Thursday, February 28, 2008

Unfairly maligned

I know that classics professors don't have a very hip reputation. Remember the part in "The Sure Thing" when Ione Skye says, "You know what I've always wanted to be?" and John Cusack, responding to her uptight, obsessive-compulsive personality, says, "A classics Professor?"

In two books I've read recently there have been peripheral characters who were classics professors. In Caucasia, the mother's patrician upbringing - upon which she has turned her back - is exemplified by her father. He sounds like he was a fairly nice guy, and it was only after his death that Sandy really rebelled and got involved in the Black Power movement. In A Company of Swans, however, Eva Ibbotson creates a real monster of a father: far more concerned with his position at Cambridge than anything else, he notices his daughter only to worry about how she might disgrace him. He is stuffy, judgmental, bigoted, close-minded; he educates Harriet in Greek and Latin, but will not allow her to go to school (this is at the end of the 19th century).

There are also a number of books in which classics students do bad things - Donna Tartt's The Secret History, Carol Goodman's books, and Pamela Dean's transplantation of the Tam Lin myth into the classics department of a small liberal arts college in Minnesota.

Erich Segal usually has a classicist in his books (he is one, after all), and they are fairly neutral. But I don't think I've come across a piece of literature in which there is a hip, exciting classics professor or student who isn't also a total lunatic.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What does your bookshelf say about you?

Here is a fun article from entitled "Bookshelf and Self" by Scot McLemee. Actually, as is typical in this online journal, the comments in response to the article are as much fun as the article itself.

Happy reading!

P.S. Here's the link to the article that outlines one reader's (geek's) bookshelf etiquette.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Not Quite What I Was Planning (or Six-Word Memoirs: Life Stories Distilled)

I was procrastinating this morning from a particularly dreaded writing task and I stumbled upon this NPR story that was featured on Talk of the Nation on February 7, 2008.

Basically, an online memoir magazine, Smith, asked readers to write the story of their lives in a sentence or more accurately, six words (no more, no less) and they gathered some of the reponses into a book called Not Quite What I was Planning. Some of the examples include:

After Harvard, had baby with crackhead.

70 years, few tears, hairy ears.

The psychic said I'd be richer.

There are many more funny and touching examples both in the article and in the 12 minute excerpt from Talk of Nation. In addition, you can look at ones people submitted to Smith magazine and to NPR.

You know where I'm going with this, don't you? If you could write a story of your life (or lives) in six words, what would it be? Feel free to come up with as many versions as you want. Here are the two I came up with on short notice:

Stories, water, roadtrips, too little time.

Significant other, lost in the mail

Now, it's your turn (and time for me to get back to work).

Thursday, February 21, 2008


I meant to post about a week ago to say that our snowdrops are up, and there are some crocus and daffodil leaves that are making optimistic appearances. This is very typical of our area - we get some really early warm weather (a few days in the 60s), the plants go wild, and then it gets cold again. (Not Minnesota or Illinois cold, but freezing temperatures.) We're supposed to get a few inches of snow turning into freezing rain and ice tomorrow, so I fear for our courageous little bulbs!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

More 2007

Well, if we all don't mind, I'll just add ten books as a post as well! It was very easy to go right on down the lists!

Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

Talk about a book that stays with you long after you read it. The moon is hit by an asteriod, altering it's path and creating havoc with weather and waves here on earth. It's the story of a teen and her family and how they endure what becomes an increasingly frightening long winter. I hear she's written/is writing another story about the same incident, but on the East Coast.

The $64 Tomato by William Alexander

It's a memoir of a man's multi-year battle with his garden, the surrounding wildlife, weather and insects. I really enjoyed it.

Water for Elephants by Sarah Gruen

I know, we've probably all read it by now, but it is one I find myself recommending to folks who haven't. I'm just sorry I had waited so long to read it myself. I enjoyed all of Jacob's life.

Thursday Next: First Among Sequels by Jasper Fforde

If you haven't entered the bookworld, you may be better off with one of the earlier ones for the set-up, but moving into Thursday's future life and family was great, even with the possible ending of the Chronoguard.

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

The story of a Japanese-American internment camp in Colorado during WWII. Very much a coming of age story for Rennie Stroud, a la To Kill a Mockingbird.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

Because who would have thought I would have waited with such excitement for the last book in a series as an adult. Kudos to J.K. for bringing that feeling of anticipation back to reading.

No, I Don't Want to Join a Bookclub by Virginia Ironside

As Marie hits her 60th year, she prefers to go about her next life stage under her rules, not everyone elses. It proves that life doesn't end at retirement and old flames and new babies are sometimes the best part of life.

The Wednesday Wars by Gary Schmidt

Completely worthy of the Newberry Honor book award it received this year. Holling is a great young voice for YA lit. His Wednesday afternoons at first feel like a punishment, staying in the classroom reading Shakespeare with Mrs. Baker. But as the school year moves on, we find ourselves wishing that maybe, we could be reading and learning something from Shakespeare every Wednesday as well.

The Spellman Files by Lisa Lutz

Izzy Spellman is in the family business, a chaotic world of private investigation.

Austenland by Shannon Hale

In a year with many choices about novels tied into Austen and P&P, I found Jane Hayes's trip to a resort in England to be very engaging. The trip is made possible after the death of her aunt and Pembrook Park allows her to live as an Austen character. She has spent her dating life comparing men to Mr. Darcy--will she find a real one at last?

2007 redux

Instead of appending my top 10 as a comment, I'm going to start a new post - hope that's okay. Every year for Christmas I create a list of book recommendations for my sisters-in-law, so I have my list ready-made. It's a bit imperfect, since I left out a few things that might otherwise have made the list because I knew that they had already read them, like Harry Potter 7 and Water for Elephants, or because I was worried about suggesting books with lots of sex (Tipping the Velvet, The Crimson Petal and the White). I also cheated a little bit by including some series, so there are more than 10. But I know if I agonize over it any more, I won't ever get around to sharing my list, so here it is (in no particular order):

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Andrew Sean Greer
Max is born an old man in the late 1871, and as he ages, his physical appearance becomes younger. The novel is a first-person account by the older Max, whose body now looks like a child’s. There’s some common ground with The Time-Traveler’s Wife, with the sense of being displaced in time, and the bittersweetness of a love that is doomed, and yet seems somehow fated to be. I also enjoyed the glimpse of turn-of-the-century San Francisco, where it is set.

Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides
This is both sweeping in scope – from early 20th century Turkey, through Detroit during the Prohibition and in the 70’s race riots, to present-day Berlin – and microscopic in its narrative of the genetic anomaly that gets passed through this Greek family to create Calliope (later Cal) Stephanides, a hermaphrodite.

The Ha-Ha, Dave King
The narrator and protagonist is a middle-aged man who was brain damaged during his very short stint in the Vietnam War. He can no longer speak, read, or write, but he has normal intelligence and hearing. The novel starts with a call from Sylvia, his ex-girlfriend, who needs him to take her son, Ryan, while she is in rehab. Despite the depressing setup, it is beautifully told and very affecting.

Bitten, Kelley Armstrong
Elena is living in Toronto, trying to distance herself from her werewolf family when she is summoned back to the Pack. Armstrong writes convincingly of a complicated, strong, believable character, whose supernatural strength and cool confidence shield her inner turmoil. Her relationship with her Pack is also compelling – it is her foster family, and she feels a deep connection and loyalty to it, but she also resents it because it symbolizes her separation from the human world. There is some fairly graphic violence.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, Patricia Wrede
This is a great series, set in a magical, fairy-tale world, in which all the inhabitants know the tropes of fairy-tales; they know, for instance, that youngest sons are most likely to succeed in quests, and princesses need to be rescued. In the first one, Dealing with Dragons, we meet Cimorene, a princess who runs away and ends up living amongst the dragons. The subsequent books continue her story and the inhabitants of her magical world.

The Wednesday Wars, Gary D. Schmidt
Holling Hoodhood is a 7th grader on Long Island in 1967 who ends up reading Shakespeare every Wednesday afternoon with his teacher. At first he feels it is torture, but Mrs. Baker turns out to be an amazing teacher, mother figure, and track coach; Holling learns to figure things out for himself and to become a good person. Holling’s voice is absolutely believable.

Gregor the Overlander series, Suzanne Collins
Gregor is an immensely likeable boy who, in the first book, follows his baby sister through a grating and into another world below NYC. There he and Boots meet the Underlanders, plus a number of non-human allies (giant bats, cockroaches) and enemies (giant rats), and he is believed to be the Warrior in the Underlanders’ prophecy. Each book brings more challenges both in the Underland and above ground; Collins develops nuanced characters, and eschews easy solutions.

The True Meaning of Smekday, Adam Rex
This is an account of an alien invasion of Earth, written by 11-year-old Gratuity “Tip” Tucci for a time capsule contest. Her journey across the country with an alien named J.Lo. in a car that is souped up with alien technology would be harrowing if it weren’t so funny. Adam Rex punctuates the story with drawings and drawn “photos.”

Summerland, Michael Chabon
Although this is categorized as a young adult novel, the only thing that really conforms to this categorization is that the protagonist is 11 and the plot follows a coming-of-age narrative. However, the story is too complex and sprawling to be described simply. Chabon borrows from Native American mythology to create an alternate world; he then grafts baseball on as the common currency across all the worlds.

Twilight, New Moon, and Eclipse, Stephenie Meyer
Klutzy Bella moves from sunny Phoenix to tiny, rainy Forks on the Olympic Peninsula to live with her father. There she meets Edward, we know from the book jacket that he is a vampire, so some of his inexplicable actions are perfectly clear to the reader, but there are still mysteries to be cleared up. Despite some clunky writing, I was swept up in their star-crossed love story.

A Look Back at 2007

I meant to write this entry sometime in late December and/or early January but as usual, I’m running a bit behind schedule. However, I wanted to get this list down before 2008 turned into 2009. So, my challenge to you is this (I feel so like John Cusack in High Fidelity right now). What were your top ten favorite books in 2007? They don’t have to be the best books you read, the ones reeking of literary merit, but rather what were the top ten books that sucked you into their world, stuck with you long after you finished them, and/or were a sheer joy to read? Here’s mine . . . in no particular order . . . well, not quite.

Case Histories: Kate Atkinson
On the surface a detective novel, but really so much more.

Dies the Fire: S.M. Stirling
Though he is not the best writer ever, the “what-if” scenario Stirling sets up in this book is one that continues to haunt me.

The Wire in the Blood: Val McDermid
I came to this writer through the British TV series based on her books and though I’m a sucker for Robson Green (the actor playing Tony Hill), I’m an even bigger sucker for McDermid’s writing. I can’t say what it is about the way she makes Tony Hill and Carol Jordan come alive on the page, but I love it.

The Tin Roof Blow-Down: James Lee Burke
Read this book set in post-Katrina New Orleans, watch Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke, and get really, really angry.

Heart-Shaped Box: Joe Hill
A well-constructed horror novel that just hit the spot.

Territory: Emma Bull
Bull reimagines Tombstone (Wyatt Earp, Doc Holiday, etc) as involving sorcery of an elemental kind and the result is an intriguing, fast-paced novel that ends way too soon.

Bridge of Sighs: Richard Russo
Richard Russo's latest novel again centers on small town life in a layered, multigenerational way. At the center of the story lies the relationship between three friends--Louis C. Lynch (Lucy), Sarah Berg, and Bobby Marconi but that is the center from which many radiated stories are explored. You're in the hands of a master storyteller and it all goes down smoothly.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: J.K. Rowling
Do I even need to say anything here? This is the book that I anticipated with a growing impatience last spring and when I finally got it in my hot little hands last summer, I did the hermit thing—retreated to my house and didn’t stop reading until I had finished it.

Away: Amy Bloom
Amy Bloom's novel grabbed me from the very beginning and elicited a mixture of emotions including, "Damm. Why can't I write like this?" It's the story of Lillian Leyb's journey through many worlds in the United States of the 20's--the Yiddish theatre scene in New York, the back alleys of Seattle, an "Agrarian Work Center for Women," and the wilds of Alaska. In less than 250 pages, Bloom pulled me to places I won't easily forget and did so with a short story writer's economy and grace.

World War Z: Max Brooks
It’s hard to describe a book as your favorite if it gave you nightmares, but truly this book affected me the most of any I read this last year. It’s set up as an oral history, a series of interviews with a diverse group of people from all over the world, and it explores the events surrounding a zombie “epidemic” that much like SARS and the bird flu begins in China. With its pandemic and The Band Played On echoes, this book is just realistic enough to make you profoundly uneasy. Even if you doubt that a zombie disease could infect mankind, you might start wondering when we will see that 1917 flu resurface again.

Okay, now that I’ve weighed in, it’s your turn. Give me your lists.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Happy Valentine's Day!

I don't choose books to fit in with the season, so I'm not taking a break from Yiddish Policeman's Union to read a romance. However, it did make me think a bit about reading the right book at the right time. Is it good to read a book set in a cold place (e.g., Alaska) when it's cold out, or would it be better escapism to read something set on a desert island? Conversely, does it put a damper on a beach vacation to read something set in a cold/wet/snowy clime?

Monday, February 11, 2008

Author bios

I think I'm noticing a trend. It seems that several books I've read lately have an author biography on the back inside cover that includes a list of that author's previous jobs, heavy on the quirkiness. For instance, Rosemary Clement-Moore, author of Prom Dates from Hell, specifies that she has a master's degree but also an eclectic resume: "telephone operator, Chuck E. Cheese costumed character, ranch hand, teacher, actress, stage-hand, director, playwright." Is this inspirational - yes, though you have a series of dead-end jobs, you too may become an author - or just too cutesy for words?

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Pride and Procrastination

I am attempting to watch tonight's presentation of "Pride and Prejudice" on PBS, as I am currently reading the book and "Lost in Austen" (very amusing, by the way). I fear I am unable to do it justice at this point - one just CANNOT enjoy Colin Firth appropriately when ones CHILDREN are watching it with you. I feel the fine points of the film are over their heads, thank goodness, and that they are merely using it to procrastinate for the inevitable bedtime. Alas, I fear I will not be able to focus appropriate attention to this film at this time and must return anon.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

I did it!

Yes, I took a reusable bag into Target today! I thought the cashier would kick me out...seriously, I had a plan what to do when they told me I couldn't use my Trader Joe's bag! I don't think I've ever seen anyone walk out of SuperTarget with a reusable bag. Geez, I got bag credits at the co-op. Nothing at Target. Target seems like the "anti-reusable bag" mentality if I've ever seen it. I've been planning this "coup" but always manage to forget my bag in the car. And once you're in Target, who'd want to go back out to the car? So, today I remembered, and even more amazing, didn't even fill up my tropical-themed bag.

OK, so this has nothing to do with books or gardens, but felt like such an achievement, I had to share!

RIP Rosemary

Every fall we dig our rosemary plant out of the ground and put it into a pot. Every year, around this time, it starts turning black from the roots up until it's all crispy and dead. This year is no exception, alas; we have killed another rosemary plant.

I don't use tons of fresh rosemary in my cooking, but it's really nice being able to grab a sprig for something once in a while. And I just don't understand why we can't keep it alive throughout the winter.