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Showing posts from October, 2011

This is Halloween...

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Happy Halloween to tender lumplings everywhere! These are a few of my favorite things: Edward Gorey, of course. Who else would come up with the title "The Helpless Doorknob"? He wore fur coats and Converse sneakers! Gorey said, "My mission in life is to make everybody as uneasy as possible. I think we should all be as uneasy as possible, because that’s what the world is like." If you're lucky, you can find a number of his collected works most easily in the three Amphigorey books. M. R. James was a late Victorian/early Edwardian scholar who wrote lovely creepy stories for fun. I've recently been lucky enough to get his collected stories in two volumes, so I'll review those soon. They are great stuff. James and Gorey were both inspirations for John Bellairs, who I've reviewed before here. Spooky, scholarly kids' stories that are a bit heavy on the repetition inherent in series, but much better-written and more interesting than m

Week 44: The Color of Water

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The Color of Water , by James McBride James McBride's book honoring his mother tells her unusual story. The chapters alternate between her own words explaining her life, and McBride's chapters telling about their family life as he grew up. McBride's mother never talked about her past and he spent years trying to get her to talk about it. She was white and Jewish, and married a black man in 1942. She became a Christian and together they started a church in the New York housing project where they lived. She had eight children before her husband suddenly died, and after a while she remarried and had four more before she was widowed for a second time. Her entire adult life was spent as the only white woman living in an entirely black area, trying to raise 12 children in poverty, and living out her determination to get all of them to college. She always said that money wasn't important; only education was important. It's a wonderful book and an amazing story.

Week 44: One of Our Thursdays is Missing

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One of Our Thursdays is Missing , by Jasper Fforde If you love books, but have never read Jasper Fforde's Thursday Next series, you have missed a wonderful treat. This is the sixth book, and is actually told from the point of view of the written Thursday Next, who stars in her own series of books. Written Thursday is a citizen of the BookWorld, and she's hunting for the real Thursday, who is missing. She's doing her best to do what the real Thursday would do, and wild adventure follows. Quite a lot of this story is given over to world-building. Fforde must have had a whole lot of fun fleshing out the BookWorld, and he spends time showing it off. I know that's something of a no-no for fantasy writers, but it's so great that I think you should read the book just to enjoy all the amazing ideas he came up with. I had to stop about every other page and read a bit aloud to my husband, and I laughed a lot. Yay Thursday Next!

Week 43: Aftermath

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Aftermath: the Remnants of War , by Donovan Webster I found this book to be absolutely fascinating, and zoomed through it without putting it down much. Cheerful it is not, but it's very valuable reading. Webster tours several different battlefields of the 20th century, looking at what war has done to the landscape and the people. The first stop is France. It turns out that France is absolutely stuffed with unexploded ordnance from World War I (as are other spots). Trench warfare meant that armies stayed put for long periods of time, lobbying enormous amounts of ammunition at each other. It was fairly new technology, so a good 25% of the shells were duds. And they just stayed where they fell. Large areas of France are still cordoned off because they're full of the stuff--and dud shells can easily explode. Demining teams collect and destroy hundreds of tons every year, but it will take decades or longer to finish the job. I found an online article about it with some

Week 43: How to Write a Sentence

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How to Write a Sentence, and How to Read One , by Stanley Fish The sentence is the building block of writing, and Stanley Fish devotes his book to playing with, admiring, analyzing, and imitating the best sentences he knows. What makes a truly great sentence? Wait, before we get to that, what is a sentence? Fish gives his own definition of what a sentence really is, and in passing he dismisses traditional grammatical teaching--both the usual definitions of a sentence and all the rest of it as well. This is the one part of the book that I take exception to; he repeats the claims (noted in my review of The War on Grammar ) that teaching grammar does nothing to improve writing and provides a sophisticated definition of a sentence. The only trouble with his definition is that it's one for adults, not one a child can understand at all. The traditional definition, "A sentence is a group of words that forms a complete thought," is not easily understandable to a young c

50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know

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50 Things Every Young Lady Should Know , by Kay West, John Bridges, and Bryan Curtis The young lady's etiquette manual has been updated for modern life in this little book. It's not too short and not too long, very readable, and full of good information for a younger teenage girl. I'd say that this is one step up in maturity from the excellent American Girl books on how to behave, and aimed at girls 11-15. My own 11-year-old daughter is reading and enjoying it. I think she'll be glad to have it to refer to now that she's a little older. West divides her material into tiny little chapters, one to each topic. Each section gives basic directions, a list of do's and don'ts with reasons, and then two or three rules to sum up. Topics include everything from making introductions and dealing with fancy table settings to cell phone etiquette and rules for Facebook. Those features of modern life are discussed in detail and the rules given are quite good,

Feminist Classics: The Beauty Myth

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The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty are Used Against Women, by Naomi Wolf When Naomi Wolf published her diatribe against ridiculously unrealistic standards of beauty in 1991, doing such a thing was kind of new (at least, after the 80's). The Beauty Myth has had a lot of influence over the past 20 years. Thanks partly to Wolf, books denouncing the objectification and commercialization of women are now pretty common. Many more people are aware that our ideals of beauty are unrealistic and unattainable, and our ideas about beauty have expanded a bit to include some variation. At the same time, the standards have only gotten less realistic; Photoshop means that every image in every publication is fixed up to reflect something that no one could attain, and there is no such thing as being too gaunt. Look back at some 80's models and marvel at their curves! So this was an important book. But I didn't enjoy reading it, and I didn't finish it. Wolf makes some real

Week 42: Henrietta's War

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Henrietta's War: News from the home front, 1939-1942 , by Joyce Dennys Isn't that front cover lovely? The whole Bloomsbury series makes me want to take them home. They're like candy. Sadly my library doesn't have them and I had to get an older edition of this book that isn't nearly so pretty, so I still haven't seen one in real life. Anyway, during World War II Joyce Dennys had a humor column in a weekly magazine that consisted of fictional letters from a housewife on the Devon coast to her old friend on the French front. This is the first half of the collection. They are just a lot of fun to read; Henrietta writes about her friends Faith (the village flirt), Lady B (who writes a letter to Hitler every night telling him just exactly what she thinks of him), and everyone else in her village. It's all ordinary life, muddling through wartime difficulties, but made very funny. I peeked into it at work when it arrived, but had to stop because it was mak

Week 42: Naked Heat

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Naked Heat , by Richard Castle It's the second installment in the storybook version of the Castle series on TV! I think this one was better written. Again, it's just like an episode of the TV show, with all the names changed and Nikki Heat written as Castle's fantasy version of Kate Beckett. The mystery is pretty decent--lots of fictional celebrities are involved this time. There are quite a few fun and clever tidbits, and some good digs at the Rook character (he has a secret life!). Fun candy for the mind, though almost useless to non-fans of the show. I think you used to be able to read Murder She Wrote novels without watching the show; that's not true of this series, which depends heavily on familiarity with the TV characters and the small contrasts between them and the book people.

Victorian Literature: Tales of Mystery and Detection

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Victorian Tales of Mystery and Detection , selected by Michael Cox For my October reading, I thought it would be fun to read this Oxford collection of Victorian mystery stories that my mother-in-law gave me several years ago. The stories were all published in magazines and few of them are known now, although there are many famous names included. Besides the expected Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle, the table of contents lists Le Fanu, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Baroness Orzcy, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Mrs. Henry Wood. And, of course, quite a few people I've never heard of. It's a nice collection, and good reading. This picture is of the original dust cover, which I don't have--the book is 20 years old and there aren't many images of it available. I just realized that I've read more Victorian literature than I thought (thanks to the Feminist Classics challenge). This is my 12th book, which puts me past the "Great Expectations" level and well

Week 41: Albion

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Albion: The Origins of the English Imagination , by Peter Ackroyd The best word I can think of to describe this book is discursive . Ackroyd is known for his long, rambling books about history and literature, and this one is a lot of fun to read, though it ranges all over the place almost at random. It's a bit like listening to a learned professor-type ramble on at a party with a glass of wine in his hand. You can read it in chunks without losing anything much because it's pretty disconnected. Ackroyd starts right back at the beginning of English literature, with the Anglo-Saxons and Beowulf and the Venerable Bede, and tries to identify typically English themes and preferences, taking due note of imported ideas. He dwells particularly on a love of surface decoration, the fashion for melancholy--still with us in the form of Goth teens!--a preference for variety (Shakespeare's mixing of comic scenes with tragedy is a case in point), and, sometimes, a near-obsession wi

Week 41: The Con

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The Con: how scams work, why you're vulnerable, and how to protect yourself , by James Munton and Jelita McLeod Everybody should read this book! The Con is a primer on scams and the people who run them. There are great descriptions of the many ways that people will try to steal from you, from the old pigeon drop to Nigerian fraud to fake fund-raising and the worst of them all, identity theft. Learn how to avoid scams, and what to do if you are fooled or if your Social Security number is stolen. I had a hard time putting it down. Stories of people who have gotten scammed keep the book interesting and sympathetic. It moves fast and is a quick read, easy for anyone to get through. What I mainly learned is that it really is necessary to be careful. I don't have to be paranoid, but I do need to be prepared to respond to con artists, because they are all over the place. We've all been asked for "gas money" in a parking lot, but there are scams to fit every

Fyodor Dostoevsky

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Fyodor Dostoevsky (Christian Encounters Series) , by Peter Leithart This book puzzled me a bit at first. It's a sort of slightly fictionalized light biography of Dostoevsky, told in vignettes. Leithart's narrative frame has the novelist sitting with an old friend, arguing about the Russian soul and reminiscing over old times. Each chapter starts that way and then leads into flashbacks to important times in Dostoevsky's life. The flashbacks happen in approximately chronological order, but it's not always entirely clear where or when you are; it ends up a bit jumpy. There is plenty of conversation in these vignettes, which are descriptive and short. Much of the dialogue is taken directly from Dostoevsky's own words, and I did feel that I was hearing his voice. The author knows his material very well and tries to evoke 19th-century Russia and its issues without getting too heavy or difficult, but those might be conflicting goals and I thought there was not enough d

Victorian Literature: Vanity Fair

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Vanity Fair , by William Makepeace Thackeray Thackeray subtitled his novel "a novel without a hero," and that's almost true. There are few decent people in his story of scheming and social climbing. It's really a dual novel, recording the mirrored careers of Becky Sharp and Amelia Sedley. They start the story together, just having left school, but Becky is a poor governess and Amelia is a fairly wealthy young lady. Amelia doesn't get quite as much story space as Becky does--she's one of the few virtuous characters, but she isn't very active and Becky's constant ambition is the focus of the story. Amelia comes into her own later on, though. Becky Sharp is a sociopath, albeit a charming and amusing one. Thackeray hints at dark events in her childhood which she does not dare to remember. Perhaps as a result, she has virtually no conscience and sets out into the world to get as much as she can with her brains and her charm to assist her. She wor

Week 40: The Scorch Trials

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The Scorch Trials , by James Dashner This sequel to the dystopian YA novel The Maze Runner ups the ante quite a bit. The Gladers are saved from the Maze, only to be dumped into the real world, which they don't remember, and which is much more dangerous. Violent sun flares have scorched a large part of the Earth--everyone who can lives in what used to be arctic zones--and humanity is slowly succumbing to the pandemic Flare disease, which (of course) essentially turns people into insane zombies before they die. The characters find bits and pieces of information about the organization behind all this and why it is putting them through all this trauma, but by the end there's still a lot we don't know. The story is well-written and fast-moving, and the characters have personality. I'm looking forward to the third book, The Death Cure , which will be released in about a month.

Week 40: Persepolis

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Persepolis , by Marjane Satrapi (complete edition) Satrapi's two-volume graphic novel is a personal memoir. Satrapi is Iranian and was a young girl when the 1979 revolution changed everything. Her relatives and family friends were in constant danger and sometimes killed. Then came the Iran-Iraq war, and life became so dangerous that her parents sent her to Vienna for high school. To her parents, nothing was more important than their daughter's education, which they believed would open her opportunities like nothing else. Unfortunately, Satrapi had quite a difficult time in Vienna and came home to recuperate. Her college years and marriage are also chronicled. I'm not much of a graphic novel person, but this is an excellent example of a graphic novel with wide appeal, that many people would enjoy reading. It's certainly and interesting and absorbing story, with lots to think about. Of course, since it's got war and fascism and oppression in it, there's