chronicles of what books I've bought, what books I've read and other things.
specific other things will be pictures of my cat and especially cute outfits I come up with.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Quick update on what's coming!

I have a few other posts in the works, including one on Roald Dahl and another talking about the horror books I'm filling my summer with, but right now let's just squeal at the two books I picked up over the weekend for less than $3!

First, it was The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin. I saw the Nicole Kidman movie based off this book and was distinctly unimpressed, but now that I know Levin also wrote Rosemary's Baby? Definitely more willing to give it a try. (Especially since it was only a few bucks...) After I read that, Stephen King's Tommyknockers and a yet to be revealed addition or two to my horror novel plan for the summer, that post will show up.

The other book I got isn't going to warrant its own post, I think, but plans certainly do change. That book is, of course, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. I adored this book when I was young and I decided that it had to enter my library as soon as I saw it for only a dollar at Half Price. I love this kid's book for how perfectly it captures the cranky feeling of a day that just goes wrong in all the worst ways. I have a feeling this book is going to be a great comfort to me in Boston if I'm feeling lonely or just a little off.

My plan for this week is to read three or four Roald Dahl books which will hopefully provide me with fodder for an extremely interesting post! Until then...

A duet of series.

I'm really not kidding when I say I read a lot of YA fiction. My last two literary accomplishments are reading through the first three Anne books by Lucy Maud Montgomery and finishing the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series by Rick Riordan.

I first read Montgomery's Anne books when I was in elementary school, around fifth or sixth grade. I didn't remember too much from the series, except for vague images of red headed girls running around in forests and a dashing man with an umbrella. Re-reading Anne of Green Gables, Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island did not disappoint and in fact brought these images back into clear focus. The first book is definitely my favorite, because of Anne's extreme excitability, her amusing rants and joyous outlook on life. I loved most of all her interactions with Gilbert Blythe, from smashing her slate over his head when he called her "Carrots" to his rescue of her when she's stranded in a river. Her stubborn streak is a few miles wide and it's amazingly endearing. During these young years, Anne is at the peak of her dramatic nature and it never fails to be amusing to hear her wail about how her life is ruined by the lack of puffy sleeves, or not being able to go to a picnic, or accidentally getting her friend drunk, and so on and so on.

Accordingly, Island is my least favorite of the three: by this time in Montgomery's series, her heroine is becoming a little too perfect to make for enjoyable reading. While Avonlea mostly follows Anne's quiet few years as she teaches school, Island finds her going away for college and, lo!, she immediately becomes best friends with the most popular girl on campus, has dozens of men interested in her, finds a lovely house to rent that no one else seemed able to get, is awarded all the scholarships she could dream of... By this point, Anne's looking like she should be called Mary Sue instead (hey, at least there's still an 'e' at the end of the name!).

The high point in these later novels, though, is still Gilbert Blythe. He is the perfect young man throughout the novels -- well, excepting the minor tortures evidenced in the first book -- and is constantly charming and interesting. He's attractive, intelligent and confident. Sure, at times his infatuation with Anne seems a bit far-fetched, but he knows what he wants and is willing to fight for it. But, nevertheless, he won't let himself be pushed around: the man's got backbone and it makes a girl wonder just what other sorts of bones he's hiding, if I can get a little crude.

I decided to stop reading Montgomery's books at the end of Island because, well, now that Gilbert and Anne are engaged, what more is there to know? I read further on in the series when I was younger, but the household drama wasn't quite as interesting and so I feel pretty secure in putting my acquaintance with Avonlea on hold for now.

The other series I've been plodding through for a while now is Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson quintet. I listened to the first two books on tape, which naturally takes about three times as long as reading a book oneself, and was very pleasantly surprised by how intricate and involved the world Riordan created was. And now that I've finished the whole series, I'm still infatuated.

The series follows Percy in his adventures fighting monsters alongside half-bloods, other children like himself who are half-human and half-God. Percy himself boasts of Poseidon, the sea god, as a father. A prophecy lurks over the entire series and the world becomes slowly more and more in jeopardy as Kronos, the Titan father of most of the Olympians, regains power and control. The last book culminates in a massive battle between the half-bloods and the Titan's army.

But it's not only battle and adventure that spurs these books on: there's also intriguing characters, a few plausible and adorable romances, and, most interestingly in my opinion, a lot of subtle teaching about Greek myths. Anyone who reads these books suddenly can name all the major Greek gods, knows a ridiculous amount about various Grecian monsters, and might even have picked up a little bit of the Greek language.

While Riordan's general plot and character tropes might mirror that of the Harry Potter books, I don't think this is any sort of detraction for his series. Instead, it just means that young adults who enjoyed Rowling's books can now enjoy a series with a little bit of added punch and, perhaps, familiarity, as Riordan's books are set in the United States. Riordan himself even admitted to taking some inspiration from the Harry Potter books, when he wondered why there weren't any adventure books like that for kids like his son: kids with ADD or dyslexia. Percy Jackson, it turns out, has both, like most half-bloods do (the ADD is linked to their natural battle instincts, while less believably the dyslexia is because their brains are hardwired for ancient Greek).

(I do have to say, though, that the movie isn't half as good as the books. In fact, I only made it through the first half of the movie before I was disappointed and upset. I strongly suggest the books over the movie.)

Montgomery's Anne books are charming and fun, quick reads, but definitely more targeted toward a young female population. They provide an easy blast to the past, set in eastern Canada during the early twentieth century. The Percy Jackson novels, on the other hand, provide an adventure in our modern time, while introducing readers of all shapes, sizes, ages and genders to the idea of courage and pride, of sticking to your friends and believing in family. If I had to choose between these series, I would definitely vote for Rick Riordan over Lucy Maud Montgomery, but that doesn't mean Anne isn't quite as much of a character as Percy. Let's just hope they never meet.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Apologies and books.

It turns out taking a trip to South America, planning to move across country, and all the other little things thrown at a girl during her life can sometimes lead to her forgetting to update her blog. Or, of course, remembering at very inopportune times.

In the last two months, I've read quite a few books, but I'm afraid I can only right now remember four of them: We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, Nightmares and Dreamscapes by Stephen King, 1984 by George Orwell, and, finished today, So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld. Because half of these books were sadly read some time ago, I'm going to keep my discussion of each of them limited and, instead, promise to do better next time.

As I mentioned, I took a trip to South America in the middle of April; I went to Peru and spent a few days in a very small village and helped repair destruction from an earthquake three years ago. In packing, I somehow got the idea in my head that I'd have plenty of free time, so I brought three books and, of course, only managed to get partway through one of them. That one was Kevin by Lionel Shriver. An epistolary novel, this book records letters written by a woman to her estranged husband a few years after their son, Kevin, kills a dozen people one day at his school. It's a harrowing read, if I can use that cliche term, and extremely emotional. Whenever I picked the book up, I had a hard time setting it down but, I admit, once I did, it was three or four days before I set to reading it again. It was a hard read at times because of the honest realism of the woman's struggle to be a loving mother and figure out how to react to the horror that was her son's life. So far, I think this book might be one of my favorites of the year.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes took a while for me to get through, as well, but not because it was difficult or too emotional: it's just a large book. A collection of King's stories, I read these during my lunch breaks at work and, in fact, received some gentle ridicule for that. My boss joked that it seemed even I needed some light "beach" reading once in a while, and while I laughed and agreed with him at the time, I've since decided that even King's short stories aren't necessarily light reading. Images of a lone, stray eye pulling itself out of a drain, of a woman stalked by her late husband turned zombie, of towns that suck you in and never let you leave... Perhaps King hadn't created a literary masterpiece, but he's certainly a master of horror, even when locked into only a few pages. His timing is perfect and his imagery stunning. This isn't my favorite work of his, but that certainly doesn't mean it's not worth while.

There's a few books I like to read every year or two to see what themes and images stick out to me this time. Ender's Game is one, To Kill a Mockingbird another. And one that constantly calls out to me is Orwell's 1984. I first read this book my freshman year of college, just for fun and in order to start filling out my literary canon knowledge. Now it's become one of my regular reads; as soon as it's been long enough for me to start to forget what it's about, I pick it up and am yet again amazed. This time it was the torture scenes nearing the end of the book that chilled me the most. O'Brien's cool and collected personality in the face of the horrendous acts being done to Winston... And most of all, Room 101. Perhaps I had blocked Room 101 out of my memory from when I last read it, but the horrors there shook me anew and I had a hard time continuing. I love this book (cue gunshot to the head).

I had the house to myself this Memorial Day weekend, and while others might use that opportunity to host a few wild parties, my first instinct was to stock up on books and use the solitude to my best advantage. Unfortunately, as I get older and have more responsibilities, I can no longer devour books the way I did when I was young, so I only got through one book (so far!): So Yesterday by Scott Westerfeld. A young adult book, I'm a somewhat fan of Westerfeld's novels. His Uglies trilogy started out strong and interesting but lost me halfway through the second book. (Then again, I did read all three, so that might say something for Westerfeld after all..)

Like a lot of Westerfeld's works, So Yesterday takes ideas common to the youth of today and adds a little twist. What if all the fads and hip ideas coming down the grapevine were actually controlled, hunted out, and specifically targeted at different demographics? That doesn't sound too strange: it's what PR firms do every day. But what if kids known as "cool hunters" were a part of that? This story follows one of those cool hunters as he gets involved with an "Innovator" (one of those rare people who make up something cool all on their own and then shortly see it everywhere from Youtube to the six o'clock news); the duo shortly realize that maybe not everything about forced consumerism is working as well as it should.

While definitely a fun, interesting and at times easily philosophical novel, unfortunately So Yesterday sometimes reads ... well, a little yesterday. The amazing technology described by the narrator is a little dated (his phone can take ten whole seconds of video!) and the idea that a seventeen year old has a full time job running around NYC looking for cool things might be a little unapproachable. Nevertheless, Westerfeld does a good job of making his characters realistic despite their unreal surroundings. This book fits nicely into our modern culture obsessed with fashion, celebrities and technology and provides a slightly off way of looking at life. Recommended!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Accidents happen

The past two months (two months since I last updated!) have been filled with trips, stress and news both good, bad and great. Amidst all that, I've found time to start four books but I've only managed to finish one.

I went to Peru for nine days near the end of March and brought with me three books. I only read one, but I didn't even manage to finish that. I was definitely optimistic in terms of free time or at least empty time when, instead, most of my trip was taken up with being sick or working myself ridiculously hard.

Nevertheless, I did finally manage to finish a book this week: The Unit by Ninni Holmqvist, translated from the Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. (I love good translators. While I couldn't read the original Swedish and so I can't say for certain how good of a job Ms. Delargy did, I completely forgot it was translated until the very end when I looked over the first few pages.

My mom recommended this book to me after reading my earlier entry on Unwind; she herself hasn't read The Unit yet, but it was recommended to her at an earlier date and she remembered it. I was more than happy to continue in the thread of dystopias examining the issue of the human body and, boy, I was not disappointed.

The Unit reminded me most strongly of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, as both look at a theme of what happens when the state decides our bodies aren't necessarily ours for one reason or another. In Atwood's tale, women are assigned roles in society based on their ability to conceive; Holmqvist targets both men and women in her novel, creating the label of 'dispensable,' which applies to any woman over the age of fifty and any man over the age of sixty-five who have no children and are not exceptionally successful in their career. Once a person is marked as dispensable, they are shipped off to a unit where they live communally with other dispensables and are routinely used in humane experiments and, eventually, for organ donation.

While Atwood focuses, then, on women's bodies being taken away from them, Holmqvist is able to examine a wider angle, despite her protagonist being a woman. In this world, it is not gender that sets the wanted apart from the useless: it is age and ability. Types of work are categorized: most of the dispensables, it's noted, are creative sorts who, yes, might have written a marvelous novel or painted a fantastic work of art, but they are not contributing to society in any directly calculable way and, so, can be set aside.

It was the mood of Holmqvist's novel that struck me the most, especially in connection to Atwood and Neal Shusterman's Unwind. Both Atwood and Shusterman filled their novels with the quick pace of fugitives or people actively working to get out of their situation. Holmqvist's protagonist, though, spends most of the novel simply floats through her situation, accepting what's given her. I don't mean to imply that the novel loses any sense of motion or that it drags: instead, the soothing nature of the unit, meant to lull its inhabitants into a sense of compliance, even works on the reader. It's easy to fall into the same traps as the characters and start to become convinced that the scenario presented in Holmqvist's dystopia really is the ideal. Atwood and Shusterman never quite reached that level of meta influence, for better or for worse.

Despite the echos of other novels found in Holmqvist's The Unit, it also stands triumphantly alone with the curious twists on familiar themes that she provides. There's little doubt in my mind that future authors will continue to play along these ideas of body and ownership, but it's also intriguing to even have this small sample of interconnected works. Atwood published The Handmaid's Tale in 1985 and Holmqvist's novel came out in 2009. What changes to the mythos will be seen in another twenty-five years?

Monday, February 8, 2010

Following up!

I wanted to offer proof that I did, in fact, wear floral and plaid out and about, as promised. Unfortunately, not when I said I would, but on Sunday, Feb. 7th. I forgot to take a picture with the scarf around my neck, which is too bad because with my mom's help, it was tied in the ascot style demonstrated on academichic, one of my all-time favorite fashion blogs. (Sidenote! The academichic post is from 2/3, my brother's birthday, and I wore it on 2/7, my dad's birthday!)

The floral isn't as big and bold as it could have been, but I thought the fact that I was also adding STRIPES into the pattern mix made up for it. I wore a dark green cardigan over the checkered blouse, since it was a little cold, and put a pink floral pin in my hair to complete the look.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

The Second Civil War

I mentioned it before: the book club I was a part of during junior high and high school. Every first Wednesday of the month during the school year and every Wednesday during the summer, I'd trek down to the local library and enjoy an hour and a half of nerdy talk with other literary-minded teenagers and the teen librarian who put up with us. This experience, I believe, is the real reason behind my continued love affair with young adult literature. YA books can be just as smart and intriguing as those shelved in the adult fiction areas and are often more approachable. In my work with high schoolers at my church, too, it can sometimes be valuable to be familiar with new YA literature.

I just finished reading, for a second time, one of my new favorite YA books: Unwind by Neal Shusterman. Science fiction at its finest, Shusterman tackles the incredibly tense topic of abortion and human rights. Set fifty years or so after the second Americal civil war, known in the story as the Heartland War, Shusterman's created a world where abortion is illegal, but alternatives have been made common: unwinding and storking. Storking is the more mundane of the birth control issues presented in the novel; it's basically where a newborn baby is left on the doorstep of a house by a mother who cannot or will not take care of it. If a family is "storked," they are automatically the legal guardians of the child and have to simply deal with it.

Being unwound... that's a tougher issue. While the image of the book here is the copy that I own, this cover art more terrifyingly portrays the truth of the issue. Unwinding is organ harvesting and donation taken to the extreme. Thanks to a technology called 'neurografting,' in the world of Unwind, every part of a body can be safely transplanted and used. That was how the Heartland War was settled: both pro-life and pro-choice sides were pleased, since parents could choose to have their children unwound, but according to the technology, the child was never actually killed, as each part of their body was kept alive through the surgery.

The story follows three young adults who have been selected to be unwound: Connor, whose parents decided they'd rather have their eldest son be divided than remain in their house as the troublemaker he was; Risa, a ward of the state who was the victim of budget cuts; and Lev, a child specifically born and raised to be a "tithe," meant from birth to be unwound.

Shusterman's portrayal of this issue is masterful, touching and at times frankly horrific. One of the most impressive parts of his novel is how it remains roughly unbiased in terms of the pro-life and pro-choice struggle even now making its way through America. At one point in the novel, thinking of the babies deposited at places like the state homes she herself grew up in, Risa wonders which was worse: "To have tens of thousands of babies that no one wanted, or to silently make them go away before they were even born? On different days Risa had different answers." Connor recalls a time his family was storked and, not having the finances to take in another child, illegally passed the child onto the next house on their block, only to be re-storked a week and a half later -- with the same baby who by that time was jaundiced and soon died.

There's no question in the novel that unwinding was the worst compromise ever considered by those who fought the Heartland War, and that storking more often than not ended in misery. Shusterman presents these possible futures with a sense of foreboding and warning, but the novel rarely dips into something of a preachy tone. Even in a scene where four boys discuss the existence of a soul and when life starts (all the common current perspectives are introduced and each given their due weight, each with counterpoints and facts to back them up), it's just in a way to encourage the young readers who picked up the novel to start to think on the issues themselves.

Connor, Risa and Lev are unmistakably real, and that's what makes Shusterman's novel such a horror. Like every good foray into science fiction, this reality seems possible and like it's waiting just around the corner. But considering how well Shusterman presented the issue and how he delved into all possible sides throughout the story, it makes me hopeful that the young people reading this and other YA novels might, as they go into that cliched role of being our future, help make sure it never happens.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Making a cake of ideas, themes and polkadots

The past few days, I've been liberally mixing patterns in my outfits. First it was striped socks, a pinstriped blazer and a polkadot shirt. The next day, striped socks (again! but a different pair, I promise), a floral tee and leopard print silk scarf. I'm not sure if anyone at my work noticed, which either means my experiments in fashion are more benign than I thought or, more likely, no one at my work ever notices what I wear.

But I really do think that mixing things up, combining ideas and patterns that wouldn't seem to go together, can create some interesting end results. I certainly indulge in this pasttime in other parts of my life; for example, in literature! The past week, I've been working through three books, all in different genres, written for different audiences and starring very contrasting characters, but they come together to create a lovely mix.

Two out of the three I've read before, Unwind by Neal Shusterman and Nightmares & Dreamscapes by Stephen King. The third, though, was a new read for me and the first one I've finished: Unseen Academicals by Terry Pratchett.

I was first introduced to Pratchett's Discworld series when roughly ten years ago through, like many of my literary discoveries of that era, the monthly teen book club I took part in. Carpe Jugulum had just come out and, like every summer, we were working through a list of new releases at our own pace. I fell in love with the quirky witches Pratchett portrayed, finding myself reflected in the snarkily overweight Agnes Nitt, who became involved with a distant "vampyre" way before Bella Swan was even thought of. The story was a humorous look at the vampire-goth subculture that has continued to grow in mainstream media since then. Many of the Discworld books, in fact, take well-known literary tropes or cultural phenomena and twist them into the fantasy setting, allowing the audience to laugh at their own failings and misjudgments.

Ever since that first journey into Discworld, I've been hooked. Some of my favorite audiotapes are Pratchett's stories, but it doesn't matter the format: his wit and intelligence shine through no matter if I'm silently reading or listening to Nigel Planer's ridiculous voice.

Unseen Academicals was no disappointment. The story follows four young people in the Discworld's largest city, Ankh-Morpork, as they get sucked into the pull of football. Previously a lower-class sport that was literally surrounded by riots and violence -- along with disgusting pies -- the novel shows the sport's progress as first the wizards of Unseen University and then the government powers that be turn their interested eye at football. It's quickly transformed, as our four heroes: a smart and practical cook for the Night Shift at the university, her dim and beautiful friend, the son of the city's most famous football player, and -- of course -- an orc.

Just like the other Discworld stories, Pratchett uses the accepted tropes of a human interest sports story to catch our attention and then, just as we're getting sucked into cliches, roughly pull us out of the moment and makes us laugh at ourselves. Near the climax of the story, the four heroes have predictably paired off and everyone has romance on the brain, but the referee happily and loudly snaps at them to keep their pathos in their pants and get on with the game. It's a stark reminder of the mountains of movies that play on our emotions while connecting our need for love and attention with the young footballer's craving to get that perfect goal or the baseball rookie's desire to garner recognition from his hardassed coach.

While Pratchett started off his Discworld series by consistently mocking literary ideas -- Faust comes to mind in the form of the ninth book, Eric, and Maskerade, which did a stupendous job of spoofing one of that famous rock opera which centered around a creepy masked guy being obsessed with a young ingenue -- his newer venture into world-over facts of life, first in the postal service (Going Postal), the banking system (Making Money), and the scary facts of war (Monstrous Regiment), develops splendidly in this, his latest novel.

When news of Pratchett being diagnosed with a rare form of early-onset Alzheimer's over two years ago, horror and despair swept the literary world. Maybe with this book and it's conscious playful attitude toward overly emotional displays, Pratchett's trying to make a point that despite the outpouring of love and support that swelled up from his fanbase, he's really just here to play ball. Or, that is, write novels. And, to celebrate that? Hell yes, I'm going to wear plaid and floral tomorrow.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

That cat of mine.

This, because I know you were all wondering, is my cat. Her name's Umi, after the Japanese for ocean. Her eyes were amazing bright blue when she was younger, but now that she's seven, they've dimmed a little. Today she wasn't feeling very photogenic and kept glaring at me as she tried to hide under the covers. I got Umi just a few months after my first cat died, when I was a junior in college, and while Milo was an amazingly beautiful and intelligent cat, I feel closer to Umi. I was too young to really understand the responsibility of having a cat when I was gifted Milo (for my fifth birthday!) but Umi's definitely mine. If/when I go to grad school this next fall, she's definitely coming with me, much to my mother's glee.

Umi has a fair amount of influence on what I read and what I wear, because she'll sleep on clothes which then makes them not an option for the next day (girl sheds like crazy) and will sit on my books when I'm trying to read, limiting my literature time.

She's part Siamese, which is very obvious in her meow and need for attention. She's obsessed with breasts, a fact any female visitors of mine soon learns. They are the comfiest thing in the world in her humble opinion and she will knead them for hours.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Half Price Books, thou slayest me.

The first week of February holds both my dad's and my brother's birthday, which means the second half of January is spent shopping for them. But sometimes a girl gets tired only shoveling out dough for the men in her family, so she has to take a little break and hit up Half Price Books, which is unfortunately only five minutes from my work. Their carts of $1 books lining the entrance and the shelves of equally cheap books near the back are my kryptonite.

Today I walked away with four books, all for less than two lattes. I suppose that's honestly a good way to finally cut down on my coffee intake: One latte = two books. That's a fantastic deal.

The first book I picked up was the novelized sequel to the fourth Star Trek movie, Probe, by Margaret Wander Bonnano. Is it silly that it excites me to see that a woman wrote this? I hope not. It's always thrilling to meet fellow female nerds, even if by "meet" I mean "read a book by." This novel promises to explain just what was the probe featured in Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, which I certainly wondered about after watching the film.

My next find in the $1 clearance section was Rumpole and the Angel of Death by John Mortimer. I've never read any Rumpole stories yet, but my sister-in-law adores the PBS series as well as the books, so I thought, for a dollar? I'd give him a try. Just for you, Laura. Just for you.

The next book I picked up -- for "full" price, no less! -- probably shows why I have a fair amount of confidence as to why I'm going to enjoy Mr. Mortimer's collection of stories: P.G. Wodehouse's comedy novel Laughing Gas joined its mates in my arms. I've only ever read Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories before, but they're so stupidly thrilling that I'm sure the $2 I put toward this volume will be well-spent. Sounds like a classic story of switched-up bodies thanks to -- laughing gas? Well, we'll see how it goes~

Last, but incredibly not at all the least, was the most expensive book I picked up (a whopping $4!) and the one I'm most excited for. I try not to visit Half Price often and when I do, I try to avoid the literary criticism shelf and, even more than that? The "books on books" section. A thrill rushes down my spine if I even consider that label: books on books! Oh, the meta. Oh, the phantasmagorical volumes hidden in that beautiful section.

Today, I was unable to resist. I spent the last ten minutes of my lunch hour pouring over the options presented to me there, but I am very pleased with what I chose: Howard Rheingold's They Have a Word For It: A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words & Phrases. Containing such treasures as the Russian "razbliuto" (the feeling a person has for someone he or she once loved but now does not), the Chines "ta" (to understand things and thus take them lightly), and German's "zivilcourage" (Courage to express unpopular opinions), Rheingold has presented a fantastic collection of words we just don't have in English. He's separated them into categories such as those relating to gender and sex, states of mind, and technology. So many of these ideas are certainly found in all cultures, but I love the idea that certain societies deal with issues more often than others, so they form a word for that state of being that other groups might pass on by. It also makes me wonder what words we have in English that don't exist in other languages.

I need to learn to not go to Half Price Books but, like I said, at least it's an investment. Right?