Thursday, May 24, 2007

book clubbing in May

I for one can't believe that it is almost the end of May already. Where has the month gone?

My book club's monthly meeting took place yesterday. Our selection for this month was: Simon Winchester's The Professor and the Madman (subtitled: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary). It was another book that we all enjoyed, though maybe not quite as much as we expected to.

I know that my opinion of the book was definitely clouded by the fact that I'd already read (and read relatively recently) The Meaning of Everything, Winchester's other book about the OED. Because the subject of the two books is the same there are passages that seem to have been copy-and-pasted from the first book into the second. That, however, wasn't my complaint. Actually, I just thought The Meaning of Everything was a much stronger book. In The Professor and the Madman, Winchester is trying to tell the story of Minor (the madman) as well as the story of Murray (the professor and longest-reigning editor of the OED) and the broader story of the OED itself. Because he is trying to accomplish so much in one relatively short volume, he doesn't really manage to tell any of the stories satisfactorily.

One of the things I did like about the book (well, both books) is Winchester's use of what in my family we call "SAT words" (in reference to one of the standardized tests that we Americans need to take before entering university). I'm not sure if Winchester made an attempt to use more arcane words because he was writing a history of a dictionary or if he always writes like that, but it's definitely something I noticed and appreciated.

I'm sure that I'll be reading more from Winchester in the future because we have a number of his other books kicking around the house (The Map that Changed the World and Krakatoa are two I've happened across recently). I think that I may try to search out audio versions though as Winchester is a really wonderful reader.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

some recent reading

In addition to the books for which I need to write reviews (I have three reviews in progress and am still reading another book I need to review), I have managed to squeeze in some lighter reading.

Kafka's Soup by Mark Crick
Subtitled "a complete history of world literature in 14 recipes," Kafka's Soup is a light, amusing read. I was intrigued when I first saw the book on the shelf at the book store and was ecstatic when one of my BookCrossing friends had a copy to share (my first instinct about the book--that it would be a fun read, but not worth the cover price--turned out to be quite correct).

In Kafka's Soup, Crick creates recipes in the style of different authors (from Homer to Graham Greene). I particularly enjoyed Tarragon Eggs à la Jane Austen and Coq au Vin à la Gabriel García Márquez--possibly because in those recipes Crick was mimicking two of my favorite authors. I also enjoyed Clafoutis Grandmère à la Virginia Woolf partially because a recipe for that dish appeared in the most recent Williams-Sonoma catalog giving me a wonderful sense of connection. The Marquis de Sade's poussin recipe was amusing, but seemed to drag and left me skimming after the first few pages.

My issue with the book is really with the word "complete" in its subtitle. I just fail to see how fourteen authors (all Western it seems) can illustrate the complete history of world literature.

You Slay Me, Fire Me Up, and Light My Fire, the first three books in the Aisling Grey, Guardian series by Katie MacAlister.

These books are very similar to MaryJanice Davidson's Undead and... books (see my comments on those books). In the Aisling Grey, Guardian series, the protagonist is a guardian (soon to be responsible for her own portal into Hell) and a wyvern's mate (destined to be the partner of a dragon clan head). If you liked the Undead and... books, you'll probably enjoy Aisling Grey and her adventures. I, for one, had a very similar reaction to the books: I had a hard time relating to Aisling (a reaction that did diminish in the later books) and found that the secondary characters (particularly Jim) really made the books.

My biggest complaint about these books is that MacAlister seems to have written them without a plan for how the series was going to progress. There are things that happen in books 2 and 3 that have no grounding in the earlier books. They necessitate huge leaps which really can't be explained away by Aisling just not being in the know (some of them can, but others really can't). Book 3, Light My Fire, is really the first book where MacAlister seems to be laying the groundwork for the rest of the series.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Mortal Glamour

A Mortal Glamour by Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

Dark historical fiction set in fourteenth century France, A Mortal Glamour tells the tale of one turbulent year in the life of a convent. Although A Mortal Glamour was originally published in 1985, this new edition--published by Juno Books with wonderful new cover art--includes over twenty-five thousand words cut from the first edition.

Young, headstrong Seur Aungelique (nobly born into the d'Ybert family) enters la Tres Saunte Annunciacion convent rather than marry the man chosen by her father. Stifled by the Rule of Order, Aungelique becomes increasingly frustrated with convent life after the introduction of a strict young superior. Fleeing under cover of night, she takes refuge with Comtesse Orienne, the most accomplished courtesan in France. Though openly admitting her desire to receive tutelage from the Comtesse, Aungelique also seems to have an ulterior motive: to meet her true love Pierre Fornault (Duc de Parcignonne), who she knows to be a patron of Comtesse Orienne. Though she is returned to the convent before she has the chance to commit any real sins of the flesh, Aungelique's appetite for lust has been whetted, an appetite that soon becomes irrepressible.

After her return to the convent, Aungelique begins to experience nightly visitations accompanied by loud moans of pleasure and pain from her cell. No penance, it seems, can relieve her of these visitations: neither performing vigils nor fasting helps and, indeed, scourging seems to exacerbate the problem. Whether demonic or no, the visitations are contagious and soon other sisters, a priest, and even a soldier stationed at the convent are affected. As the convent falls prey to otherworldly chaos, it is left to languish and questions begin to multiply.

The novel’s backdrop is one of desperate, turbulent times. Europe is still cowed with fear of the Black Death. France and England are embroiled in what would later be known as the Hundred Years’ War. And, with Pope Urban VI reigning in Rome and Pope Clement VII reigning in Avignon, the Church is divided and distrust is rampant.

Tied to what seems to be the author’s intended commentary about women’s status (or lack thereof) at that time, what is most horrific about the story is the lack of action by the Church in Avignon. As Père Guibert, the priest tasked with shepherding the convent’s inhabitants, explains the situation most succinctly:
I pray that it is only the perfidy of women that must be corrected and not the incursion of Hell. The Pope has recently warned that the forces of Rome are growing stronger and seek to undermine the proper authority of Avignon and the French throne. To have demons present would weaken his assertion that it is Avignon that is the right. It might be thought that these nuns were acting on behalf of Roman interests, that the women entertain Roman lovers and for that seek to cast doubt upon the sanctity of Avignon. (212)
The Church, it seems, would rather lose dozens of innocent souls than risk a loss of power.

A Mortal Glamour is a compelling read. Though set in a different era, it is similar to Joanne Harris' Holy Fools and will appeal to readers who enjoyed that novel.

Read my review at Front Street Reviews...

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Queen of the Underworld

Queen of the Underworld by Gail Godwin

Bright-eyed, independent Emma Gant arrives in Miami in the summer of 1959 with the world at her feet. She has a married lover who'll show her the ropes, and a reasonably-priced residence orchestrated by a family friend, and an upwardly-mobile job at the Miami Star, the most important accessory for a recent graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill journalism school.

Emma joins the Star's reporting staff at a tumultuous time, shortly after Fidel Castro enacted his First Agrarian Reform. Living in a hotel run by Cuban émigrés for Cuban émigrés makes the upheavals of Castro’s revolución more than just news to Emma. Placing her in this context, the author seems to be drawing a comparison between Emma’s situation and that of the Cubans. As Emma is struggling to figure out her place in the world and gauge her future success, so are her newly exiled neighbors.

The more one reads into the life history of the author, the more Queen of the Underworld begins to seem like a semi-autobiographical novel. Godwin herself graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1959 and spent a year on the staff of the Miami Herald before embarking on the world travels that sparked her literary career.

What is most curious about the novel is that it takes place over such a short period of time. The story of Emma's coming into her own, Queen of the Underworld is a window into what seems to be a key moment in Emma’s development, one that may affect her entire career. Godwin, however, manages to squeeze an unbelievable amount of action into less than two weeks. Emma's life during the span of the novel is so full, it is almost surreal; as she herself recounts, “in one week and three days, I met a gangster walking a dog, sat behind a notorious boss at a funeral, became friends with [an] ex-madame […], and helped two Cubans smuggle arms out of Florida” (331), and that’s not even the half of it.

By contrast, the novel’s ending is unsatisfying and somewhat abrupt. While Emma fantasizes about writing a novel, there is nothing (besides Godwin's own history) that gives any indication that Emma will become a novelist. The narrative ends with both Emma and the reader waiting on her future, filled with unanswered questions.

Godwin’s characterization, however, is the novel’s saving grace. Emma is amazingly sympathetic despite her naïveté and the fact that she seems to have no compunction about sleeping with another woman's husband (although her sexual relationships do seem to be at odds with her history of sexual abuse). More significantly, Queen of the Underworld is full of finely drawn secondary characters. One such character is Don Waldo Navarro, a prominent academic who fled Cuba with his memoirs sewn into his wife’s skirt. A minor character, who could have easily been shunted aside after his grand entrance, Don Waldo is made real in Godwin’s attention to detail: he swims breaststroke in the hotel pool “in billowing maroon trunks” (260) with “his leonine head erect” (259) and has the ability of seamlessly incorporating a nine-year-old Spanish-speaking girl into a English-language conversation: “the great educator’s consecutive translations into Spanish on Luisa’s behalf bore no trace of pedagogy. Don Waldo made it seem merely as though he suddenly chose to complete the rest of his discourse in another tongue” (272).

Read my full review at Front Street Reviews...

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

my daemon

I'm not crazy about having a spider as my daemon, but I took the test twice (once when I first heard about the test and a second time when a friend told me about the cool change-your-friend's-daemon feature) and ended up with a spider both times (my first one was named Inachus) and it seems that it's meant to be. Feel free to see if you can't change the daemon to better suit me.

If you haven't read my comments on The Golden Compass, check out this post.