Friday, January 31, 2014

A Wizard of Earthsea

I'm really not sure what to make of Ursula Le Guin's famous Wizard of Earthsea.  It's often ranked right up there with Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Lewis's Narnia books as classics of fantasy, and as a fantasy nut, I tried to read it as a kid, I really tried.  I put it down halfway through the second page, and never picked it up again until just a few days ago.  I see why I couldn't get into it as a kid - like Tolkien, Le Guin is clearly well-schooled in medieval history and culture, and her prose seems fairly deliberately in the style of the medieval lay and epic poetry.  Her writing style is so grand that it ends up being fairly unapproachable.  Further like Tolkien, she is very concerned with world-building, but through info-dump rather than through the experience of a character who stands in as a reader-cipher.  As a result, there is an awful lot of dry description and geographical information given from the very first page (which, if I remember correctly, is why I lost interest so quickly all those many years ago.  I hated geography.)

I was expecting an epic adventure, some grand triumph of good over evil, but Le Guin seems to be working from an entirely different (non-Christian) worldview, in which the most important consideration is not to defeat evil, but maintain the balance (equilibrium, the book often calls it) between darkness and light.  As a result, though this novel focuses on the coming-of-age of Ged, who is perhaps the most powerful sorcerer in Earthsea, the book relates largely a journey of self-discovery rather than a series of adventures against physical foes.  By the end, I must confess to some disappointment that not very much had actually happened - but it was a feeling stemming from my initial expectations, and in that, Le Guin's fantasy novel is a unique one in the genre.

There are some really fascinating elements to the story Le Guin crafted.  In the world of Earthsea, names are identities, and as in Diane Duane's Young Wizards series (which, now that I think about it, was probably influenced by this one), naming a thing by its true name gives a magician power over it.  Words themselves are magic, and names are embodiments of a thing's identity - this is why each person has three different names, the one they're called as a small child, the one for everyday use, and the true name, selected at a special ritual and kept secret from all but a few trusted friends.  There is even some speculation that the true names of everything in the world "all are syllables of the great word that is very slowly spoken by the shining of the stars."  Even this philosophy of names aligns with the necessary equilibrium between good and evil, for speaking a word also requires silence.

I also thought the very makeup of Earthsea reflected a major theme of the novel: the concept of a world made up only of islands is hugely resonant with Ged's own isolation.  Reaching any new place required dangerous ship-travel, and passage may be denied by winds, or staying in a new place denied by the island's inhabitants.  Ged spends almost the entire novel in relative solitude, which gives the many sailing scenes narrative heft, but they did get a little wearying for the reader.

I understand that there are more novels in the Earthsea world, but I don't know if I'll ever visit them.  I'm quite delighted to know what all the hype is about, and be able to compare Le Guin's world and philosophies with my beloved Tolkien's, but in the end, this book just wasn't my cup of tea.  It seemed standoffish in its epic prose, and so many aspects of its worldview failed to align with mine that it was a puzzling novel to read.  What do you think?  Do you love Earthsea and its ways?  Have you read anything else by Le Guin - is this novel typical of her writing?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

The Open Door

Have you ever wondered what the deal is with Orthodox Christian icons?  Maybe you've seen some icons before and wonder what they mean, or why they look so funny and flat.  Maybe you've criticized churches that display icons for being too image-focused, or for improperly worshiping saints.  Or maybe you're just curious to learn more about a strand of Christianity that doesn't get a lot of public focus.

Frederica Mathewes-Green wrote a lovely little book called The Open Door: Entering the Sanctuary of Icons and Prayer that helps to answer a lot of these questions.  She's an Orthodox Christian laywoman, a very thoughtful and pastoral woman whom my husband has met and for whom he has a tremendous amount of respect.  It's a short and accessible little book containing twelve plates, some in color and some in black and white, of twelve of the most significant icons found at her Orthodox Christian church.  In each chapter, she describes an icon and teaches her readers about why it looks the way it does, what it symbolizes, and how it expresses aspects of Orthodox Christian theology.  While Orthodox Christians share all of the same core beliefs as the Roman Catholic and Protestant traditions, they often focus on very different nuances of Christian theology, and there is a lot they can teach us all about our relationships with God, each other, and the earth.  The Open Door is a conversational and poetic introduction to these beautiful works of Christian artwork, and I loved my time with Mathewes-Green's glosses on a few of these masterpieces of human artwork.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Magyk

Angie Sage's Septimus Heap series came out just after I stopped reading children's books, so I ignored it for years - but in December, when I was turning to children's books as a break from the intense studying, I picked up the first one in the series on a whim.  I can't even tell you how much I loved it.  Magyk was amazing!  It was almost like the first time I read each of the Harry Potter books - I had the same sense of wonder and glee and appreciation.  Like the Harry Potter books, there was such a fantastically matter-of-fact introduction to each new element in this magical world, but you could tell the author was enjoying telling you about them.  It was also (and again like HP) so delightfully full of references: literary, historical, and even Scriptural.  Galen!  The Witch of Endor!  There and Back Again Row!  And brilliantly, even Harry Potter references - Sage no doubt knew her books would be compared with Rowling's, and tossed in playful nods to her model.

Magyk is a long book (564 pages), but the pages themselves are short and the story so engaging that I found myself speeding through and always eager to return when I had to put the book down.  It's a fairly complex plot with a large cast of characters, almost all of which are instantly individualized - Sage is fantastic at getting across the feel of a character in just a few seemingly innocuous sentences.  I don't want to spoil anything, so I'll just share the initial set-up: on the same night that the Wizard Silas Heap's seventh son Septimus dies, Silas discovers an infant girl freezing in the woods and adopts her.  Shortly after, the Queen of this city, called Castle, turns up dead and a Supreme Custodian is installed, who quickly turns Castle into a totalitarian state, all in the service of a Darke wizard who wants to take over.  Pretty soon, the adventure begins for Silas, his adopted daughter Jenna, Jenna's brother Nicko,  the current ExtraOrdinary Wizard Marcia Overstrand, and somehow, Boy 412 of the Young Army, who gets unwillingly caught up in it all.

As secrets are discovered, our enterprising cast of characters flee to the nearby marsh to escape the Supreme Custodian, the Darke wizard DomDaniel, who was formerly the ExtraOrdinary Wizard, DomDaniel's Apprentice, and the murderous Hunter.  It's a dangerous adventure, but they are aided by a wonderfully quirky set of friends, including Aunt Zelda, who lives in the marsh, the now-dead former ExtraOrdinary Wizard Alther (who's now a ghost), the marsh Boggart, and even a Message Rat (Sage's nod to Rowling's mail owls).

Despite the obvious nature of many of the surprises - this is a children's book, after all - and the ongoing annoyance of all magical spells being given in Bold, Magyk was a hugely engaging and spectacular funny read.  Though it had nothing to do with the plot (or perhaps because of its gratuitous nature!), this was my favorite passage.  By this point, DomDaniel has taken over the Wizard Tower and annexed Marcia's apartment for his own.  The ghost Alther decides to cause a little trouble...

Back at the Tower, the Apprentice had stumbled to the sofa and fallen into a cold and unhappy sleep.  Alther took pity on him and kept the fire going.  While the boy slept, the ghost also took the opportunity of Causing a few more changes.  He loosened the heavy canopy above the bed so that it was hanging only by a thread.  He took the wicks out of all the candles.  He added a murky green color to the water tanks and installed a large, aggressive family of cockroaches in the kitchen.  He put an irritable rat under the floorboards and loosened all the joints of the most comfortable chairs.  And then, as an afterthought, he exchanged DomDaniel's stiff black cylindrical hat, which lay abandoned on the bed, for one just a little bigger. (181-182)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Books, embodiment, and physical change

I borrowed a book from a dear friend, the mother of my godson, last weekend.  Actually, we exchanged books - my sister had just sent me as a late birthday present Enid Bagnold's The Squire, and I was delighted to share it.  My friend pulled her book out of her bag and handed it to me a bit sheepishly, a bit proudly.  "You can tell this is one of my favorites," she said, "because it's all wrinkly."  She'd read it in the bath, and the steam had made the edges of the pages all wavy.

My most frequent - not my most vivid, but my most comfortably familiar - memories as a child are of curling up on the couch with a Redwall book.  My parents had this squashy dark blue couch in three sections, and each of the edge sections had a lever that would raise up a footrest.  Sometimes I'd pull the lever and lean back, but more often, I'd simply switch on the lights - by both ends of the couch stood one of those lamps with three individual, directed light bulbs - fold my legs under me, and pull a blanket over my lap.  I'd lose myself in Brian Jacques' world for hours on end; my parents always knew where to find me.  And my paperback Redwall books would get terribly worn out, to the point where I needed replacements for one or two.  It wasn't because the bindings broke or the pages fell out, but because I liked how smooth it felt when you ran your fingers along the edges of the pages near the upper right corner.  I'd absentmindedly stroke my pages while I read, and over time, that corner of all of my books would fluff out and eventually the book itself would start to break down.

Books aren't just the source of mental stimulation.  We're not disembodied eyes and brains.  Books are physical.  You interact with them.  You hold them, you turn their pages, you accidentally break their bindings, you accidentally fold them or rip them or drop a spot of jam on them.  You worry that you won't be able to keep a favorite copy forever, that it'll fall apart before its time.  You carefully remove the jackets from hardcovers so they won't get creased, and occasionally misplace one by the time you go to put the book back on the shelf.  You stuff books into your bag, and rejoice when you find that perfect magical purse that looks really small but will hold any book you want to take with you, to your spouse's eternal surprise.

Our use of books changes them.  Maybe you write your name in it, maybe you mark favorite passages or underline words you want to look up or remember, maybe you like stroking that smooth spot on the pages, maybe you read them in the bath and let the pages get all wrinkly.  Books are objects, treasured in part because of how they're constructed or how they look, but I think there's something really sad about an absolutely pristine book on a shelf that has clearly never been opened.

And on a physical level, our use of books changes us.  Of course a good book can challenge how we think or open us up to new experiences.  But reading itself is an embodied activity.  A book cover can be sharp or rough or dusty; its pages can give us paper cuts.  And not everyone has the physical strength to even hold a book - that, to me, is one of the supreme triumphs of a Kindle, the way it opens the world of reading to people who can't hold a book up to read it.

It's kind of funny that my friend loaning me a book with wrinkled pages got me thinking about embodiment and physical change, because after I started reading it, Beth Ann Fenelly's Great With Child, a series of letters to a young mother reflecting on pregnancy and motherhood, I realized that the book itself is deeply concerned with embodiment and physical change, on improvisation and flexibility, on the whole range of emotions and experiences that comes with parenting.  I can't wait to have a mini book club with her as we discuss our swapped books, but in the meantime, I wanted to share some of my thoughts here.  I wonder, what are your most vivid memories of books as objects?  Did you ever destroy a book like I did through excessive physical affection?  Are any favorite books forever linked with a particular place in your memory?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

I'm a Master of Music! And I'm heading to England!

I'm delighted to report that I passed my doctoral qualifying exam!  And with that, I've earned my master's degree, so I can call myself a Master of Music (it sounds so official, doesn't it!)  What's next?  I have two semesters of coursework left, including this one - I'm taking classes on early music notation and Martin Luther and the German Reformation, an independent study on English Reformation sacred music, and am serving as the TA for a freshman seminar centered around the musical performances happening on campus this semester.

With the qualifying exam out of the way, I can now start thinking seriously about my dissertation topic, and to that end, I'm heading to England this summer!  I went once as a child when my mother wanted to visit her old school friends (she did a semester at Oxford in college), but I didn't much care about cathedrals or libraries on that trip.  I'm ridiculously excited to have a whole summer to do pre-dissertation research and try to find both a dissertation topic and the resources to support it.

To that end, I have some questions for you, my dear blogging friends, many of whom are in England or have been there recently.

1) What should I be sure to do?  I'll be based in London but also doing a lot of traveling to various archives and cathedrals.  What's worth seeing, and what's free or nearly free?

2) What are the tricks to packing for a few months abroad?  I know I'll need plug adapters, but beyond that I'm still rather unprepared for this trip, and could use all the advice I can get!

3) If you're in England, would you like to meet for tea and bookish conversation?  I'd love to meet any bloggers in person!

4) If you live near one of the big academic libraries - like Oxford or Cambridge or Canterbury or Durham - might you consider letting me stay with you for a night or two?  Or do you have friends who might be willing to help out a young musicologist dying to see some music manuscripts in person?

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Rose Under Fire

Well, Elizabeth Wein has done it again.  This companion novel to Code Name Verity was just as difficult to put down and just as heart-wrenching.  It stands on its own feet as an independent book, but any fan of her first novel should absolutely read this one, as a number of the characters from Code Name Verity reappear and we get to see how their lives progress.

One of the reasons this book worked so well separate from its companion was because the narrator was such an independent protagonist in her own right.  Rose Justice isn't a repeat of Verity, and while she is friends with Maddie, she has little in common with Maddie either beyond the fact that both are pilots.  Rose is introduced to us as an American, bubbly and vivacious, outgoing and always willing to speak her mind (even when it betrays her as being somewhat judgmental).  She is terrified of the flying bombs, but despite her fear, Rose is eager to take a more active role in the war, and isn't above using her family connections to pull some strings in order to have one.

The trouble starts after Rose ferries her well-connected uncle to Paris shortly after its liberation from the Nazis.  Rose never makes it home.  Instead, she simply disappears, like so many others in this war.  We see a few letters written between her friends and family as they try to process their terrible grief - as Maddie said prophetically to Rose earlier in the book about Verity, "If there hadn't been a fight, the Nazis would have shipped her off in the dark to a concentration camp and never told anyone - that would have been worse.  It doesn't seem possible, but it would have been worse."  But we readers don't have quite enough time to come to grips with this sorrow and worry, because a mere few pages later and Rose reappears to us, having escaped from her ordeal and staying in a hotel room in Paris, where she begins recording her story in her diary as a coping mechanism.

In a way, this novel feels more mature than Code Name Verity because it doesn't rely on its predecessor's narrative tricks.  We're not left wondering what's true and what's not of the words we read.  We know that Rose ended up in a concentration camp, and we know that she escaped and is now safe, and we know that she escaped with two friends but got separated from them.  There's little mystery to solve, so the focus can truly be on the horrors of the experience.  And wow, is it terrifying and haunting and moving.  Ravensbruck wasn't a death camp like Auschwitz, but thousands of people died or were murdered there.  Despite the dehumanization caused by the guards' treatment of the imprisoned women, the friendships that grew between the prisoners and the way they were able to take care of each other were deeply inspirational.  It's a shocking book, but it's not intended as a shocking expose of the terrible conditions in a concentration camp (even though yes, this book was well-researched, and all these details were true - that's perhaps the most horrifying thought).  Instead, the novel is about relationships and hope and story-telling.  Rose writes poetry, sometimes comic, sometimes devastating - it's sprinkled throughout these pages - and her poems provide such comfort for her new friends that they will quite literally give her bread (going without themselves) as a thank-you for sharing them.  This book is worth the reading for these poems alone.

I thought the book would end with their escape, but it didn't.  Instead, there's another almost sixty pages about how these brave women recover, reclaim their lives, and live out their promise to "tell the world."  This final section seemed slow as I read it, but also stuck with me the most.  Several women's stories are wrapped up, but others are only beginning, as they recapture their identities or, more movingly, have their first chance to create their own, separate from their experiences in captivity.  I'm all weepy again just flipping through the last couple of pages.

Go read this book.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Agnes Grey

I really rather enjoyed Anne Bronte's Agnes Grey, but perplexingly, not for the reasons I was supposed to.  I've wanted to read this book for several years now.  I'd been told that Anne was the practical realist of the Bronte sisters, the one who wrote about decent rather than deeply troubled men, an early feminist campaigning for the rights of women.  And how awesome is this cartoon?

http://www.harkavagrant.com/index.php?id=202
Agnes Grey is, like her sister Charlotte's Villette, a semi-autobiographical story about her experiences as a governess.  According to my introduction, it was intended to publicize the plight of these women, often upper-class but penniless, and treated horribly by their employers and the ill-behaved children they were supposed to educate.  Over the course of the novel, Agnes has two different, but both dreadful positions as a live-in governess before she finally finds some measure of happiness and independence.  I approached the book fully expecting to sympathize with poor Agnes, but instead, I found myself deeply irritated at the Mary Sue-ish quality of the narrative.  Frequent moments of self-righteousness are nearly as irksome and grating as those of Drusilla Clack, the unpleasant evangelical Christian narrator in The Moonstone.  So in the end, I didn't enjoy Agnes Grey because I sympathized much with Agnes, but because (and I'm a bit ashamed to admit this) I found her pitifully funny:

Boo hoo, they're not treating me as if I'm as important as I think I am...
Boo hoo, I'm rubbish at teaching children, but my employers shouldn't notice, should never criticize me (because I try so hard!) and they definitely shouldn't fire me even though I'm not getting the job I was hired to do accomplished in any reasonable way...
Boo hoo, this man I rarely speak to, and when I do it's often curtly or rudely, doesn't love me back...

All this being said, it was heartening to see how Agnes's situation improved at the end, even if none of it was her doing and was entirely dependent on the actions of her mother and her love interest.  Despite my teasing, I really did like Agnes Grey, and as always, a Bronte novel is the perfect before-bed read over winter break.  It was perhaps the first book I've ever read that I really enjoyed despite disliking the narrator, which says something about the beauty of the writing and its social commentary.  I fully intend to read Anne's other novel, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, one of these winters, and I'm confident that I'll enjoy that one too!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

A life update, or, hooray, I'm almost done with this round of doctoral exams!

It has been a whirlwind couple of days!  On Monday and Tuesday, I spent literally all day locked in my office writing my doctoral qualifying exams.  Four essays and seven score identifications later, and I'm mostly done with quals, hooray!  I have an oral defense next Monday and then I'll be past this hurdle (and much better prepared to teach musicology).

And in a really mean scheduling twist, the very next day after quals I had another exam.  I'm delighted to report that I passed my Latin language proficiency yesterday, making this one of my most successful weeks in graduate school yet.

So after locating a stack of library books to help me prepare for my oral defense on Monday, I claimed the rest of the afternoon for myself and spent it buried in Elizabeth Wein's companion novel to Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire.  And then in between reading up on Beethoven's Missa solemnis and Rossini's trip to Vienna, and our first choir rehearsal of the semester, I started The Hobbit last night.  I've been meaning to re-read The Lord of the Rings, and my intense disappointment with the latest Hobbit movie (it's really silly, and by really silly, I mean really REALLY silly, and then they start making grenades) inspired me to start with this one first.

My semester technically starts today.  I don't have a class of my own, but will be sitting in on the freshmen seminar for which I'm a TA.  It'll be a nice leisurely day full of preparations for Monday, and my guilt-free fiction yesterday has left me feeling incredibly refreshed.  And perhaps Husband and I will finally get to the Downton Abbey season premiere!

Wish me luck on this last portion of quals!  And now I'm really curious - have any of you seen the second Hobbit film, and if so, what did you think?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Graceling

There's been a real trend lately in contemporary YA fiction to glamorize as the feminist ideal the strong, independent woman who is able to protect her male companion (seen most notably in Katniss of The Hunger Games, but also, for example, in Keladry of Tamora Pierce's Protector of the Small quartet.  Hmm...I wonder why all of these are K-names!)  It's an interesting idea, and if done well, can provide a much-needed alternative to the standards of feminine beauty and behavior promoted in mainstream culture.  Kristin Cashore's Graceling was recommended to me as just such a book.  I really wanted to like it.  But in the end, I was was puzzled by some elements of Cashore's story and bothered by others, and I don't think I'll continue on with the rest of the trilogy.

I'm perplexed by this whole system of Graces.  Katsa is a Graceling, a person with some kind of special magical talent.  Gracelings are marked by eyes of two different colors, and as soon as their powers become apparent, are essentially enslaved by the rulers of their kingdoms.  But even after finishing the entire novel, I was left puzzled.  Are Graces magical abilities, or just talents at particular skills?  Because "Grace" seems to mean either, as the author needs.  I'm cool with the concept of a Grace that is essentially a bit of innate magic, like the girl who can mind-read or the woman who can foretell the weather.  But I'm troubled by the Graces that are simply skills.  How come only certain people can be particularly good at swimming, or cooking, or fighting?  Why can't people without differently-colored eyes get equally good at these skills just through practice?  Cashore's Graces smack dangerously of gender essentialism, uncoupled from gender, but still a system of judgment about one's ability to undertake a particular action that is based purely on display of an obvious physical characteristic.

Secondly, Graceling suffers from poor world-building.  In a book whose plot revolves around political intrigue between seven kingdoms and their rulers, where is the back-story, the history of these countries, the explanation for the ever-changing pattern of attacks between the kingdoms?  Surely there are alliances, diplomats, actual good reasons for fraught international relations...we just don't get to see them in this book.  The first few chapters are clearly intended as the introduction to Cashore's world, but teaching readers how the world works isn't very subtly done.  It was a slow and somewhat info dump-style start.

Once the plot gets going, the book picks up significantly, but even then, there's a bit too much wandering around through the countryside.  And there are deeper problems:

First, animal cruelty is not okay.  Katsa regularly abuses her horses, and these actions are written off as necessary or even commented upon as a cute recall.  The villain of the tale cuts up small animals, but this reveal is only necessary inasmuch as it helps Katsa and Po figure out how his dangerous Grace works; the animal cruelty itself is soon forgotten.

Hitting someone because they've said something to upset you is not okay.

“Isn’t it in your power to refuse?” Po asked.  “How can anyone force you to do anything?”

The fire burst into her throat and choked her.  “He is the king.  And you’re a fool, too, if you think I have a choice in the matter.”

“But you do have a choice.  He’s not the one who makes you savage.  You make yourself savage, when you bend yourself to his will.”

She sprang to her feet and swung at his jaw with the side of her hand.  She lessened the force of the blow only at the last instant, when she realized he hadn’t raised his arm to block her.  Her hand hit his face with a sickening crack.  She watched, horrified, as his chair toppled backward and his head slammed against the floor.  She’d hit him hard.  She knew she’d hit him hard.  And he hadn’t defended himself.

She ran to him.  He lay on his side, both hands over his jaw.  A tear trickled from his eyes, over his fingers, and onto the floor. 


Yes, Katsa and Po have been sparring partners in mutually-enjoyable practice fights.  But imagine if the genders were reversed - a man hitting a woman because her words upset him.  This abuse would be unforgivable, even if he immediately regretted it.  Why is it okay when it's a woman committing the violence?  For a supposedly feminist narrative, this book doesn't seem to get that feminism is about treating all people like, well, people.

Which brings me to my third big problem: this book's really one-sided and militant view of feminism.  According to Graceling, a properly strong woman hates dresses and prefers to have a boyishly short haircut rather than taking the time to wash and comb longer hair.  She won't get married and she certainly won't have children, because these things would take her power away from her:

If she took Po as her husband, she would be making promises about a future she couldn't yet see. For once she became his wife, she would be his forever. And, no matter how much freedom Po gave her, she would always know that it was a gift. Her freedom would be not be her own; it would be Po's to give or to withhold. That he never would withhold it made no difference. If it did not come from her, it was not really hers.

She will consent to a sexual relationship with a man who is willing to take whatever she gives him, complete with the understanding that she will not commit and can leave him at any time, with no guarantee of her return.  Again, what if the genders were reversed, and it was Po giving so little commitment to Katsa?

Finally [and here I'm offering spoilers for sure], Graceling has too many conclusions, because there are too many main narratives.  Is the book about Katsa's coming to terms with her Grace and learning to use her skills to save life rather than take it?  In that case, the really rather wonderful crossing-the-mountain sequence is Katsa's real triumph.  Is the book about the political intrigue, figuring out that one of the rulers of the seven kingdoms is a Really Bad Man who must be killed for the good of all?  In that case, Katsa's face-off with him is the book's climax.  Or is the book about the relationship between Katsa and Po, and the way in which they help each other grow into their strengthening Graces?  That strand of the narrative is the last to resolve, but by this third conclusion, I was past ready for the book to be over.

If you want a strong female character, combat, survival skills, and political commentary, I'd say stick to The Hunger Games.  That trilogy isn't perfect either, but had fewer really problematic elements.  Graceling was disappointing.  (Sorry Kelly!)

Friday, January 3, 2014

The Inn at the Edge of the World

The Inn at the Edge of the World by Alice…I read Alice Thomas Ellis's The Inn at the Edge of the World (1990) as part of my batch of seasonal, wintery books, having heard about it from Jenny at Shelf Love.  It fits as a winter read, sort of - the book is all about characters who want to avoid Christmas, which in a way, makes it entirely about Christmas.  It was an odd little book to read for this season, strangely dark and occasionally even making me genuinely nervous for the fate of the characters.

Having difficulties with his wife Mabel, Eric buys "an inn at the edge of the world": on a lonely island off the coast of Scotland.  There, he doesn't fit in well with the locals and Mabel gets even more miserable.  In a desperate bid to regain some pride in himself and his work, Eric advertises this inn at the edge of the world as a holiday for people who want to get away from Christmas.  It's like a cold, wet, miserable version of Elizabeth von Arnim's Enchanted April.  Five people come: Harry, a suicidal former soldier; Jessica, a jaded famous actress; Jon, a mentally disturbed actor stuck on Jessica, who fancies she is secretly yearning for him; Anita, a lonely saleswoman disappointed by Christmas; and Ronald, a therapist whose wife has just left him (and left him helpless to take care of himself).  The novel is largely about their holiday on the island.  Just as in The Enchanted April, friendships arise, things happen, and people change, but in this novel, not all of these changes are for the better, and there's a thread of foreboding winding its way through the narrative.  Add to this a hefty dose of Scottish folklore - the natives of this island may or may not be selkies (seals in human form) - and it's a recipe for a deliciously atmospheric winter read.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

2014 reading goals

It's been really fun to see all of you other book bloggers posting about your goals for the upcoming year and the challenges in which you plan to participate!  I haven't posted book reading goals for a new year before, but I do have a few book-reading intentions, and perhaps if I post them here, I'll be more likely to work on them.  Here are 10 goals for 2014:

  1. Read something contemporary (as in, written in the last five years).  I don't tend to read much recent fiction, which is a bummer because some new stuff is just as good as my favorite old classics.
  2. Read something Victorian (not including the Victorian things on this list).  Perhaps George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell, or I could really branch out and try a book by Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens.  Or I could even tackle my complete Sherlock Holmes!
  3. Read something by Shusaku Endo.  Consider the depth of each of his books, I'm not sure I could process more than one a year, but I'm determined to read everything of his that has been translated into English.  I've read Silence and Deep River, and may try Volcano this year.
  4. Read something by Marilynne Robinson.  I never have, but it's time to stop feeling as if I'm not good enough to attempt her books.
  5. Finish Les Miserables by Victor Hugo.  This past summer, I got 478 pages in (out of 1463), but I stalled out once the fall semester started.  I'll probably bring this with me to England; it won't take up much space in my suitcase and will provide a lot of reading time!  
  6. Re-read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien.  I've been wanting to for a while now, and my disappointment with the second Hobbit film solidified my resolve to revisit Tolkien's universe again.
  7. Read South Riding by Winifred Holtby.  By all accounts, I'll love Holtby, and this was recommended by many as the best to start with.
  8. Read Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope.  I read The Warden last year, and want to continue on with the series.
  9. Read Armadale or No Name for my annual Wilkie Collins October.
  10. Read Shirley, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, or Wuthering Heights for my annual winter break Bronte novel.
Other than these reading goals, my New Year's resolution is, unfortunately, a continuation of last year's: I want to finally learn how to bake bread!  Last year I tried baking bread once with my husband's teaching, but the yeast turned out to be dead, so the bread failed.  I got so intimidated that I haven't tried again since.  What are your New Year's resolutions?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A batch of children's/YA book reviews

 These children's and young adult books were the perfect accompaniment to writing my final paper of the semester and then studying for my qualifying exam (which is next week!).  I'd read most of these before, but not for many years, so it was really fun to rediscover Emelan, historical America, the Lower Elements, and the other imaginative settings.  I'll take these reviews from top to bottom according to my photo:

Among the Hidden, Margaret Peterson Haddix - the first in the Shadow Children series, this is our introduction to Luke, an illegal "third child" in a futuristic America where the government has made it illegal for parents to have more than two children due to a food shortage.  It's much easier to see its scathing political commentary on China's population laws as an adult reader - the book isn't subtle - but what I like is how Haddix presents at least four distinctly different responses to the totalitarian regime, but doesn't present any one as being unequivocally right.

The Circle of Magic quartet (Sandry's Book, Tris's Book, Daja's Book, and Briar's Book), Tamora Pierce - Her books set in Emelan aren't nearly as well-known as her books set in Tortall, but they're still well worth reading.  By now she has two quartets and several stand-alone books set in Emelan, and while this first quartet is more kids-y than her Tortall books, she ratchets up the age of her intended audience significantly with the following books.  In this book, four children from very different backgrounds, classes, and races are thrown together as they discover that they have craft-magic, meaning that unlike the academic mages who learn their magical abilities through books and study, they work their power through nature and creative activity.  Sandry has thread-magic (spinning and weaving), Tris has weather-magic, Daja has smith-magic (metal and fire) and Briar has plant-magic.  Each of these books focuses on a different member of the group, but the real strength of the series is the evolving relationships between them.  My one quibble is Pierce's frequent asides denigrating academic study (I think my book-work is important too!)

Three of the Dear America Diaries (Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie, I Walk in Dread, and Standing in the Light), assorted authors - these well-researched historical fiction novels were a big part of my childhood.  Not only did I read them for my own enjoyment, but we read a few in elementary school as a part of our study of American history in general and New England history specifically (for example, after reading the diary of the mill girl, we went on a field trip to see some of New Hampshire's historical mills).  Across the Wide and Lonesome Prairie relates the story of a girl following the Oregon Trail, moving with her family from Missouri to Oregon in search of a better life.  I Walk in Dread was not yet published when I was a kid, but if it had been I'd have eagerly snapped it up - it's about the Salem Witch Trials and I sought out everything I could get my hands on about that terrible time in American history.  I read I Walk in Dread shortly after reading Arthur Miller's The Crucible, and while Miller's play is a much more dramatic narrative, it's also rather one-sided, seeing small-town land politics and community fear as the only contributing forces.  I appreciated how the Dear America version of the trials is much more comprehensive, noting fears over deteriorating, increasingly violent relations with Native Americans, instability in the colonies' political relations with England, extremely misogynistic gender relations, and strict Puritan ideas of morality and the devil.  Finally, Standing in the Light tells the tale of a girl kidnapped by Native Americans, who grows to love them and their ways.

Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh - this was a poor choice of library reading on my part.  I didn't like the book as a child, and turns out, I hate it even more now.  Apparently the solution to losing friends when your secret nasty comments about them are revealed is to publicize your gossip in the school newspaper, and somehow that makes everything all right...?

Princess Academy, Shannon Hale - I'm really sorry to say that I didn't like this book (sorry Amy!)  Maybe I would've liked it better when I was in the target audience.  It's not that the world-building was poor, but Hale falls prey to a lot of standard fantasy tropes (including the really annoying, obviously fantasy made-up names).  Most of all, I was bothered by this picture of gender relations, such that every girl between 12 and 17 could be forced to attend the princess academy because it has been decreed that the prince will choose one of them for his bride.  Where is their agency?  Where is their choice in the matter?  Yes, the academy basically turned out to be a school, which was great for this under-educated territory, but I couldn't get past the fact that the girls were compelled to wait around to see which one would be chosen as a wife.

Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt - This book seemed much longer when I was younger!  It's a really interesting tale about a lonely girl who encounters a family who accidentally made themselves immortal by drinking from a magic spring.  Now they must conceal themselves and this spring from any who would take advantage.  Not only is there some great symbolism (the toad in particular), but also wonderful musings on family and relationships, time and mortality, and living one's life in a meaningful way.

Artemis Fowl books 6-8 (The Time Paradox, The Atlantis Complex, and The Last Guardian), Eoin Colfer - The Artemis Fowl books are awesome and I highly recommend the first three in particular.  Book 4 gets crazy dark and depressing, and books 5-7 in this series kind of lost their way for me; they're unevenly paced and not as well-plotted.  But the last book in this tremendous saga about an Irish villain who must continually team up with the fairy police of the Lower Elements in order to save the world was a triumphant return to the very best of Colfer's craft.  I loved how the series came full circle, both beginning and ending with sieges at Fowl Manor - by this second siege, all of the relationships between every single one of the characters have evolved dramatically and it was so cool to see.

And this is my newest stack of children's and YA books.  Of these, I've only ever read three, so I'm hoping the others are good!