More 2007: bees, sun kings and fast food

January 30, 2008

A few more books from 2007:

Bee Season (Myla Goldberg) (Fiction).  The book is about Eliza Naumann, the supposedly normal or ungifted child in her family of high achievers and scholars.  Eliza discovers, however, that she has a talent for spelling, and the book depicts Eliza’s progression through the various local bees and ultimately the national spelling bee as well as how her new-found talent affects her family.  For Eliza, spelling provides a way to connect with her scholarly father, who begins to pay attention to her for the first time and believes that her talent has more mystical possibilities.  While they prepare for the bees, the rest of the Naumann family begins to disintegrate. 

As a former local spelling bee competitor (don’t guffaw), I thought the book sounded interesting, especially with the overtones of kabbala and how spelling could be a mystical experience (it never was for me!).  I  don’t think I liked the book very much.  It left me with a bad taste in my mouth.  It was fairly grim, and I didn’t really like the dysfunctional characters.    I just wanted to shake the family.  After I finished it, I put it down and remember thinking, “WTF?  Ugh!”  I know that characters don’t have to be likeable, but I was unable to connect with any of them.  It is s well-written, intelligent, and somewhat cold book,  and Goldberg tells the story well.  It’s also a quick read. I think I read it in an afternoon. 

Love and Louis XIV:  The Women in the Life of the Sun King (Antonia Fraser) (Nonfiction).  Though Louis XIV, the Sun King, ruled France as an absolute monarch, he was heavily influenced by the women in his life. Fraser’s book examines the women in his life (mother, sister-in-law, wife and several mistresses) and how they influenced him as well as how Louis dealt with his lusts while trying to rule France.   It was a well-researched, well-written book.  Fraser did a fantastic job of bringing alive the various women, and it’s a enjoyable peek into the life and court of the Sun King.  The only less-than-stellar comment I have is that the book deals with a long span of time, and it was confusing trying to remember who was who as each generation grew and married–often intermarried. 

Fast Food Nation (Eric Schlosser) (Nonfiction).   Schlosser’s book investigates the fast food industry, including the industry’s origins, business practices, production of beef and potatoes, and labor practices.  It was a very good book, and if it doesn’t make you want to resolve to quit eating fast food then and there, you have a cast-iron stomach.  I highly recommend this book.  I know I don’t look at McDonald’s or Taco Bell the same way after reading it (though my resolution to stop eating there quickly fell by the way-side unfortunately–those damn french fries are addictive!).  It helps that Schlosser investigates the entire industry and all the supply chains involved because you are able to form a complete picture of how the industry works.  Unfortunately, appalling practices can be found throughout the industry. 

 Other Recommendations: 


Jane Austen: A Companion (More Jane)

January 28, 2008

You know that you’ve possibly read too much on Jane Austen when you seeth and sputter during Gillian Anderson’s introduction to Mansfield Park, the latest Masterpiece Theater adaptation (more on that later). 

But back to the book.  Jane Austen:  A Companion (Josephine Ross) follows similar ground as Le Faye’s Jane Austen:  The World of Her NovelsYou learn about Jane’s life and writing as well as the customs of Regency England and how they were portrayed in her books as well as how to interpret them. 

Interestingly, this book took me longer to read, yet I found it easier to read.  It’s well-suited for a general reader who has a strong interest in Austen and her novels.  It’s difficult for me to decide which Austen book is better (Le Faye’s vs. Ross’) because I liked both of them.  In fact, I think they complement each other well.  Ross included more information on Jane’s romances than Le Faye did, and I also liked how she integrated her discussion of the novels in separate chapters on Regency elements such as fashion, rank and politics.  The plots of the novels were not discussed as deeply as in Le Faye’s book, but I don’t think that was a bad thing since Ross’ actual interpretation of the novels was better.  I really appreciated Ross’ discussion of how Jane’s own feeings and beliefs were reflected in her novels, especially her feelings on wealth, rank, and marriage. 

My only quibble with the book was that at times, Ross’ admiration for Austen seemed to cloud the analysis she was providing.    After reading Ross’ book, though, I feel like I really know Jane and can read her novels with a much better understanding of the author and the period in which she was writing.

 Now to MP’s Mansfield Park…I thought it was awful, awful, awful, and it started with the introduction.  Jane Austen did NOT admire the character of Mary Crawford.  Mary Crawford embodies several characteristics that Austen most definitely did not appreciate or approve of.  I know the content of the introduction wasn’t Gillian Anderson’s fault, but even she seemed stiff, cold and uncomfortable as she delivered it. 

They butchered the plot and removed anything that made Fanny Price worthy of being called an Austen heroine.  I think the actors were a big problem for me.  First of all, I don’t like Billie Piper.  I didn’t like her on Doctor Who, and I didn’t like her as Fanny.  Secondly, I couldn’t look at Michelle Ryan as Maria Bertram without thinking of how much I dislike her on The Bionic Woman.  After watching MP, I had to watch Northanger Abbey to reassure myself that MT could do a good Austen adaptation.

A few things

January 25, 2008

I’m struggling with how to respond to comments to the blog.  Ideally, I’d love to comment on your comments using the comment feature, but I don’t think WordPress allows you to do that, so I’m having some sort of a metaconversation with myself about blogging and the “right” or “best” way to do that.  I really value the interaction and want to keep it going, but I also want to keep the focus on the books.

 So, I’ll post a response to a few comments here.  Let me know if you have any great wisdom on the best way to do this.  I even Googled it yesterday b/c I don’t want to commit a blogging faux pas.  Yes, because THAT’s the kind of stuff I worry about 🙂

Arti commented about a connection between Northanger Abbey and Atonement.  Thanks for mentioning it!  I had overlooked it, but yes, there is a connection.  The Epigraph of the book contains a quote from NA that is very, very relevant to Atonement because NA is making fun of Gothic horror fiction popular at the time, and its heroine begins to believe that she is caught up in a Gothic fiction.  You can read more about the NA connection and Atonement‘s other literary allusions here and here (don’t visit the latter link if you haven’t read it yet).    No, I haven’t seen the movie adaptation and I don’t know if I will.  I am fairly skeptical of adaptations, especially when I have just finished the book.  If it’s too recent, any differences will be too noticeable and annoy me, taking away any enjoyment of the movie (I feel the same way about historical adaptations.  Don’t get me started on Braveheart).  The exception to this is the Harry Potter movies.  I do see them but luckily, there is enough time between the book and the movie where I can enjoy the  movie for what it is without going “they left out that and that and that.  Sacrilege!”

Another Jane asked what I thought about Gillian Anderson in the Allister Cooke role on Masterpiece Theater.  I confess that I don’t have an opinion yet.  I missed the introduction to Persuasion, and I DVR’d Northanger Abbey, so I haven’t seen her yet!  However, I LOVE Gillian Anderson, so I’m hopeful that she is good.  

2007 Revisited: The Post-Apocalyptic World & ART

January 25, 2008

While I’m trying to finish up a book so I can post about it, I thought I’d write about some of the books I read in 2007.  The ones I can remember anyway!  See, that’s exactly why I started this blog.  I know I read a lot of books last year, but I can’t remember most of them.  I prefer to think that means most of them weren’t memorable and not that my memory is slipping in my advancing age 😉

World War Z:  An Oral History of the Zombie War (Brooks) (fiction).  Through a series of individual accounts from survivors, Brooks chronicles the apocalyptic zombie pandemic that threatened and almost made humans extinct.  I know what you are thinking.  Zombies?  I couldn’t put the book down.  It was very well-written, and Brooks handled multiple points of view masterfully.  Parts of it were quite humorous, and parts were so sad that I wanted to cry.  It’s that real.  My only quibble was that I had to suspend my disbelief about the zombies and accept that I wasn’t going to know the “how” or “why”.  And that’s not really the point of the book.  The zombie pandemic is a metaphor for any pandemic or apocalyptic scenario.  You see how governments and individuals react as well as how politics plays a part.  What must we as a people do to survive such a pandemic? 

The Road (McCarthy) (fiction). I unintentionally read this book right after I finished World War Z, and it was an interesting pairing since The Road is the story of a father and his young son trying to make their way to the East Coast in a post-apocalyptic United States.  Like World War Z, you don’t know the details, though I have my suspicions, and again, the “what” or “why” doesn’t really matter.  It’s the aftermath that is important.  McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscape is very grim, and you get the feeling that survivors are barely hanging on.  There’s no food and no medicine, and other survivors definitely do not support the idea that humans are inherently good.  McCarthy’s tone is very lyrical, and the novel is loosely structured narratively.  It’s very haunting and very good.  It’s a good emotional companion to World War Z.   

 Everything Conceivable:  How Assisted Reproduction is Changing Men, Women and the World (Mundy) (non-fiction).   Woman Gives Birth to Sextuplets!  Woman Gives Birth at 65!  Woman Gives Birth to Own Grandchild! 45-Year Old Actress Gives Birth to Twins!  These are headlines you see in the news often.  Mundy, a journalist for The Washington Post, investigates the world of ART (Assisted Reproductive Technology) and how it is changing families and society by enabling women to give birth to children that are not genetically related to them as well as harvesting sperm from men unable to produce any because of disease, malfunction or injury, the dark side of the having the multiples the public loves to read about as well as homosexual family building.  Mundy explores the ramifications, ethics and issues surrounding the various scenarios including telling your child he or she is the product of donor eggs, selective reduction, social costs, buying parts of the reproductive process and leftover embryos. 

I thought it was a good book.  Mundy remained objective throughout and gives the reader much to think about.  I think that often we think of ART as having to do with other people, but Mundy makes it clear that these technologies are and will continue to impact society.   Do they change our definition of a family and the importance of genetic relatedness?  I think one of the most profound ideas that stayed with me long after I finished the book is wondering what we are doing, what havoc are we unknowingly wreaking?  If you are biologically unable to have a child, should you?  Is there an underlying pathology that evolution, nature, whatever is trying NOT to pass on that we are thwarting with ART?  I prefer to think that knowledge and technological and medical advancements are a good thing, but Mundy’s book made me wonder. We humans are impatient and spoiled.  We want what we want, when we want it.  Is that a good thing?                                                                                                                              

Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels (because Jane is great)

January 23, 2008

When people ask me what my favorite book is, I answer, “Pride and Prejudice.” Sometimes I feel a little pretentious saying that, but it’s true.  I love Elizabeth Bennet, and who doesn’t love Mr. Darcy (forever visualized by me as looking like Colin Firth).  Jane Austen has been on my mind lately; it’s possibly due to Masterpiece Theater showing adaptation of her works over the next several weeks.  Whatever the reason, I wanted to read a little bit more about Jane Austen and the Regency period in which she wrote. 

Austen scholar Deirdre Le Faye gives a thorough glimpse into the world in which Jane Austen lived and wrote in Jane Austen:  The World of Her Novels.  The book provides a full biography on Austen as well as details on the clothing, education, household organization, sanitation, foreign affairs and social customs of the time.  In the last part of the book, she provides a detailed overview of each Austen book, including its critical reception and how much Austen was paid, and places each book in its geographical and social context.  Throughout the book, excerpts from Jane’s and her family’s letters appear as supporting evidence.  Intriguingly, Le Faye reveals that Jane sometimes told her family further details about her characters that are not in her books such as what happened to a character after the novel ended.   

 I thought Le Faye’s book was good, and I learned quite a bit about Austen that I did not know.  I appreciated the carefully-chosen pictures that appeared throughout and allowed me to have an idea of what the Dashwoods’ supposedly small cottage would have looked like as well as other examples of houses that might resemble the houses in Austen’s works, as well as clothing, how the characters might have looked and other important details.  I also appreciated that Le Faye explained how certain behaviors and plot points in Austen’s work have lost their significance to modern readers but would have been instantly recognizable to her contemporaries and how to interpret those elements.  Something that is always pointed out about Pride & Prejudice is that Elizabeth Bennet is never described, and Le Faye tackles why that is as well as why some people and places receive fuller descriptions than others.  In short, it is a well-researched, carefully thought-out book.

It is a little dry, though, and will likely appeal primarily to those who really like Austen and want to know a lot more about her and her world.  It says something that I could not find this book in the local public library and had to check it out from the university library.   I really enjoyed the section on manners, customs, dress, etc. and wish there had been more of that. I am reading a similar book on Jane Austen’s world as well as a few on the general Regency period, so expect those reviews soon.

Highly recommended if you want to know more about the world of the 19th century:  What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew.   I reread that book a few times a year 🙂 Also:  An Elegant Madness:  High Society in Regency England

The Librarian: Crap

January 22, 2008

Ugh.  Ugh.  UGH.  This book was TERRIBLE.  I bought it at the 2006 book sale because of the title (naturally!) and because the description presented it as a tongue-in-cheek political thriller.  I sort of hoped it might be like those light, somewhat cheesy TNT movies starring Noah Wyle as a librarian.  Alas, no.

Written by Larry Beinhart, the author of the book that became the dark comedy Wag the Dog, the plot seems promising.  It’s the story of a university librarian who moonlights as an archivist for an extremely wealthy, somewhat questionable, eccentric old man.  In the course of this work, the librarian becomes embroiled in and must stop a, well, vast, right-wing conspiracy whose purpose is to help the current, idiotic, spoiled, wealthy Republican President defeat the woman running as the Democratic candidate and win re-election.  Sound familiar?

Beinhart’s politics really show in the book:  Conservatives believe in their superiority and are prepared to allow terrorist attacks to happen, stoke racial tensions and buy votes to get their way.  Beinhart’s beef with the current administration is obvious and though I am most definitely liberal, I was annoyed at his transparent agenda.  The plot is too over-to-top and unbelievalbe (yes, even for someone who believes SCOTUS robbed Al Gore in 2000 and thoroughly enjoyed Michael Moore’s Farenheit 9/11).  And the book is unnecessarily crude and violent in parts.  In short, the book is a mess.

It’s kind of a shame because there were parts of the book that actually drew me in and held my interest.  Most of it, though, was just awful. 

Try these books on a similar topic: Michael Moore’s Stupid White Men and Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them.

A Treasury of Royal Scandals: Royals Behaving Badly

January 22, 2008

Michael Farquhar presents scandalous, often appalling, tales from the lives of various royalty, popes and Roman emperors throughout history,  The book is divided into sections like sex, bad parents, bad marriages, etc.

Some stories, such as Catherine the Great’s lusty appetites (horse not included), Rasputin’s hold over the last Romanovs, and Henry VIII’s 6 marriages will likely be familiar to most, but most of the tales will probably be unfamiliar to all but the most devoted royal fanatic.  I had read or heard of most of the stories before (because I am that aforementioned royal fanatic), but the section on the popes really surprised me with the amount of debauchery and depravity many exhibited.

This book is an easy, quick read, and Farquhar’s tone is breezy and irreverant.  I’d rate it higher if I hadn’t known most of the stories already. 

If royal debauchery and sex intrigues you, try Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings.