Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Read Along Check-In #1: Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Woman by Samuel Richardson

When JoAnn at Lakeside Musing and Terri at Tip of the Iceberg announced their idea for a year-long read along of Samuel Richardson’s epic Clarissa, I realized I had my chance to approach a book I knew I should read, but never had made time to read. Just looking at the book might intimidate the most voracious reader: I wouldn’t want to drop it on my toe, for fear it would break it. But somehow it seemed more likely that I’d actually finish it if I was reading it with a group, so I jumped in!

Obviously, I’ve have had a terrible blogging month for a number of reasons – but it hasn’t actually been a bad reading month. So tonight I’m sharing my thoughts on the January readings for Clarissa.

To begin, I am amazed at how “modern” the book is. Clarissa Harlowe is not, as I had feared, some Victorian milquetoast heroine. She is a young woman with a mind of her own, politic enough to realize that the unusual bequest her grandfather has left her puts her in a precarious position vis-à-vis her jealous siblings.

Lovelace is an ambiguous love interest thus far. Clarissa is not impressed by him at the beginning of the book. But there is something extremely appealing about him, especially in his distaste for Clarissa’s vile brother James. It was frightening to consider how much power a male child had over a female child within a family, even though he had no real accomplishments of his own.

I am not sure I trust Miss Howe at this point. She seems to be a very close friend of Clarissa’s, but her flowery and supercilious writing leaves me wondering about her sincerity. However I am absolutely unsure as to whether or not that is a function of the time and place that the book was written – so I’m reserving judgment for the moment. We’ll see if she is truly friend to Clarissa in the end, or if she is harboring some ulterior motives.

I am so glad that I signed on to participate in the read along, and if you haven’t yet, feel free to join us – there’s a whole year of fun to come, and you can easily catch up! It’s early in the read, but I am already enjoying this more than I expected, so I am eager to see that February’s letters bring to our heroine. The links to the January Clarissa links are at Tip of the Iceberg.

Book Review: The Ruins of Us by Keija Parssinen

Most books about cross-cultural romances focus on the beginning of the relationship, that first, heady rush of longing and adoration that everyone recognizes – but that no couple can ever sustain – coupled with the shared desire to overcome societal obstacles to the liaison. Keija Parssinen’s The Ruins of Us gives us a glimpse of that fairytale 25 years down the road. And it confronts some really interesting questions about the nature of cross-cultural relationships, most importantly, “If we love someone because they are different from us, can love survive after that person makes our culture their own?”

Rosalie was a bartender/singer in Sugar Land, Texas, when she met Abdullah Baylani, a Saudi graduate student from a wealthy family. To Rosalie, whose happiest memories were of her ex-patriot childhood in the Middle East, “Abdi” represents an exotic life she longs to recapture. To Abdullah, she was a breath of fresh air, uninhibited and unconstrained by Saudi culture. But after a quarter century in Saudi Arabia, Rosalie now speaks (almost) fluent Arabic, and her once-red hair is hidden by a veil. She has learned to fit in to survive. But in Abdullah’s eyes, no matter how unfair it is, she’s lost a part of what made her so unique:

Recently she had watched the bright moon of Abdullah’s adoration waning, until it seemed to only reflect light from dying planets – a dull secondhand light. For years they had been a comfort to each other, but somewhere along the way their marriage had grown functional. Now she could only acknowledge that the devotion upon which she had built her world in the farthest province of a desolate land had dissolved under her feet. Kindle location 427

Rosie’s world becomes completely undone when she finds out that her husband has taken another, far younger wife – and kept it from her for more than two years. The revelation is further complicated by her teenage son Faisal’s increasing resentment of the “outsider” status that his “Ameeriki” mother forces on him. She turns to an old college friend, an ex-pat who still works for her husband, for support. But a relationship that would be totally understandable, even innocuous, in Texas, looks way different in the Kingdom.

I found Parssinen’s The Ruins of Us a thought-provoking look at the arc of an intercultural love affair. But the question the reader is left with at the end of the story goes way beyond culture: If you give up everything for someone else, what’s actually left of yourself?

This book is recommended for lovers of contemporary fiction, especially those who enjoy books situated in an international setting. I particularly enjoyed the depiction of family life in Saudi Arabia – Rosie and Abdullah’s blogging, rock and roll loving daughter Mariam gives us about as good a representation of the global teen culture as I’ve seen. It’s a quick read, and perhaps a bit predictable, but well-written and quite enjoyable.

Since Rosie is an immigrant in Saudi Arabia, this is my first book for Colleen's Immigrant Challenge 2012 at Books in the City. I am looking for non-US immigration stories this year, so if you have any ideas, let me know!

I read this book as part of a TLC book tour, and received a copy of the book in return for my honest opinion. For other opinions, check out the links here.

Books in the City

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Book Review: All the Flowers in Shanghai by Duncan Jepson

Without meaning to do it, I’ve read a number of novels recently with unsympathetic first-person narrators. But Duncan Jepson’s All the Flowers in Shanghai is unique among my recent reads, since the narrator, Feng, is completely aware that she is unsympathetic. In fact, the entire book is a kind of letter to her daughter, begging for forgiveness for a life that at the end she wishes she had lived differently. It’s an interesting approach to a novel.

Part of Feng’s tragedy is that so little of what occurs is under her control, at least initially. She is forced by her parents (well, mostly her mother) into an arranged and advantageous marriage in 1930s Shanghai. Jepson’s description of her first days with the powerful Sang family is captivating and heartbreaking. Imagine going into your marriage with no idea of how babies are made. And without that knowledge, how traumatized you would be with your first nights of marriage, even under the best of circumstances (which her husband Xiong Fa doesn’t provide). I thought Jepson did a good job of bringing that distant reality to life for me.

Clearly, living in a family in which a dropped teacup could mean long-lasting disgrace would either toughen you up or weed you out. Feng takes the “toughen up” route. Her bitterness at her parents’ treatment of her, her bewilderment at her beloved grandfather’s abandoning her on her wedding day and her terror of her husband’s brutal advances forged a woman as hard as steel – and just as cold. Jepsom makes Feng’s pain and resignation powerful and real, as when she asks her parents why she must marry Xiong Fa:

My question would remain unacknowledged because it needed no answer: the answer was already part of history itself. Unlike the ancient dead empire whose language described the flowers and trees, China had flourished and survived for five thousand years. It had survived because it must. It had survived by forcing its people to adhere willingly to ancient customs and rules, no matter what self-mutilation and pain that entailed or self deception was required. p. 72

However, it’s the choices she makes after she achieves some status and power that make Feng such a difficult character to understand. She doesn’t seem to learn much from her own suffering. But is that expecting too much? This book really left me wondering about the cultural framing of motherhood. If frames are a common understanding of a concept, then the U.S. American understanding of a mother can be distilled into one word: “nurturing.” But it seems clear to me that it is far from a universal concept. With Feng I feel like we get maternal Realpolitik, so pragmatic as to appear unfeeling, so realistic as to appear ugly. And yet, I’m wondering how much of my feelings about this character can be attributed to Feng’s actions, and how much can be attributed to my cultural expectations of Feng. In the final analysis, Feng makes her own judgment on herself. But others seem to evaluate her differently. In all fairness, the The Great Leap Forward didn’t necessarily advantage mothers who baked cookies and read bedtime stories. If Feng’s children were in a position to live through the Civil War and the Red Guard purges, didn’t she do a good job on some level?

Strangely, I didn’t feel like Jepson’s first-person narration gave me great insight into the characters. The historical and cultural parts of the book were more interesting than the characters for me – externalities were explained better than internalities. I would have liked the author to depict the second phase of Feng’s life, away from Shanghai, more thoroughly. Maybe that would have rendered her change of heart more believable. As it was, Feng’s lack of empathy made it hard for me to understand why people like her maid Yan and her friend Madam Zhang were so loyal to her.

Still, this is a solid debut novel. Jepson has evoked a time and a place I knew little about, and made me want to know more. I’d recommend it to those interested in historical novels, especially those with an interest in recent Chinese history. It counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge 2012, and others working on that challenge may want to check this one out. Thanks to Historical Tapestry for hosting!

I read this book as part of a TLC Book Tour, and received a free copy of the book in exchange for my honest opinion. Please feel free to check out these other stops on the tour for more opinions:

Tuesday, December 20th: Unabridged Chick

Wednesday, December 21st: The Lost Entwife

Tuesday, December 27th: Book Hooked Blog

Wednesday, December 28th: Raging Bibliomania

Thursday, December 29th: Life in the Thumb

Monday, January 2nd: Jo-Jo Loves to Read!

Tuesday, January 3rd: Broken Teepee

Wednesday, January 4th: Savvy Verse & Wit

Thursday, January 5th: BookNAround

Monday, January 9th: Reflections of a Bookaholic

Tuesday, January 10th: Col Reads

Wednesday, January 11th: Bloggin’ ‘Bout Books

Monday, January 16th: The Adventures of an Intrepid Reader

Tuesday, January 17th: Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, January 18th: The House of the Seven Tails

Thursday, January 19th: Library of Clean Reads

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Weekend Cooking: The Everything Vegetarian Pressure Cooker Cookbook

Anyone who knows me well knows that a cookbook is a great gift. My darling daughters went out in search for one for my birthday, and found one that seemed to combine two things I love: my pressure cooker and vegetarian food. Which is how I came to own Amy Snyder and Justin Snyder’sThe Everything Vegetarian Pressure Cooker Cookbook. I absolutely loved the idea behind it, and went right to work trying recipes.

I wish I could report it was a major success. But I really can’t.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some great ideas and combinations here – the authors know a lot about mixing flavors, and they are not afraid of the spice rack, that’s for sure. But I have two main problems with the book. First, the recipes are unnecessarily complicated. Second, the directions, as written, assume quite a bit of culinary knowledge, especially for their vegan substitutions.

Pressure cookers are all about shifting cooking time – I think of mine as the “opposite” of my slow cooker. When my prep time for the day falls in the morning, I plan a slow cooker meal. But when the only prep time I’ll have is right before dinner, I often look to the pressure cooker for a quick soup or risotto. However, that convenience goes out the window if the recipes require lengthy prepping and soaking – and that is exactly how the bean recipes in this book are written. For example, the Chickpea-Parsley-Dill Dip (a yummy combination, right?) includes two separate pressure treatments of the beans: first under pressure for one minute, followed by a quick-release of pressure, followed by a 1 hour soak, followed by draining the beans, adding more water and putting under pressure for 20 minutes, followed by natural pressure release (which depending on the cooker, could take another 20 minutes). An experienced pressure cooker user would simply keep the beans under pressure for 35 minutes or so and be done with it. And in the cases, such as bean soups, where the beans are finished in broth, the book still calls for a soak in water before cooking. Why, when broth is so much tastier?

As for cooking know-how, the book claims to have a vegan version of every meal – and that’s true to some extent. In fact, the preface of the book makes it clear that the authors prefer and recommend a vegan lifestyle, rather than vegetarian. But the substitutions consist mostly of plopping vegan versions of dairy (and meat) products into existing recipes. There’s not a lot of thought or testing in that. And alternative products, such as smoked paprika, aren’t really called upon. It’s “top with vegan cheese, such as Daiya Mozzarella Style Shreds,” or “use vegan margarine, such as Earth Balance.” I didn’t really like the product placement aspect of the substitutions. And I prefer my vegan recipes to be vegan by design, not veganized knock-offs of carnivorous or omnivorous fare.

That’s not to say that the gift was unappreciated. And I’ll definitely use it for inspiration. But I know I have to recalculate liquid amounts, because I don't soak beans. And I avoid recipes with substitutions. Simplifying the steps, I wound up with a lovely Creamy White Bean and Garlic Soup, scented with rosemary. Again, a great combination – but minus the 8-hour pre-soak of beans called for in the recipe. I just sautéed an onion and 6 cloves of garlic in olive oil in my pressure cooker, then added a pound of rinsed navy beans, 8 cups of veggie stock and a bay leaf to the cooker and held it under pressure for 25 minutes. After the pressure released naturally, I added a tablespoon of chopped fresh rosemary and the juice of a lemon to the cooker, and let the soup thicken for 10 minutes before I pureed it with my motor boat. Salt and pepper, and a loaf of bread, and we had dinner!

Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up anytime over the weekend. Please link to your specific post, not your blog's home page. Thanks to Beth Fish Reads for hosting!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Book Review: Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

It’s amazing how often I start reading a book and realize that it’s referencing a classic that I haven’t read – which immediately makes me want to read the classic. I picked up Connie Willis’ time travel Hugo Award winner, To Say Nothing of the Dog, to share during January’s Science Fiction Experience, hosted by Carl V. at Stainless Steel Droppings. But it quickly became evident that the main character’s thoughts and actions were heavily influenced by his reading of Jerome K. Jerome’s Victorian “buddy” story, Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog). It was also evident that I wasn’t going to understand the Willis book completely unless I understood the references. So I put down Willis temporarily, and downloaded the classic* that inspired her.

I am so glad I did! How on Earth did this book escape me for so long?

The first-person narration describes a two-week trip up the Thames from Kingston to Oxford in a skiff with two close and quirky friends and an enthusiastic fox terrier, Montmorency. Parts of it are pure Victorian travelogue, describing in overwrought and sentimental fashion the towns, inns and historic sites they encounter along the river. Sounds dreadful, right? But what makes the book a classic of British comic literature are the narrator’s hilarious digressions, describing incidents from the lives of himself (an inveterate hypochondriac) and his companions, George (a lazy banker) and Harris (a prodigious tippler), as well as sending up some of the recurring themes in British history. In fact, the inclusion of these humorous sections actually renders the flowery travel writing funny in comparison, since it reads as satire of the genre.

What was most amazing to me was that even though the book was written in 1898, most of the humor still seems fresh in 2011. At one point, the narrator, J., shares the miraculous story of how he survived his first sailing experience, undertaken with absolutely no knowledge of the craft.

Possibly the result may have been brought about by the natural obstinacy of all things in this world. The boat may possibly have come to the conclusion, judging from a cursory view of our behavior, that we had come out for a morning’s suicide, and had thereupon determined to disappoint us. That is the only suggestion I can offer. p. 89

This book is full of tongue-in-cheek humor, sarcasm and comic understatement. It occurs to me that a lot of what I love about British humor probably has its roots in this classic. The chapter about the mounted trout in the pub should be required reading for every fishermen – and every person who lives with a fishermen. Honestly, I laughed out quite a few times reading this book.**

Certainly, I’d recommend this to lovers of classics, but those who enjoy humor and travel books will also find it a pleasure. Really, unless you’ve had your funny bone surgically removed, I think you’ll find something to like in this book.

It’s so awesome to start 2012 off with a great surprise of a classic! This was my first book for the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012, so thanks to Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much for hosting. Next up, of course, is To Say Nothing of the Dog for Carl V.’s Science Fiction Experience, which I hope to appreciate far more thoroughly after reading this book.

*I am having so much fun with the free and almost free classics that are available in e-book format. My Kindle has already paid for itself with public domain works that I didn’t have to buy, find or wait for!

**Unfortunately for my husband, at one point I was reading long after he had fallen asleep. Let’s just say he didn’t find my chuckling as funny as I found the book.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Read if I Want To: 2012 Reading Challenges

I love my New Year’s birthday. It feels like a totally fresh start for so many things – including a totally clean reading slate. This year I’m planning to focus on classics that I’ve never read, but should have, so you’ll see a lot of them doing double (or triple) duty on my reading lists. But I’ve also left plenty of room for book club reading, spur of the moment reading, and some mini-challenges, such as Venice in February and R.I.P. So far my actual commitment is only 27 books, and I know I’ll read far more than that, so I'm sure there will be some additions!

Happy New Year and Happy Reading to you all!

What’s in a Name 5

1. The Reef by Edith Wharton (Topographical feature)
2. Flaubert’s Parrot by Julian Barnes (Something in the sky)
3. The Gold Bug by Edgar Allen Poe (Creepy crawly)
4. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Dwelling)
5. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (Something in your purse)
6. Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill (Something on a calendar)

Vintage Mysteries 2012 (Murderous Miscellany)
I’m calling mine Vicious Vacations, and reading 8 books that take place in a destination where I’d “kill” to spend a holiday!

1. Death Lights a Candle by Phoebe Atwood Taylor
2. Six Problems of Don Isidro Parodi (Seis Problemas para Don Isidro Parodi) by Jorge Luis Borges
3. Murder on the Nile by Agatha Christie
4. The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice by Wilkie Collins
5. The House without a Key by Earl Derr Biggers
6. Died in the Wool by Ngaio Marsh
7. The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin
8. Lock 14 by Georges Simeon

1. Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome (19th Century Classic)
2. The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (20th Century Classic)
3. Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (Classic Reread)
4. Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neil (Classic Play)
5. The Case of the Gilded Fly by Edmund Crispin (Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction)
6. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer (Classic Romance)
7. Massimilla Doni by Honoré Balzac (Translated Classic)
8. Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons (Classic Award Winner) (1933 Femina Vie Heureuse Prize)
9. The Gold Bug by Edgar Allen Poe (Classic in a Place I Won’t Visit) (Sullivan Island, South Carolina)

1. Massimilla Doni by Honoré Balzac
2. The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice by Laurel Corona
3. The Haunted Hotel: A Mystery of Modern Venice by Wilkie Collins

1. Lions at Lamb House by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr.
2. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries and Curiosities by Alberto Angela
3. Treasure Island!!! by Sara Levine
4. You Deserve Nothing by Alexander Maksik

1. Eromenos by Melanie J. McDonald
2. Lionheart by Sharon Kay Penman
3. Reign of Madness by Lynn Cullen
4. A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome: Daily Life, Mysteries and Curiosities by Alberto Angela
5. Lions at Lamb House by Edwin M. Yoder, Jr.
6. The Four Seasons: A Novel of Vivaldi’s Venice by Laurel Corona
7. All the Flowers of Shanghai by Duncan Jepson
8. These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
9. TBD
10. TBD

Clarissa, Or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson