A Latter-day Bluestocking

For the love of reading

Category: Bestsellers

Beach Reading 2012

When the temperature begins to rise the last book I want to read is a serious tome.  With the onset of the care-free days of summer my brain does not want to be taxed.   I want a good story, something I can bring to the beach and enjoy with the ocean breezes and nap if I am so inclined.  In other words, I don’t want a committment, I want a summer romance.  For example the ubiquitous Fifty Shades of Grey is included on this summer’s list.  This doesn’t mean I will only read poorly written crap.   In fact, I have some classics on my list but what all these books have in common is a good story where I do not need to analyze plotlines, hidden agendas, characterization, etc.  Some may be well-written and book club worthy others are included just for the pure joy of reading a story even if poorly written.  So here’s the Beach List for 2012:

1.Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day by Winifred Watson  (so much fun, pure joy)

2.Miss Timmin’s School for Girls by Nayan Currimbhoy (could not put it down, a good mystery)

3. Summer by Edith Wharton  (the title says it all)

4. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (again, seems summer-appropriate)

5. Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James (mostly to see what all the hoopla is about)

6. The Portrait of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (a good story and wonderfully written)

7. A Feast for Crows by George R.R. Martin (because I need to finish the 4th book before I can borrow mys sister’s 5th book)

8. A Jane Austen Guide to Happily Ever After by Elizabeth Kantor (because you can always use a little Jane Austen)

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)

HELP! Should I read or watch, first, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy?

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (film)

I have just watched an HBO First Look about the film Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre and am immensely intrigued.  The story seems so fascinating and the acting so superb that not only do I want to see the film but I also want to read the book.  I vaguely remember the television mini-series in 1979 that starred Alec Guinness and an even vaguer memory that perhaps one or both of my parents read the book.  I do remember that at the time I had absolutely no interest in the mini-series or the book.  Spy thrillers are not my favorite genre; they are too modern, too slick for my “stuck in the 19th century” sensibility and besides, Alec Guinness was Obi-Wan Kenobi and my child’s mind despaired of seeing him portray anyone else.

So here’s my dilemma, do I read the book first or see the film while it’s still in theaters?  Normally, I am a stickler for reading the book.  Mostly because the book is always better but also because I do not want to be influenced by another’s vision of the story.  This was not always the case.  As a child, I was mostly introduced to books after watching the film or Masterpiece Theater adaptation.  Films such as The Lord of the Rings (1978), Brideshead Revisited (1981),  A Room With a View (1985), The Razor’s Edge (1984), Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1981), and Out of Africa (1985) were all seen before I read the book and were my introduction to authors I had never heard of.  Looking back,it is apparent that the film adaptations of the late 70s and early 80s shaped my literary interests.  I devoured the books that had been adapted and influenced my interest in other books by the same authors (Maugham, Tolkien, Forster, Dinesen, Lawrence) which further led me to other writers, mostly English.  Masterpiece Theater was literally very English-oriented and my Anglophilia may have developed at this time or been enhanced by it.  I rarely deigned to read American books or contemporary literature and instead dived into the worlds of Dickens, the Brontes, Greene, and Doyle.

As I developed my literary interests I became fastidious about reading the book first.  If I knew a film based on a book (I was interested in) was to be released I would rush to the library to check out the book and race to finish it.  I was always very disappointed in the films.  No screen re-working of a novel can perceive the nuances of the written work.  Although as I have matured I realize that choices are necessary when making a book into a movie and that sometimes a film can be very successful despite not being accurate to the book but capture the mood, atmosphere, or character of the book.  I appreciate this now and enjoy contemplating the screenwriter’s choices.

Cover of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"

Cover of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

But all this does not answer my initial question, should I read Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or watch it?  I am leaning towards reading it first, old habits die very hard and I am somewhat inflexible on this.  But I also think that in this instance, it being a genre that I am not overly fond of, that seeing the movie first may pique my interest and enhance my reading experience.  I can’t make up my mind!  So I will ask you, reader, what should I do??  Read or watch??

The List of Books I Want to Finish Reading Before the End of Summer (but won’t)

I am always very ambitious about my summer reading list and I always start out very strong.  The problem is that by the middle of the summer I’ve added books not on the original list.  For example, today I stopped into Barnes and Noble to pick up Lord of the Flies by William Golding.  I’m not really sure why I must read that book NOW but I am guessing it has something to do with my son’s sleepaway summer camp experience and the photograph of him with war paint on his face and painted handprints on his stomach.  Go figure.  Simple, right?  It’s only one more book, right?  Wrong, because I also picked up two more books, A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin (I’ve seen two random episodes of the HBO mini-series and I am intrigued, besides I’ve heard good things) and Why Jane Austen? by Rachel M. Brownstein.  The latter is because I am Jane Austen obsessed and I just cannot pass up any new book about her.

So in addition to my three latest acquisitions, here’s the rest my summer book list (this does not include the books I’ve actually read) which I will not be able to finish before the end of summer.

  1. American Creation by Joseph J. Ellis
  2. Jane Austen:  The Critical Heritage edited by B.C. Southam
  3. Jane Austen and the Province of Womanhood by Alison G. Sulloway
  4. Sex at Dawn:  How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá
  5. Jane Austen:  A Life by David Nokes
  6. Room by Amanda Donoghue
  7. The Wind’s Twelve Quarters:  Stories by Ursula K. Le Guin
  8. The Woman Who Could Not Forget:  Iris Chang Before and Beyond “The Rape of Nanking” by Ying-Ying Chang
  9. March by Geraldine Brooks
  10. Six Frigates:  The Epic History of the Founding of The U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll

I think I need a 12 step program for book addiction.

Currently Reading: Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson

Cover of "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A...

Cover of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel

I started reading Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand on Friday and because I’ve been so busy with, well…  life, I have been unable to read like I normally do.  Despite not having enough time over the weekend to curl up with this book, it has grabbed me right from the start and I have been reading voraciously on the subway and even, clandestinely, at work.  I absolutely love the character of Major Ernest Pettigrew.  Helen Simonson has wonderfully evoked an old-fashioned British military gentleman in the most traditional sense.  I imagine him with mutton-chop sideburns, chest pumped up, walking with a swagger, using his cane just so, a man used to a vast Empire, unchanging and staid.  But he is devoid of annoying pomposity exhibiting, instead, charm and gallantry.  He is a widower and is coping with the loss of his brother and an ingrate of a son.  He is lonely.

He begins an unlikely friendship with a Pakistani widow, Jasmina Ali, who runs the local grocery.  She is independent, clever, and well-read.  She is quietly struggling to find her own place within a culture that expects certain behaviors from women, especially widowed women without children, and get by in a Britain that does not easily accept her as one of them. 

The Major and Mrs. Ali come together and bond through their common loss of a spouse and a love of literature.    They meet for the first time at his home for afternoon tea to discuss, of all things, Rudyard Kipling!

Their story is attractive and sweet but not mawkish and I look forward to finishing the journey with them.

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