Monday, December 31, 2012

Old Curiosity Shop, by Charles Dickens

The Old Curiosity Shop, 

Written by Charles Dickens, Narrated by George Hagan

Reason for Reading: I'm making a point of reading all of Dickens' major works. This month, Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Delia from Postcards from Asia hosted Dickens in December, a month dedicated to Charles Dickens. This will also count for the 7th completed book in my Classics Club list

Review 
When Little Nell's grandfather drives himself into gambling debt (in hopes of raising money for Nell's future), they must take to the streets to escape the malicious designs of more than one nasty character. Nell's grandfather increasingly becomes a doddering old fool, and Nell is left to her own devices in finding refuge from the cold, the hunger, and the devious people-of-the-streets. Unbeknownst to them, their good friend (and former servant) Kit is desperately looking for them - praying for their safety and not knowing why they have left. I think this is my least favorite Dickens book so far. Generally, I am able to get involved in the complex narrative and the variety of character in a Dickens novel, but kit was the only character I really cared much about. Nell and her grandfather were so melodramatically pathetic that, although I felt sorry for their situation, I couldn't get myself to really care about the outcome. Perhaps this was just timing - maybe I'd have liked the book better in another mood. But I can't say I'll ever try reading it again to find out. Not a bad book - but Dickens can do better.



Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens

2012 Book 172: A Christmas Carol

Written by Charles Dickens, Narrated by Tim Curry

Reason for Reading: I read this for a Dickens in December readalong hosted by Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Postcards from Asia. Unfortunately, I'm a day behind on my post! This is also one of the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die (sign-up for Team 1001 here).

Review (contains spoilers :p)
When grumpy and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by the ghost of his long-deceased business partner, he gets the shock of his life. Apparently, a person's job on earth is to walk among his fellow men and help them. For those who were too selfish to help during life, they are doomed to an eternity of walking among men while desiring to help, but not being able to. Scrooge is about to be given a chance at redemption. He will be visited by three ghosts. The Ghost of Christmas Past will remind him that although he'd had a rather dreary childhood, he'd had plenty of chances to make people (rather than wealth) his passion. The Ghost of Christmas Present will show him how happy people can be when they are surrounded by the people they love at Christmas. And the Ghost of Christmas Future will reveal a dreary future which may come to pass if Scrooge continues on his miserly path. On Christmas morning, Scrooge will awaken a new man - someone who knows how important it is to love one's neighbors and to rejoice in their friendship. This is such a great story because it reminds us that wealth does not necessarily make us happy. It reminds us to look at the world through a different perspective. And, it's pretty darned funny. :) 

This well-known story was excellently narrated by Tim Curry...and I'm SO glad I decided to pay the extra couple of dollars for the Curry narration! His voice is soothing yet engaging at the same time. His voices for each character are spot on. And his delivery of the humor was so well-timed! 


Thursday, December 20, 2012

The Arcade Catastrophe, by Brandon Mull

2012 Book 171: The Arcade Catastrophe, by Brandon Mull

Reason for reading: This is a sequel to a book I loved - The Candy Shop War. Plus, I've read all of Mull's books, so I can't stop now, can I? This book counts for California in my Around the World Challenge. It's this week's review for Read and Review Hop, hosted by Anya from On Starships and Dragonwings.

Review
Nate, Summer, Pigeon, and Trevor believe that things have calmed down since the wicked plans of Belinda White were foiled last year. But when they find out that Jonas White, Belinda's brother, is running a suspicious Arcade in the area the kids are plunged into a new adventure. Because magicians can MAKE magic, but can't actually USE it (and because they're only safe from magical attack if they're in a magical sanctuary - so they're not often mobile), they use magical candy to recruit kids to do all their dirty work. Nate and his friends must use magical powers provided by the Magician/Candyman Mr. Stott to infiltrate White's team. White sends them on a wild and magical treasure hunt for a dangerous artifact. How can the kids keep undercover without providing White unimaginable power? How can they keep such a huge secret from Lindy Stott? 

Mull intended The Candy Shop War to be a standalone book, but because people kept asking for a sequel, he delivered. And you know what? I'm pretty sure it was better than the first book! Mull's writing has developed quite a bit since he wrote The Candy Shop War. This book has adventure, humor, and good characters. It was a delight to read. I had a hard time putting it down. Originally, I was skeptical because I'm a fan of keeping standalone books standalone, but I'm really happy Mull wrote this book and I'm eager for the following one. :D These books are aimed at a slightly younger crowd than the standard YA book...I'd say they're appropriate for 11-year-olds, but could be enjoyed by kids (and adults) of other ages too. 




Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Haven, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

2012 Book 170: The Haven, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Reason for Reading: I'm leading a discussion on The Haven for the ACFW bookclub. Discussion starts tomorrow, but it lasts until the end of the month, and anyone is welcome to read the book quickly and join in the discussion! This is the second book in the Stoney Ridge Seasons series.

Review
When Sadie Lapp returns home after several months of living with her newly-married sister, she comes bearing a foundling baby. She wants the baby to remain a secret until she can discover who the  mother might be, but to her dismay rumors immediately start flying around town that she is the mother. On top of all that stress, Sadie is now questioning her own interest in Gideon Smucker, who has been in love with her for years. Does she like him? Or does she prefer Will Stoltz, the city-boy who's living on the farm as a wildlife intern who babysits a pair of endangered falcons that are nesting in the area? This is a sweet romance about the painful effects of gossip and  the power of forgiveness. I think this was a wonderful follow-up to the first book in the series, The Keeper. Although you could, theoretically, read The Haven as a stand-alone book, I'm really glad I read The Keeper first. Reading The Keeper helped me to understand some issues that would have gone right over my head if I hadn't read it first. On the other hand, although The Haven continues with themes introduced in The Keeper, The Haven is a very different book because the lead characters are so different. Sadie is a cautious, awkward, unobtrusive girl who (at the beginning of the book, anyway) allows people and circumstances to take advantage of her. She needs to blossom into a more assertive young lady. Although I've read reviews which criticized her personality, I rather liked her. She reminded me of myself when I was that age. Fisher did a wonderful job of portraying the tortured shyness of Sadie - and then Sadie's transformation into assertiveness was very touching. No, her character isn't perfect, she made mistakes - as everyone else in the book did - but she was a realistic character. And one that I loved. If you like Amish romance, you'll like this series. :) (These were my very FIRST Amish books, to be honest!)

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Fox Inheritance, by Mary E. Pearson

2012 Book 169: The Fox Inheritance

Written by Mary E. Pearson, Narrated by Matthew Brown

Reason for Reading: It's the second book in the Jenna Fox Chronicles.



Review 
After 260-years of purgatory, Locke Jenkins awakens with a body that seems familiar - yet somehow changed. His friend, Kara, who died in the car crash that killed Locke, also has a achingly similar body...but her mind isn't quite right. Locke and Kara soon learn that their minds had been downloaded and saved centuries ago by the father of Jenna Fox - another victim of the fatal crash. Although Jenna had been given a new life right away, the copies of Locke's and Kara's minds had collected digital dust until Dr. Gatsbro brought the teens back to life in this brave new world. But Dr. Gatsbro's motives are not altruistic. Locke and Kara make a desperate attempt to escape the doctor's nefariousness clutches...and are jettisoned into the foreign world of the future. But can Locke keep Kara from making a terrible mistake?

When I read The Adoration of Jenna Fox years ago I really liked it, but as I was reading The Fox Inheritance, I realized that I remembered almost nothing of the first book (perhaps it wasn't so great after all?). I had to rely on spoiler reviews of the first book, and on the hints-of-what-came-before in the second book to remember. This made the first part of the book rather confusing. I'd recommend familiarizing yourself with The Adoration of Jenna Fox before starting The Fox Inheritance. Although I enjoyed this book, I wasn't as impressed as I had been after reading the first in the trilogy. The Fox Inheritance had some world-building and good characters. It brought some interesting moral issues to the table: Is it ethical to bring someone back to life after they're dead - and risk changes? Is it ethical to use a sentient being that of human-creation for our own purposes, or do they deserve civil rights? These are intriguing questions, but they've been explored in many other books/movies. So, in the end, I liked this book. It was a fun read. I'll probably pick up the third book when it comes out. But I would have been perfectly happy if this trilogy had stayed as ONE standalone book. And I'm pretty sure I'll forget the plot of this book within a few weeks.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome

2012 Book 168: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog)

Written by Jerome K. Jerome, Narrated by Frederick Davidson

Reason for Reading: This was my "monthly random pick" which took me two months to get to. :) My next "monthly random pick" is The Passage, by Justin Cronin. This book is a classic, so it fits in my Classics Club list. :) 

Review
In this classic novel of humor, three men (to say nothing of the dog) decide to cure their hypochondriac ailments by getting fresh air and exercise. They decide to travel down the Thames in a boat. The narrator jumps back and forth between humorous description of their preparations/trip and silly reminiscences of loosely connected incidents about the characters. This is the type of book where, at the end, you're not sure if there was any story in there at all, but you certainly enjoyed the trip regardless. It was a good-natured, happy sort of humor. This is a short book, and certainly worth reading if you like the classics. :)



Saturday, December 8, 2012

Goblin Secrets, By William Alexander

2012 Book 167: Goblin Secrets, by William Alexander

Reason for Reading: This book won the National Book Award for Young People's Literature in 2012

Review
Rownie is one of a flock of orphans under the "care" of Graba, a chicken-legged house-moving witch. His life revolves around running errands for Graba while scrounging enough food to live. When a troupe of goblins come to town, Rownie risks imprisonment by the guard and (worse) the wrath of Graba to see the play. He has soon joined leagues with the goblins in hopes of discovering more about the disappearance of his brother Rowan. Graba is very pissed off. This was a really cute book with a mixture of fairy tale, steam-punk, and Oliver Twist. But the execution wasn't as great as I'd hoped. I took a long time getting into the book...I felt like I should be enjoying it, but just couldn't concentrate. After I got used to the world, language, and characters, though, I enjoyed it a lot more. In the end, it was a good book, but it had potential to deliver more.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Keeper, by Suzanne Fisher

2012 Book 166: The Keeper, by Suzanne Fisher

Reason for Reading: It's the first book in a series. I'll be leading a discussion on the second book, The Haven, from 20Dec - 31Dec for the ACFW Bookclub. Anyone is welcome to join, and apparently you don't have to read the first book to enjoy the second. :)

Review 
When Julia Lapp's fiance, Paul Fisher, postpones their wedding again, Julia blames Roman Troyer, a wandering bee-keeper who isn't too fond of emotional attachments. Blaming Roman is easier than blaming Paul, after all. Julia keeps herself busy trying to regain Paul's attention and taking her frustrations out on Roman while at the same time holding together the crumbling pieces of her family's farm. Her father is having heart problems, and the family needs to stand strong in order to get through these difficult times. This is a sweet and simple romance, with a lot of emotional twists. The entire Lapp family (as well as Roman) are very lovable, and you can't help but root for them. I'm eager to read the second book, The Haven, which tells the story of Julia's younger sister. 

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Rape of Nanking, by Iris Chang

2012 Book 165: The Rape of Nanking

Written by Iris Chang, Narrated by Anna Fields

Reason for Reading: Reading Globally group on LibraryThing's China and surrounding countries theme read. 




Review
In the early 1930's the Chinese city of Nanking was occupied by Japanese soldiers. Tens of thousands of civilians were killed by Japanese soldiers to save money for supplies. Women were brutally raped and mutilated. But the stories of these victims and the foreigners who risked their lives to help them are not often told. Iris Chang wanted the world to know about these atrocities. Her brutal history was very difficult for me to read because the atrocities were described in such detail that I felt sick. I had to take frequent breaks. But it was a very engaging narrative, so I always wanted to pick it back up again. Chang certainly knew how to write an interesting story! Several times while reading the book, though, I felt as though Chang was too emotionally involved to write a completely reliable narrative. I'm not denying the massacres at Nanking, mind, but I think Chang had a very anti-Japanese view which would have made her prefer the larger estimates for death numbers, made especially-brutal rapes sound more common than they may have been, and made the Japanese sound purely evil as a whole group without exception. Nevertheless, this book taught me a lot about the relationship between the Chinese and the Japanese. As long as the readers keep in mind Chang's emotions, they can learn a lot from this engaging history.

I now have a hankering for a nice book about friendly, likable Japanese people. If you have any suggestions, let me know! :)



Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Crossed, by Ally Condie

2012 Book 164: Crossed

Written by Ally Condie, Narrated by Kate Simses and Jack Riccobono

Reason for Reading: Second book the the Matched trilogy



Review

Cassia has been at a work camp for months now, but she hasn't had the chance to find her lost love, Ky. So, when an opportunity arises for her to be sent "accidentally" to the Outer Provinces she snatches it up. Upon landing in the Outer Provinces, Cassia and her new friend Indie run away from Society, following Ky's path. Meanwhile, Ky has also run away from Society with a couple of new friends. Will they find each other before Society or The Enemy find them? I thought Matched was a cute book - nothing amazing, but not disappointing. Crossed was pretty much the same. This story is more about world building than action or teenanged angst. That makes it unique in the YA dystopia genre right now. I look forward to reading the third, but it's not going to be in my hands tomorrow, by any means. :)


Monday, December 3, 2012

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

2012 Book 163: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

Reason for Reading: I was originally going to give it to my dad for Christmas, but it wasn't as amazing as I thought it would be

Review
Jacob has grown up believing that his grandfather's tales of adventure and magical children were a fantasy. However, when Jacob's life is suddenly turned upside down, he must go on a quest to a tiny island off Wales to see the orphanage his grandfather grew up in. There, he discovers that there was some element of truth in his grandfather's stories...and he finds out that his life is in danger. This book was a fantastic idea. Riggs used some unique vintage photographs that he'd borrowed from a few collectors and built a story around the weird images. The photos were fascinating...I really loved looking at them. And I was excited to see what sort of story was built around them. However, the story was a bit contrived. I suppose that it would have to be, given that it's built around some randomly rescued photos...So Riggs deserves some credit for a good eye and a creative idea. His writing was a bit lack-luster...as I said, it was a bit contrived, and it leaned too heavily on formulaic fantasy. Shades of X-men, Groundhog Day, etc. abound. Nothing wrong with using old formulas, of course - no concept is every fully new - but overall the writing just didn't hold its own. I might or might not pick up the next book in the series...we'll see. :) I'll probably read it eventually because I imagine Riggs' writing might improve on the second book, and it will seem less contrived if it's based on plot development instead of photographs. :)

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Hamlet Act II

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Clearly some time has passed since the first act. Enough time that Ophelia has been able to rebuff Hamlet's attentions, for Hamlet to "go insane," and for his royal parents to send off for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to come from abroad. Maybe a few weeks? A couple months? Hamlet still hasn't done anything to avenge his father's death, and he's starting to feel worthless. He's not quite sure whether his father's ghost is a demon sent to tempt Hamlet into a wrongful act, but he feels like he ought to believe the ghost's story. And he ought to have acted on it. When the troupe of actors arrives, Hamlet thinks this is his chance to throw a wrench in Claudius' gears - to make him betray his guilty conscience in an unguarded moment. Hamlet admonishes himself for his weakness - he ought to act on his vengeful instincts, but he lacks the courage. 

Some questions that I'm thinking about while reading this: 

First, I wanted to see for myself whether I thought Ophelia was a virgin or not. (Remember in my notes on the introduction by Harold Jenkins I said that Jenkins believed Ophelia died a virgin.) During Hamlet's discussion with Polonius, Hamlet first compares Polonius to a fishmonger. According to Jenkins, the daughters of fishmongers are seen as having more than ordinary propensity to breed. Hamlet then says: "Let her not walk i'th' sun. Conception is a blessing, / but as your daughter may conceive - friend, look to't." Now, outwardly, Hamlet referred "conception" to the breeding of maggots under the sun (from an earlier line), but how can there be any question that Hamlet meant also to suggest that Ophelia might conceive a child? But does Hamlet mean "Don't let her out, or something bad might happen to her." Or does he mean "Don't let her out, because everyone will soon be able to see she's pregnant." I guess that's open to interpretation. Later in the scene, Hamlet compares Polonius to the Hebrew judge Jephthah, who sacrificed his virgin daughter. That might be a hint that she's still a virgin, and that Polonius is endangering her.

My second question was whether Hamlet is feigning madness or was really mad. I can see why many people believe he was only feigning madness - his "mad" ranting during this act was calculated to mock Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. There was a method to his madness. :) But, as far as I'm concerned, the phrase "fake it till you make it" applies in Hamlet's case. He certainly had enough to go mad over...

(TO SEE MORE ABOUT HAMLET GO TO MY MASTER POST)

Polonius and Reynaldo
The Royal Shakespeare Production 2009
Directed by Gregory Doran
Act II, Scene i: The act starts with Polonius instructing his man Reynaldo to spy on Laertes. A very untrusting father, is Polonius. As soon as that important business is through, Ophelia dashes in to tell her father about a shocking encounter with Hamlet. The prince has apparently entered her chamber uninvited, grabbed Ophelia by the arm and creepily stared at her. Then he turned and left the room - eyes cast over his shoulder to gaze fixedly upon the distraught maiden. Polonius gets excited...not only has he discovered the reason for Hamlet's madness (which the King and Queen want to know), but he now has the opportunity to say "Look! I did everything I could to discourage this mis-match, but the Prince is still in love with my daughter...perhaps they ought to marry?" *gleeful aspirations shine in eyes*

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern 
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1990)
Directed by Tom Stoppard
Act II, Scene ii: Hamlet's friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived in from abroad, and Claudius and Gertrude are asking them to check on Hamlet - to discover the reasons for his madness and perhaps soothe the melancholy prince. When they leave in search of Hamlet, Polonius comes with their messengers, newly arrived from Norway. The messengers tell Claudius that Fortinbras' uncle has admonished the prince for threatening war with Denmark, but upon Fortinbras' apology, his uncle has furnished the prince with more money for his army and told him to attack Poland instead. They now ask Claudius' permission for Fortinbras' army to cross through Denmark on the way to Poland.


Hmmm. Does someone smell a ploy? They're just going to allow Fortinbras' army to cross through Denmark? Oh well, it's their kingdom. 

After the messengers have been thanked and sent away, Polonius tells the royal couple that Hamlet has gone mad with love for Ophelia. They decide to test this theory later by setting Ophelia loose on Hamlet. (Poor Ophelia.) Then Hamlet walks in. Polonius has a rather nonsensical conversation with Hamlet, partly because Polonius isn't very clever and partly because Hamlet is playing with Polonius' mind. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern walk in. The nonsensical conversation continues with them (and for the same reasons). *Why do Claudius and Gertrude keep sicing idiots on Hamlet? What do they hope to achieve?* Finally, a troupe of actors arrives, and Hamlet decides to use them as bait for Claudius' guilty conscience.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Hamlet, Act I

In the first act of Shakespeare's Hamlet, the scene is set. We meet the mournful young prince Hamlet who feels wronged by his mother's hasty marriage to her deceased husband's brother...and by their incessant partying in a time of sorrow. We meet Ophelia, admired by Hamlet, her brother Laertes and father Polonius. Finally, we are handed a juicy bit of gossip (adultery and murder!), which give Hamlet his excuse to vent his rage against the tyrant King Claudius. (For a more detailed summary, look below.)

This is my first time reading Hamlet since I was in high school, and I'm looking at it through very different eyes this time around. For instance, I've always been under the impression that Polonius was ridiculous. But this time, he appeared long-winded, but his advice seemed sound enough. Is he really ridiculous, or just verbose? I was gratified upon reading Harold Jenkins' endnotes, where he suggests that Polonius was not meant to be ridiculous but paternal. Emphasizing Polonius' fatherly relationship develops Laertes' role as an avenger against Hamlet later in the play. 

A phrase that jumped out at me on this reading was when the ghost told Hamlet (I.v): "Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught." Interesting. Because I recall Hamlet being very lusty in his anger against the Queen later in the play. Do I remember wrongly? Or is Hamlet disobeying the ghost? I will have to read on and see. Also, what did the ghost mean by "taint not thy mind"? Was the it admonishing Hamlet to keep his mind clear? Because Hamlet either feigns madness or actually goes mad later in the play. Again, did Hamlet disobey the ghost? 

The final thing that struck me in Act I was the questionable nature of the ghost. If Horatio (a clear-headed scholar) hadn't believed in the ghost, I would suspect that Hamlet had hallucinated it in a fit of psychotic rage. Hamlet does incoherently rant during the scenes with the ghost. In his endnotes, Harold Jenkins suggests another alternative - perhaps Shakespeare meant the ghost to be a devil - an evil apparition sent to drive young Hamlet to vengeful madness. After all, the ghost has gone below stage, which represents Hell in classical theater. In a later scene (II.ii), Hamlet even questions the nature of the ghost: "The spirit that I have seen May be a devil." However, based on all the swearing which closes Act I, Hamlet does seem to believe the ghost's story, even if the ghost's nature is questionable.

Perhaps I'll be able to answer these questions as I read on...

(TO SEE MY OTHER POSTS ABOUT HAMLET, GO TO MY MASTER POST)


Claudius and Gertrude
Kenneth Branagh's 1996 film

Act I, Scene ii: Only months after King Hamlet's death, his brother Claudius has married the Queen, and wrested the throne Denmark. Claudius scolds Hamlet mourning the  dead King and then leaves to continue reveling in his new-found power. Left behind, Hamlet bemoans the disgraceful marriage...How could his mother have married so quickly? And to such a man?! Horatio then rushes in to tell Hamlet about the king's ghost. Hamlet decides that he MUST see this for himself.





Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius
The Royal Shakespeare Production 2009
Directed by Gregory Doran
Act I, Scene iii: Ophelia believes that Hamlet loves her, but her brother Laertes and her father Polonius both caution her against the young prince. Laertes believes that Hamlet, as heir to the throne, will not choose Ophelia for future Queen. Polonius agrees. "Hamlet is young!" he says. "Don't set your heart on him." Despite her assertions that Hamlet is courting her in a gentlemanly manner, Ophelia agrees to be cautious. After a long-winded speech from Polonius, Laertes departs for France.


Plate XLIV from Volume II
of 
Boydell's Shakespeare Prints
Image taken from Emory's Shakespeare Illustrated
Act I, Scene iv and v: It's night, and Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus are looking for the ghost. When the apparition appears, it beckons Hamlet to follow. Hamlet desperately tries to follow, while his friends hold him back. Finally, he orders them to let him be.

Once alone, the ghost demands that Hamlet avenge his death. But it admonishes: "Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught." Hamlet swears to avenge his father's death, and then forces Horatio and Marcellus swear an oath of silence.

Our Lady of Alice Bhatti, by Mohammed Hanif

2012 Book 162: Our Lady of Alice Bhatti 

Written by Mohammed Hanif, Narrated by Nimra Bucha 

Reason for Reading: Shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust Book Prize 




Review 
After spending over a year in a women's prison on some jacked up manslaughter charges, Alice Bhatti secures a job as a junior nurse in a Catholic hospital in the predominantly Muslim city of Karachi. There, she fights to salvage some amount of pride as she fends off roaming hands and gun-toting suitors. In the midst of this chaos, she manages to save a few lives. But is she performing miracles? Hanif's narrative has some truly beautiful moments, but I was left wondering: What's the point? There wasn't really a story-line...it was just a series of events. The scenery and characters supported the novel, but they lacked plot. This book was shortlisted for the Wellcome Trust book prize, and I understand why - it displays the woes of practicing medicine in a religiously-charged, seedy environment. I certainly have a better appreciation, now, for medical practitioners in neighborhoods like this. I was moved by the characters, but not enthralled by the story. 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, by J. K. Rowling

2012 Book 162: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Written by J. K. Rowling, Narrated by Jim Dale

Reason for Reading: Harry Potter Read-along hosted by Lost Generation Reader.





Review
In this fourth installment of the Harry Potter series, Harry is thrust against his will into the Triwizard Tournament - a competition for which he is his underaged and underqualified. Is someone trying to get him killed? Furthermore, Harry, Ron, and Hermione are experiencing the first pangs of teenaged angst. They all feel misunderstood and a bit angry at times. Will they be able to overcome their emotions in order to quash the rising power of Lord Voldemort? Well, at least they'll have a lot of adventure while they're trying. One of the highlights of this book is meeting the students of the two other large wizarding schools in Europe: The dark and broody students from Durmstrang and the too-formal sissies from Beauxbatons. (Ok, maybe they're not ALL sissies.) ;) This is my favorite book of the series because it has *swoon* Viktor Krum. It is also the first book in the series with "mature" content. It's longer, moodier, and more dangerous than the first three. And, it's the first book in the series to leave significant strings untied - leaving room for more plot development. I'm SO glad Rowling knew what to tie up and what to leave open though. She's managed to leave a reasonable opening without cliffhangers. I really appreciate that. Thank you Ms. Rowling!


Thursday, November 29, 2012

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov


2012 Book 161: Pale Fire

Written by Vladimir Nabokov, Narrated by Marc Vietor

Reason for Reading: November was Russian Reading Month, hosted by Tuesday in Silhouette

Review
In this complex piece of literature, we explore the psyche of Charles Kinbote, an eccentric and obsessive man who is writing the introduction and notes to a 999-line poem entitled Pale Fire by a recently deceased poet with whom Kinbote has become enamored. Nabokov's novel isn't written in novel-form, though. It has four major parts: Kinbote's introduction to Pale Fire, the poem itself, Kinbote's prolific footnotes, and his index. This doesn't really sound like an engrossing story, I know, but descriptions can be misleading. Kinbote's notes are hilarious, sad, and frightening. As the book proceeds, we readers become more aware of the depth of Kinbote's obsessions - we learn more about who he is (arguably, who he thinks he is) and, through the unreliable testimonies of Kinbote, we learn about the passions of the poet John Shade. This is the type of book that has so many layers, you'll never find the core...but you'll be fascinated and laughing in turns while you look. This was my first reading of the book, and I'd have to read it again to decide on my own interpretation. I was really impressed by the audiobook production...this isn't the type of story that lends itself well to audio, but they did an admirable job. There were two readers, one for Kinbote's thoughts and one for the poem of John Shade. Both readers did a fantastic job...especially Vietor with Kinbote. He put JUST the right emphasis on words so that I would catch the humor in the complex word-play. However, if I read it again, I'll probably do it using the written-word so I can flip back and forth. This book is definitely worth a read if you like unique stories and complex psyches.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Culture and Imperialism, by Edward W. Said

2012 Book 160: Culture and Imperialism

Written by Edward W. Said, Narrated by Peter Ganim

Reason for Reading: Got it on sale from Audible

Review
Culture and Imperialism describes how the language used in literature can powerfully impact our stereotypes of other cultures. Using examples in classical literature (ranging from Jane Austen, to Joseph Conrad, to Albert Camus), Said shows us how imperialism was reinforced by the written word. Then, (using examples including V.S. Naipaul and Salman Rushdie) he illuminates how today's societies - who are so focused on multi-culturalism - read the right books for the wrong reasons. I found this book intriguing. I listened to it on audiobook - Ganim's reading was smooth and engaging - but I'm now tempted to pick up a hard-copy of the book and use it as a reference in my perusal of literature. This book would be interesting to anyone interested in the culture of imperialism or in literary criticism of literature in the imperialist era.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Garden of the Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

2012 Book 159: The Garden of the Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

Reason for Reading: Short-listed for the 2012 Booker Prize

Review
Having suffered through a Japanese slave-camp during WWII, Yun Ling Teoh, a young Chinese-descent lawyer in Malaysia, carries around a lot of anger against the Japanese. However, she'd made a promise to her deceased sister that she would build a Japanese garden, so she reluctantly visits Aritomo - the only Japanese gardener in Malaysia. Aritomo refuses to design a garden for Yun Ling, but he offers to take her on as his apprentice so that she may design one herself. Yun Ling learns to let go of her anger as her friendship with Aritomo grows. But Aritomo has his own secrets. 

How can I express what an amazing book this was? Sure, it had a couple of slowish spots (it WAS, after all, a book about gardening) but the story is magical. The historical and cultural backdrop is intriguing (I learned a lot while reading, but didn't feel like I was being "taught"). Because the book takes place in two different times (current day and shortly after WWII), the story unfolds gracefully - allowing the reader to learn the story of Aritomo and Yun Ling at just the right rate...but yet somehow the time also blends together giving an impression of continuity that is particular to Eastern philosophy. On top of that, the more I learned about the story, the more fascinated I was by the two characters. This book is definitely worth your time. 

Interpretive note with possible spoilers
One thing that struck me while I was reading this book is that I noticed an inconsistency in what the narrator (Yun Ling) was saying. At first, I wasn't sure whether the author had made a mistake or if he had purposely introduced inconsistencies to show that Yun Ling had either an unreliable memory or was hiding something. I finally came to the later conclusion (though the unreliable memory was possible too). I think it's fascinating that such inconsistencies added to the overall effect rather than subtracting from it. I applaud Tan Twan Eng for his careful writing of this book. :)

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Paradise Lost - Book I Lines 1 - 191

Him the Almighty Power
Hurled headlong flaming from th’ ethereal sky,
With hideous ruin and combustion, down
To bottomless perdition, there to dwell
In adamantine chains and penal fire,
Who durst defy th’ Omnipotent to arms.
Book 1, 44-49
Gustave Dore (Source)
Since I am having trouble interpreting Paradise Lost, I am painstakingly going through and interpreting it. I can then use these notes while I read it for deeper meaning later. :) To see other posts about Paradise Lost, go to my master post

Rachel's Notes on Lines 1 - 26 of Book I (Milton's invocation)

Psalm 125.4 - "Do good, O Lord, unto those that be good, and to them that are upright in their hearts." 

Milton is asking the Holy Spirit to guide him as he tells us about the disobedience of Adam and Eve. He invokes the Holy Spirit as the Heavenly Muse who inspired Moses on Sinai (lines 6-8) and then the spirit of God in the Temple on Mt. Zion (line 10). Milton believes that the Holy Spirit will help him soar above earlier poets, who invoked their muses from the oracle at Delphi (lines 11-16). He asks instruction from the Holy Spirit so that he may "justify the ways of God to men." 

Rachel's Notes on Lines 27 - 36 (What made Adam and Eve revolt?)

First, we will describe what caused Adam and Eve to fall from God's favor by breaking the only law that God asked them to obey (i.e. not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil). It was the Serpent who first seduced Adam and Eve to revolt. The Serpent's guile was stirred up by envy and revenge, so he deceived Eve. 

Rachel's Notes on Lines 36 - 83 (Satan and his minions have fallen from Heaven)

Isaiah 14:12 - "How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!" 

It happened after Satan's pride had cast him and his rebel angels out of Heaven. Because Satan thought he was equal to his Lord God, he and his host of rebels had warred against Heaven in a vain attempt to place Satan above his peers. But God hurled Satan and his rebels from Heaven - headlong, like fiery meteors bound in unbreakable chains - to crash ruinously into Hell. [Much like the Titans thrown to the pits of Tartarus in Hesiod's Theogeny (664 - 735)] the celestial demons spent nine days and nights lying vanquished in the fiery gulfs of Hell. Satan's doom made him angrier, because he had not only lost the happiness of Heaven, but he now must endure eternal suffering instead. Pissed off, he looked around. Dismay and affliction, stubborn pride and steadfast hate were palpable in all he saw. Hell dismally stretched as far as his immortal eye could see. 

Hell was like a gigantic furnace with raging fires - but instead of giving off light, the flames emitted darkness visible. This palpable darkness illuminated sights of woe, regions of sorrow, and doleful shades. Hell was a place where peace and rest would never dwell. Hope would never come here, but instead came endless torture. The torment fed the flames, urging the fire on for eternity. Such was the place that Eternal Justice had prepared for the rebellious. Here, they would eternally remain in darkness, as far away from God and the light of Heaven as 3X the distance from Earth to the far reaches of the universe. [In other words, Hell was located in Chaos...beyond the universe. Milton's Hell was not in the center of the Earth, like in Dante's Inferno.] How unlike Hell was from Heaven, from whence they fell!

Satan saw his companions-in-arms overwhelmed by the tempestuous fires. Weltering in the tempestuous flames by his side, Satan saw Beelzebub - who was his peer in leading the host of fallen angels. Satan broke the horrible silence by saying: 

Rachel's Notes on Lines 84 - 126 (Satan tells Beelzebub that he's still pissed off and this war ain't over yet)

[Satan speaks with obscure syntax to show that his passion overpowers reason. I'm trying to ruthlessly clarify it for the sake of my notes, though.]:

"If you are he! But how you have fallen! How changed from him who was so shiny in Heaven! If you are he who joined with me in glorious enterprise...now we join in misery and ruin. Into what pit have we been thrown? How far have we fallen? God has proven himself much stronger than we. Who knew the strength of that mighty arm?! But despite what those powerful arms and His mighty rage can further inflict on us, I do not repent.

"My pride had been injured, so I fought God with my innumerable army of spirits who  preferred me as their leader. We fought a battle on the planes of Heaven and shook His throne. So what if we lost that battle? All is not lost! We have not lost our vengeful natures, our immortal hate, or our courage to never yield! What else is there to live for, besides the will to succeed? 

"He'll never get me to bow to him and deify his power! We had Him worried...He was afraid he would lose against my powerful army. Fate has given us immortal bodies, so our army will be just as strong as before. But now we know our Foe better! Now, we can wage a more successful war - an eternal war that is irreconcilable to our Foe...that Foe who now joyfully reigns as tyrant in Heaven."

Though he was in pain and wracked with deep despair, Satan boasted. Beelzebub answered:

Rachel's Notes Lines 127 - 156 (Beelzebub is concerned that they are now thralls of God)


"Oh powerful prince, you led the embattled angels to war; your deeds endangered Heaven's perpetual king, and made him defend his supremacy (whether that supremacy was upheld by strength or chance or fate...). I regret our army's defeat. We have lost our place in Heaven. The entire army has come as close to dying as our immortal bodies are capable. Our minds and spirits will return to us soon, but we will suffer for eternity in Hell. What if God (who I now believe is almighty, since He could not have overpowered our army otherwise) has left us our spirits and strength intact only so that we can better endure our sufferings? Or perhaps he will use us as his slaves? What good does it do us to have our strength if we are only to endure eternal punishment?"

Satan answered:

Rachel's Notes Lines 157 - 191

"Well, Fallen Cherub, to be weak is miserable, whether we're active or not. But be sure of this: Our acts will never be for good. Our sole delight will always be to do ill! We will always resist His wishes! If he wishes to bring good out of our evil acts, then we shall pervert His wishes and use good acts for evil. We will pervert His plan! 

"Do you see that God has called our vengeful pursuers back to the gates of Heaven?  The storm of sulfurous hail that He shot at us has abated. And the raging lightening and thunder has perhaps spent its wrath and will cease to bellow through the vast and bottomless deep. Let us not miss our chance if God's fury has been satiated. 

"Look at the dreary plains of Hell, illuminated by the darkness of Hellfire. Let's sail these fiery waves over there, and we can rest (if rest is possible). After we have gathered our strength, we'll discuss how we can offend our enemy, repair our losses, and overcome this dire calamity. We will either gain reinforcement from hope, or resolution from despair."  

The Nose, by Nikolai Gogol


Major Kovalev, a Caucus-made collegiate assessor (in other words, a minor official who has been elevated by his connections rather than his intelligence), awakens on March 25th to discover that his nose is missing. To his dismay, he later sees his nose masquarading around town in the guise of a state councilor (equivalent rank of general). Kovalev absurdly tries to put his nose in its place.

Nikolai Gogol's "The Nose" is a satirical short story written around 1835. It is one of Gogol's well-known Petersburg tales. Gogol is the father of Russian modernism and strongly influenced writers like Dostoevsky. Most literary critics consider Gogol to be a social satirist and protector of the little man; though Richard Pevear, in his introduction to The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol claimed: "Whatever semblance of social criticism or satire there may be in the Petersburg Tales is secondary and incidental." (1) He feels that  Gogol included elements of social satire in his stories, but the satire so quickly dissolves into the absurd that this fantastic element should be considered the primary point of Gogol's stories. While reading "The Nose" I was struck by the social satire, but I DO agree that, as quickly as it came, the satire faded and absurdity reigned.

My thoughts/summary (may contain middle-of-story spoilers)

Major Kovalev was a stupid, self-important, vain, name-dropping minor official, but as he desperately tried to regain his lost nose I couldn't help feeling sorry for him. Imagine the horror he felt when he awoke to find his nose missing. What would all his important friends think? Would he ever be able to flirt again? This blow was clearly below the belt. He rushed out into the world, impotently searching for his nose when lo! He saw the nose! It was so finely dressed that even Kovalev had trouble recognizing it. At first, he felt chagrin - he wasn't even sure how to address the clearly-high-ranking nose. But it was his nose, after all, and he mustered up the courage to politely suggest that the nose re-join his face. But the nose politely refused to understand Kovalev. Finally, he blurted out: "It seems you ought to know where you belong, and where do I find you?" The nose blithely answered: "Judging by your dress, there can't possibly have been close relations between us." (2)

I had to laugh at that quote. The nose, which had formerly been very intimate with Kovalev, but which is now an elevated rank, pretended that it couldn't possibly have ever known him. :) Remind you of anyone?

Kovalev then tried to put out a notification in the newspaper saying that his nose was masquerading as a high official, don't let it fool you...and don't let it leave town! But the newspaper office was much more interested in lost dogs and bicycles for sale than the heinous nose-theft. They didn't want the responsibility of such an advert, and so they simply denied that they could do anything about it and suggested another office Kovalev should try. (That reminds me of a time when I called up the customer service of [un-named corporation] and spent a couple hours transferring back and forth from office to office - often the the same office multiple times - to fix a problem that (as it turns out) was an easy fix on the internet.)

The police commissioner was also dramatically unhelpful. The indolent police commissioner had been about to take a nice long post-lunch nap when Kovalev came with his complaint. He should not be expected to start an investigation on a full stomach, the commissioner claimed. "Moreover, they don't tear noses off decent citizens' faces." (2) The police commissioner excused his laziness by blaming the victim for the crime, which, as far as I'm concerned, is crime in itself. A crime that still happens to this day. Whenever we hear "she was asking to be raped - the way she was dressed," the speaker is excusing his inability to do anything useful about a problem by blaming the victim. 

I adored this story. I got a good laugh while nodding in emphatic agreement with Gogol's still-relevant criticisms of society. But there are so many other ways of interpreting this work. In his introduction to The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, Richard Pevear says "Gogol was made uneasy by his works. They detached themselves from him and lived on their own, producing effects he had not forseen and that sometimes dismayed him." Although this statement was not in reference specifically to "The Nose," it is clear that Pevear (perhaps unconsciously) views the story as an allegory for Gogol's dismay at the unintentional social impact of his stories. 


(1) Gogol, Nikolai. The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Knopf  Doubleday Publishing Group. 2001. ISBN-13: 9780307803368.
(2) Dialog is taken (sometimes paraphrased) from Gogol, Nikolai. The Diary of a Madman and Other Stories, translated by Andrew MacAndrew. Penguin Group. 1960. ISBN 0451524039.

The Marshal's Promise, by Rhonda Gibson


Book 158: The Marshal's Promise, by Rhonda Gibson


Reason for reading: This is one of November's picks for the American Christian Fiction Writers Association online book club. Anyone is welcome to join. Discussions start on the 20th, and this book only takes a couple hours to read.

My Review
In this sweet little Christian historical romance put out by the Harlequin publishing company, Rebecca Ramsey has been forced by her evil stepmother to answer an advert for a mail-order bride. But upon arriving in New Mexico territories, she discovers that her husband-to-be has been killed. With nowhere to go, she decides to make her home in New Mexico. Luckily, the Marshal offers her a job as his housekeeper. But does the Marshal have an ulterior motive for his offer? Sparks fly as these two learn that communication works better than secrets. This was a very cute little book, and there were some really sweetly romantic moments in it. There were also some tartly romantic moments. ;) If you're looking for a light historical romance, this is a good choice; however, this book has quite a few anachronisms in it so it's not to be read by the seriously hard-core historical fiction readers. This book is meant to be fun and sweet, not cerebrally historic. 


Monday, November 12, 2012

Hamlet: Act I, Scene i

BBC's Dramatic Works of Shakespeare Collection
Image taken from Hyperion to a Satyr
Act I Scene i: 

Setting: Sentinels stand on the battlements of the castle

Characters

  • Barnardo, Marcellus, and Francisco of the King's guard. 
  • Horatio, an educated gentleman, skeptical of ghosts, friend of Hamlet

Summary:

Twice recently, Barnardo and Marcellus have had their watch interrupted on the stroke of 1AM by an apparition in the form of the recently deceased King Hamlet. Fearing to speak to the ghost themselves, they had invited the skeptical scholar Horatio. Upon the tolling of the hour, the ghost appears, and Horatio calls out, charging it to speak. But the ghost stalks silently away. Our skeptical scholar (and therefore our audience) is now convinced that the ghost is not a fantasy. Aggrieved, Horatio suggests that the ghost is an ill omen. 

The three men then begin gossiping about an upcoming war, for which the ghost might be a portent. Thus, the audience is educated: Many years before, the late King Hamlet had slain in battle Fortinbras, the King of Norway. King Hamlet had confiscated some treasures and lands in that battle, which were given to young Hamlet upon his father's death. The son of the late King Fortinbras, also named Fortinbras, has decided (after brooding for 30 years) to avenge his father's death and seize the lands back from young Hamlet. He's been gathering a band of misfits to wage war on Denmark. (This band of misfits apparently morphs into a well-organized army by the end of the play...nice to have footnotes to point out all the inconsistencies!) 

Gossip-fest complete, the ghost reappears and Horatio calls out, commanding it to speak. The ghost is about to answer when the cock crows. The ghost starts, and fades away as on a dreadful summons. Horatio decides that perhaps the ghost didn't speak because it wants young Hamlet. The men resolve to tell Hamlet about the ghost.

My thoughts: Suspenseful first scene. I think it's fascinating the way Shakespeare has managed to introduce several very important points into the scene, without distracting from the ghost. We now know that Horatio is a skeptical scholar, that the ghost is likely the spirit of the dead king, and that Denmark is about to be attacked by the vengeful young King of Norway. All that information flowed so smoothly into the dialog that the audience wouldn't even realize they were being educated. I also like the suspense. What does the ghost want to say? We'll have to wait and see.

See all my posts about Hamlet on my Hamlet Master Post.