13 September 2010

This week...

Okay. I know I've been extremely bad at posting these last few weeks - er, months. And I wish I had a good reason, aside from it being summer (which is no longer a good excuse), me being pregnant (which is, but I'll wait to use it until later), me working diligently on my dissertation proposal re-write (which is somewhat true), and me finally getting a job and teaching getting under way.

But I am not full of excuses.

Instead, I will give you a list of those things which I will blog about before Sunday:
1. Not Me
2. The Surgeon
3. Mockingjay
4. Why I love the Hunger Games Trilogy, a retrospective
5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
6. My Summer, also a retrospective
7. My Autumn, a projection (but possibly as accurate as the weatherman in Madison, who once said, "There is no way I could've predicted that." Aside from the fact it's your job.)
8. The rat
9. Weekly Geeks (this week's)

Of course, these may not be in this particular order, but I think that if I stick to doing them, I'll get the ball rolling and they'll be out this week.

30 June 2010

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane (#29)

I bought The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane because I was attracted to the cover, I was intrigued by the story, and I was really excited that the author was a graduate student - it gives me hope that, not only are there other people out there in my situation, but other things can be accomplished while working on the dissertation.

The main character is also a graduate student, and the book opens with her qualifying exams. Something that I remember well - though in my department they were called Prelim exams, the oral portion was still pretty terrifying.

The thing that I loved about Connie - the protagonist - is that her grad-student-ness is really believable. Even though I don't completely agree with every way that she is presented, particularly when she talks about how she and her roommate lived off a free cheese plate from a department meeting for a week. That's a bit of an exaggeration, at least in my experience, because I've always had a teaching job (though, of course, I'm sure that Cambridge is a more expensive place to live than Madison, so I'll give it to her). It's clear that Howe is also enmeshed in that world. I also really appreciated Connie's finely-honed skill of research. It's something that is often overlooked by people who don't understand the life of a graduate student, but is one of our most marketable qualities. 

Somehow, the even less-than-plausible aspects of this book were still believable, and the way that they were presented made them that way. I still won't go into great detail, but I think this was one of the better books I've read this summer, and maybe even this year. I was pleased to see that the characters were all presented as strong people, and I thought that the relationship between Connie and her mother, Grace, was really honest and complicated; I also liked the relationship between Connie and her best graduate student friend and roommate, Liz.  

Definitely recommend this book.

Overall, 4.25 out of 5.

24 June 2010

The Big Shaggy, or Heart

A couple of weeks ago, there was an article in the New York Times that talked about the benefits of studying the Humanities (which I do) and also discussed something he called "The Big Shaggy." I've honestly been thinking about it ever since then.

It got me thinking about the idea of heart, especially in light of some of the most recent World Cup matches.

I saw heart in Landon Donovan, in the 91st minute, after he made that goal - and in my husband, who was more enthusiastic about a soccer match than I had seen him about any sports even recently. Since soccer has so few goals, typically, and in this match there was only the one goal, it makes for just the most electric moment. It's something that permeates through the crowd, like the sound of the vuvuzela.

I saw heart, passione, in the Italians today. Sadly, it was too late. Today, in the wake of the heartbreaking loss to Slovakia, Marcello Lippi blamed himself for his team's early exit (you can read an article about it here). Of course, I would point to the fact that Totti and Del Piero retired from the national team, and especially that Buffon was injured and wasn't tending goal. I think that if the team had been able to rally before the 81st minute - because they DID rally and they were on FIRE for those last minutes of the game - things could have been different.

And, heart? Big shaggy heart? How about Isner and Mahut? They played that monumental set in Wimbeldon, playing for two days straight? They showed heart.

I hope that the American team keeps this level of heart for Saturday - and beyond, because I think that the heart they played with has the opportunity to really take them far.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden (#28)

I received this as an advanced reading book, and even though it took me a while to get around to reading it - my dissertation proposal draft was handed in last week and my TBR list keeps growing - I thoroughly enjoyed Helen Grant's first novel.

The Vanishing of Katharina Linden, once you get past the really wordy title, is somewhat mystery, somewhat realistic, somewhat portrait of what life can be like in a small town - in this case, in Germany at the end of the twentieth century. I don't want to give too much away, because I thought it was an easy read, enjoyable book, at times mystery and at times psychological. My one complaint was that I wasn't completely pleased with the very ending of the book - I liked the way that the story tied up but wasn't thrilled with the complete aftermath - I don't think it was technically an epilogue but that part of the book that was most epilogue-ish.

One of the more interesting aspects of the book is the use of German words - they aren't glossed in the text, though they can both usually be determined from the context and there is a glossary presented at the end of the novel. I appreciate Grant's decision, and I also think that she assumes the reader will take the time to look up the words in the glossary.  I don't always think to look up the words, because it stops the flow of the reading and breaks my concentration. But it gave a sense of authenticity to the book, since it's set in Germany and, for some readers, it can be difficult to remember that when reading in English.  

I would recommend the book without hesitation; it comes out in August. 

23 June 2010

22 June 2010

Ten Things for Tuesday

1. Tonight I had dinner with one of my very favorite people and our moms. Love them. Hope it becomes a monthly tradition.
2. I'm loving iOS4 - and now I don't feel like I need to get an iPhone 4.
3. I really want to see Toy Story 3. Hoping for this weekend!
4. I think that Netflix on the Wii is pretty awesome.
5. I actually miss the hilarity of the high school English papers - is this a sign?
6. I have two books to review for my blog. But I'm not doing it.
7. I'm trying to eat less meat. Just because.
8. I miss living in Madison, but am really glad to be so close to our families and to my oldest friends, especially Courtney.
9. I turned in a draft of my dissertation proposal today.
10. Done is better than good.

21 June 2010

Monday Musings: e-readers

I go back and forth on the whole concept of the e-reader. I have a much earlier post called "Where I hope technology will fail." And now I'm contemplating getting one - I know, right? I still hope the e-reader isn't the death of the book, but at the same time I don't really think that anything will ever completely replace that whole feeling of opening a book, and going to the bookstore. Finding new authors. The smell of books, especially old ones. Getting an actual autograph inside a book. Love, love, LOVE all of those things.

But what about academic books? Or books that I wouldn't spend much money on? I feel like, if I had an e-reader, and there was a book that I was on the fence about, or that I knew I wouldn't probably read again, it would be good to have. It would also be really good for academic articles, or so I hear.

So, that brings me to the current dilemma:

Kindle, iPad or nook? 

The thing I like about the nook is the ability to share books, and it's really the only thing that I like the most about it. I think that color touch screen is cool, but I'm not overwhelmingly impressed by it. The note-taking is somewhat tedious, because the keyboard is on the touch screen.

The things - there are two - that I don't like about the Kindle are the lack of sharing and the fact that you can't try a working model in a store before you buy it (yes, they SELL it at Target now - which I like - but it's not functional so I can't fiddle around with it, and even though the girl I was talking to about the nook at Barnes & Noble was pretty daffy, I could still play with it, which was nice). I like the two sizes (and, if I'm going to make the investment, maybe the bigger one is actually worth it?). I like the little tactile keyboard, even thought the letters are really small it's easier to type with buttons; I think it would be easier to use with both hands. I really like the note-taking feature on the Kindle (at least, on the iphone app, which I just discovered how to use).

Their libraries are similar; though the girl at BN pointed out to me that they have exclusive rights with some publishers, the Amazon free library is more comprehensive. I really like the e-ink technology, I think that it's a pretty cool concept. I like the super-long battery life.

My biggest problem with the Kindle and the nook is something that they share, which is exclusivity. I can't buy a book on BN.com and use it on a Kindle; I can't buy a book on amazon.com and use it on a nook. I can't buy a book in iBooks and use it on either one of them. I think that, honestly, if I could buy an electronic book from wherever I wanted and use it on my e-reader, I would've already bought one. Amazon, can you open up an amazon.it already? That would probably push me over the edge. I also read somewhere that amazon will convert academic articles into Kindle-readable documents in five minutes - is that true?

Which brings me to the iPad. I love - and don't love - the iPad. I don't love the back-lit screen - if I wanted to read on the computer all day, I would. I don't love the short battery life (compared to the other e-readers). I get it, iPad, you're a computer, but you need to work on your longevity. I don't love the fact that I can't use Word on it - seriously, can you just develop that? I don't love the whole pay-$30-per-month-for-3G - especially since AT&T service blows - but would it be a waste to get the wi-fi only model? I don't love the price - at $489 for the smallest model, it's almost twice the price of both the nook and the 6" Kindle (but just a bit more than the 9.7" Kindle). Oh, and I love me a touch screen. If Kindle had a touch-screen, I'd be all over it.

I do, however, love the fact that I can download a Kindle app and a nook app and read books from any of them on the iPad by opening their application. And I do kind of love the fact that it is also a functional computer and I can do word-processing on it.

In conclusion:
nook: pretty, but aside from its random monopolies with certain publishers, I think its main selling point is that it has the in-store support.
Kindle: my favorite of the e-readers, but I don't like that I can't just buy books wherever I want them. Also, meager selection of international titles.
iPad: good offerings of both kindle and nook apps, but battery life and excessive monthly charges make me hesitant to buy it.

My question to you is, do you have one of them? What have you found so far? Which would you recommend?

20 June 2010

The Surgeon (#27)

I read The Surgeon for book group. The murder-mystery is pretty straightforward - it has some twists and turns, but is overall a bit predictable. The premise for the novel is this: a serial killer is attacking women in Boston, and he bears a strong resemblance to a similar serial killer who was working five years ago in Georgia, but was killed by his fifth - and surviving - victim.

The work is gory, and definitely a page-turner. I read it in a couple of days, and I really felt like I was reading a trashy summer novel. Which is exactly what it was.

The whole time that I was watching it, I kept feeling like I was watching an episode of Criminal Minds. Or even a very-special episode of Law & Order SVU, where they involve people from different jurisdictions. It followed the standard format for a CM episode, and I found myself wanting to skim over the narration because it felt like I would be able to watch this episode any time.

Gerritsen did a good job providing insight into the serial killer's point of view, and I definitely appreciated the serial killer's unexpected personality profile. The writing had a good pace, but I just wasn't able to get attached to any of the somewhat flat characters or into the story, which I felt I would be able to predict about halfway into the book.

So, good summer reading, but I'm glad that I borrowed the mass-market copy from someone.

I give it a 2.5 out of 5.

16 June 2010

On Ulysses, on Bloomsday

Ulysses is the story of these men 
and their experiences on one day, 16 June 1904.
(images via Ulysses "seen")

Now, every year on June 16th, people in Dublin act out the odysseys of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, bringing the novel to life. It's a tradition, one that is steeped in literary history. 

Always on the list of "Best Books" and clocking in at over 300,000 words, Ulysses remains one of the most daunting and brilliant novels of all time. While it is extremely difficult to get through, it's also extremely rewarding. I read it in a graduate seminar, and we spent almost eight weeks on it. And we still felt like we needed more time. But it's beautiful and brilliant and when you're reading it, you can tell you're reading something important. Even if you don't always understand what is going on.

Ulysses is, of course, an adaptation of The Odyssey, but it's also the story of Modern Man, Modern Dublin and Modernity. 

If you're interested in learning more about Ulysses, here are two lovely places to do it:
Ulysses "seen" - a graphic adaptation of the work. Only completed through "Telemachus" but it has the makings of greatness.
re:Joyce - Frank Delaney's recent project, podcasts dedicated to various episodes in Ulysses. This project just started, and will finish for Bloomsday next year.

Just to help, I'm also going to offer "Ulysses in 39 words"
          I: Buck concelebrates                    II: Stephen educates                    III: Stephen cogitates
       IV: Bloom evacuates                       V: Bloom exfoliates                    VI: Bloom commiserates
      VII: Crawford prevaricates           VIII: Bloom masticates                   IX: Stephen explicates
        X: Dublin perambulates                XI: Boylan adulterates                 XII: the citizen co-agitates
    XIII: Gerty titillates                        XIV: Mina parturiates                    XV: Bella emasculates
    XVI: a sailor exaggerates              XVII: Our heroes micturate        XVIII: Molly menstruates

This comes from a postcard that I picked up in Dublin at the James Joyce Centre.

Ulysses is something that everyone should read.
It is on those lists for a reason.
It changed literature. Completely.
It changed me, too.

11 June 2010

You know it's winter...

...when I start watching Elf every other day and calling myself a "cotton headed ninny muggins" - okay, I do that anyway and I'm also aware of the fact that it isn't winter. But this is BIG, RELEVANT NEWS!

Today I read this article on the NYTimes that said, essentially, that they are bringing two of my favorite things and rolling them into one big example of wintery goodness! That's right, they're making Elf into a musical!

Get excited! I'd list off my favorite lines here, but I'm working and literally took a five minute break to check something out on the internet and I can barely contain myself.

10 June 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest (#26)

I bought this book while in Ireland on my honeymoon - though it would be released in the US a week or so later, I couldn't wait and was super excited to read this before my friends. So I've chosen to include the European cover.

The final in the Millennium trilogy, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest was probably the most daunting of the series, both to read and, I imagine, for Larsson to write. I love love LOVE the whole series of books, and I can't believe how amazing the Swedish film was, and I fear the day that they announce Brad Pitt to be playing the role of Blomkvist in the American adaptation. It will just ruin it.

So, what can be said about the characters and the concept that hasn't already been said? Nothing. So, to jump into the last of the trilogy, I will say that biggest flaw I found with the book was that it got a little rough to get through around the middle of the book. Like the first books, I remember thinking that there was too much of parallel plots happening, and waiting for the plots to cross-over and reveal what the whole point of the book was. So, that happened with this book, but this book seemed like an actual tome beacause of its 700+ pages.  Once I was able to get over that hurdle, however, the book was, like the rest of the trilogy, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat, and psychological, all while being wonderfully written and consistent in style with the previous books. The characters grow throughout each of the books, and I love that there aren't a plethora of irrelevant characters being introduced in each of the books. 

Well done, Mr. Larsson, and it's unfortunate that none of us will get the chance to read any more of your works. 

Overall, I give the book a 4.5 (out of 5).

07 June 2010

A Tribute to Direction

Over the weekend I went with my husband and my parents to Del Mar for the wedding of one of my favorite cousins, and got to spend some time with some of my other favorite cousins and family members. The wedding was really beautiful, the reception was lovely (and the food was delicious), the rehearsal dinner was a really nice party. We went to my Aunt's house on Sunday morning for a coffee before driving back up to Orange County, and it was a really nice moment to reflect on the weekend. But one thing stood out for me more than the other things.

Just over ten years ago, in September of 1999, I attended the funeral of my uncle Marco, an amazing, loving, vivacious person who affected the lives of everyone around him. He had been a professor of Political Science in San Diego for many years, and he just had the ability to light up a room and infect it with a sense of joy. He died really unexpectedly and it really affected me. I felt like I was kind of in a funk - I was a senior in high school and I was having trouble figuring out what I wanted to do with myself.  Everything was feeling rote and like I was just an automaton - wait, that's not completely accurate. I wasn't depressed or anything, I was just feeling uninspired.

Anyway. It was at his funeral that I really, truly realized what I wanted to do with my life, and found the direction that, until then, I had been missing. We were sitting at the funeral, and I looked around, and there were so many people there, people he had really inspired and affected. It moved me. With college applications on the horizon, I scrapped whatever poor writing sample I had been preparing until that point and re-wrote my essay about how inspiring he was, and how much I wanted to have an impact like him. I don't remember exactly what I wrote, but it was clearly heartfelt, because here I am ten years later and I'm working on making it happen.

During the wedding and the reception, he was mentioned during toasts and prayers and I almost started to cry each time, or I started to tear up thinking about it. I'm starting to tear up now, actually, but that's neither here nor there.

As we sat on their porch on Sunday morning, drinking coffee and reminiscing about the wedding, my Aunt sat down and asked me how my dissertating was coming along; I did my usual bob-and-weave answer, and she asked me more pointed questions that would be difficult to avoid, so we had a nice chat about my progress and topic and she told me about her experiences dissertating and, all of a sudden, it struck me that not only had I not heard from my advisor in ages, no one had asked me about my progress for a while, and not just because I try to skirt the issue whenever it comes up. It's because no one here has really been through it - it's not their fault, they just don't know what to ask and I don't like to have to continually explain my process.  So I've stopped being open about what is happening with my progress because, in explaining the different things that I have to do (on the long timeline, not immediately), it can really stress me out.

But I digress. What I took out of that weekend visit was that I remembered Marco, and I remembered how important he was in helping me find my way, and I felt all reinvigorated to finish my proposal sooner rather than later, and I'm just hoping to finish it next week. That's the plan, at least.

As tributes go, I can't mention his professional accomplishments or anything along those lines, because they are beyond the scope of my knowing Marco. I knew him as an uncle, a gregarious, insightful and kind man who helped me find my direction. Twice.

01 June 2010

Little Bee (#25)

Does it seem like I've fallen off the reading wagon? I haven't, I assure you. But I've been really preoccupied with my dissertation proposal, my sister-in-law's wedding, my honeymoon, and my job grading high school English essays can really take its toll after a while. But I just realized I had read Chris Cleave's book and not reviewed it, and before it gets too far into my memory (I finished it almost a month ago), I thought that I would jot down my review about it.

The back of the book says,

"We don't want to tell you what happens in this book. It is a truly special story and we don't want to spoil it...Once you have read this book you will want to tell your friends about it. When you do, please don't tell them what happens. The magic is in how the story unfolds."  

So, I won't tell you what happens or anything along those lines.  I'll just tell you about what I thought of it and how I came to read it.

I had been wanting to read this book for a while, because I was drawn to the cover (I once read that book covers and wine bottle labels are sort of designed with the appropriate audience in mind, so I always think about that when I buy either without knowing I want to buy them going into the situation). I finished it as I arrived in Ireland on my honeymoon (which was brilliant and grand and deserves its own post), so I carried it around the country with it only to never blog about it when I returned. Which was accidental. 

I liked the book. I wouldn't say that it rocked my world or that it was one of the best books I've read this year, but I was intrigued by the story, which was at times heartbreaking. The ending was the strongest part, as well as the relationship between the two women (they're mentioned on the back, so I'm not giving anything away).  Thinking back to the book, I can't think of anything that I didn't like about the book, I just can't think about anything that made it particularly amazing.  

Overall, I would give it a 3.8.  Out of 5.

27 March 2010

Weekly Geeks: In the Beginning

For this Weekly Geek installment, I'm asking you to think back to the moment when you realized "I am a reader!" The moment you felt that desire to read everything! The moment you knew you were different than most of those around you and that this reading thing was for real.

- Tell us what book you were reading when that moment occurred.
I've had the realization that I was a "reader" a few times in  my life - I mean, when I decided that I wanted to go to graduate school for Italian Literature, and devote my entire life to literature, I think that was a pretty good moment. But the pivotal moment in my life, when I started reading avidly, happened much earlier. You could argue it was in elementary schoool, but that's a little difficult to define. In high school, in the middle of my World Literature Junior English class, when we read Night by Elie Wiesel, I knew that something was starting to fall into place. He was the first person who, after reading the book, I was inspired to see him in person (I even took my English teacher), and I've continued to be somewhat preoccupied with the specific challenges of Holocaust Literature to this day.  However, during my Senior Year, I started really reading things that weren't just assigned. The first book in this series was The Perks of Being a Wallflower, by Stephen Chbosky. 

- Review the book. (You can even re-read it if you'd like and actually have time.)

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is an entertaining, honest and insightful coming-of-age novel about a teen boy, Charlie, who is neither the complete outcast nor the most popular boy in school.  He lives a relatively typical high school lifestyle, but he also has a friend who recently committed suicide, adding to his struggles.  He survives his first year through the help of his two friends, Samantha and Patrick, and manages to make it through the year.  
I honestly don't remember too much else about the book, but I remember that I loved it and that it really made me want to read more and more.

- If you can't pin it down to one book, what other books define this moment in your life?
There was a whole string of books that I read during this time period, but I can't recall the names of most of them. I remember House of the Spirits, The Fuck-Up, A Regular Guy, Confederacy of Dunces, and Night (which I read again and again).  

- What is it about those books that caused you to feel this way?
The thing that I loved about the books was that I started to feel a connection to reading - the characters, their stories, and the effect that they could have on people. I think that it was here that I started to understand why reading is so important to history - even though none of the books I was reading were the books that would change History, they were the kinds of books that were important to personal histories.  

26 March 2010

Radio Silence

So, I realize that I've been really silent lately.  No book reviews, no updates, nothing. It's nothing personal, you two readers, I promise. I've just really been struggling with my work, so I've been less-inspired to read for pleasure, because it's all starting to blend together.  

A quick breakdown of my problem:

When we moved out to California for Sean's job, it seemed like a great situation: I was just finishing taking classes, I'm not on guarantee for teaching anymore (so my work would be semesterly with no guarantee of the next semester), I can write from anywhere, and Sean's job is a really good one, he had just finished his Master's program, and he was starting to tire of Winter.  Because we're both from California, and 100+ inches of snow is quite the adjustment.  

In reality, it's been even harder to write from home than I could have ever expected, primarily because I'm not entrenched in the university-system, I'm not surrounded by others who are also writing dissertations, and it's been really difficult to get feedback from two thousand miles and two time zones - all things that I just didn't realize were going to be such challenges for me.  I often feel trapped at home, because we only have one car and we live a mile from a road that would even have a bus stop - and public transportation in Orange County is unreliable at best.  

This might not have been such a struggle, but I also don't have a job (not that I haven't been applying and looking) and I often feel like I'm just sort of not accomplishing anything. Like I don't have anything to show for the reading that I do, or for the time that I've been out here. 

I've been in school nonstop since kindergarten, and I didn't take any time off before starting grad school, so I've never really been in such an unstructured environment. It feels like I've been running on a treadmill (with a trainer) for years - even when I'm not really in the mood the belt keeps moving under my feet so I continue to go through the motions and make progress, and there is someone constantly pushing me to keep at it - and, suddenly, I'm trying to run on the road, alone, and it's just way harder to keep running when I don't feel inspired, especially since the only person who knows when I don't pound the pavement is me, you know?  That's the best analogy I can come up with, and I think that it fits.  

Any advice on how to force myself to accomplish more? About anything, I guess, but I'm obviously looking for help in the arena of writing my dissertation proposal.

So, that's why. I'm going to try to start being more diligent. About working. Because then reading for fun becomes more natural. And I've got quite the list of "to-read" books just staring at me.

10 March 2010

Weekly Geeks: Authors We Love

This week's Weekly Geek is all about authors: 

Tell your readers what is it about "an" author that you are most passionate about, that have you coming back for more from them, following their every blog post – literally blackmailing people to read their books? 
Who are some of your all time favourite authors? 
And what is it about them that makes you keep going back for more?

Diana Gabaldon is a writer who has never let me down. Outlander was one of the books that got me excited about reading sagas - I've always been a reader but until I was in college I shied away from those books that were super long. I don't even mind waiting the two or three years between installments in the series, because since the books never disappoint I am always really excited to read them again.  Ken Follett is another epic writer, and Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are two of my all-time favorite books; I have given Pillars of the Earth as a gift many times, to men and women with the same level of enthusiasm.  I could read Pillars time and again, and it's always a book that I love to return to when I'm in a lull. I've recently discovered Frank Delaney, who is a remarkable storyteller. His characters feel alive, like I could reach out and hug them. When I finish his books, I immediately want to open them again, because they are just beautifully crafted and I'm not done with the characters.

Of course, I'm a grad student, which means that I read for a living (or whatever you want to call it), and my relationship with some authors is a bit different. I'm always intrigued by Italo Svevo, one of the quintessential Modernists in Italy, and I think that I could read La coscienza di Zeno (Zeno's Conscience) again and again - I have, in fact, read it many times for different classes and exams, and I always find something new and interesting to do with it. I always walk away with something from these neurotic, self-conscious protagonists. Working on my minor, I really and truly read James Joyce for the first time - I'd read him before but without understanding or appreciating much. He does things with literature that are so special and different, there aren't even words to describe what he did for literature; Ulysses really is at the top of the list of all-time books for a reason. 

So now I'm done with classes and I'm working on my dissertation. It's a difficult thing, deciding on who - or what - you want to work for the next few years (and to what you might possibly dedicate a significant part of your life's research). And I don't take that decision lightly, so I'm writing on Primo Levi and Italo Calvino. They were my first favorite Italian authors, and after four years of intense studying, I came back to the same two writers. Italo Calvino's Cavaliere inesistente (Nonexistent Knight) was the first book that I read in Italian, during my first Italian literature class in Italy - it was a major accomplishment for me, reading the short, fantastical story of a suit of armor that doesn't have a knight inside.  Calvino's narrator is almost always aware of his or her own role in the story being told, and he plays with the reader in unexpected ways. Primo Levi's "Canto of Ulysses," one of the chapters in Se questo รจ un uomo (Survival in Auscwitz) is beautifully written, and really highlights the power of books and language, especially for Levi.  I've read the works of these authors more than any others. I must admit, it's not just because I'm writing about them - they're just brilliant, poignant, beautiful and heartbreaking; not all of these things at once, but all of these things at different times and for different reasons. 

I'm afraid my answer might have been a bit too long. But, hey, that's what I do.

09 March 2010

Teaser Tuesday: Ireland

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme hosted by MizB of Should be Reading.
Teaser Tuesday asks you to:
--Grab your current read
--Let the book open to a random page.
--Share with us two (2) “teaser” sentences from that page, somewhere between lines 7 and 12.
--You also need to share the title of the book that you’re getting your “teaser” from… that way people can have some great book recommendations if they like the teaser you’ve given!

My teaser comes from Ireland, by Frank Delaney. I just finished this book on Friday, and it's sitting right next to me, so it was much easier to pull a teaser from this one rather than go into the next room. Plus, it's a beautiful book.

Ronan climbed the stairs, dimly aware of a rising problem. Worried that something might somehow be his fault, he curled up in bed and arranged the pillows so that the arguing voiced blurred.
His father arrived.
"Well, champion?"
Ronan said, "Wasn't it grand? D'you think he'll stay?"

From Ireland: a novel (Frank Delaney)

07 March 2010

Oscar night!

It's Oscar night, and I'm completely ready for it:

I've seen all ten of the Best Picture nominees:

Avatar: great visuals and graphics, but it's just like Dances With Wolves, only blue.
The Blind Side: an inspiring true story, told with heart.
District 9: interesting concept, and a different story from most. But weird.
An Education: coming-of-age story, which is usually predictable, but this has something to say.
The Hurt Locker: a socially-relevant, honest portrait of a difficult situation. Very intense.
Inglourious Basterds: a very Tarantino interpretation of history - magari! 
Precious: socially relevant, and full of heart. 
A Serious Man: very Coen-esque depiction of a realistic family story.
Up: heartwarming and lovely Pixar film. 
Up in the Air: an honest, poignant look at a man and a commentary on life.

When I heard that there were going to be 10 nominees, I was a bit confused - were there that many exceptional movies last year? No. There were a lot of good movies, but exceptional? Come on! Last year I would've believed it (hello, Academy, way to snub Gran Torino, which was the best film last year), but this year's nominees left me underwhelmed. But I watched them all, and here are my overall impressions.

District 9: really? I heard an interview on NPR, and they said that they chose to nominate 10 films because people are more likely to watch the Oscars if they've seen the films nominated, but why not nominate The Hangover - it was hilarious, easily one of the most entertaining movies of the year, and most people saw it. It's easy to suppose that more people saw The Hangover than saw District 9; I thought that the underlying apartheid commentary was interesting, but the movie was just kind of lacking overall.

Up: now, I loved Up. I thought it was a great movie. But it was also nominated for Best Animated Feature, and it just seems like it shouldn't be nominated twice. Maybe that's just me, but I didn't think that it was one of the best films of the year. I actually liked The Fantastic Mr. Fox a bit better, and I thought that Wes Anderson's use of the stop-animation was more inventive, but I don't think that it has a chance to beat Up, especially with two nominations. I saw four of the five Best Animated feature nominees, and it really is just a race between these two (though I really liked Coraline and thought The Princess and the Frog was a charming throwback to old-school Disney princesses).

A Serious Man: this was the last of the ten films that I saw (I finished it the morning of the Oscars). The Academy loves the Coen brothers, and I usually really enjoy their films, but I didn't think that this one was  one of the best pictures of the year. 

Okay, so in conclusion, I'm rooting for The Hurt Locker and Precious - I don't think that Avatar was one of the best films of the years, but it seems that the bells and whistles of all the special effects are allowing people to overlook the fact that the story wasn't original.  Yes, it was good, and yes the effects were awesome, but it wasn't the best picture of the year. I would also be really happy if An Education won, but that isn't likely, since it's been mostly a race between Bigelow and Cameron.  But what about Invictus? Clint Eastwood's two principal actors are nominated, but he loses out again? 

I'm still really looking forward to the Oscars. I love watching the red carpet. I think that Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin are going to be hilarious as hosts. They celebrate the films that were the best this year, for the most part; the Academy always gets some things wrong (The Reader was terrible, but they all loved it), but it still makes for an excellent and entertaining night.

06 March 2010

Ireland: a novel (#24)

Ireland is a story about Ronan, a boy who hears a traveling storyteller for three consecutive nights, and is forever changed by the experience. Ronan’s relationship with the storyteller is mysterious, sometimes frustrating (because the reader really identifies with Ronan’s journey), moving and heartwarming. It is lyrical, for the storytelling is rich with moments that make you sit back and collect yourself, because you didn’t realize that there could be something so poignant written. It is epic, for it spans centuries and millennia without missing a beat. It is transporting, for it feels like you are really there, in a living room by the fire, sharing this moment with Ronan, who is lovable from the moment he is introduced.

Ireland is also a story about stories, the lost art of the traveling storyteller and the way that myths and history are weaved together to form a blanket that encompasses all sides of history. It hearkens to the days when families spoke to each other, sharing their collective histories to pass on to successive generations. 

And, to top it all off, it’s beautifully written.  Frank Delaney’s writing warms the heart like freshly baked bread (I’m sitting next to a loaf of it right now and it smells the way that I imagine it has smelled for centuries).  Rarely have I encountered a book that takes on the whole spectrum of emotions like this book; I wanted to start reading it again the second I finished it, making the stories into part of my own personal story. 

I know this review seems like a laundry list of things that I loved about the book.  Reading over the review, I see that. The only thing that I didn’t like about the book was that it ended; I’m comforted by the fact that I will be able to read it again and again, revisit the characters in both the Storyteller’s tales Ronan’s narrative.  This kind of book does not happen everyday. 

05 March 2010

Favorite authors

I know I often say on this blog that I’ve found a new favorite book – or, that I’ve really enjoyed a particular book and now I’m hooked on a series of related stories. But it has taken a long time for me to say that I’ve found a new favorite author (it might even go back to Primo Levi, who is now the subject of my dissertation).  

I’m a graduate student. I read for a living, or at least in the hopes of reading for a living. I read fiction, nonfiction, literary theory, criticism and philosophy day in and day out. I take a lot of books out of the library.  I mark up books (not from the library, though) with notes and thoughts, usually about the ways that I can relate the books together or to note where a passage will help me make an argument. I take notes of the things that I read, so when I return to the book to write about it I will be able to find the pertinent quotes for the paper, article, etc more easily, because time is energy and sometimes I lack both.  But I can’t remember the last time that I wrote down a quote because it was beautiful, or because it made my heart swell and want to read it to someone nearby, even a stranger.  As I sat in my living room, the car, and a coffeeshop reading Frank Delaney's novel Ireland (because I did all three in as many days), I wrote down passages, even adding one to my facebook profile (which is really, immensely nerdy, but I couldn’t help myself).

As soon as I finished Ireland I walked to the bookstore and bought two more of Delaney’s books: Tipperary, which he himself told me is the next logical step (wait, I’ll get to that), and Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show, which is his newest release (and, therefore, I can say that I have a first edition of it, even though I would just die if I stumbled across a first edition of Ireland – not literally, but you already knew that).

Oh, how did he tell me about Tipperary, you ask? Two days ago, I posted on twitter: “I’m #reading ‘Ireland’ by Frank Delaney. And it’s wonderful.” And, what happened? Frank Delaney started following me! I was shocked and really excited. I didn’t even know he was on twitter. So, I finish the book, and I want to start it again, or just let the universe out there know how much I loved it, or something, so I posted: “Just finished #reading Ireland by Frank Delaney: beautiful, epic, genuine. Thank you, @FDbytheword.” And he replied to it. It was the most awesome acknowledgment. He just, replied. Said thank you for the compliment. I about died.

So, what’s so great about Frank Delaney's writing? It’s some of the best storytelling I’ve read in ages. It's natural, the characters are likable and realistic, and there's something that makes it seem like he is there, in the room, telling the story. The language is rich, without awkwardness, and always has something to offer.  

The moment that you know you've found an author, whether it's a new author or someone who is new to you, and you've really connected with what the author is saying, is a great moment. Who are some of your favorite authors? 

22 February 2010

The Language of Sand (#20)

Ellen Block tells the story of Abigail, a lexicographer who takes a rental home on a small island where she will serve as caretaker of a lighthouse (which is no longer in use).  The story unfolds in the aftermath of the loss of her husband and child in a fire, and Abigail's experiences - and the people she meets - on Chapel Isle help bring her back to life.

I really appreciated the framing function of the alphabet and the relatively obscure words that began each chapter.The words are always obliquely related to the story about to unfold, though it was difficult at times to see the ways that the words fit together.

Abigail (or Abby, as she comes to be called on the island) is a somewhat perplexing character; she takes this home because her late-husband had always visited the island as a child, but she doesn't seem to be renting the home to learn anything about him. Nor do the readers ever really learn anything about him, aside from a few memories that Abigail shares when she is alone.  One of the only neuroses she carries from her old life is her understandable resistance to use the stove, since her family died in a fire.

I also really enjoyed some of the supporting characters, particularly Merle and the ghost of the lighthouse. They seem to be more willing to open themselves up and let the reader take a moment to understand life on the island. The main problem with the book was that it seemed unfinished. Abigail doesn't seem to grow, or address her grief, throughout the book, and while it's true that neither of those are prerequisites for a successful book, it makes Abigail seem to be more of a two-dimensional character.

I did enjoy The Language of Sand, even if it sounds like I thought it had all of these huge flaws. It was easy to read, and the colorful supporting cast made me want to care what happened to them.  I just wish that the central character could have had as much life as the people she interacted with on a daily basis. Learning to cope with loss is a challenge, yes, and I really wanted to see Abigail deal with some of the emotions that were clearly bottled-up inside her.

21 February 2010

Shiver (#19)

I picked this book up at Borders completely randomly, because I've always been a sucker for good covers and the storyline seemed like it would fall in with the other books I was reading at the time, namely the Sookie Stackhouse series of books. Shiver falls into the YA category of books that are somewhat obsessed with the whole supernatural phenomenon. And I really wanted to like this book as much as I've liked other supernatural series, like Twilight and the Sookie Stackhouse books.  I like Stiefvater's style, in general, and I think that she could have something interesting to develop here.

The plot is relatively straightforward: Grace was bitten by a pack of wolves when she was little, before the story starts (why not include some of the aftermath?) and she feels a particularly strong bond with the wolf who protected her from the others, and she always waits for him to come into the forest by her house in the wintertime. And then she meets Sam, who it turns out is this wolf, and the story of their relationship unfolds to the background of the ever-dropping temperature which threatens to turn Sam back into the wolf at any moment. All the makings of a good YA tale, which are typically easy to read and I tend to finish in about ten minutes. 

But the characters were really lacking in depth and in personality.  Even Sam was not a particularly charismatic character, and I didn't really feel Grace's plight, either. I didn't dislike any of the characters, but I didn't really have feelings about any of them one way or the other, because a lot of them seemed kind of like afterthoughts.  Like, Stiefvater wrote this book and realized that there had to be other characters for the book to work. I really liked the parents, because they didn't need much development.

One thing I did like about the book, however, was the alternating points of view. This isn't something completely new, but I appreciated the varied perspective in that it offers something a little different.  The two characters clearly experience the story in different ways, because they experience each other in different ways and each have something different at stake.  But was it enough to save the book? I don't know.  Will the sequel need two different perspectives, since the two characters aren't still in completely different worlds? Will Stiefvater give more chacters a voice in the story? I hope that she delves more into the characters' lives, because Sam's (or Beck's) story could be really interesting if it had time to develop. Time will tell. I'll probably read the sequel, but this won't be anything that I'm calling friends and telling them that they must read the book.  

18 February 2010

Weekly Geeks: Romancing the Tome

In honor of Valentine's Day, Weekly Geeks offered all sorts of prompts regarding romantic literature (not romance novels, necessarily, but novels that have some romance in them).  So, I decided to think about my favorite literary couple.

Of course, Reader and Reader are an interesting couple in Calvino's If on Winter's Night A Traveler, even though their relationship is not my favorite. And I was listening to an episode of To The Best Of Our Knowledge a while back and they were discussing the potentially negative impact of the Bella-Edward relationship in Twilight, showing young girls that it's okay and actually desirable to have a boyfriend who sneaks into your room and watches you sleep, who is overly protective and warns you not to get into any trouble (and won't let you be friends with someone just because they are eternally enemies - ugh). So, while I think that their relationship makes for good reading, their relationship seems a little co-dependent to be my favorite.

I really like Scarlett and Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind, because they're such a classic couple; and Henry and Clare in The Time Traveler's Wife, because their story is so heartbreaking but they really, truly love each other. 

But, my FAVORITE literary couple is, by far, Claire and Jamie Fraser of the Outlander series.  They are both individuals; they are independent, and they love each other completely and honestly. Their love is just beautifully written by Diana Gabaldon, and they are absolutely believable as a couple (and as individuals).  I don't think I could've continued reading all of the books if it weren't for Jamie and Claire. They both get time to develop as characters, and then they have time to develop as a couple as well. 

15 February 2010

Weekend wrap-up

Well, it was quite an eventful weekend: 
Lincoln's Birthday, the anniversary of my engagement, Valentine's Day, and President's Day. 
So many opportunities for celebration! 
What I did:


That's right. I went to the movies on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.

None of the movies were earth-shattering:

Valentine's Day was exactly what it looked like it would be: something that wanted to be just like Love Actually but fell a bit short of the mark.  It was alright, and fluffy fun, but I wasn't expecting anything special out of it.  

Percy Jackson was, well, definitely a disappointment. I wonder if it would've been less disappointing if I hadn't read the book. This actually got a whole post for itself though, right here.

Wolfman was gory, and all of the actors did a fine job. Benicio Del Toro always looks like he's sleep-deprived (and I mean always, not just in this movie), Anthony Hopkins is spot-on as a creepy patriach, and Emily Blunt seems like she fits so well in this time period.

The Castle of Crossed Destinies (#15) and The Periodic Table (#17)

Both Il castello dei destini incrociati (Calvino) and Il sistema periodico (Levi) are re-reads, as I prepare to write my dissertation proposal (any references I make will be to the English translations, though I read them in the Italian original)...So, why blog about them together? Symbols, I say.

Symbols play a prominent role in both of these books; in the case of Calvino's tale, different travelers find themselves in an inn (that used to be a castle, or a castle that used to be an inn), and all have been struck silent.  They take to communicating their stories by using a deck of Tarot cards, and the different people sitting around the table must interpret the stories as appropriately as possible. As the first person begins his tale, the narrator comments, "we thought we understood that, with that card, he wanted to say 'I' and that he was preparing to tell his story," suggesting that the entirety of the novel is full of conjectures and personal interpretations, which do not necessarily correlate to the actual stories being told (emphasis mine).  As one traveler finishes his story, another story begins and may intersect with previous stories, until all the spaces are full.  The resulting layout hearkens to the intersection of the individual and universal, the personal interpretation of others and one's personal projection into the Other's narrative.  The stories can be read in a linear fashion, and if the protagonists of each tale are the cards on the outside edges, the various stories intersect in very clear ways.  
     The second part of the work, The Tavern of Crossed Destinies, leaves the reader with a much less organized layout; the cards and their stories are pulled at random and without a logical pattern.  The narrator finds himself with three cards, "the Knight of Swords, the Hermit and the Juggler...as I have imagined myself from time to time...the moment has come to admit that only tarot number one honestly depicts what I have succeeded in being: a juggler, or conjurer, who arranges on a stand at a fair a certain number of objects and, shifting them, connecting them, interchanging them, achieves a certain number of effects." If the narrator is read as a version of Calvino himself, then this is the moment Calvino discusses how he views himself as a writer.  Is writing simply a way of interpreting various symbols and presenting them in various fashions, depending on the desired outcome or reception? What bearing do the symbols have on individual lives?

Primo Levi uses different symbols - the periodic table of elements - in order to incorporate tangible elements into a less-tangible reality.  The intersection of the chemical elements with the narrative story is representative of Levi's personal life.  The chemical elements represent Levi's career as a chemist, and serve as a guide for Levi to navigate his lift.  The narrative elements are composed of different types of stories - anecdotes, fantastic tales, histories, etc - and it is through these different tales and elements that Levi projects an image of himself that is equally multifaceted.  Interesting, however, is the fact that Levi almost entirely leaves out the time period in which he was in Auschwitz, commenting that "I, a chemist, engaged here in writing my stories about chemistry, have lived a different season, has been narrated elsewhere." Though the story, "Cerium," in which this appears is related to Levi's survival during his time in Auschwitz, the story does not explore his experience with the same depth as his previous books.  The symbol of Levi as a chemist is not reliant upon his surviving the Holocaust, though his surviving the Holocaust is reliant upon his profession as a chemist.  
      Two stories about halfway through the book, Lead and Mercury, are seemingly unrelated to the rest of the narrative.  The story Lead, however, is more interesting, because it hearkens back to the ancient art of alchemy - of course, it's not the alchemy that you're probably picturing.  The narrator, Rodmund, is able to identify a particular rock and extract lead from it. Through this, he is able to make his fortune: "I began traveling again, in search of rock to smelt or to be smelted [and fashioned into its many different uses] by other people; teaching them the art in exchange for gold. We Rodmunds are wizards, that's what we are: we change lead into gold."  Though the alchemy does not happen by changing the molecular structures, it happens. Changing lead into gold, through whichever means possible, shows how a symbol - in this case alchemy - can be interpreted differently by different people because of their individual situations. Rodmund may not be an alchemist in the traditional sense of the word, but his act has the same result in both cases.   

These works of Calvino and Levi, two of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century, rely upon symbols to give their works structure, but it is through the manipulation of these structures that they offer their unique perspectives on the world.  

13 February 2010

Seriously, Chris Columbus?

I was really excited about seeing The Lightning Thief (I did, after all, start reading the books because I thought the movie could be fun).  So we went to see it on Saturday afternoon.  Young children filled the theater, and I found out that a lot of kids are reading the book in school! Riordan did his research, and at least the book would be something that the children would like. The little girls sitting next to me seemed really excited as the movie started.

Did the people in charge of adapting the book into a movie even read the book? I wanted to throw Percy's watery trident at whoever decided that they should take out some of the major plot points - especially since they were IMPORTANT to the development of the story.

"It's getting worse." What, Percy? The movie? "The dyslexia. The ADHD." That was actually a line from the movie. Because we wouldn't figure out that he was dyslexic when the letters started moving around in the museum? And, honestly, what was with the whole sitting-underwater-for-seven-minutes-thing? Didn't he think that was weird? "I just like being in the water." Unbelievable.

I was most disappointed by three things: 1 - the movie overall (sadly); 2 - the elimination of the entire claiming part of the gods; 3 - the development of the Percy-Luke plotline, as the way it unfolds in the book just flows naturally into the second book, and the movie just destroyed that whole dynamic. Ugh. Annabeth came off as a much less bright version of her book persona, and what was with Pierce Brosnan's Chiron?

I leaned over to my husband Sean when the credits started and said, "Now you have to read the book, if only so you know that it was good when it started."

The difference between the book cover and the movie poster says it all. 
In the book, Percy is a regular kid who is thrust into an atypical situation; 
in the movie, he's something completely different.


Spoiler alert: the movie was not good.

Redeemer alert: the book is still good.

10 February 2010

The Book Thief (#16)

Marcus Zusak's story of Liesel, told from the point of view of Death, was one of the most beautifully heartbreaking books I've read lately. And I've read a lot of books lately.  The story was brilliantly narrated, the characters were complex and multifaceted, but did not seem affected or forced.  The book is at once tragic and hopeful, and the world of Himmel Street with its vibrant inhabitants is completely imaginable. The Germans central to the story seem, at times, to be portrayed in a way that is more sympathetic than the historical record suggests, but their actions and attitudes are completely plausible nonetheless.

So, what did I like about the story? I really liked Death. What an interesting narrator, with his own asides and digressions. Death's way of unfolding the story - mostly linear, but with references to the past and future in ways that did not seem too contrived and did not take away from the narrative flow - was unique and peppered with moments that make the story difficult to forget.

The title The Book Thief suggests that Liesel's thievery is what defines her; however, rather than being defined by the books she steals, it is from the act of reading these books that she learns how to define herself.  Her book, also titled "The Book Thief" and taken by Death, is never revealed to the reader, but Death describes it as having sections that tell her story and are each centered around a book.  Which begs the question, which books are those that define us?

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone, but especially to book lovers.

07 February 2010

Catching Fire (#14)

Can you say cliffhanger? Don't worry, I won't give anything away, but WOW! I started this book immediately after finishing the first book, Hunger Games, and the book did not miss a beat from the first one.  Catniss and Peeta return home after the Games to their home, which is simultaneously the same and completely different after the defiance of the Capitol, albeit an unintentional one.  

As the story unfolds, Collins allows the reader to grow more attached to Catniss and Peeta, both as individuals and as a pair.  She also introduces other supporting characters, expanding Catniss' family beyond her immediate nucleus to include her family of other Victors.  The relationship between Catniss and the rest of her group is complicated, because Catniss and Peeta do not understand the extent to which they are all linked, nor their individual importance in the grand scheme of things.  I, like Catniss, did not completely understand the scope of the struggle, but I have every faith in Collins to finish the story in a way that will make everything make sense. 

The relationship between Catniss and Gale is a complex one; are they best friends or are they something more than that? Catniss' attempt to navigate her own emotions - and the struggle she feels between Gale and Peeta for her love - reflects the different roles she plays throughout her story. 

I read this book in one day - and what a day it was! I can't wait to see how Collins resolves the struggle - I can't believe that the final book in the series is not released until August!