Thursday, June 24, 2010

Reading in the Southern Hemisphere

Greetings from Argentina! I am loving every minute of my vacation, but I have to admit it has not been the time of quiet contemplation I had anticipated. First, I had a couple of Kindle titles (I bought them before I realized how they were data mining my reading habits), but then realized the power here is of the 220 volt variety, so I can't recharge the iPhone. I also didn't love one of the paper titles I brought. So I've been bookless here for a few days.

The good news is that Buenos Aires is home to one of the world's great bookstores, El Ateneo, a former theatre turned into both a shop and a meeting place. I should be able to find something there to satisfy my need to read!

After a day at the Cementario Recoleta, I'm thinking of something with a "Gothic" vibe. Since I have no review, I thought I'd at least share a picture. You could spend a week in the cemetery, and not see it all. Most people head directly for Evita Peron's grave, but it's the older (and less well attended) masouleums that are the most interesting, I think.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Wives and Daughters: Accessible Victorian

Like so many American public high school graduates, my knowledge of Victorian literature can basically be summed up in one word: Dickens. I have nothing against Charles Dickens. A Tale of Two Cities is a classic for a reason: it’s a really great story of love and lust and revenge, once you get past the archaic writing style. But one thing I remember hating about Dickens’ writing was the pathetic characterizations of women. Lucy Manette fainted at every important juncture of her life. Nell Trent’s saccharine persona induced nausea. The female villains were more interesting: both Madame DeFarge and Miss Havisham are iconic baddies, but only Miss Havisham can claim any kind of complexity. So when I saw SRC task 20.3, which required reading a Victorian era novel, I decided that expanding my definition of “Victorian literature” might be the key to actually enjoying the task.

Enter Elizabeth Gaskell, like her friend Dickens a writer who was originally published in serial format. Looking through the reviews, I settled on her last novel, Wives and Daughters, because I liked the descriptions of the female characters – words like “feisty,” “scandalous,” “conniving,” and “imperious” sounded promising. Again, by going outside of my comfort zone I have been rewarded.

Wives and Daughters is the story of Molly Gibson, the motherless daughter of a well-respected country doctor. When Molly becomes the object of affection of one of her father’s medical students, her father decides that he needs a woman in the house to manage the proprieties. So he marries Hyacinth (Clare) Fitzpatrick, a widow who was once the governess of the local lord’s children. Mr. Gibson considers her a very good match because she has a daughter, Cynthia, who is just a bit older than Molly. However, Molly’s one previous interaction with the doctor’s new wife indicates that her character is less caring and generous than it appears on first glance.

Gaskell puts the day-to-day life of women at the forefront of Wives and Daughters, and the detailed descriptions of their routines, chores and meetings provide a kind of social history of the period. A tremendous amount of time was spent on chores; even more seems to have been spent on communications, either in person or by letter. It’s clear from the book that people considered making visits and providing interesting conversation both a virtue and a duty. But what really struck me was how the detailing of those daily routines could say so much about the power structure of Victorian society. For example, I was surprised by the complete lack of independence that young women had within the family structure. Molly’s new stepmother could keep her from paying a visit to a desperately sick friend, just so that she didn’t have to go unaccompanied on one of her visits. I can’t even imagine asking my daughter to change plans unless an emergency presented itself – my how times have changed.

Molly’s interactions with other characters illustrate her position within the hierarchical structure of the town. Being a Victorian novel, a lot of this information comes in discussions of the suitability of potential mates. Squire Hamley and his wife initially consider Molly an unsuitable match for their treasured sons, although they come to love her like a daughter. Mr. Preston, who oversees Lord Hollingford’s properties, represents a poor match for Cynthia, despite her lack of wealth, as her social-climbing mother counts on her beauty to provide an advantageous marriage. Second son Roger Hamley cannot consider marriage to any woman until he finds employment, as the family estate is entailed to his older brother, Osborne. Osborne, for his part, keeps his marriage to a French Catholic woman of modest means a secret, to avoid being disinherited.

Boundaries are less rigid than they appear at first however – Gaskell’s characters both struggle with and reshape the boundaries, although the likeable characters do so out of virtue and the less likeable out of conceit.

Perhaps I found this book so appealing because of the well-developed and complex female characters, something I have not found in other Victorian novels I have read. Molly, the book’s heroine, is certainly virtuous, but not syrupy. Like other great female characters, she has flaws, pride and self-consciousness among them. She quickly opens her mouth to defend the people she loves, even at the risk of being rude. She knows what she should do, and Gaskell portrays her struggle to do it in a very powerful way. In contrast, her step-sister Cynthia is the most interesting and enigmatic figure in the book – she is absolutely aware of her own faults, and conscious and respectful of Molly’s sweet and naïve nature. She sees everyone – including herself – exactly as they are. In the hands of a clumsier writer, Cynthia might have been a “bad” character used to emphasize Molly’s “goodness.” But Gaskell exhibits a deep understanding of the pressures on women to make their way in a society designed by and for men. Through Cynthia, Gaskell provides a dispassionate look at the position of women in Victorian society, and chronicles someone who played the hand she was dealt extremely well, according to the mores of the time.

I really liked this book. One discovery of my summer reading seems to be a growing affinity for female authors, regardless of their culture or time period. I am growing more demanding in my expectations of portrayals of women, maybe because I have a better idea of how really difficult it is to be one than I did when I was younger. Another gift for expanding my reading horizons.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

No splash from Fluke

I had no sooner finished the hauntingly beautiful Kitchen when the library sent me one of those annoying notices that indicates that even though you have taken out a book in good faith for a particular amount of time, some other patron would now like it, so your rights to said book are going to be coming to a close sooner than you had anticipated. I had planned for Christopher Moore’s Fluke, Or I Know Why the Winged Whale Sings to fulfill part of task 15.1 in the Seasonal Reading Challenge, a very clever old or new & borrowed or blue task. Since I had never read a Christopher Moore title (although I have had Lamb in my TBR pile for some time), its cover qualified it for the new & blue part of the task. Since I didn’t feel like scrapping the book completely, I decided to squeeze this book in before it had to go back to the library.

Maybe not my best idea.

Let me be clear – I didn’t dislike Fluke because I’m uncomfortable with the genre. I LOVE science fiction and absurd comedy. I firmly believe that there are still people who tell the story about the crazy young woman they saw standing on the LIRR between Woodside and Huntington in 1991 (it was a summer Friday, I couldn’t get a seat), laughing until she cried while reading The Restaurant at the End of the Universe. And the zanier the better. My darling husband once found me on the couch at 3 in the morning, gasping so hard with laughter while reading Boomsday that I couldn’t catch my breath (he rushed down the stairs thinking I was having an asthma attack!). Really, all I could do was snort! So even though my last few titles have been literary in nature, I was honestly looking forward to changing pace and sharing a hearty laugh with Christopher Moore at some point this summer.

I admit it, I was disappointed. But I haven’t quite figured out why. Maybe it was all the hype. Christopher Moore’s writing is so often compared to Douglas Adams’, but I just never found those lines where absurdity becomes hilarity. The character-to-character banter was self-consciously witty, but not sparkling. And all the sphincter references were just gross, not funny.

It may be the characterizations that turned me off. Nate Quinn, the cetacean biologist whose work on whale song brings him up against some mysterious undersea forces, is a likeable character, in that absent-minded professory way that often appeals to me – you could say I know the type. Clay Demodocus is the quintessential heroic sidekick, and Kona is a thoroughly likeable Jersey-boy-cum-Haole-stoner. Research assistant Amy is another story – she was written too snarkily to be a truly likeable smart ass. Ex-wife Libby and her life partner Margaret are caricatures, and without giving too much away, Moore’s rationale for the crystallization of Libby’s lesbian identity sounds like it was written from a point of view that my girlfriends might describe as “compensatory.” I don’t tend to love books where the women aren’t treated sympathetically, and I felt that was the case here.

Much has been made in other reviews about the environmental message of the book. I do believe that saving whales is a very good idea. But because of the ending, the message becomes a threat: SAVE THE WHALES OR ELSE! Not exactly a bio-diversity Kumbaya, is it?

This is a fantasy, so some of the completely ridiculous explanations that make the plot go are part of the fun. And there were a couple of funny bits – the part about not being able to throw a coconut in Lahaina without hitting a Ph.D. was good. But I never laughed out loud. Or even came close to snorting. And that’s when I know a book in this genre didn’t work for me. Still, it could have been bad timing - Kitchen was a tough act to follow - or not Moore’s best effort. I’m not taking Lamb off my TBR pile – but I’ll definitely give it a lighter segue than I gave Fluke.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Kitchen invites quiet contemplation

“Over and over we begin again,” says Mikage, contemplating another day in a life filled with loss, punctuated with the joy that only those who truly understand tragedy can ever feel. Kitchen, by Banana Yoshimoto, has left me thinking about this idea all day.

The one thing you figure you must be an expert on by the age of forty-seven is yourself – your tastes, your tolerances, your boundaries. But sometimes you have to rethink even that. When one of my favorite book blogs, dolcebelleza, announced the 4th Annual Japanese Literature Reading Challenge, I thought, “This is not for me.” I focused on Medieval/Renaissance history as an undergraduate, and my current research area includes Latin America. So I’m all about “international,” but outside of the Indian subcontinent, I haven’t focused much of Asian culture and literature.

The thing is, the challenge was only ONE book. One book? I thought, why not? So I found a Listopia entry for Japanese literature and saw Kitchen. I love to cook, but more than that, I love being in the kitchen, especially with other people. At 152 pages, the commitment wasn’t large. And there was a translation at the university library. Ka-ching. I had my Japanese title.

I opened the book on Saturday morning as I was stranded at my daughters’ dance recital dress rehearsal. By Sunday night, the book had been read. And I realized I needed to rethink what I like to read.

Yoshimoto’s first (and best) novella in the book tells the story of a young woman, bereft of family, who is taken in by strangers – strangers who were linked to her only by their fondness for her grandmother. The arrangement is a happy one for Mikage, but it brings stress to the day-to-day life of Yuichi, the young stranger who invited her to stay. Mikage and Yuichi are satellites in the orbit of Yuichi’s larger-than-life mother, Eriko. The exploration of the relationships between the three is the focus of the Kitchen Parts 1 &2.

The book also includes a short story, Moonlight Shadow. This story was far less satisfying than the first. It also told a story of loss, of a romantic kind. While both books include an element of mysticism, the second story’s resolution was far less realistic—and satisfying – than the first. Frankly, I’m not sure why the author didn’t leave Kitchen to stand on its own. In fact, my four-star rating is really based on the second story – on its own, I would have given Kitchen five stars.

Megan Backus’ translation of Kitchen is soft and restrained. Loneliness is a pervasive theme of the work, and I found myself feeling very quiet while reading. I even imagined the narrator speaking to me in a small, contemplative voice. Each sentence was meaningful. The book forces you to read deliberately – and re-read as well. There is a wonderful mix of personal narrative and global thought in Yoshimoto’s storytelling that I enjoyed immensely.

After reading and thoroughly enjoying The Summer Book and then Kitchen in succession, I have to admit that my tastes in literature seem to be evolving. Am I getting more contemplative in my old age? It’s possible. (Lee and Abbey, you can stop laughing now!) At least I’m getting what I hoped for out of the reading challenges I joined. I am pushing my boundaries, finding new areas of interest, and making time for myself to think and be, rather than do. I’m also increasing my TBR pile, because I’m anxious to read more by Yoshimoto.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Summer Book is a wonderful discovery

Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book is a rare and beautiful study in character and emotion. There is no plot. No excess. Nothing larger than life. It is sleek and beautiful and well-crafted – the literary equivalent of Tapia Wirkkala glassware. No surprise: the Finnish love for design is evident throughout this novella.

At the beginning of the book, we learn that six-year-old Sophia has lost her mother. She spends her summers on a tiny island off the Finnish coast with her artistic grandmother and her very distant father – so distant, in fact, that he never actually speaks. It is the relationship between Sophie and her grandmother that is the central focus of The Summer Book. Each chapter offers a stark vignette that offers new information about Sophia’s relationship with her grandmother. There is no chronology, and the time span of the book is unclear.

The Summer Book is a meditation on both love and death, and yet only mentions them tangentially – in Sophia’s unrequited love for a prickly cat, or her grandmother’s musings on what might have been lost in a terrible storm. Anger and frustration, on the other hand, are mentioned often, and seem to mask one emotion that no one is able to express: grief.

This small book illuminates the possibilities for the profound that lie within the trivial. It is charming, and engrossing, and often very funny. Not a word is wasted, and yet nothing is lost. Every piece fits together perfectly, even if you can’t see what’s its function is – just like the strange items that spill out of a box from IKEA. If it were furniture, it would certainly be Scandinavian modern. Reading it will remind you that some books are works of art: this is one of them.

If this was the only book I discovered because of this summer’s reading challenges, then every other page would have been worth it. I have to thank Amy at The Black Sheep Dances for hosting the Scandinavian Reading Challenge, and Cynthia at the Seasonal Reading Challenge for the “book with a beach” task, since that happy confluence of events led me to choose The Summer Book. I will be buying a copy when I return this one to the library, because I’m sure I will want to read it again.

Friday, June 4, 2010

WSJ List yields A Morbid Taste for Bones – and lots of possibilities!

The What’s in a Name 3 Reading Challenge got me hooked on reading as a competitive sport. But at only six books (five of which I’ve already finished), and with the next round beginning on January 1, 2011, I looked around for another challenge to motivate me to read for the sheer pleasure of reading this summer. Actually, I found four, but three of them will feed into my current uber-challenge, The Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge Summer 2010. It seems that every three months the Seasonal Reading Challenge community comes up with a group of clever tasks that are designed to stretch the participants’ reading horizons. It's a great group, and a whole lot of fun. The Summer 2010 edition began on June 1, 2010, and just plugging books into tasks has expanded both the breadth and the depth of my TBR list.

Take task 5.8, for example: To get the five points, the participant needs to go the Wall Street Journal Top 5 Books list, and choose any title to read. The lists are arranged by genre, and would be a GREAT find for anyone trying to break their old reading habits and try a solid book in a new realm. In a mystery mood, I clicked on Top Historical Mysteries and found 5 possibilities. At least two looked very gory – a red card in my book – but the other three were promising. Ultimately, I chose the first of the Brother Cadfael mysteries, A Morbid Taste for Bones, written by British scholar Edith Pargeter under the nom de plume Ellis Peters.

Despite the title, you won’t find anything ghoulish going on in Brother Cadfael’s Benedictine Shrewsbury Abbey, nor in the Welsh shire of Gwytherin where most of the action in this first volume takes place. This is a straightforward murder mystery, Holmesian in its devotion to deduction, clues leading to more clues and ultimately to the revelation of truth. But Brother Cadfael is no Holmes or Hercule Poirot – a former Crusader who tends the garden behind the monastery walls, but still keeps with him a affection for his former swashbuckling life – including the odd skills necessary therein. When looking for allies in a small Welsh town, he heads for the pub, not the Church: “A sound drinking companion with good sense is what I need.” (A very reasonable idea, I think.)

The “bones” of the title refer to those of the martyred St. Winifred, which the prior of Shrewsbury seeks to relocate to England from Wales in order to enhance the prestige of the abbey. Murder and mayhem ensue as not everyone is pleased to see their saint go – and others are over-eager to have her leave. The book starts slow, but finishes well. It was a very enjoyable mystery, and I would definitely read another in the series. I will also bookmark the WSJ Top 5 List, for the next time I need inspiration for completing a task!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ice Land: Of Valkyries and Volcanoes

If I had no other knowledge of the time period and place, here’s what I would know about medieval Scandinavia after reading Betsy Tobin’s new historical fantasy, Ice Land: 1) men were brutal; 2) arranged marriages were unhappy; 3) Asgard was some prime Icelandic real estate before the volcano Hekla chose to blow her top; 4) being a Norse goddess – even the goddess of love – was not all it was cracked up to be; and finally, in reference to #4, 5) the feathers were a nice perk, though.

Tobin’s novel is both imaginative and derivative. The Norse pantheon is, ironically, less known to English-speaking audiences than their ancient Greek and Roman counterparts. Tobin attempts to bring the Aesir to life, also ironically, just as they are about to fade from the planet, with the coming of Christianity to Europe’s last pagan outpost, Iceland. Freya, the Norse goddess of love, beauty and loss, is the first person narrator of the adventure. However, her personal reminiscences are mixed with the omniscient narration focused on other main characters: Fulla, a beautiful young woman from a traditional pagan (or godi) family, in love with the young man whose father killed her father (an old motif, but one sure to cause tension); Dvalin, half dwarf/half Aesir, marked by Brando-like internal struggle; Hogni, one of the last of the godi, trying to secure his granddaughter’s future in a world he will not see, and cannot understand. The change in narrations does serve to give us different views of Freya, but it also means that the book is at times disjointed.

The short passages narrated by The Norns (Norse goddesses of destiny) are particularly dissonant, as they mix modern knowledge of plate tectonics and vulcanology with the mystic ability to see the future when explaining Hekla’s machinations. These interludes stood out as particularly silly, frankly, and not up to the rest of Tobin’s accomplishment.

The book is imaginative because Tobin presents us with a very different version of the Aesir than might be expected. They have powers that humans do not have, certainly – humans don’t go flying around in falcon forms unless one of the Aesir is willing to take them along for the ride. But Tobin makes them far more human than godly, with their power based on their own astute public relations as much as their exceptional gifts. When asked by a young dwarf to tell him about her people, she struggles:

Where do I begin? With our deceit, our jealousies, our failures? Or with our own imagined triumphs, the heroic tales we’ve told each other for so long we now believe them to be true…I realize that the lines between truth and falsehood have long ago become blurred in my mind. (p. 140)

The book is derivative because it harkens back on so many levels to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s amazing The Mists of Avalon. Small band of true pagan believers? Check. Forced baptisms? Violent and greedy men bent on using the new religion to consolidate power? Check and check. Misunderstood humanoids of extraordinary power and beauty at their fin de siècle? Check. Romance despite the backdrop of complete cultural and social revolution? Check. In fact, Tobin plucks Asgard right out of the heavens and plunks it down in a mysterious Icelandic valley that can only be reached through a veil of water. (Hello, Morgaine Le Fay, here! The drippy trip to the magical world was my calling card – can you please send that back?) And while the placement of Asgard subjects it to physical, rather than metaphysical, decimation, the threat to the magical world permeates the book, just as in MofA.

The book also suffers from major lapses in continuity. Iceland was settled late in European history (the late 9th century, by most accounts) by disaffected Norwegians and Swedes who presumably took their culture, including their gods, with them. Why then the placement of Asgard in Iceland? Were the gods and goddesses commuting to Trondheim from their summer places near Reykjavik during most of their pagan reign? It’s silly to quibble with a fantasy, I understand, but that breech in historicity was so clear that I found it distracting. Another lapse involves the overlapping of two significant incidents in Icelandic history that actually happened 100 years apart. It’s the kind of thing that makes my inner medieval history major cringe.

Ice Land is a very decent beach read, especially if you’re dreaming about cooler climes in summer. It moves quickly and lightly, and the plot is interesting enough to keep you turning the pages. But if the literature critic from The Times of London really called it “Not just a good story, but one of the greatest,” as noted on the back cover, he or she seriously needs to expand the library. I think I’ll help by sending a copy of The Mists of Avalon.
This book counts for both the Goodreads Seasonal Reading Challenge and the Scandinavian Challenge. Can't fit it into No Ruts though, as I've definitely read something like it before!