Adventures in Reading


Fiction: Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray, 1847-8 (Pt. 1)

“We are Turks with the affections of our women; and have made them subscribe to our doctrine too. We let their bodies go abroad liberally enough, with smiles and ringlets and pink bonnets to disguise them instead of veils and yakmaks. But their souls must be seen by only one man, and they obey not unwillingly, and consent to remain at home as our slaves—ministering to us and doing drudgery for us.”

The other evening I was in the mood to just read a big, thick book – seriously, these were the only qualities I was looking for. I scanned over Anna Karenina and An American Tragedy, and finally tucked away on the bottom of my shelf I found a dusty copy of William Makepeace Thackeray’s serial tale Vanity Fair. I purchased the book at least a year ago and have given no thought to reading it until now.

Vanity Fair (“A Novel Without a Hero,” but instead two heroines) is primarily the story of Rebecca Sharp and Amelia Sedley and their adventures and relations from finishing school through marriage through the Battle of Waterloo, etc. Thackeray has a robust cast of characters that he parades through Vanity Fair with delightful and witty insights and descriptions. The book is satiric, the book is critical, and (best of all) the book is enjoyable.

I was somewhat surprised by how readable the book is; I often find myself needing time to acclimate myself to period writing styles (such as Laurence Sterne or Jane Austen), but not with Vanity Fair. From chapter to chapter, Thackeray moves between different characters

Conclusion: Keeper.



Fiction: Days of Awe by Achy Obejas, 2001

Revolutions happen, I’m convinced, because intuition tells us we’re meant for a greater world. If this one were good enough, we’d settle, happy as hens, and never rise up. But we know better: We feel the urge, ardent and fallible as it may be, for a kind of continual transcendence” (italics from the original text).

Alejandro San Jose was born the day Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba and her family, like many others, left the country. And in Achy Obejas’ Days of Awe we experience Alejandro’s struggle to comprehend her family, her past, her culture, and herself as a cubana. The story covers a somewhat vague period of time in Alejandro’s adult life as she travels back and forth from Cuba and in and out of relationships.

The second book for my Lambda Challenge and, well really, just wow. Days of Awe is beautifully written and Obejas Some of my favorite passages were Obejas’ explanations of the Spanish language such as American’s use of the verb love versus the Cuban use of the verbs querer, amar, and gustar. Days of Awe explores a gamut of complexities from imperialism to Cuba’s revolution, Judaism and Catholocism, as well as thematic issues of secrecy. Obejas’s latest book Ruins is due out March of 2009.

Conclusion: Keeper.

Comments Off on Fiction: Days of Awe by Achy Obejas, 2001


Nonfiction: Writing Women in Central America by Laura Barbas-Rhoden, 2003

“Weapons, plots, violence. Lush landscapes and guerrillas. Central America is a site of danger (again), but not because of its revolutions. The danger is in words–the words of women.”

If you’re interested in feminism, literary criticism, women writers, historical perspective, and/or Central America, Laura Barbas-Rhoden’s Writing Women in Central America: Gender and the Fictionalization of History is a feast of information on the Central American authors Claribel Alegría, Rosario Aguilar, Gioconda Belli, and Tatiana Lobo and how these women reinterpret history through their fictional works.

Reading Barbas-Rhoden’s book was peculiar as I’ve never read any of the authors she critiques, but I was very attracted to the subject matter and I enjoy reading literary criticism. Though people frequently ascribe a stark contrast between nonfiction and fiction, Barbas-Rhoden’s book explores how the novel disrupts and adds to historical narrative, and frequently expresses the the silent Other: often women and indigenous populations. (This idea actually played a large part in a paper I wrote about Jane Austen.)

Not being familiar with the authors that are discussed was a definite draw back in that I had no point of reference. On the other hand, Barbas-Rhoden introduced me to some great and thoughtful women writers from Central America.



Reviewing the unfinished
November 19, 2008, 11:35 am
Filed under: thoughtful | Tags: , , , ,

For those of you who don’t have secret crushes on film critic Roger Ebert or who don’t want to adopt him, you may be out of the loop on some recent occurences known as Minutegate. In short, Ebert wrote and published a review on the film Tru Loved; a film he notes within the review that he didn’t finish:

Full disclosure. I lifted the words “San Francisco to conservative suburbia with her lesbian mothers” straight from the plot summary on IMDb.com, because I stopped watching the movie at the 00:08.05 point. IMDb is also where I found out about Bruce Vilanch’s dual role. I never did see the lesbian mothers or my friend Bruce. For “Tru Loved,” the handwriting was on the wall. The returns were in. The case was closed. You know I’m right. Or tell me I’m wrong.

Q. How can you give a one-star rating to a movie you didn’t sit through?

A. The rating only applies to the first eight minutes. After that, you’re on your own.

This got me thinking about my own little world of reviews and the times I’ve commented on books I simply couldn’t finish: Branchwater, The Turtle Moves!, I Am A Cat, Snow Falling on Cedars, The Forgery of Venus, and The Witches of Eastwick to name a few. Reasons to not finish a book range from reader’s block to a book just being sucky (in my opinion). But how do people feel about this? Thumbs up or thumbs down on explaining why you couldn’t make your way to the last page of a book?



Nonfiction: Things That Make Us [sic] by Martha Brockenbrough, 2008

“People who buy grammar books usually don’t need them, except to slam down upon the heads of others…”

After ReadWriteWeb’s article on “Errors By Bloggers Kill Credibility & Traffic, Study Finds,” it was most fortunate for me that I had a copy of Martha Brockenbrough’s Things That Make Us [sic] in my reading stack. Brockenbrough is the founder of The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar (SPOGG), which is known for sending out letters to correct everyone from politicians to hockey teams on their grammatical slips.

Embracing pop culture examples, Brockenbrough reviews the traditional language mishaps as well as expanding on some neglected and interesting bits: a list of commonly misspelled words (did you know spelling is linked to genetics?), a section on losing sentence weight like “began/started” and “could/would,” and a nice list of Latin words and usage (including two I regularly mix-up: e.g. and i.e.). Likewise, the book is full of interesting language nuances such as the Chicago Tribune’s attempt at spelling simplification, Jane Austen and JALATIN, and punctuation marks for irony from typographers.

Things That Make Us [sic] is mostly a guide for intermediate language users who already have some grasp on usage. Brockenbrough’s book is a review of grammar and also interspersed with some thoughtful commentary, such as the author’s thoughts on punctuation: “…we first used it to tell people when to breathe as they read out loud, later using it to help silent readers understand syntax. Punctuation isn’t meant to make the author’s state of mind clear. Well-chosen words do that, and the day serious writers turn to punctuation to communicate their ideas be be a :-( day, indeed.”

I confess that Brockenbrough’s book is not the grammar book for me and this has more to do with tone than content. I think language is a many splendored thing, but I believe that few individuals are actually experts and that the vast majority of people live (or struggle) somewhere within the vast spectrum of interlanguage. (Something I’m sure the author would concur with.) Brockenbrough’s tone goes a little too far towards picking on people than sympathizing and being helpful. In her chapter on malapropisms, Brockenbrough says “Mirth does not occur when a grown-up […] reaches into his box of words and pulls out the wrong one,” and though the author does not explicity say she supports this attitude she doesn’t disagree. I think if we embraced our embarassment a little more mirthfully, we might be more open to learning a little bit more.

Conclusion: Tosser.

(Donated to the Writing Center.)



Fiction: Carmilla by J. Sheridan Le Fanu, 1872

“The effect of the full moon in such a state of brilliancy was manifold. It acted on dreams, it acted on lunacy, it acted on nervous people, it had marvelous physical influence connected with life.”

J. Sheridan LeFanu’s Carmilla is a novella about vampires and a predecessor to Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Laura and her father inhabit a lonely schloss in “Styria;” after a carriage accident outside of their home, a strange and “invalid” girl is left with the family. Laura and the girl Carmilla recollect each other from a dream-like experience from their childhoods. The family’s experience with Carmilla is surreal and haunting; the neighboring villages are plagued with some sort of feverish, wasting disease, which kills a variety of female inhabitants. The emphasis in Carmilla, unlike in Dracula, is with female subjects as both predators and victims.

This year has turned into my year of vampires, I suppose, and my interest in Carmilla was peaked while reading the introduction to Dracula. Though LeFanu’s work is easily solved approximately half way through and there are some significant unanswered questions, Carmilla is bother a curious and interesting look at vampirism.



Fiction: Chuck Palahniuk’s Snuff, 2008
November 1, 2008, 1:57 pm
Filed under: book reviews, fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

“One dude stood all afternoon at the buffet wearing just his boxers, licking the orange dust off barbecued potato chips. Next to him, a dude was scooping into the onion dip and licking the dip off the chip. The same soggy chip, scoop after scoop. Dudes have a million ways of peeing on what they claim as just their own.”

Terrible, terrible, terrible cover. As a reader I was immediately repulsed by the hideousness of the cover and I must thank the library for removing the jackets of hardback books or I’m sure I would never have given this book a chance. (Even looking at the image to the left has my eye twitching! Seriously, who gave the okay on this?)

The term “snuff” is usually used as a reference to violent pornography that depicts the death or murder of the subject, and porn being porn this subject is often a woman. In Chuck Palahniuk’s most recent novel Snuff , an aging porn star is attempting to break the world record by having sex with 600 men and resulting from a variety of concerns trepidation unfolds through most of the novel that this set could easily become a snuff film. Told through the voices of four characters, three men labeled as their numbers and the organizational guru Sheila, Snuff unfolds in the waiting room of the porn shoot.

I really didn’t think I’d be able to stomach this book at all because of political reasons, but I managed to work my way through and even finish the novel. And what is most curious is that with such a premise as Palahniuk establishes nothing much happens and the conclusion is just terrible. Now as I’ve said that I’d still like to chime in and say that Palahniuk seems (and is certainly accredited) to be a smart writer, but with Snuff the only reason I continued to read was because the random assortment of sex history and trivia ranging from famous pornographers to Hollywood actors of the silent and silver screen was kind of interesting.

Palahniuk briefly dabbles in the complexity of pornography, but it’s just… not very good. I did finish the novel and it was a quick (and thin) read, but Snuff is definitely a shabby read from who is usually described as a promising author.

Conclusion: Returned to the library.