Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sunday Salon: the Dreamy Post

The Sunday Salon.comWhile writing this post, I’m re-watching one of my very favourite Russian movies: Russian Ark. It’s a modern film, and it’s all set in the Hermitage. The narrator is a modern-day Russian who wakes up from an accident disembodied and transported back in time to the eighteenth century (there’s a strong implication that he’s a ghost). There, he meets another mysterious figure (who acts like the Marquis de Custine, who visited Russia in the 1800s and wrote an unflattering book about their European pretensions) , and together they wander through the Hermitage, seeing scenes from three hundred years of Russian history and having discussions about art. It’s a gorgeous film, with thousands of actors, and perhaps even more incredibly, all ninety-six minutes was shot in a single take. It’s a visual feast, and if you’re at all curious about the Hermitage, you’ll get a wonderful idea of its appearance. Anyway, I’d encourage all of you to watch it, and it’s made me incredibly nostalgic for St. Petersburg. Good thing I was already planning to start Doctor Zhivago today!

But this is a book blog, not a film blog, and I have quite a few books to talk about today! I read 12 books this week and only reviewed 1, which is pretty bad arithmetic for a book blog. ;) This was also a high-quality reading week for me; with one exception, every book I read I really enjoyed: four and five star reads all over the place. So let’s get started!

I reread Jane Austen’s Persuasion for the discussion on Literary Transgressions. As if I ever need an excuse to reread her! ;) Two years ago, I wrote a long post about this novel, so this time I’m going to cheat and copy and paste a bit of what I said in the discussion! The fun thing about rereading a novel so much (this was my seventh or eighth reread) is that each time, something else jumps out at me. This time, I was simply enchanted with Admiral and Mrs. Croft’s happy, lovey-dovey marriage. It’s interesting, because Austen doesn’t usually portray actually-married couples in this happy of a light. The only possible equivalent I could think of was the Westons from Emma, but even then I don’t think it’s the same. The Crofts are shown as such equals, and perfect complements, and after so many years they still loving being in each other’s company so much, it was just lovely. :) They’re also childless, which is unusual for an Austen marriage. I wonder if those two things are at all related. Anyway, since Austen usually focuses on the unhappiness that results from an unequal marriage, it was nice to see such a change. I hope that if I ever get married, my marriage is like the Crofts. Even after decades, they still do everything together, and Mrs. Croft has accompanied the Admiral on many of his travels.

Now for the exception to my book gushing this week! I picked up In Search of King Solomon’s Mines by Tahir Shah as part of the Reading the World Challenge, for my nonfiction selection about Ethiopia. Shah has written several travel books that sound interesting to me, so I was hoping I’d enjoy this one and want to read the others. Not so much. You know the Great White Explorers who ‘discovered’ the heart of the Dark Continent, and all that tosh? Well, people like Stanley are heroes to Shah. That might give you an idea of how he writes about Ethiopia. I was disgusted by his attitude, his writing, his racism and sexism and class-ism. The further along in the book I got, the worse all of this became. Not to mention, travelogues need some type of narrative thread holding them together, and this one’s thread was tenuous at best, with an utterly unsatisfactory ending. Needless to say, I’ll be avoiding Shah in the future.

Fortunately, at the same time I was reading a wonderful nonfiction book: Microcosm by Carl Zimmer. I already wrote about why I loved it, so I’ll move right along to another travelogue: Kinky Gazpacho by Lori Tharps. Now, I originally had expected a travelogue, but this is much more a memoir of Tharps’ connection to Spain, and the world outside of the States. It begins when she’s in elementary school, covers her high school summer spent in Casablanca, then her college year abroad in Spain, and goes later than that. I’m very happy that I didn’t read the publisher’s blurb, since if you read it you’ll know something that doesn’t happen in the actual book until the last quarter and which took me by surprise! Anyway, I loved this memoir. :) Tharps brought me into her world, and it was so fun to see her experience things! She’s brutally honest about culture shock, which I liked, since I think it’s something anyone who studies abroad has to deal with, but it’s often glossed over in travelogues. I’ve never been to Spain, so it was fun to see it through Tharps’ eyes. I think the book was particularly effective since it began with a story from Tharps in elementary school; the large amount of time she covers made me feel as if I really got to know her and her motivation, well before the travelogue bits. Oh, and she’s really funny! So yeah, this book was everything I want from a memoir: smart, funny, and entertaining. :)

When I discovered I couldn’t renew it at the library, I immediately picked up Carpentaria by Alexis Wright. This was my first read for the Aussie Authors Challenge, and what a way to start things off! Wright makes the reader work in this book, but there’s a great reward if you stick with it. She’s merged Western storytelling traditions (aka novels) with more Aboriginale ones, into a book that’s untraditional and difficult, but also fascinating and a peek into lives led very differently from my own. It’s set in the coastal Australian outback, in a small white town and the Aboriginale community that surrounds it. Most of the story focuses on a few Aboriginale leaders, mainly men (but one awesome woman!), their lives and the events that bring them into conflict with the white Australians. For me, I loved the mix of reality with mythology (Dream Time is invoked several times), I loved the way the narrative wasn’t told in linear time, and while I was definitely confused on occasion, when I kept reading Wright cleared things up. I wouldn’t recommend this to readers who have to be constantly in control of their reading…with a book like this, you have to just ‘go with it,’ if you know what I mean. But if you’re willing to invest in the novel, and to work through the not-so-great bits (for me, pages 50-150 were pretty dull, but the other 400 pages made up for it), this is the kind of fiction that repays a close reading. It’s definitely one that I’d like to reread one day!

The other novel I picked up due to not being able to renew as The Bostonians by Henry James. I got this from the library not knowing anything about it, except that James wrote it. That’s good enough for me, since I have loved most of his novels that I’ve read. This one is no exception, and imagine my delight when I discovered it was set during the Reconstruction and about the suffragette movement! Two of the main characters, distant cousins, represent the most extreme versions that the movement brought out…Olive Chancellor is a well-off, independent Bostonian young woman who has decided to devote her life to the suffragette cause and pretty much hates men. Basil Ransom used to be a part of the Southern gentility, but after the war he ended up penniless and is now in New York trying to make his fortune as a lawyer. He subscribes to all the most backward beliefs of a patriarchal society (for instance, that the source of women’s happiness is making men happy). Both Olive and Basil say stereotypical things on a regular basis, and are both amusing and horrifying all at once. Torn between them is Verena, a beautiful young woman raised in the Bohemian lifestyle, who is a talented public speaker and suffragette. While she firmly believes that women deserve all the same rights as men, she also enjoys talking with the men she meets, and she doesn’t think that their whole gender is pure evil. Olive takes her under her wing, and she wants her to renounce everything but the Cause. Basil, meanwhile, wants to marry her and make her into a good little housewife. That’s where all of the tension of the novel comes from, and I couldn’t read fast enough to see how things would turn out! This lived up to my expectations of James, with its psychological nuances and sharply drawn supporting characters. While Olive and Basil represent stereotypes, they still feel like real people, which is entirely due to James’ talents. If you’re a James fan, I think you’re in for a treat with The Bostonians. If you’re new to him, I’d suggest starting with The Portrait of a Lady.

I read A Wild Sheep Chase by Haruki Murakami in one sitting, in order to participate in Tanabata’s discussion. This is my second Murakami novel, but my first was Norwegian Wood, which everyone always tells me is nothing like his usual stuff. If A Wild Sheep Chase is more typical of him, I understand now! :) I really enjoyed this novel; it was zany, but it had its own internal logic, and the writing kept me clipping along. The characters didn’t feel real, but I don’t think that that was the point. They did feel compelling, and I was curious to see what would happen to them. I was taken aback, and then delighted, to discover that there are real sheep in the story! Anyway, despite its po-mo plotline, this felt lighthearted to me, and it was a fun, easy read. Next up I’ll be reading Dance Dance Dance for the discussion at the end of the month, and I’m looking foward to it. (If you want to know more about my thoughts on the novel, feel free to scroll down and find my comment on the discussion post.)

I’ve seen Cold by Bill Streever reviewed on a couple blogs, and I’m happy that I read it for the Science Book Challenge. While it’s not ’straight’ science, since it’s mixed with some personal observations and historical stories, I still think it’s a science book at heart. Within his theme of cold, Streever looks at everything from a horrible Midwest blizzard to the science of hibernation to various Arctic explorers to Snowball Earth and more. While his focus flits from topic to topic, the book’s held together by it’s chronological structure (each chapter in a new month, with the book starting in July, and Streever references what the weather’s doing in his home state of Alaska) and Streever’s tone. His writing is lyrical, and his enthusiasm for the cold really shines through. The book feels like a labour of love, and that certainly helps make it delightful to read. While at heart, my default is to warmer climates, I do love sitting outside when it’s in the 30s and 40s, bundled up in cashmere and silk, with a steaming thermos of hot chocolate and a good book to read. Cold is just that type of book!

I grabbed A Season in Mecca by Abdellah Hammoudi from the shelves on a whim for the World Religion Challenge, and I’m so glad that I did! It was a fascinating peek into the logistics of the haj* and Hammoudi’s writing veered from the intellectual to the everyday to the personal and back in a way I found very satisfactory. While I knew that the pilgrimage to Mecca and Medinawas one of the five pillars, I had no idea that the whole event was so orchestrated. I love that Hammoudi didn’t shy away from difficult issues, such as the treatment of women as the secondary gender, or the way that Saudi Arabia’s power has allowed the extreme sect of Wahhabism to dominate the Islamic world more than it perhaps ought to. I learned a lot by reading this book, and it’s one of those that makes me wish I was reading it with a book club, because there’s so much to discuss! It lived up to all my expectations and then some.

The Practical Nomad by Edward Hasbrouck is really a reference book for long-term, independent travel, but I’m sure those who know me well aren’t surprised that I ended up reading it cover to cover. ;) It’s packed full of helpful, practical information, which I really appreciated. Hasbrouk’s writing voice amused me; he reminded me of a kind of crotchety professor I had at college. He takes regular digs at the US (his native country), some warranted, some less so, and he sometimes seems to include things just to show off. But the book is a great resource, and I’m sure most people won’t read every page like me! lol When I have a job, I definitely want to buy a copy for myself. That being said, it’s not inspirational the way A Journey of One’s Own is. That’s not its purpose, so don’t pick it up expecting it to fire you up to go travel.

The movie’s almost over! Which means I need to get moving and wrap this post up. :) When I was a sophomore in high school, I had to read Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather for class, and I found the experience excruciating. All of these years, I’ve written Cather off as ‘not my style.’ But Allie has been mentioned her lately, and I decided it was about time I gave her another shot! So I downloaded the audio version of My Antonia and, with a bit of trepidation, began listening. You know what? I enjoyed it! The story’s told by a man looking back on his childhood in Nebraska, first on a farm and later in town, and Antonia, a girl who lived near him and had ‘that special something.’ Cather really brought pioneer Nebraska to life (of course, I’ve also driven across the state a few times and visited Omaha once, so I did have something to reference), and the stories of the farm days were so neat. Later, in town, the analysis of gender politics was fascinating, and gave me a lot to think about. So, my Cather experiment was a resounding success, and I’ll be trying out more of her work in the future!

I just finished Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf this morning, which I read not only because I love Woolf but also so I could read the nonfiction book about books The Things That Matter. This was Woolf’s last novel, and the preface by Leonard quietly broke my heart. It’s quite interesting; like Mrs. Dalloway it takes place over the course of a day, but it’s written in a different style. It starts out much more straightforward, about a family living on an estate in 1939, and then the focus moves to the village pagaent being held that day on their grounds. It’s a history of England, and the pagaent itself is full of pastiches that were fun to read and reminded me a bit of Orlando. There are several intermissions, during which we learn more about the characters as they wander about. While this isn’t my new favourite Woolf, I found it well worth a read and enjoyed every page of it. It’s full of quirky characters and unforgettable scenes, as well as meditations on the meaning of life and identity and history. What more could you ask for?

Finally, I finished Meet Me Under the Ceiba by Silvio Sirias, which I read to visit Nicaragua with the Reading the World Challenge. Now, Mr. Sirias was gracious enough to write a wonderful guest post on my blog, so I will admit that I began the book hoping I would like it. But I’m always honest in my reviews, so the fact that I’ve e-mailed the author a few times has no relation to what I’m writing about his novel. I say that because, this novel was incredibly good! It’s written in one of my favourite styles, wherein a main narrator has to piece together a story from talking to various characters and reading various documents. In this case, the story is the murder of Adela, a lesbian in a small Nicaraguan town. This book is full of life: each of the characters jumps off the page, Nicaragua itself seems to rise up around me (and I want to visit even more than I did before), and while it’s not a mystery, the book has enough urgency to keep you turning the pages. That being said, there are some hard things in this book. The prejudice Adela faces is hard. Even harder is the life story of her true love, Ixelia, whose body has been sold to any willing man by her own mother since she was 11. While the narrator is obviously repulsed, some of the people he’s interviewing (like her mother and the old man who eventually buys sole power over Ixelia) treat it matter-of-factly. There were moments when I was truly angry at Sirias for making me read these things; why did there have to be sexual abuse of children?! But then, I read the afterword, and discovered that the novel is based on a real case in Nicaragua, and that the real victim’s lover had the same history of sexual abuse. This didn’t in any way mitigate the horrible things, but it made me understand why they were in the novel and that they weren’t gratuitous. Sirias never plays things up to try to manipulate the reader’s emotions, which I think made the story even stronger. The sad things are told in a straightforward manner and calm voice, which allows the reader to be genuinely outraged. And there are happy moments too, and funny ones; I don’t want to imply that the book is unrelentingly sad. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who loves reading international fiction that really brings you to another place, or to anyone interested in LGBT issues, or to anyone who just enjoys a good story.

Whew! Perfect timing: I finished that paragraph just as the credits started rolling for Russian Ark! So, I’m off to get ready for the day, probably curl up outside and read for awhile, and later my mom and I will be watching The Motorcycle Diaries, which she’s never seen! I hope y’all have a great Sunday. :)

*For instance…women can’t approach the holy objects when they’re menstruating, but they’re allowed to take pills to ensure their periods don’t arrive while they’re on pilgrimage.


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