Monday, July 30, 2012

The Mill on the Floss: A Victorian Celebration

Hosted by Allie at A Literary Odyssey
The Mill on the Floss
George Eliot

Wow. For awhile there I was afraid I wasn't going to finish a single Victorian novel before the end of A Victorian Celebration. Saturday I buckled down and knocked out the last 100 pages of The Mill on the Floss.

The Tulliver family owns the titular mill on the Floss, a river running along the fictional town of St. Ogg's, England. Mr. Tulliver is prone to either bad luck or poor decision making, depending on who one would ask. Of course, this leads to the downfall of his family and the loss of the mill. It is up to his son Tom to restore the family honor and position.

Did this live up to the perfection of Middlemarch? Not quite. I found the beginning difficult to trudge through. As children, Maggie and Tom Tulliver were quite unbearable. It was only after they grew into adolescents that I could read about them for more than twenty pages at a time. Even then, Tom was such a bore. I did feel badly for him, as he was under tremendous pressure, but still - what a jerk!

My heart broke for Maggie. Not the child Maggie, but the young woman. While her brother could work hard and bring honor to the family, the most she could hope for was to not be a burden. This exchange, during an argument between the siblings, laid out the central conflict so directly:
"Because you are a man, Tom, and have power, and can do something in the world."
"Then, if you can do nothing, submit to those who can."*
Maggie's choices, and those of any young woman of that time, were severely limited. She tries to do what is right, but she cannot help choosing what she feels is right in her heart instead of what Society would insist upon. There is a brilliant chapter quite late in the book where Eliot has Society weigh in on Maggie's options.

As I read, I wondered how much of this book was autobiographical. I have read that it was based in part on George Eliot's childhood, but how much was adult Maggie like George (or Mary Anne)? Eliot had a rather unusual relationship status of a woman of her time and status. I always thought of her as a trailblazer, but reading Maggie's struggles and heartbreak made me wonder how Eliot really felt about her love life. I usually hesitate to find too many parallels between an author's life and their work, but it's difficult to refrain from doing so in this case. Sorry if this is a bit obscure - I just don't want to give away too much for those who haven't read this yet!

I'm glad that I still have more of Eliot's work to read (and probably reread). The next one I tackle will probably be Daniel Deronda.

Do you have a favorite Eliot novel? Which one?

*Of course, we see that even Tom's power has its limits in the end.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Unbearable Lightness

Unbearable Lightness
Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain
Portia de Rossi

Here's the thing. I kinda liked this book. No, the writing isn't going to win any awards. Still, three stars. But while writing this review, I seemed to focus more on the negative. I don't want to give the wrong impression, so I'm putting this upfront :-)

You may recognize Portia de Rossi from Ally McBeal or Arrested Development or some other show, or from being married to Ellen Degeneres. I always thought she was incredibly beautiful and poised. In Unbearable Lightness, she lets the public into her very private, very scary struggle with an eating disorder and her dehabilitating self doubt. She is revealed as that girl that may come across cool and standoffish, but it's really because she's terrified that if people see her true self that her reputation and career will be destroyed.

As this is a book about a woman with an eating disorder, there are some very graphic passages. I felt physically ill at certain points, imagining the suffering that de Rossi was going through, denying her body the fuel it needed to exist.

It is so shocking to realize how far we've come in a relatively short time when it comes to LGBTQ acceptance. Of course, there is still a long way to go. De Rossi is very matter of fact about her career being stopped before it really would have started should anyone have found out she was gay. I am sure this still happens, probably pretty often, but it does seem like less of a big deal when a star comes out. Of course, there's a big difference between coming out on your own terms after building a successful career and being forcefully outed as a young Hollywood hopeful. Maybe that's changing?

The most powerful part of the book is when she juxtaposes her health diagnosis with pictures of herself when she was at her most sick. And truly, in most of them, she looks like any typical starlet. It's a shock to realize how many people must be starving themselves like she was.

I do wish there had been more focus on the "gain" part of the subtitle. De Rossi rather glosses over her struggle to recovery, and the stability and happiness she's found. It's clear there was a struggle, but it's only hinted at. She was so forthright in sharing her experience in the depths of her condition, I was surprised that she didn't detail how she got better. I feel it would have been a better aid to those that she says she wants to help. It was a bit simplistic - I found out I was sick, so I got better. I had an eating disorder because I was afraid of not being accepted as gay. I don't know - it just was a bit too pat.

Additionally, there were things in the "recovery" section that made me uncomfortable. She makes some rather judgmental pronouncements on eating habits in general, and she still seems to think that there is an acceptable weight range, or an acceptable way for weight to be distributed on one's body. There's a comment about people on treadmills vs. people who are "naturally" active, focusing on doing things like walking their dogs. While it seems that she's made progress, there are still some pretty damaging. For some thoughts bout what it's truly like to accept bodies, including fat bodies, I recommend checking out the Shapely Prose archives or Shakesville's Fatsronauts series. Also, for a great (and quick) summary about how not to talk about food and bodies around people with eating disorders, check out this post from a human story. It would be awesome to eliminate discussions about "good" and "bad" foods - you never know who's around to be hurt by these well accepted, seemingly harmless words.

Want more like this? Try:
  • Marya Hornbacher, Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia. A non-celebrity take on the topic. Very interesting to see the similarities and the differences in how the eating disorders were manifested in the two women. 
  • Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth. I haven't read this one yet, but I do have a copy (thanks to the lovely Marilyn). De Rossi mentions this book frequently as opening her eyes to the impossible standards of beauty that women are expected to meet. Warning: Although this book is supposedly excellent, Naomi Wolf has been advancing more troublesome ideas in recent years.
  • Jessica Yee, Feminism, for REAL. To further the idea of accepting ourselves and those around us, regardless of appearance or anything else! This book is awesome, btw. Everyone should read it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


Leslie Marmon Silko

Ceremony, roughly, is the story of Tayo, a former WWII soldier of mixed white and Laguna ancestry, trying to readjust to civilian life. Like many of the other former soldiers, he turns to alcohol to drown his troubles. Compounding the stresses of returning from war is the fact that he's never fully fit in at home to begin with. His mother is the black sheep of the family, having produced living evidence of sleeping with a white man.

His grandmother feels a native healer may be able to save Tayo, but some in the family think Tayo is unworthy to receive such help because of his mixed bloodlines. Eventually, Tayo does meet up with Betonie, a healer, also of mixed ancestry. Betonie leads Tayo through a series of ceremonies intended to cure his depression and lift the effects of the war.

This is not the easiest book to read. Past and present blend, reality and imaginings blend together in ways that reflect Tayo's fractured thinking. As he pushes forward, attempting to find relief, you begin to see life itself as a ceremony, to be improvised and adapted as needed. Ceremony rewards you with remarkably beautiful, vivid passages such as this:
He found flowers that had no bees, and gathered yellow pollen gently with a small blue feather from Josiah's pouch; he imitated the gentleness of the bees as they brushed their sticky-haired feet and bellies softly against the flowers.
I am so glad that I finally read this book. I've heard about it as one of the classics of Native American writing, and it certainly deserves that recognition.

Want more like this? Try:
  • Toni Morrison, Sula. A black soldier returns from World War I to his small hometown in Ohio. His method of coping is alternatively spooky, humorous, and tragic.
  • Heinrich Böll, Billiards at Half-Past Nine. A German family deals with their role in World War II.
  • Ernest Hemingway, Across the River and into the Trees. Most Hemingway books deal with war or its aftermath in some way, but this one is memorable for Colonel Cantwell's intense struggle to reclaim life and happiness even as he knows he is facing imminent death.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sunday Salon: 1 Year Blogiversary!

This past week marked the end of my first year of book blogging. It seems a fitting time to reflect back on this year, what I've liked, what I haven't, what I'd do differently, etc, etc.

Entertaining - Food
By TPH Canada
I thought this blog would be strictly book reviews. A more elaborate version of keeping a running list of what I was reading. It is that, to some extent, but it also is a celebration of my love of all things bookish. It's also an opportunity to add my voice to the multitudes encouraging people to read books I have enjoyed, to (at times) critically examine problematic elements of books, to signal boost (in my small way) books that deserve a bit more attention.

I still get excited when someone comments on a post. I get really excited when one of my favorite bloggers mentions something I've said. I'm still having fun.I guess I'll keep posting (in a more or less regular fashion) until something changes :-)

Here are some of the best books I've read and reviewed while blogging:

A Happy Man, Hansjörg Schertenleib
A Mercy, Toni Morrison
Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck
The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Christopher Walken's Version of The 3 Little Pigs

On of my friends dug this up and posted it on facebook. I just love it:

What other stories would you like to see narrated by celebrities?

I'm thinking Chris Rock taking on "Little Red Riding Hood," Whoopi Goldberg and "Cinderella" (maybe the non-Disney version where the stepsisters lose chunks of their feet), Steve Buscemi and "The Boy Who Cried Wolf."

Share your choices in the comments!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Two More from Tamora Pierce

Emperor Mage
The Immortals, Book 3

Spoilers for the first books lurk within

From the first pages of Emperor Mage, it's clear that Daine's powers have grown even stronger. The animals of Carthaki gather on the wharf, waiting for her arrival, where she is to play a part in peace talks between the nations. Her role is to make the Emperor Mage, Ozorne, happy by curing his sick birds. Perhaps then he'll be in a better mood and more amenable to a treaty.

Carthaki was once a thriving center of cultural learning, where the best mages in the world were trained to fully develop their magical skills. Now, there's chaos brewing because the Emperor has neglected worshiping the gods. The Graveyard Hag, the main god of Carthaki, is not going to let the city get away with this dereliction any more.

The Graveyard Hag gives Daine a special gift that ends up being very useful in the final showdown. I have to admit, the six year old in me squeed with delight when Daine called on some very old creatures to help her!

While, of course, Daine and her friends prevail in the end, it's not a clear cut victory. Ozorne is off licking his wounds, but regardless of his form, he's sure to regroup and come back to threaten Tortall.

The Realms of the Gods
The Immortals, Book 4

In the final book of the Immortals quartet, Daine and Numair find themselves in the Divine Realms after they're rescued from a near certain death at the hands of Orzone and his minions. There, Daine finally meets her father, and the readers meet her mother.

This is a more mature book - less action packed adventure, more theory and trying to understand the way the world works. Oh, and kissing. I guess Daine is growing up.

While the battle rages on without them, Daine and Numair have to figure a way out of the Diving Realms and back home. Fortunately, there are some dragons that feel indebted to Daine for caring for little Skysong. The prominence of the dragons is reminiscent of Anne McCaffrey's Dragonriders of Pern, of which Pierce is a fan.

Overall, this series was fun. Daine is a great character - a little too perfect towards the end, perhaps, but really, what do you expect? I've read that she makes an appearance in some of Pierce's other books in the Tortall universe. It's fun to see familiar characters popping up every now and then, even when the focus is elsewhere. Again, I express my dismay that I never read Pierce's books when I was younger. I would definitely recommend them to the middle or high school kids in your life. They're the perfect age to fall in love with them, and there are plenty of books to keep them busy!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Sunday Salon: Scenes that Stick with You

Good Sunday morning, everyone! I haven't participated in the Sunday Salon in several weeks, but I've been thinking a bit about this topic lately and was interested in hearing some of your thoughts on it.

Do you have scenes from books that remain in the recesses of your memory, resurfacing whenever someone mentions the source book, or when you see something that triggers a reminder? I do, and I'd guess that most other readers do, too.

For example:

Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery: When Anne is just begging for big puffy sleeves on her dress, and the image of sleeves getting so big that wearers will have to turn sideways to walk through doors.

To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: This is, I know, book blogger heresy, but I don't actually like TKAM. I know I've read it at least twice, but I really can't remember much of the book. I just remember not liking it. I do remember the one scene with the town drunk, who reveals to Scout that the drink hidden by his brown paper bag isn't alcohol at all. Why is that the scene that stuck with me? I have no idea.

A Wind in the Door, Madeline L'Engle: When the kids go inside Charles Wallace's mitocondria - how fricken' cool would that be? All the noises and time slowing down and such.

A Heart So White, Javier Marias: The woman on the sidewalk in Cuba with the knife-like heels waiting, waiting, for her lover.

Share some the scenes that have stuck with you!

Friday, July 13, 2012

June in Review

It's June!
June: I had my first trial (hung jury). I moved apartments (pain in the behind). I read a few books (five). I thought about books I want  to read in the next couple years (and made a list). I half-wrote several blog posts that I need to finish (I will!).

5 books total
3 fiction                60%
2 nonfiction          40%
4 female authors  80%
0 translated           0% (boo)

Based on my rate of reading this year, it's not looking like I'm going to meet my goal of 100 books.  I guess there's always the chance I read 21 books in one month like I did last December, but work is keeping me so busy that I seriously doubt that's going to happen. I have read some really good books this year, including three in June that were really, really good. I rated both Ceremony and The Hanging of Angelique five stars, and Anthony Bourdain's latest book, Medium Raw, a surprising 4 stars. I definitely recommend all of those. Hey, it's quality, not quantity, that counts, right?

How's your year in books so far?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Oh, Internet, How I've Missed You.

But we're back together now! I'll be catching up, writing posts, reading my favorite blogs. My feed reader is completely overloaded, but I have started going through some posts. And of course, I've missed awesome stuff since I've been internet-less for over a week. Here's a few awesome posts from around the world wide web that you should check out if you haven't already:
Liss at Shakesville introduces a Top Five series, and kicks it off by asking readers to name their top 5 books by female authors. Go! Get book ideas!

A Year of Feminist Classics takes on Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women"

Words Without Borders July issue is focused on new writing from Japan

Awesome People Reading continues posting
awesome pictures of people reading.