Reading Challenges

December 25, 2010

Dickens' A Christmas Carol

For the past five days I've been reading a stave a day from Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, timed to finish today on Christmas day.  I assume most are familiar with the story, so I won't summarize it here, but what a pleasure it was to finally read this text!  I've seen many a film version and even a live play or two growing up, but had never sat down to read the original Christmas tale of positive transformation.  What struck me about A Christmas Carol is just how accessible it is.  One can breeze through the book in a matter of minutes, (okay, maybe in an hour), and yet wholly appreciate the lush unrushed descriptions that Dickens provides for his characters and settings.  The atmospheric taste of how Christmas was once celebrated is equally appreciated alongside touching descriptions of Scrooge's anguish and later transformation.  It's also wonderful to hear classic quotes in their original context (decrease the surplus population, etc.), which makes them all the more relevant upon hearing them uttered as a popular culture reference.

You can read A Christmas Carol online HERE

I leave you with Dickens' preface: I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.


December 21, 2010

Friends, Lovers, Chocolate - an Isabel Dalhousie Novel by Alexander McCall Smith

In his follow-up to The Sunday Philosophy Club, Alexander McCall Smith reprises the character of Edinburgh native Isabel Dalhousie, a philsopher whose moral compass and penchant for falling upon mysterious situations help make the character a tenacious sleuth as well.  Once again, Isabel finds herself in the middle of a mystery when she meets a stranger whose recent heart transplant leads to inexplicable memories that are not his own.  Isabel's conscience dictates that answers must be sought.  Along the way she considers the moral principles of friendship, food and love.  As editor of The Review of Applied Ethics, Isabel's rich interior life guides her decision making process founded on rational ideas and carefully considered outcomes.  

Notes: I appreciate the treatment of memory in McCall Smith's work.  Because Isabel has such an active thought process, we travel with her mind as it wanders the streets of her native city, where each building, shop and street possess some sort of trace, layers of experience that form her personality and personal history.  The pro-Scottish attitude is light and humorous, but with a pride nonetheless for Scotland's literary and historical heros. 

Although the Isabel Dalhousie novels make for light reading, they are also thoughtful books that tap into ideas normally absent from many of their counterparts (that just might jumpstart a few brains into considering ethics in a practical sense!).  On that note, in the following interview McCall Smith addresses the idea of moral proximity that defines Isabel's approach to life.  Stylistic themes are briefly discussed as well (such as the lack of crime scene descriptions that render them all the more powerful, etc.):


The Lily Bard Mysteries Omnibus by Charlaine Harris


Being a fan of  Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse novels and awaiting the next in the series (Spring 2011) with baited breath, I recently dove into The Lily Bard Mysteries, my first foray into a different Harris-created universe.  For fans of the author's Southern vampires, the straightforwardness of the Lily Bard mysteries may take some getting used to.  There's nothing supernatural in Shakespeare, Arkansas, Lily's adopted home, but the small town intrigue that makes Sookie's life in Bon Temps so remarkable also prevails in Lily Bard's Shakespeare. Lily is something of a real life Buffy the Vampire Slayer without the vampires: time and time again, she unknowingly finds herself in dangerous situations where her martial arts skills are needed. Despite a few anti-social quirks and a painful history, by book number five, Lily has become a true gumshoe heroine.  

The five compiled novels in the omnibus play host to the secret pasts and desires of a colorful host of characters, with Harris' trademark humor and casual language fully in tow. The titles, in order, are as follows:

Shakespeare's Landlord
Shakespeare's Champion
Shakespeare's Christmas
Shakespeare's Trollop
Shakespeare's Counselor


In this INTERVIEW Harris comments on Lily Bard and how some of her own past is reflected in the character (scroll down, the interview is preceded by a review and a list of the author's published works).



December 17, 2010

Washington Square-Henry James

My book club's current bi-monthly read is Henry James' Washington Square, a novella that follows the 19th century drama surrounding the engagement of Catherine Slope and the rift it creates with her widowed father, a doctor.  Add to the mix Lavinia, Catherine's meddlesome aunt, and Morris Talbot, Catherine's suitor whom Dr. Slope suspects has eyes only for Catherine's generous financial holdings. 


A few notes, mostly linked to architectural themes used in the book:
I appreciated the use of intimate (and most often) static space of Catherine's home as a setting that parallels the situation she finds herself in--a very claustrophobic world composed of her small family circle that implements a lot of pressure (both societal and personal demands) and oversteps boundaries (overly eager Aunt Lavinia).  Catherine is most often stuck inside, so the home interior is also Catherine's interior that she struggles to come to terms with (family, gender roles & societal expectations, etc.). Finally she masters this "space" and becomes master of her own home.
I also appreciated imagining how quickly New York's topography was shifting in the 19th century.  The migration uptown is a pretty obvious (albeit none the less interesting) commentary on the idea of upward mobility that we find examples of in the book (also note the family name Slope) and this too enforces the claustrophobic aspects of the home I mentioned above: in contrast with New York's bustling urban environment and neighborhoods in constant transition, Washington Square remains the bedrock of the story and little on the surface changes there. At first we have the feeling that life sweeps past Catherine on Washington Square, leaving her behind as a prisoner, but later her firm resolve strikes me as stable and unmoving, just like her family home that remains central throughout.
Overall, Washington Square was a quick and enjoyable read.  I did cringe a few times reading Henry James' descriptions of the female sex, particularly Catherine's appearance (her undesirable "broad back", etc.), but alas, I can remain critical while still appreciating the good things that such books have to offer...and of course HJ isn't the worst in that way, not by a long shot.
The book can be legally downloaded to your computer or e-reader for free courtesy of Project Gutenberg: HERE
There's also an interesting snippet about the real Washington Square in an article about literary landmarks of New York at The Dusty Shelf.

December 15, 2010

Marion Zimmer Bradley's The Mists of Avalon

It seems like I've been meaning to read The Mists of Avalon for most of my life.  Childhood memories of its bulk impressed me as I glimpsed at it in my mother's room, still too young to appreciate it.  Years ago (at least ten?), I requested Bradley's famous retelling of Arthurian lore for my birthday.  With that copy sitting in an American storage unit, I picked up a more battered copy (though its 1 pound price tag was certainly attractive) at a fantastic used book store in Kirkwall (Orkney Islands) this past summer.  Incidentally, I wanted to bring nearly half the store home with me to France and had to buy an extra bag for the books husband and I could not pass up.   Six months later, I've finally read The Mists of Avalon and discovering that Bradley wrote other Avalon books is a welcome piece of news (and I won't wait another ten years to read the prequel!). 

The Mists of Avalon follows Arthur's ascent to the throne and the resulting effects on politics and culture in Britain as recounted by the legend's central female characters.  The book is largely narrated by Morgaine (Morgan Le Fay), Arthur's half sister, as she describes the ongoing struggles to preserve the matriarchal Celtic culture in which she was raised.  Here, Morgaine and Arthur's intertwined and opposing destinies take center stage, though alternating passages focus on Igraine (Arthur and Morgaine's mother), Gwenhwyfar (Guinevere), Viviane (Lady of the Lake) and Morgause as well.  The onslaught of Christianity and its many clashes with the  practice of the old religion makes for reading worthy of any political thriller, and Bradley's characters are so vibrant and personal that I had a hard time bringing myself out of the mists when I'd finally turned the last page.   



It's interesting to note that this is the first time I've seen bisexuality used to explain the magnetism between Arthur and Lancelot (Lancelot realizes he loves Gwenhwyfar and Arthur equally--and  struggles with these feelings at several points throughout the book).  Also of note: I'm absolutely  appalled at the large number of Christian book sights criticizing The Mists of Avalon.  I suppose any time you have a strong female protagonist who happens to follow a religion other than Christianity, those incapable of thinking for themselves will label it "feminazi", a term I've seen multiple times on Christian reader sites, and one that I find absolutely repulsive. I won't give such uneducated fools any more publicity except to say that they insult not only women, but holocaust survivors, and that going back to elementary school to learn what "nazi" means, among other things, is in order. 

December 2, 2010

Beatrix Potter's novel The Fairy Caravan & Miss. Potter, the film

Hilltop farm, Beatrix Potter's home referenced
in The Fairy Caravan.  Photo: Armchair Archives
Nearly everyone knows Beatrix Potter's well-loved tales of Peter Rabbit, Squirrel Nutkin, Tom Kitten and the like, but Potter also wrote a longer, albeit lesser-known, book for older children, The Fairy Caravan.  I discovered the novel this summer whilst visiting her home in the Lake District of England and was pleased to revisit the author's whimsical humor that reminded me of my childhood bouts of laughter inspired by her story, The Pie and the Paddy Pan, among others.  Published in 1929 at the urging of Potter's American fans, The Fairy Caravan follows the life of a guinea pig who runs away from home and joins a miniature traveling circus that  performs for barnyard animals unbeknownst to human folk.  The friendly yet mismatched company of a field mouse, a pig, a highland terrier and other creatures share the home of a caravan pulled by their gentle leader, Pony Billy.  Together, the friendly tribe of animals encounters all sorts of adventures, including a hilarious sequence in which Paddy pig becomes lost in the woods and--being a pig who snacks on whatever he finds in sight--falls ill with nightmarish visions when he mistakenly imbibes a mushroom infused with more than the culinary properties he bargained on.  

Not intended for publication, Potter's personified local homes and characters in The Fairy Circus are filled with Lake District references from an insider's perspective.  The local dialect in which she writes features words like cams (vertical stones found on walls and lining the roads in the Lake District) and keld (a spring of water), but not to worry, the book comes complete with a glossary of terms written by the author herself.

cams in  Hawkshead, the Lake District
Photo: Armchair Archives

During my trip in the Lake District I learned that a fictional film loosely based on true events in Beatrix Potter's life was released in 2006.  Miss Potter, directed by Chris Noonan, starring René Zellweger as Beatrix Potter and Ewan McGregor as her first love, recounts the struggles Potter faced in publishing The Tale of Peter Rabbit, clashes with her affluent parents that expected her to marry within her class, as well as the difficulties of being an independent-minded woman with an interest in science at the turn of the 20th century.  All in all, fans of Potter won't be disappointed as the film is respectful enough of her life's work and struggles.  It's not going to win any academy awards for creativity, but it's a friendly film with a few nicely animated Peter Rabbit sequences that represent Potter's deeply rooted kinship with the flora and fauna of her beloved Lake District.

The film's website is HERE.  For more information about the Lake District and Beatrix Potter, click HERE.


November 24, 2010

G.W. Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters

Every literary review and author testimonial published regarding G.W. Dahlquist's The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters boasts a staggering list of overlapping genres or literary/cinematic references that the novel calls to mind.  Initially, I had my doubts about a book whose end papers boast the following descriptions: "Think of The Advenutres of Sherlock Holmes: its lurid plots, its murky pea-soupers.  Now apply the production values of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, commission a re-write by the Marquis de Sade." and "Conan Doyle, Jules Verne, Edgar Allen Poe and Alexandre Dumas with shades of Kubrick..."  I was dubious as to whether the book would live up to the standards of such formidable giants, some of whom I count amongst my absolute favorites.  Yet, now faced with the task of noting my own thoughts on the book, the only words that come to mind are more of those genre hybrids that inspire both curiosity and skepticism at the same time.  Victorian sci-fi.  Gothic alchemical psychoanalysis.  Erotic swashbuckling steampunk thriller.  


There, now that all that genre twisting is out of my system, read this fabulous book with its artful style that isn't afraid of a run-on sentence or two and beautifully compiled, copious adjectives. The writing is lovely, the characters--although unoriginal in their unlikely-misfits-thrown-together-from-all-social-casts--are fun and personable, and it's a damn good story to boot. The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters is a fantastic tale with rotating narrative accounts told by its three main characters who unexpectedly find themselves fighting a mysterious cabal whose coercion therapy holds great consequences for both the individuals involved and the fate of several nations. Stylistically, aspects of Philip Pullman and other contemporary British writers come to mind, though Dahlquist is an American playwrite.  There exists surprisingly little buzz or background information about the books, but I did dig up the following interview with the author via Powell's Books HERE.  A sequel entitled The Dark Volume has been published by Penguin that I happily acquired recently and will soon dive into.  The official website for the books is HERE.  I can't help but think what a great film the book would make.  As I was reading, I saw the story's action unfold in my mind as a series of cinematic sequences, but since the first book seemed to tank in terms of sales, I suppose a film is rather doubtful...

I leave you with another review that begins with yet more labels, but in the author's own words: "a mixture of HP Lovecraft, Sherlock Holmes and Victorian pornography..." HERE

Camilla Läckberg's The Ice Princess

While I'm on a Scandinavian thriller jag, I should add Camilla Läckberg's The Ice Princess to my list of recently read nordic crime novels.  I never used to consider myself a thriller kind of gal until Stieg Larsson's books came into my life.  Since then, Swedish writers have made me fall hook, line and sinker for their take on the highly politicized murders and cold cases from their...well, cold country.  Lackberg is another fine example of a Swedish writer who uses her hometown (in this case, Fjällbacka)--from its climatic patterns to its socio-political terrain--to shape a mystery in intimate detail.  I look forward to reading the follow-up novel, The Preacher.



Many of the Swedish thrillers I've read share a similar interest for discussing themes related to social concerns for women, immigrants and the rise of right-wing extremism encapsulated within a winter landscape that renders life challenging, providing enough darkness to hide in the shadows and enough snow to bury secrets undetected.  Moreover, the idea of one's past actions resurfacing years later to negative effect are central in the stories of Läckberg and Larsson.

Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse Novels & Alan Ball's True Blood

HBO's series True Blood, based on Charlaine Harris' The Sookie Stackhouse Novels, has been renewed for a forth season.  For my part, I've just read the eigth novel (Dead and Gone), the complete short stories (compiled in A Touch of Dead) and viewed the show's third season.  I'm not one for hype, and there's certainly plenty of that surrounding True Blood--in France, it's the show to watch and Americans seem to be ga-ga for the trashy sex scenes they'll never catch on Prime time--but cher reader, turning your nose up for such reasons would be a grave mistake.  

Harris has created an expert depiction of small town life that is filled with humor, gothic southern mystique, monster lore and lovable characters.  Woven into her artfully crafted universe of vampires, bar maids, shape-shifters and local rednecks, there is also a message of tolerance and equal rights for all that rings through loud and clear.  As Harris says herself in the following interview, it may not be subtle, but her metaphor for gay and minority rights is wrapped up in the vampire's coming out of the coffin campaign (note the God Hates Fangs sign in the opening credits of Alan Ball's True Blood).  True Blood departs considerably at times from the plot of the Sookie Stackhouse Novels and expands the roles of secondary characters like Jason, Terry and Lafayette (fabulously portrayed by Ryan Kwanten Todd Lowe and Nelsan Ellis, by the way).  The great character acting is reason enough to invest time in watching the show, but the books flow so well from one to the next, you may just find yourself  running to the store to buy them all.

Henning Mankell's Kurt Wallander

Recently I was introduced to the Yellow Bird films based on Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell's beloved inspector Kurt Wallander books.  The timing couldn't be better as I've been searching for something to help me avoid the withdraw symptoms experienced since completing Stieg Larsson's Millenium trilogy (in both book and film format).  Similar socio-political themes and nordic small town locations help create the same atmospheric tension that Larsson crafted so well.  Incidentally, Yellow Bird is also the same company that produced the Millenium films.  I haven't had the pleasure of reading Mankell's series yet, but will put it on my wishlist.  As so often happens, the books appear to vary from the films which, based on what I've read on fan sites, offer a more lighthearted take on the character and also focus on his detective daughter Linda from the get-go.


Inspector Wallander appears to be a pretty popular character: he has his own website, two televised/filmic takes on his life in Sweden and a British remake with none other than Kenneth Branagh in the lead.  For now I'm enjoying watching Krister Henriksson's portrayal of Wallander in the Yellow Bird series, but who knows how attached I'll get to Henning Mankell's Ystad inspector?


And if you happen to be heading off to southern Sweden any time soon, be sure to follow the inspector's footsteps in Ystad with information from this helpful website HERE



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