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 Brontë 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

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.