Thursday, December 31, 2009

Tigerbuttah: A Hand-Painted All Ages Story Inspired by Golden Books

Becky Dreistadt is the creator of Tiny Kitten Teeth, a beautiful (and adorable) hand-painted web-comic. Her Golden Books-inspired project features Tigerbuttah, "a little tiger who doesn’t know much about life yet." He is featured weekly in single-paneled comics on her site. You can see more of Becky's work at her deviantArt page.

There are only 15 days left to make a pledge for this project. It sort of slipped from my mind for a few weeks, but I suddenly remembered it and made my $15 pledge today. The project has already reached its goal of $5,000 but additional funds will be used to print more copies of the book and increase their distribution.

Click below for more info about the project--a $15 donation gets you a PDF of her mini-comic "Little Beaky" as well as a copy of the book when it's printed.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver

I browsed some of the reviews for this book on Goodreads while I was still in the process of reading it. Many found it inspiring, some daunting, and others seemed to be just plain put off by Kingsolver's "pushy" attitude. I did feel that Kingsolver occassionally seemed to be scolding me. As much as I'm sure she'd like this book to appeal to everyone, for the most part I think she's probably preaching to the choir (or at least, people who agree with her views even if they aren't quite living according to them yet). Nonetheless, Kingsolver and her family provide a wealth of information--anectodal, factual, and delicious (recipes!)

I would group myself among the people who found this book absolutely inspiring. Each semester I drudge through in college draws me ever closer to the idyllic vision of living in the mountains, growing my own food, and being surrounded by beauty and life. Perhaps not exactly where a college degree "should" take me, but I feel increasingly attracted to such a direct way of living. Kingsolver emphasizes how this directness--planting, nurturing, and harvesting foods right in your backyard, or purchasing them from your neighbors--creates an invaluable link between people and their food. Quite a few times she mentions that Americans are increasingly disconnected from their food sources, and this may be why we are hard-pressed to define an actual American food culture.

Additionally, and despite Kingsolver's tut-tutting, she repeatedly states that eating local and organic is something that everyone can do (perhaps in varying degrees, but she also proposes that every little bit helps). She backs these claims up with hard facts by analyzing the funds her family spent on growing their own food and buying food from farmer's markets, compared to the "hidden" fees that consumers pay when they purchase food that has traveled a great distance to get to the grocery store.

And I must say...the recipes at the end of each chapter sound divine--I'll definitely be trying many of them. Homemade mozerella? YES PLEASE!

Overall, I think Kingsolver presents an insightful, humble, and well-researched solution to many of America's food problems. The solution isn't to make farms bigger and ship foods cross-country. The solution, instead, involves stepping out into our own yards and cultivating even the smallest garden; seeking out local farmers and farmers markets in our communities; and learning (and appreciating) what the earth beneath our own two feet has to offer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

The Convalescent by Jessica Anthony

I literally just finished reading this book today during my morning commute on the train. Still not quite sure how I feel about the ending, but I loved the rest of the book. I suppose the ending is kind of amazing because it's so bizarre (although that certainly isn't the only part of the book I would describe that way).

Anyway, The Convalescent is about a small ugly man named Rovar Pfliegman who sells [stolen] meat out of a broken down bus in the middle of a field in Virginia. The narrative jumps back and forth between the history of the Pfliefman's and Rovar's day to day existence and occasionally also his childhood. All of these aspects are seamlessly woven together to create a portrait of a simultaneously humorous and somber existence.

I could probably ramble forever about all the little things in this book that were interesting and funny and contribute to making it totally-worth-reading. However, one thing in particular has been nibbling on my brain as I've been thinking about this book. Rovar is a strange narrator. About 3/4 of the way through the book, he gets a look at his folder in Dr. Monica's office, and sees her notes about him: "Pseudomaniacal tendencies...Invents various illnesses for personal attention...PHYSICALLY, THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH HIM" (187). This blunt note comes as a surprise, as Rovar laments his unfortunate physical state repeatedly throughout the narrative. Is it all a lie? Or do others simply not perceive his pain? Are his claims of disfigurement not physical but rather a metaphorical reflection of himself, or society?

Rovar's reliability as a narrator comes into question, but it's not quite as simple as just that. Since throughout the book he also is relating the history of his people, Rovar's narration also represents a construction of history--an untold history, no less. And with Rovar as the supposed last remaining Pfliegman, he is the only source for this history aside from a book given to him by his grandfather: The Rise and Fall and Rise of the Hungarians by Anonymus (sic) (as for the title...I think that's about right). Throughout the book, it is implied that the weakest members of a society, those whose history is forgotten and left untold, are often the ones who hold society together, the ones who create an invisible skeleton upon which the epic "mainstream" version of history can be constructed. Perhaps not a novel concept necessarily, but Anthony presents it with enough humor and fantasy to make one really wonder what could be missing from our history books, and how that history was decided on.

Aside from the epic question of HISTORY, The Convalescent also simply calls attention to the small things in life--whether the small things are actually things, or even people.

It's a beautiful book and I highly recommend it. The book design and bookjacket are also wonderful so even if you hate reading it, I'm sure you'll at least enjoy holding it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabrial Garcia Marquez

Before reading this book, I had only read Marquez's more recent novel Memories of My Melancholy Whores. I read it for a World Lit class. We were asked to read any novel by Marquez, and due to the pressures of other classwork, I chose the shortest, smallest book I could find--Memories of My Melancholy Whores fit that bill nicely. It was a quick read and I read it twice, the second time so that I could better write an essay about it for class. I found Marquez's writing magical and illuminating--simultaneously gritty and ethereal. One Hundred Years of Solitude, which must be at least 4 or 5 times the length of Memories is also a beautiful tale, apparently heavily influenced by his grandmother's storytelling. This novel seems much less obviously personal than Memories (in which the narrator/main character seems to be Marquez himself in many ways). Nonetheless, there is a sense of childlike wonder, as though Marquez has placed himself simultaneously in the position of storyteller (with his grandmother's straight face--even at the most absurd moments--and fantastic stories) and avid listener, eyes wide with excitement.

One of the things I found most interesting about this novel is the sense of time that is created as the story progresses. Ursula, a strong woman and the character who most clearly ties together the various generations (aside from her son Aureliano perhaps), represents a "wise" and grounded sort of figure--a woman who has seen everything and is ready to meet life head on. She repeatedly sees in her own children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren the repetition of time, old habits, and dark family secrets. Despite the passage of time (100 years or so sounds about right!), one gets the sense that time is standing still, with new characters inhabiting a simultaneously different and similar realm as their ancestors. Almost like a parallel universe, but with the lingering shadows of the past very much present rather than completely unseen.

Unfortunately I'm writing this quite a few weeks after I finished the novel. The start of school has interrupted my thought process on this book. There are many characters with similar names, which gets confusing (thank goodness for the family tree at the beginning of the book). In a way I think this is appropriate, however, especially in light of Ursula's viewpoint, from which history appears to repeat itself. A somewhat disheartening notion lined with optimism...the idea that no matter how far we feel from our roots, we are all connected in an inescapable way.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid

I decided to mooch this book on a whim because I read Annie John a few semesters ago for a World Lit class. While Annie John wasn't exactly my favorite book from the class, I remember feeling like certain major themes in the novel stood out to me and stayed with me, and I was curious to see how it compared to some of her other work. It seemed like Lucy was a continuation of Annie John, which, if I remember correctly, ends with the main character leaving her family in the West Indies for North America to begin nursing school. Lucy is about a 19 year old girl who has begun a new life in North America as an au pair for a seemingly perfect family (which quickly unravels as the novel progresses) while pursuing an education to become a nurse. There's also a similar love-hate relationship between the main character and her mother and father. Again, this relationship and even the parents are almost identical to those in Annie John. I'm guessing Kincaid's novels are autobiographical in nature and that's why there are recurring characters and this almost obsessive examination of mother-daughter relationships. I've yet to read her book Autobiography of My Mother but I'm sure that would answer some of my questions.

Anyway, I was not terribly impressed by this book. It seemed bland and Lucy, the narrator, is so cold and pessimistic that it's difficult to feel any sort of connection to her. Perhaps a feeling of alienation was what Kincaid was going for, but I found it off-putting. Throughout the novel Lucy begins to realize herself sexually and also remembers some of her early sexual experiences back home. These too seem cold, like recollections of someone else's memories. Overall, I got the feeling that Lucy did not feel like a part of anything, nor did she desire to be a part of anything or create a deep connection with anyone. However, she has a "best friend" named Peggy and she claims to be friends with Mariah, the woman for whom she works during the first 3/4 of the book. Maybe Lucy is supposed to be a more dynamic character with a wider range of emotions, but the writing style (which is very straight-forward and dry) doesn't communicate that very well.

I did think Lucy was interesting because of her rebellious spirit. She is determined to carve out a life of her own, away from her family, and she does this without hesitation or excessive emotion. Perhaps she realizes that by moving to a new country and burning her mother's letters, she is violently cutting an essential part of herself off: her homeland and her family. Lucy certainly makes no attempts to cover up her bitterness and while she moves forward and gets an apartment with Peggy, begins a new job, and pursues photography as a hobby, perhaps the most crucial element that seems to be missing from Lucy's attitude is hope. Maybe that's the component that I felt was lacking here, but maybe I'm also being a little naive in that expectation.

Aside from Lucy as a character, I thought that Kincaid made some interesting commentary about colonialism and how the world as seen through the rose colored glasses of the coloniser is quite different from the shattered view of the colonized.

Overall, I think this book is worth reading but not fantastic...I definitely enjoyed Annie John more. However, if you're a fan of Kincaid's work then you'll easily make connections to her other books and admittedly, I did feel like having previously read Annie John added considerable depth to my reading of this novel (perhaps it would have been even better if Annie John was fresh in my mind!).

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Body Outlaws edited by Ophira Edut

This book is a compilation of essays about body image and identity. I think there is something here for everyone, and the women in this book have had a wide range of experiences. Nonetheless, a lot of them project similar messages, and because of this many of the essays seem to run together. That's not to say that those messages weren't delivered differently--they weren't just all about how you should learn to love your body and many admit that they are still working on learning to love themselves. Many end on an ambiguous note, such as Meredith Mcghan's essay "Dancing Toward Redemption," in which she recounts her brief experience as a stripper--an experience that had a profoundly uplifting effect on her self-esteem, but remained problematic for other reasons.

Many of the essays note the problems of adequately unifying mind and body in a society that demands you be instantly identifiable and ready for judgment based on appearance.
The symbiosis between body, emotions, identity and appearance is still deeply mysterious to me. There is a delicate feedback loop here, which in a society hooked on images of perfection and technologies of control is easily corrupted, its pathways turned back against us. The notion that our bodies make us who we are is twisted into an equation between our appearance and our self-worth. Feeling bad about our physical selves puts us on a fast track to self-hatred. When we're growing up and get caught at the body's surface, we never reach the place where intuition, feeling, and a sense of who we are live inside us, and our spirits never reach escape velocity. (Lee Damsky, "Beauty Secrets")

Overall, I enjoyed reading this compilation. However, I enjoyed Listen Up! more because I felt the diversity of topics helped create a stronger overall message. I realize that the entire point of this collection is that it focuses on body image but at times it was redundant.

Another quote that I marked:
In a women's studies class I took, we talked about the idea of women 'being' bodies rather than merely possessing bodies. A reading suggested that women were taught to separate their identities from their bodies, which distorted their self-image. (Allison Torres, "At Home in My Body")

I'm curious what the reading was that Torres refers to; I would be interested in reading it myself. Torres' essay focuses on her identity as an athlete, an identity that obviously would not be possible without feeling deeply connected to her body (and paradoxically, identifying the right times to separate her mind and body). Since I'm not an athlete myself, this was one of the essays that didn't particularly strike a nerve with me, however that one short quote caught my attention.

I do feel that women are taught to separate their identities from their bodies--more than that, I believe that women are encouraged to wage outright war with their bodies. The media provides no shortage of propaganda and the beauty industry provides an ample arsenal with which to alter our bodies into submission. This "war" wouldn't be possible unless women felt separated from their bodies, but I think that inevitably hatred toward one's body leads toward a more general self-hate that further prevents a unification of mind and body.

Friday, August 7, 2009

A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel

One of the subtleties that I immediately fell in love with in this book is the title. Not The History of Reading (although Manguel does postulate about the potential existence of such a book in his "Endpaper Pages") but rather A History of Reading. Because there are many histories of reading, completely dependent on the reader. Manguel realizes and celebrates this fact, jumping throughout history and drawing together writers and readers of seemingly disparate relations into close proximity, letting them share the page together based on an idea or a memory that connects them in his own mind. This is a thoroughly researched book, but it still reads like a memoir. Manguel writes in a way that is formal and educated enough to be "scholarly" but remains personal and oftentimes whimsical.

Manguel covers a lot of ground, from hard facts to fleeting impressions, and there's a lot of information here to be processed! I got this book from the library but will probably buy my own copy so I can read it again and make my own notes to go back to (something I rarely do, but I feel like this book invites such scribbling).

I found this quote hilarious, from the chapter "Stealing Books." It's an inscription in a book from the library of the monastery of San Pedro in Barcelona, attempting to deter people from stealing it:
For him that steals, or borrows and returns not, a book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw at his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not. And when at last he goes to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him for ever.
Well then, if that curse doesn't cure your case of sticky-fingers, I'm not sure what will!

At the end of the chapter entitled "The Missing First Page," Manguel quotes Kafka:
Altogether, I think we ought to read only books that bite and sting us. If the book we are reading doesn't shake us awake like a blow on the skull, why bother reading it in the first place? So that it can make us happy, as you put it? Good God, we'd be just as happy if we had no books at all; books that make us happy we could, in a pinch, also write ourselves. What we need are books that hit us like a most painful misfortune, like the death of someone we loved more than we love ourselves, that make us feel as though we had been banished to the woods, far from any human presence, like a suicide. A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us. That is what I believe.
And in the last section of the book, "Endpaper Pages," in which Manguel describes an imaginary tome of The History of Reading, he writes a passage that seems to aptly pay respect to his own admiration of the individual reader:
And yet, in its apparent randomness, there is a method: this book I see before me is the history not only of reading but also of common readers, the individuals who, through the ages, chose certain books over others, accepted in a few cases the verdict of their elders, but at other times rescued forgotten titles from the past, or put upon their library shelves the elect among their contemporaries. This is the story of their small triumphs and their secret sufferings, and of the manner in which these things came to pass. How it all happened is minutely chronicled in this book, in the daily life of a few ordinary people discovered here and there in family memoirs, village histories, accounts of life in distant places long ago. But it is always individuals who are spoken of, never vast nationalities or generations whose choices belong not to the history of reading but to that of statistics. Rilke once asked, 'Is it possible that the whole history of the world has been misunderstood? Is it possible that the past is false, because we've always spoken about its masses, as if we were telling about a gathering of people, instead of talking about the one person they were standing around, because he was a stranger and was dying? Yes, it's possible.' This misunderstanding the author of The History of Reading has surely recognized.
This was overall just such a fun book. Reading is usually a solitary activity, pursued in silence. But after finishing A History of Reading I realize that the community of readers, both contemporary and historical, share their experiences through that silence and simply by taking part in the legacy of letters on the page, each of us weaving our own "history of reading," contributing to a larger history of common experience, teeming with unique subtly for each of us who can relate to it.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Fruitless Fall by Rowan Jacobson

In Fruitless Fall, Jacobson addresses the sudden disappearance of bees over the past few years which has come to be known as CCD--colony collapse disorder. A mystery to scientists and beekeepers everywhere, CCD may not be a disorder (in the sense of something being wrong with the bees) as much as it is an indication of environmental degradation and the destructive impact that humans have had on ecosystems. Globalization has also undoubtedly had a hand in CCD, with bees being carted across the country and imported from across the globe, allowing pathogens to enter into bee populations without any immunity. This of course combines with issues of pesticides and antibiotics which--though they may provide a quick fix--ultimately weaken the bees and prevent them from building up a natural resilience that could be passed to future generations.

Jacobson manages to cover an immense amount of information in this relatively small book, ranging from the inner workings of hive life to the global impact of honey bees to the healing power of honey, and beyond honey bees to industrial agriculture and factory farming, all of which have to do with CCD, as much as we would probably like to hope that it's an isolated problem with a simple solution.

Unfortunately for bees and pollinating insects everywhere, humans have their own plans when it comes to making food, and nature's way usually isn't fast enough or hyperproductive enough for our tastes. Almond growers must saturate their carefully planned and planted fields with bees to ensure pollination of a maximum number of flowers. Obviously, this isn't quite what would occur in nature:

If you're wondering how almond trees ever got by before mankind figured this out, remember that, in their homeland, wild almonds didn't evolve to grow in great stands of clones. There was plenty of genetic diversity in the forest. They also didn't need to produce banner crops of almonds every year; a few new seedlings was enough. Only in the weirdness of hyperproductive clonal forests do you need weird pollination strategies.

We've ignored the natural tendencies of the bees (and the very plants that we grow and harvest) and have attempted to change their nature to fit our needs. Unfortunately, this sort of stress can only lead to collapse.

Although Jacobson attempts to get to the bottom of CCD throughout the book, he concludes in the end that CCD is not a single problem with a single solution. Jacobson insists that a more holistic approach must be considered if we value the environment and our most treasured sources of food:

...To me, trying so hard to find a single cause of CCD misses the point. CCD, like varroa, is a symptom of a larger disease--a disease of fossil fuels and chemical shortcuts, of billion-bee slums and the speed of the modern world. An imbalance in the system. Maybe IAPV or imidacloprid or fluvalinate is the latest manifestation of the disease, but until local agriculture replaces global agriculture, there will always be another parasite, another virus, another mysterious collapse. 'You keep digging to the bottom,' said Webster, 'that's what you'll always find. It's not a problem with the bees; it's a degradation of the whole environment.'

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Latin Vulgate at the Boston Public Library

A few days ago I traveled to Boston to take care of some business before schools starts. The professor I work as a research assistant for primarily focuses on Medieval literature. Next semester she is teaching a course about Medieval History and Literature. One of the assignments she plans on giving involves transcribing a Psalm from a 15th century Italian psalter and comparing that text to the Biblia Sacra as well as the full Latin Vulgate text. This demonstrates the differences between words and also brings to light things like abbreviations and unfamiliar symbols. Essentially, my job was just to test-drive the assignment to ensure that it was clear and could be completed as planned.

The Rare Books and Manuscripts Room in the BPL is tucked away behind a gallery space and through the Art and Music section of the library. I thought I would never arrive but old, worn hand-painted signs told me I was headed in the correct direction. I eventually made it to a serene dimly lit room, lined with glass cases that were full of old books.

After filling out some paperwork I was finally buzzed into the reading room and the librarian behind the desk showed me the books that had been pulled, waiting for me on the table. I had no idea the manuscript was so huge--literally, over 2 feet tall and with each page more than a foot and a half wide with heavy leather covers and vellum pages. To the right you can see the Latin Vulgate next to one of the volumes of the Biblia Sacra (a thick book as well, but dwarfed in the presence of the medieval beast next to it). The cover is adorned with metal and has leather straps to keep it closed. Along the bottom are metal spikes and there are also metal bars to support the pages when the book is open and propped up (presumably in front of the choir or congregation). It's an absolutely gorgeous book and it was an amazing experience to open it and turn the thick pages for myself, pages that were painted and written on over 500 years ago.

To the left is a photo of the historiated initial of my assigned Psalm (5). The text is almost entirely composed of abbreviations, with very few full words. Given the size of the text, this makes perfect sense since if the words were written out the book probably would be quadruple its current length. Also, since it was written and illustrated by hand, a longer text would obviously require more time to write.

As you can see, the illustrations and writing are in beautiful condition. Some pages are more faded than others, but almost all the illuminations are equally vivid and crisp.

I've never been terribly interested in Medieval books, although I think illuminated manuscripts are wonderful pieces of art. However, this was an amazing experience--a million times better than seeing a manuscript in a museum (and--horrible as this sounds coming from an Art History student--even I have to admit that museums can be very dull places). Being able to open the covers, turn the pages, and look closely at the illuminations is an experience that I wish all people could have. I'm sure it would promote far more respect and admiration for the past, and for books in general, if everyone could have such an intimate experience, bridging hundreds of years and brushing their fingertips over the very same pages that human hands constructed centuries ago, hands not so different from our own.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

The Codex Seraphinianus by Luigi Serafini

This post is not about a book I've read or am reading, but a book I read about and would love to see in person. I'm currently reading A History of Reading by Alberto Manguel. He discusses "picture reading" in one chapter and mentions a book by Luigi Serafini entitled The Codex Seraphinianus. I found quite a few nice scans of pages on an ebay listing (and I'm sure a google search would yield plenty of results), but these images are from an article in The Believer: The Codex Seraphinianus.

(click to see them bigger)

Manguel writes about how the publisher he worked for received a strange parcel in 1978, one that contained the pages of Luigi Serafini's book:

The accompanying letter explained that the author, Luigi Serafini, had created an encyclopedia of an imaginary world along the lines of a medieval scientific compendium: each page precisely depicted a specific entry, and the annotations, in a nonsensical alphabet which Serafini had also invented during two long years in a small apartment in Rome, were meant to explain the illustrations' intricacies. Ricci [the aforementioned publisher for whom Manguel was working], to his credit, published the work in two luxurious volumes with a delighted introduction by Italo Calvino; they are one of the most curious examples of an illustrated book I know. Made entirely of invented words and pictures, the Codex Seraphinianus must be read without the help of a common language, through signs for which there are no meanings except those furnished by a willing and inventive reader.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Monsters by Klaus Haapaniemi

I found this book on the clearance cart at Broad Street Books in Middletown, CT. For a mere $1 I bought it and this little gem was mine. It really is a very "sweet" book, like a piece of candy. Colorful, with a hard shell and rounded corners. I was delighted by the fanciful illustrations inside and that is primarily why I bought it.

Monsters is a small collection of illustrations by Finnish illustrator Klaus Haapaniemi. Sprinkled among the illustrations are little blocks of text written by Finnish author Rosa Liksom. According to the back of the book, their illustrations and writing "[channel] the wild beauty of the Scandinavian landscape." Having never experienced the Scandinavian landscape for myself, I can't attest to their success. However, both Haapaniemi and Liksom weave a luscious world of cold and warmth, slick ice and rough sand, populated by fantastic plants and otherworldly creatures.

Overall, I think this is a beautiful little book full of fantastic illustrations. However, I was unimpressed by the main accompanying story by Rosa Liksom. The title story "Monsters" made no sense to me, even when I read it as magical realism. Each paragraph seems like a collection of haphazard descriptions, puzzle pieces that don't quite fit together. Halfway through the story a character named Ilmari appears out of nowhere and the other characters seem to disappear, as though another story has started. I thought the writing was quite beautiful at times, but it seemed to flounder alongside the illustrations, like the author was attempting to "keep up" with Haapaniemi's art. I think the pairing of art + writing might have been more successful with short poems or perhaps a series of very short stories (such as the tiny story at the end, "Tampere").

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Clitoral Truth by Rebecca Chalker

I got a book in the mail yesterday! The Clitoral Truth! I proceeded to read the entire thing yesterday afternoon, since I didn't have anything better to do (other than occasionally tuning in to Spongebob). It was an interesting read, although I was a little disappointed by its lack of accessibility to both sexes. Obviously I'm not a man so I can't judge that with complete accuracy, but I felt like the author was clearly addressing a female audience. It is a book about female anatomy and female sexuality so I guess it's fair that she presumes her audience will be mostly women. I just feel like the author is a little patronizing at times, constantly referring to the heterosexual male model of sexuality and how men only seek to have an orgasm as quickly and efficiently as possible. I mean, I consider myself a feminist but is it really appropriate to pigeonhole men in a particular sexual stereotype? It isn't appropriate to do that to anyone, regardless of sex or gender. I was especially surprised by her tone throughout the book because I glanced at the Amazon reviews before mooching the book (from a man) and found that many of the reviewers were men. Obviously they were hoping for some sort of insight, but instead they found themselves being berated for trying to have fast and efficient orgasms...yeah...that doesn't sound like a great way to open up a dialog about pleasure.

Anyway, tone aside, I thought it was an interesting book that covers many aspects of female sexuality and how it has been covered up throughout history (and how it is changing today). The author provides many resources listed in the back. The first chapter extensively goes over the Feminist Women's Health Centers' anatomical definition of the clitoris, which includes 18 parts, some internal and some external (god damn!)

One aspect of this book that I found particularly interesting and invigorating was its attempts to examine female sexuality as something that a woman can experience for herself (i.e. with or without a man, or a partner of either sex for that matter). Chalker places emphasis on pleasure and sexuality as means of personal self discovery--a method by which we can not only gain an intimate knowledge of and love for our bodies, but also an understanding of our emotional and psychological selves (by examining our fantasies and what we find sexual or sensual). I think Chalker does an excellent job of explaining both physical and emotional aspects of female sexuality, and she does so by placing emphasis on the woman herself, not necessarily the interaction between partners.

Friday, July 17, 2009

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

What miracle is this? This giant tree.
It stands ten thousand feet high
But doesn't reach the ground. Still it stands.
Its roots must hold the sky.

I loved this book. I first heard of it in the englishmajors community on LJ, and was instantly intrigued. It's been on my to-read list ever since, and this summer I finally had time to tackle this beast of a book. It really drew me in, so it took me less time to read than I predicted.

I loved this book for a few reasons: it's self-referential, it has an attitude, it pokes fun at scholarship, it questions assumptions. It is quite frankly pretentious, but in an amazingly fun way (is that possible? Apparently it is). There are extensive footnotes, some of which are composed of references to imaginary sources, some of which are written by Johnny Truant, who tells his own story of psychological and physical deteroration alongside the unfolding of the Navidson report.

In terms of being a horror story, I found Johnny Truant's portions far more chilling than those by Zampano, perhaps because, like Johnny himself, I too found myself in the position of reader. His mental breakdown seems to imply how books (or texts in any format--even just a bunch of mixed up pages gathered in a chest) construct a reality of their own, unencumbered by physical limitations or logic, but with a history of their own and an existence that will extend far beyond that of both author and reader.

Overall I found House of Leaves simultaenously amusing and thoughtprovoking. It's a simple enough plot: a house that's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But this simple idea is then expanded and entwined with the legacies of literature, philosophy, fantasy, mathematics, psychology, and all manner of imaginary academic writings. It's amazing how much work must have gone into writing this book.

Definitely a must read.

A sun to read the dark.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Just finished reading this today. I enjoyed The Subtle Knife more than The Golden Compass. I think primarily because the characters in The Subtle Knife make mistakes. They seem more human. Things seemed way too convenient in The Golden Compass...everything just fell into place, with the occasional minor diversion, which usually ended up fitting neatly into the plot anyway (such as Lyra falling out of Lee Scoresby's balloon and getting captured by the bears).

Another thing that I enjoyed about the The Subtle Knife was that it got more into the specifics of Dust (Shadows, dark matter, what ever). I think subconsciously I found Lyra somewhat annoying, and it was nice to learn more about the plot and how all the various characters fit into everything. The addition of Will was particularly interesting. He's almost like a male version of Lyra--I actually suspected that Lord Asriel might be the father of both of them, except in different worlds. Of course, now that I know that isn't the case, I'm leaning more toward an Adam and Eve connection. Overall, I felt that The Subtle Knife seemed to really dig into the religious and political ideas that Pullman laid the groundwork for in The Golden Compass, which focused much more on Lyra as a character, and emphasized her importance in this mysterious grand scheme.

I don't know why I can't seem to assemble any coherent thoughts about this trilogy so far. All I know is that I'm enjoying the story!

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

I am simply too tired/lazy to write a summary, so here is my reaction to the book, which I just finished tonight!

Usually, I'm not a fan of fantasy. I finished this book in a few days, and if I hadn't had to work, probably would have read it in a single sitting. It's a good story and really draws you in. I rated it 3/5 stars mainly because I felt that some of the characters fall flat, and I wish that the church and all it entails were more deftly woven into the story. It comes up a few times throughout the book, but most of the information about the church and its possible connection to Dust is revealed within the last 50 pages, when Lyra finally finds her father, Lord Asriel. I do appreciate that Pullman doesn't spend pages and pages simply world-building and explaining things--the writing is almost always directly developing either the plot or characters, not really the world that hangs in the background. However, I do wish there was more detail about the church and how religion functions in this world (I suppose we're to assume that it's essentially like our own universe's version of Christianity?).

I suppose the next two books will go into far more detail about the church--it is a trilogy after all, so I can only judge it according to what I know so far...and I only know 1/3 of it. I saw the movie when it came out in theaters (which prompted me to look into the books), and was surprised while reading to find that I could recall almost scene-by-scene the progression of the story. Granted, I saw the movie quite some time ago, and it isn't exactly fresh in my mind, but nonetheless I was impressed that--from what I can remember--the movie seems to translate the book almost exactly. I'll have to watch the movie again and see how it compares now that I've read the book.

One thing that I think comes through in the book more than it did in the movie is the presumption that the audience is intelligent and composed of both children and adults. As a children's story, it was refreshing not to have things spelled out constantly, to have characters feel rage and lust and disappointment. Pullman manages to address a lot of interesting themes and creates characters who are human--they deceive, lie, love, hate, falter, and hope. The tension between Lyra and her parents and between her parents themselves are some of the most interesting character interactions in the novel (in my opinion). I'm definitely intrigued by the sick sort of sadomasochistic relationship between Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter. It's also interesting to see how Lyra reflects certain characteristics of her parents--who thus far appear to be the antagonists--while Lyra, the heroine, must use those very same qualities for good.

I should be careful about using words like good and evil, since at this point in the story, it seems that "good" and "evil" are largely undetermined. It seems clear-cut for a good chunk of the book, but by the end I think that dichotomy is disrupted.

Anyway, I'll wait to pass further judgment until I've read the next two books.

Man Crazy by Joyce Carol Oates

Man Crazy begins on a seemingly "normal" note, albeit sad and heartrending. About halfway through, it takes a turn toward the bizarre, but I'll get to that in a moment. Ingrid, a young girl, is in hiding with her mother, Chloe. Her father is a wanted man, and despite his charm and "love" for Chloe, he is violent and possessive. Ingrid idolizes her father and desperately misses him, yearning for the day he will return and make their family complete again. Ingrid witnesses firsthand the many disfunctions of her family, including a brutal fistfight between her father and one of Chloe's suitors, who has been supporting her with a house, car, and job as his secretary.

Ingrid leads an awkward childhood, and develops a tic in which she compulsively picks at her face and body. She is smart, but anxious and shy, so her teachers and the other students often make fun of her. She is popular because of her beauty, but has no friends. She repeatedly describes how she has dozens of friends, and no friends--no one who wouldn't betray her in a heartbeat, that is. Ingrid soon finds herself in a situation similar to her mother's: she is a beautiful woman, and men's eyes follow her everywhere. She finds pleasure and power in this, but is ultimately disempowered completely because of her utter submission to being a sexual object, one whose sole purpose is to please and then be cast aside.

About halfway through the novel, Ingrid runs away from home. By now she's already involved with drugs and alcohol, but that pales in comparison to the latest trouble she lands herself in: she is abducted into a gang called Satan's Children, in which she is raped and tortured. Despite this, she and the other women worship Enoch Scaggs, the leader of the group, said to be Satan's own son. It soon becomes apparent that rape and torture aren't the full extent of the horrors committed by Satan's Children--they also engage in ritual human sacrifice. Eventually it is Ingrid's turn to be sacrificed, but she manages to escape. She's so emaciated that she manages to slip through the slit of an open window in the garbage dump of a basement in which she's being held captive.

Ingrid reconnects with her mother, and goes through rehab and psychiatric evaluations and therapy. She falls in love with her therapist, and tells her mother she plans on marrying him. Chloe, too, seems to be settling into a calmer life, one safe from her ex-husband. In the last chapter, Ingrid observes the results of a winter storm, and how many of the ruins aren't actually new, but have been there all along, years perhaps. The broken trees are evidently a metaphor for her own broken, but alive, state:

You wondered how they could survive but of course they did. In the skin were marks just visible through the ice-coating, like a secret writing, scars. Nor were they dead exactly, those fallen trees. They were alive, only not vertical. The heartbeat inside them had maybe slowed, only a murmur but if you squatted to listen, if you knew how to listen, if the wind would die down you would hear it.

Ingrid has her own scars, both phsyical and psychological, some more apparent than others. And although her time with Satan's Children resulted in some of the most brutal damage, it's undeniable that some scars run deeper and were inflicted much earlier in her life. Her mother, too, carries scars as well, and both women deal with their pain as best they can. They are alive, even if bent and broken.

I found a few aspects of this novel very interesting. The story is told from Ingrid's perspective, looking back on her life as though recounting these events to a therapist (perhaps the very one she speaks of marrying? It's unclear, and given her manic state, it almost seems like she may have relapsed and is not actually as well as she seems at the end of the novel). Her narration comes as a stream of consciousness, sometimes with a paragraph composed of a single sentence. Thinking back on it now, I'm beginning to think Ingrid may not be a reliable narrator. The novel begins with her entering a women's detention facility. She is on suicide watch. The doctor asks her to tell him about her life, and the story begins, although she tells the doctor that she will not tell him of her life. Is it not her life being recounted then? Perhaps all of it is merely a fabrication.

Anyway, aside from the narrative structure of the novel, it is also interesting how Oates creates a dynamic in which the main female characters (Ingrid and her mother) are located at the center of male violence. Chloe tries to use her beauty as a weapon and means of controlling men--she attracts suitors who can support her and uses them for her own benefit, giving in return, of course, her beautiful body. This power is taken from her when her husband asserts his own claim over her mind and body, beating her suitor and eventually murdering him (being sure to snap some polaroids, which he sends to Chloe just make sure she knows her place). Ingrid, too, attempts to hold some sway over men with her physical attractiveness, and flaunts her sexuality. She feels confident and strong (and perhaps tries to overcompensate for other insecurities), but one day she flirts with the wrong man, and is promptly taken home by Enoch Scaggs, who essentially makes her a sex slave to him and the other men in Satan's Children.

It becomes clear that neither Chloe nor Ingrid are able to assert their own sexual power because they are expressing their sexuality within the limited structure prescribed for them by society. They become prisoners of their own sexuality because what they are expressing is a male construction of female sexuality. While Chloe and Ingrid are both beautiful, intelligent women, in many ways independent and strong, they embody the opposite of the femme fatal trope (perhaps even parodying it). They need men because their very sense of sexuality is defined by them, but that sexuality and sense of self is also, at a basic level, what imprisons them in a cycle of abuse.

This is a compelling novel. Deeply disturbing, but compelling. I'm still not certain of how reliable Ingrid is as a narrator, but the question of reliability only adds to the intrigue of this twisted tale.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Yes Man by Danny Wallace

Yes Man is the tale of a man who takes the advice of a random stranger to "Say yes more." He takes this suggestion to the extreme and challenges himself to quite literally say yes to everything (including email spam telling him he's won the Spanish lottery). Needless to say, this leads to many humorous situations. Danny's childlike optimism is occasionally shattered, but he somehow manages to stay determined throughout it all and in the end, learns how positive and negative approaches to everyday experience can drastically change the direction of one's life.

One of my favorite aspects of this book is Danny's whimsical approach to life. At times he is naive, silly, even idiotic, but he undeniably has a wonderful appreciation and understanding of people and all their idiosyncrasies. Rather than shying away from awkward situations with strangers, Danny embraces those situations and fosters many new friendships, often leading to amazing opportunities.

A few of my favorite stories:
- Danny journeys to Amsterdam in order to collect the money he "won" in the Spanish Lottery. Unfortunately for Danny, the whole Lottery bit doesn't quite work out, but he does meet a few travelers, one of whom offers to take him on a tour of Amsterdam. It turns out to be a wild night, involving, among other things, a psychotropic mindbomb. Danny wakes up the next morning to find a portrait of himself with a small dog on his shoulder. Danny does not own a dog.

- After traveling on a whim to Barcelona to meet Marc (another "Yes Man"), he hops on a plane to Singapore just for the hell of it and lets a kind taxi driver lead him around the city. He enjoys a peaceful afternoon on Pulau Ubin, where he is chased by a lizard while riding a bike.

- Danny meets up with a hypnotist and his hypno-dog, who wears a fez.

Yes Man is an easy read, and Danny's writing is amusing and inviting. He admits his own mistakes and failures, but nonetheless fully embraces "yes" and encourages others to do the same. Danny's experiences are a testament to the power of a simple three letter word and all the positive energy it radiates.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Red Scarf Girl by Ji-Li Jiang

When I first began reading this book, I was turned off by the simplistic language and bare-bones structure of the narrative. Admittedly, I love authors who get a little flowery and string words together into beautiful artistic passages. No flowery details to this story whatsoever. However, this seems to serve a dual purpose. First of all, the book is evidently meant to be accessible to readers of various levels, including children. Some of the themes are adult in nature and a bit disturbing (such as torture and suicide) but I suppose nothing here would be novel to children today. It's told from a child's point of view which makes the simple language heartrending considering the content. Additionally, the simplicity of the language mirrors the increasingly stripped down existence that Ji-Li and her family are forced to live. Their lives are meant to be simple and straight forward, transformed by the Cultural Revolution in China. However, because of her family's background (her grandfather was a landlord, so her family is considered "black," as opposed to red) Ji-Li and her family are neither able to live simply nor straight forwardly at all.

I think the strength of this novel comes from Ji-Li's ability to break down why people were so devoted to Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. She does not try to make excuses for people or try to explain away the many misdeeds that were carried out against innocent people. She does, however, clearly illustrate how the mob mentality infected even herself, and that oftentimes it came down to having to choose between your family or your own future. Ji-Li experiences so many barriers throughout the novel, as do her parents and her siblings. Amazingly, none of them give up hope, although Ji-Li often curses her grandfather and considers breaking away from her family. Ultimately, it is her family's strength that allowed them all to survive and eventually move to the US. Nonetheless, the many trials and tribulations they endure demonstrate that they were often maintaining their dignity by mere threads.

Red Scarf Girl is a quick, enlightening read. I did not know much about the Cultural Revolution in China before reading this memoir, but I feel considerably more knowledgeable about it now. Ji-Li includes a Glossary in the back of the book, which I found helpful for checking the meaning of certain phrases, as well as the relevance of certain people or events. Ji-Li balances a historical perspective with her own personal experiences. She describes the human toll of the Cultural Revolution in China, which ruined many people's lives, regardless of how devoted or opposed to it they were. Most tragic is the fact that these people, many of whom did fervently devote themselves to the Revolution, were mere pawns in a political game. Ji-Li writes in the Epilogue of her memoir:

It was only after Mao's death in 1976 that people woke up. We finally learned that the whole Cultural Revolution had been part of a power struggle at the highest levels of the Party. Our leader had taken advantage of our trust and loyalty to manipulate the whole country.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

Never Let Me Go is an interesting book. It has a sci-fi, dystopian future vibe to it, but in a subtle way (which becomes less subtle toward the end). It technically takes place in the past--1990's in England--but I kept sort of thinking of it like it was in the future anyway. It's just sort of a natural assumption when my brain is in sci-fi mode. But the story itself does plausibly seem like it's set in the near-past because of a few cultural references, and just the general lack of totally out-there technology. The world is pretty normal aside from the fact that in the novel, humans are cloned and used for the sole purpose of organ-harvesting, and even that doesn't seem too far-fetched.

There were a few things that bothered me about this novel, however.

1. The character Ruth is absolutely intolerable. She's the hugest bitch ever, and I felt very little, if any, sympathy for her, even toward the end when she becomes a donor and all the fight drains out of her. I see how she fits into the whole dynamic of the plot and the entire subplot of determining whether or not the clones have souls--she's a very "human" character, complete with plenty of flaws. But she's still very annoying.

2. You know how sometimes an author will beat around the bush when it comes to bearing all the gritty details of the plot? And then there's suddenly a convenient chapter/scene when ALL IS REVEALED, and all the little hints throughout the novel come together when everything is spelled out clear as day? Well, this book has one such chapter. Learning all the details of Hailsham (an exclusive, progressive school where clones are raised as "students" before moving on to meet their inevitable fate as carers and donors) and about the clones themselves was cool and all, but it would have been nice if all that information wasn't revealed at once and under such weak pretenses.

Despite the fact that I didn't like Ruth, and I didn't like the cop-out of revealing everything in a single chapter, it does make sense in terms of the structure of the novel and the emotions I'm sure the author was trying to evoke. Throughout most of the first half of the novel, I felt like I wasn't totally sure what was going on even though my brother had told me a lot about the book before I even started reading it. That is, I began reading with full knowledge that the main characters are clones, and that they were made to serve as organ donors. That information isn't explicitly revealed until well into the book, and is only loosely hinted at through terms like "donor," "completed," "carer," etc. None of these things are actually explained while the narrator (Kathy) is telling her story. She narrates as though she's telling the story to a donor, who would presumably be privy to all this information. Also, throughout the story, Kathy constantly says "I don't know how it was where you were, but at Hailsham..." which implies that there was something special about Hailsham. It also implies that there are other places where clones are raised. You don't really find out why exactly Hailsham was so special until the tell-all chapter.

But anyway, this feeling that you, as a reader, are kind of left in the dark, is meant to mirror the way that the "students" are kept in the dark about what they really are and what their futures entail. Their guardians hint at it and the students are left only half aware--as Kathy says at one point, they are "told and not told." The structure of the narrative mirrors this idea, and the sudden revelation comes at the moment when Kathy and Tommy themselves are suddenly made aware of all the unpleasant realities of their existence.

Overall, it's a well written and captivating book. I definitely preferred the second half to the first half, but that's mainly because the second half is when it really starts to get into the nitty gritty of the characters' lives as carers/donors. The first half sort of seems like it's meant as an emotional/psychological demands that you view these characters for what they are: humans (here is their childhood, here are their fears and joys and all the little moments that make up a person's memories). And then as they move out of the protective bubble of Hailsham it's like a wave demolishing a sand castle. All that work, those experiences, and they inevitably are torn down and reduced to nothing, because they can't escape their fate. In that way, this book is very depressing and there is something pathetic about the characters and how they try to lead "normal" lives. It's also depressing because it hints at how unethically exploitative people are capable of being...and that only a small minority will care (usually small enough to be stamped out easily enough, as occurs with Hailsham).

Definitely a good read...also amusing because the author lives in London (and the novel takes place in England) so there is lots of fun UK vocab throughout...haha.

N.P. by Banana Yoshimoto

I really enjoy Banana Yoshimoto's writing and have read a few of her other books as well (Kitchen and Asleep; Lizard is on my to-read list). She has a way with weaving the simplest language into a world that revels in the magical realism of everyday life.

NP is about the relationship that forms between four people who are all connected in some way to the writer Sarao Takase and his untranslated collection of stories entitled "NP" (North Point). I felt like this novel focused a lot more on despair and dysfunctional relationships than her other stories that I've read do (for example, a significant plot point is the incestuous relationship between Sui and Otohiko, and the incestuous relationship between Sui and their father, Sarao Takase). The narrator finds herself totally entranced by these people and their personalities, not to mention the fact that they are all bound by a common knowledge of Takase's work and are intimately tied to it through death; the narrator's boyfriend, who was working on translating the book, committed suicide, as did Sarao Takase. There really isn't a whole lot to the plot aside from the deepening connection between the characters, which unfolds over the course of one summer. It ends with the suggestion of new beginnings, and it seems that the characters are able to escape their "fate" as mere characters within their father's stories.

One of the things I found interesting about this book is the discussion of language, translation, and the connection to one's country. All of the characters except the narrator have spent extended amounts of time living in the US, and moved back to Japan only after their father died (he wrote his stories in the US, in English). Even though the narrator hasn't shared their experience of living in another country, she nonetheless shares their experience of knowing the world through both English and Japanese, and works as a translator just as her mother does and deceased boyfriend did. As a child, she also lost her voice for a while and describes how she began to interpret the world in colors rather than words. Considering the devastating effect that Sarao's stories had on his children, along with the many references to language and problems with translation, I think it's safe to say that this book is not only about language, but how language functions as an intimate, integral part of our lives and has immense power in shaping us. But language is fluid; it can be many different things to many different people, and one language doesn't simply and straightforwardly translate into a way, everyone has his or her own language.

On the downside, I felt like the only character who was really well-rounded was Sui, although she is actually the last character to be introduced into the story. Even the narrator seems a little hollow. I feel like the characters were so defined by their relationships to one another that I have a difficult time describing them as individuals (but maybe that was the point).

Sunday, April 19, 2009

My Favorite Book Sites

I am currently caught up in the chaos of finals and thesis-researching/writing. Once school is out, I plan on using this blog as a place to review and ramble about books that I'm reading or plan to read.

Until then...

Where I trade books: Bookmooch

Where I catalog my books: Goodreads