Feature and Follow–My first one!

Never done this Feature and Follow post before but it seems like a great way to meet people and find some great blogs/books.  Hosted by Parajunkee and Alison Can Read (both great blogs, btw), this week’s features are Books Are My Reality and Concise Book Reviews.

Question: Summer Reading. What was your favorite book that you were REQUIRED to read when you were in school?

My Answer: It seems like a lot of people are saying that they hated required reading, but I ended up loving a lot of what I read for school.  My favorite has got to be A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens.  It’s the novel that caused me to love English class. It was during the reading of this novel that I began to think analytically about literature, and it set me on the path to my choice of college major and possible career.  That said, I also loved Much Ado About Nothing and Hamlet by The Bard himself.

I want to know what everyone else’s favorite books are. I’d also welcome any new followers. Happy Friday and happy reading!

 

12.15–The Red Tent

Anita Diamant has done every single thing right with this novel. It is one of the most stunning pieces of literature I’ve ever had the pleasure to read. In a primarily patriarchal culture, the red tent is a women’s haven where men are not permitted, and the culture within is absolutely beautiful.  The narrator, Dinah, is the only daughter of Jacob (of biblical fame), borne to him by his wife Leah. She is looking back at her life, from her very first memories to the nightfall of her existence, and it is a life full of both joy and sorrow.

Jacob has four wives, and Dinah regards them all as mothers. She is raised in a gaggle of children, always surrounded by playmates and confidantes.  Her best friend and closest sibling is Joseph, though they at some point become sadly estranged. As she and her brothers grow, they all drift slightly apart and fissures appear within the family group. Dinah is also the character in the Bible who is “raped” by the prince of a city, for whom her brothers later take revenge by killing every male resident of the city.  In the novel, however, Diamant portrays this as a love story, with Dinah visiting the city with her mother as an apprentice midwife, meeting the prince, and falling deeply in love with him. They have a whirlwind romance and a clandestine wedding without her parents permission, and they pay a heavy price for it.  Despite the profoundly heartbreaking tragedy of her short marriage, Dinah manages to move on and live a life of productivity, joy, and even enlightenment to a certain degree.

One interesting thing about the novel is that one would expect it to be steeped in Jewish culture and faith, but that is not the case.  Jacob and his sons after him do worship the god of his fathers. The women, however, around whom the novel circles, are of a strange pagan faith–a cult that worships the power of women and of the earth and the moon.  There is very little interference from the men on this topic. I suppose women were not considered important enough at this time to be converted.  This faith is what unites the women, who must come together in the red tent for a week out of every month, conducting rituals and celebrations, performing births together, singing songs and feasting. Each woman is regarded as a goddess in her own right, and the god of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is a distance and cold deity. Truly, these women exist in a world apart.

The plot is excellent.  Even in moderately uneventful parts Diamant manages to create enough “action” to keep the reader interested. The novel, as I said, is stunning. It is a beautiful piece commemorating the special culture that exists among women.  In a time when women were thought to have very little power, the bond between these women and the knowledge they possess in secret is inspiring. The men in the story are portrayed as dupes, albeit powerful ones. Dinah herself is a character worthy of awe. Even in her youth she is very wise, and though she is a bit impetuous and emotional, she is for the most part gentle in spirit, in word, and in deed.  She is a lovely narrator, never losing the readers interest for a moment. Her inner thoughts are profound and intriguing, and her words and actions are at times quite amusing.  Diamant’s construction of the entire novel is masterful, her grasp of the English language is that of a fine artist. If there is anything wrong with this book, I missed it. I definitely recommend it to female readers, for its beauty and its uniqueness of subject.

12.14–The Lovely Bones

Alice Sebold’s novel The Lovely Bones is exactly what the title may suggest–lovely. A story of a family ravaged by the emotions resulting from the murder of their eldest daughter, it is told by the deceased girl, Susie Salmon.  Susie’s account of her murder and the events immediately preceding it are horrific, it’s true, and have the potential to be off-putting. Yet the novel that follows these morbid events is touching in a way that only the most heartbreakingly truthful accounts of life can be. Sebold writes fiction, but she captures the reality of life in every paragraph.

Susie looks down on her family from “her” heaven. Sebold has created a reality where each person who dies has their own heaven. These heavens occasionally overlap, when the deceased’s interest aligns with another’s. Susie has friends in heaven, and her dog even joins her there when he dies.  But her heaven also allows her to watch the goings-on of Earth, and Susie tells not just her story, but those of the people she was forced to leave behind. What she describes (with a certain detachment) is a sorrowful tale of grief, anger, betrayal, and frustration.  The gaping hole she leaves in the family widens until her parents relationship is in tatters, her elder sister drifts away emotionally, and her young brother is bubbling with anger. She makes somewhat half-hearted attempts (or so it seems to me) to contact her father and alert him to her murderer. Her feeble grasping at the world of the living sometimes manages to break through, and her father is able to receive enough to figure out who her killer is.  Though this revelation and subsequent hunt add an element of suspense to the novel, it is by no means the main focus of the novel.

It is difficult to read at times. Sometimes I wonder why it’s so appealing to read something as sad as this novel. Perhaps it is for the hope of a happy ending despite all. Or perhaps it is because we can be grateful that their sorrows are not ours. Sebold’s story is harrowing and grisly at times, but touching and beautifully written. Susie’s voice contains both the sweet innocence of childhood and the wisdom of one with the ability to see more than humans, and reading her account of events is a pleasure. The book was a bestseller without being fluffy and brainless, and I really admire both the author and the characters she created.  I highly recommend this book to anyone.

12.13–Postcards from the Edge

My reason for reading this novel is an interesting one. One day while strolling the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, Ireland I spotted a plastic bag in the grass.  Outraged, I stomped over to pick up the litter, but noticed that inside the bag was a book.  Happily, I had discovered a Book Crossing free book.  It travels around the world, being read and then released to be found again by person after person after person. How cool is that?

So far, Texas is the only other place the book has been outside of Ireland. I haven’t released it yet. Not sure where to do it. I’d like it to be somewhere uniquely Austin, but also somewhere it won’t be misconstrued as litter and thrown away. Perhaps my readers would like to suggest something?

As for the book itself, it was mediocre at best. I can see why people wouldn’t have a hard time letting it go.  I know I certainly won’t! A book by Carrie Fisher (of Princess Leia fame), it reads as a fictional autobiography of Fisher’s life.  The protagonist spends a stint in rehab and then lives the rest of her Hollywood life attempting to make her big break and to find love. Sadly, the story falls a bit flat. It is disjointed and difficult to follow–a jumble of narrative styles that follow no pattern and therefore make reading more of a chore than a pleasure.  The plot is dull and the character is not one I was at all interested in.  I wish I had more to say in praise of Fisher’s writing, because it seems that a great many of her ventures have been flops.  But she is not a very talented writer, and the only reason I finished the book was to be able to review it and pass it on for the next person to find. Who knows? They may enjoy it more than I did.

I did appreciate the humor in the novel. Fisher portrays well the egotistical and shallow nature of Hollywood by creating characters that are vain and vapid.  I also enjoyed the fact that, though it’s a story about a recovering drug addict, it wasn’t incredibly and morbidly depressing.  She wrote it so that even the most dire of the addicts’ circumstances were light and humorous.  Fortunately, everyone got help and most “lived happily ever after.”  Oops! I gave away the ending, but I don’t recommend the book to anyone, so I don’t feel bad!

12.12–Shaman’s Crossing

I just realized that I’m only on my 12th blog of the year. Kind of sad considering how many books I read last year. I will try to be more on top of both reading and blogging.

The novel about which I post today I picked up in the airport as I was leaving Belfast for Barcelona.  I felt a desperate need for high fantasy that was nearly unquenchable the entire time I was in Ireland.  Unable to find a book quite small enough to carry about with me, I settled on Shaman’s Crossing because Robin Hobb was a name I knew from working in the bookstore. Sadly, it was not at all the fantasy I desired.  Having my high expectations dashed by the book I choose seems to be a common theme these days. Still, it wasn’t bad and it certainly wasn’t boring.

Hobb’s novel tells the story of a boy named Nevarre, who has known his destiny from the moment of his father’s promotion to noble status. As a second son, he is destined for the King’s cavalla (the cavalry of the nation) and a glorious future as an officer in the military.  But his father’s well-intentioned hiring of a savage instructor to give Nevarre’s military education a (somewhat unfair) boost results in a change to Nevarre’s character that haunts and hounds him for the rest of the novel.  He is possessed by an old spirit that tugs him against his loyalties and his destiny.  It sounds as though the reader should have a clear idea of which side of him they’d like to win, but in reality I was very torn. I felt, almost, that I was rooting for the wrong side at all times.

Hobb’s novel has an interesting and somewhat unique plot, though the style in which it’s written is somewhat generic and dull.  There is not much about her writing style or word choice to latch on to.  She tells the story and that’s that.  The cast of characters that she creates, especially Nevarre’s roguish cousin Epiny, is varied and well-rounded, with plenty of heroes to encourage and villains to hate. Nevarre’s patrol-mates have a lot of learning to do over the course of the novel, and they each deal differently with the suffering inflicted on them by the older cadets in the academy.  Hobb has a decent grasp of human psychology, and the myriad possible ways different people can react to the same situation.  Though the novel is ultimately about Nevarre, she has a very large group of characters to develop and maintain, and she does this very well.

Epiny is in a class of her own. By far my favorite character of all, she is everything a proper Victorian lady is not.  She is loud and out-spoken, spoiled, flighty, flirty, and a dabbler in the occult arts.  This practice is encouraged by her mother, who sees it as a way to court favor with the Queen, and despised by her father as a dangerous phase that could get his senseless daughter in trouble. Despite the fact that everyone views her as unruly, stubborn, and somewhat airheaded, Epiny proves that she has both a sharp mind and genuine conjuring powers. In a book that can at times be very heavy, dark, and unsettling, Epiny is usually the lighthearted comic relief that always comes at much-needed moments.

Being a book that is almost 600 pages long, a detailed account of the plot would be too onerous. All I’ll say is that, of course, Nevarre’s path goes wildly off course (isn’t that always the way of it?) and he must use everything he’s learned in his short experience to defeat both corporeal and phantom enemies.  It is sluggish at times, but for the most part was an entertaining read. If you’re looking for a novel to read on your vacation this summer, this one is interesting enough to keep you piqued and long enough to last you a whole trip.

12.11–The Pirate Queen

I picked up this book in a tourist shop with an assortment of Irish interest books.  The back cover text makes it seem a lot more exciting than it really is. It is a historical book whose enticing teaser text invites the reader to enter the exciting, adventurous, romantic world of Grace O’Malley–the Pirate Queen. In the 16th century, Grace unofficially ruled the west coast of Ireland with her armada. Theoretically this book should have been really interesting, but sadly it was more a history of the conflict between the Irish and the English.  Grace herself occasionally surfaced in the book, and all the events sort of centered around her, but it wasn’t nearly enough to satisfy my desire for a really good pirate story. The history was interesting, but not what I wanted to read about.

Since probably no one is going to read this book, I won’t spend much time on reviewing it. I don’t even know if it’s available in the US. Maybe it is, but honestly I’d pass it by. There are other, better books about pirates out there.

12.10–Fire

Fire by Kristin Cashore was fantastic in a way that only action-filled, sexually charged teen lit can be.  I read a lot of reviews that condemned the novel for being too mature for teen audiences, but I disagree whole-heartedly.  Fire is 17 year old, is burdened with more than her fair share of unusual problems, and yet suffers the same fears and insecurities as the general teenage population.

I’m getting to an ago where teen lit is a guilty pleasure.  Five years out of teenager-hood, I should be over it. But I still find myself craving it often, mostly because it is fast-paced, fun, interesting, and lacks the forced introspective depth that a great deal of adult literature writers feel it necessary to stuff into their novels. Fire gave me exactly what I was looking for in a novel.  Stuck in the middle of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, I needed to find a book that would actually encourage me to like reading again. So I bought it in an Eason in Dublin, and cracked it open immediately, feeling the soothing balm of an engaging story ease my mind and bring a smile to my face.

Fire is the second book by Kristin Cashore set in the same world as Graceling (also amazing) but on the other side of the mountains in a land known as The Dells. The main character is also called Fire, so named because of the color of her hair. In The Dells there are monsters, creatures that look like normal animals except for the fact that their fur or feathers or scales are brightly and unusually colored–magenta, marigold, purple, jade, turquoise, etc.  They are also extremely vicious, and even monsters whose animal counterparts are usually very mild hunger for the flesh of humans and other monsters alike.  Fire is half monster, the result of the union of her insane monster father and one of his human sexual conquests.  She can read peoples’ thoughts and emotions, and even control the minds of weak individuals or collected groups.  She is also extraordinarily beautiful, and men often go wild at the sight of her, either with lust or with hatred.  However, she is part human, and is therefore appalled by her father’s behavior and, for most of her life before the events of the novel, refuses to use her powers at all.  As the political situation in her kingdom deteriorates, she finds herself faced with the choice of using her power to help save her country or watch as it all falls apart.  Either way she risks losing the people she loves.

Of course, being in the Graceling trilogy, there is a romance involved as well.  Fire grows up alongside her best friend Archer, who eventually becomes her lover. But though he constantly proposes to her, is jealously protective, and wants nothing more than to spend forever with her, she is never able to love him in the same way. Instead, she finds throughout the novel that a romance is blossoming between her and someone very different from Archer.  It’s quite sweet and innocent, and I fear I don’t understand my fellow reviewers who seem to thing Fire is a slut.  Yes, she sleeps with Archer.  But she’s only with two men, one of which she marries (we assume).  Except to the ultra-religious, that number (ahem, 2) is extremely low–lower than the number of lovers a lot of teenagers will have. So let’s just reserve our judgement, shall we?

I enjoyed Fire as a character a great deal.  I saw a little bit of myself in her. Extremely beautiful, plagued  by the attention of men…totally kidding.  Her fears and reservations, her insecurities–what girl doesn’t go through those things?  Despite the fact that she’s a monster and therefore not quite human, and incredibly lovely, she suffers the same things as women everywhere.  She doubts the love and intentions of others because of the power she unwillingly has over others.  She is lonely. She is faced with very difficult choices. She worries over the people she loves.  She’s tough, but still delicate enough to be feminine and alluring.  She’s loyal and protective.  And she’s interesting, because at the end of the day, her biggest problems set her apart from us regular humans, and one can’t help but compare her reactions to what oneself might do in her situation.

I wish I could do more justice to how much I loved this book. It is extremely emotional, and Cashore is adept at making the reader feel what Fire is feeling.  In the midst of tragedy, the reader is heartbroken. In romance, the reader’s heart is full and excited with the hope that maybe they’ll have that someday (or maybe they already do?).  In times of fear, the reader fears for Fire and her loved ones.  For regular Bibliography readers, this is a common theme in the blogs about books that I really love: it absolutely has to make me feel some kind of emotion. If it manifests itself physically (tears, a sigh, catching my breath, etc.) then it is truly an effective and moving piece to me.  This is one of my favorite things about this novel, and Cashore wins major points.

As I said, it’s the second book in a trilogy.  I highly recommend this book, but you will definitely want to start by reading Graceling (Book 1 of the trilogy).  Have fun and enjoy it! Great book!