Saturday, October 31, 2009

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath by Sigrid Undset

For those new to this book, Kristin Lavransdatter is a three book cycle by Sigrid Undset, a Norweigian Nobel Prize Winner from the first half of the 20th century. Set in Medieval Norway, the book follow the life of its eponymous heroine - in the first book of the series, following her childhood, adolescence, courting, and eventual marriage. The book ends with her marriage night. There is a wonderful readalong for this book right now, which I found out about through Ms Emily of Evening All Afternoon - this month is the Wreath, the other two books will be in November and December, respectively.

(Spoiler alert for however many words are left in this review)

But that's not what I want to talk about, I want to talk about Kristin's big turning point - when she falls in love with the man she eventually marries. In particular I want to talk about the way he treats her - and the way she allows herself to be treated.

So, here we go. I warn you that the rest of my thoughts are not the most attractive thoughts in the world, and they're not totally formed, either. So please, take my words with a grain of salt.

Kristin and her gentleman meet by accident, when he saves her from some random ruffians. Yes, that's right. She's a damsel in distress, and he is (actually fairly literally) her knight in shining armor. This relationship is, in fact, presented without a sneer, er even really a tut-tut. It is, quite simply, what it is. The love is quick, sudden, and fierce. They go to a dance together, and Kristin kisses him letting her feel her up along the way, then sleeps in his lap for a while in the garden. Eventually, the two are caught in a storm and he takes her to a barn to hide from the rain.

Here's the thing. The guy is not some wide-eyed innocent. He has just gotten out of trouble for having an affair with a married women, with whom he fathered two children. Shortly after this point of the story, it is revealed that she is living at his manor, in fact. And, frankly, the encounter sounds about two steps short of a rape. At very best, it's a 30 y/o man taking advantage of a teenage girl in the bloom of her first love. And here's the thing - she likes it. In fact, she seems totally okay with him taking her in a barn on a rainy day, even sort of subconsciously complicit with the whole affair. And, I could deal with that. She's 17. She has never been in love, she is doing something stupid, and that's not totally unrealistic. He is seducing her. This happens. It's ugly, but it happens.

But, here's the thing about that - as Ms Emily mentioned in her review, the title Kristin Lavransdatter is terribly appropriate, because this is, in many ways about Kristin, the daughter of Lavrans. The father (Lavrans - Scandinavian names were traditionally patronymic, hence Lavransdatter) and daughter relationship is the guiding spectre of the first half of the book. The second half is a conflict between that and Kristin's desire to be with her new lover. And that's the thing. Everything in Kristin is pretty much the reflection of a man in her life. Kristin is a daughter, a lover, a wife later on, she is a student of a monk who plays a large role, she is a subject of a very male God, and the citizen of a very patriarchal kingdom. Daughter, Lover, Wife, Student, Subject, Citizen. But never just a woman. Never Kristin.

I don't say that to belittle relationships in our lives. I know they are important. But, in a relationship, a healthy relationship, both members should be people. It should be the relationship between two independent people, not the sublimation of one person into another.

And that's just it - Kristin's relationships are never, ever healthy. She is never a person, she is never a soul. And this is a haunting way to read a book.

I do not mean to say that this is a problem with the book. Indeed, depending on the way the other two books are written, this may become an integral, important element of the story. Nor does it feel unrealistic. Honestly, that was the design of society for a large piece of human history - a great machine meant to produce subservient woman to serve their husbands, subservient peasants to serve their fief lords (or slavemasters, or factory owners, or gentlemen squires, or whatever), subservient fief lords to serve their king, and a subservient people to serve their God. The world was designed to sublimate identity into a power to fuel society. So, in the end, Kristin in the book does not know how to rebel. She never learns to choose. I never felt like she chose to love her husband, simply he was there and compellingly worded enough that love happened on it's own. She did not choose not to love her arranged husband - indeed when he was the only partner presented, she did begin to love him. In the end, she ceases to love him because he presents the question to her - do you love me or not? Because he asks, she can answer, because she is in a place where she has no choice but to choose, she chooses what her lover has taught her to choose. And in the end, you feel that she loves against her will, that in the end, she chooses to be married even though she is miserable with the whole prospect. Whenever she meets her lover, the feeling is not one of passionate ardor, but of wild abandon - that is an abandonment of the self, into a comfortable and comforting nothingness, where she is simply the palette her lover paints his love across.
But it's painful, very painful, and for me, this is what was the biggest success of Ms Undset - that she creates a woman who is essentially a doormat for all the men in her life, while at the same time, ever so gently and ever so subtly whispering out little flashes of something that, if not so effectively quashed, could have been a personality. Little edges of selfdom, that make us wish she could have been the queen she had within her, instead of the empty shell she has begun to devolve to by the end of the Wreath. The 'wreath' itself, is a crown, presented in different ways at different times, each wreath a symbol of a powerful woman Kristin could have been: The wreath of the Elf-queen at the beginning, symbolic of the wild, Dianic power of the primeval countryside, the wreath of the nunnery, symbolic of piety (and piety, independent piety, was a really powerful thing for a woman in Medieval times), the wreath of the virgin, symbolic of maidenhood. The wreath is transformative, like a coronation, it is the acceptance of a proferred power. And in the end? The wreath she takes is the tattered flower wreath of self abandoning love. In the whole book (aside from the end scene with her mother and father), the moment that most haunted me, speaks to this idea, and is the words I felt, at the end of the book:

"I have often prayed that you might have yearning for the convent life," said Brother Edvin, "but not since you told me what you know. I wish that you could have come to God with your wreath, Kristin."

Which God, hardly matters, the God of Christ, the Goddess of the Elfin Fields, the God of Love, even the Dark Lady Death. But I wish she could have come to her God with her wreath.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters by Jane Austen and Ben H. Winters

It's official! Jane Austen has no doubt rolled over, and over, and over again in her grave. In fact, she's probably kicking and screaming, pounding the walls of her underground wooden solitude using words like, it is not merely this affair on which my dislike is founded!

Perhaps to make her works more appealing to MEN, her tales of love and romance have been mercilessly invaded by first, the brain-eating, the scab-forming, walking corpses of gray loose and rotten flesh. Now it's muscular green Stretch Armstrong sort of men with tentacles where they shouldn't be, and I have no doubt aliens will be landing with Anne and Captain Wentworth in Lyme by this spring.

I'm not the first to notice this modern manification, or shall we call it - the "Horrification of Jane Austen", Misfit Salon also has a great link on this here, and I really can't complain because I gave the first offshoot 4 stars for crying out loud, but this one...well, I'm sorry to say it was hard for me to finish. Painstakingly hard. Not because of the writing. Ben Winters is a good writer, by my standards anyway. Maybe my normal tolerance level to B Movie Austenite violence was breached like the hull of a sinking ship after Zombies.

Illustration by Shane Harrison

Maybe I just didn't find the idea of sea monsters, such as man-eating octopii, hammerhead sharks, giant clams, amoeba-ish creatures absorbing unsuspecting humans whole, etc., trying to kill all the main characters, again and again, interesting enough after the first 100 pages or so.

Maybe not enough of the original story was included in this sea monster dance of death to hold my attention throughout. I believe this was mainly the case. I've read the original novel numerous times, and although it's not my favorite, not even close to being as witty as her others, I still enjoy many elements of this story, and I absolutely love the movie versions. The romance, the betrayals, they play out well on the screen. Here, although initially fun, it got old after the first ten deadly encounters or so.

If you like this sort of thing, then this book is for you. For me, it just wasn't a good fit for this particular story.

Maybe it's because I don't like to eat sushi, or shrimp, or lobster, or any other poor sea creature! But I would love to learn to knit! That counts right? Maybe?
2.5 stars

Helluva Halloween Challenge
Everything Austen Reading Challenge

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storm Front - Jim Butcher

2000; 322 pages. Genre : Urban Fantasy (so sez Wikipedia), or Semiautomagic (so sez Butcher). I like Butcher's choice better. Book #1 (out of 11, I think) in the "Dresden Files" series. Overall Rating : B-.
Harry Dresden is a Wizard. He's in the Yellow Pages, where his ad reads : "Harry Dresden - WIZARD. Lost items found. Paranormal investigations. Consulting. Advice. Reasonable Rates. No Love Potions, Endless Purses, Parties, or Other Entertainment."
Harry's main activity is finding enough money to pay the monthly rent. Today's his lucky day. A woman wants to pay him to find her husband. And the Chicago police want his professional opinion as to whether any magic was used in a double homicide. Where the hearts of two lovers exploded out of their chests (shattering ribs on the way out) and splotched all over the ceiling. Yeah, there might be a tad bit of paranormalcy involved here.
What's To Like...
There's a vampire or two. There are black mages and white wizards. There are pizza-loving fairies, and a wise-cracking spirit caged in a skull on Harry's desk. There are slow-witted demons, 6-foot-tall scorpions, some hookers, and some mobsters. There's a strong female police detective named Karrin Murphy.
It's a murder-mystery, but with AD&D-ish magic blended in. Spells are cast, but one is never quite sure what they'll do and how effective they'll be.
Buzzword for this book : "Thaumaturgy" (pg. 19).
Magic. It can get a guy killed.
Storm Front
is Butcher's debut effort, and it shows. There are some trite metaphors, some "roll your eyes" scenes, and some telegraphed plot twists (is that an oxymoron?). For example - he concocts two potions - an Escape Potion (which he has plans for), and a Love Potion (which he has no discernible plans for). Things go awry during a battle with a demon, and he calls for his female companion to drink the Escape Potion. Yeah, guess which one she drinks.
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face.
I picked up this book after Christina reviewed Books #3, #4, and #5 of the series here, here, and here. You can nitpick the storyline to death, but that misses the point that it is meant to be a light-hearted read with an entertaining stream of humor running throughout. Several reviewers say that Butcher gets a lot more polished with each book, so I'm looking forward to reading more from this series.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Methods of Madness by Stephanie Black

Methods of Madness by Stephanie Black is very suspenseful and keeps the reader guessing until the last few pages. It has been three years since Emily Ramsey's sister was killed and her fiance disappeared. She is now engaged and trying to move on, but still suffers from sadness due to the loss of those 2 important people. She keeps having the feeling that she will lose her new fiance, Zach. Then Zach's ex-girlfriend, Monica, begins to show interest in him again.

Emily gets a troubling note, a bloody photograph, and begins finding strange objects in her apartment. Part of her thinks she's going crazy and then someone is murdered. Everyone is a suspect-Zach, Emily's friends, someone from the past. Emily even begins to doubt herself. She doesn't know who to trust and feels that she, herself, is in danger.

The book kept me guessing the whole time. I had suspicions, kept thinking one person did it and then my opinion would change. Black expertly weaved clues throughout the whole book, and I doubt anyone was able to figure out the ending. All of the evidence and clues came together in the end to create a thrilling conclusion. I highly recommend this book, but make time for it because you won't want to put it down until you figure out who did what. And, trust me, you will not be able to figure it out. Each character is vividly portrayed unique. I really love the cover and think that it adds to the intrigue of the book.

Friday, October 16, 2009

We Have Always Lived In The Castle by Shirley Jackson

I became so enthralled with the setting of this book. The very atmosphere of it, I think, held me captive and I loved the relationship between the sisters, Merricat and Constance. It is very simple and felt familiar somehow. At times, my mind kept drifting off to think of those black & white classic mystery films that it reminded me of watching. This lends to a nice supernatural feel instead of a chilling ghostly haunting.
Merricat is a simple girl with small desires of not being treated badly or bothered by others. She worries about her reclusive sister, Constance, and imagines herself into being nicer to her old Uncle Julian. She aims to keep her familiar lifestyle together and out of the realms of being broken up by those who feel well-intentioned to help or so they think. So Merricat finds ways to protect what she holds dear.
This novel follows what happens at the Blackwood Estate after a tragic arsenic poisoning takes place and kills off the family members who lived there, at least all but three of them, Uncle Julian, Constance, and Merricat. Although Constance has been acquitted from committing the poisonous crime, they live alone, keeping to themselves which allows the nearby villagers to make their own assumptions. Each of the three deal with this tragedy differently which lends to the mysterious atmosphere. As time continues, their cousin Charles enters into the household and his own underlying intentions come into play. Anger overwhelms Merricat and her sense of reality becomes overshadowed by it. The motives of each character are never fully explained but this also adds to the creepiness of the inability each character faces as they are unable to live a so-called normal life.
The only drawback is that there is no clear resolution. Otherwise, it's a timely read for this atmospheric part of the year. Just right for the R.I.P IV Challenge.
I feel the pure gem of this book is the simplistically taut writing style. Here are a few of my favorite passages: (Spoilers, perhaps?)

First, a perfect beginning:

"My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. With any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead." (pg. 1)

"Today my winged horse is coming and I am carrying you off to the moon and on the moon we will eat rose petals."
"Some rose petals are poisonous."(pg. 86)

"Like children hunting for shells, or two old ladies going through dead leaves looking for pennies, we shuffled along the kitchen floor with our feet, turning over broken trash to find things which were still whole, and useful." (pg. 177)

160 pages, Originally published 1962, Penguin Classics 1984/2006, My rating: 3.5 stars

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Mother Night - Kurt Vonnegut

1961; 268 pages. Genre : Contemporary Lit. Overall Rating : B.
On the surface, Harold W. Campbell is a World War 2 "Lord Haw-Haw", an American who broadcasts propaganda for Nazi Germany to the Allied soldiers fighting in Europe. Only a select few know he is actually a hero, a double-agent transmitting vital war secrets via coded phrases in his radio diatribes.
What's To Like...
It's Vonnegut; it rocks. There's a fascinating storyline, superior writing, and a bunch of interesting characters, most of whom turn out to be not what they seem.
Vonnegut gives us the moral on the first page of the introduction : "We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." A couple pages later, his dedication to Campbell reads, "a man who served evil too openly and good too secretly, the crime of his times."
There's a brief reference to a great, obscure historical figure - Tiglath-Pileser (pg. 4), and a cameo appearance by one of my favorite words - susurrus (pg. 177). Oh, and I swear each of the 45 chapters ends with a storyline "twist". Try pulling that off every 3 or 4 pages.
Underneath all the absurdity, Vonnegut examines a fundamental question - what constitutes the "real" you? Is it your innermost being, or is it the summation of the effect your actions have on Humanity?
If the theme of Slaughterhouse Five is the senselessness of war; then Mother Night is its sequel, with a theme of the senselessness of post-war. MN is not quite up there with S5 and The Sirens of Titan, but it's still a superior book, and highly recommended.
Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile. (pg. 160)
"Any news of my parents?" I said.
"I'm sorry to tell you-" he said, "they died four months ago."
"Both?" I said.
"Your father first - your mother 24 hours later. Heart both times," he said.
I cried a little about that, shook my head. "Nobody told them what I was really doing?" I said.
"Our radio station in the heart of Berlin was worth more than the peace of mind of two old people," he said.
"I wonder," I said.
"You're entitled to wonder, " he said. "I'm not." (pg.187)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason

I'm sitting here watching Star Wars with my youngest son, and trying to think of a way that it relates to this book on the dynamics of men who fight for their country and those they leave behind, all woven within the melodious sounds of trumpets blaring and lasers blasting. Nothing inspires war like a rousing soundtrack.

I thought this book would be about England in the 18th and 19th century and their quest to dominate Africa and the surrounding countries, but truly it was hardly about war at all. Not war itself anyway, but the effects of war on its soldiers and their loved ones.

Harry Feversham is the child of many glorious war heroes. Much is expected of him when he joins the British Army, but when actual war in Africa is imminent, the newly engaged Harry opts out to relieve his fiance from having to be without him for several years, and because basically, he believes himself unequal to the task. In a nutshell: He's afraid.

Three of his Army friends find this unacceptable and they answer his resignation with the universal symbols of cowardice: three white feathers. His fiance Ethne, upon finding out he has resigned from the Army, breaks off their engagement and gives him the fourth feather. Harry is crushed, and upon his shame reaching its pinnacle he makes a decision: He means to redeem himself and restore his honor by saving the life of his three friends who are currently serving in Africa.

I haven't mentioned a fourth friend, Captain Jack Durrance. On the sidelines he is Harry's greatest ally and also in love with his fiance, Ethne. Unlike the recent movie version with Heath Ledger remaining the hero throughout, the bulk of the actual story is from the point of view of Captain Durrance who has no idea why Harry has resigned, nor that anyone has accused him of being a coward as he is steadfastly defending England's interests in the Sudan until he becomes permanently injured and must return home where he and Ethne reunite. While recovering from his injury, he begins to piece together what has happened to Harry who seems to have disappeared, and with the help of some of Harry's remaining friends, makes a steadfast resolve to hear news of him in Africa and help him however possible from England.

This book, in all actuality, is about sacrifice. Durrance's physical sacrifice for the country of his birth, as well as giving up the woman he loves for his best friend. Harry's sacrifice of giving up six years of his life for Ethne and the three friends he feels he must prove his worth to. It is also about honor in war. There once was a time, probably up until the end of WWII, that service to one's country was of paramount importance. If you did not jump at the chance to live, and die, at your nation's defense, you were looked down upon. Not just in England. I would say here in America too. Having seen the pictures of the lines of people cheering along homeward bound railways, being at war was a national effort, a means of pride and ownership of the task at hand.

Does it seems that way now to you? Here in America, serving in the military is no longer a requirement, and if you chose not to do it, no one really cares. Why is that I wonder. Are we different as a nation? As a world population? The answer is obvious. Yes. We are a different generation, who up until recently haven't had to give up much for our country, and it shows.

Even Star Wars isn't just about war between the Alliance and the Empire, or how cute Han Solo is, or Princess Leia's cinnabon hair (although that stuff is important!). It's about people. It's about what friends will do for each other in a time of crisis. Even that show is about honor. No matter what we do, we can't quite get away from it. Do we want to?
4 stars

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Feet Of Clay - Terry Pratchett

1996; 357 pages. Genre : Fantasy Satire. #19 in the Discworld Series (out of 36, oops, out of 37, since "Unseen Academicals" just came out this week). Overall Rating : A-.
An old priest and a dwarven baker are murdered; someone is poisoning the Patrician in a very slow fashion; amd no one is sure how. This would be a typical day in Ankh-Morpork, except that the Assassins Guild isn't involved in any of these dastardly deeds. So it's up to Sam Vimes and the City Watch to find and arrest the miscreants. The trouble is, those pesky things called clues keep getting in the way of blind justice.
What's To Like...
This is Pratchett's nod to mystery stories in general, and Sherlock Holmes stories in particular. We are introduced to a number of cool chartacters. There's Cheery Littlebottom, just one of the dwarven boys, until he starts wearing lipstick, earrings, and a kilt. There's Wee Mad Arthur; a ratter by trade, 6" tall, with the fighting power of a stick of dynamite. And for us techno-geeks, Sam is equipped with an unorganized organizer; consisting of an imp in a small pocket-sized box, who can manage his calendar, alert him to appointments, take memos, and give him inspiring daily quotes, but can't do any of this competently. Oh, and there's also a bit of synesthesia; see an excerpt of it below.
There are always themes in any Discworld book after about #5. Besides murder-mysteries, the themes here are The Monarchy (Pratchett finds little use for it), Racial and Gender Prejudice, Labor Unions, and Evangelists (meet Constable Visit, short for Visit-The-Infidel-With-Explanatory-Pamphlets). Pratchett also tackles the question of what constitutes Life itself.
The storyline in Feet Of Clay is well done, and all the threads get tied up nicely. Sam is gradually coming to grips with his inter-species bigotry. By the end of the book he decides that Golems and Zombies can now be part of the City Watch, although Vampires are still excluded.
The story is formulaic, but that's okay for a series of this genre. The characters evolve from book to book, and Pratchett comes up with new themes each time.
Afterward, she always remembered the odors as colors and sounds. Blood was rich brown and deep brass, stale bread was a surprisingly tinkly bright blue, and every human being was a four-dimensional kaleidoscopic symphony. For nasal vision meant seeing through time as well as space: man could stand still for a minute and, an hour later, there he'd still be, to the nose, his odors barely faded. (56)
The barman leaned over to Sergeant Colon. "What's up with the corporal? He's a half-pint man. That's eight pints he's had."
Fred Colon leaned closer and spoke out of the corner of his mouth. "Keep it to yourself, Ron, but it's because he's a peer."
"Is that a fact? I'll go and put down some fresh sawdust." (145-46)
"Slab : Jus' say 'AarrghaarrghpleassennonononoUGH'." (Slab is an illicit drug in Discworld) (26)
"T'dr'duzk b'hazg t't!" ("Today is a good day for someone else to die!") (311-12)

Volsungasaga by Anonymous

Holy freakin' crap. Vikings? They were Messed. Up. People. Not kidding even a little. Messed Up. The Volsungasaga is one of the old sagas of Scandinavia, holding some of the central myths of the ancient Pagan beliefs of the Scandinavians, particularly centering around the history of the Volsungs, a royal family, king of the Huns (yes, those Huns. Like Attilla). It includes, most well known to people like you and me, the story of Sigurd and Brunhilde, Brunhilde being the lady with the horned helmet that Bugs Bunny dresses up as in the old 'What's Opera Doc?' cartoon.

But Gravy, I don't know if it was all the snow, or the constant raiding and battling, or what, but these folks imagination? Vivid! If the bible had these stories (and the bible is spicy enough), you wouldn't take kids to church. Incest (at least twice), women heroically murdering their own babies as revenge against their husbands, a man covers his face and fills his mouth with honey, so that when an evil wolf tries to lick the honey out of the inside of his mouth (and yes, what you're thinking about is implied) he can bite down on the she-wolf's tongue and rip it from her maw. Yeah, kind of makes the whole Battle of Jericho thing seem tame, doesn't it? I honestly, after reading this, was a little embarrased for being of English speaking descent - I mean, the best we could do was the rather straightforwrad Beowulf, while our cousins up North were making stories that described their special word for Right-facing snowdrifts as being because that's the best place to hide corpses (and now you know, in case you're ever in need). And Odin? Odin is one scary god, showing up in his slouch hat and one eye, and stuff, all creepy and calm.

Anyway, it's difficult at this point to extract a redeeming social lesson for everybody (my first attempt: if you force your girls to marry men they don't like, they will produce children that come back to murder you). But... holy cow! No wonder the Brits were freaked out when the Vikings showed up! And how the heck did they get from here to Hamlet being the Prince of Denmark? If Hamlet was an OLD style viking, he wouldn't have spent so long worrying about killing people.  Hopefully the upcoming reading of the Poetic Edda sits back a wee bit more...

Friday, October 9, 2009

Oroonoko by Aphra Behn

Oroonoko is a 17th century novel about an African prince who falls in love, is betrayed and is eventually sold into slavery in the colony of Surinam. It is one of the earliest English novels written by a woman, and one of the first novels to include a positive black protagonist. And, the best thing about it? It isn't really boring. I say that because I tried the old-old English novel thing before with Defoe's Journal of the Plague Years - BO-RING! It was like, what if you took a first-person novel, and removed all semblance of human emotion from the narrator? It was interesting to read, but NOT an interesting read. At the time I figured this was simply it's age - people hadn't figured out how to write novels yet. Well,  apparently, Mr. Defoe should have gone, say, 40 years back in time and taken some lessons from Ms. Behn.

Because, again, this story wasn't boring! It was plotted, and mobile, and despite it's length (VERY short) the characters are sympathetic and interesting. Following Oroonoko is an emotional, instead of an intellectual experience, and the end - abrupt, cold, and tragic, feels sickeningly casual in a very powerful, intentional way.

Now, here's the thing - this novel is old. Not only does this mean that Aphra Behn had fewer giants to stand on teh shoulders of (she had to be giant all on her own) and that there are things that feel outdated and incomplete, it also means just some of the information feels... hrm. Well, grossly inaccurate is the word. In fact, a little condescendign, in context of today. Which was actually a really interesting thing about reading this book. Ms Behn lived in Surinam for a while as a British spy (she had a really fascinating life!), but had never been to Africa - and even if she had, this was a time when most of the world was still a mystery, where 'reliable' sources of research reported back total balderdash on new places. The Africa and South America in this story, then, is very much a part of her imagination more than a part of geography. And her handling of African people even more so.

But that was what was so interesting! Africa was so foreign to Behn that, in spite of shortly meeting slaves during her stay in Surinam, it was like another planet, and Africans truly another 'race' in a sense that we can't understand any more. Behn knew bits and pieces, but most of her depiction of Africans was the result of two simple facts in her mind: 1) People in Africa are much different culturally than People in Europe and 2) Human beings everywhere are the same, and can be great or terrible, noble or cruel, without having any particular race. This makes Oronooko a horrible representation of history, but a beautiful representation of the protospirit of racial equality.  The book isn't perfect even at this - there's still a bit of a feeling of condescension, a sort of 'oh, those dear AFrican people, they can be noble too!' But the nobility of the idea that she expressed shines through and is still powerful over all the intervening years.

The Eight by Katherine Neville

I recently finished re-reading The Eight by Katherine Neville.
And I loved it this time just as much as I did the last time.
The story centers around a figurative historical chess game using international players from world history. The plot was twisty and switched back and forth from 18th Century France to 1970's New York. Characters from both time periods travelled to Algiers as well.
I thought the story was inventive and imaginative. I'm certainly looking forward to reading her sequel.
Hamilcar and Amanda have both written more comprehensive reviews than I am capable of at this point.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

There's something you should know about me: When it comes to books, well... I cheat. I often look at the last pages of a novel before I finish it. I knew Tess died. I knew Dumbledore died and what happened to Snape. Same with tv - Buffy died three times? I knew it before I saw it. Sometimes the anticipation is just too much. It becomes a distraction from my enjoyment. Sometimes I just have to know!

This branches like a big, old withered Department 54 Halloween tree into all aspects of my life. I'm generally an impatient person.(Well, duh?) I'll never do cross-stitch, make jewelry or do anything that involves intense small movements for increased periods of time. I've come to accept this fact about myself, that I'll never be able to tie a knot with a pair of tweezers, let alone use them to pluck the hairs from my chin, but with my reading I must inject one strange, bizarre anomaly.

Agatha Christie.

That master of suspense. That seller of a half a billion books, and no I didn't make that up. The "champion deceiver of our time." I've only read two of her novels, this one and Murder on the Orient Express, and I must say, both times I was peeing my pants with suspense, dying to know what happens, canvasing for clues, hidden red herrings, but...did I look ahead as a result of my heart palpitations?


I couldn't do it. I couldn't look ahead. I didn't want to know. Christie is different. Whether it's true or not, my mind is under the delusion that she's leaving me clues along the way. That somehow I can figure out who the killer is. Maybe it's because I secretly think I'm Nancy Drew right down to the Aquanet hairdo and I can solve the mystery of the skeleton key, or, ah..I mean who was the mastermind behind these evil plots.

Just like in Murder on the Orient Express, I was sure who the murderer was (I was wrong, of course). I wondered aloud and often about the fates of the ten people invited to Indian Island under suspicious circumstances by a mysterious stranger whom no one could identify. One by one, they are grimly advanced upon, following the pattern of a grisly nursery rhyme, Ten little Indian boys went out to dine...

Needless to say, it's a nail biter from beginning to end. Her cast of characters was so ingenious, honestly I don't know why she lists them in the front of the book. They're so well described, so distinguished from the rest, that it's impossible not to know which was which with perfect clarity.

It reminded me of one of my all time favorite movie's, Clue, which now I know is loosely based on this book.

An excerpt -
Mrs. Peacock: What are you all staring at?
Mr. Green: Nothing.
Mrs. Peacock: Well who's there?
Colonel Mustard: Nobody.
Mrs. Peacock: What do you mean?
Wadsworth: Nobody. No body, that's what we mean. Mr. Boddy's body, it's gone.
Mrs. White: Maybe he wasn't dead.
Professor Plum: He was!
Mrs. White: We should've made sure.
Mrs. Peacock: How? [muttering]
Mrs. Peacock: By cutting his head off, I suppose.

Ah, music. Sweet music.
I highly recommend this book.
4.5 stars

Helluva Halloween Challenge and The Classics Reading Challenge

The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte


So, my introduction to the youngest Ms Bronte early the year was a little lukewarm - It's not that Agnes Grey was bad, it just... wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. Or, to be more honest with myself, I wasn't as able to ken it as I would have liked. Wildfell Hall has not this problem, and is now entering as the third member of my holy trinity of Bronte novels alongside Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre (in all honesty, I liked it better than Jane Eyre. It's more difficult to compare it to Wuthering Heights, they're very different books).

Wildfell Hall was a fairly straightforward book, concerning the fates and fortunes of a young woman who suffers through a painful marriage - even that is talking too much, though. I very seldom think much about spoilers, because usually I just don't care if a book surprises me or not in determining whether I like it. And Wildfell Hall didn't surprise me, anyway - I knew what it was about before I started. But, it's easy to go into this book, having decided what it is before you start - and if you're looking for a sad-marriage-story and nothing more, I think it's very easy to get that. There is so much more to the book, though, for me, that to just read this is a melodrama is to miss the best of Anne's quiet intelligence.

I would also say that, while I know the Brontes are far more popular with women, this is a book that, as a person of the male persuasion, I'm particularly glad I read (which is not to discourage women from reading it to any degree, just to encourage men). Ms Bronte is a very sensitive portrait painter, and the men in this book come through as honest, believable, and human, in a way that made me connect with them - something I honestly usually have trouble doing, with male characters - and thereby see things abotu my own role in our male-dominated world that our society is designed to normally veil from us. This book, much like Tender Morsels earlier this year, has teh powerful distinction that I feel I am a better human being for having read it.

I know the review is vague, but again, I don't want to hammer your brain into my thoughts if you want to read it - it's the sort of book that ought to teach you about the self you brought to read it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Evelina by Fanny Burney

Fanny Burney was a female novelist in the late 18th century, widely thought of as the precursor to Jane Austen. Austen, in fact, professed an admiration for Burney's work. I mention that little historical note, because I'm going to say now, if you like Jane Austen, you should DEFINITELY read Fanny Burney.

Evelina is the story of a young girl of indelicate birth (that is, her father has never claimed her as a legitimate daughter) and her debut into society. It follows the tale of her learning the ways of the world, her return to good fortune, and her romance. But for me, what really shines in this story (much like Austen, again) is all the secondary characters. The various low-lifes she meets in the London aristocracy are drawn to a despisable tee, the fellow she eventually ends up with is one of the original square-chinned English dreamboats (if that's a spoiler, you've never read a romance, ever), her grandmother is a masterful (if prejudiced) lampoon of the obnoxious foreign tourist, and her foster father is a charming mixture of didacticism and genuine warmth and love.

An additional plus was that this is an epistolary novel where it ACTUALLY feels like the letters are letters. You know, as opposed to a cheap plot device. The individual letter writers (most are written by Evelina, herself) have distinct, believable voices, and you feel the intimacy and candor of a letter without the 'hello my name is Mr. Exposition' feel of some other epistolary novels.

The language is vintage late 1700's - thick, as purple as a ripe eggplant and dripping with grand, powerfully elegant adjectives. I felt like I was eating literary Yorkshire pudding - sure you know it'll kill you eventually, but it just feels so honestly picturesque.

The book is not perfect - it lacks Austen's sharp wit, and sneering sense of the ridiculous, and could do with it at times (One of her other novels, Pamela, was parodied by Henry Fielding, and it's easy to see how an ungenerous soul could make mince of the story).  The language is sometimes so in love with its own billowing cloudiness that it descends into a dirty fog. But, it was a wonderful, charming read, completely naive and unironic, endearingly hopeful, and terrifically, anachronistically sweet.

One final thing - sadly, the book is VERY much in it's time, in terms of the way it deals with women. Ms Burney did not write rebels in this book. Watching Evelina being dominated, bullied, pushed around, and controlled by the men around her sadly makes up a significant portion of the book, and it's terrifically stifling, and amde me feel mentally claustrophobic while I read. And you can feel the author struggling blindly against this - the love interest is admired at one point, for instance, for having an 'almost feminine delicacy of feeling', and you can feel the author trying, very hard, to figure out how to ask why delicacy and gentleness are gendered attributes at all. And in the end, while Evelina isn't strong and defiant in the way that, say, Lizzie Bennett is, you feel a sort of sibling tension for her, hoping she manages to find her way happy through to be her own delicate lovely self without being taken advantage of.

PS - If nothing else, you have to respect a woman who couuld produce novels while wearing that hat... respect the hat!

Monday, October 5, 2009

More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz

I've been sicker than a dog all weekend, and for some reason in my mind that meant - read as many scary stories as you can! Nothing like being scared out of your wits with a runny nose and cough. I now know that just increases their effect.

More Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark was a great place to start. Collected from folklore and retold my Alvin Schwartz, these stories are short and to the point, thereby bypassing a common error with these types of books - I wasn't bored to tears by the length and bad writing. These are supposed to be written for a younger audience (it says on the back for ages 9 & up) but I would think twice before letting someone that young read them. Not unless you want to be up with them in the night!
I'm a grown-up for crying out loud, and I was totally creeped out by most of them, covering a wide variety of haunting subjects. A new bride locked in a trunk forever in The Bride. Being buried alive in Rings on Her Fingers. The Ghost in the Mirror was enough to give me nightmares forever. Wonderful Sausage about a secret ingredient that just happens to be human flesh. The Cat's Paw. The Dead Man's Hand. In some he even includes actions in parenthesis like (Now rush at someone in the audience and SCREAM: AAAAAAAAAAAAH!)

Illustrated by Stephen Gammell, these drawings are horrifying! It's not that hard to imagine someone screaming.

These pictures would give my eleven-year-old nightmares. They'd give my fifteen-year-old nightmares! They gave me nightmares!

So, in other words, if you like a scary short story, I highly recommend this collection. Read it on Halloween for maximum effect though, or better yet, give it to an arch enemy as a birthday gift.
Trust me, you won't regret it...wink,wink.
4 stars

Helluva Halloween Challenge

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Come On In - Charles Bukowski

2006; 279 pages. Genre : Modern Poetry. Dewey Decimal Number : 811.56 B869C. Cost (new) : $27.50; Cost to check it out from the library : free. Overall Rating : A-.
The prologue to Come On In reads : "These poems are part of an archive of unpublished work that Charles Bukowski left to be published after his death." Although he is best known for his 5 semi-autobiographical novels (Ham On Rye, et. al.), most of Bukowski's books are either poetry or poetry/short stories.
What's To Like...
The poems are broken into four sections. The first part is his reflections on growing old; the second is about women; the third is about the writing profession; and if there's a unfying theme in the fourth section, I didn't catch it.
The poems have no meter, no rhyme, and no structure. I usually struggle with this form of prose, but these were quite readable. There are even two poems referencing Li Po, who happens to be my favorite classical Chinese poet. It's amazing that Bukowski was familiar with and influenced by him.
I found the "Aging" section especially poignant. It should be rated PG-50 : anyone younger than that has to read it with their parents. Towards the end of his life, Bukowski was battling leukemia; and he offers a lot of insight regarding his mortality. His point in one poem is that a poet is never allowed to retire. His public expects him to keep following his muse and composing poems, even when he's dying.
The "Women" section is revealing, but less inspiring. Bukowski's philosophy on the opposite sex seems to be : Live with them, even marry them if need be. But when they get to be irritating, it's time to move on. He chides couples that have been married 60-70 years, writing, "either of whom would long ago have settled for something else, but fate, fear and circumstances have bound them eternally together".
In the "Writing" section, he cuts through the BS associated with his fame, laughing at aspiring authors who butter him up, then send him their unpublished manuscripts for him to read and forward along.
I give Come On In and A- because it resonated with me. There's nothing high-brow here - indeed, he mocks poets who feel compelled to work Greek and Roman gods into their prose, or who try to impress with a line or two of French or Italian. Instead, Bukowski is a poet for the proletariat, a Robert Frost with an attitude. Read Come On In when you're tired of social snobbery and just want some honest, down-to-earth insight.
I can't think of another poet who makes people as
angry as I do.
I enjoy it
knowing that we are all brothers and sisters
in a very unkind extended
and I also never forget that
no matter
what the circumstances,
the park bench is never that far away
from any one of
(last part of "the x-bum")
peace of mind and heart
when we accept what
having been
born into this
strange life
we must accept
the wasted gamble of our
and take some satisfaction in
the plesaure of
leaving it all
cry not for me.
grieve not for me.
what I've written
forget it
drink from the well
of your self
and begin
(last part of "mind and heart")

Friday, October 2, 2009

Capital by Karl Marx

A Google Image Search for "Clabber Girl evil" brings up a picture of the Isley Brothers on page 2. Coincidence? Or CONSPIRACY?!

Well, I've been quietly warned not to bore everyone with this review. I can't imagine why. What could be more thrilling, more invigorating, more romantic, more... spine-tingling then 19th century economics? The wonder! The suspense! The intrigue! Will Mr. Proletariat gain his one true love, Ms. Society-not-based-on-the-forced-extraction-of-surplus-value, or will evil Dr. Greedy-Industrialist snatch it from his grasp with the aid of his man-eating wool spinnery?!

I get it, I know. It's a little dry. And old. Bear with me, I promise not to take too much of your time.

Here's the think about Karl Marx - Karl Marx is like baking soda. Baking soda takes nasty (field trip! Everyone go to your kitchen and put some baking soda on your tongue. Done? See, I told you. Nasty). N-A-S-T-Y. It's not fun to eat baking soda. If you brought an alien to earth and said, "Here Mork, have some baking soda! We love it here, every kitchen keeps it around," then the alien would quickly decide you were a deeply screwed up people, and blast you to smithereens. Besides, baking soda is the root of some really obnoxious things in life. Like gross-tasting toothpaste. And those volcano science projects that actually teach you nothing about science, except that the earth is filled with vinegar and baking soda. And we cannot forget that, historically, baking soda has been used to do some really terrible things - like the practical joke cookies when they put in way too much and the cookies taste terrible. These things must always be remembered when we go to the supermarket to refill on baking soda.

But, baking soda is so much more than that! If you had, in 1820, given me a box of baking soda with no particular guidance as to how I ought use it, I admit, I probably would have tried to implement it in the poisoning of rats, or the making of very unpleasant carbonated vinegar beverages. But, luckily, I was not the discoverer of baking soda because I would have totally mucked it up, and we would all be eating those horrible cakey chocolate chip cookies that you make when you realize you're out and have to substitute baking powder (shudder - for future reference, in this situation, just say screw it and eat the dough raw). Luckily someone else was the discoverer, and while I look back and think he couuld have made the whole idea a little more entertaining (I mean baking soda? That's the best name he could come up with? Not magic-super-bubbling-powder?)apparently I'm wrong, because people TOTALLY latched on to baking soda, people changed the world with baking soda. People today? They'll tell you that baking soda is passe, even irritatingly out of context. They'll point out it's evils. But where, my beloveds, would baked goods be without baking soda? Where would smelly freezers be? Or Hints from Heloise? Baking Soda, this humble, dry, boring stuff, has somehow worked itself into the very fiber of our society.

Cry out if you will! TEll me I'm wrong, tell me that baking powder, in contrast to baking soda, is far better in biscuits, or cake, tell me that men lived for thousand of years without baking soda, and that they were better off then. Tell me how, without baking soda, we would all be less distracted from perfecting our baking powder desserts, and that baking soda is a dangerous, insidious poison in the pastry industry - perhaps if you are very radical, you'll even tell me that we should all just go back to the old way, before soda OR powder, that men made croissants, after all, without the aid of the nefarious soda of baking. I will quietly admit that a world without baking soda is conceivable. But I'll remind you, too, that while yes, baking soda has brought us it's share of evils by those who are over-zealous with it's use, or who apply for their own benefit instead of the benefit of the eating masses, it's also brought us the inestimable good of non-sucky chocolate chip cookies, non-stinky freezers, and a populace who, truly, has been liberated from the need to lay out sourdough starters, or carefully fold meringues, or sundry other leavening techniques, just to entertain guests with a pleasant after dinner treat. That in the past men lived iwthout, but only because it's time had not come, that the advent of the industrial revolution changed men's lives so DEEPLY, that baking soda, in one form or another, if not the substance than at least the SPIRIT of baking soda was an inevitable, sacred blessing to bakers AND dessert eaters all over the world, EVEN to those who would decry baking soda for it's seeming wickedness. Remember, my friends, the other leavenings can be wicked too! Do not forget the lack of democracy in a yeast bread society, or the inestimable wickedness of a world without good chocolate chip cookies! Do not forget that baking powder has forced us into a world in which we must accept the use of 'Clabber Girl' as a legitimate brand name. IS this worse than those stupid volcanos? No, no, but friends... is it better?

And you see, once you really look hard and ACCEPT that baking soda IS a big part of your life, and you taste it again, you find it's strange, intriguing even. Fun? No, no. Not something you'd want by the cupful at dinner every night of the week. But interesting? Yes, definitely that. It's mineral tang, it's strange, leavening force, it's absorptive power... these things are worth your study, your attention. Even if you bake with powder, exclusively (or even if you are a yeast snob), and understanding of baking soda deepens your understanding of your own leavening, and dare I say, reminds you of it's weaknesses, of it's past excesses. It brings an awareness of the world that makes the dry, temporary unpleasantness fulfilling and worthwhile. And in the end, it teaches you that a world where all leavenings can coexist, where we can peacefully, lovingly experiment and work towards a balance between them in baking is a better world than any one orthodoxy.

Marx, and by extension Capital, is like that too.

My Sister's Keeper by Jodi Picoult

This book is about a family. I know a little about that I think since I'm part of one but that's about where any similarities ended for me when reading this book. It's not something I would have originally chosen for myself to read, I read this for a book club, and reading this stretched me in unforeseen ways. It was very thought-provoking if you want to call it that but basically, Picoult likes to play tricks with your mind. I've never had much exposure to many of the situations that this family and the members within it experience. So, I've never put any thought to much of this until I read about it which is not necessarily a bad thing. So for me, it was curious. So, I was bewildered by it in many ways: (Spoiler Alert)

  • Anna, the sister who brings a lawsuit against her parents, claiming the right to her make own decision about what medical procedures can be performed on her.
  • Jesse, the prodigal brother, whose drug taking and criminal tendencies throw a wrench and add conflict to the family's growing list of problems.
  • Kate, the sister who is diagnosed, in her youth, with a severe form of leukemia
  • The parents, Brian and Sara, who have a baby, Anna, who is genetically selected to be a close donor match for Kate.
  • At birth and ongoing into her early teens, Anna is called upon to undergo increasingly protruding and dangerous procedures to provide blood, bone marrow, and other tissues to sustain her older sister's life.
  • A kidney is needed.
  • Anna's mother Sara, an attorney, decides to represent her own daughter Kate at the trial.
  • The mysterious attorney hired by Anna comes with a host of his own problems.
  • Sara's obsession with saving her daughter.
  • Brian's quiet desperation for his family and hidden feelings that he can't delude about his wife.
  • Kate's pain and lack of communication.
I think you can understand by this list how complex this story is. How affected this family is. How there is not always a clear way or clear answers to some of the toughest questions a family can face in life. I wondered how they were making it work in their reality.
I liked how the narrative switched around each character giving you a clear sense of the time period and what each family member was dealing with. Very interesting. Even Anna's lawyer and of the legal guardian appointed were included on many levels. It's hard to forget large portions of Sara's narrative which included flashbacks on the history of Kate's illness. It was sensitive in dealing with Anna's role in gaining medical support and it was arresting in the shadow of the constant toll and evolving of Kate's pain on the family.
As I've learned a little about Picoult as an author, I found she likes to be controversial and that includes her endings. So, of course, I never saw it coming and I don't really think I liked it either. Time will tell the true impact of it as in whether I choose to forget or remember this story.
So far, I haven't had the desire to see the movie.

432 pages, April 2004, My rating: 2.5 stars

Other reviews or mentions for this book:

Diane (the saddest reads)
iDaydream (book/movie review)

The Pit and the Pendulum and A Tale of the Ragged Mountains by Edgar Allan Poe

Words that came to mind while I was reading The Pit and the Pendulum – horror, terror, darkness, despair, nightmarish. What a creepy story. Short, yet so effective. As the narrator’s doom literally sinks towards him, I felt glued to the page. My heart beat faster with each painstakingly described moment.

The man, his all-white judge and jury, his sentence of death and the delirium that follows, all unbearable to witness, but even in this darkness of thought, he perseveres with a little bit of luck by avoiding the death trap in the middle of his prison.

I saw clearly the doom which had been prepared for me, and congratulated myself upon the timely accident by which I had escaped.

His captors are not so easily foiled. A new nightmare awaited, much worse than the first.

Having failed to fall, it was no part of the demon pan to hurl me into the abyss, and thus (there being no alternative) a different and a milder destruction awaited me. Milder! I half smiled in my agony as I though of such application of such a term.

The steel blade of the pendulum perceptibly descended. And still they tempted him with food barely within reach. The rats! His torture was complete, but in the last moment his tormentors were his saviors, and he was free of the bindings that held him in place of certain death.

Or so he thought.

What a story!

In A Tale of the Ragged Mountains, Poe delves into the truly weird and uncanny with a story about a man named Bedloe who gets lost while traveling in mountain passages on a day out from his home. He finds himself in a dream-like state in a completely different land and time period, caught in a battle with a people the likes of which he has never seen in his life.

He believes himself killed in this battle, but then he awakens, and finds his way back to his village, still alive, still breathing much to his amazement.

But why was he thrust back into this particular time and place? Was it time travel or reincarnation, or even just an odd dream? All is explained by the end of the story. I had no idea Poe wrote anything thing the likes of which could be called science fiction.

If you're looking for some great October spookiness, these stories are thoroughly engrossing and not that hard to read. Be sure to put in your order for dark stormy skies before hand though, thus ensuring you'll never go to sleep again! Ha.
5 stars

Up next: The Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Purloined Letter

Helluva Halloween Challenge and the Classics Reading Challenge