31 August 2007

I'm Back - Briefly

On Sunday night, feeling quite pleased with myself for being about to post a TBR Challenge review nearly a whole week before the end of the month, I made my almost-nightly trip to the computer. I switched it on at the wall, switched on the tower ... and nothing happened. At least nothing that was meant to; the light that should have been green flashed orange in time to a loud, oscillating hum.

My standard procedure when faced with computer trouble - switch it off and try again – didn’t work, so I was obliged to retreat and call in the professionals. Thinking that of all the times to crash, it had to choose the week before the start of midsemesters, I assessed the situation. The uni’s own website isn’t counted as downloads, so I can still check emails and unit websites despite being over quota ... that printing for Plant Biotech can be done at uni ... Aaggh! I CAN’T BLOG!!

This awful thought was swiftly followed by one almost as bad: I had all my reading records - every book read, genre by genre, since 2004 - on that computer - and I had totally neglected to back them up. Most files, yes; just not those files. There was no chance of my being able to reconstruct them from memory, not even if I piled them all into one list. I’d have no statistics to compare this year’s to. Three years of reading would be lost forever.

Or not. On Wednesday I was assured that it was the motherboard and so most likely not - pardon the pun - a terminal case. And, the memory would remain intact. So to my great delight, I arrived home this afternoon to find that the computer guy (henceforth to be known as Saint Robbie) had not only returned my computer in fully-functioning condition, but, as a bonus, had updated the firewall, installed a new floppy drive with the USB port at the front, and souped it up with a faster processor.

Needless to say, everything that wasn’t backed up before is backed up now.

That review of Rebecca is up at last, but the rest of the backlog will have to wait; I’ll be too busy studying to write (though not quite too busy to read!).

Book Review: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier

2007 TBR Challenge #8

Rebecca It’s not much fun being companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an overpowering woman who latches onto everyone in Monte Carlo who’s even remotely well-known. She meets her match in Maxim de Winter, a mysterious widower said to be unable to get over the drowning of his wife. He fends her off easily and at the same time strikes up a friendship with her companion. Usually awkward and painfully shy. she is able to talk freely to him; and when offered a choice between accompanying her employer to America or marrying him, she chooses the latter.

She goes with him to Manderley, where her youth and inexperience show themselves to worst advantage. The succession of introductions and social calls are a trial to her, and ignorant of how to run a household she finds herself deferring and apologising to the servants, who direct her as to how the house was run under the first Mrs. de Winter. Which only makes things worse, as she has a constant conviction that people are comparing her to her predecessor. Rebecca was everything her replacement is not: beautiful, charming, well-dressed, sociable - an accomplished hostess and ideal mistress of Manderley. Her impression of inferiority is reinforced by the housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers, who idolised Rebecca and is implacably hostile toward her successor. Then a chance discovery forces her to either come out of her shell and take charge of her new life, or risk seeing it all slip away.

At the end of the year I will have to count up all the books I’ve read featuring anonymous (or pseudonymous) characters. There have been a few, and this makes another. Here it’s effective because she spends much of the book taking her identity from her relation to the people around her: Mrs Van Hopper’s companion, Rebecca’s successor. It’s only later in the book that she really begins to act in her own right, and when she does it’s to step fully into Rebecca’s place and banish her from Manderley. A name would have suggested something beyond those roles, and perhaps made it difficult to believe her ability to get absorbed in them. I liked her and related to her; I know just what it’s like to be perpetually tongue-tied, and the line

I wondered how many people there were in the world who suffered, and continued to suffer, because they could not break out from their own web of shyness and reserve, and in their blindness and folly built up a great distorted wall in front of them that hid the truth.
struck a chord. In her place I would have been just as awkward and uncertain (though a lot more suspicious of Mrs. Danvers’s helpful suggestion regarding the costume party).

The story is told in the first person, which immerses you in all the poor heroine’s doubts and speculations and conjures quite an atmosphere. Past or off-stage events aren’t completely shut out, though, thanks to her vivid imagination; she pictures things so clearly that it can be hard to remember that that’s not necessarily how they happened. Another result of the narration style is that Maxim remains a mystery for much of the book; it’s only after the truth comes out that he is shown to be more than just your typical romantic hero. But his sister Beatrice I adored from the start, with her no-nonsense manners and carefree driving. And Mrs. Danvers ... now I know why the BookWorld’s Danvers clones (in the Thursday Next books) were such a fearsome sight. I don’t know which was more unnerving: her blank unfriendliness, her active hostility, or her tears and fawning. Seeing the heroine take charge of Manderley and set her in her place was a delight. It’s not even every book that you get to see a character transform themselves so utterly and I loved seeing it, even as I wished I could do the same (though without the preceding ordeals).

It does start out slowly; this was actually my second attempt at this book, the first having ended before page 50. This time I persevered, though by page 130 I was really beginning to wish that something would happen. Then it did, and during an unexpectedly long gap between classes I happily curled up in a big library chair and read for hours. Having heard enough about the book that I practically knew the plot already didn’t hinder my enjoyment; it was fun spotting the little clues that you normally only see the second time through. And then I discovered that not everything had been given away; there was something that I hadn’t heard of. No matter how much of the plot you’ve had given away by various sources, it’s still a suspenseful read; and if you can get up to where events really start moving, a rewarding one.

Rating: B

23 August 2007

R.I.P. II Reading Challenge

R.I.P. II Challenge
I wasn’t going to take on Carl’s Readers Imbibing Peril II challenge. I really wasn’t. But it was so tempting, and the weather lately has been perfect for considering all things eerie and spooky: cloud, rain, and a wind that howls around the corners of the house at night. So I decided to refer the decision to an inanimate object: I tossed a coin. Specifically, a dollar I found while walking to uni on an appropriately wet and windswept morning. Heads I was in, tails I was out ... and it came up heads. So if I do get hopelessly overloaded with books, I can always blame the coin.

I’ve chosen Peril the First, four books that are spooky and/or scary. And I’ve combined the ideas of a list and a peril pool: four main choices, plus some optional extras and the prerogative to insert others as opportunity allows.

The books are:

Nocturnes by John Connolly - a collection of short stories from one of my newest favourite authors.

The Shape-Changer’s Wife by Sharon Shinn - a totally new-to-me author, and a book that sounds suitably weird.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt - an overlap with the TBR challenge inspired by seeing the book on Amanda’s list.

Madam Crowl’s Ghost and other stories by J. Sheridan le Fanu - I was hoping to save these for torchlight reading in the next blackout, but it’s such a perfect fit that I have to include it.

In the extremely unlikely event of me having the time to read more I might just squeeze in one or more of:
My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier

The Secret Woman by Victoria Holt

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Or whatever else takes my fancy/gets borrowed from the library within the next two months.

Now that I’ve taken the plunge I am really looking forward to this challenge; it should be - well, a R.I.P.per! Also, definitely the last challenge I am signing up for in the next three or four months. And this time I actually mean it.

Questions for Bookworms

Yes, for once I am posting in the middle of the day! And I’ve somehow managed to do so on one of my university’s computers, which for some inexplicable reason turn all of Blogger’s text into Chinese. The meme was borrowed from Amanda at A Patchwork of Books.

What are you reading right now?
Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier, a selection which had one of my lecturers remarking, ‘I didn’t think anybody still read her’. Buried Treasure by Victoria Finlay, a fascinating non-fiction book about the history of mankind’s love affair with various precious stones. And Governors’ Wives in Colonial Australia by Anita Selzer, which I really must get around to finishing. Unfortunately only the first of these books is actually with me. I was meant to have a computer prac this morning, but apparently the teacher decided to move everything back one week to accommodate the majority who were having serious trouble with the program and had fallen behind. But he didn’t think to tell us this, so I spent Monday afternoon getting completely up to date ... and arrived at the class to discover that I had nothing to do and seven hours until my next class. And, of course, I live too far out in the suburbs to bother going home. (Hence the unexpectedly punctual blogging.)

Do you have any idea what you’ll read when you’re done with that?
Let’s see ... there’s those dozen-odd other library books, next month’s three challenge books (five, if I do R.I.P. II), about three dozen other books....

What’s the worst thing you were ever forced to read?
A toss-up between two. The first was in Year 8 English, and was called How to Tell Your Parents That You’re Straight. The title says it all - or I hope it does, because post-traumatic amnesia kicked in and I can’t remember a thing about the book itself. Only that we all were assigned different books, so no-one else was in the same boat; and my mother tried reading it herself because she couldn’t believe it was as bad as I claimed. (She changed her mind.)

The second was Year 11 English - Falling, by Anne Provoost. No amnesia this time, alas. It was one of those flashback books, that start with a suitably dramatic incident (a dancer’s career being destroyed by a car crash) and circled back to see how it happened (something about her friend getting in over his head with a bunch of white supremacists). Just three problems: first, friend Lucas was a spineless twit with all the character of a wet Kleenex. How could he not see that Benoit and co. were bad news? Second, Lucas’s idiotic decisions didn’t actually cause the crash, as might have been expected from the structure of the book. And third, my teacher seriously thought a story featuring Belgian neo-Nazis would be really relevant to a classful of kids from the quiet suburbs of Canberra. Uh, yeah....

What’s the one book you always recommend to just about anyone?
Er ... no idea, since recommending books isn’t something that I get the chance to do very often.

Admit it, the librarians at your library know you on a first name basis, don’t they?
Actually, no; but I suspect this has more to do with the sheer size of my most-frequented library branch that any lack of visiting on my part. That, and the fact that from long-standing habit I always use the self-check machines (my favourite library from my Canberra days, Belconnen, tended to have queues).

Is there a book you absolutely love, but for some reason, people never think it sounds interesting, or maybe they read it and don’t like it at all?
I can think of plenty of books I love that my mother doesn’t find in the least interesting, but the general population ... I don’t know. Probably something quite large.

Do you read books while you eat? While you bathe? While you watch movies or TV? While you listen to music? While you’re on the computer?
Yes, except at breakfast, when I don’t have time to get caught up in a good book. There was a time when my mother would tell me off for reading at the dinner table, but she’s long since given up. No, because I shower and can’t think of a way to combine that with reading. Wallowing book in hand in a bathtub filled to the brim with bubbles and hot water does have a certain theoretical appeal, but I’d be too terrified of dropping the book (and besides, we’re on Level 5 water restrictions). Movies, no but tv, yes. I do try to confine my reading to the ad breaks, but it doesn’t always happen. Yes, often. And, only if my internet connection is having a really slow night.

When you were little, did other children tease you about your reading habits?
Probably. Can’t be entirely certain, because I prefer to make my memory of my schooldays as hazy as possible, but I got ridiculed for damn near everything else so I’m sure I was for this as well.

What’s the last thing you stayed up half the night reading because it was so good you couldn’t put it down?
I actually can’t remember! I did sit up later than usual with In Cold Blood, but nowhere near half the night.

20 August 2007

Monday Madness

Okay, that’s it. Call up the nice men in white coats and send them to take me away. Or perhaps they could just confiscate my library card and ban me from so much as hearing about any more challenges for a while? Yeah, that would do.

In case you can’t tell from that, I went to the library today. (And I had to walk down wet streets to get there! That’s right, we’ve actually had RAIN. A whole 38mm; our first in two months.) But I digress. Before the city library, I was in my uni library, doing a spot of blog-surfing that happened to include Carl’s. And ... he’s launching the R.I.P. II Challenge! I immediately began thinking desperately of all the reasons I shouldn’t sign up: so many challenges already, thirty-four books still in the TBR box and only five months till the next BookFest, uni, plus all the extra-curricular hours I’m obliged to spend locked in battle with a certain protein-viewing program. (Don’t let the blog fool you; when it comes to anything remotely advanced, computers tend to hate me.)

And then I got to the city library. And - ooh ... look what I borrowed . . . Nocturnes by John Connolly and The Shape-changer’s Wife by Sharon Shinn. Ideal for R.I.P. II - what a coincidence! I wonder how that could have happened....

Confession time: that was far from all I borrowed. There was also: A Sentimental Murder (more true crime, a case from the eighteenth century this time); Ella Minnow Pea (on my Wanted list since I read Lynne’s review; The Maltese Falcon (how have I never read this?); Down Under - I can’t wait to read Bryson’s take on my native country; and How to Kill Your Husband (and other handy household hints) - should be hilarious. And that’s on top of all the books I already have checked out. So I am now in possession not only of a truly formidable TBR pile, but a library borrowing slip literally as long as my arm.

If I actually do sign up for R.I.P., I should definitely be certified.

But I have the comfort of knowing I’m not the only nut around town; I took a shortcut through Anzac Square en route to Central and discovered they they’ve reversed the directions of the escalators - again. That’s the fourth time that I know of, and the second in a week. What would possess anyone to do that?

And in totally un-book-related news: yesterday Mum found out she’s going to be a great-aunt and promptly dove head-first into strenuous and valiant denial. One of her sisters will be a grandmother, the rest will be great-aunts, her brother will be a great-uncle, but she ... no, no, definitely not.... It’s raised an interesting question. When the baby arrives, it will be my first cousin once removed - but what will I be to it?

Book Review: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

In Cold Blood In November, 1959, recently-paroled Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are out for one last score before heading south to Mexico. Acting on information extracted from Hickock’s former cellmate - a one-time employee of a wealthy Kansas farmer - they descend on the tiny town of Holcomb. Their actions that night seal their place in history. Holcomb changes overnight from a town where no-one locks their doors to a town filled with suspicion and fear, and the Kansas Bureau of Investigation is brought in to solve one of the worst crimes in state history. Four members of the Clutter family - husband, wife, and teenage children - have been shot, for apparently no reason at all. Here the whole sequence of events - the day of the murders, the pursuit of the killers, the years of legal manvoeuvring - are drawn together in a work that combines the best of fiction and journalism.

I’ve read very little true crime, and that all of the historical-detective variety (piecing together the solution to a decades- or centuries-old case); so it was good to see where the whole phenomenon began, and to read an account written by a contemporary. It was an engrossing read; Capote has a knack for spot-on descriptions that bring people and places to life on the page. It’s as easy to read as a novel, but is liberally filled with quotes and even entire blocks of text taken from the official record, never allowing you to forget for a moment that the events really did occur. The reader is privy to the identity and location of the killers, but is otherwise left to discover things along with the investigators. It’s an effective technique, cutting from the killers lurking in the drive to the discovery of the bodies; like Nancy Clutter’s friends, you know something is wrong in that house, but not exactly what they’re going to find. The precise details of what and how are only revealed later. The book also goes into the minds of the killers, which can be an unnerving experience; Perry Smith collected obscure words, just like I do. Actually, Perry Smith in general was unnerving - he made sure all his victims were comfortably settled before killing them ... well, in cold blood.

Even after nearly fifty years, and in a time of mass shootings and dead backpackers and dozens of fictional televisual murders a week, the crime at the centre of this book retains its horror. Not just because the victims were so good-hearted and popular, or because of the disturbing co-existence in Perry Smith of callousness and kindness. It is because of the effects it had on the entire community; making people look at each other with suspicion and mistrust, move away, change their plans of relocating to the country, lock their doors. It shattered Holcomb’s innocence, and is thus several shades more terrible than if it had taken place in a large city.

Rating: A-

18 August 2007

Bookshelf Alphabet Soup

Ah, Fridays ... the perfect time of week to go lifting ideas from other people’s blogs. Today’s victim - er, inspiration - is Stuck in a Book, where I came across this post. (Just scroll down to the bit about the recent dearth of authors beginning with N - and I, Q, U, X, Y, Z....)

It got me thinking about my own literary alphabet, as far as it can be determined from three and a half years of records and an overloaded memory. How many letters could I claim to have read? Most called to mind a whole bunch of authors, including books by both Henry and Helen Fielding and both Oliver and Olivia Goldsmith. I managed a couple of Ns (Katherine Neville, Chris Nyst) and one solitary I (Washington Irving, creator of Rip van Winkle and Ichabod Crane). Q had me puzzled for a while until I thought of three at once, and every one a pseudonym: Amanda Quick, Julia Quinn, and Ellery Queen. (Okay, so the Ellery Queen was a single short story, but I wanted to show off how many Qs I could muster.)

But U, X, Y, and Z are still blanks. The last can be fixed easily enough with some Zola (finally), and X might require a trip to the history section to borrow something by, say, Xerxes. The other two ... I don’t know. Anyone have any suggestions for the last four letters on my list?

17 August 2007

Book Review: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Armchair Traveller Challenge #2

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Tomas is a doctor and a perpetual skirt-chaser, always seeking that indefinable something that sets one woman apart from all others, even if all members of the sex differ by just one part in a million. Even after Tereza, a waitress with dreams bigger than her small town, wanders into his life, he cannot bring himself to completely settle down. Yet he cares about Tereza; enough to abandon the safety of Zurich and follow her back to Prague after the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia.

His former mistress is Sabina, a modernist painter who gladly takes the opportunity to flee the soul-crushing sameness enforced by the communists. She settles in Geneva with her new lover Franz, an academic with whom she shares too many misunderstandings to be truly happy; and she knows that one day she will desert him like she has deserted everyone and everything else. He, blissfully unaware of this, dreams of having a political cause like he pictures her as having, something that will drag him out of academia and into the revolution.

His career stifled by the communist regime, Tomas confronts the insubstantiality of life in a world where history is meaningless for it reveals nothing of the rightness or otherwise of any given decision. Unlike a science experiment, which can be run many times with changing variables, events occur but once; no-one can ever see how things might have turned out if a different path had been taken. Sabina faces her own form of weightlessness: that of a life without anything to tie her down, and the impossibility of having such bonds, for she would break them like she has all others. Each discovers the unbearable lightness of being.

Another good choice for the Armchair Traveller Reading Challenge! There were a few side-trips into Switzerland, France, America and Cambodia, but mostly the book stayed in Czechoslovakia (mainly Prague) before and during the Russian occupation. (I don’t think I even realised Czechoslovakia had been occupied, so this was a valuable lesson as to history as well as to place.) Eye-opening, too, with its depiction of life under a communist regime - the decamping and demoting of intellectuals, the constant suspicion and second-guessing of everyone’s motives, and the difficulty faced by anyone who, like Sabina, wishes to pursue an independent path.

In terms of construction this is one of the oddest books I’ve read. Not only does the author step in to directly address the reader, he also freely admits that his characters are fictional and analyses them for you. This pattern is established early enough that I could accept it, but it makes it near impossible to think about the characters after closing the book. There’s nothing to think about; they’ve already been dissected and laid out in black and white - and they’re made up, anyway. Perhaps it’s just as well they were described in such detail; there’s not a great deal of plot supporting the characters and the philosophy. I think I would have preferred it if there was; a sizeable portion of the philosophy went straight over my head, particularly the political stuff (i.e. all of Part 7). But then politics isn’t something I’m familiar with; I only pay attention to it when a politician does something particularly outrageous - or enraging.

The ideas-heavy nature of the book made it of necessity a leisurely read; I found myself falling into a rhythm of read, pause, muse, repeat as I attempted to digest it all. And I noticed something curious. One of the book’s main philosophical tenets is that events don’t repeat, hence there is no way to trial different decisions ergo no way to know which is best. Yet the book itself repeated! This was particularly noticeable in the sections dealing with Tomas and Tereza; much of the same timespan and many of the same events would be gone over from each of their viewpoints. And one of Tomas’s metaphors was deployed eight times in the 104 pages written from his perspective - once every thirteen pages. Even the narrative as a whole circled around in time; one incident was referred to at least twice, yet at the point where the book ended it was still to occur. This was less disorienting than it might sound as, with the exception of the invasion of 1968, Kundera never put a date to anything, and often skipped over several years in a single sentence. Realising that there was no hope of keeping the chronology straight, I gave up trying.

I can easily see myself returning to this book on multiple occasions in years to come. Not only to try to stretch my mind to understand it all, but to revisit favourite passages or ideas and begin musing all over again.

Rating: B+

16 August 2007

Booking Through Thursday: Monogamy

One book at a time? Or more than one? If more, are they different types/genres? Or similar?

(We’re talking recreational reading, here — books for work or school don’t really count since they’re not optional.)

It’s a rare event for me to be reading only one book. I almost always have two on the go - or even three or four or more! Though anything over three does make it challenging; it’s hard to find the time to keep up with all of them at once and remember what’s happened in each one. Often one will be kept in my bag for the train, and the other (or another) on the couch for the evenings. I think it’s a mark of impatience - I just can’t wait to begin that next book. My current reads are generally varied since my TBR pile is; that way, I have a few different things to choose from, depending on what I feel like reading.

13 August 2007

Book Review: Daisy Miller and other stories by Henry James

Daisy Miller and other stories First in Switzerland, then in Italy, Mr. Winterbourne meets fellow American Miss Annie ‘Daisy’ Miller and her family. He vacillates between being attracted by her outgoing chatter and being repelled by it. Sometimes he believes it to be a sign of innocence, other times he suspects it as proof of ill-breeding or worse. Certainly her indiscriminate striking-up of friendships with porters and fortune-hunters is viewed by polite society as a mark of someone not fit to associate with. Winterbourne’s best efforts to make her understand why people are snubbing her come to nothing, and Daisy’s refusal to change her ways leads to tragedy.

Accompanying the quite brief (especially by James’s standards) Daisy Miller are three even shorter pieces. Longstaff’s Marriage chronicles the unexpected effects of unrequited love; Four Meetings describes exactly what the title suggests and manages to tell a character’s whole story in the process; and Benvolio is the tale of a young man who cannot reconcile the two sides of his nature.

Henry James in short story form is easier to read than Henry James in a novel, although he does revert to his customary long-windedness in Benvolio. That was the collection’s weakest link, with even the narrator admitting that the title character could get a little tiresome. The three preceding tales more than compensated; highly readable with interesting, well-observed characters. And if the endings weren’t happy, they were fitting. The conclusion to Daisy Miller in particular had an air of inevitability; something had to go wrong, and sure enough it did. That story was a vivid depiction of how people and their actions can be misinterpreted, and what can happen when the holders of opposing views stubbornly cling on to them. But I still wanted to reach through the pages to give Daisy a good prod and wake her up a bit; she could not - or would not - see how other people might misread her behaviour. (Honey, it’s the Victorian era; reputation is everything.) But I have to wonder . . . has James ever written a happy ending? Or, for that matter, a strong-willed female protagonist who hasn’t been brought down by fate or man?

Of the ‘other stories’, my favourite was Longstaff’s Marriage, despite its being a little improbable even for the notoriously sentimental Victorians; I liked the bookish spinster who narrated it. Come to think of it, I generally do like bookish spinsters - and I am not going to infer anything from that!

Rating: B

10 August 2007

Book to Movie Reading Challenge

After yesterday’s Moaning Meme whingefest, I was ready to jump at any opportunity to cheer myself up. And I found one - another reading challenge!

Book to Movie Challenge

The aim here is to read, between 1 Sept. and 1 Dec., at least three books that have been translated to film. I have no idea how I’ll squeeze this one in, but that’s never yet stopped me from planning to read more books. Callista has suggested optional book-to-movie comparisons, so I decided to cover all bases:

The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden (overlap with Armchair Traveller Reading Challenge) – haven’t seen the movie.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen - have seen the movie, but I’m not sure how well I remember it.

The Bourne Identity by Robert Ludlum - have seen the movie several times.

If I sign up for any more many more (have to leave some room for error) challenges after this, I’m mad!

Update: I don’t think the Universe is best pleased with me for taking on even one more - at the very moment I was about to hit ‘Submit’ over at SMS Book Reviews, the power went out!

09 August 2007

The Moaning Meme

I really was going to leave this one alone. But after today ... I. Need. To. VENT!

5 people who will be annoyed you tagged them:

- Early morning. Long day. Feeling lazy (or perhaps just tired out by all the whingeing I’m about to do). So - if you want to whine, go right ahead.

4 things that should go into room 101 and be removed from the face of the earth:

- Bullies (preferably with the vaporisation backdated to, say, 1991).
- Sex offenders (all varieties).
- Terrorists (ditto).
- Queensland premier Peter Beattie and all who helped vote him back into power at the last state election (first: the water crisis, health crisis, electricity crisis, infrastructure crisis, indigenous affairs crisis, emergency services crisis, everything else crisis. Then: his head-in-the-sand refusal to even think of considering fluoride in the drinking water, recycled water in the drinking water, or daylight saving. And now: forced local council amalgamations, plus his decision to a. ban referendums for those affected, and b. sack - lock, stock, and barrel - any council that holds one anyway).

3 things people do that make you want to shake them violently:

- Get in my way. This includes: standing chatting in the middle of walkways; not keeping left on escalators; sitting at the aisle side of facing seats on the train and not getting up to let me out but merely turning sideways; slow people ahead of me at any time. And the annoyance factor doubles when these people look annoyed with me for bumping into them on my way past.
- Abuse, misuse, or fail to use apostrophes. (As the case may be.) Particularly disconcerting when a certain lecturer of mine does it, since unpunctuated can’t and won’t form actual English words which look totally out of place in a science lecture.
- Fail to adequately control their children in public. This being Exhibition time, there’ll be plenty of opportunity for moaning about this; the train this evening was packed with kids hyped up on sugar and clutching their showbags. And shrieking, howling, crying.... Also in this category are free-range toddlers. Being a brisk walker, a two-foot terror suddenly stepping out in front of me means having to pull up short so fast as to almost leave skid marks on the pavement. Not to mention worrying that one day I’ll trip over one.

2 things you find yourself moaning about:

- My lack of experience, people skills, extracurricular activities, discernible personality, etc, etc, and how much my post-graduation career prospects are likely to suffer as a result.
- My lack of money for essentials like train tickets and books.

1 thing the above answers tell you about yourself:

- That I should have gotten myself a weekend job back around 2001 instead of concentrating my efforts on avoiding people (and, that most of my annoyances are caused by other people. Sort that one out, if you can).

RULES: Link to the original meme at freelancecynic.com so people know what it's all about! Be as honest as possible, This is about letting people get to know the real you! Try not to insult anyone - unless they really deserve it or are very, very ugly! Post these rules at the end of every meme!

Booking Through Thursday: Multiples

Do you have multiple copies of any of your books?
If so, why? Absent-mindedness? You love them that much? First Editions for the shelf, but paperbacks to read?
If not, why not? Not enough space? Not enough money? Too sensible to do something so foolish?
Not one. And for all three of the reasons above. I can’t really see the point in owning more than one copy of a book; and even if I could afford it, I would still be running out of shelf space! I’m not sure how much I have left, but I’m sure it’s under two metres. I can see myself ending up like Rory in Gilmore Girls, with books stuffed into spare drawers!

Book Review: The Superior Person's Second Book of Words by Peter Bowler

The Superior Person’s Second Book of Words This is a book for the word lover - or merely the lover of feeling superior! There’s a word in here for every occasion you could imagine, and some for those you’d never think of. Instead of just definitions, it also includes examples showing how you can drop your new-found vocabulary into everyday conversation.

Words ... I love new words. Even more when they come with consistently funny definitions and examples. Some favourites:

Galeanthropy n. The delusion that you have become a cat. Not a particularly common disorder, but its mere existence compensates, at least in part, for the fact that so many cats suffer from the delusion that they have become humans.

Hyperhedonia n. A condition in which abnormally heightened pleasure is derived from participation in activities which are intrinsically tedious and uninteresting. For a case study near you, see any golfer.

Lygophilia n. Love of darkness. A condition experienced in its most powerful form immediately after one has received the electricity bill.

Resupinate a. Upside down as a result of twisting. ‘So sad about Bannister. Been in politics only seven years and already suffering irreversible resupination.’

But as entertaining as it was, I was still just a little disappointed. The words could be divided into two general categories: those I already knew, and those that I couldn’t see myself ever using - handy demonstrations of use or not.

Rating: B

07 August 2007

The Weird, the Woeful, and the (Maybe) Wonderful

How’s this for a list of recent coincidences:

- In close succession, I read The Secret Adversary and My Brilliant Career, both featuring a character with the unusual name of Julius.
- Simultaneously I read Swift’s Journal to Stella and My Brilliant Career (whose author’s unused first name was Stella).
- On Wednesday morning, my lecture included some words of warning to any broke attendees contemplating signing up for clinical drug trials to earn extra cash. On the way home I picked up a copy of the free city tabloid mX - and on page 3 was an ad asking for volunteers for a clinical drug trial.
- Also in the mX, to my great delight, was a books page (the existence of which I never knew of before, as last semester Wednesday was my day off). It consisted mostly of an interview with John Connolly, whose The Book of Lost Things I recently read, and which I had returned to the library only that day.
- Finally, Wednesday evening I stumbled across this post. Which was interesting timing as, earlier, I had discovered that the city library has installed a sculpture at the top of the escalators. I can’t find any online photos, so you’ll have to use your imagination: a cone, maybe three feet across and four-and-a-half feet high, made entirely of books. Specifically, paperback books sans covers. Sure, it’s been designated art and is perfectly suited to its location, but all I could think was that if those books were intact and loose, they could have been read and looked after and enjoyed. Instead, they’re ruined.
Art or sacrilege: what do you think?

That’s the weird; the woeful is my punctuality in posting (or lack thereof). I had planned to keep perfectly up-to-date with my challenges, but my July reviews all arrived in August. But I did finish the books in July . . . I’m resolved, now, that I will NOT leave it until the last week of the month to pick up my challenge books; in fact, I plan to start my first one tomorrow. No, really. Honest. Which is actually another coincidence: it’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, and Milan Kundera was quoted in last night’s episode of Criminal Minds.

And the wonderful ... ish. Yesterday I opened the letterbox and found an envelope bearing the logo of my university (a rare event, and one which inevitably makes me think, What did I forget to do?). As it turned out, nothing; it was, in fact, an invitation to join the Golden Key International Honour Society, for students in the top 15%. I think my mother was more excited than I was:

‘Well - what does it say?’
‘I haven’t read it all yet - I only just opened it!’
Okay, okay, so it’s pretty good. It’s just that when you’re used to receiving academic accolades of one kind or another, top 15% doesn’t sound particularly thrilling; plus it gets old. I’ll probably sign up just for the boost it will give my post-graduation job-hunting, but I’m worried that the mention of a society will mislead potential employers into thinking it implies some kind of social life. Which it won’t; the activities of my university’s chapter seem to be all liberally fuelled by alcohol, and I have so little tolerance for the stuff that just the fumes give me a headache. But since said chapter’s website reminds potential members that employers just love to know applicants have a life outside the lab and the library (oh dear ...) it’s perhaps a false impression I need to make. No matter how much it stinks that I should have to do so.

Finally, I’ve had one of those out-of-nowhere brainwaves that I’m occasionally blessed(?) with, and a long-buried idea for a murder mystery has been resurrected. My villain had thumbed his nose at his creator by committing the perfect crime and getting away scot-free; but I think I have now outsmarted him. The problem is that I am sadly afflicted with an imagination bigger than my capabilities. I may have a hard time finding ideas; but once a good one’s planted in my brain, it tends to grow. A lot. Suddenly a straightforward whodunit morphs into a monster with three corpses, two time periods, and a mad wife in the country cottage. And a ghost. All in a foreign country I can’t afford a research trip to.

Good thing I love a challenge.

Book Review: Madame Bovary, C'est Moi by André Bernard

Madame Bovary C’est Moi Ever wondered where authors get the characters from? Or how those characters have evolved from their original forms? Then this is the book for you. It’s packed full of anecdotes telling how more than seventy well-known fictional figures came into being. It covers everything from classic creations of authors like Dickens and Hardy to a good handful of modern detectives, children’s favourites and even a few of the non-human variety. Even if you haven’t read all the books in question, you will almost certainly have heard of them.

Books like this are why I love aimlessly browsing through the library - you never know what little gems you might find. This was entertaining not only for the stories but for the character-related quotes from various writers. And as a wannabe author myself, it was interesting to see how others have gone about creating their fictional people (and a little disconcerting to realise that I don’t have any that are anecdote-worthy, as usually I just can’t remember their origin). My favourites tended to be those about characters that had begun their existence in very different form. Connie Gustfman, for instance ... it really hasn’t got the same ring as Holly Golightly, does it? Yet that was how Holly began.

It was surprising to see how many characters were unflatteringly based on real people (or perhaps not, since I’m vaguely in the process of doing the same thing myself); sometimes I had to wonder how the author got away without a lawsuit. Be warned, though: some of the character summaries do contain spoilers. But at least Bernard restrained himself from revealing the identity of the villain in The Thin Man.

Rating: B

Book Review: The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

The Silence of the Lambs FBI agent Jack Crawford sends trainee Clarice Starling on what should be a fairly routine excursion. Her task is to persuade Dr. Hannibal Lecter to complete a psychological questionnaire. To do so would be quite a coup; ‘Hannibal the Cannibal’ is an object of ongoing curiosity - a highly intelligent psychiatrist with an unfortunate fondness for killing and eating people. When Clarice visits him at the asylum he makes a prediction about Crawford’s latest case, a serial killer who partially flays his victims. When Buffalo Bill fulfills it, Crawford is determined to extract whatever information Lecter might have - especially when he abducts as his next victim a senator’s daughter.

And so Clarice must engage in games of verbal cat and mouse with a very dangerous man: a pure sociopath, and a very astute one. He doles out hints one at a time, even though he knows that Catherine Baker Martin has only days to live; and in exchange he demands that Clarice provide him with information about herself, just as she was warned not to do. Before she has finished with him, petty rivalry intervenes and Lecter is removed from her reach. With no reason to continue trading information, he decides instead to indulge in a bit of fun - and Dr. Lecter loves his fun.

Had I read this book a little earlier, Hannibal the Cannibal would definitely have claimed top spot in my list of villains. Even while lolling about in the Gardens on a warm, sunny afternoon, reading about him is creepy. After all, he’s a cannibal; he was a psychiatrist, who’s supposed to help people but actually murdered them; and he’s scarily smart. Also, he has the ability to seem almost normal: he remains active in his field, and regularly publishes articles. But most of all is the fact that at times you can’t help almost liking him, especially when he’s putting one over the obnoxious Dr. Chilton. He’s not someone you want to exist at all, much less talk to about your childhood the way Clarice is obliged to do.

I really liked Clarice; it’s always good to read about a woman outdoing the men at their own game, especially one with the guts to willingly go after a murderous nutcase. Good thing she did, too, as there was a vital clue to his identity that few if any men could have spotted; I thought that was a nice touch. Her little chats with Lecter made an interesting way to drop in information about her background, and made it easy to understand why she would go into the FBI and risk having to repeat her classes in order to try to save Catherine. The only thing missing was -at least until the end - any sense of her life outside the FBI. But then, perhaps she didn’t really have one. Catherine was another good character; she didn’t just wait for whatever was coming, but had the good sense to do something to keep herself alive. Her tactics led to one of the most nerve-wracking endings I’ve read; if we had a basement, it would probably put me off going down there.

Yes, it’s gory, and you do know who the killer is and what Hannibal’s up to. But the suspense remains, because even though the reader’s not in the dark, the authorities are, and they have a very clear time limit in which to save the day. And for once, I spotted something before it was revealed. Okay, so it was made clear that Hannibal was yanking everyone’s chain, but I could see exactly how.

Rating: A

02 August 2007

Book Review: My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin

Armchair Traveller Challenge #1

My Brilliant Career Thanks to her father’s misplaced ambition, Sybylla Melvyn is reduced from the relative comforts of Bruggabrong to the harsh life of Possum Gully. Instead of owning three stations, the family now has one property, and that one poor and drought-ravaged. Her lofty, independent spirit rankles under the daily drudgery; her mind is filled with music, literature, and world events, things far above her current place in life. Her obvious disinclination for her new, hard life causes her mother to constantly berate her for her uselessness, and remind her of her unfitness for any of the careers a woman in the 1890s could pursue. For Sybylla, this is just one more burden to bear; for she knows that she is cursed with an ugliness of form and temperament that will leave her forever unloved and alone.

Her apparent salvation arrives when her grandmother offers to take in one of the children. With the drought and her father’s increasing drunkenness, her mother had already stated that Sybylla should relieve the family of her presence. At Caddagat she has all the things she dreamed of; books to read, a piano to play, green lawns, ease and comfort, and relatives who don’t condemn her as useless. There she meets the wealthy owner of the neighbouring station of Five-Bob Downs. As much as she likes Harold Beecham, she is determined to knock some of the conceit out of him, to pay him back for toying with her by pretending to care for her. By the time she succeeds she has learned, through her mother’s continued hostility, that there are worse things in life than Possum Gully, and her unlovable spirit proves to be a curse indeed.

I decided to start the Armchair Traveller Reading Challenge at home; I figured it qualified because it’s set in the country and it’s been years since I’ve set foot out of the city. And the setting was the highlight of the book; I could really picture the people and the places which Sybylla encountered. The characters were also vivid and the writing style was lively and engaging. Sybylla’s narration of her story brought her to life and I’m sure she will prove one of the more memorable characters I’ve encountered. She is quite unconventional, and by the final page her story is just as much so.

Yet it was this remarkable character that made the book fall a little flat, and dragged it down from what I initially thought would be an A. She is utterly convinced of her own unlovableness and nothing anyone can say or do will change her mind. She can’t muster any belief in herself, even when doing so could have enabled her to seize a golden opportunity. Her negativity got quite wearying and I wanted to shake her. But at the same time, I could understand, for Sybylla is a lot like me. Which was half the problem; I read to escape, which doesn’t work too well when the book contains a character who reflects so much of the worst of myself. In another way, though, it was a benefit; even if I didn’t much care for the way it ended, I knew that it was the only outcome possible, for I knew what the result would be if she took the alternative. She would have been forever waiting for it all to come crashing down, as would I. And perhaps having seen the effect Sybylla has on me will make me more mindful of the effect I must have on others.

Despite this it is a wonderful book, for the portrait it paints of a place and time, and the extraordinary fact that it was written by a girl of sixteen.

Rating: B+

Book Review: Journal to Stella by Jonathan Swift

2007 TBR Challenge #7
Non-Fiction 5 Challenge #3

Journal to Stella In the autumn of 1710, Jonathan Swift left Ireland to conduct some Church business in London. What was intended to be a short trip turned into three years’ absence, as he became caught up in the politics of the day. During his stay in England, Swift wrote to Esther Johnson (“Stella”) and Rebecca Dingley, his two companions back in Ireland. Added to every day for much of the time, the letters took the form of a journal. It describes the political manoeuvrings and figures (many of them titled) of the time and the events at Parliament and Court, as well as more trivial concerns such as his ongoing battle with his frequently-drunk servant. It also displays the domestic side of one of literature’s greats.

Surprisingly, the book is misnamed; it was after his return to Ireland that Swift created the sobriquet Stella, which was inserted into many of the letters after the author’s death, by his cousin. Although the edited letters aren’t as authentic as those which escaped Deane Swift’s hands, they are much easier to read. It’s somewhat ironic that one of Swift’s plans while in England was a scheme to fix the language, given his own vagaries of spelling and punctuation (including a persistent inability to spell ‘Bolingbroke’). I was also interested to note the use of nite, which I has assumed to be a modern abbreviation. That’s one of things I like about reading old books; I can see how word usage has changed since, and what current phrases existed back then. Three centuries ago, doubt meant think instead of think not; and I found such sayings as ‘other fish to fry’ and ‘get a lift’. They’re often also useful as an education in the life of the time, but the Journal less so than some others. Swift’s time was spent largely in business and politics, so the view of contemporary life is limited; many of the people who appear are wealthy and/or titled, and the majority are (of course) male. But it was interesting to get a glimpse of how things worked in a time when the really important thing was who you knew and what they could do for you.

But he doesn’t disdain to repeat gossip and relate the latest scandals: murders, attempted assassinations, corruption, and other indiscretions. The diary also includes some of the most atrocious puns you’re ever likely to meet. Best of all, it shows the man behind the literary works and genius reputation. He didn’t fit my idea of a churchman at all, what with the gambling and the hanging around young ladies; and I wouldn’t have liked that wit turned against me!

Rating: B-

Book Review: The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly

The Book of Lost Things Twelve-year-old David’s life is being turned upside down. His mother dies. His father remarries. He finds himself burdened by a new half-brother. Finally, he is dragged away from his childhood home to the house of his stepmother Rose, safely away from the bombs that are falling on London. And those are only the normal things. There are the blackouts from which he wakes with memories of a fairytale world, and which leave him with the ability to hear books talking amongst themselves. There are the waking visions of the same land, and dreams of a crooked man who hails him as a king. And the curious fact that his room, and his room alone, is forever invaded by ivy and wildlife. The visions seem connected to a hole in the wall of a sunken garden, and when he hears his dead mother’s voice calling to him, he runs out into the night and climbs through it.

Once in the world of his dreams, David is unable to return, and must trust himself to the Woodsman who soon appears. The Woodsman takes him to a cottage as armoured as a fortress, for there are worse than wolves in the forest: the Loups, a wolf-human hybrid, are hunting; not just for food, but for power. He tells David of an ageing king who keeps an old book rumoured to contain an answer for everything - including, perhaps, the way home. David sets out for the castle through a land seemingly composed of fragments of all the old tales so beloved of his mother; a land of wolves, trolls, dwarves, and enchantment. Yet some things don’t fit - like the Loups, who stalk him in hope of a meal. The Crooked Man stalks him also, with a different end in mind, and holds out all kinds of promises if David will only do him the tiniest little favour. At the end of his journey he discovers not only the contents of the Book of Lost Things, but the fate of the original inhabitant of his room – Rose’s uncle, who went for a walk with his foster-sister and was never seen again....

The start was slow, but still effective; it allowed the tension to be ratcheted up one nerve-wracking step at a time, and set the stage for David’s growing-up during the course of the book - and the strange world he steps into. That world was well-created; a bit of this, a bit of that, and it was clear how David’s own reading and imagination had altered it. He encountered one of Byron’s characters after reading one of his poems, and his attempt at a history of communism made a surprise change: the seven dwarves are Party members, and they’re saddled with a Snow White that you never dreamed of. This episode was my favourite of the book; delightfully skewed and very funny. It’s also a nice respite from the darkness that exists in so much else of the world, including a woman who’d give Dr. Frankenstein a run for his money, and a creature from the deepest corner of David’s own mind.

Since this is a book all about growing up, there is a lot of character growth, but it’s all David; this really is his book and everyone else is secondary. A lot don’t even make it to the end; and the means of disposal of some is managed quite neatly, thanks to the peculiar nature of the other world. That world raises a lingering question: just how much of it was real? It was composed of pieces of fiction, it was influenced by the people who came there, and yet ... there were things to suggest that it was all real. Intriguing - and all leading up to an end that almost made me feel like reaching for the Kleenex (not that that’s saying a whole lot). My main problem with the book was that the fairytale atmosphere made it hard to believe that the danger was real; after all, fairytales have happy endings all round. Usually. And it was never explained just why the ivy and assorted wildlife found David’s room so irresistible.

Rating: B+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776