Sunday Post #44: No Snow

Sunday Post
Last year I installed a plugin that makes it snow. I can enable it whenever I like, so I let it snow on my blog most of the winter because that’s usually what it’s doing here in Worcester. This winter has been sort of mild, however, and it hasn’t even been that cold with the exception of Valentine’s Day weekend. I’m turning off the snow today until next year. I’m not sure winter is really done with us because March is typically an iffy month around here, but the weather usually calms down by April.

I can’t believe I opened with the weather.

I’ve been reading up on the French Revolution for a while now. I admit to being a bit scared to take on Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety because it is over 750 pages long, but I do love Hilary Mantel, and I imagine it’s a pretty good book. Having just finished Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette this week, I dove back into Simon Schama’s Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and it’s so long and daunting that I really wish I could read it on Kindle. I find with e-books that I don’t feel quite so intimidated by long books, not to mention they’re easier to hold up when I’m reading in bed. This book is seriously not easy to read. Interesting so far, however.

My book club is reading The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. We meet Wednesday, and I don’t think it’s likely I’ll be finished with the book by then, but I’m going to keep at it because I am really enjoying it. I wouldn’t have picked up this book on my own, but people I respect recommended it so highly that I gave it a chance, and I’m glad I did. Brown is a good writer, and heart and humanity with which he imbues the subject of the book is a master class in how to write compelling narrative nonfiction.

Now seems like a good time to check in on my reading challenges, too. I’m on track to finish 55 books this year so far. I have completed nine books. I haven’t done much with a few of the challenges, so I need to get going. I have made little progress on the Reading England Challenge (which is very unusual for me, as I typically read quite a lot of books set in England—though this ninth book I mentioned a moment ago is book number one for this challenge). I have made zero progress with the Reading New England Challenge.

On the other hand, I’m doing well with both the #ShelfLove Challenge and the Mount TBR Challenge. I’m showing my shelves and TBR pile some love so far. Some small progress on the Historical Fiction Challenge, but as it’s my favorite genre, I’m not worried yet. I’m sure I’ll read more.

That ninth book I mentioned before I should go ahead and write about. It’s The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I had first read it some years ago. I am not really sure how long now, so it was a re-read. I always forget how many of Wilde’s bon mots come from his writing rather than some quip he made in his travels. He’s extremely funny. Probably one of the funniest writers I’ve read. I find it so tragic the way he was treated toward the end of his life. I’m not sure he was exactly the nicest person. It’s hard to tell when someone is as sarcastic as he is exactly what they might really have been like. It’s entirely possible I wouldn’t have liked him if he’s as catty as he comes across, but since I don’t have to be tested by actually knowing the guy, I can declare I adore him absolutely. If you haven’t read any Wilde, this play is a wonderful place to start because it’s short, hilarious, and absolutely wonderful. It’s a great send-up of Victorian mores and frivolity (Rating: ★★★★★).

Here is hoping I can catch up a bit now that some duties at work will lighten a bit starting this week. How has your reading week been?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

Sunday Post #39: The Last Sunday of the Year

Sunday Post

It has been a little while since I’ve written a Sunday Post entry. December proved to be a busy month, and I have to confess that time off on Sundays wasn’t really spent writing and reflecting so much as trying to catch my breath before Monday.

I have been off work for a week’s vacation and have one more week before returning. Aside from some grading, which I will need to make some time to do in the coming week, I was able to catch up before vacation. I’ve been doing quite a lot of baking, as I typically do over the holidays: gingerbread, cookies, scones on Christmas.

My husband is visiting his parents in Tennessee, and I know they’ll be glad to visit with him. It’s pretty quiet around here without him. Not that he makes a ton of noise or anything, but you know what I mean.

Meanwhile, I have been finishing books quickly. I finished the following books since my last Sunday Post entry:

I am in the middle of a re-read of Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly, this time as an audio book, and man, am I ever reminded of why I love that book so much. And yet again, it has reminded me of why the French Revolution is so endlessly fascinating. I am currently watching a History Channel documentary of the French Revolution on YouTube. I am reminded once again that I still haven’t read Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution by Simon Schama, though I have a hardcover copy, nor have I finished Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser or Les Misérables by Victor Hugo. The Marie Antoinette biography has been in my sidebar for a long time. I would love to find another really good historical fiction book set in the French Revolution. I have already read Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran. I am not sure about Hilary Mantel’s novel A Place of Greater Safety. Have you read it? What did you think? I absolutely loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, but I wasn’t sure about this one. The reviews are not as glowing, and it’s a long book to commit to. I ought to just take the plunge. I’ve been thinking about reading it long enough.

I’ve had a quiet last Sunday of the year with my kids. All in all an enjoyable day reading and relaxing.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme. Image adapted from Patrick on Flickr.

Sunday Post #9: Spring Break!

Sunday PostMy spring break started this weekend. More time to read! I didn’t have a lot of time to read this week, so unfortunately, I didn’t make a whole lot of progress to report about.

In my last post, I reported I was about an hour away from finishing Neil Gaiman’s short story collection Trigger Warning. I still am. I haven’t had a chance to listen to it at all this week. I also haven’t picked up Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser in the last week. However, I did start Candide by Voltaire for the Literary Movement Reading Challenge. Well, I read the introduction, at least.

Mainly, I have been reading The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. Fantastic so far. I find sometimes I have to put it down for a while almost because it’s too much sensory input. I am not sure if that makes sense, but the descriptions are so vivid, and given it’s a book about Vietnam War photojournalists, it’s quite intense. I have always felt sort of a weird connection with that war, as though it somehow defined the world in which I grew up. I guess it did. My dad was serving in Vietnam when I was born, and in many ways, it didn’t seem over. I remember the Vietnam vets and the controversy over the Vietnam Memorial. It was as I was growing up that artistic media like movies and TV seemed to be exploring the war for the first time. The book is so fantastic that I really wish I had a book club to discuss it with. I wonder if I can convince my book club to read it. I did talk them into reading Wolf Hall, and I’m not sure I get two turns in a row, or that folks will want to read two historical fiction novels in a row. The Lotus Eaters is reminding me a lot of Hemingway—not so much stylistically, but perhaps the poetic way in which Soli describes war. If any characters might see poetry in that situation, it might be combat photographers. I don’t know.

The journalists were in a questionable fraternity while out in the field, squabbling and arguing among themselves, each sensing the unease of the situation. No getting around the ghoulishness of pouncing on tragedy with hungry eyes, snatching it away, glorying in its taking even among the most sympathetic: “I got an incredible shot of a dead soldier/woman/child. A real tearjerker.” Afterward, film shot, they sat on the returning plane with a kind of postcoital shame, turning away from each other.

In terms of the present moment, they were despicable to the soldiers, to the victims, to even themselves. In the face of real tragedy, they were unreal, vultures; they were all about getting product. In their worst moments, each of them feared being a kind of macabre Hollywood, and it was only in terms of the future that they regained their dignity, became dubious heroes. The moment ended, about to be lost, but the one who captured it on film gave both subject and photographer a kind of disposable immortality. (111)

 

Pictures could not be accessories to the story—evidence—they had to contain the story within the frame; the best picture contained a whole war within one frame. (118)

Exquisite.

So that was my reading week. How was yours?

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Sunday Post #8: Reading Challenges Update

Sunday PostMarch 1 seems like a good time to reflect on how I’m doing with the various reading challenges I’ve taken on this year. As of today, I’ve completed nine books. The goal of the Outdo Yourself Challenge is to read more than the previous year. So far, I’m on track with that challenge. I don’t think I have ever been in the position of having read nine books at the beginning of March before.

I’ve read four books for the Historical Fiction Challenge: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel; The Wolves of Andover aka The Traitor’s Wife, Kathleen Kent; The Fiery Cross, Diana Gabaldon; and The Serpent of Venice, Christopher Moore. I committed to reading ten historical fiction books for the challenge. I’m currently reading The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. I’m only a little over two chapters into it, but wow, what a beautifully written, gripping read so far. I have to read it in small sips, put it down and think about it, and plunge in again when I’m ready. I got a pencil and went back over the two chapters I had finished and underlined my favorite parts.The Lotus Eaters

This is how the world ends in one instant and begins again in the next.

It seems early days to be predicting this will be my favorite read of the year, but perhaps not. It is gorgeous so far.

I’ve read three books for the Reading England Challenge:

I committed to reading twelve books for this challenge.

The Literary Movement Challenge involves reading at least one book a month for that month’s movement. So far, I’ve read one selection each for the Middle Ages and for the Renaissance: The Lais of Marie de France and As You Like It by William Shakespeare. I committed to reading twelve books.

The Back to the Classics Challenge involves reading classic selections from various categories. I committed to nine books and have read two:

This week I posted reviews for As You Like It by William Shakespeare and The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson. I am about an hour away from finishing Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning.

One last glimpse of The Lotus Eaters before I go.

The Lotus Eaters

 

Sunday Post #7: Forest and Fen

Sunday PostI finished up two books this week, but I am waiting to review both of them. The first is William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, which I had never read before, but had decided to read way back when I read A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (review). It was during that year that Shakespeare wrote As You Like It. I liked it, though not as much as some of Shakespeare’s other plays, but I wanted to watch a movie version of it so I could review both the play and the movie version together. Unfortunately, Netflix is being extremely slow about sending it along.

The other book I finished just today is The Tell-Tale Heart by Jill Dawson. I am reviewing this book as part of a TLC Book Tour this coming Friday. The book has an interesting premise regarding the after-effects of a heart transplant, and it did get me thinking quite a bit, but more on that this Friday.

Both books allowed me to explore two counties in the Reading England Challenge. The Forest of Arden in As You Like It was in Shakespeare’s own home county of Warwickshire. Sadly, I discovered, not much of it remains aside from a few very old trees. The Tell-Tale Heart is set in some smaller towns around Cambridge in the Fens in Cambridgeshire. Both books relied a great deal on setting in the stories to the extent that moving them might change the story quite a bit, especially in The Tell-Tale Heart.

I am still reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette and Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning. I will probably take up a new paperback today since Marie Antoinette is on the Kindle and Trigger Warning is an audio book. Some weeks ago, I was feeling in the mood for The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli. My dad was serving in Vietnam when I was born. He left when my mother was, I think, about six months pregnant with me. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything set there. I have several students from Vietnam. Last year, one of my Vietnamese students used to have really interesting conversations with me about the differences between our countries.

I am still waiting for The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan and I Always Loved You by Robin Oliveira to arrive in the mail, though I’m really looking forward to reading those books. I did order them from third-party sellers, so shipping is not the quick Prime shipping I’m used to from Amazon. I think I have decided to read Hilary Mantel’s massive French Revolution novel A Place of Greater Safety as well. I am not sure when I’ll get to that one, but I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit. I’ll likely get that on the Kindle so I don’t have to try to hold it up.

In case you missed it, I posted my review for Christopher Moore’s novel The Serpent of Venice this week. I haven’t written any other reviews this week, nor have I started other books.

Given how much snow we’ve had, I suppose it’s logical that I have been able to do so much reading. I think I’ve read more so far this year than I can remember reading in the same time period… ever. Also, my kitchen scale broke, which is a necessity for soapmaking, so I wasn’t able to make soap this weekend either. It’s sad because I have a few wholesale orders and a custom request as well as some spring soaps I want to make up. It will have to wait!

In other bookish news, I have a book club! I am an idiot and somehow missed the memo about the book we were supposed to read until it was too late for me to finish before the meeting, but I did go, and we did talk about the book, and it was wonderful. For the record, the book I was supposed to read (which is on my list, though I didn’t get to it this time) was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. We are reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel for next time, so I should be in good shape for that meeting at least.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Sunday Post #6: A Year in France

Sunday PostIt’s been a quiet week. We had more snow over this weekend, but I’m not really sure how much. Did you know we are the snowiest city in the US? I’m sure you’ve heard a great deal about all the snow Boston’s been getting, but her lesser-known neighbor to the west, which is, after all, the second largest city in New England, has had hardly any mention. My children have a winter break this week, but I just have Presidents Day off. I hope the streets are plowed before I have to go back to work Tuesday. I can’t remember the last full week of work I had. I think it might have been before MLK Day.

I’m still reading the four books I started last week:

I have read three acts of As You Like It. I will probably finish it this week. I have listened to several stories from Trigger Warning. At this stage, much as I like Neil Gaiman’s reading, I am wondering if I did the wrong thing by listening to it on audio instead of reading it. The stories are not similar at all, but I have no sense of them as separate and will not be able to remember their titles without help when I review the book. The book I’m most enjoying at the moment is Antonia Fraser’s biography of Marie Antoinette. She emerges as quite a sympathetic character, which I understood was the case with this biography before I started reading it. I can definitely see how Sofia Coppola used it in her movie (which I discussed last week). One of the ways I can tell I’m interested in a book, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, is when it prompts me to start looking things up. In the case of this book, it’s the labyrinthine French aristocracy that is more than a little difficult to keep up with (and the helpful family trees at the beginning of the book don’t show up well on the Kindle). There are a lot of folks to keep track of.

I was also trying to figure out who might be the King of France today if the Revolution hadn’t happened. Folks, the answer to that question (besides being moot because the Revolution DID happen) is a rabbit hole you might not want to go down. I was going to try to summarize it, but I can’t. Suffice it to say, there ARE royalists who want a monarchy, despite France being pretty proud of being a republic and celebrating Bastille Day, and they are basically split three ways, so there are three Pretenders to the French throne (four, actually—and that part is complicated). Who knew? You can dig into it starting here if you like. You were warned, though.

I did just order a couple of Belle Époque novels:

Don’t those books look great? They both feature Edgar Dégas. I read a Kindle preview of the first book, The Painted Girls. It grabbed me. Well written and evocative of the time in just the few short pages I was able to see. The second book, I Always Loved You, is about Mary Cassatt’s relationship with Dégas. One of the reviews I read convinced me to get it.

I’m still looking for more French Revolution books. I’m a bit daunted by Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. It seems to have some mixed reviews, and it’s over 900 pages long. Have you read it? I’d be interested in your thoughts. A book that long is a huge commitment, even considering how much I loved Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It does look interesting, however, and I’m intrigued that it features Desmoulins, Danton, and Robespierre. So many books seem to take the Royalist perspective rather than that of the Revolutionaries. I read a bit of it as a Kindle sample, and I liked what I read, but I’m still not sure.

This is shaping up to be a French year in terms of historical fiction for me, isn’t it? There are worse things than spending a year in France, I suppose. One of the things I love about books is that even if I can’t really go somewhere, I can go there in a book. And it’s not limited just to place. I can go to any time as well. I suppose that is one reason I like historical fiction so much. I admit, however, I’m starting to get pickier about what I’ll read. I downloaded samples of a couple of other highly-rated books with positive reviews, and deleted them after a page or two. A couple of years ago, I think I might have kept reading.

Coming up this week you can look for my review of The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore (TLC Book Tour). I’m hoping I will also have a review of As You Like It, but I’m not sure I’ll have finished anything else.

The Sunday Post is a weekly meme hosted by Caffeinated Book Reviewer. It’s a chance to share news, recap the past week on your blog, and showcase books and things we have received. See rules here: Sunday Post Meme.

Review: Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel

Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, Book 2)Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the Thomas Cromwell trilogy. This book and its predecessor, Wolf Hall, were awarded the Man Booker Prize—a rare achievement. Wolf Hall is more sweeping—it introduces Thomas Cromwell and traces the beginning of his career with Thomas Wolsey up through Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Bring Up the Bodies is more condensed. Its narrow focus concerns five months from January to May of 1536.

As the novel begins, Henry has grown tired of Anne Boleyn. She is pregnant, and everything hinges on whether or not she will deliver the long-awaited male heir. Meanwhile, Henry’s first queen Katherine dies, and Henry is grievously wounded in a joust (some historians argue the injuries he incurred in this joust are responsible for Henry’s transformation into a tyrant). Shortly after Henry’s accident, Anne miscarries her child—a son. Five months later, she is dead.

As much as I loved Wolf Hall, and I did, I have to say I enjoyed Bring Up the Bodies even more. Thomas Cromwell emerges as a complex individual. He has been cast in history as a notorious villain, but these books also display his love for his family and his eagerness to become a surrogate father and teacher to several young men in his household. He has a dry wit. But he has a long memory. The scenes in which he interrogates the men accused of adultery with Anne Boleyn are chilling, and no less so because it is clear Cromwell remembers their role in ridiculing Cardinal Wolsey.

The books tread a careful line: Were Anne Boleyn, Harry Norris, George Boleyn, Francis Weston, William Brereton and Mark Smeaton guilty of the crimes for which they were executed? Thomas Cromwell himself is not sure, but they are guilty of other things. Cromwell observes that “He needs guilty men. So he has found men who are guilty. Though perhaps not guilty as charged” (328). Cromwell has a slow fuse. He never forgets when he is wronged, even slightly, and when the moment comes to strike, he’s as swift as a snake. Or a lawyer.

The book also contains some exquisite sentences. It’s not just good storytelling—this novel in particular reads almost like a play, and you can see all the action on the stage—it’s also just good writing. Perhaps my favorite quote:

He once thought it himself, that he might die with grief: for his wife, his daughters, his sisters, his father and master the cardinal. But pulse, obdurate, keeps its rhythm. You think you cannot keep breathing, but your ribcage has other ideas, rising and falling, emitting sighs. You must thrive in spite of yourself; and so that you may do it, God takes out your heart of flesh, and gives you a heart of stone. (329)

I can hardly wait for the third installment in the series. No matter what you think of Cromwell, you can hardly deny he left a mark on history, and he is perhaps more interesting and complicated than the larger figures of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, at least in Hilary Mantel’s capable hands. Mantel sets a high bar. I’m not sure I’ve read any writer who does historical fiction quite so well. I’m really looking forward to the production of Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies on PBS in April. If you like historical fiction, even if you think you are so over the Tudors already, do yourself a favor and read these books.

Rating: ★★★★★

This book is set largely in London, with the most memorable passages at the Tower of London, located in Middlesex County. I will count this book as my London book for the Reading England Challenge.

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Review: Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Wolf HallI rounded out 2014 by finishing Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, the first book in a planned trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, the second book of which is Bring Up the Bodies. Both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies were awarded the Man Booker Prize (2009 and 2012, respectively).

Wolf Hall introduces Thomas Cromwell, the son of a blacksmith, who rises to become one of Henry VIII’s chief ministers as well as an architect of the Protestant Reformation in England. The book begins with Thomas Cromwell’s decision to make his way across the sea in Europe after a particularly vicious beating from his father. The story continues after Cromwell has returned to England and entered the service of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s chancellor. The rest of the novel chronicles Wolsey’s fall and Cromwell’s subsequent rise through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell, ending with Thomas More’s execution.

The Tudors are well-trodden ground at this point. Mantel manages to breathe fresh life into their story by telling it through the point of view of Cromwell, who has not fared well in history and whose point of view has been somewhat neglected as a result. In many ways, this book reminded me a bit of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, in that Bradley’s retelling of the story of King Arthur by the women in his life—Igraine, his mother; Morgan le Faye (or Morgaine), his sister; and Gwenwhyfar (or Guinevere), his wife—was perhaps the freshest version of the Matter of Britain I’ve read in the last twenty years largely because Bradley chose to tell the story with voices often silenced. This formula works wonders for making old hat like the Tudors interesting again, just when I thought I was a little sick of them.

Wolf Hall is meticulously researched, but I never felt as if Mantel was trying to impress me by proving she’d dug up some interesting historical fact. She often sent me to research myself, so I could find out more about something or other that happened in the novel. As such, I learned some interesting things. For instance, I had not realized that Cromwell was such a protege of Cardinal Wolsey, and it struck me as odd, given the way in which Cromwell championed the Protestant Reformation.

I loved Cromwell’s dry wit. He comes across as compassionate to his loved ones, but no one to mess with to his enemies. And he has a long, long memory, as Thomas More discovered. Cromwell leaps from the page as a shrewd businessman and judge of the prevailing winds—it will be interesting to see how Mantel depicts his downfall given how lethally sharp he has come across in this first book.

I know how Cromwell’s story ends, and I have to say, I am a little sad at the prospect of reaching the end of his story in the third planned novel in the trilogy, The Mirror and the Light, rumored to be due out in the coming year.

Rating: ★★★★★