Monthly Archives: August 2010

Blog Update

Hey all!  Things might be a little quiet on the blog front, but that’s because other aspects of life have demanded more attention than usual.  I am starting a new job tomorrow for which I am quite excited, but nervous too.  I had worked in my previous position for three and a half years, so it will take some time adjusting to the newness of it all.

I am still reading Middlemarch and expect that I will be reading it for some time to come.  My edition is 766 pages and I am on page 253.

One of my favorite aspects of George Eliot’s writing is the way she seems intent on showing all sides of a situation, acquainting the reader with why each character behaves the way he or she does.  It’s like Eliot divines what the reader’s conceptions of a particular character are and then says ‘oh ho, so you think you have this character pegged?  Take another look, and see how hastily you have judged.’

Indeed, in the chapter I am about to read next, Chapter 29, Eliot starts with:

One morning, some weeks after her arrival at Lowick, Dorothea – but why always Dorothea?  Was her point of view the only possible one with regard to this marriage?  . . . Mr. Casaubon [Dorothea’s husband] had an intense consciousness within him, and was spiritually a-hungered like the rest of us.

p. 253

Throughout most of the book thus far, Dorothea has appeared like a favorite among the author’s array of characters and Mr. Casaubon as a passive antagonist.  However, Eliot’s writing reins in what may be some fondness for particular characters with passages like the one above.

There’s a kind of fairness of portrayal in Middlemarch that I don’t see often in novels, at least not to this level.  And it is a fairness that doesn’t overlook flaws, or skip opportunities for satire or sharp humor.  I don’t think Eliot is trying to make you ‘like’ all the characters or think that they are all good.  She’s just making sure the reader understands them.

I haven’t studied George Eliot, so I don’t know her philosophies on writing: her writing may not be about ‘being fair’ or spreading understanding.  It may be her way of entertainingly dissecting and illuminating the workings of people in society – how their feelings, motivations and worldviews ricochet off each other and turn into actions and decisions that affect other persons, in an ever-rippling chain.

Whatever it is, I like it and maybe my slower pace in reading reflects a subconscious desire to dwell in the world of Middlemarch for a while yet.

I’ve been planning to read Middlemarch this year for my own challenge to read 19 books older than myself.  I had chosen to read it this month due to the Middlemarch Readalong hosted by Ana of Things Mean A Lot.  The Readalong took place last week, so I’ve missed it unfortunately, but I’m glad I took it on now anyway.   It’s been a good companion in my time of career transition.


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Teaser Tuesday: Middlemarch

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

Middlemarch is the book this week again.  I’m really enjoying it, but haven’t been able to spend much time reading lately and it’s a very long book.

The teaser is from a conversation between two siblings, Rosamond and Fred, who are on their way to visit their rich uncle.  They see one of their uncle’s other relation’s gig in the drive.  The following quote is spoken by Fred:

“That is Mrs. Waule’s gig – the last yellow gig left, I should think.  When I see Mrs. Waule in it, I understand how yellow can have been worn for mourning.  That gig seems to me more funereal than a hearse.  But then Mrs. Waule always has black crape on.  How does she manage it, Rosy?  Her friends can’t always be dying.”

p. 94


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Evia by Sara Wheeler

1992. 290 pages. Tauris Parke Paperbacks.

From: I bought this book.

For the challenge: 2nd Reading Challenge

In a nutshell:

Evia: Travels on an Undiscovered Greek Island is the first book of British travel writer Sara Wheeler.  (She is perhaps best known for her later book about Antarctica, Terra Incognita.)  Evia (also known as Euboea) is a rural, mountainous island stretched out alongside the eastern coast of mainland Greece.  Sara Wheeler first became acquainted with Evia after a time of living and working in Athens.  Years later, she decided to travel the whole island.  This book chronicles the months she spent traversing Evia.


In the preface of this reprinted edition, Sara Wheeler states that she had for many years declined publishers’ requests to republish Evia.  Looking back as a more experienced writer, she views her debut book as earnest but structurally problematic.  She wonders if readers will find her “meaty – and undigested – slabs of history to their taste.”  But she finds value in her depiction of life on Evia, and for that reason, we now have this reprinted edition.

I am so glad she consented to this reprint!  Writers can be their own worst critics sometimes.  I became interested in Evia when Wheeler described a vivid memory of an island monastery in her book Terra Incognita, which I read earlier this year.  As when choosing a real-life traveling companion, choosing an engaging and likable travel writer is very important to the enjoyment of the journey.  Once you’ve found a good travel writer, you’ll want to go with them wherever they go.  Wheeler is such a writer.

In her Evian travels, Sara had the distinct and enviable advantage of speaking the language.  In many rural villages she visited, she caused quite a stir: a solo British female traveler who spoke Greek!  It always warms my heart to read of strangers offering hospitality to travelers and Sara experienced some outstanding hospitality.  She was even made a sort of godmother to a newly christened baby at one point.  This was especially remarkable considering Sara is Anglican and practically the whole island is Orthodox.

Indeed, Sara was implored to convert to Orthodoxy by many islanders along the way, particularly the nuns with whom she stayed on several occasions.  Her unmarried state was also of great concern to her new Greek acquaintances.  Not only that, but a number of residents apparently never had seen freckles before and thought that something was wrong with Sara’s face.

Though admitting some annoyance with the nosiness, Sara gamely took on all that was thrown her way.  I liked how her travels did not have a strict itinerary, but were open to some whims and unexpected opportunities.

The depiction of life on Evia is warm: I was most moved and fascinated by the way Wheeler captures the fading traditions and slower pace of the island villages.  And yet Wheeler is not uncritical.  She doesn’t excuse inequality of gender roles and narrow minds.

I will say that Terra Incognita is the better written book.  Those “undigested slabs of history” that Wheeler describes in the preface?  I definitely noticed them and they could be a bit of a slog.  (Classics nerds will find a kindred spirit, however.) But the anecdotes and descriptions of Wheeler’s travels more than made up for those denser passages.

I really enjoyed sinking into the pages of Evia over my vacation.  I always find it refreshing to read about how other people live in the world and how they view people from outside their own culture.  I often discover that other cultures contain something I wish mine had more of: palpable community, or amazing generosity.

I will conclude my review with a couple of excerpts, just to give a taste of Evia:

‘I’m lighting a candle for my wife.  She died on 31 May exactly 10 years ago today.  We must pray for her,’ said the old man.

‘But it’s 13 June,’ I said unhelpfully.

Palaioimerologitis imai‘.  He was a follower of the Old Calendar, which meant he was 13 days behind the regular date.  There is a sizeable contingent of these people in Greece, even though they are officially excommunicated.

p. 32

Sister Kalliopi and Sister Magdalini went for the jugular.  They had spied a small Bible in my room, and it had given them an appetite for a fight.  ‘Why don’t you become Orthodox?’  And off they went in a spirited attempt to convert me.  On this occasion they were deflected by the splash of the monastic cat falling into the reservoir (a regular occurrence) but subsequently I was not to be so fortunate.

p. 62

Someone shouted that the car had arrived, there was a terrific scuffle, and Vangelitsa and her parents processed out of the house and shot off to the church, with all of us in pursuit, honking furiously.  In the main square everyone thronged outside the church, and once the bridal party, by now including three little bridesmaids, was arranged inside, we swarmed in.  There were about 250 guests, on the whole dressed fairly casually, including a few with shirts open to the waist and gold medallions languishing on hirsute chests.  Most Greek services are fluid affairs (not least because there are no pews), and this was no exception, as people came in and went out, chatted amongst themselves and greeted long lost relations.  The priest did request quiet at several key moments, but everyone carried on as if he wasn’t there.

p. 276


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Teaser Tuesday: Middlemarch

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme,  hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Basically, open the book you’re currently reading and share a couple of sentences from that page on your blog.   Avoid spoilers of course.

My teaser this week is from George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Away from her sister, Celia talked quite easily, and Sir James said to himself that the second Miss Brooke was certainly very agreeable as well as pretty, though not, as some people pretended, more clever and sensible than the elder sister.  He felt that he had chosen the one who was in all respects the superior; and a man naturally likes to look forward to having the best.

p. 18


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Maine Vacation

After a lovely two weeks in Maine, I’m back in Maryland.  A little recap of my vacation:  I stayed at my parents’ house in the town where I lived from fourth grade to high school graduation.  My hometown is on the small side, located along a river in central Maine.  The closest I can think of a fictional comparison is to the town Empire Falls from the Richard Russo novel of the same name.

My vacation activities were like a sampler dish of Maine.  I hiked Bigelow Mountain in western Maine with the youth group of my parents’ church.  My cousin and I took a trip to Mount Desert Island and visited some old haunts (I was born on the Island, and worked summers there while in college.)  My parents’ blueberry bushes had an abundance of berries and I helped pick them as a light summer rain fell.

There were many boat outings during my vacation.  My dad is actively trying to convert me to kayaking (both of my parents recently acquired their own.)  I kayaked on a lake, on the ocean, and on a river.  Sea kayaking was definitely my favorite because it feels more adventurous, and also I adore the Maine coast.

I had some pretty cool wildlife encounters as well.  On the hike, we spotted a squirrel running away with the white sphere of a mushroom in its mouth.  Toads and a snake also made an appearance.  One time I found myself alone on the trail and heard a small rustling.  I stood still and watched and soon a shrew came scampering around in the forest debris, making soft squeaking noises.  Standing still on a different day’s hike also afforded me a front row view of a red squirrel chattering at me, stamping its feet and brandishing its tail.

On the sea kayaking trip, we saw seals, as I mentioned in an earlier post.  They reminded me of dogs in their mannerisms.

While at the lake for a church picnic, a pair of minks burst out of the bushes chasing each other around, basically ignoring the open-mouthed children nearby.

My hometown’s river was the scene for birds of prey, including two juvenile bald eagles who were making a terrible racket.  On one trip, I was able to kayak very close to one perched in a tree.  (Unfortunately I had no camera with me at the time!)  We also saw a loon on the river.

On one day, I went to the wedding of my parents’ neighbors and afterward to my ten year high school reunion.  I had feelings of ambivalence about my reunion.  Though I had some good times in high school, mainly with the music groups and outdoors club, my overall social life was meager and rather lonely.  I made some great friends in college and after college and subsequently, high school became like another country to me.  So I was pleasantly surprised to find myself having engaging conversations with my former classmates at the reunion.  Some were not people I had many interactions with in high school, and I felt in some ways like it took a high school reunion to actually “meet” them.

A feisty elderly lady who I had known since I was nine died on my first day of vacation.  She was 96 and I was glad that I was able to be there for the graveside service, which her family held on what would have been her 97th birthday.  One of my memories of her: she taught my sisters and I to put food coloring in the vases of Queen Anne’s lace flowers.  The flowers turn the color of the dye.

As I gear up for a return to work tomorrow, I feel very satisfied with my vacation.  It was a chance to get out of my routine self, reconnect with people I don’t normally see, and indulge in natural beauty.


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Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell and a discussion of books as products of their times

1853. 257 pages (including appendices and endnotes).

Hardcover. Penguin Classics.

From: I bought this at Shiretown Books, an indie bookstore in Woodstock, VT

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself


My header of “review” will not be an entirely accurate description of the following paragraphs.  I’ll talk a little about Cranford but I’m also going to use it as a launching point for a broader topic of discussion.

Cranford is the first book of Elizabeth Gaskell that I have read.  Its gentle humor, rural locale, and rumination on days gone by made for ideal summer reading.  Gaskell’s observations of the elderly ladies of Cranford are affectionate without being too sentimental.  It’s a wonderful book and I will make sure and link to others’ reviews of it at the end of my post if you want a more detailed review.

My experience of reading Cranford spurred me to think about how books are a product of their time and culture and how that affects the reader’s perception of that book.  My edition of Cranford is annotated, with notes explaining customs of the time and place as well as literary and historical allusions.  A quick example: in the book, a character goes off to Cheltenham, and the note connected with that sentence explains that it is a spa town.  At other times Gaskell quotes poetry, plays and other writings and the notes explain who wrote it and from which work and when it was published.

At first, I was not going to read any of the ‘extra’ material provided in my edition.  For my first read, I just wanted to keep to the original text and not spoil myself with the introduction, or bother yet with the appendices of a related work of Gaskell.  However, the notes proved really useful in helping me to understand phrases and terms, context and connotations.  Indeed, I enjoyed the knowledge I was gleaning about the times in which Cranford took place.

However, then I started wondering about my own dislike of contemporary literature that includes too many pop culture references.  Recently I’ve criticized such books as You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up and All-American Girl for their frequent pop culture references.  I still stand by those criticisms for those two books, but at what point and to what saturation is referencing current culture okay? Additionally, if a contemporary book was constantly quoting other (often recent) poets and writers as Cranford does, it might come off to me as insular or pretentious.

Cranford is certainly reflective of its time and culture, but it has a transcendent quality in its story and observations of human nature.  I could never call it ‘dated’ as I have been known to do with other, more recent, books I’ve read.  Gaskell’s style of quoting other authors comes off quite naturally and not like she’s trying to name-drop (not even with Dickens who she knew quite well.)

But will books written now, set in our present-day, and that incorporate present-day culture, literature and opinions be automatically viewed as ‘dated’ by future generations?  Or maybe years and years from now, will some get their own annotated editions?

Of course, there are books like Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wonderful Life of Oscar Wao, which already comes with its own footnotes for its sci-fi culture references and notes about Dominican Republic history.  And that leads me to another facet of this discussion, which is of course in a given time or era, there are multitudes of cultures in the world.  There is no ‘one’ culture for the 2000’s even as there was no ‘one’ culture for Cranford‘s time.  One needs footnotes for Cranford not only because it was published in the 1850’s but also because it is written by an English author about a rural village in England.

So, is there a point where a book is stuck so deeply in its given culture that no one outside of it will understand it, much less enjoy it?  Does time have an affect?  For instance, I may find pop culture references hard to take in a book written now or in the 1990’s, but maybe I’m more forgiving – even intrigued – by the same choice displayed in a book, say, from the 1950’s.

While visiting with my parents, I’ve been watching episodes of “The Outer Limits” which aired in the 1960’s.  The sci-fi show clearly bears the marks of a Cold War mentality and yes, that and its special effects may make it dated, but I kind of like how it encapsulates the era in which it was made.  (I may laugh at some of the special effects though.)  But its concerns and themes still resonate today, even in its 1960’s trappings.

So perhaps, like with me and “The Outer Limits,” a book from today will be viewed later as a quaint capsule of its time and culture for its capturing of its contemporary culture.  However, looking back over what I’ve written above, I have alluded or mentioned several times the idea of ‘transcendancy.’  I think there is a need for a book to tap into some essential aspect of human nature and life and imagination to maintain relevance and accessibility with future audiences.

I feel that I’ve barely scratched the surface on the topic, so I look forward to your thoughts in the comments to extend the discussion!

As promised, more reviews of Cranford here:

A Book Lover

Becky’s Book Reviews

Books and Cooks

Books ‘N Border Collies

Dear Author

eclectic / eccentric

Let me know if I’ve missed yours and I’ll add it!


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Vacation update and favorite quotations

I’ve been having a good vacation in Maine and today was an especially lovely day: my parents and I went kayaking off of Deer Isle and a couple of its smaller neighboring islands.  Some sunbathing seals splashed into the water en masse as we drew near and for the next fifteen to twenty minutes, we could see their heads pop up around us.  Kayaking is fantastic for getting up close to nature.  Seeing the islands on the horizon reminded me of the cover of Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (my review here), which reminded me of the wonderfulness of that book, and the awesomeness of islands in both reality and in fiction.

Although books have been on my mind, I have not been reading a lot of them this vacation.  I slowly worked my way through Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford and just finished it this morning.  I’ve also been catching up on my blog reading.

In my stack of books for this trip, I had brought along a book of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essays.  After reading one of the essays, I realized that – while I like his ideas and writing – it is simply not vacation-mode reading material.

I definitely plan on returning to the book of essays post-vacation.  I have a great regard for Emerson based on remembrance of high school readings, and most of all, for writing the following statement:

Finish every day and be done with it. For manners and for wise living it is a vice to remember. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. To-morrow is a new day; you shall begin it well and serenely, and with too high a spirit to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

I first came across the quotation in an internship supervisor’s office, where a partial version of it was pinned up on the wall.  Years later, I put the above fuller version up in my own office where it still resides.  I was hoping that it would show up in the book of essays, but it turns out (according to wikiquote) the statement is from a letter Emerson wrote to his daughter.

My favorite part of the quotation is where it says “some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in.”  I love how it matter-of-factly acknowledges and accepts that we will mess up and that people or events will turn out weirdly.  And though I don’t think that I could or maybe even should completely forget those mistakes or absurdities, I can at least not make them a burden on the next day.

A great companion quote is from the Book of Matthew in the Bible which states “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.  Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (chapter 6, verse 34)

Together these quotations urge me not to be consumed by either regret about the past day(s) or by worry for the future day.  I often consider these two quotations as calming word-companions for my everyday living.

Do you have any quotations that have worked themselves into your everyday life?


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Blood Cross by Faith Hunter

2010. 321 pages. Paperback. RoC.

From: I bought this from Barnes & Noble.

For the challenge: 2nd Reading Challenge

Series Synopsis:

Jane Yellowrock is a Cherokee skinwalker, a human that can change into the form of an animal (usually that of a mountain lion).  In this version of the world, vampires and witches are publicly known supernatural beings.  As far as Jane knows, she is the only one of her kind, and so she protects her supernatural identity from all but her closest friends.  Jane kills rogue vampires for a living.

Book synopsis:

In Blood Cross, Jane must find and kill a vampire who has been siring new, bloodthirsty vampires and letting them loose in New Orleans.  (Normally, new vampires are kept in captivity until their sanity returns.)  She uses her tenuous alliances with vampires, their servants, New Orleans cops, and some vigilante ex-Marines to combat this new threat.

Meanwhile, her witch-friend Molly is visiting Jane, along with her two children.  As Jane researches the history of New Orleans vampires and hunts using her shape-shifter form, she discovers a disturbing trend of witch children disappearing.  It isn’t long before this threat hits close to home.


Blood Cross is the sequel to Skinwalker, which I read earlier this year (see review here).  I am very attracted to the shape-shifter element.  Some of my favorite scenes in both books involve Jane when she is in one of her animal forms.  I think this fascination traces back to my childhood, when I would pretend that I was an animal of some sort, preferably a predator.  So when I say that I wanted even more scenes of Jane in ‘Beast’ form, that’s my bias showing.

What I like about this series is that there usually aren’t easy ways out and the short cuts have consequences.  Blood Cross shows the fallout from the first book: Jane’s completion of her first mission in Skinwalker was messy with collateral damage and in Blood Cross, several vampires are seeking revenge.  And though Jane has access to a vampire with tremendous healing abilities – a nice shortcut – said vampire is certifiably nuts, which makes using her a risky move.

I also like that Jane is a planner and does not rely on luck, though she can have lucky moments sometimes.  She has to look through police case files and conduct various bouts of reconnaissance before she can take action.

The witch-magic elements of Blood Cross were not particularly compelling to me, and unfortunately they play a huge role in the climactic showdown.  I didn’t think the book provided enough background knowledge on magic for me to fully invest in what was going on in the final battle.  One witch uses a black ward of magic to combat another’s spells and gem-based power.  As a reader, all I can do is shrug and say, sure I suppose that would work if you say so.

Blood Cross is racier than the first book, but primarily just in the first third of the book.  And there seems to be more focus on Jane Yellowrock looking ‘hot’ either in a dress or in her leather motorcycle gear.  I much preferred her long description about her tea obsession from the first book to this increased attention on her physical attractiveness.  Of course, with urban fantasy, these aspects often come with the territory.

[Edit: I meant to add a quick critique of the writing, particularly the over-use of sentence fragments, a pet peeve of mine.  The fragments seem appropriate when Jane is in animal-form, but it annoyingly bleeds over into other passages of the book.  The previously mentioned strengths of the book help balance this out, but it is still worth mentioning.]

Faith Hunter’s website hints that a future book (maybe #4) will take place in the Appalachians, which is Jane Yellowrock’s actual home, not New Orleans.  I’m intrigued by stories set in Appalachia and look forward to that change in setting for this series.

If you’re already a fan of the urban fantasy genre, this is a good series to check out.


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal

Deep Secret by Diana Wynne Jones 1997. 383 pages. Hardcover. Tor.

From: the public library

For: Diana Wynne Jones Week hosted by Jenny’s Books


Rupert Venables is a junior Magid, with responsibilities for Earth and also for the Koryfonic Empire.  The Koryfonic Empire is falling apart after its despot dies without an identifiable heir.  All the other Magids and higher-ups tell Rupert to just let the Koryfonic Empire self-destruct.  Meanwhile, on Earth, Rupert’s Magid mentor, Stan dies and Rupert must find another replacement Magid.  Rupert manages to get all the candidates gathered at a sci-fi / fantasy convention in England.  Unfortunately, none of the candidates look promising to him.  But it is at the convention where the problems of the Koryfonic Empire spill over into Earth’s affairs.


Though I already had Deep Secret on my to-read list, it was this hilarious post by Jenny from Jenny’s Books that had me bump it up in priority.  And when Jenny announced Diana Wynne Jones week, I requested Deep Secret from another branch of the county library system.

Deep Secret is one of those fantasy books that throws you into its world without bothering too much with explanations.  Rupert does explain some aspects, but there’s plenty of instances where I just had to roll with it.  And that’s okay.  I prefer to be balancing on the edge of understanding rather than to have the book’s world diminished by over-explanation.

It’s a clever book, saturating its details with wit and humor.  Rupert’s mentor, Stan, continues to mentor Rupert after death as a disembodied voice that blasts classical music from Rupert’s car.  Rupert’s brother transports through worlds with quack chicks in his p0ckets.

Deep Secret does get serious however and there are some shocking deaths.  It also has some surprises and twists up its sleeve that I didn’t foresee.

The book does come off a little dated: it seemed to have a strong 1990’s essence.  Maybe it was the cover I had, or the constant faxing in situations where today we would email or text.  Rupert Venables is a computer programmer as his cover job, and so the datedness of the technology comes out through his discussions of his work.  It can’t really be helped and so it seems unjust to level this as a criticism, but it still took me out of the story a bit.

I wouldn’t say that  Deep Secret blew me away or converted me to fandom of the author, but I did enjoy the book, finishing the last few pages in a power outage by the light of the setting sun.


Filed under Fantasy, Supernatural & Surreal