Month in Review: January 2015

Monday, January 26, 2015 | 2 comments

One of my blogging goals this year is to write a monthly review post. Here I can keep better track of my reading overall, since I don't post about every book I read. I would also like to highlight some of my favorite posts by other bloggers, and maybe some other fun things that I find. . . It will be an experiment! I'm planning to usually do it on the last Sunday of each month, so the "months" will be a bit off-kilter.

This month was the one where I "put the library on hold" to try to read the books that are piling up on my own shelves. There are still a few days to go, but it's been a very successful enterprise so far. I would definitely consider starting out every new year this way.

I also joined the 2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge to try to add more variety to my posts. Here's this month's discussion: What makes a great book blog design?. If you haven't already, I hope you'll join the conversation.

Books I reviewed

Other books read
  • The Hollow Land by Jane Gardam (reread) - Review to come in Shiny New Books
  • The Rescuers by Margery Sharp (reread)
  • Alias Hook by Lisa Jensen - Review to come
  • How To Be a Heroine by Samantha Ellis - Review to come
  • Possession by A.S. Byatt (reread)
  • A Short History of Myth by Karen Armstrong - I need to read more in the Canongate Myths series, and may do a group review at some point.
  • The Dean's Watch by Elizabeth Goudge (reread) - Gearing up for Elizabeth Goudge Reading Week in April.
  • Finding Zero by Amir Aczel - A pleasant mathematical read, but less substantial than I had expected.
  • The Bees by Laila Paull - Review to come
  • An Appetite for Violets by Martine Bailey - Review to come

Most popular ECBR post this month

Favorite posts from other bloggers

Some other cool things
  • There's a handy new page listing book fairs and conventions at The Bookwyrm's Hoard.
  • The line-up for this year's Battle of the Books has been announced at School Library Journal. This time, I'm going to try really hard to read all of them so I can actually have an opinion about the winners.
  • And I also want to read the finalists in the Cybils Middle Grade Speculative Fiction category. I feel very out of touch with this genre lately.

That was quite a month! What were your highlights?
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A Party for Margery: Two by Margery Sharp

Sunday, January 25, 2015 | 6 comments

Margery Sharp, The Nutmeg Tree (Grosset and Dunlap, 1937) Margery Sharp, Cluny Brown (Little, Brown, 1944)

When Fleur in Her World alerted me to the existence of a charming and witty but largely forgotten mid-20th-century novelist, I was glad to join in with the fun of celebrating Margery Sharp's 110th birthday by reading and reviewing a book or two. And what fun it was! I completely agree that these books deserve to be brought back into print, and hope that someone with publishing clout will sit up and take notice.

The two books I chose to start with, The Nutmeg Tree and Cluny Brown, are perhaps more widely available than some others because they were both made into films (Julia Misbehaves with Greer Garson and Cluny Brown with Jennifer Jones). At any rate, I had no trouble finding decent used copies online for a very reasonable price. Each beguiled me for a day, putting a smile on my face with a series of absurd situations encountered by some engaging characters. As with all the best comedy, this is not completely mindless entertainment; Sharp's unconventional women shake up the world around them, and may make us question some of our cherished assumptions as well.

The first memorable heroine I encountered was the title character of Cluny Brown, a London plumber's niece whose fatal flaw is "not knowing her place" -- she took herself to tea at the Ritz because she wanted to see what it was like, imagine! When her uncle ships her off to a country house to be trained as a parlormaid, he thinks his troubles are over, but naturally Cluny has other ideas.

Sharp does an excellent job at the tricky task of capturing the accents and sensibilities of both the masters and servants of the house, as well as of Cluny, a true original who blithely ignores the strictures that should bind her to her social class and its expectations. This leads to some delightful bits of dialogue:

"Come up, you black cat," said Adam Belinski.

Cluny shook her head.

"Why not? Are you afraid of me?"

"Ought I to be?" said Cluny interestedly.

"That depends on what you consider the object of existence. What is your object of existence?"

Cluny considered; for this was a subject on which every one else seemed to have so much more definite opinions than she did herself. Mrs Maile and Aunt Addie Trumper and Mr Porritt, for instance, were all unanimous: in their view the object of her existence was to become a well-trained parlourmaid. Mr Ames thought she ought to go to parties. A gentleman in a 'bus had once advised her to become a model. But Cluny herself was still uncertain.

"I want something to happen," she said vaguely. "I want things happening all the time. . ."

"Then make them happen. Why not?"

"You don't know my Uncle Arn," said Cluny sombrely. "The minute anything happens, he stops it. I dare say it's on account of being a plumber. The way he goes on, I might be a burst pipe."

Though published in 1944, Cluny Brown is set six years earlier, in an England on the brink of war and of the destruction of many of its ancient ways of life, and the coming change is foreshadowed in Cluny's subtly disruptive nature. This serious strain anchors the comedy, and gives it a slightly darker touch that keeps it from being too silly and bright.

At the end of Cluny's adventures, an abrupt denouement with a swift change of heart might seem clumsy or inopportune in the hands of a less confident writer. Here, it perfectly suits the character of Cluny, and the glimpse given into her future assures us that she will continue to spread her insouciant spirit wherever she goes.

In my next Margery Sharp novel, The Nutmeg Tree, our heroine is Julia Packett, a very different but equally idiosyncratic character. Summoned to the south of France by an impulsive message from the daughter she hasn't seen since infancy, who is seeking approval of her intended marriage, Julia immediately identifies the young man in question as a "wrong one," but how can she convince her besotted daughter? And how can a former showgirl pull off the role of a respectable member of a very proper family, when in fact she is nothing of the sort? 

Greer Garson as Julia in the 1948 film
Julia's "misbehavior" (leaving her daughter to be raised by the father's family,  taking up with a series of male companions, and ending up having to sell off furniture to pay the rent) might not seem utterly damning today, but on the novel's publication in 1937 this lifestyle would have raised some eyebrows. Julia is portrayed with so much sympathy and humor, though, that we embrace her follies as part of her inimitable verve and zest for life. In her outer and inner battles, we root for her and forgive her many lapses, which if we are honest may remind us of our own efforts to "be good."

But can Julia forgive herself? In contrast to Cluny, whose youthful imperviousness to criticism is part of her charm, the more world-worn Julia is struggling toward a new level of self-knowledge. Because this is a comedy, this is symbolized by the possibility of union with a man who can complement and appreciate her. And because this is Margery Sharp, their story is told in a way that is both larger-than-life funny, and relevant to deeper human concerns. How can Julia "marry" the experience that has given her insight and compassion for other people (but left her a bit worse for wear), with what remains unspoiled in her, still worthy of love and honor? It's a question we all have to resolve in our own way -- though we may not all do it through dealings with acrobats met on trains.

For more about Margery Sharp and her books, be sure to check out this lovely blog created by a devoted fan. And if you enjoy humorous romances with a twist, do seek out these and more of her sadly out-of-print novels. Be warned, I'll be giving you some competition for them.

Review copy source: Hardcovers, purchased
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Beautiful Books: Pinocchio

Friday, January 23, 2015 | 16 comments

Carlo Collodi, Pinocchio (1883; Limited Editions Club, 1937)

Growing up, I was lucky to have a few books illustrated by Richard Floethe: Ballet Shoes and Circus Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, as well as Pinocchio. Floethe's strong, minimalist images were very striking to me, with their clean lines and simple shapes. Like many who develop a relationship to an illustrator in childhood, it's hard for me to see these books illustrated in any other way.

Richard Floethe was a German-born, Bauhaus-influenced artist who studied with Kandinsky and Klee. After moving to New York city in 1928, he worked in advertising and as a freelance illustrator and portrait painter. The commission to illustrate Pinocchio for the Limited Editions Club came when he was only 36 years old.

The linocut technique (a modern variant of woodcut printing) was fairly new at the time, and Floethe employs it masterfully. Areas of color are beautifully composed and complemented with the negative white space to create lively but perfectly balanced images.

Pinocchio is often a dark and even frightening tale, and some of the images are slightly disturbing, as when poor silly Pinocchio burns his feet off in the fire. . .

. . . or starts to turn into a donkey.

But in the end Floethe's jaunty puppet comes through all his adventures unscathed, still in his cheerful outfit of blue, coral and brown. These images will always be "Pinocchio" to me: amusing, stylish, and slightly abstract.

There are two editions available: the original Limited Editions Club publication, limited to 1500 copies and signed by the artist, and the lower-priced, mass market Heritage Press edition. The HP version has much thinner paper, is missing a few illustrations, and most importantly the colors are not as bright and distinct. But if you can find a copy in good condition, it's still a good alternative to the higher-priced LEC edition.

In whatever form you view them, I hope you'll agree that Floethe's pictures are a very fine artistic approach to Collodi's classic tale.

Image source: eBay

Be sure to visit the Pinocchio readalong and Children's Literature Event at Simpler Pastimes.

More of Richard Floethe's very interesting and diverse work can be viewed in this gallery.

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Book Blog Tour: Where Have I Been All My Life?

Thursday, January 22, 2015 | 2 comments

Cheryl Rice, Where Have I Been All My Life? (She Writes Press, 2014)

Today, I'm pleased to be hosting a stop on the blog tour for Where Have I Been All My Life? In this honest and heartfelt memoir, Cheryl Rice takes us along on the difficult road she had to travel after losing her mother to cancer. Attempting to heal herself, she started therapy -- and promptly fell desperately in love with her therapist. Now what? Could she learn to give up her addiction to unattainable love, and embrace the love she already had in abundance at home -- and most of all, within herself?

This kind of book has to walk the fine line between self-revelation and self-indulgence, but Cheryl, a first-time author, does so gracefully. Her writing is fluent and engaging, and although she claims she never learned how to play as a child, she has a lively sense of humor that helps to bring balance to her reflections on loss and deprivation. This prevents the narrative from becoming maudlin or depressing, and gives a welcome sense of perspective.

Short, non-chronological chapters keep things moving, and I particularly liked the notes and letters that are sprinkled throughout the book: one to her therapist pleading to be allowed to redecorate his office, an offer he wisely refuses; several (never sent) to a friend who suddenly and traumatically cut off their relationship years ago; most poignantly, a "ghostwritten" letter from Cheryl's mother, giving a picture of her own flawed, needy, but very human nature. We all want to communicate our truths, to be heard and understood by our loved ones; the letter format symbolizes this wish, while also effectively capturing the personality of the writer.

I feel privileged to have met Cheryl Rice through the pages of her book. It seems most suitable that in her career as a speaker and life coach she is trying to help other women to find and express their own truths, and I thank her for sharing her story with all of us.

For more about Cheryl, visit her website; and for more tour stops, click here.

Review copy source: Paperback from TLC Book Tours

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Words and Pictures: A Short History of Myth

Monday, January 19, 2015 | 6 comments
Mythology is the discourse we need in extremity. We have to be prepared for a myth to change us forever.

Karen Armstrong, A Short History of Myth (2005)
Image: Edmund Dulac, from The Marriage of Cupid and Psyche
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New Release Spotlight: The Just City

Friday, January 16, 2015 | 9 comments

Jo Walton, The Just City (Tor, 2015)

fantasy Jo Walton Plato
Nobody can take an idea and run with it like Jo Walton. This is the writer who gave us a Trollopean social satire populated by dragons (Tooth and Claw), a country house murder mystery that turns into a chilling alternate history of a Fascist England (Farthing), and a coming-of-age story built around lots of science fiction book recommendations. With fairies. And Wales (Among Others).

Now, in The Just City, we have what sounds like the winner of a "wackiest premise for a novel" contest: a group of time-traveling philosophers from throughout history, led by a couple of Olympian gods, set out to turn Plato's Republic from theory into fact. Because this is Jo Walton, she has us hooked from the first chapter. This nonchalantly introduces us to Apollo, fresh from a disastrous encounter with the nymph Daphne. He goes for advice to his wise sister Athene, who keeps getting prayed to by people from all kinds of times and places to please help them create the Republic on earth, and needs to find something to do with them. It just gets better -- and stranger -- from there.

Apollo is one of the narrators of the story, in alternating chapters with Maia, one of the Masters whose prayers to Athene have entitled her to build and organize the city, and Simmea, one of the "children" who are rescued from lives of slavery to grow up under the Platonic system and aim at the philosopher's ultimate goal of pursuing excellence. (In an effort to learn some important things that he can't understand as a powerful god, Apollo has elected to be born as a mortal and grow up as one of the children as well.) So from three different levels of consciousness we see how the experiment is working out, and where some of the difficulties lie, especially after Sokrates himself comes to the city with his troubling questions.

The details of making the Republic a reality are largely the fun of the book. Thriving on a regime of exercise, art, and study, Simmea grows to love the city and embrace its ideals, while in a society based on equality of the sexes Maia finds a welcome release from the limitations of her previous Victorian existence. Appearances by real historical personalities are entertaining, as is the idea of rescuing some of the greatest lost literature and art -- Botticelli's Winter, anyone? But some of the more bizarre notions on which the city is founded cause it to start to crumble as the years go by, and serious questions about the nature of the soul, individuality, and self-determination arise.

The fact that the Just City has problems is not a reflection on the achievement of Plato in The Republic; the masters themselves acknowledge that the dialogue was meant as a thought experiment and not as a practical blueprint. Taking the experiment a step further through fiction, though, causes the thoughts to be reactivated and reassembled in a new form, and that's not a bad thing. It definitely made me want to read Plato for the first time since I was forced to do so in school. I was less interested in the debate about artificial intelligence that comes to dominate the latter part of the book. I am willing to suspend disbelief for a lot of things, but the idea that robots can become sentient just from being around a critical mass of philosophers is not one of them.

This and a few other aspects caused me not to love this book as much as I could have (including several disturbing rape scenes). Still, I found The Just City to be a diverting, thought-provoking, mind-bending ride of a novel, philosophy degree not required. Thanks once again to Jo Walton for writing a book like nothing anybody else would ever dream of, and making it seem the most natural thing in the world. I'll definitely be reading the sequel, The Philosopher Kings, which is fortunately coming out in only a few months.

Review copy source: ARC from publisher
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Put the Library on Hold: Mid-month check-in

Thursday, January 15, 2015 | 10 comments

It's the middle of January, and as promised here is a status update on my Put the Library on Hold challenge. So far I've read five of the books lurking on my shelves, a nice mix of fiction, non-fiction, new-to-me books and rereads (see the original post for which ones). They have all been wonderful, so I'm really glad I made this effort.

How has your reading gone this month? If you're participating in any challenges, what progress have you made?
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What makes a great book blog design?

Monday, January 12, 2015 | 40 comments
Graphic design is an art form that we don't always think about because it surrounds us every day, yet I'm fascinated by how it subtly influences our experience of everything we read. I recently had my own blog redesigned to reflect my own preferences, and I've noticed both that it both gives me significantly more personal satisfaction, and appears to have led to increased traffic. When it looks good, more people want to visit, it seems.

Everyone has different tastes, though, and I wonder what your preferences are. Do you love dark backgrounds? Bright colors? Bare-bones designs? Do you not care at all about what a blog looks like, and just zoom in on the content? Please let me know in the comments!

Here are my top criteria for a book blog design, and some shout-outs for blog designs that I especially like.

Clean, simple, and easy to read
I prefer designs that don't have too many elements, and that arrange them in a sensible way with plenty of breathing space. I have a hard time with light text on dark background, patterns behind text, busy sidebars, or flashing/animated things.

Something unique
A lot of bloggers rely on premade templates, and/or have gone to a very simple and streamlined look, and that's fine. But I appreciate seeing some unique and creative element that highlights the blogger's personal style, like a custom-made header or other image.

Fonts that work
I'm somewhat obsessed with typography, and I adore new and different fonts -- but they should be used sparingly. An unusual display font can work for post titles or brief headings, but it should still be readable. And for longer stretches of text, it's best to stick with classic serif or sans-serif fonts. Finding fonts that work together is another art, playing with similarity and contrast without creating a chaotic mess.

Harmonious colors
Color is an extremely personal choice, but my preference is for more subtle, non-clashing combinations.

A meaningful whole
Layout, images, fonts, and colors all provide opportunities to give non-verbal cues about your personality and interests, as reflected by your blog. When these all come together to express something about the content itself, that's great design!

Here are a few blogs that have all of these qualities -- and terrific content too. What are your favorites?
Posted for the 2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge, hosted by Feed Your Fiction Addiction and It Starts at Midnight
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2015 Book Blog Discussion Challenge

Sunday, January 11, 2015 | 12 comments
Well, I said I was not going to sign up for more than one challenge this year, but this is a blogging challenge (not a reading challenge) and I think it's a good one for me. Discussion topics are great for getting a conversation going and adding variety to posts, and I often enjoy them on other blogs, but somehow I feel shy about doing them myself. This challenge will (I hope) get me to break out of that habit.

Thanks to Boats Against the Current for the inspiration, and to Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight for hosting! I'm aiming modestly for one discussion post per month.

What do you think about discussion posts -- love, hate, indifferent? Do you do them on your own blog? Feel free to leave some links here!
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Back to the Moors: Wuthering Heights

Friday, January 9, 2015 | 14 comments

Emily Bronte, Wuthering Heights (1847, Folio Society, 1991)

Illustration by Rovina Cai
Wuthering Heights has never been my favorite Bronte novel. I first read it in high school as one of the required texts for my British Lit class (the gloomy purplish Signet Classics cover is still stamped on my brain). All the characters with similar names, who persisted in marrying each other in various combinations, were terribly confusing, not to mention the complicated double framing device and the baffling Yorkshire dialect. I remember being struck by Catherine's declaration "I am Heathcliff," and including it in an essay, although I have no idea what else I wrote about. I'm sure that most of the passion and drama went right over my fifteen-year-old head.

I've read Wuthering Heights several times since then, but still found it a depressing story about unlikeable people. The last time I decided I probably wouldn't pick it up again. I love Charlotte, I appreciate Anne, but Emily and I do not connect -- I thought.

Then Girl with Her Head in a Book invited me to her December readalong, and I said yes. One more time, why not? And to my surprise, I found myself really enjoying it. Maybe because I was prepared for the perplexing and grim aspects, I didn't find it overly perplexing or grim at all. Yes, Heathcliff and Catherine say and do terrible things, but it's almost like watching a great storm sweeping over the Yorkshire landscape: their tremendous, alien passions make them more akin to a force of nature than  human beings. As I started to look elsewhere for the actual human impact of the story, I began to realize how brilliant and multi-layered this novel is.

For instance, this time I noticed how involved and culpable Nelly Dean, who tells most of the story, actually is. No mere detached narrator, she lies, withholds information, and manipulates situations -- with the best intentions, no doubt, but often in her own self-interest as well. These small moral slidings may seem minor in comparison to the grand depravity of a Heathcliff, but are they really? Oh Emily, you are clever indeed. Who is worse, the one who unabashedly displays his moral failings, or the one who doesn't even notice them?

And then there is the question of where the moral center of the story truly lies. In its complex construction, so confusing to my teenage self, Wuthering Heights starts not with the childhood of Catherine and Heathcliff, which is in the past of the novel, but with the younger generation (as witnessed by an obtuse outsider). Why is a lovely young girl trapped at the isolated house of Wuthering Heights, under Heathcliff's diabolical power? How did the young man who ought to be the master of the house become reduced to the status of an illiterate servant? Even as we delve into the tormented past that created such wrongs, the possibility and hope of these two individuals being freed from their bondage remains the seed of the whole narrative. Its fulfillment at the end is what makes this often unbearably dark novel not a tragedy, but a story of redemption. (Heathcliff, notably, is never redeemed, never succumbs to nineteenth-century conventions of deathbed repentance; with his strange, mysterious death, his furious thirst for revenge simply fades away, as every storm or tempest must eventually die down and come to rest.)

In fact, all of these characters taken together form a picture of the human being. We all bear within us the fury and vengefulness of a Heathcliff, the pettiness of a Hindley, the capriciousness of a Catherine -- though we might not act out such impulses so freely or so hurtfully. And though we may be repulsed by Heathcliff's murderous tendencies, we can't help but be moved by his cry at the loss of his great and only love, "I cannot live without my life -- I cannot live without my soul!" Such primal forces usually work within us only unconsciously, but finding them expressed in narrative form may help us to understand and own them. Meanwhile, we also all carry the smug, self-satisfied conventional perspective of a Nelly Dean, not questioning the rightness of our own actions, and it's equally important to recognize this part of ourselves. And we bear the potential to learn, to change, and to create new, fruitful relationships, as do young Cathy and Hareton.

These subtler aspects of the story are often ignored or omitted altogether, as in the Laurence Olivier film, to concentrate on Heathcliff and Catherine's bizarre relationship as if it were a great romantic love story (which it decidedly is not). This truncates and distorts Emily Bronte's achievement. Her insight into the furthest reaches of the human heart was much greater than that, and I'm glad I finally came to realize it.

Review copy source: Personal collection
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