Monthly Archives: December 2011

Holiday Post!

I’ve been happily occupied with my family’s visit over the past week. I was visited by my parents (who live in Maine) and my younger sister (who lives in Minnesota). My older sister and her husband could not gather with us this year. Fortunately, we saw them at Thanksgiving.

My parents and sister came on the Friday night before Christmas. We went to a candlelight service at my church on Christmas Eve and regular service on Christmas morning. We had Christmas dinner at our Virginia relatives’ house, which involved wonderful food, playing the card game Hand and Foot, and paying much attention to my cousin’s new baby.

The day after Christmas, we went downtown to the National Mall to see the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. My sister had not seen the World War II Memorial either, and neither she nor I had seen the FDR Memorial which is right next to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, around the Tidal Basin.

Quote from FDR Memorial

Then we walked over the Arlington Memorial Bridge to Arlington Cemetery. My mom had heard about a man from Maine who donates several thousand wreaths to be laid at headstones in the cemetery. And there they were:

For the rest of their visit, we played lots of games, including several rounds of Settlers of Catan and Carcassone. We also went out and saw War Horse. My younger sister flew back to Minnesota on Wednesday night and my parents drove back to Maine yesterday morning.

I received some bookish gifts for Christmas, including lovely Penguin cloth-bound editions of Pride & Prejudice (strangely I have never owned a copy of this book) and Middlemarch (my own used copy features a stranger’s annotations). My parents gave me the Penguins as well as a book called The Dam Committee by Earl H. Smith, which is a mystery set in Maine. My mom keeps an eye out for local authors and book signings.

My uncle gave me Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature by Linda Lear. I don’t generally gravitate toward biographies, but I trust my uncle’s instincts. My older sister sent me a CD called Jane Austen Entertains which consists of vocal and instrumental performances of music from Jane Austen’s own library. Very cool.

This morning, I went to a nearby Starbucks and met up with Frances of Nonsuch Books who was my Persephone Secret Santa. She presented me with Noel Streatfield’s Saplings, a Persephone I had heard good things about from others’ reviews and had caught my interest. We chatted for a little while about our holidays, books and blogs and D.C. Hopefully we can have another D.C. area blogger get-together not too long from now.

I have vague plans of catching up with my reviews this New Year’s long weekend (for I have off work on Monday). So I might put up a few posts soon. In the meantime, Happy New Year to all of you out there!

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Library Loot: December 21, 2011

Library Loot is a meme hosted by Claire of Captive Reader and Marg of The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader.

As I’m taking the week after Christmas off to be with my family who are staying with me, starting this Friday, I figured I’d stop off at the library and pick up a few reads. We’re a reading family, so I imagine there will be a little time for that. And also after they leave, there will be the New Year weekend where I might also sneak in some reading. So here is what I picked up:

County Chronicle by Angela Thirkell – I actually have no idea what this is about, but Claire of The Captive Reader keeps checking out Thirkell books and I’m curious.

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim – I think Claire has mentioned this author and this book before. I do know a smidgen of what this is about – four women going to stay in the same house on the Mediterranean, I think.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark – After reading The Secret History by Donna Tartt and watching the movie Cracks, I have seen this book referenced several times. It’s short and will also be the first time I’ve read Muriel Spark.

Farthing by Jo Walton – first in an alternate history trilogy, where England made a peace agreement with Hitler. This one has been on my list for a while. Since then I’ve added many of Walton’s books to my to-read list, but this is still the first one I will read by her.

Sun and Moon, Ice and Snow by Jessica Day George – I read another book by this author, Princess of the Midnight Ball that was a retelling of the Twelve Dancing Princesses and it was okay, but I read in several reviews that this book by hers is really good. It’s a retelling of the Nordic tale, East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Mouse Guard Fall 1152 and Mouse Guard Winter 1152 by David Petersen – I read the Fall 1152 graphic novel last year but want to read it again before reading the next one in the series. The mice are very fierce and have important things to do, but they are also darn adorable while they’re about their business.

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Persephone Secret Santa Revealed!

I participated, along with other bloggers, in the Persephone Secret Santa, where bloggers gave the gift of Persephone books. Persephone is a UK publisher known for publishing rediscovered /overlooked early and mid-20th century books with beautiful dove-grey covers. My Secret Santee was Amy of The House of Seven Tails, which had the happy side-effect of introducing me to a new-to-me blogger. I picked out Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Making of a Marchioness for Amy. I haven’t read it myself, but I’ve heard good things in the blogosphere about it.

And I just discovered today that my Secret Santa is Frances of Nonsuch Books. I’m thrilled because I met Frances at a gathering of D.C. area book bloggers last month, and she is one of the ones who persuaded me into joining the Persephone Secret Santa. Frances has suggested – since we live quite near each other – that she and I get together later this week, and she will present the gift in person and we can chat over coffee or tea. So that is the plan. What a lovely surprise!

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Pride and Prejudice at Round House Theatre (Advent with Austen)

Advent with Austen is a blogging event that I heard of weeks ago and kept meaning to officially sign up for, but never did – until now, I guess! The event is hosted by Yvann of Reading, Fueled by Tea with co-hosts Alex of The Sleepless Reader, Nymeth, Iris on Books, and Teadevotee.

The event encourages participation in things Jane Austen from reading (or re-reading) her books, or reading books about her, to watching film adaptations.

I am currently rereading Northanger Abbey and plan to watch one of the more recent adaptations of Sense & Sensibility. A couple of weeks ago, however, I got the opportunity to experience Jane Austen in a way new-to-me: I saw a play adaptation of Pride and Prejudice at the Round House Theatre in Bethesda, MD.

I actually wasn’t thinking of Advent with Austen when I decided to go see the play. I had received a flyer in the mail from Round House Theatre early in the year, set it aside, and asked my friend M. in November if she wanted to go. So she and her co-worker both joined me. They were acquainted with Pride and Prejudice by way of Colin Firth. I myself haven’t read the book for a number of years, and so the film adaptations were the most fresh on my mind also.

I liked Round House Theatre as a venue very much. I felt that all of us in the audience were nicely close to the stage, so as to catch the nuances of expression and tone. The adaptation and performances definitely did great service to Austen’s wit and humor. I felt that we were laughing or smiling throughout the whole play. All of the cast was strong, but I’ll confess that Susan Lynskey who played Caroline Bingley was one of my favorites. She pronounced everything with this nasally condescension that was just superb. I’ve never enjoyed that character as much as I did in this play adaptation.

My friend’s co-worker exclaimed in the intermission that she was in love with Mr. Collins (played by James Konicek). He is definitely one of the most comic characters in Austen’s books. I loved the way Konicek launched into tones of adoration about his patroness, Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and of course the proposal scene with Lizzie was fantastic.

Lizzie as played by Kate Cook was very easy to like. Mr. Darcy was played by Michael Brusasco and I was very impressed with how he rolled out the long complicated sentences of his doomed proposal speech to Lizzie. There are no do-overs with plays, so for him to make that speech and not make it seem laborious at all, but full of expression, had my eyebrows raised in appreciation. They both got quite cute later in the play when they run into each other at Pemberley and are both shy of each other.

Several of the cast were (sensibly) doubled up in parts (e.g. the same actress playing Mary Bennet and Anne de Bourgh) and the dance scenes of course could not convey the crowds of people as could be present in a film which employs extras. But that didn’t bother me at all as the whole experience invited familiarity and intimacy, wowing with strong performances and clever scene-changes rather than by spectacle.

All three of us were high of the experience afterwards. For those of you who are in the D.C. metropolitan area, the play is running through December 31st – just saying. 🙂

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A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

2010. Knopf. Hardcover. 274 pages.

From: the library

Recommendation from: books i done read

In a nutshell:

This is a book of interconnected stories, with a different character as protagonist in each story. All the characters are loosely associated with each other, and a number of them work in the music industry.

 

Review:

In form, A Visit from the Goon Squad reminded me of Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, that was also a book of interconnected short stories. But after finishing A Visit from the Goon Squad, I also thought of one of my favorite books, My Life by Lyn Hejinian, an experimental autobiography I first read in college. I didn’t love Egan’s book as I did Hejinian’s but I did like it, and there were aspects of it that brought a couple quotes from Hejinian to mind, and I have decided to use those quotes as a frame for my review. (Hejinian’s quotes are the ones in bold.)

It isn’t a small world, but there are many ways of dividing it into small parts.

I would get tired of interconnected short-story novels if I read them all the time, but I thought Egan used the form well. There was a definite pleasure in jumping into each new story/chapter and figuring out where it fit in chronologically and in the web of characters. Also, her story/chapter endings were very strong. Characters often found some sense of emotional resolution or realization, but I didn’t find them too pat. Scenes that stick in my mind include a character hiding in the night darkness of her own lawn after making a shattering discovery; another character and her daughter retiring to a quiet life after a dangerous international trip; a runaway young woman and her uncle watching the sunset out of a window in her squalid apartment in Europe.

It seemed that we had hardly begun and we were already there, watching people for an instant framed in windows, never finding out what happens to them, or what they mean.

A frustration with short stories is that sometimes I don’t know why this snippet of a character’s life was chosen, and most of all, why the author ended the story where he or she ended it. My favorite aspect of Goon Squad was the way Egan would “zoom out” various characters’ life paths . That is, within the flow of the story, Egan would insert in something like “so-and-so would later go on to attend university in New York City, become a brilliant engineer and then marry a girl named Lulu” (except a little longer than my paraphrase.) These “zoom-outs” were primarily used in the safari story although I seem to remember them cropping up in other stories as well. I don’t have the book on hand to check.

I think why I liked this device so well is that it emphasizes how fast life passes by. It’s like that film effect where the flicker of images is sped up faster than real-time – say on crowded city street – and then suddenly the camera lingers on a person’s face for a drawn-out pause, before taking off again. In these stories, we’re in that pause, we’re in that slowed-down present where details are felt in full, and everything is happening in the now. The future may be a zoomed-out blip at this point, but later we know, this present moment will be the blip.

Long time lines trail behind every idea, object, person, pet, vehicle, and event.

I was happy that Egan’s narrative chronology didn’t end with the year she was writing the book and that she took a stab at writing some near-future settings. The famous Power Point chapter is one of those near-future chapters and it is probably the best chapter in the whole book. It is written by a young girl as a form of journal, with the ‘pauses’ in rock songs forming a really beautiful central metaphor.

The Power Point chapter alludes to changes in the future world without being intrusive about it. The last chapter is more specific about what future American society looks like and it was rough in execution. Her allusions to the concessions made for the sake of homeland security seemed perfunctory. I could see where she was going with the transformation of the music industry and social media. However, there was not much time for these interesting ideas to be fully fleshed out, and so as a reader, I was set adrift by this last chapter. I liked the characterization and plot in previous chapters and disappointingly, that aspect wasn’t strong in the ending.

Other ‘meh’ chapters included the first two chapters and the one written like a magazine article. My favorite chapters were the aforementioned Power Point chapter, and the safari chapter.

Excerpts from other reviews:

Bibliofreak.net – “Ultimately, there is too much variety in the writing; the constant changes in tense, perspective, and style become irritating and create the impression of recklessness mixed with literary grandiosity rather than well considered stylistic choices.”

The Book Lady’s Blog – “. . . Egan succeeds in not only telling several people’s stories but forcing readers to think about how we take in moments as they occur and how we reshape them when we talk about them later.”

The Broke and the Bookish – “Overall, A Visit From the Goon Squad was a quick, worthwhile read. It’s kind of all over the place thematically, and as you can tell I found the cool structure more remarkable than the actual plot, but I enjoyed it.”

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Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

1865. Penguin Classics. Paperback. 884 pages.

From: I purchased this book.

In a nutshell:

Can a Dickens book be summarized in a nutshell? So many characters, so many plotlines. Our Mutual Friend concerns the sensational murder of John Harmon, the sole son of a capricious, harsh man, and heir to that man’s fortune. Part of the sensation is that John Harmon would only have inherited if he married a girl named Bella Wilfer, both of them strangers to each other. The Harmon litigator, Mortimer Lightwood, oversees the transfer of the inheritance to a pair of humble servants, Mr. and Mrs. Boffin. The Boffins take Bella Wilfer to live with them in their newly affluent life. Their mysterious secretary, John Rokesmith, seems to take an interest in Bella.

Meanwhile, Mortimer Lightwood’s friend, Eugene Wrayburn, sets his eye on Lizzie Hexam, daughter of the man who discovered John Harmon’s body. In this, his rival is the creepy schoolteacher, Bradley Headstone. Other characters include Silas Wegg, peg-legged shifty hanger-on of the Boffins; Mr. Venus, proprietor of a shop selling bones; Rogue Riderhood, wharf-dwelling low-life who is disliked and distrusted by everyone else in the novel. “Higher” society is represented by the shallow Veneerings; the pompous Mr. Podsnap and family; the ridiculous Lady Tippins and the scheming Mr. and Mrs. Lammle.

Review:

Of the books by Charles Dickens, I’ve read David Copperfield and didn’t like it much, and I’ve read Bleak House, which I loved. As similarly happened with Bleak House, I saw the BBC miniseries of Our Mutual Friend before I read it. Knowing and liking the story and characters influenced my choice to make Our Mutual Friend my third Dickens book.

I had such a fun time reading Our Mutual Friend. I think Dickens is popularly known for his social commentary but his sense of humor is top-notch, and of course humor plus social commentary equals splendid satire. He just has a way of nailing a particular type of person or type of society. And even if I didn’t know anyone in real life as ridiculous as some of Dickens’ characters, they are funny all the same. Dickens also has the gift for translating physical comedy into words, which is no small feat.

I love Dickens’ descriptions. In a recent review of Colson Whitehead’s Zone One by Jenny’s Books, Jenny remarked on how the descriptions in that book didn’t do anything. Although I haven’t read Zone One, I identified with what she said; that kind of inert, ornamental description bores me stiff. In Dickens, objects have definite character and places like London and the Thames assert themselves strongly.

Here is an excerpt that combines the humor and terrific description all in one:

On such an evening, when the city grit gets into the hair and eyes and skin, and when the fallen leaves of the few unhappy city trees grind down in corners under wheels of wind, the schoolmaster and the pupil emerged upon the Leadenhall Street region, spying eastward for Lizzie. Being something too soon in their arrival, they lurked at a corner, waiting for her to appear. The best-looking among us will not look very well, lurking at a corner, and Bradley came out of that disadvantage very poorly indeed.

p. 386

Regarding the characters of Our Mutual Friend, I liked reading about nearly all of them, even the awful people. But my favorites included Eugene Wrayburn and Mortimer Lightwood. I loved these two men’s self-awareness and snarkiness (especially Eugene’s). Their close friendship also touched me, whereas some of Dickens’ more overt sentimental moments failed in their intent to move me. For instance, I found Bella’s cutesy doting on her father to be silly, and were probably the scenes I liked the least in the novel.

John Rokesmith was a character who faced a conundrum that I found sympathetic, although the resolution to his problems wasn’t without its moral gray areas for me as a reader, particularly in his relationship with Bella. *Slight spoiler here* Bella was rather manipulated by several of the characters, which she accepts as being for ‘her own good’ but had the effect of tarnishing my opinion of all characters involved. *End spoiler*

But the fact that I don’t agree with some of the moral judgments the book implies or states didn’t make me dislike the book. Maybe I gave it a pass because of its age, but these problematic areas actually made Our Mutual Friend an even more intriguing read, as I sorted out how I felt about a particular development or character. Strangely, having seen the miniseries helped me like a few characters more while reading the book; the performances of the two actors playing John Rokesmith and Bella Wilfer come to mind.

Steven Mackintosh as John and Anna Friel as Bella

It took me a little less than a month to read Our Mutual Friend and it was a ‘monogamous’ reading relationship for that time period. I didn’t want to pick up any other book, both for the practical reason for keeping characters straight, and also because it so thoroughly delighted me. I loved when I could read it for long stretches, but carried it around with me almost at all times in case I could snatch a moment to read some more.

My sights are now set on Great Expectations, which I actually do not know much about (as I haven’t watched any of its film adaptations). I don’t think I’ll be picking it up any time soon, but it’s likely to be the next Dickens book for me.

Excerpts from other reviews:

BookRabbit – “Our Mutual Friend may not be his greatest novel, but in some ways it is his most compelling. From the opening paragraph, the dark imagery comes straight off the page and into your visual imagination . . .”

Dead White Guys – “Take the sillinesses with a grain of salt, like you have to when reading anything from this time period. BUT it’s a fantastically suspenseful story, and Dickens is really at his best here.”

Jeannette’s Books – “This was the most tedious and at times confusing Dickens novel I’ve read but it was still Dickens and therefore in the end, looking back over the novel as a whole, well worth the time and effort. Definitely the darkest Dickens novel I’ve read.”

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Game Change by John Heilemann with Mark Halperin

Subtitle: Obama and the Clintons, McCain and Palin and the Race of a Lifetime

2010. HarperCollins. Hardcover. 448 pages.

From: the public library

In a nutshell:

In Game Change, political journalists John Heilemann and Mark Halperin give a behind-the-scenes account of the 2008 U.S. presidential election, from the primaries to the general election. Their account is drawn from interviews they conducted with campaign staffers immediately after the primaries and then again after the general election.

Review:

Despite my current residency in the D.C. metropolitan area, I am not a de facto political junkie. I keep up with current events fairly well, mostly by listening to NPR’s Morning Edition and checking in with Google News aggregate headlines during the day – but I am not an avid follower of political news stories.

So when I read Game Change in October of this year, the insider stuff was mostly new to me. I remembered many of the gaffes and controversies and major moments and it was cool to revisit them again, but this time from the perspective of the campaign offices.

When I’ve read other reviews of Game Change, “gossipy” is a word that comes up often. The authors describe near the start of the book their efforts to corroborate what they were told, but I still took everything with a grain of salt. That said, it was dishy, turn-the-page fun. I read an excerpt to my roommate early on, and this turned into me reading aloud almost entire chapters to her at a time.

I mean, anyone running for President has to have an ego, and when you have all those egos crashing around, there’s going to be tantrums and fallouts. And then the nature of the beast, is that your friends – who happen to be politicians and influential people – may very well throw in their lot with your opponent. The stakes are high, the variables of a successful campaign are many, and the world is watching. It’s a miserable business and you wonder why anyone does this. So reading Game Change while the United States gears up for its next election was actually very timely.

The authors write entertainingly without seeming to give in to sensationalism.  Occasionally there was a metaphor or colloquialism that went over my head (and that of my roommate’s), but then there would be a turn of phrase or concise summation of a moment that would be just perfect. Also, all the campaign staff got muddled together in my head, and I couldn’t always remember their titles or background unless I looked them up in the index. If I was a political junkie, this probably would not have been a problem.

This was the right nonfiction book at the right time for me. I swore after Zeitoun that I was taking a break from harrowing nonfiction for the rest of the year. And while Game Change is not a lightweight book as it certainly provoked several engaged discussions with my roommate, its fast-paced, tidbit-filled narrative was a boost for me.

Excerpts from other reviews:

A Novel Menagerie – “I found NO excitement, joy, or pleasure in reading this political rubbish.”

Bookchickdi – “It is also must-reading for anyone who is engaged in current events, and it puts into question whether the complicated primary process in its current form is the best way to elect the most important office in the land.”

Unruly Reader – “For narrative nonfiction junkies, this book is pure pleasure. For political junkies, same thing. “

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