Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Foucault's Pendulum - Umberto Eco

Title: Foucault's Pendulum
Author: Umberto Eco
Country: Italy
Year: 1988
Pages: 641 pgs.
Rating: A

I believe Umberto Eco is the only author I have ever read that can fill a novel with intense intellectual thought, numerous complex theories and treatises, yet still have a well-developed plot and characterization. And, it's a page turner (although the pages do turn a little slower than other books).

I read this book with a dictionary and Internet connection nearby. Yet, I also treasured it's pulpy, film noirish elements (a pulp novel for intellectuals, perhaps?). "The stale, rancid smell of cigarette butts, the ashtrays all brimming. The kitchen sink piled high with dirty dishes, the garbage bin full of disemboweled cans...This was the apartment of a man who had worked nonstop for days without budging, eating only when he had to, working furiously, like an addict." How Eco manages to incorporate pop culture references (Mickey Mouse, Casablanca) into such a novel and make it work, is genius.

Mainly because I studied the theory extensively as a postgrad, I immediately recognized Eco's reliance on postmodernist theory to advance the narrative (post-modernism as the theory that there is no absolute truth; rather, truth is relative to the community we belong to, and to those that hold power). "Official history," the colonel said with a bitter smile, "is written by the victors. According to official history, men like me don't exist." (p.123) -and- "Or is the message really that we should look at everything in a different way" (p.13)

I am surprised this book was a bestseller, and I wonder if all those who bought the book ever got around to starting---and finishing, it. I for one had the book sit on my shelf for 4 years before I was brave enough to open it. And definitely, the first chapter or two are pretty hard to get into. But after that, it was a joy to be in the world of this scholarly detective novel.

Causabon's self-reflection:
"The other evening I had to believe the Plan was true, because if it wasn't, then I had spent the past two years as the omnipotent architect of an evil dream. Better reality than a dream: if something is real, then it's real and you're not to blame." (p.164)

"In those halcyon days I believed that the source of enigma was stupidity. Then the other evening in the periscope I decided that the most terrible enigmas are those that mask themselves as madness. But now I have come to believe that the whole world is an enigma, a harmless enigma that is made terrible by our own mad attempt to interpret it as though it had an underlying truth." (p.95)
Fun Piedmontese expression:
"Ma gavte la nata. Take out the cork." You say to to one who is full of himself, the idea being that what causes him to swell and strut is the pressure of a cork stuck in his behind. Remove it and psssssh, he returns to the human condition." (p.56)

Great Art vs. dime novels:
'Maybe only cheap fiction gives us the true measure of reality... Great Art makes fun of us as it comforts us, because it shows the world as the artists would like the world to be. The dime novel, however, pretends to joke, but then it shows us the world as it actually is - or at least the world as it will become... What has taken place in the real world was predicted in penny dreadfuls.'

Friday, May 25, 2007

Baltimore rant, and reading update

For anyone out there that loves Baltimore, truly sees the Charm City in it, I applaud you. I respect your opinion, and wish I felt the same way. But now, it's official. I despise this city. As much as my husband does and maybe more, as I tried so hard to give it a chance. We moved here when my hubby was accepted for 2 years of his surgical residency. We have one year left, and then we're out of here, to finish his residency elsewhere. We will no longer live in the city that is ranked as having the highest crime rate in the entire United States.

Growing up near the area, I hesitated when we first made the decision to move here. I knew the city, knew what it used to be like, and wasn't that excited. I wanted to stay in Philadelphia, our most recent home (or even better, move back to Australia). Once here, however, I was pleasantly surprised. At first. We live in a cute neighborhood. There are definitely more options for foodies than a decade ago. Local boutiques are thriving. The local markets may not be the best, but at least there are farmer's markets. I met quite a few very nice people.

I ignored the fact that almost all local parks are not completely safe to go to by yourself. Or that local coffee houses are practically nonexistent. No authors ever seem to stop here on book tours. Traffic is horrendous, and you can't go 5 feet without hitting a pothole (oh my aching, pregnant breasts!). Public transport is not adequate at all. Drivers are atrociously rude and dangerous. Not to mention the still-pervasive segregation and racism abundant on all sides. And the stories from clients (refugees) who have been attacked started to become a bit worrisome.

But yesterday. Yesterday was the last straw. Last night, hubby's moped was stolen from outside the outpatient entrance at Johns Hopkins. In plain sight of the security guard stall, and parking garage cashier.

If this was the first incident, it would be one thing. Second, maybe a string of bad luck. But no, in the past year, we have:
- Had a bicycle stolen from a Metro station. Yep, it was locked up tight.
- On the SAME night, in a completely unrelated incident, someone broke into our apartment, stole all of my good jewelry, my birth certificate, social security card, and a host of store credit cards we never use. Yeah, that was fun.
- 6 months after buying our brand new car, we were rear-ended while waiting to turn left, and our car was totalled. The person who hit us, had just picked up his car from the mechanic since he caused an accident a few weeks beforehand. This is the accident that put me in physical therapy for 3 months and cost me my job. The only bonus is he freely admitted his fault.
- now the moped, which was also locked up tight to a motorcycle rack, with 2 locks.

The only positive thing out of the moped situation, is that I no longer have to hear my husband come home saying he was abused by pedestrians while driving in to work. He has been hit with a plastic pipe, had rocks thrown at him, and once, someone even tried to pee on him while he was at a red light. The joys of commuting to an inner-city hospital. But now we're once again stuck with one vehicle, and with crappy public transport, I'm stuck at home. I really miss the days that we didn't need a car because I could take public transport everywhere (that era only ended when we moved here...we lived 8 years without any car at all). I will definitely not raise our child in this city.

And now, my trip to the beach to see my family is cancelled because how can I take the car for a week when that is the only way that hubby can get to work at 5am?

Argh, I really had to get that out. Even though I am really whining in a way I haven't whined in years, I just had to vent!

Foucault's Pendulum update
To make this post somewhat book-related, I am making progress on Foucaul's Pendulum. As I found out, the blurb on the book is somewhat misleading: Three book editors create 'The Plan', a conspiracy theory started by feeding information randomly into a computer, after they were told of a similar theory by a strange colonel.

I recently passed the halfway point in the book, and I'm just starting to learn how 'The Plan' was devised. But that by no means indicates a weakness on the part of the author. Eco seems to have created an intellectual masterpiece. He has created a novel filled with vast amounts of information that most readers will have no concept of, yet still makes it interesting. I may know a little bit about some of what is talked about (Kabbalah, mythology and world religions, philosophy, gnostic sects, Templars, etc), and no idea about many other things (semiotics, excerpts written in latin or french, occult studies), yet it is still a page-turner. Definitely not a book for everyone, but definitely a book for those who like to challenge themselves. I can't wait to finish it. The only part that dragged so far was the 3 pages in which Belbo, one of the editors, compared the 10 Sefirot of the Kabbalah to the mechanics of a car.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Which books should I take to the beach?

I seem to have too much time on my hands today. I was looking at my bookshelf, trying to figure out what books I should pick to take with me on vacation in June. But I can't decide. So, I thought I'd ask my fellow bloggers for their recommendations.

Vote below for the books you would recommend. Feel free to add one that you think would be a great choice!

UPDATE: Thank you for everyone that participated in my decision-making by voting! I have taken a lot of your recommendations into consideration, and chosen the following books to take with me on vacation: The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd; Murder with Mirrors by Agatha Christie; Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See; Climbing the Mango Trees by Jaffrey Madhur, and Le Divorce by Diane Johnson.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Foucault's Pendulum - It Begins!

I finally started reading Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco.

Well, sort of. I haven't gotten past the first page yet.

But...I did find the translation for the Hebrew quote at the start of the first chapter--the main reason I haven't been able to make it past the first page.

Here it is for anyone that is interested. Thank you to The Modern Word for providing this!

"When the Light of the Endless was drawn in the form of a straight line in the Void... it was not drawn and extended immediately downwards, indeed it extended slowly -- that is to say, at first the Line of Light began to extend and at the very start of its extension in the secret of the Line it was drawn and shaped into a wheel, perfectly circular all around."

--Gruberger, Philip S. (ed.) The Kabbalah: A Study of the Ten Luminous Emanations from Rabbi Isaac Luria with the Commentaries Sufficient for the Beginner. Vol. II, Jerusalem: Research Center of Kabbalah, 1973. p. 7.

The other thing that stopped me was looking up the definition of a word in the first sentence: isochronal. I can already tell why my hubby did not enjoy this book, and never finished it. I, however, have the feeling I am going to love it. Guess we'll have to wait and see!

Isochronal: Characterized by or occurring at equal intervals of time.

A Few of My Favorite Things

After reading Chris' responses to this meme over at Book-A-Rama I finally made enough time to respond to this interesting meme. I also have a feeling this will be a high post day, making up for my lack of posts so far in May. :)

A book that made you cry: Night, by Elie Wiesel had me in tears on numerous occasions. Oh, and always Bridge to Terabithia.

A book that scared you: I have never, ever been able to read medical horror books. Anything about rampant, deadly viruses scares the crap out of me. The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, was a book I was never able to finish. Can't watch any movies like that, either.

A book that made you laugh: Both of the Bridget Jones' Diary books. They are definitely LOL funny.

A book that disgusted you: The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand. Definitely not one of my favorite things, and I never could finish the book. Ayn Rand needs to be better known for her philosophy (which I completely disagree with, but respect), not her writing skills.

A book you loved in elementary school: One of my first chapter books was the Ramona Quimby series. I loved, loved, loved Ramona Quimby.

A book you loved in middle school: I discovered Stephen King in 7th Grade. I would scare myself silly, loving every minute of it. My favorite at that time was It.

A book you loved in high school: I remember going through a Danielle Steel phase one summer. I don't want to count that. :) In 10th grade, I spent a year reading John Steinbeck books (one each quarter). My favorite was East of Eden, which I plan on re-reading again in June. Let's see if I still love it.

A book you hated in high school: Hands down, the Red Badge of Courage. I had to read it for a history class, and hated every page of it. I never liked war books.

A book you loved in college: The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood. One of my all-time absolute favorite books. I read it for a Women's Lit class; that was one of the best semesters of reading I had in college.

A book that challenged your identity: Voluntary Simplicity by Duane Elgin. It was the very first book that got me to start thinking about striving to live in a more natural and simple way.

A series that you love: As a child, it was The Babysitter's Club. As an adult, although technically not a series, it would be Agatha Christie's Miss Marple books. And Harry Potter. Yeah, it was hard to name just one.

Your favorite horror book: I don't read horror that often. But I love The Stand by Stephen King. And, It still sends shivers down myspine.

Your favorite science fiction book: My hubby is the science fiction fanatic. I would count dystopian novels in this genre, in which my favorite is The Handmaid's Tale.

Your favorite fantasy: That's a toss-up between Harry Potter and Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. I love both in very different ways.

Your favorite mystery: Pretty much anything by Agatha Christie, especially as mentioned above, Miss Marple books.

Your favorite biography: I only read biographies occasionally, but the one that remains with me the most is about one of my favorite artists: Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, by Hayden Herrera.

Your favorite "coming of age" book: I know I've read a bunch, but I can't think of very many. The first that comes to mind is She's Come Undone by Wally Lamb.

Your favorite classic: I have to pick just one? I can't! But, if I have to, I think it would be Jane Eyre. Emma is a very close second.

Your favorite romance book: Pride and Prejudice. Especially since it's accompanied by such a lovely BBC mini-series. With Colin Firth as such a lovely Mr. Darcy. :) My favorite romance that doesn't end so well is Romeo and Juliet.

Your favorite book not on this list: A book that was just recently added to my favorites list is Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Ina May's Guide to Childbirth

Title: Ina May's Guide to Childbirth
Author: Ina May Gaskin
Year: 2003
Pages: 348
Rating: A

I finished off my first book for the Non-fiction Five Challenge...one that might not be of too much interest to most of you, but I found it extremely interesting!

First off, I thought I would give an update on our little bub. The pregnancy is going really well. Morning sickness started to dissipate after week 11, and is now pretty much completely gone. I am officially out of the first trimester! We have heard the heartbeat at the last 2 visits with the midwife, a perfectly healthy and strong little thump-thump! It was so exciting to hear that for the first time. We're now patiently waiting till it's time for the 20 week ultrasound, where hopefully we will find out if we are having a boy or girl. We've picked out some names, although nothing is set in stone. Eliana Jean B. or Maya Jean B. for a girl (we'll pick one of the two after she would be born and we get to meet her--Jean was my paternal grandmother's nickname, she died before I was born), or Owen 'no idea what the middle name will be' B. for a boy. I'm not completely sold on Owen, but we both like it and I haven't been able to think of another one I like as much. Although I haven't gained much weight yet (I actually lost weight during the nausea stage), my waistline has definitely changed and I am just starting to look a little bit pregnant, depending on what I wear. All in all, it's a delight to be pregnant!

I found this book to be one of the most helpful of the pregnancy books I've read so far. I'm tending to focus on those books that will help me to prepare for a natural birth, and this book is right up that alley. Ina May Gaskin is one of the founders of The Farm, a communal village in Tennessee that is also known nationally for its extremely talented midwives. The first half of the book consists of birth stories from a wide variety of women, almost all who gave birth naturally; the second half goes into more detail about the mind/body connection and how it relates to labor and delivery; interventions that are routine or commonly occur at hospitals, and comfort measures to ease pain during labor without the use of pain medication.

To my surprise, I actually found the first half of the book the most helpful. I know very few women who haven given birth naturally as well as outside of a hospital, so I really enjoyed reading these stories and gaining tips on how other women do it. The whole book generally gave a lot of detail in comfort measures (walking a lot, not laying on your back or in one position for long periods, massage, different positions, breathing, mantras, water therapy), which is exactly what I was looking for! I would definitely recommend all women who are pregnant to read this book, and especially those who are even vaguely thinking about doing it without an epidural.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Like Water for Chocolate

Title: Like Water for Chocolate
Author: Laura Esquival
Country: Mexico
Year: 1990
Rating: B+ Pages: 246 pgs.

I've finally gotten around to reading another book from my Reading Across Borders Challenge. Like Water for Chocolate, by Laura Esquival, is an enchanting story. It's largely a story about Tita, a young woman that grows up near Piedras Negras, as small Mexican town on the edge of the Rio Grande, and close to the US-Mexico border. Tita is forbidden from marrying her true love Pedro due to an outdated family tradition that dictates the youngest daughter must care for her mother until her death. In despair, Pedro marries Tita's older sister in order to be closer to his love. What follows is an adventure in magical realism and gastronomic delights.

This is yet one more book that makes me wish I could read and/or speak fluent Spanish. It's a wonderful story, but I feel I still miss out on something in translation. I absolutely loved the storyline of how her emotions were transmitted through her cooking; the magical power of food. Unfortunately, I did not like Pedro at all. The whole book, I was rooting for Tita to get over her first love. Especially towards the end of the novel, he just seemed too whiny and jealous for his own good.

The first sign of Tita's emotions portrayed through food:
'When she finished beating the meringue, it occurred to Nacha to lick some of the icing off her finger to see if Tita's tears had affected the flavor. No, the flavor did not seem to have been affected; yet without knowing why, Nacha was suddenly overcome with an intense longing. She frosted the cake with the meringue icing as well as she could and went to her room, a terrible aching in her heart. She cried all night, and the next morning she didn't have the strength to help with the wedding.'

Monday, May 7, 2007

Perusing my TBR list

I should not have done it. Should not. Look through my TBR list, that is. Do you ever get that paralyzing, anxiety-ridden feeling that you are just never going to read all the books you would like to in this lifetime? It happens to me just about every time I look at my TBR list.

First, I just glance through, with the aim of picking out a book or two to read in the coming weeks. So many great titles. How could I not have read The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak, yet? What am I waiting for? I start dreaming to be caught up in the imagery of Moloka'i by Allan Brennert. Never mind the countless hard-to-obtain novels I have left unread by authors from other countries: Red Poppies by Alai, The Map of Love by Ahdaf Soueif; The Way to the Cats by Yehoshua Kenaz; Perfume by Patrick Suskind; Koolaids by Rabih Alameddine. That list goes on for about two pages.

Then there's the author's I have read once, and have yet to delve into more of their works. Authors such as Virginia Woolf; Arundhati Roy; Barbara Pym; Haruki Murakami; Jose Saramago; J.M. Coetzee; Philip Roth; and Chinua Achebe.

And the non-fiction. Oh, sometimes it feels as if you are the bane of my existence. Oh, I love you, but why do I find it so hard to pick you up? And in the meantime, the pile grows and grows. Collapse by Jared Diamond; Overcoming our Racism by Derald Wing Sue; The Abandoned Generation by Henry Giroux; Palestine in the Time of Jesus by K.C. Hansom and Douglas Oakman; The Bookseller of Kabul by Asne Seierstad; Tales of a Female Nomad by Rita Gelman; A Shameful Act by Taner Akcam; What Islam is All About by Yahiya Emerick; and Marie Antoinette by Antonia Fraser.

And that is only a sampling. Dios mios!

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Fall On Your Knees

Title: Fall On Your Knees
Author: Ann-Marie MacDonald
Country: Canada
Year: 1996
Rating: A
Pages: 508pgs

Amazon describes Fall On Your Knees as a sprawling saga, which I feel is the perfect description for this novel about love, loss, religious fanaticism, guilt, redemption, race and class differences, abuse, and guilt...just to name a few. The reader is quickly captured and enthralled by the Piper family, and despite the emotional landslides and despair that surrounds virtually all of the characters, FOYK remains a page-turner to the very end.

Every character has their own secret, which leads to the further unraveling of the family over time. Materia, the child-bride married to James, lives a life of regret, and struggles to love her first-born child. James constantly struggles to reign in an inner demon: his journey is one that is deeply real and haunting all at once. Their children, each taking a special place in the family, are consumed and affected by the struggles of their parents. It is a story that is filled with darkness and sadness, yet is also humorous and loving. It is no easy feat to pull off such a story, and Ann-Marie MacDonald did an amazing job, especially when you consider the first line of the story: 'They are all dead now.'

The beginning of a secret:
'Everyone agrees to this fiction, and the only people who'd breathe a word of the actual facts to the the illegitimate child are those who are so malicious to begin with that they are easily dismissed as liars. As in truth they are. For the beneficent lie tells the truth about the child, which is "you belong to this community," whereas the malicious truthtellers use fact to convey a lie, which is "you don't belong." This is an imperfect system but it's the prevailing one. And as the years go by the facts get eroded and scattered by time, until there are more people who don't know than people who do.'

A Cape Breton sunset:
'This is the best of summer. Not yet eight in the evening, the sun has brought out the green of the ocean and bathed the sky in a soothing balm of fire. Days like this are so precious. Frances stops and looks out at the sea, which trembles at the caress of the sun.'