Reading Challenges

December 31, 2011

2011-A Reading Year in Review:

Happy New Year, everyone! May your 2012 be filled with wonderful reads! A few thoughts on my reading this year as 2011 draws to a close:

Total number of books read: 58

Favorite new-to-me contemporary authors: toss up between Mario Vargas Llosa (The Storyteller) & Jasper Fforde (The Eyre Affair).

Favorite new-to-me historic authors: Wilkie Collins (whose The Woman in White left me page turning into the wee hours of the morning), Emily Brontë (how sad that Wuthering Heights was her only novel--I enjoy her sisters' writing very much as well, but Emily's work is the strongest and most interesting conceptually) and Horace Walpole (The Castle of Otranto may date back to the 18th century, but this Gothic novel is as fresh and entertaining as ever).

New genre of reading explored: graphic novels. At my husband's urging, I picked up a few graphic novels this year. At first, I was dead-set against it and I couldn't imagine that it would be an enjoyable experience. I grew up in the US where comics are not exactly respected for their intellectual content, but since my husband was raised in France, he views comic books, like the rest of the nation, as a serious art form whose text and drawings may cover a range of subjects, be them philosophical or on the lighter side. Although graphic novels are still not my favorite genre, I have learned to appreciate the diversity of the authors and artists, particularly Belgian and French, but even a few Americans! In short, I may not be the world's greatest comic collector, but I have come to respect the potential this form holds and may search out a few new titles in 2012, much to my husband's glee. 

New way of reading: My husband gave me a Kindle for my birthday in August and it has completely revolutionized my reading. I absolutely love it! For one thing, I'm not restricted by budget, as classics, a large number of the books I read, are available for free. In addition, when I travel (which I do frequently), I can have an entire library with me in one light easy-to-transport device. In the past, I used to agonize over which books I'd pack, not to mention how heavy those guidebooks get when you're visiting more than one country. This backpacker thinks the Kindle is worthwhile just to have for traveling, if not for everyday life. But oh how I love it in everyday life too! Once again, having so many books in one light place is amazing! The multiple dictionary function is wonderful, as well--makes reading in multiple languages a breeze (FYI, if you've never used a Kindle, the dictionary function allows you to click on a word to view its definition at the bottom or top of the page you're reading. When you're done, it disappears and you never have to leave the page you're on). I also enjoy the possibility to make notes on my Kindle, bookmark pages and highlight passages. 

Worst read of the year: Ick. Just thinking about it makes me groan. I read La Sorcière de Portobello (The Witch of Portobello) by Paulo Coelho. A number of people had urged me to read it because the book deals with several locations that I've travelled to (Romania and Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer in France) and that are special to me. Indeed, I'm interested in Roma (Gypsy) culture, but this new-age know-it-all novel is not for me. Not by a long shot. It felt like reading one long cardboard cliché after another (you know the sort: "Love is the answer. Love makes the world go round. Love is bright."--okay, you get the picture). Blehhhhh. 

Current reads that will overlap into 2012: The Iliad (Fagles' translation)--rereading for the first time since high school in preparation for a trip to Greece, The Blue Fairy Book compiled by Andrew Lang (I'm having fun reading a story at a time in conjunction with the Sisters Grimm books I've been reading and the television shows Grimm and Once Upon a Time).

Ongoing projects that will overlap into 2012: The Arabian Nights (begun while in Morocco in February 2011, halfway completed--will reference in conjunction with folklore/mythology research), The Bible (King James version, referencing the JDP version from time to time as well)  in conjunction with a DVD course analyzing the Bible as literature, and completing War and Peace, initially begun as a chapter-a-day read along. 

Reading Goals in 2012: In addition to my above projects that will overlap into 2012, I'd also like to take the opportunity to read sequels or additional works by authors whom I've read only once. I'm really looking forward to Carlos Ruiz Zafon's prequel to The Shadow of the Wind, a book I loved, but whose prequel has been sitting on my TBR shelf for an entire year. I also want to read in preparation for my trip to Greece and Turkey. I plan to reread a lot of historical and mythological texts that I haven't covered in quite some time, moving on to contemporary literature from each respective country. Other than that, I'm going to try not to get too bogged down with reading goals like I did last year. I'll only set myself up for some silly disappointment if I promise to read 100 books. Obviously, I didn't and that's okay. Here's a list of what I did read in 2011:

1.) In Arabian Nights- Tahir Shah
2.) Grave Sight- Charlaine Harris
3.) Napoleon's Pyramids- William Dietrich
4.) Real Murders- Charlaine Harris
5.) A Bone to Pick- Charlaine Harris
6.) Persuasion - Jane Austen
7.) Pages from Cold Point & Other Short Stories - Paul Bowles
8.) The Julius House - Charlaine Harris
9.) Destination Unknown - Agatha Christie
10.) Hideous Kinky - Esther Freud
11.) Les Voix de Marrakech - Elias Canetti
12.)The Right Attitude to Rain - Alexander McCall Smith
13.)The Prince of Mist - Carlos Ruiz Zafón
14.) The Careful Use of Compliments - Alexander McCall Smith
15.) Letter to a Christian Nation - Sam Harris
16.) Dead in the Family - Charlaine Harris
17.) The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith
18.) Sophie's World (second time) - Jostein Gaarder
19.) Eternal Chalice: The Grail in Literature and Legend - Monica Potkay
20.) The Storyteller - Marios Vargas Llosa
21.) The House Without a Key - Earl Derr Biggers
22.) Sur les Chemins de Glace (Of Walking on Ice) - Werner Herzog
23.) The Woman in White- Wilkie Collins
24.) A History of Insects - Yvonne Roberts
25.) Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë
26.) The Railway Children - Edith Nesbit
27.) To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf
28.) The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver
29.) La Sorcière de Portobello - Paulo Coelho
30.) Dead Reckoning - Charlaine Harris
31.) The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde
32.) Peggy Sue et les Fantômes:Le Jour du Chien Bleu - Serge Brussolo
33.) Bard of the Middle Ages: The Works of Geoffery Chaucer 
- Michael Drout
34.) Myths and Mysteries in Archaeology - Susan A. Johnston
35.) The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole
36.) Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë
37.) Bleak House- Charles Dickens
38.) Hanoi Stories - Pamela Scott
39.) Portuguese Irregular Verbs - Alexander McCall Smith
40.) Lady Audley's Secret - Mary Elizabeth Braddon
41.) The Hunger Games - Suzanne Collins
42.) Catching Fire - Suzanne Collins
43.) Mockingjay - Suzanne Collins
44.) The Murders in the Rue Morgue and other C. Auguste Dupin stories - Edgar Allen Poe
45.) Little Women - Louisa May Alcott
46.) Louisa May Alcott's Christmas Treasury
47.) The Sisters Grimm-Fairy Tale Detectives - Michael Buckley
48.) The Sisters Grimm-The Unusual Suspects - Michael Buckley
49.) Spike-Brian Lynch
50 - 58): Buffy the Vampire Slayer - Season 9, Volumes 1-8 (don't laugh until you've actually examined these books/show for its feminist slant, mythological exploration, etc.--good stuff!)

December 22, 2011

Dickens' "Household Words"

During the past year I've read a good deal of Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens (The Woman in White, A Christmas Carol, Bleak House, etc.) and while doing so, I've often wondered about the magazine Dickens published, Household Words. Many of the author's great novels, as well as those written by his peers (Collins for one!) were first published in serial format within the weekly magazine's pages. I began to look online for modern-day copies of the publication, convinced that issues must exist today in some sort of anthology format. I didn't turn up much via mega booksellers like Amazon, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that readers can (legally) access copies of Household Words electronically and free of charge via the website archive.org. Not only is it possible to consult issues of Household Words in PDF format, e-reader files are also available. With the click of a button, my Kindle is stocked with the publishing universe of Dickens' own creation, and I'm excited to explore this new terrain. The first issue of Household Words was released on December 21, 1850, just in time for Christmas. Download it in a variety of formats (left hand column) HERE and see what others were reading in December, 161 years ago.

December 21, 2011

Happy Holiday Reading!

1913 edition
Last week a few exciting holiday treasures arrived in my mailbox. Among them, and the item I'm most excited about, was a 1913 edition of Christmas with Dickens. This find hails from Loe Books, an online book collector's shop in Cornwall.  Sure, it's not a first edition by any means--it's about fifty years too late for that, but the find was a bargain at €12 ($15), and older books have such character that this little pocket-sized edition (it measures around 7 inches in length) was impossible to pass up. It features a selection of Charles Dickens' holiday-themed stories with charming illustrations, hand-lettered text and a gorgeous embossed cover.

The artist whose illustrations grace the pages of Christmas with Dickens is none other than Chas Pears, a popular early 20th century painter who continued to work through the second World War. There's an excellent entry on his work and life at Bear Alley Books. Having read A Christmas Carol last December, I'm looking forward to revisiting Dickens' holiday universe this year with tales like A Christmas Dinner. I haven't read any of the five stories yet as I'm saving them for Christmas Eve.

In the meantime, I've been reading another new arrival on my shelves, Louisa May Alcott's Christmas Treasury. Having finished Little Women last week, I was excited to dive into this collection because it features  a selection of the author's writing for both adults and younger audiences. Since Alcott was such a versatile author, it's interesting to see what remains coherent in her writing (idealism, modesty--slightly preachy, but not obnoxiously so) and how her stories vary depending on the targeted readers.  Finishing the short story A Hospital Christmas, set during the Civil War, gave me a taste of Alcott's Hospital Sketches, a longer work inspired by her time serving as a war-time nurse. I'll definitely be adding Hospital Sketches to my TBR pile in 2012 and look forward to reading more of Alcott's adult fiction. In the meantime, I'll be hard at work finishing these Christmas tales and moving on to Dickens' holiday universe, all the while trying to finish my gingerbread house, wrap gifts and do other elf-worthy activities.

***Happy Holidays and Happy Reading to you all! ****

December 9, 2011

Edgar Allen Poe's C. Auguste Dupin

Aubrey Beardsley's illustration for
The Murders in the Rue Morgue
Published in 1841, Edgar Allen Poe's short story The Murders in the Rue Morgue is often credited as the first piece of detective fiction. Although Poe never refers to his Parisian hero as a detective, the savy C. Auguste Dupin is just that. In fact, Dupin's investigative methods are strikingly familiar because they provided the model for a far more well known literary detective, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Side note: for more information on the origins of the word detective, a term which would have been known in Poe's time, but only within the context of the police, see the excellent article over at Mystery File. 

Auguste Dupin uses his reason, or as Poe call its ratocination, to solve two more mysteries that follow The Murders in the Rue Morgue: The Mystery of Marie Rogêt and The Purloined Letter. In addition to Dupin's analytical approach, other aspects of the stories that helped develop a framework for future mysteries, including those centered on iconic detectives like Holmes and Hercule Poirot, are:

December 5, 2011


Over at Should be Reading, the Musing Mondays meme asks, How many books do you read in a week? Month? Year? 

The question is deceptively simple because the answer not only factors in how much free time we dedicated readers devote to our books, it also leads to more questions regarding our reading materials--their level of difficulty and length, in particular.

Reading in the Christmas Spirit


Here in France the bakeries have begun to roll out their gorgeous bûches de Noël (Christmas log cakes), thus I know it's time to get ready for the holidays and put up our tree. Although we don't celebrate Christmas in the religious sense, I do pine for those cozy childhood holidays of years past when glistening decorations captured my imagination and warm meals surrounded by the camaraderie of family and friends left me feeling warm and festive (how's that for cliché? but all true, I assure you!). Last year I ushered in the holidays by reading Dicken's A Christmas Carol. It's short enough that I might just make an annual tradition of it, but this year I also plan to read the same author's other Christmas tales, A Christmas Dinner, The Chimes, The Cricket on the Hearth, etc. 
Other books I've considered reading this December include:

November 29, 2011

Where in the World...?

Where in the world have I been? My loong blogging hiatus was not intentional, but life and travels (Hong Kong & Vietnam) really haven't left me much time for checking in or writing reviews. I'm looking forward to getting caught up with everyone else's blog posts and writing a few of my own. For the time being, here's a list of books I've finished recently:

Bleak House - Charles Dickens (special marks for this one--and I'm currently geeking out over the 2005 BBC mini-series!).

Hanoi Stories - Pamela Scott (a nice memoir of an Australian expat's eight years spent in Vietnam).

Portuguese Irregular Verbs - Alexander McCall Smith (this one gave me quite a chuckle).

I'm currently devouring Lady Audley's Secret, part of the progression of works I'm reading in relation to the audio course I completed earlier this year, Detective Fiction: From the Victorian Era to the Present. Bleak House is said to be one of the first novels to feature an investigator (Investigator Bucket) and Lady Audley's Secret is a close cousin of early detective fiction, belonging to the genre of the sensationalist novel (like The Woman in White, also read earlier this year). Next on this list is another work by Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, considered by many to be the first mystery novel.


I hope to be back on track with regular blogging as of now, but we'll see what life throws my way! :-)

August 16, 2011

Coming Soon...

Lately I've been on a reading frenzy, but haven't had time to write and post reviews, so just a note to myself that the following books deserve their due in the coming days:

1.) The Lacuna - Barbara Kingsolver (two thumbs up!)

2.) La Sorcière de Portobello (The Witch of Portobello) - Paulo Coelho (ickkk what was I thinking?--this one was actually recommended due to several locations which I have visited that are discussed in the story--it was SO not worth it). I read it in French because it's closer to Portugese (the book's original language), but it's available in something like 74 languages, including English, according to the back cover.

3.) Dead Reckoning - Charlaine Harris (had to do a fluff reading I knew I would love to wash out the bad taste Coelho left).

4.) The Eyre Affair - Jasper Fforde (fantastic novel, easily one of my favorite reads this year and a new favorite author).

5.) Peggy Sue et les Fantômes: Le Jour du Chien Bleu (Peggy Sue and the Phantoms: The Day of the Blue Dog) - Serge Brussolo (great novel somewhere between sci-fi, dystopia & horror, unfortunately not translated into English).

6.)The Castle of Otranto - Horace Walpole (fantastically fun and charming Gothic read).

5.) Jane Eyre - Charlotte Brontë (enjoyable and well constructed, but not as creative as Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights--since it doesn't seem like one can be discussed without mentioning the other--well, they were published the same year).

August 15, 2011

Harvard Film List Project

Originally I planned to update our film project progress via the comments section of this blog's FILM PAGE (you can read all about the cinema studies endeavors that my husband and I have decided to undertake there) because I didn't feel I had the time to write real blog entries for films AND books. I really want to continue blogging primarily about books. However, I see now how full the comments section is getting on the film page and it's not pretty, so instead I thought I'd share a few film links when available via YouTube and a few lines as a way to document our film studies. You won't find full reviews here, but I"m always happy to discuss more in-depth via the comments section. 

French director Georges Méliès (father of fantasy and sci-fi in film's earliest years of existence) is always a joy to watch. His theatrical genie paved the way for amazing special effects, as witnessed in the underwater (among other) scenes in Le Royaume des Fées (The Kingdom of the Fairies) from 1903. Here's the film in two parts:

August 10, 2011

Mid-year Progress

Initially I planned to write a six month progress report in June detailing my reading during the first half of the year for various reading challengesread-alongs, etc. that I've signed up for. At long last, here's my progress report in the 8th month of the year...better late than never, right?. 

TOTAL NUMBER OF BOOKS READ: As of 8/2011 I have read 31 titles (hmmm...I had hoped for more, but it's no so much about the number of books read, but rather the quality of what is read--not to dish fluff reading because I do it too, but there's a big difference between packing away a paranormal romance a day versus reading classics that merit a bit more reflection).

READING CHALLENGES:

First the good news: I've completed the Forgotten Treasures reading challenge. I went for Level 2 (7 books that are at least 25 years old). I actually went on to book #11 that qualifies for the challenge before realizing that I had achieved my goal (no matter--I wasn't reading said books specifically for the challenge). Perhaps by 2012 I'll have made it to the bonus round, who knows? For now, these are my reviews (click on the title) for the completion of the Forgotten Treasures challenge level 2:

1.) Persuasion - Jane Austen (1816)
2.) Pages from Cold Point & Other Stories - Paul Bowles (1950)
3.) Destination Unknown - Agatha Christie (1954)
4.) The Voices of Marrakech - Elias Canetti (1968)
6.) The House Without a Key - Earl Derr Biggers (1925)
7.) Of Walking on Ice: Munich-Paris - Werner Herzog (1978)
8.) The Woman in White - Wilkie Collins (1859)
9.) Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë (1847)
10.) To the Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf (1927)
11.) The Railway Children - Edith Nesbit (1905)

-In regard to other challenges, I thought I'd be further along. For example, I've only read two titles for the wonderful Vintage Mysteries Challenge (see above list for The House Without a Key and Destination Unknown) where I signed up to read 10-12 books, so I'll need to step up my vintage mystery reading (it's not as if that's a chore!).  

-I'm not faring too much better with the equally fun Gothic Reading Challenge, for which I've only read two titles towards the level "the darkness within", which requires 5 books. 

-My progress for the Cozy Mysteries Reading Challenge is going much better: I signed up for "super sleuth" level and have completed 11 of 13 titles. I'll be listing those in a wrap-up post when I finish the challenge.

-For the Chunkster Reading Challenge (fiction or non-fiction greater than 450 pages), I've completed half of the challenge (soon to be 3/4, if I can get crackin' on a new review) with the titles Sophie's World and The Woman in White. Recently I finished reading Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna, which will soon be added to the list. I'm confident I'll finish this challenge with a bang, since if all goes well, I'll have finished War and Peace, as well as Don Quixote before 2012 rolls around. 

- I haven't said much about the Into the Old World Reading Challenge because that one encompasses a vast amount of books; any title published before 2009 qualifies. I post my reviews there monthly, but as there are no levels or titles to work towards, I'll wait until January to write a wrap-up post.

-The most recent challenge I've joined is the Japanese Literature Reading Challenge, but this challenge only involves reading one work of Japanese literature. With The Tale of Genji and Akagatawa's short stories on my TBR list, I'm not concerned about completing this one. 

READ-ALONGS:

-In July I completed reading Virgina Woolf's To the Lighthouse in four installments with Unputdownables. You can see a list of my four weekly reviews by clicking on them in this post.

-In January I signed on to read a chapter every day from Tolstoy's epic novel, War and Peace for one year at Jillian's blog, A Room of One's Own. While I discovered that I love War and Peace, the chapter-a-day model just isn't working for me. I love to sit down with a book and move through it intensely, not reading in such a choppy fashion. Even spreading To the Lighthouse over four weeks was a challenge for me. Soon I plan to sit down with Tolstoy and read War and Peace from cover to finish as an alternative to reading a chapter a day (in case you're wondering, the book has 365 chapters which is the root of the chapter-a-day idea). 

Do you have any reading goals in 2011? Are you satisfied with your progress? 

August 8, 2011

Edith Nesbit's The Railway Children


From time to time I come across a classic work of young adult fiction that somehow passed me by in my youth; The Railway Children is one such title. Initially I had it confused with that lovable series I have read called The Boxcar Children, but this novel is much older, having been published in 1905. The story details how an English family of five, including three children, move to a new home at Three Chimneys under strained circumstances. While the children are at first unaware of their family's precarious new position, they gradually come to learn that money is extremely scarce and that their father, a member of the foreign office, has been imprisoned for treason.

July 29, 2011

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse Read Along-Week 4








The reading of this short novel has sadly come to an end. I've read it in four sections, one for each week in July, following the schedule proposed by read-along host Unputdownables HERE.

July 24, 2011

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse Read Along-Week 3


This third week's To the Lighthouse reading revealed what I suspected might happen last week: a strong shift in plot and mood. The first half of the book has us soak up an atmosphere that is so detailed and told from a variety of perspectives that one moment feels like an eternity as we are privy to the innermost thoughts and feelings of Woolf's characters. During this time of rich and unhurried writing, though, we feel a build-up, and one anticipates the tide of change, just as the sky and waves show signs of a storm on the horizon.

July 17, 2011

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse Read Along-Week 2


Another week, another quarter of To the Lighthouse completed. For those of you who haven't already heard, I'm participating in Unputdownable's Virginia Woolf July read-along of To the Lighthouse HERE. You can find my very first impressions HERE. This week we readers began to learn more about the characters as various perspectives continued to be explored, revealing new threads of insight here and there. In my last post, I voiced my unease with Mrs. Ramsay's Victorian-esque sense of propriety and perfection. Onward her behavior demonstrates more and more the neurosis and critical nature that comes with such a label.

July 14, 2011

Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights

A few months ago I decided rather randomly that it was high time I read Wuthering Heights, a book that has popped up in conversation and in cultural references since my childhood. Diving in, I didn't really have any preconceived notions of how I might feel about Wuthering Heights, though early reading proved a bit difficult in that I didn't feel particularly engrossed in the exposition. Plowing onward, Chapter 5 marked a turning point, however, and I'm happy to report that I  fully respect Emily Brontë's brilliance now and what makes Wuthering Heights an enduring classic.


July 8, 2011

Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse Read Along-Week 1


This July I'm participating in Unputdownable's July read-a-long dedicated to Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse HERE. For me this will be an interesting experiment as the reading is broken down into four sections, one for each week in July.

July 5, 2011

Yvonne Roberts' A History of Insects


The year is 1956 and young Ella Jackson lives in the British High Command's compound in Peshawar, Pakistan. Although compound life for her parents and their expat colleagues is largely insular and separatist, nine year old Ella oscillates between two worlds: the privileged white-washed world of her family and the reality of Pakistani life with its growing anti-British sentiment.

June 27, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins


It was only a few months ago that I first heard mention of the 19th century author Wilkie Collins, and in retrospect, I wonder how wonderful works like his The Woman in White have managed to escape my radar for so long. Charlaine Harris, author of my favorite fluff series, mentioned somewhere that Collins is one of her favorite authors and my curiosity was peeked. Since that discovery, it seems like everywhere I turn fellow bookworms are mentioning The Woman in White. I must have stumbled onto a new literary trend...or perhaps a Rennaissance of reading Wilkie Collins? Truth be told, The Woman in White has never been out of print since its publication in 1860 as a novel (it was previously released in serial format), so Wilkie Collins' rebirth in the 21st Century may not be the right way to put it.

June 20, 2011

Werner Herzog's Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris


I'm a huge fan of Werner Herzog's films, so when his retrospective was screened at Paris' Centre Pompidou (National Museum of Contemporary Art) last year, I was pleased to find Of Walking in Ice: Munich-Paris in the museum's excellent bookshop. The travelogue has been reprinted (this is true for French editions, I'm not sure about English language copies of the book), and reveals that the film director is not only gifted for capturing his observations on film, but on paper as well.

June 16, 2011

Earl Derr Biggers' The House Without a Key (Charlie Chan)


My first introduction to the well-loved detective Charlie Chan came as a young child via my grandfather. He initiated me into the vintage world of noir mystery with scratchy VHS copies of the black and white films of the 1930s courtesy of our local library. My memories of the stories are fuzzy, but I still recall their cozy ambiance, perfect for curling up in front of on a rainy day.

June 15, 2011

The Storyteller by Marios Vargas Llosa


Reading The Storyteller was my first experience with 2010 Nobel Laureate Marios Vargas Llosa, a Peruvian born writer now based in Spain. Known as one of the Latin American "Boom" writers, Vargas Llosa's first novel, The Time of the Hero, was released in 1963 shortly after he completed his doctoral thesis on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Since that time, Vargas Llosa has developed an international reputation for his gift of invention in the realms of narrative techniques and perception, both quite palpable in The Storyteller.

June 12, 2011

Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder


This is another book that falls into the category of I've-been-meaning-to-read-it-for-years, so I'm delighted to have rediscovered it and relay the news that it was certainly worthwhile reading. Often advertised as juvenile literature, Gaarder asserts that he wrote Sophie's World as a philosophy companion for middle school/high school-aged students whom, the author laments, are not required to study philosophy at public school in his native Norway. Well, sadly, most young Anglophone students aren't either, so it turns out, Sophie's World is an international bestseller, perhaps filling in some of the blanks (gaping holes?) that our respective educational systems have left us with.  Madeleine L'Engle certainly thought so: she once said of Sophie's World "How I wish I'd had it during my college freshman survey of philosophy!".

June 11, 2011

Eternal Chalice: The Grail in Literature & Legend by Monica Brzezinski Potkay


Recently I've discovered a series of audio books entitled The Modern Scholar. Each title in the series is a  course that addresses a specialized topic in history, literature, science or cultural studies through lectures on CD, as well as a book that complements the information provided in the recorded material. Being the Arthurian junkie that I am, I leapt into the course Eternal Chalice: The Grail in Literature and Legend,  written and read by Monica Brzezinski Potkay, a professor of literature at the College of William and Mary.

Beginning with Chrétien de Troye's first reference to the Grail in the Medieval romance Perceval ou Le Conte du Graal, Professor Potkay covers the Grail's literary heritage in historic France, Britain and Germany, working up to the Pre-Raphelite's love affair with Arthurian lore in the 19th century, and ending in the present with pop-cultural favorites, such as the Disney film The Sword in the Stone and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, among others. The eight hour course in divided into fourteen lectures and is both a thorough and enjoyable exploration of the origins of the Grail, the evolution of its symbolism and why it is such a lasting topic that continues to generate interest today.

Recently the BBC published an online gallery called The Legend of the Holy Grail. You can view the images, many of which are referenced in this course, HERE.


The official course description of Eternal Chalice is as follows:

The goal of this course is to provide an overview of the many different ways writers of fiction and nonfiction have imagined, and reimagined, the object known as the Grail. We'll look at how the Grail was invented as a powerful literary symbol in the late 12th and early 13th centuries by a group of medieval romancers who celebrated the Grail as a symbol of perfection. At times, this perfection was social, and the Grail functioned as a symbol of the perfect knight or of the ideal chivalric society. Most often, however, the Grail's perfection was unmistakably religious, so that it was indeed the Holy Grail. After being ignored for centuries, the Grail was rediscovered in the 19th century by both poets and scholars, who radically reinvented what the Grail stood for. Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Grail fascinates many...


If you're looking for more information on the course, you can visit the Modern Scholar Series page for Eternal Chalice HERE, but if you're looking to purchase a copy, you can find it for half the price on Amazon and even less if you're willing to buy it on audio cassette instead of CD. I don't normally post links to Amazon, but I will do so HERE, so you can easily visit the link if interested. You can also click HERE for the CD version (Amazon in partnership with audible.com).


Finally, if you're interested in Arthurian lore and literature, I posted about The Mists of Avalon back in December, HERE.


To leave you on a lighter note...behold a group of gallant knights as they endure the archetypal trials and tribulations demanded of any respectable Grail quest: 





June 10, 2011

Dead in the Family (Sookie Stackhouse) by Charlaine Harris

Those of you who have been with me since the beginning know that one of my guiltiest pleasures is Charlaine Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series.  Last Spring, having finished all the other Sookie books,  Dead in the Family was released in hardback to much anticipation, but all my other Sookie books are uniform paperbacks, and to be honest, I really didn't feel like forking over twenty euros for a book that I'd finish in about an hour (albeit one very enjoyable hour). So, I took a deep breath, eventually went into withdrawal and began the long wait for a paperback copy, discovering a few of Harris' other series during the interim (which was admittedly a new-found pleasure even if not as a great a one as the Sookie books). This year I pre-ordered Dead in the Family on Amazon and got a paperback version as soon as it became available in April.  

While I haven't lost any of my enthusiasm for Harris' well-loved series, it's really tough to read the Sookie books separately with long gaps between novels. They flow extremely well as a series of stories and I had the feeling that I'd lost some of the momentum, simply because after a year, my memory wasn't as sharp on some of the details that really enrich the plot and make the books so irresistible. A word of advice: the series makesfor such easy reading, if you've let some time pass from one book to the next, you may as well go back and read them all again. Its what I should've done to bring myself up to speed. In any case, due to being a bit "out of the loop", the first few chapters of Dead in the Family were enjoyable, but not like the page turners I remembered. However, half-way through, I had fully rekindled my love for Harris' Southern vampire community and felt on track again. 

Dead in the Family continues the tale of a supernatural (sups) community in flux, with new characters entering and exiting at all times amid a host of our favorite characters still fully on board from the very first novel. The repercussions of the Fae War, the shifter's "coming out" and Sookie's new relationship with Eric develop further as well as a new conflict with a vampire king.... My only complaint is that now with Dead Reckoning out in hardback, Harris' latest release, I'll have to wait yet another year for a softcover...

May 2, 2011

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency - Alexander McCall Smith


I'm definitely a few years late on the bandwagon regarding Alexander McCall Smith's wildly popular series that begins with The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, but on the positive side, I won't have to wait impatiently for the follow-up, or follow-ups I should say. The twelfth book in the series was just released in March 2011. 

In the first novel, readers are introduced to the series' heroine, Precious Ramotswe, a single woman determined to establish and run Botwasana's first private detective agency. With absolutely no training whatsoever, but armed with a clear head and a keen sense of justice, Ramotswe finds that there are plenty of mysteries lurking about Southern Africa. 

From the banalities of adultery and mistaken identity to more complex cases of kidnapping and witchcraft, Ramotswe's tenacious investigating continually triumphs against the odds. Along the way, readers are treated to gorgeous images of the Botswanan landscape and insights into the culture of Southern Africa, in addition to a good dose of McCall Smith's favorite subject, ethics. 

Readers familiar with the author's Isabel Dalhousie series already know that McCall Smith's real-life background in bio-ethics regularly inspire him to explore moral dilemmas of the more everyday variety in his fiction. In The Ladies' No. 1 Detective Agency, Mma Ramotswe, as she's respectfully referred to, juggles the implications of each case she pursues. Questions linked to gender, multiculturalism and justice all factor in, proving that the solution to a mystery isn't always cut and dry...

McCall Smith succeeds at capturing all the trappings of a classic cozy mystery within a vibrant, entirely new setting. He has also created a fantastic heroine in Mma Ramotswe, whose greatest power lies equally in her vulnerability as a human being and her  uncompromising inner strength. The second novel in the series, Tears of the Giraffe, is already waiting on my shelf...

April 28, 2011

Update

Thank you so much to Deidra over at  A Storybook World who recently honored me with the Creative Blog Award. I'm delighted!

After a bit of an absence due to work-related projects, I'm happy to be ushered back into the blogosphere with such a nice award.


On that note, I'm also excited to let you know that I've been chosen as a featured reviewer for my favorite online book source Awesome Books. Reviews will be linked directly from my blog, so keep your eyes peeled for a new book review coming soon! 

March 14, 2011

Alexander McCall Smith's Isabel Dalhousie Novels


Some of you may remember my initial post about Alexander McCall Smith's creation, the philosopher Isabel Dalhousie, a nosy yet ethical Scotswoman whose inquisitive nature lands her in many a sticky situation, but normally results in a positive outcome. Recently, I've completed the third and forth books in the series, The Right Attitude to Rain and The Careful Use of Compliments. The former concentrates on myriad developments in Isabel's personal life as opposed to the mysteries we've grown accustomed to in the first two books. Fortunately, the latter sees us return once again to the successful formula that places our heroine's professional and private life on equal footing. In The Careful Use of Compiments questions related to honesty, authenticity and the use of money are raised, encapsulated in the cozy Scottish environment of Edinburgh and Jura (a coastal island), providing the perfect backdrops for an art history-themed mystery. Fans of Isabel's romantic life won't be disappointed either, there's plenty to read about regarding her newest family addition and young love. 

Isabel, as usual, handles her quirky lifestyle with aplomb as she tenaciously attempts to track down an artist who is forging profitable masterpieces by a deceased renown Scottish painter, but are the works truly forgeries? If people are happy with a painting they've bought, should the fact that it's a forgery make any difference? What is a painting's true worth? You may find yourself contemplating these questions alongside Edinburgh's favorite busybody moral philosopher...

The author has an excellent website HERE

Alexander McCall Smith discusses The Careful Use of Compliments:



March 11, 2011

The Voices of Marrakech by Elias Canetti


Well, my original review seems to have been lost in the ether somewhere (that's a first!), so I'll try to summarize here what I reported on earlier today. If Hideous Kinky (see post below), gives a vintage view of Morocco in the 1970s, Nobel prize winning Elias Canetti's The Voices of Marrakech reaches further back in time to provide a glimpse of life in the immediate post-colonial period of Morocco in the 1950s. Like Esther Freud's memoirs, the author focuses on the hub of Marrakech and its bustling central square filled with characters, the Djama El Fna.

While The Voices of Marrakech ranks high atop most lists of must-read Moroccan travelogues, the book is far from being a literary treasure. Its tone is straightforward, if not a bit dry, and flows from informational sections that read like standard non-fiction to personal recollections of the author's own encounters and experiences. What is impressive about reading Canetti's account is noting just how little has changed in Morocco since the time the memoirs were written. For this reason, the most valuable portion of the book is perhaps the chapter dedicated to the Mellah, or Jewish quarter, because this is one aspect of the Moroccan cultural landscape that has changed drastically in the past century. Marrakech, and a few other Moroccan cities, were once home to a sizable Jewish population and the country prided itself on its diversity. This population has since decreased exponentially and no longer resides in the traditional Mellah quarters. 

The first section dedicated to the camel trade is also of interest as this is one aspect of Moroccan culture that can be hard to tap into while visiting the country due to language barriers or accessibility issues related to camel traders and their travel routes. Canetti's experiences with Moroccan Jews and camel traders act as valuable documents for those interested in Moroccan history and culture. Still, The Voices of Marrakech is really only recommendable for true Morocco aficionados. For those who are looking for an entertaining read or a first introduction to life in Morocco, there are better choices available such as the works of author Tahir Shah, whom I blogged about HERE.  


Elias Canetti is an interesting figure who led a vibrant life. Born in Bulgaria, he later immigrated to England, Austria and Switzerland, in addition to traveling abroad frequently. You can read a full list of the author's award-winning titles and access his biographical details HERE


March 7, 2011

Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud


I read Hideous Kinky five years ago or so after seeing the film adaptation, but decided to pick up this quick read again after my first visit to Morocco.  The author, daughter of  renown painter Lucian Freud and great-granddaughter of Sigmund Freud, spent her early childhood in Morocco traveling alongside her older sister and bohemian mother. Freud's illustrious family ties are deceptive, however, as Hideous Kinky details the impoverished lifestyle the children often led as their single mother searched for a way to make ends meet between payments received from their father back home in England.

What's refreshing about Hideous Kinky is that unlike many memoirs, Freud is quite adept at recounting how she perceived events in Morocco as a five year old child, capturing both the simplicity and imagination of a young girl not yet encumbered by prejudice or the colonialist attitudes of adult expatriates. The young sisters' adventures are both humorous and insightful, largely taking place in the cosmopolitan hub of Marrakech and its famous central square, Djama El Fna, as well as a few other escapades in the remote countryside that involve hitchhiking and a dangerous road trip to Algiers.  

Freud also writes with a neutral voice about her mother, although readers may draw their own conclusions about what constitutes responsible parenthood, especially when the girls visibly yearn for stability that their well-meaning mother, on a personal spiritual quest, fails to provide. References to the mother also offer a window into the counter-culture movement of the West that infiltrated Morocco in the 1960's and 70's (escape from convention in Anglo-Saxon societies versus the relaxed quality of the Mediterranean lifestyle). In short, the book provides a nice balance between its observations of Morocco and Moroccan people, as well as the country's foreign guests (largely from Europe and North America) that were heavily present post-colonialism during the hippy era.

Film adaptation of Hideous Kinky
When I finished my second reading of Hideous Kinky, I also decided to give the film (of the same title), a second go as well. Although the cast does an excellent job, the story itself suffers quite a bit at the hands of the script, which turns the film into more of the mother's story and her romance with Bilal, a local, well-loved and accepted by the sisters. As a result, it loses the children's perspective of Morocco and focuses more on the spiritual aspects of expatriate life at the time (Danish and Americans alike sit around a table wishing on a dead Sufi's shoe, for instance). The film also creates a picture-postcard vision of Morocco, omitting the grittier street life described in the book (and anchored in reality) that takes place amid Marrakech's stunning pink architecture and lush surrounding valleys. 

Click HERE to read an interview with Esther Freud in which she discusses her writing process, Hideous Kinky, and her novel The Sea House.


February 24, 2011

Agatha Christie's Destination Unknown


As you've probably gathered, in January I read a handful of books written by Moroccan authors or set in Morocco in preparation for my travels. As so often happens, once in Morocco, I found even more such books, so you'll continue to see quite a few Moroccan-themed posts in the coming weeks as I work my way through these new purchases. My husband read Destination Unknown during our trip and then passed it along to me. He suggested it would be an enjoyable read as the book travels through various parts of Morocco that we visited. 

A woman arrives in Casablanca with hopes of escaping her sad personal circumstances back in England, but when she realizes that problems travel with us wherever we go, she attempts to end her own life. A mysterious fellow traveler manages to prevent the suicide and engages her as a spy on a dangerous mission instead. Pretending to be someone she's not, the protagonist, who feels she has nothing to lose, dives into a new life that carries her across the Moroccan landscape without ever knowing where she'll end up next. She travels alongside a host of quirky international scientists with a political agenda, but figuring out just what their agenda is becomes a mystery in and of itself. The book does a nice job of mixing both World War II and Cold War spy themes (with an almost sci-fi feel at moments, a first for Christie!) in a North African setting. As with most novels written by the Queen of Crime, the ending produces a twist that proves assumptions are never safe, at least not in Christie-land. 

The Julius House by Charlaine Harris


After my Morocco travels, it's a daunting task to bring my blog up to date, but I'll get there! 

The fifth Aurora Teagarden Mystery picks up some of the momentum that was missing in the third and forth novels of the series. An old unsolved crime gives readers the chance to dig a bit further into Lawrencetown's quirky past. Oh, and in case you hadn't noticed, typically, giant old houses bode well for mysteries, so The Julius House is a win-win. The book also results in some serious developments regarding the heroine's personal life, that's been ever-evolving since the first novel, Real Murders. You can learn more about the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries in my first post about the series. 

January 18, 2011

Pages from Cold Point & Other Short Stories by Paul Bowles


Aside from Bertolucci's film adaptation of The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles and I have had little to do with each other up until now, which is my loss. Upon reading Pages From Cold Point, I'm certain we're going to become fast friends. For me, Bowles has been like one of those people you encounter in passing and although you're perfectly aware of said person--you know their name and felt some kind of momentary spark--somehow the occasion to meet up again just never fully materialized. I finally gave the author the attention he deserves in preparation for my upcoming trip to Morocco. One of America's most famous expats based in Tangier, Bowles inspired multiple generations of creative types and literati to explore Morocco: he played host to writers like Tennessee Williams and Gertrude Stein before the Beat Generation, followed by the hippies, waltzed through North Africa. He continued to receive  visitors, celebrity or not, in his Tangier apartment up until his death in 1999.

Pages from Cold Point is the title story in this anthology and the most striking of the collection. All of the works, however, are masterful in their lush descriptions of place and in establishing a foreboding atmosphere, an unease that remains just under the radar, not quite identifiable. In this vein, Bowles is less concerned with characters, but committed to the personification of environment and mood, particularly in nature: be it the desert, a sea-side cove or a hotel room. Most of the stories are centered on expatriates (but not always Americans) whose new environments abroad provide an escape, a small patch of Paradise, far from the reality of life as they knew it back home. Many of these locations are what were then French or British colonies, set during periods of unrest just prior to war or struggling independence movements. The resulting tensions of such conflicts are felt, but remain in the background while the main characters remain too distracted with their own personal agendas and unrealistic fancies to notice or to integrate within their new communities.

The days of colonialism may be behind us (on paper anyway), but Bowles' recurring themes of violence, multiple identities and culture clashes still hold their weight today. His writing style is as fresh as ever, and for me, Bowles is one of those authors you feel giddy about reading for the first time because it's just that good. I'm now looking forward to discovering his wife Jane's writing, an author whom Tennessee Williams called "one of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language".

Visit the authorized Paul Bowles website HERE for a wide selection of interviews, photographs, and more (includes information about Jane Bowles as well). 

January 15, 2011

Tolstoy's War And Peace - Checking In:

As some of you may have seen, I'm participating in a War and Peace read-along that consists of reading a chapter a day for an entire year (conveniently there are, you guessed it, 365 chapters). Since the novel (well, Tolstoy didn't want us calling it a novel, but for lack of a better word, that's how I'll refer to it) is divided into several books and is quite lengthy, I thought I'd post a few comments from time to time in order to keep track of my impressions. 

Having just completed chapter 15, I can safely say I'm engrossed. I particularly appreciate the way Tolstoy crafts his drawn-out exposition: we are introduced to a variety of characters and their families via a soirée hosted by Anna Pavlovna of St. Petersburg, and we become so involved with the entrances and the exits of the characters that we feel as if we are in attendance as well, observing both the physical attributes and social behaviors of each guest. Tolstoy's rich descriptions provide strong images with which we can match each character's temperament:

The young princess Bolkanskaya had brought some work in a gold-embroidered velvet bag. Her pretty little upper lip, on which a delicate dark down was just perceptible, was too short for her teeth, but it lifted all the more sweetly, and was especially charming when she drew it down to meet the lower lip. - Chapter 2, page 7. 

At this point in the book, we're still establishing the inner-workings of upper-class society and how the families and their acquaintances relate to one another. Fellow War and Peace readers, how are you getting on?


January 14, 2011

Oscar Wilde Reading Challenge

My latest endeavor is hosting an Oscar Wilde Reading Challenge (January 2011-February 2012).  You can read all about it by clicking on the menu above, see "Wilde Challenge".


Persuasion by Jane Austen


Jane Austen's Persuasion (1816) is the last novel the author wrote before her untimely death in 1817. In typical Austen fashion, the events of Persuasion revolve around the social complexities of young (and not so young) women battling for the attention of potential suitors and mending their broken hearts from the resulting "war" wounds. Anne Elliot, Austen's quiet-tempered protagonist, has never recovered from her break with former beau, Captain Wentworth, but having caved in to social pressure on the part of a trusted family friend and her snobbish father, Anne abandoned the mutual romance in the name of duty. When the Captain returns after a seven year absence at sea, her heart begins to flutter anew, but the Captain still visibly resents Anne's rejection of their old courtship and laments her previous lack of firm resolve on the matter. Or is he simply hiding behind a wall of defense in order to mask his true feelings that might make him vulnerable to her charms once more? Ah, the existential crises of the upper crust in Austen's day! 

In all seriousness, though, the book does an excellent job of conveying the claustrophobic nature of life, particularly for women of the elite class, in early 19th century century England. While we feel the undercurrent of colonialism via the men's work in the navy and expanding merchantry running underneath the principle storyline, the women are, with few exceptions, confined to sitting rooms and the occasional chaperoned outing where few adventures, except those of the heart and romantic intrigue, await them. Anne's sister Mary, far less good natured than her sibling, is an excellent example of the sad result of women's unfavorable situation: left to only household matters, Mary regularly feigns illness in order to win sympathetic attention and create entertainment where there is none to be found outside the realm of domestic duties. Alternatively, Anne, who always presents a calm front, has silently weathered seven sad and lonely years of "what if?".

Contrary to Emma (which directly preceded Persuasion in 1815), this work failed to draw me in quickly and I struggled through a good 100 pages before I felt any attachment to the novel or its characters. Other works by Austen often begin with an inviting characterization and an entertaining exposition then unfolds, but this was not the case for me with Persuasion. A romantic at heart, however, the last 20 pages more than made up for toughing it out in the beginning. 

I recently came across an interesting article that attempts to explain the revival of Jane Austen's popularity  HERE.

And for entertainment purposes, if you'd like to find your likeness among Jane Austen's leading ladies, I give you the Which Austen Heroine Are You? Quiz. As you can see in the sidebar, it's been determined that I am Marianne Dashwood and for once on an internet quiz, I don't dispute the result. :)

January 13, 2011

A Bone to Pick (Aurora Teagarden Mystery) by Charlaine Harris


In addition to my daily reading of War and Peace, I've been working my way through many a mystery lately, what with the gloomy weather and all (not to mention several mystery-oriented reading challenges in full swing). With the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries Omnibus now in my possession, I've finished the second novel in the series entitled A Bone to Pick. I won't give too much away about the plot here because I know a few of you are planning to read the Aurora Teagarden books. Essentially, our heroine finds herself the unexpected beneficiary of an estate complete with a well-stocked bank account (isn't this everyone's secret fantasy?). Aurora may have inherited more than financial freedom and a new house, however, when she discovers a skull of unknown identity concealed beneath the window seat in her freshly-acquired home.  

Once again, Harris delivers an outstanding depiction of the social burdens and grimy underbelly of small town life that is far more complex that its charming surface reveals. The atmosphere and humor remain on par with the first book in the series Real Murders, making me glad I purchased the omnibus so that I can immediately get going on the third. 

January 11, 2011

The Chunkster Reading Challenge


No, it's not an ice-cream eating contest, it's a reading challenge all about lengthy books like War and Peace, which I'm currently reading (see my Read-Along Page for details). The premise of The Chunkster Challenge is to pick up a book, be it adult fiction or non-fiction, of greater length than 450 pages. War and Peace is certainly that and I've got a few other chunksters teetering on my TBR pile, so I'm going for the title of Chubby Chunkster (four chunky books).

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