Wednesday, January 30, 2008

You: The Owner's Manual by Roizen and Oz (2005, 417 pgs.)

If only I could think of myself as an appliance (most appropriately a refrigerator), I know I would take care of myself just like the manual says to! At least that's what Roizen and Oz are getting at with this book. In each chapter, they explain the way each different system of the body works, and what can be done to keep up the maintenance of your body and live longer (and better). It is interesting stuff, told in understandable ways, with a bit of overkill on attempts at being humorous. There are lots of cartoonish illustrations, with cutesy names of anatomical parts that to me just adds confusion. (I was an anatomy tutor in college, but all that unused information has been stored deep, deep down in my brain, never to emerge--unless of course I eat the suggested foods and change up my routines regularly and all of the other advice in Chapter 3.) It is very down-to-earth health advice that I will try to follow. There is of course a diet and exercise plan at the end with some yummy sounding recipes. I'm just hesitant to add them to my ever-growing "recipes-to-try" list, that is almost, but not quite, as long as my books to-be-read list!

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868, 526 pgs.)

I had absolutely no idea what to expect from this novel; the only thing familiar to me was the name. Most surprising to me was how easy it was to read. It is basically a British detective story in which the Moonstone, a valuable diamond stolen from a sacred shrine in India, is given as a gift to Rachel Verinder, only to have it stolen from her. The plot unfolds very slowly at first, but is tolerable due to the comical voice of a couple of the narrators. The book consists of several letters written by the characters to sort out all of the events and evidence surrounding the theft in an effort to discover who is guilty. The first and funniest is Gabriel Betteredge, the head servant of the Verinder household, who uses his worn copy of Robinson Crusoe for inspiration and guidance.
He says:

"I have found it my friend in need in all the necessities of this mortal life. When my spirits are bad--Robinson Crusoe. When I want advice--Robinson Crusoe. In past times, when my wife plagued me--Robinson Crusoe. "

The second narrator, Mrs. Clack, the self-righteous cousin of Rachel Verinder, forces upon "perishing fellow creatures" her religious tracts--The Serpent at Home, Satan in the Hairbrush, Satan out of the Window, etc. She even goes so far as to deposit the tracts into Lady Verinder's flower pots, the bird cage, the piano, a fan, the bed--anywhere they might be discovered and lead to a much needed conversion. (I kept picturing Angela from The Office during her section.)

The following narrators were not nearly as entertaining, and the last 100 pages or so kind of dragged for me, but all in all I enjoyed it. It is considered the original modern detective story, if that's a draw for anyone. It's always fun to experience the birth of a genre!

Monday, January 28, 2008

Audiobook: March by Geraldine Brooks (2005, 10 hrs. 22 min.)

In reading Little Women, I never really gave much thought to Mr. March and his experiences as a chaplain in the Civil War. (In fact, when I read it at a much younger age, I didn't even know it was during the Civil War!) This 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner gives us a chronicle of what his experiences might have been, and the realities of war that he does not write about in his letters home. A lot of his experiences are based on Louisa May Alcott's father, a transcendentalist who rubbed shoulders with Emerson and Thoreau. March encounters racism, both from Northerners and Southerners, and other cruelty that he struggles to take action against, but fails. We learn in flashbacks about his courtship with Marmee (and learn where Jo gets her temper from!) and why the family has become so poor.
The best word I can use to describe this "listen" is "interesting." It didn't grab me in any way, it was just "interesting" to see the different perspectives of various individuals and groups during the Civil War. I like to meet famous people in works of fiction and experience what a conversation with them would be like, and there are a few instances of this in this book. The books I love usually fit into one of two catergories--great storytelling or great writing. Occasionally a book fits into both. March didn't fit into either one for me, but I don't regret reading it, if that makes sense.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The Reading Meme That Took Me an Hour to Fill Out

Tagged by Susan of Bloggin' 'bout Books
Meme by Eva of A Striped Armchair

By the way, can anyone tell me where the word "meme" comes from? Is it short for something? Does it indicate "me" "me" because we answer questions about ourselves? I am clearly ignorant of some of this terminology! I just know they can be lots of fun!

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews?

Lolita by Nabokov. It's in the top ten of many "best" lists, and it's my local library's pick for the classic's book club in February, but I don't know if I could enjoy a book about an older man being obsessed with a young girl.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be?

My idea of a social event is an evening at home! But who would I invite? Will Ladislaw of Middlemarch (dreamy!), Levin of Anna Karenina (we could really bond), and Snape of Harry Potter(to tell him I never doubted him, and perhaps suggest some good shampoo.)

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): You are told you can't die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realize it's past time to die. What book would you expect to get you a nice grave?

Of Human Bondage by Maugham. I read 300-400 agonizing pages before I accepted the fact that I didn't need to torture myself any longer.

Come on, we've all been there. What book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you've read, when in fact you've been nowhere near it?

Usually, it's the opposite for me--books that I'm embarrassed to admit I've read!

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book you really thought you had read only to realize when you read a review about it/go to "reread" it that you haven't? Which book?

My memory is so bad I can't remember one!

You're interviewing for the post of Official Book Advisor to some VIP (who's not a big reader). What's the first book you'd recommend and why? (If you feel like you have to know the person, go ahead and personalize the VIP)

To Kill A Mockingbird--to me one of the most perfect books every written.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with?

I don't know--I'm still trying for perfect reading comprehension in English! Other than that, I would pick Russian.

A mischevious fairy comes and says you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick?

That is a really hard question!! For a geeky answer I would say The Lord of the Rings. For mental health I would say Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, and It's All Small Stuff (I have anxiety issues!). For a hopelessly romantic answer I would say Jane Eyre. To keep my parenting in line I would say Parenting With Love and Logic.

I know the book blogging community, and all its challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What's one "bookish" thing you discovered from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art - anything)?

I have just been relieved to find out that there are others who are just as obsessed with books as I am! I have found that it is hard to resist reading challenges!

The good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she's granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favorite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead - let your imagination run free.

Well, as long as we're talking about fairies and magic, my dream library would go with me wherever I went, so that if I were waiting in line at the store, driving kids around, waiting at the doctor's office, I would have any book available at the snap of a finger. I would want access to any audiobooks, (currently I am at the mercy of what the library has.) I do have an irrational weakness for books that have the rough-edged pages. Is there a technical name for those? Sadly, I would have to admit that I would want a refrigerator in my library. And maybe a permanent chef. And I would want it to be soundproof.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (1984, 110 pgs.)

Esperanza, who hates her name because "it means sadness, it means waiting. It is like the number nine. A muddy color," tells us about her world after she moves into a new house in the Latino section of Chicago. It is a world filled with simple beauty and tragedy, and the usual aspects of a coming-of-age story, told in a spare yet poetic way. I feel like she captured the dreamlike memories of our youth that we have, where we remember more of the feelings and impact of the events than the main details. She introduces a whole cast of unique neighbors and friends that shape the environment that she sometimes wishes she didn't belong to. A quote from the back of the book describes it well: "A deeply moving novel. . . delightful and poignant. . . Like the best of poetry, it opens the windows of the heart without a wasted word." (Miami Herald)

Pictures of Hollis Woods by Patricia Reilly Giff

Hollis is an orphaned girl who gets bounced from one foster home to another, never quite feeling as if she belongs. She has a reputation for trouble, and usually ends up running. She is a very gifted artist, though, and when she moves in with the eccentric Josie, an elderly artist who is losing her memory, she learns not only the value and meaning of art, but starts to make sense of her fond memories and drawings of the Regan family that she ran away from the summer before.

Bottom line: It's a wonderful story that necessitates a Kleenex box nearby.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

I haven't done a four-word review in a while, so here's one for As I Lay Dying:

Dysfunctional Family Buries Mother

I can't quite leave it at that--I liked it better than The Sound and the Fury, but you still have to work at understanding some passages, and switch gears often due to the many narrators. In some parts I laughed, and others pondered the meaning of my existence, like the characters in the novel. If I were to read this in an American Lit class, where I would have to dissect it and dig deeper, I bet it would earn one more star. But for now:

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood

This is one of those books that I don't want to say much about because part of the joy of reading it is in the unfolding of the story. In general I can say that it is a portrayal of a woman named Offred who lives in the future, dystopian society of Gilead. The story is riveting (it helps that this is one of my favorite genres), and the writing is genius. I will throw you a few gems:

"I lie in bed, still trembling. You can wet the rim of a glass and run your finger around the rim and it will make a sound. This is what I feel like: this sound of glass. I feel like the word shatter. I want to be with someone."

"I know where I am, and who, and what day it is. These are the tests, and I am sane. Sanity is a valuable possession; I hoard it the way people once hoarded money. I save it, so I will have enough when the time comes."

Maybe the best description of the story can be given in this passage from Offred, the narrator:

"I wish this story were different. I wish it were more civilized. I wish it showed me in a better light, if not happier, then at least more active, less hesitant, less distracted by trivia. I wish it had more shape. I wish it were about love, or about sudden realizations important to one's life, or even about sunsets, birds, rainstorms, or snow. . .
I'm sorry there is so much pain in this story. I'm sorry it's in fragments, like a body caught in crossfire or pulled apart by force. But there is nothing I can do to change it."

Nothing needs to be changed about this story. I enjoyed every single page, even though it took me far beyond my usual PG-rated bubble. (It is included in the American Library Association's list of most challenged books of 1999, and is number 37 on the "100 Most Frequently Challenged Books of 1990-2000," due to parental disapproval of the content.) Nonetheless, I am anxious to read more of her writing.

The Thin Woman by Dorothy Cannell

Comedy, mystery, treasure hunt, romance, and quirky characters. Is it possible to combine all of these into an enjoyable and believable novel? Absolutely! I have wanted to read this first of the "Ellie Haskell" mysteries since I read Withering Heights by Cannell and loved it.

From the inside cover:
"Meet Ellie Simons, funny, self-deprecating, a talented interior designer by profession, and by avocation--a fat girl. Meet Bentley T. Haskell--a pornographer(really he has just written one novel that's a bit racy) who wishes he wrote Literature and who moonlights as a man for hire at Eligibility Escorts. Dreading the ghastly family gathering her odd Uncle Merlin has arranged, Ellie rents Ben for the weekend.
But then to everyone's horror, Merlin up and dies, leaving behind a quirky Last Will and Testament that bequeaths Merlin's Court, the woefully neglected family estate, to Ellie and Ben--if four conditions are met. Within six months of residence at the estate, Ellie must lose 63 pounds, Ben must write a book without a word of smut in it, and they must find the treasure hidden at Merlin's court."

This was feel good, light-hearted entertainment, not to mention it motivated me to want to lose my 30 extra pounds!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sky Burial by Xinran

I have earned the greatest prize that can be attained in a reading challenge: a wonderful book that I would have otherwise never read! I was worried about "X" in the A to Z challenge, and, after browsing the end-of-the-alphabet authors, I found this beautiful book with a promising story:

"It was 1994 when Xinran, a journalist and the author of The Good Women of China, received a telephone call asking her to travel four hours to meet an oddly dressed woman who had just crossed the border from Tibet into China. Xinran made the trip and met the woman, called Shu Wen, who recounted the story of her thirty-year odyssey in the vast landscape of Tibet.

Shu Wen and her husband had been married for only a few months in the 1950s when he joined the Chinese army and was sent to Tibet for the purpose of unification of the two countries. Shortly after he left she was notified that he had been killed, although no details were given. Determined to find the truth, Shu Wen joined a militia unit going to the Tibetan north, where she soon was separated from the regiment. Without supplies and knowledge of the language, she wandered, trying to find her way until, on the brink of death, she was rescued by a family of nomads
under whose protection she moved from place to place with the seasons and eventually came to discover the details of her husband’s death.
In the haunting Sky Burial, Xinran has recreated Shu Wen’s journey, writing beautifully and simply of the silence and the emptiness in which Shu Wen was enveloped. The book is an extraordinary portrait of a woman and a land, each at the mercy of fate and politics. It is an unforgettable, ultimately uplifting tale of love loss, loyalty, and survival." (from the book cover)

The writing is very succinct, and allows the power of the story to tell itself. The customs and rituals of Tibet were interesting, and Shu Wen's story is heartbreaking but uplifting. I loved it!

Dracula by Bram Stoker

Here is what I knew about Dracula before I read this book:
  • He has sharp teeth that he likes to suck blood out with
  • He can turn into a bat
  • He's from Transylvania
My only other exposure to vampires is the Twilight series, and I recall reading that Stephenie Meyer has never read Dracula--she didn't want to be influenced by it. I also remember when I was very young hearing about vampires, and I slept many nights with a pillow over my neck. And still, as an adult, I found myself grasping my neck a lot as I read this novel, and filled in the gaps (or emptiness, more appropriately) of the story.
It's very readable, which surprised me. The author is Irish, which also surprised me. I think I always imagined Bram Stoker as being Hungarian or something. The book consists of the journal entries and letters of the main characters, as they tell of their unfolding knowledge that their lives are being threatened by the evil of the "Un-dead." Here's a little bit about each one of the characters:
  • Jonathan Harker: Jonathan travels to Transylvania to assist Count Dracula in a real estate transaction--he is buying property in London, where he is going to move. He gradually realizes he is merely a prisoner in the castle, and his frightening experiences cause him to think he is mad, and he ends up in Budapest with brain fever.
  • Mina (Murray/Harker): Jonathan's fiance and eventual wife, who epitomizes the ideal Victorian woman. I almost got tired of the male characters' endless praise of her, and her constant comparison to an angel. She eventually becomes the target of Count Dracula, and much of the story involves the destruction of the vampire in order to save her soul (and prevent her from becoming a "voluptous fiend," like her not so fortunate friend . . .
  • Lucy Westenra: Lucky girl--she has three men asking for her hand in marriage. But, no time for jealousy, she is the first to fall victim to Dracula's lust for blood.
  • Mr. Renfield: A patient of Dr. Seward (one of Lucy's suitors) who likes to eat spiders and flies for their life force. His role in the narrative is in question until the end of the book, but he was one of my favorite characters--I thought he was more dimensional than the others.
  • Van Helsing: Dr. Seward's mentor, a well-renowned doctor who is open to ideas that others would dismiss, which helps in the case against the supernatural threat. He is the most knowledgeable about vampires, seeing what the others miss. I don't know if it was intentional by the author, but I found his character somewhat amusing. I think it was because his accent is portrayed only partially (he's Dutch), and he never says things plainly--he's very figurative. You would think that since they were often pressed for time, he would just be clear and specific.
One of the most interesting things about the story is that Dracula's plan seems to be to use the women to get to the men, thus overpowering everyone. It's like a parallel to the traditional story of Adam and Eve--Eve is tempted by Satan, and then tempts Adam to eat the forbidden fruit. It's filled with a lot of other Christian symbols, and a few things that I interpreted to be phallic symbols, but maybe I'm a little too much like Lucy--all too ready to fall prey to seduction!

One of my goals is to not make my posts too long--I've failed with this one. I will go on to say that I also watched the classic movie with Bela Legosi for the first time and found it very entertaining. I loved Renfield in it, the special effects and lighting were a hoot. It had the perfect level of horror for me--they didn't even show any contact between teeth and neck. You just knew it was happening, and that's usually enough for me. I managed to sleep with my pillow under my head last night--not over my neck!

The Talismans of Shannara by Terry Brooks

This is the seventh book in this high fantasy series that is centered around several objects of power that are needed to fight evil. If that sounds a bit like The Lord of the Rings, then you're on the right track--the two are very similar, although the Shannara series definitely has a more modern feel. This particular book brings all of the previous stories together, and the characters realize their quests, learn much about themselves and strengths they didn't know they had, and accept the burdens that their special gifts place upon them. I love the stories despite the fact that Brooks can be a bit wordy, and spend paragraphs on the same inner struggles repeatedly, but that's something I didn't really notice until the last couple of books. In the Harry Potter series, I got a little tired of reading about when someones face was green, red or white, and someday I'm going to count how many times Harry vomits--it's got to be like twenty or something. But I still LOVE Harry Potter, and I love the Shanarra series to0--it's a world you can escape to when this one gets overwhelming!

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Audiobook: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

This was a fascinating picture of life for women in China in the nineteenth century, as told by Lily when she is 80 years old reflecting back on her life. She lives in a world where women's feet determine their marriageability, relationships are contractual, women inhabit the "inner" sphere, while men dominate the outer, and where females are considered useless unless they bear sons. The main focus is her friendship with Snow Flower, and the secret fan on which they write the special women's language "nushu" (this may be spelled wrong, since I listened to rather than read the book.) As Lily goes through her life, she struggles with choosing between adhering to society's expectations of her or ignoring the many rules to maintain her friendship with Snow Flower, who has married into a family of lower social status. She also continually fails to accept Snow Flower for who she really is, with heartbreaking consequences. My review seems very inadequate, but let me assure you that the books is much better! It is very simply, but beautifully written. It also made me grateful to be living in this time and place. I have no desire to go through the painful process of having my feet bound so that they will resemble lilies and be admired by my husband. I'm sure he doesn't even know my shoe size!

Monday, January 7, 2008

A Reading Challenge I Probably Won't Finish

I'm signing up for the A to Z Reading Challenge (details here), because it sounds like fun. You basically try to fill in the alphabet twice with books you've read--once for authors and once for book titles. That means 52 books! I would love to read all waking hours of the day, but life gets in the way! But I still thought it would be fun to fill in the alphabet as I go through the year and see how much I can fill in. It sounds like a fun game to me. I will list the alphabets on the side bar, and then fill in as I go. I am assuming (or hoping) that books from other challenges count.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

It seems only appropriate that I should read this book, seeing that it is the name I have for my most common parenting style--kind, gentle, and loving most of the time, until I unleash the irrational, hormonal beast from within, usually provoked by innocent infractions such as stickiness on the floor, or the latest chemistry experiment in the bathroom sink. I thought maybe I could pick up a few more tips from the expert(s) . . .
Our first glimpse of Mr. Hyde is a scene in which he viciously tramples an innocent young child (okay, before you think of calling Child Protective Services, let me tell you I have not gone this far!) Thanks to popular culture, we already know that Mr. Hyde is Dr. Jekyll's amoral alter-ego, so the mystery aspect of the book is lost. I can only envy the early readers of the novel who didn't know until the end of the story that the two are the same being. However, knowing the end does not lessen the impact of the age-old theme of the good and evil residing simultaneously within us--"man is not truly one, but truly two." Dr. Jekyll comes to "dwell on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way. . . and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path . . . no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil." Pick up a copy of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to find out how wrong he was--or, like me, to pick up some new parenting how-to's.