Saturday, August 31, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I have a bit of an odd relationship with Neil Gaiman's books.  His work usually centers around the idea of  magical worlds just outside of our everyday experience, hidden beside or within our own reality.  In Neverwhere, there's a magical underworld beneath the streets of London.  In American Gods, actual mythological gods walk secretly among us.  The magical world of Stardust is just beyond the borders of our own society.  As imaginative as these magical realities are, and as much as I love a good fantasy novel, I've always responded inconsistently to Gaiman's books.  Stardust is a lovely book that was turned into one of my top two all-time favorite movies (the other is the excellent Kenneth Branaugh Much Ado About Nothing).  I similarly loved Neverwhere, but I didn't enjoy Coraline and I couldn't stand American Gods or Good Omens.  I'm afraid that his latest, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, falls into the latter category of Gaiman books that weren't hits for me.

As The Ocean... begins, a man returns to his hometown for a funeral.  His life has been rather uneventful, but not terribly successful.  His childhood home no longer exists, and the house that his parents built to replace it is owned by another family now, who have changed its facade.  His marriage failed a decade ago, he doesn't seem all that close to either his children or his sister, and his career as an artist attempts to "fill the empty places in [his] life."  Without really meaning to, the man drives down the lane and seeing the farmhouse at the end, begins to remember the fantastical events of his childhood.  Up until the last chapter, the story is narrated by this unnamed man when he was only a bookish seven-year-old and ended up caught in an unexpected battle between good and evil.

The adventure begins as the opal miner renting a room from the boy's family commits suicide down the lane near the farmhouse.  This man's tortured soul awakens a being, not quite evil, but desperately selfish in her attempt to give humans what they want (things like giving money in such a way that it literally chokes people or causes marital strife).  The boy is drawn into the battle against her as the farmhouse family, the immortal Hempstocks, try to bind this malignant entity.  Through the boy's mistake, she is unleashed into the human world, brought there as a worm in his foot and materializing as the terrifying Ursula Monkton, his new nanny.

Gaiman's book is an adult fairy tale, engaging with a vast number of mythological tropes - the mythic forces of good and evil; conflict between innocence and experience; the threefold goddesses, Old Mrs. Hempstock, Mrs. Hempstock, and the boy's immediate friend, Lettie Hempstock, who has been eleven for a very long time; the pond in the Hempstocks' backyard which is described and later proven to be an ocean containing all knowledge; a sacrifice of one's life for another.

Despite all of this potential, the book was a bit of a let-down.  There are a lot of symbols, like kittens and oceanic colors, but they lack subtlety, almost screaming "pay attention to me, I'm important!"  The voice of the seven-year-old is hopelessly unbelievable.  Occasionally, Gaiman remembers that the boy is seven and doesn't understand all that he sees, but Gaiman's awkward explanations of, say, the boy's confusion at seeing an amorous encounter are painfully uncomfortable and don't fit well with the rest of the boy's narration.  Most importantly, I was never led to understand why I should care about this boy, his family, and the Hempstocks.  There was very little foreshadowing of later events, so the overall story seemed like a string of unrelated episodes, each having to be newly explained and justified.

As I write this review, I'm struck by the tremendous pessimism of The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  (Spoiler alert!)  After Lettie gives her own life to save the boy from being torn to pieces, eaten, and eternally damned by the crow-like "hunger birds," the boy is reminded that he must make his life meaningful, worthy of Lettie's sacrifice.  And yet, as the opening and concluding chapters make clear, the boy grows into a man who is never fulfilled and never really lives up to this enormous obligation.  Perhaps it's a statement about how all of us at times lose our way, needing guidance or even just a cup of tea and a friend to talk to, but it's tremendously depressing to realize that as Gaiman frames it, the apparent death of this childhood best friend who just happens to be a goddess (or something similar) may not really have been worth it.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

A batch of book reviews

The majority of these were read in the car while we drove to or from Michigan.  I would have gotten even more read had we not borrowed a friend's copy of the complete BBC radio show Cabin Pressure, starring Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame.  Possibly the wittiest thing I've come across in a good long while, and well worth looking up for anyone who hasn't heard it!  (How many otters can you fit in a charter plane?  Yellow car!  Surprising rice!  And also the most excellent game of "which books get better when you drop the last letter of the title?")

I loved The Egypt Game as a child, and possibly enjoyed it even more now.  These five kids create an entire world in the unused backyard of the local antique store, crafting an Egypt that is based on fact but becomes entirely their own as they decorate altars, create an alphabet, invent their own Egyptian names and costumes, and imagine a whole set of finicky rituals.  When I was a kid, I loved the game, but I think now I enjoyed reading about children of different ethnicities playing together as if their race was no big deal - in a book written when race was a VERY big deal - even more.

In contrast, I hated the Narnia books when I was little, perhaps because, growing up in such a Christian community, I was supposed to love them.  My parents bought me a complete box set, which I outright refused to read.  Of course, any kid in a Christian youth group knows the story of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, and with the live-action film a few years ago, its narrative is even more familiar.  So I didn't learn anything new from finally agreeing to read this book other than that it wasn't as bad as I thought when I was younger.  Griping about how Lewis's book contributed to an entire Christian culture's ignorance of any other atonement theory besides penal substitution would turn into a very long rant, so I won't.

Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux came out after I grew out of childhood, but it's been on my radar because it seems to have turned into a modern children's classic, at least if you judge by its prominent place in children's book sections and the fact that it's been turned into a movie.  So I've been meaning to read it for a while.  However, I didn't love it; I'm not even sure I liked it.  Mostly, I yelled at it a lot.  This is a very odd little book that doesn't even manage "charmingly quirky."  There's some really weird Catholic allusions being made, and it bothered me that I couldn't often tell whether the author was using it in a positive or really negative manner.  The narrative is HIGHLY scattered.  Turns out that the perplexing subtitle, "Being the story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup and a Spool of Thread" is actually a good summary of a story that reads as if it was the result of a particularly stream-of-consciousness attempt at National Novel Writing Month.  On the other hand, there are some fascinating tidbits thrown in for the informed adult; I particularly liked "chiaroscuro," although my husband thought DiCamillo's use lacked subtlety.

I read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein years ago for a book report (in middle school, perhaps?  I can't remember.  Late elementary school feels more likely, though this would have been a really odd selection for me to have picked at that age.)  Turns out that I didn't remember any of it other than a good bit of wandering around the European countryside and peeping into cottages.  This is a book that everyone should read, if only to dispel the incorrect cultural assumptions.  As I read, I mostly felt bad for the monster and irritated at Frankenstein for his absolutely terrible treatment of his creation.  This novel can be read as a fascinating addition to the nature-vs.-nurture debate, or even as a commentary on academic publication (what are the consequences of your creations, and who should take responsibility should they go wrong?)

Enid Bagnold's The Squire was by far my favorite book of the trip.  About an Edwardian household of servants and children that, with its master away, revolves around the unnamed pregnant "squire" expecting her fifth child, I assumed it pondered pregnancy and motherhood.  It is indeed about maternity, but with a surprising amount of dwelling on mortality as well.  I wanted to read this book because a number of my friends are pregnant or recently had children, and I'm curious to get some insight into their experiences.  This truly lovely book reminds me of Vita Sackville-West's All Passion Spent in its slow unfolding of introspective musing, but with four highly individual and beautifully-sketched children added to the mix (well, okay, of the children is almost entirely ignored, and I didn't have a clue what his personality was like until over three-quarters of the way in).  It is a novel I need to buy for myself, and I hope to return to it periodically as I get older and I can continue comparing my own life experiences and thoughts about them to those of the squire, her daughter, and the squire's young and unmarried friend.

Narnia book 2: Prince Caspian.  As a good Anglican, it feels completely irreverent to dislike anything C.S. Lewis has written, but I thought Prince Caspian was dreadful.  Lewis pushes his (potentially problematic!) Christian allegories so far that the narrative itself doesn't make any logical sense.  I almost abandoned the series right here, but I had made it a goal to read the entire set this summer.  This is one book I'll never return to, at least not for free reading, and I don't imagine I'll ever do much academic writing on Lewis and Narnia.

Adam of the Road is another book I read for school as a kid, this one in a group.  For our final presentation, I got to dress up in my Renaissance garb, which was good fun.  It's a decently well-researched and engagingly-written historical fiction novel about England in the 13th century.  Young Adam is a minstrel, like his father Roger, and travels the roads of England with Roger and his beloved spaniel, Nick.  But when Nick is stolen and Adam and Roger get separated, Adam must live by his wits and his harp in order to find food and lodging each day and finally reunite with his family.  Kudos to Elizabeth Janet Gray for looking up some actual medieval English secular and sacred songs.

Narnia book 3: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.  In fairness to Lewis, this book was all right.  Its plot made sense and some of the adventures were really interesting (Eustace turning into a dragon?  Definitely didn't see that coming.  Definitely got irritated by the heavy-handed baptism imagery reversing it though.)  Eustace is kind of a snot, and the only thing snottier was the narrator's barbed commentary about his family's lifestyle (apparently we're supposed to agree with the narrator and mock vegetarianism, pacifism, and fresh air.  Hmph.)

Right now I'm continuing my classic horror novels kick with Dracula on my Kindle, and am in the middle of yet another children's classic that I missed out on, The Borrowers.

So what do you think - have you read The Egypt Game or The Tale of Despereaux or Adam of the Road?  Am I too hard on C.S. Lewis?  Have you read The Squire and if so, what did you think, is it a decent portrayal of maternity?

Monday, August 19, 2013

Back from Michigan, bearing books

I'm back!  After being in a car for the last two days, I'm a bit sore and exhausted today, but eager to seize this last week before classes start to tackle a whole host of projects that need accomplishing (including replying to a few comments and updating this blog).  My trip up to Michigan was so lovely that I didn't once pull out the camera, so I don't have any photos to share.  You'll have to take my word for it that the scenery was stunning, that my week with family was delightful, and that my recital went well.

With two days' car travel each way, plus snatches of reading time at the in-laws' house and various coffee shops, I got a lot of reading done on this trip: I finished eight books, mostly children's lit, and am in the middle of two more - reviews to come tomorrow!  I also investigated two book stores, and came home with a few treasures.  It's amazing how you can get a feel for a place through its used books.  My impression of this small town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula is one of relative isolation and age, without being disconnected from culture at large and without being unliterary.  By this, I mean that the main used book store was comfortably well-stocked, particularly with books on local places and local hobbies, and the fiction section included a lot of classics (almost entirely by men) but practically none of the popular editions we book bloggers like so much (no Penguins, and only one Oxford classic).

Just as I'd given up on finding any Viragos, I actually did find one, and then an old (vintage?) hardcover edition of what is apparently one of Rebecca West's best novels.  For only $5 for the pair, I happily forewent a chai latte for the day and came home with a few new books.  These two novellas by Mrs. Oliphant are apparently the start of her Chronicles of Carlingford, tales of a provincial Victorian society which is evidently similar to Trollope's Barsetshire or Gaskell's Cranford.  I would have bought it for The Rector alone; I'm addicted to anything detailing conflict between high and low church traditions, perhaps because so much of my own research focuses on this (supposed) binary.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ella Minnow Pea

I was going to write about Isabel Colegate's Statues in a Garden or even Shusaku Endo's Deep River, both of which I've recently finished, but I picked up another book today and devoured it in a matter of mere hours.  And I have things to say, so here you go with a totally different review.

On the island of Nollop, somewhere off the coast of the Carolinas, elevated language is prized, words are valued, and letter-writing is a supreme art (which is useful, since there are no telephones or computers).  Thus Mark Dunn’s novel Ella Minnow Pea is entirely an epistolary novel, conducted mainly between protagonist Ella Minnow Pea (get it?) and her cousin Tassie Purcy.  The inhabitants run into trouble when their statue to Nollop, their namesake and the creator of “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog,” that famous phrase that uses all twenty-six letters of the English alphabet, begins to fall into disrepair.  One by one, letters of this phrase fall off, and the elected High Council decrees that according to the evident will of Nollop, they must all cease using these letters.  The epistles making up the story face increasing restrictions, and it’s fascinating to see how the islanders’ language evolves to cope.

This all sounds like it would make for a quirky and fun read.

But what if I were to add that as the tiles fall and more and more letters become outlawed, all libraries are closed, the books confiscated because they contain forbidden letters.  Punishments don’t get worse over time; they start severe: the first offence merits a public reprimand; the second a choice of flogging or the stocks; the third banishment upon threat of death.  The government even begins opening and reading mail, betraying its supposed devotion to Nollop by disobeying his direct command that correspondence between citizens should remain private.  This is a fable just as dark as, say, 1984, and like Orwell’s famous dystopian novel, Ella Minnow Pea deals with questions of power and its abuse, governmental control, censorship, surveillance, violence, fear, suspicion, the limits of societal acceptance and passivity, legal rights, and even exploitation of religious ideology.  It is, quite frankly, terrifying, even as you have to admire the author’s clever turns of phrases as his characters are forced to become creative in their avoidance of more and more letters of the alphabet.

I read this book thanks to Simon's recommendation. His review is much more excellent than mine, because he tries his hand at avoiding a common letter (quite successfully too, since I didn't notice until he pointed it out at the end!)

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

On Kindles and reading in a straight line

In other news, I now have a Kindle!  I borrowed a friend's spare to try it out and consider buying it.  Unfortunately, it had some electrical problems and stopped working (in quite a spectacular way - all of the buttons did other things when you pressed them, and one button, if pressed twice, made the Kindle start narrating the menu screens at you).  By the time it died, of course, I was hooked.  I was halfway into The Swiss Family Robinson and had found the Kindle quite indispensable for my workouts.  No more did I have to hold a book open with one hand, trying to balance it while clutching only one arm of the elliptical!  And yes, Project Gutenberg is exactly treasure house that everyone says.  By that point, I had a good thirty books on my friend's now unusable Kindle.  Luckily, another friend had fairly immediate plans to upgrade his old Kindle to a Kobo in order to support our local independent bookstore, which receives a portion of the profits from any e-books you buy.  We both won - I was able to help him out by buying his old one, and now I have my very own e-book reader!

I avoided these things like the plague for many years.  There's really nothing like a real book, and I was actively protesting the increasing digitization of, well, everything.  But once I had one in my hands, I realized that a Kindle doesn't take the place of books; it supplements real books by allowing reading in situations where you might otherwise not be able to read.  Like in workouts or on vacation.  I flew out to Chicago last semester to sing a show with my barbershop quartet, and ran out of books halfway through the trip.  I had to make a late-night Barnes and Noble run just to have a book for the airport on the return trip.  And for my trip out to Oberlin this summer, I brought five books, all quite large and heavy, and came home with seven.  My shoulders ached from carrying all of them around the airport.  This Kindle will make my travel bags lighter and ensure that I never run out of books!

My goal is to never spend money on e-books.  If I'm to buy books, I'd much rather find treasures in used book stores.  This Kindle currently has 61 books on it, all from Project Gutenberg, and when these run out, I'm sure I'll find more good stuff there to read.  I've been neglecting real "classics," in the sense of "those famous old books that everyone's heard about and ought to read," so I've filled my Kindle with everything from Frankenstein, Dracula, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, Three Men in a Boat, Leaves of Grass, What Katy Did, and Aesop's Fables to entire groups of books by Henry James, E.M. Forster, George MacDonald, Jean Webster, Mrs. Oliphant, and P.G. Wodehouse.  This ought to keep me busy for a while!

Thus far I've noticed a real difference in how I read on a Kindle versus a physical book.  I always thought I read in a fairly straightforward, linear fashion, but it turns out that I don't always.  I don't read in a straight line, and a Kindle tries to enforce this.  One of my odd little pleasures in reading is to read the final sentence of a novel when I'm still somewhere near the beginning of the book.  I'm not sure why I do this, and it occasionally is a major spoiler, but I seem to like knowing the overall trajectory of a book, and this allows me to actively anticipate how a book will get to its ending.  I can't really do that on a Kindle without a great deal of fussing with the "Go to...location" function.  If it's been a little while since I last picked a book up, I might go back and re-read the last few pages so I remember where I'm at.  That's not hard on a Kindle, but it gets harder when you have to recall a certain character or situation from many pages or chapters ago.  You can't skim through and find it easily.  For example, I'm still reading Les Miserables, ideally a few chapters each night before bed.  It's a long book that I'm reading slowly, and I'm liable to forget small details.  Just the other day, I had to flip back to remember who Fauchelevent was.  The other thing about reading a physical book versus a Kindle is that e-books don't have set page breaks.  If you do any sort of unusual moving around in a Kindle book, or change the size of the text, the page breaks change.  I have just a little bit of a photographic memory, so a lot of my book-reading experience has to do with where a phrase lies on the page.  This makes it a little easier to thumb back through a book looking for a certain passage - a nifty trick when working with large amounts of academic writing.  It really bothers me that if I search back for a passage on my Kindle, it falls on a different part of the page.  A small thing to be irritated by, but there you go.  It's the small things that govern one's enjoyment (or not) of a book - the size of the text, the font, the width of the margins, the feel of the paper, the flexibility of the spine, the height, width, and weight of the book.

Do you have a Kindle?  What do you think of it, where do you read it, and what do you tend to read on it?  Have you given any thought to your process of reading on a Kindle, and whether it differs much from reading a physical book?

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Not-English country town books, children's books, and Shusaku Endo

I find myself a little read-out when it comes to early twentieth-century women's fiction at the moment.  Horrible, but true.  Between E.F Benson, Elizabeth von Arnim, D.E. Stevenson, and E.H. Young, to name a few of my recent reads, I've had a lot of small-town English community, and while I adore it, I find myself needing a literary vacation from the English countryside.  I just finished Isabel Colegate's Statues in a Garden, yet another tale of Elizabethan gentry, and my review (and a book sale!) will come soon.  Turning to my stack of library books, I was struck by their sameness.  The third Miss Buncle book, my first Winifred Holtby, which I've been dying to try for ages but for some reason just haven't picked up off my shelf to start, the sequel to Denis Mackail's Greenery Street, a pair of Edith Whartons, which I brought home because The Buccaneers is supposed to have helped inform Cora's past on Downton Abbey, and Vita Sackville-West's The Edwardians.  All certain to be wonderful books, but I'm currently reluctant to read them.  And I'd rather not spoil the experience by forcing it at the wrong time.

So naturally, I headed for the library!  The goal was simply "something different!" and I came home with a grab-bag of things off my TBR list that came highly recommended by all of you lovely book bloggers.  Everyone loves the Princess Bride film, and I'm told the book is even better.  The Squire, supposedly musings on pregnancy, has been on my mind lately since a number of my friends are pregnant or just had babies, and I'd love some insight into the possibilities of burgeoning motherhood.  Marilynne Robinson is one of those authors I've been too intimidated to try, but this (her first?) isn't too long and I feel like it's time to stop being scared and just try her out.  And finally, Ella Minnow Pea, a fluff bit of contemporary fiction with a surprising amount of social commentary.  Honestly, you can never go too wrong with an epistolary novel.

 That was my first trip to the library.  The second was a search for children's books.  This weekend, we're heading up to Michigan's UP to visit my husband's family and so I can sing my first-ever recital.  I'm excited about the trip, but less so about the two-day drive in each direction.  Lately, I've been able to read in a car if the stories are simple and the text is large, so I requested a few old favorites or neglected classics from the off-site library.  Why are children's books never kept in the main library on college campuses?  Does nobody really read them?  They make such a perfect escape from writing term papers!  Anyway, here's what I got: Kate DiCamillo's The Tale of Despereaux, Mary Norton's complete Borrowers, both new to me, and two favorites that I haven't read since my elementary school days, Adam of the Road and The Egypt Game.  Together, these books were bigger and heavier than I expected, so I had to do quite a bit of juggling to get them to fit on my bike along with my workout bag and purse.

Finally, despite the shiny new stacks of old library books, book-reading choices never really do go the way you've planned.  I was grabbed by this Shusaku Endo novel during dinner at a friend's house last night, and they graciously allowed me to borrow it (good thing too, since I was already about a chapter in and completely mesmerized).  I really do need to read everything this man has ever written.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Indian in the Cupboard

Last night, my husband was working late (and by late, I mean really late; he didn’t get home until past 10:30), so I had an evening to myself.  I used to be a bit on the clingy side when we were dating, but I’ve found that as I’ve been married, I’ve really come to love my time alone.  Occasional evenings all alone are a real joy.  So yesterday, I caught up on some emails, went for sushi (it was half-price night at the sushi place up the street), swept and mopped the bedroom, vanquished the mold in the bathtub, and studied for my qualifying exam.  And read an entire book.  I’d say the night was quite successful!

What was this book, you may ask?  Naturally, it was a children’s book.  I’ve enjoyed revisiting a lot of childhood favorites this summer, which is why I’m halfway through my re-read of the entire Redwall series.  But tonight, something else caught my eye: Lynne Reid Banks’ The Indian in the Cupboard (1980).  My copy, as it turns out, belonged to my uncle.  It was a lovely surprise to find his name on the first page.

It was really fun to revisit this children’s classic.  I remembered the basic premise (Omri is given a magical cupboard that, when locked with a special key, makes plastic toys come alive) without much recall of specific details, so the book bestowed a real sense both of wonderment and familiarity.  Omri’s homemade teepee, the blubbery cowboy, the near escape with the rat...  All of these adventures made me smile again as I remembered how much they’d fired my imagination as a child.  I don’t know if this is the first book ever to use the “toys come alive” scenario, but it was certainly among the first for me, and I think it’s because of books like this one that Pixar’s Toy Story series was so very familiar in spirit to all of us.  Who hasn’t wondered whether their toys can come alive when we aren’t there?  The joy in The Indian in the Cupboard is that Omri and Patrick get to interact with their living toys, and in the process, learn a great deal not only about Indian [Native American] and cowboy culture, but also about the bonds and demands of friendship.  On an unrelated note, I also had no idea, as a kid, that this book didn’t take place in America – even though its location in England was specified at least once, as was the fact that Little Bear and Boone were far from their home in America.  Funny what you gloss over when you read, and interesting to suppose that I must’ve automatically assumed this book took place in my own familiar American setting.

It’s not a perfect book.  Initially, there are some very disturbingly pejorative comments about Native Americans, but Little Bear soon corrects Omri’s more egregious assumptions (at least, I hope Banks did her homework, because I’m surely not the only person who walked away from this book with a new set of facts about Algonquin Indians!)  More problematic is the book’s treatment of women.  Little Bear wants a wife, so he practically blackmails Omri into getting one for him.  Omri helps Little Bear choose a wife simply by picking the best-looking plastic Indian woman, and then Little Bear even offers to pay Omri in thanks.  And then, when Bright Star is animated by the cabinet, the narrative gives her no agency at all, assuming that she will immediately be a fitting wife for Little Bear.  This bit made me uncomfortable, but overall, I found The Indian in the Cupboard to be surprisingly crafty (in the sense of constructing proper homes for the cowboy and Indian, finding them food, and so on) and wonderfully imaginative.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Queen Lucia

As E.F. Benson’s Queen Lucia (1920) begins, Mrs Emmeline Lucas, the eponymous Lucia, is the undisputed queen of her small and highly ritualized English country society.  Because every little action has so much importance – the discovery and carefully-ordered dissemination of news, for example, has both immediate and lasting social consequences –the town of Riseholme is inordinately high-strung.  Lucia revels in her status as the leader of this excitable society, aided by her unquestioning and devoted devotee Georgie, until a series of newcomers to town threatens her kingdom.  All of Lucia’s scheming and conversational warfare cannot erase the impact of the yoga Guru, the opera singer Olga Bracely, and the fraudulent Russian psychic Princess Popoffski.

After the systematic toppling of Lucia from her former position as Queen – her musical and Italian-speaking skills are revealed to be far less capable than she presents them; Lucia’s social-planning is eclipsed and parties thrown by other people threaten her own; she begins to be the last to be informed of local news – I was disappointed by Benson’s realization, close to the end of the novel, that he needed to quickly reset Riseholme back to its start.  In the last few pages, Georgie becomes Benson’s cipher, hurriedly working to overturn all of the changes brought about by the Guru, Olga, and the Princess in order to restore the long-established order.  It was frustrating in the way Star Trek Voyager episodes are frustrating: nothing that happened in this novel really mattered, because nothing had long-term consequences.  The only great character change I saw, Georgie’s falling in love with Olga, was also washed away in the epilogue as Lucia regained her monarchy, Olga was whisked away to perform in America, Georgie took back his place as Lucia’s follower, Mrs Quantock eagerly seized upon yet another health fad, Peppino went back to his work as an author, and everything went back to the “normal” introduced in the first few chapters.  Certainly, Benson was making a point about the long-term immutability of English country society, but it made for an unsatisfying novel.  It almost felt as if this entire book was merely the introduction to the series. 

Of course, I’ll go on to read them all!  This series is too highly spoken of among this blogging community for me to ignore them.  Despite my dissatisfaction at the hurried ending, Queen Lucia was highly enjoyable, though not among my favorites of the year, with an interestingly quirky writing style and a number of subtle allusions that enhanced my experience as a reader “in the know” about things like Church of England polity and gay opera queens.  There’s a used bookstore near here that, a few months ago, had more than a few of the Lucia and Mapp novels.  Perhaps it’s time for a trip back there to see if the whole set is available.

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Oh, the places I've gone!

My goodness, it's been a busy summer!  I performed Buxtehude's fabulous oratorio Membra Jesu Nostri with my Duke Vespers Ensemble at the Boston Early Music Festival, spent two weeks at Oberlin Conservatory for the Baroque Performance Institute to study Baroque singing technique, am just finishing up the second of my two summer Latin classes, took a job organizing the music library of Duke Chapel, have been studying daily for my doctoral qualifying exam in January, submitted two abstracts for academic conferences, and will soon be road-tripping up to the upper peninsula of Michigan to perform a recital with my mother-in-law.  Whew!  I thought that I'd have loads of time to read and get back to blogging this summer, but I've been far more busy than I imagined!  While I've made time for the reading (oh, so many lovely hours!), the blogging has fallen by the wayside.

However, while I've read a lot of books this summer, as I look back on my list of things I've read this year, I've realized that I don't really remember my reactions to most of them.  What was the book about, and how did I feel about it?  I have a far better recall of books I read last summer, because the act of writing about them forces me to organize my analysis, and then I have a record to which I can cheerfully refer back when I'd like to remember my thoughts about a certain book.

I think I'm going to try to follow the example of Thomas at My Porch.  He tries to write brief little blurbs, just a single short paragraph about each book he reads, "so that the future-me could refer back to it and remember what a particular book was about and how I felt about it."  That's exactly what I need!  And the pressure is off when all you need to write is a few sentences.  So despite the busyness of this summer and the imminent craziness of the fall semester, I'm back to my book blogging, I think, with a bit of a revised format (although, who knows, perhaps just trying to write two sentences about a book I've just finished will occasionally morph back into full reviews).

Here's what I've read this summer, with books I own starred and my favorites in bold.  Right now, I'm still reading a few chapters of Les Miserables most evenings right before bed, and am about to start Statues in a Garden by Isabel Colegate (of The Shooting Party fame).
  1. *The Warden, Anthony Trollope
  2. Britannia Mews, Margery Sharp 
  3. A Brief History of Montmaray, Michelle Cooper 
  4. *The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett (read aloud) 
  5. Fifty Shades Freed, E.L. James
  6. *Summer, Edith Wharton
  7. *Duncton Wood, William Horwood
  8. *Martin the Warrior, Brian Jacques (re-read)
  9. The Solitary Summer, Elizabeth von Arnim
  10. Mrs. 'Arris Goes to Paris, Paul Gallico 
  11. *The Choir, Joanna Trollope
  12. *The Bellmaker, Brian Jacques (re-read)
  13. *Cranford, Elizabeth Gaskell
  14. *Cousin Phillis, Elizabeth Gaskell
  15. *I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith (re-read)
  16. *The Curate's Wife, E.H. Young
  17. *Outcast of Redwall, Brian Jacques (re-read) 
  18. Miss Buncle's Book, D.E. Stevenson 
  19. Miss Buncle Married, D.E. Stevenson
  20. If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, Italo Calvino
  21. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein 
  22. The Swiss Family Robinson, Johann David Wyss (Kindle)
  23. *Pearls of Lutra, Brian Jacques (re-read)
  24. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson (Kindle) 
  25. *The Adventures of Elizabeth in Rugen, Elizabeth von Arnim 
  26. *The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupery (re-read)
  27. Queen Lucia, E.F. Benson