Sunday, May 31, 2009

word: asphodel

I recently started reading Margaret Atwood Penelopiad, which I'm planning to use as the June book of the month for the student services blog (expect a post in the coming week). Given the subject of the book, the following word crops up quite a bit.


- plants of the lily family mostly native to southern Europe (botanical).
Webster's College Dictionary adds "esp. the classic flower of death (A. lutea)"
The OED adds "The White Asphodel or King's Spear covers large tracts of land in Apulia, where its leaves afford good nourishment to sheep."

- a flower said to cover the Elysian fields (mythological), used often in poetry
A nice line from Tennyson: "Others in Elysian valleys dwell, Resting weary limbs at last on beds of asphodel" (from "The Lotos-Eaters").

Saturday, May 30, 2009


Wicked by Gregory Maguire

I honestly don't know why it took me so long to read this book. Before starting it, I'd heard only good things about it and I've had my mom's copy of the novel sitting on my bookshelf for at least a couple years (if not longer). This week I finally decided that now was the time and I'm so glad that I did. I really enjoyed Wicked and even though I kind of knew what to expect from it, I found it both surprising and compelling.

I loved how Maguire turned the story that we all know (from the movie, if not from the Oz books themselves) on its head. I have to say his version of the story challenged my expectations even up until the very end (I was particularly impressed by that because at that point in any story, we readers tend to think that we know the name of the game). I found his exploration of evil fascinating and I absolutely loved the fact that Elphaba was a profoundly sympathetic character especially considering the fact that the scenes from her very early life seem to indicate that she won't be.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

book clubbing in May

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

I've been really looking forward to this month's book club discussion because, even before I read the book, I knew it'd be a good one.

A ninety-something year-old man's recollections of his time traveling with the Benzini Brothers Circus during the Great Depression. That, right there, is a brief, over-simplified synopsis. Water for Elephants opens with protagonist Jacob in a nursing home. The circus is coming to town and all the residents are excited. Jacob's anger at hearing another resident gloating about being a water-carrier for a circus' elephant (impossible!), spurs his own memories. The narrative proceeds to alternate between a youthful Jacob, who accidentally joins a circus, and the ornery elderly Jacob.

We were impressed by so many different things in this novel: the two voices, Gruen's capacity for ambiguity, the amount of research that went into the novel, the portrayal of animals, the vividness of the story, that we were able to react so strongly to some of the characters (August in particular), and, most importantly, that the "old Jacob" sections could have been cut and the novel would still have been strong. Also, we wondered, if we hadn't known the author was a woman would we have assumed he was a man?

Water for Elephants gave us so much to talk about. More significantly, we all liked the novel. In fact, everyone that I've been in contact with who has read Water for Elephants genuinely liked it (including both my mother and father).

Apparently the audio edition is read by two different actors, one provides the voice for young Jacob, the other for old Jacob. Two of the book club members listened to the audio, one loved having the two distinct voices, the other didn't (mostly because she didn't like the old voice).

15 books

A meme that's been doing the rounds on FaceBook this week:
Don't take too long to think about it. Fifteen books you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes. (You may have one bonus book if you must.)

Here they are, in alphabetical order:
  1. All we know of love by Katie Schneider
  2. Aloud: Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe
  3. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera
  4. Encyclopedia of the Dead by Danilo Kis
  5. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
  6. The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
  7. Immortality by Milan Kundera
  8. Invitation to the Voyage: An Illustrated Poem
  9. Little House on the Prairie (series) by Laura Ingall Wilder
  10. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold
  11. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  12. PS, I love you by Cecilia Ahern
  13. Serendipity by Stephen Cosgrove
  14. The Storyteller by Mario Vargas Llosa
  15. Wump World by Bill Peet
  16. Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor-mbachu
I really did try to stick with the first fifteen that popped in my head (I did edit out The Mermaid Chair because my list was a bit too long and I knew that it only came to mind because I'd re-read it recently). Many, if not all, of these books have appeared on the blog at one time or other so I am a bit worried about seeming repetitive. I will counter that feeling by referring to the instructions.

Monday, May 25, 2009

The Cellist of Sarajevo

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

The Cellist of Sarajevo follows four people struggling to stay alive in war-torn Sarajevo: the cellist, formerly the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Symphony Orchestra; Arrow, a sniper with a conscience; Kenan, a father struggling to provide for his family; and Dragan, a man who helped his wife and 18-year-old son escape to Italy before the war started.

This passage, from The Cellist of Sarajevo's first few pages, perfectly illustrates the essence of the novel:
In 1945, an Italian musicologist found four bars of a sonata's bass line in the remnants of the firebombed Dresden Music Library. He believed these notes were the work of the seventeenth-century Venetian composer Tomaso Albinoni, and spent the next twelve years reconstructing a larger piece from the charred manuscript fragment. The resulting composition, known as Albinoni's Adagio, bears little resemblance to most of Albinoni's work and is considered fraudulent by most scholars. But even those who doubt its authenticity have difficulty denying the Adagio's beauty.
Nearly half a century later, it's this contradiction that appeals to the cellist. That something could be almost erased from existence in the landscape of a ruined city, and then rebuilt until it is new and worthwhile, gives him hope. A hope that, now, is one of a limited number of things remaining for the besieged citizens of Sarajevo and that, for many, dwindles each day. (xv-xvi)
Focusing primarily on a 22-day period during 1992, The Cellist of Sarajevo is profoundly moving. Amid the horror of the Siege of Sarajevo, its protagonists struggle to maintain hope and a semblance of their humanity, realizing that their souls, in addition to their city, are under siege. The Cellist of Sarajevo is a book that will stay with you long after you close its cover.

The author's afterword is particularly interesting. In it, Galloway explains the inspiration for the story and for the characters themselves. He also puts the story in context, giving readers a bit more background about the siege.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor by Jaclyn Moriarty

7th grader Listen Taylor's father is dating Marbie Zing. The Zing family is decidedly eccentric and has weekly meetings to do with the Zing Family Secret (caps intentional).

Listen is dealing with the usual junior high/middle school drama when she discovers a spell book in her room. The book contains a series of spells (seemingly unless spells like "a spell to make someone decide to take a taxi") with strict instructions to do each on a certain day and not skip ahead. Listen is skeptical, but she follows through precisely because of the note on the back of the book, which says "this book will make you fly, will make you strong, will make you glad [...] this book will mend your broken heart."

The Spell Book of Listen Taylor follows Listen--and the Zing family--through a tumultuous school year, through heartbreak, through personal and family drama, and, most significantly, through the revelation of the long hidden Zing Family Secret.

I have mixed feelings about this novel. At first I didn't like it all that much because I wanted it to be more like Moriarty's other novels (Feeling Sorry for Celia, etc). The Spell Book of Listen Taylor spends quite a bit of time on the adult characters, more in fact than on the child characters, which I found a bit jarring. By the end of the novel, however, I quite liked it. I loved how all the threads connected and what the family secret was revealed to be.

One other comment... bream could have been a featured word for the blog.

One character in the book has the line "How is your ocean bream, my love?" floating around in her head. I liked this, nice and somewhat poetic, and who among us hasn't had a phrase stuck in our heads at one point or another. I hadn't heard of the word bream before and was curious what it meant (a kind of wave, a breeze?). A bream, however, is some sort of fish. Once I figured that out I stopped investigating the word. I am decidedly anti-fish.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Aspects of Love

Aspects of Love by David Garnett

Strangely enough Aspects of Love is something I associate with my childhood and particularly my time spent in the car. My parents had seen Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical on Broadway and purchased the soundtrack, which we frequently listened to while driving as it was something my parents, sister, and I all enjoyed listening to. I was particularly enamored with the song "Love Changes Everything." My sister and I never really had a full grasp on the plot with only the musical numbers as reference so I was really pleased that I was able to pick up a copy of David Garnett's novel a few years ago. I hadn't gotten around to reading it until yesterday, but I did loan it to both my mother and sister in the meantime.

Aspects of Love is a quick read, but its story is very much the stuff of soap operas with love triangles, adultery, passionate scenes, attempted murder, and untimely death. I'm sure it made for a terrific musical, but the novel really wasn't to my taste. I did not find any of the characters particularly sympathetic and thought many parts of the plot were just a bit too much. I kept with it because it wasn't long. I wouldn't be opposed to reading another one of Garnett's novels just to see whether Aspects of Love is typical of his writing and I still do want to see a performance of the musical very much.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

word: clapotis

Now many knitters will know the word clapotis as the name of a popular scarf/stole pattern, published at (I've knit one and am getting ready to cast on for my second). Designer Kate Gilbert cites French women and their penchant for wearing scarves nearly year-round as the inspiration for the pattern. She doesn't say how she came up with the name. I assumed it was French and to be honest I worried much more about how to pronounce it (so as not to sound like an idiot when in the company of other knitters) than about what it actually meant.

Today my friend Melinda mentioned that she was familiar with the term clapotis from her time kayaking. To quote her, "it is that chop of irregular water that you get when waves are coming in and mixing with waves that are created from water bouncing back after hitting a rock cliff. It makes for unpredictable and bouncy paddling." Her comments so intrigued me (while simultaneously making me feel the slightest bit guilty about not being more curious about the genesis of the pattern name).

I did a bit of digging on the internet and found out that clapotis means "lapping of water" or "standing waves" in French and that a French physicist named Joseph Valentin Boussinesq coined the term in 1877. The American Meteorological Society glossary, points out in part of its definition of clapotis that "a standing wave is a periodic vertical motion of the sea surface that does not propagate horizontally. It can be thought of as being created by the superposition of two identical waves propagating in opposite directions" (AMS Glossary).

The diagonal patterns created in the clapotis, through dropped stitches and patterning yarn, do seem like waves coming from opposite directions. Now I know where the pattern name came from.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

American Wife

American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld

First of all I have to say that I enjoyed American Wife more than Sittenfelds other novels (Prep, The Man of My Dreams, and possibly Posh), none of which I'd found particularly compelling. I'd forgotten enough about the book that I was able to come to it without expectations. I think that was the best way to read American Wife because it enabled me to get to know the protagonist without constantly comparing her to my preconceived notions about Laura Bush.

American Wife is an unapologetically long book (right about 550 pages), but while it does take some time to read, never did it feel too long. It's written in a memoir style, as if the first lady was looking back on her life. The fact that the novel focuses on Alice Blackwell's child- and young adulthood and her early marriage (and actually spend relatively little space on her life during her husband's political career) allows readers to really see her as a real person. We get to see her true self in a way that we as outsiders can never know a politician or celebrity no matter how much we may read about them in papers. She is someone, who like all of us has made mistakes, who doesn't always make the right decisions, and doesn't always have a clear sense of what the right decision is.

To me the fact that Alice was based on Laura Bush is immaterial. I liked the book for what it was, a character study of an interesting normal woman whose life becomes extraordinary simply because of the man she happened to marry.

I did not, however, care much for the ending. It seemed to me a bit inauthentic. The way Alice acts is less how she would act if she was in that particular situation than the way Sittenfeld wishes she would act.

One last comment, I read an advanced reader's edition, which did not include the author's note at the end of the novel (it was included in as much as there was a space to be filled by the author's note). I really wish I could have read that note, because I'm really interested in what Sittenfeld had to say about the novel and her experience writing it.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

word: halcyon

I mentioned in a post that I've been toying with the idea of featuring interesting words that I encounter in my reading on the blog. I've decided that I'm going to give it a go, though it'll be a periodic rather than regular feature since I don't want to force myself to post when I haven't happened across a word about which I was truly interested in knowing more.

The first of my featured words appears in one of the books I'm currently reading (American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld) as a place name. My vague familiarity with the word intrigued me.

- as a noun halycon refers to the kingfisher (zoological), the name being taken from from the Greek myth of Alcyone.
- as an adjective it means both of the bird and, more usually, something along the lines of tranquil, happy, idyllic as in the nostalgic halcyon days.
- as a verb it means to calm, though it is rarely used as a verb (the OED lists it as rare, obscure).

Saturday, May 16, 2009


Horseradish: Bitter Truths You Can't Avoid by Lemony Snicket

I like Lemony Snicket and his dark sense of humor (even though I will freely admit that I've only read the Series of Unfortunate Events through book four). I have to admit, however, that I was disappointed with Horseradish.

Some of the aphorisms are dead on
"Fate is like a strange, unpopular restaurant, filled with odd waiters who bring you things you never asked for and don't always like." (137)
and perfect articulations of things we tend not to give much thought to
"One of the world's tiresome questions is what object one would bring to a desert island, because people always answer 'a deck of cards' or 'Anna Karenina' when the obvious answer is 'a well-equipped boat and a crew to sail me off the island and back home where I can play all the card games and read all the Russian novels I want.'" (67)
Others are just kind of strange
"Having an aura of menace is like having a pet weasel, because you rarely meet someone who has one, and when you do it makes you want to hide under the coffee table." (123)
but that's to be expected of Snicket. Most, though, are forgettable, easy to just flip past, making Horseradish a very quick read.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Reading the OED

May is a non-fiction month for the student services blog. Russell really enjoyed this book so, since the library owns a copy, I decided it should be the book of the month.

Reading the OED by Ammon Shea

Reading the OED is a bit difficult to describe. It is the story of a man who spent a year reading the entirety of the Oxford English Dictionary (20 volumes and nearly 22,000 pages) and in that way it is a memoir of a year spent immersed in the English language's largest dictionary. Reading the OED is also the vehicle by which author Ammon Shea shares the hidden gems he found while reading the immense dictionary, words like psithurism (the whispering of leaves moved by the wind) and inadvertist (one who persistently fails to take notice of things). Shea's comments on these words (sometimes snarky, sometimes not) are memorable and it is his personality that makes Reading the OED such a great read.

While reading Reading the OED will do nothing to inspire one to undertake Shea's great task (his list of reading-inspired complaints will surely dissuade even his biggest fans), it will pique one's interest in lexicography (dictionary-writing) and in words in general. Checking the OED's word of the day may become habit. As Shea and that may lead to browsing the print or online versions, for as Shea relates, the OED “tickles the familiar, telling me once again about words that I’ve known for years and forgotten that I forgot. It tells me things that I know I knew about words, but with additional insights that I have blithely ignored over the years. And it tells me things about words that I never could have imagined on my own” (96).

Some of my favorite words featured in Reading the OED are keck (to make that cat-coughing-up-a-hairball noise), petrichor (the smell after the rain), and of course psithurism mentioned above.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


Breadfruit by CĂ©lestine Vaite

I've had Breadfruit, and Vaite's other novel, Frangipani, on my wishlist for quite some time. Recently a copy of Breadfruit popped up on BookMooch and I happily mooched it. After it arrived, I wasn't sure if I should read it right away. I knew both books featured the same protagonist, but couldn't figure out whether Breadfruit or Frangipani came first. The text on the Breadfruit's back cover confused me even more with its contradictory statements (Frangipani debuted a new character, Breadfruit won an award before Frangipani was published). Later I visited, which I usually think of as a pretty reliable site and it told me that Frangipani and Breadfruit were alternate titles of the same book, and listed another novel entitled The Marriage Proposal, providing for it the same synopsis as my copy of Breadfruit.

As my readers will know, one of my biggest pet peeves is the unnecessary retitling of books for different audiences. As this is a perfect example of why publishers should not give books new titles when they are re-released. It creates confusion. In any case, I did a bit more research to confirm my suspicions and then emailed the webmaster of with corrections for Vaite's author page. In my additional searching I was able to determine that Breadfruit was Vaite's first Matarena Mahi book (first published in 2000, though not released in the US until 2006 it seems).

All of this, of course, is a bit off topic. What I really should be writing about is the book and whether or not I liked it. I did like Breadfruit, but not as much as I thought I would. Vaite's Matarena Mahi books have been compared to Alexander McCall Smith's No.1 Ladies Detective Agency books and I can see some similarities (exotic location, slow pace, sympathetic female protagonist). Matarena is charming, but at times I found myself wanting to yell out to her (like one does to a movie heroine on the television screen who is about to do just the wrong thing), a reaction that Precious Ramotswe has never elicited in me.

Breadfruit is primarily concerned with the differences between they way men and women think and how they interact with each other. It seems, at least compared to the synopsis for Frangipani and Tiare (in bloom)*, a little less zany than the other Matarena Mahi books, probably because it was the first book and Vaite was still developing both her characters and her sense of comedic timing.

* Again, two titles: Tiare and Tiare in Bloom.

Booking Through Thursday - Gluttony

Book Gluttony! Are your eyes bigger than your book belly? Do you have a habit of buying up books far quicker than you could possibly read them? Have you had to curb your book buying habits until you can catch up with yourself? Or are you a controlled buyer, only purchasing books when you have run out of things to read?

Yes, yes, yes, and no. We definitely have a book hoarding problem. Whether accumulated through purchase, trade, or BookCrossing, our book collection has exploded in the last five years to the point where we are actively working on paring it down. We've stopped buying books altogether (except as gifts for others) and are making an effort to get books out of the house. Russell sells on, we put books up to trade via BookMooch, and we are creating piles of book we want to either bring to the local used book store or wild release.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Laurie Halse Anderson

One of my friends posted a link to an interesting New York Times blog post on FaceBook yesterday, The Troubling Allure of Eating Disorder Books. It uses Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson's newest YA novel, as a jumping off point.

I haven't read much of Laurie Halse Anderson's work, just Speak last year. I thought it was extremely compelling and wrote about it in this post.

Anyway, just wanted to share.

Monday, May 11, 2009

quick comments on recent reads

The Mermaids Singing by Lisa Carey

I absolutely love the title of this book. I'm sure that is what drew me to it.
The story of three generations of women, The Mermaids Singing was a nice read, but I have to admit it was a bit forgettable.

Posh by Lucy Jackson

A look into the upper class world of the Griffin School and those associated with it.
I had mixed feelings about this one, feeling about it much like I did about Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld. (Note: Lucy Jackson is a pseudonym for "an acclaimed short story writer and novelist")

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen

Reading this book was a bit of a strange experience for me. I felt like I was rereading a book that I'd read long ago, but that can't be the case as the book was only published in 2006. I'm fairly certain that I did read the opening chapter either when I first received the book or when I saw the book in a book store, but why the rest of the story seemed vaguely familiar, I have no idea.
More after our book club meeting.

Friday, May 08, 2009

a couple vampire books

The Rest Falls Away by Colleen Gleason

When I first started reading this book I described it to a friend as Buffy in 19th-century London. That's not a completely accurate description, but I think it works well enough.

The Rest Falls Away is the first book in a series, the Gardella Vampire Chronicles. I like the concept, but I thought parts of The Rest Falls Away were slow (understandable in the first book of a series in which a good deal of groundwork needs to be laid for forthcoming books) and I'm really not crazy about how it ended (though I understand why Gleason had the book end that way).

It will be interesting to see how Gleason continues the storyline and how certain secondary characters figure into the story arch.

You Suck by Christopher Moore
- read by Susan Bennett

I'd never read Christopher Moore before (I wasn't sure if I'd be able to appreciate his humor), but when I saw an unabridged audio version of You Suck on the shelf during a book outlet closing, I couldn't help myself.

You Suck is definitely not my favorite vampire book by any stretch, but I didn't dislike it as much as I thought I would. Susan Bennett is a good reader and while I found some of her voices annoying, I know it was intentional as a number of the characters themselves are exceedingly whiny. I really liked some of Moore's zany tertiary characters (like the Emperor of San Francisco), but I found most of the other characters irritating and unsympathetic. Abby is an exception because, while she can be aggravating, her journal entries are extremely funny because she can sometimes be so clueless about what is actually happening around her.

The audio version did have an extra feature that I liked very much. The last few tracks on the last CD contain a short interview with Moore, in which someone from the publisher asks him questions about his work.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Booking Through Thursday - Graphic

Last Saturday (May 2nd) was Free Comic Book Day! In celebration of comics and graphic novels, some suggestions:

- Do you read graphic novels/comics? Why do/don’t you enjoy them?

I do read graphic novels, though not all that often.

- How would you describe the difference between "graphic novel" and "comic"? Is there a difference at all?
My sense has always been that a graphic novel is novel-like narrative told in comic form. Comic strips are what appears in the Sunday newspaper. Comics are the serials that people buy at comic book stores (new issues show up on Wednesdays, I believe). I don't really consider previously published comics collected and republished in a book form a graphic novel, despite the fact that the comic industry tends to refer to these collections as graphic novels.

- Say you have a friend who’s never encountered graphic novels. Recommend some titles you consider landmark/"canonical".

I'd usually say Maus (I recently re-read the books and posted about them), though I've also recommended Ethel & Ernest, Persepolis, and Joann Sfar's books depending on who's asking.

ETA: Lockwood also has a nice graphic novel collection, all housed together and easy to browse. When talking to people on campus about graphic novels, I point them in that direction. I've also been making use of the collection myself. Right now I have Fun Home by Alison Bechdel checked out.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Some literary fiction in translation

A couple reviews in Library Journal this month...

Kahn & Engelmann by Hans Eichner

Published to critical and commercial success in Europe ten years ago, this debut from prominent Canadian Germanist Eichner is now offered as the third title in the "Biblioasis International Translation" series. Narrated by Peter Engelmann, a middle-aged veterinarian working in Haifa, this work is at once the story of a family and a memorial to Viennese Jews. The narrative, the stream-of-consciousness recollections of a man caught between the need to remember and the desire to forget, opens in both 1980 and 1880 and chronicles the Kahn family's move from rural Hungary to Vienna, the narrator's 1938 flight to Belgium and eventual settlement in Israel, and all the family drama in between. The result is a moving book full of humor and humanity.

The Possession by Annie Ernaux

Ernaux's latest book to be translated into English is the story of an all-consuming jealousy, a self-portrait whose spare 64 pages sketch the life cycle of a possession. A woman has left a man "as much out of boredom as from an inability to give up [her] freedom." (9) The relationship may have been forgettable, but the narrator finds the idea of the man being with another woman unbearable, and her life is soon eclipsed by an obsession with that nameless, faceless woman. Occupation, the title of the original French edition, more clearly elucidates this state with its double entendre: the narrator is both engaged and possessed. While actively cultivating the obsession, the narrator is also very much concerned with chronicling it; this work is as much about the act of writing the novella as it is about the six months it recounts.

Monday, May 04, 2009


Maus, A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman

Together Maus I and Maus II are both the story of a Holocaust survivor and the story of a writer/artist trying to tell that story.

I'd read the books years ago as a young adult (probably 2 or 3 years after they were first published) and I remembered them, but only vaguely. One of the things I did not remember was the dynamic between Artie and his father. I think in some ways it must have been just as hard for Spiegelman to be honest about his relationship with his father as it was to tell his father's story.

Another thing I didn't remember was how Spiegelman portrayed the other nationalities in the book. I remembered the cats and mice, but not the Poles as pigs, Americans as dogs, etc.

The books are poignant and what strikes me the most about them is how honest they are. Honest about the Holocaust and all its atrocities, honest about the father and son relationship, and honest about the author and his own failings.