Tuesday, December 28, 2010

In brief...

Seldom have I been brief on this blog. My posts are either long or non-existent, it seems, and the past two months have fallen in the latter category. But I'd like to make a few comments on what I've read before the year is through, so I'm limiting myself to two or three sentences per book (compound sentences and semi-colons are permitted). We'll see how this goes.

Undaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American WestUndaunted Courage : Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen Ambrose. (Title and author will not count as a sentence!) This probably wouldn't have made my TBR list if it hadn't been a bookclub selection, but I'm glad I read it as it was very interesting and informative. Though it documents Meriweather Lewis' life from birth to death, the bulk of this biography focuses on his role in the Lewis & Clark expedition, recounting fascinating details about the preparations involved and the truly historic journey, including their encounters with various Indian tribes and the amazing landscapes and wildlife that they encountered.

Sarah's KeySarah's Key by Tatiana De Rosnay. I don't completely understand my interest in WWII stories, particularly ones involving the atrocities committed against the Jewish people, but perhaps it is the aspect of hope and survival in the midst of such evil. This novel is gripping in it's telling of two women of two different generations in Paris: a young Jewish girl who was captured and escaped, only to live the rest of her life in the shadow of an unintentional tragedy, and a modern American expatriate who unravels the threads of that war story only to find it inextricably woven with her own.

The Yellow House: A NovelThe Yellow House by Patricia Falvey. I read this for the Irish Reading Challenge, and it is one of the best, recently published historical fiction that I have read. It gave a vivid portrait of the working class in Northern Ireland during the religious and political conflicts of the early 20th century, and I was sorry to leave the characters and the country when it came to an end.

An Irish Country VillageAn Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor. This is the second "Irish Country" book (in the series and that I have read), and it is just as delightful as the first, with a unique blend of Irish humor, interesting medical cases, eccentric characters, and a little romance for good measure. This was also for the Irish Reading Challenge, which I did finish before November 30th, though I didn't post reviews or qualify for the final give-away.

Barchester Towers (Signet Classics, CP178)
Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope. This second novel (of six) in the Barsetshire novels continues the story of Mr. Harding, his daughter Eleanor, and son-in-law the Archbishop to whom we were introduced in The Warden, and introduces a number of new characters who thicken the plot of ecclesiastical dominance and intrigue. The characters are delightful in all their quirks and idiosyncrasies; the conflicts are engaging, but not serious or life-threatening. Of all the Victorian authors I've read this year, I would rank Trollope second, closely behind Wilkie Collins who gains precedent because of my penchant for mysteries, and followed by Thomas Hardy, Elizabeth Gaskell, and finally Dickens.

An Irish Country Christmas (Irish Country Books)An Irish Country Christmas by Patrick Taylor. Since it was December, it seemed fitting to continue the Irish Country series with the third installment, but perhaps because I read them so close together it seemed as if this was merely rehashing the same themes: a potential problem in the medical practice, a personal issue in the community, and unfulfilled wishes in matters of love - and Dr. Laverty worrying excessively about them all. Maybe I simply found the young doctor's angst a bit extreme and immature this time, but it also seemed as if the story needed a bit more editing; maybe it was rushed to the publishers to get it out before the Christmas season in 2008. With that said, however, I still enjoyed it, mostly, well, except for the phone conversations that repeated the same issues ad nauseum... at any rate, I still like this series and would recommend it for light reading.

Fannie's Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook
Fannie's Last Supper: Re-creating One Amazing Meal from Fannie Farmer's 1896 Cookbook by Christopher Kimball. This was a fascinating book, combining social history, food lore, and cooking journal as the author and a team of chefs researched and cooked a twelve-course Victorian dinner, cooking it on an authentic wood cookstove in the basement of the author's restored Victorian home in Boston. I'm sure I would not want to make gelatin from calf's hooves, but it certainly gives one an appreciation for Jell-o when you understand what a remarkable innovation and improvement it was for Victorian cooks, for whom gelatin molds were an elegant feature of an elaborate dinner! My only complaint was that this book could have used better editing, as well, since the repetition of some facts between chapters made it seem as if it had been written as separate articles instead of a cohesive account.

Now I am reading Les Misérables and will most certainly be occupied with its almost 1500 pages well into January. I read two-thirds of it ten years ago, and I think reading it once a decade might be a worthy goal.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Two Novels about Vermeer: the Artist's Inspiration and the Art's Influence

Girl with a Pearl Earring, Deluxe EditionWhen my book club selected Girl with a Pearl Earring for our October meeting, I mistakenly thought it was another book about Vermeer that I had read about at Small World Reads Blog called Girl in Hyacinth Blue. If I had gone back and read her review, I would have seen that she recommended reading Girl with a Pearl Earring first, but I found the premise of Girl in Hyacinth Blue more appealing and read it first. I'm actually glad I did, because I liked Susan Vreeland's vignettes that traced a painting's history from the present to the time it was created much more than the emotionally charged, teen infatuation that drives the story of Girl with a Pearl Earring.

Let me first say that I think that many of Vermeer's paintings are extraordinary, and it is fascinating to speculate about the circumstances that inspired the artist, particularly when the "Girl with a Pearl Earring" is so strikingly different than his other works. However, I don't appreciate the trend that I have observed in several recent historical fiction works that make sexuality the framework through which we approach historical subjects. The historical subject matter is intriguing enough, and I would have preferred that poetic license be taken in a different manner. 

So, for a brief synopsis, Girl with a Pearl Earring imagines that the subject of the painting by the same name was a young maid in Vermeer's household. Griet, the daughter of a Delft tile painter, has an artistic bent herself, or at least an eye for color and form. When Vermeer notices her arranging of vegetables by color, Griet quickly assumes that an intellectual or artistic meeting of minds must indicate a romantic attachment. Henceforth, all her thoughts about and interactions with Vermeer, as she has the privileged position of cleaning his studio and mixing his paints, are seen through the eyes of her young infatuation. And while she imagines that Vermeer hides a mutual attraction, Griet finds that her beauty attracts the attention of a butcher's son as well as Vermeer's patron, the rich and demanding van Ruijven, who wants to "own" her and is only appeased by Vermeer's agreeing to paint her.

To her credit, Chevalier seems to have thoroughly researched 17th century Dutch life and offers vivid descriptions of the various levels of society and their interactions and expectations of one another. I found this aspect of the novel fascinating as we follow Griet from her humble home and struggling parents to Vermeer's busy home with many children, a contentious wife, and domineering mother-in-law, to the aisles of the markets and the ordinary lives of laborers and merchants. It may be that a simple change in perspective or narrator would have made all the difference for me, for just a little bit of distance from Griet's own thoughts and self-awareness of her allure might have given the perspective necessary to raise it from teen angst to great historical fiction. I'm sorry if my review seems uncharitable, but there was just so much that was gratuitous, even by implication, in the telling of this story - a story which had remarkable potential, in my opinion - that I was very disappointed.

Girl in Hyacinth BlueGirl in Hyacinth Blue is not without it's own gratuitous scenes, but the underlying tone in which they are presented at least seems consistent with the cultural expectations of the historical time period - those who disregard marriage vows, either before or after marriage, face consequences of one sort or another. Unlike Girl with a Pearl Earring, which focuses on a few characters, this story revolves around an imagined lost work of Vermeer's, one without signature or papers but which bears the artist's characteristics so strikingly that it must be a Vermeer. The painting's most recent journey brought it to America via the looting of Jewish homes in the Netherlands during World War II, and from that infamous beginning Susan Vreeland gives a collection of short stories that trace the painting's history over 300 years through the hands of Jews, Dutch merchants, French diplomats, common farmers, slave traders, and bakers to Vermeer himself.

The art itself is both the protagonist and antagonist of these tales, for the painting has its own significance and meaning for each owner and observer; it is the main "character" of the book, but also the catalyst that works upon the characters in each of the stories. The fictional accounts of Vermeer and his family, which finally reveal the authenticity of the painting, seem much more in keeping with what little is known of his personal life, for he is presented as a preoccupied artist who loves his wife and children and struggles to provide for their physical needs while furthering his artistic vision. In short, Girl in Hyacinth Blue depicts the enduring influence of fine art, a far more satisfying message than one girl's sensual influence on the men around her.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Warden by Anthony Trollope

The Warden (Oxford World's Classics)I'm sorry to say that I only made it through one-third of David Copperfield last month before I gave up and moved on to greener pastures. But in defense of my good intentions to read classics (in spite of failing with David Copperfield this time around), my next book was The Warden, the first in the six Barsetshire Novels by Anthony Trollope, a contemporary of Dickens. The book club in Michigan where we used to live had chosen Barchester Towers for their October selection, and I just couldn't bear to start in the middle of the series.

I enjoyed The Warden much more than David Copperfield, not only because it was shorter, but because the characters were quite clearly defined, a moral and relational problem was quickly stated and developed, and I felt like the story was actually going somewhere. (I'm sorry to say that David Copperfield's lack of ambition left me feeling rather apathetic about his prospects and problems, such as they were.) Like Dickens often did, Trollope deals with a contemporary issue - that of the abuse of clergy who were handsomely rewarded for administrating works of charity while the recipients of that charity were pitifully cared for. Mr. Harding, or the Warden of Barchester, had rather innocently been given such a position with a long-fixed and adequate income when his daughter married the bishop's son, the archdeacon, and he had since taken care of the elderly men at Hiram's Hospital (a retirement home of sorts) with kindness and generosity. No one who knew Mr. Harding would have suggested that he abused his position, for he freely gave the twelve men in his charge extra funds from his own resources and kept them company with his musical talents, caring for their souls as well as their bodies. Nevertheless, as a matter of principle, a young doctor believed that the system was unjust and began a lawsuit against the Warden, in spite of his own friendship with Mr. Harding. To complicate matters further, this zealous doctor was in love with Mr. Harding's younger daughter Eleanor, though their love was not yet proclaimed by an engagement.

Although the church's abuse of its resources was one of national concern, Trollope deals with it on a very personal level, contrasting Mr. Harding's desire to be just and right in spite of personal loss with the more obstinate position of the archdeacon, his son-in-law, who insisted that the church was always right in its appropriation and use of funds and easily dismissed all criticism to the contrary while relying on his well-paid lawyers to settle the matter in his favor. I immediately felt sympathy for Mr. Harding, who had lived his life with the purest of motives, only to find those motives questioned and his character maligned not only in his own village and by the very men he served but throughout the nation by means of the press. The character of the young doctor, John Bold, is likewise admirable in his quest for justice, even if he does seem somewhat calloused and unfeeling at times.

Mr. Harding's concern for the honor of his name, of maintaining a good character in the eyes of the world, eventually leads him to resign his place as warden and return to a much lower position of service in the church. His integrity, however, does not make all things right with the world. If Mr. Harding is himself content to be poor, his resignation results in less care and support for the twelve poor men of the Hospital. This could also be construed as the fault of the church, but Trollope seems more concerned for the effects on the individuals involved rather than the overarching principles involved. I appreciate the honesty with which he presents the complex issues of determining what is right for an individual, a family, a community. Clearly, Mr. Harding acted rightly according to his own conscience, but it could also be argued that he was too much influenced by public opinion of himself to act justly for the good of those who were under his care. Similarly, Eleanor and John Bold eventually act upon their emotions to the neglect of the principles to which they thought they were so committed. Trollope leads us to believe that these actions were inevitable for these characters, and for good or ill, life goes on for the inhabitants of Barsetshire, rich and poor alike.

I look forward to continuing the story of these earnest lives in the second installment Barchester Towers.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Great Irish Short Stories, edited by Evan Bates

Great Irish Short Stories (Dover Thrift Editions)I purchased Great Irish Short Stories last year because the topic interested me and it was cheap, and when the Irish Reading Challenge came up at CarrieK's Books and Movies blog, it seemed like a perfect fit. I think I expected that these would be stories about Ireland, it's history, people and lore, but the settings are not always on the Emerald Isle, and the characters are not always distinctly Irish. It seems that the purpose of the book was to provide a collection of Irish authors, not necessarily Irish history or folklore, though at least two stories do fit that category. Many of the stories reminded me of other stories or authors, which is perhaps testimony to the fact that there is nothing new under the sun or perhaps evidence of the persistent Irish influence on literature and culture. (For more on that fascinating subject read How the Irish Saved Civilization, which I reviewed here.)

"The Limerick Gloves" by Maria Edgeworth is set in England and deals with prejudice against an Irishman. The small town gossip in this story reminded me of Elizabeth Gaskell's Cranford.

"Green Tea" by J. Sheridan Le Fanu seemed a bit like a Sherlock Holmes story with an uncommon tale being related by a secretary. It has a medical bent to it, though the adverse effects of green tea have surely been proved otherwise since it was written in 1872. "The Tables of the Law" by W. B. Yeats is also an uncommon tale with a supernatural edge to it rather than a mystery.

"The Death of Fergus" by Standish H. O'Grady seems akin to something of more epic proportions like Tolkien's Silmarillian. It lists a great number of names and relations and is somewhat cumbersome in it's telling, but is the first tale of Irish folklore in the collection dealing with "Lepracanes" and their relations with Fergus the King of Ulidia.

"Lisheen Races, Second-Hand" by E. C. Somerville and Martin Ross is a hilarious vignette of Irish country life, much like the stories found in An Irish Country Doctor by Patrick Taylor. "The Weaver's Grave" by Seumas O'Kelly is told in a similar vein although it is not so humorous, and "The Ploughing of Leaca-na-Naomh" by Daniel Corkery is tragic, but likewise paints a portrait of Irish life.

"Home Sickness" by George Moore relates a somewhat depressing tale of an Irish-American immigrant who returns to the Irish village of his youth to regain his health and finds the poverty and subsistence living to be a harder life than the slums of New York. The abject poverty of this story reminded me of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes: A Memoir.

The collection is rounded out with another bit of historic folklore in "The Only Son of Aoife" by Isabella Augusta, Lady Gregory, while "The Blind Man" by James Stephens and "The Dead" by James Joyce have more subtle inferences and messages about broader issues of life, particularly marriage.

I don't always enjoy short stories, but these were varied enough and interesting enough to keep my attention. It might not have been what I originally expected, but it is a nice collection of stories spanning nearly two centuries (from 1804 - 1976). If you're looking for an introduction to Irish authors, I would certainly recommend it.

I read this book as part of the 2010 Ireland Reading Challenge.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters

Where has the summer gone? Even though the temperatures are still in the 90's, we are jumping right into fall activities, and I should probably blog about the books I read in July before August escapes me. So while I was entertained, but not particularly impressed with Percy Jackson, I absolutely loved the other series that I started, thanks to the recommendation of Caniad at Dwell in Possibility.

A Morbid Taste for Bones: The First Chronicle of Brother CadfaelAs I've said before, mysteries are my preferred genre, and I think they are perfect for summer reading - engaging enough to keep my brain active, but not so heavy (literally or figuratively) that I can't breeze through one (or two) during a weekend vacation or finish one between picking and canning tomatoes! The Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters is near perfection, in my opinion, combining medieval history, a fairly complex mystery, theology, and even a little romance!

Since Caniad has already provided a great introduction to the author and the series, as well as a succinct summary of the plot in her post on A Morbid Taste for Bones, I'll simply give you my favorite passages and call it good. How's that for catching up?

"When you have done everything else, perfecting a conventual herb-garden is a fine and satisfying thing to do. He could not conceive of coming to this stasis having done nothing else whatever." (3)

"'Did you see?' said Brother John in Cadfael's ear, pacing beside the sumpter mule. 'Did you see how the beasts laboured towards that fellow not to escape the goad, only to go where he willed, only to please him? And such labour! That I should like to learn!'" (24)

"'In my church,' said Huw humbly, 'I have never heard that the saints desired honour for themselves, but rather to honour God rightly.'" (28)

"Well, thought Cadfael, letting them go without him, and turning to meet Sioned's steady gaze, God sort all! As doubtless he is doing, now as ever!" (85)

"'Speak out,' said the prior, not unkindly. 'You have never sought to make light of your failings, I do not think you need fear our too harsh condemnation. You have been commonly your own stearnest judge.' So he had, but that, well handled, can be one way of evading and forestalling the judgements of others." (95)

". . .great violence had been done to what he knew to be right, and great requital was due from the sinner, and great compassion due to him." (142)

"'. . .and if God aids me with some new thought - for never forget God is far more deeply offended even than you or I by this great wrong! - I'll come to you there.'" (147)

"'And leave agonising too much over your sins, black as they are, there isn't a confessor in the land who hasn't heard worse and never turned a hair. It's a kind of arrogance to be so certain you're past redemption.'" (151)

Almost all of these demonstrate what I love best about the Brother Cadfael mysteries: there is wisdom in these pages, not just a good story, and the two combined make them a joy to read!

Bloggy Friends, Birthday Fun

If it's not already obvious, my blogging has been put on the back burner the past couple of months. That doesn't mean I haven't been reading, but other things - vacation, homeschooling, gardening, canning, and cooking, to name a few - have taken priority over recording my thoughts. I'll try to remedy that soon, as we are settling into a homeschooling routine which might potentially could probably won't help me find the time to write. Well, anyway...

Whether I'm writing or not, I'm still reading my favorite blogs, and one of the best from the list on the sidebar is Reading to Know. Carrie is a thoughtful, insightful, and fun reader and writer, and I've enjoyed getting to know her through her blog and winning a few of her give-aways over the past year or so. In celebration of her birthday (and the announcement that Bookworm3 is on the way!), she's hosting a plethora of give-aways this week! So head on over to Reading to Know to wish Carrie a happy birthday and enter some great give-aways!

Thursday, August 12, 2010

That's my girl!

It seems fitting to interrupt the intermittent book reviews to share some momentous news... I think my daughter has finally caught the reading bug and is excitedly reading chapter books! Hooray!

After two years of phonics/reading instruction and her reluctantly (but capably) reading I Can Read books and Easy Readers, she's hooked on The Boxcar Children Books and finally got tired of waiting for me to read another chapter. Tonight I told her she could read in her bed, and since staying up late to read is such a grown-up thing to do (that's what Mommy does, after all), she was thrilled. I was surprised that it didn't really take her too long to read another chapter, and she came out to announce, "You don't have to read The Boxcar Children anymore, Mom. I'll read it every night! And when I'm done with this one, I'll read the first one again, and then you'll have to get more different ones from the library!" Then she told me about the chapter, as I reflected on how easy narration is when she's excited about something. Now I'll just have to figure out how to transfer this enthusiasm to our homeschooling subjects!

I'm still smiling!  (And also inwardly rubbing my hands with glee that my subtle plotting and planning payed off. If I can't put down a good mystery, I figured that eventually she wouldn't be able to either. So I planted the seeds with audio books and reading aloud, and then she finally had to find out what happens next and read it herself!)
The Woodshed Mystery (The Boxcar Children Mysteries #7)

She's currently reading The Woodshed Mystery (The Boxcar Children Mysteries #7), after we have listened to the audio version or read aloud books 1-6. The Boxcar Children books are not great literature - they're not even great mysteries, though they do promote good values, work ethic, and respect for adults - but if they can make a six year old excited about reading then I'll be glad to stock our shelves with them!
Read-Aloud Thursday at Hope Is the Word

And since this post marks a transition from read-aloud (which obviously won't stop) to read-to-oneself, I'm linking it to Read Aloud Thursday at Hope is the Word.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Books 1-5 by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 1)The premise of these booksThe Sea of Monsters (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 2) is intriguing: the ancient Greek gods are still alive and well and still up to their usual philanderings, begetting a number of "half-blood" children with mortals. These children usually have trouble in school, have ADHD or other learning difficulties (because their brains are hard-wired for ancient Greek), and often have monsters chasing them by their early teens. Percy Jackson learns that he is a half-blood when he is twelve and is attacked by his math teacher (a monster in disguise) on a school field trip, effectively turning his life upside down as he escapes to Camp Half-Blood and takes on a dangerous quest to save the world. Each book follows the same pattern of a threat to the gods or Camp Half-Blood, with Percy and his friends encountering many fantastic dangers and tense moments as they search for the elusive unriddling of the Oracle's prophecies and save the world.

The Titan's Curse (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 3)The Battle of the Labyrinth (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book 4)Now I understand a 30-something mother of two is not the intended audience for this series, so you'll have to bear with me when I take what The New York Times Book Review meant as a positive for a negative, describing The Lightening Thief as "perfectly paced, with electrifying moments chasing each other like heartbeats." Don't get me wrong, that's a perfect description of each book in the series, but I, for one, found it a little wearying. I'm sure that non-stop action and adventure are the perfect pacing for a pre-teen or teen boy reader, but when each book is yet another quest to save the world and almost every chapter raises and resolves yet another crises, it left me thinking the characters were more automatons than "real" people. I think a large part of this stems from the first person narration - we only get Percy's point of view, which is understandably a little scattered due to his ADHD - and I must say the author seemed to capture the thoughts and perspective of a teen boy pretty well, including a little bit of attitude. But if you contrast this writing style with the semi-omniscient narrator of the Harry Potter series, it's clear that the latter lends itself much better to character development, which is an essential quality of a great book, as far as I'm concerned.

The Last Olympian (Percy Jackson & the Olympians, Book 5)In the final assessment, I enjoyed them as quick reads with creative, if somewhat repetitive plots. For adult readers, I would recommend not reading them in quick succession, since I think both the unrelenting action and redundancy would not be so obvious or annoying with some time between each reading. 

The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child: Volume 1: Ancient Times: From the Earliest Nomads to the Last Roman Emperor, Revised EditionThey were a fun way to reacquaint myself with Greek mythology, which I'm hoping to delve into on an introductory level with my daughter as we study ancient history using The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child (Vol. 1) in our homeschooling plan for first grade this year. But I won't be adding the Percy Jackson series to our read-aloud list. 

I will be interested to see how Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief was adapted to the screen, but as with the books, I doubt that I'll be sharing it with my three-year-old and six-year-old, There are just too many potentially frightening scenes since Percy and his friends are constantly battling monsters, and the Underworld just isn't a pleasant place, after all. I'll be sure they are ready to handle fictional accounts of false gods and many tense battle scenes before recommending the books, although I can see how these would be very engrossing for reluctant young male readers.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Narnia Reading Challenge Summary

Chronicles of Narnia
Over the past year or more, my children and I have listened to the unabridged audio versions of the Chronicles of Narnia, with frequent repeats of their favorites: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Magician's Nephew, and The Horse and His Boy. I had hoped to listen to them all again in chronological order this month for Carrie's Chronicles of Narnia Reading Challenge, but unfortunately we didn't quite get that much done. We revisited parts of our favorites while traveling, and I listened to The Voyage of the Dawn Treader while canning tomatoes, and I must say that audio books are a great way to keep one's mind engaged while one's hands are busy!

After hearing the story again, I am even more excited about The Voyage of the Dawn Treader movie coming out in December because I think this book and The Horse and His Boy have the best storylines of all the books, at least as far as the flow, characters, and creativity are concerned, although The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe certainly ranks up there too. I am cautiously hopeful that the movie will follow the book fairly closely in plot, but I will be surprised if it retains all the profound spiritual lessons that are so beautifully illustrated in the story. Oh well, that just makes reading (or listening to) the book all the more important!

Edmund and the White Witch (Narnia)Lucy Steps Through the Wardrobe (Narnia)Additionally, I also scoured our library for Narnia themed picture books and found Lucy Steps Through the Wardrobe and Edmund and the White Witch, which both my three-year-old and six-year-old enjoyed.

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Welcome to Narnia (I Can Read Book 2)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: Tea with Mr. Tumnus (I Can Read Book 2)We also own a couple of "I Can Read" Narnia books, and I am overjoyed to hear my daughter reading Welcome to Narnia and Tea with Mr. Tumnus! Narnia is not just for summer reading challenges at our house, though, and we will be returning by whatever means we can find throughout the year!