“Far from the Madding Crowd” by Thomas Hardy

far-from-the-madding-crowdI’m not sure why it took me so long to get around to reading Far from the Madding Crowd. It’s the story of a young woman named Bathsheba Everdene who takes over her uncle’s farm when he dies. After a terrifying fire and a horrible theft, she dismisses her farm manager and takes it on herself — even though she apparently knows very little about farm management. In the midst of all of this, she attracts the attention of three men: one a wealthy farmer, one a dashing soldier, and one a financially failed sheep farmer whose fortune was lost as a result of the capriciousness of a sheepdog.

Bathsheba is amazing. First, she has no interest in marrying, and says that right up front to a suitor’s face. She has very strong opinions and is not afraid to state them, and she handles the running of her farm with aplomb, promising her workers that she will beat them into the fields as well as outlast them — a promise she fulfills. There is one moment near the middle of the book where she and only one other worker frantically try to cover all of the barley and wheat of the year’s harvest to save it from rain, while all of the other men on the farm are asleep, dead drunk from celebrating.

Bathsheba is also almost perfectly, but realistically, flawed. (more…)

July 28, 2015 at 12:22 am Leave a comment

‘The Complete Collection of the Tragedy Series’ by Benjamin Dewey

imageI really don’t know where to begin with Benjamin Dewey’s marvelous The Complete Collection of the Tragedy Series: secret lobster claws and other misfortunes. Indeed, what could I possibly say that is not already in the title?

I could begin by praising the aesthetics and artistic stylings of the book, a graphic novel of sorts with a theme of misfortune rather than a unifying narrative. But, as good as Dewey’s illustrations are (for he not only wrote, but also illustrated this delightful tome), they aren’t what strikes you most about it.

I could also start off by explaining my delight at the steampunkish Victorian era Dewey presents in the book. Tragedy Series doesn’t place itself anywhere in particular, other than as the direct descendent of Lovecraft and possibly Verne. But, as pleasing as the undefined time period is, that again is not what draws one into the book. (more…)

July 23, 2015 at 4:42 am Leave a comment

‘The Oracle Glass’ by Judith Merkle Riley

51+dnLNO-2L._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_As much as I try to be virtuous in my reading choices, I sometimes succumb to my baser urges. And by that, I mean that sometimes, I read historical romance. Not the books with the shirtless dudes on the front and a woman in a period ball gown…but books that are largely unchallenging, with super-compelling story lines, sumptuous jewelry and a woman who just doesn’t fit societal norms. Think Philippa Gregory or Diana Gabaldon.

The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley is, without a doubt, one of the best of this genre. Set in the age of the Sun King, it tells the story of young Genevieve Pasquier, a 16-year-old girl whose mother has driven the family into debt (again, not unlike Emma Bovary or Undine Spragg). Genevieve has two strikes against her: one, an untreated twisted foot has left her sway-backed and limping; two, her father has tutored her in Latin, philosophy and mathematics, and her mother has largely ignored her, so she has a great education and no social graces. As a result of this and her appearance, few in life will take her seriously.

Early on and as a result of tragedy, Genevieve is swept up by La Voisin, a witch and incredible businesswoman who promises Genevieve that she can make her beautiful, rich, successful and — most importantly — capable of bringing revenge down on a family member who has betrayed her. As Genevieve can see the future in water and other reflective surfaces, all La Voisin needs to provide are the connections and the window dressing. A lift in her shoe and a sturdy corset to support her back ensure she’s mostly unrecognizable; a body is found in the river and identified as Genevieve, leaving her unencumbered. Suddenly, she is reborn as the Marquise de Morville, a 180-year-old woman preserved in eternal youth who has the power to see the future.

That is literally just the beginning. (more…)

July 21, 2015 at 12:30 am 2 comments

I miss books

from online image arcade

I miss books. I miss paper. I miss the swish of a turned page. I miss typography. I miss the roughness or smoothness of each bound sheet. I miss both the stiff bindings and the ones that flop agreeably open in your lap. I miss cheap, already-disintegrating paperbacks. I miss hefty hardbounds with which you can kill large bugs. I miss the smell of paper and glue and magic. I miss books.

I have been travelling for almost a month now with my trusty Kindle to hand, all filled up with library books and Project Gutenberg classics. I have read more in the last month than I have in the previous two months probably because of the idle time spent on various planes, trains, trams, and boats. And yet…I miss books.

At this point in the endless book vs. e-reader debate, I very much hope we can all agree that neither is naturally set against each other and each has its own positive qualities. However, even as I appreciate the tonnage of text that my Kindle has allowed me to bring on this trip, I still can’t help but miss the physicality and pleasure of a good, old-fashioned codex.

I love a lot of things about reading, but in the past month I’ve come to realize how much the form my reading takes matters to me. I like books, bound ones, and for all the peregrinating freedom my Kindle gives me, it has never wormed its way into my heart. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it, either, ergo my use of it on this trip, but it isn’t a form of reading that I will ever adore. The Kindle makes reading feel quick and modern, when I’d rather reading felt like a journey and an immersion.

So I hope those of you not travelling will take a moment and give your nearest book a hug for me. Crack open that spine, sniff inside, and run an appreciative hand down the typed page. Maybe you can even feel the rise and fall of the type. Or maybe you’ll just feel the sensation of paper. Either way, I envy you and look forward to joining your book-holding ranks in another few weeks. Until then, I will undoubtedly continue to really and truly miss books. Sorry, Kindle.

July 16, 2015 at 4:10 am 1 comment

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Gabaldon_outlanderThere is a point in this novel in which Jamie, the main love interest, yells at Claire, the female protagonist, that he is sick and tired of finding himself in situations where people threaten to rape her and make him watch. Not only does that pretty much sum up the first half of the book, it is one of Jamie’s most sympathetic moments, as the reader, by this point, is heartily sick of it as well.

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon is the story of a woman named Claire Randall (nee Beauchamp) who, on a holiday with her husband in the Scottish Highlands in 1945, is accidentally transported back in time to 1743. Here, she meets with a number of Highlanders who are in the process of mounting a rebellion against the English king. Taken for an English spy, then a French spy, she is captured by the Scots and shipped off to a castle where, thanks to the skills she gained as a WWII combat nurse, she sets up a little physician’s practice.

The plot is a bit episodic and rambling, but generally pleasant in the first two-thirds or so. There’s intrigue, witchcraft, kidnapping, falls from horses, and — of course — sudden love and an arranged marriage. And there is a lot of sex, some of it nice, and some of it not. There’s also a weird preoccupation with whips that makes me think that E. L. James must have read this before writing Fifty Shades of Grey.

But rape, or the threat thereof, is a major theme in the book. (more…)

July 14, 2015 at 12:24 am 2 comments

‘Headstrong’ by Rachel Swaby

HeadstrongIn her Headstrong: 52 Women Who Changed Science — and the World, author Rachel Swaby provides 52 mini-biographies of the famous and forgotten women of scientific history. Each one is brief — too brief, I dare say — and begins with a snappy hook, followed by a recitation of each woman’s early life (and inevitable early calling to scientific endeavor), and a review of her incredible accomplishments.

As a lover of the history of science and women’s history more generally, I was charmed and intrigued by Swaby’s opening salvo in which she berates the New York Times for its sexist obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill (it began by calling her “world’s best mom” and praised her for following “her husband from job to job and [taking] eight years off from work to raise three children” before mentioning her scientific achievements). Swaby, understandably, took offense and was inspired to write Headstrong in hopes of taking one small step towards halting the all-too-common prioritzation of a woman’s professional accomplishments somewhere below her domestic ones.

It’s a great Introduction. Indeed, the Introduction is probably my favorite part of Headstrong. The rest of the book, I’m sorry to report, is hagiography, unapologetic and gleaming with fervor, in its purest form.

(more…)

July 8, 2015 at 5:30 am Leave a comment

Wedding Cake for Breakfast

13543014I have read this book three times now, and responded emotionally to different parts every single time. Wedding Cake for Breakfast is a collection of essays from both obscure and well-known writers about the first year of marriage. While that may sound like a very specific topic, the stories are as diverse as the marriages they represent; everything from unexpected May-December flings to green card marriages to third marriages overshadowed by the death of a previous spouse.

The first time I read this book, I badly wanted to be married. I spent a lot of time in my therapist’s office trying to figure out why my then-boyfriend hadn’t proposed. Unbeknownst to me, he was (in his wonderfully methodical way) already planning the proposal it would take him a year to fully execute.

I wanted to be married, I expected to be married, and I read this book as a primer. What could I expect once the wedding was over? What did people regret about their weddings? Did the relationships completely change? My main takeaways were that 1) people were more likely to regret big, fussy weddings than tiny ones and 2) marriage was awesome. I read it on my Kindle so no one could see what I was reading and feel sorry for the girl whose boyfriend wouldn’t propose.

The second time I read it, I was deep into my first year of marriage. Happy ending! But frankly, I was frustrated. I loved my husband — love was never an issue. But I secretly had hoped getting married would fix everything that was difficult in our relationship. We’d communicate better; we’d create some sort of chore system that would leave our house sparkling clean with little effort; the dog would suddenly become perfectly behaved, even.

Of course, none of this happened. We were married — why wasn’t everything perfect?

(more…)

July 7, 2015 at 12:19 am 2 comments

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