Wednesday, April 30, 2008

A Great and Terrible Beauty

Libba Bray’s A Great and Terrible Beauty is a young-adult-novel-slash-Victorian-romance-slash-magical-fantasy; it wants to be many things, but I’m not convinced it succeeds in any.

Great and Terrible is the first in Bray’s Gemma Doyle trilogy. Gemma discovers she has magical powers on her sixteenth birthday. Tragedy strikes, though, and she finds herself shipped off to a finishing school. Defying all logic, Gemma does everything she can to ingratiate herself with the school’s “mean girls.” She trusts them with her secret and even invites them into her magical world.

Gemma and her cohorts are extremely flawed characters and often unlikable. And, as is my routine complaint, the females in this novel make such illogical decisions that I want to shake sense into them. Despite its Victorian setting, the book also broaches such contemporary hot topics as cutting, sexual identity, and drug abuse.

I enjoy the novel—except for the magical bits, which is definitely a problem since the magical elements make up a majority of the book. The story would not have been the same without this aspect, but I find these elements often convoluted and confusing.

Despite my feelings of misgiving, I am intrigued by this first novel and plan to read the next in the trilogy. Unfortunately, the series is apparently quite popular since I am 20th in my library’s queue.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?

About a month ago, in a fit of romantic indulgence, I rewatched the Timothy Dalton BBC version of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. This movie reminded me of a book I read nearly ten years ago: Can Jane Eyre Be Happy?

I immediately set out to track down and reread the book, finally ordering a copy off eBay. Sadly, my copy didn’t arrive on my doorstep until a month after I ordered it. However, my bellyaching is best reserved for eBay’s feedback section.

Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? is the second in a series of three books by John Sutherland, an English professor and literary critic (the other two books are Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Who Betrays Elizabeth Bennett?). These books answer dozens of literary questions: “Who is Tom Jones’s Father?” “How Vulgar is Mrs. Elton?” “Is Daniel Deronda Circumcised?”

Sutherland uses the texts and literary criticism to answer his queries. Although I don’t always agree with his conclusions, Sutherland clearly and convincingly details how he develops his answers.

For example, in an essay speculating on whether or not Angel eventually marries Liza-Lu Derbyfield in Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, Sutherland refers to the text but also British marriage laws. Could Angel marry Liza-Lu? Not legally.

So, is Jane happy? I won’t divulge Sutherland’s complete answer, but I will tell you he hypothesizes that Jane is Rochester’s “faute de mieux” (for lack of something better). My romantic-potentially-biased answer? Jane Eyre Rochester lives in absolute and perfect bliss.

Monday, April 28, 2008

One of the Fifteen Million

One of the Fifteen Million is Nicholas Prychodko’s memoir of his imprisonment in Stalinist Russia, exile to Siberia, and eventual escape to Canada. Prychodko’s storytelling is straightforward. He writes, almost dispassionately, about the 22 months he spends in prison, about being interrogated and beaten with a plank full of nails for not signing a false confession.

I found myself unable to even imagine these scenes of torture. For most of us, such descriptions are beyond our levels of comprehension. The reality that such things actually took place—actually take place—is beyond my ability to understand.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago is a more elegant account of a similar experience, but one thing in particular stands out in Prychodko’s memoir. He mentions several times his sincere belief that the USSR is the most enlightened and advanced country in the world—until he is arrested. The first time he is tortured, he is shocked, having believed only capitalist countries tortured prisoners. Clearly, he is a victim of the Soviet propaganda machine.

But perhaps the most interesting aspect of this book, published in 1952, is the foreword. Watson Kirkconnell, President of Acadia University, writes:

“This is a terrible book, but it is the truth that is terrible and it must be faced, for the martyrdom of human freedom in the USSR is a martyrdom that the geopolitical planners in the Kremlin intend for us as well. Russian slave-camps for Canadians in Canada, manned by Russian police, are the objective of Stalin and his power-hungry agents among us. Every horror described in this book will be duplicated on Canadian soil if Communist plans prevail.”

I was flabbergasted by this foreword. Clearly, the Soviets weren’t the only ones “brainwashed” during the Cold War.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Unaccustomed Earth

After weeks of waiting anxiously, of reading about how good the book is, I finally got my hands on Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth.

The beauty of Lahiri’s writing is in the ordinariness of it. She has an elegant style but does nothing to draw undue attention to the writing itself; she employs no tricks that distract from her narrative. The stories are also about ordinary topics, about regular people. It is in the simplicity of the scenarios that universal truths resound.

“Unaccustomed Earth,” the first story in the collection, is exactly why Lahiri is such an acclaimed writer. In the story, a widowed father visits his married daughter in Seattle. Ruma debates over inviting her father to move in with her and her family. It is a simple scenario, but I’ve found myself considering the situation for days. What would I do if my mother died? Would I ask my father to move in with me? Could he be happy living with me? Could I be happy living with him?

Although the main characters are all Bengali, these are not stories about or for a specific audience. I can see myself, place myself into these narratives: the struggle with a loved one’s substance abuse, the pain of unrequited love.

As with any collection of short stories, I was drawn to some more than others. The book is split into two sections. The first contains four stories; the second three connected stories. I have mixed feelings about the second section: Hema and Kaushik. These stories veer a bit from Lahiri’s formula. The first two are written in first person, and the third does not rely on ordinary, everyday events. Instead, it turns on a major world event, losing its sense of universality.

I spent several days reading this collection; I could not simply speed through it as I thought I would. The stories have a weightiness of real life that I found was best taken in small doses.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Mitch Albom was a guest on The Colbert Report last night. Stephen Colbert suggested Albom is a “member of the grief industrial complex.” I can only agree. Albom’s novel, For One More Day, was released in paperback a few weeks ago.
  • The New York Times was surprised and delighted when Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth (read my review tomorrow) reached #1 on its bestselling fiction list: “It’s hard to remember the last serious, well-written work of fiction, particularly a book of stories, that leapt straight to No. 1; it’s a powerful demonstration of Lahiri’s newfound commercial clout.”
  • My one-sided love-hate relationship/obsession with Stephenie Meyer continues. Here is an article about the filming of the Twilight movie. And here is an interview with Meyer on about the film. I stay up at night debating whether or not to see this movie.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

It Was Worth It All

I have a well-documented addiction to books about Eastern Europe and a bad habit of buying self-published (or excruciatingly small-published) books on the subject (e.g., A Train to Potevka and Assumptions and Misunderstandings). Though I have yet to find a good small-published book (hence the small publishing), I fell into the trap once again with Elly Matz’s It Was Worth It All.

I bought Worth It off eBay for a few cents based solely on my magic word, Ukraine. As usual, I was intrigued by the premise: a Ukrainian woman escapes from Stalinist Russia and the invading German army. This memoir should have been thrilling.

And Matz does have an interesting story. I particularly appreciate her honesty. She feels extreme guilt over escaping the Stalinists when the rest of her family is sent to Siberia. She spends years in a debilitating depression—a depression so strong that she misses most of her children’s lives—but this part of her life is quickly glossed over in favor of a treatise on her religious beliefs. In fact, Matz often interrupts her narrative so she can preach about Christianity.

Not surprisingly, Worth It is published by a Christian ministry. I know very little about this ministry, but according to its website, it “has had a great burden for the suffering, persecuted brethren in Communist nations.” I have no intention or desire to criticize this ministry, but I do suspect Worth It's narrative is influenced by this Christian backing.

In fact, the book ends (stop here if by some freak chance you plan to read the book) with Matz overcoming her depression and guilt when she decides God saved her (and not her family) because she asked him to send her to the U.S. (and her family did not). I was so dumbfounded by this statement—by this heresy—that I forgot about anything meaningful in the book. Surely, no true Christian could believe in such a fickle God.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

1,001 Ways to Save the Earth

In honor of Earth Day, I wanted to mention Joanna Yarrow’s 1,001 Ways to Save the Earth. This fat, little, 384-page book makes a darling edition to a coffee table, but it certainly does not save any trees in its publication (the oxymoron of a paper book about saving the environment is one I don’t know how to wrap my brain around). However, a small publisher’s note does say:

“This book is printed using mineral oil-free vegetable-based inks on paper produced from pulp obtained from sustainably managed forests, and from paper mills that meet environmental standard ISO 14001. It is 100 percent recyclable.”

The book contains perky illustrations and 1001 suggestions for protecting the planet. Not surprisingly, some of the suggestions are easily adoptable, while others are unrealistic for a general audience (e.g., use tidal power, which is only available in some areas of Scotland and Australia).

A few of my favorite suggestions, ones that I have already adopted, include:

  • Cut down on leg shaves: Save water by not shaving your legs on a daily basis. (Un)fortunately, I am chronically single and never wear shorts, so I have this one made.
  • Eat before shopping: Save the planet, your budget, and your waist by curbing impulse buying at the grocery store.
  • Exercise outdoors: Treadmills and gyms waste energy—and are boring. I love walking outdoors where I can see things and take my mind off the fact that I am actually exercising.
  • Don’t feed wild animals: Although I live in the city, neighbors who fed deer this winter attracted large numbers of the animals and cougars. It was a scary time for both me and my pets.

And a few of my favorite unbelievable suggestions:

  • Become a beekeeper: Buzz. Sting. Ouch.
  • Travel by freighter instead of taking a cruise: Excusez moi?
  • Have a smaller family: Yowzers. I think this is a subject better left to the individual.
  • Don’t eat turtle meat: People really eat turtles? I discovered frog legs don’t have enough meat to make the effort worthwhile; I suspect the same may be said for turtles.

I won’t be taking a freighter any time soon (or ever). However, I can easily turn off the lights and television when I leave a room. I don’t think any of us needs a book to tell us what to do—we just need to use our common sense and give ourselves a pat on the back for making an effort to care for our planet.

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Miracle at Speedy Motors

Precious Ramotswe is back in the newest edition to the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency: The Miracle at Speedy Motors. Miracle reminds me why I am such a fan of this series: Mma Ramotswe is an endearing heroine, Alexander McCall Smith is an enchanting writer, and the books restore my faith in humanity.

This time, Mma Ramotswe must deal with threatening letters, a woman in search of her family, and her husband’s quest to heal their foster daughter’s paralysis. Naturally, nothing is as it seems, but Mma Ramotswe takes everything in her stride.

Miracle is not actually a mystery (none of the series is), and nothing earth shattering happens in the book. But the sedateness, the ordinariness, of the storyline is exactly what makes it so wonderful. Mma Ramotswe deals with real people who have real problems. All of the characters have flaws, but they also have redeeming qualities.

In McCall Smith’s Botswana, people are inherently good, family is the core of life, and the land has a spirit of its own. He acknowledges the darkness but relishes in the light. This worldview may seem idealistic or even naïve—but it is exactly the kind of attitude I wish to have. Miracle is the ideal cure for a case of pessimism.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Monsters of Templeton

After finishing Lauren Groff’s The Monsters of Templeton, I am left feeling muddled. Perhaps that is because the book itself is a bit of a jumble. Although Groff relies heavily on James Fenimore Cooper, the novel is more an amalgamation on the lines of Moby Dick.

The story centers on Willie Upton’s search for her biological father, but the book also includes photographs, paintings, and entries from her ancestors and other townspeople. Groff openly hijacks from Cooper’s The Pioneers—his setting (Templeton) and his characters (including Chingachgook and Marmaduke Temple)—leaving me to wonder if she could create a fictional world of her own.

For some reason, Groff also adds several fantastic elements to the novel, including lake monsters and ghosts. These elements are jarring and unnecessary, acting as overblown metaphors and continually pulling me from the moment (bursting my suspension of disbelief) and reminding me that I am, indeed, reading a piece of fiction.

Despite these flaws, the story does have a certain level of interest and intrigue. The premise is forced—a mother oddly and unrealistically making her adult daughter, Willie, play a game to discover the identity of her own father—but the history Willie digs up is interesting, if often predictable.

Monsters is certainly not a breakthrough first novel, although it did receive quite a bit of publicity. Instead, it is mildly entertaining, mildly thought provoking, and mildly irritating.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Unless you live under a rock, you have probably heard about The Last Lecture. Randy Pausch has been featured on Oprah, a Diane Sawyer special, YouTube, and almost everywhere else. His book is currently #1 on Amazon’s bestsellers list—and out of stock. Now that’s a bestseller.
  • is a new website (launched last month) that features authors talking about their books. I am interested to see how this site progresses. Of course, sometimes the worst thing about a book is the author. J.K. Rowling is doing a good job of disillusioning her fans in court.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Guest Blog--The Year of Living Biblically

Even for the complete Agnostic, A.J. Jacob's The Year of Living Biblically is an enjoyable read. Jacobs, himself an agnostic of Jewish heritage, tells about his year-long quest to live as closely as possible to the "rules" found in the Bible. The wonderful thing about his account is Jacob's humor--both in the telling of his experiences and in his creative attempts to live them. Jacobs grows a beard, starts wearing white, carries a staff, blows a ram's horn, and at one time even dons a white shepherd's robe in his attempts to be Biblical. He even starts carrying around a portable seat because he isn't allowed to sit in any chair where a woman who recently menstrated may have sat.

Apart from the many chuckles this book gave me, I had many moments of personal insight. Being religious, I reflected on my own beliefs, practices, and knowledge of the scriptures.

I learned there are many ways to interpret the Bible, and this results in the many different methods people follow to worship God. I also learned a lot about other religions and felt a greater tolerance for them.

The only disappointment I found in the book was Jacob's lack of conversion by the end. Jacobs made spiritual progress during the year, but he never really "got" religion or found out that there really is a God. That is a sad thing considering the depth of his experiences. It also shows that outward actions don't lead to conversion.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Rutka's Notebook

Rutka Laskier is 14 years old when she starts a diary in January 1943, “four years since . . . hell began.” The Nazis occupy Poland, and Rutka is well aware of the atrocities surrounding and awaiting her. According to Stanislawa Sapinska, a friend of Rutka who keeps the diary until 2006, Rutka suspects her own death is imminent. She hides the diary and arranges with Stanislawa to find and keep it.

The diary is brief—only 20 entries over a four-month period. For each page of the diary, the book includes a companion page providing context—photographs, historical background, definitions. It also features essays by Rutka’s half-sister, born in Israel after the Holocaust, and several Holocaust scholars.

Most of the diary is similar to any teenage girls. Rutka writes about her friends, difficulties with her parents, and her crush on a boy named Janek. One moment she loves him; the next she hates him. These entries could have been taken straight from my own journal. Although from a historical perspective I longed for more information about the occupation, the personal details Rutka includes make the diary heartbreaking. She could be any other young girl—except that her life is stolen from her.

The few passages about the Nazi occupation are all the more disturbing in contrast with Rutka’s “normal” life. She writes, “Something has broken inside me. When I pass by a German, everything shrinks in me.” In another entry she derides herself for calling on God. “If God existed,” she writes, “He would have certainly not permitted that human beings be thrown alive into furnaces, and the heads of little toddlers be smashed with butts of guns.”

Rutka’s diary ends abruptly, and she gives no hint that she suspects her life will soon end. In fact, Rutka’s last entry complains of boredom. A few days later, she is moved with her family to a ghetto and later to Auschwitz.

Rutka has been called the Polish Anne Frank. Her diary does not have the length and depth of Frank’s, but it does provide insight into and personalize events that are so difficult to comprehend.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Room with a View

I hate to sound like one of the puritan townspeople from The Scarlet Letter, but after watching Masterpiece’s new adaptation of E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View last night, I have to cry foul. How dare they desecrate the purity of the novel? How dare they thwart tradition by practically rewriting the book?

Though I am not a complete purist when it comes to literary adaptations, I do feel strongly about maintaining the original artist’s integrity. I am particularly disappointed that Andrew Davies—the screenwriter who adapted the seminal Pride and Prejudice—is responsible for this travesty.

The film does cover the major plot points of Room. Lucy Honeychurch and her cousin Charlotte do go to Italy. They do meet the Emersons. Lucy does become engaged to Cecil Vyse. There is a naked bathing scene.

But placing events in the correct order is not enough to make an enjoyable film. This adaptation loses the book and characters’ personality. The novel has a lighthearted, often playful, tone to it, but the film feels heavy. In the book, George Emerson is burdened by the weight of the world and often broods. In contrast, the film’s George comes across as a complete dimwit, leaving the viewer puzzled at Lucy’s attraction to him.

The greatest crime, though, is the way the film couches Forster’s A Room with a View in a post-Great War subplot. Davies takes extreme liberties with the book, envisioning what happens to Lucy and George during the war. I am absolutely baffled by this addition. Could Davies truly have the hubris to believe he knows better than Forster himself?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Eat, Pray, Love

I'm a bit wary of Oprah's almost god-like influence over the nation (or at least the publishing industry), so after Oprah recommended Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love I had no desire to read it—until I heard about the backlash against the book. Suddenly, I had to know what kind of book could produce such strong reactions of love and hate.

Now that I've finished, I cannot figure out what all the uproar is about. I neither love nor hate the book. I like some parts and dislike others. It is, after all, just a book and not a piece of sacred scripture.

Eat, Pray, Love covers a year in Elizabeth Gilbert's life as she strives to overcome grief and depression by finding balance in her life. I did not read the book as a how-to manual for overcoming life's difficulties. Instead, I approached it as an interesting travelogue similar to Eric Weiner's The Geography of Bliss.

Gilbert's first stop is Rome to experience pleasure (eating) and to learn Italian. She has a good sense of humor, and I enjoyed the vignettes she shares about her four months in Italy: the friends she makes, the sites she sees, and (most importantly) the food she eats.

This part of the book did inspire me; I now want to study languages as diligently as Gilbert, and I want to have the confidence to eat alone at a restaurant. I visited Rome once, and I had no plans or desire to return, but Gilbert made me see the city in a different light and has convinced me to visit again.

After delighting in 100 pages of Italy, I entered the book's second section, and it was like stepping into a swamp of molasses. Gilbert travels to an Ashram in India to meditate for four months. I believe in spirituality, and I respect Gilbert for seeking spiritual health and healing.

Unfortunately, I have little patience, and I couldn't imagine anything more difficult and tedious than spending hours upon hours in silent meditation—until I read about the hours and hours Gilbert spent meditating. These passages were just plain boring and painful for me to read, and I slugged through over 50 pages before I could bear it no longer.

In the midst of Gilbert's chanting, I found myself having my own other-worldly experience as my mind wandered away from the text. Suddenly, an internal voice came to me, saying: Stop reading this sludge. Skip this passage. Set yourself free.

This advice seemed absolutely brilliant. I mean, surely even Elizabeth Gilbert herself would urge me to follow this spiritual guidance and skip the India section. I did and felt immediate relief and freedom—almost a sense of nirvana.*

Moving on to the Bali section was a relief and almost as delightful as returning to Rome. Although Gilbert continues to meditate, this final section once again contains portraits of the people she meets and the experiences she has in Indonesia.

I am not going to start eating more, praying more, or loving more after reading this book, but it did keep me entertained for several hours.

*I did eventually return to this section, believing it is unfair to write a review if I haven't read the entire book. My opinion about how tedious this section is did not change.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Book Buzz

  • Fareed Zakaria, my all-time favorite The Daily Show guest (and editor of Newsweek International), reviewed the late Benazir Bhutto’s Reconciliation this week. Even if you don’t read Reconciliation, check out the review. Zakaria is incredibly eloquent. But you’ll have to watch his appearances on The Daily Show to see his humor.

  • Britain’s Telegraph featured an article on the “110 Best Books.” I’ve read about 35 and parts of several others. More than anything, this list reminds me how many core books I haven’t read (e.g., War and Peace, Madame Bovary, 1984). Can I really call myself a reader? How many make your list?

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The End

For the last three months, I have suffered from Jane Austen mania spurred on by the Masterpiece series The Complete Jane Austen. I watched the complete series, reread several of the books, and re-watched many other film versions that conveniently appeared on television over this time period (I came across Gwyneth Paltrow’s Emma three times while flipping through channels and couldn’t resist watching it each time).

I will now put Jane and her books to rest with a vow not to write about her or them for the next six months (I hope I can keep to this promise). Before bidding farewell, though, I will mention three Austen-based films released on DVD over the last few months:

  • Miss Austen Regrets is actually part of the The Complete Jane Austen. This biopic finds Austen nearing her forties. She is an abrasive character and incorrigible flirt. This characterization may be an accurate representation of the middle-aged Austen (or it may not), but I am better off enjoying Jane Austen through her novels and letting her personal flaws rest in peace.
  • Becoming Jane is another film inspired by Austen’s life. In this biopic, the young Jane Austen is full of life and wit—quite similar to her literary heroines. The film concentrates on her alleged romance with Tom Lefroy. Although the romance is enjoyable and James McAvoy a cutie, the film (and book) certainly takes creative license with the historical record. Don’t believe everything you see on Becoming Jane, but do enjoy it as a weepy romance.
  • The Jane Austen Book Club is based on the book of the same title. This film follows a book group that exclusively reads Austen novels. In theory, the characters’ lives reflect what happens in these books. I read the novel several years ago and was anything but a fan. I didn’t care for the characters, and the connection to Jane Austen was tenuous at best. This is not a great film, but it is harmless and a vast improvement on Karen Joy Fowler’s novel.

For a quick Jane Austen fix, check out these movies. For a better time, of course, read (or reread) the books.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008


In keeping with my recent Jane Austen addiction, I read Polly Shulman’s young adult novel Enthusiasm. Although Julia is the book’s main character, the title refers to her best friend, Ashleigh. Ashleigh is easily obsessed (with candy making, music, learning to fly) and drags her best friend into these obsessions.

Julia’s life is thrown into chaos when Ashleigh becomes obsessed with Pride and Prejudice. Ashleigh insists on sneaking into a dance at a private boys’ school in search of her Mr. Darcy (and Julia’s Mr. Bingley). Naturally, each girl meets the boy of her dreams. Unfortunately, it is the same boy.

The book’s premise is interesting—maybe I should set out to find my Mr. Darcy—but the execution leaves something to be desired. The narrative has little to do with Austen or Pride and Prejudice—they are simply hijacked as a plot device for Julia to meet her dream boy. Ashleigh is meant to be precocious and charming, but her idiosyncrasies feel unnatural and forced.

Julia is a loyal (though rather uncommunicative) best friend, but her narration often sounds much older than her 15 years. Shulman throws in some invented teen slang (“crisp” describes anything positive), a few crass anatomical references, and random capitalization, but these do not make a narrative feel young and fresh. Instead, Julia often sounds clunky and old fashioned.

The book is a feel-good romance, and on this end, it delivers. C. Grandison Parr is a dreamy hero (though I can’t really imagine a normal teenage boy writing sonnets), and Julia doesn’t really face any serious opposition in her love life. Although I am not enthusiastic about this book, it makes for decent young adult escapist fiction.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Sense and Sensibility, Part II

I really shouldn’t have reread Sense and Sensibility before watching the second half of the Masterpiece series. Whereas I thoroughly enjoyed Part I, I found myself nitpicking all through Part II: This doesn’t happen in the book; it doesn’t happen exactly this way; it doesn’t happen in this order. I was irritated with myself for not being able simply to enjoy the film.

More than anything, the adaptation tries to romanticize the book—as if Jane Austen isn’t romantic enough. Colonel Brandon conveniently rescues Marianne on several occasions, and the film erroneously implies that he fights a duel for her honor. Edward Ferrars chops wood in the rain, clearly relieving the love/tension he feels for Elinor. Most startling of all is a rather surprising sex scene that opens the film. Fortunately, I could rewatch the scene on my DVR because it only has meaning in context with the rest of the movie.

For some reason, the screenwriter(s) condensed three-quarters of the book into Part II, and the movie suffers somewhat from this compression. Elinor Dashwood meets Lucy Steele; 30 seconds later, Lucy confesses her involvement with Edward Ferrars. Even Marianne’s overindulgence in her suffering is condensed, reducing the contrast between her behavior and Elinor’s.

The heart of the story, though, remains intact: the characters are appealing, and the love stories are engrossing. The film is certainly worth watching for any literary lover. Just don’t get hung up on the details.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Sense and Sensibility

In anticipation of Masterpiece’s adaptation on Sunday, I reread Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I hadn’t read the book in over ten years and had forgotten many of the details, but I liked it as much today as I did then.

Elinor and Marianne Dashwood each deal with the joys and heartaches of young love: Elinor is the more sedate of the two sisters, and Marianne the more passionate. Naturally, as an emotionless automaton, I always relate more with Elinor who loves quietly and endures well. In fact, I remember feeling absolutely exasperated with Marianne who spends weeks nursing her love and heartbreak. I wanted to shake her and tell her to get over it already.

This time, though, I could not judge Marianne as harshly. I may not share her zeal and passion for love, but she is, after all, only 17. And she clearly inherited her mother’s sensibilities. I had forgotten that Mrs. Dashwood is equally as emotional and fanciful as Marianne. No wonder Marianne carries on so passionately in both her happiness and distress.

Fortunately for my romantic heart, and Marianne’s, Austen novels always end well. She is a consistently smart and delightful writer, but that does not mean the novel is perfect.

Sense and Sensibility relies heavily on coincidence. Without ruining the novel for those who have not read it (but seriously, you should have read it by now), everyone seems to be magically associated with and related to everyone else. Colonel Brandon, who loves Marianne, just happens to have connections with Willoughby, who also loves Marianne. The Misses Steele, who disrupt Elinor’s love life, just happen to be related to the Dashwoods’ neighbor, Mrs. Jennings.

Despite the coincidences, and though I may not be as emotional as Marianne, I am still a sucker for love and romance; Sense and Sensibility fills that need perfectly.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Book Buzz

  • April is National Poetry Month. Amazon’s bestselling book of poetry? Mary Oliver’s Red Bird, which will be published April 15. For ideas on celebrating this festive occasion, check out the Academy of American Poets website. I’ve temporarily added a few poetry widgets for your enjoyment.
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri released a new collection of short stories on Tuesday: Unaccustomed Earth. USA Today gives the book a glowing review, and I cannot wait to get my hands on it. If it is anything like Interpreter of Maladies, we are in for a treat.
  • Both Dateline NBC and Oprah featured Mistaken Identity this week, and the book is currently #4 on Amazon’s bestsellers list. Apparently, the best way to deal with a horrific tragedy is through a media blitz.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Darkly Dreaming Dexter

Thanks to the writers’ strike, I started watching Dexter on CBS. Two of my siblings watch the program on Showtime and highly recommend it. I enjoy the show—and find myself strangely attracted to Dexter. I’m not ready to analyze what my attraction to a serial killer says about me, but I have discovered how little patience I have. I am dying (snark snark) to know what happens in the series, so I picked up the source material: Jeff Lindsay’s Darkly Dreaming Dexter.

The book benefits from the television show. Although Dexter, a blood-spatter-expert-slash-serial-killer, narrates the book, his character lacks development. I do not despise him—though I should because he is a serial killer—but I am also not attracted to him like I am the TV character. In fact, Dexter becomes tedious as the book progresses. He spends so much time explaining how emotionless he is that his proclamations lack authenticity and grow tiresome.

Lindsay’s writing is straightforward, the language often crude, and the characters basically one dimensional. The police officers at the Miami Dade Police Department are depicted as morons, and the media are a pack of idiots. In fact, the only character with half a brain is Dexter. Of course, that may be because the story is filtered through Dexter’s perspective.

I’ve heard rumors about the series’ season finale, so I was surprised by the book’s ending. After a quick consultation with my sister—who refuses to tell me what happens at the end of the first season—it appears the book and television show differ significantly. Great, I’ll have to be patient after all.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

An Etiquette Guide for Naughty Toddlers

I have read a lot of good—and not-so-good—books, but Liana Frey’s An Etiquette Guide for Naughty Toddlers just might be the best I’ve ever encountered. Frey is a brilliant writer, a clever wit, and has excellent insights into all things toddler.

Naughty Toddlers is part-how-to-manual-part-memoir as Frey recounts the years she spent teaching three-year-old children in a Christian Sunday School class. I look forward to applying a few of her tips and techniques with my own naughty nieces and nephew. Here are a few of the most effective:

  • To keep toddlers in their seats, suggest they pretend their bums are glued to their chairs. When this fails, glue bums to chairs. Gorilla Glue has a remarkable, long-lasting grip.
  • During “potty breaks,” make sure toddler bums are completely submerged in the toilet bowl. Anything less than complete submersion will result in pee-soaked shoes, trousers, and legs (of both toddlers and adults).
  • Never provide toddlers with refreshment of any kind, including (but not limited to) candy, cakes, and miniature zucchinis. Such snacks raise toddlers’ expectations, and they will demand food at all times, particularly during the breakfast, lunch, and dinner hours. In order to prevent spoilage, toddlers should learn at an early age to provide nourishment for themselves.
  • Check with your local farm or ranch for branding and castration periods because the best cure for naughty toddlers is manual labor. Outdoor activity, fresh air, and hands-on experience with branding irons, burning coals, band castrators, and scrotal tape develops healthy, hardy, and obedient children.

Unfortunately, this book is not yet available in bookstores due to Frey’s ongoing investigation by social services. However, a donation to Book Rater’s Literature Reviews can secure you a copy directly from the author. I accept PayPal, personal checks, and money orders.

Happy April 1st.