Fed up with Faulkner

My current classic is The Sound and the Fury, and I am so annoyed with William Faulkner right now. I knew vaguely that the story included a mentally challenged character, but didn’t expect it to be told entirely from his narrow perspective.

So far everything is a mishmash of various scenes from Benjy’s life, at least four different days from what I can tell. At fifty pages in I think I’ve identified which characters are related. I was thrown when the pronouns referring to Quentin kept switching, until I finally realized that “he” Quentin is Benjy’s brother in the childhood scenes, and “she” Quentin is Benjy’s niece in the present-day scenes. Seriously? Was Faulkner being intentionally abstruse, or did he just run out of names?

If this were a regular book I would have given up by now, but because it’s a classic I feel like I have to persevere. Has anyone else read this, and does it get clearer? I don’t know if I can take 250 more pages.

Published in: on July 22, 2010 at 5:42 pm  Comments (5)  

Birds of a Feather

“That’s one more thing that I detest about war. It’s not over when it ends. Of course, it seems as if everyone’s pally again, what with agreements, the international accords, and contracts and so on. But it still lives inside the living, doesn’t it?”

I like to read books in a series close enough to recall characters and events (depending on the series), but spread out enough to savor each and include other books. With Jacqueline Winspear’s, however, I’m so far behind that I turned to Birds of a Feather just a few months after reading Maisie Dobbs.

image from fantasticfiction.uk.co

Maisie continues with her private investigation agency, even though the 1929 economy has left many others in London out of work. She and her assistant Billy are summoned to find the missing daughter of self-made butchering mogul Joseph Waite. Finding a missing socialite who sparred one too many times with her father seems simple enough, but the case takes on greater urgency when it appears to connect with a murder that Maisie’s friend Detective Inspector Stratton is investigating. To follow her hunches Maisie will have to drive all over the countryside, use her connections as best she can, and even look to events from the Great War for truth. Meanwhile Billy seems to have much that he is reluctant to share with Maisie.

I don’t know if I’m alone in saying that I enjoyed this for atmosphere much more than mystery. While the former is fantastic, Ms. Winspear doesn’t exactly plot in the style that I prefer. For example, we learn that Maisie has found an important clue in the victim’s room, but she doesn’t reveal what it is until much later in the book so that the solution will come as a surprise. In addition, I tend to take Maisie’s intuition with a grain of salt. She would have made a great actress with her belief that body language controls the tension in a room, and mimicking a person’s posture will tell you their feelings. Though effective, her methods strike me as a little too New Age for three quarters of a century ago. What do others think of this?

On the other hand, you can tell that Ms Winspear not only has done thorough research into the post-WWI era but also has the experience of living in England herself, having been born and raised there. At one point she is eating while driving and reaches over with her left hand to open the picnic basket. It took me a moment to make sense of this until I remembered that British cars are the opposite of ours! It’s touches like this that lend realism to the narration. In addition, the shadows of the war continue to color daily life with tinges of sadness in a way that makes my heart ache. For example, Waite’s store has a memorial for the many young employees who joined up together, and all died together when the regiment was attacked.

Finally, I’m torn about Maisie herself. She seems aloof, and so much older than she really is. I’m sure this is intentional, a combination of her natural wisdom and wartime experiences. Luckily Billy is enough to balance her out most of the time. (Als0, Maisie needs to start actually eating food or she will die of starvation. Is this her “punishment”?)

Despite misgivings about Maisie Dobbs the character, I’m sold on Maisie Dobbs the series and will have to read the next one in the near future.

Published in: on July 21, 2010 at 9:42 pm  Comments (1)  
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The Clue of the New Pin

“It is not sufficient that you can show motives. You must produce the means! Until you can say the murderer obtained admission to the vault by this or that door, in this or that way, or that he employed these or those means to restore the key to the table from the outside of a locked door through which no key could pass, you cannot secure a conviction.”

There’s just something dramatic and fun about vintage mysteries; the atmosphere provides so much more suspense than modern cozies, as much as I enjoy them. Clue Of The New Pin by Edgar Wallace, first published in 1923, is no exception.

image from fantasticfiction.uk.co

Despite having made a fortune in China, old Jesse Trasmere is an established miser. He provides a relatively meager allowance for his nephew Rex Landers, demands exact accounting in any business ventures, and keeps his money locked in a basement vault. When an old associate from China, Wellington Brown, shows up, Mr. Trasmere goes out of his way to avoid him, claiming through his butler to be out of town. Instead, he is found shot dead in the vault–with the key locked inside! Inspector Carver is assigned to investigate. However, much of the story is told from the perspective of Tab Holland, a young reporter and Rex’s roommate. Tab has met Carver on the beat before and serves as his sounding board while getting the scoop. Before the case ends it involves connections to rising actress Ursula Ardfern and Chinese restaurateur Yeh Ling,  as well as a second body.

I think reporter is one of my favorite professions because it allows for all sorts of information and adventures that wouldn’t be plausible otherwise; take Clark Kent, for example. Tab Holland is no exception. He’s bold, level-headed, confident, and easily intrigued, which makes him the perfect companion for Carver. The Inspector, too, is likable, though given less of a personal story.  According to Tab his brains and instinct make him the anomaly in an ineffective police force, and they are indeed well-honed. He also lacks any sort of ostentatious manner that would sometimes accompany them.

The book is a product of the 1920s, with the fascination for Orientalism. Yeh Ling could in some sense be viewed as a stereotypical Chinese character, and others have racial prejudices. On the whole, however, the portrayal did not really strike me as a negative one. The characters are pretty aware of their own preconceptions about him. He is mostly regarded as different rather than inferior, and is ultimately respected for following his own strict code of honor.

The nature of the plot is also typical for the times. I love the mental challenge of a locked room mystery, and though the who and why weren’t too hard I was proud to have figured out the how as well. Mr. Wallace plays fair and provides enough clues scattered throughout the story to determine the solution. He shows skill in both character and plot. Apparently he was a crime reporter as well, which explains a lot. I was unfamiliar with his work before but I’d like to track down more.

The edition of this book that I found at the library was reissued by Black Dagger Crime, the same as for Murder at the Villa Rose. I’ll have to keep them in mind for more classic detective fiction!

Published in: on July 17, 2010 at 10:23 pm  Comments (2)  
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An Abundance of Katherines

Since a lot of my review of John Green’s Looking for Alaska compared it to his second novel, I thought I would share my reaction to An Abundance of Katherines as well. This is a short paper from a couple years ago. Both the reading and the assignment were for a class on academic literacy–thus the opinion on whether I would use the book in a classroom.

John Green’s An Abundance of Katherines tells the story of Colin Singleton, a former child prodigy who has just been dumped for the nineteenth time by a girl named Katherine. To get over the heartbreak his friend Hassan takes him on a road trip; the two end up in Gutshot, a small Tennessee factory town, where they are taken in by Lindsey and her mother Hollis. Colin, in a double effort to do something that important and win back his latest ex, decides to develop a Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability which he hopes will explain his failed relationships. During their stay, Colin and Hassan broaden their horizons by taking chances on new experiences (such as hog hunting), and learn more about life, others, and themselves.

image from fantasticfiction.co.uk

Despite Colin’s current fixation on math his true interest is words, and a key subplot of the story focuses on the importance of stories. Hollis recognizes that Gutshot may die out within a few generations, and sends the teenagers out to collect memories and anecdotes from all the long-time residents as a record of its life and vibrancy. In the process Colin learns about what makes a good story, and the role that memory plays in defining events.

The book has several different layers that intertwine as the characters learn and grow; one of these is what it really means to matter. Even though Colin is extremely bright, he continually doubts his own worth and struggles with insecurity in all his relationships, largely because he is a social outcast. He and Lindsey eventually realize, however, that is it more important to be yourself and pursue who and what matters to you than to try and matter to someone else. People will be valued more when they define themselves rather than try and fit in to the definitions set by others. This message of individuality (hinted at in Colin’s last name) is juxtaposed, however, with one of solidarity, exemplified by Hollis supporting the town out of her own pocket.

Oddly enough, in taking on Colin’s persona the author is guilty of the same storytelling and conversational faults that his character is criticized for. Colin constantly references uninteresting trivia or creates anagrams, and Green frequently does this as well in footnotes to the text that can distract from the story at hand. Some of the footnotes, however, are interesting and serve a purpose, such translating the Arabic words Hassan uses. These author interjections could be a starting point for a discussion on looking up unknown information.

image from fantasticfiction.co.uk

Though personally I thoroughly enjoyed the book, I’m not sure of the extent to which I would use it in the classroom. It’s better to be on the cautious side when considering whether material is appropriate, and the mild cursing and nudity probably place this book on the PG-13 level, though it is pretty tame compared to a lot of other things that are out there. I think it would be best used in an Algebra II or higher class where the students would have the background to further investigate the formulas and would be closer in age to the characters.

The actual math in the book is more conceptual than computational, and though the author professes an affinity for the subject he states that the math behind the theorem is long and boring, and relegates it to an optional appendix. This does, however, make the concept itself more accessible, as Lindsey claims to hate math but is interested in the ideas behind the theorem.

I would most likely only use an excerpt or two from the book dealing specifically with the theorem and the idea that math can describe events or tell a story, with questions for the students to reflect on. However, I would recommend the entire thing to them, and wouldn’t mind using it in conjunction with an English class, where they would be able to devote more time to discussing some of the other themes of the book and could spend more than a day on it. Though the book is a quick and enjoyable read, the ideas Green poses stay with the reader even after the story ends.

Published in: on July 16, 2010 at 4:47 pm  Leave a Comment  
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I’m spent a little bit of much-needed time cleaning up the blog. The sidebar should now correctly reflect the current challenges I’m signed up for. I’ve considered adding a list of books I’m currently reading, but it doesn’t seem worth keeping up with because I’m usually a one-at-a-time type reader, unless it’s a really long book.

During the past week I’ve also been trying to go back and finish off the half-written drafts from my blogging hiatus, so some reviews dated February through May should be popping up. If you’re interested, the following are among the titles:

There are still a couple left to finish that I’m a little hesitant about, because I had so much to say at the time and am afraid I won’t do the books justice, like A Prayer for Owe Meany. Hopefully I’ll be all caught up soon!

Published in: on July 15, 2010 at 9:08 pm  Comments (2)  

Sorcerers and Secretaries

I had never heard of Sorcerers & Secretaries before spotting it on the library shelf, but it turned out to be a really cute two-volume graphic novel. This is a romance/comedy by Amy Kim Ganter about a girl who wants to be a writer.

image from barnesandnoble.com

Nicole Hayes is in business school studying to someday help out at the family business and working as a secretary in the evenings. The night, however, is her own time when in her dreams she can indulge in her love of fantasy and fairy tales. Secretly she devotes every spare minute to writing this story in a notebook she carries around with her. One day, however, she runs into Josh Kim, her former neighbor. Josh puts on a ladies’ man persona but has secretly always had a thing for Nicole. She, on the other hand, does not want to be seen as simply a conquest, and fears that romance will distract her from her dream of writing. As they resume their former friendship, both will have to decide what the future holds for them.

The story was pretty predictable but still sweet, and a quick read. I couldn’t put it down and finished in an hour and a half! The art is also more of a comic book style, which I slightly prefer, rather than manga. I think the time devoted to Nicole’s friend Samantha would have been better spent fleshing out the relationship between the two main characters to give us more history on their friendship. Granted, I can see how that is hard to do in the somwhat linear restrictions of a visual format. I also thought that the speed with which Josh dropped his flirting ways didn’t ring true. I doubt he would have learned them so easily if they weren’t at some level innate.

One of the book’s biggest strengths, however, is Nicole’s fantasy writing. Her story of the sorcerer Ellon who is betrayed by his a familiar, a source of friendship and inspiration, is woven through the main narrative and provides a nice parallel. In this way Sorcerers and Secretaries will appeal to both fantasy lovers and romance readers. After all, there is room for both in the world!

Published in: on July 14, 2010 at 12:13 am  Leave a Comment  
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Like Water for Chocolate

“[…] Tita made her entrance into this world, prematurely, right there on the kitchen table amid the smells of simmering noodle soup, thyme, bay leaves, and cilantro, steamed milk, garlic, and, of course, onion. Tita had no need for the usual slap on the bottom, because she was already crying as she emerged; maybe that was because she knew then that it would be her lot in life to be denied marriage.

Since I signed up for several challenges I figured I had better begin reading books from the lists, and Like Water for Chocolate was perfect for when the power went out last night. The story is set in Mexico, probably in the earlier part of the century because the main character Tita is the narrator’s great-aunt.

image from Amazon.com

Tita is the youngest of three daughters and in love with a man named Pedro. Because of family tradition, however, she must remain single to care for her widowed mother; Mama Elena instead affiances Tita’s older sister Rosaura to Pedro. Tita’s sole refuge is her gift for cooking, into which she pours all of her emotions, leading to surprising results.

This is more of a story than a book; at times sensual, sorrowful, and humorous, it has that mythical style of hyperbole that pulls you in. Some people have likened it to Chocolat, but as I didn’t particularly care for that book it reminds me more of the movie Simply Irresistible. In all three cases a woman’s cooking has powerful effects on those who consume it. Only Like Water for Chocolate provides an emotional reason for this phenomenon, however, which makes it easy to connect to Tita.

The book is broken into “months,” each with its own recipe. These designations have absolutely no bearing on the timeline, however, which spans several years; for example, the events in the “September” section are set in January. To me it just seemed a convenient but misleading way to break the story into twelve parts. The recipes themselves are woven into the story, as food is obviously a matter of great importance to Tita. As a vegetarian I found most of them unappealing, but regular eaters might look forward to attempting them.

The most unappealing aspect, however, was the character of Mama Elena. I can’t recall off the top of my head a crueler mother in a book, and while growing up Tita was lucky to have the cook Nacha as a surrogate maternal figure. In addition to being selfish and inconsiderate, Mama Elena is verbally and physically abusive to Tita, and disowns her other daughter Gertrudis when she runs away. She is the type of woman who is capable of reducing others to a shell.

Luckily the story chooses to dwell on the positive. Another character, the doctor John, urges Tita to find what nurtures a spark inside of her and do whatever she can to keep it alive. The task is harder for those who have been hurt before, but not impossible.

I really enjoyed reading this, and can see why it made the list of 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. This is my book for the Food category of the What’s in a Name? 3 Challenge. It’s also, sad to say, only my first book in translation for the year.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 10:32 pm  Comments (2)  
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Everything Austen II Challenge

Unfortunately I don’t think I can let the Everything Austen II Challenge slip by without trying it again–especially because, as the title suggests, I can switch to things like movies or cross-stitch or tea parties if there are too many other books on my plate.

Everything Austen II Challenge

Graciously hosted  by Stephanie at Stephanie’s Written Word

The details! The Everything Austen Challenge will run for six months (July 1, 2010 – January 1, 2011)! All you need to do is pick out six Austen-themed things you want to finish to complete the challenge. You have until Thursday, July 15th 2010 to officially sign up.

What is considered Austen-themed? Obviously, any of the books Jane wrote herself count, so if you’ve been contemplating reading one of her novels, now is the time! Or, maybe watch the different movie versions of Pride and Prejudice. You could even try reading one of the many sequels written by various authors or listen to the audio book version in your car on your way to work. There were even a few people during last year’s challenge who worked on cross-stitch patterns inspired by Austen.  Truly, the list can be endless!

Because this is my “fun” challenge, I’m making a personal exception to allow it complete overlap with the other challenges I’m trying. That way there’s even less pressure in terms of overall numbers. Here are some possibilities.

  • Pride and Prescience by Carrie Bebris, as well as later books: mystery series featuring Elizabeth and Darcy with appearances by other Austen characters
  • Jane and the Barque of Frailty, by Stephanie Barron: I’m not sure if she will be continuing the series, but I never read the last mystery featuring Jane Austen (are you noticing a pattern?)
  • Murder on the Bride’s Side, by Tracy Kiely: I’m declaring that this counts because the previous book was a more obvious Austen homage
  • Intruder!, by Carolyn Keene: Nancy Drew, Girl Detective book where the crime occurs at a Jane Austen tea party
  • The Watsons, by Jane Austen: I’m already planning on reading this for the Classics Challenge
  • watching Lost in Austen (thank you, Netflix!)

It may also be time for a reread of Pride and Prejudice, as it’s been six years and I have the traitorous suspicion that it’s not my favorite Austen (which could also just be my love for all things Persuasion). Whatever treats the challenge brings, I’m looking forward to them!

Published in: on July 11, 2010 at 11:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Human Voices

“[…] they were broadcasting in the strictest sense of the word, scattering human voices into the darkness of Europe, in the certainty that more than half must be lost, some for the rook, some for the crow, for the sake of a few that made their mark. And everyone who worked there, bitterly complaining about the short-sightedness of their colleagues, the vanity of the news readers, the remoteness of the Controllers and the restrictive nature of the canteen’s one teaspoon, felt a certain pride which they had no way to express, either then or since.”

I’ve been trying to read Penelope Fitzgerald’s works in order, and so far I think Human Voices is my favorite for the emotional impact of the setting. I know I’m far from alone in being fascinated with WWII England.

image from fantasticfiction.co.uk

This slim novel describes the day-to-day functioning of employees at the BBC Broadcasting House in London during 1940. Some deal with relationships and others with identity, but all are set against the background of an organization struggling to remain hopeful while bringing the daily truth and preserving history in the making.

Like Offshore, the novel draws on her personal experiences. Ms. Fitzgerald worked at the BBC herself during the war years, allowing her an intimate knowledge of details such as the volume changes of The Teddy Bears’ Picnic making it a favorite testing record for sound engineers. We also get the uncertainty of a country facing war and bracing for the invasion it believed was imminent. She paints the situation with a range of emotions from pathos to humor as the characters face what lies ahead. Here, for example, the employees all receive Red Cross training:

“As soon as he decently could, the doctor passed on to practical work, asking them to envisage the scene after a general attack from the air, but to assume, for the sake of convenience, that all the casualties were broken bones.”

Human Voices is similar to its Booker Prize-winning predecessor in many other ways as well. The novel revolves around a cast rather than a specific main character, though some receive more attention than others. The plot is comprised of small incidents, almost vignettes, rather than any sort of overarching storyline. When the opposite is true of the ending and everything seems to happen it seems almost meant for shock value, as if Ms. Fitzgerald was unsure of how to end the story otherwise.

Her next book, At Freddie’s, was the last to have autobiographical elements, but though her novels are quick reads I want to spread them out in order to savor them more.

Published in: on July 11, 2010 at 8:28 pm  Comments (1)  
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Looking for Alaska

“‘Why do you smoke so […] fast?’ I asked.

She looked at me and smiled widely, and such a wide smile on her narrow face might have looked goofy were it not for the unimpeachably elegant green in her eyes. She smiled with all the delight of a kid on Christmas morning and said, ‘Y’all smoke to enjoy it. I smoke to die.'”

John Green is one of those YA authors who seems to do no wrong. He may not be the most popular author, but his books have a certain substance that goes over well with critics without getting heavy-handed.

A few years ago I had to evaluate An Abundance of Katherines for a math education class and was surprised at the amount of food for thought and potential themes. Looking For Alaska has the same characteristics–at first glance, almost too much so. This first novel seems to set up the scenario of quirky hero with an idiosyncratic pastime, sympathetic and motivational best friend, mysteriously compelling female, and quest for some sort of greater truth. After a while, however, the characters set themselves up as distinct and I became absorbed in the story.

Miles Halter, whose sole claim to fame is memorizing famous last words, seeks a “Great Perhaps” when he leaves home to board at Culver Creek High School. He is thrilled to finally find friends in his roommate Chip and Chip’s scrappy crowd, but the crux of the group is clearly Alaska Young. Everything about Alaska mesmerizes: her fascination with literature and philosophical questions, her reckless nature, her impetuous tendencies, her ability to make someone feel special. Despite the fact that she has a serious boyfriend, Miles falls for her hard. One of Alaska and Chip’s greatest enjoyments is devising elaborate pranks against the school, in which Miles is soon caught up. When one risk becomes too many, the characters realize vulnerabilities in themselves and each other.

The book is probably best for older teenagers, as in addition to language there is smoking, underage drinking, and occasional sexual elements. In fact, it makes me pretty suspicious of boarding schools in general. Despite upholding stringent rules the discipline is generally lax, with repercussions only if actually caught. The students have the freedom of a college campus with four fewer years of maturity. For example, Miles picks up smoking simply as a habit because Chip smokes and shares cigarettes. I guess this means I’m officially part of the adult generation if I wish these kids didn’t have as much independence quite yet.

John Green tends to make his themes obvious but interesting, and I do like how everything fits together. In this book one of the main questions, posed first by Alaska to Miles and taken from The General in His Labyrinth,  is “how will I ever get out of this labyrinth?” They wrestle with what the labyrinth refers to–life, death, suffering–and how to possibly escape it.

Looking for Alaska won the Printz Award the year it was published, and even if this success did become a template somewhat for his later novels it’s still a well-written  and thought-provoking book.

Published in: on July 3, 2010 at 5:51 pm  Comments (4)  
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