Thursday, February 28, 2008

Booking Through Thursday

Here's this week's Booking Through Thursday question--a good one, I thought:

Who is your favorite female lead character? And why? (And yes, of course, you can name more than one . . . I always have trouble narrowing down these things to one name, why should I force you to?)

This is tough, there are so many.  I love Anne Elliott and Elizabeth Bennett, because they're funny and smart.  I like several other Austen heroines, but these two remain my favorites.  I also love the fallible but gutsy Jane Eyre.  Agatha Christie's Miss Marple is pretty lovable.  I like Hermione Granger as a role model for teens because she's a young woman who is not afraid to be smart.  When I was a kid I loved spunky and brave characters like Jo March from Little Women and Anne Shirley of Anne of Green Gables.  I could go on and on...

But I'd rather hear who your favorite female characters are!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Sunday Salon--a few moments with Sarah Orne Jewett

The Sunday

Reading on a Sunday is a luxury for me.  It's not a terribly over-scheduled day for my family, but having the kids around and keeping them entertained usually means little down time for me.  Today, however, everyone slept in.  Miracle!  So I had some time to read in bed in the morning.  Unheard of! 
I picked up my copy of Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of the Pointed Firs, and read for an uninterrupted half hour.  Bliss!

I had heard of Jewett but had never read her.  What pushed me to finally read her was her inclusion in the list of "outmoded" authors for the Outmoded Authors challenge.  Then I read Stefanie's review of The Country of the Pointed Firs for this challenge, and I remember her saying that the characters in the book were people she liked, and felt as if she knew.

This is true for me, too.  I've spent the last few evenings and this morning reading The Country of the Pointed Firs, and getting to know the quirky characters who populate a small coastal Maine town a hundred or more years ago.  The stories are all about character.  They are really more like sketches than stories; not plot-driven, but beautifully evoked scenes of people's lives.  I read a little about Jewett on the internet, and saw that she had been criticized for failing to provide driving plots in her work.  I don't mind that at all, if I know that's what I'm in for. 

I also read about Jewett that she had grown up in a house full of books, and she was "virtually fed on words."  How wonderful!

Jewett also writes beautifully about nature and the landscape.  The town and the countryside around it are as much characters in the stories as the people who live there.  I particularly love Jewett's portrayal of the main character's landlady, an herbalist who grows and gathers herbs and makes the various syrups and elixirs that the townspeople use as tonics and medicines.

I'm happy to have had a few moments today to read this book, with its gentle humor and quiet pace.

Monday, February 18, 2008

How's my nonfiction life? A non-fiction meme

All of a sudden it feels like spring in my neighborhood. Here's a pretty vine growing on a cottage nearby.

Iliana tagged me for this non-fiction meme that was created by Gautami. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, but I do enjoy it when I find really good or really surprising non-fiction. I just try to pick carefully. So here goes:

* a) What issues/topic interests you most in non-fiction, i.e, cooking, knitting, stitching, there are infinite topics that have nothing to do with novels? Books about food, books that explain scientific topics for general readers, biography, memoir, history, travelogues. I like all kinds of non-fiction, really. I usually don’t read how-to non-fiction unless there’s something really specific that I need to know. I do have a knitting book called Stitch 'N Bitch: The Knitter's Handbook that I really like. My favorite non-fiction book last year was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, about a family’s experiment in growing their own food for a year. But I also read a memoir about an architect, a book about teaching 5th grade, a book about the Mayflower, and a book about a woman who tried to cook every recipe in one of Julia Child’s cookbooks.

* b) Would you like to review books concerning those? Sure. I occasionally review some non-fiction on my blog. I counted up last year’s reviews, and I reviewed only 5 works of non-fiction, but they were very varied. I tend to read fiction first, but if I hear about something really fascinating in the non-fiction arena, I read it.

* c) Would you like to be paid or do it as interest or hobby? Tell reasons for what ever you choose. I review as a hobby, and I guess the reason I’d like to keep it that way is I don’t want to feel like I have to temper my reviews, or tailor them for anyone. Also, my unofficial policy is that I don’t write reviews of things I really dislike, so I wouldn’t want to feel that I absolutely had to review anything!

* d) Would you recommend those to your friends and how? I always recommend things to my friends! They are so sick of my recommendations, I can’t tell you! I also tend to give books to people when I really think they’d like them.

* e) If you have already done something like this, link it to your post. Here are a few of my non-fiction reviews: Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Teach Like Your Hair’s on Fire, Mayflower.

* f) Please don’t forget to link back here or whoever tags you. Iliana—thanks for the tag, and Gautami, thanks for creating the meme!

Now I’m supposed to tag 10 people. But I think most people I know have already been tagged. So I’m taking the easy way out, and saying that if you are reading this, consider yourself tagged. You’re it!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Hmm...a book about blogs

I recently heard a story on NPR about a new book about blogs, edited by Sarah Boxer. It’s called Ultimate Blogs: Masterworks from the Wild Web. I had what must be a typical reaction, because even the NPR interviewer mentioned it--her opening question in the printed article is, "Isn't an old-school paper book about blogs sort of self-defeating?"

I got more interested in the piece when Boxer started talking about a tone that is particular to blogging--personal, open, fierce, and yes, often nasty. In the radio piece, she used the word “snarky”. Not all blogs are snarky, I said to the radio. Okay, I do read snarky blogs—in fact, one from the book's list is one I check all the time—Go Fug Yourself, the snarkiest blog I know, about what celebrities are mis-wearing on the red carpets (and yes, I'm addicted).

Now, the tone thing wasn't a criticism; it was something she liked and respected about blogs, something that distinguished blogs from other writing. And I personally like that bloggers are fierce. But we all know that lit blogs are the opposite of snarky, if there’s such a thing. They are respectful, and kind. They recognize that writers work hard on their books, and when they dismiss something, it’s with cause. And they are so darned nice to each other. I feel very comfortable among them.

The article did mention another blog whose address I thought I'd pass along to you. It's called The Diary of Samuel Pepys, and yes, it is Pepys' diary, served in its daily chunks, and it's pretty cool.

And speaking of snarky, isn't the cover of Ultimate Blogs one of the least creative and least interesting covers you've seen in awhile?

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, by Vendela Vida--a review

Vendela Vida’s second novel, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name, tells the story of Clarissa, a young woman who seems to be in a stale relationship and a dead-end job, whose world is blown apart when her father dies. Years ago, when Clarissa was fourteen, her mother abandoned Clarissa, Clarissa’s mentally retarded younger brother, and their father, disappearing without a trace. After her father’s death, Clarissa learns some long-buried family secrets, and feels that she needs to go on a trek to Lapland, in the far north of Scandinavia, where her mother had been married before, to a Sami priest. There Clarissa digs for the traces of her own history among the indigenous Sami people, who herd reindeer in the land of the northern lights.

I found Vida’s prose spare and accessible; she’s a writer who tells her tale without any extra words. Once I got into the rhythm of the writing, I enjoyed it. And I enjoyed the parts about the Sami culture—it’s a part of the world and a people I know little about. The novel whetted my appetite for more on that subject.

The book has been criticized for unlikable characters, but I don’t have a problem with that (this time!), because though I didn’t always relate to the main character’s choices, the writer still made her sympathetic to me. And that’s what I mean when I go on about having trouble with unlikable characters—I don’t really mind if a character does things that I wouldn’t do, or even that I think are reprehensible--if the writer somehow develops something worthy of sympathy in the person, I can get on board. So that way I can read about a murderer and still be okay with that character.

While I didn’t find a deep emotional connection with main character Clarissa, I did feel for her. (slight spoiler alert—if you haven’t read the book you may not want to read on) The part of the book that stuck with me was Clarissa’s encounter with the mother who had abandoned her years before. The mother just made me so angry, and I have to give the book credit for having that kind of power. That said, I didn’t find the mother character believable. I know she was a rape victim, which I suppose accounts for her lack of connection with her daughter, but I still found her detachment extraordinary. She just didn’t feel psychologically believable.

On the surface, this is a story of emotional betrayal and abandonment, but I found it more interesting after reading the question and answer session with the author at the back of the book. Vida said she wanted to create a story about someone who would want to make a complete break with her past. And then it all fell into place for me—I got it, and even though there were certain aspects of the story that then read as an exercise to me, rather than more organic, I saw how the pieces of the story made sense. I read it as an answer to the question “what makes identity?”, and it was interesting to ponder. Did Clarissa’s mother, who was never emotionally available and then actively abandoned her, shape her into who she was? Or was it more the man who raised her, whom she was not biologically connected to? Ultimately Clarissa makes that decision herself, choosing a completely new path for herself, making a satisfying end for the reader, too.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

A List and a Question

Over at Aloi Reads, she posted about a list she found of 1001 books to read before you die, from a book of that name edited by Peter Boxall. The list is posted here, as a downloadable spreadsheet, and also here at Lists of Bests, where they have pictures of the cover art of the books.

I both love and hate lists like this. On the one hand, it's always fun to compare your reading to others', and to have it spur you to think about which books you really want to read. On the other hand, I'm never satisfied with such lists. "Canons" like this always have the compilers' biases. They always leave out books or authors I think should be on them. Also, there's that pressure to read all the great books before I kick the bucket.

But even so, I enjoyed checking out this list, and checking my reading progress against it. Some of my favorite books of all time weren't on it, but it also included many authors and books I've always been meaning to read.

So overall, it's an inspiring list--I'm sure it will inspire me to read some things I hadn't thought of in awhile, or things I had just passed over for whatever reason. What do you think of the list?

Okay, on another topic--here's a question for you bloggers, just for laughs. Every day I get a few people who get to my blog by googling the words "shelf life", or "shelf life of (fill in the blank)", presumably looking for how long they can keep their canned goods. Well, as much as I wish I could, I can't help them there. But it led me to wonder who gets to other people's blogs by accident. So, what are the funniest things people are looking for when they accidentally get to your blog?

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Connectivity Woes, and Two Memes

Wow, I'm so dependent on the internet.  Our cable was out for over 24 hours (ack!), and since we are connected to the internet by cable modem, this did not only affect our TV (which was no problem), but it kept me off the internet (which was a big problem).

First of all, my parents called me about a half hour after the cable went out.  They had just left our house, having driven down from the Bay Area for a weekend visit.  They were on highway 5, near Magic Mountain, and the traffic was at a dead stop, and had been for about 20 minutes.  What was going on, they asked me.  Could I turn on the TV or the radio and find out?  

I turned to my normally trusty computer, and it was no go.  Not connected to the internet.  And of course, turning on the TV, I saw that the cable was out.  So I turned on the radio.  But there was no info on any of the traffic reports.  Turns out the highway was semi-closed--the highway patrol was leading cars, 500 at a time, over "the grapevine", a mountain pass that sometimes closes during storms.  But I was unable to get that information myself--I had to get it from someone with DSL :)

Anyway, no email, no blogging, no internet for 24 hours made me rather cranky.  But I'm back...

I’ve been tagged for two memes, Eva’s Meme, and the Eight Random Things About Me meme. I saw Eva’s meme when she created it, and I thought it was really cool, because the questions were so interesting and involved! So I’m happy Iliana tagged me for this one, so I can answer those great questions now.

Aloi also tagged me for The Eight Things About Me meme. It’s one I’ve definitely done before, but which I will do again now. Not only do I like the idea that this has been wending its way around the internet for months, if not years, I also like that I have been given another chance at answering its questions—maybe I will be more interesting, or say something new, in my answers this time. I hope the meme continues on and gets back to me again, eventually!

Here’s Eva’s Meme:

Which book do you irrationally cringe away from reading, despite seeing only positive reviews? Off the top of my head, I’m going to say Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood (sorry Aloi!  Her really interesting review is here). Though I enjoy Atwood’s writing, something about what I’ve read about this dystopian book has turned me off. And that’s despite the incredible reviews. But I’ll probably shake off my irrational dread and read it (and like it) anyway.

If you could bring three characters to life for a social event (afternoon tea, a night of clubbing, perhaps a world cruise), who would they be and what would the event be? Predictably, I’d probably have tea or dinner with Elizabeth Bennett, Anne Elliott and Elinor Dashwood. But then again, I thought maybe I should mix it up a bit, and rather than having Austen heroines together, I should throw an Austen heroine in with someone from another time period, or another genre…hmm…how about Anne Elliott, Atticus Finch, and Sherlock Holmes. This got me thinking, wow, would these characters even have enough in common to have a meal together? I mean, maybe it’s better to stick the Victorians together…

Okay, this is obviously overthinking it. But it did lead me to a list from NPR, the 100 Best Characters in Fiction Since 1900, which was interesting. I was happy to see The Dog of Tears, from Jose Saramago’s Blindness, on the list. But I digress…

(Borrowing shamelessly from the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde): you are told you can’t die until you read the most boring novel on the planet. While this immortality is great for awhile, eventually you realise it’s past time to die. Which book would you expect to get you a nice grave? Moby Dick seems to be the most common answer I’ve read, and it works for me, too.

Come on, we’ve all been there. Which book have you pretended, or at least hinted, that you’ve read, when in fact you’ve been nowhere near it? When I was younger I used to pretend I’d read more of the great Russian novelists. I’ve never read Dostoyevsky, but I hinted that I had, always thinking to myself that I would get to him eventually. Not so far!

As an addition to the last question, has there been a book that you really thought you had read, only to realise when you read a review about it/go to ‘reread’ it that you haven’t? Which book? Nope, can’t think of anything. But like Robin, I’ve had the opposite experience, where I’ve read something intriguing about a book, and brought it home, only to find that I’ve read it before. Whoops!

You’ve been appointed Book Advisor to a VIP (who’s not a big reader). What’s the first book you’d recommend and why? (if you feel like you’d have to know the person, go ahead and personalise the VIP) Hmm…it’s a tough call. Even though I should probably go with something more remedial, I'm going to say Middlemarch, because you get social commentary, an engrossing narrative, and some characters you love and some you love to hate.

A good fairy comes and grants you one wish: you will have perfect reading comprehension in the foreign language of your choice. Which language do you go with? I’m going back and forth between French and Spanish, but I have to say Spanish. There are so many books I wish I could read in the original languages, but I think the preponderance of those books are in Spanish.

A mischievous fairy comes and says that you must choose one book that you will reread once a year for the rest of your life (you can read other books as well). Which book would you pick? I guess I’d have to say Persuasion, by Jane Austen. It’s one of my comfort reads, a book that I reread every once in awhile anyway. And it’s not that long, so it wouldn’t take up much of my reading year ☺

I know that the book blogging community, and its various challenges, have pushed my reading borders. What’s one bookish thing you ‘discovered’ from book blogging (maybe a new genre, or author, or new appreciation for cover art-anything)? The book blogging community has “pushed my reading borders”, too, in many ways—I’m reading new genres and participating in challenges, for example. But I think the most important thing is that I am finding people who are passionate about particular books that I had never even heard of before. I’m really widening my reading horizons by taking bloggers’ recommendations.

That good fairy is back for one final visit. Now, she’s granting you your dream library! Describe it. Is everything leatherbound? Is it full of first edition hardcovers? Pristine trade paperbacks? Perhaps a few favourite authors have inscribed their works? Go ahead-let your imagination run free. At one time I might have conjured an old-fashioned library straight from an ancient castle, but now I’d go for comfort. I want lots of natural light, a beautiful view out the large windows, comfortable seating, all my favorite books and more—books recommended by friends, books I’d love to read some day, books I may never read. Oh yes, and unlimited and extremely fast internet access ☺

Now for Eight Random Things About Me:

1.  I only speak one language—English—and I wish I spoke more languages. I would love to speak Spanish, French, Italian, or maybe Japanese. However, I’m not willing to put in the time now, maybe because I know how much easier it is to learn languages when you’re younger. I’m afraid my aging brain will let me down!

2.  I do most of my reading in bed. After the kids are asleep, I don’t watch TV or do the dishes, I get into bed and read. My TV watching has really slowed over the last few years. Who has the time? I feel like a favorite TV show is a big commitment I’m not willing to make. But my reading keeps on at a steady pace, because I’m willing to get into bed a little early.

3.  I may not watch much TV these days, but one of my favorite indulgences is to go to a matinee movie and have popcorn and soda for lunch. Maybe candy, too. I love the feeling of leaving the theater after a daytime movie—the slight disorientation you feel coming out of a darkened theater into the daylight. It is such an indulgence, and it doesn’t happen often, but I do love it.

4.  I love my Mac. I don’t even know how to use a PC. Back in the old days, when I worked in an office, I know I used a PC, but that was in the days of MS Dos, and the whole thing was a mystery to me. Obviously I’m not computer savvy. I wish I knew more about the technical side of blogging. If anyone has any blogging resources (for dummies) to recommend, I’m all ears.

5.  I’d love to take a course on digital photography. I love to take pictures, but again, I wish I knew more about the technical side of photography. Maybe I should take a class in digital photography given in Italian. Then I could kill two birds with one stone.

6.  I make a mean pecan pie. And I’m willing to share the recipe.

7.  I like to eat breakfast food for dinner.

8.  I wish my husband and kids liked long car trips as much as I do. I look back fondly on my family vacations spent driving to Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs, Disneyland…

Now it’s time to tag people. But since I’ve seen both these memes on so many of my blogging friends’ blogs already, I’m going to take the easy way out and say, if you’re reading this, consider yourself tagged. I mean it—do these memes, they’re fun! Then let me know, so I can visit and read your answers ☺

Friday, February 1, 2008

Giveaway results and Southern California winter beauty

The weather has calmed down around here, and we're having more of our normal winter thing--60s, clear, and you can actually see the mountains in the distance. Winter is my favorite time in Southern California, as the air is clear, so the views are spectacular. It's the only time of year the air is clear enough to see for miles. So I feel better oriented in the winter, more in touch with the land around me.

It's giveaway time! I picked four names out of a hat (okay, out of a colander), to give away four slightly used copies of Anne Enright's Booker Prize-winning novel The Gathering. Drumroll please...the winners are:





Congratulations! If you four winners could email me your addresses, I will send the books asap. I'm at By the way, why do some bloggers list their email addresses with [at] and [dot] instead of the symbols? Do they not want to create links in their posts?

I wish I had more copies so I could give one to everyone who entered. That's my only problem with giveaways, I want everyone to win.

On my own reading front, I quickly finished my next two book group books, Shalom Auslander's Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir and Vendela Vida's Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name. I'll share my thoughts soon.