Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Book 24: The Eyre Affair

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

I've heard about this novel a few times now through Cannonball Read, though most people were reading the latest sequel. I took it with me when I visited some family friends for Christmas, and it turned out that their son's girlfriend had read it (they are a German family but their son is basically a genius and has been studying in London for a while now and the same applies to his girlfriend - I definitely enjoyed the fact that I could switch back and forth between German and English during conversations because some things are much easier for me to articulate in English). She didn't remember all the details but she definitely remembered enjoying the novel, and we also discussed a few other books. Basically, it was nice, relaxing Christmas with good food - lamb and knoedel.

The Eyre Affair is set in 1985 England in an alternate reality. The Crimean War is still ongoing, planes have not been invented, people like to clone extinct animals as pets such as dodos (the flightless bird), there are several more types of special operations in the British police forces, including Chronoguards who are supposed to fix temporal issues and travel through time. Wales is its own country, and literature is very important - four thousand people go by the name John Milton because he's their favorite poet, forgery of manuscripts is such a booming business that it is its own section of law enforcement.

The main character and narrator is Thursday Next, a member of the LiteraTec, or the office in charge of literary related crimes and misdemeanours. Her father who makes several appearances throughout the novel is a former member of the Chronoguard gone rogue, who spends much of his time trying to fix history, saying that time is out of balance. After all, it seems suspicious to him that the Duke of Wellington was assassinated before the Battle of Waterloo, his most important battle. However, while her father's visits are entertaining, and I wouldn't mind hearing more about a plot to change history, the story is Thursday's and deals with one of her cases as a LiteraTec.

Thursday is called on the case after the original manuscript of a Charles Dickens novel is stolen (it's Martin Chuzzlewit, a novel I had never heard of before and I briefly even wondered if it was one of the alternate things about this alternate world - turns out, it's not). There is no one on the video cameras, and the display case also seems untampered with except for a smudge or something on one of the sides. However, one of the very secret departments above Thursday's level quickly involves her in their case because they think a man named Acheron Hades is behind it, and she is the only one known to have refused him and know what he looks like, being a former student of his. They manage to track him down but the bust goes bad, leaving Thursday as the lone survivor. The manuscript is still missing, assumed destroyed and Hades is assumed dead.

After receiving a visit from her future self on the hospital bed, Thursday decides to go back home to Swindon to pursue the case further where the reader meets her uncle Mycroft, a incredibly intelligent, creative and somewhat flight inventor. His latest creation are bookworms and a machine that allows people to enter a novel/poem/written text (however, there have been occasions where a machine is not needed for this; Thursday once did it accidentally as a child, even slightly changing the narrative of Jane Eyre, and there have been other suspected cases in history based on character listings of novels at the time of release vs. a later time). While it sounds like something that could be rather fun, it turns out if used on the original manuscript, the machine alters all versions of the piece in question not just that one copy - wait, what was that about a missing manuscript in the hands of a presumed dead supervillain?

Hades uses Mycroft and the invention to kidnap a minor character of Chuzzlewit and kill him, threatening to kill the main character if his demands for ransom are not met. After that novel, his next target becomes Jane Eyre (hence the title), a loved and revered classic novel with one flaw that all agree on: the ending - no one is happy that Jane went to India to help her cousin rather than marry Rochester.

In addition to needing to save Jane Eyre, Thursday Next also has to contend with the corporate giant Goliath represented by Jack Schitt (gee, I wonder who's the bad guy? The other bad guy that is) that have a bit too much power and say in Britain, and are very interested in Mycroft's invention. She also has to confront her past by coming to Swindon, including her former boyfriend whom she hasn't quite moved past in the last ten years, and his statements about her dead brother's actions in the war.

It was a very fun read, and I quite enjoyed Rochester's appearance in this novel, more so in fact than I did in Jane Eyre. I of course also loved how important literature was in this alternate world, and look forward to reading about more random characters come to life in the series. There are also see a few different things briefly mentioned in this novel that could be interesting if expanded upon, such as her father's role in fixing history, and those that disagree with him. The only thing I was waiting for in the novel that didn't happen wasn't a big deal - I thought there might be a bit more of an explanation of Acheron Hades's powers (honestly, I thought maybe he was a character that had escaped from another novel, hence his imperviousness to bullets) but it didn't really affect the novel. Besides with some evil characters, it's better to just know they are evil, inexplicably so, without getting a background story (though in my defense, I didn't care why he was evil, just slightly curious as to why he was so powerful). I could definitely relate when he went on a rant about Martin Chuzzlewit, because I have felt something similar about characters in a few 19th century novels:
I was made to study the book at O-level and really got to hate the smug little shit. All that moralizing and endless harking on about theme of selfishness. I find Chuzzlewit only marginally less tedious than Our Mutual Friend. Even if they had paid the ransom, I would have killed him anyway and enjoyed the experience tremendously. (234)

I can't think of anyone in particular I'd pick of the top of my head but Pamela in Pamela annoyed me a lot as did Robinson Crusoe. Not sure if it was enough to make me feel homicidal, though.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Book 23: Stiff

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

I've been meaning to read something by Mary Roach for ages now - in fact, I ordered Bonk a while back but when it arrived, realized I'd accidentally clicked on the audiobook. I tried to listen to it but every time I was in the car, I wanted to listen to music, so I never got past the introduction. Since I didn't want two copies of Bonk floating around my apartment, I decided to try again by ordering Stiff. Also, it's been a year or two since I watched it, but isn't this the book that Nate's niece gives David in Six Feet Under?

In the book, Roach explores the different things that have been done or might be done after to someone's cadaver once they have died. Not only does she discuss different science experiments and other projects that might occur to a body donated to science, but she also explores what exactly happens to people that decide to go the "natural" route of regular burial or cremation. Either way, it can get kind of gross. She uses historical examples as well and talks about some of the different views people have had towards bodies, dissection and mortality in the past. One big issue for medicine long ago was that dissection was outlawed in many places (people thought they would need a body to return to for Judgement Day) or that available bodies were just very difficult to find.

However, in addition to adding a lot of details and knowledge on a subject that people tend not to think about much beyond donating to science, cremation or burial, Roach also entertains. She has a very dry and sarcastic approach and while she is not disrespectful of the dead, some of her comments in the novel are hilarious. For example, in one chapter she talks about the soul and historically, there was a question as to whether the soul is located in the heart or the liver (this then became a question of the brain or the heart). This is her footnote about that philosophical question (after saying that the heart won over the liver):
We are fortunate that this is so, for we would otherwise have been faced with Celine Dion singing "My Liver Belongs to You" and movie houses playing The Liver Is a Lonely Hunter. Every Spanish love song that contains the word corazon, which is all of them, would contain the somewhat less lilting higado, and bumper stickers would proclaim, "I [liver symbol] my Pekingese." (176)

She also describes an experiment the military conducted at the end of the 19th century to determine the stopping power of certain rifles. At first they used cadavers, but then the person conducting the experiment decided to use livestock, causing Roach to comment: "And ever since, the U.S. Army has gone confidently into battle, knowing that when cows attack, their men will be ready (134)."

Basically, I'm really glad I finally read something by Mary Roach, and I was already telling people about it the day I finished reading it (I may also have called a friend of mine while reading it to read a passage or two to him that really amused me). I definitely recommend this (another thing that was kind of neat is that Roach talks about a lab that is of use to forensic science and criminal investigators - they experiment with how bodies disintegrate naturally and in different environments so they will be able to pinpoint time of death - a friend of mine had an internship one summer at a farm/lab that did something similar though in that case they used pig carcasses).

Book 22: Heart-Shaped Box

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

During one of the comment diversions at Pajiba (I'm starting to think I mention that site quite a lot on here . . .), several people mentioned Heart-Shaped Box as an incredibly good and terrifying novel. Since I do anything Pajiba tells me to, I went and bought a copy.

I was vaguely aware before this that Stephen King's son had entered the family business of writing, and had also heard that his first novel was actually pretty good. I think it is impressive that he was brave enough to follow in his father's foot steps and become not only a writer, but a writer in the same genre since comparsions would of course be inevitable.

Based on this novel, the guy seems genuinely talented, and is not simply casshing in on his father's fame. The basic story is rather simple: Jude, an aging rock star, orders a ghost online to add to his collection of macabre and bizarre items (most of these were gifts from fans). He hasn't had a new record out in a while, but is still incredibly famous, and is living with a young twenty-something year old woman out on his farm in the country. Jude isn't too invested in the relationship, and expects it to end soon, waiting for Georgia (he has a tendency to call women by the State they're from rather than their name) to go the way of all the other groupies.

Soon after the ghost's suit arrives, Jude starts noticing odd things and seeing a man in his house - it turns out the suit and the ghost were the real deal. However, the ghost isn't some benevolent spirit that can't find its way to the light - it, or he, has a vendetta against Jude specifically. Jude's last live-in girlfriend went home to Florida and killed herself, and this ghost is her stepfather. He's a bit angry with Jude.

For the rest of the novel, Jude tries to figure out how to get rid of the ghost. As I said the basic plot is rather simple, but there is more to the ghost and his motivations as the novel progresses, and characters take on greater dimensions. While Georgia starts out as a skinny, young goth woman that's sleeping with a rock star, as the novel progresses, her character is fleshed out - since the novel is written from Jude's perspective, he finally sees beyond his view of Georgia as another disposable girlfriend during the haunting. I think I may have heard this novel was misogynist, but I think it's more that the main character at first is sexist and dismissive in his treatment of women, and this experience helps him see the ways in which he has wronged his past lovers. And honestly, while women may have received the brunt of his inconsiderateness and carelessness, it seems like he treated anyone that attempted to get close to him in the same manner, including his assistant Danny.

While I wouldn't say I was incredibly scared by the novel, it was well-written, and the pacing kept the novel tense. Plus, he didn't run out of steam at the end which is always a plus with scary novels.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Obligatory Christmas Post

funny pictures of cats with captions
see more Lolcats and funny pictures

I'm not really feeling the Christmas thing this year (although I treated myself to a massage at the spa which was nice; and I had a doener for dinner). I'm going to an old family friend's house for the day (she was kind enough to invite me) but part of me just wants to stay home and read - I'm not religious so other than a few days off, this holiday doesn't mean much to me at the moment.

However, for those of you that are in the spirit of things, Merry Christmas and enjoy your time with your families/friends. I'll be seeing mine in around 20 days, give or take.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

My Name is Jennifer and I'm Addicted to Books

I'm starting to think I might have a little bit of a problem . . .

Right before the movers came, I went through my stack of unread books (which is rather large but there are always books that sound really good but then I'm never in the right mood to read them) and picked out enough to last me until January when I would fly back to the States. I didn't need any to last me longer than that because after I check into my hotel, Barnes and Noble will probably be the first stop I make in the States (or I might wait till the next day, after I sign for my apartment). The only problem is I can't seem to go more than a few weeks without going to Amazon and ordering more books.

I completely intended to just wait around, and simply add books that sounded interesting to my wishlist or add a star on Google Reader but then I found some books that I needed to have right then and there (I actually even tried ordering a few books for other people as gifts to see if that would help - I'm more concerned with the space issue in my suitcase than money or anything - but ended up ordering some I wanted as well). Basically, it seems that unless I have a stack of twenty books to choose from, I'm not happy. Oops. It's a good thing United allows military passengers with orders three checked bags.

And let's not even talk about how often I let myself get distracted by books. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows came out a week before I deployed. I picked my copy up maybe two or three days before we left, after I'd already put my car into storage and was relying on my boyfriend at the time to get me around. I was going to finally pack up my duffel bags and get ready for the flight but instead spent the entire afternoon reading and had accomplished absolutely nothing by the time he got back from taking care of some of his predeployment stuff(well, I had read half the novel which to me was a rather nice achievement). I didn't want to carry that huge book on the plane with me so I was more concerned with finishing it than packing everything else. Of course, in the end, my stuff and I made it to Iraq (didn't have much choice there) and I didn't have to bring Harry Potter.

I also managed to piss off the same boyfriend when I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which by the way was picked as best novel of the decade by Pajiba readers). I started reading it the same weekend he decided he wanted to clean his apartment. So I sat on the couch and read while he cleaned. Apparently he thought I should help or something - whatever (I don't even clean my own place - I pay someone to do that). Although I can see where one thing in particular could be frustrating - he started cleaning up the DVDs as well, and got one of them out of the DVD player and handed it to me to put in the case - I stayed on the couch, reading, holding the DVD on one finger until he came back half an hour later and just did it himself - it was a really good part.

I also used to get in trouble with my parents on occasion. I remember when I was reading It, my mom wanted me to set the table, so I put the book down, and put the plates on the table, and went back to the book. Then she told me I'd forgotten napkins so I had to come back, and same thing. I think I had to go back like three times because I was in such a hurry to get back to my book. This happened another time as well and my dad was so irritated he took a novel from me and wouldn't give it back until I finished whatever I was supposed to do.

And it really gets in the way when it comes to gym, too. I like the act of reading so audiobooks just don't really work for me, and besides when I'm working out, I need loud, fast music, not talking. I have no problem going to the gym, sometimes I like it, but I will always choose a book over basically anything else. And you just can't run and read at the same time.

Is there a version of AA for people that are addicted to books?

Book 21: The Fabulous Riverboat

The Fabulous Riverboat by Philip Jose Farmer

While the first novel in this series had some flaws, it was still well enough done to leave me wanting to know what would happen next. The premise of these novels is very intriguing, so I could forgive the fact that Farmer's characters weren't always that likable and somewhat one-dimensional. This novel unfortunately spends too much time on the characters and doesn't spend nearly any time on the overall concept of the series and as a result bored and irritated me.

It is established in the first novel that all humans that have ever lived have been reincarnated or resurrected along the banks of a huge river at the same time - they are all in their mid-twenties and in prime shape when they are resurrected and their grails provide for all their basic needs. Naturally, the question arises of why this has happened, and the main focus of the first novel was Sir Richard Burton. I didn't like Burton for the first half of the novel, especially since Farmer can't write romance and he was trying to romantically link Burton with the Alice that inspired Alice in Wonderland. Once Burton, however, started focusing on his quest for answers, the novel became much better.

Unfortunately, this novel does not continue to follow Burton. Instead, it is the story of Samuel Clemens (also known as Mark Twain) and his desire to build a riverboat. One of the powers that be (okay, that's not what they are called, they are the ethicals) doesn't agree with what has been done to humans, and he wants Clemens to build the boat in order to find the other ethicals responsible for what has been done. Overall, there are twelve that have been chosen for this, Burton being one of them. Since the planet possesses no natural resources, he maneuvers a comet or meteorite to crash on the planet to provide the iron necessary for the boat. The rest of the novel then focuses on Sam's need for certain raw materials and his uneasy political partnership with King John (honestly, I'm not sure how large a meteorite they found but some of the stuff they decided to build seemed positively wasteful for a planet with basically no resources - the damn boat ended up having a television - seriously, why - what are they going to watch).

This might even have been done in an interesting manner if it weren't for the fact that Samuel Clemens was an annoying character. He was whiny. I don't know what the real man was like but seriously, why did he even need to be in the novel? Couldn't Farmer have come up with a fictional engineer that liked riverboats instead of using someone famous and then portraying them like this? By the end of the novel, seven of the chosen twelve have been revealed - guess what - they're all men (most of them appear to be famous though there's a few where I kind of barely recognize the name but have no clue what they have done - I'm not sure if they used to teach this stuff in history class or if Farmer just assumed his audience would be smarter). In fact, women really only play a role in these novels as romantic partners/ sex objects.

The thing that is perhaps most irritating is that Farmer really does raise some interesting issues but his characters are so one-dimensional that they come off more as caricatures than real people, such as Hacking, the leader of a black community in Riverworld. Farmer tries to discuss race, and portrays Clemens as a liberal. At one point Clemens makes a comment along the lines of "I can't be racist, I wrote Huckleberry Finn and Pudd'nhead Wilson." While I don't have a problem with the use of certain words in Huckleberry Finn due to when it was written, it still displays a certain type of racism - Jim, a grown man, basically comes off as a child. In Pudd'nhead Wilson, two boys are switched at birth and the white boy is raised as black and ends up ignorant. One could argue that Clemens was trying to make a statement of nature vs. nurture, showing that the blacks in America at the turn of the 19th century were not naturally ignorant as many may have claimed but that they lacked opportunities. The only problem with this interpretation is that the black man raised as white was somewhat evil and corrupt, hence making it more of a nature argument against blacks. Obviously, given the time Clemens lived in this wasn't the kind of obvious "let's lynch everyone" sort of racism, but he still obviously saw blacks as inferior, both intellectually and morally.

This book really has turned me off from the series because I don't think I can handle anymore of Clemens. I will still watch the miniseries though since it is obvious from the previews that they have changed some of the characters anyway (though I did see a damn riverboat). Maybe I'll give the series another shot eventually, but right now, I'm happy with what the Wikipedia summaries told me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Book 20: Storm Front

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

I've heard about this series enough at Pajiba to be interested in it, so when I noticed that they had the novels at the PX I decided to give it a shot. However, I only picked up the first book in the series because I'm getting ready to move and wasn't sure if I should really commit to the three book box set (while they had every novel in the series it seemed, they didn't have any copies of the second novel outside of the box set). After reading it, I wished I'd just picked up the set since I want to read the second one.

I picked up Storm Front because I wanted something quick and fun after reading meaningful books these past few weeks. It definitely worked for that. In fact, while I enjoy the Sookie Stackhouse novels for what they are, this novel seems a little bit more intelligent and less trashy (not that trashy isn't fun on occasion). I guess it's just not quite as cutesy as Sookie sometimes gets, and none of the characters were constantly telling me how innocent they were.

The main character Harry Dresden is a practicing wizard and the only one in the phonebook. He occasionally works as a consultant for the Chicago PD whenever there are magic-related crimes such as the one in this novel which involves a couple's hearts being ripped out of their chests. One of the victims works for the local mob boss, so naturally that adds some complication to the case while the woman is a hired escort from a service run by a vampire. In addition to all that, Harry also has to contend with the White Council, the ruling court of the wizard world, who have an interest in who may have used magic for such dark purposes, and did I mention that Harry already has a record and is on their bad side? Basically, there are a lot of different things going on but Butcher handles all these characters in a way that works very well. As Dresden follows up on clues, the reader becomes introduced to Dresden's world in a way that doesn't seem too busy or crowded. I'm not sure if he keeps this up for the next few novels as well, but sometimes the Stackhouse novels seemed like there were too many supernatural creatures being dropped into the novels just for the fun of it.

The description of magic in this novel occasionally reminded me of Star Wars and the Force. Harry draws on his emotions for power and anger helps with this as well - he doesn't give a whole speech about how anger leads to the dark side and in fact his anger helps him (actually, I guess that sounds more like a conversation between Buffy and Kendra). However, the novel focuses more on motivations - using magic for power and greed is more likely to lead to dark magic than tapping into one's justified emotions.

Harry was far from perfect (another nice change from Sookie who likes to say she isn't but really is - maybe it would be more fair to compare these novels to Lehane's Kenzie/Gennaro series) which also helped give the character some depth. He alludes to a backstory and gives a very bare skeleton of former occurrences, so I would be interested in finding out more in the novels to come. I guess the only thing that slightly annoyed me was when he talked about how he liked being old-fashioned and opening doors for women - feminism never said that there was anything wrong with being respectful to other humans or treating people to things as long as there is still the underlying idea and concept that the people see each other as equals. Anyway, I can occasionally be sensitive to comments about the evils of feminism even if it is only one sentence.

Book 19: Kafka on the Shore

Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami

This is the second Murakami novel I've read, and of the two I preferred this one. I liked The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but this novel kept me much more focused and interested. This might be because I knew what to expect a little bit more, so I wasn't as baffled with certain aspects of the novel. I would also say this one is slighty more straightforward - which is not at all the same as saying that everything makes sense and is explained but I felt like there were fewer tangents that didn't tie together, and I also liked the characters in this one much more.

The novel alternates between two charactes for each chapter. Kafka (not his real name) is a fifteen year old that has been planning on running away from home on his fifteenth birthday for ages, and that day has finally arrived. He picks one town that he is drawn to for some reason, and decides to go there. He doesn't have much of a plan, but he has some money, and part of him wants to find his mother and sister. He also wants to get away from his father. There are many people that take an interest in Kafka enroute and assist him on his journey of self-discovery. This part is actually narrated in the first person by Kafka himself, and he comes off as much more mature than most fifteen year olds would.

At first, the chapters between Kafka's are interviews concerning a peculiar event that occurred during the last few months of World War II. During an excursion in the woods, an entire class of children became inexplicably unconscious at the same time only to wake back up several hours later, seemingly unaffected. All that is except one - Nakata. Nakata stays in a coma for several weeks before suddenly waking up just as mysteriously as he became unconscious but has forgotten everything - his name, the ability to read and write, everything. After this initial set up, the rest of the chapters follow Nakata, who has the ability to speak to cats. He becomes involved in an odd set of events after which he also has a certain need to go westward though it is unclear to him where exactly or why. The narratives are of course related and head to a point where they will intersect or cross, even if only slightly.

While both parts of the story were well-written, I especially looked forward to the chapters involving Nakata. Both sections contain magic realism and mystical/supernatural elements, but they play more of a role in Nakata's story, especially in the beginning. I think part of my love for Nakata's storyline probably had a lot to do with the fact that he could speak to cats as well - as a kid, one of my favorite books was Joan Aiken's The Kingdom and the Cave (in German it was called Der Zauberschatz von Astalon) which had a talking cat as one of its main characters. I'm not sure if it's even in print anymore (I think she's most well-known for one I knew as Woelfe ums Schloss - something involving wolves and a castle) and I don't know what happened to my old copy.

Murakami doesn't tie up all the loose ends or even try to explain half the things that happened. A few of the things can be guessed or assumed based on the novel but it's not as if he ever comes out and gives a complete answer. However, the novel was so beautifully written and the characters so engaging that I really didn't mind that at all, and just enjoyed it. I wouldn't have minded a few more cats, though . . .

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Book 18: Angelica

Angelica by Arthur Philips

This book was so close to being good but it missed the mark for me. The story is told from four different perspectives, the intent being to show how very differently certain events are being interpreted by the different characters involved. Is it a haunting? Is someone losing their mind? Is there abuse in the house? The main problem with this approach is that one of the four characters and viewpoints completely failed to be believable or sympathetic. Even this would possibly have still worked if it hadn't been for the fact that this was the very first person's view to be described, and hence set the tone for the novel.

In addition to writing a novel set in Victorian England, it appears Philips was attempting to write a Victorian novel so that the language also seemed stilted. I read classic novels, of course, and I don't complain about the language because that's how things were done back then - occasionally, I think they are rather vague, talk around things or are too flowery - other times, their use of language is amazing (such as the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, which to be completely honest, still drags on too much for me - I got it, contrasting times, two or three extremes were enough, thank you). However, someone actually trying to recreate that on purpose except to use as dialogue - ugh. It seemed very unnatural, especially in the first section. I'm not sure if it got better as the novel went on or if I just got used to it, but basically, the first hundred and fifty pages of the novel just didn't do it for me.

I noticed on Amazon that people either loved or hated this novel (with slightly more love): it had no three star reviews. I picked it up based on a review at Bibliolatry so I would definitely recommend checking that out for a favorable review. In fact, if you think you might be even slightly interested in reading this book based on my above description you might want to stop reading. I am not sure if this is a real spoiler since I'm not giving away the ending, but the premise of the book relies on believing the multiple view points for the tension to work. I felt one of the view points was weak and unbelievable, and am about to talk about why I thought it was weak, so this would affect people's interpretation of events and the novel's ability to create tension.

After their four year old daugher, Angelica, moves into her own room, Constance begins noticing strange happenings in the house, eventually leading to the question whether her house was being haunted. In the character of Constance, there are so many different ingredients that could make for a sympathetic character and an analysis of women's roles in Victoria society but they never come together in a proper manner. I wanted to believe that Constance was seeing signs of a real haunting but it was so obvious that she was imagining everything and going insane. Given such precedents as The Yellow Wallpaper, I wanted to believe a patronizing husband and the overbearing doctors were making her condition worse but Constance never made me feel that much sympathy for her. While reading The Yellow Wallpaper, I remember being impressed by the writing and believing her paranoia as it slowly increases until the woman begins tearing at the wallpaper in her room. In this case, I just wanted to scream at Constance to have an actual conversation with her husband.

There are so many different forces at work that should make it easy to sympathize with Constance. She is a woman in Victorian England and as such, her husband has all the power. She grew up poor and married higher up so that she feels like an outsider. She has had three miscarriages and her daughter is the only surviving child, whose birth almost killed her. She feels like she should be having sex with her husband but also fears for her life, and doesn't even seem to like it anyway, thinking of it as a duty to satisfy his horrible, animalistic urges. She never had the opportunity to receive more of an education due to her gender and her former social status so it is not surprising that she would have a hard time entertaining herself. And yet, I didn't find myself feeling sorry for Constance or her situation. I thought she was overly sentimental, a little dizzy, and paranoid. Even when the story is being told from her perspective, I didn't quite buy her view of her husband as a horrible monster, and thought he was being rather reasonable. Since Constance failed to work for me as a character, it removed much of the tension from the novel because it wasn't a question of what was really happening - that was rather obvious from the beginning.

There are several reasons that Constance thinks her husband is a villain beginning with the fact that he makes her move their four year old daughter downstairs into a room of her own. Obviously given what I wrote above, it is easy to understand her extreme attachment to the child, but she is going completely overboard. She also is incredibly upset and jealous because her husband starts taking an interest in the child when he didn't before (my response to this was, "maybe he is starting to see her as an actual human being rather than just an infant that doesn't do anything") and doesn't want him to send her to school (she should be ecstatic he wants their daughter to be educated in that day and age). She also reacts badly to discovering that his scientific work involves animals but I'd take his rationalism over her spiritualism any day. She rebukes him every time he touches her, even when it seems to simply be a gesture of comfort or to get close to her since their marriage has clearly fallen apart. She devotes every minute and second to their daughter and barely even talks to him. Also, she was kind of racist: John, her husband, was of Italian origin so she kept referring to his hot-blooded nature, and thought of him as somewhere between white and brown.

I liked the other perspectives, even if these characters were far from perfect as well and made incorrect assumptions. I also wanted to beat them over the head and tell them to actually talk to each other, but they were still much more sympathetic to me.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Book 17: Push

Push by Sapphire

I honestly temporarily considered not reviewing this novel, and just moving on to my next book. I think this has a lot to do with the way I reacted to the novel - between the film coverage and other reviews of the novel, I expected to be more or less moved to tears by this novel and I wasn't (I'm also not always a big fan of poetry which may have had something to do with this). Rather than talk about the fact that I wasn't as moved as everyone else, I thought maybe I should just not talk about it at all.

It's not that this novel wasn't well-written. In fact there were quite a few things about it that I liked. Given the coverage I've seen of the film I also expected it to be more hopeful at that end, but Sapphire does not take the easy way out - Precious may finally be learning and may have found a supportive group but the system is still failing her and there is very little hope for her future.

As the novel progresses, Precious learns to articulate the things that happened to her in different ways, and questions the place she grew up. She no longer takes it when her mother accuses her of "stealing her boyfriend" and stands up for herself, yelling that she was raped. While she has very mixed emotions about what has happened to her, she is rightfully indignant when a nurse tells her she "had hoped I be done learned from my mistakes" (75) as if she somehow asked her father to rape her. I liked seeing the ways Precious grew more confident and the way she started thinking about things from different perspectives. Both times when Precious gives birth, she answers the question about who the father is truthfully but it is only later that she wonders why no one ever did anything about the fact that it was her father - no one called the cops or arrested him when she was 12, and it continued to happen.

I also enjoyed seeing the connections between this novel and Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye. Precious says that she sees herself as white and blond on the inside, and that if people saw her that way, they would know she is too good to be treated the way she is. It is only when she starts attending the alternative school taught by Ms. Rain that she begins to see herself differently.

The novel ends with a few selections from the class journal, and I would have liked to have heard more of some of Precious's classmates' stories. I guess the novel felt a little bit incomplete to me, and I wouldn't have minded a few more pages to see what would happen. However, I can also see why Sapphire would end it where she did - at this point, there is still some hope - if Sapphire had kept writing she would have either been crushing even that small piece of hope or she would have been creating an unrealistic happy ending. It was probably better to leave it where she did - a life that is slightly improving but that could easily fall and break based on the smallest tragedy or misfortune.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Family . . .

I've written before about the difficult relationship I have with my grandfather. I hadn't actually spoken to him since April until this Friday but I figured since I was getting ready to move back to the States, I should probably tell him I was leaving the country. I also figured it would be easier if I did it since my mother and he have gotten into a few arguments about me in the past year (he likes to complain that I don't call but he doesn't call either, even after I made the effort to go to his birthday party).

Anyway, I called him last night and told him I just wanted to let him know that I was moving back to the States in January. I also told him that my weekends were already booked up and I was still working but maybe he'd be able to drive the hour and a half to come here and meet me for dinner. He told me he'd get back to me.

After that conversation, he called my uncle and started bragging about the fact that I'd called and wanted to see him and was going to visit him. As usual, he misunderstood but whatever.

Well, he got back to me today and asked me what my plan or intent was. And I once again said I thought maybe he could come down here to meet me for dinner. He said he couldn't drive to Grafenwoehr because he just couldn't do that to himself. But maybe he could meet me in Amberg, a town about half an hour away. I told him I didn't want to go Amberg, and I couldn't go to Bamberg to visit him for the same reasons I'd stated earlier and I'd also be shipping my car soon. He explained that taking a train to Grafenwoehr would just be too much of a hassle and he couldn't drive here at this time of year.

I've been in Germany for almost three years, excluding the fifteen month deployment. Even before my grandfather and I had a huge fight a little over a year ago, he never expressed an interest in coming to visit me. Everything has always had to be on his terms. I didn't expect anything to change but I thought I'd give him a chance to see me one last time before I left. I love Europe and living in Germany was a great way to travel to a bunch of different cities and countries I've always dreamed of going to. I will definitely come back to Europe but I am so over Germany. If I'm going to be paying to fly to Europe from the States, I'm going to be going to places I want to see such as Italy and the UK, maybe Spain and Greece.

My aunt and uncle who I am actually relatively close to fly to the States every once in a while so I'll see them then, and I'm sure once I've been away for a while, I'd be willing to make a detour to visit with them in Germany. I won't do it for my grandfather, though. My mom didn't even tell him last time she came to Germany (which was in September to see me) because she didn't want to deal with his drama. I will probably not see my grandfather again, and I don't know if he gets that. It's unfortunate and I realize I sound completely uncompromising but I'd be a lot more willing to give way if he had ever done so in the past few years or ever done anything that actually involved him going out of his way for me, like a real grandfather would do. He has never even tried to learn English, and this is a man that speaks three languages; he never even called me to congratulate me when I got promoted because he doesn't approve of my job and has never gone out of his way to take an interest in my interests. I can't say I'm surprised but I was hoping he'd surprise me, if not for my sake than at least for my mom as way of showing that he would make an effort for his family.

Book 16: The Swan Thieves

The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of this book was furnished to me by the wonderful people at the Hachette Book Group.

Between my junior and senior year of college, I had the opportunity to come to Germany for two to three weeks as part of CTLT through Army ROTC. The intent behind the program is to give cadets as chance to see what the real Army is actually like and shadow a platoon leader around for a while since that was the job most of us would have once we graduated and commissioned. This is the same summer that I found Kostova's The Historian at the bookstore. I started reading it on a Sunday, and despite the fact that I knew I had to get up early (like 4 or 4:30) the next day to do a meet and greet with a general, I stayed up until 1 trying to finish it. The next day, I was in a conference room with the general and about four or five other cadets, and started dozing off due to my lack of sleep. Obviously, everyone noticed. Thank God I was only a cadet at the time and not actually in the Army.

When I heard that Kostova had a new novel being released I was incredibly excited, even if this one had nothing to do with vampires. And when I had the opportunity to get a free copy, I naturally jumped at it.

While the topics of her two novels are rather different, Kostova displays a great ability to interweave the past and the present in her novels - in both stories, people become deeply involved and fascinated by the past, researching it in an almost obsessive fashion. This was another page turner, although this time I wasn't looking over my shoulders for supernatural beings.

Andrew Marlowe, a psychiatrist, is the main narrator, though his view is intersected with old letters from 1878, and a few chapters told from the perspectives of two different women, Kate and Mary. The common link between all these things is the artist Robert Oliver. After Oliver is arrested in the National Gallery in DC for attempting to attack a painting, Marlowe agrees to take the case off of a friend's hand since Marlowe himself is a bit of an amateur artist.

Oliver stops talking shortly after arriving at Marlowe's institution, though he gives him permission to speak to anyone he needs to speak to. In order to understand and help his patient, Marlowe contacts his ex-wife, Kate, and pursues a few other trails, trying to understand Oliver's illness and his obsession with a particular woman that appears time and again in his paintings. One of the only things he says when asked about his reasons for attacking the painting is that he did it for her. As the women of Oliver's life share his case history, it becomes clear that this woman tends to be a marker for chaotic periods in his life though he claims both that she is dead and imaginary.

Much of the novel also talks about the Impressionists and how Oliver's work is very similar to theirs. I at one point considered Monet my favorite artist, though now I would probably say Alphonse Mucha. As moving as the Impressionists can be, occasionally I feel like it's so cliche to like them, and Kostova talks about this a little bit through Marlowe: "Those endless retrospectives, with their accompanying tote bags, mugs, and notepaper, had put me off Impressionism . . . We post-moderns take them for granted, or disdain them, or love them too easily. But they had been the radicals of their day, exploding traditions of brushwork, making subject matter of ordinary life, and bringing painting out of the studio and into the gardens, fields and seascapes of France" (44).

I actually really enjoyed being reminded of how much I liked the Impressionists and why - another novel I read this year also dealt with Impressionism but it left a very bad taste in my mouth because it was so boring (stay away from With Violets!) - this novel on the other hand made it all seem so much more alive.

While occasionally it seemed like Marlowe should have been piecing things together more quickly, such as the importance of the letters, overall I really liked this novel - it was a character study, a novel devoted to art, and a historical mystery all combined. It also portrayed the difficulties of living with an artist, and someone with a disease in particular. I thought the relationships were rather realistic - Kate and Robert were both artists when they met, but Kate also wants children and gives up her painting, yet is still accused of being unsupportive. It was an interesting dynamic but it definitely shows that it might be difficult to have two artists in a family, especially when one is more talented or the other wants "normal" things.


Monets at the National Gallery in DC

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Book 15: The Agony and the Ecstasy

The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone

This is another of the books that I bought as a result of my trip to Florence (in fact, since they told me not to wear anything tight, I showed up at the dental clinic today in my black adidas sweat pants and my Florence T-shirt - I really, really love that city).

This book took me a very long time to read. This may have been partially due to everything that was going on at work last week but I think it was also due to the fact that it took a while for the book to really capture my attention too much. However, on Sunday, I finally had a chance to just sit and read, and it became much more interesting to me (basically, after page 200, when it started dealing with the David and the Sistine Chapel and so forth). Still, it was a slow read, and oddly paced. One of the later chapters ends as follows: "If the astrologists . . . had cried out to him . . . that he still had before him a third of his years, two of the four loves of his life, the longest, bloodiest battle, and some of his finest sculpture, painting and architecture . . . he would have laughed. But they would have been right" (670). Yet there are less than a hundred pages of the 700+ page book remaining at this time.

Granted, I don't think it needed to be longer, so I'm grateful that it wasn't but it did seem rather odd to me, especially given how long the book focused on Michelangelo's short apprenticeship. The one other weakness in the novel is that Stone really didn't do very well at writing about Michelangelo's loves. They just seemed slightly juvenile in their description or too flowery. However, since altogether his four loves takes up less than fifty pages of the novel, this isn't exactly a huge issue. The book, much like Michelangelo, is devoted to the art.

Despite its weaknesses, Stone did a great job of making all the art come to life and placing it within context as well as providing the intent behind it and art analysis. I've been to many of the places that contain Michelangelo's art and have seen much of it, but I'm now really tempted to go on a trip specifically devoted to seeing Michelangelo's art rather than my usual seeing art with the knowledge that I will observe some amazing and famous artists in the process.

I also liked all the politics involved and how they often interferred with Michelangelo's work and life. Since just about every pope wanted to commission him, he often had to abandon other jobs for later since no one can say no to a pope, especially in that time in day. What is also amazing is the fact that Michelangelo didn't even consider himself a painter, and always saw himself as a sculptor but made one of the most well known paintings of Western art.

While Stone shows that Michelangelo has a bit of a gruff personality, he shows him in a very positive light - I'm not sure if this is completely accurate but the man had one driving force and passion and revolved his life around it, even if it also led to a rather lonely and solitary life. The other parts I found interesting where the portrayal of his family (Michelangelo did not marry but as the only money maker in the family was somehow responsible for providing for all his brothers and his father) - they are constantly bombarding Michelangelo for money and making investments that appear to bring absolutely no profit. Yet they would become angry when Michelangelo didn't send more money because perhaps he hadn't been paid recently (for me, I just can't imagine how they could expect more money for investments when they are obviously rather lacking in business savvy).

It was definitely a very informative read but I was ready to be done with it. I think I should probably read an actual biography, too, to see how accurate the novel was but I think this novel was detailed enough that I don't feel in too much of a rush. I I should probably also read something about Leonardo da Vinci since Michelangelo wasn't too found of him, and I should probably read something by someone that's an admirer of his for balance. I admit I have a certain fondness for da Vinci due to Everafter (such a horrible reason - at least I didn't say The Da Vinci Code) and I like many of his drawings and works but I really don't think the Mona Lisa should be as famous and popular as it is.

One thing I also find ironic is that all of the popes that commissioned him expected to be remembered since they were popes, and yet, I don't think any of their names are remembered except by history buffs or people very interested in religion - Michelangelo, however, is more famous than all of them combined. I know of course that there were always popes in Rome, and some of the important decisions they made that affected world history but I have no clue which one did what. Michelangelo's name, however, has lived on through the ages.


Copy of the David at its original location

Copies of two of Michelangelo's Slaves/Captives (the other two are in the other corner, I couldn't get a good angle) - originally intended for Pope Julius II's tomb, the originals are now in the Accademia in Florence

A Pieta in the Opera del Duomo, Florence

Michelangelo's Final Sculpture - The Rondanini Pieta, Castle Sforzesco, Milan

Michelangelo's Tomb in Santa Croce, Florence

Oral surgery, finally

I am now lacking four teeth - I guess that's what I get for starting bar fights. Seriously though, I finally had my wisdom teeth removed today - there is only one oral surgeon in the area so I've been trying to schedule this since August, when tooth pains nearly ruined my weekend in Budapest.

It went quickly, but I really wasn't as knocked out as I'd wanted to be. Unfortunately. The areas were numb and all and for the most part I just felt odd amounts of varying pressure and heard weird sounds (I may have screamed a little at one point). I was also shaking through most of the procedure so I'm not sure if it was nerves or if that was the only real effect the drug was having on me (I had a surgery in college, and my mom told me that I was getting the shakes when I was starting to wake up or something so they had to give me another sedative). Unfortunately, they'd already thrown the teeth away when I asked if I could see them so I'm not sure what that's going to mean for the tooth fairy. Still, I think these have to be worth a little extra (hint, hint - Mom - how about Season 4 of Supernatural?).

Anyway, here's hoping the recovery goes well, and I don't end up with anything like dry socket.

Also, thanks to Jak for driving me to the clinic, waiting around and taking me home and not once laughing about the strings of gaze hanging out of my mouth. I looked like a malformed vampire, seriously, sans glitter, of course because those aren't vampires.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Book 14: The Mango Season

The Mango Season by Amulya Malladi

I actually finished this over a week ago, but have been a little distracted. Also, it's one of those books that doesn't inspire me to say much. It was a pleasant read, and I definitely enjoyed it but beyond that . . .

Priya, the narrator, is on her first trip home to India since she left seven years ago. Despite the fact that their daughter left for America to study and work, her family is still very traditional, especially the older generation (her father is probably the most liberal but even he is used to certain customs and expects them). Her main reason for her return home is to tell her family that she is engaged to an American. She has hidden this part of her life from her family for the past three years, and wants to be open about it before she marries Nick. Her family's big fear was that Priya would follow in the foot steps of other Indians who got married to each other without involving their families but they never would have even imagined an American in the picture.

Of course, the other big fear is that at 27, Priya is an old spinster and will remain alone for the rest of her life. Her 30 year old aunt has not married yet and has been through over 50 meetings with potential spouses with no luck. Her mother and father do not want this to happen to Priya.

However, the novel mainly deals with Priya's relationships and how the past seven years have changed her and her views of her family and India. As she says, she now sees India as an outsider, and there are many things she is much less tolerant of than she was before. While overall it isn't anything too memorable, it was a good book that took a look at differences in culture and the idea of coming home. In other ways, it was very much like reading chick lit with an Indian spin but not as fluffy as some of those novels, and less about trying to find a man (at least on the narrator's part - her family is still rather interested in finding her one).

Random Book-Related Occurence

A few days ago, I was walking across the parking lot to the post office when a car honked at me.  I figured maybe I'd been in the driver's way and he was expressing his anger at my crossing over the lot, so I turned when he rolled his window down, expecting him to either apoligize when he saw my rank or give me an ass chewing if he was higher ranking.  Instead, the driver leaned over and asked, "did you ever finish that Nazi book?"  Seeing my rather confused expression, he clarified,"the one about Hitler?"  I answered yes but obviously was still a little confused looking.  He further explained, "I saw you reading it at the Greek restaurant."  I guess being dumb enough to read a book about Nazi Germany and Hitler in public in Germany will get you noticed.
 
Obviously, I think anyone would be surprised to be approached in this way but it definitely didn't help that I'd finished the book a week or two before the incident and already read one or two others.  Additionally, when I heard the term Nazi book, I honestly thought he meant something along the lines of a "how to guide," which I of course would never read or a book written by an actual Nazi.
 
And everyone tells me I need to get out and that I can't meet people by reading.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

My Apartment 2

And here's the rest of my soon to be former apartment.


These are tiles from Florence in the hallway to the bathroom. I bought my parents a tile that says beware of the cats in Italian at the same store.


This is a view of my hallway from the front door. The door on the right leads into the living room (I'm standing next to the door to my bedroom and if I went left, I'd be in my bathroom).


This is the other side of the hallway with the door to the guest room. The really cute coffee themed mirror is from a home decor store in Schweinfurt.


This is the guest room with several masks from Italy (specifically Venice and Florence). I have one more (hence the big gap) but I haven't found any hanging wire to hang it with (all the others masks already had hooks with them).


I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Seville, so I didn't bother to hang up anything from there but once I'm in the States I'm going to hang this fan surrounded by a bunch of postcards of vintage travel posters/advertisements from Seville such as the ones seen here. They'll probably end up in the guest room but it all depends on my new place.

And finally the kitchen - those are not my curtains. They came with the place.

Alcohol and Starbucks.

Alright, so that's the apartment. So where the hell are the packers? I kind of wanted to go into work today, and while they say they'd be here anytime between 8 and 5, the guy that did the preinspection last week said they'd be here early and only take about an hour and a half (how pathetic is that? My whole life can be packed up in an hour and a half).

My Apartment 1

I'm currently waiting for the packers to come and put all my things in boxes. As I was waiting around, I decided it might be a good idea to take a few pictures of the place since I am actually kind of happy with the way some of the rooms ended up decorating-wise after almost three years. Other rooms, I didn't really do much of anything with though I already have the prints and posters I want to get framed and hang up once I'm in the States. For example, my bedroom right now has nothing on the walls but I have three black and white prints/photographs of Rodin sculptures that I'm going to hang up in there as well as a few Mucha prints (and I'll probably end up getting Klimt's The Kiss as well).

It turns out most of my decorations are actually souvenirs with a few exceptions. I'm not sure how many pictures I can do per post so I'm going to break this up - most of my things are in the living room anyway.

I've actually divided my living room into two areas, the actual living room with television and the office space with the computer. This is by the entry into the living room and on the TV side of the room. I got the Tudor Rose at Westminster Abbey, and those are two black and white pictures of Big Ben.

This is the view from the corner next to my TV. Most of this stuff is from different home decor stores in a German shopping center in Schweinfurt (it's about an hour and a half away but since my uncle lives there, I actually go shopping there quite a bit).

Here is a closer view of one of my bookshelves - I don't arrange my book alphabetically or anything but there is definitely a system of sorts. Most of my favorite authors are on this shelf as well as all my fantasy and science fiction (this of course excludes the many books still at my parents' house). Most of the rose themed stuff is from the above mentioned decor stores but the candle is from Budapest, and the owl and thing to the left of it are from Athens.
This is the wall I see from the living room door - the pictures are from Paris, and the Greek style art is actually from a shop near the British Museum in London (since I've been to London twice unlike most other cities in Europe, I have quite a few things from there).

This is a view of the "office" half of my living room (you can also see the government furniture and couch). I need more bookshelves which will probably be the first thing I buy once I get to the States - knowing me, probably even before I buy a bed.

My hookah and the tablet are both from Istanbul. The reproduction of the Rosetta Stone is naturally from the British Museum and the thistle is from Scotland. I picked up the picture frame in Florence though I don't have anything to put in it.

The pictures are from Prague (it's only two hours away so I've been there a few times - such a great city), and the colorful cards on the other wall are views of Paris. And then of course there is my shot glass collection.

This is the view from my desk with coffee mugs from various cities and museums. Between these and the Starbucks city mugs on my fridge, I think I have more coffee mugs for decorative purposes than for drinking.

I'm horrible at getting the pictures and the spacing to line up - that's one thing I never understand about Blogger - however as bad as it may look, I'm not going to spend the next hour trying to adjust spacing.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Book 13: The House of Medici

The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall by Christopher Hibbert

After my trip to Florence, I decided to read a few books about the place. It should probably go the other way around, but I mean obviously I knew about the Medici and Michelangelo before going, I just didn't know all the details.

There are two things that I would have found incredibly helpful while reading this: a family tree and maybe a time line (although a family tree with dates probably would have solved the time line issue as well). It was originally written in the '70s so maybe they had a different idea or approach to history (there were no actual foot notes - there were notes which then gave further explanation on the art, but he didn't cite where his sources came from throughout; once again, I'm sure a lot of this is common knowledge and therefore doesn't need citations and different ideas for writing in the '70s vs. now), but when writing about a family that tends to use the same name over and over again, it would be helpful to know when which one died to make sure they're still talking about the same one.

Having said that, I think it was a good general over view of the family and its history. Of course the first thing that comes to mind upon thinking about the Medici is the Renaissance, arts and incredible riches. They also had two popes (one of them was actually the one that didn't grant Henry VIII his divorce because Spain had him surrounded by armies). The Medici family actually wasn't that rich for that long - Lorenzo the Magnificent wasn't that great at the banking business so he lost much of the family fortune. By the end of the Medicis reign, Florence was rather impoverished compared to its former glories.

There were quite a few political intrigues although I did kind of lose track a few times of what exactly was happening at what time. For example, in one chapter he discussed Lorenzo's marriage and his wife's death, but then in the next chapter he backtracked and she was still alive. Obviously, the author divided some things more by themes than going for a straight line narrative, which makes sense but it would have been simpler to grasp if he had included dates more often in the narrative.

Book 12: The Book of Unholy Mischief

The Book of Unholy Mischief by Elle Newmark

The title is probably the best part of the novel. It's not that it was a bad novel, it was just very average. The narrator, Luciano, is reflecting back on a particular time in his life that came to define who he was. In 1498, he was a fifteen year old living in Venice, living on the streets and stealing until he catches the attention of the chef at the Doge's Palace who decides to make him an apprentice.

At this time there are all kind of rumors about a mysterious book floating around the area, and rumor has it that it is in Venice. Some say it was a spell for immortality (which is why the syphillitic Doge wants it), others believe it contains a love spell, and others believe it is the key to turning things into gold. Luciano begins to believe that there is more to his chef than immediately apparent, and blabs his suspicions to his conniving friend which naturally leads to trouble.

The political intrigue was interesting but Luciano didn't do it for me as a character. He was a mix of stupid, naive and gullible. His crush on a nun was just laughable and there wasn't much to it at all. And as much as I love food, I didn't feel like all the descriptions of food really added much to the story at all. Even the whole recipes as a code thing seemed more boring to me than anything else.

It was kind of cool though reading this after visiting Venice since I could actually picture some of the geography and the locations mentioned in my head. Parts of it were interesting but unfortunately those aren't what Newmark chose to elaborate on so while it wasn't a bad novel, it was very much similar to things that have been done but on a lesser scale.

The Doge's Palace

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Seville: Bullfights



I spent Thanksgiving weekend in Seville, Spain, and enjoyed myself quite a bit. While I personally have no interest in bullfights, and don't really like the concept, I figured I would at least go see the stadium. It's not bullfighting season right now, but even if it had been, I wouldn't have attended an actual fight - it's one thing to try to get to know the culture but that's a bit too much for me.
This stadium has been around for 240 years, and the tour guide explained that there had been only three deaths in that time - human, that is. There are about fifty bullfights a year now, but it isn't as popular as it used to be so I'm sure there were more fights yearly back in the day.
I didn't know exactly how a bullfight worked although I considered them to be slightly unfair and brutal, but now I have specifics for why it is unfair. First the matador comes and more or less dances around with the bull for five minutes, then some other guy has five minutes in the ring and is supposed to spear the bull, then comes somebody else that is supposed to do something gets his five minutes, and then the matador comes back for the kill. So obviously, the bull is wounded and tired - I guess you could argue that an angry bull makes for a more challenging opponent . . .
The thing is, no matter what - the bull dies. I know the matador is seen as brave and noble and so forth, but at the end of the fight the bull is dead. If the judges think the matador did well, he gets trophies; if not, the bull is still dead. If the bull gets smart and tries to escape, he is considered a coward and dies; if the bull fights back and kills the matador, the bull is killed and so is its mother (I doubt the bull has any sentimental attachment to its mother and it's probably to prevent the mother from having any more killers but I didn't ask). Is there any way for the bull to be spared here? Considering that only three humans have died, I'd be perfectly fine with letting those three bulls live (far away from me, of course) - it's not like they haven't killed many more bulls. Also, with those rather low mortality rates, I'm not sure what the big deal is about being a matador (I guess this was supposed to be an impressively low number) - the cards are stacked. I guess it's just about the skill with which he dispatches the bull - why not just have competitions in the butcher shop then? It comes down to the same thing.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Book 11: Under the Dome

Under the Dome by Stephen King

I probably would have waited to buy this until it was released as a paperback if it hadn't been for the fact that it was on sale for $9 when I saw it. Despite its size, I read it over a weekend, so it was definitely quickly paced and a bit of a page turner. However, I don't think it really had to be over 1000 pages, and could easily have been trimmed. And while it was entertaining, it also had its share of weaknesses. First off, as usual, King cannot end a story effectively. His endings have a tendency to come out of nowhere after a few crazy twists that make no sense, or they're just weak. This one was definitely more on the weak side of things. However, I think that's a flaw that most people recognize about King so I'm not really going to get into it too much more.

The main thing is that just doesn't really bring anything new to the table. It's very much like things King has written before - this is isn't necessarily a weakness as much of a warning - don't expect anything super-original.

Naturally, the story is set in a small town in Maine. One day in October, the town suddenly finds itself surrounded by a dome. No one knows where it came from or what caused, but it is solid and unbreakable. Nothing can come either in or out (with the exception of a few drops of water and a little bit of air but not enough to really be of any consequence). While there are questions of where the Dome has come from (government conspiracy? terrorist attack?), most of the novel focuses more on what happens within the town after they are cut off from the rest of the world. Yes, they can still watch TV and the internet still works but the outside has no way of enforcing their rules upon the town. The fact that King chooses to just accept the Dome presence, and to explore the effects of this new isolated status on the town is definitely a strength of the novel. A local politican that already had most of the town in his pocket sees this as his chance to gain even more power and control, and convinces most of the population to blindly follow him while only a few are smart enough to see through him and try to set up a type of resistance.

And this is where King starts treading into familiar territory - it just seems like he's already done that before - the sheep-like populace that follow the wrong person with a few brave men to fight against him. Many of the characters are recognizable from his other novels - Chef, the meth addict, had a rather striking similiarity to The Stand's Trashcan Man, in my opinion. There are of course a few intelligent children and a genius boy that help the adults figure things out. Junior seemed like a rehash of some his other lower-level villains. While King never makes his protagonists into perfect people, in this novel especially, his villains are just plain mean and evil. They have absolutely no redeeming qualities or complications to their character, and I think this weakens the novel. Plus it's easy to tell who's bad because they early on make racist and sexist statements. I mean I'm glad the good guys aren't making those comments, but it just seems like it's so easy that way - give me something a little more complex. Was the rape scene really necessary other than to establish who the bad guys were? I think it was already clear from other parts of the novel that thugs were taking over without having to add that as well.

There were also a few internal continuation issues that I noticed. At first, Dale Barbara ends up being a former Army captain. Then in the last half of the novel, they keep seeing he'd been a lieutenant. It kind of bugged me that they couldn't even get his rank straight and also made a comment about him retiring from the Army - if you get out before 20 years, it's an honorable discharge (hopefully), not retirement.

It's not to say that this is a bad novel. It's just it's basically a lot like reading other Stephen King novels that have already been published with a few different elements. And while the ending was weak, I appreciated that he really didn't start focusing too much on the Dome till much later in the novel and stayed focused on the human side of it.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Book 10: A Pale View of Hills

A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro

This novel is definitely a little ambiguous. At only 183 pages, it is the shortest novel I've read in a long time, and there are many questions that are not quite answered. Etsuko, the narrator, is an older Japanese woman living in England. Her husband is long dead, her older daughter, Keiko, has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter, Niki, is visiting her temporarily. Niki and Keiko were only half-sisters, and Keiko never really seemed to adjust to her life with her new family members, spending most days in her room, only rarely coming downstairs before finally moving out.

The rest of the novel goes back and forth between Etsuko's memories of a certain summer in Japan, which took place in the Nagasaki area a few years after the war, and her visit with Niki. It is during this summer that a pregnant Etusko met Sachiko and her daughter Mariko when they moved into the neighborhood. Sachiko is not exactly a very attentive mother, and no one else in the neighborhood really talks to her due to her connection with an American. Etsuko and Sachiko become friends of a sort, though it is a rather weird friendship since Etsuko spends much of her time passively questioning Sachiko's decisions regarding her daughter. In fact, I wasn't quite sure if the dialogue was stilted because this was the author's first novel, or if it was due to the formality of Japanese culture he was trying to represent, though I'm leaning towards the later.

Etsuko's father-in-law is also visiting that summer, and the relationship between him and his son seems rather strained. While Etsuko enjoys her father-in-law, his interactions with his son make him rather annoying although his son is also rather inconsiderate and expects his wife to serve him hand and foot. There is one point when she stops on her way to the kitchen to hear some news he is sharing, and then he notices her and asks what is taking so long with his tea. While his father is much nicer to Etsuko, he also has definite notions of a woman's role, and expresses surprise when hearing about a wife that voted for a different candidate than her husband.

The war still overshadows the lives of the people though they do not talk about specifics too much. Sachiko implies several times that she is from high society, and her current conditions of poverty are completely unlike anything from her previous life. Other characters have lost loved ones; Etsuko's father-in-law was once a teacher, and he feels some critiques from a former student very deeply. He doesn't agree with the critique at all, but the younger generation definitely feels like the extreme patriotism and nationalism in their curriculum did not serve them in the previous years.

The novel itself overall is not too eventful but there is a dark presence in the background, making it seem like something bad could happen or is about to happen. Mariko is always running off on her own, and seems to have some serious problems interacting with people. She also keeps talking about a mysterious woman that her mother shrugs off for the most part. Also, the ending brings the rest of the novel into question - are the narrator's memories overlapping, or is there something she was hiding that she may have accidentally revealed through a slip up?

The novel does not answer these questions, and Ishiguro just gives the bare essentials when it comes to his characters and their lives - he gives background through small hints, but does not spell everything out. While I like that not everything is revealed and he doesn't feel the need to be incredibly specific when a few sentences give enough of a picture, I still would have loved to hear more about what happened to all the characters to get them where they were.

Book 9: Explaining Hitler

Explaining Hitler by Ron Rosenbaum

Shortly after The Reader came out last year, I found an article by Rosenbaum arguing that the film tried to excuse the German people from their responsibility and knowledge of the Holocaust and that for this reason, it should not win an Oscar. While I don't think I agreed with every single one of his arguments, I thought it raised a few good points, enough to make me interested in buying his book, Explaining Hitler. Which then proceeded to sit on my nightstand for a few months.

I finally remembered it was there and added it to my to read pile so when it came time to choose my next book to read, I decided maybe now was a good time to see what he had to say.

While the title suggests that Rosenbaum might try to explain Hitler, this is definitley not his intent, and I already knew that when I bought the book. Rather, he is exploring the different explanations people have tried to make to understand Hitler, and analyze what that says about the people explaining and basically us. What is scarier - a Hitler that is outside of explanation, an abnomaly, outside of regular humanity, or someone that was very much human? Since Rosenbaum has a degree in English and isn't a historian per se, it makes sense that he would take this approach, even though as he says in the introduction, he had started with rather different intents.

Through the book, Rosenbaum explores some of the more common explanations and arguments offered concerning Hitler and the Holocaust, and uses interviews he conducted with some of the most famous and important Hitler historians. Some of the ways people try to explain Hitler's actions verge on the comical and ridiculous. Many of them involve sexual hangups - Hitler hated Jews because one of them may have seduced his grandmother (I'm sure many people have heard things along the lines of Hitler being part Jewish but the thing is, there is no proof - no one knows who his grandfather was), maybe a Jewish prostitute gave him syphilis, a Jew wanted to marry his niece that he was in love . . . Various explanations that either show him as a depraved human being or someone whose hatred started in some way that would almost be seen as rational. Of course as Rosenbaum points out, that would be a lot to put on one person (such as saying that Hitler hated Jews due to the doctor that couldn't cure his mother's breast cancer). Others blame Christianity, which certainly has a history of anti-Semitism while others try to blame German culture.

Then there are the people that say that Hitler cannot be explained. One film maker, the director of Shoah states that there is no why, and people should stop trying to explain (in fact, he sounds like an egomaniac since Rosenbaum quotes him as saying that certain things can't be done after Shoah, in other words, his film should be the final word on the Holocaust). In fact, two of the chapters that were most intriguing to me involved this director, and a visit he had made to panel discussion with a Holocaust survivor during which he verbally attacked the survivor for asking the question why.

People are still undecided on how much to blame Hitler and how much to blame history or the Germans. Was Hitler just there at the wrong/right time, and it would have happened no matter what? Was Hitler the driving force? Obviously, it couldn't have happened without Germany's cooperation, but can we say it was historical forces? Some say, "No Hitler, No Holocaust" while others believe it would have happened anyway, disliking the "Great Man" approach to history. When one person argues that Germany was ripe and incredibly anti-Semitic at the time, others argue that if anything, people would have expected it to happen in France rather than Germany if asked before 1933, given examples such as the Dreyfus affair.

One other thing that Rosenbaum did that I liked a lot is he actually had a few chapters on the years before 1933. While much of it has been forgotten by history, even before Hitler took power there were journalists printing articles trying to explain Hitler and show Germany and the world that he would lead to destruction. They protrayed him as a criminal and blackmailer but unfortunately they could not convince enough people beforehand. It definitely takes away the excuse that people couldn't have known ahead of time - Hitler was a street thug and Germans and politicians gave him power.

Personally, I'm not sure how I feel about the topic. I don't think we know enough about Hitler to explain his actions since as Rosenbaum demonstrates too much has been either hidden or lost to say exactly when he decided what he was going to do (and he also covered his tracks pretty well - never giving written orders for certain things) - so while Hitler might be "explainable" and by explainable, he was able to justify his actions to himself using incredibly messed up logic, I don't think it's possible for anyone else to know. I also don't think the Holocaust would have happened without him in a position of leadership, but this of course by no means excuses the German people from what happened. They participated, they let it happen; if they had protested or refused to act, it wouldn't have happened. Hitler was only one man and it may have been his ideas that drove the whole thing but he needed people to enforce them for his plans to happen.

Obviously this wasn't the first genocide in history of humankind (I think I need to start reading happier books) nor the last, but it is the most well-known for many reasons, including the numbers killed in the amount of time, and the bureaucracy behind it all, the set up of labor and death camps. As a result, it is one that people are still trying to explain and grasp. In comparison, while American Holocaust was illuminating about the near annihilation of the American Indians (what is the correct term to use now, is it American Indians or Native Americans - it seems like Native Americans has fallen slightly out of favor lately or am I wrong?), there didn't seem to be much question of why or how, nor was there one particular person associated with it above all others. The Holocaust and Hitler, however, still have not been explained to people's satisfaction.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Book 8: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Occasionally I like to pretend to myself that I am not part of the mindless masses and that just because everyone else has read it or it's a #1 New York Times Bestseller or Amazon keeps trying to push it on me, doesn't necessarily mean I'll like it or that it's good. That was definitely the case with this novel. I just figured it was overhyped. Of course then I read it despite my reservations and liked it - because I'm really not as pretentious or intellectual as I like to think.

Obviously, the title sounds like quirk for the sake of quirk but the novel was actually entertaining. In a way it seemed very old-fashioned and even reminded me of Jane Austen in a way (not so much Austen's biting social satire but the small society with lots of eccentric characters, misunderstandings between people that like each other etc.) It's an epistolary novel which was almost another turn off for me. The main character is Juliet Ashton, a writer who has recently published a collection of her war time columns. She has a deprecating sense of humor and most of the funny lines are definitely from her. While trying to figure out what to write her next book about, she receives a letter from Dawsey Adams, a resident of Guernsey, a British island that had been occupied by the Germans during the war. This leads to an exchange of letters between Juliet, Dawsey and various other members of the Guernsey society until Juliet decides to pay a visit to the island.

While most of the islanders survived the occupation relatively unscathed, they were still affected by it. They were cut off for five years without news from friends and family. One of the society's founders, Elizabeth was sent to Germany for aiding a German prisoner, and still has not returned back to her friends and her young daughter. Another man also spent time in a concentration camp but came back after the war. Juliet finds herself drawn to these people, and particularly Kit, Elizabeth's young daughter. This is another part that seemed kind of on the old fashioned side to me - how quickly Juliet became a part of the community during her visit and built her friendships. Juliet soon decides to make Guernsey and the German occupation the topic of her next book.

One thing I enjoyed about the novel was the role books played. During her book tour at thebeginning of the novel, a reporter makes an issue of a secret, broken engagement. As Juliet tells a friend of hers, the reason they ended the engagement is that when the man moved in with her, he proceeded to box up all her books, and put his sports trophies on her shelves instead. I would have kicked him out, too. It's a very enjoyable read so if anyone else has similar hesitance due to all the hype, I would definitely recommend giving it a shot.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Book 7: American Holocaust

American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David E. Stannard

This book was incredibly powerful, but it's also very depressing. After reading this book, especially the first two sections, I almost lost whatever hope and faith I had in human society and wondered if there was really any reason for humanity to exist. It's not like we're a very nice species.

Originally published in 1992, or the quincentennial of Columbus's landing in America, Stannard uses this book to address some of ideas that continue to prevail in schools, most of society and even among many historians. The first two chapters in the section entitled "Before Columbus" appropriately discuss what North and South America looked like before Columbus "discovered" America. Naturally, he can only generalize about a few different areas and societies since there was such a large variety, but he definitely refutes the idea of the empty, unused land that has become rather prevalent in the nation's imagination. Yes, North America wasn't nearly as highly populated as Central and South America (he estimates that Hispaniola alone had a population of 8 million before disease and mass murder basically killed off everyone), but it still had a significant amount of people. And they did cultivate the land and many were rather settled - they didn't become the nomads as seen in the movies until the colonials and Americans drove them off their lands. After all, they were the ones that had to show the Pilgrims and early settlers how to produce food before being thanked by being killed off.

His portrayal of Europe at this time is rather dark as well - while many places in America seemed to have a much more egalatarian society, Europe was definitely a very strict hierarchy of haves vs. have nots. The life expectancy was in the 30s. Most were poor and starving. They were unclean (and then thought the fact that the people in America bathed often) and greedy.

The second section, "Pestilence and Genocide," explore the aftermath of Columbus's voyage. It's one thing to hear about the conquistadors in class and quite another to go through the statistics and numbers as this book does. Millions dead to random killings, diseases and slavery within only a short period of time. Only shortly after talking about the riches and the beauty of this country, the same people then went and destroyed everything just for the phone of it. The utter disregard for human life is absolutely disheartening. And this was just the Spanish, who didn't even intend to commit genocide, it just kind of happened while they were trying to enrich themselves.

In comparison, in North America, genocide was the goal. The Spanish just wanted to get rich and exploited the native people for that reason (the description of the Spanish attrocities still seem worse in a way, possibly due to the documentation or just because much of it happened within a shorter period of time; after all, the expansion in North America lasted over a century); the English and then Americans wanted the land, and the best way to get them off the land was to annihilate them and get them out of the way. Now, Stannard doesn't discuss things such as the Battle of Tippicanoe or other resistance but when it comes down to it, these things didn't justify the American reaction one bit (also, there was quite a bit of propaganda involved in blowing things out of proportion). Wow, the American Indians went on a warpath and killed a few hundred people? Maybe a few women and children, too? Yep, that totally justifies wiping out their entire culture, especially since they didn't kill anyone until they were already on the defensive and being chased from their lands.

It seemed like in history class we always got this idea of the brave settlers that left everything behind to go to a hostile land of uncertainty where they would never see their families or their old country again; however, they were the ones that were hostile and violent and saw it as their duty to kill off the people that originally helped them.

In the final section, "Sex, Race and Holy War," Stannard discusses the religious influences on the thoughts of the Spanish, English and Americans to include their views of sex. He also draws comparisons to other genocides, including the Holocaust since they had their roots in the same historical background and religious cultures. Also here is where it's obvious that this wasn't an abnomaly at all - humans are incredibly violent and intolerant. Between the Crusades, the wars between the Lutherans and the Catholics, blood baths repeat themselves over and over again due to intolerance and ignorance. When looking at those parts of history, it gives a rather bleak view of humanity in general.