Thursday, July 28, 2011

Trekking Across America

Something that I love to read about but rarely think about is America.  Not the country with all of its politics and people and troubled history, but the landscape, with its mountains and prairies and rivers.  The land itself is a great setting for books, and can even be a character.  I've always been drawn to novels and memoirs in which people travel America on foot, whether as outlaws or explorers or lonely people who aren't sure what else to do.  There was a period of time a few years ago when I was living with my sister and her husband and reading their books, which tend to be nature-based, and again and again I found myself traveling America at the side of some lonely American.

I accompanied Christopher McCandleless on his solitary path to death in the Alaskan wilderness, laughed with Bill Bryson as he hiked the Appalachian Trail with an overweight recovering alcoholic, and attempted to cross the country on foot with Peter Jenkins*.  Mostly, I was jealous of these men, even lonely Chris McCandleless, who seized the opportunities to experience their homeland.  Can we really call these busy cities and planned suburban spaces a homeland, when there are vast stretches of beauty and wilderness just beyond?

I am thinking of this now because, as anybody who follows my Twitter (or who has noticed the sidebar of my blog) knows, I have recently started reading Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier.  It is a beautiful novel in which two stories intersect: one of an AWOL Confederate soldier trekking west towards his home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, and the other of the woman he loves as she tries to survive following her father's death.  Not only do I have his experiences of interacting with the land he's crossing, but also the experience of farm life, another setting I have always loved (especially as a child with The Rocky Ridge series, which followed Laura Ingalls Wilder's daughter, Rose).  In Cold Mountain, especially for the male protagonist, the land is actually an antagonist, a dreary thing that he must contend with.  It is vivid though, and as alive as he is, and has me dreaming yet again of long hikes, interacting with my homeland, rustic cabins in the woods.  It is a beautiful thing, this land of mine.

*For anybody interested, the three books I referenced were Into the Wild by John Karakauer, A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and A Walk Across America by Peter Jenkins.  They are all non-fiction and all wonderful.  If anybody has any recommendation for any novels or memoirs following a similar vein, I would love to have them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Top Ten Texts Tackling Tough Topics

Bwahahaha, alliteration.  That's right, it's my first Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) in quite a while (though I still have a draft for last week's in my blog folder).  Does this mean I'm going to start posting regularly again?  I certainly hope so.  So here goes my top ten tough texts, in no particular order.

1. The Cider House Rules by John Irving: Irving tackles abortion in this tome and does an amazing job of it.  He's not preachy (though one of his characters can be), though he is a bit graphic.  In the end, he manages to sway opinions (like mine), which is amazing for a work of literature that doesn't put an agenda at it's forefront (though maybe it's the more effective for that reason).
2. Speak by Laurie Anderson: I haven't read this since high school, but I remember thinking that it was amazing (and then being astonished when I enter the book-blogging world and discovering that not only had others read it, but many had banned it as well).  This speaks not just to issues of date-rape, but loneliness as well.  For that kid that just can't fit in, Speak is a voice of hope and a reminder that you are not alone.
3. The Color Purple by Alice Walker: Celie manages to not just rise above rape and incest, of which she was a victim at a very young age, but race and sex as well, finding her own economic and sexual independence.  Heart-breaking and hopeful, all rolled into one slightly messy (in a good way) package.
4. Room by Emma Donoghue: Though at it's forefront Room is about a woman, who was kidnapped and held for sex as a college student, and the son she got from that experience, it's really about a mother and her child.  Donoghue brings beauty to the ugliest of experiences.
5. Still Alice by Alice Genova: This is an extraordinary look at Alzheimer's disease, told through the lens of a middle-aged woman who has been diagnosed with an early-onset form of the disease.  Though this is not the most amazing piece of literature I've ever experience, in terms of emotional effect it is incredible.  I highly recommend this for anybody who is suffering with or has lost anybody to that terrible disease.

So five is all I can come up with at the moment.  What books do you find to tackle difficult subjects well?

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Water for Elephants

When somebody from my book club suggested that we read Water for Elephants as our second book, I immediately climbed onboard.  It's one of those books I've been meaning to read for a while, and coming on the back of The Night Circus made me even more excited for it.  Circuses are fun!  Right?  Well no, not really.  Most circuses involve copious amounts of horrifying animal abuse, which is even more readily apparent to customers than the meat industry's levels of abuse, and therefore makes their ignorance of it all the more horrifying... what?  I'm supposed to be talking about a novel here?  Oh, that's right.  Oops.

So the fact that The Night Circus and Water for Elephants have similar settings is about all they have in common.  Water for Elephants describes a realistic circus, set in Prohibition America (i.e. not supported by magic but the illegal booze is a-flowing).  It alternates between a present-day(ish) narration of Jacob, ninety or ninety-three years old (he can't remember), as a crotchety old man, semi-neglected by his family, as he goes through his dull, sleepy days in a nursing home; and his memories of his times in the Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show On Earth as a young man who had just walked out on his last exams to become a veterinarian due to his understandable sorrow at the sudden loss of his parents.  The whole thing is extraordinarily well-researched (at least the bits that I checked up on were).

So here's the thing.  Unsurprisingly, Water for Elephants's circus is nothing like that of The Night Circus.  The grunt work of the Benzini Brothers Circus is done by poor black men, whereas the work of Le Cirque des Rêves is done by, well, magic.  The Benzini Brothers is run by jerks worried about the bottom line and everlasting fame, whereas Cirque is run by artists intent on creating.  Benzini fired people by redlighting them (i.e. throwing them off the train at night within sight of the red light marking that a town is nearby), whereas death and choice are the only things that separate worker and Cirque.  And oh yeah - Benzini's animals sometimes are hungry or thirsty or extremely overheated, or have the shit beaten out of them, whereas the few animals in Cirque are treated with only love and care (okay, to be fair we don't know this for sure but yeah, we know it).  What I mean to say is that Benzini Brothers is a real circus, whereas Le Cirque des Rêves is only the fantasy of one, and I know which one I prefer.

Preferring a circus is not the same as preferring a novel, except that in this case it is.  Putting my issue with animal abuse and lack of magic aside, Water for Elephants was still disappointing.  First off, both parts of the narrative were narrated in the present tense.  What?!  Present tense in novels is rare, though can be enjoyable, but here it was just strange.  I guess that Jacob is supposed to be dreaming of those times like he's living them, rather than remembering them, but it's just awkward.  And the transitions between the two were painfully obvious, to the point of losing my interest because I know what's coming.  In general, the novel made me too aware that I was reading, especially for my first time through.  Instead of losing myself in a world, I was noticing plot devices.  And when it seems like a character exists or a scene occurs for the sole purpose of furthering a plot line or demonstrating some metaphor, I don't really feel like reading.  The dissection and analysis should come on reflection and analysis, not a first read.

Oh, and the characters.  Jacob, the protagonist, is an ideal.  He will speak in defense of anybody, always has good intentions, and only gets angry in defense of some "lesser" creature (blacks, women, animals, et. al).  Very nice features in a person, but not so interesting in a character.  This is apparently balanced by his cantankerousness as an old guy, but all that does is make his character seem inconsistent.  So he is Good, and so is his lady love, Marlena, and they are obviously contrasted by Uncle Al, the circus's owner, and Augustus, Marlena's husband and the animal trainer, who are Bad.  These guys are out for money and fame and who the hell cares who gets trampled by their horsies?  Not them, because they are Mean Dudes.  I've heard that they're merged into one character in the movie, which sounds like an excellent decision to me because they lack individuality and are cast from the same mold.  The only interesting character is Rosie, the elephants, who has elements of sweetness and vengefulness and performs acts whose ratio of Good:Bad is actually questionable.  Plus, she's silly and drinks all the lemonade.

But it's all okay, because the novel ends and everybody gets theirs - the Good People get Good Things and the Bad People get Bad Things and isn't it just lovely?  Dull is really the word I'd use but that's okay.  I'll just listen to The Night Circus when it comes out on audiobook and forget that the ugliness ever happened.  Sorry, Ms. Gruen.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part Two

Going to the midnight showing of Harry Potter meant going to bed at three-thirty a.m. on Friday morning, which did not, in turn, mean that I actually slept in, which meant a 4+ hour nap Friday night, which means me writing a review of the movie at three o'clock in the morning.  Awesome.

You can read my review of Part One here.  If you don't know how the story ends or you don't want to read much detail, you probably don't want to read on.  For the rest of you - tally-ho!

The movie did not start off well.  The whole bank robbery was far too rushed and made me a little nervous for what was to come.  Hermione as Bellatrix (or, in movie world, Bellatrix as Hermione) was good though.  Helena Bonham Carter did a good job of capturing Hermione's slight but noticeable hunch.  Speaking of Bellatrix, though, they for some reason decided to suddenly pronounce her name differently in this movie.  All along (if I remember correctly) they've been giving a French pronunciation to the 'a' in Lestrange (like 'ah'), but all of a sudden they're giving it a harder, American pronunciation.  For none readers/those who don't know 'le' is French for the/people who just didn't notice, Bellatrix's last name is, aptly, "The Strange."  With the new pronunciation, that is no longer remotely subtle, which was both jarring and disappointing.

The movie devotes more time to the battle at Hogwarts, which they did a much better job of.  There are some changes designed mostly to make you say "RAH!" that I could have done without (like an impassioned speech Harry delivers to Snape) but also some useful additions (like the image of Hogwarts students marching in formation).  Matthew Lewis's acting was really great - Neville Longbottom's progression from the tiny, helpless first year we saw in the first movie, to the awkward hunched boy of the middle movies, to the strong, independent man of this final installment was really quite wonderful.  Neville no longer lays down and takes it, and the way Lewis bore himself demonstrated this just as much as the lines he delivered.
There was a change to the very end of the film which I really liked but my friends disagreed on (and I suspect others would as well).  Instead of the grand (and very long) conversation that Harry and Voldemort have in their final showdown, while surrounded by the entire British wizarding community, which brings everybody a fair bit of closure at the cost of realism, in the film they move together and apart and chase and escape and interlock and break apart, moving in and out of the people.  The final fights is theirs, not everybody's (though Hermione, Ron, and Neville play their part in interspersed scenes of them having a long and awkward snake chase).  Harry may fight for them all but they cannot all fight, and keeping those final moments between him and Voldemort is a better choice in my opinion.  The party at dawn that Rowling penned is all transformed, becoming a scene of exhaustion and bodies and relief which, again, is maybe less satisfying but certainly more believable.

Like Bellatrix's name, many other subtleties were abandoned in this adaptation.  One example was the scene I so loved from the book, when the dying Snape begs Harry to look at him, is made too obvious by an additional line: "You have your mother's eyes."  Sure, this reveals a layer of meaning that was probably lost on many, but that's what I loved about it: the subtlety, the need to understand that moment in light of what comes next, and the years of Harry being told that very thing that came before.  It's still a good moment for other reasons even if that meaning is not revealed.  Losing the subtlety also sacrificed the magic.

Can David Yates do a montage, or what?  One of the reasons that I actually dislike Order of the Phoenix was his overuse of the montage (they're extremely well done, in my opinion, there are just far too many) but Snape's memories were just wonderful.  They weren't ordered and separated as neatly as in the book - rather, they were layered and out of order and bits were repeated and meaning was found in the overlapping, more in the nature of true memory.  Harry and the audience gets the essence without the perfectly detailed video-quality of the book.  It was a great way for the film to capitalize on its medium - this structure would have been far too difficult, maybe even impossible to convey on the page, but really finds its power on the screen.

One of the things that strikes me most about the book is the total destruction and how dark magic can be, and the films manages to fully capture this.  There is one glorious scene, when Harry et al. break out of the castle onto the grounds in search of Voldemort and Snape.  We see them running and there keeps popping up some evil aspect of the wizarding world that we have so grown to love.  Gone is the good cheer and fun spells and general joy of magic.  Instead we get blasted with images of what there have only been snippets of before, one evil violent thing upon another: giant spiders and werewolves and giants and grown men and women attacking a school filled with children.  The darkness comes from every angle, and blasts everything apart.  The castle, hundreds or even thousands of years old, crumbles.  Relics of the headmasters are violated by darkness and then ripped apart.  The past is destroyed in hopes of a better future.  The utter destruction, both in film and book, is a testament to how dark magic can be.

I'm still not one-hundred percent sure how I feel about it, but overall I guess it's positive.  I'd have to see it again to be sure though - when does the DVD come out? :] I'd love to hear what you all think - tell me!

Thursday, July 14, 2011

The End is Nigh (with recipe!)

With the eighth and final film installment of the Harry Potter series coming in just a few short hours (although there are still enough hours between now and then that I really should be asleep right now), I feel as though a few words are necessary.  Harry has been with me for half my life, has seen me through my tumultuous and lonely middle school years, my not-quite-fitting-in (but not lacking in confidence) high school years, two undergraduate schools, marriage, and many jogs that I would have quit sooner if it wasn't for the inventions of the audiobook and the mp3.  Suffice it to say that he has grown with me, and I with him.

When the book series ended, I was hysterical.  Partially due to the sadness of some of the content, yes, but partially due to the sadness of ending as well.  At that point, I was just finishing a gap year and transferring to a new school; it was a time of transition and, silly as it may seem, my beloved series ending made it all the harder for me.  Unlike many others' and even unlike my own treatment of earlier installments, I didn't race through that book.  Despite my mother's incessant phone calls - Are you done yet?  Hurry up! - I made my way slowly through the marshes and the countryside and the terror and the elation, alongside my three friends, putting off the final moment that I, like them, anticipated and dreaded.  The moment when I would have to move on couldn't come too slowly.  Come it did, and I was weepy for days (embarrassingly enough).  A (not very) little piece of my adolescence was making it's final trip to the shelf (though it still comes back for visits!).

I was going to analyze what I love so much about Harry Potter, but I think I'll skip that.  There are times to be cerebral and critical and analytical, and there are times to just enjoy.  Sixteen hours before the release of the final film adaptation of a series that has been with me for so long is a time to just enjoy.  That, and bake pumpkin pasties.

I hope everybody who cares enjoys the movie, whether you see it tonight or next week or not until it comes out on DVD.  How has Harry impacted your life?

I used chocolate mousse for the one on the left,
which was a good idea.
Pumpkin Pasties (adapted from here)

You need:
1 batch of pumpkin pie filling (whatever recipe you like)
2 unbaked pie crusts (store-bought or homemade - I used this recipe)

You do:
-Bake pie filling in a greased casserole dish at 350f for 40-50 minutes, until a fork comes out clean.  Let cool.
-Roll out your pie crusts and cut into four-inch rounds.  DO NOT REFRIGERATE OVERNIGHT.  -This greatly increases the risk of crackage (as I just, and unfortunately, learned - that picture is of the first and best two I made).
-Deposit about 2 tsp of filling on one side of the circle and fold over into a half moon.  Use a fork to crimp edge of dough.  Again, too long of crimps increases rick of crackage, so just do as much as you have to to seal it.
-Now, if your pasties haven't already sprouted cracks of their own accord, use a sharp knife to make three slits in the top of each.  Bake on an ungreased cookie sheet (I used a Silpat) in a 400f oven for about 20 minutes or just until browned.
-Let cool.
-Slip into plastic bags.
-Sneak into theatre.
-Munch and enjoy.
-Okay, those last three instructions are optional, but highly recommended.  Enjoy!

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Quite Possibly the Least Kind Review I've Ever Written

Because Stieg Larsson happens to be dead, I am going to kick this thing off right and tell you exactly what I think of his book: it is, quite possibly, the worst book that I have ever read.  So bad that I'm having a hard time being critical, but I'll give it a shot.

This is a dangerous proclamation, considering how many people absolutely adore this book, but I stand by it.  It's not a book I ever had more than a passing interest in (which was entirely based on the title*) and I only read it because my new book club I joined chose it as our first title.  It had two redeeming qualities: it was quick to get through despite it's imposing length and it did make me want to know whodunnit.  Sadly, the bad points greatly outweigh the good, and all in all I found it a great waste of my time.

Let's start with the awkward prose.  Granted, to a point this could be blamed on the translation (it was originally written in Swedish); however, that excuse only gets us so far.  There seems to be no narrative issue that this novel doesn't have.  It is rife with extraneous detail (Blomkvist** went for a walk.  Then he returned to the cabin.  Then he had a coffee.  Then, at around three a.m., he went to bed), which made me scream "I don't care, give me my life back" over and over during potentially interesting scenes.  There are awkward expositions/introductions aplenty (Blomkvist saw his friend, Bob.  Bob, a high financeer, had gone to school with Blomkvist and though their relationship had once been...[three pages later - see #1]...Blomkvist said, 'Hi!"), which provided both choppiness and a similar reaction to #1. Finally, and perhaps most notably, there were the strange and immediate analyses (Sally was brutally raped.  Afterwards, she went home and googled men who rape women.  Apparently, they liked to rape her because they saw her as a victim.  That told her a lot about herself***).  Thanks for saving me the trouble of figuring that out Mr. Larsson.  I love not having to think when I'm reading.  There were also plenty of cliches and hackneyed phrasings, though those are most likely the fault of the translator.

Then there's the mystery.  Yes, I wanted to know what had really happened, but like with any good mystery, I wanted the opportunity to figure it out for myself.  Nearly all of the clues were in the form of photographs, which were neither described nor displayed, thus limiting my possible involvement and royally pissing me off when each new piece of evidence was discovered.  The one clue that was possible to solve on my own (a list of Bible references disguised as phone numbers, all conveniently beginning with a local Swedish area code) would have gotten me little more than a pat on my back and zero answers.

So those are the two biggies.  Other issues I had with the text included how neatly every story line was wrapped up (leaving me to wonder why anybody would ever read the rest of the trilogy), how one of the apparently major story lines ended completely halfway through the novel (so I guess he's not going to rape her anymore?), and how freaking unoriginal Salander (AKA the girl with the dragon tattoo, AKA "Sally") was.  Dresses like a goth and emotionally disturbed - well that's new, not stereotypical at all.

PLEASE argue with me, because I'd really love to understand what people love about this book.  It is unappealing to me both on the literary and the mystery genre level - I don't understand what's left, so I want you to tell me.

*As for the vaguely intriguing title - apparently that wasn't the original Swedish title.  Larsson named his novel Men Who Hate Women, which is much more apt (in my opinion) and much less misleading.  However, I think Americans (who tend to hate women) would probably be much less likely to pick that book up and technically the American title gives an accurate description.
**Yes, this name did make me think of a blumpkin.  If you don't know what that is, look it up.  I will not be sharing anything quite so disgusting on my book blog.
***All of these examples are my rough paraphrases of what I read over a week ago, but trust me - they're spot on.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Why Not to Do Book Challenges

So we're halfway through the year and that means that I'm halfway through the three challenges I set for myself all those months ago and about which I was super (dorkily) excited.  This is what I have to say about that - reading challenges are not for me.

If you don't feel like clicking the link, here's a brief summary:
1) I've read four out of the twelve books I obligated myself to for the TBR challenge.
2) I've read two of ten Victorian novels I promised to (and have been working on number three for months).
3) I've read three of eight Classic novels I agreed to.

So here's the thing - I went to college.  I majored in English.  I read what I was told to when I was told to and I ignored what I felt like reading.  I don't want to do that anymore.  I'm not pursuing a higher literature degree, I'm not going into publishing, and I'm not planning to teach.  Somebody at one of my jobs recently started a book club, and that occasional obligatory book is plenty for me.  Other than that, I want to read what I want, when I want.

The Classics Challenge is nice because I'm roped into very little.  It forces me to have variety in my reading, without restricting me to a certain time period or specific list of titles that I arbitrarily chose six months ago (seriously - there's a reason those books have been on my TBR pile for so long!).  For people who like structure, those kinds of challenges are probably good.  For those of us who want to read spontaneously, they are awful.  I find myself wanting to read something but then feeling like I shouldn't because I have so much on my list, then feeling guilty because I'm falling behind on my challenges, and that's just ridiculous.  I already read "literature" without being forced to, and I do it because I want to and I like it.  I don't need some challenges to make me do that.  Likewise, I want to reread Harry Potter without having to feel guilty about it.

Of course, I don't want to give up on anything either, so I think I'll just scale back on the Victorian challenge (to the Sense and Sensibility level, meaning four books) and hope for the best on the TBR challenge.  And in the future?  I will stick to those challenge that encourage variety without limiting choices.  Because first and foremost, I read because I like to and I don't want to lose that.

How about you?  Are your challenges going well or are you similarly frustrated?  Or maybe you don't do them at all because of these reasons?