Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Reading Anna Karenina: Part I

When I stopped by Idlewild in July to discover August’s book club selection, I learned something unsettling: We were completely bypassing August and meeting again in September…and the book was Anna Karenina. I looked at it sitting there, so big and daunting, and promptly turned around and walked out of the store. I thought, “Anna Karenina?? REALLY?? This isn’t 11th grade English! If I had wanted to read this, I’d have read it by now!!!!”

So I had completely decided to skip this one. Anna Karenina…HA. But then a couple weeks passed; I remembered that book club is one of my favorite extra-curricular activities, and I didn’t want to miss another meeting with no excuse besides not wanting to read the book. And I discovered that the Brooklyn Public Library had the exact version (the newest translation) we were reading available as an eBook and therefore would require literally no effort to attain…so I gave in and started reading Anna Karenina.

Anna Karenina is not a difficult read, but it’s not exactly a quick one, either. It’s a “story told in eight parts,” and I made it through four of them before my two-week digital check-out expired. But that was perfect, because I needed a break from Anna Karenina.

What do those few of you who don’t know much about Anna Karenina need to know? Russia. Social rules. Love affair.

What have I learned so far?

  • Tolstoy is detailed in his writing…painstakingly detailed. He’s created these interesting, dynamic characters but sometimes goes into so much detail that it becomes incredibly boring. It’s like he starts writing about one of them and then gets carried away and keeps going and going to the point where you’re like “Ok, great, I see that Levin got a kick out of manual labor, but geez I don’t need to know about every swoop of his scythe.”
  • The story can drag…but so can the characters. They all have some sort of “falling from grace” moment, some indication that they aren’t easily pigeonholed as the certain type of person you initially took them to be. You think Levin is this socially-awkward, quiet type that you kinda feel sorry for while cheering him on, and then he gets really critical of the peasants and that just seems sorta uncalled for. Vronksy seems like the knight in shining armor type, but then you find out he’s in debt and tries to off himself because he just can’t deal. No one’s perfect, I guess.
  • On the same note, I don’t particularly like any of the characters. Most of us know how the story ends, so I guess I keep reading just to see how it gets there. It is like a soap opera, but a demure, high-collared one.
Since I never had to read this in high school and thus missed the mega-analysis that English teachers force upon you, I feel like there’s probably a lot I’m missing. But that’s part of the reason I chose to read this with book club, because I’ll get more out of it than if I chose to read it alone. (But let’s be serious, that wouldn’t have ever happened anyway.)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The JUV FIC Corner presents Anastasia Krupnik

One of my favorite series in middle school was Lois Lowry’s Anastasia Krupnik series. I remembered one very important covetous thing about Anastasia Krupnik—her room was in the tower of an old Victorian house. That was all I remembered about this series beyond remembering that I really liked the books.

I grabbed the first in the Anastasia series, the eponymous Anastasia Krupnik, from the Nashville Public Library when I was home last month. [Brooklyn PL, I cannot figure out what fills the shelves at my local branch because you NEVER HAVE WHAT I NEED!] I sped through it and…realized I don’t think I’d ever read the first in the series before. I mean, I remembered NOTHING from this book. I didn’t remember any plot points from this one, but it serves as an introduction…

Definitely the cover I remember.*

Anastasia is a 10-year-old only child living in an apartment in Cambridge, MA. She’s a likable character, now and especially to my 10- to 12-year-old self. She’s spunky (the good JUV FIC female characters always are!) and creative, smart and opinionated.  Her parents are just as smart and quirky (a professor father and artist mother) and treat Anastasia like a person and not just a kid—they sing opera and listen to classical music and read poetry, let Anastasia drink the first sip when they open a beer, and tease yet appease her childish whims.

Well, since I didn’t remember the first one in the series, I moved onto the second, Anastasia Again. Now, Anastasia and her parents have moved to the suburbs (in the Victoria house with a tower! WIN!), she has a new little brother named Sam, and Anastasia deals with meeting new friends and keeping in touch with her old ones through a series of humorous hijinks that can only be signature of Anastasia. I read this one and it was exactly as I hoped it would be—all the memories came flooding back and I remembered all the silly things that happened!

There are several reasons I loved Anastasia Again this time around:

  1. I can see how stories and characters like this deeply influenced me as a kid. Anastasia and her family lived in a very academic, cultured environment, and that’s something I always strived for growing up (even as a kid). They listened to classical music and (probably) watched PBS. Anastasia and her parents had a relationship that was much more than parent/child; it was more equal, as a friendship, with some mentorship thrown in.
  2. It demonstrates a worldly view that I think is really important, and fun, for kids to have growing up. Lowry describes the cultural diversity in the parks of Cambridge, the lifestyles of persons with different interests and of different ages. Aside from eventually having my own kids that I am excited to expose to new things, this is also one of the main reasons I am so excited to be a librarian and have books like this available to share with readers.
  3. Anastasia is a JUV FIC series, but it’s not written as if it’s directed only towards kids. Lowry talks about things that surprised me a bit, things that only adults would get—mention of Playboy and pornography and curse words (though we know kids understand those). Frankly, I’m surprised they survived publication [though I have read a couple notes that Anastasia books have been challenged in libraries for their language].
I thought Anastasia Again was much better than the first, and I may keep on with reading the series since they’re all available as eBooks from the Brooklyn PL (FINALLY, Brooklyn!). It’s fun to see now, as an adult, how books I read in my childhood/youth have probably shaped my world view, and I’m certain that Anastasia had some influence somewhere in there.
*Note: When I write these JUV FIC posts, I try to use the cover images that I remember as a kid. Looking at the Anastasia covers, there are so many editions and I remember them all!

Monday, August 8, 2011

The English and their drama

There’s been buzz for the past few months, both in the blogosphere and beyond, about the English series Downton Abbey (aired in the U.S. as a PBS Masterpiece Classic), and I’m just going to contribute to that buzz. Colin and I discovered this mini-series off the recommendation of a friend, and, conveniently, it’s available streaming through Netflix.

Downton Abbey follows the lives of the wealthy Crawley family, owners of the fictional Downton Abbey, and their numerous servants in the years just preceding World War I. With the sinking of the Titanic, along goes the two male heirs presumptive of Downton, and the Crawleys must determine who will become Lord Grantham’s heir. Most of the heir drama centers around Lady Mary, the eldest of the three Crawley daughters, whose future husband will most likely become the heir. But they also mention a lot of stuff about an “entail” but I don’t know much about English inheritance rules and therefore still don’t really understand what all that’s about.

On the servant side of Downton, hierarchy rules, from butler and housekeeper, to valet, lady’s maids, footmen, housemaids,  down to kitchen maid. Each member of the Downton staff has their own story and their own history. A staff so numerous with sometimes clashing personalities has the ability to affect the entire house. The line between the Crawleys and their employee is clear, but that’s not to say that relationships are cold, nor strictly formal. Friendships, loyalties, and frustrations abound.

So, ohmygod, is Downton addicting. We started the series last Sunday night and had finished all seven episodes 24 hours later. The plot lines are entertaining and just the right amount of drama. The acting is superb. The casting is perfection. Maggie Smith, always entertaining herself, as the Dowager Countess has some of the best one-liners that have graced my ears in a good long time.

If you like ensemble casts, watch this. If you’re a booknerd and like stylized period pieces, watch this. If you like subtle English humor that often jabs at Americans, watch this. AND if you want to get hooked to a new series that is COMING BACK IN JANUARY ON PBS [or fall 2011 for our English friends] so you’ll have something exciting to look forward to….watch this!

Thursday, August 4, 2011

World Party: Corrida de toros…olé!

About a week before the end of the month, I realized I had not yet read a book for the World Reading Challenge! July’s country was Spain, and, though I’m sure there are much better books representative of Spain by actual Spanish authors, I chose The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway; I’d never read any Hemingway and the library had tons of copies immediately available. [What did I read in high school, you may ask? Apparently not the classics.]

One reason I’d never read any Hemingway is because I was intimidated by his writing. I always perceived it as difficult—full of symbolism and themes and motifs and all that crap that makes it a high school English requirement. I thought he was something like Faulkner with the rambling and incoherence. But I was quickly informed that is not the case with Hemingway. He writes in short, staccato sentences with lots of short dialogue. Apparently this is his trademark. Thanks, high school English, for teaching me about important American authors.

Another reason I’d avoided Hemingway kind of goes with my first reason; I assumed his books were all depressing and serious. Since this is the only book I’ve read of his up to this point, I’m not sure I’ve been all wrong on this assumption, but The Sun Also Rises is less dark and difficult than I’d expected. It’s more Kerouac and Salinger than Faulkner in terms of writing style and character. Youths of a post-war generation aimlessly wandering the world…eating, drinking, dating, and thinking of little else. The power struggle between young men and women. These are the same youths of other high school reading classics that just seem so miserable and never admitting it, so lost on their quest to find something of meaning in the world. These characters are never particularly likable. They drink and smoke and have intellectual conversations and arguments usually over nothing, and are generally just so lonely.

The Sun Also Rises is probably most well-known for its focus on bullfighting (hence Spain). I’m trying to read into this book as I would have in high school [by reading the Sparknotes alongside to figure out what the hell someone can interpret from this and test me on]. The bullfighting, I’m certain, plays a huge symbolic role—seduction and danger that parallels character drama in the text. But frankly, that is not what I thought of as I read it. I thought, and call me stupid if you want, “They always kill the bulls in the end???” I’ve seen the bullfighting arenas in Valencia, Madrid, and Cordoba, but I guess I just never gave them that much thought. I didn’t know they always killed them. Poor bulls.

Other than the geographical setting and focus on the bulls, I didn’t feel much sense of place (of Spain) with this book, which is why I’m certain there would’ve been better options for this month’s country of choice. I guess I’m glad to have read this so I can now actively participate in a Hemingway discussion. [Coincidentally, I just read an article about him and his Ketchum, Idaho, home in an in-flight magazine.] Can’t say I’m too inspired to read any of his other works, though.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Vacation Reading, Part III

The books I read in Florida really deserve their own posts, but work has been busy and I’m not going to drag these reading compilation posts out any longer than I must!

So, for the third and final chapter of my vacation reading: What I read in Florida

The Penderwicks: A Summer Tale of Four Sisters, Two Rabbits, and a Very Interesting Boy, the first in a newish children’s series by Jeanne Birdsall, is just the kind of book/series I feel I am ALWAYS LOOKING FOR! It’s got that innocent, old-school kinda style of the books I grew up reading as a kid—that simple and timeless quality that I love in Lois Lowry and Beverly Cleary books. This story could’ve been set on 2010 or 1960, and it wouldn’t make much of a difference. The Penderwicks are four sisters—Rosalind (age 12), Skye (11), Jane (10), and Batty (4)—who live with their widowed father and pet dog, Hound. In this intro to the series, the Penderwick crew is on summer vacation in the Berkshire Mountains where the sisters meet a young gardener, two rabbits, and a young boy with a horrid mother.

Birdsall creates her story with the day-to-day occurrences that so deeply affect those with an adolescent mentality. She does a good job of creating four distinct and unique characters with the Penderwick sisters who each experience and react to things in her own way. Each character has her own adventure, which is nice because you feel like you know each of them equally as well. There are, so far, three books in the Penderwick series, and I’ve already started number 2. These are the kinds of books that hooked me when I was kid because they were simple enough to be familiar and relatable but featured new adventures and settings that I did not live. And now I like them for the same reason, and because much of my mentality is still that of an 11-year-old; I’m always on a quest to find things that feel as simple, innocent, and fun as childhood.

Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher is a chunkster I read about on a blog and decided I must read, because it sounded like an epic coming-of-age story centered around WWII. The edition I received through Paperbackswap looks like a romance novel. For this reason, I have been saving it for a beach read, just because it looks the part.

The story opens in 1936 when Judith Dunbar is fourteen and beginning boarding school in England after her father’s job transfers the family to Singapore. With a couple of aunts being the only relatives Judith has left in Cornwall, she befriends a classmate named Loveday Carey-Lewis and becomes a surrogate member of the Carey-Lewis clan. At the heart of Coming Home are the two frontiers on which Judith grows up and learns to navigate the world independently; she must grow and learn as any normal teenager, but she also must grow in response to the omnipresent war. Love, longing, sadness, independence—all that goes with your typical coming-of-age story is here.

Well, this book is long and I didn’t finish it until after I got back to New York. And you know what this means? I was ridiculed many times for reading “something that looks like my grandma would like.” So I want to thank you, St. Martin’s Paperbacks, for designing such AWFUL book covers. Pilcher’s books were republished recently with non-romance novel covers (shown), thank god, so maybe they won’t be so judged by the cover. Regardless, I loved this as I figured I would. I was sucked in for 1000 pages of adolescent English wartime drama, and then I discovered there’s a miniseries version available instantly on Netflix! I’m also planning on checking out Pilcher’s other non-romance novels, and I don’t care who makes fun of me on the L train.