Monday, June 23, 2008

Hearts and Minds, by Rosy Thornton

Martha Pearce is beginning her tenth and final year as Senior Tutor at St. Radegund’s, an all-female college at Cambridge, when James Rycarte, the first man to ever be appointed as head of the college, arrives to take on this controversial role. Martha is loyal to the college first and foremost, but can’t help but be drawn to Rycarte, whom she imagines will flounder in the face of the female opposition he finds at St. Radegund’s. However, Rycarte, who comes to the world of academia after a successful career at the BBC, holds his own against the forces arrayed against him—though he is very grateful for Martha’s support.

Martha is at a crossroads in her life and career, not only unsure about what she will do when her term as Senior Tutor ends, but also at a loss about how to deal with her depressed teenage daughter and difficult poet husband.

This is the set up for Hearts and Minds, a novel about campus life by Rosy Thornton. I had heard about this book on several book blogs (sorry I don't remember which ones, but let me know if it might have been yours), and was intrigued, and then the writer offered to send me a copy. I was surprised to find that the book was a sort of quiet page-turner—I kept picking the book up whenever I had a spare moment to find out what was going to happen to these very real and appealing characters. I was really drawn into their world. I also liked Thornton’s gently humorous storytelling, and her satiric slant on the idiosyncrasies of the academic world.

I was not surprised to learn that Thornton is a fellow at a college at Cambridge, as she has written with perfect pitch on the subject of turbulent campus politics, including student unrest, stifling political correctness, and vicious infighting between academics. I really loved how the complicated politics of the story unfolded. I liked watching Rycarte balance trying to keep the college afloat financially while attempting to maintain his integrity. It was also fun to follow the Machiavellian maneuverings of the women who plot Rycarte’s downfall. I found it very easy to root for both Martha and Rycarte, who combat the nasty politics on campus with good humor and good sense.

Martha’s problems at home are as difficult as her trials at work—and Martha’s reactions to these troubles are relatable and realistic. I felt such sympathy for her when her husband and daughter seemed so out of touch, and out of reach, to her. The portrayal of Martha’s daughter’s depression was so natural and true that it was very distressing to me—I really related to Martha as a mother!

This novel was a pleasant immersion in the particular world of Oxbridge academia. I found it to be an entertaining and somehow comforting read. I think the comforting aspect came from really relating to the characters—they felt like people I would like to know--and from Thornton's gently satirical style. I look forward to reading her next book.

P.S. With a little prompting, I figured out at least one of the places I first heard about Hearts and Minds--on BooksPlease, in this lovely review! (thanks for the hint, BooksPlease!)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Walden Pond

Nothing so fair, so pure, and at the same time so large, as a lake, perchance, lies on the surface of the earth. Sky water. It needs no fence. Nations come and go without defiling it. It is a mirror which no stone can crack, whose quicksilver will never wear off, whose gilding Nature continually repairs; no storms, no dust, can dim its surface ever fresh; -- a mirror in which all impurity presented to it sinks, swept and dusted by the sun's hazy brush -- this the light dust-cloth -- which retains no breath that is breathed on it, but sends its own to float as clouds high above its surface, and be reflected in its bosom still. -- Henry David Thoreau

This weekend was our last weekend of insane travel for awhile. We were in Boston for a long weekend, for a lovely family event. And though the schedule was grueling (up at 4:30 to make a 7am flight), the time we spent was memorable.

Monday, before catching a flight home, my sister-in-law took us to Walden Pond, near Concord, MA. The area is now a Massachusetts state park. We saw the replica of the tiny cabin Thoreau built and spent two year in, thinking and writing and living simply. We also walked along the shore of the pond to the original site where it stood. Next to the site, visitors have left rocks as a memorial, and now the pile of rocks is quite large.

It was a really beautiful and peaceful spot. I didn't bring my camera (and good thing, since we were drenched in a sudden spring downpour), but I found a few shots on the internet (the top one at Freefoto, by a photographer called Ian Britton). We only encountered a few people hiking around the pond on that cloudy day, but my sister-in-law says the beach gets crowded in the summer when people come to swim.

I'm glad people can enjoy the beauty of the spot, but it is funny to think of Thoreau's place of contemplation filled with summer picnickers and beachgoers!

I have never read Thoreau's work, but I have two of his books on my shelf: Walden, and Cape Cod. I hope to get to both soon!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--Clubbing

A combo of two suggestions by: Heidi and by litlove

Have you ever been a member of a book club? How did your group choose (or, if you haven’t been, what do you think is the best way to choose) the next book and who would lead discussion?

Do you feel more or less likely to appreciate books if you are obliged to read them for book groups rather than choosing them of your own free will? Does knowing they are going to be read as part of a group affect the reading experience?

Yes, I'm in a book group now, and I so look forward to the monthly meetings. We've been meeting for over four years, and it's a great group of women.

Our process is really informal. Motivated members bring suggestions for our next book. Then we just talk it out to decide what we want to read next. Sometimes whoever suggests a book will email a review or two to the group, but that's the extent of our research. What we do try to do is vary the types of books we read, so it's a fairly broad mixture of fiction and non-fiction, contemporary and classic books, short stories and novels.

And nobody leads our discussions. We just discuss the book, in a free-for-all. It's always lively, and entertaining. And we digress, a lot!

I feel my appreciation of a book is the same, whether I'm obliged to read it for book group or whether I've picked it myself. However, reading a book for my book group does change the reading experience. If I'm honest with myself, I probably pay a little closer attention to the details of a book when I'm reading it for my group, because I know we're going to discuss it. I probably even pay more attention to whether I like the book or not--that is to say, I think about the pros and cons of the book, and form a more particular opinion of it, and decide how I will express that opinion. I suppose it's a bit like reading a book for school, but without the pressure!

Hearts and Minds, and birds attack!

The blogging has been rather spotty this last week of school, as kids' events have swallowed up my schedule. I've managed to begin Rosy Thornton's novel Hearts and Minds, set in a women's college at Cambridge, and so far, I'm hooked. I keep sneaking pages when I can, in places like the carpool line at school. On her website, Thornton says she writes "contemporary fiction of a kind which you might call romantic comedy with a hint of satire - or possibly social satire with a hint of romance", and so far I'm finding it a nice combination.

I can barely get out my back door at the moment because we're under siege. A pair of nesting mockingbirds who are trying to get their baby fledged attack whenever we go out into our back yard. I wondered what was going on when I started getting dive-bombed by birds, and then I finally spotted the fluffy little baby bird, hopping around in my jasmine. (You can barely see him in this picture, but you can tell I need to get in there and trim back the jasmine.) Mama Bird is quite a protector, and totally unafraid of humans, who are all clearly possible invaders of her nest. She swoops fearlessly at me and is keeping my two cats and dog at bay 24/7. My husband says this sort of situation must be how Alfred Hitchcock was inspired to make The Birds. I'm hoping baby learns to fly soon!

After my son's graduation from elementary school this evening, we are off on yet another weekend away, but next week I hope to get back into the blogging groove.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Booking Through Thursday--Trends

This week's Booking Through Thursday question is:

Have your book-tastes changed over the years? More fiction? Less? Books that are darker and more serious? Lighter and more frivolous? Challenging? Easy? How-to books over novels? Mysteries over Romance?

I wouldn't say that my tastes have changed all that much over the years, but I have broadened my reading considerably. For one thing, I have made a conscious effort to include more non-fiction in my reading. I love to lose myself in novels and other fiction, and have since I was a kid. In fact, reading was always my best and favorite way of comforting myself, and escaping from reality. So I have to force myself to read some non-fiction--though I'm always interested in good non-fiction of many types, I will often choose to read a novel instead, because know I don't get that great feeling of being swept away by non-fiction, or at least not nearly as often.

As a teenager I used to read romance novels, and some mysteries, and I find that I don't read either of those genres any more. I'll occasionally read a mystery, like Kate Atkinson's Case Histories--and I'm looking forward to reading John Banville's most recent detective novel The Silver Swan (written as Benjamin Black), but I haven't read a genre romance in a long time.

But other than those two genres, I would say that the trend in my reading is that my interests are widening over time. Some of this is definitely due to my becoming acquainted with book blogs, which have really inspired me to branch out in my reading. Book blogs have also reinforced many of my reading choices, and have led me to re-examine some old favorite authors and books.

How about you? Have your reading tastes changed or remained the same?

Monday, June 2, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth, by Jhumpa Lahiri, and Yosemite pictures

I finished Jhumpa Lahiri's collection of stories Unaccustomed Earth while we vacationed in Yosemite. I really enjoyed it, as I enjoyed her earlier books. I remember reading a couple of these stories in the New Yorker a while back, so they weren't all new to me.

Lahiri's prose is plain but elegant, and I love her attention to detail. I also relate to her work for other reasons. Lahiri is a couple of years younger than I am, and she often describes Bengali children growing up in suburban America as immigrants or the children of immigrants. I didn't have that experience, but I did grow up in suburban America during the time period she often describes, the seventies and eighties, and I think her descriptions of feeling like an outsider in suburban America hold true for me and many, if not most, American teenagers. In one of the stories, a young girl receives a hand-me-down coat from the son of family friends, and she hates wearing it, because it is a boy's coat, and nothing like the puffy pink and purple coats her female classmates wear--but her immigrant parents don't understand her embarrassment and won't let her get rid of it. Ah, the indignities the young must bear! It's scenes like this one that Lahiri does so well.

This book also describes courtship and the early years of marriage, and describes the difficulties in parenting young children, which I can also relate to. I would be interested to hear if the book is as interesting to all the readers out there who are not in this stage of their lives, or who didn't grow up in suburban America.

Yosemite was beautiful. There's something about being in Yosemite that is calming and meditative. The photos don't capture the scale, or the majesty, of the place. But here are a few snaps anyway:
Yosemite Valley from the entrance at highway 41

Half Dome at dusk.

El Capitan from a distance.

A granite dome in the distance.

Upper and lower Yosemite Falls.