30 November 2009

Wrapping up the "Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge"!

It's November 30 and the "Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge" hosted by Swapna must come to a close.  I think I bought more new books than old books I read but at least the batch I read are.....read.  And done.  Obviously my ability write decently is currently on hiatus.

Moving on.  My challenge goal was fifty-percent; I could have gone higher but I was playing it safe.  Here's what I read that counted toward the challenge:
The Link
The Oracle
The Invention of Air
Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human
The Other
The Film Club
The Best American Science Writing 2009
The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009
The Mysteries of Udolpho
Harry Potter's Bookshelf
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies
The Best American Essays 2009
The Post-American World
The Best American Essays 2008
And Then There Were None
A Beautiful Blue Death

I didn't count these titles in the challnge (hey, I didn't have many review copies so I had to make a delineation somewhere):
The Children's Book (purchased after the challenge started)
Wolf Hall (purchased after the challenge started)
Hush, Hush (an ARC I've only had since August but wanted to be rid of)
The Mill on the Floss (review copy sent to me by BNBC)

So...17 out of 21 is 80.95%.  Yay!  I did very well.  Next time I'm going to raise my goal, particularly if I don't have many review copies hanging about to be read.

A Beautiful Blue Death

I picked up A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch last year as part of a buy-2-get-1 deal (the "get 1" part was Interred With Their Bones and I thought that one was terrible).  Victorian mystery/Sherlock Holmes-type sleuth, poison, intrigue....I'm up for a bit of mystery reading.  It sounds like a nice cold-weather-warm-blanket-and-tea book.

To set up the story a bit, because there is a lot of exposition scattered throughout the book, Charles Lenox is the younger son of a baronet (who actually does have enough money to allow Charles a life of leisure) and spends much of his time as an amateur detective and archaeologist.  He lives next door to a childhood sweetheart, Lady Jane Gray (who isn't quite the staid Victorian matron), has a very good relationship with his butler/valet, Graham, and has successfully solved several cases prior to the opening of A Beautiful Blue Death.  Lenox has an eccentric-ish brother, Edmund, a bumbling Scotland Yard inspector, Exeter, and a very good friend who happens to be an experienced physician, McConnel, married to a pretty woman, Toto (Victoria).  Lenox is also very observant, to the point of noting an MP would probably switch constituencies based on the change of pocket-watch displayed.  Can you see all the Sherlock parallels?  Watson, Mycroft, Mrs. Watson, Irene Adler, Lestraude?  Although the story is quite well-written and very enjoyable I probably would have quit reading if Lenox had turned out to both play the violin at all hours and go masquerading as an opium-den denzien (it is acknowledged that Lenox has disguised himself in prior cases but does not do so during this book).

Finch uses a deft hand to bring 1860s London to life as well as the politics of the day (politics and financial hanky-panky are very closely tied in this book).  There is also a considerable amount of musing on the problem of poverty and social class which was quite well-written and didn't intrude on the storyline.  Lenox does fret a bit too much over his friend McConnell's relationship with the gin bottle, in my opinion, but it at least doesn't go too far into modern psychological thinking.

There is one grating scene about three chapters from the end of the novel.  Lenox receives a telegram update about one of the major players in the mystery and Finch suddenly follows this character through the rest of his lifetime in the next two pages.  The final meeting of this character and Lenox, about 30 years after the scene were Lenox receives the telegram, is even described.  It's very wierd, makes very little practical sense, stops the falling action of the book, and then the next chapter opening doesn't even resume the action smoothly.  Definitely needed more editing for that bit because it really set my teeth on edge.

I am still interested in the series so at some point I'll pick up The September Society.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 17/21

And Then There Were None

"Literature by Women" scheduled Agatha Christie's murder-mystery, set on an isolated island, for November 2009 (meaning I scheduled it after the group voted because I'm the moderator).  This wasn't the first read-through the novel for me; I read it in high school when we did Ten Little Indians in the play adaptation and I've read it a few times since then.  And Then There Were None is truly a masterwork in the mystery/thriller/crime genre.

Without spoiling too much of the plot I can say that I always puzzle over how the reader is supposed to figure out the identity of the murderer before the end of the story (and before the epilogue starts).  The prose is very spare and Christie does not allow the omniscient narrator to get inside the murderer's head.  On this read through, actually, it was the final flip-through before returning the book to the shelf until next time, I think I might have caught onto Christie's very small clue.  I think the ability of the reader to solve the puzzle rests on the amount and type of internal dialogue made available to the reader.  How one is supposed to catch it on a first read (or second or third, for that matter) I don't know but I would need to read through the book again specifically to take note of the internal dialogue.

Project for next time.  Haha.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 16/20

29 November 2009

Complete Booker 2010 Challenge: Hit me!

The Complete Booker blog is hosting a challenge for 2010!  I want to read all the Booker winners eventually and this will be soooo up my alley.  The challenge runs from January 1 - December 31, 2010 so I think I'll aim for the "Winners' Circle" level (read six Booker Prize-winning novels) and mix in a little "Booker Devotee" if I have time (read all six shortlisted novels from a single year).  This might even be a good excuse to re-read Possession so I can get a blog post out of it (haha) but I know that I'll probably read Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha, The Sea, and The Sea, the Sea.

Literature by Women welcomes Flannery O'Connor

"Literature by Women" at Barnes and Noble Book Clubs will be reading The Complete Stories by Flannery O'Connor during December and January (with a two week break over the holidays).  Please join us as we read all 31 of O'Connor's short stories in chronological order starting with "The Geranium."

'Tis the Season: Part 2

I survived Black Friday and Saturday and lived to tell about it (more or less because I came in at 2pm and closed - the major shopping rushes were finished by then).  I actually had a lot of really nice customers - a blessing for a change - but there were a few amusing incidents:
  • a customer asked if we sell scarves....we do sell book-themed umbrellas but no scarves (we did have some Harry Potter-themed ties when the seventh book came out 2 1/2 years ago)
  • a customer complained because we didn't have Sarah Palin's book displayed prominently (it's #1 on the bestseller list for non-fiction, do we need to wrap it in fairy-lights or something?)
  • later, another customer complained because we were actually selling the Sarah Palin book and we shouldn't sell crap (hey dude, I only find the books and take the money, I don't particularly care about anyone's politics, if you don't like it, don't buy it; I know I won't buy it and, by-the-way, we sell a lot of "crap" in varying degrees of taste, just fyi)
  • a tweener walked all the way around the Twilight Saga display (aka "the shrine"), picked up a few items, looked at them, and then came over to me to ask where Eclipse was....she had actually picked up the book and looked at it before coming to ask me for it (I fear for the future of our country)
  • helped a very nice grandma find books for all her grandkids; she was doing pretty good until she couldn't remember how old the last one was (I got her to narrow it down to "middle school girl" who "seems to read pretty good" - I suggested The Westing Game and Redwall with gift receipts just in case)
And, once again, we have some students among the contributors:
  • at least two students/cafe-table-hogs-with-laptops complained about the lack of outlets (gee, this store was built before Wi-Fi networks were even a thought...if you'd like to contribute to the Capital Improvements fund for the store - aka BUY SOMETHING YOU LITTLE BRAT - we might be able to upgrade the wiring sometime in the next 15 years)
  • an undergrad needed a copy of The Pilgrim Hawk so she could finish her homework (we don't have a copy onhand because her professor ordered all the course books through the local indie bookstore, which is closed by 9pm on Saturday nights); when I informed her that we would need to order it, she bugged out her eyes and asked (incredulously) "But how will I get my homework done?" - I suggested she hit the library as soon as it opened on Sunday, but she didn't quite like that answer (this falls back under the categories of either a) I am not even remotely responsible for your homework or b) maybe you should get your act together before you fail out of school)

24 November 2009

Teaser Tuesday: Best Nonrequired Reading 2009

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers
Roy.  Taking a wild berry candy from my pocket I resolve again to focus on a candy under my tongue instead of on him.
~ Rivka Galchen, "Wild Berry Blue", The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers

23 November 2009

Weekly Geeks: The Top Ten Books of 2009

Weekly Geeks is compiling it's "Top Ten Books of 2009" list and I think I'll toss in my two cents.  I'm not really waiting on any books due out in December so I think I can safely say that I can make-up my list. 

The WG staff will compile a master list to vote from after December 4; if you'd like to participate in the Top Ten list-making go to the sign-up page, read the instructions, make your list, and submit it to Mr. Linky.

Happy Thinking!  Here are my Top Ten books of 2009 (I guess they're sort-of in order):

  1. The Children's Book by AS Byatt (literary fiction)
  2. The Girl Who Played With Fire by Stieg Larsson (crime/thriller)
  3. The Best American Essays 2009 edited by Mary Oliver (essay)
  4. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (literary fiction)
  5. Drood by Dan Simmons (fiction)
  6. Under This Unbroken Sky by Shandi Mitchell (fiction)
  7. The Big Rewind by Nathan Rabin (biography)
  8. Mistress of the Monarchy by Alison Weir (history)
  9. Ophelia Joined the Group Maidens Who Don't Float by Sarah Schmelling (humor)
  10. Beowulf on the Beach by Jack Murnighan (lit crit/theory)
Obviously, this is composed of stuff I read that was pubbed for the first time in 2009; I'm sure there are a few good books I missed simply because I haven't read them, yet.

Musing Mondays: School Books

Musing Mondays is hosted by Rebecca at Just One More Page....  Today's question is about school days (she starts her teaching job tomorrow - congrats!):

What books did you read while in school? Were there any that you particular liked, or even hated? Did any become lifelong favourites?

I remember absolutely loathing Upton Sinclair's The Jungle because the first part freaked me out and the second part bored me to tears with all the political propaganda (I was in ninth grade).  I also wanted to tear my eyes out in American Literature; our teacher pretty much ruined The Grapes of Wrath because we had to take quizzes over the symbolism in each chapter.  Horrible.

On the other hand, school put me in touch with One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 and Animal Farm by George Orwell, and The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood.  I actually have school to thank for starting me on my life-long enjoyment of Margaret Atwood's books.  My parents were readers, but didn't read much dystopic literature; I might have found Atwood, Huxley, and Orwell on my own but it would have taken longer.

22 November 2009

The Best American Essays 2008

The 2008 edition of The Best American Essays, edited by Adam Gopnik, has a very different composition from the 2009 edition, edited by Mary Oliver.  The Oliver-selected essays were on the whole quite short, a few jotted thoughts encompassing a complete idea whereas the Gopnik-selected essays are much longer, extended meditations.  I had to read a different way (if that makes any sense).

Gopnik opens the volume by defining three types of essays - review essays, memoir essays, and odd-object essays - and notes that the essay must always hybridize with other forms and genres to stay alive.  Huh.  I do think that's true and the essays Gopnik chose for this volume run to many forms including "Solipsism" by Ander Monson that falls under something more akin to an art form with words (like a letter-press broadside) combined with Word Mark-ups (very interesting).

Jonathan Lethem contributed what was probably my favorite essay "The Ecstacy of Influence: A Plagiarism" about (primarily) how art is created by riffing off extant works and current copyright law/lawsuits about intellectual propterty rights endanger that.  To make his case, Lethem includes a "Key: I is Another" at the end of the main body of the essay:
This key to the preceding essay names the source of every line I stole, warped, and cobbled together as I "wrote" (except, alas, those sources I forgot along the way).  First uses of a given author or speaker are highlighted in bold.  Nearly every sentence I culled I also revised, at least slightly - for necessities of space, in order to produce a more consistent tone, or simply because I felt like it. (p 125)
Lethem follows that up with a "Key to the Key."  It's a very enjoyable essay, meta and tongue-in-cheek at times, but right to the point as regards the limiting nature of "possessing" but not sharing a work of art.

Gopnik included a number of odd-object essays on beading ("On Necklaces" by Emily R.Grosholz), Leica cameras ("Candid Camera" by Anthony Lane), buzzards ("Buzzards" by Lee Zacharias - but also morphs into a memoir essay), and an old boarding house with its occupants ("This Old House" by David Sedaris that is both funny and sad at the same time).  As I noted with the Zacharias piece, most of the odd-object essays are crossed with memoir because each author has a connection with the object at hand; it's like Heiddegger's observation that the act of observation changes the subject (and the author in this case).  The most interesting odd-object essay came from Rich Cohen who contributed "Becoming Adolf" in which he meditated on moustache types and his experiment with wearing a toothbrush (aka Hitler) moustache.

Atul Gawande made an appearance (surprisingly, I would have thought this would be for the Science and Nature Writing volume) with an essay titled "The Way We Age Now" about the aging US population and diminishing quality of geriatric (aka Older Adult Health) medical care.  Gawande profiles Dr. Felix Silverstone, a leading researcher in geriatrics for fifty years who recently retired at the age of 82 and understands all to well what is happening to his body, health, and mind.  This was the most affecting essay in the collection, for me, because Dr. Silverstone reminded me of my 83 year old grandfather who is still fiercely independent, goes to work everyday at his lumberyard (even though my uncle "owns" and "operates" it now), drives his Caddy all over hill and dale, and is sharp as a tack.  When I get old, I want to be like my grandfather.  It is concerning that the population in the US is graying and aging rapidly but the ability of the healthcare system to continue to offer quality medical care specialized to the elderly is failing.  Very, very scary.

I'm off to my next volume in my Best American Series project.  I'm about to be aided by a massive used book buy from Alibris (free shipping from Alibris's warehouse + 15% off coupon = 32 trade paperback for less than $55; genius)

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 15/19

20 November 2009

New Moon: if you're Beth and Katharine you shouldn't read this until Tuesday!

This might have spoilers so you're forewarned.

My interest in the Twilight books and movie adaptations has diminished over time but I do have a friend or two (*cough* Jackie and Michelle *cough*) who LOVE the series...so I went to the midnight premiere of New Moon (at the loathed Marcus Theatres, as if I have any choice in venue).  They started seating at around 10:30 which made it less of a crazy mess unlike The Dark Knight release where they seated late and delayed for over half an hour while people went to the concession stand.  Aside from the insane squeakings of tweeners/teens in the audience it was pretty low key.

But the movie...I really can't get excited about it and I'm pretty "meh" about it overall.  There are vast improvements over Twilight.  The make-up was 10,000 times better because Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) no longer looks like Data from Star Trek:The Next Generation (thank you, because it was laughable during close-ups in Twilight) and all the make-up effects in general looked far better.  Ditto on the special effects (see what happens when you actually SPEND MONEY on them?).  The cinematography also improved with some beautiful tracking shots including a spinning camera effect that really does mirror Bella's sense of helplessness (bravo to the DP); it's also very 3-Desque so if you're prone to motion-sickness the shot gives a sense of vertigo but it looks great.

On the other hand, the acting is verging on the deplorable.  Graham Greene, a wonderful actor, is given absolutely NOTHING to do except stand around with a hang-dog expression - he's almost relegated to side-kick status and I didn't get that feeling for his character (Harry Clearwater) in the book.  Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner, for all their hype, convey emotion by looking down to the right and squinting - is that anger? love? pain? what?  Kristen Stewart doesn't do much for me...I don't feel her character has presence on the screen.  The four high school kids are really two-dimensional (especially Jessica) and, in the case of Mike, look older than me (and I couldn't pass for high school).  The real actors finally made an appearance in Volterra (thank God, because I was reduced to Tweeting how bored I was).  Michael Sheen plays what is essentially a stock villain but he does Aro so well and Dakota Fanning, well, her ability to play creepy children really pays off in the role of Jane.  Out of all the characters and elements, the Volturi are the ones who I most look forward to seeing in the last two movies; that doesn't speak well for the rest of the bunch.

I would be less a curmudgeon about the Twilight adaptations if I didn't have to sit in a theatre with tweeners who experience orgasm when Taylor Lautner takes off his shirt (which is a lot).  It's almost like the director is trying to distract from a thin script and mediocre actors with some skin...which is a lot like porn.  Scary.  Any which way I cut it, I have two movies left in the series to endure with screaming tweens; I am actually looking forward to Eclipse* and I expect quite a lot out of the battle sequence with the baby vampires and werewolves but I'm probably going to have issues with Breaking Dawn since there were plot elements in that one I thought were garbage.

And now for some previews!
1.  It's Complicated - kinda cute-looking Nancy Meyers film starring Meryl Streep (drool) and Alec Baldwin (used to like him) as a divorced couple who start having an affair with each other
2.  Dear John - adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks novel of the same name *puke* with Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried; I will not see this
3.  Sherlock Holmes - gotta tell ya, I was pretty on the fence about this one (particularly Robert Downey, Jr., as my favorite Victorian detective), but this is the third and longest preview I've seen....they got me,  I will watch this
4.  Letters to Juliet - romantic comedy (?comedy) about a lost love-letter starring Vanessa Redgrave and Amanda Seyfried; this looks like a good box-of-tissues movie

And then we saw a stupid Dt Pepsi commercial that isn't funny on TV (because I've seen it a million times) but all the tweens laughed; the adults didn't.

*New Moon was actually my least favorite of the four Twilight books as far as storyline, being very much a bridging book

19 November 2009

BTT: Posterity

This week’s Booking Through Thursday question was submitted by Barbara:

Do you think any current author is of the same caliber as Dickens, Austen, Bronte, or any of the classic authors? If so, who, and why do you think so? If not, why not? What books from this era might be read 100 years from now?

As far as authors that have the "stuff" to get into the Pantheon of Dickens, Austen, and Bronte, Stephen King really leads the pack; he has professed to having Dickens as a favorite author and it shows - his characters are memorable and myriad (Carrie, Cujo, Roland, Jack, etc).  Jasper Fforde is another that I think sits right up there; in my opinion, he is the one who comes closest to the Austen comedy of manners (even though he both creates his world and comments on it to boot) and makes ample use of the ironic voice.  Toni Morrison writes some of the most heartbreaking scenes in all of literature and Margaret Atwood writes unforgettable stories.  I would put Stieg Larsson up there, too, because he has created one of the most unlikely heroines/anti-heroines in Lisbeth Salander.

As to what will be read in 100 years, only time will tell.  Authors die out and are resurrected all the time depending on trend and taste.  The feminist movement brought a number of "forgotten" female authors to the foreground (Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Kate Chopin for instance); even Faulkner fell by the wayside until his Nobel appeared.  I have my favorites and I'll read them and push them onto others, as long as I have breath to do so.

Hooray for Flannery O'Connor!

The Complete Stories was voted the Best of the National Book Awards Fiction for the 60th anniversary of the National Book Awards.  The Complete Stories was published posthumously (twelve of the thirty-nine stories had never been published in book form previously) and won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1972.

Conveniently enough "Literature by Women" at the Barnes and Noble Book Clubs will be reading Flannery O'Connor's The Complete Stories throughout December and January.  Hooray!  Yours truly is moderating.

I also plan to read Brad Gooch's O'Connor biography - it's been hanging around the house.

'Tis the Season: Part 1

The holiday season is upon us, more or less, with frayed nerves and odd behavior making an early appearance.  So far this holiday season we've had:
  • someone call and ask for the Cartoon Bible (actually, they wanted the R. Crumb Book of Genesis)
  • a mom whip out a travelling potty chair in the middle of the children's section of the store and seat her bare-bottomed child on it (I am not even remotely kidding - she did this at least twice before she got the hint that she should take her child to the bathroom)
  • a phone customer who asked for a book by "that tired old hag" ("that tired old hag" turned out to be Sarah Palin; I'm not a Palin fan, but that's pretty mean)
  • a very funny pair of moms ask me if The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would be over their heads (nope, I don't think so, and I sold them a boat-load of books for their kids, too)
  • a very worried customer double-check that we had a copy of Stephen King's Under the Dome on reserve for her in case we ran out (I wish we would have a run on a well-written book for once, le sigh)
  • an undergrad ask me to explain his homework assignment (sorry, dude - I am not even remotely responsible for any part of your homework just because I know who Eleanor of Aquitaine is without having to look it up)
and (because I think freak-outs are unneccessary this early in the season)
  • some lady freak-out on me - while I was helping another customer with Curious George books - and demand that I show her the Warriors "magma" series RIGHT NOW (there is no "magma" series, she needed the "manga" series and my customer was very nice about letting me get those "magma" books for the freak-out lady)
There're at least six weeks left in the holiday season so stay tuned for more strange behavior as the big day approaches!

18 November 2009

Wordless Wednesday: I actually have a picture!

Hosted by Wordless Wednesday.

*I know this is supposed to be "wordless" but think about how long it might have taken my cats to get comfortable this morning after I got up.

17 November 2009

Women Unbound Start-of-Challenge Meme

For inquiring minds:

1. What does feminism mean to you? Does it have to do with the work sphere? The social sphere? How you dress? How you act?

I think that none of us should be limited as to life choice by simple virtue of chromosome assortment.  I have two X chromosomes - meaning I am biochemically and physically capable of bearing children and displaying female sex characteristics - but that doesn't mean I can't learn complex tasks or do physically exacting tasks (being estrogen-positive I don't have the testosterone level capable of building bulk muscle so I can't quite match up to the XY assortment on sheer strength).  If I so choose I can be an aerospace engineer, a firefighter, or a stay-at-home mom.  However, on the flip side I also feel a male should have just as much choice even to the point of being the stay-at-home parent (which is still a socially discouraged role in the twenty-first century).  I have very often delighted at being the smartest person in the room particularly when that room is full of boys who think I don't have a brain because I have a heavy-duty bra size and working ovaries. 

I think feminism applies to all aspects of life from the boardroom to the home.  Aside from the biological imperative, there shouldn't be "boys jobs" and "girls jobs" - if neither partner wants to stay home and take care of the kids then they need a sitter rather than assume that one partner will stay home simply because one of them happens to be female (or male, for that matter).  Being a feminist means that I want to be respected for who I am.  I personally don't dress promiscuously, and I'm not ever going to burn my bras because I need them, but no one ever died because they saw a woman wearing a short skirt or sans lingerie (it might be aesthetically revolting but it is a free country).  Ditto on the social life; I do not sleep around because that's pretty much inviting either an STD or a pregnancy, neither of which I want, but if you're going to call a girl a slut for having multiple partners the guys can partake of that appellation, too.

2. Do you consider yourself a feminist? Why or why not?

Yes.  I give a lot of credit for my attitude to my father who always thought that his first-born child should be able to do anything she wants, period (which is why I know how to play baseball not softball).  He kicked my butt for not getting good grades (giving me enough rope to get a taste of failure through procrastination - thanks, Dad) but let me choose my own hobbies (I was on the dance team, band, choir, drama, show choir, jazz band, etc).  When I wanted to be a doctor my parents were behind me one hundred percent without pressure to get married and have kids rather than spend my days studying and taking care of sick people.  I didn't go to medical school (stupid admissions committee) but my parents always made it clear that nothing was "too hard" for me because I was a girl.

I'm a member of the co-ed professional chemistry fraternity Alpha Chi Sigma - right now, I serve as a district counselor - and I joined when I was in undergrad.  No one was ever valued more or less because they happened to be a girl and many of us also helped out with WISE (Women in Science and Engineering).  AXS also hosts Merit Badge days for Boy and Girl Scouts.  I had a pretty sad day at one Merit Badge program.  Another (female) member of AXS and I were taking a group of Girl Scouts through a laboratory tour, showing off all the cool lab toys, and at the end of the tour we asked who wanted to learn chemistry - all the girls in the group declined, it was "too hard" and, according to one 11-ish year old girl, for boys.  We were floored; the majority of the presenters that day were women and we had just finished off with flame-testing where the girls oohed-and-aaahhhed over the colors...too hard? For boys?  The scientist-women in the 1950s and 1960s had to endure a lot, often as the only woman in an entire lecture, to give me the opportunity to learn in an environment that's approximately 50-50 on gender and I worked my butt off to prove that I belonged in that classroom.  Now these girls are ready to just throw it away because someone told them it was too hard or for boys?  Where do these girls go to school?  I decided to throw them a curve ball and asked this group of middle-school girls who wanted to be a doctor or veterinarian (I noticed several of the girls wearing old riding boots) - and nearly every girl raised their hand.  I then pointed out that veterinarians and doctors have to take at least four semesters of college chemistry before taking entrance exams....the girls looked very thoughtful at that point and I further made the point that every "girl" they met that day posted excellent grades in chemistry, biology, physics, and mathematics, that nothing was too hard.  I hope I changed a few minds that day.

3. What do you consider the biggest obstacle women face in the world today? Has that obstacle changed over time, or does it basically remain the same?

I think prejudice against education and choice are the two biggest problems women face (as evidenced by my above example).  A lot of barriers have been broken as far as workplace, benefits, education, etc., but there's still an attitude that persists that women just aren't worthy of education or high-level employment.  The prejudice that an inherent "femaleness" prevents one from performing serious intellectual work or working while bearing children still exists even in the United States; I've occasionally run into that myself (most noteably in the form of a cocky red-neck frat-boy in my organic chemistry class who boasted about being soooo smart, so much smarter than any girl, and four of us "chicks" pasted his butt on our final).  It takes culture change and while there are still males who feel threatened by intelligent, strong women that prejudice will still propagate.

Women Unbound Reading Challenge: Me too!!

When the Women Unbound Reading Challenge was first posted, I misread the dates and thought it was for November 2009 only.  So I wasn't going to sign up since I had a whole boatload of books to read for this month.

Silly me.

It's really for the whole year, November 2009 through November 2010.  I'm all for that. Lemme see....I think I'll have to join at the Suffragette level (at least eight books in the year, at least three of them non-fiction) since I am the moderator of "Literature by Women" and a good number of those books would probably count under the fiction heading.  I've already got one book in the works (Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers) that will take part of the year to read.

I think there's a meme or something I should fill out....

Teaser Tuesday: A Truth Universally Acknowledged

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!
Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers
One of the things that makes her novels exciting is that she is so acute a commentator on the intellectual and cultural currents of her time. Not that she pontificates about them; rather she detects their presence, notes with interest and amusement how they are reflected in the trivia of everyday life and speech.
~ p 169, A Truth Universally Acknowledged, John Wiltshire, "Why do we read Jane Austen?"
*I've caught some sort of crummy cold meaning I've done nothing in my free time except lay in bed and stare blankly at the TV while I listen to myself breathing (welcome to colds+asthma).  So NaBloPoMo is a bit thin on the ground this year for me.

11 November 2009

The Post-American World

I picked up Fareed Zakaria's The Post-American World last November when it had a lot of momentum.  I also bought Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine at the same time.  I had The Shock Doctrine done by Thanksgiving - and then spent the holiday car-ride to my grandfather's house discussing the points of the book with my father - but the Zakaria....

I had to force myself to go back and finish this.  I find that his outlook is a little too "rose-colored glasses" or "glass is half-full" for my taste.  With the economic downturn I think we have to look critically at the US economic policies, which have obviously been allowed to run amok with little oversight, and acknowledge that the "American way" is not the only way.  Zakaria also seems to favor remnants of colonialism, pointing out the similarities and differences between the US and British Imperialism, which is a bit stale given most countries' nationalist tendencies.  Zakaria also praises the work of Margaret Thatcher, yes, the "Iron Lady" who revived the UK economy with her "reforms;" last time I checked, Thatcher treated a lot of working-class people as less than human with her "reforms" and privatization and I think that is reprehensible.  One of the only things I found applicable in Zakaria's book was the idea that the US isn't falling behind as many alarmists like to point out - it's just that many countries are just now catching up to the US and taking a larger piece of the pie.  Maybe we need to learn to share the sandbox.

This isn't a terrible book, but I just didn't care about any of his points after a while.  Particularly the last chapter with it's numbered, bulleted list - I had started skimming the book by then.  So, I'm pretty "blah"/"meh" about this book.  If you want a sunny outlook about the US, read Zakaria.  If you want to make your hair stand on end and get all worked up about US economic practices, read the Wolf.

Clear Off Your Shelves Reading Challenge: 14/18

10 November 2009

Teaser Tuesday: The Best American Essays 2008

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
When people speak of the dark years after the war, they usually have in mind political oppression and hunger, but what I see are poorly lit streets with black windows and doorways as dark as the inside of a coffin.  If the lone light bulb one used to read by  in bed late into the night died suddenly, it was not likely to be replaced soon.
~ p 229, Charles Simic, "The Renegade," The Best American Essays 2008, edited by Adam Gopnik

08 November 2009

The Best American Essays 2009

My decision to start my Best American project was made when I read the first essay in The Best American Essays 2009; Sue Allison's short meditation on words - Taking a Reading from Mid-American Review - knocked my socks off.  If this is what I'm missing every year I need to read more.  More, more, more.

This a slim volume - less than 200 pages - and every essay Mary Oliver picked was a gem.  Richard Rodriguez meditates on the desert religions of the Holy Land in The God of the Desert, Gregory Orr relates a harrowing personal episode in Return to Hayneville, and Michael Lewis tells of his family's sojourn in The Mansion: A Subprime Parable.  Kathyrn Miles brings Darwin's canine companion, Dolly, to life in Dog is Our Copilot and Jill McCorkle observes the uses of profanity in Cuss Time.

Most enjoyable was John Updike's essay The Writer in Winter, almost heart-breaking in the honesty of an aging writer's essay:
With ominous frequency, I can't think of the right word.  I know there is a word; I can visualize the exact shape it occupies in the jigsaw puzzle of the English language.  But the word itself, with its precise edges and unique tint of meaning, hangs on the misty rim of consciousness (pp 173-174).

I want more.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 13/17

07 November 2009

The PW "dudes-only" list kerfluffle: seriously? only men?

If you read blogs - book blogger, industry, or otherwise - you've probably heard of the Publisher's Weekly Best of 2009 list comprised solely of male authors.  The intent was to eliminate bias by not considering the authors' genders...right.  I've got what amounts to a minor in biostatistics and I can tell you that unless you draw the names out of a hat there's going to be bias, conscious or not (I'll ignore the irony of a "Best of 2009" list that is published two months before the end of 2009).

Statistically speaking, if you ignore gender then the male/female ratio in the final list would be proportional to the male/female ratio in the longlist (which I guess numbered in the thousands).  But we're not talking about random assortment here, we're talking about a list generated by a value judgement made by humans.  Gender will bias the outcome unless you can find readers who know absolutely nothing about the novels under consideration (i.e. a group of blinded subjects), have them read each book under consideration without information as to who the author is/what gender the author is, and then make the final list based on the blinded group's opinion.  That's absolutely not going to happen - it is unrealistic.

A few people have brought up the "devil's advocate" position that there would be outcry if the "Best of 2009" list consisted of all female authors.  I'm sure people would cry bias on that instance, too, even if claims were made about the non-gendered consideration of the list.  PW also claimed to ignore genre, too, and in that instance they did hit a 50-50 split between fiction and non-fiction (conveniently enough).  But....is the publishing world split 50-50 between fiction and non-fiction?  I don't think so.  And did they consider YA or children's books?  Those books do consitute a genre based on age.

Personally, I find several titles on the list inferior to critically acclaimed titles released this year.  In particular, I am disappointed that The Help by Kathryn Stockett is not on this list; anything that is a "word-of-mouth" bestseller and very highly praised critically deserves "Best-of" recognition.  Hilary Mantel won the Booker Prize but neither she not Stockett even made the fiction longlist.  Brad Gooch's biography of Flannery O'Connor failed to make the history longlist, too. 

What's my point?  This is all subjective.  Publisher's Weekly should have said this is the list and not tried to say they avoided gender and genre; because the list-makers are human and there will always be bias.  Better to acknowledge the bias as it is than try and dismiss it.

06 November 2009

New Project: Best American Series

Because I am completely nuts, and need a way to organize my reading, I am starting another project.  I, more or less, hope that this helps moderate my ADD reading habits but I'm thinking probably not.

Of late, I've become enamoured of the Best American series from Houghton Mifflin.  I would like to read all of them, particularly those in the science/nature, essay, non-required reading, and short-story genre (mystery and travel writing may sneak in there, too, but I'm not terribly interested in the sports writing category).  I'm not really calling this a challenge, because the series is perpetual at this point in time, but I would like to catch up on the last few years before the 2010 volumes come out.  I think I will hit up the used bookstores in town for some of the much older volumes (and to save a bit of money).

Hooray, for new projects!

05 November 2009

Bookspotting: November 5, 2009

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo 
An Ann Rule true crime (mass-market - title not visible)
The Dangerous Days of Daniel X
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Another mass-market paperback, looks new
USA Today
Three. Screaming. Children. All from separate families. And some woman taking up 4 seats with her ginormous stroller she won't fold up.

And what was I reading? The Satanic Verses and thinking mean thoughts about people who insist on riding the bus during rush hour (i.e. when the bus is guaranteed to be packed) and taking up waaaay more space than they need.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

I picked up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies in April when it came out.  I have a long-standing loathing of any and all Austen "sequels", "prequels", adaptations, re-tellings, etc. because all lack the Austen sparkle, that touch of everyday life with biting irony and observation.  Not to mention many either devolve into bodice rippers (for serious?) or put the characters in situations that would NEVER have made it to print in Regency England (a homosexual sex ring, for instance).  PPZ, on the other hand, admitted up front that at least 80% of the original novel had been retained with the zombie plot laid over it - I'll give that a try.

PPZ is pretty funny - it is a parody/mash-up after all - and doesn't take itself seriously (which was nice because so many of the Austen-hangers-on do take themselves seriously).  There are some scenes I really didn't think necessary (Mr. Bennet calling Mrs. Bennet an "old cur" is one of them) but some scenes were hysterical.  My favorite scene was the one where Lizzie first visits Rosings and gets interrogated by Lady Catherine, only in this version it's not "governesses" who are the issue it's "ninjas," and the scene is played almost completely straight.  Very, very funny.  The author also gave a few people a decent comeuppance *cough*Mr. Wickam*cough* that was just a little more satisfying than in the original because Grahame-Smith does have the advantage of nearly 200 years of psychological and literary development at his disposal.

I had a lot of fun reading PPZ.  It was a very fast read, even for me, since I know the original Pride and Prejudice inside out.  While I had a good laugh reading PPZ I really wasn't so impressed with it.  It's a funny mash-up but it wasn't so fantastic that Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter are necessary.  Funny, but not really something I want to read again.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 12/16

03 November 2009

The Mill on the Floss/Frankenstein

Being behind on BNBC "Literature by Women" reviews I'm going to take care of two books in one post.  These will be quick.

The Mill on the Floss - A nice change for an October read when everything else is on the supernatural/horror side of fiction.  This is an autobiographical (to some extent) novel and Eliot does quite a good job contrasting the situation of girls/women who don't meet society's standard (Maggie, aka Eliot herself) with girls/women who embody the societal ideal (Lucy) and the freedom allowed to boys (Tom).  Although the ending seems a bit convenient, according to Eliot she had that scene down first and then tailored the narrative to fit the ending.  A plus with this novel is the beautiful nature imagery Eliot uses when speaking of life on the River Floss.

Frankenstein - A hold-over from September (oops).  There isn't much I can add to any discussion of this novel.  What I can say is that once the novice reader can get past the nested story-within-a-story-within-a-story it is well-worth reading the Monster's tale because it draws from so much of the metaphysical and scientific discussion at the famous Lake Geneva sojurn with Polidori, Shelley, and Byron.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 11/15
*Frankenstein doesn't count for this challenge, being read in September

Harry Potter's Bookshelf

Right before the seventh Harry Potter book was released I read an interesting collection of literary criticism, The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter, edited by Laura Whited.  The ideas that came from academic articles were very interesting - some reinforced connections I had made with the Harry Potter books, others presented new ideas (I keep hoping Whited will publish a new edition of her book with essays and articles encomapssing all seven books).  When John Granger published Harry Potter's Bookshelf, a piece more on the literary criticism side than the religious side, I was really eager to pick it up.

Granger presents some interesting parallels between JKR's seven novels and other literary tropes and genres.  I hadn't even thought of the "school-boy" novel, which Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone fits perfectly, because I hadn't read Tom Brown's School Days or any other novels in the boarding school genre.  Granger also ties the three stages of alchemy - nigredo, albedo, and rubedo - into the three final books in the series.  It's very interesting how the principles dovetail with the narrative.

The one thing I wished this book had was a little more meat.  Granger's theories seem well-supported in some chapters, like the alchemy one, but are superficial in others, the Austen chapter in particular.  It seemed a little "lit crit lite," more for the layman than the serious scholar which is something I find irritating, like the writer assumes you can't handle and indepth discussion.  Granger splits between good texutal analysis and tangential conjecture; while the book was enjoyable I just wish there had been a little more.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count:  11/14

Teaser Tuesday: And Then There Were None

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading. Anyone can play along!

Just do the following:
- Grab your current read
- Open to a random page
- Share two (2) “teaser” sentences from somewhere on that page
- BE CAREFUL NOT TO INCLUDE SPOILERS! (make sure that what you share doesn’t give too much away! You don’t want to ruin the book for others!)
- Share the title & author, too, so that other TT participants can add the book to their TBR Lists if they like your teasers!
Five people - five frightened people.  Five people who watched each other, who now hardly troubled to hide their state of nervous tension.
~ p 185, And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie

02 November 2009

And Then There Were None - "Literature by Women" November!

Come on over and get creeped out with And Then There Were None - the November feature for the "Literature by Women" Barnes and Noble Book Group.

It's a fast read and one of my favorite Agatha Christie mysteries.

The Mysteries of Udolpho

I had to go back and re-read this since I'd plowed through it for LbW moderating duties before December 2008; I hadn't had much chance to enjoy it then.

There is quite a bit to enjoy about The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Radcliffe does conjure up beautiful French and Italian countrysides, creepy castles with labryinthine secret passages, and myriad sunrises and sunsets to admire.  There is a lot of atmosphere in the book and I do appreciate that (ooooh, the black veil, creepy).  The heroine Emily St. Aubert I do not appreciate quite so much; she faints a lot and cries a lot and writes the eighteenth-century equivalent of emo teenager poetry (Valancourt isn't much better but at least he doesn't swoon all the time).

That being said I think it is important for anyone who reads Jane Austen, the Brontes, Dickens, etc., to read The Mysteries of Udolpho.  Austen was heavily indebted to Radcliffe in the composition of Northanger Abbey (even to the point of Catherine reading Udolpho on Isabella's recommendation) and the long Gothic novel helped usher in the vogue for novels like Wuthering Heights, Jane Eyre, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Bleak House, and Little Dorrit.  I found I had to put myself into the mindset of an eighteenth-century, sheltered, middlingly educated, young woman to really enjoy Udolpho fully; that mindset finds mystery and enchantment in the writing whereas my twenty-first century sensibilities are wondering why anyone would subject themselves to that nut Montoni for any longer than thirty seconds or start fantasizing about pushing Emily off the nearest parapet so we don't have to listen to her anymore.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 10/13

01 November 2009

The Best Science Writing 2009 - Times 2!

One of my more recent goals is to read more science writing (when I start eyeballing my old physics textbook I know it's been a while since I did any serious science reading).  Conveniently, the "best" collections were published recently and I picked up two of them: The Best American Science Writing 2009 edited by Natalie Angier and The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2009 (from the "Best American Series") edited by Elizabeth Kolbert.  Definitely a good place to start.

There is an overlap of three essays between the two volumes, which isn't too bad considering the two series have different editors and publishers: Atul Gawande "The Itch," J. Madeline Nash "Back to the Future," and David Quammen "Contagious Cancer."  Another overlap occured in two articles on verbal language in animals where Alex, the chatty African Gray parrot owned by Irene Pepperberg, took center stage and in two articles on recycling human waste.  Oliver Sachs and Gary Wolf each had different articles in the two volumes (does that make sense?).

Of the two volumes, the Kolbert-helmed book has the better breadth of topics in my opinion ranging from biomedical questions to psychology to economics (an odd choice, but appropriate for a science volume) to paleontology to theoretical physics.  Even the physics articles were well-chosen because they were well-written and easy to understand.  Nicholas Carr's reflective piece "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" was a very thought-provoking essay, as well as Benjamin Phelan's thoughts on human evolution, and Michelle Nijuis's essay "Taking Wildness in Hand" about deliberate relocation of species to avoid extinction.

I also didn't understand the arrangement of articles in the Angier volume.  Kolbert went for a straightforward alphabetical-by-author arrangement but I couldn't tell if Angier had arranged the articles to flow from one discipline to the next or had put her favorite article first (the Gawande) because the arrangement just didn't make any sense.  It didn't lend to easy reading because I assumed there was a flow to the Angier....and there was none. With the Kolbert I knew there was no superimposed order beyond the alphabet so I felt I could pick and choose my way through the book until I read all the articles.

Angier included two articles in her volume that I didn't quite see as necessary to the best science writing of the year: Theresa Brown's article about learning to enjoy life through caring for a dying woman (didn't quite find the point) and Dennis Overbye's piece about theoretical cosmology which was actually pretty hard to read (meaning I thought it could be done better).  Angier did include a wonderful piece about cataloging the evidence of physical torture, Jina Moore's "Reading the Body" which was beautifully written and highlights the problem of "proof" for torture victims.

The best essay overall was Atul Gawande's "The Itch" - included in both volumes for good reason.  He has a great writing style and covers a particular conundrum in cognition - how the brain interprets itch signals - beginning with the case-study of a woman who had unrelenting scalp itch causing her to scratch through her skull into her brain.  Freaky, right?  Go read the article to find out how her condition is treated.

I think I should go back and get the other Science and Nature volumes of the Best American Series - I really enjoyed Kolbert's work (she's featured in earlier volumes as a contributor) and Mobute recommended the article "Ask the Bird People" from the 2004 collection.  They're all still available, too.

Clear Off Your Shelves Challenge Count: 9/12