A really interesting portrait of and travelogue about Nigeria, made all the more interesting by the fact that the author, Noo Saro-Wiwa is herself NigA really interesting portrait of and travelogue about Nigeria, made all the more interesting by the fact that the author, Noo Saro-Wiwa is herself Nigerian, but grew up in England and then stopped going back to the country all together after the murder of her activist father. This is by no means a memoir. Saro-Wiwa's does occasionally dip into her own and her family's personal history, but always maintains a certain distance from events in her past and doesn't delve too much into her own emotions or feelings—even when describing, for instance, the process of reassembling her father's skeleton years after his death, once his body had been recovered and returned to his family. I think she could have written this book as a more introspective memoir and probably would have done a great job with it, but Saro-Wiwa is a travel writer (she's written several travel guides) and it makes sense that she'd opt for a more hybrid approach.
I've read several books now that are set in Lagos, and it was interesting to see that churning, chaotic, vibrant, and sometimes frightening environment recreated here, often with long discussions of some of the urban fixtures and institutions that have been discussed and/or critiqued by other authors (I'm thinking of Teju Cole's Every Day is For the Thief, specifically) like the National Museum or the danfo buses. But it was also fascinating to read more about areas of Nigeria that I had not only never heard of, but also which returned a pretty shockingly sparse selection of images when I tried to Google them. (I think this is a book that would have benefited immensely from the inclusion of some photographs, even in black and white.) ...more
Having indulged in a Heyer on my outbound trip from Iceland to Maine, I decided to keep things symmetrical and read another on the way home. But whileHaving indulged in a Heyer on my outbound trip from Iceland to Maine, I decided to keep things symmetrical and read another on the way home. But while The Convenient Marriage has some of Heyer's typical delights, this one really didn't do it for me. Maybe it's just a matter of over-exposure at this point, but it didn't feel as fresh as some of her other works, and a good deal of the novel (maybe even the last third) is imminently skim-able. A lesser version of These Old Shades (not itself my favorite, but still better), with some rather tired Shakespearean-style comic relief. ...more
Following a rather grueling month of translating projects at school and facing a very long journey from Iceland to Maine, I decided it was obviously tFollowing a rather grueling month of translating projects at school and facing a very long journey from Iceland to Maine, I decided it was obviously time for a 'fun read' and was persuaded, by thisvery enjoyable and informative post about Georgette Heyer's inadvertent creation of the Regency Romance genre, to pick up The Corinthian.
As with many of Heyer's books, this one presents a number of variations on themes and characters that she would pick up again and again throughout her career (although it was, to be fair, the originator of many of these themes). Here, our May-December romance is comprised of a large, "sleepy" hero who favors dandy-ish fashion and yet is no one to be trifled with; Richard, we're told, is apparently a renowned "whip" (he's good with horses), a fearsome boxer, and is very handy with his pistols—although we never see the latter two talents in action. We also have his young(er), plucky heroine who has a knack for getting into trouble, who rallies the hero out of his boredom and staid habits, and who favors boys' clothing. There are also stolen jewels, murder, masked bandits, and Bow Street Runners in the mix. It's all a lot of fun, although not nearly as sharp with the dialog or as delightfully convoluted as The Masqueraders, for instance. But it was a great way to while away a long journey, and it's interesting, I think, to see how Heyer got started in a genre she'd go on to perfect. ...more
It had been a long time since I'd read a romance novel and when I was packing for a four day camping trip, it seemed like a good time to pick up one oIt had been a long time since I'd read a romance novel and when I was packing for a four day camping trip, it seemed like a good time to pick up one of the ones I brought back with me from a used bookshop in Scottsdale last Christmas. This one isn't just the Best Ev-er (actually, the longer I think about it, the worse it stands with me), but it was a quick read and it worked for me, while I was reading it, at least. I actually kind of liked that the book started with the steamy sexual encounter and then had you wait for the reprise, rather than vice versa, as has been typical in most of the romances I've read. That may have been my favorite twist, however, given that thinking back on it now, Ican say that neither of the main characters really popped for me, the actual diary conceit was a bit thin, the is-she-isn't-she ghost was giggle-worthy, and I wasn't really taken with the whole dad-gone-mad subplot, either. (Also, 'June' just bothers me for the name of a baby in the late 19th century...maybe it was super common at the time, but it feels like the name of a 50s housewife in suburban Ohio.) Take all that out and you're left with good pacing and a functional plot and writing, minus some silly lines about relieving "the heated tensions of [Cassandra's] womanly urges" and men smelling of "musk and leather" etc. So, end of the day, probably not coming back for another of MacLean's books, but this was nevertheless a fun book for the road. ...more
I started listening to this audio book months ago on my commute to work and was really taken with it. It was light, but not at all what I had been expI started listening to this audio book months ago on my commute to work and was really taken with it. It was light, but not at all what I had been expecting, given that so much of the first couple chapters is actually about Precious' young life, her relationship with her father, and how she got her business off the ground. So it starts out reading a bit like a novel, and then switches to a sort of short story presentation, with each distinct crime lending itself to a contained chapter. (The exception being the narrative about the missing boy, which carries through multiple chapters.) I found, however, that eventually, I felt less and less compelled to get all the way to the end of the book—rather it was a pleasant story to dip into, but not one that left me desperate for a conclusion.
Perhaps I'll finish the last disc of the audio book over the summer, but if not, I feel as though I've had a good introduction to the series nevertheless....more
Thanks to the excellent year-end stock in the English language section at our local used bookstore, I lucked out this Christmas with four beautiful MuThanks to the excellent year-end stock in the English language section at our local used bookstore, I lucked out this Christmas with four beautiful Muriel Spark paperbacks. With eight hours of flight time from the US back to Iceland ahead of me, I decided to start with this "curiously disturbing" novella, and basically read it through in one sitting.
As with all of Spark's novels that I've read thus far, Not to Disturb drops you into the story once it's already started—there's no preamble, no back story, no real explanation of what is going on. the dialog is round-about and confusing at first; you don't know who any of the people talking are. And yet, rather than deterring you from continuing (or deterring me, as it happens), it just sucks you further in. You sink into the story and just figure out what is going on as you go. It's disconcerting, yes, but it's also clever and addictive and seriously hard to pull off.
The 'what's going on' of the story is (again, unsurprisingly) absurd and strange and really quite weird. As are many of the characters and relationships, for that matter. And while there are all these characters and obviously unspoken story lines (I wonder, actually, if this started as a different book, or if this is a paired down version of a much more extensive novel), there's a lot that is simply not gone into here. There's so much story that exists completely off the page. I find this rather amazing, particularly as someone who, as a writer, is always compelled to fill in all of the back story, to make sure that the reader has all the 'irrelevant' information before the real story gets underway.
And perhaps this isn't always the best way to go. Because Spark demonstrates here, sometimes the most compelling way to tell a story is to only hint at the whole of it. ...more
My first John Dickson Carr novel—a Christmas gift bought for the express purpose of being fitting reading for a few days in a country cabin, which itMy first John Dickson Carr novel—a Christmas gift bought for the express purpose of being fitting reading for a few days in a country cabin, which it very much was. Loads of melodrama (gasping, running toward one's lover just to touch hands before turning and running back in the other direction, be-veiled ghosts, passionate embraces, needlessly complicated back story...), and lots of exposition and character explanation delivered through feverish dialog. Take for example, the introduction that the the hefty, enigmatic Dr. Gideon Fell receives, upon his arrival half way through the book:
'For the ordinary case,' interrupted Nick Barclay with an air of dazzling inspiration, 'he'd be no earthly good at all. It's the hundredth instance where he scores. I never met him until tonight, but I've heard all about him. He's the cross-eyed marksman who hits the game without aiming at it; he's the scatterbrained diver you send into murky waters. His special talent is useful only in a case so crazy that nobody else can understand it.'
And even better is the abundance of amazing exclamations from the good doctor, my favorite being, "O Lord! O Bacchus! O my ancient hat!"...more
Picked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introductionPicked up while browsing the Portland (Maine) public library, Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays is, maybe somewhat strangely, my first introduction to Zadie Smith, whose fiction I have always heard all manner of raves about. But I was looking for something in a non-fiction narrative vein--seems to be the mood I am in right now--and a number of the essays in this collection seemed intriguing. I may not read the whole collection, but given the variety of subject matter that she covers, I think I'll make notes on some of the essays as I read them.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God: What Does Soulful Mean?”
This essay opens the collection and I really just flipped to it because I wanted to get a quick feel for Smith's writing style. I tend to actively avoid essays about books I haven't read (and I have not read Hurston as of yet)--I find that authors' examinations almost never bring you into the text (or relate the text outward) in a rewarding way if you aren't already familiar with the storyline of the book they are discussing. But there's so much here for the unfamiliar reader: for one, it definitely convinced me to read Their Eyes Were Watching God in the near future. This isn't just a discussion of a wonderful, important book that Smith loves (and its fascinating author), however: it is one which examines the nature of readership (the common aspiration of many readers to be 'objectively neutral' in their assessment of a book, and why allowing ourselves to personally relate to a literary work and understand why particularly touches us is actually important), the idea that a book or an author can only be (or should only be) the province of a particular group (here, Black women readers), and of course, the titular idea of "soulfulness" (although I think the other topics are actually the focal points of the article). It's a wonderful piece and one which I think would even merit a second read.
“That Crafty Feeling”
This essay is a version of a lecture that Smith gave for writing students at Columbia, and is--like much of her writing, I'm finding--a wonderful mix of personal reflection and intelligent criticism. And she's also very, very funny. When done right, a writerly essay about writerly things is almost always enjoyable for me, and Smith's piece is no exception.
"One Week in Liberia"
This essay is heart-wrenching, and I'd like to know where Smith originally published it, and why. She paints an unflinching portrait of Liberia and its present situation (I say this, of course, as someone who is very unfamiliar with Liberia, its history, and its people) and her portrait of Evelyn, one of the young women she met, was heartbreaking. The essay ends on a somewhat hopeful note, although not without a certain knowing despair. This was a tough one.
"Speaking in Tongues"
This essay was delivered as a lecture shortly after Obama's election in 2008. It deals, elegantly, with the idea of having two 'voices,' two identities, which coexist harmoniously. Smith saw Obama as being a particularly hopeful figure because he was able to so fluently and effortlessly slip between worlds and voices. "He doesn't just speak for his people. He can speak them...The tale he tells is not the old tragedy of gaining a new, false voice at the expense of a true one. The tale he tells is all about addition. His is the story of a genuinely many-voiced man. If it has a moral, it is that each man must be true to his selves, plural." It's a hopeful piece, albeit a cautiously hopeful one: "A lot rests on how this president turns out—but that's a debate for the future." So now, in the midst of Obama's second term, or perhaps even after it, it would be very interesting to read Smith's response to herself in this piece, looking back.
"At the Multiplex, 2006"
Smith wrote film reviews of mainstream films for The Sunday Telegraph for the 2006 season, and the resulting reviews were edited into this piece. Reading these, I found myself laughing out loud, repeatedly. This isn't necessarily film criticism with a capital "C," but Smith is an intelligent person reacting to art (or sub-art, as the case may be), and the result was very enjoyable to read, even when I didn't agree with her assessments. Some highlights:
-"Curtis '50 Cent' Jackson. My brain is giving you one star, but my heart wants to give five. I want you to know that Get Rich or Die Tryin' is to ghetto movies what Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot was to Mafia movies, and I love, love, love it...I Love that you keep getting your fellow gangsters to admit that they love you. Really loudly. In the middle of robberies. I love the Beckettian dialog...I love how your acting style makes Bogart look animated."
-"I should lay my cards on the table: I think Spielberg is one of the great popular artists of our time, and I base this upon the stupidity/pleasure axis I apply to popular artists: how much pleasure they give versus how stupid one has to become to receive said pleasure."
-Regarding The Weather Man: "As I see it, this film's central concept is the aversion most right thinking people have to the actor Nicholas Cage. And he accepts this mantle so honorably and humbly in this film that I think now maybe I quite like him."
"Ten Notes on Oscar Weekend"
Another essay I'd like to know the publication origin of. This was an enjoyable read, and certainly not the expected Oscar-fare—Smith pointedly avoided name-dropping ("What if you got assigned to write about the Oscars and you didn't mention a single actor? You know, as a demystifying strategy?"), although she does, in fact, name drop Bret Easton Ellis. I enjoyed this essay, enjoyed the portrait that she paints of a jaded, exhausted, overly-polite, and rather paranoid Hollywood. It wasn't life-changing, but then again, neither are the Oscars.
"Smith Family Christmas" / Dead Man Laughing
I'm discovering that Smith handles personal reflection really elegantly: she gives you a frank window into her life, but keeps the subject matter tight and well-curated. Her reflections are relatable, but don't sprawl endlessly outwards in that Everything-Is-Connected, Let's-Appreciate-the-Grand-Moral sort of way that I, at least, find extremely irritating. Her essay on her deceased father and their shared love of humor (as well as her brother's foray into the world of comedy) was touching, and sincere, reflective, and quite funny.
This is my second of Reichl's books, found in the teenage bedroom that I'm borrowing for a few weeks while traveling. And while I don't think it touchThis is my second of Reichl's books, found in the teenage bedroom that I'm borrowing for a few weeks while traveling. And while I don't think it touched me as much as Tender at the Bone, I loved it. Reichl is marvelously talented at combining personal memoir with food writing, and doesn't shy away from difficult self-criticisms, but rather reveals things about her character with grace. She manages to be forthright about her life without ever feeling too soul-baring, too, which is also a plus for me.
Garlic and Sapphires reads like a memoir, a travel narrative (and food tour of New York), and a piece of critical writing. It's a lovely piece of writing and, like her other work, an instructive one for those who are interested in non-fiction narrative writing themselves. ...more
(Update, 11.3.12) Although I did seek out some critical articles on Mansfield Park they didn't end up clarifying my thoughts on the book as much as ra(Update, 11.3.12) Although I did seek out some critical articles on Mansfield Park they didn't end up clarifying my thoughts on the book as much as raise additional questions. However, since I just recently found myself in a bar going on at length about this book to someone who hadn't even read it, I think I can at least summarize some of my main impressions about it:
Mansfield Park is an incredibly complex text and could easily, I think, be interpreted in a variety of ways. It has raised the hackles of many a dedicated Austen reader, and mainly, it seems, because in all honesty, Fanny Price is not the Jane Austen heroine that most of us have come to love. She's smart and she's an independent thinker, to be sure, but she's not terribly witty or clever, she's extremely sensitive (see this web page, "Fanny's Tears," for a list of all the times that Fanny cries in the novel: http://www.austen.com/mans/notes/tear...), she's shy, she doesn't stick up for herself, and she frequently believes the terrible things that people say to/about her, particularly her awful, and awfully hypocritical aunt. You (I) spend a great deal of the book hoping that Fanny will just grow a bit of a backbone already and stop cow-towing to everyone around her.
Fanny is also the moral compass of the story, one which in just mentioning off-handedly the family's plantation and slaves, is coming from a much more historically grounded, political place than most other Austen novels where you may know that there is a militia in town, but never hear from the characters what war or battle they may be resting up from, or heading off to. Fanny, of course, doesn't comment on these external circumstances, but being not a little stodgy herself, does seem to position herself in opposition to a changing world, one that is more public, more political, and less bound by tradition. One in which outspoken, clever, sexual, and opinionated women, such as Mary Crawford, are more and more the norm.
I found myself liking Mary Crawford far more than Fanny for much of the novel, even as I felt bad that she outshined the heroine so very often, and even as I recognized that she was a deeply cynical and deeply selfish character. But Austen has written many selfish characters--Emma, certainly; Marianne Dashwood, to a certain extent--and we're still meant to like these people. It seemed like a bit of a cheat--and narratively, a stretch--to me that Mary and Henry Crawford have such sudden transformations into truly indefensible characters at the end of the novel. For most of it, Mary and Henry might have opinions and behaviors (particularly Henry, who yes, is a total cad) which the reader, Fanny, and definitely Jane Austen disapprove of. But they are still understood within the context of their society to be interesting, likeable, and defensible people. It seems to me that Jane Austen didn't want to maintain any sort of moral ambiguity, though. She wanted Right and Wrong with capital letters, and so she decided to introduce a sweeping plot turn which would show the Crawfords for their lousy selves, prove Fanny right, bring Edward to his senses, and neatly bring Fanny and Edward together at last. I thought that it was more interesting when it was messier.
There's a lot to be said otherwise about this novel--for one, Fanny's position as an observer is worth exploring, namely the way in which always being a spectator and outside the main action around her might actually give her some agency. But I'll leave that to someone else. Suffice to say that Mansfield Park is fascinating for its frustrations, for the rather conservative tendencies it reveals in its author, and in the various ways that it can read (consider the film adaptation in this respect). I'm not sure I totally liked it, but I'm very glad to have read it.
(9.15.12) I enjoyed Mansfield Park, although I will admit to finding it immensely strange in some ways, and also think it lends itself to some fascinating comparisons and contrasts with other of Austen's novels. This is the first of her books that I feel compelled to read some scholarly work on, and I want to percolate a bit on my thoughts before I try and review the book, but I will say this for now: I am going to come down on the side of Fanny Price, although I agree with the generally antipathy about her constant shrinking and weeping and general not-Elizabeth-Bennet-ness. What surprised me, rather, was how much I ended up disliking her romantic interest, the supposedly morally infallible Edward Bertram. Perhaps there is some Austenian irony throughout in his presentation, but I'm not sure that it carries through far enough. Because he's rather a schmo for almost all of the book.
Anyway, more anon, when I can formulate with more useful descriptions than 'schmo.'...more
**spoiler alert** The most recent of the RRAD LUST book club selections, and maybe the last one we'll read together (in person) before my imminent dep**spoiler alert** The most recent of the RRAD LUST book club selections, and maybe the last one we'll read together (in person) before my imminent departure. This one was actually my pick (based on a variety of website recommendations)--we were on a Scottish kick and already had selected another Highland-themed historical--but while it actually starts pretty strong with the intrigue and the complicated love affair and the incredibly dramatic passion between two lost souls who struggle to overcome the burdens of their respective pasts (!), it fell a bit flat about 3/4 of the way through. It wouldn't have been hard to structure the book in such a way as to keep the momentum going, but Ashley resolves most of the major road blocks (marriage, for one) and then just sort of floats along in territory that either should have been woven into the plot earlier or left out entirely. (There's a reason so many of these books end when the lovers finally get together.) Some additional thoughts:
*The cover: this man is far too hairless. These Scottish romances seem to all include pages upon pages of descriptions about their hairy beast-like highlanders, and yet, this guy looks like he shaves his arms. This is silly.
*I don't like the euphemism "to love" as a stand in for "to have sex." It is just a little fuzzy-wuzzy for me. "He loved her all over again"? Please. Also, stop alluding to all of the scandalous sexy dialog that these characters have whilst "loving" each other if you're not just going to write it. It makes it seem like you are embarrassed about it, which is ridiculous, since you are writing a romance novel with many, many "love" scenes. If you don't want to write out what they are saying, don't. But stop being all coy and hinting at it.
*Both of the main characters are supposed to be Scottish, but other than the men wearing kilts and everyone slipping into a vague brogue when they get all flustered (suddenly sprinkling words and phrases like "laddie," "lass," "ye," and "dinna ken" liberally about), I'm not sure that the whole highland milieu actually came through that well.
*An (untested) observation: male characters in Highland-themed novels seem to get tortured a lot. Is this a thing?
I was looking for a fast, fun read for a vacation that I took recently took and when The Expats (which, incidentally, was just listed as one of Bill OI was looking for a fast, fun read for a vacation that I took recently took and when The Expats (which, incidentally, was just listed as one of Bill Ott's 'Best Crime Novels: 2012' in Booklist) caught my eye, I thought it would easily fit the bill. But this book was pretty much a disappointment from start to finish. The set-up is promising, but the whole novel is sloppily structured and written and the conclusion is not only silly, it's also pretty lazy on the resolving details. (For instance, "I framed someone," is generally a fact that requires some explanation. Who did you frame? How did you frame him? You can't just leave it at "I set up a guy," and move on, particularly when the framing involves war criminals and international thievery.)
All in all, it felt like I was reading a treatment for a bad thriller film, and not one that made me care about any of the individuals involved--particularly the main character, who we're told is this super badass former spy, but constantly behaves like an amateur girl detective. ...more