Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Alias Grace ~ Margaret Atwood: Wrap-Up

This post is the second of two for the Alias Grace read along at Bookish Habits.  You can read part one here.

The novel took an interesting turn after we left off last time.  I won't call it unexpected - in fact, I did indeed expect the revelation that was made when Grace was hypnotized from the moment she reported having heard Mary Whitney's voice say "Let me in" just after she died.  It also confirmed the sense that I had all along that Grace was "guilty as sin" in the words of her former lawyer and, at the same time, completely innocent.  Though Grace never admits to having done any of the things she was convicted of, there is always something missing from her story, which she acknowledges - convenient blackouts during which, it seems, she was not inactive.  But you can't help trusting her - when she says she can't remember having done something, you believe that she can't remember it, that she was never consciously aware of it, even if her body did perform those actions.  Just because the capacity for those actions exists inside her, does that define who she is?  If she didn't consciously perform those actions, are they hers to own?  At one point, Grace says, "having a thought is not the same as doing it.  If we were all on trial for our thoughts, we would all be hanged" (317).  There are element of both guilt and innocence in us all; it's the actions we take that determine which applies.

It's a very forgiving interpretation.  I get the sense that Atwood really took the historical Grace Marks' story to heart, took the person to heart and, perhaps somewhat indulgently, found a way to vindicate her. It is, perhaps, a little convenient, wrapping up loose ends much too neatly, and really makes one wonder about the decision to finally release Grace.  There again, her happy ending is a little unnatural - is life really so tidy?  So unlikely?  Perhaps the point of the ending is that it only has the illusion of happiness, for Grace really doesn't have any choice in the matter.  She has nowhere to go except where she's sent and nothing to live on except what she's given, leaving her at the mercy of yet another man.  Innocence, guilt, happiness - perhaps these are all illusions and at their core is something darker and more complex.

I really appreciated the Afterword in which Atwood briefly summarized what is known about the historical Grace Marks so that the reader can sort out what is "true" and what is "fiction" (are these illusions as well?).  It seems that Atwood did a nice job filling in the gaps and bringing and brought a story wanting in detail back to life.

Overall, I wouldn't say that it's my favorite Atwood novel, but it certainly engaged me and made me want to keep reading.  Perhaps it would have been slightly more effective for me if Atwood had allowed the story to be just a little messier, a little more like life.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

A Game of Thrones ~ George R.R. Martin

First things first.  All of you people who went on about how A Game of Thrones is a great epic and so original and OMG you should read it right now (including my husband, who now claims that he never called it epic but he totally did), you are wrong.  And now that that I've said that, we can move on with things.

A Game of Thrones was decent.  It took 70 pages for anything to happen (and then it was a child being thrown from a very high window by - okay, I won't spoil it more than that) and even longer for me to get past the often hackneyed and always excessively flowery writing and descriptions (if I never read the exact details of some knight's armor and sigil again, I would be absolutely fine with it).  Guys, this was a labor of love.  And certainly not love for the author or the genre or any of that but for my husband, because he really wanted me to read (and love) this series.  Normally, if I hit page 100 of a book and I'm bored, I will stop reading the book.  And Game of Thrones took me around 300 pages to get into, so the fact that I read on is saying something.

However, once I got into it, it was entertaining.  It's written from the close third-person perspectives of several characters, which was a useful way of showing what's happening all over the place since this is a story that spans continents (at least, I think it does, even though the map only shows the Seven Kingdoms).  Also, there's a map at the beginning, which is a sure way for a book to get me excited.  Has anyone else noticed that the map is drawn to look like an old crone?  I blew my husband's mind with that observation.

Anyway, I was talking about the characters.  I won't talk about each one because that would take about a week and a half, but as with any book written in this style, you have your favorites and I had mine, so I'll talk about them.  There's little Arya Stark, nine years old and feisty, who loves the old stories of warrior witches and is clearly a warrior-in-training herself.  She's tough, yet is still prone to a child's fantasies and fears, and fiercely loyal (though not to her brain-dead sister, Sansa, who is pretty much one of the dumbest people ever).  Then there's Arya and Sansa's half-brother Jon Snow (who is their father's bastard - bastard I said - and don't you forget it but don't worry, Martin will remind you every paragraph just in case - BASTARD I said).  Because he's a bastard and bears a bastard's surname, he can't hope to ever be anything in life except a bastard unless he joins the black, meaning he puts on black clothes and goes to join the brotherhood of men (who are mostly criminals and bastards) to defend the Wall that separates the Seven Kingdoms from all the scary shit on the other side.  And even though I got very tired about hearing how Jon is a bastard, I did enjoy the story of this lonely boy who thinks he's a man but is still coming to grips with how to be a friend and where his loyalties belong.  I would argue that he learns this lesson excessively fast, but the super-scary wall, which we see mostly through his eyes was creepy and interesting enough to make up for how much of a bastard he is the improbability of his character development.

Finally, there's Danaerys, one of the last two descendants of King Aerys, who was dethroned by the current King Robert about ten years ago.  At the beginning of the book, she's sweet and innocent and naive.  Her brother sells her off to a Dothraki Khal (meaning chief, I think?) in exchange for an army with which he will win back his throne and Dany's all like, well okay then, I mean, this is what I'm supposed to do, right?  But then she suddenly realizes, I'm the Khal's wife and that means I have power and she kicks her brother around some and starts issuing commands, but she's still empathetic, and all-around badass.  She's still a child too though (having been married at fourteen) so there's a lot of learning and making mistakes going on.  Her storyline was probably my favorite of all, partially because the Dothraki are so bizarre and interesting to read about.

One thing that I thought was really interesting about this book was how much being born in America informed my reaction to this fictional world.  For example, why do all of these people listen to child rulers?  There are child rulers all over this novel (ranging from age six and up) and I can't understand how people actually listen to them.  I mean, they make decisions that aren't even backed by a council and the adults all do as they say!  They follow them into battle and die for them!  And that's another thing - you get this sense that there are only a few real people in this novel.  Everyone else is like money, to be thrown around at will.  How many people die to bring the "Imp" to justice?  Far too many!  Nobody should be dying for that, but all of these disposable humans are dying left, right, and center for a cause that hasn't even been explained to them!  And what's even more mind-blowing, is that this form of society is actually based on real-world stuff (in fact, the themes and alliances and even some of the names are suspiciously similar to those of Tudor England, but I don't have enough evidence to make a case for it...yet).  I guess it's one of those stranger than fiction deals - no reader would believe that all of these people would listen to a child's pronouncements if that hadn't actually happened many times in human history.

At times (most of the time), the characterization is simplistic (e.g. Eddard Stark is loyal to a fault and little else, and his wife Catelyn is tough and unforgiving and likes her kids and that's it); the various plots are unnaturally coordinated in time (after ten years of peace, everybody and their mom decides to go to war at the same time); and the symbolism of the seasons is so in your face that you want to write a letter to Martin to tell him to PLEASE GODS STOP TALKING ABOUT THE WEATHER (it's been summer for all this decade of peace and now that things are going to shit, winter is coming, blah blah blah).  However, once I made my peace with these less than compelling details, I was able to be entertained by it and get through it pretty quickly.  I'll read the rest of the unfolding series, though not immediately.  I just hope that the quality of the writing improves.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Likert Scales and Rating Books

I don't like Likert scales.

What are Likert scales, you ask?  Likert scales are forms of measurement often used on questionnaires or surveys to elicit an individual's perspective on whatever is being measured, without any measurable difference between the answer choices.  For example:

With 1 meaning "strongly agree" and 8 meaning "strongly disagree," rate your level of agreement with the following statement:

"Aliens are likely to colonize my planet and eat my brains in the foreseeable future."

Another example:

Yes, Goodreads employs a Likert scale.  If you roll over the stars on their website, they stand for the following:

1 star: "didn't like it"
2 stars: "it was ok"
3 stars: "liked it"
4 stars: "really liked it"
5 stars: "it was amazing"

One could also argue that there's an invisible 6th choice of not rating the book at all, which could mean "OH DEAR LORD SO BAD" or "I don't know, it's too hard to say."  Now here's my beef with this.  Ignoring the fact that I think the neutral response (it was okay) should be in the middle position and therefore anybody who has ever answered this kind of scale before is likely to mark books they feel were just okay as "liked it" because that's the reasonable thing to do - wait what was the point of this sentence?  Oh yeah.  I just don't think my feelings or anybody else's reasonably complex feelings about books (or anything else for this matter) can be broken down into such neat categories.  For example, what if I thought a book was really well written and had a great plot (5 stars, right?) but I couldn't engage with any of the characters and so, did not like it very much (2 stars, maybe?).  Do I split the difference and go with 3 stars?  Or 4?  Yes, I know that this is why there's a little box underneath where you can write out your feelings in more detail but let's face it, who reads those?  Okay, I do, but only because I don't trust the stars.

And that's the thing.  No matter how much I tell myself that those little rating scales don't mean anything, I can't help seeing them.  I can't help but have my decision on whether to read something influenced by them.  And, in doing my own ratings, I constantly get hung up on this.  I didn't particularly like Peace Like a River and I really despised Twilight, but I can't have them sharing the same category, because one is reasonably well done and has some substance to it while the other is drivel that offends me as a woman and a human.  Likewise, I really like Harry Potter but how can that begin to occupy the same space as Oryx and Crake in one of these scales?  It just can't.  One is entertaining and emotional and has me coming back for more and the other is out of this world but actually very realistic and gives you nightmares but in a good way.  How can one scale hope to cover both?

I think my issues with these kind of scales started the day I came home from school and said "Mommy, I got a 96 on my Lord of the Rings paper" (yes I wrote a paper on The Lord of the Rings in high school) and she asked me what that meant.  It meant nothing.  There's no objective scale that will suffice for these things.  What's the difference between a 96 and a 95 or a 97?  A misplaced comma?  Well, conveniently enough for my teacher's grading scale, there were exactly 100 commas in that paper to grade me on.  If only.

The point of this long ramble is that I often run into this issue on my blog.  In the end, I think that I personally have 3 categories: like, dislike, and meh.  But I would never try to tell you that that is a reasonable look at the quality of the book because there are so many factors at play here: quality of the writing (as seen by me), quality of the characterization (as seen by me), personal emotional reaction, and the context in which I am reading the book.

In the end, any sort of rating I do is for me alone and subject to change.  I have on occasion gone to my "read" shelf on Goodreads and actually changed ratings that I gave books in the past.  And that's without having reread the book or really revisited it in any substantial way - in that moment, I just remember it in a different way than I experienced it at the time of rating and it seemed reasonable to change my original rating.

In the end, I'd like to do away with these scales all together.  Let my words be what is used to assess my opinion, not my arbitrary assignment of stars (or bullets or numbers of whatever a specific Likert scale is using).  Of course, scales are easier than actual thoughtful responses because responses can be added or averaged and give new readers a simple (though horribly oversimplified) view of the "quality" of the book.  Or whatever it is we're rating.  And because it's easier, it's here to stay.  And because it's there, I can't help but give that scale on Goodreads, even though I know how ridiculous it is.  On the blog though, I'll just stick with sentences and paragraphs, because that's where the real meaning is found.

Monday, May 21, 2012

I think I have a problem

My books to read are creeping up around me.  Not just some list of books I'd like to get my hands on and read at some point, but actual, physical books that I've purchased over the years.  Some I've had for several years and still haven't opened.  It's like some weird literary hoarders.  Maybe not that bad.  But yeah, I've got a problem.  I'm telling you, because I know that you'll understand.  You've been there.  You're probably there now.  If you're reading this blog, you've probably got a book-buying problem as bad as mine.

This is what my to-read bookshelf (yes I have a whole bookshelf devoted to unread books) looked like on Friday:

And this is what it looks like today:

My town library's annual book sale was this weekend and, of course, I went.  Twice.  Once right after they opened to get the good picks, and once right before it was over to clean up and fill a sack for $5.  The winnings (first day's picks are on the left, second day's on the right):

Yes, I know that there are two copies of Beloved.  I bought a copy for $1 the first day, and then found another copy in better condition on the second day and got it since it wouldn't cost me extra.  And i haven't read the two books in the Thursday Next series prior to One of Our Thurdays is Missing yet but what was I supposed to do, leave it there?  That's reasonable, right?  Right?

I comfort myself by telling myself that I buy most of my books used.  They cost me hardly anything, so I should get them while they're cheap, right?  Sound logic, except that if I never read the thing, even $1 is too much.  Then again, even if I don't read them for 30 years, it's still worth the dollar in the long run.  And that kind of logic is what results in me alphabetizing this year's book sale books right alongside last year's book sale books as well as those copies of Lolita and A Clockwork Orange that I've had since high school.  High school.  Granted, I'm fairly young, but that still means those books are at very least seven years old, and up to eleven (in my defense, I've tried and failed to read both but have yet to give up on either).

The ultimate defense: my book addiction is both cheaper and more preferable than crack.  So all you smokers and nail biters can leave me alone!

How does my TBR pile compare to yours?  Better?  Worse?  How do you justify it?

Friday, May 18, 2012

Tudor Reads

It's been a while since I read/listened to these, so I thought I'd just say a little something about each instead of writing full-fledged reviews, since they're on the same topic.

Sister Queens by Julia Fox is a dual biography Katherine of Aragon (AKA Henry VIII's first wife) and her sister, Juana of Castile.  Both were queens (Katherine by marriage and Juana in her own right) who were put aside by men.  Juana is known as Juana the Mad, for she spent 46 of her 75 years of life confined to a nunnery, held there first by her husband, then by her father, and finally by her son.  Fox suggests that Juana was not, indeed, mad, but that her outbursts and incomprehensible behavior were her (often successful) attempts to manipulate those around her, for she never behaved thus publicly.  Likewise, her incarceration is seen as an effort by the men in her life to achieve their own ends and rule in her place.  Juana's sister, Katherine, was put aside by her husband in favor of another woman, setting a precedent for his reign and putting the fear of divorce into the hearts of English women, for it meant a loss of security in a world where they had no rights.  Fox puts a feminist slant on the lives of these two women, which somehow had me taking the side of 16th century Catholicism (which was notably corrupt and led to the rise of Protestantism) so that was a rather strange experience.  It's all about context though.

This biography was certainly interesting and takes an unusual look at the lives of these two women, though the balance is certainly off.  This clearly started as a biography about Katherine, to which Fox added bits about Juana, so if you're looking to learn primarily about Juana, you might want to skip this one.  There are notable differences between Fox's telling of Katherine's life and struggles and the account given by Alison Weir in The Six Wives of Henry VIII, so the contrast in interpretations are interesting.  This is definitely an interesting read and takes a look at this bit of history that you may not find elsewhere.

The Other Boleyn Girl is the novel for which Philipa Gregory is best known.  It's a historical novel starting shortly before The Constant Princess leaves off, told by Mary Boleyn, sister to Henry VIII's infamous second wife and mother of Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn.  The novel paints quite a negative portrait of Anne as a conniving, quarrelsome, self-centered witch (nearly literally, as witchcraft was still practiced then and it is suggested that she utilized forms of it in her efforts to conceive a son).  It also gives credence to unsubstantiated rumors about her life, including the suggestions that she gave birth to a deformed baby and slept with her brother (which she was, in life, convicted of but was never proven).  In contrast, Mary is presented as sweet and innocent, merely a tool of the men in her life in their quest for power.

The novel was entertaining, though not exactly high literature (whatever that is) as it employed quite a bit of sensationalism.  As in The Constant Princess, Gregory takes some heavy liberties with history, but honestly, it's close enough.  I think you get a sense of the sentiments of the time and the basic outline of what happened, so if you don't need the exact truth but are interested in the time period, this is definitely worth a read.  And to be honest, as unlikely as objective truth is in general, it's even harder to come by in a time period so far gone, when cameras and tape recorders and accurate record-keeping were still centuries off.  As I mentioned above, even biographies aiming for the truth disagree, so a dash of fiction doesn't hurt anything.

I listened to this on an audiobook, and I don't really recommend it.  It's easy to lose focus since there's not that much action (at least for me), plus it's very long.  Doable, but you may just want to stick to the print version.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Alias Grace ~ Margaret Atwood: Early Impressions

This post is the first of two for the Alias Grace read along at Bookish Habits.  I'm discussing the first half of the novel today, through Part VII: Snake Fence, and will be back on May 30th to wrap it up.  Worry not, for you will find no spoilers here.

Alias Grace is one of those novels that I've probably picked up 100 times and always passed over in favor of something else.  I'm not sure why, really.  Perhaps because the summary doesn't make me think of Margaret Atwood, whose novels I tend to assign to two categories: futuristic dystopia and close looks at the lives of contemporary women.  Alias Grace is neither of these, being historical fiction in a world that logically and historically precedes my own.

The novel tells the story of Grace Marks, a "celebrated murderess" accused of the murders of her employer and his housekeeper in Canada in 1843.  Her conviction was controversial and her death sentence was changed to life imprisonment, which ended up including time in an insane asylum.

Atwood artfully ties together historical documentation and fiction to put together the story, with multiple strands making up the novel.  At the center of the novel is Grace's first person experience of the present - it's 1859 and she has been in prison for 16 years.  At that time, she is working (without pay) in the home of the prison's governor during the daytime, and returning to prison at night.  Most of the page count up until now consists of her slowly telling her life story to Simon Jordan, a doctor who has chosen to work with her in the hope of helping her restore her lost memories of the murders and simultaneously make an important scientific breakthrough.  Another strand of the story consist of Simon's own experiences of Grace herself and his life surrounding his time with her, in the third person.  There are also letters between Simon and others, including family, friends, and colleagues, as well as epigraphs at the beginning of each section.  Most of these epigraphs are what people wrote about Grace at the time though some are literary quotes that are technically unrelated and included for thematic purposes.

Grace is a quite intelligent character, who you get the sense spends a lot of time pondering and analyzing, often coming to rather interesting conclusions.  For example,
I thought about widows - about widow's humps, and widow's walks, and the widow's mite in the Bible, which we servants were always being urged to give to the poor out of our wages; and also I thought about how the men would wink and nod when a young a rich widow was mentioned, and how a widow was a respectable thing to be if old and poor, but not otherwise; which is quite strange when you come to consider it. (163)
Grace is quite an interesting character, and lovable.  What I find especially intriguing is that Atwood has not yet had her claim either innocence and guilt, and I wonder if she ever will.  There's almost the sense that there's no such thing as either - her jail keepers are certainly guilty of abuse of the power (if not more) and she seems rather innocent of the ways of the world.

Simon, on the other hand, is not quite so sweet, but I can't help liking him as well.  Though his presence is, on the surface, scientific, you get the sense that he truly cares about Grace and wants to help her.  Though he is descended from wealth and certainly spoiled, with many obnoxious perceptions of others, there is something endearing about him.  Like Grace, he likes to analyze and concludes that  "he is one of the dark trio - the doctor, the judge, the executioner - and shares with them the powers of life and death" (82).

Thus far, this isn't a novel that grabs on and makes me read into the night.  It's a quiet book, that gives a view into the past and magnifies the minutiae of life, despite the seeming sensationalism of its subject.  It feels very much like an Atwood novel in that sense and, as such, is a pleasure to read.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Two Year Wrap-Up

That's right - it's been two years since I started this blog.  It's also my husband's birthday.  Not sure why I created a blog on his birthday but yeah.  Happy Birthday Mitchell!

For my two year anniversary, I thought I'd do a large scale version of the monthly wrap-ups that a lot of my fellow bloggers do but I'm too unreliable to regularly commit to, and look at the break-down of everything that I've read over the last two years.  The research and statistics class I took this semester compels me to clarify that by "everything" I mean "reviewed" and "intended to review" and "am currently reading."  Also audiobooks.  It does not include individual short stories, stuff I read for school, or things that I forgot about.  Also, I grouped series together as one book so that J.K. Rowling wouldn't completely dominate all of the categories (she is already in both the print and audiobook categories).  So lets takes a look-see:

Books Read
Overall total: 57
Total fiction: 53
Total nonfiction: 4
Total print: 48
Total audiobooks: 10

Time Period
18th century: 1
19th century: 8
Early 20th century (1900-49): 3
Late 20th century (1950-99): 15
21st century: 30

Authors By Sex
Female: 31
Male: 26

Authors By Race/Ethnicity (by my observation and interpretation)
White: 50
Asian/Indian/Middle Eastern: 5
Hispanic: 1
Interracial: 1

Authors' Country of Origin (where they spent their formative years)
USA: 19
Canada: 7
Dominican Republic: 1

Dominica: 1
England: 18

Ireland: 3
Wales: 1
Sweden: 1
Russia: 1
India: 2
China: 1
Japan: 1
Australia: 1

DON'T LOOK AT THE RACE/ETHNICITY CATEGORY.  Man, is that embarrassing.  I actually really did not think that my reading choices were so...white.  I have books by black authors on my shelves but have not read a single one in the last two years.  I believe myself to enjoy postcolonial literature, but have barely ventured outside of English-speaking countries (reading-wise) in two years of reading.  Ouch.

And where did all of those 21st century books come from?  I legitimately believed that I rarely read books from this century, and they are dominating the list!  That doesn't bother me so much as surprise me.  Also, isn't is weird that I've read more books from the 19th century than the early 20th?  Strange.

I'm happy to report that the sex of the authors I read is pretty well balanced and just amused at how few
non-fiction books I've read (one of which I'm still in the process of reading).  I need to work on my diversity though, if only to make myself feel better about it (and also broaden my perspective and be more well-rounded and whatnot).  I think I'll keep up with the spreadsheet that I made (okay, my husband did most of the work) and report back in a year's time.

Happy Mother's Day to the moms, Happy Birthday to my husband, and Happy Blog Anniversary to me!  Have a great day all!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Death Comes to Pemberley ~ P.D. James

My thoughts on P.D. James's spin-off of Jane Austen's much spun-off Pride and PrejudiceDeath Comes to Pemberley, are relatively brief.  It's one of those audiobooks that I picked up because it caught my eye at the library and I needed something to listen to while walking to campus.  I've never been particularly interested in Jane Austen spin-offs, so I was taking a chance.

It started off well.  There was a brief bit at the beginning to remind the reader of the basic plot of Pride and Prejudice and I was pretty impressed at how well-done it was - brief and to the point, but pretty complete, and not boring.  The writing was, I think, pretty true to Jane Austen's style, should Jane Austen have ever decided to write a murder mystery, and true to Pride and Prejudice itself.  As a result, it tended to be pretty predictable to people who know P&P well.  For example, if any character from P&P were to be seen wild-haired and shrieking animal-like (I don't remember the exact quote), who would it be?*  If any character were to be accused of murder, who would it be?**

But then.  It was just kind of boring.  I'm not so sure that that's P.D. James's fault so much as the format.  In Austen novels, characters tend to do a lot of sitting around chatting.  That's her thing and that's cool.  The act of reading it engages the reader enough to be entertained.  However, while walking down a road and listening to other people have a conversation in which you can have no involvement, the mind wanders.

I have little else to say, except that the end was quite predictable, much like any true Austen novel (and by true I mean written by Austen) and did a nice job of employing a common 19th century British trope for saving characters from unpleasantness, so kudos to James on that.

I guess that it was okay, and it mostly kept my attention.  I just advise that you stick with the print version, and save sword fights*** for your audiobooks.

*If you didn't just say Lydia, you are clearly not ready for this book.
** If you didn't just say Wickham, you are an impostor.  Go read the real Austen and then we'll talk.
*** Or something else slightly more exciting than endless conversation and pondering.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The Marriage Plot ~ Jeffrey Eugenides

So I'm not really sure what to say about The Marriage Plot.  Not that I have nothing to say.  I have a lot to say, I just have to figure out how to make it coherent.  I am certain, however, that whatever I say will be spoiler-ific, so beware unwelcome revelations.

Madeleine is a young woman graduating from college when the novel opens, concerned with not being dependent on a man while obsessed with the traditional marriage plot of Victorian literature and nearly incapacitated with heartbreak after the end of her relationship with brilliant, enigmatic Leonard.  She reflects on feminist issues (though other, minor female characters do so more aggressively throughout the novel, like her sister whose husband calls her Mommy even when their child isn't around).  Leonard, Madeleine's romantic interest, is a manic-depressive genius and a man characteristically in need of a woman's care.  And finally, there is Mitchell, concerned with his issues of spirituality, desperately in love with Madeleine (who sees him as just a friend), and accused by one of the aforementioned minor female characters of ogling women on the street and being a basic misogynist (I disagree).  Soon after graduation, Mitchell leaves for Europe and India, to see the world and bypass the recession before looking for a job.  The novel takes place in the early 1980's, but the characters' and the country's situation are not all that different from my own recent experience - graduating from college with a degree in liberal arts in a country void of jobs in general, never mind for somebody who majored in English.  The characters' concerns are very much my own, which made the book quite accessible, and I flew through it.

What was clear from the very beginning of The Marriage Plot is that there are some strong feminist themes contained within it and that the Madeleine's characterization is quite heavy-handed. For example: If any single moment defined Madeleine's generation of girls, dramatized their aspirations, put into clear focus what they expected from themselves and from life, it was those two hours and fifteen minutes when the country watched a man in white shorts get thrashed by a woman... (p. 33).  While reflecting on why she herself always loses to her less talented father in tennis, Madeleine worried that there was something paradigmatic in this, that she was destined to go through life being cowed by less capable men (p. 10).  Madeleine plans not to marry until her early thirties, when her career is established, but within a year of graduating college finds herself marrying Leonard after reuniting with him in the hospital after his illness showed itself.  Though the novel doesn't exactly say this, it seems that the feminist ideals of Madeleine's college days are gone - there she is, without a career, taking care of a man for a job, much like what happened to her sister and mother before her.  Eugenides seems to be suggesting that feminism isn't necessarily a real-life kind of thing.  Something nice to talk about it, but does it really work out?

And what about Eugenides?  Maybe that's true - it often is, for many women (I certainly do more than my fair share of the dishes) - but what does it mean for a man to be saying it?  Modern literary theory tends to tell us to leave the author out of it, but that's not so easy when it's a man delivering a message concerning feminist issues.  It almost seems a little like he's saying, this is how it is, deal with it.  Almost.

But then the ending.  Mitchell, slightly more enlightened than when he left the United States, reencounters Madeleine, wanting desperately for her to leave Leonard (who leaves her instead) and have him.  He doesn't even consider that she has a third, invisible option - no man at all.  And it seems like she doesn't either, clinging to him when Leonard is gone, even sleeping with him pages from the end.  But then, a little voice inside of him, which may or may not be God, tells him that it's not to be.  And he tells Madeleine that the marriage plot can have this third option, ending with no marriage at all.  And it felt a little revelatory, because at the end, what I understood, was that Eugenides was saying is that men need to be feminists too.  Yes, we all know that, but we tend to think of feminism as the province of women alone (see my last paragraph).  But feminism shouldn't be a battle, and can hardly be sustained if it is.  Women need men's support to be independent and strong and all of the things Madeleine wanted to be at the beginning of the novel.  Not because they are men, but because they are half the people, because we love them and want them to be well, because it is unreasonable to live completely apart from them.  I feel like Eugenides is telling men to be feminists too and support women in the way women have always supported them.

Maybe this is a naive reading, but it's what I took away.  And really, it was quite lovely and surprising. The novel had it's flaws (particularly excessive name-dropping and a summary style of narration) but I felt like there was a real message underneath all of that, and that it was a positive one.  I'm probably going to post more about The Marriage Plot, because I have a whole lot more thoughts and this is already quite long, but I think this is enough for today.  I can't wait for reaction and responses, because I'm just bubbling over with conversation about this novel and nobody I know in real life has read it!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Meatless Monday ~ TBLAT's

Meatless Monday is a movement to get Americans to eat less meat and more veggies through the simple expedient of not eating any animal products one day a week.  It's a great way to segue into vegetarianism or even veganism, or just make a small but real difference in your health and the environment.  To that end, on Meatless Mondays here at Soy Chai Bookshelf I will talk about anything related to food and vegetarianism, from cookbook reviews to to recipes I've created (don't hold your breath) to bragging about the delicious vegetarian feast I just whipped up to discussing in a (hopefully) not-too-judgemental way why vegetarianism is a great choice.  I would also love to host guest posters on the topic, so if you're interested in being featured, send me an e-mail at jlmarck at gmail dot com.

It has been a very long time since I've had a Meatless Monday post on the blog.  So long, in fact, that I completely forgot about it and posted a book review today!  Then I saw a sign about Meatless Monday at a local sushi place (by meatless they mean full of fish) and I decided to share a quick and easy recipe with you in honor of the day.

TBLAT stands for Tempeh Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado and Tomato.  It's a delicious, vegan, and healthy slant on the BLT and is ridiculously good.  My pig bacon-loving husband adores this sandwich, and for good reason.  Tempeh bacon combined with creamy avocado makes your taste buds dance, and it's easy to throw together, so you can have it any night of the week.

For each sandwich, you need:

2 slices of regular ol' sandwich bread
a good slather of Vegenaise (it's just as good as Hellman's, I promise!)
1/2 an avocado, sliced
1/3 - 1/2 pkg Lightlife Fakin' Bacon, cut in half
1 slice of tomato
handful of lettuce (or spinach or spring mix or whatever you've got)

Fry up your Fakin' Bacon in a touch of oil.   Meanwhile, toast your bread and slather it with Vegenaise.   Top with everything else and prepare to wow those taste buds! 

Simple, easy, vegan, and delicious.  Does it get any better?
If eating alone, enjoy with a good book.
Just don't get avocado on the pages.

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close ~ Jonathan Safran Foer

I'm not sure why it's taken me so long to review Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close.  I loved it the whole time I listened to the audiobook and kept wanting to tell people how great it was.  I guess I'll just blame grad school.  It is wonderful though.  I remember the first day I started listening to it: I was driving to my field placement, and during that twenty minutes I moved repeatedly between hysterical laughter and near tears, and thought at least once that that probably wasn't very safe.  I carried on, however.

Oskar Schell is nine years old.  He lives in New York City, with just his mother, because his father died in 9/11.  He is incredibly precocious - both brilliant and very much a child, with a child's way of looking at things.  He's a near-vegan vegetarian, so you know that that tugged on my heart strings.  He's the kind of kid that you know would probably drive you at least a little crazy in real life, because he thinks he knows everything, but in the book he's just great - highly emotional (he has these great, kid-friendly way of expressing his emotions, e.g. he wears "heavy boots" when he's feeling sad), very intuitive, and with a penchant for hyperbole (just look at the title).

The story focuses mostly on Oskar, but also moves between both of his paternal grandparents, whose letters intersperse Oskar's own first-person narration.  It is quite emotional, particularly for an East Coast American (I didn't lose anybody in 9/11, but I could see a haze of smoke from my house).  I thought it was really interesting how Foer weaved stories of the bombings of both Dresden and Hiroshima into a story that grows out of 9/11; Americans tend to think that they are alone in this grief when in fact they are not.  War and loss are universal, which Foer demonstrates well.

I listened to this on audiobook, so a few comments on that: the reading was great.  The reader, Jeff Woodman, sounded like a kid without making it forced and never fell out of character.  He did a great job with intonation.  One example that really stood out to me was Oskar's tendency to follow a lot of his statements with "obviously" in a very precocious kid way, and Woodman delivered that perfectly.  His voicing of the grandfather was a little creepy, but so was the grandfather himself, so it worked.  He also did a good job of distinguishing between narration and dialogue, which can be a problem in audiobooks that are read in the first person (ahem Hunger Games).  It never occurred to me that I was missing out on anything by going with the audio version until I picked up a copy of the book in print and discovered that it has pictures.  Oskar takes pictures with his lost grandfather's old camera throughout the novel, describing each one, but it never occurred to me that there pictures were actually in the book.  I'm not sure how I feel about this, because I had no problem visualizing them, but I'm pretty sure I'm going to have to buy the book to find out.  Who am I kidding, I was going to buy it anyway!  This book was just too good to not have (and read) the "real" thing.

I think it's pretty obvious that I wholeheartedly recommend you read this.  I know some people take issue with it, so I welcome any comments that tell me I'm wrong (though I probably won't agree!).  I'm left with just one question - do I watch the movie and risk marring my memory of the novel?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

The Six Wives of Henry VIII ~ Alison Weir

Guys!  I'm done!  The semester is over and, while I like school, I couldn't be happier!  It's such a relief to not have to worry about all that stuff for three months (not counting the online statistics class I'm starting in July).  AND that means time to read!  Things of my choosing!  That I chose!  Woot.  I've already managed to read nearly 100 pages of The Marriage Plot and I have thoughts.  I also finally finished The Six Wives of Henry VIII, which I've been working on for the last six weeks and which will kick off my blogging catch-up.  I have four other books to review and some other ideas for posts, so I should probably get started.

For a 571 page biography which was by no means a quick read, The Six Wives of Henry VIII was incredibly engaging.  I'm probably biased, since I've been obsessed with this royal family for a while now, but historian Alison Weir also manages to make this period of history really accessible.  She hits a nice balance between describing people and places, presenting the facts, and establishing the context.  I was able to look at the events she described from within the historical context without letting my 21st century biases get too much in the way, which I think says a lot about Weir's skill as a biographer.

My biggest takeaway from this biography is by far the characterization of Henry VIII.  Gone is the image I had of a crazed, biologically inept monarch who beheaded his wives for not bearing him sons, developed from a five-minute lesson in high school.  In its place is a man of incredible complexity, who would go amongst the common folk but saw himself as supreme, who had sex with anything on legs but loved deeply, who cared above all about the well-being of his country but could fly into a tirade at the merest suggestion.  As awful as he was to so many of his wives, you really get the sense that Henry was a romantic at heart, capable of feeling love but also of having his heartbroken.  Henry is hateful at one moment, pitiable the next, and often inspiring empathy.  He was singular only as a ruler, but multi-faceted in every other aspect of his being.

My only complaint about the book was that while Weir would often back up her facts, by telling of the source and conflicts in their accuracy, sometimes she would give details that fully contradict other sources I've been reading without justification.  She also tends to seem a little too confident in the accuracy of her portrayal.  This may be sound like an odd complaint, but keep in mind that this is the 16th century - there were no computer back-ups or hard-copies or ever-present cameras and recorders to catch every detail.  This is a world long gone, of which only fragments remain.  It's bound to be patchy and often inaccurate, which the reader must remember, and the biographer can never forget.

If you have even the tiniest interest in this time people or the Tudor family, or are just interested in learning about something new, I would definitely recommend The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  It's fascinating, thought-provoking, and easy to come back to if graduate papers keep you away for a while.  Six thumbs up!  Pun intended.