Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Quote of the Week: Pavilion of Women

"Madame Wu rose from the chair.  She was ready for this day. A women's fortieth birthday in a rich and old-fashioned family was a day of dignity.  She remembered very well when her husband's mother had passed such a day, twenty-two years ago.  On that day Old Lady had formally given over to her son's wife the management of the big house with its many members.  For twenty-two years Madame Wu had held this management in her own hands, skillfully maintaining its outward habits so that Old Lady did not notice changes, and at the same time making many changes."   (page 4)

Pavilion of Women
by Pearl S. Buck
first published in 1946

Madame Wu has plans for her fortieth birthday, too, but she will not relinquish management of the big house. Instead, she has decided to give her husband a concubine.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

TSS: Thanksgiving Weekend Edition

I love Thanksgiving. As as kid, it signaled the beginning of the Christmas season.  As an adult, it's every bit as special as Christmas... but without the pressure to find the perfect gift!  I enjoy the planning, cooking, and baking, and it was truly a blessing to have 18 family members at our dinner table on Thursday.

Our Friday family gathering (which included two sisters who spent Thanksgiving with in-laws) turned out to be a surprise anniversary celebration.  How in the world did they pull that off? My husband and I will mark our 25th wedding anniversary on Tuesday. It sounds like such a long time, but often seems like yesterday.  We were planning a trip to London in late April.... then the royal wedding was announced.  R had arranged coverage, but tickets were not purchased.  Suddenly prices are higher and we're wondering if that's really the best time to be in London anyway. We may head to Florida instead and try to get to London during the winter.

Yesterday featured more family togetherness, and today there is even talk of cutting the Christmas tree before Daughter #1 heads back to college.  We usually wait until she comes home for winter break, but there's snow on the ground now, so we may get into the holiday mood early!

Although I wasn't blogging last week, I did read.  Holidays on Ice is classic David Sedaris. I think audio is the best way to experience his books but, since I have his voice in my head, this is still very funny.

I also started Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. The Corrections has long been a favorite and I have high hopes for Freedom, too.  The New Yorker magazine ran a short story "Good Neighbors", excerpted from the novel, earlier this year.  You can read it here.

Finally, Pearl S. Buck's Pavilion of Women is wonderful.  I won this last month from Oasis Audio as part of the Friday Reads twitter meme. There was a snag this week when disk #3 was actually from a different book, but I borrowed a print copy from the library, read the missing section, and am ready to move on to disk four.

I hope you're enjoying the weekend.  What are you reading today?

Sunday, November 21, 2010

TSS: A Big Finish

It's a cold, sunny morning in central New York. A snowy Thursday reminded us again that winter is on the way.  Zelda, our greyhound recently adopted from Florida, was shivering despite her new coat. It was an effort to get her out of the house. What will we ever do in February?

A huge sense of accomplishment highlighted my reading week as I finished Bleak House - all 989 pages and 26 CDs! Dickens is an amazing storyteller. I'm gathering thoughts for a final post later in the week.

If all goes well, I will also finish The Group by Mary McCarthy today or tomorrow. The book follows the lives of eight Vassar graduates, class of '33, as they make their way in the post-collegiate world. It is fascinating reading.

On audio, I've started Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck. This was a prize from Oasis Audio won through The Book Maven's Friday Reads (or #fridayreads) twitter meme. Buck's The Good Earth is a favorite of mine, but this was an unfamiliar title. I initially thought the reader was too slow, but adjusted quickly. The story drew me in immediately.

What to start next? After several long books, a short work is in order.

Verity piqued my interest when she wrote "Another book I'll be getting out of the library is The Virago Book of Christmas which is an anthology of writings about Christmas by over 50 woman, including many famous names. It sounds like it could be something that I might want to dip into on each day of advent."

The Virago Book of Ghost Stories was excellent, so  I have high hopes for their Christmas book. Unfortunately, my library does not own a copy and amazon's delivery time was 5-7 weeks. Luckily, The Book Depository came to my rescue. An order was placed and the book has already been shipped (free postage, as always).

Another possibility is Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris. I'm a big fan and this one is both timely and short.

Also on the immediate tbr pile is Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. It's long and has gotten some very mixed reviews. Both my mother and sister panned this one, but Wendy's review has given me hope. Besides, I loved The Corrections.

It may get quiet at Lakeside Musing this week as our house fills up for Thanksgiving. Today I'm going to read for a little while, then it will be time to get organized with meals plans, grocery lists, and a master cooking schedule for the holiday. Last, but certainly not least, there's a Syracuse University basketball game.

How will you spend the day?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Literary Blog Hop: Non-Fiction

It's time for another Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase. If your blog features reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, or general literary discussion, then grab the button, answer the question, and hop along!

This week's question:
Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, how do you define it? Examples?

My answer:
Of course literary non-fiction exists... and I love it! Defining it, however, is difficult. My attitude tends to be 'I know it when I see it' but, if pressed for a definition, it would be one of exclusion. It's far easier to talk about what literary non-fiction is not.

Literary non-fiction, in my opinion, is the polar opposite of a textbook. It's purpose is not solely to impart fact upon fact. The writing style is not dull, dry, or boring. Instead, the topic is explored in a style worthy of the best novelists.

My favorite literary non-fiction works include:

by Rebecca Skloot
a favorite this year

by Anne Fadiman
an all-time favorite

by Erik Larson
an audio favorite

by Truman Capote
a classic

My nonfiction tbr list is sure to grow over the next few days as I visit other participant's blogs. If you're not 'hopping', please share your favorite title in a comment. Reading more non-fiction is one of my goals for 2011.

Links to more posts on this topic can be found at The Blue Bookcase.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Quote of the Week: The Group

"Publishing's a man's business.  Book publishing, that is.  Name me a woman, outside of Blanche Knopf, who married Alfred, who's come to the top in book publishing.  You find them on the fringes, in publicity and advertising.  Or you find them copy editing or reading proof.  Old maids, mostly, with a pencil behind their ear and dyspepsia"
(page 254 - 255)

The Group
by Mary McCarthy

Mary McCarthy's 1963 novel provides a fascinating look at the post-college lives of eight Vassar  graduates, class of '33.  I cannot put this book down.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese
Vintage Books, 2010
658 pages
source: purchased

In a nutshell:
Set in Ethiopia and New York, Cutting for Stone is a moving and unforgettable story of the bond between twin brothers, their fascination with medicine, love and betrayal, and the meaning of family.

My thoughts:
Cutting for Stone was the book I most regretted not reading in 2009, so I was thrilled when it was selected by my book club. From the opening pages of the prologue, to the dramatic conclusion some 650 pages later, I loved every word. Unfortunately, a reaction like that often causes serious problems for me when it comes to writing a review.

How can I possibly do justice to this extraordinary novel? Quite simply, I can't.  So instead, here are a few lines that cause me to pause and think.
“Wasn’t that the definition of home? Not where you are from, but where you are wanted?”
“The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not.”
"I will not cut for stone, even for patients in whom the disease is manifest; I will leave this operation to be performed by practitioners, specialists in the art..." (Hippocratic Oath, intro to Part Three)
As you may guess from the Hippocratic Oath quote, there is a lot of medicine and surgery in this novel. Verghese is a medical doctor, and it shows. If you are not interested in the long, detailed descriptions of various surgeries, it will not detract from the story if you simply skip or skim them. I, however, found them fascinating.

My rating:

Bottom line:
Quite possibly my favorite book of the year

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Literary Blog Hop: Hard Times?

It's time for another Literary Blog Hop hosted by The Blue Bookcase. If your blog features book reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion, go ahead and answer the question, grab the button, and hop along!

This week's question:
What is the most difficult literary work you've ever read? What made it so difficult?

My most 'difficult' literary works have been read on my own (too much chemistry and not enough lit in college) and by choice.  I won't shy away from reading a 'difficult' book but, if it doesn't offer a sense of personal satisfaction or enjoyment, I won't hesitate to put it aside either.

What might make a book 'difficult' for me?  Several ideas came to mind:
  • length... can be daunting, but doesn't mean difficult (Bleak House)
  • long, convoluted sentences (Henry James)
  • flowery, long-winded description (Dickens, again)
  • historical setting where my knowledge is a little thin (Les Miserables)
  • language or dialect
  • obscure symbolism
  • novels of 'ideas'
  • magical realism
  • extended passages in verse

Finally, it hit me - stream of consciousness. Novels featuring stream of consciousness have always been difficult for me to follow.  They seem to demand more from the reader.

Earlier this year, as part of Woolf in Winter, I decided to give Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf one more try.  After two previous failures, not only did I make it to the end, but I enjoyed every page! It has even given me the courage to attempt To The Lighthouse this winter.

 My thoughts on reading Mrs. Dalloway are posted here.

Visit The Blue Bookcase for links to other Literary Blog Hop posts.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald

The Irresistible Henry House
by Lisa Grunwald
Random House, 2010
407 pages

motivation for reading: book club selection
source: borrowed from the library

In a nutshell:
The Irresistible Henry House, set in the mid-twentieth century, focuses on the life of a 'practice baby' raised in a university home economics program.

My thoughts:
The opening sentence grabbed me right away:
"By the time Henry House was four months old, a copy of his picture was being carried in the pocketbooks of seven different women, each of whom called him her son."
Who knew there was such a thing as a 'practice' baby? A photograph of one such baby, supplied by a local orphanage to Cornell University's Home Economics Department 'practice house', inspired this novel. At Cornell, students learned various homemaking skills, including mothering. Babies were 'started' at the practice house and returned to the orphanage around the age of two ready for adoption.

Adopting a baby prepped at the university was considered eminently desirable. Cornell's program began in 1919 and continued until 1969. Other programs of this type existed at colleges and universities all over the country.

When Henry's practice baby days come to an end, Martha, the department chair, decides to raise him as her own son instead of sending him back to the orphanage. Henry moves upstairs with Martha, while a steady rotation of 'practice mothers' and 'practice siblings' continues downstairs. By the time Henry is in nursery school, he is aware that his life is unusual.
"As he knelt in the small space behind the couch in the nursery school, turning the page of We Come and Go, he allowed himself to imagine that he belonged in a place like Dick and Jane's, where when people left they came back, and they pretty much stayed the same." (page 80)
Eventually, Henry comes to resent Martha and their troubled relationship will continue into adulthood.
"Whether practice mothers or practice babies, everyone Henry loved eventually left and Martha - in a way that would take Henry years to see - seemed to gain strength from these departures and the role they gave her in his life." (page 103 - 104)
Henry leaves the practice house and enrolls in a boarding school for troubled children. Later he lands a job as an animator for Walt Disney, and eventually heads to London to work on the Yellow Submarine movie. Throughout this time, Henry continues to have difficult personal relationships.
"He wanted to have no one. If he had no one, he figured, he would have no one to lose." (page 319)
"Henry was looking at Peace and finally seeing the unaffected indifference, the strident autonomy, the inability to trust in one person; seeing, unavoidably, the absolute worst in himself." (page 385)
I really enjoyed the historical details in this book. The Disney section had all sorts of interesting anecdotes on the making of Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book. Martha was given the opportunity to meet and converse with Dr. Spock at a conference. The 60's scene in London seemed very well done.

My Rating:

Book club reaction:
There were just six of us at the meeting, and only four finished the book. I seemed to be a little more enthusiastic than the others, maybe because this was such a nice change of pace from the classics I have been reading lately. I really thought there would be more of a discussion than we were able to muster... we seemed to have a hard time staying on topic.

Bottom Line:
The Irresistible Henry House is a well-written novel with a fascinating premise that hasn't gotten as much attention as it probably deserves.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Literary Blog Hop

Have you seen this?  I missed it yesterday, but The Blue Bookcase is hosting a Literary Blog Hop "open to blogs that primarily feature reviews of literary fiction, classic literature, and general literary discussion."

The prompt:  Please highlight one of your favorite books and why you would consider it "literary."

To begin, my over-simplified definition of literary means a novel that offers more than plot. A literary novel features great writing, character development, themes or ideas that cause you to think, or any number of other elements we all learned about in high school English classes.

Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner is one of my all-time favorite books.  This was his last novel, written in 1987, and comes to mind every time I hear the words "character development".

The novels follows two couples, who meet in the 1930's at a university faculty party in Wisconsin, through decades of friendship and marriage.  Larry and Sally Morgan, just starting their lives together, are thankful for the new teaching position. Larry dreams of becoming a writer and Sally is pregnant. Charity and Sid Lang seem to have it all - money, social status, and two children, with a third on the way.

The premise of the novel may not sound exciting, but the characters, and the settings, are remarkable and true.  The story of  their friendship and marriages is powerful and beautifully written.

From amazon:
"Crossing to Safety is about loyalty and survival in its most everyday form--the need to create bonds and the urge to tear them apart. Thirty-four years after their first meeting, when Larry and Sally are called back to the Langs' summer home in Vermont, it's as if for a final showdown. How has this friendship defined them? What is its legacy? Stegner offer answers in those small, perfectly rendered moments that make up lives "as quiet as these"--and as familiar as our own."

Visit The Blue Bookcase for links to all participating blogs.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

A Quick Update on Bleak House


The formal read-along of Bleak House has ended, but I'm still plugging away at a leisurely pace. Approaching page 750 or disk 20 (of 989 or 26), I'm starting to feel like this book could go on indefinitely - much like the Jarndyce & Jarndyce lawsuit at the heart of the story. The characters, their stories, and Dickens flowery prose and descriptions are all enjoyable, but it's time to wrap this up and move on.

The first major mystery was revealed a couple hundred pages ago, but wasn't really a surprise. I'd suspected as much all along . A more recent development, however, has taken me quite by surprise and I'm looking forward to seeing how it plays out.

Overall, I think Bleak House would be much more enjoyable if I put away other books and gave it my undivided attention. I'll check in again at the end...

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Madame Bovary: Why Translation Matters

"They were no longer talking; but as they stared at each other, they felt a murmuring in their heads, as if something audible were escaping from one to the other through their steady gazes. They had just taken each other by the hand; and the past, the future, their reminiscences, and their dreams were all now merged in the sweetness of their ecstasy." (page 209)

Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert
translated by Lydia Davis

Isn't that gorgeous? I've read Madame Bovary before, but I certainly don't remember it being this beautiful. In fact, I don't remember it being this enjoyable either. Can translation really make such a big difference? My old copy with Francis Steegmuller's translation is still on the shelf...

"They were no longer speaking; but as they looked at one another they felt a throbbing in their heads: it was as though their very glances had set off a physical vibration. Now they had clasped hands; and in the sweetness of their ecstasy everything merged - the past, the future, their memories, and their
dreams." (page 279)

Case closed.

My final thought:
If you haven't read Lydia Davis' elegant new translation, then you really haven't read Madame Bovary.


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