Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Everything's fine today, that is our illusion...

In late June there is A LOT to celebrate in my family. The 22nd through the 24th is three straight days of birthdays (my sister's boyfriend, my dad, and then my sister) not to mention father's day a few days before. This year we all got together for a little weekend trip to Victoria, BC. We stayed in a little hotel that was described as "part charming, part creepy" and spent a few days seeing the sights. Did some shopping, toured the big museum (I can't remember what it was called, sorry!), ate a lot of good food. I taught the family how to play mafia and my sister taught us how to play round robin pictionary. If you've never heard of or played either of those games than there is a serious hole in your life. I don't think I have ever laughed so hard.

Probably the best part of the trip was when my sisters and I ventured into the wax museum. I don't know if you've ever been to a wax museum before, but if not I'll give you a heads up. They are weird. Not just because there are all these wax people chillin everywhere, and not even because they all seem to need to have a torture chamber where there are wax figures of horrific forms of torture and execution. No, they are weird because of how completely random they are. I now have my picture taken with Walt Disney, Elvis Presley, Martin Luther, the Royal Family, John Wayne, Gandhi, and a display of someone being guillotined, among others. The picture to the right is me and the "Geniuses of Literature" or something like that. Voltaire is the one sitting in a chair. He's quite a looker, right?

There were two big tableaus that I suppose were supposed to be main focal points of the wax museum. There was a place where you could stop to watch each as different parts were lit up and a recording talked about the figures in the display. This was kind of cool, but the two displays seemed kind of odd. They didn't really match, like on cultural significance or something. One was of da Vinci's "Last Supper" which included Jesus, eleven apostles, and a figure I can only assume had been used a few years earlier as Legolas in a Lord of the Rings display (how many men living in Jerusalem do you see having waist length white blonde hair?). The other tableau was of John Franklin and the search for the Northwest Passage. Though I found it odd, Franklin's tableau was the highlight of the trip if only because this was the point where a roughly ten-year-old kid came around a corner, thought my sisters and I were part of the display as we sat on a bench listening to the recording, and then had a major freak-out when we turned out to not be wax statues. Is it mean to think it's so fun to freak out kids?

Friday, June 25, 2010

The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins

the moonstone
wilkie collins
c. 1868
494 pages
completed 6/24/2010

read for: wilkie collins mini challenge, penguin classics, 1001 books

*may contain spoilers*

I address these lines - written in India - to my relatives in England.

On her eighteenth birthday, Miss Rachel Verinder is surprised by a gift left to her by her late uncle Herncastle, a man mostly cut off from his relatives. The gift is an unusually large yellow diamond known as the Moonstone which she wears pinned to her dress throughout her birthday party. By the next morning, the Moonstone is gone. In a series of accounts written from different perspectives, those who were present on the night in question or those who had dealings with certain individuals of interest in the months after the theft, both the reader and all those involved are able to unravel the mystery.

I loved this book. LOVED IT! Set in Victorian England and hailed as the first English language detective novel, there is a lot of good stuff here: tension between the servants and those they serve, major red herrings in the mystery, the exotic excitement of Indian curses, sanctimonious religious zealots, and a lot of humor. I'm becoming a big fan of Wilkie Collins.

Because the novel is written in this specific epistolary style, each narrator has a very distinct voice and take on events and other characters. I found it really enjoyable to see how certain narrators portrayed themselves versus how other narrators saw them. For example, when Betteredge narrated he seemed so composed and respectable as the head steward of the Verinder servants, but when Mr. Blake or Mr. Jennings narrated, he was a little more quirky. The reader got to see Betteredge's feelings about the power of Robinson Crusoe, and then also see Mr. Blake and Mr. Jennings humoring this obsession. And by obsession, I mean he would read it the way some people read the bible. He would open it randomly and use the passage he first came to as advice or an omen. Another character who I found greatly changed between narrators was Mr. Bruff, the lawyer. Seen as so stuffy and judgmental as Miss Clack was writing her account, I was surprised to then find him so intelligent and thoughtful and kind throughout his narration and Mr. Blake's subsequent narration. Of course, by the end of her narration I was ready to take everything Miss Clack said with a grain of salt. She was just so ridiculously sanctimonious! I wanted to scream every time she tried to give someone else a religious tract (with titles such as Satan Under the Tea Table). I think she was the only character I couldn't wait to get rid of. Maybe Godfrey, too, but at least he was never a narrator.

I like a mystery where things get a bit convoluted before the big reveal. There's a big drug experiment close to the end of the novel where they tried to reenact the birthday party, and I kept having to refer to the first half of the novel to remember the little details that tuned out to be major clues. I like when every detail turns out to be important.

Unfortunately, there is one problem with this novel. Much like The Woman in White, another of Collins' most famous works, The Moonstone hasn't quite aged well. In the 142 years since its publication, we've come understand a little more about drugs and their effects. And while I have no personal knowledge of opium, having never chased the dragon myself, I'm pretty sure you can't manipulate circumstances into giving a person the exact same trip twice. So if you're not someone willing or able to suspend some disbelief, you might have a problem towards the end of the novel. It didn't bother me too much, but it could totally ruin the whole book for other readers.

Other than that one issue, I was enthralled the whole way through. It wasn't creepy or suspenseful the same way The Woman in White was, but it kept me thinking and guessing the whole way through.


Music Mix Friday...Damien Rice "9 Crimes"

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

It's Tuesday, where are you?

The Moonstone
Battle of Seringapatam
Seringapatam (Srirangapatna), Karnataka, India 1799

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Coffee Trader - David Liss

the coffee trader
david liss
c. 2003
384 pages
completed 6/9/2010

read for: reading western europe challenge

*may contain spoilers*

It rippled thickly in the bowl, dark and hot and uninviting.

In the year 1659, as the Netherlands explodes with innovate speculative business ventures, Miguel Lienzo is living with his brother after suffering a terrible loss with the turn of the sugar trade. He and his friend Geertruid, a Dutch widow, devise a scheme in order to take control of a new commodity recently arrived in Europe, coffee. Their scheme will give them a monopoly on the new drink and make them richer than they could possibly imagine. But there are many risks involved. Being a Portuguese Jew living in Protestant Amsterdam, Miguel must make sure his business dealings with Gentiles don't come under the scrutiny of his people's court, the Ma'amad. Miguel quickly discovers he has made two powerful enemies, one Jew and one Gentile, and as his coffee scheme spills out of control, Miguel finds cause to be suspicious of everyone's loyalties.

This is the second novel by David Liss I've read this year, the first being The Whiskey Rebels, and he's definitely becoming an author I will keep looking in to and looking out for. While The Whiskey Rebels dealt with an era of history I'm fairly familiar with (post-Revolutionary America and the debate over the Bank of the United States), The Coffee Trader was very new. Set entirely in the business world of the Netherlands, right after their fight for independence from Spain, The Coffee Trader was actually kind of lacking on the Dutch details. Other than some unpronounceable names (Annetje, Joachim, etc) and a tolerance of Jews, I felt there was little to distinguish the setting from, say, London, England. Perhaps there really isn't much to distinguish Amsterdam from London, but I find that hard to believe. For me, I like a historical novel to really immerse me in place and culture as much as story and character.

I was a little put off at first because I didn't really understand all the business that was going on. I don't totally get speculative trading. How can you buy and sell something you don't have? As things went on, however, it became apparent that it wasn't essential for me to understand the actual business transactions and that helped me get more into the story. Also, the further you get in, the harder it is to trust anyone, so I quickly began ignoring the actual business and became absorbed in trying to figure out who was betraying who and who was being manipulated and such. That was where the real story was.

The description of coffee was something I found kind of odd. I mean, I've never really felt that caffeine has that much affect on me. Maybe if I started popping caffeine pills we'd see some results, but these people drank coffee and had instant courage and clarity. It seemed to me a little exaggerated, but of course I did grow up in a coffee drinking house. Maybe things are different when it's bran new.


Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Like Mayflies in the Stream - Shauna Roberts

like mayflies in the stream
shauna roberts
c. 2009
189 pages
completed 6/1/2010
read for: what's in a name challenge

*may contain spoilers*

Around the shrunken water hole, scrawny gazelles jockeyed for position.

A novelization of the legend of Gilgamesh. Beginning with the origins of Enkidu, the wild man, Mayflies tells the story of a corrupt and childish king (Gilgamesh) who both terrorizes and neglects his people, and the priestess (Shamhat) who braves the wilderness in order to tame the wild man in the hope that he will in turn humble and tame the wild king.

There are a lot of elements of this book that were really strong, particularly the historical detail. There was a lot of interesting descriptions of daily life, ritual, and religious customs that were well incorporated into the story. Never did the descriptions feel textbook-like which I find can be a problem sometimes when writing about such a lost, ancient culture. Instead, the reader came to understand these aspects of life almost through experience rather than a recitation of fact. But to be honest, I wanted to like this a lot more than I did.

While I enjoyed the historical and cultural elements, and really enjoyed the brief author's note describing her research and what kinds of documented history she had to go on, I just never got invested into the actual story. I wasn't compelled by any of the characters except Shamhat, and even she fell a little flat for me at times, specifically with regard to her relationships (I don't think I can bring myself to classify them as love) with Zaidu and Enkidu. Perhaps they would have been more believable had the book been longer and more time could have been spent developing the turning points in their respective relationships. Shamhat was mourning the death of Enkidu, who she claimed to have loved, when Zaidu turned up at her door out of the blue and she was suddenly so eager to run away with him. I didn't quite buy it.

Also, something about the prose itself rubbed me the wrong way. Both the conversation and the narration had a very modern feel which jarred a little with the incorporation of more ancient ideas and beliefs, such as using the liver to experience the emotions we in modern society attribute to the heart. That, however, could well be just a personal preference and while it might not phase another reader, it just didn't quite work for me.


It's Tuesday, where are you?

A Prayer for the City
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA 1992

By the end of June...

Well, May kinda got away from me.'s almost over for the year so maybe this summer I can do a little catch up.

To Be Read by the End of June
The Coffee Trader - David Liss
The Moonstone - Wilkie Collins
Border Country - Raymond Williams
Broken Paradise - Celia Samartin
Possession - AS Byatt
The Queen's Lady - Barbara Kyle

To be read...

Gildenford - Valerie Anand
The Queen of Palmyra - Minrose Gwin
Paper Towns - John Green
The Seamstress - Frances de Pontes Peebles
The Hiding Place - Trezza Azzopardi
Secrets of the Tudor Court - DL Bogdan
South of Broad - Pat Conroy
Secrets of Eden - Chris Bohjahan
Sweet Dates in Basra - Jessica Jiji
The Company - Arabella Edge
They Were Sisters - Dorothy Whipple
The Young Pretenders - Edith Henrietta Fowler
Beneath the Lion's Gaze - Maaza Mengiste
What I Was - Meg Rosoff
The Secret Speech - Tom Rob Smith
The Group - Mary McCarthy
Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary - Ruby Ferguson
The Hand That First Held Mine - Maggie O'Farrell
Daughters of the Witching Hill - Mary Sharratt
Hearts and Minds - Amanda Craig
Ship of Widows - I Grekova
Thumb Flagging - Jerome Peterson
It Could Be Worse, You Could Be Me - Ariel Leve
The White Woman on the Green Bicycle - Monique Roffey
The French Blue - Richard W Wise
The World More Full of Weeping - Robert J Wiersema
The Wettest Country in the World - Matt Bondurant
Virgin Widow - Anne O'Brien
Vanilla - Tim Ecott
Little Children - Tom Perrotta
Cool Water - Dianna Warren

31 new books...