Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Anne of Green Gables

Last month's book club choice was Anne of Green Gables, which I'd never read before. I expected it would be too corny for me, but I actually liked it. Anne is a cheerful, innocent girl, whose appeal as a character is saved by her mischief and her status as an orphan who's had to put up with a lot of ill treatment. So I was rooting for her.

Marilla and Matthew take her in, though they wanted a boy and by accident get a girl. They have the a rural stoicism that often conflicts with Anne's dreaminess, but comedy is the result.

Anne really did grow on me and I'd read more. It was a good choice after reading about poor Tess in September and October.

My Book Quiz Results

You're Love in the Time of Cholera!

by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Like Odysseus in a work of Homer, you demonstrate undying loyalty by sleeping with as many people as you possibly can. But in your heart you never give consent! This creates a strange quandary of what love really means to you. On the one hand, you've loved the same person your whole life, but on the other, your actions
barely speak to this fact. Whatever you do, stick to bottled water. The other stuff could get you killed.

Take the Book Quiz
at the Blue Pyramid.

Hardly, accurate

Monday, November 15, 2010


Jean Fritz' Homesick describes her childhood in China during the 20's around the time of the first revolution. It's funny, perceptive and touching. She's a spirited girl of 9 or 10 years old who likes some aspects of life in China, but not all. I loved how honest and real her writing was. This book is geared to young readers, but appeals to all because she doesn't sugarcoat things or spare her readers from the hardship life can throw at us. She weaves the history in so that it doesn't come across as pendantic, rather it's just natural.

I wanted to read more. That's the sign of a good book.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Begin Here

Jacques Barzun's Begin Here: The Forgotten Conditions of Teaching and Learning is terrific. He examines education from grade school to grad school pointing out the ridiculous and offering better solutions and perspectives. Although it was first written in the 70s and updated in the 90s, its still current (sadly). It's a fun, intelligent read and highly recommended for anyone with a serious interest in education.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Tess D'Urbervilles

I was blown away by Tess of the D'Urbervillesby Thomas Hardy. It was our book club's choice for September and October, but really isn't that long, yet I'm glad I didn't have to race through it in a month.

It's the story of a young woman from a poor family who has hardship after hardship. No one cuts her a break. Yet she keeps on going. She doesn't have any lofty aspirations, unlike her pathetic father who's already a drinker, but becomes more useless once he hears that he's descended, in more ways than one, from an aristocratic family.

I'd seen the movie in the 80's and vaguely remembered some scenes and the tone of the story. I also remember Monty Python spearing Hardy quite often. Yet this is a well written book about a compelling character. I'm so glad I read it.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Language

I feel rather privileged to get an advanced copy of Deborah Fallows' Dreaming in Chinese: Mandarin Lessons In Life, Love, And Languagevia my friend Sally's relative who works at NPR. (Talk about a dream job.) Fallows describes her various efforts to learn Mandarin interspersed with her experiences in China over the years. She includes both linguistic loves and characteristic Chinese moments. It's a fun and quick read for a Sinophile. There weren't any lessons in Love as in romantic love. That's a tease in the subtitle.

Yet others might not enjoy it that much. They might not care about some of the facets of Mandarin and wish there were more stories about life in China. A reader who has studied Mandarin could find this too basic.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Danica McKellar: Are her math books bad for girls?

Danica McKellar: Are her math books bad for girls? is an article about former Wonder Years star's books on math. I'd say they seem worthwhile. I just read about them on

Thursday, September 09, 2010

Knowing Christ Today

Knowing Christ Today: Why We Can Trust Spiritual Knowledge by philosopher Dallas Willard logically refutes the idea that it's impossible to know God or that all this faith-stuff is just a matter of belief. He respectfully and intelligently tackles that notion before moving on to reason why we can know there is a God and why Christ is God. It's a really bold move in this era and Willard uses his reasoning, rather than nonsense or feelings to address these issues. It's a powerful book using strong evidence.

Of course, not all will be swayed, but Willard writes well and anyone who cares about such matters should give this book a read. It will challenge believer and non-believer alike, though in different ways. It's very much a modern book for our time, but Willard doesn't simply modify the gospels or logic to present a Christianity every one will like. He explains Christianity in modern terms that will challenge people today.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

The Barn

I just finished Award winner Avi's The Barn. it was a quick, enjoyable read about three siblings growing up in the Oregon Territory in 1855. Their mother died years ago and when their father suffers a stroke, the youngest boy, Ben, must return home from boarding school. With his older brother Harrison and older sister Nettie, they must work the fields and care for the father who can't feed himself or sit up.

Ben takes on the full time responsibility of caring for the father, who can't talk. Ben soon decides that the way to get the father to recover is to build the barn the father spoke of. Against obstacles including common sense, the kids decide to build the barn the father wanted.

In many ways the plot offers little new, but the ending is real and non-Disney-ish. The book reads fast and I got caught up in the language, but when you think about it few 10 year olds are as wise as Ben -- actually, none I've met are. It was hard to believe a boy would make all the observations he made, even if he was bright. I taught the highly gifted class which required an IQ of over 140 and few if any of those fourth and fifth graders had Ben's level of maturity. I think it's a good book for 4th and 5th graders, but doesn't stand up to much analysis.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Dante's Divine Comedy as a Graphic Novel

Seymour Chwast's Dante's Divine Comedy: A Graphic Adaptation is an engaging "read" that made me want to read the the original
again. I liked the black and white drawings that showed Dante's journey through Hell to Paradise. Hell seemed hellish and paradise was quite nice. The drawings make the poetry clearer and so one can visualize Dante's understanding of these supernatural realms. Dante and Virgil are dressed in outfits that evoke film noir and that worked for me. This poem a perfect choice for a graphic novel, which simplifies without really dumbing down the original. I do think it will spur many to read the original. What more do you want?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Tempo Change

By Barbara Hall, the creator of Joan of Arcadia, wrote Tempo Change, an intelligent, touching young adult novel. It tells the story of Blanche, a perceptive, sometimes sarcastic student at a fringe private school in L.A. Her father's a once famous musician who left the family when Blanche was six. Her mom now owns a store after working one undignified job after another to take care of her daughter. Blanche treasures her email relationship with her "artistic" father, who indulges himself in all the tortured artist platitudes to justify his wanderings and irresponsibility.

Blanche gets pulled into starting her own band and finds new talents and challenges as they compete for a spot at a reknown music festival. Throughout Blanche smart and engaging. The plot progresses in interesting directions and the minor characters are well drawn and all able to challenge Blanche to divest herself of easy answers and idealized notions. It's a good read and goes beyond what I expect to find in a work written for teens. (I realize that's my own bias.)

It's interesting that I read this as I watched Once another work that looks at the world of musicians, who're outside the mainstream fame and fortune.

This could make a good family drama on television. One, like "Joan" with authentic smart characters coping with tough issues.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

A Comrade Lost and Found

A Comrade Lost and Found: A Beijing Memoiris the third Jan Wong book I've read and I highly recommend it. This book chronicles Wong's search for the woman she turned in during the cultural revolution. As an exchange student at Beijing University in the 1970's Wong was smitten with the Great Helmsman's ideology and felt she was doing her duty when she turned in a woman who approached her one day to find out how to immigrate to America. Later this woman was interrogated and shipped off to do hard labor in the hinterlands of China.

Wong later remembered this incident and felt guilty and concerned. Many years have passed and Wong returns to look for the woman who's name she's unsure of. As she searches for this woman, she and her family encounter the nouveau riche of today's China. They drive expensive cars, live in vast, expensively decorated condos and make tons of money.

While I enjoyed Red China Blues: My Long March From Mao to Now and Jan Wong's China more. Still this book features the humor and insight that make Wong's work well worth reading. Because she knows the language and culture so well, lived in China on and off from the '70s through the 90's, Wong can penetrate the culture as few can.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Walk in the Woods

While driving to Colorado, I got to listen to Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woodson CD. I should share that this was the first time I'd listened to a book "on tape" (CD actually). It took me a while to warm up to this, but I did. I'd never read any of Bryson's other work, but I did know that he was a well known writer.

A Walk in the Woods describes Bryson's adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail with Stephen Katz, a friend he hadn't seen in 25 years, a friend who never said no to a Little Debbie cake and who owed him $600. The addition of Katz and the humor he provides made the book.

Throughout the narrative, Bryson sounds like a Victorian dandy. Though he grew up in Iowa, spending several years in England left him with an English accent, a rather upper class accent at that. He uses a lot of language like "mis-attired" and "we hastened across the road." I can see some readers getting put off by that.

Yet, I found it funny. Often I laughed with Bryson as he bore Katz's eccentricities and laughed at him when he just got to foppish. In both cases, I'd laugh out loud.

Despite the affectation, I did find the book enjoyable and learned a lot about the history, flora and fauna of a great trail.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Naked in Baghdad

I listened to Anne Garrels' Naked in Baghdad book on CD while driving across country. It blew me away.

NPR Correspondent Garrels has covered wars in Russia, Kosovo and Iraq. She is intelligent, brave and personal as she describes her work covering the lead up to the war starting in the fall of 2002 up to and shortly after the invasion in 2003. It was a riveting story that reveals the behind the scenes look at the getting of the stories as well as the personal insights from the Iraqis she spoke with and got to know. Garrels has a good voice, and I dare say this CD set was more powerful and touching than reading the book would be. I came away with an even greater appreciation of the reporters who strive to be our eyes and ears in these danger zones.

Garrel's observations and remembrances are interspersed with her husband's messages to their friends and family. These were perceptive and interesting, but I'm not sure they were necessary.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

A Terrible Book

How to Ruin Your Life is one of the few terrible books I've read. Even poorly written books usually have something redeemable, not this. It's a waste of paper.

By Ben Stein, who can be too conservative for my tastes, this slim book is just mean spirited and misses the humor mark by a mile. It consists of 35 short essays on how to ruin one's life. Topics include: Don't Clean Up After Yourself, Be a Perfectionist (Right like Martha Stewart has ruined her life), Don't Learn Any Self-Discipline, Don't Learn Any Useful Skills.

The book's problems are many. I'll list a few:
  1. It's not funny and a humorous book should be. This just comes off as smug and obvious. There were no surprises or insights into human nature, which one expects from even mediocre humor.
  2. It preaches to the choir. There's no way anyone with one of these chronic bad habits would read this book.
  3. It's mean-spirited. Stein just comes across as condescending, as someone who's looking down at people with problems from some Mt. Olympus vantage point.
I'm glad I didn't waste my money on this and decided not to waste more than a half hour reading and hoping it would get better.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Anna Karenina, up to Part 4

My online book club is reading Tolstoy's marvelous novel about infidelity, Anna Karenina. Here are my comments on Parts I - III:
This is my second time reading Anna. I have Sean's version* and agree that it's a very accessible translation. I'm not sure what translation I read before, but the characters were harder to keep track of and the read was tougher.

That said, I love this book. I'm learning a lot as a writer about how to reveal characters' reactions, thoughts and motivations. Tolstoy does this so naturally and gracefully. Also, I find the plot structure very natural. He goes in and out of Levin and Anna's worlds without making a reader feel it's jumpy or overly aware of what he's doing (so next I expect to return to Levin's country estate, then back to Anna). 

I'm learning a lot about the real history, how people thought about workers and society. It's interesting that Levin opposed universal education and that he had an explanation for seeing it as not good for Russia. I disagree, but thought that at the time that would be an issue with two sides to it. 
I really look forward to my daily reading and suggest you give Anna a try if you haven't.
*This is the version Oprah recommended a few years ago by Pevear and Volokhonsky. Jack, the group's leader, said his translation, an older one, made for slower reading.

I don't know if it's the translation or if it's because I've read this before, but I am not as confused or put off by all the Russian names and nicknames. 

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Little Women

My online book club read Little Women this month. I remember seeing a play of it as a child and being struck by Beth's death. I don't think I'd seen a young main character die. I may have read the book then. I'm pretty sure I did.

I was struck by how moralistic the book is. All the characters are so good and are constantly urging each other to live out their favored virtues. The style wasn't great, but there's enough that's sufficiently charming that it's readable.I did pick it up with the feeling of obligation, but got through each daily selection so I'd finish in time. Louisa May Alcott just isn't a great writer.

I did wonder about the society and woman that produced this book. This book is so overtly moralist and the problems quite easy to address that it doesn't instruct modern readers, but it does tell the about an earlier time, or one corner of the country during an earlier time. I can see how many people wouldn't like this. However, I am struck by how popular this book is in China. Many of my students love it. They love the sisters' togetherness and the feeling of family. They also love the morality and romance though it's predictable.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Raw Talent

Right up front: My friend David wrote this book, an autobiography, and this isn't an impartial review. How can one be impartial about a friend's autobiography.

Also, I haven't finished reading it yet.

However, after laughing about three times while reading a bit today, I had to write about it and recommend it.

Raw Talent follows the life of a journey man writer-filmmaker, one who so far hasn't hit the big time, but has found success and it seems peace.

Starting as a boy, Hall loved to write and make films. He chronicles his development of his craft, his mistakes, naivete, successes and insights. Now I'm reading about a time when he was living in Los Angeles, where we met, and he was getting a lot of opportunities to pitch stories. The anecdotes about the characters and egos he meets is hilarious.

He does mention me in the book a little and it's rather weird reading about a friend's perception of me.

A good book for anyone interested in making it in Hollywood.

Friday, June 04, 2010

Out of Mao's Shadow

Philip Pan's Out of Mao's Shadow: The Struggle for the Soul of a New China (Paperback) is an excellent read. He investigates China's current handling of issues like free speech, rural taxation, displacing hutong dwellers in Beijing and honoring those who died during the Cultural Revolution by looking at the work of brave individuals. Each chapter follows a person who has dedicated himself (yeah, it's mainly men here) to righting a particular wrong. Thus readers learn of a documentary filmmaker who worked for years on a film about a young woman who was imprisoned and executed during the 1970s, a blind human rights attorney who fights for fair implementation of the one child policy, and a man who succeeded in protecting a cemetery for those who died during the Cultural Revolution. (The local government wanted to turn it into a parking lot.)

The book is well researched. Philip Pan was a Washington Post reporter in China for many years and got good access to his subjects. Learning about China's current issues through the lives of brave individuals is a powerful way to learn about the country.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mansfield Park Notes--Fanny's Tears

Jack shared a list of all the times Fanny cries in the novel: Mansfield Park Notes--Fanny's Tears

Jane Austen's House Museum

You can visit one of the houses Miss Austen lived in and take writing workshops there:Jane Austen's House Museum

On Mansfield Park

Our online book discussion is in progress and several people just don't care for Fanny all that much. She really is a weakling and obsequious, but this article that I found while looking for something else sheds some light on Fanny.
In some ways, it is not surprising that Mansfield Park was not among the novels initially adapted for film or that the filmmaker altered the novel so radically. Although Mansfield Park has never been without defenders, it has long been regarded as Austen's least-popular novel, largely because of the supposed unattractiveness of the novel's heroine, Fanny Price.( n18) Literary critics have tended to regard Fanny as at best "essentially passive and uninteresting,"( n19) and at worst "morally detestable," "a monster of complacency and pride...under a cloak of cringing self-abasement."( n20) In one of the most famous critiques of Mansfield Park, Lionel Trilling remarks, "Nobody, I believe, has ever found it possible to like the heroine of Mansfield Park."( n21)

Those who, like Trilling, regard Austen as reactionary, a defender of society against the newer claims of romanticism or the self, tend to see Mansfield Park as Austen's clearest and most explicit statement of her position. Although such critics argue that all of Austen's works support conventional morality, they maintain that in her earlier novels, especially Pride and Prejudice, which she rewrote for publication just before beginning Mansfield Park, Austen's defense of society was done in a way that was pleasing, that depicted characters with humor and wit as worthy of emulation, due chiefly to Austen's much admired use of irony. However, in writing Mansfield Park, such critics maintain, Austen turned her back on this style of writing, and taking on a more sober and excessively moralistic style, wrote her least-pleasing, most overtly rationalistic tome, in which irony has no place.

Even among those who claim that Austen is a romantic, that she defends individual happiness over and against the claims of society, some express disapprobation toward Mansfield Park and argue that it is an anomaly among Austen's works.( n22) However, in recent years, a number of critics within this camp have begun to argue that Austen's intentions in writing Mansfield Park have long been fundamentally misunderstood. They claim that Austen does not intend her readers to regard Fanny Price as the heroine of the novel, as is the case with the central female characters in her other novels, but rather as a kind of antiheroine, to be pitied perhaps, but not to be admired and emulated.( n23) Austen wrote Mansfield Park, such critics claim, as a parody of the popular instructive novels of the day, frequently of an evangelical, pietistic nature, which were intended primarily to provide moral guidance to young women. The plots of such novels center on innocent, exemplary young women whose purity of heart both enables them to avoid many moral pitfalls and motivates those fortunate enough to know them to take up the path of moral righteousness as well. Arguing along these lines, the well-known critic Claudia L. Johnson maintains that in writing Mansfield Park Austen turns the instructive novel on its head. Rather than defending the social institutions of the day, especially the family, Austen condemns them "by registering [their] impact on a heroine who, though a model of female virtue and filial gratitude, is betrayed by the same ethos she dutifully embraces. ...This painful and richly problematic identification makes Mansfield Park Austen's most, rather than her least, ironic novel and a bitter parody of conservative fiction."( n24)

Mansfield Park has been subject to such harsh and divisive interpretation, I believe, not because it is anomalous among Austen's works but because of Austen's treatment of its three pre-eminent and interrelated themes, (a) proper female behavior, (b) the role of religious belief in human life, and (c) the connection between virtue and happiness. Although, as I shall argue, Austen does not treat these themes in a way that conforms simply to the conservatism of her day, she treats them in a way that also contrasts sharply with the claims of modernity.

First, in regard to Austen's treatment of female behavior in the novel, it is true, as critics frequently claim, that Fanny Price is different in many ways from Austen's other central female characters, particularly the witty Elizabeth Bennett of Pride and Prejudice and the charming Emma Woodhouse of Emma. Unlike any of Austen's other central female characters, Fanny is described as displaying "great timidity" (MP, 14).( n25) Furthermore, Fanny is not as physically robust as Austen's other central female characters. As a result of the unhealthy conditions of her early childhood, her lack of freedom to exercise, or some combination of the two, she tires easily. However, it is not the case, as many critics claim, that Fanny is inherently sickly or "debilitated," and certainly not the case that Austen presents such a condition as a virtue.( n26)

Neither the character of Fanny Price nor the novel as a whole is as anomalous as some claim. Like Anne Elliott of Persuasion and the Dashwood sisters of Sense and Sensibility, Fanny Price is a young woman of unusually deep feelings, what Austen calls "sensibility." Austen suggests that the heightened sensibility of each of these characters is due, at least in part, to the loss of her childhood home. Fanny's more extreme sensibility, Austen suggests, stems from her having lost both her home and her family at a young age and her awareness that the family and house within which she lives are not truly her own.

Furthermore, while the claim that Mansfield Park is in some sense a satirical response to the instructional novels of the day is quite persuasive, it is not true that Austen meant to present Fanny Price as unlikable, and certainly not as an antiheroine. To the contrary, Austen writes in such a way that, as the book progresses, the reader comes to sympathize more and more with Fanny, to admire her strength of will, purity of heart, and good judgment. As Anne Crippen Ruderman remarks, "Fanny is not charming, and yet the remarkable thing is that it is extremely difficult to read Mansfield Park without rooting for her in some way."( n27) The reason is that, although Fanny is different from Austen's other heroines in many respects, she nevertheless shares with them in an overarching characteristic, the love of virtue.( n28)

Like Aristotle, Austen points to the centrality of prudence in the achievement of virtue. While Austen sometimes uses the word "prudence," she more frequently refers to this virtue by using words such as "good judgment" and "understanding." Austen indicates, like Aristotle, that the development of prudence requires training from one's youth. One must have someone external to oneself who possesses what Aristotle's calls "right reason" as a teacher or guide, but eventually this guidance or direction must come from within oneself. That is, a human being becomes truly prudent when she no longer relies on another for guidance, but rather understands for herself why she should perform or refrain from certain actions. Aristotle defines prudence as a virtue of intellect, but one that, to be perfected, must be combined with emotive disposition or character. That is, prudence entails both intellectual virtue with respect to directive action--in particular, it is associated with the ability to deliberate well in achieving one's ends--and moral virtue in regard to feeling as one should. Mansfield Park, as all of Austen's novels, supports this view.

At the age of ten, Fanny is taken from her large, relatively poor family in Portsmouth and placed in the home of her uncle, Sir Thomas Bertram, at the large estate known as Mansfield Park. Fanny grows up alongside her four cousins: Tom, the heir, then eighteen; Edmund, a prospective clergyman, then sixteen; Maria, then fourteen, and Julia, then twelve. Almost immediately upon arriving at Mansfield, Fanny is befriended by her cousin Edmund, who seeks to make her feel more comfortable in the household. Edmund enables Fanny to write to her brother William, two years her elder, whom she loves dearly and with whom she thereafter regularly corresponds as she grows up at Mansfield. Edmund eventually oversees her education by directing her reading of books and discussing them with her. Unlike the other Bertram children, Edmund grows into a morally serious young man and, admiring Fanny's intelligence and moral goodness, comes to hold her in deep, sisterly affection. Although Edmund is wholly unaware of it, Fanny eventually falls in love with him. Fanny keeps her feelings for Edmund hidden, believing that her lowly position makes it almost impossible for him or any of the Bertrams to consider her his equal.

One of the first things Edmund discerns about Fanny when he becomes acquainted with her is her love of virtue, observing that she has "an affectionate heart, and a strong desire of doing right" (MP, 14). Rather than valuing "reason" over "emotion," or vice versa, Fanny combines great emotional depth--"sensibility"--with the desire to be good, that is, to discern and abide by rationally discerned principles of morality. It is because of this, Austen indicates in Mansfield Park, as in all of her novels, that Fanny is capable of achieving true happiness. Although Fanny is timid and thinks little of her importance within the Mansfield household, she takes seriously the development of virtue in her life. Grateful for the attention she begins to receive from her cousin Edmund, Fanny takes advantage of the circumstances in which she finds herself to improve her mind and her character.

Over and over again Austen makes reference to Fanny's struggles to act in ways that conform to her "duty," which Fanny understands to involve both thinking or judging correctly as well as feeling correctly.( n29) For example, when Fanny is sixteen years old, her uncle, Sir Thomas, in the face of financial difficulties brought on largely by the profligate behavior of his elder son and heir, Tom, departs for what turns out to be a two-year-long trip to Antigua, where he owns a sugar plantation. Sir Thomas's daughters, Maria and Julia, take great joy in his departure, knowing they will now be "relieved...from all restraint" and "have every indulgence within their reach" (MP, 25). Although Fanny is as relieved as her cousins, she cannot take pleasure in Sir Thomas's departure. Rather, "a more tender nature suggested that her feelings were ungrateful, and she really grieved because she could not grieve" (MP, 25). Furthermore, as she comes to realize that Edmund is falling in love with their new neighbor, Mary Crawford, Fanny is aware that her judgment of Mary may be adversely influenced by feelings of jealousy. Aware that her jealousy of Mary might cloud her judgment, she continually challenges herself to judge Mary's character fairly, that is, "independently of self" (MP, 249). However, Fanny cannot help judging Mary to be morally flawed, believing her to have "a mind led astray and bewildered, and without any suspicion of being so; darkened, yet fancying itself light" (MP, 249). Nevertheless, in reflecting on the fact that Edmund will likely propose marriage to Mary, even Fanny's feelings of jealousy do not lead her to abandon virtue. Unlike her cousin Julia, whose jealousy upon realizing that Henry Crawford prefers Maria to her leads her to want revenge against them both, Fanny's jealousy leads her to experience sorrow rather than spite, and she responds to Edmund's preference for Mary by offering "fervent prayers for his happiness" rather than wishing that he or Mary be made to suffer (MP, 181).

Walsh, G. (2002). Is Jane Austen Politically Correct? Interpreting Mansfield Park. Perspectives on Political Science, 31(1), 15. Retrieved from MasterFILE Premier database.
I found this on my library's database so most anyone can I think with the above citation.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Mansfield Park

For my book club I reread Mansfield Park (Norton Critical Editions).

And again I enjoyed the language and insights Austen offers. This story is quite different as the main character is meek and doesn't have the spunk that Elizabeth Bennet or Emma Woodhouse have. Still she's an interesting character. Also, the last chapters are considerably darker as Austen planned and the ending is so abrupt, but if you're going to be an Austen devotee, you should read Mansfield Park

Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Reason for God

What an intelligent book! A friend recommended a few of us read Tim Keller's The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.Admittedly, I was skeptical that this would be a quality read. I'm glad to say I was wrong, very wrong.

Keller's book is an apologetic for smart, skeptical readers. He tries (and many would say succeeds) in explaining why God's existence makes sense. He debunks the current claims that attempt to "prove" God doesn't exist like How could there be a hell if God's all loving? or the question of pain and suffering. He presents his side thoroughly and intelligently.

In the end, God's existence or non-existence is a leap of faith. I thought Keller was brilliant when he points out that not believing in God or not thinking religion should enter into realms like politics was in fact a belief so that those who might say let's keep religion out of social policy are actually advocating for their belief system to dominate, was insightful.

Keller started a church in New York years ago. So many told him he'd never get people to go to church in New York. Yet he's built a big, thriving faith community with members from all walks of life, from artistes dressed in black to Wall St. financial whizzes, many of whom are highly educated, skeptical and street smart. What's interesting is he didn't compromise the faith by ditching dogma or rules to do so.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Master Puppeteer

I really wanted to like Katherine Paterson's The Master Puppeteer, an historical novel for young readers set in Japan during a time of famine. It seemed like a good choice for a quick read about a culture I find fascinating. It took me so longer to read than I expected because I'd put it down and just lack the interest in reading more. I never connected or really believed in the characters.

The story is set in feudal Japan during a famine when a Robin Hood-like figure, Saburo, roams the city stealing food from the rich to give to the poor. The main character is Jiro, a boy whose father makes puppets for Bunraku theater, an artistic fine art. His siblings died in the famine and the family has little to eat. The mother resembles Cinderella's step mother she has no love for Jiro, whose birth she blames for the death of her other children. His father seems like a kind, but weak man.

Jiro realizes it would help his family if he took a position as an apprentice at a reknown Bunraku theater. Like many such arrangements, Jiro finds himself in a new "home" with a tyrant who's talented, but intimidating, a kindly older man, and a collection of peers each with a different tick - e.g. the stutterer, the nice older boy, the resentful boy, etc. You've seen and read this kind of thing before.

As I read, I could easily see how the story would play out, and it followed the predicted course pretty much. Because I've lived in Japan, I was familiar with the historical era and Bunraku. I just never felt transported there and doubt that the intended audience, say 5th grade kids would really wrap their heads around life in that era or this art form. Paterson visited Japan to research this book, but it still just felt so stilted. So different from Sigrid Undset's work which is just or maybe more foreign to me. Yet with Undset I felt right in the thick of things.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wife

I just finished Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife and is still fascinated with Medieval Norway, more so than after book one, which was great. Here Undset takes Kristin to Husby and her husband Erlend's other estates. She knows no one and the estates are in complete disarray because Erlend is such a poor manager. In time she wins the respect and affection of the servants and things fall into place. Yet she does face great hardship from childbirth, which was hazardous at the time, and dealing with her own guilt and complex feelings about her marriage and her past. In addition, there's political turmoil in the land, which Erlend gets caught up in. He opposes the king and gets involved with a scheme to depose him. In time this is discovered, through Erlend's own stupidity.

Undset describes the era and emotions with authenticity and art. Great reading.

Alice in Wonderland

Over the weekend I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. I went excited to actually see a film in a theater and to see fantastic eye candy. There was plenty of eye candy, but I thought it actually overwhelmed the film. The make up, especially the darkened eyes that made some of the characters look like they had TB, was quite distracting. There was a continuity problem with Alice's eyes as they randomly alternated between darkened and not.

The classic tale is framed by Burton's addition of a story of Alice's life. In the first scenes she's about 5 or 6 and nightmares wake her. She asks her father if it's normal to see Madhatters, etc. I just thought what young child is concerned with "normalcy." None I've met and some I know are very imaginative and eccentric. Later we see Alice getting pushed into an engagement with a simpering wimp with good family connections and prestige. I wished the story had something I hadn't seen over 100 times in various forms. There are other ways in which society makes women conform.

The computer graphics were well done, but the narrative was weak. The showdown in the end was particularly lazy. To prove a young woman is strong, must she slay a dragon? Does she have to prove that she's manly? Can't someone be more creative? I hope someone else does another version in a few years that uses this story in a novel way. Give me more than just eye candy.

This book looks good.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Northanger Abbey

This month my book club read Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey. I have to join the majority of Austen's fans and say that while it's not her best work, as it's her first novel though she rewrote it a few times as her writing got better, it's a fine read. It's like okay chocolate. It's not the best, but why complain about eating chocolate?

One thing I loved was the essays and extras in the back. This book has a lot of conversation in defense of novels. Nowadays it's hard to imagine that reading novels would be seen as a waste of time (some sure, but all, no). In the back of the book, readers are treated to a few of the rantings against novels. Here's an excerpt from Coleridge:
For as to the devotees of the circulating libraries, I dare not compliment their pass-time, or rather kill-time, with the name of reading. Call it rather a sort of beggarly day-dreaming, during which the mind of the dreamer furnishes for itself nothing but laziness, and a little mawkish sensibility; while the whole material and and imagery of the doze is supplied ab extra (from without) by a sort of mental camera obscura manufactured at the printing office, which pro tempore fixes, reflects, and transmits the moving phantasms of one man's delirium, so as to people the barrenness of a hundred other brains afflicted with the same trance or suspension of all common sense and all definite purpose. We should therefore transfer this species of amusement--(if indeed those can be said to retire a musis, who were never in their company, or relaxation be attributable to those whose bows never bent)--from the genus, reading, to that comprehensive class characterized by the power of reconciling the two contrary yet co-existing propensities of human nature, namely indulgence of sloth, and hatred of vacancy.
What a snob. He continues, but you get the point. Wordsworth also felt novels blunted the mind. They never got to read Proust.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Moll Flanders

This month's book club selection was DeFoe's Moll Flanders (Norton Critical Editions).I'd say it's a fun read once you get used to the language and the convention of capitalizing most nouns. "Moll" whose name we never really learn, leads a wild life. She's born to a convict and luckily is raised by a prosperous family, but once she gets older and catches men's eyes, trouble begins. She racks up the husbands and lovers. The unexpected is the norm in this life as Moll even winds up inadvertently marrying her brother. The second half of her life, she takes to crime with unbelievable success and creativity. Throughout this chronicle, the main character looks back on her adventures and is quite open though we can see her unreliability and Defoe's hand behind the character.

It's a good read, but not a favorite, as some parts seemed contrived. It is one of the first novels so we should cut it some slack. There's a lot of energy and spice.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Chaucer and the Canterbury Tales, a documentary

My inattention to my Netflix queue landed a documentary on Chaucer, that I placed there last February, but it was unavailable then, in my mailbox. I watched it anyway though I had no particular urge to see it. Chaucer & the Canterbury Tales
wound up being an edifying, though sometimes dry, look at Chaucer's life and times. I learned a lot about the peasant revolt, the early stirrings against church corruption and how Medieval politics and government worked. The people were beginning to be more involved than I expected. I had never heard of this major peasant revolt against the baronage. The peasants wanted a good king to rule with no self-interested class in between. (They'd have seen a self-interested king as a tyrant.)

Terry Jones from Monty Python offered lots of interesting commentary. That was a high point. The weakness of the documentary was the long narration. The visuals were fitting when they should art of the period or some of the building from that time, but often it got repetitive. It seemed they were at a loss as to how to visualize Chaucer's life and times. I do see this as good for students learning about Chaucer, because they'll get a lot of information, though I'd probably break down the viewings to half hour segments.

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Kristin Lavransdatter: The Wreath

Kristin Lavransdatter I: The Wreath is set in Medieval Norway. Although I didn't know much about life in Norway in the early 14th century, I soon felt fascinated by this period. Undset deftly weaves in facts about life in this era when Christianity had become widespread, yet old pagan ways had not completely died out. It was a transition time when some priests still married and those who didn't, but had children (yep, plural) with their housekeeper were forgiven by the parishioners who figured "Yeah, I could see how he'd get lonely." It wasn't a completely tolerant time, but no Scarlet A's were handed out.

The story follows Kristin, daughter (i.e. datter as the suffix of her surname) of Lavran, from childhood when she's showered with fatherly love and given lots of freedom to her young adulthood when she is betrothed to a man she respects but doesn't love and falls for dashing Erlend, a handsome, callow rake. While many novels deal with such situations, Undset takes readers down unexpected paths in this first book of a trilogy.

I read this book for my online book club, and am so glad our leader chose it. I had never heard of Undset, though she won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The book reads fast. The descriptions are vivid and readers get such perceptive insights into all the major characters, whom one seem truly of their period rather than moderns placed back in time. I will get the next book in the series: Kristin Lavransdatter II: The Wife (Penguin Classics)