Friday Favorites: The Awakening

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Awakening
by Kate Chopin

This often over-looked classic, has been making waves for more than a century. It has been called the “proto-feminist precursor to American modernism” and has inspired generations of women.

The story revolves around Edna Pontellier, a woman in her late twenties who is a mother, wife and socialite in New Orleans. After a family vacation to the seaside, Edna’s view of her world and the life she leads drastically changes. She’s no longer content to be viewed as a piece of property and she decides to rebel against the accepted social norms.

The novel is small in size, but large in revolutionary ideas. If it had been written in the last 50 years, it wouldn’t have the same power. It was published in 1899 and it challenged the traditional and widely accepted social standards of that time.

In Edna, Chopin created a character that balked at being defined by her husband and children, when no one else dared to do so. Though I’ve never had children and I’m lucky enough to have a husband who supports my interests, I can still understand how disturbing it would be to see yourself disappearing into the roles you’ve been assigned.

Henrik Ibsen published his play, A Doll House, which deals with a similar situation, in 1879, but I think it’s easier for a man to make those observations. It was much more daring and controversial for a woman to write about such things.

The book is striking both for the issues it deals with and because of the prose is beautiful. It provides a powerful look at our gender and a gives us a chance to reflect on just how far we’ve come.

Silent Night and April 1865

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Silent Night
The Story of the WWI Christmas Truce
by Stanley Weintraub

During World War I, German, French, British and Belgian soldiers found solace in the “enemy” for a brief period. On Christmas Eve in 1914 the men were dug into miserable trenches, up to their ankles in mud and filth. Despite warnings from their superiors and even at the risk of losing their own lives, the soldiers declared a momentary truce and enjoyed the holiday.

They crossed into no man’s land and swapped cigarettes and food. They ever played soccer and buried their dead. This occurred all along the front, with different groups of men deciding to initiate a cease-fire.

Weintaub’s book is wonderfully researched, pulling information from soldiers’ letters, newspaper articles, etc. he recreates the scenes. The details are what really stuck with me, a German soldier giving a British soldier buttons from his uniform, a soldier who was accidently shot in the midst of the peace. The event itself is so unbelievable that’s it’s fascinating to read about, but the author’s writing is a bit dry. To me, it was still worth it, because it shows a gleaming light of humanity in the face of an awful war, but it’s not a page-turner.

April 1865
The Month That Saved America

by Jay Winik

It’s unbelievable how much hangs on the simplest details. An error in a shipping order, an individual’s mood, these things can affect the fate of a nation. In April 1865 we’re given an in-depth look at the final days of the Civil War and the resonating effect they had on the USA.

One of the things that stood out to me was how vital the character of the leaders was. If Grant or Lee or some of the others had wanted the war to continue they could have made very different choices. They men on both sides truly wanted peace in the end and their magnanimous actions prevented further bloodshed.

Before reading this I had a pretty good grasp of both Lincoln and Lee’s personal histories, but I knew very little about Grant’s background. This book expanded my knowledge on all three men and gave me a much better understanding of the parts they all played. It also taught me just how controversial some of their decisions were.

Winik’s voice worked well for me. He balanced the details and the big picture, giving just enough of both. He focused on individual’s motivations, not just outcomes. He delved farther back, into the creation of our nation and Jefferson’s role in that, to set the stage for the Civil War. If you want to learn more about the Civil War and America’s history, this book does a wonderful job.

Wordless Wednesday: Vienna Lion

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A lion statue in Vienna, Austria

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

I’d Know You Anywhere

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

I’d Know You Anywhere
by Laura Lippman

Eliza Benedict lives with her husband and two kids, Iso and Albie, in the suburbs. Her peaceful life is interrupted when she’s contacted by the man who kidnapped her when she was 15-years-old. Walter, who now sits on death row, claims to want forgiveness and Eliza’s life is shaken up as her past refuses to stay buried.

I didn’t love Eliza’s character. She’s too passive, too disconnected from reality in some ways. I did like seeing her reactions change as the book progressed, it was just hard for me to relate to her.

One thing I liked about the book is the thought-provoking line it walks. There are moments when you are left wondering about the actual nature of Eliza and Walter’s relationship, but it doesn’t leave things open-ended. It gives the reader a definite answer and to me that was necessary in this case.

There are two other characters that narrate pieces of the story. One is Barbara LaFortuny, a woman, haunted by her own demons, who thinks Walter is a changed man. The other is Trudy Tackett, the mother of one of Walter’s other victims. I felt like we only had glimpses of the story from their point of view, but they did add another dimension.

I didn’t find this out until I finished the book, but apparently it’s inspired by, or at least very similar to, the real case of Caril Ann Fugate. That certainly added an extra layer of creepiness to the whole book.

On the whole, I really enjoyed this one. It was a fast read that clipped along at a steady pace as it switched back and forth between the present and the past. I wouldn’t call it a thriller, as many reviews have, because it deals more with the psychological impact of the crime than the crime itself, but either way it was interesting, quick read.

Bitter is the New Black

Monday, February 21, 2011

Bitter is the New Black
by Jen Lancaster

I’m in the middle of War & Peace and Jude the Obscure. Both are powerful, beautifully written books, but my mind needed the literary equivalent of some junk food. Hence Bitter is the New Black, which makes no claims to be a classic masterpiece.

Jen Lancaster’s memoir is an unflinching, yet deeply funny, look at herself and her over-the-top life. She is the embodiment of why I avoided sororities like the plague in college. She’s mean to everyone around her, always wants to be the center of attention, spends money like there’s no tomorrow and generally thinks she’s better than everyone on the planet. That being said, she can be hilarious and she understands that she is all of the above. She’s proudly proclaims, throughout the book, that she’s a “huge bitch.”

For the first half of the book I just couldn’t get past Jen’s general attitude towards those around her. Somewhere along the way (after getting laid off) she seems to recognize that humility isn’t a bad word and she becomes tolerable. She absolutely has a strong voice and a really funny way of describing things; I understand how she got a book deal after writing her blog. She’s personable and I felt like I knew both her and her husband Fletch.

Bottom line: Did I like reading Jen’s snarky memoir? Yes. Would I want her as a friend or co-worker? Absolutely not.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
by J.K. Rowling

Harry Potter enters his second year at Hogwarts with a bang… literally. He crashes into a tree while flying a car to school. The second book in the series has never been my favorite, but I was surprised, upon re-reading it, to discover how many small details foreshadow events in future books. They seem unimportant here, but in retrospect Rowling was clearly setting up the final premise early on.

There are also so many important characters that are introduced in this installment. We meet Dobby and see his eternal loyalty unfold from the first chapters. We meet the entire Weasley family (except the eldest brothers) and visit their home, the Burrow, for the first time. They truly become Harry’s family and so this is an important event. We also see Dumbledore’s office for the first time and his role becomes more prominent.

This is also the book where Voldemort becomes more than just a generic baddie. Until now we knew nothing about his past. Learning about his heritage, childhood and “normal” years makes him an interesting adversary, instead of just a villain. I love Harry’s struggle with the similarities between him and his foe. It adds another great layer to the story.

Rowling has an interesting habit of splitting up the core group at the end of many of the books. In the first one, Ron is separated from Hermione and Harry at the chess game. In the second book, Hermione is debilitated before the Chamber of Secrets sequence. In the third book, Ron is again out of commission before the final section. I never really noticed that before, but it’s an interesting trend. Side note: What happened to Neville? He is barely mentioned at all in this book, which is sad.

A few things I'd forgotten about the second book:

1) This is the first time Harry is really disliked or feared by other students. In future books this happens frequently, but this book marks the first time Harry is rejected by many of the people he knows in the wizarding world.

2) I’d forgotten all about Nearly Headless Nick’s deathday party. It provides a chance to meet a few of the house ghosts, which is important in the final books.

3) Fawkes is such a critical character in this book. I’d forgotten how crucial the phoenix’s role is and how important it is that he comes when Harry needs him. It speaks volumes about Harry’s loyalty to Dumbledore at a time when Harry didn’t know him well.

Read for the Harry Potter Challenge hosted here.

Real Simple No-Obligation Book Club

Friday, February 18, 2011

Do any of you participate in the Real Simple’s No-Obligation Book Club? I’m a huge fan of Real Simple (the magazine) and was excited when they began hosting an online book club.

I have been participating for the past couple years (it started in Sept. 2008) and thought I’d spread the word in case there’s someone who hasn’t heard of it.

I love it for a couple reason, number one being the “no-obligation” part. I’m in other book clubs and I love being able to dip into this one without having to stress about it. I always participate if I’ve already read the book. If I haven’t read the chosen book, I read it if I have time or I skip that month’s discussion.

I also love the fact that they frequently get authors to answer questions after everyone is done reading the book. I’ve love getting some behind the scenes info on books, including the most recent pick, One Day.

My final reason is the choice of books. Each month they send out a survey containing four choices for the next month’s club. They can be a brand new book or one that is 100 years old. I appreciate the variety and the fact that they let the members of the club vote to pick it; one month it was “I Capture the Castle” and another “My Life in France.” The current book is Half Broke Horses.

So if you’re having a hard time finding a book club or just want to join another great discussion of some good books, may I recommend Real Simple’s book club.

The Ruby in the Smoke

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Ruby in the Smoke
(A Sally Lockhart Mystery)
by Philip Pullman

Sally is a teenage girl living in Victorian England when her father dies unexpectedly. A mysterious letter leads her to believe he was murdered and she begins to search for the truth.

This mystery has a very Dickensian feel to it. Orphaned girl, villains after her, paths crossing with interesting people from all walks of life; add 300 pages and it might have been mistaken for a female version of Oliver Twist.

Sally herself is pretty fantastic. She smart, logical and has a wonderful mind for business. She also refuses to shy away from danger or to get caught up in the petty deceptions of others. When faced with the prospect of living with an awful, controlling woman or heading out into the unknown, she doesn’t hesitant to walk out the door.

I don’t know if I’ll continue to read the rest of the books in the series. I enjoyed the first one, but it provides closure and I’m not dying to continue. I do wish I’d read the series when I was younger. I probably would have loved them.

Wordless Wednesday: Guggenheim

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Guggenheim in NYC

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

The Dream Keeper

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Dream Keeper and Other Poems
by Langston Hughes

For the record, I’m no poetry expert. When I read collections from poets I’m making an effort to step outside of my comfort zone and challenge myself, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to enjoy them in the same way a connoisseur of the genre would. There are some poems I love, but as a whole, poetry isn’t something I gravitate towards.

That being said, Hughes is undeniably talented. His poems show a deep pride in his African-American roots and it’s easy to understand why his name has become synonymous with the Harlem Renaissance. He gave a voice to the hopes and fears of generations of black Americans who were fighting against segregation.

I’m not the target audience for his work and so I’m sure some of its impact is lost on me. I did love some of the poems, including the title one shown below. Others seemed too simple and slid by me with little effect. I think this collection is a great introduction to his work and I will probably read more from him in the future.

The Dream Keeper

Bring me all of your dreams,
You dreamer,
Bring me all your
Heart melodies
That I may wrap them
In a blue cloud-cloth
Away from the too-rough fingers
Of the world.

King Solomon’s Mines

Monday, February 14, 2011

King Solomon’s Mines
by H. Rider Haggard

Before reading A League of Extraordinary Gentlemen I’d never heard of Allan Quatermain. So I went into this with low expectations and was more than pleasantly surprised at what I found. This adventure story is more about friendship than treasure.

Sir Henry Curtis (Incubu) is searching for his last brother who was last scene on his way to find the illusive King Solomon’s Mines, which are allegedly filled with diamonds. Curtis hires Quatermain (Macumazahn) to travel with him with the stipulation that if Quatermain dies, which he fully expects to, Curtis will provide for his son. Curtis’ friend Captain John Good (Bougwan) will also embark on the quest.

As the three men begin their journey they have no idea what’s in store for them; harsh deserts, elephant hunting, a war between tribes and so much more. Though parts of the story were predictable, they were still entertaining and the plot never lags. The adventure story had real heart, which made it stand apart from more generic versions.

I loved Quatermain’s honesty. There are moments when he says he doesn’t want to fight because it’s senseless, courage be damned. He’s honorable and sincere, a true friend to the end. I absolutely thing he deserves a spot in the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

For another great review of the book check out Shredded Cheddar.

War and Peace Readalong: Vol. 3

Friday, February 11, 2011

This is my third post (here's the first and second) for the War and Peace read-along hosted by A Literary Odyssey.

I hit a wall in Volume 3. This was partially due to a huge ice storm that hit us. When you’re dealing with icy roads and fallen tree branches everything takes longer than expected. So I lost my momentum and struggled a bit with this section. I made it through in the end, but it was rough.

A few interesting bits in this volume:

Petya, the youngest Rostov, decides to head off to war despite his family’s protestations. I felt like this was the first time we got a real glimpse of Petya.

I loved Nikolai’s letter to Sonya (p. 645), but was then shocked to see him considering marrying Marya. After everything he put Sonya through, he finally commits to her and now changes his mind? I couldn’t believe it. It seems like a horrible match and if Nikolai is truly honest with himself I think he would admit that he’s only thinking about it because he’s caving to his parents’ desire and is trying to solve their financial problems by marrying a rich woman.

What was with Pierre and his silly obsession with the numbers? (p. 665) Did any of you figure out what your own names would be using the French number/letter system? I was curious and tried out my name, thankfully not 666.

I liked Tolstoy’s description of Marya and Mlle Bourienne’s outlooks on life. There’s such a stark contrast between the two women and I found it interesting that he made Marya such an unlikeable character.

“Marya was the same timid, plain, aging maiden, uselessly and joylessly living through the best years of her life in fear and eternal moral suffering. Mlle Bourienne was the same coquettish girl, pleased with herself, joyfully making use of every moment of her life, and filled with the most joyful hopes for herself.” (p. 628)

My heart broke for Prince Andrei when he visited Bald Hills, his father’s deserted manor. It was so bleak. His whole story in this volume was not a happy one, but I did love the moment when he sees Anatole losing his leg after the battle. Maybe I shouldn’t have liked that so much, but it made me feel like there was a bit of justice in the story.

I felt like Natasha finally matured a bit and realized how her decisions were affecting those around her. On page 657 there’s a passage that talks about her tears of regret choking her and how laughter acted as a blasphemy against her grief. I don’t think she’ll grieve forever, but I think this has made her grow up a bit, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

So now I’m off to tackle the final 300 pages. I’m really looking forward to seeing how Tolstoy wraps up everyone’s story.

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Dash & Lily's Book of Dares
by Rachel Cohn & David Levithan

Last year I read and really enjoyed “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist” by the same two authors. So when everyone and their brother started reviewing this one around the blogosphere I had to check it out.

Dash is wandering around The Strand (awesome NYC bookstore) when he finds a red notebook filled with instructions. The notebook is written by Lily and though they’ve never met before, they begin corresponding and daring each other to do things.

I loved the story and the rapid-fire dialogue and snarky comments. It’s a fun, quick read and I’m officially a fan of Levithan’s writing.

There’s one particularly funny exchange between Dash and Lily’s aunt about what kind of tea is best. It was moments like those, where Levithan’s wit shines the most. Here’s Dash’s comment about green tea…

“You can’t be serious. Because you know when a cow chews grass? Well, green tea tastes like French-kissing that cow after it’s done chewing all that grass.”

I definitely enjoyed Dash’s sections more than Lily’s, because I think I just connected more with his character. Lily is much more sensitive and fragile, almost childlike in her expectations and ability to control emotion. Dash on the other hand, is cynical and pessimistic.

I did have one complaint, though it may sound petty. In one of Lily’s section (p. 77) she makes a reference to someone who is dressed like Hermione Potter. Obviously she meant to say Hermione Granger, but still it irritated me.

“I preferred to hangout with the dead, dying or desperate books – used we call them, in a way that we’d never call a person, unless we meant it cruelly.”

“I figured being a bed salesman was a job of biblically bad paradox. I mean, here he was forced to stand for 8 or 9 hours a day, and the whole time he’s surrounded by beds.”

“Children frighten me. I mean I appreciate them on a cute aesthetic level, but they’re very demanding and unreasonable creatures and often smell funny.”

Wordless Wednesday: Interlaken

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Interlaken, Switzerland

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

Jamaica Inn

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Jamaica Inn
by Daphne Du Maurier

Mary Yellan, an innocent 23-year-old farm girl is sent to live with her aunt when her mother’s death orphans her. Upon her arrival she learns that her dear aunt has become a terrified, shell of a person. She lives in constant fear of her husband, Joss Merlyn, the vicious landlord of the Jamaica Inn.

Mary soon realizes her uncle is involved in some devious plot, which is putting them all in danger. She’s isolated at the inn, located far out in the lonely Cornwall moors, and she doesn’t know what to do. Joss’ brother Jem walks the thin line between charming scoundrel and devilish tempter. Friendless and alone, Mary wants to trust him, but she isn’t sure if she should.

I didn’t love this one quite as much as Du Maurier’s Rebecca, but it’s still a good gothic mystery. She’s an expert in sustaining suspense and intrigue. I found this one much more predictable, but I don’t know if that’s because it was or if I’m just becoming used to her style. This is my third book from the author and even if it’s not my favorite, it didn’t disappoint.

For a another review, visit The Reading Life.

The Arrival

Monday, February 7, 2011

The Arrival

by Shaun Tan

This was my first experience with a wordless graphic novel. It takes some serious talent to portray a complicated story of one man’s journey to a new world and his struggles there without using a single word, but Tan does it beautifully.

(Illustration from the Graphic novel)

The illustrations are mesmerizing. They walk you through the story of a man leaving his wife and child to immigrant to a foreign futuristic land. Even though the creatures and buildings look like something from a sci-fi film, you can still immediately recognize their equivalent to Ellis Island.

The main character is working to make a new home for his family, just as so many real life immigrants have done. Tan captures feelings of loneliness and hope on each page and the story transcends dialogue. If you’ve never experienced a wordless GN I’d definitely recommend this one.

Do you e-read?

Friday, February 4, 2011

Like so many of you, I received an e-reader for Christmas. For months I had been cataloguing the pros and cons of Nooks, Kindles, Sony readers, etc., all the while completely unconvinced that I wanted one at all. Then my husband unexpectedly bought me a Kindle for Christmas and all those lists went out the window. Of course I was excited and started playing with it immediately.

I named my Kindle Argus, after Odysseus’ faithful dog in The Odyssey. I’ve tentatively downloaded some books and read user reviews of different versions, but I have yet to dive in and read a book cover-to-cover. I think it’s amazing that I can hold the complete works on Shakespeare in my hand, but I’m having a hard time picking up the Kindle over all my lovely printed books. I know it will never replace those for me, but I would like to be able to take my Kindle on trips and feel comfortable reading it.

So here’s my question. What book would you recommend I read first? I want something that I can’t put down, so I’m forced to read the whole thing electronically. I would also like a recommendation this isn’t filled with beautiful writing I want to linger over and highlight. I think I’d prefer print copies for that. I want something fast-paced, thrilling or hilarious that will suck me in and make me accept Argus as a viable reading option. It doesn't have to be a book you read on an e-read, just one that was an addictive read.

Photos by moi.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
by J.K Rowling

An 11-year-old orphan lives with his horrible aunt and uncle in England. He finds out that not only does a whole secret wizarding world exist around him, but he is a wizard too! From there we follow Harry off to school at Hogwarts as he takes classes, makes friends and eventually must face off with a villain.

The first book in the Harry Potter series starts off a bit slow, but once Hagrid bursts through the door on Harry's birthday the plot is full steam ahead. Every time I read this book (along with the rest of the series) I am completely swept away by Harry's world. Of course the book isn't perfect and many have criticized the writing style and plot points, but when a story is so engrossing that it makes me forget about everything else, I tend to be very forgiving about the small things.

One of the best things about the book is how real the characters feel. Harry's wonderful friends, Hermione, Ron and Hagrid are all flawed. Ron has no self-confidence and wants to surpass his brother's successes, but doubts he can. Hagrid has a blind spot when it comes to creatures of all kind, even though they might be dangerous. Hermione is a know-it-all and a goody-two-shoes. Yet we love all of them and they work together to bring out the best in each other. As Hermione pushes Ron and Harry to work harder, they help her to loosen up a bit.

The first book is not the best, but it is something special. It's the gateway to a world that has captivated millions in the last decade and will continue to do so in the future.

A few things I'd forgotten about the first book:

1) Dumbledore is in very few sections of the book. His only real interaction with Harry is during the final Mirror of Erised scene and in the hospital at the end. Yet even in this book he is a remarkable character with a perfect blend of odd humor and wisdom.

2) The awe you feel as you see the wizarding world (Diagon Alley, Hogwarts, etc.) through Harry's eyes for the first time. It's easy to forget how foreign it all was to him in the beginning.

3) How big a part of the book Neville Longbottom is. He's a blundering boy, always forgetting things and making mistakes, but he is so brave and loyal. I'd forgotten he played such a big part in this first book.

Read for the Harry Potter Challenge hosted here.

Wordless Wednesday: Ice Storm

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Indianapolis is currently frosted
with a couple of inches of ice.
That translates into dangerous roads,
power outages and board games by candlelight.
Keep warm and stay safe.

More Wordless Wednesday here.

Photo by moi.

David Copperfield

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

David Copperfield

by Charles Dickens

“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”

What a great first line! So don’t judge me, I was under the impression that this particular Dickens novel was about a missionary in Africa. I had avoided it for years because Dickens talking about missionary work sounded incredibly dull to me. That was David LIVINGSTONE, not Copperfield and he was a real missionary, not a character.

Anyway, misconceptions aside, this novel is a great example of what Dickens does best. He writes about a young man, orphaned and surrounded by dozens of colorful characters as he tries to make his way in the world. My favorite part of this particular Dickens’ tapestry is the varied people he brings into his protagonists’ life. They’re never boring and tend to have fantastic names.

There’s the eccentric aunt, Betsey Trotwood, who is convinced Copperfield’s mother is going to have a girl. Then David is born and she’s so disappointed she leaves the house immediately and never talks to her again. There’s Mr. and Mrs. Macawber, a curious pair who are devoted to each other, despite the mister’s tendency to get them into debt.

Copperfield’s step-father, Mr. Murdstone and his sister are an obviously sinister pair, while Steerforth, David’s schoolmate, just makes you a bit uneasy at first. Peggotty is David’s servant and dear friend and her courtship is hilarious.

Without giving anything away, I would add that I didn’t love the character of Dora. You meet her about half way through the book and she’s the equivalent of a dizzy blonde. No offense to blondes out there, but you know what I mean. I just found her incredibly annoying. On the flip side we have Agnes, Copperfield’s close friend. She’s clever and kind and I loved her.

This book feels a bit light-hearted at first, but it takes a darker turn as the characters are forced to deal with some horrible things. Apparently Leo Tolstoy once said that chapter 55, The Tempest, “is the standard by which the world's great fiction should be judged,” high praise from Mr. War and Peace himself.

There are also some wonderfully funny parts in the books, with lines like…

“He was always doing something or another to annoy me, or I felt as if he were, which is the same thing.”

One section gives a detailed account of David Copperfield getting wasted with his friends. It’s not something you ever think you’ll stumble upon while reading classic literature and because of that it’s even more delightful when you do.

After a few rocky years, I think I can officially say I’m a big fan of Dickens’ work. I haven’t loved everything he’s written, but the deeper I go into his lesser known works, the more I enjoy them. I think the key, for me at least, is to pace myself. His books are too similar to each other to read in a binge. If I read only one a year instead, I find myself eagerly anticipating the next one.

Well done Dickens and thanks for not writing about missionaries.