So it’s been one of those weeks (actually, no, more like one of those fortnights) where I end up with all sci fi and fantasy fiction to review for you. I had jaw surgery last Monday, so this is what I read as I was lounging around recovering and trying to imbibe enough liquids through jaws that were banded together to keep myself from getting dehydrated.
Fortunately, I didn’t have extremely high expectations for this fantasy/steampunk retelling of Jane Eyre. Consciously imitating the plot of a famous novel can be a good literary device like any other, but in this case it seems to be a substitution for the author’s ability to plot her own novel. Even though a lot of strange stuff happened in this book, none of it struck me as particularly interesting. In fact, yes, that’s the word for how I felt while I was reading this book: I was bored.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
As it happens, I am the only person I know who dislikes this novel. I started reading it as a kid, and put it down partway through because I found it horrifying. But since there’s a movie coming out, and I have so many friends who adore the book, I thought I’d give it another try. So I gritted my teeth and read it through, all the way to the end.
As an adult, I still find it horrifying, on even more levels, but also fairly indifferently written. I just don’t enjoy anything about it. Not the bullying and violence, not the fact that the whole book is peppered not with profanity but with juvenile potty language, and not the tiredness of Card’s grotesque, unattractive imagery. He’s not a writer with much finesse under the best of circumstances, but it is particularly apparent in this rough early novel.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have a weird personal antipathy to Orson Scott Card. I heard him speak one time at an Honors Devotional when I was at BYU, and he thoroughly creeped me out. I’ve made attempts at beginning several of his books, but every time I get the same feeling, like I need to go wash the literary muck off my hands. So yeah, your mileage may vary, but this book was not for me.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I am always thrilled to find a new fantasy author whom I actually like and respect, because they sometimes seem to be so rare. This is my first book by Guy Gavriel Kay, and I found myself not only impressed, but entranced and ravished. And then I looked him up on Wikipedia and found that he had become interested in fantasy while helping Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R.’s son) posthumously edit the Silmarillion. Be still my heart! Imitators of Tolkien are a dime a dozen, but future fantasy writers chosen while still philosophy/pre-law students to help edit Tolkien’s works are few indeed.
Under Heaven is more historical fiction than fantasy, although it includes some decidedly supernatural elements. The novel is set in an alternative eighth century China, under a version of the celebrated Tang Dynasty. Lyrical and introspective, it tells the story of Shen Tai and how an extraordinary gift changed his life and thrust him into an unexpected role in the unfolding destiny of the empire.
I could not get enough of Kay’s flawless, elegant prose, but the haunting, beautiful poetry included at intervals in the text elevated his writing into the realm of the sublime. The sweeping and intricately plotted narrative, at times achingly elegaic, evoked a richly atmospheric world and time. I am by no means an expert in Tang Dynasty China, but even I noticed how replete the book is with cultural details and elements (although none of them seem forced or flashy). Judging by that and the informal biography Kay included in his Acknowledgements, this is an extraordinarily well-researched historical fantasy.
Kay’s characterizations are superbly complex and nuanced. I was especially intrigued by his female characters. Two of the most powerful women in the book are literally owned by men, and yet they masterfully wield their considerable personal power within a severely constrained situation.
I loved this book, and hope that all the rest of Guy Gavriel Kay’s corpus is equally superlative.
One note: this is a book intended for adult audiences. There is a scene of very disturbing violence, and a fair amount of sex. Consider yourself warned.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I was surprised by how good this was, but it’s hard to describe exactly what the book is like, and it feels wrong to just talk about what it’s “about,” because the subject matter is so at odds with the tone of the book. Ishiguro’s alternate world is subtly different from ours in literal fact, but chillingly similar in its feel and ethos.
The style and pacing of the novel seem strange at first, but after a while I realized that the unsettlingly rambling yet matter-of-fact first-person narrative is a huge factor in the devastating impact of the story. The fact that the narrator not only recounts what is happening, but accepts it, adds immeasurably to the pathos.
This is a book deeply concerned with social issues and the complicated ethics surrounding them. But its true genius is in the way it illustrates individual responses to those issues, both by those who are most terribly affected, and by those who are endeavoring (with or without success) to improve conditions. It is a story of love and friendship, of injustice, of creating meaning and quality in life. It answers no questions, but it forces the reader toward serious introspection.
This would be an excellent book club read, because it is so thought-provoking, and would provide a gateway into some wonderful discussions.
May 25, 2013 3 Comments
You were probably just lamenting to yourself the fact that I have not yet gotten around to initiating you into the rest of the secrets of my den of books. (How do I know these things?) When last we entered the book cave of wonders, I showed you what is probably the prettiest bookcase in my house. Today we’ll move on to its companion bookcase, which I think of as my collection of books about traveling the world. Here it is in full:
As before, that top shelf is the only one able to accommodate taller books, so it’s a bit of a mish-mash. Fortunately, most of my art books, like most art books, just happen to be over-sized. So there’s a little bit of serendipitous organization there. Also included are the binders that our mothers made with all our mission photos and letters, and a gorgeous Strega Nona pop-up book that my sister-in-law sent us for Christmas one year.
Next shelf over is my Arabic shelf. Here you’ll find my trusty Hans Wehr Arabic dictionary from college, as well as various other text books, my free Qur’an from the Saudi Arabian Embassy (because I was told to keep it on the top shelf and only touch it with freshly washed hands; what a lovely way of respecting the Word of God), and some miscellaneous Arabic literature, and a couple of atlases that got stuck up here on the top shelf because they were so tall.
Next we pass to the Italian shelf, which holds all our ambitious attempts at learning Italian, none of which were as successful as immersion in Italy. Big surprise there. Also Dante and Macchiavelli in the original Italian, some of my more triumphant thrift store finds, along with various other examples of Italian literature. I put most of my Latin books on this shelf too, since geographically the ancient Romans were also Italian.
Next we switch abruptly to music. Books about music, that is. The piano and guitar sheet music lives over in a gigantic IKEA basket by the piano. One of the most interesting books on this shelf is Music and Song in Persia, written by one of my favorite professors at the university. He was living in Iran just before the Revolution and running a television program on Iranian music. He smuggled out hundreds of videotapes of traditional Iranian music performances that would have otherwise been consigned to the flames. Also on this shelf, because they didn’t fit on the Arabic one, are some social science-type books on the Muslim Middle East.
And now the French shelf. Ah, the French shelf. Several years ago, Tony and I conceived the romantic idea of buying an old French chateau, fixing it up, and turning it into a bed-and-breakfast (because nobody has ever had that clever idea before). That daydream has not yet come to fruition. For that matter, neither has our more practical daydream of fluency in French. We still laugh over the time we decided to read the Book of Mormon out loud together in French. We chose a verse at random, and got completely hung up on the pronunciation of the word meurtre, which for some reason occurred an inordinate number of times in the verse we chose. In Tunisia, even the Arabic sounds Frenchified, so that helped me a bit with the heretofore mysterious pronunciation of French. Due to various attempts at study combined with my acquaintance with Latin and other Romance languages, now I am not half bad at deciphering written French, but I still can’t speak it.
Next up: the Mormon shelf. We have Bibles and Books of Mormon in several different languages, as well as hymnbooks in Italian, Spanish and Arabic. Notice the interesting leather-bound book near the end on the right. It’s a hand-made embossed leather cover for Tony’s Tagalog scriptures, made by a member in the Philippines.
I had to put the biographies somewhere. I am not a big biography collector, but I have a few: Henry Adams, Benvenuto Cellini, Michael Collins, Ronald Reagan; it’s all pretty eclectic. This shelf also eclectically holds the Dumas overflow from the French shelf and random books for languages I really haven’t studied much (sign language, German, Hebrew).
And now the history shelf, also quite random, even though it’s in more or less historical order. Also some Spanish books, including La Perestroika Cristiana: la politización del Evangelio, which was given to me by the author when I was on my mission in Chile.
Religion shelf #2. Here we have all those Teachings of the Living Prophets books that they come out with every year, as well as a few other random LDS Church-published books. Luther and Tyndale are here too, as are a couple of fascinating 19th century histories of the Valdese, Tony’s Italian Protestant ancestors. And several extra Books of Mormon, because they’re always giving them out at church so we can give them away to friends, and I always seem to be behind on the giving them away to friends part. So if you’d like your own bona fide copy of the Book of Mormon, let me know, and I’ll happily mail it off to you.
One of my favorite shelves on this bookcase is the travel guide shelf. Some of these are the normal Lonely Planet type guides, but I also have a dozen or so travel memoirs, going all the way back to Mark Twain’s A Tramp Abroad. So fascinating. There is nothing I love more than good travel writing, whether it’s about places I’ve been, places I’d like to go, or places I would never have dreamed of going otherwise.
We’ve reached the bottom shelf now. These are my self-help books, ranging from The Attachment Parenting Book to 7 Habits to Alkalize or Die! Some of these, whose names will remain unmentioned, I am getting ready to toss (I have to psych myself up to get rid of a book, no matter how bad), but others are awesome and I would highly recommend them, such as Taking Charge of Your Fertility or The Worst Case Scenario Survival Handbook: Parenting.
And finally, the biology shelf. When I decided to homeschool my children, I knew I had to get a little more well-rounded, and this shelf is part of my effort. Bird guides, tropical fish, Lewis Thomas, and herbcraft. It still has a decidedly literary bent, but there’s some hard science going on here too.
I hope you enjoyed this extended tour of my living room/library. Next we’ll probably pass into the homeschool room, and see the books that get used on a more regular basis.
April 28, 2013 1 Comment
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s hard for me to resist a book about Jane Austen. And this one did not disappoint. Mullan raises all sorts of deceptively simple questions, from what the weather was to when and how the characters blush to how long the bereaved wear mourning. His answers reveal the genius of Austen’s subtle manipulation of the simple everyday happenings of life in 19th century Britain, and how even seemingly insignificant details shape and reveal her plots. Apparently, everything matters in Jane Austen.
Although this book did give me some additional historical insight, what I really enjoyed were the plot analysis and learning about how Austen invented literary devices to make the novel more powerful and greatly influenced later writers.
Caveat: if you’re unfamiliar with Austen’s novels, the extensive quotations and dizzying leaps from plot to plot will probably just be frustrating and boring. But for those who have read and reread Austen, this is a wonderful tool for appreciating her even better.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This was a fascinating, unusual book, and my first by Camille Paglia. In a relatively small, slim volume, she takes the reader on a sweeping tour of the history of Western art. Each chapter contains a photograph of a piece of art, and then a short essay. Although I diverged with Paglia in some of her opinions, her insights were invariably illuminating. I really loved that she devoted an unusually large portion of the book to more modern art, and most of the modern pieces she used were new to me. I will admit that I initially picked up this book for its titular promise to treat Star Wars as serious art, and yes, I was tempted to turn to the end and read the Star Wars essay first. I didn’t, and I’m glad I read the rest of the book first to give me context, because the Star Wars essay was great, and I think I understood it better than I would have if I’d just flipped to the end and read it. This book is totally worth a read, whether you’re interested in Star Wars or art or both.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is really a 3.5 star book, but I admire Jana Riess, so I gave her another half star for that. It turns out that I enjoyed the idea of the book more than the actual book, so maybe this is just a case of having too high of expectations. One thing that surprised me is that the book is almost entirely focused on Christian spiritual practices, when from the title I had expected a more ecumenical approach. Still, there’s quite a bit of diversity in Christianity, and I was unfamiliar with several of the approaches she tried, so I learned a lot. My favorite thing was that along with the different spiritual practices, she read writings by the Christian authors (some going back to the early centuries before Christ, and others more modern) who championed those practices. I felt like by the end of the book I had a better understanding of the diversity of Christianity through the ages. As far as the author’s goal of incorporating a different spiritual practice each month, however, the whole thing seemed a little flippant.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This was another one of those esoteric books I picked up on a whim from the “new books” shelf at the library. Really, I was just curious to finally find out exactly what that cryptic term “Steampunk” means. To my delight, as well as being an artsy how-to book, this actually is a sort of primer to Steampunk. There’s an introduction explaining the term at the beginning, and short chapters interspersed between the jewelry projects explore different aspects of Steampunk style and history.
The jewelry itself is quirky, creative, and often beautiful. Most of it looks like it could belong on the set of the movie The Golden Compass. This book is worth a read, even if only for the sake of cultural literacy. But for a brief moment as I read it, I actually considered converting my entire wardrobe to Steampunk.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is a real educational winner. The funny, sometimes bizarre story-line has my kids laughing out loud almost every day. We’re actually already on Book 3 of the series, and I’ve made it the primary math curriculum for my children (ages 5 and 8). I find that they both understand and retain the material. And because it is presented in a real-life setting, they also can see how math is meaningful and useful in life. I will re-start my 5-year-old on the first book in a year or two, but in the meantime he is getting a great introduction as he listens along with his big sister. He loves the story, and can do a lot of the problems too. The icing on the cake is that this series goes all the way up through calculus. With any luck, my homeschool math curriculum is taken care of forever.
Note: I supplement with Khan Academy for extra practice, and bought some math card games to help my kids learn their arithmetic facts. But Life of Fred, despite how fun and painless it is, seems to be a very solid primary math course. I would also highly recommend it to any parent with a child who’s struggling in math and needs some extra help not only “getting” math, but loving it.
photo credit: Steampunk Vader
April 2, 2013 5 Comments
It should not be possible to get the February doldrums in Florida. But I am ready to say goodbye to last month, and feeling like I’m falling apart. I suppose part of it was having a house full of guests the week of Axa’s baptism, not to mention a trip to Disneyworld the day before. Somehow, I ended up on Saturday morning making several dozen mini-muffins whilst simultaneously ironing Axa’s baptism dress, practicing our special musical number, putting the finishing touches on my talk, and loading the car up with a million and one different things for the baptism. I’m surprised I forgot to do as few things as I did.
It was all great fun and a smashing success, but I ended the week feeling as if I’d been run over by a train. And that was two and a half weeks ago. Have I yet recovered? Probably not, judging by the fact that I have read the entire Twilight saga one and a half times during the past two weeks (not to mention catching up on all the corresponding films), and not even opened a single other book. On my informal personal scale of mental stability (measured in descending order by whether I’m reading cerebral nonfiction, classic literature, or fantasy novels), that gives me a score of something approaching survival mode.
So, I am very late to the Twilight party. But why do people hate these books? I mean, do they seriously not remember being seventeen? The incredible angst? The romance? The social awkwardness? The awakening sexual tension? The deep, cosmically charged relationships?
I originally avoided reading Twilight mostly because I read Interview With a Vampire as a teenager, and ended up pretty traumatized. I found it creepy, violent, twisted and nightmare inducing (maybe I would give it a kinder review now?). The genius of Twilight is that the whole down and dirty of being a vampire (and you know, actually sucking people’s blood) stays mostly in the background, lending a dark, exotic ambiance to a light but passionately felt teenage romantic fantasy. I am reading it on my Kindle, and the most hilarious thing is that the very cheesiest and most syrupy sentimental lines are the ones that people have highlighted five hundred times.
Anyway, tomorrow Tony and I are going to watch Breaking Dawn: Part 2. It was supposed to be shown at an outdoor amphitheater surrounded by woods, which I thought was a pretty perfect setting for a vampire movie. But this being Florida, when the weather forecast came in at “extremely cold” (i.e. less than 60 degrees for the evening), they moved the showing indoors. Oh, well. It’s still a great way to say goodbye to the month of February.
March 1, 2013 1 Comment
Last week, my beloved Kindle finally died. Axa was getting ready to read The Princess and the Goblin aloud to all of us from the back seat of the car. She opened up the case, flicked the power switch and . . . . nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. Faint lines on the screen, and tantalizing ghosted images of what we were last reading, but nothing really useful.
The poor dear thing has been well loved, and well used. And although I always kept it in its case and treated it well, you might say it’s been well abused too. I read it for hours nearly daily, carried it around in a purse wherever I went, and charged it in three different countries. That last one is a big deal because it’s basically every electronic device’s nightmare: dealing with 220 volt electricity in Italy, 110 here, and varying/surging volts in Tunisia.
Actually, that was Kindle #1. Kindle #2 was sent to me free when Kindle #1 died shortly before we left Tunisia. Kindle #2 was probably a refurbished model, but between the two of them, they’ve lasted me for two wonderful years and hundreds of books. Eventually, Kindle #2 was beginning to develop some eccentricities. Page turns were getting longer, and battery life was getting shorter. Sometimes it would take heart-stoppingly long to come back to life when I flicked the power button.
When it finally died, I can’t say I was surprised, but that didn’t mean I wasn’t in mourning. In fact, it was ironically the very day I’d just finally branched out and checked out my first Kindle book from the library. I didn’t even get to read a word. To say nothing of the project I was about to embark upon of reading I Promessi Sposi simultaneously in English and Italian. And the several times since my Kindle’s demise that my children have asked to read The Princess and the Goblin. And missing my Anthony Trollope fix for the week. And the fact that I didn’t have my scriptures at church on Sunday. And those papers on international development that I downloaded as pdf’s last month and haven’t gotten around to reading yet. And the American history curriculum I was reviewing for homeschool. And, and . . .
O.K., I do have a life outside my Kindle (and I even read books outside my Kindle. A lot of them.), but apparently it’s kind of a sad shell of a life. Fortunately, my mother-in-law loves me. She happened to find out from my husband that I was Kindle-less, and last night I got a super-awesome surprise early birthday present: a Kindle Paperwhite!
I am in love with it already. To be clear, I had no complaints about my old Kindle. Not even the dorky, virtually functionless keyboard really bothered me. But the Kindle Paperwhite is even more lovable, as well as more stylish and sexy in every way.
I’ll start with the most obvious difference: it glows in the dark! The front-lit screen is awesome. I stayed up late in bed reading last night and woke up early to read this morning, just for fun. The lighting is perfectly even, and can be adjusted from flashlight-bright to off. I thought it was weird at first that the Kindle counter-intuitively suggested using lower lighting in a dark room and higher lighting in a bright room. But then I turned it on at 5:30 this morning and the sudden flash was a bit blinding (sorry Tony).
So yeah, lower lighting in a dark room is the way to go. It works perfectly for reading in the dark–way better than a reading light or even a bedside lamp. And I’ve taken it out in bright sunlight too, and can confirm that the lovely matte screen is also perfect for reading outside–no glare at all.
The difference in screen contrast from the Kindle 3 (the model of Kindle #1 and Kindle #2) is quite noticeable. True to its name, the Paperwhite background looks refreshingly white instead of grey, making for an easier reading experience even when the light is off.
Just like before when my Kindle was replaced, all my books and things are still floating up in the Amazon Cloud. They show up as available on the homepage, and it’s a matter of seconds to download one for reading. And instead of just a list of books, they show up in their pretty covers right on the homepage. When I booted it up initially, my Paperwhite gave me the option to connect to Facebook and Twitter, which I declined. If they had offered Goodreads, though, I would have done it.
One strange thing about my old Kindle was that instead of page numbers, it would tell me my “location” in the book. But since a normal book has several thousand Kindle “locations,” and I have no idea what a location even represents, I never found this a very useful feature. But the Kindle Paperwhite is even stranger. At the bottom of every page it tells me how many hours and minutes of reading I have left before I finish the book. Because when I’m reading a novel, what I really need is a visual representation of my life slowly ticking away as I give in to the temptation of compulsively reading just one more page.
The touch-screen does take a little bit of getting used to. The main weird thing is not having the page-turn buttons. I found it a lot more difficult to read one-handed. With my old Kindle, I would normally rest my thumb on the page-turn button as I was reading, but resting your thumb on a touch-screen can cause all sorts of unexpected effects, like random dictionary entries appearing, involuntary highlights, and turning ten pages at once. I think with some practice I’ll be able to get the hang of it, though, and I think having a case will also help.
You can look a word up in the dictionary with just a touch, and a much more sizable portion of the dictionary entry pops up. It drove me crazy that my previous Kindle would only give me two tantalizing lines. I always had to click through to the full entry. For even more detailed research,the new X-Ray feature gives you a list of important people, places, and concepts in the book, and links to the appropriate Wikipedia article for each one. So basically they’ve added on easy access to an encyclopedia as well as a dictionary. X-Ray has been poo-poohed as useless and esoteric in some reviews I’ve read about the Paperwhite. But I have actually wished for this feature multiple times while reading my previous Kindle, so I guess my nerdy wish is granted.
In fact, it seems that in the soft white glow of the Kindle Paperwhite, pretty much all my nerdy wishes have come true.
February 2, 2013 1 Comment
When I asked on Facebook for suggestions on organizing my home library, I was amused to find that multiple people suggested organizing the books by color. Now nobody is denying that a bookshelf organized by color is very pretty. But how do you find the books once you’ve organized them?
Maybe I just have too many books. When I got ready to do my organizing overhaul, I thought it might be fun to count. My off-the-cuff estimate was around 500. The grand total, though, after going through every room in the house, was 805 books. Not counting the 100-or-so library books in the house at any given moment.
I grew up in a house full of books, so after Tony and I were married, I didn’t really feel like I had a real home until we had at least one full bookshelf. I regularly haunt library book sales and the book section at thrift stores. I would love to have a whole dedicated room to serve as a library, but I have a feeling that the books would not stay inside it very well. Books tend to go wandering at our house. Sometimes I wonder if they’re up playing musical shelves during the night.
I have other reasons for collecting books than just my compulsive fetish for paper with words on it. I like having the books I’ve read at my fingertips, because you never know when you’ll need to look something up again. Some books, like art books, I collect for the pleasure of paging through them. Others, like all the guidebooks and travel memoirs, remind me of places I’ve been or places I want to go. But my ultimate reason/excuse for collecting books is that I homeschool my children, so it’s part of my job to create a rich learning environment. Which of course includes filling the house with books on all sorts of different subjects, to pique their interests and feed their intellectual passions.
On top of that, someday (preferably soon) we’ll be moving away again to a foreign country where we won’t have an English-language library at hand. So I have to madly fill my personal library in the meantime so it can compensate. Because even though it’s true I can get hundreds of thousands of books via Kindle and other digital means, I know from experience that all those books lining the walls of my parents’ house actually did get read by their children. So I don’t collect books indiscriminately. I mostly buy the ones I want my children to read, if not now, then in ten years.
I actually did consider employing the Dewey decimal system. But it just doesn’t represent all the relationships between books. What I really need is some kind of complex tag cloud. But for now, my physical books are limited to one location in space, so they’ve ended up categorized according to my own whimsical, intuitive, and sometimes haphazard system. Which doesn’t represent all the relationships between books either, but it’s mine, so I like it. If anyone has a really awesome system, I’d love to hear about it.
One of my favorite things to do in other people’s houses is to look at their books. I feel like it helps me get to know them. If that’s not something you do, the rest of this post probably won’t interest you much. But if it does, and if you were in my house, this is what you’d see . . .
Here’s the mostly literature bookcase, housed in the living room.
You’ll notice that the bookcase, while lovely, does not have adjustable shelves. This adds an extra dimension of challenge to book organizing, since the tall books must go on the top shelf. So here’s what you’ll find on the top left shelf: business, Tolkien, and a bit of miscellania.
Because it’s a double bookcase, there’s another top shelf to the right of this one. This is our Mormon shelf, with some Nibley, various manuals, and our Minerva Teichert-illustrated Book of Mormon.
On the next level we have my collection of individually bound pocket-sized Shakespeare plays. Why yes, I do envision my children someday brandishing one of these as they improvise a scene out of Macbeth.
Shakespeare continues to the right, and the golden monkey tidily separates him from the rest of my drama collection, although some displaced 19th century novels are stuck in between as well, pending finding more space for British literature.
Because I tend to think of everything in geographic terms, I have my novels organized more or less by the author’s nationality. So from left to right, Lebanese, Russian, South African, Irish, Canadian, and American.
American novels continue to the right, although they’ve been mostly eclipsed by Dickens, who was kicked off the English literature shelf because he was taking up most of it. In fact, my English and American literature is somewhat mixed up, partially because I originally had all the Anglo-Saxon stuff together and only recently tried to separate them out.
Next, we take a ride back to ancient Greece, where we find Homer and then the Greek philosophers, and then eventually philosophy in general. Also Gilgamesh, because he’s kind of ancient too, and where else would you put Gilgamesh?
Now British novels, although really, as you’ve seen, they’ve been spilling out all over the place. Also, some mis-filings I hadn’t caught. Hawthorne, Herman Wouk, and Chaim Potok have since been returned to their proper place.
Which brings us to the science fiction and fantasy shelf. Here you’ll find Patricia McKillip, my favorite contemporary fantasy author, along with some sci-fi classics like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land. Also a couple of versions of A Thousand and One Nights, although they should perhaps be moved to the fairy tales section. And Nietzsche is probably rolling over in his grave because the philosophy shelf above this one was too full, and he fell down into the science fiction.
Poetry! When my dad did a reading of some of his own poems at our family gathering last month, I was reminded that I come from a long line of poets and poetry-lovers. On the very far right, you can see a slim maroon volume with gold lettering. It’s called One Hundred and One Famous Poems, and was given to me by my grandparents on my 10th birthday. I still have many of those poems memorized.
We’ve reached The Bottom Shelf at last. Sorry it’s a bit blurry. I guess I was getting tired of taking pictures of bookshelves. This shelf holds essays and speeches, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh to Thomas Jefferson. It also holds one of only two literary works that ended up in duplicate when Tony and I merged our libraries (aka got married): Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Our other duplicates were two entire sets of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings plus the Silmarillion. Tony’s were the deluxe slip-case edition pictured on the top. Mine were just one of a series of thrift store paperbacks that have since been read to death and replaced multiple times. I’m not sure what deep conclusions about us and our relationship you could draw from this. At any rate, neither of us is quite as radically committed to laissez-faire economics as we used to be . . .
And finally, the short stories. They ended up at the bottom of the bookshelf because I am not a huge fan of short stories. When I read one, I feel like I’m just reading until the punchline of a joke. And in the unlikely event that I actually happen to really like the story, it’s over almost before it begins. Also, I still sometimes can’t get out of bed to get a drink of water at night without turning on the light and still feeling generally terrified as a result of reading a Henry James anthology culminating in The Turn of the Screw while sick in bed three years ago in Ireland. But every rule has its exception, and the exception to my general dislike of short stories is “Repent Harlequin,” Said the Ticktockman. Which does not yet exist on my bookshelf.
I hope you enjoyed this riveting tour of my bookcase. Stay tuned for further exciting episodes. In the meantime, how do you organize your books?
January 30, 2013 4 Comments
A week or so ago I alluded to a major change-up in the way that we are doing homeschool. We recently ditched some books that weren’t working, and added a whole new list of wonderful books that so far seem pretty great.
Another aspect of the change is that we are doing more of our homeschooling together. I had always imagined having a separate stack of books for each child, and only doing the really obvious things like art and composer study together. But that was back in the days when we were having a child every two years or so, and weren’t going to stop until we got to five or six, like our parents. Life conspired, and due to a combination of various factors, I find myself with two children who are no longer babies, toddlers, or even preschoolers, and no prospect of new babies for us in the immediate or foreseeable future.
I’m deeply ambivalent about this, as is evidenced by the major crying fest I had the other day when sorting through the baby clothes we’ve been lugging around for so many moves. My pile of “favorites” that I just couldn’t give away ended up so big that in the end nothing got given away. Because you never know, and anyway, I can always save them for my grandchildren. Only it is crazy to be thinking about future grandchildren when my oldest is seven.
Really, I just can’t let go of those clothes, because they represent such a sweet time. Through the rosy lens of nostalgia, I remember feeling like such a competent mother when it mostly involved tangible physical things like breastfeeding, co-sleeping, babywearing, and finding the perfect cloth diapers, soft-soled baby shoes, and natural wooden toys. Parenting gets so much more complicated when they’re older, and I have a feeling that parenting a seven-year-old is only the tip of the iceberg.
We just visited last month with my two little one-year-old nephews, and it was so much fun to remember what it was like to have babies. I admit it was nice in the evening to hand the baby to mom and dad and go downstairs with my two grown-up children who sleep through every night without fail and don’t have meltdowns when they miss their naps. Still, there is nothing more snuggly than little wet baby kisses.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the dynamics of our four-person family. I love the way Axa and Raj are best friends. I am finally getting over feeling that I am a deficient mother because I only have two kids (large families have always been very much a thing in the Mormon church, although by the time I was a kid, “large” meant five or six children rather than ten or twelve, and now many of my own contemporaries are stopping at four). I love that we all get to spend so much one-on-one time. I often take just one of them out on morning errands with me, while the other stays home with Daddy. I remember how much I craved that kind of time with my parents as a child (and it’s not easy to get when there are five children and a dad in medical school and residency), and I feel happy that my kids get it so often. I guess there are advantages to every size of family.
Anyway, this is all only tangentially related to our homeschool curriculum. I originally wanted to have each child do mostly separate homeschool work, because I was very skeptical that with six kids aged, say, one to twelve, it would be perfectly tailored to each child if we were doing most of it together. The programs I have seen where all the kids work together with a wide age split don’t really impress me, nor did I feel competent to create such a curriculum myself. But with only two, who are just two years apart, I feel more comfortable doing more things together. As you’ll see, we still have some subjects that happen separately, but by and large we are mostly working together (and when I say “working,” mostly what I mean is snuggling on the couch while I read to them).
So without further ado, here’s our home-designed curriculum.
Devotional/Religious Instruction – After five years of reading a few verses per day, we finished reading The Book of Mormon yesterday! Yes, we will be going to the beach to celebrate, just as soon as the Bobbles’ new swimming suits arrive in the mail this week. Our new project is the New Testament. We read the Matthew genealogy today, and Tony asked, “why do you think Matthew decided to start this book with a long boring list of names?” Axa replied, “It’s not boring!” I’ll take that as a good omen. Maybe we should be tackling the Old Testament.
For our song, we are currently practicing “If the Savior Stood Beside Me,” which Tony and Grammy and I will be singing at Axa’s baptism next month. We have memorized the Articles of Faith up to number 9. And when it’s my turn for Family Home Evening Lesson, I’ve been doing a series on women in the Scriptures and in L.D.S. Church history, since they don’t tend to get covered very well at Church. So far, I’ve done Emma Smith, Minerva Teichert, Judith, and Tabitha. Next up: Eliza R. Snow.
World History – I finally took the plunge and ditched all the imperialist British books. And I’ve found what promises to be an incredible alternative. It’s the Oxford University Press World in Ancient Times series. This is a ten-book set that covers ancient world history in a more culturally and geographically diverse way than any other I’ve seen. My friend Amira (who is a total kindred spirit in so many ways) recommended these for covering world history that really covers non-western history in more than smidgens and snatches.
Each book covers a different area, including the Near East, China, Egypt, Greece, South Asia, Rome, and America. There’s also a volume of primary sources. The series is technically intended for junior high students, but we are finding it to be both comprehensible and fascinating. Each book is co-written by a YA author and an expert in the particular field covered, which ends up in them being both very readable and well researched and accurate.
The icing on the cake is that the series starts with a volume called The Early Human World, which talks about the evolution of human ancestors. Since Axa’s current obsession is dinosaurs, this book, with its descriptions of fossils and excavations is a great bridge for us into human history. Yesterday we read a chapter with excerpts from the diary of Mary Leakey, who was the anthropologist wife of Jane Goodall’s mentor. Since we’ve watched multiple documentaries about chimpanzees lately, the children were excited. After we finish The Early Human World, we’ll read through all the other books simultaneously, so we get a picture of world history unfolding all over the world.
If you’re interested in these books, the $330 price tag for the set might give you sticker shock like it did me. Fortunately, if you’re willing to purchase them one by one from sites like the book depository, alibris, and Amazon’s Marketplace, you can get most of them for much cheaper. Use AddAll and search each book by ISBN, and it will tell you exactly where you can find each one for the cheapest. This is, in fact, how I get most of my books, usually for only a couple of dollars each. The icing on the cake is that they’re often ex-library books with the special heavy duty library binding and their dust jackets covered in heavy duty plastic.
Geography/Muslim History/Culture – Like everything else,Ibn Battuta has been on hold for awhile. We left him somewhere in Iran. But I think we’ll start him back on his journey one of these days.
Nature Study – Axa has named each of the lizards living in the environs of our house. She regularly observes and catches them, and knows a surprising number of intimate details about their lives. She’s also caught frogs, ring-necked snakes, grasshoppers, and a grouchy old gopher tortoise that wandered into our garage. We went successfully in search of manatees and unsuccessfully in search of sea turtles. One of these days we’ll get around to going in search of alligators.
We’ve watched quite a few nature documentaries about reptiles lately, notably David Attenborough’s Life in Cold Blood. The latest is entitled Super Croc, in which a paleontologist is searching for answers about a 40-foot fossil crocodile he’s unearthed in the Sahara. He teams up with a reptile expert, and they travel the globe together, catching large crocodiles and weighing and measuring them. It makes me a little queasy to see them riding crocodiles (and I must confess I hope my children aren’t getting career ideas from this movie), but it’s very educational.
Natural History – The Burgess Animal Book was such a hit that I was thrilled to find a set of over a dozen similar books by Thornton W. Burgess at our library. Axa read every one, and that was pretty much how she learned to read chapter books last year. She continues to check out innumerable books about reptiles, dinosaurs, sharks, and other animals. My natural history read-aloud for this term, though, is Insect Fact and Folklore, a charming older book I picked up for fifty cents at some books sale or other. It merges information about insects and their habits with legends and human interactions with insects from around the world.
Literature - Tony just finished reading Treasure Island to Axa and Raj, and recently started Tom Sawyer. I have George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin on my Kindle to read when we’re stuck waiting somewhere, or driving in the car. If I’m driving, sometimes Axa reads it aloud to us. We’ve already finished most of the literature and free reading selections from Ambleside Online Year 2, so we’ll probably start on Year 3. We’re also reading out of Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb.
Poetry – We’re reading out of The Tree that Time Built: a celebration of nature, science, and imagination. I like it pretty well, but I think pretty soon we’ll go back to reading a single author at a time. Maybe Christina Rossetti.
Science – Still using and loving Building Foundations of Scientific Understanding by Bernard Nebel. We’ll probably finish it up this term and be ready for Book 2.
Maths – Yippee, and hallelujah! I have found a math curriculum that my kids love. The year or so we spent on MEP was great, and the children both learned a lot, but Axa felt like it was getting to be drudgery, and I didn’t love the scripted lessons, since I generally prefer the role of fellow book-lover to the role of teacher. Our new curriculum is called Life of Fred, and every morning they beg to read it first thing. It’s hard to describe Life of Fred, except to say that it’s a set of quirky, amusing story books that somehow pack in a full mathematics course.
Just like Khan Academy, it took quite a few people raving about this series for me to finally get around to trying it out. The thing my kids like about it is that it is funny and very light on the busywork. The thing I like about it is that it presents every single math concept in a real life context. Each chapter has a story in the life of Fred (a five year old with a phD who has a doll named Kingie and teaches math at the university) that incorporates multiple mathematical concepts, and then a section entitled “Your Turn to Play,” contain several questions, some math-related, and some just fun.
We read a chapter a day together, and then when we get to the questions, Axa writes hers down and Raj whispers his in my ear if he wants (because I am not too big on kids under six having to write anything). Only time will tell, but I’m pretty sure we have found a winner. One thing about Life of Fred that I’ve heard mentioned a lot is that it doesn’t give kids a whole lot of extra practice. We are supplementing with Khan Academy and fun math problem books from the library.
Art Instruction – has not been happening much around here. But I have a whole beautiful wall full of drawings and collages my kids have made me in the absence of instruction. I’m going to get back on this, because we were having lovely results with Drawing for Children.
Engineering – Raj is fascinated by building things, and will spend hours in his room alone working on projects. I do a lot of thinking about what I can get him so that he can develop his skills and creativity. So far, we have: K’nex, Legos, Zoobs, Motorized Marble Run, Erector set, Tinker Toys, and lots and lots of cardboard, tape, and discarded household items.
His major fascination is robots, so I’ve been spending time on websites like this and this because yeah, robots were never my fascination, and I have some catching up to do. I’d like to help him build his own robot with an online tutorial, but at the age of five he’s not quite ready yet. In the meantime, we scour the library system for robot books. Edmund Scientific has a pretty good selection of robot kits, and I’m thinking of getting him one soon.
Art – We’re going to focus on cave paintings and other early art, to go along with our history curriculum. Anybody have any great ideas?
Copywork (penmanship) – I’ve gotten a little (O.K., a lot) more unschooly with this, and haven’t been doing much. Axa does a fair amount of writing in her own projects. This is something I’ll probably add in as the term progresses.
Foreign Language – Blech. I am doing so awfully with this, and I feel so guilty. But at least I bought them Il Gatto e il Capello Matto and Prosciutto e Uova Verdi (Dr. Seuss in Italian) for Christmas. Also, Grammy gave us Rummy Roots. Hurrah! It’s a card game that teaches Greek and Latin roots. Axa and I have made it all the way through set 1 and are beginning set 2. Considering the fact that the children play Go Fish! on their own for hours at a time, this is a pretty perfect fit for us, and I’m very impressed with how quickly it has taught Axa quite a few classical roots.
Composer Study – We’re doing Prokofiev, since we haven’t listened to Peter and the Wolf yet, and it’s so fun. Also, Prokofiev did a ballet of Romeo and Juliet, which is my children’s favorite Shakespeare play.
Phonics – Last year at this time, we were doing Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with Axa, and I was setting up tea time with cookies to make reading fun for her, combing the library for books that might spark her interest, sitting with her as she painfully made her way day after day through an easy reader book about sharks, and worrying myself to death that she would never like reading. She is now a voracious reader, so I guess something must have worked.
The unintended side effect is that now when I make my Parental Pronouncements of Fascinating and Useful Knowledge she usually responds gently, “I know.” Having witnessed the delights of reading second hand through Axa, Raj told me he wanted to learn to read, so we’re now working through Teach Your Child to Read in 100 Easy Lessons with him. He’s far more motivated than Axa was, so he’ll probably be independently reading in the next couple of months.
So that’s pretty much what homeschooling looks like at Casteluzzo Academy these days. Anyone else want to share what you’re doing for homeschool this year?
January 23, 2013 4 Comments
I have some absolutely wonderful books to review for you today.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book, and I love Joanna Brooks. I related to so much of what she said, from the evident nostalgia with which she recounted her childhood experience of growing up in the warm, safe certainty of the Mormon faith to the anguish of finding a “knot of contradictions” at the heart of her faith.
My struggles and doubts and questions about my faith have been somewhat different from hers, but my feelings are very similar, as is my tightrope walk to find a way to belong to the faith I love while dealing honestly with its sometimes troubling past (and present).
Joanna asks the hard questions, but she does it with grace and compassion. I cried through several parts of her book, because the things that kept her awake at night are similar to the things that keep me awake. I have said many of the same anguished prayers she describes. I love her for saying what so many of us are thinking, for working to build bridges of understanding between Mormons and non-Mormons, orthodox and not-so-orthodox believers, and for reassuring me that there is a place at the table for me.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I have to say I was pretty sad to come to the end of the Palliser Chronicles, although this was in nowise my favorite of series. I mean really! What’s with [SPOILER]killing off Lady Glencora[SPOILER] in the first chapter?
The most interesting part of the novel, for me, was watching the evolution of 19th century society. It slowly dawns on the Duke that he is living in a different world from the one he inhabited as a young man. Where his beloved wife was coerced into marrying him by interfering relatives, his own children will have their way in marriage, whether that means his daughter marrying a penniless MP, or even worse, his son and heir marrying a (gasp!) gregarious American.
Plenty of the typical Trollope hilarity, with ridiculous English noblemen and excruciating social situations. I will dearly miss the world of the Pallisers.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I’ve been going through the Development Economics course at Marginal Revolution University, and the professors recommend Diamond’s book. I really enjoyed reading it, not least because Jared Diamond is the sort of Renaissance man it is difficult to find in Academia nowadays. His book takes a broad-brush approach to history and attempts to answer some very fundamental questions about the development of civilizations and their interaction with one another.
I think anyone who has spent time in a developing country has asked themselves the question of why some peoples are on top and others are on the bottom. Diamond is passionate most of all about disproving the idea that any ethnic group of humans is genetically inferior to another. Instead, he postulates that the inequities between human societies arose largely as a result of geographical factors, among which were the availability of plants and animals for domestication and the axes of the various continents.
His arguments were fascinating and compelling, and although I’m sure they’re not the whole story, I’m equally convinced that they form a pretty significant part of it. However, my favorite parts of the book were the later chapters, where Diamond applies his theories over and over to different civilizations. I felt like I came away with a better picture of pre-history and early history, especially in places like Southeast Asia and Australia, of which I’d been previously completely ignorant. The only part I found a little bizarre was the end of the book, where Diamond (a specialist in physiology) draws a sort of road-map for how to make the disciplines of history and anthropology more scientific. Weird, but I guess you have to take eccentric geniuses as they come.
As a bonus, National Geographic did a great mini-series on Diamond’s ideas, which I am watching with my kids as we prepare to start a homeschooling unit on ancient world history.
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I admit, one of the reasons I liked this book was that it made me feel vindicated. When you are the mother of a daughter it is not easy to stem the flow of pink, pink, princesses, pink, and more pink, so it’s nice to have someone besides myself tell me that my sometimes herculean efforts really matter.
Orenstein lays out in pretty stark detail how our consumerist society’s constant insistence on pushing princesses and everything pink on girls contributes to the premature sexualization of our daughters, as well as depression, eating disorders, and drastically reduced opportunities, ambitions and abilities.
I was particularly struck by her chapter on child beauty pageants, which was predictably scathing, but also contextualized the pageants with frightening rationality as just another aspect of the girlie-girl culture that so many people see as innocent and innocuous. This quote from that chapter describing a mother getting her four-year-old daughter ready to perform at such a pageant was priceless:
“You look just like a princess!” the older woman exclaimed, and her daughter grinned. I recalled museum portraits I had seen of eighteenth-century European princesses–little girls in low-cut gowns, their hair piled high, their cheeks and lips rouged red–that were used to attract potential husbands, typically middle-aged men, who could strengthen the girls’ families’ political or financial positions. So yes, I thought, I suppose she does look like a princess.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I was lucky enough to find a beautiful copy of this book at the library book store for $1. I remember it being one of my favorite books as a child, and it was out of print for a long time, so it’s not easy to find.
I loved this book as a child because it was so full of interesting ideas–how cultural evolution progresses, the ethical and moral dilemmas that arise when civilizations at different stages of development collide, and the essential humanity that transcends culture. It’s also told simultaneously from three different points of view, which is one of my favorite literary devices.
As well as being excellent thoughtful science fiction, this is a beautiful, nuanced retelling of The Faerie Queen. Reading it as an adult, I realize that it’s not quite as sophisticated or brilliantly written as I thought it was when I was ten years old, but I still think it’s a great book, and it’s definitely one I’d love for Axa to read in a few years.
December 11, 2012 6 Comments
Even though I wasn’t blogging, at least I was reading. Du Maurier, Trollope, and lots of Cornelia Funke today.
Really an excellent book, and so evocatively written. Rebecca is full of lusciously described scenery and chillingly dark atmosphere. Some have compared it to Jane Eyre, and while I agree that the plot has a more than superficial resemblance, the protagonist is so unlike Jane Eyre that I would characterize it more as . . . I don’t know, maybe a serious version of Northanger Abbey.
That said, the inequity between the unnamed narrator/protagonist and her much older husband made me want to tear my hair out. Where Jane Eyre is utterly self-possessed and invested in her own inner sense of right and wrong, the narrator of Rebecca constantly questions herself, completely disappearing into her role as “Mrs. de Winter.” Definitely “problematic” from a feminist point of view, although if you’d like to read a decent feminist critique of the book, you can try here.
Warning: this is a gothic novel. It was definitely too creepy and suspenseful for me to read at night.
As I read this book, I could not stop thinking about the fact that Cornelia Funke’s husband died of cancer in between when she published Inkheart and when she published Inkspell. Inkspell is very preoccupied with death, and particularly with the threatened or actual death of the two principal male characters (Dustfinger and Mo), and their wives’ feelings and reactions.
Like Inkheart, this book is filled with inventive plot twists (as well as some silly ones), and amusingly described, if rather flat supporting characters. It was an enjoyable read, but I think without my previous emotional attachment to the characters (especially Brendan Fraser’s Mo) I wouldn’t have enjoyed it as much as Inkheart.
Inkdeath by Cornelia Funke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Is it just me, or does the skull on the front look like it’s wearing braces? From Inkspell‘s almost morbid preoccupation with death, this book moves to an absolute obsession with it. Definitely a dark ending.
I didn’t like this book quite as much as the previous two. One of the major factors that holds a fantasy novel together is the reader’s understanding of certain “natural laws” that are followed consistently, even if they vary from the natural laws of the real world. In Inkdeath we see a pretty serious breakdown of natural law as we’ve understood it in the Inkworld. Pretty much anything can (and does) happen.
On the plus side, I did enjoy the further development of Resa’s character, which has come a long way from when she was (literally) voiceless in Inkheart.
Reckless by Cornelia Funke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Sorry! Yet more Cornelia Funke. Reckless turns out to be the sort of melodramatic, superficial fiction I normally associate with the “Young Adult” label. (I mean, lark’s water? Seriously? Come on!) It was a fun read, though. People made out of rock, curses, jealous fairy lovers, and every fractured fairy tale come true.
The Thief Lord by Cornelia Funke
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
OK, I am officially out of my Funke. (ha, ha, right?) The Thief Lord reads as a sort of watered-down cross between From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Strange? Yes. Believable or entertaining? No.
The Prime Minister by Anthony Trollope
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about Anthony Trollope, even though he proves himself in this book to be racist as well as male chauvinist. The Prime Minister is delightfully full of Trollope’s usual incisive insight into human nature. Here we find even the almost otherworldly Plantagenet Palliser ever so slightly corrupted by power.
I was reading this book during election season, and reliving the vagaries of 19th century British politics was a great escape, as well as a fascinating parallel. It’s hard to believe that Trollope didn’t secretly in his heart of hearts at least foresee (even if he didn’t entirely approve) the future success of the women’s rights movement. I think it must have been as obvious to him as to everyone else that Lady Glencora would have made a first-rate Prime Minister.
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November 13, 2012 No Comments
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I adored the movie Inkheart. It was funny and quirky, with lavish sets and costumes, even if it was a little weird that the main characters are named Mo and Meggie. Maybe it’s not so weird in German.
In any case, the movie is right up there with Ladyhawke, Labyrinth, and The Princess Bride when it comes to glorious fantasy cult classics that don’t take themselves too seriously. Inkheart was also set in beautiful Northern Italy, and made me awfully homesick. In particular, Balestrino, the town on the Italian Riviera where Capricorn has his headquarters is now on my list of must-sees next time I go to Italy. So of course I couldn’t resist the book. And I think the book is as good as the movie.
This is a book that revolves around books, so people without a borderline idolatrous relationship with books might be annoyed by it. Cornelia Funke has a delightful way with quotations, and the quotes at the beginning of each chapter really add, especially if you’ve read most of the books from which they come. I think I just might take up bookbinding too.
This is a worthy addition to the children’s fantasy genre, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequels.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
My librarian found this for me in the children’s section when I asked for books about sugar gliders. It devotes a couple of pages to sugar gliders, but the subject of the book is marsupials in general. I didn’t know that much about them, so I found it fascinating. I am now even more delighted to have a pair of adorable marsupials living in my house. But I also appreciated learning more about some of their relatives. For example, did you know that wombat droppings, once dried, are the perfect size and shape to use as bricks? I am now planning a trip to Australia, with the object of seeing as many interesting marsupials as possible.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
This was the only book at my library specifically addressing the care and nurture of sugar gliders. There is some good information (and some adorable photos), but some, like the dietary recommendations, is outdated. If you want information on taking care of sugar gliders, I recommend searching online instead. And I’d love to talk to you about them if you’re considering adding some to your family.
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is a great book, probably a four star book, but I did get tired of reading about Lizzie Eustace by the end. She is such an annoying character. In fact, most of the main characters are fairly annoying in this book. There’s Lucy Morris, who’s so cloyingly sweet and good and subservient to her lover that I couldn’t stomach her. And Frank Greystock, who I think is a cad and shouldn’t be let off the hook by blaming Lizzie’s female wiles. Lord Fawn is ridiculous, and the rest of the supporting characters are just creepy. Still, it’s a fun story, and full of wry, witty narration and insights into human nature.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I loved this book, and I really love Phineas Finn. The weird thing about the Palliser novels is that the main characters in one book become minor supporting characters in the next. So I was happy Phineas got a second book all about him, even if I had to suffer through a whole book about Lizzie Eustace to get here. I’ve also always liked Madame Goesler, so it was great to see her get the limelight as well.
And I am slowly unbending in my opinion about Anthony Trollope. He’s no feminist, but he’s a good enough novelist to portray all his characters, including the women, as the complex individuals they are.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
If it is a mark of good dystopian fiction to make your heart pound and leave you plotting your escape from your society at the first glimpse of warning signs, then The Handmaid’s Tale was a success with me. This book seriously freaked me out. Not that I really need an extra excuse to plot an international escape, but still.
I like browsing the book section of thrift stores, because the books are usually under a dollar, and sometimes you can find some real treasures, even though most of the books aren’t really worth buying. I’ve noticed that there are books that consistently appear, so much so that you are almost guaranteed a copy (or multiple copies) at any thrift store you visit. In the United States, it’s usually The Da Vinci Code. In Ireland, it was The Handmaid’s Tale. I passed up at least half a dozen copies, and didn’t know what I was missing.
When I started hearing political commentary earlier this year linking The Handmaid’s Tale to the War on Women, I finally decided to read it. And the Irish connection suddenly made sense. It wasn’t till 1985 (the year the book was published) that condoms and spermicides were even available in Ireland without a prescription. And the Republic of Ireland still prohibits abortion with fewer exceptions than even my very pro-life church (although more than the current Republican platform).
Atwood’s book is devastatingly well-written, and strangely prescient. In the near future of the United States of America, elements of the radical right stage a secret terrorist attack that blows up most of the government, and then publicly blame it on Islamists. Then they set up a “Christian” theocracy that is repressive, racist, and extremely misogynist.
Caveat: The Handmaid’s Tale is deeply disturbing, and contains a fair amount of sex and other material readers may find offensive. Accordingly, it may not make it onto my homeschool booklist for high school. Depending on what the political landscape looks like in ten years.
September 12, 2012 4 Comments