Monthly Archives: December 2010

Christmastime in Iowa

These are pictures from Iowa, Monday, December 27th.  A hoarfrost had developed on the trees and plants that was quite striking and beautiful.  My family went for a brief walk ‘around the block’ later in the afternoon.  I put ‘around the block’ in quotation marks, because I associate blocks with cities and this tiny Iowa town has a population of maybe 600 people.  My two sisters are running at me in the last shot.  I miss them a lot and wish we lived closer to each other, though we pick up with each other easily enough whenever we reunite.

It was a time of good food & games and music.  I received some nice gifts including some books (yay!).   I also received the not-so-nice gift of a cold (thanks Dad!), under which I am currently suffering.  I came home on Tuesday night and worked on Wednesday and Thursday.  I am very glad for the day off today, in which I can blow my nose, read and write blog posts, and laze around until a low-key New Year’s celebration at my cousin’s house tonight.


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Howards End by E. M. Forster

1910. Bantam. Paperback. 271 pages.

From: the public library

For the challenge: Read 19 Books Older than I am

In a nutshell:

Helen and Margaret Schlegel are a pair of vibrantly intelligent sisters.  They live comfortably in London, enjoying the arts and participating in intellectual discussions with like-minded friends and acquaintances.  At the book’s start, Helen is visiting the Wilcox family at their home, Howards End.  The Schlegels and the Wilcox family had become acquainted while both families were traveling in Germany.  The Wilcoxes are very different from the Schlegels – more conventional and ‘practical.’  The two families seem fated to be intertwined, in ways that are unexpected and sometimes uncomfortable, as each family has suspicions about the ‘ways’ of the other family.


I read E. M. Forster’s Where Angels Fear to Tread when I was a teenager, but hardly recall the experience.  So Howards End almost feels like the first true read I’ve had of Forster.

Although there is a definite plot in Howards End, its themes and writing were what I liked the most.  I particularly resonated with Forster’s musings on belonging to a place.  For the past five years, I have lived in several different dwellings and will likely move to a new one next year.  I have some affection for my current apartment, but I dream of living – and staying – in a place that I love.  Forster’s book thus struck a chord with me.

Forster’s comments on the subject of moving still seem relevant for example:

When a move is imminent, furniture becomes ridiculous . . . Chairs, tables, pictures, books, that had rumbled down to them through the generations, must rumble forward again like a slide of rubbish to which she longed to give the final push and send toppling into the sea . . . We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty.

p. 117-118

Very little of the book takes place at Howards End.  Instead the house operates mostly as a beckoning symbol of belonging to a place.  Only one of the Wilcox family members truly treasures Howards End.  Most of them see it as merely a place on which to add ‘improvements.’

The Wilcoxes seemed familiar to me.  Margaret Schlegel thinks of the Wilcoxes, particularly the senior Mr. Wilcox, as having their “hands on the ropes.”  It’s a recurring phrase meaning those who are ‘in the know’, who do not flounder for direction, but set off purposefully on a stable career or life path.  And yet on the flipside, the Wilcoxes have no toleration or even understanding for the slightest eccentricity.  Margaret’s compassion for a child that has lost its pet is an emotional extravagance.  The Schlegel sisters are judged to have read books that “suitable for men only.”  Maybe I haven’t run into people with the latter opinion, but I’ve certainly encountered people who are startlingly judgmental about the most innocuous of oddities.

The Schlegel sisters have their own follies of course.  Margaret Schlegel gives in too much to her fiancee, for example, all the while thinking that each little surrender ‘doesn’t really matter’ and that her inner self remains untouched by these.  But it’s the little things that whittle us away, of course.

There are many more themes and ideas to be explored in Howards End.  By saying so, I hope I don’t imply that my reading experience was some sort of academic exercise.  These were themes that engaged me personally, not in a scholarly fashion.  And there is good humor in Forster’s writing too.  Take this fun snippet:

[Charles] and Dolly are sitting in deck-chairs, and their motor is regarding them placidly from its garage across the lawn.  A short-frocked edition of Charles also regards them placidly, a perambulator edition is squeaking; a third edition is expected shortly.  Nature is turning out Wilcoxes in this peaceful abode, so that they may inherit the earth.

p. 146

I know there is a film adaptation with Helena Bonham Carter and Emma Thompson, that I would be interesting in seeing.  It would be missing Forster’s writing and commentary but I’d be interested in how the filmmakers and cast interpret the characters, as my impressions of them in the book were quite changeable.

Others’ reviews:

A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook – “Howards End is the kind of book that leaves one overwhelmed with its ambitious scope, and that the omnipresence of symbols renders one misgiving as to where to begin interpreting the meanings.”

Amused, Bemused and Confused – “This book is both a microscope and a telescope.  It looks into people’s innermost motivations, and then swings right out to ask some basic, essential questions.  What is art?  What is beauty?  What is England?”

Love, Laughter and a Touch of Insanity – “The character development wasn’t half bad, but I found the writing a little confusing and very anticlimactic. The last couple of chapters were the best in the book, but I thought the writing was boring and without passion.”


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Merry Christmas!

I meant to write some more review posts before Christmas, but time got away from me!  Tomorrow morning I will be flying out to Chicago, and then traveling by car to Iowa.  My parents and sisters and I are all gathering at my Uncle Ed’s house for Christmas.  It will be the first time we will be celebrating Christmas there.  Should be fun!  (Should also be quite cold . . . )

Of course, I’m stashing away some books to read – books from the most recent Library Loot post as well as Rosy Thornton’s Tapestry of Love, which I received from the author a few weeks ago (yay!).  I hope to be back and posting on December 29th.  I have a number of unreviewed books including E. M. Forster’s Howards End and Jeannette Walls’ Half-Broke Horses.  I also have in mind Search Bonanza Part 2 and some sort of 2010 wrap-up post.

Until then, it will continue to be quiet on the blog.

So, for all who will be celebrating the holiday this Saturday, a Merry Christmas to you!  Happy holidays and happy reading!


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Search Term Bonanza: Part One

I should thank Nicki of Fyrefly’s Book Blog for two things: one is her awesome customized Book Blog Search Engine which I use to find other bloggers’ quotes for my reviews.  The other is her semi-regular posts of her blog’s more unusual search terms, accompanied by hilarious responses to each.  This is her most recent such post.

For non-bloggers and non-Wordpress bloggers who may not know, the WordPress statistics show bloggers – among other things – what search terms have led people to your blog.

I liked Fyrefly’s posts so much that I have been collecting odd and interesting search terms all year, so that I may post the ‘best’ ones in a year-end bonanza post.  As I’ve accumulated quite a few, this will just be one part.

Sometimes the hilarity comes as a result of WordPress’ truncation of the search query, according to character limit:

critics on the guernsey literary and pot

On a movie discussion board I used to frequent, posters would sometimes made lists such as “great movies to watch while you’re high”.  I haven’t seen a literary equivalent, but I’m not sure The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society would be the obvious choice for such a list.

I get many search terms that are clearly from students looking for answers to homework assignments.  A fairly blatant example:

19. describe the creature’s life in the

– That one is for Frankenstein, which remains a very popular subject for my blog’s search terms.

why is there so many details about frank

effect of desertion on the monster in fr

what did frankenstein forget to do

what did frankenstein in cemeteries?

frankenstein monster feeling sorry

why did the creature in frankenstein never recieve a name

– For some reason, the mix of bad grammar and the question framing always makes the Frankenstein queries sound childlike and plaintive, as if the student is really concerned about why the creature never received a name.

books that frankenstein should’ve read

– I’ll put this one to you, fellow bloggers.  What books would you recommend to Frankenstein (or his creature, who read books while hiding)?


bristly jones diary

– Bridget’s toothbrush tells all.

sense and sensibility pain cover

This may be a case where you’d judge a book by its cover.

is thady from castle rackrent irsish

Is ‘irsish’ what you call tax collectors from the Emerald Isle?

krit krat

– If you take a certain crunchy candy bar and Edwidge Danticat’s book and mix it together you get this.

ficks peole that are made out of metle

– I don’t even know what to speculate on with this one.

And then you get the overachieving searchers:

¿krik? ¡krak!

– I am impressed, especially as the book’s cover didn’t even have those upside-down punctuation marks.

More search terms to come on a later post . . .


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Library Loot! December 15th

It’s been a long time since I have done a Library Loot post, though I have certainly been using the library often.  Library Loot is a meme hosted by Marg of The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader and Claire of The Captive Reader.  I had a few holds come in this past Saturday and then picked up a couple of interlibrary loans and one book from the shelf today.

Here is what I have:

Manhood for Amateurs by Michael Chabon – I really liked Ayelet Waldman’s book Bad Mother that I read earlier this year.  It made me curious to read her husband’s book about parenthood.  This will also be my first book by Chabon.

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman – After seeing some buzz about The Imperfectionists, I added myself to the hold list months ago and now I have it – yay.  This novel is about a small English-language newspaper and the people who work for it.  I am intrigued by books that focus on people-at-work and that aren’t mysteries or thrillers, where that focus is commonplace.

The Christmas Letters by Lee Smith – I love Smith’s book Fair and Tender Ladies, and I also enjoyed Black Mountain Breakdown.  When I heard about this book from Letters from a Hill Farm, I leapt at the chance to read something seasonal by an author I trust.

Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson – I really enjoy the film adaptation of this book, and am looking forward to reading the original source material!  Ideally, I was going to have Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand checked out at the same time (for a challenge), but alas, the hold list for that book is very long.

Once in a Blue Moon by Leanna Ellis – I used to read Christian fiction a lot when I was younger and, to put it simply, I burnt myself out on them.  However, now and then, I will make forays into the genre again.  In Ellis’ book, a reporter meets an old conspiracy theorist while doing a feature on the moon landing anniversary.  Turns out the old man also knew her mother, who died mysteriously when the reporter was born.

The Best Travel Writing 2008: True Stories from Around the World – I decided to pick up a book of travel essays while at the library.  I have read two books from the Best American Travel Writing series, but haven’t read from this series yet.  Bonus: introduction by Sara Wheeler, who is a travel writer I admire.


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Mini-review time!

Today, I thought I’d lessen my review backlog by a bit with some mini-reviews:

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

2008. Viking. Hardcover. 372 pages.

For the challenge: 2nd Reading


I had enjoyed Brooks’ Year of Wonders (except for the ending), and when one of my cousins suggesting reading People of the Book as part of a Facebook book club, I got on board.  As with Year of Wonders, Brooks’ level of historical detail is fascinating.  The book follows the history of a beautiful illuminated book, starting with its rescue in 1994 Sarajevo and going back to 15th century Spain.  My favorite section was that of Ruti Ben Shoushah in Tarragona 1492.

While the book’s survival is a story of triumph, the stories of the “people of the book” are fairly grim.  The clash of religions is in the foreground, and the persecution of Jews throughout European history.  The framing story is that of an Australian conservator who has been called in to analyze and delicately repair the beautiful book.

People of the Book is pleasing in an intellectual way, with its careful renderings of times past.  The main ‘character’ is the book and it’s the people who are transient, briefly illuminated by their contact with the book and then fading out of view.

Fables: The Deluxe Edition Book One by Bill Willingham

Includes: Legends in Exile (2002) and Animal Farm (2003)

2009. DC Comics. Hardcover. 264 pages.


My brother-in-law, who reads graphic novels more than I do, recommended this series to me a long time ago.  I’ve since seen the Fables series and spinoffs reviewed around the blogosphere.  This deluxe edition is a compilation of two volumes, each with five chapters: Legends in Exile and Animal Farm.  The concept is immediately intriguing: characters from fables and fairytales have fled their homelands and set up a community (Fabletown) in New York City.  Old King Cole is presiding mayor of the community, with a steely Snow White doing most of the work behind-the-scenes.  Some of the animal-characters have changed into human form, such as the Big Bad Wolf, and those who can’t must live upstate out of the view of normal humans (the “mundanes”).

Fables uses this concept for all its worth.  It’s a lot of fun seeing familiar characters transformed by their new setting, and also seeing how their lives have played out since the happy-ever-after.  Snow White and Prince Charming have long since divorced.  Goldilocks is a militant gun-toting radical.  Jack (of the Beanstalk) is still making foolish gambles with money.

The story panels offer a good mix of humor and tension, as well as complexity.  I loved the illustrations by James Jean that started off each new chapter.  I’ve already requested Volume #3 Storybook Love through interlibrary loan.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins

2009. Scholastic. Hardcover. 391 pages.

For the challenge: 2nd Reading


I raced through Hunger Games‘ sequel almost as fast as I’d read through that first book.  Collins knows how to ratchet up the tension and raise the stakes.  Also, I love how distinct even the minor characters are.  I’m a big fan of Cinna, Katniss’ subversive and masterful designer from the Capitol.  Collins also knows how to leave you on a cliff-hanger!  I am regrettably number 200-something on the waiting list for the last of the trilogy, Mockingjay.  I’m banking on the other library patrons reading through it as fast as I’ve read these first two books.


(All books reviewed above were borrowed from the public library.)


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Reading Plans for 2011

As I wade into December with read, partly read, and unread books crowded around my feet and in my bookcase and in my closet . . . I’m thinking about all the lovely books I discovered this year, and anticipating what bookish discoveries will be made next year.

It’s been a little over a year since I first started blogging (I can’t believe I forgot to do a one-year anniversary post in November!).  As a newbie book blogger, I had little restraint when it came to joining reading challenges.  As of today, at least, I do not have plans to join any new challenges for 2011, except maybe RIP around Halloween-time.

I do not regret joining challenges this year as I read lots of wonderful books as a result.  However, just like one may let a field run fallow for a year before using it again for planting, I think I need to have next year be one less ‘guided’ and more subject to whim.

I am not completely without plans, however.

Plan #1: I plan to continue reading books from the list I created for my personal challenge: Read 19 Books Older than Myself.

I actually have read nine off that list (Howard’s End to-be-reviewed).  Add to that, I read six other books this year that are older than I am: The Dud Avocado, The Summer Book, Kindred, Black Mountain Breakdown, The Haunting of Hill House, and The Inimitable Jeeves (on audio).  So even though I will not complete my challenge by the end of this year, I am thrilled by the amount of ‘older’ books I have added to my reading diet.

Plan #2: I will deliberately build a niche in reviews of travel writing.

You may or may not know that I have a special fondness for travel writing.  These include books like Susan Jane Gilman’s riveting Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven (her 1986 travels in China) and the Best American Travel Writing essay anthologies.  I want to explore this genre more thoroughly next year, for my own pleasure and also because I have aspirations of being a sort of blogger-ambassador for the genre.

Plan #3: Read more books from authors around the world and from people of color.

Certainly, there are wonderful challenges out there that will doubtless provide me with some great titles to check out, but I do not want to formally join a challenge.  This goal is definitely inspired/encouraged by blog posts from Eva (A Striped Armchair) and a recent blog post from Raych (books i done read) reminded me again of why I want to diversify my reading.

So there you have it!  For now, anyway. 🙂


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Challenge Wrap-Up: What’s In a Name

I actually finished the last book for this challenge more than two weeks ago, but neglected to post the wrap-up!

What’s in a Name

Host: Beth F


Goal: Read books with titles that contain a word in each of the following categories: food, body of water, title, plant, place name and a music term.


1. (Food) The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy [review]

– This ended up being one of my favorite books I read this year, a great romp in France with the irresponsible but irrepressible Sally Jay Gorce.

2. (Body of Water) River Secrets by Shannon Hale [review]

I was a little nervous of Hale writing a male protagonist, as all I’d read of her books prior to River Secrets had female protagonists.  However, this book ended up being my favorite so far of the Books of Bayern.

3. (Title) Princess of the Midnight Ball by Jessica Day George [review]

I enjoyed this while I was reading it, but it’s not an especially memorable book now.

4. (Plant) You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up by Annabelle Gurwitch and Jeff Kahn [review]

I remember this book reminded me a lot of Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother, which I also read this year.  Unfortunately for Gurwitch and Kahn’s book, I liked Waldman’s book much better.

5. (Place Name) Stasiland: Stories From Behind the Berlin Wall by Anna Funder [review]

Another favorite read of the year!  It features excellent accounts from citizens of the former German Democratic Republic.

6. (Musical Term) La’s Orchestra Saves the World by Alexander McCall Smith [review]

My first book by the prolific McCall Smith k and it was rather underwhelming.

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Five favorite Christmas music albums

One of my favorite aspects of this time of year is breaking out my Christmas CD’s.   Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day is open season.  Outside of that time, I do not play Christmas music, except if I need to practice for an upcoming Christmas church service performance.

I first started collecting Christmas CD’s in college.  I think the first two were Point of Grace’s album, A Christmas Story and The Nutcracker Suite.  Since then, I’ve acquired at least one new album every year.

My taste in Christmas music runs to carols and classics, and fairly traditional versions of those.  I am open to new and different musical interpretations of traditional holiday songs, but there have been some really, really awful results, so I have to be careful.

I just tried to create a list of my favorite Christmas songs, but soon realized how long a list that would be.  I’ll just throw out a few: “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, “O Come O Come Emmanuel” “Coventry Carol” “Carol of the Bells” “Sleigh Ride” “The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)”.

My list of Christmas songs that I don’t like is shorter – inane pop songs like “Last Christmas,” and most songs with Santa in the title.  It’s not a principle thing with the Santa songs, but they tend not to be that good.  “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”, “Santa Baby,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” . . . I’ll go as far as tolerating them, but I don’t enjoy them.

More to the point, however, here are my favorite Christmas albums from my collection:

1. Point of Grace – A Christmas Story

I thought I should start off with one of my first Christmas CD’s.  If you haven’t hear of them, Point of Grace is a contemporary Christian music group made up of four women.  Their blend of voices works perfectly for Christmas songs.  I like their medleys of “Let it Snow/Sleigh Ride” and “Carol of the Bells / What Child is This.”  Their original songs slide in smoothly with the carols for the most part.

2. Anuna – Winter Songs (also sold under the title Christmas Songs)

This is an album of ethereal, almost other-worldly beauty and a favorite of my family’s when we all get together.

Here is a youtube video of their gorgeous version of “Silent Night”:

3. Burl Ives’ Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

I don’t feel compelled to watch Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer every Christmas, but I really love listening to the music.  When I was little, I was especially taken with the song “There’s Always Tomorrow” which Rudolph’s little reindeer girlfriend sings to him.  This is definitely a nostalgia-packed CD for me.


4.  Cherish the Ladies – On Christmas Night

Truth be told, this might be my #1 Christmas album.  It’s a tremendously appealing mix of sung carols and Irish reels and jigs.

Here’s a video with samplings from the album:

5. Over the Rhine – Snow Angels

In a departure from my usual Christmas music fare, this album is comprised mostly of original music by husband/wife Linford Detweiler and Karin Bergquist.  The songs are soulful and a bit melancholy.  My roommate calls this a coffeehouse Christmas album.

Karin Bergquist’s voice is so low, lovely and creative.  My favorite song is probably “White Horse” but I also dearly like “All I Ever Get For Christmas is Blue” and “Darlin'”.

A couple of other good albums from my collection deserving of mention:

David Benoit – Remembering Christmas: The influence of this jazz pianist’s close association with Vince Guaraldi’s Charlie Brown is clear on this instrumental album.

Jerry Read Smith & Lisa Marie Smith – One Wintry Night: features dulcimer / flute instrumentals

The following video is not from the Christmas album, but it gives an idea of the style:




Filed under Music Review

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

2009 (audio).  High Bridge Audio.  8 discs. 9.5 hrs

Translation (2008) by Alison Anderson

Readers: Barbara Rosenblat as Renee and Cassandra Morris as Paloma.

In a nutshell:

Renee Michel is the concierge at a Parisian apartment building inhabited by the rich and pretentious.  She keeps up a dull facade to the tenants but has an active life of the mind, fueled by philosophy books, Tolstoy and Japanese films.  Paloma Josse is a 12 year old girl whose family resides in the building.  She too is very intelligent but despairs of finding meaning to life.

When a kind and observant Japanese gentleman moves into a recently vacated flat in their building, his friendship with both Paloma and Renee will cause them to reassess their view of life.


Have you ever listened to a person rant about how only he or she sees the world clearly, and all other people are mindless sheep?  I’ve mostly encountered this sort of person on the internet, especially in the comment sections of news articles.  (One of the many reasons why one should avoid the online comment sections of news articles – it’s better for the blood pressure.)

Renee and Paloma remind me of that person.  The beginning of the book, especially, is riddled with almost-misanthropic musings.  The introduction of the inperturbably gentle Mr. Ozu as a character was a welcome reprieve to all the bitterness.  Also Renee and Paloma’s commentary on the world around them softens as a result of their acquaintance with Mr. Ozu.  I was definitely a fan of Mr. Ozu.  He reminds me of those awesome souls who approach relationships simply and without pretense, who seem never to have heard of the word ‘angst.’

I was not an overall fan of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, however.  A major portion of the book consists of either Renee or Paloma’s inner discourse on a subject or insight into an observed event.  I don’t object to this rambling style in and of itself, but the content better be worth dragging the reader down into it.  Unfortunately, I did not find the content to be all that illuminating or intriguing.  Yes, there were some passages that I did enjoy, but mostly they teetered on being tedious.  I think I would have managed worse in print.  Both audio book narrators were very capable and this helped me through the long-winded nature of their characters’ inner monologues.

Barbery’s decision to throw some abrupt and unnecessary drama into the ending further soured me on the book.  Throughout the book, the characters are defined by their grasp of subtlety in an obtuse world.  The plot twist at the end seemed decidedly unsubtle in its play for the reader’s emotions.

I’m glad I finished the book, if only so I can throw my opinion into the mixed bag of responses to The Elegance of the Hedgehog.

Other reviews:

books i done read – hilarious (negative) review that is too spoiler-iffic to quote here.

Shelf Love – “I understand that the author is a professor of philosophy. This shows in the elegance with which she discusses ideas. But she is also a writer who gives us a lovely story peopled with interesting characters, and manages to tug at our heartstrings, too.”

Vulpes Libris – “At times, these [digressions] read like a rather transparent vehicle for the author’s pet subjects . . . and the integrity of the characters’ voices sometimes suffers as a result.”


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