Wednesday, August 31, 2011

August Wrap Up

In August, I participated in the Art of the Novella Reading Challenge. The idea was conceived by Frances over at nonsuchbook, with Melville House, the publisher, graciously getting on board. Frances decided to read all forty-two novellas during August, and blog about each one. Fortunately, she realized that not all of us were up to such a challenge, and invited readers to set their own goals.

Originally, I was planning on just reading one book. Then, after looking at the list, and trying to see what I could get from my library, I decided to go for the “Fascinated” level – three books. I’m happy to report that I met my (modest) goal.

I’m glad that I decided to read three novellas. I hated the first one I read – Leo Tolstoy’s The Devil. I posted a review, and emailed it, along with a notice of my participation, to Melville House. I was surprised to get a personalized email back, with some suggestions with books I may like better. How nice! The next book was George Eliot’s The Lifted Veil, which I enjoyed. The best ended up coming last, though, with Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country of the Pointed Firs. I’m really glad that I stuck out that challenge and read some good books. Oh, and I also ended up winning one of Melville House’s daily giveaways – and they sent me SEVEN books. Seven! I am in seven book heaven.

Okay, so let’s break down my reading:
14 books total
10 fiction                        71%
4 nonfiction                   29%
8 female authors           57%
3 works in translation   21%
(I've also started two more, but they'll be counted in next month's totals).

My favorites this month were The Salt Roads and The Country of the Pointed Firs. They are completely different, but both excellent.

I’ve already posted reviews for most of these, which you can find by either checking the archive to the right, or by going to the Books Read 2011 tab linked at the top of this page. The title will take you to the review, if I’ve posted it. For those that I haven’t reviewed yet – well, they’re coming, promise. Most are half-written jumbles of my thoughts, or they are mulling around in my head, as yet uncommitted to the page (er, screen).  A couple are even finished and scheduled to post J
How was your month in reading? Anything you’d recommend – either to read, or to stay far away from?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Topping Fall's TBR

Top Ten Books That Are On The Top Of My TBR List For Fall
Top Ten Tuesdays are brought to you by the folks over at The Broke and the Bookish.

I don’t keep up with what books are being released, and when, so this list consists of books that I want to read, regardless of publication date.  Also, this is not a commitment to actually read these books. I tend to pick up books based on what strikes me at a particular time. This list is more like “Books That Sound Good and I Want to Read Them Soon-ish, Probably.” Without further ado, the list (in no particular order):

1) To the End of the Land, David Grossman. This is my book club’s next pick. I’m not sure if I’m going to be able to make our next meeting, but I’ll read the book anyway.

2) The Taste of Salt, Martha Southgate. I read Southgate’s critique of The Help and it made me want to read one of her novels. I was able to buy The Taste of Salt online, even though it supposedly isn’t being released until September.

3) Scottsboro, Ellen Feldman. This was recommended to me by fellow blogger nomadreader, after I mentioned I did not like The Help. It was an Orange Prize nominee in 2009.

4) The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood. Um, Margaret Atwood is awesome. I am ashamed to say I’d never read anything by her until my book club picked The Blind Assassin  to read last year. Since then I’ve also read The Handmaid’s Tale, and I’ve been wanting to read more. When I heard she had a retelling of the Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’s wife, I had to add it to the TBR list.

5) A Happy Man, Hansjörg Schertenleib. The Publisher, Melville House, sent this to be as part of an awesome collection of books that I won by participating the Art of the Novella reading challenge. This is part of their Contemporary Art of the Novella series. The front flap says that this is the first time the author has been translated into English. That’s got me interested. I like reading books in translation.

6) Mr. Fox, Helen Oyeyemi. Eva over at A Striped Armchair has been singing the praises of Helen Oyeyemi. She’s got good taste, so I thought I’d give this one a try.

7) Assata: An Autobiography, Assata Shakur. I’m interested in radical movements in the 1960s & 70s, so, yeah, I want to read this. It will probably be the first on this list that I actually get to, because I have it sitting next to me, and it’s on loan from my neighbor. Since I’m moving soon, I want to have it read and returned asap.

Pigeon English, Stephen Kelman. I’ve got this Booker longlisted novel checked out from the library, and I want to get to it before I move and have to return it!

The Buddha in the Attic, Julie Otsuka. Another library book that I need to read and return. I checked this one out in my attempt to read more by this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival authors.

10) American Gods, Neil Gaiman. I’ve never read anything by Gaiman, despite hearing good things. This may be the year to change that.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Now I'll Be Adding Lots of Sarah Orne Jewett to the TBR List

The Country of the Pointed Firs
Sarah Orne Jewett

I gave a little preview of this book last week, and I’ve finally sat down to write a proper review.  The novella is set in the fictional seaside village of Dunnet, Maine. The unnamed narrator is a writer who escapes her big sitting residence for the summer to spend some quiet time working. Over the course of the season she gets to know, and love, both the town and its inhabitants. Reading along, I fell in love with the place right along with her.

If you’re looking for an action packed tale, this is not it. Yes, things happen, but the book is set up like you are living this episode with the narrator. She is staying with a Mrs. Todd, a widow who makes a living renting out a room in her home and selling herbal remedies. She keeps a garden packed full of whatever components she may need.
You could always tell when she was stepping about there, even when you were half awake in the morning, and learned to know, in the course of a few weeks’ experience, in exactly which corner of the garden she might be.
I love the idea of bustling about in a garden, releasing the scents of the plants as you go. Even more than that, I love the idea of still lying in bed while someone else is outside working, and getting to enjoy the fragrances wafting through your window. 

Dunnet was traditionally a village of seafarers. Over the years, the inhabitants have stayed closer to shore, concentrating on lobster and other local fish to provide their living. There are the typical characters lamenting the loss of the "old ways" and fear that the young people are becoming soft. Jewett portrays this timeless complaint with care, and a bit of sly humor. The town retains elements of its oceangoing days, though. Jewett's narrator observes the town from a fine vantage point:
We were standing where there was a fine view of the harbor and its long stretches of shore all covered by the great army of the pointed firs, darkly cloaked and standing as if they waited to embark. As we looked far seaward among the outer islands, the trees seemed to march seaward still, going steadily over the heights and down to the water's edge.
I can just imagine those tall, proud trees being used to make great ships and sailing the world, exploring far-flung ports and the open seas.

But it is Mrs. Todd who forms the heart of this book. She always knows what to do or say to make a person feel better. Here are a couple of my favorite quotes of hers:
"There's some herb that's good for everybody, except for them that thinks they're sick when they ain't." 
"Yes'm, old friends is always best, 'less you can catch a new one that's fit to make an old one out of."
I think I've found a new old friend in The Country of the Pointed Firs.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Review of "The Salt Roads"

The Salt Roads
Nalo Hopkinson

I’m really glad I kept reading this, because the beginning was not exactly my cup of tea. There were a couple graphic sex scenes, and some mentions of bodily fluids, and well, I sometimes get a bit squeamish. But I persevered, and was happy that I did.

The Salt Roads consists of three main narratives that are connected via the experiences of the goddess Ezili. In Hopkinson’s tale, Ezili is brought forth one night as three slave women bury a stillborn child in the French colony of Saint Domingue (modern day Haiti). Ezili sees how her people, the Ginen, are suffering, and wants to help them. I loved hearing how Ezili learns who she is and how to harness her powers. I’ve never read anything similar describing the birth of a goddess.

The first narrative follows Mer, a slave born in Africa, carried through the hellish Middle Passage, to the Caribbean. Mer has lived twelve years in Saint Domingue – longer than most slaves survive there. She works bent over in the cane fields until she is needed to tend to suffering fellow slaves. The master wants to protect his investment, after all.  Mer uses her abilities to comfort her people the best that she can. She can sometimes speak to the lwa, or spirits, who seek her help in clearing the salt roads back to Africa.

Thais is a Nubian slave, made to work in the brothels of Alexandria. She and her friend Judah, a fellow slave, run away on an adventure to Aelia Capitolina (Jerusalem). The two of them practice their only trade in exchange of passage across the Mediterranean. Hopkinson manages to rework their journey into the origins of the Catholic Saint Mary of Egypt. Thais’s story is the weakest of the three, but the sly religious commentary makes it fun and irreverent.

The character, and narrative, of Jeanne Duval is based on a real person. Duval was a dancer and actress in Paris, during the mid-1800s. She was the longtime mistress of poet Charles Baudelaire. Hopkinson sketches the hard life Duval lived. Her mother and grandmother had to work as prostitutes. She endured sexual harassment from the owner of the venue where she performed. She finds comfort in the arms of one of the other performers – a white woman named Lisette. Both women are searching for men that will elevate their stations and give them long term comfort and stability. I loved how Hopkinson took this historical figure and rewrote her “ending.” There’s not much known about the real Jeanne Duval, and most, if not all, of it comes from the famous men in her life. Nadar, an early French photographer and one time lover, reported that he last saw her alive in 1870, forlorn and hunched over a cane. Hopkinson puts her own spin on this sighting.

I have one major gripe with my version of the book, which I checked out from my library. The book was sitting on y end table, and I noticed it had a bright green label on the spine. My library uses these labels to mark special interest categories, like mysteries or science fiction. I knew that Hopkinson wrote speculative fiction, so I thought perhaps this was labeled as science fiction. Upon closer inspection, I quickly saw this was not the case:

Black interest?
Yes, this book features black main characters. One of the settings is a Caribbean slave plantation. Does that mean that only black people would be interested in it? I hope not! So why the label? I guess one interpretation is that the library has found that this makes it easier for people specifically searching for books about black people to find those books. The problem is that there are a lot of people who would like this book, but aren’t specifically looking for “black interest” books.  I wonder how this book is shelved. Do some library branches have separate “black interest” sections? If so, they may need a visit from Carleen:

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

A True Story from the Underground Railroad

Available at IndieBound
Henry’s Freedom Box
Ellen Levine
Illustrated by Kadir Nelson

I was browsing in my library when I saw this beautiful book perched on a display shelf. How could you not be drawn in by Henry’s adorable little face? Illustrator Kadir Nelson received a Caldecott Honor for his work on this book, and it is easy to see why. As I was reading, I was mesmerized by the expressions on the characters’ faces, especially one of Henry working in a tobacco warehouse.  I admit, I didn’t realize that the Caldecott recognized illustrators - I just assumed that the honor was for the author.  Here, Levin and Nelson work together to bring to life the amazing true story of how one man shipped himself to freedom.

We meet Henry as a little boy. We’re told that Henry doesn’t know how old he is, because slaves aren’t allowed to know their birthdays. In just a few short pages, Henry grows older, gets married, starts a family. Levine tells us how his status as a slave affected him at each stage of his life. Henry's immense psychological burden comes through loud and clear. When Henry makes his daring escape, I was holding my breath, anxious and spellbound, even though I knew the outcome. I can't imagine how terrifying his journey must have been.

I don’t read much children’s literature, so I don’t really know how to compare this to others in the genre. The story just whizzed by. I barely had time to blink before decades had passed and Henry was emerging from his box into a Philadelphia parlor. It seems like a good book to read with a child, so you can discuss it. The author's note at the end adds a few details about how Henry managed his time in the box, which are helpful. I can imagine a child asking lots of questions about Henry’s situation, and it could be a great teaching opportunity. Keep the tissues nearby, though! I was tearing up at the end.

You can watch Levine discuss the book at her website. She tells us that the Fugitive Slave Act was passed shortly after Henry escaped slavery. Rather than risk being sent back, he sailed to England to promote the abolitionist cause. 

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Review-less

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme hosted by The Broke and the Bookish. Each week they, and other bloggers/readers, make a top ten list from a given topic. This week's topic is...

Top Ten Books I Never Reviewed

This year is the first year I started tracking what I read. I also just started this blog oh, about a month ago. While I am trying to post reviews of books I read before blogging, there are a bunch that I’m just not going to get to. So this list is a shout out to great books I’ve read, but never reviewed.

1)      Nervous Conditions, Tsitsi Dangarembga. Thoughtful, well written account of a girl growing up in colonial Rhodesia.

2)      The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood. Scary dystopian stuff. Offred? Talk about losing your identity.

3)      Aya, Marguerite Abouet. This graphic novel is definitely not a children’s book! This book follows the adventures of a group of young women growing up in the Ivory Coast.

4)      Twenty Fragments of a Ravenous Youth, Xiaolu Guo. Not what I expected as a picture of a modern young Chinese woman.  In a good way.

5)      Stiff, Mary Roach. Who knew a book about dead bodies could be so fascinating?

6)      Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi. A beautiful celebration of literature, told by an Iranian university professor after she’s been forced to resign her position.

7)      Out Stealing Horses, Per Petterson. First, I love the title. And the cover. Oh, and the story about a man remembering his time at his family’s vacation home as his parent’s marriage disintegrates.

8)      A Heart So White, Javiar Marias. Language, love, travel, mystery – what more could you want?

9)      Catch-22, Joseph Heller. One of my all-time favorites.  The absurdity of war seems to be an always relevant topic, unfortunately.
10)   A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving. I admit, my arm had to be twisted before I would read this. Now I can’t stop singing its praises. Irving has a true gift for writing about children.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Edwidge Danticat Talks About Writing

Edwidge Danticat discusses what it is to be an artist and immigrant with Paul Holdengraber.
(Trigger Warning: She reads material that describes an execution.)

For a lot of writers I think the reader and the writer overlap” - Edwidge Danticat.

I love that. I want to read things that the author loves, that the author would want to read. It's like an invitation into their world.

Danticat was discussing her recent book, Create Dangerously. I haven't read it, so will give you a summary from Princeton University Press:
"In this deeply personal book, the celebrated Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat reflects on art and exile, examining what it means to be an immigrant artist from a country in crisis. Inspired by Albert Camus' lecture, "Create Dangerously," and combining memoir and essay, Danticat tells the stories of artists, including herself, who create despite, or because of, the horrors that drove them from their homelands and that continue to haunt them. Danticat eulogizes an aunt who guarded her family's homestead in the Haitian countryside, a cousin who died of AIDS while living in Miami as an undocumented alien, and a renowned Haitian radio journalist whose political assassination shocked the world. Danticat writes about the Haitian novelists she first read as a girl at the Brooklyn Public Library, a woman mutilated in a machete attack who became a public witness against torture, and the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat and other artists of Haitian descent. Danticat also suggests that the aftermaths of natural disasters in Haiti and the United States reveal that the countries are not as different as many Americans might like to believe."
I've only read one book by Danticat, The Dew Breaker. The title refers to a group of paramilitary torturers who sneak up to houses early in the morning to claim their victims. Yeah, scary stuff.

The Dew Breaker
It is set, primarily, in Haiti, with some scenes in Florida and others in Brooklyn, New York. One of the characters is a former member of the notorious Tonton Macoute. Another is a young Haitian American sculptor. The book is a series of interconnected stories rather than one continuous narrative, but they form a cohesive whole.

The novel certainly has implications on what it means to be a immigrant artist working in the United States. I'd like to see what Danticat has to say directly on the subject in her nonfiction work. Another book to be added to the ever-growing Mount TBR.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

What to Read Next

I'm down to four unread library books, which is pretty good. I had nine checked out at once just a little bit ago - that's a lot for me! Now my problem is deciding which one to read next. I chose three of these because they were available at my library and longlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

I can't remember why I chose Binocular Vision (Edith Pearlman). I put in a hold request for it, so there must have been a reason. It's a short story collection, and it looks pretty good. It's also the one due the earliest, so maybe I should start it.

Technically, I've started A Cupboard Full of Coats (Yvvette Edwards) already. I picked it up from the library on Friday, and then went to my favorite Chinese restaurant to order takeout. While I was waiting, I read the first couple of chapters. I didn't want to get too invested, though, because I was in the middle of two other books.

I've read mixed reviews of Stephen Kelman's Pigeon English. It looks like a quick read, though, so maybe I should just get to it right away.

The last option is Carol Birch's Jamrach's Manangerie. It appears rather interesting - a circus/high seas adventure. Not something I'd usually pick up, but that's why sometimes I like to read from some prize lists. I want to make sure I'm getting a good mix in!

Have you read any of these? If so, what did you think?

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Beginnings 8.19.11

Thank you to Katy over at A Few More Pages for hosting. The idea is to share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading, with the title and author, and your impressions on the first lines.

I've been reading Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs for about a week now. I know that it's only 200 pages, but I've stretched it out as I've really been enjoying it. Of course, I've read some other books in the meantime. I never used to read more than one book at once, but the past few years I've noticed that I do this more and more. Anyway, on to the the first lines!

There was something about the coast town of Dunnet which made it seems more attractive than other maritime villages of eastern Maine. Perhaps it was the simple fact of acquaintance with that neighborhood which made it so attaching, and gave such interest to the rocky shore and dark woods, and the few houses which seemed to be securely wedged and tree-nailed in among the ledges by the Landing.
One of the reasons I chose this book was its Maine setting. I visited Maine for the first time last summer, and absolutely loved it. This opening is a little slow, but it sets me firmly in a little Maine village, smelling the salty ocean, looking inland towards the mountains and forests. Plus, I love the idea of getting "acquainted" with a town, like you'd get to know a person.

This is what Maine looked like when I was there. A bit more populated than Orne's little village of Dunnet, but I imagine still just as charming.

Photo Credit:

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Along the Nile in Sudan

Season of Migration to the North
Tayeb Salih

is full of pairings. There are the two main characters, two sets of deaths, the North and the South, Islam and non-believers, those in the government and those with influence in the villages. The novel centers around two men – Mustafa Sa’eed and an unnamed narrator. Both are Sudanese who spent time in London. The book follows these men, and explores their brief, but intense, relationship. They both spend time in the land of their colonizers, and believe that they can come back from their time abroad unchanged. That is not to be.

The book is difficult to read. Sa’eed is wholly unlikable, and honestly, a bit scary. He repeatedly tells us that he has no emotions, and we find out rather quickly he’s killed at least one person and is perhaps responsible for the deaths of several others. His victims aren’t exactly blameless paragons of virtue, but that doesn’t make their deaths any more palatable.

There’s also plenty of misogyny from the characters. There’s one scene where several village elders are sitting around, talking rather graphically about sex, comparing women, discussing the merits of female circumcision. I don’t feel that Salih was trying to exploit these issues, or celebrate them, but again, it just makes for difficult reading.

There is one scene in particular that shines with pure beauty. The narrator is traveling from his village to Khartoum. Along the way, the lorry in which he is riding stops for the night. The people rest, nourish themselves, and dance and sing with pleasure.
We formed ourselves into a large circle into which some of the younger men entered and danced in the manner of girls. We clapped, stamped on the ground, and hummed in unison, making a festival to nothingness in the heart of the desert.
Season of Migration to the North has been declared “the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century” by the Arab Literary Academy in Damascus. I agree this is an important work. The themes – colonialism, racism, are big ones, and they are handled well. Salih provides no easy answers. He makes you think about the legacy of colonialism, and points out its far-reaching and lasting effects. It feels timely now, even though it was originally published in 1966. But I felt a bit like Mustafa - I read this on an intellectual, not an emotional, level. I couldn’t say that I enjoyed it, but I am glad that I read it.

Note: Many thanks to 
M. Lynx Qualey over at Arabic Literature (in English) for promoting Arabic literature this summer, and year-round. 

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Swimming in the Light

I know what I'm getting the hubby for his birthday:

While watching this I immediately thought of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez short story "Light is Like Water." Go read it. Seriously. It will take you two minutes.

'"Light is like water,' I answered. 'You turn on the tap and out it comes.'"

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Serious Reservations

Yes, I read the movie tie in version.

Reservation Road
John Burnham Schwartz

This started off rather well. Cue happy family at a lovely outdoor concert. On the way home, family is shattered as eldest child is killed by hit and run driver. The rest of the book will explore the parties dealing with grief and guilt. If you don’t like sad, depressing stories, this is not the book for you. I do like sad, depressing stories, so I kept reading.

I’ve had family members lose children, and it completely and totally sucks. I have heard, and I can believe that it’s true, that as a parent, nothing is worse than losing a child. Not only do you have the grief, but it subverts the “natural” order of things. People do not count on outliving their children. Generally, Reservation Road handles this theme convincingly. This is the grieving father speaking:

“It was not just the moment that paralyzed. But the vast circumference of time ahead; I could imagine no way of filling this picture, or keeping away the silence that lay behind it.”

Unfortunately, there are some major flaws that kept me from liking this. The first problem was the completely unconvincing police officers. They are investigating a boy’s death, but it seems that they have never dealt with a grieving victim’s family. Now, I do not believe that police officers are perfect (by any means) but I do not think that they’d take it personally when a father, who just saw his ten year old son get mowed down by a car, yells at them.

The most problematic flaw was the pervasive male gaze. The book is told from three alternating perspectives: Grace & Ethan Learner’s (the dead boy’s parents) and Dwight Arno, the driver.  Ethan and Dwight’s chapters are told in first person. Because, you know, they are doing stuff. They are the men. They are destined to confront one another. In contrast, Grace’s chapters are told in the third person. Because we’ll just watch her mope around and be sad. She’s not actually going to do anything interesting or important.

Women get looked at a lot in this book. Dwight is the worse offender, but Ethan is certainly not innocent. He defends himself: “I looked; I’m not dead.” It’s the natural state of all men, apparently, to look at breasts, not matter the circumstances. Barf.

Dwight, inevitably, becomes enchanted with Grace Learner. Of course, not  before he’s gross to his ex-wife, Ruth. She wants to talk to him about something important, and he just wants to tell her that her “figure is a fine as it ever was.”

Women are there to be passive, to be looked at, to be desired. The only exception is Jean Olson, a colleague of Ethan’s. Based on how the book was progressing up until she was introduced, I thought for sure she was going to be another example of same character. But no! There’s a twist – she’s a lesbian! (This is handled sooooo awkwardly.) She’s still there solely to offer support to Ethan, though.

Grace and Ruth both seem to possess glimpses of extrasensory perception. They both seem to know more than they let on, but they do absolutely nothing with that information. They both have their reasons, but I would have liked to see some action from either of them.  In fact, after I finished the book, I imagined a scene where Grace gets justifiably pissed off and reacts to the crappy resolution that Schwartz imagined. 

Now that, I would enjoy reading.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Books Meet Art @ Brooklyn Museum

Several years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink. It’s all about how our brains make snap judgments, or as he calls it, engage in “thin-slicing.” The book opens with a discussion of a sculpture, the Getty kouros. Gladwell explains how experts evaluated the sculpture and tried to decide whether it was genuine or a forgery.

Gladwell argues that the experts who had no expectations about the statue, and no vested interest, looked at it and instinctively felt that something about it was “wrong.” He posits that their brains are subconsciously recognizing something that their conscious minds can’t express.

Getty kouros

Well, this idea of snap judgments and art inspired some folks over at the Brooklyn Museum to see how art patrons would react to thin-slicing. They created the project Split Second: Indian Paintings.

Shelly Bernstein writes:
“This project’s main source of inspiration is Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.  The book explores the power and pitfalls of initial reactions. After reading it, I started to wonder how the same theories might apply to a visitor’s reaction to a work of art. How does a person’s split-second reaction to a work of art change with the addition of typical museum interpretive text? As visitors walk through our galleries, what kind of work are they drawn to? And if they stop, look, read, or respond, how does their opinion of that work change?”

The project began online, asking web visitors to evaluate pieces of art. Some were given unlimited time, and others were given just a few seconds to rate their impressions. The team then analyzed the data and came to some interesting conclusions. For one, “complex” paintings did fairly well in the short time period, but they did much better when people were given an unlimited amount of time.

This cool handy chart shows how the rankings changed depending on the variables.

I admit, I didn’t learn about this project until it had been completed. I was interested in it, though, so when I saw the museum had put its findings on display, I went to go check it out.

Photo credit: Brooklyn Museum
Out of all the pieces on display, the one that really stood out to me was King Solomon and His Court. I had viewed the piece online, and hadn’t been that impressed. It was a highly detailed painting, with a large frame that took up a good portion of the viewing window. However, in person, it was amazing. It was much bigger that I thought it would be (roughly 20 inches by 12 inches), and the figures no longer looked smooshed together. The frame was exactly right, proportionally. It was a great painting, and if I had just viewed in online, with either a four second window or unlimited time, I would have never appreciated it as much as I did in person.
King Solomon and His Court
I love the idea of adapting ideas in books to other applications. Have you seen any other examples of this? If so, please share!

If you're interested in reading more about this project, the series of blog posts from the Brooklyn Museum is here:

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Bit of Victorian Horror

From Melville House
The Lifted Veil
George Eliot

I never expected to like George Eliot. First of all, I didn’t realize George was really Mary Anne. Then when I realized that, I figured she was going to write like Jane Austen , and (gasp!) I’ve never been an Austen fan.  Then I learned that Mary Anne was quite the radical – she was living with a man who was married, but in an open relationship with his wife. His wife apparently also had a long term relationship with another man. After being intrigued by her life story, I figured I’d try one of her books. I picked up Middlemarch, all 799 pages of it. And I loved it. It was funny! Since then, I’ve wanted to read something else she’d written.

The front flap of my edition (published by Melville House) points out that this novella can be read as revealing “Eliot’s sensitivity to public opinion and her awareness that her days concealed behind a pseudonym were doomed to a traumatic unveiling.”

It’s also a straightforward moody, suspense-filled tale. It follows the life of Latimer, a withdrawn, sensitive boy born into a wealthy family. His mother dies when he is seven, leaving him with his father and Alfred, his half-brother from his father’s first marriage.

After an illness in Geneva, a teenaged Latimer seems to have been given a gift of premonitions. He gets flashes of insight into the motivations and thoughts of those around him. This is a torment, especially as people think of him rather dismissively. The only person whom he can’t “read” is Bertha, the family’s lovely young neighbor, who becomes engaged to Alfred. Of course, this inability to know Bertha’s innermost thoughts makes her completely irresistible to Latimer.

Okay, I have to admit that this reminded me of Season One of True Blood, where Sookie discovers that she can’t read vampire thoughts. This is one of the reasons she’s so attracted to Bill. How’s that for a high-brow comparison? But seriously, I can imagine how overwhelming and tiring it would be to know what is going on in everyone’s head. If you found someone whose thoughts you couldn’t read, it would be such a relief to be around them.

Back to the book: Latimer is definitely a brat. He’s jealous of his big, strapping, healthy, good-natured, selfish brother. He wallows in his unhappiness. But he admits as much, saying

The quick thought came, that my selfishness was even stronger than his – it was only a suffering selfishness instead of an enjoying one.

That bit of self-awareness makes him much easier to handle. Also, you know he’s dying, so that makes him a bit more sympathetic as well.

Overall, I enjoyed this. It felt like the type of scary story you’d hear if you were gathered around the fireplace in a big creaky mansion a hundred years ago. Fun!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Memoir of Food and Family

A Tiger in the Kitchen
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan

I love food. Like, really, really love it. So when I saw that this title would help me in my quest to read more authors present at this year’s Brooklyn Book Festival, I decided to pick it up.

Tan was born and raised in Singapore, where she inherited a deep, abiding love for eating good food. Her love never transferred into an interest in cooking it, though. Only after moving to the US for college, getting married, and starting a career, did she yearn to be able to cook the foods from her childhood.

I certainly empathize. Growing up, I loved my grandmother’s food. Chicken parmesan, cavatelli with sausage and meatballs, fettucine alfredo – oh my goodness. Delicious. To this day, I wrinkle my nose at going out for Italian food – I’ll just want till I go home, thankyouverymuch. It wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I spent time with her in the kitchen, trying to learn her secrets. I certainly identified with the author’s experiences, especially learning how to agak-agak (guesstimate).

One thing that struck me while reading was all of the texting and tweeting and blogging going on. This was the first time I noticed this in a book, and it just seemed a bit…odd. Which is ironic, since, um, this is my blog. And as indicated in the upper right corner, I do the twitter thing. These mentions, more than specific dates, seem to anchor the book in a very specific time period. I can’t help but wonder if this will seem awfully quaint ten years from now.

That said, I kinda want to try the Bread Baker’s Apprentice challenge she and some fellow bloggers attempted. I do think I’ll skip anything that takes a 5-day starter, though.

My biggest frustration with this book was the outrageous amount of privilege evident. There aren’t too many people who get laid off from their job, and immediately commence a yearlong, round the world travel and cooking adventure. When she visits a friend's house, who lives in "a government-created housing estate" she's quick to reassure you that she's not visiting anything like a New York housing project. "An estimated 80 percent of Singaporeans live in comfortable, affordable apartments built by the government." (pg. 175). I’m glad that the author was able to travel, live in nice places, and be with her family, but especially in the current economic climate, well, it’s a bit much.

It is clear that there is lots of love in the Tan family. Ultimately, this book is about more than food – it’s about spending time with your loved ones while you have the opportunity. If you can’t travel to be with them, as Tan’s father said they’re only “a telephone away.”

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Winners Write History

Cleopatra: A Life
Stacy Schiff

Who was Cleopatra? Stacy Schiff’s biography attempts to paint as complete a portrait of the mysterious Egyptian queen as can be rendered.

Schiff does a wonderful job presenting the often-conflicting accounts of Cleopatra, and teasing out the probable truth. She candidly admits that there’s much we don’t know. Because of this, Cleopatra maintains her distance.  You never feel a close intimacy with her. Of course, she was the queen of Egypt, descended from Isis. How many people who knew her ever felt a close intimacy? Very few, I’m guessing.

Cleopatra has been immortalized as a wanton seductress, sleeping her way into history. Schiff points out the hypocrisy and double standards that are all too familiar even today:

In the ancient world too women schemed while men strategized; there was a great gulf, elemental and eternal, between the adventurer and the adventuress. There was one too between virility and promiscuity: Caesar left Cleopatra in Alexandria to sleep with the wife of the king of Mauretania. Antony arrived in Tarsus [where his and Cleopatra’s sexual relationship probably began – MJ] fresh from an affair with the queen of Cappadocia.” page 167

I often felt sad and frustrated while reading Cleopatra’s story. There’s one time especially, when Octavian has finally set Cleopatra and Mark Antony squarely within his sights. Cleopatra is forced to let Antony do the talking and try to combat Octavian’s rhetoric. Antony is unable to match Octavian. Schiff suggests that perhaps Cleopatra could have. That may have been true, in a one on one encounter. However, Cleopatra knew that no matter how brilliant her wit, how commanding her speeches, she could not win over the people of Rome. The highly patriarchal society in which they lived would not allow them to listen to a woman.

Schiff has more material when describing the other players in this story. She puts this to good use, as it makes it easier to understand Cleopatra when you understand the people she was interacting with. Her actions become understandable in context. She wanted to be the undisputed ruler of her Egyptian kingdom – answerable to no Roman overlord. What sovereign, especially in her time, would have wanted any different? Cleopatra had the nerve, the resources, and the connections to try for it, even if she was eventually defeated.

Quick aside: one of the lesser players in this tale was King Herod of Judea. Now, I know my Bible stories as well as the next person who went to Sunday school many moons ago (and has since, ahem, stopped) so this name seemed awfully familiar. I did some quick googling to find out if this was the same Herod who tried to eliminate the infant Jesus. Yup, same guy. It was really interesting to get some background into what made him tick.

Cleopatra’s fate was to be an epic loser in the eyes of history, where the victors tell the story. Octavian managed to control the narrative during her lifetime, and his version has stood the test of time. However, even having lost an Egyptian empire, Cleopatra has still managed to capture the attention of humanity two thousand years after her death.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

BAND August 2011 Discussion – How Did You Get Into NonFiction?

B.A.N.D., Bloggers' Alliance of Nonfiction Devotees, launched in July and is being run by a small group of bloggers as a way to promote the love of nonfiction amongst bloggers. Each month a discussion question will be put forward giving everyone and anyone the chance to respond. This month's discussion is hosted by Amy over at Amy Reads.

I read mostly fiction growing up, but occasionally dabbled in nonfiction. The first nonfiction book I remember reading was a book about making chocolate. I loved that book. It covered everything from growing cacao trees to the finished product, ready to devour. I mean, eat daintily, or something. It was just so cool to learn where chocolate came from and the long process of turning it into the delicious treat that I love. I cannot, for the life of me, remember the title. Seriously – if anyone has amazing google-fu, and can figure it out, you win my undying gratitude.

After that, it was awhile before I remember delving back into non-fiction. I looked to books as an escape, and I associated non-fiction with dry reality. I honestly can’t remember when I started reading nonfiction again – maybe in college? It was in high school or college when my dad finally convinced me to read “The Millionaire Next Door.” (He certainly has high hopes.)

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After I graduated I read a LOT of nonfiction. I got a job teaching high school world history. I was completely unprepared for that position. My undergrad degree was in political science, with a concentration on domestic affairs. I threw myself into reading whatever I could so that I wouldn't be completely clueless in front of my class.

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Now, I read a wide range of nonfiction. I like food books, especially anything by Jeffrey Steingarten. I originally discovered his Vogue column years ago, and have been a fan ever since. I also like biographies, memoirs, history, sociology…you name it, and I’ll give it a try.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Longing and Loneliness in the South

The Ballad of the Sad Café
Carson McCullers

I have a weakness for Southern fiction, especially from Southern women writers. I remember first being introduced to them back in high school. One of the titles that stuck with me was Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I don’t remember much of the specifics about the book, but I remember loving it.

I was in my favorite bookstore the other day when I came across The Ballad of the Sad Café. I figured it would be the perfect little book to take on my plane ride to Florida.  It includes the title novella, plus six other short stories.

All of the selections are a bit frightening. Not in a ghost-stories-around-the-campfire type of way, but in a haunting, exposing your innermost insecurities type of way.

In Wunderkind, McCullers spins a tale based on the demise of her own budding musical career. There is a thick fog of foreboding permeating the tale. From the beginning, we know things are not going to turn out well for young Frances.

McCullers’ descriptive ability shines here, especially when describing the music teacher, Mr. Bilderbach:

“The quick eyes behind the horn-rimmed glasses; the light, thin hair and the narrow face beneath; the lips full and loose shut and the lower one pink and shining from the bites of his teeth; the forked veins in his temples throbbing plainly enough to be observed across the room.”

Despite the beauty of the writing, the story stretches on, excruciatingly painful, walking us through each of Frances’ attempts, and failures. You feel how Frances must have felt at that last piano lesson – just please let this be done! Of course, that’s not a complaint – McCullers purposely makes you feel uncomfortable, and succeeds marvelously.

The two major themes throughout the book are love and loneliness. As far as love – what is it, who has it, what does it do to a person.  Loneliness – the universality of it. Together, they form the backbone of a fascinating collection.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Projections for This Week

My reading and blogging goals for the week:

Finish blog post for Cleopatra. I'm having a hard time writing this review, for some reason. It's non-fiction, and it seems that I have to approach my review in a much different way than when I'm writing about fiction. I have another non-fiction post coming up as well, so I have to figure out how to deal with these.

I need to read my second book for the Art of the Novella challenge. My first read was a bit of a dud. I'm hoping the next is better. I'm aiming for the "Fascinated" level, so I'll have one more to go.

I want to finish Season of Migration to the North. It's part of the summer reading challenge over at arablit.

I still have five library books that I haven't even opened, plus I'm in the middle of a book I purchased at the Border's liquidation sale. Must get reading!

Generally, I want to write a few reviews to have ready to go when I get busy, or are in a bit of a blogging slump. Any tips, fellow bloggers?

Friday, August 5, 2011

The Russians are Not My Friends

The Devil
Leo Tolstoy

ARE YOU KIDDING ME??? She’s the “devil”?
To be fair, I probably should have seen that coming.

I. Do. Not. Get. It. Why do people like Tolstoy?

It has been nearly three years since I read Anna Karenina, and hated it. The only other classic Russian novel I’d read was Crime and Punishment, which, guess what? I also hated it.

Okay, I will try to stop sputtering and actually talk about the novella. I gave this a try because I thought maybe my problem with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky was that their books were so needlessly loooonnnnngggg. (Seriously - have you read Crime and Punishment? Have you read The Tell-Tale Heart? Poe does a much better job in like 1/300th of the pages.)

Apparently, the length is not what is bothering me. This slim little volume checked in at a mere 100 pages, and that was with an alternate ending thrown in.

So, Yevgeny Irtenev is the young master of a Russian estate. He takes over after his father’s death, and tries to rebuild, as dear old dad had run up a bunch of debts, and was in danger of losing everything.

Yevgeny is single, and likes to have a bit of fun with the ladies. Only “for his health” of course.  Now that’s he’s moved out to this estate, there’s no convenient place for him to find some action. He doesn’t approve of relations with a married woman, or with a “maid in his own village,” or a peasant woman. Finally, after two months, he just can’t take it anymore and turns to a trusted family friend to bring him a woman.

It goes downhill from there. There’s the awful woman with the loose morals contrasted with Yevgeny’s perfect, but featureless wife. There’s the hen-pecking mother-in-law.  There’s all this talk about “poor” Yevgeny, who still has the means to take a vacation on the Crimean peninsula for two months.  

The one thing I “liked” was that Tolstoy picked the ending that he did. The alternate was even more awful.

If anyone has a suggestion for a Russian novel that is different from these, and I actually might like, I’d be willing to try it. Of course, I may have to wait another three years to get over this one.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Knowing Your Family, and Yourself

From Penguin
The Harmony Silk Factory
Tash Aw

So you think you know someone? Think again. Aw’s novel, set in rural Malaya in the beginning of the 20th century, asks us to consider if we can ever know our parents. The book is divided into three main parts, narrated in turn by Jasper Lim, Snow Soong Lim, and Peter Wormwood.

Jasper introduces us to his father, the mysterious, seemingly invincible, and recently deceased Johnny Lim. Johnny started of life as a poor peasant, and eventually grew into the most influential businessman in the Kinta Valley.  Jasper paints his father as a corrupt, cold, and violent. On page five, Johnny punishes Jasper for a perceived lie.

I told Father about this woman and how she had smiled at me. His response was as I expected. He reached slowly for my ear and twisted it hard, squeezing the blood from it. He said, “Don’t tell stories,” and then slapped my face twice.    
To tell the truth, I had become used to this kind of punishment.

Jasper has an obsession with finding out the “truth” about his father. He spends countless hours poring over old newspaper accounts that mention his father. He reads local histories to understand what life was like for a peasant when Johnny grew up. He learns that his mother, Snow, who died during childbirth, was the most beautiful woman in the valley.  Jasper never met his maternal grandparents, but blames them for forcing Snow to marry Johnny, dooming her to a lifetime of misery. Overall, the impression I got is while Johnny may be a bastard, Jasper is a petulant child who needs to grow up. He sounds more like a spoiled twenty something than the fifty year old man that he is.

Snow, Johnny’s wife, paints a very different picture of the man, their courtship, and their marriage. She meets him one day when he gets caught in a rainstorm outside of her family’s house. She decides that she wants to marry him, although she doesn’t explain her immediate attraction. It seems that Johnny is also in love with her, but is cowed by her family. Very soon after their marriage she realized that their feelings aren’t enough for her.  Johnny is shy, nearly speechless in Snow’s presence. Her story focuses in on a few days where they are sent on a belated honeymoon by Snow’s parents. It isn’t exactly the romantic getaway that a pair of newlyweds would hope for. They are accompanied by three other men – an English businessman, a Japanese professor, and Johnny’s friend Peter. During the trip, Snow continually ruminates on how she will leave Johnny, while she isn’t taking romantic strolls with another member of the party (dun dun dunnnnnnn…).

It’s hard to really identify with Snow, because her musings are directed into her diary. She doesn’t need to give herself background information, but it would be helpful to the reader. We can’t really get to know her with so much information. Of course, that’s kinda a theme here.

Finally, we here from Peter Wormwood, identified as Johnny’s only friend. Peter is some hapless Englishman who may or may not be an actor, looking for adventure in the tropics. He befriends Johnny after meeting  him in a coffee shop in Singapore. His tale is told in flashbacks as he winds down his days in an old folks’ home.  He says:

                This place is the end. Twenty-two rooms occupied by twenty-two near-fossils, little more than a halfway house in the short journey to the cemetery down the road.

Before Peter makes that short journey, he is going to wrap up our tale. Through Peter's eyes, we get to see that Johnny really did care for Snow. He tells Peter that he just wants to get her away from her parents, and then everything will be better. Peter helps Johnny find the house that he’ll move into to start his family. This is the house in which Jasper grows up. Peter also describes a moment where he saw Johnny lovingly play with Jasper as a toddler. Most of all, though, we just realize that Peter is a jerk.  He has lived his adult life in southeast Asia, but he has nothing but contempt for the people and the landscape. Where once he relished visiting Johnny’s Kinta Valley, now he longs to bring an English garden to his group home. He has an inflated sense of his own capabilities. His grand Eden garden fantasy seems more like a pipe dream than a real possibility.

At the end though, there is a moment of clarity. He packs up a small box of his most precious possessions – his garden plans, part of an old photograph, and Snow’s diary – and heads off to Johnny Lim’s funeral. The box, of course, is for Jasper. We know, from Jasper’s section, that he throws this box carelessly in the backseat of his car, with the countless other items he received that day. I admit, I really had a bit of fun imagining his reaction when and if he opens it.

All three of the narrators state that “death erases all traces, all memories of lives that once existed, completely and forever.”  This flies in the face of what we normally think – that we can keep people alive and with us through remembering.   But when it is so difficult to know someone else, or even ourselves, then perhaps there is more truth to the statement than we’d like to believe.