Monday, December 31, 2007

C.S. Lewis and Christian Parables: Who Knew?

Till We Have Faces. I'm only about halfway through it, and it's quite lovely--a leisurely written story of the princess of a mediocre country whose beloved younger sister is given in sacrifice to their God, and who tries to rescue her. The first third or so of the book was an interesting story, and very much a character study. But then the plot really got underway, and the two sisters are having a long conversation about gods that is such a Christian parable that it almost ceases to function as fiction.

Actually, I'm not sure if that's true. I think it feels heavy handed, but I also thing Lewis is quite an expert at exploring the issues surrounding religious faith in a way that is generous to the agnostic. He's not antagonistic, as I find so many other apologists to be. But you can tell that's because he really feels like he's going to win you over. The girl in the story (I can't remember her name, because it's strange and she's a first person narrator; the sacrificed sister is Psyche) clearly doesn't want to believe, and even as she's making very reasonable arguments (I think my sister is crazy because she says we're sitting inside when we're clearly outdoors getting rained on), it's clear that I'm supposed to find her suspect because of her lack of faith (in her sister's claim that no, really, we're indoors and dry as a bone). And then her arguments that really, if the gods want us to believe things, they should make them less contradictory with the evidence of our senses--insert C.S. Lewis eye roll. But, I'm sorry, that makes total sense to me as an argument. You can't dismiss the evidence of my senses as a spurious argument.

I don't want to argue religion with anyone--I am without any sort of conviction. And I really enjoy reading more explicit religious discussion, because I want to home in on the place where I part company from believers, because I really can't find it for myself; I only know we're on different paths. But I do hope that the book becomes less of a parable and goes back to being more of a story.

I also want to put in a plug here for the YA novel Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale. Hale has apparently written Goose Girl, which a bunch of people I know have raved about, as well as a bunch of other things. I just found her, and I can say that I enjoyed Princess Academy a lot. I thought it dealt very well with the main character being strongly of two minds, and really not knowing which way to go.

Okay, I'm off to ring in the new year. Happy 2008, everyone!

Friday, December 28, 2007

Wait, Are You Telling Me The Internet Is Interactive?

So. Well. Huh.

Apparently my recent post about Ha'penny, by Jo Walton, was read by the author herself. And then blogged. I noticed because of an insane bump in my blog stats on December 26. You don't go from the loyal 5-8 readers I have (hi, Linden! hi, Lynne!) to the 102 who came to visit me without wondering how exactly THAT happens.

So after I stopped screaming and crawled out from under the kitchen table, I started to think about what was in the post and pray that, even if I disappointed Ms. Walton, that at least I hadn't embarrassed myself. I mean, on the off chance that Stephen King finds his way here someday, I stand by my declaration that he needs a more aggressive editor. But I have been known to say things that are rather less thoughtful and more impassioned than is truly necessary.

I'm not going to backpedal, because I said what I think about the book. The ending depressed me--I was invested in the conspiracy, and who wouldn't be invested in killing Hitler? The ending depressed me so much, I woke up the next morning and felt depressed when I thought of the book again. I even felt extra-depressed when reading Exodus later, because I kept forgetting that we won World War II. But I don't think I can claim that writing a depressing book is a failure, even if I am a five-year-old child when it comes to happy endings.

I'd like to reiterate how much I adored Farthing. You should really read it, and I'm not saying this because Jo Walton knows my URL. Tooth and Claw was fabulous, too--a spot-on perfect, excellent, marvelous novel--practically Jane Austen with dragons. And, even more, I am indescribably excited to learn that there is going to be a third book in the Small Change series (her name for it, also called Still Life with Fascists), in which I absolutely insist that Carmichael be redeemed. It is possible that, after reading the third book, I'll be okay with Ha'penny as a second act.

I hope it doesn't sound wishy-washy coming back to this. I throw this blog out into the void (Hi, Kris! Hi, Becky!), and I feel like this situation calls for more precision. And for a big shout-out to Jo Walton, who's going to be the Guest of Honor at the 2009 annual meeting of the New England Science Fiction Association here in Boston. Maybe I'll show up to shake her hand--if she'll have me.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

The Brick Wall of My Bougeois Taste

As in, once again I've run up against the brick wall of the fact that there's a quality of good "literary" fiction that I just can't take.

So I'm not going to be reading Giraffe. I'm quitting after the requisite 10%, plus a few more pages, and I would normally not be bothered by finding out, this early in the process, that a particular book is not my cup o' tea. But I had been SO excited about this book. Also, I have to say, I'm still really curious about the plot. What did happen to the giraffes? Why were they shot? But I think that finding out how it ends is a good enough reason to plow through, say, the last quarter of a book, not getting into the first 50 pages.

So what don't I like about it? Well, so far, it's the atmospheric nature of the book. So far the only things that have actually happened were 1) giraffes are caught and sorted, and 2) guy who studies giraffe circulatory systems is called to the government office, told he'd be fetching the giraffes from the ship and brining them to the zoo, and then goes home. We also have elaborate descriptions of the office he sits in, his route home, and his house. This is something like 40 pages in. Literally, nothing else happens. There are a lot of poetic moments--vignettes of things like him walking along the river and imagining an elderly couple watching him from the window of their apartment, and a flashback to how his architect mother designed the high dive of an important municipal pool and how the family went annually to view said pool and high dive.

Also, there's the pervasive misery of every book that takes place in a communist country, as though (and I think I've said this before) the sun never shone in Czechoslovakia.

So I am done. Stick a fork in me. Kris, next time we have lunch you will tell me how the book ends, and I will be done. I'm sorry; I feel like a bit of a failure, but it's over between me and this book. I'm reading Princess Academy, a young adult book by Shannon Hale, and Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis, as well as Exodus. Speaking of Till We Have Faces and Exodus in the same sentence, Becky, if you're out there, you should read The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood. It's a strange little slip of a book, but I think you'd really like it.

Next time:, library arrivals, and a meditation on whether it's really completely respectable to read this much YA.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Major Letdown Season

This is not a holiday-themed post. Christmas so far is not at all let-downy. I was disappointed in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, but that's neither Christmas nor literature, so we're not going to talk about that.

But Ha'penny. Jo Walton. Sequel to Farthing. Sigh.

So I loved Farthing. You can't pretend that the ending was a happy one--the book is, from start to finish, about fascism winning the race--it's a world in which Lindburgh defeated Roosevelt and America is mired in Depression and isolationism, and in which Churchill was ousted early on in favor of a treaty with the Nazis. This is the world the book takes place in, and there is only the slightest hint that there is hope for anything or anyone.

The sequel, Ha'penny, has all these issues, but without the even tiny sense of uplift that you get at the end of Farthing. I'm almost sorry she wrote it. There were a few bits that didn't fly as well throughout--the main character's sex/love relationship and how it influences her actions, for example--but her voice and the police procedural guided me painlessly through those parts. Ah, but the end...I won't spoil it, except to say that the only sliver of hopeful sentiment it leaves you is pale and false. There is no hope here, only Zool.

And as for Pirates of the Caribbean, if there's another sequel, I'll forgive it, but if this is the end of the series, I'm taking my business elsewhere. Also, I hate movies where everything is monochromatic. Different scenes had their own color, but each one was just the one color. Blech.

Merry Christmas Eve!

Friday, December 21, 2007

Starting a Meme

I don't know if it's a meme until someone else picks it up, but here's a list of all the Newbery Award winners so far. Bold are the ones I've read; red are the ones I'm pretty sure I want to read. Not that I won't read others; there are a lot I don't know anything about. But this is a list of my intentions.

Now that I look at it, I've read a lot more than I'm planning to read. And to be honest, I've only selected the ones to read that look like I might really enjoy them--there's no duty-reading on this list. I have enough of that in my life. I'm going to have to think about this a little more, process it and think about the procedure.

There are in reverse order by year--the last one on the list is from 1922.

:The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron, illus. by Matt Phelan
:Criss Cross by Lynne Rae Perkins
:Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata
:The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread by Kate DiCamillo
:Crispin: The Cross of Lead by Avi
:A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
:A Year Down Yonder by Richard Peck
:Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis
:Holes by Louis Sachar
:Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse
:The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg
:The Midwife's Apprentice by Karen Cushman
:Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech
:The Giver by Lois Lowry
:Missing May by Cynthia Rylant
:Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
:Maniac Magee by Jerry Spinelli
:Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
:Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices by Paul Fleischman
:Lincoln: A Photobiography by Russell Freedman
:The Whipping Boy by Sid Fleischman
:Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
:The Hero and the Crown by Robin McKinley
:Dear Mr. Henshaw by Beverly Cleary
:Dicey's Song by Cynthia Voigt
:A Visit to William Blake's Inn: Poems for Innocent and Experienced Travelers by Nancy Willard
:Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
:A Gathering of Days: A New England Girl's Journal, 1830-1832 by Joan W. Blos
:The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin
:Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
:Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
:The Grey King by Susan Cooper
:M. C. Higgins, the Great by Virginia Hamilton
:The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox
:Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
:Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien
:Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars
:Sounder by William H. Armstrong
:The High King by Lloyd Alexander
:From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg
:Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt
:I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino
:Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska
:It's Like This, Cat by Emily Neville
:A Wrinkle in Time
by Madeleine L'Engle
:The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
: Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
: Onion John by Joseph Krumgold
: The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare
: Rifles for Watie by Harold Keith
: Miracles on Maple Hill by Virginia Sorensen
: Carry On, Mr. Bowditch by Jean Lee Latham
: The Wheel on the School by Meindert DeJong
: ...And Now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold
: Secret of the Andes by Ann Nolan Clark
: Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
: Amos Fortune, Free Man by Elizabeth Yates
: The Door in the Wall by Marguerite de Angeli
: King of the Wind by Marguerite Henry
: The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pène du Bois
: Miss Hickory by Carolyn Sherwin Bailey
: Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
: Rabbit Hill by Robert Lawson
: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
: Adam of the Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray
: The Matchlock Gun by Walter Edmonds
: Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
: Daniel Boone by James Daugherty
: Thimble Summer by Elizabeth Enright
: The White Stag by Kate Seredy
: Roller Skates by Ruth Sawyer
: Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
: Dobry by Monica Shannon
: Invincible Louisa: The Story of the Author of Little Women by Cornelia Meigs
: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Lewis
: Waterless Mountain by Laura Adams Armer
: The Cat Who Went to Heaven by Elizabeth Coatsworth
: Hitty, Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field
: The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
: Gay Neck, the Story of a Pigeon by Dhan Gopal Mukerji
: Smoky, the Cowhorse by Will James
: Shen of the Sea by Arthur Bowie Chrisman
: Tales from Silver Lands by Charles Finger
: The Dark Frigate by Charles Hawes
: The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
: The Story of Mankind by Hendrik Willem van Loon

Czechoslovakia and My Quest

Well, I just got back from an evening in the Balkans at Revels, which was fabulous. Who knew that Bulgarian music would sound so Eastern in flavor--almost Southeast Asian, with Indian-like twang. And looking at the program with all those words that contain letter combinations like "jro" and "dse" reminds me yet again how much trouble I have reading books about places that I can't even try to begin to fathom how to pronounce.

I know the author of Giraffe is trying to create a clear image of the country in my mind, but when the narrator talks about riding his bike down Jroklavske Street, through the roundabout and up Skvlinsiljrka Hill, I am not being made to feel like I know this place. I am being made to feel like I'm visiting the natives of Jupiter, and perhaps the sky here is maroon--I have no way of knowing.

It's such a petty complaint; I feel shame. Here's a more profound one--stories set in Communist countries are depressing. Especially the Eastern European ones (Colin Cotterill's Laotian mysteries are rather upbeat; but then, communism is young in The Coroner's Lunch). This isn't petty, just trite--why are the Reds always such a downer? It's like the sun never shone in Eastern Europe, when I'm sure there was, at some point between 1950 and 1990, a clear day.

In other news, I have begun my quest into the Newbury books. I will probably post the list here sometime, along with what I plan to do with it. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

...And Legend Is a Dirty Old Man

Upon deciding recently that I'm too delicate a flower to watch the movie I Am Legend, I decided to read the book. Since it's very old, and a novella, and also currently a big movie release, the library system did not have a lot of help to offer me. So I ran over to Audible--and the whole thing is only 5 1/2 hours long, and well read.

So I've spent today listening to this misogynistic, sexually repressed and weird 1950s story. It's almost mind-blowing how this book dates itself by its ideas of sex and women--and this in a story that's basically a one man show. How much page-time do women get, you ask?

Well, I don't want to spoil anything, but enough. First of all, within the first ten minutes of audio, I commented to Mike that this man's life would be much happier if he'd consider touching himself as an option. Of course, that's just the book dating itself--a Man does not do that, or at least doesn't admit to it, even in fiction. But the vampire-women try to draw him out of his house by "striking lewd poses." His memories of his wife are not too bad, but he makes other comments, about how a normal man could never live a life of celibacy without completely turning off his sex drive and psychologically neutering himself.

Spoiler time, though I'm pretty sure I'm just spoiling the book, not the movie.

There is also a female character, who is not particularly strong--a decent number of hysterics, collapsing into tears, requiring slapping to calm her down. My favorite line, though, is when Robert Neville is still doubtful about her, and feels like he's being manipulated. Then he dismisses the thought, because she's "just a woman." I don't even know what this means. I mean, if you're going to be that demeaning toward women, don't you probably think that they're innately manipulative? I'm getting my prejudices confused.

End spoilers.

But I'm sorry that I had to begin with all that incredibly striking sex stuff, because around that, the story is actually pretty good. It's very psychological, and contains a lot of thought about the main character trying to keep sane, and sort of not doing a great job, and doubting that he's going to be able to keep going, and then somehow managing it. It moves in cycles, too--he doesn't just get better and better or worse and worse. The effects of time of his emotional state are pretty complicated, which is nice.

I'm enjoying the story. It has a kind of stark, simple style that seems very 1950s sci-fi, at least to my untrained literary judgment. And it's short, and I think the reader is adding a lot (though his women's voices don't help with the sexism thing, being breathy and limp). Still, I'm glad to be reading it.

Will I see the movie? It's hard, because I really want to, and I've heard that a large part of it, at least the first half, is quite good. But I think we've discussed here before my complex and delicate relationship with end-of-the-world stories. And I think that will always mean that I have to at least wait and watch them on video, so I can turn them off in the middle if I need to. Because I love Will Smith, and I can only watch so much of his suffering.

Monday, December 17, 2007


I think I scared Tracy this weekend. It's not much of a party if half the people don't exchange books to borrow and read. But I don't fully understand people who only read one book at a time, and finish the one they're reading before even thinking about what to read next. So I lent her The Subtle Knife, since she just finished The Golden Compass and was hungry for more. And Katie took The Amber Spyglass. And I returned her copy of Rebecca, which I hadn't read yet but will never get to, who are we kidding? Plus Brenda took a couple of Sword and Sorceress volumes.

So I've got momentum, and I start shoving things in Tracy's hands. Don't you want to read Sandman, Leaving the Saints, Return to Avalon? Can't I fill you up with all my favorite books, everything I've read for the last few years, don't you want to read it too? Join me, join me in my quest! Come with me to the dark side! A-hahahahahah!

Ah. She was very graceful, and walked out with just the one book she wanted, bless her heart. We forgive her for not following me to Crazytown.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

God's Aesthetic

You know, when you think about a giraffe and what it looks like, it's really a weird beast. It's like the large land equivalent of those strange, glowing, barely-real-looking creatures that live in the unreal places at the bottom of the ocean. The physics involved in a giraffe living on Earth--it's just remarkable.

Before I actually went after this book, Giraffe, I should have read the back. I might have found it interesting that two separate blurbs compare the work to a combination of Sebald and Kundera. Now, I don't even know who Sebald is. Kundera wrote a book I've never been able to read--not yet, anyway--The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Noah and I tried to watch the movie once in college. The fire alarm went off, though, and we both took the opportunity to creep away and not reunite to finish the movie. Since then, we've both called it The Unbearable Lightness of Boring. I try not to hold that experience against the book, though.

All this to say, this blurb makes me wary regarding this book.

I started out wary with Ha'penny. I loved Farthing, but I was worried because the somber, gloomy outlook that you're likely to get in an alternate history in which Hitler basically won was most projected in the plotline about the police officer, and that was the one that was going to continue in this book. I was worried that the lightheartedness of the girl's story would be sorely missed.

I underestimated Jo Walton. I might even eventually have to read her King Arthur fiction. Ha'penny is already clever, I already love the new main character, and I'm dying to know how Hitler turned out. The author clearly understands that Carmichael is a gloomy guy, and no one can handle a whole book about him. Go Jo!

I'm off the wagon, back at the library, and I absolutely love it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

My About-Faces

Today appears to have been a day for coming around. (Aside: you'd think I never did anything but read. I won't claim I get a lot done, but I really only read about 10 pages total of anything today.)

I'm really enjoying Small Gods. I still don't think it's as funny as I'm supposed to think Terry Pratchett is, but it doesn't need to be funny because it's, well, good. There are a lot of cute British little puns (a foreign country named Djelibaybi, for example), which are not actually offensive, but are somewhat distracting from what is an interesting story about a slow person from an oppressive religious regime seeing a little more of the world and beginning to wonder. This is amusingly set off by his god, in the form of a talking tortoise whom only the main character can hear, barking sardonic commentary and impatient orders at him. In sum, I like this book a lot.

And Exodus is coming along, as well. I think I'm going to have to pick a day and just read on into it for a few hours to really get into it, but I can see the raw materials there. There are quite a few characters to follow--even just in the part I'm on; I understand it will flash back in time after a while--and until you start to get to know them, this is always distracting. Plus, I have to say that I'm not getting a great picture of what Cyprus looks like, so the place names that seem so important as they're driving from one town past a small city and to a mountain really mean absolutely nothing to me. I can barely even picture it, and any picture I have is based on what Greece looks like. That's a fair guess for Cyprus, I guess, but I have to keep reminding myself that I really should be picturing, say the less populated parts of Mykonos, rather than Santorini (most photographed volcanic island in the world, not typical even of rocky Mediterranean islands).

So, things are coming along. This will not be a high volume month, but if I manage to read all 550 pages of Exodus, plus a couple of these kids' books and Small Gods, I'll be doing my part.

Oh, and all those library books! Those too! God that's satisfying.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Only Plummet I'll Take

Wow, when I break the seal, it's broken. At the middle school library today, I checked out four books (which is two more than I'm technically allowed to, but they're going on winter break soon, and nobody will be reading them! Also, they have three copies of at least one of them! I'm not stealing from children, really I'm not!). I also borrowed three books from the pile in the back room of unregistered books that aren't in the system.

Two are Babysitter's Club books, which almost don't count. One was the fourth Lemony Snicket book, which I'm not sure if I have the mental fortitude to read, but by Jove I'll try. The rest, though, are part of a new, informal project I'm embarking on; I'd like to read most of the Newbery Medal winners.

Mike and I were perusing a list of them the other day and I realized that, of the 80 or so that have one, I've read about 16. Which is great. (I won't embarrass Mike by revealing how few he had read, but let me put it this way: you can count them on one thumb.) But so many of them are some of the greatest YA books ever: A Wrinkle in Time, The Westing Game, Holes, The Hero and the Crown. So I think it might be worth it to read more of them. I don't want to read them all--once a year since 1922 is a lot of books, and I have no desire to drag myself through a bunch of YA that I'm not going to enjoy as an adult. But I picked up The Slave-Dancer, Caddie Woodlawn, and The Door in the Wall, all of which had appealed to me independently. So I'll probably shoot for reading about half of them--at least all that appeal to me.

So I plunge into this plan, and roll around in the 9 official check-outs and 6 or so unofficial library-owned books that I have right now, and I'm like a pig in poo. It's glorious. I really get a high off it.

Oh, and you should read The Golden Compass. I will not spoil the movie for you.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Oooooooooooooh yeah.

I went to the library today, to pick up my reserve book, Ha'penny, and to check out a better copy of Exodus, and I totally fell off the wagon. I got To Say Nothing of the Dog, about which I know next to nothing, but which I'd like to read. Also, Kris is reading it, so I thought we could read along together.

I got Till We Have Faces, which struck me on a whim once while I was roaming the shelves, and which Becky extols. I got Giraffe, which I've been interested in since, again, Kris read it. That's about it, but they're all long hardcovers, so that's like 30 pounds of books. And now that I've broken the seal, I think I'm going to get some kids' books at the school library tomorrow. I'm thinking maybe Caddie Woodlawn, which won the Newbery Award in the '60s, and then maybe Princess Academy, which I'd never heard of but shelved the other day.

I'm not ready for any more A Series of Unfortunate Events books right now; they're not as depressing as they sound, but they're not exactly upbeat, either. And it frustrates me how nobody ever listens to the kids complain that Count Olaf really is after them. But it still reassures me that the school library has them all--easy access.

But oh, it felt so good to stride purposefully through the library and snag things off the shelves. It was so satisfying. I imagine this is what skiing is like for people who, you know, ski. The wind in your face, gravity pulling you, the thrill of being acted on by forces greater than you. Swish!

Sunday, December 09, 2007


This PLR thing isn't working as well as I'd wish. Harry Potter was great and all, but Exodus has not sucked me in, I'm sorry to say. And I'm also reading Small Gods, by Terry Pratchett, which I think I might not quite get.

Terry Pratchett is hilarious, right? I'm afraid I'm not really seeing it. There seems to be the core of a pretty good story there, with a certain amount of wit--the simple but honest novice who's been approached by his god in the form of a talking turtle whom no one else can hear; the inquisitor (exquisitor, in this topsy turvy world) who is terrifying but whose henchmen might be working against him. Great. Does it sound funny? Not particularly...I guess, there's something innately funny about a turtle? All the place names are funny, but a map of England is equally silly. And the dry bluntness that is characteristic of Britishness is charming, of course. But I can't say I'm laughing out loud.

The best line I've read so far, which had an actual laugh in it, as well as some nice meat on its bones: "Fear is strange soil. Mainly it grows obedience like corn, which grows in rows and makes weeding easy. But sometimes it grows the potatoes of defiance, which flourish underground."

I think I'm going to have to grant T.P. that "the potatoes of defiance" is a great item, and I will read the rest of the book for that.

But Ha'penny is waiting for me at the library, and I'm not at all convinced that I won't be checking out four or five other books along with it when I go.

Thursday, December 06, 2007


So, five months after my special Saturday delivery of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in its special branded box by a mailman with a smile that implied that he had spent the whole morning delivering a truckful of Harry Potters to gleefully trilling people like myself, I finally picked it up to read it, day before yesterday.

I have done almost nothing but read it since then. Don't tell Ruth, but I barely checked my email. I read all 758 pages in a bit of a marathon--about 16 hours over the course of three days--two, really, because I started it just before bed on Tuesday night.

OMG it was so fabulous. It was satisfying and scary and thrilling and I was one step ahead of it but then wham it was one step ahead of me, and Harry was a tortured soul and then a despairing adolescent, and then a hero, of course, a hero!

I have to say, though, the epilogue was extraneous and unnecessary.

So that was a thrill ride that I won't reveal too much of, and that's one of the three books in my PLR down. Exodus is in my bag and will be my other big thing; I need to figure out what book 3 will be.

Oh Harry! I swoon!

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Queen of the Trash

If you've been reading along, you might be wondering why I read so many awful books. Or maybe, if you're not a snob, you just wonder why I read so many books "of questionable literary merit," or maybe just "poorly written mass market thrillers." I can't blame you for wondering this, because I've been pondering that very question today.

What brings me to this pass, you ask? What makes me ask this question that even that paragon of awfulness, Angels and Demons, did not bring to mind? The answer can be given in two little words: Darwin's Radio. Greg Bear is the author, apparently a well-respected scifi guy.

Let me give you two little tastes. First, the main character (Mitch) is an anthropologist who is on the outs in his field because he stole some remains. The local Native Americans wanted to rebury them, but he shouted, Indiana Jones-like, "It belongs in a museum," and swiped it. This is all backstory, but the interesting thing is that his anecdote is supposed to paint him as a rogue hero, someone who's going to flout the rules to get the job done. I'm supposed to find him to be "my kind of man," when in fact I find it offensive that he would steal human remains like they were potsherds. (That's right, "sherds." That's what the archaeologists call them.)

Taste two: What's going on in this book is that most of the pregnant women are having weird pregnancies that aren't coming to term--when eventually they do start coming to term, the babies are the next stage in human evolution. Anyway, the scientist who discovered this mess is a woman who falls in love with the abovementioned Mitch after meeting his unemployed, YMCA-living self. Since the government is determined to get rid of these new mutant fetuses, she decides to get herself pregnant, and tries to seduce her boyfriend of three days without a condom. He refuses. "Why not?" "You're fertile." "How can you tell?" "I can smell it."

You can? Those home ovulation kit salesmen have a hell of a racket going on if you can smell her ovulating. Seriously, tell me more about this smell. Also, I'm pretty sure that you should never tell your girlfriend you can smell anything about her, unless it's about her new bath soap.

Just a tip.

who is morally questionable, and who (second) can smell his girlfriend's ovulation, apparently.

Monday, December 03, 2007

One of My Many Personality Disorders

You wouldn't know, to look at my slacker, procrastinating, half-assed self, but I think I have a perfectionism problem. One way I control myself is to break things down into tiny tiny baby steps. Another way is to make explicit rules for myself, or to give myself firm permission for things that go against my unfortunate all-or-nothing tendencies. This is the source of the Personal Library Renaissance.

I think I have to enter a period of explicit permission to give up on lousy books. It usually takes something pretty awful for me to give up on a book. When I really can't get into something in the first 10% of the book, I can usually give it up without too much of a fuss. But, though the Ten Percent Rule is the one on the books, I rarely put it into practice. And after ten percent, the book has to be pretty lousy, really almost offensive (aesthetically, if not morally) to quit.

But right now, I'm feeling overwhelmed by to-reads, and I'm really not enjoying all of them. And I can't really figure out why I'm reading some of these books--or why I'm continuing to read them. I need to stop thinking of this as my job, and start looking at it as a pleasure again.

So, Kris, I'm sorry to say that I'm giving up on Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading. It reads too much like a really, really long entry on this blog--and I can't say for sure that I'd find this blog interesting if I wasn't writing it myself.

I'm also giving up on Mary, Bloody Mary, which is a YA novelization of the life of guess which British monarch? I blame the writing style for everything that's wrong with this book; it's told in first person, but it reads like a very distant, almost journalistic account of someone else's life.

Example: "Scarcely two days had passed when I began to complain of a pain in my head. This was nothing unusual, for I frequently suffered from headaches. But the pain worsened and I developed a fever and a squeezing in my chest. Within hours I tossed in my bed, clutching my head and moaning with pain. Perspiration poured from my armpits and groin, and my hair, soaked with the poisonous sweat, lay matted on my pillow."

Does this sound like someone's experience? There are a lot of physical details, but not ONE of them describes the actual experience. In fact, if this was told in the third person, from the point of view of a maidservant standing in the corner, it could be just fine, but if you were describing writhing in pain in your bed, would you explain how you began to complain about pain, or would you describe the pain? Would you explain how your hair lay matted on the pillow, or how it felt, clinging damply to your forehead?

You see my problem?

So I'm going to give up on this book, and forgive myself. And what that means is that I will have ZERO library books checked out. I wonder how long that will last.

Ugh. It feels slightly wrong. Let's see how that goes.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


You know, like audiobooks, only you read them with your eyes instead of your ears. It's a pretty neat idea, actually.

You've all heard my rant about how the reader really makes or breaks the audiobook. Well, I have a comparable one now; my enjoyment of a physical book can really be colored by its form and quality. I'm reading Exodus, but my copy is very old, paperback, falling apart with yellow pages and too small type. There's something so dated, so out of date, about how the physical book feels, that I fear I'm going to be biased against the story because of that.

So I think I might break PLR to check out a better copy of this book. I don't think it's breaking the rules, because it certainly isn't breaking the spirit of the thing, which is to read books I own. And I would finally keep that ten-year-old promise to Becky--hi Becky!

This prejudice of mine is also the reason ebook readers don't excite me. I'm a snob for the physical product; I make paper bag book covers for my trade paperbacks, I take the slipcovers off my hardcovers to protect them (weren't slipcovers invented to protect the actual hard cover?), and there was even a time in my life (that my sister remembers and rubs in my face) when I read my favorite books carefully so as not to crease the spines. I prefer hardbacks to paperbacks, even though they're heavy and a pain to carry around.

I judge them by their covers. And I'm not nearly as ashamed as I should be.

Friday, November 30, 2007

In Summation

Well, this is the last day of my Big Month of Posting. I'm wondering what will become of this place. I'm so much more reliable with a hard and fast deadline holding me in place. "Twice a week," which has been my posting goal in the past, has never been solid enough. And "as often as I have something to say," is vague enough that my innate inertia and lethargy will beat it out every time.

I hope I can keep posting. I'd like to feel like I'm able to accomplish something, to follow through, at this time when so many things in my life look messy and unaccomplished.

So let's see if I can recreate the past 30 days of reading from memory. I finished The Name of the Rose, and read The Rag and Bone Shop and Dorp Dead, both of which were borrowed from the school library. I read and returned to the library The Full Cupboard of Life, A Gift Upon the Shore, and Joan: The Mysterious Life of the Heretic Who Became a Saint. Oh, and Angels and Demons, let's not forget that one. That was a doozie.

There were others, weren't there? Oh, The Position, that was not bad at all. And The Game, which was....less not bad, though still not actually bad.

That's nine. I think that might be all. I think it says something unhealthy about me that I'm tempted to stay up all night to finish Disco for the Departed (which is excellent, by the way), just so I can say I read ten books this month. And I'm proud of that impulse, which I think says something disturbing.

I won't say any of the other things I'm thinking about, on the hope that I remember to write them tomorrow. I'll continue in this artificial vein of conclusion by saying thanks for listening. And maybe I'll keep trying to blog all the time. Let me know what you think.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Bringing Home the BSC

I have a bigger collection of Babysitters Club books than the middle school library I work at. I have about 35 or 40 BSC books (I can't bring myself to italicize it. It's not quite that dignified.)

When I was at my parents' house today, I was looking for Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, which I think is the most recent Oprah book selection. I've had it in my room for a dozen years, and I think the most you can say for me is that I considered thinking about reading it at one point.
In the process of looking for that book, which I found, I also somehow ended up lugging home a couple of Babysitters Club books (Mallory and the Trouble with Twins and Welcome Back, Stacey). I've noticed that if you read a BSC book out loud, it reads at a much younger age level than if you just breeze through it at three pages a minute as usual.

I also dug up a couple of good YA books that I've noticed the library doesn't have. Wait Till Helen Comes was a big hit when I was the appropriate age for it (fifth grade, maybe?), and Footsteps on the Stairs is one of those nonentities that drifts in and out of your life via the Scholastic Book Club, but is somehow magically wonderful. Then there's Robin McKinley's Deerskin, which I'm not sure you can really qualify as Young Adult, because it has a vague but thematically clear description of a pretty horrifying rape scene. But because it's sort of fantasy, based on an old, dark fairy tale, well, it gets called YA I guess.

I'm thinking that for Christmas I'm going to get the school library the Blossom Culp books, by Richard Peck. Those are my absolute favorites--every single person should read them, starting (in my opinion) with Ghosts I Have Been, then proceeding chronologically through The Dreadful Future of Blossom Culp and Blossom Culp and the Sleep of Death, and then finally going back to the first book/prequel (which is really about Alexander Armsworth), The Ghost Belonged to Me.

So I've just brought a wave of new YA books into my house, which was wrong of me, since it really defeats the purpose of the Personal Library Renaissance. I'm hoping, since I'm going to the library tomorrow and technically not supposed to check anything else out, that I'll be able to use these BSC books to exert some self-control when I'm there tomorrow. Won't check out, won't check out, won't won't won't.

Blew It

After that long conversation with Lynne last night about how, wow, I've blogged all month, I was going to come home and post the shortest post ever: "Too sick to post tonight."

And look what happened. I totally spaced it. I sat down and turned this thing on and saw my work email and got distracted. I'm really all-out-of-proportion depressed by this.

Anyway, this is yesterday's post. Today's to come when I clear my head a little.

By the way: still sick.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Sleeper Hit of the Autumn

I finished A Gift Upon the Shore today. As I was reading it, I barely thought more than the occasional, "this book is pretty good."

And then, last night, I couldn't sleep, because my mind was just skittering around. It wasn't on anything specific, but that's the worst sign. When I have something specific on my mind, I can usually purposefully set it aside and fall asleep. But if I'm actually awake, with my mind wandering, it means one of two things: I've had a huge slug of caffeine during the day, or there's something weird in the back of my mind that can't stop niggling at me.

I think it was this book. Almost any post-apocalyptic book will do that to me--I'm easily haunted by the end of the world. That fear follows me around most of the time anyway, even when it's not being singed into my imagination by whatever book I'm reading. But this book...I can't explain it. It reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear in some ways; in how it bookends all the history of mankind, and you can see the struggle to think, to adapt, to remember, to find meaning, to fight ignorance, you can see all these deep themes and truly feel, deep down, how they matter. You can truly understand what it means to be human, and to work at being human and a member of the human race, underneath all the bells and whistles we've added, underneath all the assumptions we bring to the everyday task of being thinking beings in a mortal world. It blows my mind.

The thing about post-apocalyptic novels is that they almost always have upbeat endings, even if only slightly. And, pretty much always, these endings ring false. Of course they do--when civilization has ended, the idea of "hope" that we hold onto looks a lot like getting it back. I didn't read The Road, nor will I, but I know how it ends, and it's a fake, cheap stab at hope after a book that is really about (again) being human against the blackness of despair. Life As We Knew It was a young adult novel, so you can forgive it for its optimism, but it's so falsely based--the cogs of government, of civilization, are revealed to have slowed but not stopped, and government aid arrives.

But from where? How does that make any sense? What so excited me, in the end, was that A Gift Upon the Shore has such modest hopes, and doesn't promise you anything. By setting its sights low, the slow warmth at the end of the story is honest, is true. It helps that the book lays aside the physical destruction of the world--most of the story takes place half a lifetime after the end of the world, and nature has recovered. It is only civilization that is lost, and the whole idea of the story is less about a struggle to survive--that's risky but straightforward. It's about the struggle to remain enlightened--to keep the best of this world we've made, this golden age we live in, without succumbing to the worst of it.

I don't know if I've expressed what I thought about this book, and I almost dread hearing from a reader more astute than myself who might find things to disagree with in the book. But what I can say is this--this book made me think for hours about the issues it raised, whether I agree with the author's opinions on those issues or not. What more can a person ask for?

Monday, November 26, 2007

With Apolgogies to My Personal Library

We have a corruption. My plans for a Personal Library Renaissance has had a wrench thrown in the works--I can't find my copy of Exodus. I have to read that as part of this outing. I'll have to check it out. This does NOT count as a corruption of the PLR. Just to let you know.

Nothing new going on here in Storyland. A little progress in A Gift Upon the Shore, but I know that there's some unfortunate circumstances coming up in the story, and that tends to slow me down a bit.

I had about three backup post topics hovering in the background, but I just don't have it in me tonight. Also I can't remember what they were. So this is tonight. More tomorrow, really.

Sunday, November 25, 2007


Okay, an official addition to my upcoming reads list: Exodus, by Leon Uris. I absolutely must read this book, and that right soon, because I've been telling Becky I'd read it for about ten years, and I know I've been letting her down. Makes me feel like a heel, and I need to get past that.

So...Lord help me but I think I'm going to have to declare a Personal Library Renaissance. I don't want to, especially now that I'm going to the school library twice a week and working among their books...shelving them...reading a page or two...wanting to check them out. I have a huge list of things to get from there, plus I was planning to get some Wodehouse, and I was going to pick up....

Well, never mind. Personal Library Renaissance it is, which is to say no more check-outs (with the exception of things I already have on reserve that might pop up) until I've read, let's say, three books that I own. Maybe Exodus, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and then whatever strikes my fancy from the stack over there in the corner. It takes some serious strength of character on my part to do this, so wish me luck.

One little note on Maureen Corrigan (Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading): If I had any respect for her yesterday, I lost it today, when, in an extended sequence about books about the importance of a good marriage, like Pride and Prejudice, this person who is talking about what a lover of these books she is refers to Lydia as the third Bennett daughter. Anyone who loves that book (and is writing a section on it in her own book, and supposedly has an editor of some sort), should know that the Bennett sisters are, in order from the eldest, Jane, Elizabeth, Mary, Kitty, and Lydia. I admit I had to look up Kitty's name, but how can you not remember that Lydia was the youngest? That her slightly older sister Kitty rode her coattails through everything? And that Mary was the priggish, bookish middle sister with not much to recommend her? Who could forget that? Apparently, Maureen Corrigan. Ugh.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

Instead of picking up Disco for the Departed, I realized last night that I was kind of mysteried out--surprising, considering that The Full Cupboard of Life, while ostensibly a detective novel, had barely a mystery to be seen. Still, I wasn't quite in the mood for Dr. Siri quite yet. So I started something new.

A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren, falls into the category of end-of-the-world books. After I read Life As We Knew It last year, Library Lady (who appears to be my alter ego when it comes to things like nun books and end-of-the-world novels) suggested this one to me. I checked it out about a month ago--I abuse the renewal system) and I just opened it up idly last night and started poking around.

And somehow, I'm hooked. I'm not quite sure why--I'm still deep in the exposition of the story. The first chapter is full of introducing the names of characters I don't know yet, and one is rarely hooked at that point in a book. The backstory part (it alternates between the main character as an old woman and her story when she was young) is still just barely ramping up. The end of the world is still a little ways away; I suspect it'll be an ending not with a bang but a whimper. It's one of those books that doesn't drive you intensely through it--you're not drilling toward the end. But each paragraph impels you gently but firmly into the next one. It's not that you're compulsively turning pages so much as strung along, sentence by sentence, until fifty pages have gone by and you hardly know it.

Also, it takes place in Willamette Valley, where I've actually visited, which is kind of exciting. Not that I couldn't picture the landscape if I hadn't been there, but there's something more real about a place you've seen and been and breathed in.

For the record, I'll also point out that I read a YA book called Dorp Dead this morning. It was an interesting little fable about isolating yourself from the world--about an orphan who goes to live with a ladder-maker, and finds himself at first comforted and later discomfited by the man's highly structured and rigid life. The afterword in my copy of the book points out that, at its original publication in 1965, it was a part of a groundbreaking moment in children's books; it was the first time people started writing books in which the world was revealed to be not always kind and perfect. It's funny to think that this was ever a transition we had to make.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Food Coma

Ugh, my family is too bustle-y to read around. I did finish The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith, which is another installment in the slight but charming series of Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency novels, about an unlikely female detective in Botswana. I'm now about to start in on Disco for the Departed, by Colin Cotterill, another installment in the series of novels about an unlikely elderly detective in Communist Laos. I love thematic reading.

I enjoy the Precious Ramotswe books (the Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency heroine). They're definitely books that I have to read between long pauses, though. When you need a rest from the world, a balm for your soul, you read a book like this, about a land full of people who treat each other with old-fashioned good manners--by minding each others' business to show they care, and ululating to express approval--and who feel that things are all wrong if they don't have time to look at the ceiling for a stretch of time every day. Sometimes you need a story in which a lot of time is spent looking at the wall, in which raising funds for the local orphanage (full of jolly young orphans raised by housemothers and their husbands) and a poorly-run local garage that is giving all mechanics a bad name are the major problems that face our mild-mannered heroine. A balm for the soul, as I said.

The Dr. Siri books, about the state coroner of Laos, just after the revolution in the 70s, are excellent in a different way. There's a tinge of magic about them, which so far has manifested itself in some old Hmong rituals, the idea that the protagonist is the reincarnation of someone important, and occasional ridiculously good luck. Mostly, though, there's a great delight in reading a book in which the hero is both vital and strong, and also so old that he doesn't really mind anything that happens to him. He lived in the jungle with the revolutionaries for about 20 years. He's in excellent standing with the party, which anyway just came to power, and is not yet suspicious or frightening in the way that we generally think of communists as being. There is really nothing that can faze him, so he just proceeds in a merry way through autopsies, investigations, shamanic rituals, state visits, and the occasional explosion. I hope the series holds up, but even if it doesn't, the first book, The Coroner's Lunch goes on my "you should read this" list.

Back home from Thanksgiving, and tomorrow's supposed to top out at 19 degrees. I should definitely be getting some reading done.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Hey, They're Talking about Me!

"'Oh,' said Mma Ramotswe. 'There are many, many books. And all the time, more books are coming. It is difficult to read them all.'

"'It is impossible to read them all,' said Mma Holonga. 'Even those very clever people at the University of Botswana...have not read everything.'

"'It must be sad for them,' observed Mma Ramotswe reflectively. 'If it is your job to read books and you can never get to the end of them. You think that you have read all the books and suddenly you see that there are some new ones that have arrived. Then what do you do? You have to start all over again.'"

-Alexander McCall Smith, The Full Cupboard of Life.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Books I Did Not Check Out

So, we went to the library today, Minuteman. I have a book on reserve that is listed as being in transit to somewhere, and I was really hoping that it was on the way to me, and would arrive today as a Thanksgiving miracle. Nope. (This is a problem with the Minuteman website--you can't tell where you are in the queue for a book, or if your book is on the way.)

I packed up my returns and realized that this turn would put me out of debt with the Minuteman system. Nothing due. My first reaction to this, of course, is to run to the website and immediately start picking out books to check out. But through the magic of self-restraint (and support from Mr. Michael), I successfully did not check any books out.

What books, you may wonder, was I tempted to get? From what was I restraining myself? Good question. Well, first there's Giraffe, which Kris recommended. It looks extremely interesting, and is the story of the largest herd of giraffes held in captivity, in a city behind the Iron Curtain in the sixties. Then, one day, the secret police came to the zoo and shot all the giraffes. No one ever knew why, but this author has either found out or speculated. The story of the herd is told from different points of view--that of a scientist, a caretaker, a tourist, even a giraffe. I'm so excited to read it.

I was going to look at The Artist's Way, which looks eerily crunchy-granola-get-in-touch-with-your-inner-moon-child to me, but which has been touted as having a good program for getting you focused on your creative side. I have a hard time doing good programs attached to weird philosophies, but I'm kind of eager to try it.

To Say Nothing of the Dog. That's just sitting there--Medford has a few copies of it, and I know the author, Connie Willis, is very good. I've had it in my back pocket for one of those days when I go to Medford looking for something to check out. Sadly, this is any time I go to the library, which is a little crazy and wrong. Really, it's wrong.

I was looking for a good Wodehouse book, but I really only like the Jeeves and Wooster books, and they have a remarkably sad collection of those--two novels, no short stories. What's up with that?

Then, when I was there, I saw a book called Till We Have Faces, by C.S. Lewis. I have no idea what it is or what it's about, but the title, author, and two lines from a random page in the middle all conspired to have me intrigued. Anyone know anything about that book?

So, those are the books I didn't check out tonight. Pain, agony, frustration! But also pride. I bet this is what it's like to quit smoking....well, for one day. I'm going off the wagon soon, though; I can feel it.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

A Proud Moment

Two men--one married, one with a girlfriend--allow themselves to be picked up in a bar by some young ladies. They leave the bar to accompany the ladies home. They follow "the two women out of the ferny and mahoganous bar and into the dark balm of the night."

Best invented word EVER.

I went on about The Position and Meg Wolitzer yesterday, so all I'll say today is this: she is a damned fine writer.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Liminal Period

I'm in an in-between time, right now. I finished Joan through an act of intense focus, and I returned a bunch of materials to the BPL system today. I have three books to return to Medford, but there's a part of me that's hoping my reserve book, Ha'penny, will come in before I have to go return these. Ha'penny is by Jo Walton; unsurprisingly, it's a sequel to her novel Farthing, a murder mystery set on a manor estate in an alternate 1940s England, in which America never entered WWII, and Hitler rules all of Europe. It's extremely intelligent and well-written, and I recommend it highly and am anxious to read the sequel.

But for some reason, I keep not coming up on the reserve list. The Minuteman website is unclear about a lot of the details of reserves--they'll tell you how many reserves there are total, but not where you appear in the queue. They're also either irregular or just uninformative about whether the book is in transit on its way to you; until it shows up in my account, I have no reason to believe it's coming. It also doesn't tell you when other people's books are due, which Boston does. In so many ways, Minuteman is not nearly as fulfilling as Boston.

But anyway, I now have only six books outstanding--which is to say, checked out and yet to read. I won't bother listing them; you've seen my lists before. But I'm halfway through The Position, by Meg Wolitzer, which is so well written that I forgive her, I really do, deep in my heart, for the fact that nothing really happens. You have to be pretty awesome for me to forgive you for that. So far, anyway, (slightly more than halfway through), the book is a series of character studies of the members of this family--two parents, four adult children, and now the girlfriend of one of the adult children. There are various plot points--the younger son has cancer, the older son is depressed, the younger daughter is rootless, the parents, now divorced, are at odds about the reissuing of a book they co-authored many years before. But these things are not the point of the book.

It's a traditional article of literary faith that change is the point of any story. I've even heard different forms of fiction defined by their relationship with change--that a novella is unlike a novel in that change takes place over the course of a novel, while a novella is a leadup to a moment of change that takes place at the end or is implied to take place after the ending. If it's true, I believe this is either a weak point or a challenge for a novella-ist (if such a thing exists). Because a story needs, if nothing else, motion. This doesn't always mean character change, but it does always mean some kind of change. Think about mysteries--your favorite recurring detectives don't usually change. Neither does Bertie Wooster. But stories like that make up for it by being packed to the rafters with other kinds of motion. If you're not writing a mystery or a farce or an action-thriller, if you're writing literary fiction, chances are that a big part of the motion of your story is going to come with your characters' development--not just on the page, but in their lives.

Meg Wolitzer is one of the few writers whom I consider "literary" and who I enjoy. I just prefer genre, I think, mostly because a good genre story is wearing two hats--anything it "has to say about life" has to share the stage with a story--a series of events that take place in a way that is rational and, on some level, worth reading about. It sounds like a bigger juggling act than just saying what you have to say about life, but in so many ways it seems like it must be easier to me. I mean, if you have a story that you feel like you want to tell, chances are the reason you want to tell it is because it speaks to you of something greater than itself. And chances are it will say the same things to me. I guess I'm saying that meaning follows a good story. I hope nobody sits down to write a novel about loss, and then broods over what character might have lost something, and what he might be missing.

I think I might be babbling. I've definitely gotten off topic, which was originally how I can't read just one book at a time, and so need to pick something else up besides The Position, and which book should that be? Probably The Full Cupboard of Life, because that will be an easy breezy read. So, liminal period concluded--now back to your regularly scheduled blog.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

The Last of Her

Poor Joan. The trial was rigged, rigged, rigged. The priest who ran it was bitter and a liar. In theory, it was a religious trial, but he refused to hold her in a church prison, guarded by women, where she wouldn't be assaulted. To keep herself safe, she wore her men's clothing, which then became the primary charge they held against her. They tricked her into signing a confession that she couldn't read, so that when she denied confessing, they could call her relapsed and execute her. Among many, many other heinous abuses.

Of course, all this came out about 20 years later, when the king (who refused to ransom her, which would have saved her life) and the new pope conducted an investigation and overturned the verdict against her. Pretty much every single person involved in the trial either quit or was threatened to make it come off. It was a shame.

I feel like the book gave me a lot more information about her personality through the trial, even though a large part of the text involved direct quotes from the transcript. She was very intelligent, grasping the hooks in a lot of the trick questions, maintaining her composure even after months of living chained to a wall in a prison cell, poorly fed and guarded by lascivious jailers. She maintained the truth of her visions to the end.

It's a terrible story, though, and her death is just tragic. You hear so many stories of heroes that end with beautiful, idealized success; so rarely do you learn about someone who is abandoned by her allies, conspired against, and destroyed, body and soul, through lies and cruelty. I must have been touched by this story, because it hurts my soul.

Anyway, go Joan!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

The Spanish Imposition

As I wrestle myself into place with this Joan of Arc book, I find that it's not as engaging as I really wish it was. I've never gotten much into biographies, because as stories, even when the person has a really interesting life, they don't read well. Because they're real people and their lives are full of real historical events, the details are often overwhelming and, sadly, slow-moving.

Take Joan. This book is brief and to the point. It's clearly not intended as an exhaustive historical account, but rather as a more basic account with a great deal of analysis, specifically from a religious (and Joan-apologist) viewpoint. So I imagine there's a lot of detail being left out, yet it still, at times, reads like an impenetrable list of French towns that, say, Joan wrote to, or castles where she was held. The bones of a good story are there, but the telling is an account. For someone who reads so much nonfiction, I really am demanding of a story.

Some interesting things about the Joan book:

1) The book is almost exactly divided in half, the first half being what she did--hearing voices, leading the army, getting Charles crowned--and the second half being the trial and how she came to be (warning: spoiler) executed. I'm not there yet, but we've already handed her over to the British, just over halfway through. I think this makes sense from the author's analytical viewpoint--he wants to talk about how she and others saw her experience of God, and what it meant in context. In battle, it's simple--she had faith, she led others, she won battles. With her enemies, when she is being examined carefully by the Church, is where his real interest lays. Her actions interest him less than their motivation and fallout.

2) I feel like I'm learning more about the internal lives of those around her than about that of Joan herself. I'm learning a lot about Charles--his personality, his politics, and why he might have left Joan to his enemies when he could easily have saved her. I've learned about some of her enemies (the jealous bishop she ousted from one of the towns she freed, the man who captured her on the battlefield and was forced by the king's indifference to turn her over to the British when they offered money for her) and her friends (hothead La Hire, the close friends she always called "My Duke"), but nothing about her. He gives accounts of her battlefield behavior--bold, fearless, careless of herself but sensitive to the suffering of others--and reproduces letters she sent to various people and towns, but there is so much less speculation on her personal thoughts or possible motivations than there is about other characters. Again, I think this is because the whole book is an argument about how religion influenced her internal life, and so he has to construct his arguments about her internal life carefully and cannot be casual with them.

3) The book spends a good deal of time debunking myths and misconceptions (according to the author) that must exist in the minds of people who know something about Joan of Arc--some of them, just in the mind of her contemporary accusers. (Aside: don't you find the word contemporary challenging? How are you supposed to know if I mean contemporary with me or contemporary with her? For the record, here I mean "contemporary with Joan.") For example, he explains that her dressing as a man for battle was not an example of trying to hide her sex, nor did any of her compatriots interpret it as such--she was openly female. You just can't go into battle in the clothes that women wore, nor ride on long trips. So this should not be interpreted as disobedience to the religious dictate that women should not dress as men, because that was clearly intended to mean that they should not live as men, in men's clothes impersonating men. I have no context to tell if this is correct, but he makes it very clear. He also makes it clear that she was not just a figurehead but an active leader in strategy and execution of military plans, and that it was not weird or asexual of her to have taken a personal vow of chastity without entering a religious order, since this was a relatively common way for a young person to devote him- or herself wholly to a task in the name of God. Again, I have no context for these explanations of the author--I can only assume he's giving me accurate historical information.

4) Interesting tidbit: the author tells me that we know more about Joan than we do about any other historical person before her. This is because, for some reason, the transcripts from her trial have survived in great detail, and are supplemented by a great deal of primary source material. I get the impression that, because they had a weak case and she was well-loved, the British really fought hard to put on a good-looking show of condemning her. But this means that there are historical records of things like interviews with her childhood neighbors, people who knew her at all points in her life, sworn testimony from The Maid herself, her friends and her enemies. Really, what other historical figure before, say, 200 years ago has surviving interviews with childhood neighbors? She might as well be on the 11 o'clock news.

I wish I did find the biography more interesting, because there's so much interesting stuff here. She was wounded in battle several times, but refused to retreat, fighting into the night and charging back the next morning, against the advice of other, more experienced generals. When captured, she tears out the floorboards in her room, descends into the room of the sleeping gate-guards below her, and steals the key, almost effecting a getaway. Later, under closer guard, on hearing that she will be turned over to the English, she jumped from her 70-foot high window--not to kill herself, but hoping to get away. She was only bruised, but the escape failed. She later made it clear that she did this out of fear, but was acting against her voices.

So all I'm saying is, there's a great story here. I'm sorry I'm not reading it.

Friday, November 16, 2007


1) Leave Me Alone, I'm Reading, by Maureen Corrigan. I'm already kind of hating this lady, on page, like, 7. First, because she KEEPS talking about the world that she lives in "as a reader" in the lavish, breathless way that an elementary school librarian on television talks about it--how books open up a whole new world of fantasy that you can live in. Of all people, I understand this, but she makes it sound all snotty and smarmy and like someone small trying to make herself sound big. Second, because it's not the Lady of Shallot, it's the Lady of Shallott--what the heck kind of mistake is THAT to make on page 5? And finally, because within the space of two pages she complains that Joan of Arc wasn't edgy enough because she wore men's clothes when she led her army (wouldn't it have been edgier, braver to have worn a dress? You can't wear a dress on a battle horse, dumbass--no one she rode with mistook her for a boy, that's for sure.) and then also snarks lightly at Nellie Bly because she "might have circled the globe unchaperoned, but she did so cloaked in the protective mantle of late-Victorian ladyhood." Meaning a pretty dress.

And that's all I have to say about that.

2) I have to finish Joan of Arc this weekend. That will be tricky, time-wise.

3) Another observation from A Summer to Die. There was a conversation in that book that always sort of stuck with me. The narrator and her mother are talking about how the sister is like their mother (emotional, cheerful, vivacious), but Meg herself is more like the father (thoughtful, fretful, solemn). Then the mother explains that people like her have an easier time with life day-to-day, but that when something very hard happens, people like Meg are better prepared. My memory of the conversation, of her explanation for this, is that emotional people are so used to reacting to small things that they don't know how to take in the larger ones--their emotions are scaled for day-to-day, and they can't adapt them to larger things. While Meg is more reserved with her feelings, like she's saving them up until there's something worth spending them on.

It turns out, though, that on rereading, the explanation is much more mundane. The mother says that cheerful people like her are more shocked and shattered by the deep sorrow of mourning, while solemn people like Meg are able to encompass it more easily. Now, where do you suppose I got my memory from? It's so strange--it seems so unlikely an interpretation. I've often thought about it over the years, and contemplated whether it was true or not. The fact that I made it all up gives that contemplation a whole new angle.

4) I'm going to plug this now, in time for Christmas (and probably again before the end of the month): if you're still reading and you want to buy anything from Amazon, please click my links! You can click either of the books in the sidebar and then navigate to whatever you'd like to buy--you don't have to buy those books--and Amazon gives me credit for the sale. Also, it makes me feel loved. Feed my ego! Feed it!

That is all. Halfway through the month, and still blogging! I'm quite proud.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Lurlene's Birthright

So today, in addition to the staggering accomplishment of finally finishing The Name of the Rose after 3 months of reading it (I think this book disproved the existence of God, like as an aside at the last minute), I read A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry. This was a classic of my youth--I remember reading it a few times, and how much I loved it. When I thought of it the other day, I had to look up the author, and I was surprised to find that it was Lois Lowry, who wrote a lot of respected books--The Giver, Number the Stars--and that this was her first book.

So it wasn't the teen tragedy melo-queen, Lurlene McDaniels (Too Young To Die, I Don't Want To Die, Too Young To Want To Die, How Old Is Old Enough To Die?). It's really a much better book than any of hers, because it's not about the acute experience of illness, but rather a more slice-of-life story, in which death is just a part of the changing that goes on in general. It's really kind of a mood-setting story. And it's still very good.

Another interesting thing is that it was written in the late 70s. The sister's illness, which isn't named specifically till the end of the book, is leukemia, and there's a real sense that the reader is expected never to have heard of it. It talks throughout the book about her hair falling out, her face getting rounder, etc., and it's clear that she's undergoing chemotherapy, but that word is never used, either, and the symptoms are presented as though they would be unfamiliar to you, instead of being a recognizable vocabulary of illness. Because of course, chemo was brand new in the 70s, and leukemia had just barely entered the realm of curable.

Another thing this book made me think of is something I've always found interesting to look at--the qualities that make a good protagonist and a good narrator. Meg, the healthy sister, is both in this book. I've always thought that a good narrator should be someone slightly outside the norm, and maybe even outside the action--we should be watching things through the eyes of someone who is not necessarily the center of things. I don't know if that's always true, or even mostly, but I feel like you get a broader picture from such a character. Or maybe it's just that someone who fits that description is likely to start out ignorant, which makes them a good vehicle for the reader, who also begins that way.

The protagonist is also usually someone special--that just makes sense, if only because someone's bothering to tell a story about this person. So even if the person isn't innately great, or interesting, or evil, something different or special is likely to happen to them. Or maybe it's just that we're living with the person, and inside our heads, each of us is special, different, interesting.

There's also the interesting category where you get both--you get the narrator (say, Nick Carraway) who is slightly outside the action, and the protagonist (oh, let's say, Gatsby), who's something different and special and worth watching. A Summer to Die isn't really one of those books, but it feels like one, because, although the whole point is to follow Meg's transformation, that takes place through the act of watching her sister, observing her, comparing herself to her. I haven't fully thought out how this is different, or how it affects her as a narrator, but I think it's interesting in terms of these categories I set up or imagined a long time ago.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Philosophical Randomness...

So I was thinking today about an argument I've been reading about in The Name of the Rose, about the nature of laughter. There is a character who believes that laughter is the tool of the devil, because humor is dismissive of the beauty of God's world, and because mocking the devil trivializes him, which gives him power.

At some point today, I was associating this very, very important, almost life-or-death argument with something I heard on NPR. I wish I could remember what it was exactly. But I was thinking about the vital-seeming nature of the question, and the ambiguity of the arguments within the context of the times. Meaning how real these problems seemed then, and how frightening the implications, given the way spirituality worked at the time. The possibility of pleasing or angering God through laughter mattered.

The NPR piece was, I think, about environmentalism. Specifically, I think, it was about whether higher gas prices would actually be BAD for the environment, because it would encourage the use of even-worse-for-the-environment alternative fuels. (Ever heard of liquid coal? Doesn't sound good for Mother Earth, does it?)

Not really related at all, right? But what I was feeling, very strongly, was that this is a truly important question to which it's almost impossible to find an answer right now. But in the future, someday, (a thousand years from now, if we're still around), every schoolchild will know the answer to this question; no one will have arguments about it. No one will even ask themselves this question anymore.

This made a lot more sense this afternoon. My hands are cold, and I'm kind of tired and distracted.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


I barely even feel like dealing with my books right now. It's kind of depressing--November's almost half over and I've only finished three books this month. That is most of the way to the pathetic end of the scale for me--I think my average is about 7 books per month, though when I go through YA-heavy periods, it runs more toward 9 or 10. I don't know why Angels and Demons was such a monkey on my back--it was long, but good god it was fast paced! And not, not, not deep at all, no no no.

But I'm so very close to the end of The Name of the Rose that I think that will be accomplished very soon--which will be so exciting! I've been reading that book for, at the very least, 2 months. I'm pretty sure it's more like 3. I've just renewed my second copy of the translation book that goes with it--I ran out of renewals on the first one. And that was after I ran out of renewals on the copy of the actual book that I checked out at first. Props to Lynne for the long-term loan of her copy, which is trade-sized and dignified and good for reading.

I am going to have to check out one more book when I go to the library tomorrow to return books that will be one day overdue when I get them back (and the head librarian will probably give me dirty looks the whole time I'm there. Medford now leaves a sour taste in my mouth). I was asked yesterday to think of books about mourning for young adults. My first thought, instantaneously, was Judy Blume's Tiger Eyes, which is sweet and sad and perfect. But I followed that up with a vague memory of two sisters, quarreling over having to share a room when their family moves to the country, then dealing with the older sister's cancer diagnosis. It was so good--what was it? I found it pretty quickly, though only through luck--A Summer to Die, by Lois Lowry. Her first novel, can you believe it? One of the most respected YA authors of the generation, and her first book is the one I carry with me in the back of my head. Good for her.

Can't get warm--guess I'd better cuddle up and read.

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Sweet Smell of Fresh Air

Good God, at least that's over. I will point out that I predicted exactly who the bad guy was (didn't give away that as a spoiler), and I also flagged at least two peripheral details that wound up being vitally important.

One thing I'll grant him was an effective and economical use of characters. It was not one of those books in which the character list contains exactly as many people as are necessary, where you can tell who the bad guy is by the clear process of elimination. Nor did it have hundreds of extraneous characters I had to keep track of or jump back and forth between. It had just the right number of distractor chracters--though it did kill a relatively large number of them off.

Anyway, I can now move on to some of the many, many other books I have out of the library, in a desperate attempt to read them all before returning them. It's a little unrealistic as goals go--it's a busy month, Medford has unforgiving renewal policies, and I've been feeling vaguely unwell lately--stiff and sore and way too sleepy.

But I will prevail! It is my mission. Now I've turned my attention to The Position, by Meg Wolitzer (you should definitely read The Wife. Definitely.) and back to The Name of the Rose. Plus I need to work on Joan and Leave Me Alone I'm Reading. If I can finish all those by Thanksgiving-ish...well, all my goals are lacking in consequences, but they are mind and I cherish them. C'est la vie.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

It Just Goes On and On (Warning: Spoilers of Awfulness Within)

Okay, if they're going to recall Angels and Demons, I decided to just plough right through it, damn the torpedoes. And I have, kicking and screaming every page, because it's so unremittingly, delightfully, shrilly badly written.

I can't, for the most part, argue with the plot--it's fast, there are twists and turns and action and murder and intrigue and suspense. There is romance, too, though that is the one part of the plot that is very poorly handled, very clunky and insincere-seeming; I understand it's been an intense five hours, and she's totally hott, but that doesn't spell a soulmate.

Aside: it's weird to read a 500+ page book that takes place all within a few hours. Usually a book this long would take days, at the very least, and I have these weird instinctive moments of thinking it's been a while, then being jerked back to "reality" by a comment about the time that's passed.

But the badness here is just so relentless that I've documented a little of it for you. Some of it might not come across as clearly as I'd like when I explain it, but I hope that at least you'll get a glimpse of the density of literary missteps here. Mind you, these are only the ones that a) bothered me enough to pick up the pen to write them down and b) could be pinpointed to a single line or a few words, as opposed to something vague or pervasive.

p. 367 "What he saw was so unexpected, so bizarre, that Langdon had to close his eyes and reopen them before his mind could take it all in." This is not the best example, but this construction (Langdon sees something so crazy he can't quite believe/process it) is used a heaping helping of times in this book. In this instance, what he sees is a building that is on fire. There is also a dead body hanging from the ceiling, which admittedly is weird. But in one of the previous instances of this construction, what startles him is a chapel with particularly elaborate carvings. Mind you, the man is an art historian (renowned symbologist, actually, but attached to the art history department).

p. 379 This is a speech by a priest we're supposed to like and trust. The book sets up what I believe is a melodramatization of what, even in the real world, is a false dichotomy of science and faith. I really, really don't get how God and science are mutually exclusive (AT ALL), and I could go on about that, but let me give you a few highlights of nonsense from this "moving and stunning speech."
  • "Our sunsets have been reduced to wavelengths and frequencies." As though someone who understands the idea of wavelengths of light can't see that a sunset is beautiful.
  • "Does science hold anything sacred?" Well, no, no it doesn't. Oh, except ideas like the scientific method and faith in reproducible experiments. And, from another angle, things like the fact that matter is composed of atoms, the Earth revolves around the sun, things like that.
  • "[Science] shatters God's world into smaller and smaller pieces in quest of meaning...and all it finds are more questions." Wow, God's world is pretty fragile, huh? If it can be shattered by wondering and noticing things that are taking place in it.
  • (moving on a couple of pages in the same speech) "Since the days of Galileo, the church has tried to slow the relentless march of science...always with benevolent intention." Because we would all be so much better off if we didn't know the FACT that the Earth revolves around the sun. (And let's make this clear, God set it up that way. It's just we were better off not knowing that, you see.)
  • " your quest for smaller chips and larger profits." Wait, wait, what does science have to do with capitalism? If your argument is that capitalism is hurting more people than it's helping, we can have a conversation. But a lot of history's science was done by amateurs doing it for the love of thinking, of using the reason God gave them to observe closely the world that God put them in. You're diluting your message there, boss.
p. 390. We've moved on from the speech, and now we're with the assassin in his secret lair, which is also the ancient meeting place of the Illuminati. And as he enters this lair, where he's been living and plotting and coming and going from for some days now, he thinks, "The church of the Illuminati. The ancient Illuminati meeting room. Who would have thought it to be here?" Anyone remember the line from The Simpsons where Lisa's summing up how they wound up in the car on their way to wherever, and Homer asks her, "What are you, the narrator?"

p. 429 Our hero finds the fortress in which is concealed the assassin's lair. The assassin handily dispatched our hero a few minutes earlier, in spite of Langdon having the element of surprise and a gun. Langdon is now unarmed and alone, but he finds a network news broadcast van nearby. He offers the driver the story of his life to let him climb on the van get over the wall into the building. And what story does he give him? Does he tell him that the assassin that everyone's looking for is inside, and ask him to send backup? No--he tells him where he just came from, where the tumult is downtown, and then proceeds to storm the castle alone. Unarmed.

p. 435 "Langdon was still in a state of shock over the location of the lair." You'd think that after four hours of trekking around Rome and finding out that the Church's golden boy artist was their secret logo-creator, that secret symbols are in all their churches, that the Illuminati exist, for crying out loud, you would not go into a "state of shock" (trembling? low basal body temperature? That's a very clinical term you're using there, Mr. Brown. Or is it a <gasp!> cliche?) over the unlikely building.

p. 436 Okay, last time you met the unarmed assassin, you pointed your gun at him and shouted, in essence, "Freeze!" At which point, he disarmed you with minimal effort, finished killing his victim, and very, very nearly killed you, leaving you for dead (nice dodge, Langdon--this failure to kill you was, I'll grant you, cleverness on your part and no fault of his). So now when you approach him with no gun, only a steel pipe, but from behind and with the element of surprise, do you challenge him to a duel, or do you hit him unceremoniously over the head with your pipe? Apparently, the answer is you shout, "Get away from her!"

p. 442 "'But no one could possibly get into Vatican City right now!'

The assassin looked smug. 'Not unless he had an appointment.'

Langdon was confused. The only person expected at the Vatican right now was the person the press was calling the Eleventh Hour Samaritan--the [anonymous] person Rocher said had information that could save--"

But, I'm confused? Who could possibly be the person with an appointment who is the head terrorist? Certainly not the anonymous informant who offered valuable information to the investigation if he would only be allowed deep inside the threatened Vatican! The idea is preposterous!

I could go on. This is about 3/4 of my notes from that stretch of almost 100 pages. But I think you're getting the picture.

I want to apologize to anyone who loves this book. Like I said, the plot is keeping me right there with it. It's like reading a movie. It's got action/adventure, daring near-misses, and sweeping intrigue. It's only, you know, the writing that's a problem.

And even that is almost tipping over into being so bad it's good. My shouts of rage are starting to border on satisfaction, or even delight. It's like, have you ever seen the Nicholas Cage vampire movie? It's like that--just so awful that you can't resist.