Monday, May 31, 2010

weekly reading recap

This week I finished reading A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (see post).

I'm actively reading:
  • Chef by Jaspreet Singh
  • Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (in preparation for rereading March for my online book club)
I also have quite a few others books in progress including: If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things, Knitlit (Too), and Saint Julian.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Reliable Wife

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick

Rural Wisconsin, 1907. In the bitter cold, Ralph Truitt, a successful businessman, stands alone on a train platform waiting for the woman who answered his newspaper advertisement for a reliable wife. But when Catherine Land steps off the train from Chicago, she's not the simple, honest woman that Ralph is expecting. She is both complex and devious, haunted by a terrible past and motivated by greed. Her plan is simple: she will win this man's devotion, and then, ever so slowly, she will poison him and leave Wisconsin a wealthy widow. What she has not counted on, though, is that Truitt — a passionate man with his own dark secrets — has plans of his own for his new wife. Isolated on a remote estate and imprisoned by relentless snow, the story of Ralph and Catherine unfolds in unimaginable ways.

I had mixed feelings about this book. I really liked that the author built such rich backstories for his characters, but felt that there was far too much emphasis on sex in A Reliable Wife (I can see lust as a driving motivation for some individuals, but not for so many of the characters in the novel). I didn't find either of the protagonists particularly sympathetic, but I did want to keep reading to find out what would happen to them.

Friday, May 28, 2010


Earlier this week I heard a segment on NPR about the New York Botanical Garden's new exhibition, Emily Dickinson's Garden: The Poetry of Flowers. (the story)

The man who designed the garden for the exhibit spoke about including dandelions, something that they'd never done before. Apparently dandelions were among Dickinson's favorite flowers and the bloom to which she most likened herself.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

book clubbing in May

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane was one of the books I was most looking forward to reading this book club cycle. I like historical fiction and tend to enjoy books that have both a contemporary and historical storyline. Witchcraft during the Colonial period is something that's fascinated me since elementary school when I read The Witch of Blackbird Pond and Tituba of Salem Village. I'd heard lots of good things about Physick Book so I was absolutely sure that I'd love it. Unfortunately I was disappointed in it. While I found it to be a quick and compelling read, I was frustrated by gaps in the plot and (more than anything else) how the author handled the contemporary protagonist. I can't get into more detail without including spoilers, but I felt like the author copped out. Physick Book had so much potential and the fact that it didn't live up to that potential was my biggest disappointment.

We did, however, have a really great discussion at book club. I-liked-the-book-but... seemed to be the general consensus of the book clubbers (though, of course, the degree of like varied from person to person). Though it is interesting to note that those who listed to the audio book seemed to have a better impression of the novel that those who read paper or e-book copies.

We discussed (among other things):
  • the way the author portrays libraries and librarians in the novel
  • the relationship between Connie and her mother
  • whether we found Connie to be a sympathetic character or not (as well as strange aspects of her character)
  • the lack of significant depth to the historical narratives and the disconnect between that lack of depth and the fact that the author is a scholar of Colonial New England
  • how we felt the author's editor failed her
  • the disjointedness of the historical narratives
  • the actions of some of individual characters
  • how much we'd guessed or suspected about the story's ending as we were reading the novel
  • why the contemporary portion of the novel was set in 1991 (and the anachronisms we noticed)
Physick Book is Howe's first book. I'll be interested to see how she develops as a writer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Ice Queen

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

I needed something to read yesterday when none of the books I had in progress seemed at all appealing. I grabbed The Ice Queen and decided to give it a try. That I read the entire book yesterday is probably sufficient evidence that it fit the bill.

The novel's narrator is someone who knows all too well that wishes do come true. As an eight-year-old in a fit of pique she wishes she'd never see her mother again; her mother is killed in a car accident that same night. She lives her entire life under the specter of her role in her mother's death. As an adult she distances herself from everyone, becoming an ice queen.

Though she should know better than to make idle wishes she one day without thinking she wished lightning would strike her. Not long after, it happens. While the strike doesn't kill her, it does give her a new lease on life. However it is only after months of physical therapy and depressed wallowing that the protagonist begins slowly to melt her frozen core.

The Ice Queen is concerned with death, fairy tales, the science and inexplicable nature of lightning, and what it means to care for someone. It's a relatively quick read and while the protagonist is not necessarily a sympathetic character as a reader I wanted to find out what would happen to her. The ending wasn't what I expected, but it was satisfying nonetheless.

weekly reading recap

This week I finished reading: I also started and gave up on Tathea by Anne Perry after a hundred and fifty pages or so.

I'm currently reading:

Sunday, May 23, 2010

watching Book TV

Russell is a big fan of Book TV (a program that airs on C-SPAN2 on the weekends). I don't always watch with him as the series focus is almost always non-fiction (and more often than not concerned by politics and/or history). Sometimes, though, I do watch.

This morning one of the topics is what sounds like a really interesting book:
The World Turned Upside Down: The Global Battle Over God, Truth and Power by Melanie Phillips.

Here's the program blurb:
London's Daily Mail columnist explains how she believes the Western world has fallen into a soft totalitarianism by distorting truths, renewing hatred of Jews, and allowing rationality and science to dominate over spirituality and faith. The cult of Barack Obama, she says, is the greatest example of soft totalitarianism in the U.S. The event is at American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

The blurb makes it sound like Phillips is essentially polemical, but listening to her speak, she's not.
Her main concern seems to be with objective truth and with the fact that the collective opinion in the West on the topics she addresses in the book (among them global warming) is not based on provable facts. More significantly her concern is that debate on any of these topics is suppressed, that any difference of opinion ends in name-calling and demonization.

In any case, it sounds like The World Turned Upside Down would be a fascinating, thought-provoking read. We'll try to get our hands on a copy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mapping the Edge

I finished this book earlier this week, but being under the weather couldn't see attempting to pull my thoughts about it together. I'm still not particularly coherent, but I figure I might as well give it a go anyway.

Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant

One of the reviews of Mapping the Edge describes it as "like a European film--cool, highly sexual, creating a dazzling surface of translucence." Another said "but the subtext of the novel--how loyalties are strained, how relationships change--is every bit as important as the surface excitements".1 Both are true and they really give readers an idea of what the book is like.

Anna takes a spur-of-the-moment trip to Italy and doesn't return on the day she's expected back. Mapping the Edge, the story of Anna's disappearance, is told through three different storylines. The first is that of those left behind: Anna's two best friends and her young daughter. The second storyline is one possible version of the events that happen in Italy: Anna is abducted on her way to the airport for her return flight and is being held against her will by a mentally-disturbed man. The third is an alternate version: Anna's married lover convinces her to stay on in Italy; she isn't aware that her delay is cause for concern.

At first I was quite put off by the two possible "away" narratives told simultaneously even though I understood what Dunant was trying to do. As I settled into the book, the jumps were less problematic and I started to get invested in Anna and her possible futures. Of course at the end of Mapping the Edge we don't know if either of the away-narratives were true (very foreign-movie like).
  1. these are from the back-cover blurbs of my (British) edition), credited to Observer and Literary Review respectively.

Friday, May 21, 2010

hiding in the bookshelves #3

I found the following book in one of the book cases in the bedroom. (for an explanation of this hiding-in-the-bookshelves feature, see this post)

Saint Julian by Walter Wangerin, Jr.

This haunting medieval novella, set somewhat ambiguously in the period of the Crusades, tells the story of Julian the Hospitaller, drawn from ancient legend. Revered for his famous devotion to the church, Julian must hide a violent nature that leads him to love the hunt and the kill above all. Saint Julian follows the inexorable descent of this golden-boy hero from favored son of nobility to the depths of beggardom, and eventual sainthood.
Rich with fascinating historical detail and deft religious metaphor, this story is powerfully gripping and lingers long after the read. Wangerin's juxtaposition of the forces of tremendous privilege and duty with those of obsession and fate make for storytelling at its finest. His language is dark, spare, and vivid — as sure and sharp as the marksmanship of Julian the obsessed hunter.
Julian's terrible fate is inescapable — yet it is only when he can sink no further that the fantastical possibility of his transformation breaks through like a thunderbolt to gather up his broken life. Prophetic and lyrical, Saint Julian will transport readers to a distant time filled with meaning for our own.

I remember picking this book up at a local 70%-off-everything bookstore. I like historical fiction and have a healthy curiosity about the lives of the saints so it seemed like a good book for me. I started reading it quite a while ago, but abandoned it to the book case because I had a hard time getting into it. I should probably give it another try.

Monday, May 17, 2010

weekly reading recap

Strangely enough I didn't finish a single book this week, though I did post about The Poetry of Rilke, translated and edited by Edward Snow (see post).

I'm currently reading:

Sunday, May 16, 2010

hiding in the bookshelves #2

I found the following book in one of the book cases in the bedroom. (for an explanation of this hiding-in-the-bookshelves feature, see this post)

I really like Sarah Dunant. I first discovered her when I bought The Birth of Venus on a whim. I loved it and set out to pick up her other books. So far I've read In the Company of the Courtesan (another historical fiction, not as good as The Birth of Venus) and the Hannah Wolfe mysteries (Birth Marks, Fatlands, and Under My Skin).

Mapping the Edge by Sarah Dunant

People go missing every day. They walk out of their front doors and out of their lives into the silence of cold statistics. For those left behind it is the cruelest of long good-byes.
Anna, a self-sufficient and reliable single mother, packs her bags one day for a short vacation to Italy. She leaves her beloved six-year-old daughter, Lily, at home in London with good friends. But when Anna doesn't return, everyone begins to make excuses until the likelihood that she might not come back becomes chillingly clear. And the people who thought they knew Anna best realize they don't know her at all. How could she leave her daughter? Why doesn't she call? Is she enjoying a romantic tryst with a secret lover? Or has she been abducted or even killed by a disturbed stranger?
Did that person you loved so much and thought you knew so well did they simply choose to go and not come back? Or did someone do the choosing for them?
Dunant, a masterly British suspense writer, skillfully interweaves parallel narratives that are stretched taut with tension even as they raise difficult questions about motherhood, friendship, and accountability. In this compelling hybrid of sophisticated crime writing and modern women's fiction, Dunant challenges and unnerves us as she redefines the boundaries of the psychological thriller.

This one sounded intrigued so I started reading it this weekend. I have to admit that I was put off by the two possible storylines told simultaneously, but I decided to stick it out.

Here's a quote that struck me: "She had already begun to feel somewhat dissatisfied with her life, as if the inexorable march of feminism demanded that she always be better or braver than she was, not allowing her to rest or take pleasure from what had been achieved" (115).

Friday, May 14, 2010

The Poetry of Rilke

For one human being to love another: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation.1
The above is one of my favorite quotes. It's from Rainer Maire Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet.

I wasn't sure what book to use for the student services blog's book of the month for May, but my decision was made for me when a second review of the new Rilke collection showed up in my inbox.

The Poetry of Rilke, translated and edited by Edward Snow

One of the 20th century's most significant lyric poets, Rainer Marie Rilke was a modernist who never abandoned traditional modes. "Though Rilke was marginal in his own time, his lyrical waywardness is prized in our post-Romantic one; praised by only a small group of connoisseurs when he was writing, his poetry is now beloved" (Ange Mlinko, The Nation).

With The Poetry of Rilke Edward Snow offers a wonderfully substantive bilingual edition of Rilke's poetry to American audiences.

Snow is described by Craig Morgan Teicher (Virginia Quarterly Review) as "Rilke's best and most important ambassador to American readers." I think it quite possible, though, that Lady Gaga, with her Rilke-quote tattoo, may take over this role at least with regard to American youth.

Including more than two hundred and fifty poems, The Poetry of Rilke provides a thorough overview of the poet's oeuvre. It also contains complete translations of Sonnets to Orpheus and the Duino Elegies, Rilke's most significant work. The translations are printed side by side with the German originals for easy reference.

Regular readers of this blog will have probably surmised that I'm not a huge fan of poetry. I rarely post about it. It's not that I dislike poetry, but more that I'm not drawn to it the way I'm drawn to fiction. For me individual poems can be revelatory, but in many cases they feel like too much work.

In any case, I thought it might be nice to share one of the poems from The Poetry of Rilke. I didn't want to chose anything from the Duino Elegies or Sonnets to Orpheus, but rather a stand-alone poem.

Blue Hydrangea
These leaves are like the last green
in the paint pots—dried up, dull, and rough,
behind the flowered umbels2 whose blue
is not their own, but mirrored from afar.

They reflect it tear-stained, vaguely,
as if deep down they hoped to lose it;
and as with old blue writing paper
there’s yellow in them, violet and gray;

Washed out as on a child’s pinafore,
things that are finished with, no longer worn:
the way one feels a small life’s brevity.

But suddenly emotion seems to flare
In one of the umbels, and one sees
A moving blue as it takes joy in green. (171)
I love hydrangeas (Hortensie in German, isn't that pretty?). Reading this I'm reminded of hydrangeas at the end of the summer.

  1. The translation above is one I got online and tweaked a bit. "Liebhaben von Mensch zu Mensch: das is vielleicht das Schwerste, was uns aufgegeben ist, das Aeusserste, die letze Probe und Pruefung, die Arbeit, fuer die alle andere Arbeit nur Vorberietung ist" (14 May 1904 letter to Kappus).
  2. umbel: a cluster of flowers with stalks of nearly equal length that spring from about the same point, like the ribs of an umbrella (umbel, umbrella: same root word)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Magic Toyshop

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

This novel was languishing on one of my bookshelves and I featured it last week in my first hiding-in-the-bookshelves post. It's a short book and I was able to read it over the weekend. The copy I have proudly boasts "now a spellbinding film" and I have to say I really have no idea how The Magic Toyshop would come off as a film and I can't imagine one that stayed true to the story being described as spellbinding. Yes, some scenes could be seen as spellbinding, but darkness pervades the novel. For example, the puppets in their intricacy and beauty could be magical, but they are so closely associated with Uncle Philip and his abusiveness that at least to me they are horribly tarnished.

I didn't particularly like The Magic Toyshop. It's not that The Magic Toyshop is poorly written or anything like that, it's just that I couldn't really appreciate it given my mood.

Monday, May 10, 2010

weekly reading recap

This week I finished:I also posted about Rumspringa by Tom Shachtman (see post) and started a new feature for the blog, hiding in the bookshelves. Check out the first post.

I'm currently reading:

Sunday, May 09, 2010

The Memory Thief and some extra book clubbing

I know I mentioned the Rochester, NY bookcrossing meetup in a recent post. It's a group that meets monthly (though I only go every-other month when the meeting is on a weekend since it's a bit of a drive for me) to eat lunch, chat, and swap books. This month's meetup was a bit different, though, as we'd won an author chat after one of the members had registered the group with Reading Group Guides. The chat was with Rachel Keener and they sent us all copies of her latest novel, The Memory Thief, to read in preparation.

Because of a number of things beyond my control, I managed to arrive just in time to miss the actual chat (which was conducted over the phone). I did get a chance to talk to the group members about The Memory Thief and to hear their thoughts on the author and what she'd shared with them.

The Memory Thief by Rachel Keener

The Memory Thief has two protagonists. Hannah, the daughter of Christian fundamentalist missionaries, and Angel, the daughter of a "trailer trash" couple. On the surface the two girls have nothing in common. Interestingly enough, Keener told the group that The Memory Thief was supposed to be Hannah's story, but that Angel wanted to take it over.

At times I found both girls to be sympathetic and at others I felt I couldn't relate to them at all. Jumping between the two different narratives was disconcerting. I find this particular response particularly interesting because usually I have no problem with that kind of construction. I think part of my problem may have been with the fact that occasionally there were significant breaks in the timelines of one character or other, ones that left gaping holes.

I'm not sure what else to write about The Memory Thief. It's not that I don't have things to say, but so much of what I'd like to comment on would necessitate revealing spoiler-type information.

hiding in the bookshelves #1

In lieu of the friday find feature I've been doing off and on I thought it might be interesting to instead feature books that we have collecting dust around the house. This could be useful on a number of different levels. It'll help me rediscover what I already have and it will hopefully inspire me to either read or release bookcrossing-style (or read and release) the books I feature right away.

So, without further ado, the first book I've selected, this one from a bookcase dedicated to bookcrossing books I've picked up...

The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter

A startling tale of the redemptive power of physical and emotional love.
One night Melanie walks through the garden in her mother's wedding dress. The next morning her world is shattered. Forced to leave the comfortable home of her childhood, she is sent to London to live with relatives she has never met: Aunt Margaret, beautiful and speechless, and her brothers, Francie, whose graceful music belies his clumsy nature, and the volatile Finn, who kisses Melanie in the ruins of the pleasure gardens. And brooding Unlce Philip loves only the life-sized wooden puppets he creates in his toyshop. This classic gothic novel established Angela Carter as one of our most imaginative writers and augurs the themes of her later creative work.

The novel's opening line:
"The summer she was fifteen, Melanie discovered she was made of flesh and blood."

Ok, I think this one is definitely worth a read especially considering that I remember it coming highly recommended.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

The Postmistress

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake

The Postmistress follows a number of different American characters both at home and abroad during WWII, among them a doctor, a war correspondent, and of course a postmistress.

One of the ladies who attends the Rochester, NY bookcrossing meetup loaned me The Postmistress in March, telling me that I'd love it and that I should read it and return it to her when I saw her again in May. Because I'd just finished Exodus by Leon Uris (see post) I didn't want to read The Postmistress right away.

The problem with getting a book highly recommended is that one tends to have quite high expectations. It's much more difficult to like a book that one expects to love but doesn't than it is to like a book that one comes to neutrally.

In any case, The Postmistress isn't a bad book, but I wasn't crazy about it. I expected to find The Postmistress compelling (and compelling in a way that only tragic, WWII books can be), but I didn't. I wasn't particularly invested in the characters despite the fact that most were sympathetic.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

bookclubbing in April (2 of 2)

Second selection for my online bookclub...

Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Shachtman

Rumspringa is a book that Tom Shactman wrote following his work on the documentary Devil's Playground. I haven't seen the documentary yet, but it seems like Rumspringa has a much broader focus.

I definitely think that Schachtman strays a bit too far from the subject of rumspringa. I found the book fascinating and I'm glad that through it I was able to learn more about Amish culture in general, but it wasn't really what I expected. To some extent, though, maybe he really does stay on topic. The subtitle is "to be or not to be Amish" and all of the things he writes about (church governance, rates of abuse, etc) may actually play into an individual's decision of whether or not to formally join the church.

To some extent Rumspringa was eye-opening. What really surprised me was how many of the Amish work outside the community (and I don't mean in the tourist shops/restaurants), people who stay in the church but work in factories. I knew that some of them had to work outside the home/farm, but I guess I expected that they'd be working in places that operated under the restrictions the must follow at home. I suppose this ties into the way that non-Amish Americans idealize the Amish. I think non-Amish, who don't live in areas with Amish, think that the Amish are much more isolated than they actually are.

The other thing I wasn't really aware of was that there were different rules for people living in different areas/districts. I guess I assumed that all Old Order would follow the same set of rules, and the less strict orders would each have their own consistent set of rules. I can only imagine how frustrating it would be to know that your cousin who lives in the next county can use some tool that you yourself were reprimanded for owning.

I found Schachtman's narrative style problematic. Though he makes great use of personal stories, they are not told chronologically or all at one. Rumspringa is organized topically and bits and pieces of the stories are used when they help illustrate a point the author is trying to make about the topic at hand. Every time Schachtman wanted to discuss one of the characters again he had to remind us who that person was. Because we only saw bits and pieces of these individuals' lives spread out over the various chapters I found it hard to really connect with any one of them. And I imagine that if you read the book over the course of a longish period of time you would have quite a bit of difficulty remembering individual characters. I also found myself wanting to skim when Schachtman spent too much time on the non-personal story parts.

One final comment: One of the ladies in my other book club has read quite a lot about the Amish. I talked to her a bit about Amish and the way they are portrayed in fiction and I found something that she said very interesting. She reads quite a bit of Christian fiction and one of the things that she said was that in many of the books published by the main Christian publishers the protagonist becomes involved with a Mennonite (female character meets and Mennonite man then lives happily ever after with him within a Mennonite community). She thinks that the Christian publishers, who will use Amish settings because they draw in readers, see the Amish faith as not exactly the brand of Christianity that they want to promote to their readers and that the Mennonite faith is a more acceptable compromise. Interesting.

Monday, May 03, 2010

weekly reading recap

This week I finished Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir (see post).

I also posted about a few other books:I'm currently reading:

Sunday, May 02, 2010

some historical fiction

The Calligrapher's Daughter by Eugenia Kim

The Calligrapher's Daughter is at once the story of the titular character and the story of a nation. Taking place between 1915 and 1945, the novel chronicles the end of the Joseon dynasty and Japan's occupation of Korea.
Kim focuses on this tumultuous period addressing issues of nationalism and the tension between traditionalism and modernity both in the national arena and as they play out on a smaller scale within the protagonist's family.

While the novel has a compelling opening line--"I learned I had no name on the same day I learned fear"--I had to start The Calligrapher's Daughter on a couple of different occasions before I was able to get into it. Once I became invested in the protagonist and her story it wasn't hard to keep going, but it took me a while to get to that point.

Reading The Calligrapher's Daughter I realized just how little I know of Korean history (now I understand the profusion of Korean Methodist churches in the US). As a window into an unknown country and culture The Calligrapher's Daughter was fascinating. I'm not sure, though, whether I can say that I liked the novel. Much of what happens during the course of its story is heart-breaking, but I didn't have a problem with that. There were other things that I found problematic. At times I had difficulty understanding the characters' motivations (for example why on earth would the protagonist's husband go abroad without her when her visa was denied?). I also found the reunion at the novel's end unrealistic. Yes, I realize that it could be explained by a happy accident of fate, but it read much more like a plot device.

All that being said, I think my mom will really like The Calligrapher's Daughter so I plan to give it to her next time I see her.

Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey by Alison Weir

Innocent Traitor, the first novel written by historian Alison Weir, chronicles the life of Lady Jane Grey from birth to death. While Jane is the protagonist, Innocent Traitor is narrated in turns by a number of different individuals including Jane's parents, her governess, Katherine Parr (Henry VIII's last wife), Mary I, and John Dudley.

Throughout the novel Jane is painted as a profoundly sympathetic character whose only guilt was in the accident of her birth. Weir brings the Tudor period alive, deftly portraying all the tensions of the period and the motivations of the many players involved in the rise and fall of Queen Jane.

As I was reading the final chapters of the novel I had a strange sense that I'd read it before. I'm assuming that's because I must have read some other novel in which the protagonist was executed under similar circumstances (or maybe I've even read another account of Jane Grey that isn't coming to mind).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Sock Innovation

Sock Innovation: Knitting Techniques & Patterns for One-Of-A-Kind Socks by Cookie A.

Unconventional, rule-breaking socks are part and parcel in this unique guide to sock knitting that includes 15 new sock patterns. The skills of the average sock knitter are increased through design exploration and advanced stitch manipulation, treating the sock as a knitted canvas where elements are strategically and intentionally placed. New designs of floral lace patterns, angular geometric shapes, and unusual cables are presented along with detailed instructions on modifications to suit needs and aesthetics. The incredible range of style and complexity in this guide runs from sweet and simple to delightfully imaginative.

I received this book for my birthday last fall and while there were a number of patterns in it that I knew I wanted to knit, I've only just now gotten around to trying any of them. For my first Sock Innovation project I decided to go with the simple, yet elegant design that is probably my favorite pattern from the book, Kai-Mei (pages 129-133).

I'm really pleased with the results.

Kai-Mei was inspired by a Renaissance woman. It features a lace panel that begins on one side of the heel flap and crosses diagonally across the top of the foot. Starting the panel from opposite sides makes the left sock a mirror of the right (pictured).

Project details and more photos are available here on Ravelry. If you are a knitter who doesn't have a Ravelry account, go join, you won't regret it.