Books in the Mail!

I absolutely love getting packages in the mail, especially when they contain good books to read! Today I received The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and I’m very excited to start it. I read quite a few reviews that highly recommended the book and I enjoyed Middlesex, so I thought I would check it out. Review to follow…hopefully I have enough time in the next couple weeks to both finish The Constant Gardener and keep up with The Marriage Plot… because I will basically be starting TMP right after posting this!

I’m always curious – how do YOU shop for books? Typically I like to browse for hours on end until I’ve made an informed selection…but when you know what you want (and don’t have easy access to a good bookstore), ordering online is a good substitute.

Newspaper Musings

I read the NY Times again today before class and thought I would share some thoughts about what I read.

  • First of all, I read about the State of the Union address in this article. I noticed there was only one teeny paragraph, a sentence really, about education. It said that Obama wants to lessen federal funding to universities that don’t make an effort to keep their tuition down. This is a good idea, but I have to wonder what would happen long term. I go to a private college and obviously the tuition is pretty high. Even if the government cut funding, there would (hopefully) be enough donors to keep the college running, but how badly would that divide a private and public college education?
  • Along with that, I also read Public College, Private Dorm, an article about colleges that are hiring private companies to build their dorms. This way, money can go toward other campus endeavors…but how high will rent costs be? How would that change who could live on campus and who would commute?
  • Next to the article summarizing the State of the Union was one about Mitt Romney’s taxes. Taking the article with a grain of salt, it still blows by mind that although he makes millions of dollars, he only pays taxes equivalent to what a person with an income of 80,000 pays.
  • Lastly, I enjoyed a short article about Romney’s prank sense of humor. Apparently the pranks he pulled in college make him unfit to lead.

I learned a new word from the paper though – excoriated. It means to denounce or berate severely, i.e., flay verbally, or to strip off or remove the skin from. I like the way the “flay verbally” definition fits nicely into the two others.

Entwined by Heather Dixon

I recently finished reading Entwined, by Heather Dixon, and although it is targeted at a teenaged audience, I enjoyed it. This was a nice read after the weight of The Human Stain.

This review will contain some spoilers, FYI.

Entwined offers an interesting spin on the fairy tale of the twelve dancing princesses and presents a story full of romance, dancing, and magic. It opens right before Azaela’s coming-of-age ball, which she is beyond excited for. The eldest of 11 (soon to be 12) girls, Azaela loves to dance, a skill shared with all her sisters and encouraged by her mother. She is summoned to her mother’s room before the ball. Azaela’s mother is pregnant and sick, and passes her a silver handerchief and makes her promise to take care of her sisters. Confused, Azaela’s promises, and returns to the ball. She dances the night away but before the final dance, the Entwine, the ball is cut short and Azaela learns that her mother has died after giving birth to the last sister.

The palace falls into mourning, strictly watched over by the King, Azaela’s father. Dancing is forbidden, but when the King leaves for war, the girls dare to dance. Azaela discovers a secret passageway in the girls’ room that opens when something silver is rubbed on it. Incidentally, silver is not only the royal color, but a magical color. Although Azaela doesn’t know it yet, when she promised her mother to take care of the sisters after recieving the handerchief, she Swore on Silver, which is a powerful kind of magic.

At the end of the secret passage, the girls discover a pavillion where they return every night to dance. The pavillion is watched over by Keeper, a dark mysterious man that says he is trapped under the castle. The girls mend their slippers every morning, unable to stay away from dancing even one night. Things become twisted with Keeper and Azaela, and Keeper tricks Azaela into agreeing to help set him free – which can only be done when every magical object in the castle is destroyed.

Meanwhile, the King returns and decides that it is about time Azaela found a husband. He invites suitor after suitor under the premise of a riddle (here is the main connection to the fairy tale). Lord Bradford, Azaela’s favorite, shows up whenever the King and Azaela have their differences (which is a lot) and talks her through her problems. Later though, Azaela learns that Lord Bradford believes she is actually her younger sister, Bramble. She is angry, and shouts to him as she is leaving one of their conversations that she is in fact not Bramble and is Azaela (this scene was pretty funny, written with all the angst and attitude of a wronged teenage girl).

The girls’ relationship with the King improves and things seem to be going well, until Keeper raises the stake on Azaela’s bargain for his freedom. She scrambles to find and destroy magical objects, not knowing that Keeper is actually the High King: the first magician-king who became evil and captured people’s souls. When the sisters are kidnapped, Azaela is on her own to save them…or so she thinks. Lord Bradford has followed her under an invisible cloak, and is able to bring the King to help her stop Keeper. A battle ensues, and Keeper shoots the King, apparently lifting his last constraint. However, Keeper turns into dust, and the girls are able to save the King with a deep magic they didn’t know they possessed.

In the end, Lord Bradford and Azaela become engaged (Bramble and Clover, the second and third youngest, all find love as well) and the sisters finally have a loving relationship with the King, their Papa. This fairy tale is intriguing and written with a strong command of language and imagery. It’s a quick, enjoyable read, sure to interest anyone who loves a touch of the magical.

The Human Stain

I finished reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth last week, but haven’t had time to sit down and write about it yet, so here goes!

I really, really, really did not enjoy this book. If you’ve read it and you loved it, sorry. I was required to read it for my Literature and Film class – we’re discussing it tomorrow and watching the movie version next week, so maybe I’ll have some more forgiving things to say after that.

The main character is Coleman, but the story is narrated by his neighbor Nathan, who is a writer. I will try as best I can to give a brief summary, but I’ll warn you that there is a lot more to this book than can be compressed into a summary. Coleman is 71 at the start of the novel, and having an affair with an illiterate woman who is about forty years his junior. Coleman used to be the dean and a professor at the local Athena College, but resigned after an incident in which he referred to his black students as “spooks.” His wife died shortly after that and Coleman blames the stress of the lawsuits, claiming that “they” murdered her. Nathan digs through Coleman’s past to reveal that he is really black, but was able to pass as a white person and disowned his family, never telling his wife about his heritage. He also pretends to be Jewish, which results in none of his children knowing the truth about their own father. One of the boys actually becomes an Orthodox Jew to ‘reclaim’ some nonexistant roots.

Coleman and his lover, the college janitor named Faunia, seem bonded together by pain. Faunia’s stepfather used to molest her, and she has a tormented Viet Nam vet ex-husband who stalks her. Her children died in a fire while she was in a car right outside, distracted by the other man she was with. Despite their differences – he is an academic and she does not know how to read – the bond and form a strange relationship. Faunia tells Coleman that everyone has the “human stain,” that it is so intrinsic it doesn’t leave a mark, and that it is an imprint of all the cruelty and abuse and error in a person’s life. In the end, Coleman and Faunia die in a car crash (on the same road that the ex-husband was driving home on…suspicious…) and Nathan meets Coleman’s black sister at the funeral. He is able to piece together the parts of Coleman’s life, and begins to write a story about it.

The plot does sound interesting – and it is, to an extent. It is twisted and deep and analytical, even profound. But the writing style is what really prevented me from liking this book. Roth writes very loosely. Paragraphs take up 3-5 pages in some areas, and the story jumps from tangent line to tangent line. By the time it returns back to the main idea of the chapter, I had forgotten what the original point was. His diaglogue rambles and his characters fight with each other for equal space on the page. There is also a lot of backstory told at inconvenient times. It will be really interesting to see how the film version adapted the book.

I realize this book has received a lot of good reviews and even won the Pen/Faulkner Award, but it just wasn’t my thing.

The next book I’m going to tackle for that class is The Constant Gardener by John Le Carre. Hopefully it turns out to be a better experience!

Leaving the Atocha Station

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner is one of my new favorite books, hands down.

I blogged earlier about the narrator – he is definitely what makes the book as good as it is.

To summarize, Adam is a poet on a fellowship in Spain, and does a lot of nothing while he writes poetry. He befriends someone who begins to translate his work into Spanish, and he tries to pretend like he can’t speak Spanish fluently, although by the end, his friend/translator Teresa tells him he can live in the language. While Adam is in Spain, a terrorist attack blows up one of the trains at the Atocha station. Is Adam now part of history, or does he just watch it go by, and sometimes write about it? After all, it isn’t really his country.

Overall, Adam tries to define himself in a language he is not initially comfortable with, and finds that through his “mistakes” in speaking, he can create any sort of life he wants. He tells his friend Isabel (and some others) that his mom is dead, but then later says she is just sick (which is also a lie) and makes the excuse that he didn’t know how to convey his words correctly, and that he thought if he told people she was dead it would make it easier when she actually died. He repeatedly tells people that his poetry isn’t about anything, but by the end he discovers he is able to make a statement and defend his writing at a panel with other Spanish writers. It seems that, despite his hard work not to, he actually created something worth value while on his fellowship. The book ends at a party celebrating his and Teresa’s book, with Adam’s original poems and Teresa’s translations.

The thing I loved most about Adam and what made him so believable was his preoccupation with how people saw him. He felt he had to look the part of the poet, look interested when people spoke to him in English, and look haughty to hide his confusion when people spoke too fast in Spanish. He is so concerned about how to arrange his face to convey a certain meaning and is obsessed with other people’s reactions to the stories he tells. If a friend doesn’t react the way he predicts during a conversation, Adam immediately begins to overanalyze the situation (which is something I can relate to!) and tries to justify in his head why his thought was so profound/deep/stupid and why the reaction wasn’t sympathetic/disgusted/understanding enough.

And of course, like all college students trying to find meaning in the world, Adam drinks a lot, smokes a lot, and takes his “white pills” a lot. This adds another layer of reality to the story, because Adam is fuzzy, we as readers get to experience that along with him and see the different ways he views or thinks about things while high or drunk.

This book was fantastic – I highly recommend it. If you want to know more about why it’s so great from people who are paid to review, check out the list of praise here.

Simultaneous Reading

Do you ever read a book at the same time as one of your friends (without being in a bookclub)?

I’m experiencing some simultaneous reading right now and it’s making me think about how we read as individuals vs. in groups. For one of my classes, we are reading The Human Stain by Philip Roth and I’m reading it while talking to two of my friends about it. This is about what our conversations look like:

According to my prof, this is the best book ever written

Kelly: I’m on page 30!

Liz: I’m only on page 10.

Kelly: Let me know when you get to the part about the shit. He talks about shit for like two pages.

Later in the day, I see my other friend Hannah

Liz: Kelly says there’s a part about shit?

Hannah: She keeps asking me if I’ve gotten to the part with the cows yet!

Later, when I see Kelly again…

Liz: So there’s a part about cows too?

Kelly: Mhm, cows and shit!

And even later, when I finally got to that part, I immediately texted Kelly and said, “I made it to the cow shit part!”

And, a la Monte Python and the Holy Grail, there was much rejoicing, because we finally understood each other.

(To let you know, one of the characters worked on a farm and once had a “warm shit fight” with her ex-husband while they were cleaning the cow stalls, and supposedly that was the most fun they had during their marriage) (And sorry about the swearing, but there really is no nice way to talk about cow poop)

Before I got to the cow part, I was anxiously waiting to finally read it, so that anticipation propelled me through the story. I don’t think I would have been that excited to read and catch up to Kelly if she hadn’t amped it up for me. When other people ask you if you’ve made it to certain parts, do you read faster to get there? It’s also fun to read at the same time as friends because then you have someone to go to whenever something shocking happens, or when you’re confused, or when you want to complain about a character.

Don’t ask me for any scientific support, but I think that when you read a book with someone (even if it’s not part of a bookclub) you get more excited about it, even if you don’t necessarily like the book. There’s something fun about sharing the moments with someone else and having someone to talk with.

NY Times: Republicans Versus Women’s Rights

I picked up a paper today after breakfast and proceeded to read it with my coffee while my roommates watched the View. Everything is, of course, SO political, especially right after the caucus (both my Iowan roommates said they were glad it was over because they got way too many phone calls). Anyways, this article caught my eye.

I don’t mean for this blog to have a slant or to veer too far off the literary path, so I won’t summarize or opinionize (yes, that is a word now…). I’m just semi-reporting that I’m working on one of my resolutions – to read the paper more.

Meanwhile, I’m reading Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner and so far it’s great. After reading all of the great reviews about it, I’m excited to be finally reading it! I’m about a quarter of the way through. I think what I like the best about it at this point is the narrator’s preoccupation with appearing to be profound and deep. He holds himself above others by not participating in conversation and, with his broken Spanish, only offers mysterious sentences that speak of a great depth of intelligence, or so he thinks. He describes how he positions his face to convey certain emotions and how he uses his cigarettes as objects to punctuate the conversation he does partake in, like a prop. When people ask him what his poetry is about, he affects a look of disdain and proclaims that “poetry isn’t about anything.” It’s mildly hilarious and it reminds me of certain people I know here at school who are more concerned with looking like the writer/poet/hipster/artist than actually creating something.