A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: American Literature

Beach Reading Reviews 2012 Part 2

Here’s the second half of my beach reading reviews.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

A simply monstrous story, a young man trades his soul for eternal youth and leads a sordid dual life, indulging every impulse and desire maintaining all the while a gentleman’s facade.  As Dorian Gray’s portrait exhibits the sins of his sinful life he moves on to ever more unspeakably and horrifying transgressions.  A page-turner and frightening.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

A beautiful story of a man’s struggle against nature written in Hemingway’s characteristic style free of superfluous words.  He simply and elegantly the old man’s determination in the face of defeat.  Powerful!

The Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor

Absolutely awful.  Nonsensical clap-trap about how to achieve happiness in love by following the example of Austen’s heroines.  Preachy, thus annoying.  Not recommended.

A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin

Despite being over 1000 pages long, an engaging tale.  This is the fourth book in the Song of Ice and Fire series relating the quest for domination of the Seven Kingdoms.  If you are a fan of the fantasy genre definitely a must-read.

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Killing Time…in a bookstore

I found myself with a couple of hours to kill before picking my son up from Chess Team, and not enough time to go home, so I decided to haunt my local (Park Slope, Brooklyn) Barnes and Noble.  This can be a very dangerous thing to do but with no spare cash I decided it would be harmless to peruse the books and snap them on my mobile phone; an easy illustrated want list.

1) I love to eat; therefore I love to cook.  So how can I resist The Great American Cookbook?  It has regional recipes from all 50 states and a must have even if it includes a recipe for “Long Island” Clam Chowder.*

*Most New Englanders (myself included) refuse to believe there is any such thing; to add tomatoes is unholy.  There is only one kind of “chowdah” and the sobriquet “New England Clam Chowder” is superfluous.

2) Since its publication I’ve been dying to read this tome,  The Autobiography of Mark Twain:  Volume 1.   He is the quintessential American humorist and this book demands to be read despite its daunting size.

Now I’ve moved to the History shelves…

3 & 4) 2012 is the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, so both, Mr. and Mrs, Madison’s War:  America’s First Couple and the Second War of Independence and Knights of the Sea:  The True Story of The Boxer and The Enterprise and the War of 1812 are probably necessary reading (at least for me and one other person, Dad).  The War of 1812 is usually glossed over in history classes and needs to be re-examined.  My understanding of this war is weak but it seems to me that this war ended in a stalemate because both the US and Britain were not fully prepared for this conflict; the US being a fledgling nation and Britain’s preoccupation by the shadow of Napoleon’s greater threat to the British Isles.

5, 6, & 7) Of course, this led me right to the section of English history.  Explorers of the Nile:  The Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure intrigues me because of the very “English” ideal of exploration and empire.  The romance of Mr. Henry Morton Stanley finding Dr. David Livingstone in their quest to discover the source of the Nile is still potent and one defined by folly, courage, heroism, and endurance.  Ghosts of Empire:  Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World shows the rise and fall of Britain’s once mighty empire and how its policies and its inconsistencies shaped the problems of the modern world from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Hong Kong (to name a few).  And combining American and British history, Tories:  Fighting for the King in America’s First Civil War.  This is particularly interesting to me because as a child touring all those [American] historical places (Philadelphia, Williamsburg, Boston) I was intrigued by the loyalists and always felt an affinity for them, so much so that Dad believed I would have been tarred and feathered.

8) Partially because of my Downton Abbey obsession, The Beauty and the Sorrow:  An Intimate History of the First World War.

9) My son’s dentist has been trying to get me to read this for years so I’ve added it to the list:  A Thousand Splendid Suns by the author of the Kite Runner.

10) Any book by Isabel Allende is a treat and a joy to read so Island Beneath the Sea is included.

11 & 12) And full circle back to food again because one cannot live on books alone:  Feeding the Dragon:  A Travelogue Through China with Recipes (I am half Chinese and love Chinese cuisine) and The Vegetable Dishes I Can’t Live Without by Mollie Katzen (of Moosewood fame) because how does one cook fennel and braising greens?  A dilemma I’ve brought home because of the vegetables acquired from my farm share.  Although, disappointingly, does not discuss kohlrabi.

I must have realized time was up...time to go.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See: A Novel of a Chinese-American Experience

The novel Shanghai Girls is ultimately about two women who must survive their new reality in America while remaining grounded in their Chinese origins. The story is divided into three themes important in Chinese society – Fate, Fortune, and Destiny – each representing a phase of struggle and renewal in their lives.

The Theme of FATE

It is Shanghai 1937 and two sisters, Pearl and May, have their world turned upside down. Two “beautiful girls” who pose for artists who depict them exuding the energy, excitement and beauty of the modern Chinese woman. Their lives are changed overnight when their father loses all his wealth and he, in an effort to save the family, sells the girls into arranged marriages to Gold Mountain Men — American-Chinese husbands. The truth is far darker when they discover that it is not ordinary debts which have thrown these two women back into a feudal age but poor judgement and dealings with the dreaded crime syndicate the “Green Gang”. All this as Japanese bombs begin to fall decimating the city the girl’s know and love. They escape the city, traversing the Chinese countryside witnessing first-hand the cruelty and atrocities of the conquering armies.

The Theme of FORTUNE

These women manage to make it to Hong Kong and passage to Los Angeles where they arrive at Angel Island, the “Ellis Island of the west”. Here Pearl and May learn that prosperity is not so easy to gain and the streets of America are most definitely not paved in gold. For the next 20 years these resourceful and strong women maintain their dignity as they endure blatant racism and government-sanctioned discrimination. The years find them ever loyal and supportive to one another as they carve a niche for themselves and their families while constantly straddling the two divergent cultures of China and America. Pearl and May cope through WWII carrying special registration certificates proclaiming they are “members of the Chinese race”, and selling war bonds to prove they are loyal Americans.

The Theme of DESTINY

It is the 50s and the women see Congress finally repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act but at the same time the Communist threat once again enmesh them in a world that does not trust them and does not want them. Their future is to be forever part of the American experience, never to return to China. Pearl and May strive to raise the American-born generation to be American but find themselves dismayed when that generation doesn’t exhibit any of the qualities of traditional Chinese culture.

The novel which depicts emotionally difficult subjects common in the Chinese-American experience is not an effortless book to read but Lisa See develops each character with a deep understanding of the Chinese psyche that obliges one to read on. Ms. See portrays these extraordinary women in an unsentimental way and yet one is compelled to like them and even care for them. She does not embellish them with grand heroic acts or self-martyrdom; instead these women are portrayed as real in all their selfishness, suffering, forthrightness, petty jealousies, rivalries, and mostly love for one another.

Shanghai Girls by Lisa See (New York: Random House, 2009)

A Book: The Gift That Keeps on Giving

It has been several days since Christmas and the flurry of paper and string and bows have had time to settle, candy canes have been eaten, the tree has become a tinder box, and finally I can settle down to read the books I received as gifts.  I love receiving books (or money so I can purchase them on my own).  I remember at a young age being thrilled to find books in my stocking; even once reading a tome in its entirety in the wee hours before waking my mother at a more civilized hour.  Yes, my sister and I were quite courteous on Christmas morning!

This year, without fail, I found a few books under my tree and in my stocking.  My loved ones certainly know that diamonds may be a girl’s best friend but there is nothing like a book to make this girl’s heart skip a beat.  So, here it is my Christmas books and with any luck I’ll be engrossed in one of these as the ball falls in Times Square to ring in 2012.  (Hint:  It will most likely be the P.D. James).

Firstly, everyone knows my obsession with Jane Austen so it wouldn’t truly be a MERRY Christmas without a little Jane.  Lady Vernon and Her Daughter by Jane Rubino and Caitlen Rubino-Bradway is a wonderful re-working of Austen’s epistolary novella Lady Susan.  I have read this before (I borrowed it from the library) and enjoyed it so much that I recommended it to be read by my Jane Austen reading group.  I suppose Santa thought I should have my own copy.  I also received from a friend, who occasionally leaves offerings of books, the recently released murder mystery by P.D. James Death Comes to Pemberley.  Clearly he understands that goddesses (or undervalued administrators) need to be kept happy.  Thank you so much, it is much appreciated.

A very fun book which will have pride of place on my coffee table is The Word Made Flesh:  Literary Tattoos from Bookworms Worldwide.  All I have to say is WOW!!  Were I to get a tattoo (read lack of bravery here) it would definitely have to be something literary inspired because I have never seen anything so cool.

Cover of "Tinkers"

Cover of Tinkers

Because everyone should read a Pulitzer prize winner and it was my pick from the Christmas book swap I have Tinker by Paul Harding.  Flipping through the pages it promises to reaffirm my love of the written word.  This is a first novel, and a seemingly powerful one.  The first line is staggering, “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.”

I also received and already finished The World of Downton Abbey.  There isn’t really much to say here except the book is a wonderful companion piece to the television series.  I love this book.  Just turning its pages brings me much joy and happiness.

My obsessions with Jane Austen and Downton Abbey are mediocre compared to that with good penmanship.  I am always cursing the decline of the art of writing (with a pen and paper); for crying out loud they don’t even teach children cursive writing anymore in schools!  It is an abomination.  Needless to say I am obsessed with handwriting.  I practiced for hours as a child and pride myself on my penmanship to this day.  I insist on using fountain pens and writing (almost daily) in my Moleskine journal and handwriting notes and cards.  I am quite snobbish about this so it is with great delight that I have received Script & Scribble:  The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.  Kitty Burns Florey is a kindred spirit in that she too professes to be a “penmanship nut”.

And because a girl cannot live on books alone I will get frequent use from reading my 2012 Zagat Guide for New York City.

Truly, books are the gift that keeps on giving!

Quote of the Day: Clement C. Moore

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;
The children were nestled all snug in their beds,
While visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads;
And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,
When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter,
I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.

Clement C. Moore, 1779–1863

Winter Is Coming

Cover of "A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ic...

I recently finished reading the first book in the A Song of Fire and Ice series,  A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.  I enjoyed it immensely and have just started the second book, A Clash of Kings.

I felt it appropriate, in honor  of George R.R. Martin’s epic to offer, for your perusal, my winter reading list.  Winter is coming.

  1. The Cranford Chronicles  Elizabeth Gaskell
  2. The Children’s Book   A.S. Byatt
  3. The Queen of Fashion:  What Marie Antoinette Wore to the Revolution  Caroline Weber
  4. You Can’t Go Home Again  Thomas Wolfe
  5. Jane Eyre  Charlotte Bronte
  6. Jane Austen’s Christmas  Maria Hubert
  7. Elizabeth’s Women  Tracy Borman
  8. Divergent  Veronica Roth
  9. Birthright:  The True Story That Inspired “Kidnapped”  A. Roger Ekirch
  10. Napoleon and the Empire of Fashion:  1795–1815  Christina Beneto and Martin Lancaster

Quote of the Day: Ralph Waldo Emerson

Photo of American Transcendentalist, writer, a...

“O Day of days when we can read! The reader and the book, either without the other is naught.”  Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1803–1882

Quote of the Day: Louisa May Alcott

Headshot of Louisa May Alcott (November 29, 18...

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“She is too fond of books, and it has turned her brain.” 
Louisa May Alcott, 1832-1888 (from Work: A Story of Experience)

Quote of the Day: Stephen King

Stephen King, American author best known for h...

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“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”  Stephen King, born 1947

Out and About with Jane and the Sordid in 7 hours

A corned beef sandwich from Katz's Delicatesse...

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This weekend is again shaping up to be perfectly literary.  Today I meet with my book club, The Petty Rebuttals where we will be discussing Room by Emma Donoghue and tomorrow is the Brooklyn Book Festival where I will be manning the Jane Austen Society of North America’s table for an hour in full Regency dress!!  But more about that later because I want to tell you about last weekend that proved to be very literary as well.

Saturday began quite bookish.  Its scope spanned the centuries beginning with Jane Austen and ending with what was promised to be a sordid foray into international erotic writing.

My day began with the New York Regional meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America (JASNA).  A group of like-minded admirers of the works of Jane Austen who come together at regional meetings throughout the year, an annual national general meeting, and at splinter group meetings such as a monthly discussion group, book reading groups and the Juvenilia (a group for the young and the young at heart).  This meeting was especially enticing for me as it would be a lecture on fashion of the Regency era and how best to outfit yourself at any budget entitled, Dressing the Miss Bennets.  The speaker was Lisa Brown who led the informative lecture with modeling (which I happily participated in).

I had such a wonderful time, catching up with friends, volunteering, and talking about an upcoming general meeting which our chapter is hosting in Brooklyn next autumn.  It was exciting to discuss Jane Austen with other enthusiastic readers.  It is a wonderful place to socialize with the scholarly as well as those who have newly discovered our favorite author.  I was able to discuss with fellow members of the Juvenilia the possibility of a lending library amongst our members of our personal Jane material and the possibility of leading a group discussion in November of Catherine, or the Bower an unfinished fragment written in August 1792.  This is an important fragment as it is believed to be a segue between Austen’s youthful juvenilia to her mature published works.

After tea and cucumber sandwiches with the group-at-large, myself and members of the Juvenilia group headed to Manhattan’s lower east side to participate in the 4th Annual Lit Crawl NYC.  This event is sponsored by the Litquake Foundation, founded in San Francisco, to give readers more against the back-drop of technology by promoting readings, classroom visits, youth projects all “to foster interest in literature for people of all ages and perpetuate a sense of literary community.”  The Crawl was broken up into three 45 minute phases in which you chose from several topics and venues (coffeehouses, bars and lounges).  The first venue we decided to attend was sponsored by The Center for Fiction in which authors came up with he first line of books based only on the title and a blurb.  Audience participation involved trying to guess what the correct first line was.  It was very fun and sometimes raucously hilarious!!  The second venue we chose was Nerd Jeopardy presented by publishers Farrar, Straus, Giroux.  This one is pretty self-explanatory and one would be led to believe a fun choice but because of the lack of organization and slim audience participation it proved a bit boring and pretentious.  The best part of this venue was the Heineken Dark Lager.

Next venue, in the hopes of more than just intellectual stimulation we chose to attend Down and Dirty Round the World the blurb read as follows:

“…an evening of hardboiled, pulpy, and erotic international literature read by some of our favorite authors and translators…”

It proved less than exciting.  None of the selections even came close to being pulpy or erotic.  Halfway into the first reading my friends and I were wondering if we should just bail.  One author/translator read so poorly that if she were to read hard-core porn her monotone voice would fail to titillate.  At last it was over!  It had one thing going for it, it gave us something to talk about.  The only thing about that evening to arouse my desire was the to-die-for pastrami Reuben at Katz’s Deli!  That succulent pastrami, its juicy goodness tantalizing my tongue, the tender flesh melting in my mouth… See what I mean?

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