Saturday, January 24, 2009

Quiet and Not-So-Quiet Books

One of my sisters-in-law suggested I borrow A Visit to Don Otavio by Sybille Bedford when I asked her for "fun thoughtful book" ideas. The book chronicles Beford's year in Mexico post World War II. At times it feels dated and at times I plodded through the historical descriptions unsure if didn't want to read them just because I am historically ignorant or because they disrupted the pacing of a generally charming book. Overall, however, it felt true. Highly recommended for anyone who has travelled in places not set up for travellers. Having never been to Mexico, I was reminded of Christmas in China with my parents. Bedford captures the emotions (and humor) of travelers being a novelty at someone else's command, be it the overbearing neighbors insisting on a lunch visit or the forces that operate the trains, allowing one no escape except to catch the train from the day before yesterday.

A Visit to Don Otavio struck me as an obvious predecessor to Peter Mayle (A Year in Provence) or Frances Mayes (Under the Tuscan Sun), and, for that matter, with her fantastic description of a hamper for travelling, of Amanda Hesser, but while Bedford occasionally neared the point of my wanting so smack her upside the head (which was a repeated reaction of mine to Mayle and Mayes) she never quite hit it. Perhaps this is because I let historical snobbery get away with a bit more than contemporary snobbery, or perhaps because, unlike Mayle and Mayes, Bedford never claimed this was paradise and then tried to change it, but most likely because Bedford can, and does, laugh at herself. After sending back a bottle of Mexican wine (which the server did not find lacking) she is annoyed at the waiter's insistence on replacing it was a bottle of imported wine. "I choose a Spanish claret . . . It is good, but it costs ten shillings a bottle, which is too much to pay for one's glass or two at dinner in a wine country. Perhaps, it begins to dawn on me, Mexico is not a wine country."

Bedford has the pleasant habit of starting every chapter with a quote and the annoying habit of not translating them. Somehow I would be okay with that if they were in Spanish, but most are French, with a few German. If Bedford were a contemporary writer, I would accuse her of being a Eurosnob.

Eudora Welty is very far from being a Eurosnob. She is among the writers I've long known existed and thought I wanted to read (Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, and George Sand being others) but couldn't name a single work of hers until one ended in my lap at Christmas. Deciding that I needed more fun, thoughtful books, my sister-in-law gave me four such books (she presented them with great trepidation, as if I might not love a gift of four books loosely themed around women and their gardens. Said sibling-in-law is an occasional reader of this blog, so I feel I should declare for her, the record, and anyone else possible tempted to give me interesting books: by all means, give me books! Do not be offended if they do not float to the top of my to be read pile, but I will read them and will delight in the idea that you gave me a book), Eudora Welty's The Optimist's Daughter among them.

Pulitzer Prize winnng The Optimist's Daughter is a small, quiet book. I caught myself regularly comparing it to Willa Cather works and, like The Professor's House, never could decide if too much happened or nothing much at all. I read it too quickly, for I am a fast plot reader, and much of the beauty of small quiet books is in the details fast readers don't catch. Still, I caught enough detail to consider it lovely and refreshing. Well worth reading for those of you who also consider emotional reactions acceptable plot-forwarding action.

In the last two weeks I've also read some trash: Sandra Brown's The Silken Web and Katherine Greyle's Miss Woodley's Experiment. The former is a contemporary romance (first written in 1982 and revised in 1992) and the second a regency romance of the type where they can, and do, have sex. While The Silken Web had a real emotional tangle way too conviently solved, way too much almost sex and fighting about it, and too many obvious communication failures (cell phones would ruin the plot), it still managed to be a sexy tear-jerker. Miss Woodley's Experiment was nothing extraordinary plot-wise, but the heroine was just quirky enough to make me want to seek out Greyle similar works at some library book sale sometime, while I won't be looking for any more Sandra Brown.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Buying Britches

Having had trouble buttoning a pair of pants on Friday, I went to the mall (not an easy feat where I live) on Sunday and bought two new pairs.

The circumference of my waist did not decrease over the last 2 1/2 months, but then, I am also twelve weeks pregnant, so I am not particularly concerned.

My final weight for the school program was -1 pound and the final weight for my personal program was -2, although I did not reach my goal of fitting into all of my pants or being on the lower side of a pychologically major number of pounds.

I'm still sending my $50 donation to Feeding America. I'll leave it to you to decide if you go by letter or spirit of the challenge and still want to make a donation (I'll add that there are plenty of people needing food regardless of my size, but I fully understand not supporting a personal challenge when the terms weren't met). Note in the comments if you still want to give and if you want to give directly (link above) or if you want to give through me (only advantage being that you wouldn't be on the mailing list, and I already am).

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Resolution Indecision

I haven't figured out what my resolution for 2009 is. If you have ideas of something interesting, fun and shareable, let me know. I'm considering gratitude, Italy, castles, insects and the family Fabaceae (the legumes), although nothing seems quite right. Fortunately, I have until sometime around Happy Cricket's birthday/Chinese New Year/most depressing day of the year to figure it out.

In the meantime, I'm fully supportive of The Mister's resolution to cook something from one of our cookbooks every week. Expect upcoming reports on his progress, along with book reviews (I regularly resolve to read 50 a year and I'm pleased to say I haven't fallen behind yet), and rodent and luck updates.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

The Fire

Katherine Neville's The Fire is a worthy successor to her fabulously fun book, The Eight.

The Eight is a smart, fast-paced book of historical intrigue, international adventure and chess. It is full of codes, figures of the French revolution, and lucky escapes. Everything is symbolic, and usually adds up to eight (reading the notes from The Fire, I just learned that there were 64 characters in The Eight, which would explain the annoying additions of Bach, Benedict Arnold, and Muammar Gaddafi). It was a huge hit in 1988 because it was fun and there was nothing else like it (DaVinci Code having not been written and Tale of Two Cities having been long forgotten). The Eight was passed around my friends and made it to my parents' book club, where it was received as fun escapism by members of both sexes. Like a good plot-driven puzzle book, everything suddenly fits at the end and it wraps up nicely. It remains one of my favorite books and the kind of book I want to read while travelling.

So, like most fans, I was annoyed at Katherine Neville for writing a sequel. When the Mister asked me what I was reading, I replied, "A book that shouldn't have been written." Yet, like most fans, I was anxious to read it and delighted when Supplement 'Scriber (with whom I shared a love of The Eight while we were roommates in college) gave it to me. Fortunately, Neville does creatively untangle some ends and readers are involved with new characters in a new quest that sheds an interesting light on the quest of The Eight. Of course it is not nearly as good as The Eight and there are twice as many obvious symbols (everything relates to fires, triangles, eights or chess, not just eights and chess) but I still enjoyed reading it.

If you like suspending disbelief and careening on a far-fetched, symbol-studded romp, read The Eight. If you need more, wait a while and read The Fire.

Gripe: Katherine Neville does her homework. The charm in both books is figuring out that this could have happened, at least historically and geographically. Talleyrand did marry that woman and have that chef, Byron did live in Italy and Greece at the end of his life, the Minerva Terrace in Yellowstone has dried up several times . . . At the end of The Fire she lists four pages of experts consulted on topics ranging from the weather conditions at Attu to Baghdad to open hearth cooking. She doesn't list anyone for Colorado, which is probably how she got away with saying that the characters had a cabin at Mesa Verde, "fourteen thousand feet atop the Colorado Plateau" where one could see the "vast billowing sea of three-mile-high mountain peaks" from the drive lined with blue spruce trees. Huh? The height of the Colorado Plateau is 11,000 feet. 14,000 feet is a good 2,000 feet above tree line in Colorado and few spruces would ever be on the edge of a windswept plateau. Not to mention that there are no three mile high mountains in Colorado, or in the contiguous US for that matter. Katherine, if you bothered to correctly look up the Dine names of the peaks, why couldn't you check their elevation?

Monday, January 5, 2009

Into the Jungle: Find it and read it

Sean B. Carroll's Into the Jungle: Epic Adventures in the Search for Evolution is fantastic. I can't remember a time when I've read a science book so quickly or wanted to recommend it to so many readers (Dad would find it fascinating for the geology-biology connections, Mom would appreciate the human interest stories, my brother needs the biology background, the siblings-in-law [like me and all of my students] could benefit from the breadth of evolutionary thought presented, Sunflower Spinner should use it for her classes . . .). The book contains nine chapters, each about a major "adventure" in evolution, from the voyage of the Beagle to the finding of dinosaur eggs to the connections between genetics and evolution with sickle cell anemia. Each chapter is short, written as a personal story and contains enough evidence (including maps and scraps of original documentation) to explain the science. Because the book is designed as a supplement to an undergraduate non-majors biology text, the stories are all the same length with great documentation and annoying discussion questions at the end. The text book style works, however, as the constraints of format really make reading easy.

Having taken offense at another book blogger making fun of a scientist by equating "writes well for a scientist" to "writes well for a ninth grader", I paid close attention to the writing and, it's true, Carroll writes well for a scientist. He probably shouldn't have written about Darwin's "professional suicide" two pages in a row and there is an awful lot of seasickness and yellow fever going around, but altogether he writes well for a scientist, and, in my book, that's very well indeed.

I just checked Amazon and was pleased to see this book there (mine is a publisher's advance copy and it's being heavily promoted as a educational tool). Carroll's webpage points out that much of the same information is being used for a trade book, Remarkable Creatures. Certainly something would be gained in a book that wasn't written for undergraduates in class (or, as the first Amazon reviewer thought, for middle school science class), but it might also lose its concise focus and simplicity. I'll be interested to hear after you read either.