Monday, May 26, 2014

Goodbye Blogging

I believe it's time for this blog to come to a close. I've gradually receded from the bookish part of the Internet since I started university two years ago, and I can already tell that blogging would be more of a chore than a delight this summer. I can't even remember the last time I read through my Bloglovin' feed, much less the last time I enjoyed keeping up with what everyone else was posting. Hopefully I'll still keep up with my favorite blogs as well as occasionally post reviews on GoodReads and LibraryThing, but as for blogging itself, I'm done.

A few final notes:
*I still have a large backlog of books to review from the past six months or so. Most of these are for specific websites, like LibraryThing, so I'll continue posting there to a limited extent.
*I will continue to maintain the "Local Interest Historical Fiction" page for North Carolina, as I've found it's a useful resource both for myself and for others interested in the region.

I'm looking forward to getting back to reading purely for the sake of enjoyment (and studying...can't avoid that very well), without having to think about writing a review afterwards or keeping up with a stack of publisher-provided ARCs. Blogging was great for the past few years, but I need to focus on other things now and cannot give this little blog enough attention.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Comparison Review: Love Times Three and Becoming Sister Wives

Love Times Three: Our True Story of a Polygamous Marriage by  Joe, Alina, Vicki, and Valerie Darger
Publisher: HarperCollins
Date: September 2011
Source: purchased used

Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage by Kody, Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn Brown
Publisher: Gallery Books
Date: May 2012
Source: purchased used

Background: I read both of these for a research paper on alternative marriage practices in Christian New Religious Movements. Both the Browns and the Dargers are fundamentalist Mormons. They are NOT part of the FLDS; indeed, both families were prompted to open up about their lifestyle following the 2008 raid on the FLDS compound to show how the FLDS does not stand for all modern polygamous Mormons. The Dargers are Independent, while the Browns appear to belong to some unspecified fundamentalist church. The Dargers have done various television appearances in the past, while the Browns are well-known for their TV show Sister Wives (of which I watched the first season or two last year).

Both family memoirs were interesting. They give brief backgrounds for each spouse, then describe everyone's courtships, marriages, parenting, current home life, and reasons for/effects of publicly coming out as polygamous. The Dargers also include some narratives from their oldest children. The point of these books is mostly to discuss the authors' relationship and family values, as well as to establish the families as otherwise normal, despite their unusual marriage system. There's not much on the religious principles underlying polygamy (though there is much mention of how strong, spiritually and otherwise, a community theirs is). Also, to anyone expecting salacious details, discussion of sex lives is never, ever going to crop up.

The dynamics of the family are so different between the Dargers and the Browns. The Dargers appear to have the perfect relationship - not much jealousy and drama. Their courtships were significantly different from those of the Browns, though, as Alina and Vicki courted and married Joe at the same time, and Vicki's twin sister Valerie later joined the family after divorcing her first husband. Either the Browns are more honest, or their marriage has just had a lot more issues, especially with the sister wives getting along. Still, both families' emphases on building lasting relationships with spouses and establishing strong family bonds are to be commended and can provide models for non-polygamous, non-Mormon individuals and families as well.

The Dargers' book stayed interesting to me the whole time. The Browns', not so much. Once I got to the last third or so of the book, mostly about how they run their household and stuff, it got more boring. How the spouses decided to practice plural marriage and went about courting was far more fascinating. Also, with the Browns I was already more familiar with some of the details about their family now from watching the TV show. Anyway, both of these books were enjoyable and informative reads overall, and I think it will be interesting to see how these families grow and how public views on polygamy change in upcoming years.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Course Readings

All read for various reasons in connection with Story, Performance, Event this past semester.

Orality & Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word by Walter J. Ong (1982)
The first few chapters of this were absolutely fascinating, with the added plus of being written in an easily-understandable style. Ong makes some interesting arguments about how writing/literacy "restructures consciousness" and is cognitively different from orality. The last chapters, though, didn't do much for me.

Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Language Among the Western Apache by Keith H. Basso (1996)
Another fascinating read from this course! If I ever do fieldwork, I want to be like Basso. Great research done with the Apache community. The title and subject matter (place names) sounded boring to me at first, but Basso shows how the topic is far more complex in terms of cultural heritage and communication than one would expect.

Jack in Two Worlds: Contemporary North American Tales and Their Tellers ed. by William Bernard McCarthy (1994)
Probably one of my favorite reads this year. Each storyteller has their own section with an intro (written by another author) on his or her background and then a selected, transcribed story. Both backgrounds and stories are fascinating and delve into the history of the Jack Tales as well as aspects of modern storytelling. Several of the stories in particular are also just fantastic.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Memoir: Exodus by Deborah Feldman

Publisher: Blue Rider
Date: March 25, 2014
Format: hardback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 280
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: Deborah Feldman, author of the explosive New York Times– bestselling memoir Unorthodox, returns with an extraordinary follow-up that traces her new life as an independent young woman and single mother, and her search for an authentic and personal Jewish identity.

My review: I didn't find Exodus quite as interesting as I remember Feldman's first memoir, Unorthodox. But then, I read Feldman's first book mostly to learn more about the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, and with this book she's mostly exploring her personal journey after leaving the Satmar sect. Still, it's beautifully written and an engrossing read. There's Feldman's introspection, of course, as she negotiates her identity and lifestyle after leaving the insular community in which she grew up, but we also learn a lot more about her family's background during the Holocaust as well as gain troubling glimpses of how Jewish community, identity, and memory remain (or don't) in contemporary Europe.

Pretty much my only real issue with the book was its lack of organization. The content seems to be a mishmash of Feldman's experiences, mostly after she left the community but some connected back to her childhood as well. Her narrative moves non-linearly, and it just wasn't very clear where exactly she was going with this book. However, as with her first memoir, I admire her openness with personal details and willingness to share her life.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Recent Acquisitions XIV

Ack, I'm still alive, just finishing up exams.

For review:
Once Upon a Time in Rio by Francisco Azevedo (First Look)
Selected Fables by Jean de la Fontaine (First Look)
The Boy in His Winter by Norman Lock (Early Reviewers)
Tinkers by Paul Harding (Early Reviewers)

From World Literature Today:
The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery

Won:
This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready (thanks, For What It's Worth!)

Birthday gifts:
Native Americans in Early North Carolina by Dennis L. Isenbarger
Society in Early North Carolina by Alan D. Watson
African Americans in Early North Carolina by Alan D. Watson

Purchased used (for a research paper):
Love Times Three by Joe, Alina, Vicki, and Valerie Darger
Becoming Sister Wives by Kody, Meri, Christine, Janelle, and Robyn Brown

Purchased at the local library book sale:
The Mark of the Golden Dragon (Bloody Jack #9) by L.A. Meyer
Kallocain by Karin Boye
Fantastic Stories by Abram Tertz
Spellbound: Inside West Africa's Witch Camps by Karen Palmer
Collapse by Jared Diamond
Among Stone Giants: The Life of Katherine Routledge by Jo Anne von Tilburg
Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America by Cathy N. Davidson
We Mean to Be Counted: White Women and Politics in Antebellum Virginia by Elizabeth R. Varon


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Historical Fiction: Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

Series: Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #1
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Date: 2009
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 650
Reading time: one week

From GoodReads: Tudor England. Henry VIII is on the throne, but has no heir. Cardinal Wolsey is charged with securing his divorce. Into this atmosphere of distrust comes Thomas Cromwell - a man as ruthlessly ambitious in his wider politics as he is for himself. His reforming agenda is carried out in the grip of a self-interested parliament and a king who fluctuates between romantic passions and murderous rages.

My review: For a novel that has, to quote my history prof, won "all the awards," this sure was disappointing. I just don't see its greatness. I'm sure a lot of it is my fault - like Lincoln, the previous novel read for this class, Wolf Hall is chock-full of dense (but well-researched) political shenanigans that I just really don't care about. Again, it's essentially a novelized form of one brief period of history. I say brief, but for how long this book is, I was always thinking five years had passed instead of only five months.

So maybe if I cared more about political history in general or Tudor history specifically, I would've found Wolf Hall more interesting and a more enjoyable read. But I don't, so I didn't. The religious-y bits about the Reformation and figures within in it who aren't quite as well known as Luther were nice, especially since I'm highly enjoying taking a class on New Religious Movements right now. I also liked seeing Mantel's characterization of Jane Seymour, who has a decidedly meek and obscured background role at this point (despite the book being named after her family's home...still not sure why that title wasn't reserved for the next book). Anyway, while I'm sure this is a fantastic book if you love the Tudors but not the typical romance-and-drama historical fiction that seems to go along with them, it just wasn't my cup of tea, and I don't think I'll continue with the rest of the series.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Historical Fiction: Lincoln by Gore Vidal

Publisher: Random House
Date: 1984
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for Historical Novels class
Pages: 657
Reading time: about a week

From GoodReads: Lincoln opens early on a frozen winter morning in 1861, when President-elect Abraham Lincoln slips into Washington, flanked by two bodyguards. The future president is in disguise, for there's talk of a plot to murder him. During the next four years there will be numerous plots to murder this man who has sworn to unite a disintegrating nation. Isolated in a ramshackle White House in the center of a proslavery city, Lincoln presides over a fragmenting government as Lee's armies beat at the gates. In this profoundly moving novel, a work of epic proportions & intense human sympathy, Lincoln is observed by his loved ones & his rivals. The cast of characters is almost Dickensian: politicians, generals, White House aides, newspapermen, Northern & Southern conspirators, amiably evil bankers & a wife slowly going mad. Vidal's portrait of the president is at once intimate & monumental, stark & complex, drawn with the wit, grace & authority of one of the great historical novelists.

My review: I've never before disliked a novel that's this good. It seems paradoxical, I know, but it's true. Vidal's novel is like a fictional form of the history of the Lincoln administration. It's super-well-researched and basically a run-down of all the political and social shenanigans in Washington during the Civil War. Pretty epic in scope, right? It's like reading a history book, just with extra imagined dialogue and characterizations.

My issue: I don't like politics. It's booooring. So reading this was difficult, because it's pretty much all political dialogue. Gag. Great history, yes, but long and not personally interesting. The characterization of Lincoln, though, is intriguing. We see into the personal thoughts and motives of the rest of the characters, but Lincoln remains an intentionally closed book. The mystery surrounding who he really was is retained, even furthered through the novel. It's by far the most interesting part of the book. My last issue: the pacing is pretty much all the same. Social dialogue, major battles, Lincoln's assassination? All are discussed in basically the same way. It makes the reading even more sloggish than politics already is.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Classic Lit: Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset

Publisher: Penguin
Translator: Tiina Nunnally
Date: 1920-1922 (2005)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased new
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 1125
Reading time: three weeks

From GoodReads: In her great historical epic Kristin Lavransdatter, set in fourteenth-century Norway, Nobel laureate Sigrid Undset tells the life story of one passionate and headstrong woman. Painting a richly detailed backdrop, Undset immerses readers in the day-to-day life, social conventions, and political and religious undercurrents of the period. As a young girl, Kristin is deeply devoted to her father, a kind and courageous man. But when as a student in a convent school she meets the charming and impetuous Erlend Nikulaussøn, she defies her parents in pursuit of her own desires. Her saga continues through her marriage to Erlend, their tumultuous life together raising seven sons as Erlend seeks to strengthen his political influence, and finally their estrangement as the world around them tumbles into uncertainty.

My review: This started out really boring - I swear, Sigrid Unset had to describe every. single. detail. for the first couple of chapters. But that soon lifted, and I enjoyed the rest of the first volume. I was never a fan of Kristin, as I felt like we never really got to see inside her, and I didn't find her likeable anyway. For the main character, she seemed surprisingly one-dimensional or perhaps just closed off to readers. However, as we've already established, I like classic stories of society and romantic intrigues, and the first volume fit this model quite well.

But then the other two volumes were all about Kristin's life once married and as she and Erlend have children and age, and it's really boring and repetitive. Like, 800 pages of her moaning about guilt and religion, stressing over her irresponsible husband and her kids, having yet more pregnancies and sons, and people dying boring and repetitive. I see why the film version only covers the first volume - if not necessarily a chore to read, the other two just aren't all that interesting, at least to me as a younger reader. And with all the deaths and not-great marriages, it's depressing, too. Well, five chunksters for this Historical Novel class down, two more to go.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

MG/YA Historical Fiction: Always Emily by Michaela MacColl

Publisher: Chronicle Books
Date: April 8, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 275
Reading time: two days

From GoodReads: Emily and Charlotte BrontĂ« are about as opposite as two sisters can be. Charlotte is practical and cautious; Emily is headstrong and imaginative. But they do have one thing in common: a love of writing. This shared passion will lead them to be two of the first published female novelists and authors of several enduring works of classic literature. But they’re not there yet. First, they have to figure out if there is a connection between a string of local burglaries, rumors that a neighbor’s death may not have been accidental, and the appearance on the moors of a mysterious and handsome stranger. The girls have a lot of knots to untangle—before someone else gets killed.

My review: This was a delight to read. I've been a fan of Charlotte Bronte's books for years (not so much of Emily's, though), and it was fun to read how MacColl characterizes the two authors in their teenage years. At times the homage to their novels was a bit too obvious, but mostly I enjoyed seeing the parallels between the Brontes' (fictional) experiences and their later writing. That ending. OMG. Perfect for Jane Eyre fans.

Otherwise, the story was light and entertaining. This book is technically a mystery, but that seemed almost secondary to MacColl's playing around with the Brontes as lead characters, and the plot wasn't too difficult to figure out. While the book ended on a good concluding note, I hope we'll see more about the Brontes from MacColl - after all, there's a third sister she could introduce into the central storyline.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Recent Acquisitions: Spring Break Edition

This semester is terrible in terms of work load (hence why my posts are so spread out and almost all about books for class), but I'm getting through it. :)

For review:
Dark Eden by Chris Beckett (publisher)
The Registry #2: The Collection by Shannon Stoker (Early Reviewers)
Always Emily by Michaela MacColl (Early Reviewers)
Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbe (First Look)
Exodus by Deborah Feldman (First Look) - sequel to Unorthodox

Won:
Brodeck's Report by Philippe Claudel (thanks, Claire at Word by Word!)

Purchased for class:
Heaven's Harlots: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult by Miriam Williams
Read for a review essay on COG/the Family - see my review here.

Purchased on a spring break excursion to the used bookstores of Van Buren, AR:
Orlando by Virginia Woolf
The Wanting Seed by Anthony Burgess
Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson
Ruth Hall and Other Writings by Fanny Fern
Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
Apparently I bought a copy of this at a book sale last semester. I concede that I now have too many books, if I can't even remember what's sitting on my shelf in the dorm room.
My Bonny Light Horseman (Bloody Jack #6) by L.A. Meyer
The Romance of Tristan by Beroul
Canopus in Argos: Archives by Doris Lessing
Quicksand and Passing by Nella Larsen
The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle


Monday, March 17, 2014

Retellings: Alena by Rachel Pastan

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: January 23, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 308

From GoodReads: At the Venice Biennale, an aspiring assistant curator from the Midwest meets Bernard Augustin, the wealthy, enigmatic founder of the Nauk, a cutting-edge art museum on Cape Cod. It’s been two years since the tragic death of the Nauk’s chief curator, Augustin’s childhood friend and muse, Alena. When Augustin offers the position to our heroine (who, like du Maurier’s original, remains nameless) she dives at the chance—and quickly finds herself well out of her depth.

The Nauk echoes with phantoms of the past—a past obsessively preserved by the museum’s business manager and the rest of the staff. Their devotion to the memory of the charismatic Alena threatens to stifle the new curator’s efforts to realize her own creative vision, and her every move mires her more deeply in artistic, erotic, and emotional entanglements. When new evidence calls into question the circumstances of Alena’s death, her loyalty, integrity, and courage are put to the test, and shattering secrets surface.


My review: The first sentence of this Rebecca retelling starts out "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again." I was so not impressed. It seemed to set up the rest of the novel as a poorly-fleshed-out rewriting of du Maurier's famous tale, just with New England and modern art inserted.

Fortunately, Alena improved from there. It's been some years since I read Rebecca, but it was clear that Alena departs from it in major ways (and also is close enough in others to refresh my mind on what happens in the original). Even though, due to schoolwork, it took forever for me to finish reading and I skimmed ahead to find out what happens, I found the storyline intriguing and suspenseful. If you're not familiar with Rebecca and are a geeky museum curator-type person (or just enjoy mystery-type novels), it's still a good read. For myself, though, I ended up being mostly interested in Pastan's re-interpretation of du Maurier's book. The way she worked the art museum world into the novel was fascinating.

But maybe because I don't actually do well with understanding and analyzing art, especially contemporary pieces, the ending fell a bit flat for me. It felt like there was this great build-up and then maybe the author didn't know how to resolve everything. I didn't fully grasp the reasoning behind characters' behaviors, and I felt things were wrapped up too quickly and left unresolved to a certain extent. It was a bit of a disappointment following on how much I enjoyed the rest of the book.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Classic Lit: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Translator: Anthony Briggs
Date: 1869 (2006)
Format: paperback
Source: Christmas gift
Read: for Historical Novel course
Pages: 1360
Reading time: three weeks (or about 45 hours at my rate of reading)

My summary (tongue-in-cheek): There's a bunch of aristocratic Russian characters caught up in the period of the Napoleonic Wars. Andrey's unhappy with his frail pregnant wife. His sister Marya is stuck under the control of their domineering father, finding solace only in her religion. The Rostovs - Natasha, Nikolay, and Petya - are engaged in urban society and finding honor through the army. And Pierre is torn in finding meaning in his life and discovering which direction it should take.

My review: I made it! It actually wasn't that bad. Tolstoy's writing is lucid, and he's not inclined to unnecessarily long descriptions or passages (besides the bits on historical theory and whatnot). If anything, I didn't like how bluntly he tended to phrase things, but at least you're reading 1350+ pages of actual content rather than excess words. It makes the reading so much easier. This is one of the few "classics" I've managed to really get into and enjoy in the past couple years (sad, I know).

Tolstoy's depictions of women are really, really sexist, which annoyed me a great deal. He focuses primarily on negative aspects of their physical appearances and personalities and also explicitly makes them emotionally dependent on men. Fortunately, such descriptions came mostly towards the beginning ("beginning" is relative; I noticed most of this during probably the first 200 or 300 pages) of the novel or in the epilogue, so it wasn't a constant bother.

The other thing that irked me was how inconstant Tolstoy's characters are. It seemed like they were often changing their emotions and views within chapters of each other. Oh, Natasha is in love with Boris and Pierre loves St. Petersburg society right now? Next chapter: Natasha is in love with Andrey and Pierre is a Freemason and hates his upper-crust life. I realize that this is probably truer to life, but it's also a novel, and we like our characters to be more consistent. Plus, after 1350 pages of changes, one is really confused about what Tolstoy actually thinks about his characters and their lives.

But, as I mentioned above, Tolstoy's super-long train of stories actually succeeds in being interesting the majority of the time. It's like the epitome of long, plotless 18th and 19th century novels (which I happen to love) - by plotless, I mean they tend to trace the events of characters' lives rather than highlighting a rather small part of them with a clear climax, etc. Though I thought the war parts were a mite boring, I found it enjoyable to read all about the characters' dealings with each other and society. It's maybe not "the greatest novel ever," but it is entertaining and not as hard a read as the page count would lead one to suspect.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Mini-Reviews: Assorted Nonfiction of the Last Several Months

Time Before History: The Archaeology of North Carolina by H. Trawick Ward & R.P. Stephen Davis, Jr. (1999)
Fantastic overview of prehistoric and early historic indigenous North Carolina archaeology; just the bibliography is a great resource for further research. This is a scholarly work intentionally written at a good level for the public - it's meant to be a comprehensive survey of excavations and research that will be accessible to a wide audience. Only issue is that it will eventually have to be updated and revised as more stuff is uncovered and written up.

Life in The Family: An Oral History of the Children of God by James D. Chancellor (2000)
COG, or The Family, is a Christian communal new religious movement ("cult") formed in 1968 that is still around today. Chancellor's work is drawn from reading the group's literature and visiting their communities and members around the world in the mid-1990s, the result being a pretty sympathetic view of the movement (an interesting contrast to the typically anti-cult stuff one sees in the media). It's a fascinating read, also quite accessible to non-academic audiences. For a memoir by a former member, see Heaven's Harlots.

Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative by Richard Bauman (1986)
I wasn't particularly interested in the main topic of Bauman's book, coonhunters' tales from Texas. I found his highly academic language difficult to read, and I felt like he did a lot of analysis that is only useful to a small audience. I didn't give the book a very high rating on other sites, but I did think that, hidden amid all the boring stuff, Bauman sets up a really good framework for studying certain kinds of oral narratives.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Nonfiction: Heaven's Harlots by Miriam Williams

Subtitle: My Fifteen Years as a Sacred Prostitute in the Children of God Cult
Publisher: Eagle Brook
Date: 1998
Format: hardback
Source: purchased used
Read: for a paper in New Religious Movements
Pages: 292

From GoodReads: In 1971, when a Jesus person invited her to live with "God's Family" in upstate New York, seventeen-year-old Miriam got on a bus, left her home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and never looked back. What began as a regimented but benign communal life quickly became diabolical under the leadership of Moses David, the founder of the Children of God, a cult born in California that boasted nineteen thousand members around the world at the height of its popularity, including ex-Fleetwood Mac guitarist Jeremy Spencer and the family of River Phoenix. Programmed by the cult to believe that too much thinking was dangerous, Miriam accepted an arranged marriage that produced a son, the first of five children. By now, she was a committed sacred prostitute, offering herself to strange men around the world, including rich jet-setters and Arabs in Paris and Monte Carlo.

My review: The title and description for Heaven's Harlots make it sound like a sensational expose of an abusive cult, but for a memoir written by an ex-member, it's not all that lurid. Obviously Williams casts a poor light on the group, but she focuses mostly on her own issues and the corruption of individual leaders, rather than the overall character of the Family, in terms of her negative experiences. The book is almost as much a story of the author's journey of self-discovery as it is a description of her life in the Children of God (COG).

It's a very personal book in terms of describing Williams' mental and emotional states, though not so much in terms of her religious beliefs. She states her devotion to the basic ideals of the Family, yet I never got a good feel with her actually believing them wholeheartedly, perhaps because she's no longer involved in organized religion and has thus lost the evangelical drive. The information on COG is fantastic; I read this book right after Life in the Family: An Oral History of the Children of God by James D. Chancellor, an academic work, and found that it complemented Chancellor's book very nicely. They're both out-of-date in terms of describing the last twenty or so years of the group, but excellent for the time up to then. With Heaven's Harlots, one gets a good feel for the life of an average female member in the group over a prolonged period of time, through several of the Family's major changes, and for why someone might have stayed in COG for that long. Clearly Williams' internal desires and needs didn't fit very well within the Family's organization, and I think it's amazing that she stuck with it as long as she did.

Note on content: It's pretty clean in terms of descriptive content, though, given the nature of the subject, mature topics are discussed.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Classic Lit: A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: 1854 (1962)
Format: paperback
Source: Christmas gift a long time ago
Read: for Historical Novel course
Pages: 470
Reading time: one week

From GoodReads: After eighteen years as a political prisoner in the Bastille, the ageing Doctor Manette is finally released and reunited with his daughter in England. There the lives of two very different men, Charles Darnay, an exiled French aristocrat, and Sydney Carton, a disreputable but brilliant English lawyer, become enmeshed through their love for Lucie Manette. From the tranquil roads of London, they are drawn against their will to the vengeful, bloodstained streets of Paris at the height of the Reign of Terror, and they soon fall under the lethal shadow of La Guillotine.

My review: I started out enjoying this because of the characterizations. I remember a bit about Dickens' humorous ways of describing people from Great Expectations, but it seemed to come out even more in this novel, especially at the beginning. The further I read, however, the more issues I had. The results of Dickens' famous practice of publishing in magazines and therefore writing by the chapter and getting paid by the word really come out. For one thing, this is supposed to be centered around the French Revolution, yet we only reach the Revolution around page 300 of my copy. The rest is centered around what's going on in the Manettes' lives, and really, despite the funny caricatures of many characters, I found most of them rather two-dimensional and couldn't care less about what they did. Each character seems to have their specific set function in the story, and they very steadfastly adhere to that with few surprises for the reader.

In part because of such stringent paths for the characters, the plot seemed contrived by the end. We see a rather ridiculous string of events, when viewed in total, that results in the expected end (assuming you watched your Wishbone episodes as a child and remember their adaptation of the tale). The protagonists are sentimentally drawn, there are multiple climaxes and denouements for the sake of a longer story, and Sydney Carton's decision and concluding actions are moralistic. I just wasn't very impressed with an overly long novel that alternates between sentimentality, morality, and sensationalism.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Classic Lit: The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper

Publisher: Signet Classics
Date: 1841 (1980)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased at Fifth Street Books
Read: for Historical Novels course
Pages: 415
Reading time: about a week, but this fast pace isn't recommended

From GoodReads: The Last of the Mohicans contains the classic portrait of the man of moral courage who severs all connections with a society whose values he can no longer accept. Despite his chosen exile, Hawk-eye (Natty Bumppo0, the frontier scout, risks his life to escort two sisters through hostile Indian country. On the dangerous journey he enlists the aid of the Mohican Chingachgook. And in the challenging ordeal that follows, in their encounters with deception, brutality, and the death of loved ones, the friendship between the two men deepens--the scout and the Indian, each with a singular philosophy of independence that has been nurtured and shaped by the silent, virgin forest.

My review: The Last of the Mohicans is terrible. Ridiculous. Poorly written, inconsistent, melodramatic, horribly misogynist, not to mention the inevitable claim of racist. It's so bad, in fact, that it's laughable, making it almost fun to read. I think I actually would have enjoyed its terribleness if I hadn't been required to read the last 200+ days in two days (at that pace, it was just exhausting).

Mark Twain has already written a perfectly scathing essay on James Fenimore Cooper (really, check it out - it's quite fun to read), so I think the best method for me to review The Last of Mohicans is to point out how correct Twain is in identifying how Cooper violates 18 of the 19 rules "governing literary art in domain of romantic fiction":

Cooper does, indeed, tend to "accomplish nothing and arrive in air," mostly because of the faults Twain identifies with his language and style. He is overly verbose - he needs to "eschew surplusage," in Twain's words - and his word choices and phrases are simply ridiculous. I could read through a paragraph and not always grasp what was being said, when what was being described was actually a fairly straightforward, normal occurrence. The dialogue is stilted and not always true to character; Hawkeye speaks in formal English at points and in a more characteristic slang at others; long conversations using big words and full grammar occur in the middle of battle scenes to give directions or express surprise.

The characters don't all have obvious reasons for being there. The novel is called The Last of the Mohicans, but a more appropriate title would be Watch the White Frontiersman Save the Two White Girls. If you think about it, there's not even a clear reason for Chingachgook and Uncas risking their lives to save the silly things. And, honestly, I cared not one whit for the characters and who lived or died.

On a side note, sexism is not an issue brought up by Twain, but it is a major problem. Cora and Alice are the weakest females evvvvvvvvveeeer, Alice apparently unable to bear any trauma whatsoever and Cora being morally and verbally strong but failing to ever actually do something. Their primary purpose is to be appropriately devoted daughters/sisters, express appropriate outrage at the prospect of marriage to an Indian, and need rescuing. And after all this, Cora is seen as being 'perfectly adapted' to the woodland wilderness environment, EVEN THOUGH earlier the men were bemoaning how her and Alice's 'little, tender' feet couldn't possibly bear a trek through the forest.

Oh, and the only other female character I remember being mentioned was justly 'put out of her misery and sorrow' after her infant was snatched out of her arms and murdered before her very eyes. After all, what is a woman without her child?

And then there's just the whole logic of everything, which Twain discusses at length further along in his essay, but I'll leave it at that.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Classic Lit: Waverley by Sir Walter Scott

Publisher: Penguin Classics
Date: 1814 (1985)
Format: paperback
Source: Mt. Airy Book Exchange
Read: for Historical Novel course
Pages: 500
Reading time: over a week

From GoodReads: Waverley is set during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, which sought to restore the Stuart dynasty in the person of Charles Edward Stuart (or 'Bonnie Prince Charlie'). It relates the story of a young dreamer and English soldier, Edward Waverley, who is sent to Scotland in 1745. He journeys North from his aristocratic family home, Waverley-Honour, in the south of England (alleged in an English Heritage notice to refer to Waverley Abbey in Surrey) first to the Scottish Lowlands and the home of family friend Baron Bradwardine, then into the Highlands and the heart of the 1745 Jacobite uprising and aftermath.

My review: Waverley started out slow, got more exciting in the middle, and then slowed down a bit until the end, but it never became a slog to read. I wasn't particularly enamored of the characters - I thought of Waverley himself as a doofus, too content to let himself be borne along in the tides of current events, and the rest of the characters seemed mere foils for whatever Scott's purposes were.

Reading this for class perhaps spoiled me as to much aesthetic or intrinsic enjoyment of the novel; while I wasn't dreading having to continue reading, there wasn't anything that stood out to me as something that I would usually discuss in a review as a like or dislike. The main topic brought up in class was nationalism, and mostly what I got from Waverley was a series of which culture Scott seemed to prefer at the moment. The Highland Scots started out strong - they're quaint, and more sympathetically drawn than the Lowland Scots. Waverley feels wronged by his English superiors, giving him a strong reason for following Jacobite sentiments. But then he has a falling-out with his best Highland friend, and other encounters begin to change his views on allegiance. Suffice it to say, by the end Waverley has undergone multiple switches in loyalty and ends up in the company of those I thought him least likely, according to Scott's initial portrayal of them, to befriend. It was an interesting story, but I'm not sure what Scott was really thinking with all of this.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

Recent Acquisitions: New Semester Loot

I swear, I'm still alive. In the past week or so I've really just had time to do my readings for class (which bodes ill since I haven't even started my new job yet). At least one of my classes is on the Historical Novel, so that's at least seven reviews I'll get done this semester! Those could be the only reviews, though, because the prof for that class seemed to pick only books that are at least 500 pages long. (That's an exaggeration. The Last of the Mohicans and A Tale of Two Cities are only 350-400-ish.)

For review:
Alena by Rachel Pastan (First Look)
The Book of Ash by John A. McCaffrey (First Look)

Won:
The Memory of After by Lenore Appelhans (thanks, A Foodie Bibliophile!)

From the Honors College:
The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell

From friends:
The Assault by Brian Faulkner
North American Indian Reader (Viking Portable Library) ed. Frederick W. Turner

Purchased used at Got Books:
The Cleveland/Rutherford Counties area in NC FINALLY!!!!!! has a used book store!
The Inheritance by Louisa May Alcott
Don Juan by Lord Byron
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

For school:
I think I've ended up with at least two dozen books either specifically required this semester or necessary supplemental reads. Unfortunately, my early Native American lit class was canceled after I ordered the books.
Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Lincoln by Gore Vidal
The Historical Novel in Europe, 1650-1950 by Richard Maxwell
Wynema by S. Alice Callahan
Waterlily by Ella Cara Deloria
Red: A Haida Manga by Michael Yahgulanaas
Trickster by Matt Dembicki
Comprehending Cults by Lorne L. Dawson
Telling Stories the Kiowa Way by Gus Palmer
Wisdom Sits in Places by Keith H. Basso
Story, Performance, and Event by Richard Bauman
Orality & Literacy by Walter J. Ong
J.B. by Archibald MacLeish
Understanding the Bible by Stephen Harris

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Historical Fiction-ish: The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak

Publisher: Henry Holt
Date: January 14, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 270
Reading time: five or six days

From GoodReads: Set in the quaint (though admittedly backward) fictional nation of Scalvusia in 1939, The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel follows the exploits of a young swineherd with romantic delusions of grandeur. Desperate to attract the voluptuous Roosha, the Gypsy concubine of the local boot-and-shoe magnate, Barnabas and his short-legged steed Wilhelm get embroiled in a series of scandals and misadventures, as every attempt at wooing ends in catastrophe. After the mysterious death of an important figure in the community, a witch-hunt ensues, and a stranger falls from the sky. Barnabas begins to see the terrible tide of history turning in his beloved hometown. The wonderfully eccentric supporting cast includes a priest driven mad by a fig tree, a gang of louts who taunt our reluctant hero at every turn, and a dim-witted vagabond with a goat for a wife. 

My review: I'm not entirely sure what the whole point of this novel was, but it was fun. There's a lot of cool stuff to compare it to - The Mouse That Roared series by Leonard Wibberley, Don Quixote, long humorous picaresque novels of the 18th century, classic parodies in general, and hints of absurdism. The book wasn't laugh-out-loud funny for me, but it was quite amusing the entire way through.

I guess what got me, though, is just the lack of any apparent reason behind everything. It's a fun read, yes, but what points is the author trying to make about history, particularly with regards to small 20th century European nations and villages? It felt like some kind of message is there but never comes through entirely. This message is what would have turned a delightful read into something deeper that makes the story stick with the reader past the conclusion of the book.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Blog Tour Review: Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber

Publisher: Black Sparrow Press
Date: July 2013
Format: paperback
Source: TLC Book Tours
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 210
Reading time: about a week (or a story per day)

From the back of the book: Othello is the only minority member of the Department, so Desdemona, currently serving as Department Chair, is running an affirmative action search. A likely candidate reminds her of Othello in the old days, before he smothered her with a pillow; against her will, she develops a crush on the new guy. Iago gets into the act, stirring up mischief as before. Will it all end in tears once again? Read "Casting Call," one of eight stories in Linda Bamber's new collection, to find out. You'll find yourself caught between laughter and suspense as you encounter these and other familiar characters from Antony and Cleopatra to Henry IV, from Jane Eyre to real-life American artist Thomas Eakins.

My review: The eight stories in this collection are mostly centered on Shakespeare's plays (Othello, the Henriad, As You Like It, Hamlet, and Antony and Cleopatra), along with one story each on Jane Eyre and Thomas Eakins' paintings. I found the first story - the one with the Othello affirmative action department search - the most creative (and humorous) in terms of retelling and drawing on these classic tales, but really, each story is unique in how it pulls in these well-known works and mixes them with current settings and language. There's a great deal of metafiction-y reflections and critical examinations, which for me is what made this book stand out. If you're a Shakespeare, Eakins, or Jane Eyre fan, it's like reading literary and artistic criticism in a fun fictional form. I'd love to see what Bamber would do with other classic works! I found that I tended to enjoy the stories drawing from works with which I am already familiar more than the others, but all were understandable despite any personal lack of background.


Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Sci-Fi: On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee

Publisher: Riverhead
Date: January 7, 2014
Format: ARC
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 350
Reading time: about a week, maybe

From GoodReads: In a future, long-declining America, society is strictly stratified by class. Long-abandoned urban neighborhoods have been repurposed as highwalled, self-contained labor colonies. And the members of the labor class—descendants of those brought over en masse many years earlier from environmentally ruined provincial China—find purpose and identity in their work to provide pristine produce and fish to the small, elite, satellite charter villages that ring the labor settlement. In this world lives Fan, a female fish-tank diver, who leaves her home in the B-Mor settlement (once known as Baltimore), when the man she loves mysteriously disappears. Fan’s journey to find him takes her out of the safety of B-Mor, through the anarchic Open Counties, where crime is rampant with scant governmental oversight, and to a faraway charter village, in a quest that will soon become legend to those she left behind.

My review: I really wanted to love this book. Literary speculative fiction, preferably with dystopian elements, is one of my favorite things to read, and Lee's writing style is unique. Not only is his writing quite nice, but the narrator is a pretty interesting collective family or community voice rather than a single first- or third-person narrator. I also enjoyed finding the parallels between Lee's future societies and current trends in our own.

But...it took a while to get into the plot, and I think I only became engrossed because I was stuck on airplanes for several hours with just reading to do. Though the storyline did remain interesting, the book seemed really slow. I never caught on to what point(s) the author was trying to convey - the story seemed like it was trying to give some kind of message, but I struggled unsuccessfully for the full novel with figuring out what that message was. And while I liked the sudden twist at the conclusion, I didn't like how one of the main issues driving the entire plot was left open. I was hoping this would be a super read, but it failed to live up entirely to my expectations.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Short Stories: Watering Heaven by Peter Tieryas Liu

Publisher: Signal 8 Press
Date: October 2012
Format: paperback
Source: GoodReads First Look
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 204

From GoodReads: What would you do if you found out your girlfriend laid an egg every time she had sex? Who would you be if you were invited to a party in Beijing but had to make up a brand-new identity for six weeks? Peter Tieryas Liu's Watering Heaven is a travelogue of and requiem for the American dream in all its bizarre manifestations and a surreal, fantastic journey through the streets, alleys, and airports of China. Whether it's a monk who uses acupuncture needles to help him fly or a city filled with rats about to be exterminated so that the mayor can win his reelection bid, be prepared to laugh, swoon, and shudder at the answers Peter Tieryas Liu offers in this provocative debut collection.

My review: So, again, I'm not a huge short story fan and often don't do well reviewing collections. I picked up Watering Heaven because the first story promised speculative fiction elements, though these proved far more pronounced in that story than in any others. Still, there were several that approached Pynchon-esque surrealism. I did not always catch the messages in each story, but I did catch the underlying theme throughout the collection of an existential dissatisfaction with modern life, the daily grind of going along with corporate business and the status quo. It will be interesting to pick this back up a few years down the road and see what I think of it when I'm a bit further into adulthood.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

YA Fantasy: Battle Magic by Tamora Pierce

Series: The Circle Reforged #3 (Emelan)
Publisher: Scholastic
Date: September 24, 2013
Format: ARC
Source: ARCycling
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 440
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: On their way to the first Circle temple in Gyongxe, mages Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy pay a visit to the emperor's summer palace. Although treated like royalty when they first arrive, the mages soon discover that the emperor plans to invade Gyongxe, posing a fatal threat to the home temple of the Living Circle religion. Accompanied by one of the emperor's prize captives, the three mages rush to Gyongxe to warn its citizens of the impending attack. With the imperials hot on their trail, Briar, Rosethorn, and Evvy must quickly help the country prepare for battle. But even with the help of new allies, will their combined forces be enough to fight the imperial army and win the war?

My review: Middle school and early high school were my big years for Tamora Pierce, so with this book I'm not sure if her writing didn't match up with her other books or if I've simply grown out of liking her series. Certainly I didn't find my usual OMG-I-love-this-series-so-so-much enthusiasm for Battle Magic, but then I always preferred the Tortall books to the Emelan ones, anyway.

Battle Magic started out slooooow. It was a bit of a slog, and I was questioning how I managed to quickly get through Pierce's thicker tomes in previous days. The plot was just slow in doing much, and I didn't find the filler material all that interesting. There was less of Pierce's usual fantastic world-building, and characters didn't grow much from what I remember in previous books. About halfway through, though, things picked up significantly as the storyline moved into adventures and battle scenes. Then I was back to my usual compulsive, can't-put-this-down reading. It just took awhile to get to this point, and by the end I still wasn't very impressed with Battle Magic as compared with Pierce's other books. It was a fun fantasy read, not much more.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Recent Acquisitions: Post-Holiday Hauls

For review:
Because, what with the backlog of several months' worth of ARCs from this past semester, I clearly need more. Bring on the review-fest.
The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons by Goli Taraghi (First Look)
On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee (Early Reviewers)
I Shall Be Near to You by Erin Lindsay McCabe (publisher)
Taking What I Like by Linda Bamber (TLC Book Tours)

Gifts:
Indians of Burke County and Western North Carolina by Larry Richard Clark
A Very Mutinous People: The Struggle for North Carolina, 1660-1713 by Noeleen McIlvenna
All the Best Rubbish by Ivor Noel Hume
Archaeological Study Bible
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy


I might have gone a bit overboard with purchasing books.

Purchased at Fifth Street Books in Mebane:
*If anyone lives close enough to make a drive there, everything's $0.99 and there's a weekend each month where everything is $0.25! I only had 30 minutes when I went, otherwise I would've bought much more...
Old Creole Days by George Washington Cable
The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal
King Harald's Saga by Snorri Sturluson
Laxdaela Saga
The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper
The Ordeal of Richard Feverel by George Meredith
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
Roderick Random by Tobias Smollett
The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays
Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser
Poor Miss Finch by Wilkie Collins
Gap Creek by Robert Morgan (local interest historical fiction)
Paradise by Toni Morrison

Purchased used from my favorite antique mall:
Notebook of a Colonial Clergyman by Henry Melchior Muhlenberg
Envisioning America: English Plans for the Colonization of North America, 1580-1640
The Cultural Life of the American Colonies by Louis B. Wright
Six Early American Plays: 1798-1890
The Black Bard of North Carolina: George Moses Horton and His Poetry ed. by Joan R. Sherman
Translations of French Sentimental Prose Fiction in Late Eighteenth-Century England by Josephine Grieder
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias by Marguerite Young

And, last but not least, purchased used at various other places:
Cades Cove: The Life and Death of a Southern Appalachian Community, 1818-1937 by Durwood Dunn
Mountain People, Mountain Crafts by Elinor Lander Horwitz
The Power of Six (Lorien Legacies #2) by Pittacus Lore
Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Bluebeard: The Life and Crimes of Gilles de Rais by Leonard Wolf
Really, what are the chances that TWO Bluebeard-related books would be on the same bargain shelf at a dinky small-town book exchange?!
Waverley by Sir Walter Scott
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Neandertals: Of Skeletons, Scientists, and Scandal by Erik Trinkaus and Pat Shipman
Zel by Donna Jo Napoli


How were your holidays?

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Goodbye 2013!

This wasn't as stellar a year for me as the last one in terms of reading and blogging, but it was still quite good.

Reading goals:
101 books read total (decent)
17 out of 50 for 2013 TBR Pile Reading Challenge (fail)
13 out of 12 for 2013 Translation challenge (success!)

Best classics:
The Lais of Marie de France
Wigalois by Wirnt von Grafenberg

Best historical fiction:
The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed
The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell

Best sci-fi:
Utopia by Ahmed Khaled Towfik
The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach
In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke
The Demi-Monde World: Winter by Rod Rees

Best YA sci-fi:
The Testing by Joelle Charbonneau
The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson
Mind Games by Kiersten White

Best in other/nameless genres:
Beauty Queens by Libba Bray
Every Boy Should Have a Man by Preston L. Allen
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano

Best nonfiction:
Chiefdoms, Collapse and Coalescence in the Early American South by Robin Beck
From Chicaza to Chickasaw by Robbie Ethridge
Facing East from Indian Country by Daniel K. Richter
America's Communal Utopias ed. by Donald E. Pitzer

Other media fixes for the year:
live performance of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui
1990s and 2000s film/TV adaptations of Jane Eyre
music of Mumford & Sons and Mother Falcon