Saturday, June 30, 2007

Jan - June Reading Inventory

Reading tally for the first six months of this year. The titles and links to my posted reviews/musings are shown below:

The Other Wind (science fiction - fantasy)
Austenland (contemporary/chick-lit)
Strapless (non-fiction)
Death in the Garden (mystery)
The Titled Americans
The Perfect Summer
The Return to Camelot: Chivalry and the English Gentleman
A Woman's Place (link to collective review of above four titles; non-fiction)
Dissolution (not quite a review; mystery)
The Ladies of Grace Adieu (short story collection)
Mystery Mile
The Case of the Late Pig
More Work for the Undertaker (re-reads; recaps of these three Campion titles)
The Gyrth Chalice (aka Look to the Lady; Campion re-read; short blurb)
Ex Libris (historical mystery)
Death at the Priory (non-fiction)
Idylls of the King (poetry)
Lady Rose and Mrs. Memmary (gentle fiction/nostalgia)
The Making of a Marchioness (gentle fiction/nostalgia)
An Infinity of Little Hours (non-fiction)

Above was April through June. Below is January through March:

Lion's Honey (non-fiction)
The Shuttle (gentle fiction/nostalgia)
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (classic)
A Short History of Myth (non-fiction)
Morality Play (contemporary fiction/mystery)
Mary Barton (classic)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (discussed in the context of movie adaptations of novels/plays; classic)
Silas Marner (classic)
The Picture of Dorian Gray (classic)
Swing: A Mystery (mystery)
The Moonstone (classic)
Glorious Battle (non-fiction)
What Angels Fear (mystery)

Breakout is roughly as follows: classics (7); non-fiction (6); mysteries (5); Campion series (4); gentle fiction/nostalgia (3); contemporary fiction (2); short story collection (1); fantasy (1); poetry (1).

No, I'm not so self-absorbed as to think you're very interested, but I had to put the list somewhere I could find it again....

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

One Evening's Amusement

Pat P. sent me the link to this cool photo set on Flickr - Parting the Veil of Faery, The Colmore Fatagravures. Take time to go through them and read the captions.

Now I must go read.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The Other Wind [Review]

Title: The Other Wind

Author: Ursula K. LeGuin (her official website)

Copyright: 2001, Harcourt, Inc., ISBN 0151006849

Genre: Fantasy

Length: 246 pages

Summary: A minor wizard, one whose gift is merely the mending of ordinary broken tools, is tormented by dreams of his dead wife reaching out to him. He seeks out Sparrowhawk (Ged) who had once been the Archmage of Roke for advice and solace. That simple beginning to this tale takes the reader on an adventure into Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea -- complete with dragons, distrustful cultures and the need to mend, even perhaps, remake the world she initially introduced us to with the publication of The Wizard of Earthsea in 1968. What has been broken? How can it be mended? No population of Earthsea escapes responsibility for the rupture or obligation to contribute to a solution. Amidst the working out of the larger themes of death, rebirth and acceptance, we follow a rather touching love story between two very awkward individuals. LeGuin's style evokes a haunting sense of greater forces pressing down on her characters even as she lightens events with wry humor. The characters are those that have appeared in the previous four books of this series including Ged, Tenar, Irian, Tehanu, and Lebannon.

If you have read A Wizard of Earthsea, The Tombs of Atuan, The Farthest Shore, Tehanu and Tales of Earthsea (a volume of short stories), you will know each of those names. This is one of the few series that I would recommend you read all of the titles in the series in order. It is useful to have done so when you come to consider this, the truly final volume in the series. You'll have a better sense of LeGuin's final conclusion. She has matured since the first book and this is evident in the

Extract: LeGuin's official web site has two excerpts from The Other Wind for sampling her simple but effective writing style (Excerpts One and Two). The simplicity of her writing however does not mean however that the pace of her story-telling is rapid.

Also Relevant: Ursula K. LeGuin is one of my very favorite authors, the one whose books I will run out and buy in hardcover without knowing anything other than the title and her authorship. While I know I have not read everything she's ever written, I have read the bulk of her fiction and non-fiction work.

LeGuin understands mythology. (Re-read the quotes I pulled from Karen Armstrong's A Short History of Myth.) The universe of EarthSea organizes her sense of the way the world operates, its spiritual and physical ecosystems. Her thinking about fantasy, her writing and the differences in the way that men and women tell stories changed over the years as she wrote these books. I think one of the reasons that I enjoy Le Guin's novels so much is because so much of how she experiences the world resonates with my own development and belief system. Odd when you realize that she is more of a Taoist than anything else and I have never found Taoism to be particularly comforting or helpful.

I did not formally commit to participation in Carl's Once Upon A Time challenge. Yet, I did participate perhaps informally, spending time in recent months with various tales of mythology. The Other Wind fits in with that and Le Guin is a master of her craft.

Other reviews of The Other Wind may be found here, here (mind the spoilers), and here.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Hale's Austenland [Review]


Title: Austenland

Author: Shannon Hale (her blog)

Copyright: 2007, ISBN 1596912855

Length: 196 pages

Genre: Romance (chick lit)

Summary: Jane Hayes is a modern thirty-something graphic designer in New York City. Her great-aunt, interested in her welfare, provides her with an opportunity to spend three weeks experiencing Regency England. Hayes will be allowed to act out her fantasy of living in a Jane Austen novel, dressing and interacting with other visitors to Pembroke Park. (If you watched the PBS special, Regency House Party, you have familiarity with the basic premise.) Like so many women her age, Hayes has a mental image of the characters of Pride and Prejudice as the characters were portrayed in the 1995 A&E mini-series of that novel. Tired of fantasizing about Colin Firth as well as being disappointed in the men she encounters daily, Hayes decides the immersive therapy of the Pembroke Park experience is what she needs to dissipate the specter of Mr. Darcy and get on with her life. This short, light novel tells of the convergence in Hayes' world of Regency manners and modern male-female interactions.

Extract: Her heart was teetering precariously, and she almost put out her arms to balance herself. She didn't like to see them together. Martin, the luscious man who'd made her laugh and kept her standing on real earth and Mr. Nobley, who had bgun to make the fake world feel as comfortable as her own bed. She stood on the curve of the path, her feet hesitating where to go.

Also Relevant: I have nothing against chick lit per se; sometimes one's mood can only be satisfied by finding something in that vein and reading it until the mood passes. Forced to list the parameters for "chick lit", I would say that works in the genre tend to feature female protagonists bumbling through the demands of modern life, seeking professional success as a woman in a man's world while ultimately finding "True Love". For the most part, chick lit offers a humorous perspective on these attempts. The authors aren't expected by their readers to render particularly realistic characterization, but are expected to flex the structure and flow of conventional romance novels while still delivering a happy ending. Chick-lit is a marketable commodity -- entertainment, not literature, generally unremarkable.

Hale's Austenland likely meets the expectations of chick-lit readers. By that I mean, it's really not awful and, in the right mood, could even be found enjoyable. It isn't entirely predictable in the flow of events, but is predictable with regard to the underlying premise of all chick lit -- that a woman possessed of enough self-confidence to believe herself worthy of real love will ultimately succeed in her attempts to profitably use her talents and win Mr. Right. Hale includes recognizable references to various Austen novels and suggests parallels between Jane's situation at Pembroke Park and Fanny Price in Mansfield Park.

Shannon Hale has been a best-selling author of children's and young adult books; this is her livelihood. It is possible that Austenland was a commercial attempt to continue her relationship with a readership entering into the more adult phases of life. I don't think she's entirely successful with this attempt, but neither is Austenland a bad book. It is simply lightweight. To borrow a conventional assessment frequently found in book reviews for librarians, it is suitable for inclusion in the collections of large public libraries with respectable acquisition budgets.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

So Cool!

Okay, the short version of the trip report was that the closing keynote at the conference was supplied by a witty lexicographer. I didn't make the connection until I got home that she was the author of two blogs I had encountered upon different occasions -- Dictionary Evangelist and A Dress A Day. She's fun, and you will likely enjoy her writing. That's the trivial aspect of the trip.

The real news -- the cool news -- was the presentation I heard by Manolis Kelaidis, a lecturer-artist-inventor from the UK who has developed a novel version of the electronic book. [Don't sneer at the pun, or at the idea.] Go read. (Wait, there's more. And more. Still more.) The live demo was actually *quite* impressive, although there were skeptics. Maybe we oughtn't to have given the man a standing ovation, but it was an amazing thing to see it work. It brought into reality that illustration from my childhood that showed sailing ships and dragons emerging from the pages of book held on a child's lap. It amplified the reader's experience of the text with additional digital content offered with the touch of a finger -- mp3s, images, background information, etc. -- without losing the archetypal experience of reading the bound volume. I wanted one and so did everyone else in the room.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Heading West

I will be spending most of this week in travel to a publishers' conference in San Jose, California. I haven't offered any book reviews because I haven't yet finished The Odyssey. There will be book reviews at some point this month, but certainly not over the next four or five days. My attention has been diverted with family business of various sorts as well as work activities.

On the other hand, I think the new template works better in terms of legibility, don't you?

Friday, June 15, 2007

Statistics, Women and Books

We all know the perils of putting too much stock in statistics (lies, damn lies, and all that) but I thought this group might find these statistics to be of interest.

According to a survey done by Content Connections, the average American woman purchased about 30 books in the past year, purchased as much non-fiction as fiction (mostly in paperback format), bought both digital as well as audio content, and spends 40 minutes or longer on a visit to the bookstore. She spends roughly $500.00 per year on content; surprisingly, perhaps, that dollar amount is valid across all income levels. Recommendations and reviews were drawn from the full spectrum of sources (television, newspapers, magazines, friends, the Web, etc.).

The top subject areas of interest (non-fiction) were:

  1. Women's issues
  2. Mind, Body, Spirit
  3. Biographies
  4. Religion and Spirituality
  5. Travel

Content Connections collected responses from 1600 women. To read the report in all of its 27-page, PDF-file-format glory, visit their site and provide them with your name and email address. Confidentially, I've probably given you the highlights, but they also did (or perhaps they're planning to do) similar surveys regarding the attitudes of men and children...

Monday, June 11, 2007

Images of Women in Fine Art

I was trying to figure out what they did to create this video and while I reached no definitive answer (knowing nothing of video or the film editing process), it is clear to me that the eyes of each image are the real focal point that anchors the morphing of one into the next.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

Starting The Odyssey

I thought I'd offer up the news that finally, *finally*, I have begun The Odyssey. I had promised Didi months back that I would do it and I'm making a good start. I'm up to the end of Book 4 (just 20 more to go...). I do like Pallas Athena as presented in Robert Fagles' translation.

The first two books of Fagle's translation of The Odyssey positively crackle with energy. In these opening chapters, we are chiefly aware of two personalities – Athena, the athletic and intelligent goddess who seizes an opportunity to end Odysseus' exile, and Telemachus, Odysseus' son who is too well-aware of the damage being done by the suitors for his mother's hand and the threat to Odysseus' throne. Athena is the motivating power and she encourages Telemachus to seize an opportunity to seek out news of his wayward father and king and restore balance.

Really rather fun!

Monday, June 04, 2007

Strapless by Deborah Davis

[ review ]

Title: Strapless: John Singer Sargent and the Fall of Madame X

Author: Deborah Davis

Copyright: 2003, Tarcher Penguin, member of Penguin (USA) Inc., New York, ISBN 1-58542-221-5

Length: 310 pages (including notes and bibliography)

Genre: Social History

Summary: The subtitle of the book identifies the two personalities documented in this book -- John Singer Sargent, one of the foremost American portraitists of the late nineteenth century, and Amelie Gautreau, an New Orleans-born socialite and celebrated beauty of her day. She was the subject of his famous Portrait of Madame X, a work first shown at the Paris Salon of 1884. The two were both in their late twenties at the time. Sargent was a rising artist of 28 and Gautreau was a married woman of 25 whose appearances in Parisian society were documented at length in the newspaper columns of her day. The display of her portrait at the Salon wrecked her standing and caused the near destruction of his professional career. Viewers found the implications of a fallen shoulder strap and the tight fit of the black gown Amelie wore for the portrait to be deeply shocking, suggestive of illicit behavior and corrupt society. (Sargent had actually selected the gown in which Madame Gautreau was shown.) In the face of such bad press that he feared might harm his career, he sought unsuccessfully to pull the portrait from the exhibition. Amelie's horrified family refused to pay the artist for the work. He retained the painting in his studio until 1916 when he arranged for Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to purchase the work. (Amelie had died by that time and Sargent felt she would not be harmed by any resulting publicity.)

Davis' intent was to pursue the back story beyond this famous painting, not as a story of Model and Artist but as ordinary people (with some public standing) who are caught in a bad situation. She succeeds in that Strapless is an exploration of a world where fine art held a significant place, Sargent a fascinating personality, and Davis is enthusiastic about the various figures he painted . Additionally, while the image of the painting is famous, the story she tells is not overly familiar to this generation. The events have a certain drama to them and Davis succeeds in building interest to the climactic chapter where she walks the reader through the various display rooms of the Salon that year leading up to the ultimate shock of entering the room where this particular work was displayed. Unfortunately, the drama flags once the scandal had exhausted public interest. John Singer Sargent was able to arrange a visit to friends in London and eventually he was able to re-establish himself. The 1884 Salon was the first negative experience he'd had with regard to his work so it was not as difficult for him as for Amelie who had to endure the truly embarrassing treatment by the press. She never recovered the attention and adulation she'd had prior to the exhibition of the portrait.

Her sleek and simple gown looks elegant to us today but its close fit would have suggested to late 19th century viewers that Amelie was not wearing her petticoat, a crucial piece of underwear that any proper young woman would have worn religiously. Although many society portraits at the time fairly dripped with ostentatious displays of family jewelry, there was little here; a diamond crescent in Amelie's hair, a subtly glinting wedding ring. There was little in the way of decorative touches to distract from Amelie's magnificent figure. The lines of her body were so visible, especially in the vicinity of her strapless shoulder that she might as well have been naked --not nude. (pg 171)

Also relevant: The fame of the Portrait of Madame X (a name it acquired officially upon acquisition by the Metropolitan) makes this an interesting story. Davis' doesn't attempt extensive technical or in-depth analysis of any of Sargent's works. Strapless is suited to the casual interest of a lay person but not up to the rigorous expectations of a scholar. There are plenty of footnotes, a bibliography and an index (albeit with a few errors).

Davis helped me to discover more about Sargent that I had known prior to reading the book so it wasn't a waste of time. I found it interesting, but it is true that the time period portrayed was in keeping with other material I'd been reading recently. If I were to assign a rating based on Amazon's stars, I would award it the four stars that indicate that "I liked it" but admit that it was no more than that.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

Ironside's Death in the Garden


Title: Death in the Garden

Author: Elizabeth Ironside (pseudonym of Lady Catherine Manning who, just as a tidbit of useless nickel knowledge, serves on the Board of Governors for the Folger Shakespeare Library)

Length: 274 pages

Copyright: 1995 (First US edition published 2005, Felony & Mayhem Press, ISBN 1933397179)

Summary: Death in the Garden opens dramatically with delivery of a verdict in the trial of Diana Pollexfen for the murder of her husband, George. The crime was during a weekend house party that was in ostensible celebration of Diana herself turning 30. As we discover, the birthday party was less than a success but it's initially hard to determine who was responsible for the failure of the event. We are witnesses to the weekend but, while there is a certain amount of simmering animosity amongst the attendees, there are no obvious reasons for actual murder. Still, George is dead and someone did it. Diana has been found innocent by the jury, but there are those who suspect the verdict is due more to her beauty, status and wealth than any evidence presented in court.

Some decades later, we see Helena (whose last name we are never to learn) faced with Great Aunt's death; Helena is one of two executors of her will. Intrigued by journals found at Inglethorpe, the house that Great Aunt occupied, Helena seeks to unravel the mystery of spousal murder left as part of Diana's legacy.

This book equals the best of anything by P.D. James. The writing is impressive and the story complex and unpredictable. Characters are robust and exquisitely detailed. You envision each as distinct and real.


On the central table was a great bowl of white roses and she imagined she could smell their scent from where she stood. Framed in the open doorway were Diana and Gaetan in close conversation. There was something comic in the two figures; the small Frenchman with his narrow, dapper person and huge head, and the elongated, stork-like Diana with her small dark skull looking down at him. They were laughing. Gaetan took Diana's right hand and raised it to his lips, holding it there for a minute and looking at her.

The library door opened and George emerged, prayer book in hand. Edith had now ceased any pretence of descent.

Also Relevant: I had been eyeing this title in the store for months, resisting temptation. When JenClair offered to send it to me in return for the Campion novels, I felt it was a sign of sorts and accepted gratefully. Her review of the book is here.

A little investigation offered up this Washington Post review. As a little bit more nickel knowledge, Time Magazine reports that Laura Bush has also read this book. One imagines that she had a certain political obligation, given that Lady Manning is wife of the British Ambassador to the U.S. I mean no disrespect; it's just the way of the Washington Beltway crowd. One wants to be prepared with on-dits for meeting up with people at cocktail parties.

Death in the Garden has a crime at the center of events but it could easily be presented as a mainstream novel. Ironside uses her book to spotlight the inequities of the sexes in twentieth century Britain. We see Diana's life as a married woman in England between the Wars and we see Helena's life as a working lawyer during the 1980's. The author invites us to view the challenges faced by each, the trade-offs they make, but doesn't neglect to point out that constraints imposed society play a large part in the equation. The novel explores the bounds of honorable behavior by male and female under the pressure of social expectation. Ironside is far too intelligent to offer pat answers. Her women are strong, but their daily existence becomes twisted by external events as well as private emotions and my interpretation is that neither finds real happiness. Acceptance, perhaps, but not happiness.

I recommend this heartily.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Reviewing: Good and Bad

Two weeks ago on May 20th, the LA Times published an op-ed by Richard Schickels, entitled "Not Everybody's A Critic". The point of his piece (as I read it) was that formal book criticism was an elevated activity that should not be left to amateurs lacking the proper credentials. His main target were bloggers and he took some cheap potshots, equating the activity with finger-painting and desultory chat. The piece has gotten some attention because others (thinking they ought also to defend the importance of book review sections in newspapers) have quoted from it and added their concerns about the fate of "formal" literary criticism. Schickels comes off as arrogant, essentially suggesting that the only opinions worth listening to (with regard to books) are those of the educated literary critic who participates in the "Great Discussion" of years, even centuries.

Bloggers, such as Mental Multivitamin, have shot back. Persephone Books' May 30 letter essentially reiterated Schickels' point, but Karen and Elaine have responded so well that I won't try to gild that particular lily. Update: Vanessa over at the Fidra Blog has chimed in this morning.

A couple of things are swirling around in my head that I don't think have been explicitly stated and I want to see if I can briefly isolate them for consideration:

Newspapers are cutting back on book review sections which causes consternation to those who see that channel as an important way to disseminate educational and thoughtful assessments of published works to the broadest possible population of readers. To the business people who are responsible for a paper's financial viability, however, the pages given over to book reviews and the staff responsible for those pages are too expensive to continue. They are not philistines necessarily; they are just running a business and they cannot justify the costs. Book reviews will continue to disappear from newspapers and the recommendation to critics is that they seek out other venues from which to deliver their thoughts. There is a strong school of thought among book critics that society at large will suffer from this move. It's a change from THE WAY THINGS HAVE ALWAYS BEEN DONE IN LIVING MEMORY and they worry we're throwing the baby out with the bath water. Certainly, it is possible that the change will have unforeseen results but that doesn't mean the death of the formal book review.

Reviews are a two-edged sword. They can help sales or they can hurt sales, particularly if published in major market media. Publishers tend to play both sides of the fence -- using positive reviews as a selling tool and finding some way to disassociate their product from the bad reviews. That's why there is a need for thoughtful consideration when offering up an assessment of a title.

What the formal literary critics do not often admit however is that reviews have frequently contributed to the "ghetto-ization" of specific genres and by extension, specific populations of writers. Science fiction is the most obvious instance, but romance novels and a large portion of the mystery and suspense genre have also been dismissed as unworthy material. The problem with this is that by so doing critics have effectively silenced legitimate expressions by other voices. I refer readers again to Joanna Russ' work, How to Suppress Women's Writing, which articulates just how generations of male critics have effectively sidelined the work done by women writers.

Ultimately Schickels, his colleagues, and his supporters have failed to understand that their expert filtering of quality has in many instances created a potentially destructive bottleneck that thwarted those of us looking for a book that resonated with our understanding of human experience. The Web publishing environment allows us to open up that bottleneck. That's a threatening idea to them; it eliminates (or at the very least seems to negate) their chosen vocation. Criticism is their contribution to the world and it appears that the audience is shrinking.

Schickels believes that he can help all of us become better Readers if we will allow him the opportunity by virtue of his professional education and training to do "justice to the work at hand". I (and others of my ilk) agree that an educated selection of reading material is a desirable thing, but there are many reasons for selecting a book to read and his assessment of "a good book" may not include all of my criteria.