The Sunday Salon - February Wrapped Up

The Sunday

Sunday Salutations! It's turning into actual Spring here in Portland - trees are blooming pink and white already, daffodils and crocuses and all manner of spring flowers are popping up everywhere. There have been some rainy days too - good for curling up with a good book.

February is almost over! Hard to believe another month has gone by already. I read five books this month, bringing my YTD total to 13 (unless I finish my current book by tonight). With my fantastic spreadsheet (thank you, Laura!), I can tell you I read 1,863 pages in February (plus 100 give or take in my current book), and 4,480 YTD. Here's what I read this month:
  • The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett - review
  • Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips - review
  • Crampton Hodnet by Barbara Pym - review
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt - review
  • The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris - review
It was a mixed bag this month, a couple of fantastic books, one disappointing and one real clunker (The Girl with No Shadow). The latter two brought my average rating down a bit, to 3.92 (out of 5).

I'm making good progress on most of my challenges:
  • 1010 Challenge (5 books in 10 categories for 2010): 9/50
  • What's in a Name: 4/6
  • Complete Booker: 2/6
  • Orange Prize Project: 3/12
Currently reading: my first nonfiction book of the year is The Ghost Map, about a cholera epidemic in London in the mid-19th century and how a couple of people were able to identify how the disease was transmitted. The discovery revolutionized public health. It was chosen by our county library as this year's Everybody Reads book, and since I'm fascinated by medical history, I thought I'd read along with the county! It's also a reminder that, if I ever have the opportunity to time travel, I won't pick Victorian London as a destination! It sounds ghastly.

Coming up: I'll be picking up Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child soon to read in time for the Classics Circuit, which comes to this blog on March 19th. More about that in another Sunday or two.

I hope your week is wonderful and you're reading great books!
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Friday Fill-ins 02-26-10

Janet is our fantastic host for this weekly event.

My responses are in italics.

1. A cup of tea has nothing on a cup of fresh brewed coffee.

2. Laughter makes a place feel like home.

3. Everything has its beauty; sometimes you have to look deeply to find it.

4. Do we have to wait until June for the taste of strawberries?

5. Art makes me a little intimidated – I don’t always “get it.”

6. LOL I just noticed I forgot to eat.

7. And as for the weekend, tonight I'm looking forward to hanging out with Laurie and Liza, tomorrow my plans include a potluck in the afternoon and a play in the evening and Sunday, I want to read and blog.
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The Girl with No Shadow - Review

The Girl with No Shadow (aka Lollipop Shoes) is a sequel to the wonderful novel, Chocolat and proves the point that when you have a great thing, don’t try to add to it. Where Chocolat is a rich, dark seductive treat, TGWNS is a waxy, flavorless Tootsie Roll.

Our heroine from Chocolat, Vianne Rocher, has set up a chocolate shop in Montmartre, a village on the outskirts of Paris, with her daughter, Anouk, now 11, and a new addition to the family, Rosette, age 4. There are hints that they left Lansquenet because of some magic gone awry, performed by one of the children, both of whom have obviously acquired their mother’s talents. Vianne has changed her name to Yanne Charbonneau and, in addition to giving up her identity, has lost her passion and flair. She’s settled for a quiet, decidedly un-magical life and deals daily with the stress of keeping in check her daughters’ witchy tendencies.

The antagonist is a self-proclaimed identity thief and witch, who blows into town on an ill wind and worms her way into Yanne’s life. Trouble ensues, good vs. evil, yada yada yada.

It’s impossible not to compare this novel with Chocolat; but it’s almost as though they were written by different authors. Where the magic in Chocolat was subtle, just a hint of it sprinkled here and there, Harris hits us over the head with it in TGWNS, with glamours, charms, cantrips, spells, incantations and herbal potions on every page. It becomes quite tedious. The characters are flattened out. The plot has a couple of nice twists and surprises, but by the time they came around, I really didn’t care about them.

Harris has written some wonderful books in addition to Chocolat Coastliners and Three Quarters of the Orange were favorites of mine. This one fell short. Way short. Now I’m off to have some good dark chocolate to cleanse my palate. (2/5)
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Featured on Scene of the Blog

Hello wonderful readers! This week I have the honor of being featured on Cathy's Scene of the Blog. Cathy contacted me last year and asked if I'd send her some photos about where I work the bloggy magic. I was just in the midst of reinventing my space, so I had lots of photos to send her and was happy to show off my space. I'm really fortunate to have a dedicated studio where I can hang out and read, blog, nap (!), play music, or write. Pop on over to Cathy's blog, Kittling, and read all about it!

If you're visiting here for the first time from Cathy's blog - welcome! This blog is mostly about books, but occasionally I slip in some politics or a photo of our sweet puppy Liza. (My main photo blog is here.) I've resolved this year to review every book I read, so books will take front stage here more than they have in the past. I read mostly contemporary literature - lots of women's fiction (I especially love Orange prize winners and nominees), fiction from a variety of countries, and some classics (I'm trying to fill in some gaps from my not-so-stellar lit education).

I hope you find something interesting here - be sure to leave me a comment so I can come visit you. Thanks, Cathy, for featuring my blog and my special spot!
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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 02-23-10: The Girl with No Shadow

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week's teaser is from The Girl with No Shadow by Joanne Harris, page 46:

What an interesting child, younger than her contemporaries in some ways, but so much older in others, she has no difficulty in speaking with adults, but with other children she seems awkward, as if trying to assess their level of competence. With me she was expansive, funny, talkative, wistful, willful but with an instinctive caution as soon as I touched - ever so lightly - on the subject of her strangeness.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in Montmartre, the last village in Paris, so they say, in a chocolaterie, working my magic in more ways than one.
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Possession - Book Review

Possession by A. S. Byatt

I should probably have waited a little while to write this review, as it is not a kind one. I just put this book down after slogging through the last 1/4 of it. I think I'm supposed to love this book, but I didn't. I almost hesitate to post a review since so many people I know loved this book to pieces.

I won't get into a plot synopsis, others have done that well. I did not like any of the characters. I found the narrative faux erudite. It felt too chunked up for my tastes. And I absolutely hated the ending, which I saw coming a couple of hundred pages prior.

Sorry, Possession lovers, this just did not ring true for me or leave me breathless (other than after my rant about the ending).

There was some beautiful writing, which was worth 3 stars.
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The Sunday Salon - Coming Soon to a Blog Near You

The Sunday

Hello bloggers and bloggees! Happy Sunday. It's impossibly warm and sunny here in Portland this week - I've even been able to sit outside with my book and coffee and enjoy the tweeting birds (the real ones, not the Twitter ones) and soak up some much needed Vitamin D.

I have several upcoming bloggy booky things to tell you about:

First off, this Wednesday, February 24th, this blog will be featured in Scene of the Blog, a weekly feature by Cathy over at Kittling: Books. (I love her subtitle: Dogs bark. Fire burns. Birds fly. I read.) So on Wednesday, I will blog about her blogging about me and my blogging space!

In March I have two tour events happening:

First is the Georgette Heyer Tour on the Classics Circuit on March 19th. I haven't read Heyer yet but have some book buddies who love her work, so I'm looking forward to reading Friday's Child for the tour.

On March 23rd this blog will be a TLC tour stop for The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. This is Soli's debut novel about a woman combat photographer in Vietnam. I've read very little about the Vietnam war, so this will be a new experience for me.

In April I have TWO tour stops scheduled for TLC: One for a debut historical novel by Vanitha Sankaran, Watermark, and another for Pat Conroy's newest book, South of Broad. Looks like some stellar reading ahead for me. Here's a little blurb about Watermark:
The daughter of a papermaker in 1320s France, Auda has an ability to read and write that comes from a place of need. Silenced, she finds hope and opportunity in the intricacies of her father’s craft. But the powerful forces of the ruling parties in France form a nearly insurmountable obstacle.

In a time when new ideas were subject to accusations of heresy, Auda dares to defy the status quo. Born albino, believed to be cursed, and rendered mute before she’s ever spoken, her very survival is a testament to the strength of her spirit. As Auda grows into womanhood, she reclaims her heritage in a quest for love and a sense of self.
It sounds like my kind of book!

This weekend I'm finishing up Possession (review coming!) and then will start on Joanne Harris's followup to Chocolat (which I LOVED), The Girl with No Shadow. This one is for my book group in a week. Lots of "required" reading for me the next couple of months - which is not a bad thing. Often it introduces me to new authors and books I wouldn't have discovered otherwise.

What's on your reading and/or blogging agenda for the next couple of months?
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Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 02-16-10: Possession: A Romance

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week my teaser is from Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt, page 162:
He was then seized with doubt as to whether the bathroom was in fact empty....He did not want to rattle a locked door and embarrass both her and himself, so he went down on one knee on the putative drugget and put his eye to the huge keyhole which glinted at him and disconcertingly vanished as the door swung back and he smelled wet, freshness, steam in cold air. She nearly fell over him there; she put out a hand to steady herself on his shoulder and he threw up a hand and clasped a narrow haunch under the silk of the kimono.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm mostly in London with occasional trips to Yorkshire to investigate a 19th century poet and his illicit love affair. Read More!

Weekly Geeks 2010-6: Romancing the Tome

I haven't done a Weekly Geeks post for quite awhile! This week's topic is romantic literature - in honor of Valentine's Day, of course.

I have to give this one a lot of thought, as romance isn't high on my list of topics I enjoy or pursue in novels. In fact, a forced romantic link can often ruin a story for me. But romance done well is often delightful.

Out of several possible WG prompts, I decided to answer just one: "Do you have a favorite romantic scene in a book?"

One of the most sensuous scenes I've ever read was in Crescent by Diana Abu Jaber. Sirine works in her father's restaurant; Han frequents the restaurant, and soon the sparks begin to fly. This scene takes place while they're having a conversation about Han returning to his homeland of Iraq:
There’s time for baklava if they make it together.

And while Sirine has never known how to dance, always stiffening and trying to lead while her partner murmurs relax, relax – and while there are very few people who know how to cook and move with her in the kitchen – it seems that she and Han know how to make baklava together. She’s startled to find that she seems to feel his presence in her shoulders, running through her arms and wrists, into her hands. Her senses feel bunched together like fingers around a bouquet, her skin sensitive to the touch. She feels light-headed. She watches the fluid movement in his legs, arms, and neck, the dark fringe of his eyes. He transports the sheets and she sweeps the pastry brush, losing herself in the rocking movement. She takes in the powerful curve of his neck and shoulders; his skin is silkily brown. There’s just a touch of insomnia in his eyes, an inward, solitary air.

He smoothes another sheet. Sirine butters it, then pours a thick filling of ground walnuts, sugar, and spices over the layers. She strokes her palm over the top to level it.

"My mother told me that if I knew how to make good baklava I would be irresistible to any woman,” he says.
“Ah, so she taught you how to make baklava,” Sirine observes.
“No. So she refused to teach me.”
Sirine laughs. “But somehow you learned how to make it anyway. Lucky for me.”
“Actually, I’m learning how right this second.”
Another layer. Butter. She glances at him, then back at the baklava.

Distracted, she lowers the brush and accidentally swipes his fingers with butter. She blushes and quickly wipes his hand off with her apron. “Oh, I’m so sorry,” she says.

His hand is warm and his fingers fumble through hers. “You may butter my fingers anytime,” he says, then coughs and looks abashed.

Ooo la la. Butter me some baklava! Food and eating lend themselves well to romantic and/or sensuous scenes (who can forget the fruit eating scene in Tom Jones?).

One thing that gets under my skin (and not in a good way!) is the use of "afterward" as a euphemism for "they had sex." I come across this more often than I think I should in good contemporary literature. He woos her; she responds; they flirt; they touch; they kiss; AFTERWARD they go see a movie. Why not just say "yada yada yada?" It's just as creative.

Have a wonderful Valentine's Day - and Happy Asian New Year, the Year of the Tiger!
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The Sunday Salon - Fearless Reading

The Sunday
Hello bloggers and bloggees! Happy Sunday, and Happy Valentine's Day.

I've been thinking about books that have intimidated me, partly because I'm in the midst of one right now -- A. S. Byatt's Possession. It has seemed such an erudite tome and has many references to - gasp! - poetry, which is not my bailiwick. But I'm determined to read some Booker Prize winners this year - five winners to be exact - and this one has been on my list for some time. Now that I'm a couple of hundred pages into it, it's not so scary after all! Sure, there are references and allusions I'm missing, but the story is interesting and the writing is gorgeous:
Blackadder, in bad moods, thought of her as one of those puffed white spiders, bleached by the dark, feeling along the threads of her trap from her central lair. The feminists who had from time to time sought access to the Journal saw her as some kind of guardian octopus, an ocean Fafnir, curled torpidly round her hoard, putting up opaque screens of ink or watery smoke to obscure her whereabouts.
Of course, one good thing about reading challenging books is that I learn quite a bit, with Wikis and dictionaries at hand. I hadn't known what or who Fafnir was.

Most of the books I find intimidating (and that I should read) are classics - Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Henry James. The density of the language is problematic; do I want to work that hard to read a book? Sometimes, yes. I did, after all, conquer War and Peace and Anna Karenina a couple of winters ago and enjoyed them immensely, Russian names and all!

The next Booker Prize winner I feel a bit anxious about is Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I've heard rave reviews about this historical novel about Cromwell and Henry VIII - a period in history about which I know very little. This 600 page tome daily taunts me from the shelf with its bright red spine and bold black letters. And for starters, there are 8 pages of the cast of characters, and these trees:

But I'm not worried. I can do this. I have Wikipedia.

A quick update on my January reading, since I missed the last couple of Salons: I read 8 books, all of them 4 stars and above. And I've reviewed all of them! You can see the list on the sidebar and click on the LibraryThing reviews (which are essentially the same text as the reviews here on the blog). February is going well too (half way through the month already!) - 3 1/2 books so far and all of them 4+ stars as well! So the bar is set pretty high for 2010. I feel sorry for that first clunker - it's really going to fall flat.

Enjoy your Valentine's Day, don't eat too much chocolate (is that possible?). And happy reading!
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Dear Diary....

I had to share this tidbit from my sister-in-law, Bonnie:

My little friend Ella is six years old, soon to be seven. Yesterday at church I noticed she was wearing a small key on a ribbon around her neck. When I asked her about it she said it was for her diary. She continued by telling me that a diary is like a blog that you write in a book.

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Crampton Hodnet - Book review

Barbara Pym is a writer I probably would never have run across were it not for some of my friends on LibraryThing. Her books tend to be about English manners and society, peopled with vicars and professors, office workers, housekeepers and ladies’ companions and the occasional “upper class” family. Plots are not high drama, but tend toward the mundane and made into high drama by some of the characters. Her novels are full of subtle wit and irony, done with an intelligence that is not easy to achieve.

Though it was one of her first novels, written in the late 1930s, Crampton Hodnet was published posthumously in 1985. It revolves around the lives of several people in Oxford: Miss Doggett, an elderly spinster of some means, and her paid companion, Miss Morrow; Mr. Latimer, the new curate who comes to lodge with them; Miss Doggett’s nephew Francis Cleveland, an English professor who falls in love with Barbara Bird, a young student; Margaret, his rather oblivious wife; and their daughter Anthea, of a marriageable age.

Comedies of manners, inappropriate invasive behaviors and gossip ensue.

There is nothing very profound in Pym’s novel, but her writing is so clever and laugh-out-loud funny, I have not failed to love any of her books. Some examples:
She shot a glance at Mrs. Killigrew, sitting there so smug and splendid for her age, and there came over her a desire to squash down her stiff straw hat, to tear the bird off it and fling it into the unseasonable fire.
She stood in the lounge, nervously twisting her hands and looking around her with some agitation. She saw that the room was decorated with stiff palms in brass pots and that, grouped in a corner, as if for artistic effect, were a number of old people reading the newspapers. They looked as if they had been left there many years ago and abandoned. Or perhaps they were people who at some time long past had intended to go abroad and had then either not wanted to or forgotten all about it, so that they had stayed here ever since, like fossils petrified in stone.
And what or where or who is Crampton Hodnet? It is a made-up place that becomes a running joke between two of the characters. You’ll need to read the book to discover more.

I raced through this book and now I wish I’d taken a little more time to savor the irony and wit. Fortunately, I have a few more Pyms to look forward to. Highly recommended. (4/5)
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Lark and Termite = Book review.

Lark and Termite by Jayne Anne Phillips.

I was taken aback when I began to read Lark and Termite. Is this a war novel? It starts with Corporal Robert Leavitt, 24th Infantry Division, South Korea, July 26, 1950. But I didn’t want to read another war novel! There are hints of life back in the States, his wife and family. But he’s talking infantry and GHQ and ROK units and Occupation forces… this is not what I signed up for! 15 pages…23 pages…29… finally, on page 30 we switch gears to Winfield, West Virginia, 1956, and the story of Lark and Termite begins. Of course, connections are made eventually and the story swings back and forth between time periods and place. And I am most comfortable in the small town story.

I loved the chapters about Lark, the 17 year old beauty, and the tender relationship she has with her severely disabled and retarded brother, Termite, age 9. They live with their aunt Nonie, who works at a local restaurant.

Lark doesn’t think twice about caring for her brother. She is the one who best understands his needs and his methods of communication, and she realizes that he comprehends much more than others give him credit for: “…he’s got a rhyme and reason. We only see the surface, like when you look at a river all you see is a reflection of the sky.”

Phillips was courageous in the sections where it’s Termite’s POV. Of course, I have no way of knowing if her portrayal is authentic, but it certainly rings true. He catches snatches of conversation; hears and feels things that others can’t:
Sudden morning air floats low to the ground amid the small houses like fragrant evaporating mist, a cool bath of dew and shadow and damp honeysuckle scent. He gasps and hears the sharp grass under them move its fibrous roots…There’s a shape in the air where the car was. He feels the shape hold still before it begins to end. Slowly the air comes back. The grass begins small sounds.
These sections had me contemplating for a long time how people who can’t communicate in “normal” ways experience the world.

I forgive Phillips the Korean War chapters – they are integral to the larger story. And I forgive the bit of magical realism that is part of the story too. I just can’t quite give her a perfect score because of the grossly overwritten character of Gladdy, Nonie’s nemesis. She’s bitter, petty and vindictive – and I found her an unbelievable character who didn’t add much to the novel. After Phillips drew the other characters so exquisitely, this one was a stumbling block for me.

Still – highly recommended for some superb writing. (4/5)
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The Voyage of the Narwhal - Book review

Talking grew difficult; their beards froze to their neckerchiefs and saliva sealed their lips. The wind tore tears from their eyes and froze their lids together.

Thus is the atmosphere in The Voyage of the Narwhal, an historical adventure novel by Andrea Barrett. It is set in the mid-nineteenth century; the Narwhal is a whaling ship that has been outfitted for an Arctic voyage. The mission is to find out what happened to the Franklin expedition, apparently lost some years before exploring the Arctic. It is a bit of a race, as other expeditions have also set out to find Franklin’s ship.

The Narwhal’s naturalist and the book’s main protagonist is Erasmus Darwin Wells. He is the voice of reason on the voyage, compared to the commander, Zechariah Voorhees (Zeke), who is young and daring and doesn’t give much thought to the consequences of his actions. He puts his crew at risk on a number of occasions. He is the commander only because his father funded the expedition and built the ship.

Though I haven’t read many adventure stories, there are some elements here one would naturally expect – daring, danger, hardships, near death experiences, an unhappy crew, an unreasonable commander, and so on. Barrett's brilliance lies in her descriptions of the atmosphere and settings:
...any acknowledgment of sickness made the men nervous. So did the darkness, and the daily task of scraping from bunks and bulkheads the frost that formed from their breath while they slept. It was disturbing, Erasmus thought, to watch the air that had lived inside their lungs turn into buckets of dirty ice. Tossing the shavings over the side, he felt as if he were discarding parts of himself.
Waiting at home for the return of the Narwhal are Lavinia – sister to Erasmus and fiancĂ© of Zeke – and her companion during the men’s absence, Alexandra. We are privy to their lives as well. They set to work hand coloring plates for an entomology book Lavinia’s two other brothers are publishing. Lavinia uses the work to fill her time, but Alexandra takes to the work and begins drawing illustrations for another book. She is the strong independent one and introduces the theme of women’s rights and abilities into the story. She and her family are abolitionists.

This novel holds adventure, intrigue, mystery, and a bit of magical realism right alongside issues of human rights – treatment of and attitudes toward the indigenous people of the Arctic, the Esquimaux, are explored.

Highly recommended (unless you’re trying to keep warm in frigid temperatures!). Read More!

Teaser Tuesday and Where Are You? 02-02-10: The Voyage of the Narwhal

Should Be Reading - Miz B - hosts this weekly event. We throw out a couple of sentences from our current read (without spoilers, of course) to entice you to read the book.

This week my teaser is from The Voyage of the Narwhal by Andrea Barrett, page 160:

...any acknowledgment of sickness made the men nervous. So did the darkness, and the daily task of scraping from bunks and bulkheads the frost that formed from their breath while they slept. It was disturbing, Erasmus thought, to watch the air that had lived inside their lungs turn into buckets of dirty ice. Tossing the shavings over the side, he felt as if he were discarding parts of himself.

It's Tuesday, Where Are You? is hosted by an adventure in reading.

I'm in the frozen Arctic searching for signs of the ill-fated Franklin expedition. Read More!