Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Classic Lit: The Female Quixote by Charlotte Lennox

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press
Date: 1752 (1998)
Format: paperback
Source: purchased used
Read: because I usually like 18th century novels
Pages: 380
Reading time: months and months

From GoodReads: The Female Quixote, a vivacious and ironical novel parodying the style of Cervantes, portrays Arabella, the beautiful daughter of a marquis, whose passion for reading romances colors her approach to her own life and causes many comical and melodramatic misunderstandings among her relatives and admirers. Both Joseph Fielding and Samuel Johnson greatly admired Lennox, and this novel established her as one of the most successful practitioners of the "Novel of Sentiment."

My review: I finally made iiiiiiitttttttt. I didn't think I would actually reach the end - I've made several pushes to try to finish over the past semester, and only by shear dint of volume have they paid off. A breakdown of my reading:

This summer: The first 100 pages started off strong. As one would assume from the title, there are rather strong, obvious, and humorous ties between The Female Quixote and Don Quixote. The latter is a parody of chivalric romance, while Lennox's work takes the same general premise and applies it to French romances. Hilarity ensues. But after about the first 100 pages, the plot goes on repeat. We realize at this point how odd Arabella is and how much drama her strange views and behaviors will create, so let's just skip to the ending, right? When I realized there were still over 250 pages left, however, my reading slowed significantly.

This semester: When you're having a busy semester, nothing is less inspiring for your extracurricular reading than for the little amount of time you have to be occupied by a boring novel. I just didn't even bother to try continuing this until classes ended.

Winter break: Since I had gotten to somewhere between page 250 and 300 during my summer reading and a couple of half-hearted attempts at either end of the semester, I was determined to get this book over with. I had hoped it would eventually pick up at some point. It didn't. I hardly know what I was reading, since I zoned out a lot. There were too many words and pages for the actual stuff that was occurring, so I don't think it mattered all that much, anyway. This might have been a decent read had everything been condensed, but as it stands, The Female Quixote is the most dense and needlessly long-winded 18th century novel I've ever read.

Last note: It might have helped if modern readers were familiar with the works being satired in The Female Quixote (I mean, a lot of the stuff from Don Quixote is still floating around), but I've never heard of any of them and assume they're all long out-of-print. The constant references to a couple of key works were utterly lost on me.

Mini-Reviews: More Fiction

I read the first two of these at the end of the semester and lacked the energy to write longer reviews. The inclusion of the third is simply laziness.

Emma by Jane Austen (1815; Norton Critical Edition 2012)
Not my favorite of Austen's novels, but a decent read. I didn't particularly like any of the characters, though Emma eventually grew on me. It was interesting to see how all the romances played out, because I had pretty much everyone pegged with the wrong person at the beginning. The reading group billed this as "proto-feminist," so I kept looking for such messages while reading but didn't find a whole lot; instead, it just kind of confused me on Austen's intent in writing.

Without a Net by Ana Maria Shua, trans. Steven J. Stewart (July 2012)
This is a collection of 99 of Shua's "microfictions," a writing form with which I was unfamiliar. The stories all have a circus theme, but there's some really cool deeper messages in a lot of the stories about the human condition, the relationship between author and reader, etc., plus elements of surrealism and fantasy. With every story only a paragraph or two long, I felt like a lot of these cool messages struck me for only a short time, and then I was moving along to the next page. What Shua is writing is neat, but it's too brief to leave much resonance.

The Lais of Marie de France trans. Robert Hanning and Joan Ferrante (12th cent.; trans. 1978)
This book proved to be a nice break from my classics slump - I would love to find more collections of lais! This translation is great, very clear and easy to read. The lais (like short stories in verse, often relating to Breton folklore and Arthurian stuff) are enjoyable, and I found them quite fun in connection with my Arthurian lit course this semester. The similarities to folkloric styles and motifs were also a draw.

Monday, December 30, 2013

Did Not Finish: Better Off Without 'Em by Chuck Thompson

Subtitle: A Northern Manifesto for Southern Secession
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Date: August 2012
Source: GoodReads First Look

From GoodReads: In Better Off Without ’Em, the biggest book of his career, Thompson offers a heavily researched, serious inquiry into national divides that is unabashedly controversial, often uproarious, and always thought-provoking. By crunching numbers, interviewing experts, and traveling the not-so-former Confederacy, Thompson—an openly disgruntled liberal Northwesterner—makes a compelling case for Southern secession. Along the way, he interacts with possum-hunting conservatives, trailer park lifers, prayer warriors, and other regional trendsetters, showing that the South’s perverse church-driven morality, politics, and personality never have and never will define the region as a fully committed part of the United States. Better Off Without ’Em is a deliberately provocative book whose insight, humor, fierce and fearless politics, and sheer nerve will spark a national debate that is perhaps long overdue.

Why I couldn't finish: I read the introduction, first chapter (on religion), and half of the second chapter (don't really remember what that was on, I think politics). And then I gave up because I just didn't want to continue and didn't see much point in doing so. Yes, some of the content in the book was interesting, but my issues with it all far outweighed any enjoyment I was getting from reading.

1) Overgeneralization. Thompson paints the far-right quirkies (uber-conservative evangelical Protestants, Tea Partiers, Obama conspiracy theorists, etc.) as the typical Southerners, leaving no room for those of us who view such people as relatively harmless crazies. I grew up in small towns in rural North Carolina, I think I know Southerners fairly well. Yes, there's a lot of the crazies, but there's also a lot of us (particularly in the younger generations) who just move along, shaking our heads, when we encounter these people.

2) Offensiveness. I could perhaps excuse the overgeneralizations if Thompson was at least funny. I expected this to be rather like Confederates in the Attic (which, as a reenactor myself, I find uproariously funny and true to experience in the bits discussing reenacting), but Thompson's way of writing unapologetically sets out to offend every type of Southerner solely on the basis of his or her region of birth.

3) Poor argument. The whole thesis of the book has something to do with, to paraphrase, "since Southerners do their own thing that the rest of the U.S. doesn't/shouldn't like, wouldn't it just be better if the South was a separate country?" Except Thompson's logic often fails, with much inclusion of non sequiturs and little relation back to the original thesis except for brief token mentions at the end of the chapter.

The end result: If I ever attempt to read this again, it'll be a long time coming.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

YA Sci-Fi: Contaminated by Em Garner

Publisher: Egmont USA
Date: July 23, 2013
Format: hardback
Source: LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 330
Reading time: three days

From GoodReads: After the Contamination—an epidemic caused by the super-trendy diet drink ThinPro that turned ordinary citizens into violent, uncontrollable creatures—the government rounded up the "Connies" to protect the remaining population. Now, two years later, the rehabilitated are being allowed home, complete with shock collars that will either control, or kill, them. Velvet Ellis has struggled to care for her ten-year-old sister since her parents were taken in the round up. When she finds her mother in one of the "Kennels," Velvet resolves to do whatever it takes to put her family back together. But the danger isn’t over. It’s beginning all over again…

My review: One expects zombie novels to be fast-paced and full of gritty, morbid, bloody zombie-killing action. Not so with Contaminated. The novel reveals the "humanity" of zombies, reminding us that the genre doesn't have to be all thrillerness and blood-and-guts fighting. I found it a rather refreshing difference, actually.

This is not to say that the plot of Contaminated is boring or slow, because it isn't. The story is very well-paced as well as well-written. The characters have depth and are engaging. They're dealing with issues not unknown to readers - having to take care of younger siblings, balancing family, work, and school, dealing with close family members who have various severe illnesses (the changes in Velvet's mother are a lot like a gradual reversal of Alzheimer's). The novel is very perceptive of some current social issues and negative cultural trends, and I found the book interesting in as much for its ways of examining these to various extents as for its actual storyline.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

YA Sci-Fi: The Darkest Path by Jeff Hirsch

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: September 24, 2013
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: 320
Reading time: one day

From GoodReads: A civil war rages between the Glorious Path--a militant religion based on the teachings of a former US soldier--and what's left of the US government. Fifteen-year-old Callum Roe and his younger brother, James, were captured and forced to convert six years ago. Cal has been working in the Path's dog kennels, and is very close to becoming one of the Path's deadliest secret agents. Then Cal befriends a stray dog named Bear and kills a commander who wants to train him to be a vicious attack dog. This sends Cal and Bear on the run, and sets in motion a series of incredible events that will test Cal's loyalties and end in a fierce battle that the fate of the entire country rests on.

My review: This is the first book by Jeff Hirsch that I've read, and, overall, I enjoyed it. It was a fun read for a rainy day. The plot starts out fast-paced, intense, and exciting, and it continues in this style throughout the novel. I liked the religious elements of the dystopia, since religion is one aspect very relevant to today that I think could be explored a lot more in the recent YA dystopian genre spree.

But, otherwise, I had some issues with the story. Cal and James's ages are given as pretty young, but their characterizations and actions mark them as far more mature. In the most succinct and obvious example, at one point Cal is about to send 13-year-old James off on a road trip hundreds of miles long by himself (forgetting that James of course hasn't learned to drive). I felt like the Path's methods of control weren't very fleshed-out; it's one thing to nominally take over vast swaths of the U.S. and another to actually change the views of all the occupants there so that there's not the constant threat of internal rebels. Some of the dystopia's characteristics seemed to get lost during the course of the story, like the Path's supposed lack of reliance on modern things. I also tired of just how much the setting and characters present changed - let's please stick with one or two sets and quit switching around. Still, the novel wrapped up well, ending on a perfect note for a standalone.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Retellings: Havisham by Ronald Frame

I'm back! Two weeks is a long time for me to be quiet on the blog, but I was studying for final exams (and, what occupies even more time, procrastinating on studying for final exams) and then recuperating from a busy semester. And of course, my family continues to stay busy throughout the break, which doesn't help matters any. But on to more relevant things, like book reviews...

Publisher: Picador
Date: November 2012 (UK); November 5, 2013 (US)
Format: ARC
Source: publisher
Read: for review (disclaimer: I received my copy of this book for free in exchange for an honest review.)
Pages: 356
Reading time: about four days

From GoodReads: Before she became the immortal and haunting Miss Havisham of Great Expectations, she was Catherine, a young woman with all of her dreams ahead of her. Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer. But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall—HAVISHAM—a reminder of all she owes to the family name and the family business. Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers elegant pastimes to remove the taint of her family's new money. But for all her growing sophistication, Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything—her heart, her future, the very Havisham name—is vulnerable.

My review: I read and reviewed Great Expectations last semester, so the original story is fairly fresh on my mind. I found that Havisham did not seem to really add much to Dickens' novel. Yes, it gives a greater backstory for this most eccentric character, but it did not provide anything that I found particularly innovative or insightful. I thought that the details that were different were just that - details - though some metafictionally bits about Pip writing a novel over all of this were kind of cool. I ended up seeing Havisham less of a retelling and more of just a period novel. The descriptions of material culture were great, and I got a wonderful sense of upper-crust culture and society during the time period. That, for me, was more enjoyable than Great Expectations from the perspective of another character.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

YA Fiction: Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

Publisher: Scholastic
Date: May 2011
Format: hardback
Source: blog giveaway
Read: cleaning up that ubiquitous TBR pile
Pages: 390
Reading time: four days

From GoodReads: The fifty contestants in the Miss Teen Dream pageant thought this was going to be a fun trip to the beach, where they could parade in their state-appropriate costumes and compete in front of the cameras. But sadly, their airplane had another idea, crashing on a desert island and leaving the survivors stranded with little food, little water, and practically no eyeliner. What's a beauty queen to do? Continue to practice for the talent portion of the program - or wrestle snakes to the ground? Get a perfect tan - or learn to run wild? And what should happen when the sexy pirates show up?

My review: I've been looking forward to reading Beauty Queens since it came out, given that it appeared to be a fun novel mocking beauty pageants by placing contestants in a Lord of the Flies-esque situation and seeing what happens. And this is, in a nutshell, still a good way to describe the novel, but the book is so much more than this, so much deeper. It's feminist-y satire and cultural critique, going beyond the beauty pageant and image-obsessed culture to examine pretty much all aspects of American society, all while being uproariously hilarious. Seriously, I spent the past four nights laughing out loud and trying to convince my women's-and-gender-studies-potential-major roommate that she absolutely must read this book.

So, yes, the cultural criticism is a major - and fantastic - part of the book. I think we should read novels like this in literary and cultural theory classes because they put such critical analysis into terms normal people can actually understand (cough cough, Judith Butler, I'm pointing at you). But all of this satire is perfectly interwoven with a pretty stellar plot. The inclusion of adventure novel/film tropes to the point of near-surrealism just adds to the general hilarity. About the middle of the book, I was wondering how much longer everything was going to keep up, but this slower part was quite brief, and the momentum of the story largely kept up for the entire ~400 pages. Excuse me, but I must now go push Beauty Queens onto all of my feminist, gender theory-studying friends (and just everyone in general)...

Perhaps my favorite gem of many great lines from this book (this particular one is coming as advice to a pageant contestant): "You can tell story of how much you wish to be mother someday. People like to hear about your future plans for ovaries" (p 82).

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mini-Reviews: Last Reading for the Semester

Dreaming of Cockaigne: Medieval Fantasies of the Perfect Life by Herbert Pleij; trans. Diane Webb (2001)
Meh. It was interesting...and then it got long and rambling and repetitive. I'm not really even sure what the thesis was, but the book was basically just examining any aspect of medieval life possible to examine in relation with Cockaigne texts (major emphasis on Dutch ones) for 400+ pages. If you're interested in the subject, perhaps just read the first bit of this and then skim the rest?

Chiefdoms, Collapse, and Coalescence in the Early American South by Robin Beck (Jun. 2013)
This was right up my alley because it's specifically about the Native American groups that became the Catawba in the Piedmont Carolinas, and Beck has worked with the Berry Site (Xuala/Joara & Ft. San Juan) in Burke County, N.C. It's the most recent research on this region/time period, seems to be well done, but there were some new ways Beck interpreted the sources, especially on migrations and group continuities between some of the population movements, that appeared to my little untrained eyes possibly questionable.

Little Crow: Spokesman for the Sioux by Gary Anderson (1986)
This biography takes a "life and times" approach for various parts of Little Crow's life, since there's not always that much info directly pertaining to him. I'm not a huge fan of biographies, but this was interesting, at least, and I definitely learned more about Dakota life in the mid-19th century and specifically the Dakota War of 1862. I didn't really catch on to all the differences between Dakota, Lakota, Sioux, and individual bands, though, which could get confusing.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Recent Acquisitions XIII

I think it's been at least a month since I did one of these posts. I have all of two weeks left in this semester, and then, hopefully, a month of reading!

For review:
Katie Gale: A Coast Salish Woman's Life on Oyster Bay by Llyn de Danaan (Early Reviewers)
The Ballad of Barnabas Pierkiel by Magdalena Zyzak (Early Reviewers)
The Spirit Keeper by K.B. Laugheed (TLC Book Tours)
See my review and giveaway of this here!

The Wilful Eye (thanks, vvb32 Reads!)

From Random Buzzers:
Yellowcake by Margo Lanagan
Gated by Amy Christine Parker
Far, Far Away by Tom McNeal
Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddleman

Purchased at a campus book sale:
Changing Planes by Ursula K. Le Guin
The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin
Bloodroot by Amy Greene

From WLT Book Club:
The Song Seekers by Saswati Sengupta
Legend of the Walled-Up Wife by Ileana Malancioiu
Brownsville: Stories by Oscar Casares
One Good Story, That One: Stories by Thomas King
A Short History of Indians in Canada: Stories by Thomas King
Missionary Conquest: The Gospel and Native American Cultural Genocide by George E. Tinker
Madness of Waiting by Muhammad Hadi Ruswa
Fairy Tales Transformed? Twenty-First Century Adaptations and the Politics of Wonder (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies) by Cristina Bacchilega
Revisioning Red Riding Hood Around the World: An Anthology of International Retellings (Series in Fairy-Tale Studies) ed. by Sandra L. Beckett
I can't wait to have time to start reading this - definitely one of the best books I've picked up from WLT, given that it's been on my wishlist of international speculative fiction!