Reading Challenges

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).

Real Murders (Aurora Teagarden Mystery) by Charlaine Harris

This month my town has seen an all time record low in terms of sunshine exposure. Even the local paper is writing about the poor moral caused by grey skies and damp showers that have broken all regional records. If you're a cozy mystery reader like me, however, this is a great opportunity to turn to your stack of lovable whodunits and soak up the perfect atmosphere for detective fiction. After Lily Bard, I was excited to dive into Harris' Aurora Teagarden series:

Aurora, or Roe as everyone calls her, is a small town librarian in the state of Georgia.  She and a group of mismatched locals meet once a month to share their passion for true crime. Their macabre club, Real Murders, boasts autodidacts of infamous cases including Lizzie Borden, Jack the Ripper and Victorian killings, among others. For residents of sleepy Lawrencetown, heinous acts of murder are about as far removed from everyday life as Hollywood...until the day a local crime scene reveals a historic copy-cat  case that only club members recognize. Suddenly the small town finds itself the center of state news as more murders occur. The police are skeptical of the Real Murders clubbut its members see the patterns that each murder reveals. Aurora Teagarden just can't keep herself out of the investigation and triumphs over nosy coworkers, an atypical social life, intimidating policemen, and finally, the guilty party itself.

Aurora Teagarden is one of Charlaine Harris' most likable heroines. As she struggles with social issues linked to love, family and community (universal themes in Harris' novels), we laugh with her (not at her!) in true Harris style. Although I enjoyed the Lily Bard mysteries, the Aurora Teagarden series boasts a better atmosphere if you appreciate cozy mysteries in a more classic, Gothic sense.  I was impressed that after publishing two stand-alone novels, these mysteries completed Charlaine Harris' very first series. 

January 9, 2011

Vintage Mystery Reading Challenge

Yet another reading challenge in 2011 that fits in nicely with my TBR (to be read) collection of books! The Vintage Mystery Challenge is hosted by My Reader's Block. Do you have a favorite mystery published prior to 1960? From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to the hardboiled detective fiction of the 1930s, there are countless vintage mystery titles that I look forward to reading.  Ever since my grandfather introduced me to the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Charlie Chan as a child, I've never stopped loving a cozy vintage detective novel.  I'll be going for the challenge level: Hot on the Trail (10-12 books), and as usual, will post my reviews here.

January 8, 2011

Napoloen's Pyramids by William Dietrich

Napeoloen's Pyramids (2007) begins in Paris where Ethan Frame, an American expat who once assisted Benjamin Franklin and carries a tomahawk, wins a mysterious medallion of unknown origins during a game of cards. His prize turns out to be a grave liability and unknown adversaries will stop at nothing to retrieve it. As a result, Gage is framed for murder and looks for a way out of France. With a little help from his Masonic friends in Paris, he devises a plan to set sail from Toulon with Napoleon's army for the French invasion of Egypt. Instead of remaining incognito among the expedition forces as he'd hoped, things become even further complicated on the African continent. Both the medallion's value and purpose remain a mystery that newfound friends (or foes?) in Cairo may be able to solve...

Like so many classic mystery adventures of note, Napoleon's Pyramids has all the trappings of a good travelling story: from the bustling City of Light in transition to the cradle of civilization, with an appearance of Gypsies, a British renegade and an evil Italian count, it's easy to be swept up in Dietrich's compelling tale.  Added to the excitement of the narrative is the historical accuracy found in the first half of the book that details Napoleon's great strategy and the lives and pursuits of the savants invited to Egypt alongside the army: artists, scientists, and other academics of note. Napoleon's invasion of Egypt is one of the most important events in world history that changed our understanding of culture as we know it. Prior to 1789, Egyptology was non-existent. Imagine a world without the archetypal mystery of the pyramids, the decoding of the Rosetta Stone, or our seemingly timeless obsession with mummies! All of it can be traced back to this invasion, which is by no means an endorsement of the invasion or colonialism, but a reminder of just how different our world would be without the love affair we've had with Egypt since the time of Napoloen's conquest. 

Aside from my overall enjoyment of the novel, I'm not very keen on the author's attitude towards women. On one hand, we can argue that our hero's only trustworthy aide in Egypt is the slave (later revealed to be a priestess), Astiza.  She's learned, quick thinking and gets Gage out of more than one jam. However, the way the women are described in the book, from prostitutes to the more educated variety, deal with their breasts or other physical attributes in a way that I found unsettling.  These passages don't last long and aren't even a central aspect of the book, but for readers sensitive to gender issues, they are problematic nonetheless. The setting of the book is certainly that of a man's world, but we're left with the unpleasant feeling that the author rather likes it that way...

You can read an interview with the author about writing Napoleon's Pyramids HERE.

Napoleon's Pyramids also allowed me to make an interesting connection: the French artist Vivant Denon (1747-1825), famous for his engravings, accompanied Napoleon during his invasion of Egypt and is responsible for some of the West's first images of Egyptian antiquity. Recognizing the name from a local museum, I learned that Denon is from the same département (French equivalent of a county)  that I live in. I'll be revisiting the Musée Denon soon to see if I can get a glimpse of his engravings, many of which are also housed in the Louvre and at the British Museum today. 

Vivant Denon

January 5, 2011

Cozy Mysteries Reading Challenge

Goodness me, another reading challenge in 2011? Mais oui! I couldn't resist when I saw the idea behind the cozy mysteries challenge hosted by Socrates' Book Reviews. I'd never heard the term cozy mystery before, but as soon as I did, it made complete sense and I realized I've been reading cozy mysteries my entire life. They're like comfort food to this reader, so this is a challenge that's perfect for me! If the idea of what a cozy mystery is doesn't sink in immediately, check out this great website COZY MYSTERY.COM to hear an avid cozy mystery reader's thoughts about the genre and access an extensive list of suggested authors. Charlaine Harris, whom I regularly blog about, certainly falls into this category. I'm going for the title of super sleuth (read 13 or more books in this category during the year--elementary, my dear Watson!).  Happy cozy mystery reading! 

January 4, 2011

Grave Sight by Charlaine Harris

Harper Connolly (not unlike Sookie Stackhouse), has a rare gift that makes others uncomfortable: she can find dead people.  In Grave Sight, the first of the Harper Connelly mysteries, we learn that our heroine was struck by lightening as a teenager and was left with the uncanny ability to find the dead and witness their final moments.  Capitalizing on her unique talent, Harper, alongside her brother Tolliver who handles the administrative angle, offers her itinerant services for hire.  When they're called into a reclusive Ozark community, the siblings find more deaths than they bargained for and a mystery with all the social trappings fit for any Southern universe dreamed up by Harris.  

It's hard to pass judgement on a Harris novel because she's such a series writer, and having only read the first Harper Connelly mystery, I'd like to wait until I've read at least two more before I decide where Harper Connelly falls on my Harris scale. For the moment, I find our protagonist lacking the humor and warmth we love in Sookie Stackhouse and Lily Bard, but as more of Harper's past conflicts are revealed, I have the feeling there will be more to appreciate.  As usual, the author's gift for fast-paced personal narrative and insight into Southern culture give the book it's distinct edge.  It's worthwhile reading, but perhaps not the best Harris series to start with if you're new to the author: try Dead Until Dark (Sookie Stackhouse) or the first Aurora Teagarden mystery instead.

Find all of Charlaine Harris' books listed on her website HERE

Old World Reading Challenge

Having only recently rediscovered my love for reading challenges (ah, those summer reading contests at the library bring back fun memories!), I'm ringing in the New Year with the Old World Reading Challenge.  The concept is simple: read as many books from any genre published prior to 2009.  Being an avid reader, I'm well aware that it's not how many books you read, but the quality of the books you do read.  That being said, I think it's a great way to share book reviews and check out new reads that others share via their blog or on readings sites like Shelfari.  

Happy reading in 2011!

Tahir Shah's In Arabian Nights

In preparation for my forthcoming trip to Morocco, I've been hunting down books set in Morocco or written by local authors.  Tahir Shah, although not Moroccan himself, spent a portion of his childhood there, and as an adult, decided to relocate his entire family to Casablanca.  The author's first book The Caliph's House details the family's trials and tribulations as they settle into their new life and restore an historic home in Casablanca.  In Arabian Nights focuses on Morocco's storytelling legacy and how oral transmission has been a key component of Moroccan culture and education through the ages.  The author learns of the Berber tradition of searching for the story within your heart and sets out to discover just that.  While doing so, readers are introduced to a colorful cast of real-life characters through Shah's daily outings in Casablanca, as well as several trips across Morocco.  His adventures are endless: one epic favor for a friend turns into a desert trek to find just the right kind of salt for a wedding blessing, while a run to Marrakech has Shah in search of an elderly "raconteur" (live storyteller) to bring back to Casablanca in order to inspire an oral renaissance, and finally, Fès reveals the historic house of storytellers.

Traditional stories from The One Thousand and One Nights, commonly known in English as The Arabian Nights, are interwoven between Shah's observations of daily life and his more dramatic escapades.  Among the elderly that Shah unexpectedly comes into contact with (a cobbler in Casablanca who nearly cries when he sees shoes of quality, a shopkeeper in Marrakech whose valuable objects are all free, but a story must be bought...), stories are valuable currency, and the eclectic group of friends that Shah draws around him often recount their personally beloved tale.

Overall, In Arabian Nights is an entertaining read, full of humor, and instills an appreciation of the Moroccan storytelling tradition that imparts knowledge and wisdom among its listeners.  That being said, the book also sadly falls into the category of pitting Old World (storytelling) versus New World (technology--in this case even books) and widsom of the East versus wisdom that has been lost in the West.  I find these divisive battles tiresome and irrelevant.  I'm always weary of a sentence that begins We in the West... Already, the language of "they" and "we" categorizes people and sets us on a downward slope.  I prefer to think of us all as simply human, and while we have our differences (many of which are beautiful and to be celebrated), our commonalities far outweigh what makes us unique.  In any case, the author doesn't really consider that there are various ways to tell a story and that one path needn't be superior to another.  The concept of "wisdom that has been lost in the West, but remains in the East" strikes me as fanciful and symptomatic of Westerners who are convinced that something is missing from their lives and that all answers point elsewhere.  In today's international world, we are fortunate to pick and choose, assimilating knowledge and culture from the four corners of the globe as needed or desired.  I certainly admire the stories of Morocco and plan to learn more about them, but I needn't dismiss books, films, or the internet to do so: I simply add them to my arsenal of information, learning and entertainment.  Creating a world with space for all aspects of  cultural wisdom to coexist is far more productive and enriching than blaming one aspect of culture for another's demise.

Despite this small criticism, In Arabian Nights is an inviting account of Morocco's rich culture and recommendable.  The author's official website is HERE

Tahir Shah introduces his adopted city of Casablanca in this video: HERE
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