic near and dear to my heart). My final original R.I.P. II challenge pick is The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons, based on a glowing review at Super Fast Reader (for sure this time!). A bookmooch member and I made a 'trade' off each other's wishlists, so I got Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (a 'prequel' to Jane Eyre). I also managed to grabThe Golden Compass by Philop Pullman in the Knopf edition. I love the series, but I'm picky about covers, so I already had the second. Now I'm just waiting for the third to appear on bookmooch! Finally, The Kitchen Boy by Robert Alexander, a historical novel of Russia (another topic near and dear to my heart), which I somehow expected to be as big as The Historian. It's gotten good reviews, but I probably wouldn't have mooched it if I knew how small it was!

All of that leaves three 'guilt' books: Midwives by Chris Bohjalian, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See. I found them on the 3-for-2 tables at B&N; I've been coveting the Ishiguro forever, plan on reading the See soon, and Midwives sounded very interesting.

Simple Question and The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

Question time first (and then an actual review!).

The deadline for the next bookworms carnival is fast approaching. Book Nut's theme is classics, and she's told me that the submissions can be from the beginning of July on. Since I read nine classics for the Summer Reading Challenge, this leaves me with a bit of a dilemma:
should I choose
my post on Emma, which is more personal, but talks about an author everyone knows of,
my post on Cousin Bette and Les Liasons Dangereuses, which is more literary (I use that term broadly), but perhaps a bit dull,
or my post on Candide, The Eustace Diamonds, and The Scarlet Pimpernel, which is quite superficial, but includes two awesome classics that don't get discussed that much?

I just don't know, and I have to decide by Friday. Input would be welcome! (and yes, I'm aware I'm probably taking this too seriously, but I have an indecisive streak as wide as an interstate running through me)

And now, on to a discussion of a real, live book.

I read The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler as part of my personal Reading Across Borders challenge, the sequel. I finished it some time ago, but I wasn't really sure how I felt about it, so I decided to give it time to settle.

Low and behold, I still don't know how I feel about it.

I first heard of it at the Amazon "Grownup School" feature, which asks famous authors for ten book recommendations in a field related to their own. (btw, if you've never checked it out, you ought to fix that. run on over. I'll be waiting) It was recommended as "a murder mystery set in the 16th century during a Christian purge of the Jewish faithful in Lisbon. It's absorbing, full of suspense, and not a little gory in parts but it is also well researched and you can learn a lot whilst being entertained."

Let's examine those claims. First of all, the gore. It's definitely there; Zimler doesn't pull his punches when describing the massacre that occurred. Let me offer a representation of the graphic passages in the first half of this book :
I stared at the [severed] woman's head. Her eyes were not vacant. What then? Recoiling from the world? Taking back the cask now offered me, a shiver twisted through my chest as if made by a fleeing spirit. The bearded man held the dangling head up, licked her cheek twice as if savoring the sweat of a lover. Opening the draw string of his pants, he allowed the filth of his uncircumcised pen*s to unsheathe into the air. The woman's black mouth was pried open by fingers cracked with dirt. To his waist she was held. He began to do something unspeakable. The other watched while pressing himself with the palm of his hand. I dated not close my eyes, but I turned away. When his grunting had finished, he laced his pants together and said, "Be careful where you go. People are being mistaken for Jews!"
Definitely not for the squeamish. Oddly, perhaps, I found this graphic writing to be one of the book's strengths; the reader isn't allowed to politely look away from the atrocities. Zimler really brings the horror and terror and profound evil of it all to the forefront.

So, the book was gorey. But was it also "suspenceful" and "absorbing"? Honestly, not really. Reading this and The Book Thief at the same time was interesting; they both deal with genocides against Jews but in very different ways. I think that the stunning brilliance of The Book Thief has quite a bit to do with my hesitations about The Last Kabbalist: almost any book would pall in comparison. Zusak spends the book making the reader fall in love with both the actual narrator (go Death!) and the pseudo-narrator (Liesl); this empathy is essential to the story. Zimler, on the other hand, makes an adolescent boy the first-person narrator of his tale. And the kid is so self-important and whiny (although perhaps the whining may be excused since he's facing genocide), it really alienates the reader. At least, it alienated this reader. So, while I wanted the murder mystery to be solved, I also couldn't bring myself to pick the book up for long stretches of time. This made it slow going.

On the other hand, I truly enjoyed the way that Zimler incorporated Kabbala into the book; I know the bare outline of the philosophy, and it was fascinating to see how the narrator (when his Kabbala overtook his whining) viewed the world through it. Of course, I can't find any passages now that I want to share them with you. However, I think that it's the incorporation of Kabbala into the book that makes some compare this to Eco's The Name of the Rose. While I can see a general similarity, I would call them second cousins more than long-lost brothers. Eco's control of language, which allows him to just play in his novels, certainly isn't present in Zimler's work. At least, not in this, his first novel.

In the end, I'm still torn about whether to give The Last Kabbalist two stars or four. In terms of themes, and descriptions, it's above average. However, its readability and characters are below. I compromised and gave it three, but that's not really accurate. This book is anything but average.

Favourite Passages:
It was the first time either of us had signalled the verb "to kill" in the first person. We realized our language of gestures had to change to keep up with this new, Old Christian century. (87)

Do you know what it means to look at a headless baby sitting in a shovel? It is as if all thelnaguages in the world have been forgotten, as if all the books ever written have been given up to dust. ANd that you are glad of it. Because such people as we have no right to speak or write or leave any trace for history. (87-8)

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Short Story Sunday (Gilman, Atherton, and Wharton)

This week, I read three stories from the Witches' Brew collection: "The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, "The Striding Place" by Gertrude Atherton, and "Afterward" by Edith Wharton. I very much enjoyed all three, and they felt significantly creepier than last week's reading.

"The Yellow Wall Paper" by Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Several people commented on the blog that they weren't huge fans of this story. Aparrently, it's one of those stories that is often part of the high school curriculum, so students have to analyse it to death. I can see how that would make it annoying; however, reading it for pure pleasure, I was impressed! The first sentence is great:
It is very seldom that mere ordinary people like John and myself secure ancestral halls for the summer.
The story is written as a first-person diary, kept by a woman who is recovering from a "nervous condition" on the orders of her physician-husband. She's staying in the upstairs nursery, which takes up almost the whole floor, and has hideous yellow wall-paper. The diary covers three months, and as time goes on, the narrator becomes more and more captivated by the paper. It's pretty creepy, and an enjoyable read at twenty pages. Towards the end, Gilman can't resist the temptation to wallop the reader over the head with symbolism, but I'll forgive her. ;)
Favourite Passage:
It is the strangest yellow, that wall paper! It makes me think of all the yellow things I ever saw-not beautiful ones like buttercups, but old foul, bad yellow things.

"The Striding Place" by Gertrude Atherton
This story is very short: a mere seven pages. However, it has an incredibly creepy last sentence (that I won't share, for obvious reasons). It follows Weigall, who is part of a hunting party a England, and goes out later that night to walk and think. His best friend has disappeared a couple of days earlier, and while Weigall is almost sure that it's a prank, he's still nervous. The writing is very polished; I'd never heard of Atherton before, but I'm impressed with her descriptive ability. For example,
He went down to the river and followed the path through the woods. There was no moon, but the stars sprinkled their cold light upon the pretty belt of water flowing placidly past wood and ruin, between green masses of overhanging rocks or sloping banks tangled with tree and shrub, leaping occasionally over stones with the harsh notes of an angry scold, to recover its equanimity the moment the way was clear again.
I think, based on this story, I'll be seeking out more of Atherton's work.
Favourite Passage:
"You believe in the soul as an independent entity, then-that it and the vital principle are not one and the same?"
"Absolutely. The body and soul are twins, life comrades-sometimes friends, sometimes enemies, but always loyal in the last instance."

"Afterward" by Edith Wharton
I love Wharton's novels, but this was my first experience with her short stories. "Afterward" is rather on the long side, coming in at thirty-five pages, but it needs that length to really develop its narrative. I was most impressed by the first three-quarters of the story, when Wharton is setting the mood. An American couple, having struck it rich through some kind of mining speculation, move to England and settle into an old county seat. They've been told that it has a ghost, but there's a twist: no one realises it's a ghost until long afterward. Hmmm...I wonder what will happen? ;) Wharton's narrative ability is very impressive, but I felt that towards the end the story began to fall apart. Granted, it's told from one character's p.o.v., and that character is very distraught, but I felt the writing slacked a little. Then, it picked back up at the very end. I don't think I'd have noticed the poorer quality of the little penultimate section, except that the writing surrounding it so good. I'd like to get my hands on the collection of Wharton's ghost stories one day (jealous of Petunia). The story also wasn't quite as hair-raising; I think because it's more of a conventional ghost story than the other two. Still well worth reading!
Favourite Passage:
"I should never believe I was living in an old house unless I was thoroughly uncomfrtable," Ned Boyne, the more extravagant of the two, had jocosely insisted; "th eleast hint of 'conveniance' would make me think it had been bought out of an exhibition, with th epieces numbered, and set up again." And they had proceeded to enumerate, with humorous precision, their various doubts and demands, refusing to believe that the house their cousin recommend was really Tudor till they learned it had no heating system, or that the village church was literally on the grounds, and till she assured them of the deplorable uncertainty of the water-supply.

Saturday, September 8, 2007


I haven't read at all yesterday or today! That almost never happens. But, yesterday, I got my amazon order in...

Based on my previously mentioned obssession with The Office, then I had to have a marathon viewing session. I've now finished it (I only saw a few-maybe four-episodes while it was being aired), and I was very, very impressed. I am so excited for season four!

And then, I went to see this movie tonight-you guys probably haven't even heard of it-but it's based on a novel, apparently by some author called Ned? No..Neil. ;) Yep-I just got back from Stardust!!! I was kind of nervous going in, because I really liked the book, but I haven't read the book in quite a while (going to reread it soon), so I figured I was safe. And it was so much fun. :D Especially how Tristan suddenly becomes super-hot half way through. I'm thinking Stardust will be on the list of Swoonworthy Reads now! Come on...take a look (note my shameless cropping of as much of the girls as possible)...

It's amazing what some hair texture and a kickass coat can do! Of course, the knee high boots + pantaloons certainly don't hurt. ;)

Well, I was just checking in. I promise there's bookish talk to come soon! And for now...well, I'll be basking the afterglow of Stardust. Hope everyone's having a good weekend!

Edited to add: in the preview, all of the pictures of Tristan were lined up, but in the actual blog, they're taking up more space. *pout*

Thursday, September 6, 2007

The Fatal Flaw

When I signed up for all of these challenges, I knew my own limits. After all, I thought to myself, I've been averaging 14 books a month this year, so I should be able to handle it. Ah, hubris. Because here's what I failed to consider: if all of the books I'm reading are for challenges, then I have to review them all. Oy. Currently, I'm two books behind, and the month is five days old. We'll see how this goes, shall we? Especially since I like writing non-review posts as well!

On the plus side, I've been very impressed with the blogosphere lately (not that I'm not always impressed). And I have some thoughts and links to share. :)

+First off, there's a Jane Austen reading schedule up at Brooklyn Arden. I've read all of Austen's works, most multiple times, and this calendar seems spot it; it has a book every two months and is mainly based on seasons.

+The new Estella's Revenge is out, and I very much enjoyed it. My favourite articles? "The Seven Deadly Reading Sins," "Confessions of a Closet Reader," "Confessions of a Hopeless Book Addict (Photo Essay)" (go bookfool!), and "Confessing a Literary Crush."

+Oh, and there was an interview with Mark Zusak (the author of the book that wrung my heart recently). Who knew how cute he was?! Good looking, reads, writes...I'm thinking I might have to move to Australia. ;)

+On an almost-unrelated topic, that last Estella article I mentioned segues nicely into an idea I've been toying with for awhile now. I even have a draft post to prove it. :) It's an idea for a challenge, but for sometime in 2008 (definitely including February), based on literary crushes. Something like "Swoonworthy Reads" (yep, corny, I know). I think it would be a lot of fun to compile a list of everyone's favourite crushes and then pick however many books to read. And of course I'd have to do something special for Valentine's Day. And I'm thinking at least one of the buttons would involve a certain wet-shirted gentleman we all know and love. ;) So, begin brainstorming all of your crushes! (of course, crushes on girl characters are welcome as well!)

+I guess I'll start with my first literary crush ever. That would be Gilbert from the Anne of Green Gables series. He was tall, intelligent, kind, but also mischevious. How could I resist the twinkle in his eye? I reread most of the series several times as a kid, and in the early ones I would get very, very upset with Anne for her treatment of him. But it all comes together in the end. :) Oh, that night when he was at death's door...I was afraid to get to the end of the chapter. What if L.M. Montgomery does the unthinkable? How awful would that be?! And relief flooded me as fully as it flooded Anne at sunrise. Whew. I might have to make this a regular feature leading up to the challenge; crush of the month. lol

+It's almost time for the next edition of the Bookworms Carnival. It's hosted at Book Nut, and its theme is classics. The deadline is September 14th; I'm not sure if the submitted posts have to be recent or not. As a shameless plug, I'll be hosting the December carnival with the theme of "non-fiction." (hmmm-I wonder why that could be?)

+Watch this space for: why Coraline confirms that Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite-est authors, my mixed feelings on The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and how it might be connected to The Book Thief, and a pile of my latest bookmooches.

+Oh! And check out my thoughts on The Ghost Writer below this. I have the sneaking suspicion a lot of y'all would like it. :)

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

The Ghost Writer

Imagine that A.S. Byatt's Possession and Diane Setterfield's The Thirteenth Tale had a baby. Now imagine that Henry James agreed to play godfather, but Charles Dickens also popped in from time to time.

That baby's name is The Ghost Writer, and John Harwood is the proud papa. I read about this book on a blog; I used to think it was over at superfastreader's, but now a search on her site isn't bringing up the title. So if you've reviewed The Ghost Writer lately, let me know so I can give some credit. :) It duly went on the TBR list; then, the R.I.P. II challenge appeared, so I went off to bookmooch. There, I obtained a *gorgeous* copy (it looks like it's never been read before), and the cover has been teasing me for the past week. I mean, look at it:

I was planning on waiting awhile for this one, since I just finished my first R.I.P. II read; but, as Oscar Wilde puts it, "I can resist everything except temptation." Then, I was planning on reading it only at night; that would make it creepier and make it last awhile longer. But today was full of thunderstorms, and the baby took a really long nap, and that cover was just crying out to me.

I finished it about half an hour ago, but I wasn't go to review it; I was going to review a couple other books I finished earlier for other challenges. However, the perfect introduction formed in my head, so I had to run on over to blogger and share the news.

This book kicks ass.

For all of you who enjoyed The Thirteenth Tale, for its shamelessly gothic plot twists and book references, for all of you who loved Byatt's use of several distinct styles in Possession, I have someone I'd like you to meet.

The Ghost Writer tells the story of Gerard, an Australian librarian (told you it was for bookish people) who grows up on his mother's stories about her idyllic childhood in England. When he's thirteen, he gets a British penpal, Alice, who he tells about the mysterious photo and story he found hidden in his mother's vanity. The story was written by "VH," which happen to be the initials of his great-grandmother, Viola Hatherley; after Gerard finds the photo and story, his mother refuses to talk about England ever again. Meanwhile, Gerard and Alice become close friends, and Gerard decides to travel to England. While there, he explores the mystery of his mother's past, coming across more stories written by VH. As events get eerier and eerier, Gerard begins to he going crazy? Or stuck in the middle of a ghost story?

The best part of this novel are VH's stories; they're all included, and take up 167 pages (of 369). Harwood has done a very good job of weaving them into the plot, but really these stories (they're all ghost stories) could stand alone in their own collection. They're just stunning (and very creepy); I hope that Harwood writes more of VH's tales in the future.

There are weaknesses to the book: sometimes Gerard seems incredibly dense (I was on to the twist by at least half way through, whereas Gerard can't figure it out until the very, very end) and the ending is quite abrupt. While I personally enjoy endings that leave a lot up to the reader to figure out, some people might feel annoyed. The ending definitely leaves room for a sequel, or related book, with more of VH's work, which made me very excited.

I realise that perhaps I should provide a sample passage from one of VH's stories, so that y'all can recognise the sudden obssession I have; the following is from "The Gift of Flight." The main character, Julia, was reading the the British Museums's Reading Room when she suddenly looked up and realised the room was blanketed in a thick fog. Then she hears someone sit down in the chair next to her...
Very slowly, keeping her eyes on the fog-bank between herself and her invisible companion, Julia began to ease herself off her chair, hoping to slip away silently in the other direction, towards the catalogue. Her chair creaked loudly, and as it did so the wall of fog to her left rose up like a curtain.
In that first glimpse, Julia was relieved, though startled, to discover that the chair beside her was occupied by a child, a little girl of no more than eight, with golden curls and pink cheeks, dressed in a starched white frock and petticoat. The reassurance lasted only an instant. There was something fixed and unnatural about the bright, smiling face turned towards Julia, and especially about the eyes, which had been slightly downcast, but suddenly opened wide with an audible click. They were the shoe-button eyes of a doll; the face looked as hard and rigid as porcelain; and yet the creature was alive, for it was swinging its legs around with evident intention of sliding off its chair and coming over to Julia.
Isn't the writing beautiful?

I'm very glad that I read The Ghost Writer for the R.I.P. II challenge; it almost seems like it could be the poster child for the challenge, since it's very gothic and focuses on ghosts. Another one I'd recommend to just about anyone; it's both literary and a page-turner. Gosh, it seems that so far the R.I.P. II challenge can do no wrong! Two great books down; I hope the other two can live up to them. :)