Saturday, July 31, 2010

Book 75: The Serpent's Tale

The Serpent's Tale by Ariana Franklin

This is the sequel to Mistress of the Art of Death, and I couldn't quite get into it as much. Parts of it definitely were engaging, such as all the political intrigue surrounding the murder of Henry II's mistress, and maybe it was just me, but it seemed rather obvious that someone was manipulating all the different characters to get what he wanted. Also, Franklin gives a rather large clue regarding the identity of the man behind the scenes in the first five pages of the book, so the mystery wasn't really that mysterious: the first five pages are told from an assassin's perspective as he is hired to kill a certain person. While he doesn't see his employer, as an assassin, he recognizes the importance of figuring out who hires him since that way he can be assured to get the second half of his payment. Along with the assassin, the reader is searching for clues, and the first is the man's profession when he addresses a servant with the term "my son."

This is definitely a personal issue, but when characters have children, I tend to have a harder time relating to them, especially if they appear to obsess about them too much, as I felt Adelia was doing at points (I'm sure it was normal behavior, but I could have done without the child - I don't feel like she really added to the narrative). I was also disappointed with Adelia playing the abandoned woman role. Apparently, once Rowley became bishop, they (or she) decided to separate and not see each other again (he had offered her marriage and she rejected because she didn't want to give up being a doctor) yet the whole first half of the book she is moping because he never wrote, and acts angrily towards him for involving her in the case with the king's mistress, Rosamund.

Also, it felt like there were too many characters in this one that weren't really all too distinguishable from each other. It wasn't a bad book but there were parts that seemed to be going nowhere, and there was just more angst in this one. However, once I get started on a series, I generally have a need to complete them, especially when they are relatively easy reads, so I already picked up the third one in the series.

Book 74: Salt

Salt: A World History by Mark Kurlansky

While I realize the idea of reading about the history of salt sounds a bit odd, I loved the idea behind the book: take a familiar substance and research its importance within world history, and how its uses have evolved over time. I also really like the way he approached it and quite enjoyed the book (I was a little curious to see what problems people had with the book when I was on Amazon and read a few of the negative reviews: I was slightly amused by all the people who were angry that he doesn't discuss the chemical properties in more detail - since I saw this as a history book, I was more concerned with what salt has meant in the world than what it's composed of).

I would say, however, that the title is a bit of a misnomer. Given the arrangement, it tends to have a bit more of a Western perspective. He begins with a chapter about China, then discusses the Ancient World, and from there, discusses several different salt making processes and incidents throughout Europe, focusing on several different areas, such as Italy and Venice, and France. Eventually he addresses America but not until the conquistadors appear on the scene, though he devotes a few pages to explaining the process and the regions in Central and South America at the beginning of this chapter. He finally addresses India in a later chapter, and while he again begins with the earlier history, the chapter is very much within the context of India as a British colony, and explains rather well why Ghandi chose to focus on salt during one of his protests (I also really enjoyed this chapter given the comparison to How the Scots Invented the Modern World - while Herman argued that the British Empire improved life for the average Indian, Kurlansky shows how from the perspective of the poor salt makers, their poverty only increased since Britain didn't want Indian salt competing in the market with British salt and therefore drastically reduced production in India while implementing very severe laws regarding salt).

Except for that minor quibble about the title, I definitely liked the book a lot. I admit there were a few things I only scanned through (mostly the ancient recipes because I don't cook and I don't know how people preserve things now so when they said things like leave sit for forty days it mostly just sounded disgusting, and I wasn't sure how it compared to today). I like salt, and I realize it's a necessity for the body along with other electrolytes but since I'm so used to hearing about how people consume too much salt, I never really thought of it as incredibly vital and saw it as more of a luxury item. Kurlansky demonstrates just how important it once was, especially before refrigeration when it was used to preserve foods. As a result, it makes sense why saltworks would be so important targets during times of war: it is needed for livestock, to make rations for the soldiers, for survival. He discusses this in relation to the United States with both the Revolution and the Civil War.

He also talks quite a bit about fish in this book, since they were one of the foods that were frequently salted. I actually thought it was interesting when looking at other books that Kurlansky has written, but I definitely got the idea that he tends to stumble upon topics he wants to further explore while researching his other books. For example, he has a book about cod, and one about nonviolence and civil disobedience, both things that came up in this book.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Book 73: How the Scots Invented the Modern World

How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe's Poorest Nation Invented Our World and Everything in It by Arthur Herman

I have long had a bit of a fondness for Scotland. I blame it all on Braveheart (thank you, by the way, Mel Gibson, for ruining that movie for me, really appreciate it). I also spent 4th of July in Edinburgh last year, and absolutely loved it. It really was interesting to be walking around in Scotland, reading quotes like "for we fight not for glory, nor riches, nor honours, but for Freedom alone which no good man gives up except with his life" in the Scottish History Museum (I'm not actually sure of the exact name of the museum anymore but the quote is right because I liked it enough to take a picture) on the day that America celebrates its independence - it felt like something I could have seen in an American history book. I also was surprised to stumble upon a statue of Abraham Lincoln in one of the Scottish cemeteries, a tribute to the Scottish-Americans that fought in the American Civil War. Still, I quickly realized that I didn't really know all too much about Scottish history beyond William Wallace and a few books on Mary Queen of Scots. When I went to the Writers' Museum, I discovered I'd never read anything by the great Scottish authors, including Stevenson and Scott - although, Rowlings started writing Harry Potter in Edinburgh so can I count that?

Anyway, I noticed this book on a friend's bookshelf a while back, and recently found it at Barnes and Noble while perusing the history section (I figure I really need to start reading something other than fiction; when I was in Iraq and still somewhat fresh out of college, I tried to alternate between fiction and nonfiction, and excluding some light memoirs, I honestly can't remember the last time I picked up a nonfiction book). For the most part, I liked the book, though I felt like it dragged some in the middle. Also, while the book definitely pointed to some important contributions that Scots have made in history I'm not exactly sold on the title or the thesis behind it.

The book is partially in chronological order and partially by theme. In some cases, this irritated me a little bit because many of the men he discussed were contemporaries though I kept thinking they came after each other. This might be a sign that I've been in the Army too long but I wanted a nice Powerpoint slide with a timeline so I could keep straight who lived when and published what when so I could more clearly keep straight what was influencing what. Herman focused a lot on ideas, and the great Scottish philosophers that came to influence human thought, such as David Hume, Adam Smith and others (of course, I see Hume and think Desmond!). Some of it was definitely interesting, such as the evolution of the idea of history and the four step model of societies. However, I've never been big on philosophy so on occasion, he'd mention a name, and I wouldn't actually know what that person's belief was and he wouldn't explain it until a few chapters later. I think it definitely helps to already have a general knowledge of some of the men discussed here. Also, I was reading this alongside novels, alternating every few chapters (hey, I need to ease back into nonfiction), so sometimes I forgot which person believed what.

Still, I was definitely interested the first few chapters. He kind of started losing me when he started talking about the Scots in America during the Revolutionary War. I don't know why, obviously if he is arguing that Scots influenced the entire modern world, it is important to show their influence in other countries, but I just wasn't as interested. I also felt like he sugarcoated some things in the chapter on the British Empire. He discussed how the Scots were an important part of the Empire and how they were helpful with India and China. On the one hand, it's good not to ignore the darker parts of history, but especially in his treatment of India, I felt like he was almost arguing that it was a good thing that the British Empire even took over the country, which made me uncomfortable.

While I wasn't big on the chapter about Revolutionary America, I did enjoy the one where he discussed Carnegie and explored other important scientific contributions. Herman argues that a shift can be seen in what Scotland contributed over time: in the 18th century, Scotland contributed a lot on philosophy and thought, and inspired the way American universities would be set up such as Princeton; later, it seemed more practical-minded, with big business and all. Of course, Herman continuously argues and points out the greatness of the Scottish mind and how they would often take others' inventions and make them better, more practical and thus usable.

I also enjoyed the more historical aspects of the novel, especially the ones focusing on Scotland itself, such as his discussion of the Highland Clearances and the rebellion in favor of Prince Charles. He also shows how the Scots began to romanticize the Highlanders with Walter Scot's novels, and how they came to dominate people's views and ideas of Scotland, including the king's. I guess the reason I find this interesting is because I'm used to the romanticized figures in American history: the noble savage, the cowboys, the Southern gentleman, but had never really considered the equivalent for other countries.

Overall, I liked it though I feel like maybe I should have stared with a slighlty more general history of Scotland. Or brushed up on my philosophy before reading it. My friend had even said when I'd asked her about it about that it was interesting but with its flaws/not great.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Book 72: Mistress of the Art of Death

Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin

I've read one other novel by Ariana Franklin which I remembered as a pleasant historical suspence/thriller. I'd also been interested in this one when I picked up the other one, but I hadn't wanted to buy two novels by an unknown author at once, and then I kind of forgot about her with all the other novels I wanted to read. When I happened upon this in a bookstore recently, I figured it should at the least be entertaining.

This novel takes place in 12th century England, which is under the reign of Henry II, notoriously remembered in history for killing the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and also overshadowed by his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, when it comes to romantic figures in history. Four children have gone missing in the Cambridge area, and as so often happened in the Middle Ages, the blame and anger of the area's citizens falls on the Jews. They are taken under the king's protection and shut into one of his castles in the area, but the lack of revenues makes Henry rather unhappy. After all, taxing the Jews is rather profitable, and if they can't work, he can't exactly tax them.

At the request of the King of Sicily, the famed medical school in Salerno, which teaches men and women, sends a doctor to the dead (basically, a doctor that does autopsies) to help in the investigation that will be led by Simon, one of the King's top investigators - the man in charge of the school chooses to send Adelia, not taking into consideration the sexism and superstition that exist within medieval England. In order to gain access to many of the places she needs and to prevent suspicion, she must pretend to be the assistant of her Muslim eunuch manservant, Mansur. As a doctor, the extreme superstition in her new surroundings excaberates her, such as the idea that a handkerchief wiped in a decaying, soon-to-be saint's dead body and applying that to the eyes could prevent blindness. All it does of course is cause an infection. This also means that her work, or Mansur's work as the community believes, is looked at oddly and in some cases frowned upon or seen as witchcraft since common sense doesn't always win out.

Adelia and her friends use her examination results as a starting point, and also find helpful allies in the local prior, a knowledgeable and kind man who Adelia treated on their way to town, Glytha, a maid referred by him, and her grandson Ulf, all of whom give the newcomers access to places they otherwise wouldn't have been able to visit as well as acting as interpreters of the town. Due to the clues, they begin narrowing their field of suspects, and one person in particular seems suspicious to Adelia as he also seems to be investigating the crimes for no explainable reason. Simon, however, trusts Rowley so he becomes an important figure in the story.

There are a few clues that the author drops that a reader may or may not connect as the story goes on. While it is a more or less average mystery novel, the setting was entertaining, though Franklin admits that it is impossible not to be anachronistic when writing historical fiction set in the 12th century. While I didn't have a problem with the romantic relationship that ended up occurring, it seemed a bit rushed at points, going from "oh, I don't think I like him" to "I love him" in about two or three pages. I think if it had progressed a little less quickly, I would have preferred it. That actually reminds me of one other thing - I had a hard time telling how much time was really passing as the novel occurred. On the one hand, it felt like the investigation only went on for a few days or two or three weeks at most, at other times, Adelia notes to the prior that he has lost weight since she prescribed him with a new diet plan while she helped him with his medical issue. It just seems like if he has noticeably lost weight, more than a few days have passed between meetings (I mean I know you can lose enough weight in a month for it to be noticeable, but as I said, I felt like they weren't there that long).

One thing I actually really liked about the novel had less to do with the plot and more to do with the characterization of Henry II. As I said, it seems like he is more famous for the death of Thomas Becket and his struggles with the church than anything else, and usually Becket is shown as the good guy, the hero (I remember him making an appearance in The Pillars of the Earth, and Philip thinking that it was a good sign for England and progress that the king later apologized and bowed down to the church). In this novel, however, we are shown how superstitious and corrupt the Church is. Additionally, Becket, while already dead, is shown as someone unwilling to support reform for the good of the country and who instead wanted to hold on to the power the Church had for the worse of the people. It actually really makes me want to read a real biography of Henry II and see what the real deal is. I think I have a biography of his wife by Alison Weir in my car . . . maybe it refers to her husband's religious battles. I think that's always a good thing, though, when historical fiction inspires the reader to do more research on a topic, so in that way, I definitely have to give my respect to Franklin.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Book 71: I'm Not Scared

I'm Not Scared by Niccolo Ammaniti

I'm still playing catch up with all the books I've read in the last few months and haven't blogged about yet. I'm blogging completely out of order at this point - Her Fearful Symmetry as is probably obvious by my review's length and detail was a rather recent read, while this next one is from May? June? I don't even remember. I picked it up based on a review at Bibliolatry.

The novel takes place in the summer of 1978 in a poor small Italian community in Tuscany (there are five houses), and is narrated by the adult self of Michele Amitrano. While he and his friends are out one day, Michele makes a discovery during a dare but decides not to share it with any of his friends. Both intrigued and excited to have a secret of his own, he soon realizes that it much more far reaching than he realized and that almost everyone is involved.

While no one in the village was financially well-off, Michele's family definitely seemed to be among the poorest. His father actually works outside the city, and seems to be rather down on his luck though his children adore him when he comes to visit. Ammaniti did a good job of getting into the mind of a young child while using the fact that the child's adult self was narrating to provide further insight. Also given the brevity of the novel, the characters and the area itself were described and developed in great detail.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Book 70: Between a Heart and a Rock Place

Between a Heart and a Rock Place by Pat Benatar

I got my first CD player/Discman when I was in 3rd grade. After that, my parents tended to give me CDs of musicians they had liked for things such as Easter. Actually, my dad was the one who picked all those CDs out, and whenever I'd saved up my allowance and we were in a store that sold CDs I would often consult him and ask him for advice since I hadn't developed musical tastes of my own at that point. Beyond Whitney Houston. And later Madonna. I can't remember if my dad advised me to buy the two disc set that was Pat Benatar's Greatest Hits or if it was a gift, but I definitely had it. And I also remember making mixed tapes and having songs like "Love is a Battlefield," "Shadows of the Night," and "All Fired Up" on them. I also completely loved the song "We Belong" and still admit to liking it, though it is rather melodramatic.

While I haven't listened to that CD or any of the songs on it in ages, I was definitely drawn to Pat Benatar's memoir. We moved back to the States when I was 13, and that's also the year I got my very own television. I started watching way too much VH1, and am quite familiar with the Behind the Music stories. While Benatar certainly repeats some of the themes seen throughout the episodes, it was refreshing to read about a rock star that didn't spiral out of control or end up in rehab. In fact, at some points her comments about how it was about the music and her family, and that she was focused got a little repetitive though not to the point where I got irritated. While she didn't deal with that, like many other musicians, she had issues with her management, trusting the wrong people and contract problems with the record company.

I also never realized that she saw herself more as a member of a band than an solo artist, and her husband and guitarist, Spyder, was a huge influence on her music and the success of her career. It was great to read about a female artist that clearly labels herself as a feminist and to read about her struggles with sexism in the industry, from radio to her own label. She quickly became annoyed with her label's insistence on marketing her as "sexy woman" rather than "rock artist that happens to be female."

There were a few points where she seemed to contradict herself and others where she was a bit repetitive but for the most part I enjoyed reading about how the public reacted to her and her songs. Since I'd only ever owned the greatest hits album, I didn't know the proper chronology or how popular they had been during their time. It was a very quick read and I probably should have waited for the paperback since it was good but somewhat forgettable.

Book 69: The Book Thief

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I have hated the words and I have loved them, and I hope I have made them right.

I probably never would have picked this novel up if it hadn't been July's selection for the Pajiba Book Club, mainly because it is classified as young adult fiction (though it was released as regular adult fiction in its original country, Australia). However, I'm glad I read it.

The story is narrated by Death, an exhausted, overworked Death. As he introduces the story, he explains that for the most part he tries not to pay too much attention to the humans that he crosses paths with during his job, but every once in a while, one of them will attract his attention. Liesel, the book thief, was one such person - in a short period of time, during WWII, their paths cross three times, and for some reason, he notices her. After the last time, she leaves behind a book with her story, and he picks it up on a whim and reads it. Many years have passed but Death now decides to share this story.

As someone that tends to skip ahead to the ending of novels quite a lot, I enjoyed the fact that the ending wasn't much of a mystery - three death scenes, right at the beginning of the novel. He goes into further detail as the novel progresses but the reader knows how it's going to end before it ends. As Death says (and I agree), it's not about the end, but how they get there, the journey, if you will. However, the beginning also jumped around quite a lot and it took me a few chapters to get used to the narrative flow.

As Liesel's story begins, she and her younger brother are on their way to their new foster parents: her mother has been struggling to raise them, and due to Liesel's father's Communist ties, she also must be worried about the possibility that she, too, will be taken away. In fact, nine year old Liesel doesn't even remember her father. Her brother dies enroute, and it is at his funeral that Liesel steals her first book, a guide to gravedigging, clearly dropped by an apprentice. Though she cannot read, this becomes her dearest possession, a memorial to her brother.

Liesel's new foster parents live in Molching, a suburb of Munich and located closely to the concentration camp Dachau. Zusak introduces a variety of colorful characters, including her foster mother, Rosa, who always yells loudly and curses a lot, though this is her way of expressing affection as is soon revealed, the neighbor boy, Rudy, who once painted himself with coal and pretended to be Jessie Owens, and most importantly, her foster father, Hans. He stays awake with Liesel through the nights when her nightmares wake her, and though he only completed fourth grade himself, he teaches her to read during those dark nights. There are neighbors as well, the incredibly militant store owner who strongly supports the Fuhrer, and then others that go along with the party because it is beneficial to them. Hans is not a party member but he has applied to join the party so that fact saves him from being completely ostracized, that and his ability to play the accordion.

Zusak also explains how some people originally supported the idea of getting rid of the Jews, expecting there to be less business competition but forgetting that they would also lose them as customers. Even though the KZ is nearby, for the most part the town can ignore its existence, especially in the beginning. When Rudy and Liesel turn 10, they of course have to join their perspective parts of the Hitler Youth but neither child gets very involved in it. Liesel realizes just how messed up Nazis are after a book burning (where she also steals her second book) and also realizes the negative impact they had on her life and her parents. Rudy is tortured by one of the leaders of his group and as result, he doesn't go for all the propaganda as a young impressionable child might otherwise. Still, there is some tension in Liesel's household - when the Huberman's older children come to visit, Hans and his son have a falling out due to the father's unwillingness to unquestionably support the party while the son is a fanatic.

It becomes even more of an issue in their lives when they begin to shelter Max, a Jew in their basement. The Hubermans aren't trying to make an political statements and are simply trying to get by; however, they also feel strongly about being kind and doing what is right, which is why Hans tended to do the bare minimum. Now that he's hiding a Jew in his basement, he must make sure not to draw anymore special attention to himself. I especially liked how Zusak presented this: the Hubermans were simple people that acted out of compassion. They weren't trying to be heroes.

For the most part, the novel is about Liesel and her family and friends. Liesel and Max develop a very close and tight bond, as both are plagued by nightmares. It's about growing up but underneath, there is, of course, the darkness that is Nazi Germany. Also, Death kindly reminds the readers every once in a while of what is going on elsewhere in Europe and mentions the souls that he must gather as the Germans perfect their methods of killing. The Nazis are a constant looming threat to anyone that acts differently - after Rudy performs well at a race, for example, they want him to attend a special school for gifted Aryan children. While the novel has plenty of incidents of youthful adventures and stealing, Zusak also shows just how guarded and careful everyone must be about how they act and what they say.

As I said, I really liked this novel and I don't feel like I'm coming anywhere near doing it justice. Maybe someone else will be better able to articulate how I felt during the book club discussion. I enjoyed the characters, and I could easily imagine my grandmother's voice when reading about Rosa Huberman's yelling. I've read a few memoirs about growing up in Nazy Germany, such as On Hitler's Mountain, but it's a topic I will always be willing to read more about.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Book 68: Her Fearful Symmetry

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I already knew before I even started reading this novel that the reception to it had been mixed - the novel had not lived up to the expectations set by her previous novel, The Time Traveler's Wife, and really, how could anyone not fail after writing a novel as perfect and beautiful as that? Any follow up will be met with disappointment, no matter how good on its own merits, simply due to the comparison.

I think the main problem was with the characters. Niffenegger is an incredible writer, so I definitely was drawn into the story and read it rather quickly, despite the fact that most of the characters were simply alien and unrelatable to me. The Time Traveler's Wife was about normal people in extraordinary circumstances. Simply broken down, it was about the relationship between two people. This novel also had extraordinary circumstances but there were no normal people to truly anchor the story. I also feel like maybe there were too many characters - I wasn't sure who exactly I was supposed to be rooting for.

Is it about the twins and their codependent relationship? It was especially hard for me to get involved with them in the beginning because they are so odd. As the novel progresses, it becomes easier to connect, especially since they are no longer described as one unit, and Valentina struggles with her desires to be her own person.

Was the novel supposed to be a love story about Elspeth and Robert? I didn't quite buy it. The problem is that Elspeth dies at the beginning of the novel so it's hard to believe they have some kind of epic love, comparable to Henry and Clare, because the reader does not get to see it develop. It is simply presented that they were very much in love, and while Robert is clearly in grief, it wasn't enough. Also, I had this weird feeling that Robert loved Elspeth more than she loved him.

Niffenegger does a much better job of portraying Martin and Marijke, and showing what may have originally attracted them to each other, even though Marijke has left her husband of over twenty years. Unfortunately, I didn't feel like they were really the main focus of the novel. Valentina starts hanging out with the downstairs neighbor and to parallel this, Julia begins spending time with Martin. It's like they each needed their own neighbor to bond with. I also quite like Jessica and James, Robert's friends and colleagues from the Highgate Cemetery were he worked/volunteered as a tour guide, but they too were simply supporting cast.

As to the actual plot, after Elspeth dies of cancer in London, she bequeaths her apartment to her twin sister's twin daughters, whom she hasn't seen since they were four months old. The two sisters, Elspeth and Edie, haven't seen each other in over twenty years, and the reasons for this are left unexplained to the twins though there is some family drama about her father having originally been engaged to Elspeth and then marrying the other twin. There are a few stipulations to the will: they must live in the flat for one year to inherit it, after that year they can sell it but not before, their parents aren't allowed in the flat and they must wait until they are 21.

One year later, the twins are enroute to London to claim their inheritance. Julia is the dominant twin in the relationship and she tends to make the decisions. She was the one that wanted to go to London, and she is the one that keeps deciding to leave colleges and drag Valentina along in the process. Valentina resents this and wants to live her own life, attend college and become a fashion designer but she does not know how to break free of her sister. At 21, they still dress in matching outfits, which was one of the reasons I had such a hard time relating to them (I'm an only child, and according to my mother, too independent). I just did not understand why they felt they had to be so close or why Julia felt that this is how twins were supposed to act (I've known twins - they had some shared experiences but also had their own lives at 21).

In the beginning, Robert was a relatable and likable character but as the novel progressed, this became much less so. Obviously, there were some extenuating circumstances but I still didn't quite get his relationship with Elspeth or why they meant so much to each other.

And finally, there is Elspeth, the resident ghost. Soon after her death, she becomes aware that she is a ghost trapped in her old flat, and as time progresses, she slowly becomes stronger, growing from a vague cloud/mist to regaining her own shape and eventually she even has the power to move things. It is at this point that she figures out how to communicate with Robert and the twins, just as Robert is beginning to finally move on with his life (although the fact that he appears to be moving on with Valentina, his deceased girlfriend's niece who looks remarkably like her is dysfunctional in its own way and may prove that in fact he wasn't moving on). Elspeth even knows this yet she selfishly chooses to reveal herself at this time due to her loneliness, leaving Robert in a limbo and hell of his own - the love of his life is still present and though he can't physically touch her, he can still spend time with her and talk to her. Yeah, that's great.

In the later half of the novel, the characters just start making these incredibly dumb decisions that they obviously haven't thought out very well, and it really irritated me. One of them is a major plot point but I seriously wanted to strangle the person, and ask "what is wrong with all of you?" Robert also begins acting erratic, though as I said, probably with reason. By the end of the novel, the only character that seemed at all rational was Martin, a man who has extreme OCD and can't even leave his apartment - which is why his wife finally left him.

Obviously there are quite a few issues with this novel which is unfortunate because the writing is beautiful. I also think Niffenegger had quite a few interesting things to say about love and grief. The conflict between the twins could have been so interesting as each struggles to figure out who she is with or without her sister, and as they face the possibility of becoming their own unique individuals. Unfortunately, she took a turn somewhere that made it not quite come together and had her characters act in ways that really just made little sense towards the end.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

More Musings on Travel and History

I got into Boston this afternoon, and finally made it to the North End area in the late afternoon. It was a bit too late to actually get into too many tourist sites, but still early enough to walk around a bit and enjoy the landscape. Having said that, between Philadelphia and Boston, I'm actually rather impressed. I'm used to traveling in Europe, and for some reason, I didn't think the States would have as much to offer.

I believe much of this may have to do with the little traveling I have done in the States on previous occasions . . . I've been to Chicago and Seattle with my parents and San Francisco with a friend and her grandmother. I've never really had the opportunity to explore any of those cities on my own. Generally, when we went to Chicago, we went to see Michigan Avenue and maybe the Art Institute. In Seattle, I remember going on a class field trip to the Science Museum, which I already felt too old for in 8th grade. As a result, I've always tended to think of the States as having nice scenery (Seattle and surrounding area), sky scrapers and random historic attractions (Alcatraz) but nothing too substantial. Illinois, of course, has all the Lincoln history but something in the way it's presented makes it seem superficial: there's the Lincoln Museum which seemed like a series of over-simplified posterboards and wax figures, and New Salem, a recreation of the village Lincoln lived in before going to Springfield. As I said, American history seemed, kind of, well, fake.
However, in Philadelphia and Boston, there are the century old buildings next to sky scrapers, the short two story homes surrounded by office buildings, and I love the juxtaposition of the two, and the way it looks. It's much more European in that way. Although, in Europe, it really depended on where you were - the super-tall sky scrapers tended to be further away from the old downtown areas, especially in places like Florence or Seville. Of course, even here on the East Coast, there are cases of history being "fake" or a reproduction - I went to the City Tavern in Philadelphia to see where the Founding Fathers and their peers used to drink and eat, only to discover a board that explained that the orginal tavern had been torn downyears ago and this reconstruction was built in the '70s. Similarly, Franklin Court simply shows the frame of what Benjamin Franklin's house was since the house itself is long gone.
However, I wouldn't say that this disregard or lack of respect for history is necessarily American - it's just more noticeable here in some cases. Take Rome or Athens for example: yes, they have many historic monuments but it's not like they always took good care of them: the Colosseum was in ruins, and people stole stones from it to build their houses. The Greeks stored weapons and ammunition in the Parthenon in Athens, which in turn caused their enemies to attempt to blow it up. It is impossible to know who is going to be famous or important decades or even centuries from now, so obviously, it can't be expected that every one of that person's houses is preserved for posterity. There are so many centuries more of history in Europe that perhaps it is more easily overlooked that those things aren't preserved and instead when a building that once housed Victor Hugo or Beethoven is still standing, it's easy to simply convert the rooms back into what they once were. America, one the other hand, almost seems to draw attention to the fact that much of its history has been demolished with progress by rebuilding it - at that point, is it being rebuilt for historic purposes or commercial reasons?
I guess another reason I wasn't sure what to expect from actually traveling the States is that I tend to strongly dislike history museums. I'm a history major. I like seeing historic sites, and historic things (although, could we get over the Civil War obsession already?). Show me where an important historic event happened - yes, I'm interested. Things that once belonged to a historically important person? Yes. Random old stuff that has been found or recovered? Definitely interested. A posterboard that attempts to explain years worth of history in all its complexities within two paragraphs? Shoot me now. If history museums were just filled with old things with minor context ("this belonged to . . ., general/mayor/spy during . . ."), I'd enjoy them. I think that's why I love archealogical museums and art museums so much - it's a matter of looking at things, and then either being inspired to explore further on one's own, or a way of putting a visual to things already learned. And I'm sure every nation does this but I consider myself somewhat knowledgeable as far as American history is concerned so it's much more noticeable to me that everything seems so sugarcoated: "This president helped win more territory for the United States. All the settlers liked him and appreciated him." It isn't till much later that there's a comment along the lines of, "The Native Americans did not have an easy time." - Yes, I'm oversimplifying the simplification. And I know there are plenty of people that didn't study history or pay attention in class so they need the background (I need reminders about certain things as well) but I just wish we could find a more comprehensive way of presenting this to the public and the children.
Having said that, there have definitely been a few places so far that have succumbed to death by poster board. However, there have also been quite a few that actually had displays of authentic old things so I'm not as perturbed as I expected to be. Instead, I'm actually amused so maybe I'm just more relaxed than usual - I even volunteered to take a picture of a group of tourists for them today, and yesterday, when a child ran into the Asian section of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and touched a priceless old artifact I didn't want to kill him - it helped that his mother immediately said don't touch and he at least touched it gently when he ran in. However, I still want to kill the kid I saw climbing around on the ruins of the Ancient Forum in Rome last May- he was old enough to know better, unlike the little boy from yesterday. The kid in Rome really just made me want to yell, "get off of there, I hope you fall, and that piece of wall is worth so much more than you." What can I say, I'm big on the "look, don't touch" approach to monuments, statues etc. Kind of like when people keep getting in the way of my pictures because they insist on posing with absolutely everything - guess what, the statue is much prettier than you, now get out of the way.

Speaking of amused, here's a picture from the Liberty Bell Center. We Americans certainly tend to have a rather high opinion of ourselves and our importance in the world. The Liberty Bell = The World's Symbol for Liberty. I'd be willing to go with "World-Wide Recognized Symbol of Liberty" but somehow, I'm sure each nation has its own symbol of liberty that it would think of prior to the Liberty Bell.

One City Down

I had a great time in Philadelphia - I wasn't sure what I was expecting but it was much prettier than I expected . . . this might have to do with the fact that while I know important history occurred in Philadelphia, I also tend to think of sky scrapers when I think of the sky line, simply based on post cards. Therefore, I wasn't really expecting it to be quite as nice or varied architecturally as it was.

I meant to do an extensive post last night but my computer was acting up again and refused to turn on until this morning. I loved the Philadelphia Museum of Art - great collection, great set up, just wow. Also, I was very happy to discover the Rodin Museum in Philadelphia, and it was only a block away from my hotel. I have three framed prints of Rodin sculptures hanging in my bedroom. Well, had and will have, more accurately. For anyone interested, I have The Kiss, Eternal Spring and Hands/The Cathedrale. So obviously, I was very excited about that.

Also, just randomly, because I thought it was ironic - I ended up going to the National Liberty Museum, and I definitely enjoyed the art and glass sculptures in that museum; mostly, however, I was very amused with the fact that when I first walked by it, there was a man being arrested in front of it . . . Yes, I am easily amused, and maybe if I traveled with people they would have to hear these comments instead of the internet having to deal with them. I would like to do a post later and write about my trip a little it more, but knowing me, that may or may not happen . . . Anyway, off to Boston now.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Book 67: The Angel's Game

The Angel's Game by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I absolutely loved Zafon's The Shadow of the Wind, and was anxiously waiting for this novel to be released in paperback. Chronologically, it can be seen as a prequel to The Shadow of the Wind but neither novel requires that the reader be familiar with the other one or even read them in the certain order. The main connection between the two is the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and the Sempere family and their bookstore make an appearance (however, since this takes place in the 1920s and '30s, Daniel is, of course, not in it).

While The Shadow of the Wind had its dark moments, my vague memories of it still remember it as having a "happy" ending of sorts. This novel is much darker, and ends with despair. This has very much to do with the narrator - if The Shadow of the Wind is about a young boy/man that becomes interested in a man's tragic story, this novel is narrated by a man experiencing a tragic love story. It makes for a very different view being on the outside looking in vs. being the one actually dealing with the heartbreak and drama.

The main character and narrator, David, grew up poor but while working at a newspaper, first as an errand boy, he finds a mentor and friend in the rich Vidal, who helps him gain his foot in the door to write stories. Soon, David has a book contract for trashy, pulp fiction novels and though it isn't quite what he wants to be doing, he enjoys it enough, even if the woman he loves disapproves. He is able to buy a house that has long fascinated him, and lives there for years before finally becoming more interested in its history.

As a young boy, he also forged a relationship with a local bookseller, Sempere, and eventually visits the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, picking up an unfinished book that appears to be some type of book of the dead. Eventually, he notes a connection between this book and his house, and finds that there are some very odd occurences that cannot be entirely coincidental.

At some point, it starts becoming difficult to tell who and what to trust - are there supernatural forces at stake or is the narrator lying to himself, and the readers? I have a tendency to want to believe the narrator, but especially in retrospect, it becomes harder to believe in him. Although I sided with him while I was reading it - those European and South American writers do tend to be more likely to use magic realism than us Americans, after all.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Some Thoughts on Friendship

I've been in kind of a weird mood lately . . . or maybe now that I'm getting ready to return to a life of real responsibilities and challenges, I'm starting to return to my default mood of depressed and cynical with feelings of inadequacy and mediocrity. Of course, I'm mostly kidding. I don't really vent or rant on this blog too often for several reasons (one being the whole "what if my Soldiers read this" issue), one of the main ones being that if I use my blog to deal with a bad mood, I'm afraid my parents will take it too seriously and start worrying when it's really just a passing feeling. Sometimes, I'm just having a bad day and need to share. Doesn't mean anything needs to be read into it (Dad!).

I graduated from my course at the beginning of July, and officially signed out of my unit yesterday. Over the last six months, I've met quite a few new people and saw others from previous military experiences again, including college ROTC, LDAC (otherwise known as that summer camp thing between junior and senior year of college), TBOLC (my LT course) and even my deployment (not that I recognized the guy - he was the one who started the game of "where do I know who from" which in the Army usually involves questions like, where were you stationed, when did you go to this Army school, when were you deployed, where were you deployed to, why the hell do you look familiar then). We definitely had fun and all but now that we're all leaving and going our separate ways, I've been thinking about the concept of friendship and how it's changed.

Obviously, when I'm out with a group of people, I'll usually say things like "oh, I'm here with my friends" or "my friends and I are going to Busch Gardens this weekend" but when it really comes down to it, I'm not sure how much I'll really keep in touch with these people once I leave. It seems like I made a bunch of good acquaintances with the potential for friends but I'm not sure if I'd quite use that term.

And I'm not sure if I just define the word friend a little more strictly than others, or if it's just that I'm less open to new long-term relationships of any kind. I remember I used to be somewhat good at keeping in touch with people - when we moved to Washington after I finished 7th grade, I continued to talk to my friend Daniel for years. When we left Seattle for Illinois between my freshmen and sophomore year, I kept in touch with my friend Stephanie until after college graduation, though we were definitely drifting that final year. While I am Facebook friends with a few people from high school, I don't actually speak to any of them anymore. I only still really maintain ties with two friends from college (and two former professors), one of whom is my best friend and the other obviously rather close. I still regularly speak to about two of the people from my LT course (not including the ones that just attended this past course with me because obviously, that didn't require actual effort). Even the people I was just in Germany with, I haven't really spoken to in quite a while. Can I blame the fact that I don't have an international calling plan?

Although given today's technology, it can also be rather weird. For example, my friends from Germany, while I haven't actually emailed them or spoken to them in months, I still kind of know a bit about what's going on in their lives due to FB and their blogs. And we comment on each other's statuses and updates. But it's definitely not the same thing as actually talking to them. And FB is great for keeping in touch with people to an extent, but at some point, reading status updates doesn't actually stand in for a relationship or friendship.

I guess I've just been thinking about the nature of friendships and how it's changed over the years. My best friend and I met move-in day of our freshmen year of college, and basically saw each other every day for the next two years (she did some other stuff her junior year). And would talk to each other online almost daily as well. We definitely don't do that anymore. We tend to text now more than anything else. Or chat over gmail. However, due to that original intimacy, we are still very close (despite one major fight and falling out - I cannot live with friends at all). I've told her quite a few things that I haven't told anyone else. Or gone into more detail about it than with others. Maybe it's just me, but it seems like it's almost impossible to build close friendships like that now . . . they probably just take a lot more time to develop now with age. It also just seems like at this point in life, most people have their best friends and their support systems, and while they aren't going to say no to more friends, that type of intensity (seeing each other on a daily basis, talking on the phone etc.) is really reserved more for significant others and dating. I might be talking out of my ass on that one though - I haven't been on a date in like three years so I wouldn't know.

I'm not saying that I don't want to keep in touch with these people but I'm just not sure if it will quite happen. As much as I like them, I'm not at the point either where I feel like I would tell them anything. Not that I feel they'd judge necessarily, but as a friend of mine put it: we've become more guarded. As I said, FB can be a great tool, but I think it can also give the false illusion that you're keeping up with people when really, you're just reading their updates and forgetting to add in that whole human interaction bit.

I'm not really sure where I'm going with this but it's on my mind at the moment. And blogging is so much more fun than cleaning my apartment or sorting through my clothes to determine what I'll be wearing in the next week and is therefore going in the small bag vs. the big suitcase.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Book 66: Furies of Calderon

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

Having read all of the currently available novels in The Dresden Files, I decided to turn to Butcher's other series, The Codex Alera. While the writing and the characters are definitely what I would expect from Butcher, it is a very different series than his other, probably more famous one. This is more along the lines of the traditional or stereotypical fantasy, taking place in another world with different types of species and focusing on people that have powers over different types of spirits, such as water, wood, earth, air, fire and metal furies. Also, unlike The Dresden Files, this novel is told from the third person limited rather than first person. As a result, Butcher is able to focus on several different characters, such as Amara, a cursor (basically, a government agent and spy), her former teacher Fidelias, Isana and her nephew Tavi. While all of these characters get their time, Tavi is definitely the main character of the novel, and the series. Tavi, a fifteen year old who is rather small for his age, does not have the ability to manifest or use furies and is the only person in the realm who has this "disability." Given that Butcher's other series is about a wizard in a world of normal humans, it makes sense that in his series about humans with supernatural abilities, his main character would be the one person who does not have them.

The novel begins with Amara and Fidelias on a recon mission to determine whether some of the lords of the realm are indeed plotting against the ruler (who is aging and heirless since his son died in a war 15 years before). They indeed stumble across an army, except Amara finds herself betrayed by her mentor. Tavi, meanwhile, lives in the harsher north area and while searching for his herd of sheep with his uncle discovers Marat warriors in the woods. The last war, in which the heir to the throne died, was a Marat so this isn't exactly a good thing. After Amara escapes the enemy camp, the Princep sends her north to Tavi's family's holdstead. The Marat are involved with the traitors, and Tavi and his family finds themselves in a crucial position as the possibility of a war is all too likely.

While Butcher does a very good job of creating a self-contained story, he also gives enough hints about other events to make it a good set-up for a series. Not everything is as it seems, but Butcher doesn't hit you over the head with it to the point where it becomes distracting - instead it allows the reader to entertain a few theories, and also be interested in how the overall arc of the series is going to turn out.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Book 65: Commencement

Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan

I really enjoyed this novel - it was really what would probably be described as the perfect summer read: it's light without being vapid and actually portrays characters in a rather realistic manner. While it could easily be described as chick lit since most novels that revolve around women in their 20s are automatically labeled as chick lit (and I for one don't think chick lit is necessarily a bad thing but it is rather looked down on as a genre, and even some of the novels that are deeper are quickly lumped in with the ones that are rather shallow and generic), it's definitely a feminist version of chick lit. Of course, since I originally heard about this novel over at Feministing, that makes sense.

The novel begins with a wedding at Smith College four years after four best friends graduated from the women's school. From this point, Sullivan spends some time explaining the history on how April, Celia, Bree and Sally became friends at Smith despite their varying personalities and social backgrounds. For the most part, all the women's lives have taken very different turns than expected from both the beginning of their freshmen year and even since graduating college. Bree, the former Southern belle, is a lawyer in California with a girlfriend and Sally, who always wanted to be a doctor and was in ways the most driven of the group, has delayed med school.

The women have drifted apart since graduation as becomes apparent during an argument the evening before Sally's wedding. I liked the way Sullivan portrayed the characters, and the life choices they made. The small resentments the women had toward each other on occasion as well as the judgements wrapped within supportive friendships made sense to me and seemed realistic - even though all her friends were supportive of Sally's marriage for example, they also didn't necessarily feel like the guy was good enough for her and felt at other times that Sally was acting as if she had everything figured out while they were still working on it. I don't think it would be realistic for them not to judge each other's choices on occasion, even if in the end, they are still each other's support system.

I also enjoyed that Sullivan didn't wrap the ending up nicely and have everyone get what they wanted - there are definitely questions about the future, and difficult decisions that have been made or still need to be made. There were some amusing bits in the story as well, and I'd definitely recommend it. As I said, I didn't have to concentrate too much but I also didn't feel like I was losing brain cells by reading it.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Book 64: My Horizontal Life

My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands by Chelsea Handler

I decided it might be time to switch up my reading a little bit since I'd been having a hard time focusing on the types of books I usually read. From what little I've seen of reactions towards Handler online, it seems like people tend to either really like her or hate her.

Overall, it was a quick and forgettable read. There were definitely a few times I laughed out loud at some of her comments and the situations she got herself into, and other times, that I kind of judged her (such as all her partying while living off unemployment). However, one thing in her favor, is that Handler definitely doesn't try to portray herself in a favorable light or to get everyone's sympathy. She wants to tell an entertaining story but she's not sharing any of this to get pity or to make people think that she's likable. I know one complaint that I've noticed about several of the more fluffy types of memoirs is that the people writing them tend to sound horribly self-centered and egotistical but still want everyone to love them.

Actually, considering the title, I was surprised by how unsuccessful most of the one-night stands were - then again, I guess those don't make for funny stories. I'm having a hard time remembering any stories specifically other than the very first one which was about a dare her sister challenged her to as children. I doubt I'd buy another one of her books but I would read it if I got a free copy somehow.

Book 63: Sacred Hearts

Sacred Hearts by Sarah Dunant

It seems like I keep picking up novels by authors that I've enjoyed before and being disappointed. Sarah Dunant has written a few historical novels set in Renaissance Italy, and the first, The Birth of Venus, was very good - it was entertaining, had some scandal, and it seemed well researched.

This novel is also set in Renaissance Italy, and the plot, at least as described on the back cover, sounded promising. It takes place in a convent, and many of the women in the convent are there not because of their extreme religious devotion but because it was cheaper than marrying them off. The newest novice, Serafina, is there due to a forbidden romance. Throw in some political intrigue within the convent itself, and it seems like all the ingredients are there for a fun read, even if not a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the most I can say about this novel is that it was boring.

It was obviously well-researched but it was just lacking something. When promised forbidden love, I want some sex, dammit, not memories of chaste kisses! What the hell? Also for a novel that was said to be about women that were in a convent to pursue their own interests and not due to their faith, there was way too much talk about God and Bible-verse-citing. Yes, yes, I know, Renaissance Italy, people were more pious but I was still disappointed. The thing is there is a good story hidden in this novel, even if it is entirely predictable but the pacing was just off. It felt like Dunant spent so much time doing research that she wanted to describe everything but forgot to have anything of essence happen for the first half of the novel. And as I said, the forbidden love was just boring. It worked so much better in The Birth of Venus but that was probably because the reader actually got to see the object of desire in that novel rather than just hear about how devoted he was.