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Literary fiction, classics, dystopian, history, memoir, prize winners, and of course the 1001 books. You really might catch me reading anything!

Currently reading

Empire of Cotton: A Global History
Sven Beckert
Progress: 220/656 pages

Aquarium

Aquarium - David Vann

Narrated by future Caitlin, she tells a story of 6th grade. She is 12, her best friend is Shalini, and Caitlin and her mom live in an industrial part of town. Sheri, her mom, works long hours for low pay. Caitlin is dropped at school 1.5 hours early every day, and walks to the aquarium every day after school, as an adult she can't believe she was allowed to walk that long street alone. There, she meets a friendly old man who also hangs at the aquarium in the afternoons. They discuss fish. It feels creepy. She admits it felt a little creepy to her, but she was so lonely she didn't care.

But it's not what it seems--to Cailtin, to her mother when she finds out, to the police, or the social services.

A decent read, but it all wraps up way too neatly.

This book is also luxurious--thick paper, 2-color printing on every page, and occasional full color images of fish discussed in the book. Lots of fish and sea talk and metaphors, which didn't bother me but might turn others off. To me it was appropriate to the narrator--discussing a time in her life when fish and ichthyology were her favorite things.

At the Edge of the Orchard

At the Edge of the Orchard - Tracy Chevalier

I wouldn't say this will be one of the best of 2016, but this is nonetheless a good book and a super fast read. Good historical fiction--fictional people doing real things in real places, with a few real people thrown into the mix.

Robert Goodenough is brought up, at least to age 9, in the Black Swamp area of Ohio. His family, from Connecticut, is trying to make a go of homesteading there in the 1830s. The need for 50 fruit trees to prove the claim is his father's biggest concern, as he loves the Golden Pippins his family orginally brought from England.

At age 9 Robert unexpectedly strikes out on his own. He moves around, regularly changing jobs, and he finally ends up in California. There he meets William Lobb, and becomes a tree collector, shipping trees and seeds to England. William Lobb was real, tree and seed collecting was really a thing, the sequoia dance floor and bowling alley trees are now part of Calaveras Big Trees State Park,  and the Black Swamp really was not a great place to homestead.

 

 

Summer 2010—this is the dance floor stump. It's huge, and I completely understand the sadness Robert Goodenough feels when he sees this use of such a magnificent tree.

Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir fo the Cultural Revolution

Red Scarf Girl: with Connections- a Memoir of the Cultural Revolution - Ji-li Jiang

This memoir is part of the 7th grade Language Arts curriculum at my son's middle school. He found it very interesting (his description was "it's kind of like Persepolis", and he's right).

Ji-li Jiang was 12 years old when the Cultural Revolution began. She went from being a tar pupil and happy kid to being rejected due to her "black status"--relating to her 30-years-deceased grandfather's long ago status as a landlord. A family history she knew nothing about. Her experiences during the cultural revolution taught her a lot about family, love, greed, kindness, strength, and integrity. She and her family now live in the United States.

March Round-Up

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America - Amy Belding Brown Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return - Marjane Satrapi, Anjali Singh Joseph Andrews/Shamela - Judith Hawley, Henry Fielding Faces in the Water - Janet Frame The Wonderful O - James Thurber Free Spirit: A Climber's Life, Revised Edition (Legends & Lore) - Reinhold Messner By Marjane Satrapi: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - -Pantheon- Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories - Truman Capote

Books read: 9

Library books: 7

Owned books: 1

Borrowed books: 1

 

Novels: 6

Graphic novels: 2

Memoir: 1

 

1001 list books: 5

In translation: 3

Women authors: 4

 

A good month for me!

Pnin

Pnin - Vladimir Nabokov

Timofey Pnin is a Russian who fled from the wars during the first half of the 20th century. First to Europe, then to the US. He has a community of like-minded men and women around the globe, many of whom he knew (or knew of) in Russia.

His marriage collapsed when his wife found another man—and she used Pnin to migrate to America. His academic career has stalled at Assistant Professor at a small school in upstate New York. HIs grasp of English has improved, but he still speaks in malapropisms and misunderstood synonyms and homonyms. He doesn't seem to be a great professor, though not many students filled Russian language classes in the 1950s. He has no great friends left, but has many good acquaintances.

But yeah—that's it. This is a story about this man's sad life, though he is not a sad man. Sad through no real fault of his own (his ex-wife ends up on her 4th husband by the end, he had no control over Russia's politics, and he has made a life for himself in America). Really, this character is just a regular guy. And most of us are not interesting enough to make for a good novel. And this character really isn't either.

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories

Breakfast at Tiffany's: A Short Novel and Three Stories - Truman Capote

I have never watched the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's", which is apparently quite different from the novella. I did not like the character of Holly Golightly in this story—she is selfish and cruel, though I am not sure means to be those things, she also seems quite stupid. In any case, though, she is not really a nice person. Birdcage outstanding.

I preferred the three short stories in this volume more. I especially liked "A Christmas Memory". The happiness, sadness, and regret are all so real.

Free Spirit: A Climber's Life

Free Spirit: A Climber's Life, Revised Edition (Legends & Lore) - Reinhold Messner

Reinhold Messner made the first successful summit of Mt Everest without supplemental oxygen. He also climbed the highest points on every continent, all mountains over 8000 meters, and had many first ascents on new routes. He spent decades climbing, beginning as a child in South Tyrol (Italy). He has also written numerous books and guides, restored a farmhouse in Tyrol, and opened several museums about mountain people, climbing, etc.

He also claims to not be foolhardy when it comes to climbing. I disagree. It is amazing that this man is still alive (though some of his climbing partners, including a brother, did not survive their expeditions). "Storm? Lets keep trying! I will keep trying alone! Let's split up!" Crazy talk. He seems to have mellowed a bit with age. He has also had at least 3 wives (3 are mentioned by name in this book), and I can imagine how being married to someone with such a one-track mind would be exhausting. He has at least 1 son and daughter. Even at the age of 70 he cannot stop traveling to remote locales, having adventures.

But the book. It is interesting, the writing is fine if the translation (from German) a bit awkward at times. (Cram full for crammed full, for example.) But what this book needs are a few maps, a glossary of climbing terms, and a glossary of people. So many names are thrown out there (are these people historically significant? some are for sure); so many climbing terms (tower, piton, bivy sac, buttress, rock slabs, friable, etc etc etc) thrown out on the assumption that the reader knows what they are.

So an interesting read, but I do not think I would like this man in person.

The Wonderful O

The Wonderful O - James Thurber

An odd little story full of wordplay.

What happens when the letter O is banned?  Chas! Cnfusin!

Much of the text has a singsong quality--but not all of it. A little uneven. I would actually love to see this performed on stage. It could make a great high school performance, as it would be quite short and the wordplay would be very fun.

Faces in the Water

Faces in the Water - Janet Frame

Istina Mavet, the narrator, is a young woman living in first one, then another, then the first again, mental hospitals in New Zealand. She narrates over about 9 years.

I struggled with the first few chapters, as I could not see where this book was going. But where could it go? Once I let myself look at it as a novelized memoir instead of a novel story I began to enjoy it. The narrator is classically unreliable. We don't know why she is in the hospital, and we don't know why she is transferred (twice). We don't know why she is sent back after a brief time at home. We don't know her diagnosis, we don't know what she does when "naughty". But the reader feels for her—her own confusion about what she has done wrong and why she has to stay, why she is moved from ward to ward (leaving the reader confused too), why anyone is there (other than the woman who murdered her baby decades earlier—she would most likely be there for postpartum psychosis, still), her anxiety and fear caused by EST and the threat of another treatment. The electroshock treatments seem to make her worse—at least in her mind, she seems to become more paranoid, anxious, and scared.

A very interesting book. Frame spent some time in NZ mental hospital(s), so had a unique perspective when writing this book. Which makes me curious how much is autobiographical (the fear of EST? the confusion of why she is there?), how much of this actually happened to her, and how much is truly fictional.

Joseph Andrews/Shamela

Joseph Andrews/Shamela - Judith Hawley, Henry Fielding

Shamela gets a solid 3.5 stars: It is quite funny—though only if you have read Richardson's Pamela! Otherwise many of the jokes will not work. Unfortunately, Shamela is only about 50 pages.

Joseph Andrews gets 2 stars: It certainly has its moments. I found parts 1, 3, and 4, to be the strongest. Part 2, though, I found to be long and tiring—and I did not like the character of Parson Adams, even if he was meant to represent someone or a certain sort of Parson. Again, it help to have read Pamela (as Joseph Andrews is meant to be her brother), though a recent reading of Don Quixote would also help (I read it decades ago).

As with many of these 18th century novels, footnotes are needed to understand the many references to events, laws, and people that are referenced or represented. It makes the story a bit hard to follow and hard to fully comprehend—even though it might have been quite funny to those reading it when it was written.

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return

Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return - Marjane Satrapi, Anjali Singh

In this volume, the war in Iran is over, and after several generally unhappy and difficult years in Austria, Marjane decides to go home. As expected, she struggles with fitting in in Tehran—she did not experience the war years, she must stay covered in public, and women have few rights. But she makes friends, goes to school, and marries. And then leaves for France at the age of 24.

This volume is not as strong as the first, but then the events occurring  are not as dangerous either. The black and white illustration still works well. There are definitely some absurd situations, especially revolving around her time in art school.

Flight of the Sparrow

Flight of the Sparrow: A Novel of Early America - Amy Belding Brown

Mary Rowlandson was captured during King Philip's War, when a group of allied natives under King Phillip (Metacomet) raided various Puritan settlements in New England. She spent a few months as the slave of sachem Weetamoo and her husband Quinnapin. She is then ransomed and returned to the English. She later wrote the story of her captivity, which became the first published "captivity narrative" and the first woman-authored book in North America.

Using Rowlandson's narrative and other sources, Brown has novelized her story. And this novel is very compelling and is fast reading. She admits, in the reader's guide in the back of my edition, that she had to play a bit fast and loose to get the story. Known facts she left alone. But what was the relationship between Mary and her husband like? Did someone (who?) edit and add to her narrative, as it is so disjointed with random scriptural references throughout? What was the relationship between Mary and James Printer? And so on. There were Puritans who were anti-slavery and not anti-Indian (Eliot, who is in the novel), and there were Puritans who were expelled because they refused to follow the very strict rules (Anne Hutchison was one, and Brown refers to her).

I have requested her narrative from my library, as I want to read that and see if I feel the same misgivings that Brown did about the narrative. (Does it feel forced? Edited? Would the Puritans have permitted a woman's writing to NOT be edited by a man? Are there any hints of regret? Are her children mentioned at all?)

A Suitable Boy

A Suitable Boy - Vikram Seth

The story of just over 1 year in the lives of 4 interconnected families: the Mehras, the Kapoors, the Chatterjis, and the Khans. Taking place largely around Brahmpur, India, but also in Pahapore, Calcutta, and rural areas between the cities.

Mrs Rupa Mehra is determined to find a suitable boy to marry her daughter Lata to. He must be Hindu, of the proper caste, and a good man. While they spend the year searching for possibilities, visiting friends and relatives, there are births and deaths and university, and holidays.

This book is long, and has some slow political chapters. But after reading it, I feel like I know these characters personally, and I want to know more!

Persepolis: The Story of Childhood

Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood - Marjane Satrapi, Blake Ferris, Mattias Ripa

Persepolis is the powerful story of the author's childhood in Iran during the Islamic Revolution. Satrapi tells her story in black and white comic form, and the single-color graphics make the story stronger.

 

As a descendant of the former emperor of Iran, Satrapi's family was wealthy: she attended a French school, her father drove a Cadillac, they had parties and a house. They also had relatives in jail (which she did not know as a child), and were fully expected to comply with all Islamic Revolution laws. She witnessed friends and family fleeing the country, bombings in the war with Iraq, demonstrations, and restrictions on education, parties, clothing, etc.

 

This is well-told and the graphic style is well suited to tell the story. Very accessible for middle and high schoolers.

The Three-Body Problem

The Three-Body Problem - Cixin Liu, Ken Liu

I did like this book—and I very well might read the next one—but the physics and astronomy stuff was a bit much for me. How much is real theory? How much is made up theory? How much is proven and not theory? I have no idea! But there are some very clever ideas in here—dehydration, stable and chaotic periods, 11-dimensional protons (is this theory?). I did not really get the repeating societies starting over, but whatever.

It was also very interesting to have this story placed into the framework of China's Cultural Revolution (something I know a bit more about than physics, and at least can understand)—it makes you wonder how many good books are out there, untranslated, that are really just so good/interesting.

Golden Age

Golden Age: A novel (Last Hundred Years: a Family Saga) - Jane Smiley

The final book in the trilogy!

Smiley continues with the different generations of the Langdon family. I had a little trouble remembering who was who at first, since it took months and months ot get this from my library queue.

The only odd thing about this book is how she works very hard to get someone in the family involved in what feels like every major event of the last 30 years. Or maybe it feels that way to me, since I remember those years. Maybe others felt that way about the last book too? But then, this is a large family, much larger than mine, so maybe it's not that strange.

It also felt a bit weird how she continued the story for a few years past the publishing date. They are a wee bit more vague (the 2016 presidential election winner nor their party is named, for example). How real with these chapters feel in 2 years?

I especially enjoyed--and was mind-bogglingly frustrated by—the sociopathic Michael, his right-wing nutjob wife, and his thieving corporate cronies who are never punished. Grrrrrr...just how I feel when I read the news.