에쿠니 가오리

에쿠니 가오리(江國 香織) 의 책을 읽으면 과연 이 작가 책을 서양 언어로 번역 했을 때 잘 팔릴까, 하는 생각이 든다. 특히 지금 읽고 있는 책 (장미 비파 레몬 薔薇の木 枇杷の木 檸檬の木), 딱히 줄거리라고 할 수 있는 건 없고 오히려 십여명의 등장인물의 성격과 라이프스타일을 천천히 알아가는 듯한 느낌이 든다. 물론 영국이나 미국 시장에도 (다른 나라는 잘 몰라서 뭐라고 말을 못 하겠다) 그런식의 소설 – ‘literary fiction’ – 이 있지만 에쿠니 가오리의 ‘장미 비파 레몬’과는 달리 집중과 끈기를 요구한다.

역시 동양에서 자란 사람이라 어쩔 수 없는걸까.

아니면 에쿠니 가오리의 소설은 캐릭터의 속 깊이 안 들어가는걸까? 그렇지만 또 꼭 그런 것도 아니다. 물론 지금 동양국가에 사는 게 아니라서 잘은 모르지만, 그래도 지금 읽고 있는 책의 주인공들을 보면 2000년대 한국 사회에 (16년 만에 얼마나 많이 바뀌었는지!) 충분히 있을만한 사람들이라고 생각이 된다. 정은 있되 사랑 없는 부부생활과 어느 나라던 존제하는 짝사랑과 불륜, 아주 독립적인 여자와 연상의 보호와 애정을 바라는 여자까지, 실제로의 삶은 책이 그려낸 것 보다 물론 더 복잡하겠지만 (특히 시집 갈등이 없는 게 신기하다 – 일본은 좀 다른 문화인가?).

그런걸 다 떠나서 나는 책에서 우려나오는 그 편안함이 좋다. 영어의 ‘cozy’라는 표현에 그나마 제일 잘 어울리는 것 같은 그 포근함은 어쩔 수 없이 현실에 존제하지 않기 때문에 더 좋은 것 이다. 나는 성격이 워낙 전전긍긍하는 성격이라서 그런지, 혼자 할 일 없이 한 오후를 보내라고 하면 오히려 스트레스만 만땅 받을 사람이다. 오후에 개와 산책을 하면서 가끔 꽃을 사서 들어가는 도우코나 이혼할 생각이면서 아무렇지도 않게 꽃집을 운영하고 남편을 위해 요리하는 에미코의 삶은 내 불확신하고 1년 앞이 안 보이는 삶에 비해 더 안정적이게 느껴진다. 그리고 그렇기 때문에 위안의 환상을 안겨준다.

도우코나 에미코 같은 사람들도 자기만의 전투가 분명히 있을텐데, 괴로워하고 절망하는 면이 있을 텐데, ‘장미 비파 레몬’에서 에쿠니 가오리는 그런 모습을 보여주지 않는다 (적어도 아직 까지는 – 아직 다 읽지 않았으니까). 나는 나의 삶의 절반 이상을 그렇게 나 나름대로 힘들어 하면서 보냈기 때문에 (솔직히 요즘 시대에 그렇게 안 사는 사람이 어딨나) 내가 만약 글을 쓴다면 그런 모습을 담고 싶지만, 가끔은 이렇게 편안한 책을 읽으면서 영혼을 쉬게 해주고 싶다. 그렇지만 진정한 평화는 도피를 통해서 얻을 수 있는게 아니라고 생각한다. 개인의 전쟁을 치르지 않으면 안되는 것 이다. 그런 의미에서, 오늘은 여기까지.

Review: grl2grl

grl2grl by Julie Anne Peters

This is a collection of 10 short stories. Some short, some long. Some make me feel like I’m standing on top of a mountain just breathing in the sharp, pure air until my lungs burst. Some cause my heart to beat just a little faster as it grows with pride and joy. Some are broken pieces wrapped in warm, cocooned prose – it’s deceptive! – that are too real to be described “sad”; sad is too plain a word. It’s carefully neutral. Try trapped, smothered, banked until only a thin strand of smoke is all that’s left.

These stories are all about teenage girls except for Vince from “Boi”. They are – except for Vince – gay (Vince is, in case you haven’t guessed from the title, FTM). They are confident, confused, cautious, hurting. Each story is different from the other. None of them is: girl meets girl, insta love, then HEA. Most stories left me with “Oh nooooooo” or “Shiiit”. Very quick read, never boring, never repetitive.

The thing is, Julie Anne Peters’ prose is not sensationalistic. She’s not out to twist you up inside. grl2grl didn’t make my heart bleed or my eyes fall out. Instead, it’s a quick, bloodless swipe, and it’s only after you’ve put down the book that you know the stories are going to circle around your mind over and over.

reading: another year of retrospection

To give a brief summary of my reading history: I started devouring books on October 4th 2009, when I first picked up Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones. I haven’t stopped since.

I’ve come to realize and accept that different books have different functions, and they can be both meaningful.

Books With Impact
I read quite a few books that shifted the way I view things, even if it’s just a little.

Eating AnimalsThe Circle WithinDaring GreatlyCreative VisualizationThe Soul of Money
These books helped me to question what I thought was the “norm” – things that I thought I couldn’t change because that’s how things are, right? Eating Animals basically gave me the final push to become vegetarian. The Circle Within made me question my own set of values and whether I am living up to them; it also gave me food for thought about my religious views. Daring Greatly connects me with people by showing the universal struggle to be vulnerable and the crucial importance of vulnerability. It helps me in my effort to be authentic every day. Creative Visualization, despite its suggestive title, is not just a how-to book. The author also talks about her own philosophy of life. The Soul of Money is a mixture of psychological myth-debunking, promoting fund-raising, and spirituality (that blind leap of faith). It does not have a particularly smooth style, but its messages were very important in me re-setting my own values.

On the Shortness of Life A Day in the Life of a MinimalistA Story of Debt
These three books are more centered around minimalism and living simply, but these two ideas are really tools for living intentionally, or living with awareness. What I really liked about On the Shortness of Life, A Day in the Life of a Minimalist and A Story of Debt were the authors’ personal stories. They are not just sprouting off their personal philosophy like Ralph Waldo Emerson in “Self-Reliance”. Seneca, Joshua Field Millburn and Ashley Riordan write about their philosophies in application, which makes them so much more relatable. (I’m not dissing Emerson – I agree with a lot of what he says, but his writings remain very abstract.)

A Room of One's OwnBad FeministCome As You AreWe Should All Be Feminists
Great books on feminism and female sexuality. I am ashamed to admit that it’s only recently that I’ve come to realize the crippling effects our gendered society has on women and men, and I really, truly appreciate #HeForShe (although I still think it should be WeForUs – like he for he, he for she, she for he, she for she, and it would include genderfluid and agender people as well; but I admit it wouldn’t be as catchy or as thought-provokingly different as in unusual). However, gender inequality on the economic front, double standard, sexism, violence against women because of their gender – all these still exist, and they should be acknowledged and fought against.

Books With Comfort
Regardless of my name (it means ‘contemplating about truth’), I don’t want to be in an existential crisis 24/7. I fell in love with books because they provided me with fun and comfort, because they offered me a temporary escape, and because I could relate to fictional characters in such a way that it lessened my loneliness. All of this still holds true, and here are two series that were my main companions throughout the year.
1. Alice series by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor
Its ordinariness is the extraordinary in this series. Humorous, heart-warming, critical without judging, and absolutely relatable.
2. In Death series by J. D. Robb
The only Nora Roberts/J. D. Robb series I still follow. Having finished Obsession in Death today, I am now caught up with all 40 paperback releases and limited to two new releases per year! I steampowered through this series this year (re-read #13 – 18, then read #19 – 40 for the first time). It’s a murder mystery series, of course, but it’s actually the futuristic world and the characters that have their hold on my soft spot.

My 2016 TBR

Looking back on my reading log, it was kind of funny to notice that I didn’t finish any book for one month. I was so busy reading for school and writing essays and learning vocabulary that I didn’t have the time (or the inclination) to read for pleasure. I did read a chapter here and 20 pages there, but I certainly wasn’t reading two or three books a week. I actually can’t remember the last time I didn’t finish any book for one whole month… not in the past six years.

I read lots of non-fiction compared to previous years, and many of those made my top-2015-reads list. I also read a lot of escapism literature, and while I did gain value from them, they aren’t as memorable. However, one genre is missing from my 2015 reading log, and that’s LGBTQIA+. I can’t explain why. I only know that I want to read more books about LGBTQIA+ and also about gender and feminism.

In short, here are 12 books I want to read in 2016.

The Handmaid's TaleLolitaOranges Are Not The Only FruitWhy Be Happy When You Could Be NormalGender OutlawsThe Age of Innocence800 Years of Women's LettersOliver TwistCarolOrlandoZamiUndoing GenderDelusions of Gender

Yes, there are 13 covers on display. That’s because I have already started reading Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit and if I manage to finish it within this year, I want to read Jeanette Winterson’s memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
Lolita – Vladimir Nabakov
Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit / Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? – Jeanette Winterson
Gender Outlaws: The Next Generation – various authors
The Age of Innocence – Edith Wharton
800 Years of Women’s Letters
Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
Carol – Patricia Highsmith
Orlando – Virginia Woolf
Zami: A New Spelling of My Name – Audre Lorde
Undoing Gender – Judith Butler
Delusions of Gender – Cordelia Fine

Of course I want to read more books than these 13, but I want them to be the heart of my reading next year. Honorable mentions go to Girls Will Be Girls by Emer O’Toole, Bone Black by bell hooks, and The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr.

Classics Club Challenge #10: The Merry Wives of Windsor

The Merry Wives of WindsorThe Merry Wives of Windsor
by William Shakespeare

first published around 1597 – 1598first read September 15th – 16th 2015

A destitute, fat and old knight (who, by the way, also appears in Shakespeare’s historical plays such as Henry IV) – Sir John Falstaff be thy name – arrives in Windsor and hatches a scheme to woo a married woman so he can gain access to her husband’s fortune. Wait, why not kill two birds with one stone? Let’s seduce two married women, at the same time! The two women, who also happen to be friends/neighbors, are smart and prudent enough to see right through his smarmy letters and vow to have their revenge. Speaking of which, it seems the town of Windsor is full of people who must avenge themselves on someone for something. Falstaff’s servants have some grudge against him, so they seek to ruin his plot. The local parson and doctor want to get back to a tavern host because he prevented them from duelling each other (really, too much goodwill, sir!). And so on.Anyway, with all these vengeful souls going ’round, one would think The Merry Wives of Windsor would be anything but merry. But merry it is, indeed! The revenges are not the blood-thirsty kinds à la Hamlet. They are petty and humorous – and just, in case of the Mistresses Page and Ford (they are the two women Falstaff sets out to woo).

I did not ever expect to really enjoy a Shakespeare play just by reading it. Admire it, yes. Feel intimidated by it, maybe. Confused by it, heaps! But The Merry Wives of Windsor had me cackling away from the beginning. The funniest thing, for me, was all the mispronounced words – ‘abused, hacked, frittered English’ – by the ‘foreigners’, that is, the local parson Sir Hugh Evans and the French doctor Dr. Caius. Especially the latter’s exclamations “By gar!” got really hilarious! Then there’s Mistress Quickly, who looks after Dr. Caius, and she bungles the words so often and in so wrong a context! Slender, the nephew of the country justice of peace, is so dense that whatever comes out of his mouth is bound to have a comic effect on the reader. The two women’s revenge is risky and a great fun, and funnier still is Falstaff’s reaction to those revenges.

I read The Merry Wives in preparation for the FutureLearn course ‘Shakespeare and his World‘ starting on October 5th. I still have Henry V, The Merchant of Venice, Macbeth, Othello, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest to go through, so enjoying The Merry Wives as heartily as I did sets up a good precedent, I suppose!
My edition of the text contributed a good deal towards the merriment. It is the Penguin Shakespeare series and all of them has a short General Introduction and a longer Introduction about the specific play. The Introduction points out the main themes of the play, so if you’d rather not spoil yourself, better skip it. I understand the importance of a first impression free of any expectation but since I tend to take every written word so damningly seriously, it helps me to understand the general plot and characters before I read the play. This way, I know who’s being sarcastic, dumb or earnest. This edition also has an extensive commentary as a crutch to muddle through the Shakespearean language.

I will leave it to you to find out about the ‘merry, and yet honest’ wives and their revenge! (Note: ‘honest’ here means ‘chaste’.)

August Wrap-Up

I read 11 books in the month of August 2015. The funny thing is that I read five of them in the last three days of the month. Anyway, here’s an overview:

August 2015 wrap-up(You can’t see Haunting Violet because I read it on my tablet.)

The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien
Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
The Bad Queen by Carolyn Meyer
Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Sea Swept by Nora Roberts
Rising Tides by Nora Roberts
Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side by Agatha Christie
A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland

 

A Little History of Literature1. A Little History of Literature by John Sutherland
From Ancient Greeks to E. L. James, John Sutherland guides the readers through the history of literature, starting from myths, touching on epic poems, plays, the King James Bible, poetry, novels and e-books. There are also chapters that are book-related but that do not focus on a certain literary period, genre or author; such as the rise of the printing culture and censorship. Although the title does not specify the literature as the English literature, it pretty much remains within its geographical boundaries as far as the authors go (some authors do go outside of the Great Britain, which becomes relevant in topics such as colonialism), although Sutherland ventures to other European or sub-Saharan or formerly colonized countries. One chapter is devoted to the American literature and some references to it made afterwards in other chapters.
The only consistent feature in the structure of this book is that it is roughly chronological. Some periods are explained through one defining work; others through famous authors during those times; and yet others through literary movements (e.g. modernism). There are chapters devoted to literary periods that were created through external (i.e. (trans)national politics, economy and wars) circumstances. These bite-sized chapters are of course too short to fully satisfy the readers’ curiosity; but it does a great job at whetting their appetite and gives an overview.
I personally learned a great deal about the (past) English culture and biographical details about certain authors. All these information become very useful when I read books from that period or by those writers. For example, why those men were rehearsing a play in the beginning of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or what I should look out for when I read The Fearie Queene, or why Thomas Hardy’s books are so pessimistic. Some chapters, I found, skimmed only the surface – like Jane Austen and the Brontës chapters. But for the most of the time, I was like a child visiting a bookshop for the first time. Fascination, curiosity, and a whole lot of fun! Now, the 20th century generally doesn’t hold my interest (I’m not sure why), so the chapters on modernism, Plath and Kafka were kind of lost on me. But there’s no guarantee how my taste will change.
I wouldn’t recommend A Little History of Literature to be your very first foray into the subject because the book mentions about a hundred different titles and authors, many of them only fleetingly. So unless you already have heard about the majority of them, all the name-dropping might get frustrating. However, if you already have a vague outline of the English literary periods in your head along with their major writers/poets, then I enthusiastically encourage you to pick up this book.

Come As You Are2. Come As You Are by Emily Nagoski
Provocative title, tagline and cover aside (love ’em, though!) Come As You Are offers a detailed, scientific yet easy-to-understand guide to understand your sexuality and to improve your sex lives (if you are so inclined, of course). My apologies to transgendered readers as I have no idea how useful this book will be to you. Come As You Are is primarily targeted at cisgender females but I’d recommend this book to everyone even if they are not a woman or dating a woman.
While reading the book, I felt like as if Emily Nagoski had figuratively taken my hand and led me through the topics of her book, all the while being warm, open, funny and insightful. Indeed she tries to establish a writer-reader connection by telling us about her personal life, addressing us directly and telling us we can contact her about questions or our own experiences.
Come As You Are guides us through: 1. the female anatomy; 2. the dual control model (this also applies to males) – we have both sexual excitation system and sexual inhibition system that can be differently sensitive -; 3. the importance of context in regards to emotional context and cultural context (this can be applied to anything that our culture “teaches” us); 4. what arousal is (especially important: nonconcordance!); 5. what desire is (= arousal in the right context); 6. the orgasm; and 7. the meta-emotions (how we feel about how we feel).
Read this book if you feel more or less ready to learn more about your body, embrace your body and be open and honest about your body.

Sea SweptRising TidesInner Harbor3. Sea Swept, Rising Tides and Inner Harbor by Nora Roberts
I had arrogantly forgotten how much it hurts on the first day when you have your wisdom teeth pulled out. I had all four of them removed in the month of August, one side at one time and the other side at the second time. I weathered the first time better than the second because I was braced for something much more horrifying but the recovery turned out to be pretty smooth (smoother than I expected, anyway). So by the second time, I was more relaxed… and underestimated the discomfort of the first few days. To distract myself, I dove into the world of Nora Roberts’ Quinn brothers.
In Sea Swept, we have open, honest and force-of-nature Anna Spinelli and hot-headed and protective Cameron. Rising Tides centers around the quiet and thoughtful Ethan who is the master of hiding his past pains, and the level-headed and loving Grace Monroe with her toddler Aubrey (so cute <3). Emotionally more intense than the two previous books is Inner Harbor, in which we meet observe-rather-than-participate Sybill Griffin and Phillip – whose sophisticated and at-ease exterior hides a violent and tumultuous source of emotions deeply buried inside. A lost boy, Seth DeLauter, brings all these people together; the three brothers Cam, Ethan and Phillip, who promised their dying father to look after Seth. They themselves had been runaways and lost boys when Ray and Stella Quinn had saved them and given them a family.
The Chesapeake Bay quartet is about family, friendship, and love. The Quinn family is quite a special kind of family – open, loving, openly loving, loud and crowded and sometimes pushy. But they always have each other’s back and their love for each other makes them who they are. It is also about the small community in St. Christopher, Maryland, and the lives of people who make their living from the Bay.
I used to be a huge Nora Roberts fan for years until I realized that I wasn’t anymore and got rid of the most of my collection. I kept only the books that have a special place in my heart (mostly her trilogies and quartets), and the Chesapeake Bay series is one of those. It was a re-read for me this time and Inner Harbor is still my favorite. There is of course the fourth book, Chesapeake Blue, a Seth story after he has grown up (I think he is in his late 20s or early 30s) but I didn’t re-read it this time.

Quiet4. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
Another non-fiction and another re-read undertaken by me in August was Susan Cain’s Quiet. The first time I read it, about two years ago, I wrote this quite angry post about my experience of being an introvert. I initially took the book as an excuse to be on my own and to avoid parties. I still prefer a night in with me curled up with a book than a night out partying. But for a long time after reading Quiet, I still lived under the Extrovert Ideal mantra. I still felt like I was inadequate and criticized myself for not being as out-going as I “should” be. So I stayed in, citing introversion as my (silent) excuse, but I still wasn’t happy. When I re-read it after two years, I was ready to accept myself for the way I am. In the end I have the impression I learned more about myself and how I operate, and how I can stretch my boundaries when I need to. But most importantly, I know now that there is nothing wrong with me.
I wish more extroverted people read this book so that they can understand. There is also a chapter of this book about the communication between introverts and extroverts that I found helpful.

 

The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side5. The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side by Agatha Christie
I’m going through Miss Marple books in the recommended reading order this year, and The Mirror Crack’d was next up! Incidentally, this is the first ever Agatha Christie book that I read (or was read to) two years ago. I knew who the killer was, of course; but that’s not why I re-read Miss Marple’s stories. I read them for the pure coziness it radiates – it’s the little details of Miss Marple’s breakfast, Mrs Bantry and her garden and the walking through The Development, and so on. The investigation itself wasn’t as dull as I’d remembered, either. It really makes a difference whether you read it yourself or whether you were read to. It seems I’m too impatient for audio books!
The thing that left me curious and dissatisfied at the end of 4:50 From Paddington has been answered in The Mirror Crack’d! It turns out Chief-Inspector Craddock is still single (p. 147, or Chapter 10)!
Anyway, in regards to the Miss Marple books: Miss Marple does appear in The Moving Finger, A Murder Is Announced and A Pocket Full of Rye but her appearances are short and towards the end. Just a warning not to get your hopes up! My favorite Miss Marple books (so far) are The Murder at the Vicarage, 4:50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d.
Just a brief excursion to Monsieur Poirot while we are at Agatha Christie: I’m going through the Poirot books chronologically and so far I really enjoyed them all! And I’ve become quite fond of the small detective with huge ego <3 Next Poirot for me is The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Haunting Violet6. Haunting Violet by Alyxandra Harvey
As I mentioned above, I read this as an e-book. I got this a long time ago and it was a spur of the moment decision to read it, a I-need-a-book-to-read-for-half-an-hour-before-I-go-to-sleep kind. Well, any book that keeps me up until 3 in the morning gets a nod of acknowledgment from me. They also tend to stick in my memory.
Haunting Violet is set in the Victorian era England, and I mostly read for the historical setting of the story than the plot, actually. Violet’s mother runs a con as a medium – a trick that has been kept secret for some time and has allowed her to rise to a semi-fame. She has recruited two other then-children, Colin and Marjorie, and along with her daughter Violet, they have been helping her run the con. Now they are all invited to Lord Jasper’s manor so that he can entertain his guests with the medium. What none of them factors in is that Violet is a real medium… and her powers awaken just before they arrive in the manor. Confused and disoriented, Violet learns that a tragic accident had happened a few years ago near Lord Jasper’s manor. A tragedy that Violet now knows to be a murder.
Haunting Violet could have been another mediocre YA novel with a love interest thrown in and a half-hearted attempt at investigation – and a dramatic revelation. What I really like about this book is that the story is actually a blend of creepy and normal historical fiction. I also love Violet’s friendship with Elizabeth, her cautious respect for Lord Jasper and her situation of being courted by a rich tradesman’s son and not being sure whether she likes it! Even her dysfunctional relationship with her mother was quite interesting. Oh, and she loves books. Really, a girl after my own heart! The only thing predictable about Haunting Violet is the choice, or opportunity, offered to them at the very end. I would have preferred sheep-keeping.

Bloom7. Bloom by Elizabeth Scott
Another re-read! I had fully intended to give this one away and I thought to myself ‘I’ll just leaf through it before I do’ and ended up reading it cover to cover. Bloom is, in a way, a classic study of the high school structure and the arbitrary rules of “popularity” and the self-esteem that goes with it (for many students anyway). Lauren is the narrator of the book and she’s the girlfriend of the most popular guy in the school – a guy who is smart, caring, rather quiet and nice. Lauren is honest about how she feels about Dave: “grateful” that he chose her, wondering what he sees in her, enjoying the fringe benefit of being the “average” girlfriend of the most popular guy, and all the while knowing that she won’t be broken-hearted if he breaks up with her. She likes Dave, and she feels safe with him. And feeling “safe” is very important to Lauren. Of course there’s another love interest that causes her to feel all the feels.
What makes Bloom better, in my opinion, than other YA books with similar topics (and believe me I read a lot of them over the past six years) are Lauren’s difficult relationships with her father and her “best friend”. She loves her father and knows he loves her, but at the same time she’s very careful not to let him affect her too much. She tries very hard not to be like her parents (her mother left them when she was five or so, and her dad has become a serial dater ever since), as if separating her identity from theirs will prevent her from making the same mistakes. Lauren’s “best friend” is Katie and here is how Lauren describes their friendship in chapter 1: “When we first met we used to talk endlessly about how we’d get boyfriends and what we’d do when we had them, and it was only when we actually got boyfriends that I realized without the acquiring of them to talk about, we had absolutely nothing in common. And that sucks, because [she’s] my best friend.” This dynamic changes a bit throughout the novel but nevertheless there is no Big Realization Moment in which Lauren realizes that she can actually have deep, soul-searching conversations with Katie and she’d been just prejudiced and now they’ll be BFF forever ever.
Lauren’s life, in a way, is rather average. And that’s what makes it so relatable. Most of us don’t have a soul-sister or soul-brother as a best friend in high school. We don’t usually meet our life’s companion in the concrete box of education, either. (Although it could be argued that is exactly what the ending of the book implies.)
Oh, and Lauren plays the clarinet. I am, for unknown reasons, fond of characters who play an instrument.

The Bad Queen8. The Bad Queen: Rules and Instructions for Marie-Antoinette by Carolyn Meyer
The sixth book in the Young Royals series (although they don’t have to be read in order!) takes us to the Austrian-Hungarian Empire and to the young Antonia just as her betrothal to the French dauphin (later Louis XVI) is being considered. We see the willful and rather awkward 13-year-old girl undergo a painful physical transformation and instructions in French and the French etiquettes. We see her marriage to the dauphin Louis-Auguste and how she learns to tread the treacherous water of the French court. (We also see her unable to manage the inaction in the bedroom with her husband.) Death of Louis XV, becoming the queen, one expensive project after another (Petit Trianon, Le Hameau, the theater, etc.), Axel von Fersen, becoming a mother, scandal and gossip (always scandals and gossips), rising unrest, July 14th 1789, death by guillotine.
Going against the title of the series (Young Royals), Carolyn Meyer accompanies Marie-Antoinette until her death. She did the same thing with Anne Boleyn in Doomed Queen Anne, and Duchessina wasn’t young either when Duchessina ended, but the sheer length of this volume (414 pages compared to 228 and 258 pages, respectively) still stood out.
I usually read historical fiction to get acquainted with that particular period in the particular country. It often piques my interest in the era and country, and I find myself looking up additional information afterwards. Historical accuracy isn’t my main motivation although I haven’t found Carolyn Meyer to be an exaggerating type (aside from some romantic sidelines). Her other books in the series include Bloody Mary, Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn, Catherine of Aragon and Catherine de’ Medici. Some of these women have gained notoriety in their later life. The author’s aim, I understand, is to explore the difficult and often life-threatning childhoods of these young royals and how they might have shaped their adult lives. I found I could empathize with these teenage girls in all cases except one (I just don’t like Anne Boleyn) – and now Marie-Antoinette. I have no sympathy for her disinterest and ignorance in the public life, and that clockmaker husband of hers is no better. Did she deserve to die? No. Was I moved by her ordeal of dealing with the court fashion, distrustful French people, pouring heaps of money on renovating buildings, enjoying card games and theaters? Nope. The author’s ability to create details and atmosphere, however, was impeccable as usual.

 

Classics Club Challenge #9: The Fellowship of the Ring

The Fellowship of the RingThe Lord of the Rings Part I: The Fellowship of the Ring
by J. R. R. Tolkien
first published in 1954
first read March 8th 2015 – August 6th 2015

I am a hopeless book-vs-adaptation-comparer. As such, thoughts of “whoa, this did not happen in the movie/book” and “they are taking their sweet time in the book” and “it’s certainly less gory” were running rampant while reading The Fellowship of the Ring. Movies and books, different mediums and all that. So while the screen adaptation focused more on the plot and expanded on each and every fighting scene, the book is more content to create an… atmosphere.

You know that Tolkien created this huge universe of Middle-earth, complete with thousands of years’ worth of history. Kingdoms in the various corners have been founded, battled over, lost and re-built. There were other great battles before the War of the Ring, and there probably will be more after it. The Third Age is coming to an end as we pick up The Lord of the Rings.
With the help of his omniscient narrative, Tolkien describes events from the recent and not-so-recent past, as if giving a lesson here and there on the history of Middle-earth. The characters also mention in their “speeches” names that are long forgotten and places that do not exist anymore, and so on. There are different dialects of the Elven tongue and dwarf words and names that I have no clue how to pronounce. You have to be prepared to flip to the back of the book for the five-page map to follow the hobbits’ and later the Company’s journey.
All of this can be annoying, or maybe boring or plain confusing. Oddly enough, I just found The Fellowship of the Ring cozy. It’s certainly not a happy story full of sunshine and dancing under the moon. Yet the relaxed pace, the descriptions of all the forests and rivers and lands they cross and the uncorrupted hearts of the fellowship were strangely comforting. Because the characters talk and think and prioritize in a way that is so different from ours, it was easy not to get attached to any of them and just to simply follow their journey.
If there is one thing that makes my hackles rise, it’s the absence of any female characters who talk more than three sentences – save Galadriel. But even the powerful elven queen does not entirely escape the traditional roles imposed on women: she and her ladies spin and make the cloaks for the Company, which is a great “honour”. Arwen – the love of Aragorn’s life and all that – sits demurely at her father’s home and hardly speaks a word while her brothers ride out to scout for the enemies. The whole saving-Frodo-and-drowning-the-Ringwraiths episode? Uh-uh, not in the book. Oh, and when Aragorn dies of old age in the Fourth Age (after ruling as a wise king for many many decades), his body is set up for respectable viewing and mourning. What does Arwen do afterwards? Says good-bye to her children, goes into some woods and dies quietly, and NO ONE EVEN KNOWS WHERE HER CORPSE IS. Undómiel, Evenstar of her people, and all praise that follows – and she slips off to the woods to die because her husband of a hundred years or so has died? And apparently no one cares? Ugh.

Despite this huge oversight of the half of the populations of his creatures, Tolkien’s writings make me more and more curious about the Middle-earth and all that has happened on it. Reading The Lord of the Rings without looking up a name, a place or an object is akin to walking in the dim light with your arms outstretched. You miss the many little details that can be patched up together to make a whole picture.

The Classics Club (9)

I realize that I am kind of off the track with this challenge but so far I don’t feel any pressure to complete it as soon as possible. I still have a little bit more than three years left, and with the English Literature degree that I will be starting in October, I’ll be more immersed in classics than ever.
I also have to say, I’ve got this reading-ten-books-at-the-same-time thing going on. So here is an overview of the classics I’ve begun but not finished:

1. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; progress: 32 out of 288 pages
2. The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien; progress: 274 out of 398 pages
3. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell; progress: 66 out of 585 pages
4. North and South by Elizabeth Gaskell; progress: 61 out of 403  pages

So I finished A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf back in March. Then I watched the BBC adaptation of Wives and Daughters (really good, by the way) and started reading the book. I lost interest when all the personal drama stuff came up but I’d recently picked it up again and was enjoying it immensely… until I watched the North & South adaptation starring Daniela Denby-Ashe and Richard Armitage and my system kinda gave out. Oh holy moly. I kind of became obsessed with their story? I was swimming in my head-place, totally content with just existing and only vaguely remembering reality. So of course I had to know what happened in the original = book. I set out, armed with highlighters and a pencil, determined to find out all I could about Margaret Hale and John Thornton.
I covered the 61 pages in less than two days but I haven’t been able to go farther because I’m currently sharing my flat with a roommate and it’s sort of impossible to concentrate. And I want to taste and linger over every word in a state of total concentration, so I will continue in – gasp! – August, I suppose.
The BBC adaptation of N & S concentrates mainly on the Hales in Milton. The series starts with the family in the train, heading north. It’s only thanks to the brief flashbacks that we know a little bit of Helstone and Harley Street. In the book, the Hales have just arrived in Milton, and it’s already Chapter 8. I can now understand why Elizabeth Gaskell wanted to call the book Margaret Hale instead of North and South. In a typical fashion of today’s novels, Gaskell focuses on one character and follows her movements and shows the readers the changes the heroine goes through. I feel like I am meeting Margaret for the first time, and following her story from Harley Street to Helstone to Milton feels like an adventure. Oh, and also, Margaret and John’s first meeting is quite different in book and TV series, too. The difference of the first impressions!

But can you believe that Margaret is only 18? I somehow have a hard time wrapping my head ’round that fact.

This Lullaby (esp. Remy)

When I first read This Lullaby by Sarah Dessen for the first time, more than five years ago, I thought the main character, Remy Starr, was really tough and independent. I kinda wanted to be like her, you know? She doesn’t take shit from anyone, she’s an organization freak and a total cynic when it comes to relationships. Protecting herself from getting hurt.

The book became one of my favorites after the first time I read it, and it stayed there after every re-read (I must have read it about a dozen times by now). I especially love her friendship with Lissa, Jess and Chloe – a solid ground for Remy, which is a great contrast against her romantic relationships and her mother’s fifth re-marriage (or fourth, depending on how you count).

It must have been a couple of years since I re-read it last. Today, I went through Remy’s in-between summer after high school and before college again. And I saw things that I didn’t see before. Remy is – like so many of us, if not all – contradictory. On the one hand, she’s totally reliable and efficient, holding up a summer job and handling her mother’s wedding plan single-handedly. Even though her father had left them before she was even born, and her mother is preoccupied with her creative career (novelist), and even her I-don’t-give-a-shit brother Chris has been straightened out by his girlfriend, Remy loves her mom and Chris. She trusts and takes care of her friends. She’s heading for Stanford in September, for goodness’ sake. However, she’s also self-destructive. It’s her self-destructive behaviors that I haven’t really wanted to – or have been unable to – see before. Her reliance and dependence on alcohol when she gets upset; pushing her bad habits to the limit until “the girl in the mirror” surfaces again – that need to torch your ground so you can fall deep, deep down into self-hatred again; not letting any boy in in fear of getting hurt.

I wish Sarah Dessen had pushed more – just more – when she wrote This Lullaby. There are many potentials she could have dug deeper into. A closer look at the friendship dynamic and why Remy feels comfortable with her girls. Or why she falls back into self-hate and how she slowly comes out of it, or how she learns to deal with it, at least. The author does press down on vulnerability (although she doesn’t term it as such) and its necessity  if you really want to live. Taking chances, opening up, living despite the fears instead of shutting down. But Remy seems to accept it just like that and applies it to her future without a reflection on her past. I dunno. It wasn’t as satisfying for me, I guess.

But the reason why I love Sarah Dessen’s books is her ability to capture the everyday moments in beautiful simplicity. It’s those little moments sewn together that makes the story and characters resonate with me. This is especially true for me with This Lullaby and Just Listen. Her more recent books have lost that spark, that special something. For me, anyway. But This Lullaby still remains one of my favorites.

I’ve been reading for escapism a lot lately, which explains the five In Death books I’ve gobbled down in just as many days. Plus This Lullaby today. It’s nice to disappear and forget about the world for a weekend, which is surprisingly easy to do. But this time, there was (almost) none of the clutch in the stomach, desperate attempt to drown in fictional worlds or large portion of guilt making me sick. I just needed to disappear for a while. And now I’m back and ready.

The Glass Castle: A Memoir

The Glass Castle is a memoir by Jeannette Walls, mostly detailing her childhood and early teenage years. Even though it is written from Jeannette’s point of view, it is really a memoir of her family. Family dynamics, loyalty and the sheer eccentricity of the Walls family is the main focus of this memoir.

The book opens when the three-year-old Jeannette accidentally sets herself on fire as she boils hot dogs in their trailer park. The Walls parents encouraged their children to be self-sufficient, so letting their three-year-old daughter operate a stove all by herself wasn’t unusual for them. They also moved around a lot, usually when the money ran out and they were behind on rent or had some troubles with the local authority. Three locations play a bigger roles throughout of the book: Battle Mountain, Nevada; Phoenix, Arizona; and Welch, West Virginia. There are many more tiny stops before and in between and the “final” destination leads the Walls family to New York City.

Rex Walls was brilliant, always full of ideas and loved his wife and his children. He was also an alcoholic, irresponsible and violent. Rose Mary Walls is an artist, a moody person and a careless parent. But she is also so much more than the three labels I’d slapped on her. They both hated the idea of confinement, authority and oppression (and labeling). They were free spirits, going wherever they want to go and doing whatever they want to do – or they were careless, neglectful and selfish parents. Because real life isn’t either-or, they were both good and bad parents, loving and selfish people.

As Jeannette grows older in the book, her perception and ability to understand gradually changes – especially concerning her father, whom she idolizes as a child. All Walls children were thrown into becoming self-sufficient and it was both fascinating and scary to read about it. Lori, Jeannette, Brian and Maureen look after each other but due to their self-sufficiency (except for Maureen, who was too young when things went downhill), they are used to being their own people.

The thing about The Glass Castle is that it didn’t give me any answers. It did give me a lot of questions to think about. Actually, if there is one answer that I received from the book, it is that I have to accept the fact that there are seldom clear-cut answers in life. It’s easy to say “Oh yeah, life is neither black nor white, there is lots of gray area, blah blah blah” but it’s quite another thing to be so plainly shown just how muddy that middle area is.
Are Rex and Rose Mary’s philosophies about raising children – or their general attitude towards life – problematic? I don’t know. They are both generally open-minded about lots of things and bring up their kids to think broadly and openly.  At the same time they turn a blind eye when their children need them most because ignoring is easier than confronting. They demand to be their own people first, in a shoulder-shrugging, that’s-just-who-I-am kind of way. They are hypocrites, but then we all are. It became impossible for me to judge them, especially because the author herself doesn’t condemn anyone in her book.

In fact, Jeannette Walls’ engaging yet non-judgmental narrative voice is very striking. The Glass Castle isn’t devoid of emotions. Happiness, confusion, anger, guilt, love – they are well woven into the story. But in the end, and all in all, the book isn’t accusatory. Sometimes you can’t just understand certain people, but because they’re family, you accept and love them. Even if that way of loving isn’t conventional. Maybe it has to be different.

The titular Glass Castle is Rex Walls’ perhaps biggest project: a house that is made of glass and which is so self-sufficient that it doesn’t need any outside supplies such as electricity or gas to function. It is a distant and vague dream he promised to his children – a dream that eventually gets cracked over the time until it erodes. There is one very symbolic moment in the book when Jeannette and Brian realize that the Glass Castle isn’t ever going to happen: when they dig a hole for the foundation of the Glass Castle and their father tells them to fill it up with garbage since they can’t afford the trash-collection fee and the trash’s gotta go somewhere. “[A]s Brian and I watched, the hole for the Glass Castle’s foundation slowly filled with garbage.” (p. 190 in mass market paperback edition)

My feelings about this book aren’t coherent but I know that it has made me think and experience. And that I want to read more books like The Glass Castle.