Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

Mrs Dalloway
Virginia Woolf
Pages: 225 pgs.
Rating: A

Written in 1925, Mrs Dalloway is largely about one day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, as she plans for her party that night. We also learn about the last day in the life of Septimus Smith, a shell-shocked war veteran descending into madness and contemplating suicide. As much as the story is about Clarissa, it is also about Septimus and his suicide.

The reader learns much about Mrs Dalloway—her innermost thoughts, her past, her position in society, and how her friends and acquaintances view her. We learn very little about Septimus. Mrs Dalloway and Septimus never meet, although their lives do intersect in ordinary and seemingly meaningless ways. Virginia Woolf suggests in her diaries that Septimus “might be left vague—as a mad person is—not so much a character as an idea.”

This book was a tough start. My mind wandered. I daydreamed. I lost track of what was happening in the stream-of-consciousness style that Woolf utilizes. About halfway through the novel, I put it down for a breather. Then, a few minutes later, I re-opened the book at page one. Why did I do that? I really wanted to give the book a second chance. I’m glad I did. By changing my reading style I was able to enjoy the story more. I purposely slowed my reading pace, and did not hesitate to re-read passages over and over. And eventually, I made it to the end! It’s been a long time since I felt such achievement over finishing a book.

Overarching the somewhat drab story-line is a highly-charged commentary about the politics of the Great War (WWI), an empire entering decline, and the make-up of a society and people in power. One thing Woolf does amazingly well is bring London of that time to life. I can hear the hourly toll of Big Ben, listen and smell the back-fire of a motor car on Bond Street, see the afternoon tea held at Lady Bruton’s. Using a slight hand of satire, the group that gathers at Mrs Dalloway’s party is not a group that you would confidently leave in charge of a nation.

On the tolling of Big Ben (used repeatedly throughout the novel, heard by numerous characters):
First a warning, musical; then the hour, irrevocable. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.”

On women:
“She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible, unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having of children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond Street, this being Mrs Dalloway; not even Clarissa any more; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway.

Why Septimus fought in the Great War:
“Septimus was one of the first to volunteer. He went to France to save an England which consisted almost entirely of Shakespeare’s plays and Miss Isabel Pole in a green dress walking in a square.”

Interesting facts:
- In Mrs Dalloway, Virginia Woolf documents the first demonstration of skywriting, which occurred over London in 1922.
- Examples of Woolf’s grappling with mental illness are characterized in Septimus’ madness, such as when he hears sparrows singing to him in Greek.
- The British suffrage movement obtained the right to vote for women over 30 in 1918. It was not until 1928 that it was extended to women aged 21 to 29.

Music I listened to while reading Mrs Dalloway:
- The 1920’s Radio Network Live Stream: http://www.the1920snetwork.com/ (If you have a Mac, its readily available in the Radio section of iTunes)
- The composer Wagner, a favorite of the character Peter Walsh.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Random Book Meme

1. Grab the nearest book.
2. Open the book to page 123.
3. Find the fifth sentence.
4. Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
5. Don’t search around and look for the “coolest” book you can find. Use what’s actually next to you!

"We waited for a taxi by the plaza, and didn't look back."
My quote is from Dreaming in Cuban by Cristina Garcia. I pulled this book of my shelf when I was recommending it to someone. It has just been hanging out on the flooor for a few days now, patiently waiting to be reshelved.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

The Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka

The Metamorphosis (including critical essays)
Franz Kafka
Translator: Stanley Corngold
Pages: 194pgs.
Rating: B

More than anything, Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka has given society a healthy debate. Never truly explaining his work, Kafka has left academics and inquiring readers alike pondering the meaning of his stories. Metamorphosis is no different.

Taken at face value, Kafka presents a simple story. The first sentence sets the mood and theme for the entire story: “When Gregor Samsa woke up one morning from unsettling dreams, he found himself changed in his bed into a monstrous vermin.” Gregor becomes an insect, and the rest of the short story describes how he lives out the rest of his life. All philosophical pandering is ultimately left to the masses.

Kafka does not explain why the Metamorphosis occurred. Nor does he give any inkling to the depths of the story, its symbolism, and deeper meaning. In this vacuum, numerous theories have been developed ranging from Freudian interpretations, religious symbology and connotations, and Marxist attacks on the “bourgeois condition”. Many do not even agree on an accurate English translation for the title, and would rather see it changed to a variety of options, ranging from Transformation to Transubstantiation.

Is it an existential novel? Maybe. Is it a simple story? Maybe. Eighty years of analysis have not been able to answer these questions, I’m not about to try. Why such pressure to give a story one true meaning? If 50 people are affected by Metamorphosis in 50 different ways – more power to Kafka!

Did I like this story? Maybe. It’s honestly hard to say. Was it worth reading? Definitely. I already feel as if this is a story that will stick with me for a long time. When I least expect it, it will pop back into my subconscious, looking to be explored.

What did I think? I’m not telling. ☺ At least, not yet.

Some interesting quotes:
"Gregor tried to imagine whether something like what had happened to him today could one day happen even to the manager; you really had to grant the possibility."

"Unfortunately the manager's flight now seemed to confuse his father completely, who had been relatively calm until now, for instead of running after the manager himself, or at least not hindering Gregor in his pursuit, he seized in his right hand the manager's cane, which had been left behind on a chair with his hat and overocoat, picked up in his left hand a heavy newspaper from the table, and stamping his feet, started brandishing the cane and the newspaper to drive Gregor back into his room. No plea of Gregor's helped, no plea was even understood; however humbly he might turn his head, his father merely stamped his feet more forcefully."

"In the beginning she [cleaning woman] also used to call him over to her with words she probably considered friendly, like 'Come over here for a minute, you old dung beetle!' or 'Look at that old dung beetle!' To forms of address like these Gregor would not respond but remained immobile where he was, as if the door had not been opened."

Up next is D for Deadbeat, some cozy mystery reading to relax with (but most likely will not review). Then its back to the teens and twenties of the 20th century, with Virginia Woolf's Mrs Dalloway.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Reading Across Borders

I think I will jump on board with the Reading Across Borders Challenge that is starting up over at Kate's Book Blog. I will be going out of my "comfort zone", reading books written by authors from countries which I normally don't read from. First, I will rule out those countries whose authors dominate my reading list: United States, Canada, Australia, U.K., and India.

The books I plan on reading represent every continent except Antartica. :) Most of these books I either own, or were already on my TBR list.

1. Like Water for Chocolate - Laura Esquival (Mexico)
2. Veronika Decides to Die - Paulo Coelho (Brazil)
3. Love in the Time of Cholera - Gabriel Garcia Marquez (Colombia)
4. Independent People - Haldor Laxness (Iceland)
5. Kaddish for a Child Not Born - Imre Kertesz (Hungary)
6. Metamorphosis - Franz Kafka (Austria)
7. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Dai Sijie (China)
8. The Cairo Trilogy - Naguib Mahfouz (Egypt) *technically, 3 books*
9. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
10. The Bone People - Keri Hulme (New Zealand)

First up is Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. I already have it checked out from the library.

Under the Banner of Heaven

Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith - Jon Krakauer (B) 399pgs.

Since the terrorist attack of September 11, fundamentalist religion has played on American minds. Largely, it has been focused on the fundamentalist movements present in other countries and cultures; not our own. Jon Krakauer's gripping book, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith, breaks that mold. Delving into the unfamiliar and unusual world of Mormon Fundamentalism, he tells the story of an American-made religion often backed by extreme violence and arrogance.

This is not a story about paralleling Mormon fundamentalists to Islamic fundamentalists. One of the few comparisons is only mentioned on the back cover, relating Mormom fundamentalist leaders and their power over their communities to "Taliban-like theocracies". It is a story of taking religious belief to the extreme, with a focus on the murderous act of the Lafferty brothers, Ron and Dan, who killed their sister-in-law and niece after receiving a "revelation from God".

There was a point in the beginning of the book where I was astounded by almost every sentence. "Uncle Rulon has married seventy-five women"; "several of his wives were given to him in marriage when they were fourteen or fifteen and he was in his eighties"; "His sermons frequently stress the need for total submission"; "perfect obedience produces perfect faith"; "for those who commit such unspeakable sins as homosexuality, or having sexual intercourse with a member of the African race, 'the penalty, under the law of God, is death on the spot.'"; "men have never walked on the moon; film clips showing Apollo astronauts on the lunar surface are part of an elaborate hoax foisted on the world by the American government". I could go on. Polygamy is one thing. [waits for the tomatos to start flying]. Unequal polygamy in which men marry women against their will is unspeakably wrong. Men marrying pre-pubescent or adolescent wives, sometimes even their own daughters, is appalling.

One of my only criticisms I have of the book is the hodgepodge method Krakauer used to link modern fundamentalist events with general Mormon history. A result of this in-depth look at both present and past results in the eventual blending together of many individuals introduced. Not altogether his fault: I easily admit that it would be a highly difficult feat to pull this off. The inevitable result of numerous polygamist families is dozens of individuals with very similar names all interconnected in highly complex family trees. As Krakauer admits at one point, looking at a polygamous family tree is akin to peering at complex engineering diagrams. It's no wonder that many Mormons are experts in genealogy.

Other than that, I really enjoyed reading this book. Well, enjoyed is not quite the right word. Krakauer takes care to point out the long-standing persecution Mormons have faced, while also looking at the sense of entitlement and self-righteousness that lead a few Mormon fundamentalists, including Ron and Dan Lafferty, and Brian David Mitchell, to extreme acts of vengeance. It is definitely enlightening.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Twelve Sharp

Twelve Sharp - Janet Evanovich 310pgs (B+)

I always enjoy the Stephanie Plum series, and this one was no different.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - by Haruki Murakami (B+) 607pgs.

The first thing I thought about this book was that it is not what I expected. It's a crazy story that takes you all sorts of places that you may or may not want to go. I liked it.
Admittedly, his style is not for everyone. You are left with unanswered questions, and events that happen without a whiff of explanation. He uses a style that is similar, but not the same, as magical realists. Someone he manages to keep the story slow-paced, yet a page-turner at the same time. It is truly a story filled with paradoxes. I definitely plan to check out some more of his books.

An Amazon reviewer that sums up my experience perfectly: "I don't know where I went, but I loved the journey."

Saturday, January 6, 2007

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe

Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe (A) 209pgs.

Reading this book has just reinforced my dislike for Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This is a beautifully written novel describing the introduction of Europeans and Christian missionaries to the Igbo clans in Nigeria. The story focuses on the life of one man, Okonkwo, a man of fear and anger who can not seem to break himself from the emotional bonds of being the son of a "lazy" man, despite gaining respect and status in his clan for his personal achievements. Achebe does an amazing job of writing in in a style that uses Western linguistic models insterspersed with proverbs, fables, and tales that portray the oral storytelling traditions of the Igbo people.

Which brings me to my continued disdain of Heart of Darkness. I have never liked this novel, and struggled with it when I read it for my post-colonial Lit class on Semester at Sea. At the time, my prof could not accept my critique of the novel as "rubbish". :) He also did not support my statement that it should not even be included in a post-colonial lit class, considering it was written during the colonization of the Congo, by a European. I did not like the fact that Africans speak in pidgin English in the book, which is why Things Fall Apart was a breath of fresh air. Achebe writes in a style that is simple, eloquent, and dignified, and I think this novel (and certainly, Achebe himself) helps to negate the stereotype of Igbo, Nigeria, and Africa as primitive, heathen, and savage.

Some pretty cool, and thought-proviking proverbs and quotes from the book:
-"Among the Ibo the art of conversation is regarded very highly, and proverbs are the palm-oil with which words are eaten." (p.7)
-"Those whose palm-kernels were cracked for them by a benevolent spirit should not forget to be humble." (p.26)
-"There is nothing to fear from someone who shouts." (p.140)
-"It seemed as if the very soul of the tribe wept for a great evil that was coming-its own death." (p.187)

And finally, the mention of the moon-play at the time of the full moon brought back some wonderful memories of my refugee friends in Australia. A Nigerian bloke started up a full-moon tradition in which we all gathered together around a bon-fire, under the full moon, sharing creative stories, and listening to the drums. It was a tradition he brought with him from his country, in which it was a joy to share. I was happy to see a similar tradition mentioned in the book, and could see, hear, and smell exactly what Achebe was describing.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Vanishing Acts - Jodi Picoult

Vanishing Acts - Jodi Picoult (C)
Not that impressed. Earlier today, I put the book down, fed up with it. To me it felt like a tired story line, with the same pattern as the other to Picoult books I have read. A woman, supposedly content and happy, suddently finds her life turned up side down. She was kidnapped at a young age, and never knew. I feel that I have read this plot dozens of times--unfortunately I can't remember the titles of any of those books. I picked it up again after dinner, skimming the rest of the story.

I like Jodi Picoult. She's not amazing, but My Sister's Keeper and The Pact were good. However, I don't know if I will be able to read anymore of her books. I tire quickly of authors whose every book keeps to the same model. Especially ones that involve courtrooms in every book (not going to name names here!).

His Dark Materials

The Golden Compass (read in 2006)
The Subtle Knife (2006)
The Amber Spyglass (1st of 2007)

Pullman’s retelling of Paradise Lost in a contemporary society that never experienced the Enlightenment is more, well, enlightened than anything else. I love this series. 2/3 of it is perfect.

One of the things I really liked about it is the complete lack of an absolutely evil character, in a reflection of Eastern beliefs that all humans are imbibed with an equal amount of good and evil. Evil exists as a balancing force to good. His combination of Eastern and Western religious and philosophical thought makes for an interesting polemic in the trilogy.

Unfortunately, the series does decline by the end. I was very disappointed in The Amber Spyglass; the events were anti-climatic and did not live up to the suspense in the first two novels. Pullman’s bias shines through in the last novel, which would fine, if it was more subtle.

I must say, this was a disappointing first read for the year. And the next one isn't any better.

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

2007 Challenges

So, I'm adding to my reading challenges this year. With some overlap, I've decided to take on the Chunkster Challenge and the TBR Challenge.
What gibberish is this, you ask? It's just me binging on my need to read. :)

The Chunkster Challenge pushes you to read big, fat books. I hope to read 5 big, fat, books in the next 6 months, from the following list. The ones in bold are the books I plan to read, but I'm throwing some other options in there in case my mood changes.
- Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell - Susanna Clarke
- Don Quixote - Cervantes
- The Wind Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami
- Red Earth and Pouring Rain - Vikram Chandra
- Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco
- The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand
- East of Eden - John Steinbeck
- Grapes of Wrath - John Steinbeck

The 12 books I have picked from my ginourmous TBR pile, to read one each month, are (in no particular order):
1. Things Fall Apart - Chinua Achebe
2. A Short History of Progress - Ronald Wright
3. Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco (i know, i know, i'm overlapping the 2 challenges, but this is a DENSE book)
4. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
5. I, Rigoberta Menchu - Rigoberta Menchu
6. On the Road - Jack Kerouac
7. Under the Banner of Heaven - Jon Krakauer
8. The Fountainhead - Ayn Rand
9. Survival in Auschwitz - Primo Levi
10. Orlando - Virginia Woolf
11. Bee Season - Myla Goldberg
12. Fall On Your Knees - Anne Marie MacDonald

1. Lies My Teacher Told Me - James Loewen
2. Castro's Final Hour - Andres Oppenheimer
3. Untangling My Chopsticks - Victoria Riccardi
4. Hilda and Pearl - Alice Mattison

Monday, January 1, 2007

Favorite Reads of 2005

I'll also throw in my favorites of 2005, which is when I first began keeping track of the books I read. Out of 64 books, I will never forget the following

1. Murder on the Orient Express - Agatha Christie
2. The Kite Runner - Khaled Hosseini
3. Bachelor Kisses - Nick Earls
4. The Secret Life of Bees - Sue Monk Kidd
5. A Walk in the Woods - Bill Bryson
6. My Sister's Keeper - Jodi Picoult
7. Catherine the Great - Henri Troyat
8. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman
9. Fahrenheit 451 - Ray Bradbury
10. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - J.K. Rowling
11. Blueback - Tim Winton
12. Zig Zag Street - Nick Earls
13. Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
14. 1984 - George Orwell
15. I Am A Cat - Soseki Natsume
16. One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez
17. Unless - Carol Shields
18. Dreaming in Cuban - Julia Alvarez

Favorite Reads in 2006

The following books are the best books that I read in 2006. Quite a few more than most years, I'll admit. Out of a total of 68 books, I adored the following 23 (in the order in which they were read):

1. Frida Kahlo: The Paintings - Hayden Herrera
2. Winterdance - Gary Paulsen
3. Frida: A Biography of Friday Kahlo - Hayden Herrera
4. The Elements of Style - William Strunk & E.B. White
5. Anne of Green Gables - L.M. Montgomery
6. Anne of Avonlea - L.M. Montgomery
7. Anne of the Island - L.M. Montgomery
8. The Other Boleyn Girl - Phillipa Gregory
9. Shopgirl - Steve Martin
10. Wicked - Gregory Maguire
11. Guns, Germs and Steel - Jared Diamond
12. House of the Spirits - Isabel Allende
13. Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende
14. Portrait in Sepia - Isabel Allende
15. Night - Elie Wiesel
16. Prep - Curtis Sittenfeld
17. The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards
18. Breakfast at Tiffany's - Truman Capote
19. The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family - Mary Lovell
20. Astonishing Splashes of Colour - Clare Morrall
21. The House on Mango Stree - Sandra Cisneros
22. Northern Lights - Philip Pullman
23. The Subtle Knife - Philip Pullman