Friday, February 29, 2008

David M. Shapard and Jane Austen/THE ANNOTATED PRIDE AND PREJUDICE


If you're a Pride and Prejudice lover, you definitely have to pick up this edition, edited and annotated by Shapard. Here's why:

  • The notes are on facing pages--easy to access
  • It makes the book twice as long!
  • Sketches of clothes and carriages will amuse you
  • You'll understand plot points to a greater degree
  • You can decipher outdated words and phrases
  • It gives you another excuse to re-read P&P

The notes give info on things like social customs, outdated words and phrases, geography, and a timeline of story events. Shapard also provides literary commentary, giving his 2 cents on plot points and character development.

Some interesting things I learned from the notes (SPOILERS):

  • The reason Darcy must wait around for Elizabeth in the garden to give him her letter instead of having it delivered to her is because it was considered improper for a man to write to a young, unmarried woman who was not his relative.
  • Lydia and Wickham are thought to have run off to Scotland because it was easier to marry a girl Lydia's age in that country than in England.
  • One reason that might explain Bingley's dependence on Darcy's opinions and guidance is that Bingley's mode of acquiring wealth suggests that his wealth has not been in his family as long as Darcy's wealth has been in his.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

The Tenth Circle/ Jodi Picoult




Jodi Picoult's story is a metaphor for Dante's levels of hell in the Inferno. It is about a stay-at-home father who is a comic book illustrator. The comic book he is working on is about a father who loses his daughter, and will do anything (including losing his soul) to save her. The mother teaches Dante's Inferno at a local college, where she also has an affair.




The story really begins with the rape of their fourteen-year-old daughter at a party. The issues surrounding the rape deepen the daughter's depression and withdrawal into herself. The family must reconnect in an honest way if they are to save her.




The tenth circle of hell is reserved for people who lie to themselves.




I loved this book. It is so well-researched. The portrayal of a teenager's life is shocking and honest. Jodi Picoult researched an Eskimo tribe and its village for much of the backdrop. This adds a beautiful layer to the story. And of course this reads like a mini-course of Dante's Inferno.




I loved the writing. The characters were all well-developed, including the secondary ones. The plot felt realistic. The people were real. It doesn't end on a hopeful note, but neither is this story a tragedy.




I highly recommend it!! (Angelle, over to you!)




P.S. I include two covers of this story. The one with the legs is the book sold in the U.S. The one with the girl's face is the one I bought here in Dubai-it's the UK version. The cover is why I picked it up.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Flowers for Algernon :: Daniel Keyes


I just read Flowers for Algernon for the first time ever, even though I know most people read this in high school. It's so sad and heartbreaking that I just about want to slit my wrists and die, I feel so bad afterwards.

But don't get me wrong. It's so good. It's an interesting concept, and Keyes does a good job of showing Charlie's progression through his own journal entries.

It's just that... why is it so heartbreakingly sad?

Oh, synopsis for people who care about things like that: Charlie is mentally disabled but really wants to learn to "be smart". He undergoes an experimental operation that makes him "normal", then smart, then a genius even..... and that's really all I'm going to say.

I'm SO SAD.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana :: Umberto Eco


I don't even want to take the time to explain this one too much. Premise was interesting (guy loses his memory and goes through his childhood books and comics and stuff to try to regain it), but it failed miserably for me on the plot front. Very little plot. Dense. Too academic. It's a shame, really, but maybe I'm too stupid to appreciate this kind of stuff :) Or just too lazy.

The Blind Assassin :: Margaret Atwood


This book's got everything - sprawling family/childhood saga, sci-fi, romance, book within a book, mysterious deaths, and newspaper clippings.

It took me a little bit to get into, and a lot of the first third of the book is spent wondering, "Okayyyy.... so how does this come together and what's the point of this book?" But get into it, and it's rich and wonderful. Her writing is impeccable and the pieces coming together is so much fun, you're sad it's over. Towards the end, I was positively speeding through, wanting to see how it hung together.

Okay, so unlike my own blog, I won't ruin this for anybody. Just read it. It's AWESOME.

Tree of Smoke :: Denis Johnson


A story about... well, the Vietnam War. But not Tim O'Brien's war. Johnson's war is aimless, desolate, lost and brings to my mind a dustiness. I can't explain it, but it does.

This book was HARD to get through. Not everything resonated with me, and parts lagged or didn't make sense. I was impatient at times, and had to really push in order to get through the whole thing. But despite that fact, there are a lot of redeeming passages and it's ultimately very heartbreaking -- not in any obvious way, but quietly, sadly, like a person overlooked in real life. It's awkward and beautiful at points, and the end works for me, even if it never ties together the way I'd like it to. But then again, maybe that's the point. Things like war don't tie together. Sometimes there just isn't any meaning, and to look for it is fooling ourselves.

So while I'd agree with a lot of the criticism about how the book hung together, when Johnson is at the top of his game, he's a master at language. If you have the patience to get through it, you'll be rewarded... but only if you're still paying attention.

Waiting :: Ha Jin


I owe this blog a few book posts. I just get lazy because, well, essentially that's what my own personal blog is. But I must support Moonie's baby... So I won't do detailed reviews, but I'll give a quick overview and some quick thoughts.

First up:

Waiting is a story about a Chinese guy who lives in the city with his modern girlfriend, and every year he returns to his village and tries to divorce his quaint wife from an arranged, loveless marriage. But every year she refuses. Set in a backdrop of a changing China, it's sparse yet affected.

I liked this. The tone of it is pretty slow and quiet, although we travel through years. It somehow captures a tone of "China" pretty well, even though it's written in English, and was, originally. The story itself, while never overly heartbreaking or even captivating, is quiet and raises the question of tradition vs. modernity.

It's very good, if not something I would rave about. Worth a read.

Dennis Lehane/GONE BABY GONE

This story is about two Boston detectives who try to help an aunt find a missing girl.

The story sucks. Where should I begin? Okay, with the premise. I think anyone can write a suitable story about a little girl who has gone missing. Unless the writing has other layers, it's a cheap prop.


The two private detectives have an ongoing affair. (yawn)


The main police detective is divorced, trying to quit smoking, and has his own tragedy involving his daughter. (yawn)


There's a point in the middle of the book where they discover a ransom note. The note says that 4 people must meet in quarry and exchange money for the girl. Four? Silly and obviously a setup, which it was. The entire plot felt obvious and predictable.


Every time Lehane introduces a character, he stops the flow of his writing. For example (I'm making this up for illustration purposes):

***

"Are you going to kill me or what?" the suspect asked.


The suspect was wearing green khaki pants and a matching t-shirt that looked like it had seen better times. The suspect's hair was brown and had a slight wave to it. The wave curved gently around his ears. His whole family had wavy hair. They must've spent a fortune on hair conditioner.


"No, we're not going to kill you," answered the police officer.

***


And the girl? Do you really think in such a predictable book that anything bad happened to her?

Spoiler Alert.

She was staying with the unit chief's wife. They live an hour outside of Boston. Did the good chief get no visitors at all while this massive manhunt was on? Was there no press staking out his place?


I would rate this sucky, but Moonrat doesn't have that label listed.
Maybe the movie was better? I love Ben Affleck.


(The next book I will review will be "The Tenth Circle" which is also about a child. But this book is superb and (to me) flawless).

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Michael Ehart/THE SERVANT OF THE MANTHYCORE

i finally got a chance to read michael ehart's book. i follow his blog and what piqued my interest was the fact that the tale takes place in the bronze age in the middle east. the book is a series of short stories about ninshi (the lady of the song). she has wandered the land for too many lifetimes, bound to the will of the manthycore, a horrific creature that takes the shape of a massive lion with wings. ninshi's job is to kill, then summon the beast by calling him with its tailisman, a broken tooth from the creature.

we follow ninshi on her journeys and learn that she does this because the manthycore holds her childhood love captive. as the monster feeds, she always asks to see the vision of her lover, radiant and young, as she remembers him. altho ninshi has not aged, she is scarred by the countless fights she has endured, older from the weight of the curse she has beared for so many centuries.

it is her "daughter" miri, a slave girl ninshi purchased on a whim, who allows us to see the soft side of our heroine. it is through miri we piece together more of ninshi's stories. ehart does a fine job in his prose, evoking the feeling and setting of the time. he draws on myths and folklore, uses poetry/song to convey the story. the tale brings to mind the greek myths i loved to read as a child, but with a different cultural bent. each new chapter contains an illustration by rachel marks, which adds to the overall feel of the book. i've not read a fantasy book like this and thoroughly enjoyed it. my only complaint is that i wanted more.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Venetia Murray/AN ELEGANT MADNESS


(Subtitled: High Society in Regency England)

Murray's non-fiction accounts of how the wealthy lived during the Regency period is as engrossing as any popular YA gossip novel while also providing facts and details that make for much more unique fodder. If this book were a TV show on the CW, it would probably sound something like this:

Ohmygosh, did you hear that Lord Byron refused to eat any of the venison and whatnot at that huge party because he's on a diet??

Yeah, but then my friend saw him eat like five whole steaks at that ritzy club afterward.

Ha, that's nothing. I hear the prince eats eight, like on a regular basis.

Can you believe he totally puked in the middle of a quadrille at his own party? Gross.

Um, who cares? Everyone else was drunk too, and I bet there was puke everywhere by the end of the night.

Yeah, probably that whole Turkish tent motif that's taking over the royal gardens is smelling pretty rank by now. Is this the fifth time he's redecorated his palace now or what?

Sixth, I think. They had to tear down everything the last decorator put up so that they could put in those fake streams and everything.

Remember last year when everyone went to check out the new decorations and people got completely trampled?

Ick, my bff had to borrow some maid's apron because her clothes had gotten torn off her body during the mad rush to see the Oriental room. Okay?? Torn off her body! And she had about five thousand bruises everywhere.

I enjoyed this book because it gives a picture of what it might have been like to be rich and indulgent during a time period I previously thought was quite pious and tame. It touches on subjects such as diet (apparently the rich were in the practice of consuming mass quantities of meat), dress (styles changed about every five minutes), the benefits and drawbacks of being a mistress (a role that was mostly acceptable), clubs, country houses, parties, and more.

Reviewers seem to differ on whether Murray's research is accurate, but the sketches of historical figures and situations are both entertaining and helpful for understanding the attitude of the upper classes of the Regency period.

Beth Kendrick/NEARLYWEDS

Three young women (Stella, Casey, and Erin) were all married the same weekend by the same pastor. A few weeks later, they learn that the pastor died before signing and filing their marriage licenses and therefore their marriages are not legal. All three are having difficulties in their marriages and have to decide whether to make them legal or move on.

The concept intrigued me, although I do have my doubts that the marriages would automatically be disallowed because the pastor died. Leaving that aside, though, did the novel work?

Overall, yes. The three women take turns narrating chapters, each in first person, and this does allow the author to show events from more than one person's viewpoint in subsequent chapters. The story is deepened as a result, but 'deepened' might not be the best word here.

Each woman has one problem with her husband. The rest of their lives are essentially fine. The husbands are barely above cardboard cutouts, although Casey's does eventually become more. Casey and Erin were already friends, but their initial dislike of Stella fades with amazing speed.

I enjoy 'chick lit' and lighter fiction, but this one is light to the point of insubstantiality. I wanted the women to change and grow, and I didn't get that feeling. The writing is competent, but very surface-oriented; not much of the women's thoughts and feelings appear. And I wanted those.

I was pleased that it wasn't immediately obvious which marriages would succeed and which fail. One would appear to be rock solid and then founder again, which I think is far more realistic.

This is my first book by Beth Kendrick, and I will look for others, but I was hoping for more depth and more of a connection with the characters.

Kazuo Ishiguro/NEVER LET ME GO


A 31-year-old woman, Kathy H, reflects on her childhood and education at an unusual institution called Hailsham, where students were taught that they had special responsibilities. Kathy remembers hallmarks of her relationships with Ruth and Tommy, her two closest friends, and on the hard lessons they learned together about the world and their places in it.

This was a good read--I literally couldn't stop turning pages. I think this is because Ishiguro assembled the story really carefully so each page you're only starting to figure out what's going on and need to know just a little more. Very clever of him. It makes writing a review difficult, because it's hard for me to say anything at all about my thoughts without giving all kinds of spoilers. I'm going to try, though.

I have to admit that the subject matter made me uncomfortable--which I'm sure was Ishiguro's point. Those of you who've read it, I'd be really interested to hear if you felt the same way. I was very frustrated with Kathy's attitude at the end of the story, too, although I do see that she's a careful product of her circumstance. And though I think the premise is a little bit flawed the whole story was created realistically enough to leave me feeling pretty upset and hopeless at the end.

In any case, a very absorbing and affecting read.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Sin In The Second City By Karen Abbott


Subtitled: "Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America’s Soul" a story about the Everleigh sisters and their famous brothel on South Dearborn Street in Chicago. This book was well researched and a treat for some one who lived in the suburbs and worked in Chicago for many years. The streets, the colorful names of the Ward Aldermen; Bathhouse John Coughlin, and Hinki Dink Kenna who kept the political machines running smoothly (and profitably by collecting from the businesses), the mayors and ambitious district and states attorneys, The renowned business men: Marshall Field, the Armours, Daniel Burnam (Chicago Exposition fame), Al Capone, the Chicago Stockyard, the newspaper owners all played their part in early Chicago history.
Minna and Ada Everleigh did their best to run an exceptional and clean "sporting house"; when they moved to Chicago, the business was fraught with hazzards - disease was rampant, clients were drugged and robbed, and often they were beat up. The girls who ,for the most part, were innocents who came to town looking for work or were brought to town by panderers, were usually sold to the houses for anywhere from twenty-five dollars to two hundred dollars. They were treated badly, underpaid, and under clothed, in virtual slavery, they used drugs and either died from disease or just over work. The levee area of the First Ward had it’s cruel Madams and Masters who ran Ten dollar houses , five dollar houses and fifty cent houses down to the twenty-five cent houses where some girls had as many as fifty clients in a night.
The Everleigh place was a palace with fine furnishings, art work, a golden piano that was sometimes played by Scott Joplin and exceptional food and drink served in a magnificent bar. Clients were screened and most would spend at least five hundred dollars a night at the establishment on drink, food and companionship. The girls were all carefully interviewed, dressed in fine clothing and operated under strict rules; no drugs. no rolling clients, no drunkenness, refinement and pleasure was the byword. Minna and Ada paid their girls very well and the girls were free to go but very few did. While they were in business they paid protection, made the right kind of friends and became known world wide.
They made a fortune but it could not last. The church and the ministers did their very best to shut down the businesses with prayer meetings and midnight vigils and parades and for a while the "ward healers" protected the businesses but the very idea of where the girls that worked in those places might have came from and how they became "trapped in the vile business" through the vehicle of "white slavery" became a nation wide cry that ambitious Chicago attorneys and politicians took up and began to put real pressure on the businesses. James Mann, a US Congressman, sponsored the White Slave Traffic Act better known as the Mann Act which was ignored at first but later became significant. The first part of the book was very interesting and the battles with the ministers was also fun but over two thirds of the book was devoted to building the case against White Slavery and the various legal maneuvers that went on; I tired of that and went on to find out the final fate of the sisters and the others that lived and worked on South Dearborn Street.

The Saville Communion By Arturo Perez Reverte


Another splendid novel by this acclaimed Spanish author. The setting is Seville where controversy over the demolition of a four hundred year old church enjoins greedy bankers, a comical trio of villains, a self serving Arch Bishop and an old priest and his supporters in a deadly battle of devious plots and counter plots. The outcome of the battle hinges on a very old provision in the churches grant that states that as long as mass is said each Thursday morning at 8:Am ,ownership will never revert to the city.
A computer "hacker" that Rome chooses to identify as "Vesper" has entered the Pope’s personal computer with a message that he should intervene and protect the tiny crumbling old church. Because of the intrusion, a special investigative branch (problem solvers)of the Vatican sends their most experienced man to "find out what is going on and report". There are civil and church politics involved and there have been two deaths connected with the church which makes the situation even more delicate. The priest, Lorenzo Quart, goes to Seville and becomes intrigued and involved with the old priest who always manages to hold mass every Thursday; he conducts his mass in Latin and conducts himself in ways that irritate the Arch Bishop. Quail meets the priests’ young assistant, and an unorthodox American girl who is an archaeologist who is trying to restore the old pile but she is, also, a nun. He meets other people who support the old priest’s efforts; among them, a beautiful woman recently separated from the man who has the most to gain from the demolition and return of the title to the land to the city. Through her and her aristocratic mother, Quart learns more about the history of the church and Seville than he bargained for. He, also becomes emotionally involved with the young woman. The Arch Bishop turns out to be an old enemy of Quart and not only fails to assist him but attempts do him harm.
There is intrigue, blackmail, another dead body, this time a murder, marvelous characters and dialogue, most interesting philosophy and considerable insight into church politics.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Anne Enright/THE GATHERING


A late-thirties Irish housewife learns that her brother has died in England and that she is the one who must go collect his body. The subsequent gathering of the surviving members of her family (which originally had 12 siblings) loosens her understanding of their collective past.

This is a very lyrical, language-focused book (there's not a lot more to the plot than what I described above). It was Enright's voice that kept me really riveted--every feeling she describes she puts her finger on so exactly that I would actually forget that she wasn't cataloging my own experiences (which, of course, she wasn't--I've never been Irish or one of 12 siblings). The Gathering is a very personal reading project.

If other people's opinions matter to you, this was named as the 2007 Man Booker Prize winner, and was an NYT Notable of 2007.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Richard Russo/Nobody's Fool

Sully, the main character, is a sixty-year-old man living in small town America. He goes through one stupid streak after another, but always seems to stay just afloat in life. Sully doesn't dwell on regrets, and only briefly allows himself to consider the smaller things in life which may have gone better if he had made different decisions in life.

Richard Russo pulls you into small town life so completely, you feel like you're living there. There are several supporting characters, including a couple of children, who are equally thought-out and developed. Most of the characters are older, which to me was a nice surprise in reading this book. It's great to break out of the 20-40 year-old range for characters.


I love this story. It was warm and funny and real. I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Jerome Groopman MD/HOW DOCTORS THINK


Jerome Groopman questions the thought process and abilities of those heroes we call doctor in this compilation of interviews, personally experiences and think sessions with other doctors.
They talk about patients with whom they've had success and patients whom they've failed. They discuss what they do right and what they do wrong with the hopes of teaching new doctors to be better critical thinkers, keep patients better informed, and let all of us out there know medicine is an imperfect science and things don't always work out perfectly. You know I got this book for selfish reasons. I'm a new poster here so for those of you who don't know...everyone, I'm married to an MD/PhD student who is in his fifth year of professional schooling. Hopefully we only have two more to go. When I saw this book I knew I had to have it because I wanted a little extra clue on what was going on in the mind of Dr. J (my pet name for my DH). The positives on marrying someone smarter is you are never bored but I have to keep all my wits about me if I want to keep up and so I often find myself using "cheats" to help me along. Twenty pages into the book though I was struck by three things. Firstly, this book was just as much for Dr. J as it was for me. Here was a book with seasoned MDs, brilliant contributors in their fields saying, "Gee after 25 years this is what I wish I would have known or these are the red flags I keep in place for myself to try and prevent mistakes in areas I know I'm weak." This of course meant I spent the majority of the book saying, "Honey listen to this." One of my favorite passages involves the personal experience of Dr. Groopman as he travels through the medical field trying to get a damaged right wrist cared for. Five doctors later he finally has a diagnosis and a "solution" but the journey is fascinating and he explains where he and each professional were correct or incorrect as the case may be. It was very helpful for the aspiring young medical mind, so if you know a doctor or a student in medical school this book would be far more helpful then the "How to be a doctor with heart books" my husbands medical school keeps trying to fork over on him. Secondly I realized this book would have been extremely helpful to have read before I had that whole nasty incident with appendicitis last year. Maybe I would have been able to say to the first ER doctor who originally checked me out, "Yes I realize you think I have a swollen lymph node but since the probability is much stronger I have appendicitis maybe we should do a scan to check that out, especially since my white blood cell count is so high. Just sayings these things happen is not good enough for me. Lets think about what other body parts might be in this part of my body shall we...again like the appendix." It might have saved me that whole getting sent home with a "swollen lymph node" and having my appendix burst leading to an emergency surgery and a lovely drain hanging out of my body for a week. Dr. Groopman gives you helpful hints on how to get your doctor to take you seriously and questions to ask to get your doctor thinking on a more productive path. Thirdly this book really is just an interesting ethnography on decision making and critical thinking. It is only 336 pages of very interesting stories so it feels much more like a lazy afternoon read then a dull textbook which I guess after all was the point. In my opinion VERY READABLE!

Monday, February 4, 2008

Lisa See/PEONY IN LOVE


In the early years of Qing (Manchu) China, the pampered teenage daughter of a wealthy southern family falls prey to that most insidious of ruiners of good women--literature. Peony is obsessed with the opera The Peony Pavilion, in which an emotional young woman falls in love with a scholar in a dream and wastes away from lovesickness. Peony longs to experience a love that intense, and the night before her 16th birthday, she meets her own poet. The saga that ensues is a story about Confucian mores, romantic idealism, the horrific changing of dynasties between the Ming and the Qing, and the implications of poetry, but mostly the book is about women writers and what they have done to be heard.

Cyn reviewed this book here a couple of months ago, and she wasn't crazy about it. I agree with her points about the plot--it was a little weak--but in my mind, Lisa See's project made up for that. The details of the plot are actually cobbled into the true stories of three published female writers--the first, second, and third wives of Wu Wushan--and as See says in her afterword, some of the details of that story seemed so fantastic that she felt silly about incorporating them into the plot. But she did.

The book is a little traditional in that it follows a Chinese opera in structure and much of the plot is fairly predictable and the characters are thin (mostly archetypes, and at times a little frustratingly under-accomplished), but for me this didn't detract too much. The book is short--270 pages--and See has dedicated the core of the story to a project: getting across a message about the history of female writers' publication, all through the lens of history. I think the stylistic choices (I mean, the traditional plot and archetypal characters) were made intentionally and that See is using them as a vehicle to get across the extraordinary true story (or, at least, pieces of it) of the Wushan women writers. There's also a lot to be learned along the way about Chinese religious ritual, holidays, and spiritual precautions (I'm trying not to say "superstitions").

I do think this book is worth reading, and since it's so quick it's no skin off your nose. You won't always like the main character--I hated her most of the way through--you will learn something about an interesting corner of Chinese history.

One of the choices of See's I found most interesting was the way she addressed the patriarchy. There were some hints at irony, but overall the characters--especially the female characters, and even the most enlightened of them--fought (and sometimes died) for the preservation of the system that had kept them so downtrodden. So many of the female characters would end up saying something like "I was ready to die for my husband, which was only proper." There is a lot of very positive language about foot binding--Peony refers to her own bound feet with constant pride as her "golden lilies" and judges other women who don't have bound feet harshly. At one point Peony changes a young girl's life for the infinite better by encouraging her mother to bind her feet. I think it's interesting that See chose a very in-tune historical voice to express these and other opinions about Peony's contemporary society, and that there is general utter credulousness about the more superstitious (although not so much the spiritual) elements of Chinese religious tradition while at the same time making such powerful points about the things women were expected to suffer. I can't decide if Peony's almost two-sided feminism makes the book stronger or weaker for me.

Thanks, cyn, for your review etc ;)

Sunday, February 3, 2008

Anne Carson/AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF RED


A novel in verse--Anne Carson's 150-page interpretation of how the great hero Herakles slew the monster Geryon in order to take Geryon's red cows. Only the whole thing takes place in the late 20th century at some point. And it's all from Geryon's point of view. Geryon spends his childhood wrestling with his identity as a monster. Critics called the book "a love story."

This book is simply extraordinary. I had never heard of it, and then two random people recommended it to me on two consecutive days so I thought that must be some kind of omen. I'm so glad I read it.

Anne Carson is a poet and the book is extremely poetic, but I read it like a novel, so you shouldn't be put off if poetry isn't your thing (it's definitely not mine).

I don't know what else to say about this, since it is so short and so language-focused that I feel like a synopsis would ruin it. But this is just a wonderful, beautiful book.