Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Audio books

I have shared my thoughts on the new wave of e-readers before (here if you missed it) but I have never experienced an audio book. However, with a six-hour bus ride across the Mid-West looming before me, and myself unable to read in a moving vehicle without becoming violently ill, I did something drastic. I loaded up my ipod nano with all of the Harry Potter audio books, read by Jim Dale.

The one I chose to listen to first was Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince because it is one of my favorites in the series and I wanted to brush up on it before I moved on to Deathly Hallows.

I do have a special place in my heart for the art of storytelling. My father read The Lord of the Rings series, yes all of them, to my two brothers and I when we were very young. He did voices for all of the characters and though I cannot remember everything from his reading, the story has a very special place in my heart.

Anyway, back to Harry Potter. Jim Dale does an amazing job of creating voices for all of the different characters, and has a beautiful narration voice as well. " So much so that even when I turned off my ipod, I could still hear him in my mind, narrating away about what I was doing. The only thing I couldn't stand was the way Dale had Hermoine whine "Haaaaarrrrryyy" every single time she says his name.

I have listened to a good chunk of Deathly Hallows after finishing my first audio book, but I am not sure how much I like this medium. I mean, for my travelling purposes, it was wonderful. And I suppose if I was the type to actually go to the gym it would be nice to be able to listen to something literary while on the elliptical. But I am just first and foremost a fan of the printed word. It is nice to have these audio books in my back pocket, but I think I will save them for when reading an actual book just isn't practical.

Do any of you readers listen to audio books regularly? Have any favorites? Any that you cannot stand?

Sunday, September 26, 2010

I supposed all printed words to be true

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters is a book I plucked from my 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I had never heard of it before and had to special request it from our library system. I have a lot to say about this book but first I want to start with a problem, or maybe more of an annoyance I have had while reading lately.I find that I have no trouble telling where the plot is going, telling where the twists are going to be and which minor characters are going to come in at a critical moment and revel something shocking. There are just a few books out there that have generally causes me to exclaim "What the hell?"

Fingersmith had me exclaiming this over and over again. I was so shocked and amazed by how complicated and beautifully crafted this story was and could not read it fast enough. Geoff would come home from class and I would be reading and chewing my lips telling him I was freaking out because of this book. It was wonderful.

The novel starts in the heart of the shady part of London, with a girl named Susan Trinder. She is raised in a family much like Oliver Twist, loved by the woman of the house like a daughter even though Sue's mother was hanged as a murderess. Sue is happy with her life and one day a friend of the house, Gentleman, comes by with the scheme of a lifetime, and it all hinges on Sue. He has a post helping a real gentleman in the country work on his library and this man has a niece, Maud, who needs a maid. Maud is set to inherit a ton of money, but only if she marries. If Sue can help persuade Maud to marry Gentleman, the plan is to then put Maud in a madhouse and make off with her money. So Sue goes to the country house Briar to be maid to a fine lady.

"The skin of her hands was smooth - but, like the rest of her, to smooth to be right, I never saw it without thinking of the things - rough things, sharp things - that would mark or hurt it."

Maud and Sue quickly become close, though Sue always tries to keep in mind that she is plotting against this woman. Because of Maud's night terrors, they sleep in the same bed and soon Sue realizes that she has strong feelings for Maud.

"But by then I could only see that there was once a time when we had walked about, and then a time when we walked together."

After agreeing to marry Gentleman, Maud and Sue share a very intimate night together and Sue is just seething with jealousy. But the wedding goes through and off they go to the mad house. And then shit gets crazy.The second part is told through Maud's eyes and we get her perspective from the start and onward. In the third part we return to Sue and her determined quest for vengeance.

I don't want to spoil the rest of the book but I will just say that it does an amazing job of parallelling the lives of Sue and Maud. Both end up trapped in situations they are desperate to escape and both expect the blood of their mother's to show up in themselves. Sue's mother was a murderess so she is always sure that her bad blood will see her through her misdeeds. Maud's mother died in a mental institution, and she grew up in one and is desperate not to go back. 

I imagine that the reason I have never heard of this book before is because of the lesbian aspect of it, but truthfully it is a beautifully done story about two women who love each other despite their own intentions. Because of the time, neither could come out and say how they felt at the start for fear and my heart ached when they had moments where if only one of them would have reached out perhaps they would not have had to go through the pain they end up going through. 

"But I thought desire smaller, neater; I supposed it bound to its own organs as taste is bound to the mouth, vision to the eye. This feeling haunts and inhabits me, like a sickness. It covers me, like skin."

After finally finishing (I literally could not put this book down and read it in two days), I have to say that this is one of my new favorites. Top ten, even. The characters were realistic and complex, the plot was so amazing and the pain and longing seemed to seep right off the page and into my heart.

They were not used to asking much, they had had practice.

A.S. Byatt did an awesome job at Possession, and this little book caught my eye at the library. These five short stories were all easy and interesting reads, some feeling more like modern fairy tales.

"The Thing in the Forest" was one of the ones that seemed so much like a modern fairy tale or scary story. It just starts out beautifully: "There were once two little girls who saw, or believed they saw, a thing in the forest." Simple yet hooked me right away. They share this wonderful and horrifying experience and then reconnect after years of separation.

"Body Art" was a little more realistic and a little longer, about a doctor who has a complicated relationship with an art student.

"There was a man, who had been dying, and then dead. And there was an idea of who he was, which was a dream, which was a poem, which was a moral cage, which was a film over a clear vision of things."

"(for Torfi Tulinius) is beautiful. A woman's mother dies and then she begins to discover that her own body is transforming into rocks and minerals. This is a slow process that has her body evolving every day. She goes in search of a final resting place, and instead finds her way to where she belongs.

"...a necklace of veiled swelling above her collar-bone which broke slowly through the skin like eyes from closed lids."

"Raw Material" is another more realistic story about a creative writing teacher and the writing of one student that captivates him. The ending is shocking and unexpected, and delightfully unresolved.

"The Pink Ribbon" is a bit of a mix between the more fantastical stories and the realistic. A man is caring for his wife who has pretty severe brain damage and he hallucinates - or does he - a woman who comes in and visits him at night.

I love a good book of short stories and this one was wonderful. Each was interesting and fantastical and the whole book flowed together very nicely. Short story lovers - get your hands on this!

Friday, September 24, 2010

The ghost of a tree

Sorry for the absence! I have been in Ohio visiting the boyfriend on a little vacation and had a wonderful time. And I somehow managed to get a ton of reading done, so be ready for some updates this week!

Having loved The Time Traveller's Wife, I knew sooner or later I would get around to this one. The story focuses on twin girls, Julia and Valentia as the inherit the London flat from their mother's estranged twin (Elspeth). We get chapters from so many perspectives, Roberts (Elspeth's lover and downstairs neighbor), Martin (the OCD neighbor upstairs), and Elspeth herself, a ghost trapped in the apartment with the twins.

"I think perhaps if that sort of thing does happen - ghosts - it must be more beautiful, more surprising than all those tales would have us believe."

Valentina and Julia are so wrapped up in each other that at the beginning neither can do anything without the other, though one may want to. They explore London and the graveyard next door to their flat where Robert works and which houses Elspeth's tomb. And then Elspeth finds a way to communicate with the twins and things get very complicated. Valentina starts a romantic relationship with Robert while Julia starts taking daily tea with Martin and Elspeth's ghost continues to scheme, trapped in the apartment.

"Everything in the room seemed to have been drained of colour. Julia wondered is the colour had all collected somewhere else, perhaps it was in some closet, and when they opened that door it would all flood back into the objects it had deserted."

I really enjoyed this book and had to stay up super late finishing it, however, the ending left me a little underwhelmed. The twists and turns were gripping, but I just cannot help but feel a little let down. The characters were wonderful though, and maybe I just missed something since I was reading so late.

In other news, the poll has closed and I am left with a tie! Bleak House and The Idiot both had the most votes so I will just have to read them both. Luckily Geoff had a copy of Bleak House on hand and I'm already working my way through it. I was alarmed to look at my bookcases and not find the copy of The Idiot I wanted on my Russian shelves so I may have to dig through the boxes to find it. Or I might just have to read the paperback version I found at a garage sale. I am still working my way through Dead Souls by Gogol, so The Idiot will just have to wait a little longer.

Coming up this week: a book of short stories, another graphic novel, a book that just may be in my top ten faves, and thoughts on finishing my first audio-book ever.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Am I the only one who made a costume?

Runaways Volume 2: Teenage Wasteland by Brian K. Vaughn and Adrian Alphona.

I'm probably not going to blog a whole lot about the rest of this series, but I will say that it has hooked me enough to have a stack of them waiting to be read. The teens continue to hide away from their parents, determined to do what is right. They pick up another young teen who seems to be in a similar situations, but he has some dark secrets of his own. Also everyone starts kissing everyone.

In other news, I'm taking a gigantic bus trip tomorrow to see the boyfriend and am fully prepared with all of the Harry Potter books on audio. Some of you may know that I am a giant snob about books in other mediums but so far I have enjoyed listening to Jim Dale read me Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince. But I do get his voice stuck in my head and end up imagining him narrating my everyday actions. I know that the HP audios are hugely popular - are there any other shining examples of good audio books out there?

Just a few more days left on my classic poll and Bleak House is still winning. No Russian love?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Stories tell us how to live

After reading and loving Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, I picked up Peony in Love from the library the next day.

Peony lives in a world where dynasty change has occurred and everyone is still adjusting. By that I mean the men are adjusting and the women are continuing to live inside even though they had a brief time where they could travel and, gasp, write books that would actually get published and read.

Peony is an only child in love with an opera called the Peony Pavilion by Tang Xianzu (which is a real opera). Her father gave her a love of reading and learning which perhaps was not the most useful thing for a wife back then.

"Had you been a son," Baba went on, "You would have made an excellent imperial scholar, perhaps the best our family have ever seen." He meant it as a compliment and I took it that way, but I could hear regret in his voice too. I was not a son and never would be."

Her father stages a showing of the opera in their family gardens and the women get to hear it while hidden behind a screen. Through a crack in the screen, Peony sees a very handsome man who then runs into her in the garden, something very improper. The poet, Ren, and Peony meet for three days and then the opera is over and Peony must face that fact that she is to be married out.

"I will follow the course my father sets for me, but all girls have dreams, even if our destinies are set."

She becomes obsessed with the Peony Pavilion and sees herself as the woman in the opera who loves even after death and is then brought back to life through the power of love. Peony neglects to take care of herself, eat and eventually dies while working on her commentary of the Peony Pavilion.

"Everyday I see it and I don't know what to do. Literacy is a grave threat to the female sex. Too often I've seen the health and happiness of young women fade because they will not give up their brush and ink."

The rest of the book follows Peony's afterlife as she attempts to watch over Ren and learns more about the women in her family. Because Peony's tablet was not dotted correctly, her spirit is not at rest and she fears that she will remain a hungry ghost for all time.

One thing that I really liked was that in the afterlife Peony meets a group of other girls who all died young after becoming obsessed with the Peony Pavilion. It reminded me of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Wurther where young men were killing themselves for the romantic gesture of the thing.  Thankfully, Kate Beaton did a little comic which illustrates (clikc her name for a larger version):

Ren goes on to have two other wives and Peony is there, watching and trying her best to make him happy for she just loves him so much. And while I personally would have haunted the crap out of Tan Ze (Peony's old friend who is Ren's second wife), Peony does seem to have Ren's happiness at the heart of all she does.

This book has some interesting insights into how women slowly became more accepted as poets and writers, but I was not as enthralled with this one as with Snow Flower. I still would recommend this book, but if given the choice stick with Snow Flower.

Also side note - I've got a poll up for what my next big classic read should be! So far Bleak House is winning but you should totally check out the other options and vote. Do me a solid!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Are you trying to make holes in me?

I am slowly working my way through 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and this one is on the list. I thankfully have not seen the movie version yet, but now am dying to.

The Reader takes place in postwar Germany and follows young Michael Berg as he gets sick on the street and is rescued by an older woman. After recovering from his illness, Michael brings her flowers to thank her, and they develop a relationship. He reads to her, they take baths and make love all in Hanna's apartment. She is more than twice his age and Michael struggles to keep her separate from his school-life, even as he knows he is doing Hanna wrong by doing so.

I love the way their first days are described, how ardently Michael adores Hanna. He loves that she is not trying to seduce him really, it is more that she isn't trying to impress him, she just is impressive to him.

"It was more as if she had withdrawn into her own body, and left it to itself and its own quiet rhythms, unbothered by any input from her mind, oblivious to the outside world."

Hanna disappears and Michael later sees her on trail for crimes committed as a guard of a group of Jewish women at one of the concentration camps. However, Michael realizes that Hanna is taking the blame because she is ashamed of a secret she has kept from everyone, even him. Michael is so conflicted because he (and his generation)  is trying to deal with how to view their parents and elders who were either complicit in the Holocaust or stood by and let it happen. Just as we Americans had our "Great Generation", for Michael it seems that they had a Failed Generation. And yet he cannot completely condemn Hanna because he loved her.

"And if I was not guilty because one cannot be guilty of betraying a criminal, then I was guilty of having loved a criminal" 

What struck me most about Hanna's situation was that during her trial when she was accused of her actions and inaction she turned to the judge and  asked him what he would have done. And there can be no answer. While she serves her sentence in prison, Michael begins to send her tapes of himself reading to her, and yet cannot bring himself to visit or write her a letter.

"The tectonic layers of our lives rest so tightly on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as a matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive."

There is a soft spot in my heart for tragic love stories, and this one is very bittersweet. It is difficult to remember that people who have done horrible, horrible things are often times just people who at their core are not bad or evil. Hanna did at least take part in a horrific act, and yet I cannot view her as a bad character.

I am very excited to see the film version and see how they handle all of this. But I would highly suggest this book to anyone.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Our parents are super villians!

I'm no stranger to comic books and graphic novels and picked Runaways up while looking through my local library's teen graphic section.

Six teenagers are brought together when the discover that their parents are all part of a secret super villian group called the Pride. Unable to trust their parents after what the kids saw, the band of teenagers search for proof to give to the police while discovering that they have abilities of their own.

I really enjoyed this story and plan on continuing the rest of it. I can see why this stroy would appeal to teens, I might be speaking for myself, but I know I grew up wishing that some latent super-powers would show up one day. But perhaps I just watched too many X-Men cartoons. Anyway, I am interested to see how the teens' characters develop.

Friday, September 10, 2010

We are old sames

I need to listen to my friend's recommendations in a more timely manner because I have let this book languish on my shelves for months and simply nodded every time Liz would tell me "You will love it; you have to read it." As always, she was right.

Lily is an old Chinese woman looking back on her life now that all those who might be ashamed of what she has to say are dead. Lily grew up in a home that was not the best financially and as a daughter was thought of as basically worthless. She detailed her foot binding days, how harsh her mother was with her and how painful the process of breaking her feet was but Lily always accepted that this was how it was supposed to be in order for her to make a good marriage.

Just in case you needed a visual of the way these girls (sometimes as young as three) had their feet broken:
picture source

But the real meat of the story is the relationship between Lily and her laotong, Snow Flower. The laotong relationship is basically a contracted friendship that began when the two were extremely young and is to be an emotional love that is valued even over their husbands. Snow Flower is much more refined than Lily, but we see that she is ignorant towards household tasks that she will need in her future.

"For my entire life I longed for love. I knew it was not right for me — as a girl and later as a woman — to want or expect it, but I did, and this unjustified desire has been at the root of every problem I have experienced in my life."

Lily and Snow Flower communicate using women's language, nu shu, and record the events of their lives on a decorative fan that they pass between each other. Because of the interpretive nature of nu shu, there is a misunderstanding and Lily and Snow Flower's lives are cut apart.

This book was such a fascinating read. I knew nothing about Chinese family dynamics and felt the most connected to Snow Flower and her plight. The laotong relationship is so fascinating to me. The nature of friendships change over time, in my life I have seen friends who I thought would be with me always fade away over things that I cannot comprehend and other friends that I never expected to love become sisters in my heart.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

I am currently having a hard time figuring out which of my books to read. I am a big believer that there is a right time to read each book and they let me know when the time is right. If it isn't, I'll let a book slip away while reading and move on to something else. But, as most of my books are still packed up, I'm at a loss.

Anyway, what are you guys reading right now?

I am I am I am

I've never read any of Sylvia Plath's poetry before but you pretty much have to be living in a cave to have never heard of this book.

I had a very easy time connecting to our narrator, Ester. She's a young small town girl in the big city, with everything in life ahead of her yet feels hopelessly out of sync with everyone around her.

"I guess I should have been excited the way most of the other girls were, but I couldn't get myself to react. I felt very still and very empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo."

I read that sentence and knew that I was going to love this book. Plath captured the detachment that comes with a nervous breakdown perfectly.

Some of the secondary characters are so well executed in just a few words. I would latch on to Doreen and follow her around all the time. She does her own thing and exudes confidence and independence, which is probably why Ester eventually does not want to be around her.

"Doreen had intuition. Everything she said was like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones."

Ester goes back to her hometown after her month in NYC and recollects on her past interactions with her boyfriend. I wish he had been the one to fall down a mountain and break his leg. With Buddy, Ester sees the narrow life that will be expected of her as a wife and mother. So she rebels the only way she can, withdrawing further into herself.

"And I knew that in spite of all roses and kisses and restaurant dinners a man showers on a woman before he married her, what he secretly wanted when the wedding service ended was for her to flatten out underneath his feet like Mrs. Willard's kitchen mat."

But she is stuck in the fifties and after awhile her mother takes her in for therapy. After a poorly done electro-shock treatment, Ester goes says enough and makes several suicide attempts. She is discovered and taken to a group home for treatment.

I read a review of this book that said it was Salinger-esque in a female voice and I completely agree. The writing style was so accessible and easy for me to get into.

"From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out.

I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, the plopped to the ground at my feet."

This is my problem with life right now - I feel exactly the way she describes. I would highly suggest this book to anyone, although maybe not when you are currently having your own little breakdown.