Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: Mean Girls

Mean Girls in Books is the subject of this week's Top Ten Tuesday, hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.  Many people have revised this title to specify girls they'd like to bitch-slap and though I'm tempted to do the same, I don't actually want to slap everybody on my list and I really hate the term "bitch-slap."  "Bitch" I'm okay with though, as you shall soon see.

1) Pansy Parkinson from Harry Potter: The fact that she's a Malfoy-loving Slytherin should be enough to explain this choice.  Add in the fact that she mocks Hermione's appearance and tries to give Harry to Voldemort, and you have one mean girl.
2) Caroline Bingley from Pride and Prejudice: Snotty and obnoxious, this girl is plain old mean.
3) Ruth from Never Let Me Go: To be fair, I think that Ruth behaved the way that she did because she was excessively insecure, but that doesn't negate the fact that she was incredibly mean to her so-called best friend and boyfriend, never mind how she ruined both their romantic lives for all of time.  Bitch.
4) Most women in Anna Karenina: Most of the non-major women in this book were cruel to Anna and left her to wallow in sadness until her tragic end.  Not that I liked her much either, but at least she wasn't quite so cold-hearted.
5) The governess from The Turn of the Screw: I'm pretty sure she killed the little boy she was supposed to be caring for.  Not cool, lady.
6) Aunt Reed from Jane Eyre: Instead of being a mother to Jane, she locked Jane in the red room, where Jane passed out from fear.  Then she sent Jane away, telling her future teachers that Jane was horrible.  Then she told Jane's long-lost uncles, who wanted to give her a veritable fortune upon her, that Jane was dead.  Then she made Jane visit her death-bed to tell her that she never loved her.  Um, yeah.  Need I say more?
7) Catherine Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights: Cathy is mean to everybody, including herself.  This results in mental and emotional breakdowns and Cathy's own unhappiness.  Unlike everybody else on this list, I probably wouldn't slap her because she seems to me to be a victim of her society - unable to be with the man she loves because of her social status.  Though she's really mean, mostly I just feel sorry for her.
8) The older daughter from Still Alice: All I'm going to say about her is that upon hearing that her mother had a degenerative, terminal, genetic disease was, (to paraphrase [though not heavily]), "So you're telling me I'm going to become a zombie?"

Okay, I'm out of Mean Girls to talk about.  Eight's pretty good though, no?

Monday, April 25, 2011

Never Let Me Go - Kazuo Ishiguro

It's difficult to even know where to start.  There's a lot I want to say, but most of it would be considered spoilers.  As for plot, there's little I can say that's not on the back of the book or in the first few lines of the novel.  Never Let Me Go is narrated by Kathy H., a thirty-one year old carer, and it recounts her youth at Hailsham, a school, and the Cottages, the place she goes to after the school.  The novel is very much about Kathy's relationship with Tommy and Ruth over the years they spend in those places, and the short time they have together when reunited as adults.  It also has a very important speculative element which slowly unveils itself over the course of the novel.

What's odd about this novel for me is how compulsively I read it despite how little I liked the narration.  Kathy is a very awkward story-teller.  She never once lets you forget that she is speaking, often saying things like "And that's why I told you that," "I'm going to talk about this now," "That's why I think that I did that think that I was just talking about," and other such transitions and reflections that interrupt the flow of the thing.  Yet I couldn't put it down, sometimes reading for hours at a time.  I was constantly thinking about it, wishing I could read it.  It made me feel some excitement and tension that actually had my heart racing, though there are never any moments of intense or sudden fear or excitement.  The novel is as calm as can be.

Before I started to read Never Let Me Go, I read some reviews that said that the first two-thirds were very slow (true), but that the end proved it to be a masterpiece.  I'm not sure what is meant by masterpiece and I don't know if I would classify it as such, but it did resonate with me.  I am disturbed by it and will not easily let it go.  But a masterpiece?

It went to a place that I did not expect it to go, though in reflection, that knowledge was building within me throughout, just as it slowly built in Kathy herself.  I saw possibilities that proved themselves, fears that came true, a worrisome anxiety about discussing what would be, just as Kathy did.  Somehow, this awkward narrative built within me to the exploding point, when I was left breathless with the horrors that were so calmly delivered.

This could be our world.  I supposed, then, that Never Let Me Go is a dystopia, though it did not read as such.  It's calmness hid that awareness from me until this moment.  I can still feel it building within me, as though it will not resolve itself for days or years.  Maybe not ever, considering the realities it suggests.

Maybe it is a masterpiece.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Reading in my Sleep

Do you ever read in your sleep?  Sometimes, when I've been reading before bed and the story is firmly in the forefront of my mind, I find myself reading in my dreams.  When I wake, I find myself searching through my sheets for my book, convinced that it just slipped out of my hands after having read it for hours and hours.  I realize, worryingly, that I've forgotten what just happened, though the words had been playing in my head all night.  I usually forget about it by the next time I pick up the book and remember my place in it.

Last night was different.  I was near the end of Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro when I went to sleep.  Again, I read for hours in my dreams, but this time I remembered what I had read when I awoke, or at least some of it.  In my dream, I read that Madame had a necklace of a silver pendant with an elephant stamped on it.  When asked about it, she demanded to know why it was important who drew the elephant and does the questioner want to know also who stamped the silver.  When I awoke, I knew whose elephant it was and could not forget that moment even as I picked up the book to read on.  And oddly, it fits.  Ishiguro didn't write this detail into the story, but it makes sense for me.  Madame may have dreamed of the elephant herself, but its significance is just as real as though the pendant actually hung around her neck.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Eyre Affair ~ Jasper Fforde

Before I get started, I have an announcement to make: Tuesday's post was my hundredth!  I'm not sure why numbers like 100 get us so excited but they do and I am.  So much so that I missed it.  Oops!  I had been thinking about having my first ever giveaway in celebration but never really decided and then I forgot so it didn't happen.  Never fear though!  Soy Chai Bookshelf's first birthday is in less than a month and that seems like just as good a reason to celebrate, doesn't it?

The British cover is much better than
the American version.  I love this
scooter-riding Dodo bird.
On to the book.  The Eyre Affair was a rather spontaneous purchase for me, but come on: a world where it's possible to kidnap Jane Eyre right out of the pages of the novel?  It's like Disney World for bibliophiles.  In fact, the Prose Portal would make an excellent addition to any theme park.

A brief summary would not be amiss here: The year is 1985 and the place is England... kind of.  This is a version of England with all the same places - London, Swindon, the Forest of Dean - but things are a bit different.  Holes in time hold up traffic, Jehovah's Witness-style promoters go door-to-door trying to convince people that the true author of Shakespeare's plays was Francis Bacon,  Ohio is a strange and wonderful place, and literature and art are national pastimes.  There are similarities as well, most notably the Corporation, Goliath, which controls everything from the local police department to the war. Okay, so maybe that's more commentary than anything.  I'm not too concerned with the distinction.

At the center of this literature-loving, corporate-controlled world is Thursday Next, a war hero (who now renounces the cause), LiteraTec agent (who's getting a little restless), and emotionally damaged woman (who wants her man back).  She gets drawn into a hunt for Acheron Hades, criminal mastermind and Thursday's former professor, who is guilty of stealing the original manuscript of Dickens' novel Martin Chuzzlewit and using the Prose Portal (which uses actual Bookworms to transport people into the pages of books) that Thursday's uncle invented to steal and kill a minor character from the novel, Mr. Quaverly, before threatening to do the same to Jane Eyre herself.

The novel is at times silly, brilliant, pun-erific, and completely cheesy.  It was more of a detective novel than I imagined (I knew about the crime, but I figured it would be an interested citizen, i.e. Harry Potter, who would set things to right, not a dedicated government organization dealing with literary crimes) which was a bit disappointing, but I got over it.  The only thing that really bothered me was the fact that Thursday spent all her time off whining about the one she let get away and this other one who got away but in a very different way and how she's never going to get some.  The romantic angle really does not belong in this book and culminates in quite possibly the cheesiest chapter known to man, which brings me to another point: the loose threads are tied up annoying well at the end.  Every single thing works out in the end, which is not the way of life, and certainly not the way of series (oh yeah, The Eyre Affair is the first in a series).

Despite these few complaints, I really did enjoy the book.  It made me feel both silly and smart, and was a nice break from all the heavy reading I've been doing.  I laughed out loud on numerous occasions, thanks to literary puns and characters like Jack Schitt and Paige Turner, which is always a plus.  I will definitely be reading the next book in the series, Lost in a Good Book, though not immediately.

My only caveat is that this book will probably be less entertaining if you haven't read the books it mentions, particularly the ones that take center stage.  For example, I've never read Martin Chuzzlewit, so I have no idea if Mr. Quaverly actually appears in its pages.  I'm sure this question could easily be cleared up by a quick internet search, but that's not really the point.  I would definitely recommend waiting until after you've read the entirety of Jane Eyre to read this, if you have not done so yet.  I myself probably won't touch Lost in a Good Book until I've read Great Expectations, as it seems to be featured in Thursday's next adventure.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday REWIND

This week over at The Broke and the Bookish is a Top Ten Tuesday Rewind, meaning that you can mosey on over to their list of past Top Ten Tuesdays and choose any one you want to make a list about.  My initial instinct was Top Ten Words, which was a topic before I got on this whole Top Ten Tuesday bandwagon, but since I couldn't come up with anything other than bombastic, malapropism, and floccinaucinihilipilification*, I decided that maybe I should choose a more lucrative topic in the effort to actually hit ten.  Therefore, I bring you Top Ten Most Dislikable Characters!

1. Bella from Twilight: Obnoxious, stupid, and a terrible example for females everywhere.  Need I say more?
2. Dolores Umbridge from Harry Potter: Cruel and unredeemable, she works within the system to somehow get away with heinous acts of speciesism and classism.  Even the adorable kitties pictured on her office walls can't make up for this woman's evilness.
3. Emma from Emma: Spoiled and obnoxious, Emma thinks she sees and knows all.  Suffice it to say that she does not.  This is not another beloved Austen character (at least not for me).
4. Hindley Earnshaw from Wuthering Heights: He's just such a cruel child and is arguably largely responsible for how Heathcliff turned out.  He is never redeemed and just gets worse with age.
5. Reuben Land from Peace Like a River: This kid is just obnoxious.  He repeatedly tries to act like he knows whats up, only making things worse for his family and the people around them and eventually causing a man to be crushed by a horse who is later put down.  Not cool, kid.
6. Godfrey Cass from Silas Marner: (SPOILERS) So he's a rich guy who marries a low-born woman, impregnates her, doesn't tell anybody about the wife or the kid, and continues to woo the girl of his dreams.  Fast-forward eighteen years: first wife is long dead, Godfrey is long-remarried, and he tries his hand at remorse, attempting to "adopt" his eighteen-year old daughter and getting really mad when she's like "Um, no?"  Living in the fancy house doesn't get you everything, mister. (SPOILERS DONE)
7. Aya from Extras: I guess this one isn't so much Aya as everybody in the society that Westerfeld creates.  Everything is just so shallow and nothing matters except in how it can make people read your Twitter-type-thing that lurks behind your eyeballs.  Or something.
8. Levin from Anna Karenina: I know this is practically sacrelige but man this guy is annoying.  He can't make up his mind about anything, is prone to tantrums, and repeatedly treats his readers to long rambling wonderings about things that they neither know nor care about (or maybe that's just me).  Oh, and he's the jealous type.
9.  Pamela from Pamela: It's been a while since I've read this one, but she's just such an unlikely character and why doesn't she get the hell out of there when the old lady dies?!  I mean come on, Mr. B's intentions were already pretty obvious by then.  And then why does she do that thing she does at the end?!  This is more about the ridiculousness of Richardson's narrative than anything, but this list is about characters and I'm looking at you, Pamela.  I much prefer Henry Fielding's revision, Shamela, in which he reveals that she was in fact a dirty, dirty slut.
10.  Robinson Crusoe from Robinson Crusoe: While there are plenty of reasons for this choice, I'm going to stick with the fact that even after being enslaved (and, reasonably, not liking it), he had no problem enslaving others.  WTF?!

*The English language's longest nontechnical word, beating out antidisestablishmentarianism by one letter, and meaning the description of something as valueless.  This word somehow appeared at the top of a page in my high school's enormous dictionary, though somehow nobody else ever knew what it meant or recognized it at all.  Apparently I'm the only one in my high school who ever cared what words meant, and I've been carrying it around with me ever since.  Also, I managed to spell both of those words correctly on the first try; allow me to say, GO ME!

Monday, April 18, 2011

The Cider House Rules, the Movie

**If you want to read my review of the original novel, click here!**

I'm going to say it up front - The Cider House Rules makes a great movie.  I rarely say that about movie adaptations, including the Harry Potter movies, which I've seen about a trillion times each.  Except for the seventh of course, but I'm working on it.

This probably has a lot to do with the fact that John Irving wrote the screenplay himself, which of course makes you wonder why they don't ask the author to do that more often.  Or maybe they do.  Who knows?

There's a considerable paring down for the movie, as there has to be to get a five-hundred page novel into a movie of non-excessive length but I have to say, the cuts that Irving chose to make were excellent.  A lot of characters and time disappeared (like Melanie and the fifteen-year lapse) - but it didn't hurt the story.  Certain details were changed - but it made the story more plausible.  One thing that I feared was that the abortion discussion would be toned down and it was, in the sense that we never had to hear about the gritty sound that a successful abortion makes or see some of the things that Irving describes, but a clear argument for abortion is still made.

Overall, it was a lovely story that maintained the integrity of the original while requiring less suspension of disbelief on the part of the viewer.  It is probably one of the best book-to-film adaptations I've ever seen.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Turn of the Screw ~ Henry James

I finally finished The Turn of the Screw, Henry James's famed novella ghost story, late on Friday night.  Yes, it took me eight days.  Yes, that's an average of not quite eleven pages a day.  Yes, that's pathetic.  Let me offer this as an excuse: it was boring.

I feel so wrong in saying it, but I can't help it.  The novella begins with introductory scene that frames the rest: a narrative written by a young governess on her experiences with her supernatural.  Most of her narrative consists of vapid conversation, wild guesswork, illogical inferences, and excessively complex sentences.  It's incredibly ambiguous and most of the antagonistic action is led up to and then skipped over. Then, to wrap it all up, there's a final what just happened? No really, I don't know what's going on chapter which ends with the most unexpected and unsatisfying possible conclusion, and no return to the initial frame.  Why set up a setting for the story to be told in if it's ultimately of no consequence?

So I spent all 87 pages being annoyed at the ambiguity, doubting the reliability of the narrator, and trying to pick my way around James's excessive use of commas.  At the end I concluded - as I so often do - that I must have missed something and should probably read it over (even while acknowledging that I probably would not).  Then I did what I always do in this kind of situation - turned to Wikipedia.  There, I was pleased to learn that everybody finds the thing ambiguous and many have not only questioned the reliability of the narrator, but her sanity as well.

Here's my conclusion (and don't read on if you don't want the ridiculous ending spoiled for you):

The governess repeatedly tackling Miles and quite possibly smothering him against her breast or knocking his head on something are probably what did him in.  As to the ghosts - I have little interest in whether they were real or not, but I doubt it.  Blah.

Sorry, Mr. James.  But I kept setting myself up to read this in situations where'd I'd get all creeped out and jumpy (in a fun way!), and instead I kept falling asleep.  Seriously, I had a two-hour nap in the middle of the last twenty pages.

The good news is that I'm counting this towards the Victorian Literature Challenge.  Technically, James was American, but he moved to England in 1876 and published The Turn of the Screw in 1898, and Queen Victoria didn't die until 1901.  Therefore, I say that this counts.

Friday, April 8, 2011


Yes, it's been another long week of me saying nada.  My excuse this time is rather embarrassing: it's taken me a week to read The Turn of the Screw.  Correction: it's taking me at least a week, since I still haven't finished.  Why?  Well, because I thought that ghost stories were supposed to be scary.  And, you know, feature ghosts.

Anywho, despite my pathetic page count from the last seven days, there has been some bookish activity in these parts.  In the past week I've purchase five, count'em five new (to me) books.  Yeah, yeah, doesn't sound like much, except when you consider that that's at least as many books as I've purchased in the last year due to post-college poverty, my excessive to-be-read pile, and my occasional and new-found use of the library.  Feast your eyes, my bookish friends.

Sorry for the glare!  I tried as hard as one can without actually moving.

The top three don't look new, I know, due to the fact that they're used (duh).  The "thrift" stickers probably tipped you off to that (they had better come off cleanly).  The bottom two are actually new to the world and are thanks to an unwanted $25 Barnes & Noble gift card that my mother sold to me at the low, low price of $15 (I introduced her to the library too and she took to it like a donkey eating a waffle*, which I combined with a friend's 30% employee discount.

Anywho, the goods (from top to bottom):

1. The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling: I know very little about this book and I bought it completely on a whim.  Abebooks (where I bought this and the next two titles) sent me an e-mail about Steampunk literature and as soon as I saw the word "Victorian," I was sold.  I am a little bit disappointed though: I hadn't realized that this was a mass-market paper.  I prefer trade, and due to being mass-market this shows the wear a little more, but it was under $4 including shipping so who am I to complain?
2. The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde: This was only slightly less whim-like than the above.  Red at What Red Read mentioned it and since it sounds like a bibliophile's wet dream (it's a literary mystery [literally] in which characters are kidnapped out of books), I was sold on the spot.  Again, less than $4?  Why not?!
3. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: I probably don't have to explain this, though I do have the added reason of needing a 21st century classic for my Reading the Classics challenge.  Judging by the hype and the fact that it's actually literary, I'm thinking this might fit the bill.
4. Party Vegan by Robin Robertson: I have been ogling this book for months (I even went so far as to copy a recipe out of it once...shhh!  At least I finally bought it!) and have been desperately desiring a new cookbook and I finally had the excuse I needed.  YAY!  This book consists of 24 menus for variously themed parties, along with substitutions and suggested additions and oh man I think I just wet myself.  In case you are unaware, I love feeding people and I love dinner parties.  (To clarify, I am technically a vegetarian though I prefer to cook vegan 97.39% of the time.  The other 2.61% of the time, I crave eggs.  And then there's ice cream...)
5. Gramatically Correct by Anne Stilman: So French people really super-duper extra know their language to the point where the living statues in Parisian parks have no trouble correcting your grammar (which by the way is super stressful), while Americans know little about the English language except how to butcher it.  This is not a good thing.  Combine that awareness with the fact that I tutors kids in reading and writing and am constantly trying to find new ways to explain what a past participle is and why you can't say "My friend baked a cake and they really liked it" (are you really surprised to hear that most of my examples include cooking and/or eating?) and you might begin to understand why I want to read a grammar book for fun.  I also like grammar and correcting people's grammar and now I'll be so much more obnoxious better at it!

This post may be far too long for what it is but oh well.  At least you weren't once my roommate and thus subjected to repeated displays of how pretty my new textbooks were (except for you, Robin).

*That image comes to us from my husband and whoever he stole it from.  I certainly would not want to steal credit.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Cider House Rules ~ John Irving

This morning, I finally finished the book that I blamed yesterday for my recent dearth of blog posts.  Though I've occasionally intended to read John Irving, I never actually got around to it until a review on The Blue Bookcase finally gave me the impetus to make it happen.  In response to my comment, Christina suggested that I choose A Prayer for Owen Meany or The World According to Garp as my first Irving novel, but I'm not going to lie: I fell in love with the cover of The Cider House Rules the second I saw it and I knew that I had to have it.  Yes, I do judge books by their covers.

In addition to beautiful cover art, The Cider House Rules (TCHR from here on out) has a nice heft to it, somewhat reminiscent of many a Victorian tome.  This is a substantial book, both in size and content, and has more than a passing resemblance to a Victorian novel.  Not only does Irving make repeated references to novels by Charles Dickens (Great Expectations, David Coppefield, and Little Dorrit) and Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), but he seems to model TCHR itself on Dickens' style (okay, I've only read A Christmas Carol and Oliver Twist, but it definitely reminded me of the latter).  TCHR flows in and out of the lives of many, many characters, some of whom occupy mere pages, others that are present from the first page to the last.  Irving even upholds the Victorian tendency to be vague on the exact timing of the novel, never letting you know the absolute year (i.e. 194_).

Though the form may be somewhat Victorian, the content is decidedly not.  While there's no real plot to speak of, the issues of abortion and non-traditional family arrangements pervaded the novel.  In terms of abortion, Irving presents a persuasive defense of not exactly the act itself, but of the choice (or lack thereof) to help people.  I won't get into too much detail here, but Irving is very level-headed in his presentation of this argument.  This is a really great read for anybody who is conflicted over this issue, if only because the novel's discussion of it is so calm.  The other aspect that I found so intriguing was the variety of family arrangements that I found: the life of an orphanage, families with non-biological children, families with just one or as many as three parents, homosexual partners, and incestuous relations are what immediately come to mind, but I'm sure there were even more combinations represented in TCHR.  What's really amazing is how many (thought not all) of these work.  I don't think there was a positive description of a single nuclear family, yet family is everywhere.

As for his writing, I think that Irving might be a turn-off for quite a lot of people, though he wasn't for me.  Remember that old maxim, "show, don't tell"?  Irving never heard it.  He is constantly telling us about his characters and while often this kind of thing bothers me, I thought that Irving made it work.  Just like with his non-traditional families, sometimes breaking the rules isn't such a bad thing.  Other potentially off-putting qualities are how very omniscient the narrator is (generally I prefer free indirect discourse, though the omniscience isn't as bothersome as I may often find it) and how long and rambling the novel is (rarely an issue for me).  Looking back at this list, I find a lot of similarities to what I saw in Anna Karenina, yet somehow Irving made it enjoyable for me whereas Tolstoy just irked me.

One issue I did have with TCHR was how Irving dealt with time.  As I mentioned before, he never gave exact dates, yet this often seemed rather silly due to the fact that he referenced fixed historical events, like Pearl Harbor.  Not surprisingly, this kind of ruined the effect.  He seemed to realize that and, as a result, made time even more shifty in other ways, like having a child who can barely speak and is small enough to easily be carried around by another small child in spring, be big and strong enough in the fall to carry another baby and a box up a hill, all while speaking as fluently as his lisp allows.  The effect of this was only to make me confused as to who was who and what happened when.  The time lines of the various story lines don't match up perfectly but I don't think they were so off kilter as to make this example actually make sense.

All in all though, this was a really wonderful novel, in terms of writing, story, and presentation of real issues.  It was definitely worth the impulse order from Amazon.  I can't wait to read more by Irving!

Have you read The Cider House Rules?  What did you think?