Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Uncommon Woman

I am usually not much of a history buff. But I have a huge thing for the podcast, the History Chicks, which discusses women in history. Their podcasts are always interesting and cover a wide range of women, both real and fictional, throughout history. That being said, they have not covered the Empress Frederick. At least not yet. They do however, have two on Queen Victoria which talk a bit about her oldest daughter, the subject of An Uncommon Woman, the Empress Frederick.

To say this is a biography is putting it mildly. This is a hefty book that covers the span of Victoria, daughter of Victoria and Albert and wife to Fritz, the prince of Prussia. Not really knowing much about pre-WWI European history, I learned a lot. Before reading this, all I could tell you about the Kaiser was that I thought he liked parades and that Otto von Bismark had in fact been a real person. In fact I thought that there was only ONE Kaiser. But this book gave such an expansive picture that I now know that both of those two should have been smacked silly. Constantly.

"Bismark has made us great and powerful, but he has robbed us of our friends, they sympathies of the world, and - our conscience."

"For Bismark that was neither good nor evil, only allegiance to the Fatherland."

Victoria has a hard time. She is raised from birth to do great things for her father's homeland of Prussia, to bring them into a new age of liberalism and unification to Germany. She married not only for the greatness of the political match, but for love as well. She grew up with very involved parents who she admired until her death. They both had very high hopes for their eldest child to do great things for Prussia and Germany.

However, Fritz's father, Kaiser Wilhelm I, hung on to life like the current Queen of England and did not see eye to eye with his son and daughter-in-law. His Chancellor, Bismark, ran the show, waged war, encouraged racism and censorship, created treaties, and spread rumor about Vicky and Fritz to the public. Her son, Willy, grew up to be the biggest snot I have ever read about and he wanted to take over after his grandfather's death instead of letting his father rule.

"Certainly, no royal woman of her day had been more meticulously prepared for a throne - or more quickly deprived of it."

I'm not going to go into too much more depth than that because I have about 20 pages of notes from this book and I think that Pakula does such a great job as it is. Victoria is a truly interesting woman who was born to do so much and never really given the opportunity to share her intellect with the world.

As I said, I have not been much of a history buff, but I tore through this book. The little details of history are just as interesting as you would find in a novel. For example, the "Weisse Dame" is the ghost of a white lady that would appear to male members of the Hollenzollerns before they would die. One of them died a few days after his wife ran into his room in her underwear and he believed she was the Weisse Dame.

I have another big history book on my table, Russia and the Russians: A History, which I am now very excited to read. Any other history books that are worth checking out?

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Innocent Libertine

Colette is a fascinating woman and I am very excited to read a biography of hers that I am waiting to come in through library loan. She performed at Moulin Rouge, wrote erotic literature in the early 1900's, had an affair with her stepson, and hid some of her Jewish friends in her attic during World War II.

The Innocent Libertine is really two short novels, Minne and Les Egarements de Minne,  that Colette combined after they had been published separately. They go together beautifully into one long arc for Minne.

In Minne, she starts as a young women who lives a very rich inner life. She lives with her mother in Paris and becomes obsessed with a gang of street thugs. Their leader, Curly, is the main object of her affection and she creates a great love between them in her mind without ever speaking to him. Every action she takes has such importance in to her every noise outside is just one step closer to bringing her and Curly together. When he disappears, she becomes ill and they go to the country with her uncle and cousin.

"She felt herself on the threshold of another life, on the verge of initiation into sacred mysteries."

There she spends her time lying fantastically and her cousin, Antoine, grows to desire her immensely. She dismisses him because to her she is already engaged to Curly (a man she had never spoken to). When she returns home, she leaves her house during the night to chase after Curly and gets a very harsh dose of reality. The Paris streets are not the place for a young girl.

In Les Egarements de Minnne, or Part Two, Minne is grown up some and married. Yet she is having a string of affairs in search of achieving an orgasm. Jealous of the sexual joy the men she sleeps with have, she believes that if she just finds the right man she will be able to feel the same. Her husband grows jealous and attempts to recreate her as the innocent girl he is in love with.

"After all, that boy is as nice as anything! He was dying of pleasure in my arms and there was I waiting and saying to myself: 'Obviously, it's not unpleasant... but show me something better!"

Colette is sexy and exciting without being smutty, even if there is a naked lady lounging on the cover. Minne's tale really is lovely and came to a very stratifying ending, if you catch my drift.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Recent Buys & the Ladies of Grace Adieu

I always manage to find a few things. I love Colette and try to grab her books when I see them. I got The Pure and the Impure and The Innocent Libertine from her. I'm about halfway through The Innocent Libertine and really enjoying it. Her stuff is pretty sexy, but without the shame of reading 50 Shades of Grey. I'll review it in a few days probably.

Michael Chabon's Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands for the man and I will probably end up reading it too. I really enjoyed The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and have just picked up any of his books I find for cheap since.

The final book in the pile is Susanna Clarke's The Ladies of Grace Adieu. I'll do a short review of it here since I powered through it hours after buying it. Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell which I have not read, but now want to.

From the back cover, this book is reviewed by Spectator as so: "These tales read as if Jane Austen had rewritten the Brothers Grimm ... wonderful!" I think this sums up the book very well. There are eight beautiful little stories that mix the romanticism of Austen with the the magic of Grimm. The land of Faerie is someplace you can cross over to on your way to tea with the King and end up stuck for months until your love frees you by smashing a hornet's nest.

Clarke has a real flair for writing dialogue and sucked me in. She also has that way of describing a character to you totally with just a phrase or two.

"The governess was not much liked in the village. She was too tall, too fond of books, too grave, and, a curious thing, never smiled unless there was something to smile at."

If you are a fellow fan of Austen, but like a little more darkness, this is book is for you.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Open City

I saw this book or a profile of Teju Cole on someone's tumblr and was already adding books to my online library account so I threw this one on there too. Just listen to Cole's author bio from the book:

"Teju Cole was raised in Nigeria and came to the United States in 1992. He is a writer, photographer and professional historian of early Netherlandish art. Open City is his first novel. He lives in New York City."

Sounds like a super, super interesting dude. Which I am sure he is. Because if reading part of this book taught me anything it is that this guy thinks a lot more than I do.

The novel follows a young man, Julius, who takes long walks in NYC to clear his mind from work as a physiologist and his recent break up.

I made it to about page 45 before I threw it down and just could not pick it back up. I wanted to like this book so badly, but it is just not meant to be. The main character is so, so smart and came off way too pretentious for me. Every where he went made him think of an aria from some obscure opera and the architecture of Atlantis from a woodcut in a rare volume of a book in Hindi that you, dear reader, are not smart enough to understand. Couldn't he just walk into a room and say to himself, "oh man I'm really glad they have salt and pepper kettle chips. Those are my fav."

Plus he referenced one of my literary nemeses,  J. M. Coetzee. So odd were not in Cole's favor. Please note that I cannot stand Coetzee due to the fact that I once had to read and write a paper on The Life and Times Of Micheal K. which I hated.

So, alas, I will not be finishing this one. But don't take my word for it, this book got a lot of good reviews on Goodreads and frankly you might be smarter than me. By the way, here is my goodreads page if you just can't wait to see what I am reading.

Is it hard for anyone else to give up on a book once you have started? I usually can't put something down when I reach a quarter of the way through. But there are some notable exceptions, mainly Moby Dick, which I had one freaking chapter left and just did not read it out of spite. How far would you read before you have to finish?

Saturday, October 20, 2012

How to Be a Woman

I'm not really sure how I heard about Caitlin Moran, probably in a review of How to Be a Woman from Bitch magazine (which you really, really should check out) and I found it in the new section of my library. I have not enjoyed a book so much in a long time.

"What is feminism? Simply the belief that women should be as free as men, however nuts, dim, deluded, badly dressed, fat, receding, lazy and smug they might be. Are you a feminist? Hahaha. Of course you are."

Moran chronicles growing up in a poor family in England and how she comes to be a strident feminist. And covers why you should be one too. I have no problems calling myself a feminist and still found Moran making me think deeper about certain issues. For example, why the hell do I keep trying to wear heels when I stand on the sides of my feet making anything but flats impossible. Or, why isn't there porn out there where people actually desire and enjoy each other? Is that too much to ask for? Apparently yes, which is why there is fanficiton I guess.

"When a woman says, 'I have nothing to wear!', what she really means is, 'There's nothing here for who I'm supposed to be today."

I read a lot of this book at my mother's house, with her and I sitting on a giant bean-bag chair passing the book back and forth laughing so hard I thought I would pee. Moran has a great way of dealing with serious issues of sexism, growing up poor, bad relationships, and abortion all with humor. Also she offers up a ton of new names for certain parts of the female anatomy.

My husband really enjoyed the bits that I read out loud to him and after I finished he picked it up and started. So not just for women this one! I highly, highly suggest this book to everyone.

Moran's website: http://www.caitlinmoran.co.uk

Friday, October 19, 2012

Walden and Civil Disobedience

I'm fairly partial to books that deal with going green and trying to live a more eco-friendly life and the one I have been reading lately (My Green Manifesto by David Gessner) mentioned Thoreau a lot. Now I am fairly sure that I had to read "Civil Disobedience" for at least one class in high school but all I could remember was that he had a pretty fine time when he was in jail for not paying taxes. Clearly time to revisit.

Walden chronicles Thoreau's time spent living out in the woods at Walden Pond, in a very simple house with very little modern comforts. Thoreau strives to be self-reliant and grows his own food and builds his own chimney. He details his spending and income, the reactions from town members to his behavior, and the ever changing and beautiful nature he is immersed in.

"We should be blessed if we lived in the present always, and took advantage of every accident that befell us, like the grass which confesses the influence of the slightest dew that falls on it; and not spend our time in atoning fro the neglect of past opportunities, which we call doing our duty. We loiter in the winter while it is already spring."

I had a strange time with this book. I enjoyed a lot of it, but at times my mind tended to wander and it felt more like I was reading it because I had to. The parts that I enjoyed though, I really enjoyed. I often had to pause and think about how Thoreau would hate, hate today's America and wonder how he would feel about certain men running for president..

"Most think that they are above being supported by the town, but it oftener happens that they are not above supporting themselves by dishonest means, which should be more disreputable."

"Civil Disobiedence" was much easier for me to clip through. I love Thoreau's activism and his determination not to be part of the Mexican War or part of slavery by withholding his taxes. I wish I had a voice like his to read about today's politics.

"Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine. What I have to do is to see, at any rate, that I do not lend myself to the wrong which I condemn."

This really spoke to me. I try to live my life by certain principals that often get teased or questioned by certain family members of mine. For example, I think factory farming is gross and harmful to both the people who work there and the animals that are mistreated and so I pay more to get my meat from local farmers who are scratching out a living practicing real animal husbandry. I'm currently trying to get my workplace to take me seriously about getting the maintenance staff to stop putting blank pieces of paper at the bottom of every cubicle garbage can at work after they empty them and promote recycling more. Every day I am trying more and more to walk the walk and while I cannot change the world, or my family, or my workplace, in one day, that is no excuse to stop trying or just stop caring.

If you don't have time for the whole book, at least give "Civil Disobedience" a read. I think this work is important, and deserves serious consideration.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

a Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

I spotted this book at a used book store not too long ago and thought it looked weird and interesting and  then I promptly put it down and forgot about it for awhile. Last week I stumbled across it in the library and decided to give it a shot. I'm perpetually drawn to anything with a Russian or Eastern European slant so I thought it would be a winner.

Long story short - it wasn't. But maybe it is just me, since the book had been short-listed for the Orange prize and long-listed for the Man Booker Prize. But the whole thing just felt sloppy to me. The story revolves around a family of two estranged sisters and one elderly father who is getting married to a woman from Ukraine (where he is from). The action is set in England and the characters have had to deal with the affects of the revolution in Ukraine and now the gold digger, Valentina, who seems to love showing everyone her augmented boobs while she demands more and more money from her new husband. The sisters want Valentina out and reconnect over their mutual disgust at the relationship their father has with this woman.

The book is told in choppy segments, mostly from the point of view of the younger sister. I have hardly any real sense of what she is like, and yet manage not to like her. She has a closer relationship with her father (supposedly) but seems to switch from really caring to not caring at all and from oh-I-hate-her to walking down the street arm-in-arm with no explanation. Also WHO THE HELL PICKS UP A USED CONDOM OF THEIR FATHER'S? EW. This was not in any sexual scene at all so it wasn't as gross as you might think but it was pretty big on the ick-factor, which is rampant in this book. The elderly father is naked a whole lot and it was just too much.

I finished this book because I have a hard time not finishing a book. I could have pushed this up from a two-star to three-star had there not been the last chapter on their. The one prior was the most interesting part of the book to me, a simple sum up of the two sisters lives. And then just puff and more naked old guy. I feel that this story had so much potential but the book doesn't do it any justice.

In a nutshell: meh.