Friday, November 30, 2012

The Hobbit: Week Four

"There are no safe paths in this part of the world. Remember you are over
the Edge of the Wild now, and in for all sorts of fun wherever you go."

The Hobbit audiobook cover
I am participating in the "The Hobbit" Read-a-Long instigated by Unputdownables.  (I know the two the's seem redundant, but the title has one!)  As I previously mentioned, this is my first time reading The Hobbit! Some of my observations may seem like no-brainers, but I hope you can forgive my naive perspective.

This week we were to read chapters 7 and 8.  This sees the adventurers coming to Beorn's Hall, parting ways with Gandalf, and dealing with forest spiders.

Of course, the journey actually begins with the eagles transporting them to a great rock.  Luckily, Gandalf knows the proper response to the eagles' formal parting words:
"'Farewell!' they cried, 'wherever you fare, till your eyries receive you at the journey's end!' That is the polite thing to say among eagles.
'May the wind under your wings bear you where the sun sails and the moon walks,' answered Gandalf, who knew the correct reply."
Manners and proper etiquette seem to figure into The Hobbit repeatedly.  Missing them creates conflict, while following them seems to yield the best results.  All I can think is, how very English!

It figures in again when Gandolf brings the group in to meet Beorn.  He is conscious of what will threaten him, and has the dwarves arrive in small groups.  Anything not to make him angry. 

Tolkien introduces another type of creature in this chapter - the "skin-changer:"
 "He changes his skin: sometimes he is a huge black bear, sometimes he is a great strong black-haired man with huge arms and a great beard."
Beorn ends up being a huge asset to the travelers, as he sends them off with supplies and food.  I found a few recipes for twice-baked cakes that I might try making eventually, just for kicks.

We learn more about Gandalf in this chapter, how clever he is, particularly in his storytelling.
 "The interruptions had really made Beorn more interested in the story, and the story had kept him from sending the dwarves off at once like suspicious beggars."
All I could think when I read this, is that Tolkien is Gandalf.  Or Gandalf is Tolkien.  Either way, they both seem to understand how to keep us listening, even if they are intentionally doing so.

Gandalf just can't wait to leave.  "After all this is not my adventure," he warns them as they approach the Carrock.  Still, the dwarves protest when he leaves them at the edge of Mirkwood, the greatest of the forests in the Northern world.  It becomes clear by the end of chapter 8 that this is largely because the dwarves need a leader outside of themselves.  Against all expectations, they start looking to Bilbo for answers and direction, especially after Thorin is kidnapped by wood-elves, which is how this section ends.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Sharks's Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China

Shark's Fin And Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in ChinaShark's Fin And Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memoir of Eating in China by Fuchsia Dunlop
Around the World: 59 of 52 books
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are books about the food of a place, and there are books about culinary adventures. Shark's Fin and Sichuan Pepper is more of a food ethnography, as the reader experiences the specific food cultures of China along with Fuchsia. She morphs from being scared of gelatinous texture to thinking more like a Chinese person than an English person in regard to food.
"Texture is the last frontier for Westerners learning to appreciate Chinese food. Cross it, and you're really inside. But the way there is a wild journey that will bring you face to face with your own worst prejudices...."
The majority of the book focuses on food from the Sichuan Province, as she spent many years there, first as a student and then just as an expatriate. Other chapters dabble in other regions and their cuisines, serving as a reminder of what a variety of people groups and heritages various parts of China encompasses.

This is a journey I could never take, largely because I do not eat meat, but even more so because this was a journey that spanned fifteen years. This is not a tourist encounter with "weird food" that lasts only two weeks. This is an adulthood-long dive into the layers and history of Chinese food. Her background as a journalist, and growing up in an international-student-friendly home, both contributed to her ability to take on this type of adventure.

This book made me HUNGRY. I ordered dan-dan noodles locally, knowing they don't even come close to the version she was describing that she purchased from a street vendor. I ended up making scallion pancakes (flatcakes) with dipping sauce, which according to her, would probably most likely be made in a northern region where the "wheat-eaters" live.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Big Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan

Big Breasts and Wide HipsBig Breasts and Wide Hips by Mo Yan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Around the World: 58 of 52 books for 2012

I was surprised when Mo Yan won the Nobel Prize for Literature, because I had never heard of him. I did a little research and discovered that he once said, "If you like, you can skip my other novels, but you must read Big Breasts and Wide Hips. In it I wrote about history, war, politics, hunger, religion, love, and sex." (Li-Chun Lin, "My Three American Books.") The name was intriguing too, so I tracked down a copy.

I haven't read Steinbeck for years (I'll be getting back to him next year when I finally tackle East of Eden for my California read), but the style of Mo Yan's writing reminds me a lot of Steinbeck. Gritty details, blood, guts, sex, and people barely scraping by an existence. The setting is different, the particular historical events are unique to China (spanning from early 1900s into the 1960s with the famine and beyond), but my mind kept making the comparison.

There are a lot of breasts in this book. It grew tiresome, actually, and the sometimes-narrator of Jintong is even more so. He never really gets accustomed to eating food, and subsists on breast milk even in his 40s. The narration actually goes back and forth between first and third person, and I preferred being told about the story rather than being inside Jintong's head.

Here is the bit from where the title is taken:
"My sister's figure had developed rapidly after eating the eel; her breasts were the size of pears, beautifully shaped, and she was surely destined to carry on the glorious tradition of Shangguan women, with big breasts and wide hips."

Oh yes, Jintong spends a lot of energy coveting his sister's breasts. But not in a sexual way as much as a disturbing food-source way. Uncomfortable? Yeah. Try 500+ pages of it!

As usual, I feel like I know far too little about China's history, although I have read that the author takes what works for his story and tweaks the rest. In that sense it isn't historical fiction at all, and sometimes even jumps over into magical realism (one of the sisters turns into a bird, etc.). Most of the book is description and narration, with very little dialogue, meaning that it does pass rather slowly.

Friday, November 23, 2012

The Hobbit Read-A-Long: Week Three

The Hobbit audiobook coverAs a participant in the "The Hobbit" Read-a-Long instigated by Unputdownables, this week we read chapter six.  We must have only been assigned one chapter because of the holiday, but I was halfway through chapter seven before I realized.  I'll keep my comments to what happens in chapter 6.

I have been enjoying the characterization of Gandalf this week, who seems far more quirky that he is portrayed in the films.  (I apologize that I keep comparing him to the film version, but this is my only point of reference for Tolkien.)

He is a little full of himself, actually:
"The wizard, to tell the truth, never minded explaining his cleverness more than once...."

Bilbo is still being reprimanded for his love of food, including this gem:
"...We must just tighten our belts and trudge on - or we shall be made into supper, and that will be much worse than having none ourselves."

Listening to the audio is dangerous!  I was laughing so hard at the description of the dwarves climbing the trees to get away from the wolves.  I wonder if they'll manage that scene in the movie, because I would love to see it.  

I'm enjoying this Read-A-Long.  It isn't just the other bloggers who are doing the same schedule.  Everyone is coming out of the wood-work to engage in conversation about this book that is well-loved by many of my friends.  Some have started re-reading it because they couldn't stand it, once I started talking about.  To those friends - thank you and hello!

I mentioned when I introduced this project that I was sad not to have read this book as a child, because I feel like it would have been a seminal part of my childhood reading experience.  I e-mailed my Dad to ask him about it, and like I thought I vaguely remembered, he said he owns the book, as well as an ivory-cover three-book set of Lord of the Rings.  He read them as a youth, and I got the feeling he may go dig them up and read them again.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dinner with Lenny by Jonathan Cott

Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard BernsteinDinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein by Jonathan Cott
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

While this is no more than an interview transcription, this is a wonderful capture of one of the most dynamic composers and conductors of the 20th century. Jonathan Cott sat down with Leonard Bernstein for "dinner," which was more of a 12 hour interview marathon. He published an excerpt version in Rolling Stone in 1989, the year before Bernstein's death. Now it is being released in its entirety.

What I love about this is how much Bernstein comes through, from the musical examples he sings or jumps up to play on the piano, to his teasing of the interviewer. I felt like I was having dinner with him too, and immediately went out in search of the works and recordings that were mentioned. (In fact, I'm listening to the orchestral transcriptions he did of the Beethoven String Quartet Op. 131 as I write this review.)

Bernstein was sometimes criticized by other conductors for being overly emotional in his interpretation of work. His response: "The other guys just haven't got the courage to play what Mahler wrote, that's all. I'm a composer, and I understand what he meant. That's the difference."

He also expressed frustration over orchestras being boxed by sound that had to do with a conductor or aesthetic, rather than attending to the intentions of the composer.
"Every orchestra can and should be made to sound like the composer it's playing, and not like itself - Haydn in Haydn's style, Ravel in Ravel's style, and Mahler in Mahler's style... and not with a "Philadelphia" or a "Berlin Philharmonic" sound. I'm against 'sounds.'"
Bernstein has quite a bit to say about the human response to music as well:
"There's an inner geography of the human being that can be captured by music, and not by anything else."
He goes on to discuss how children have innate musical ability, and what blocks people develop through upbringing and experience.

Overall, this is a quick and enjoyable read, and should be accompanied with a good dose of listening to Bernstein, both as a composer and conductor.

This is more of a note to myself, but I loved that the author read this excerpt of Song of Myself by Walt Whitman to Bernstein, and captured his response.

"The orchestra whirls me wider than Uranus flies,
It wrenches such ardors from me I did not know I possess'd them,
It sails me, I dab with bare feet, they are lick'd by the indolent waves,
I am cut by bitter and angry hail, I lose my breath,
Steep'd amid honey'd morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death,
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call being."

Two Books from Libya

I feel like pairing these two books because both are set in Libya, both are written by authors with ties to Libya, and both feature main characters who are on the outskirts of the violent changes in their world.

In the Country of MenIn the Country of Men by Hisham Matar
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Publisher summary: Libya, 1979. Nine-year-old Suleiman’s days are circumscribed by the narrow rituals of childhood: outings to the ruins surrounding Tripoli, games with friends played under the burning sun, exotic gifts from his father’s constant business trips abroad. But his nights have come to revolve around his mother’s increasingly disturbing bedside stories full of old family bitterness. And then one day Suleiman sees his father across the square of a busy marketplace, his face wrapped in a pair of dark sunglasses.  Suleiman is soon caught up in a world he cannot hope to understand—where the sound of the telephone ringing becomes a portent of grave danger; where his mother frantically burns his father’s cherished books; where a stranger full of sinister questions sits outside in a parked car all day; where his best friend’s father can disappear overnight, next to be seen publicly interrogated on state television. 

Some authors make a political statement with their stories, powerful because of the emotional connections we make as readers to the circumstances. In this case, and despite the multiple awards and award nominations, I felt the story was a thin veil over circumstances that the author wanted to talk about. The nine year old makes confusing decisions, isn't afraid when a normal child would be, leading to destruction around him. He felt emotionally distant. At the same time, the author ends up not giving the reader very much background information on what is actually going on, since he tries to keep it to the world of that same nine year old. I'd have to go read another book to understand the context. I would prefer if it was all included here!

At the same time, I wonder if that was the author's intent - to portray the confusion a child would feel during war, revolution, and oppression. In his small universe, the parts of life he depends on - family, friends, school - are all disrupted by forces he isn't sure if he should fear or show loyalty to. He suspects his Dad may be a traitor, what is a child to do when he isn't told everything?

The Bleeding of the StoneThe Bleeding of the Stone by Ibrahim Kuni
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

"I tell you. Be patient. How can you live in the desert without patience? The man who was never granted its contentment will never be happy there. I tell you. Use patience and cunning, they're the secrets of the desert...."
Asouf is a Bedouin living alone with his sheep in the cave-laden mountains of Libya. This novel tells his story and also stories of several surrounding characters, while also dipping into magical realism and mysticism.

Friday, November 16, 2012

The Hobbit: Week Two

"We must not miss the road, or we shall be done for."

The Hobbit audiobook cover
As a participant in the "The Hobbit" Read-a-Long instigated by Unputdownables, this week we read chapters three through five.

I am so glad I'm listening to this in audio.  Even though I can read the eBook much more quickly, being told the story seems to be the ideal experience.  Chapter III has a lot of great place names that add to the appeal of the storytelling - the edge of the Wild, the fair valley of Rivendell, the Last Homely House, the Misty Mountains... it makes me feel nostalgic despite never reading this as a child.  Maybe I am also remembering my summers spent playing in the woods and mapping out my own kingdom.

Another thing I love about the storytelling is the obvious foreshadowing.  It builds my anticipation as a reader that something exciting is certainly going to happen, and soon.
"That, of course, is the dangerous part about caves: you don't know how far they go back, sometimes, or where a passage behind my lead to, or what is waiting for you inside."
What is even better about that tiny little statement is that the reader may think that it was resolved when the goblins attacked, but chapter V has Bilbo Baggins meeting Gollum for the first time, far deeper into the caves.  The goblins seem inconsequential by the time this happens, because everyone knows the ring and Gollum are the root of the story.

I did end up with a few questions/observations about the creatures in The Hobbit, and I'm hoping the few readers of my blog can help me out.

1. What is the difference between a troll and a goblin?  Trolls threatened early on, talked about eating the dwarves, and they got past them.  The goblins seemed similar.  I don't see a difference in fear, although the goblins seem to be smarter or at least act more rapidly.  Any insight?

2. I was surprised to read Gollum described as "dark as darkness" since the movie version has him pretty much pale as snow.  I wonder if people who were avid fans of the book were bothered by this change.  Maybe it doesn't matter.  It is clear that Tolkien describes him this way to make him practically invisible in the cave, even without the powers of the ring.

3. Gollum is scarier than I expected.  He eats goblins, after all.  Chomp.  I always found him a little pitiful in the movies, rather than threatening. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was in a rush to finish this tonight before the National Book Award winner was announced, and I got to the last page right as the ceremony was starting. It ended up winning this year's award, so I'm glad I chose this novel to read over the other two I didn't get to.

In an Ojibwe community, a mother is brutally raped. The novel is told from her son's perspective as their family tries to heal and they attempt to catch who did this horrible thing. Most of it is told in the time of the story, but occasionally the son steps back and sprinkles in details of things that happen in his adult life, such as his marriage and his career. You know his friend doesn't last into his adulthood before you know how or why he dies.

Overall, I feel this novel suffers a bit in its storytelling techniques. The story goes along rapidly, very action focused, until around page 115 where you take a side trip to one person's background story. This happens a few more times, but not often enough for it to flow easily in and out the narrative. They serve a specific purpose to give the son details he needs, but I felt they were a little forced. The novel also reads so easily that it is almost to its detriment. I fear I may not remember it for very long.

There are a lot of surrounding issues - Native American vs. American law, jurisdiction issues, poverty, inequality, etc. The author knows them well. I would like to read more of her books, and plan to next year when I do the Around the USA in 52 Books challenge.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Hobbit: Week One

The Hobbit audiobook cover
I am participating in the "The Hobbit" Read-a-Long instigated by Unputdownables.  (I know the two the's seem redundant, but the title has one!)  As I previously mentioned, this is my first time reading The Hobbit! Some of my observations may seem like no-brainers, but I hope you can forgive my naive perspective.

For those of you interested in exactly how this is going to go, we are taking two months and posting discussion posts on a weekly basis.  There are set chapters to read for each week, and this week was chapters I-II.  If you are curious about my Whispersync experience, I listened to the audio entirely, and every time I checked in on the Kindle app, the page had switched to wherever I was in the audio.  Cool.

One of the most important details I learned in these chapters is that hobbits do not crave adventure.  My only exposure to their world is from watching the movie versions of The Lord of the Rings, where of course all we see is hobbits going on adventures.  There is some nostalgia for their lives back at the Shire, of course, but I didn't know what a "typical" hobbit was like.

"'Very pretty!' said Gandalf. 'But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone.'

'I should think so - in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them,' said our Mr. Baggins...."
I'm just now noticing the lack of commas in the dialogue, seeing as I listened rather than read the text.  It is a little disturbing, isn't it?  Sidenote: I keep hearing Bilbo in Jim Broadbent's voice.  Maybe it is the naivete and generosity that makes me think of some of Broadbent's roles, that wide-eyed open face.

The first two chapters do an excellent job of introducing us to Bilbo Baggins and contrasting him to the other types of characters.  Gandalf brings the dwarves in, and they require so much food, the hobbit housewifes around after them, cooking and cleaning while they tell stories and sing.  (By the way, the reader of the audio, Rob Inglis, does a great job with dwarf voices, even in song.)

It is clear that Bilbo Baggins is going to have a major experience.  The dwarves are skeptical, but Gandalf has his reasons:
"'Let's have no more argument. I have chosen Mr. Baggins and that ought to be enough for all of you... There is a lot more in him than you guess, and a deal more than he has any idea of himself. You may (possibly) all live to thank me yet.'"
And we are off on our adventure!

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins

Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern AgeRites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age by Modris Eksteins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book for one of my online book clubs.  I don't read a lot of history, despite recently listening to The Disappearing Spoon.  I would never have come across this book on my own, and that, boys and girls, is why book clubs are so amazing.

This well-researched and well-written history spans about 35 years, from the Parisian performance of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" to brief mentions of the end of WWII. Different sections focus in on different elements of the arts and political upheaval, including chapters highlighting specific cultural works, cities, or moments in time. I am still pondering the ongoing connection between societal change that could simultaneously create the environment where such important musical and artistic developments could happen, while also being the same breeding ground for devastating war. This makes me uncomfortable, somehow, as if in appreciating the art I have also condoned the violence.

The trio of Stravinsky the composer, Diaghilev the founder of the Ballets Russes, and Nijinksy the choreographer were instrumental in the infamous production of The Rite of Spring in 1913. Intentionally manufactured for a reaction, the author argues that the audience is integral to the experience of the work.
"Surprise is freedom. The audience, in Diaghilev's view, could be as important to the experience of art as the performers. The art would not teach - that would make it subservient; it would excite, provoke, inspire. It would unlock experience."

Eksteins comes back to this argument about every seminal work he mentions, that it isn't just the work itself, but the reaction to it.

When he discusses the end of "The Great War" in the context of books like All Quiet on the Western Front, Eksteins says, "Art had become more important than history." Events fueled the art, and art played a key role in determining events. This is an interesting parallel to follow throughout the book. There are a lot of other bits I am tempted to quote, but they are bits from other sources that Eksteins used in his well-documented research. (I may need to go back and read more of Ludwig Feuerbach and Rainer Maria Rilke.)

Over all, this is a great read. I did get bogged down a bit in the middle when the emphasis was on life in the trenches, but the constant connection to the arts and philosophy saved it from only being about sand bags filled with rotting corpses.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A NovelBilly Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this because it is a finalist for the 2012 National Book Award. I never would have picked it up based on the description, because I don't generally read war novels or watch war movies. This year, two of the five finalists have to do with soldiers recently returned from the war.

Billy Lynn is one of the Bravo Squad, home from one tour in Iraq on a "victory tour" after an exciting day dealing with insurgents was filmed and broadcast by Fox News. The entire novel takes place on Thanksgiving Day, most of it at a Dallas Cowboys football game where the living members of the Bravo Squad are going to be honored.

Despite my disinterest in the subject matter, I have to applaud Ben Fountain for superb writing. He captures people very well, and every character in the novel reads realistically. Nobody is cut/dry black/white, but everyone and everything is far more complicated. He shows a deep understanding of the internal conflicts in being a soldier and how difficult coming back home can be. The best moments for me were when people would talk to Billy and he would zone out; suddenly there would only be a few words on the page, generic patriotic words parroted by well meaning Texans, in an accent. It is like you get to experience exactly what he is hearing (and more importantly, what he's tuning out).

Less believable were some of the side story lines, such as the serious one-day romance with the cheerleader and the movie option of their experience. I enjoyed this novel far more than I expected.

"Hector is nodding. 'That's sort of my whole point. What I got out here sucks, so I might as well join.'
'What else is there,' Mango says.
'What else is there,' Hector agrees.
'What else is there,' Billy echoes, but he's thinking of home."

This is one of the bits I read out loud because this woman is a very minor character, but this is a vivid depiction:
"...Then he's being introduced to Mrs. Norm, a well-maintained lady of a certain age with a poufed-out cloud of dark hair. She's pretty. Her dark violet eyes don't quite focus. She smiles but it's purely social, gives nothing of herself...."

Near the end, as Billy thinks about heading back to Iraq:
"Just assume you're going to die, so they were instructed the week before deploying to Iraq. Affirmative! Roger that! Sir yes sir! Carnage awaits us, we are the ones who will not be saved, the poor sad doomed honorably fucked front line who will fight them over there so as not to fight them here! A harsh thing for any young man to hear, but this is part of every youth's education in the world, learning the risks are never fully revealed until you commit."

Harsh, but Ben Fountain isn't afraid to spell out the bleak future that these soldiers are not able to escape. It colors every minute of their interactions in the states.

Poetry Finalists for the 2012 National Book Award

I had the opportunity to read all the poetry nominated for the National Book Award this year prior to the award being announced.  After Nikki Finney won last year's award for Head Off and Split, my favorite volume of last year's nominees, I decided to keep up with poetry for this award even before novels.  (Novel count - almost done with 2 out of the 5.)

This year's nominees include quite a few well-known poets, at least two in the late decades of their careers.  I personally don't care how long a person's career is; I'm looking at what kinds of poems are written, what the subjects are, and how they make me feel.  To cut down on clutter, I'm not linking to any of the titles throughout the text, but you can click on the cover images at the top of this post.

Bewilderment: New Poems and Translations by David Ferry

This volume is a combination of David Ferry's own recent work, including several poems that are responses to other poems, as well as his translations of works from the ancient world.  Highlights for me were "That Now Are Wild and Do Not Remember," clearly an homage to Thomas Wyatt.  I also loved In the Reading Room, which you can read online at the Poetry Foundation

The response poems are my least favorite, however I love the last stanza of "Reading Arthur Gold's Poem 'Chest Cancer:'"
In our consenting, by the ways we spend
Our days obeying the laws of how things are,
We deliver each other up unto the God
Until one day no Ram is caught in the thicket.

Meme by Susan Wheeler

Three very different sections make up this volume. In "The Maud Poems," each page sticks a mini four-line poem into something that feels like a conversation between a harried mother/wife and the people in her house. In "The Devil - or - The Introjects" - these are tiny poems, sometimes just thoughts in passing. In "The Split," it is hard to tell if each page is a poem, or if the entire thing is one long meandering poem moving through different styles and techniques.

Fast Animal by Tim Seibles

It is evident from these poems that Tim Seibles has had a full life. I wasn't surprised to find that this is his eighth book of poems because so many inside this volume are what I would call memory poems - girls he had crushes on, friendships that have survived adulthood, etc. There are also some entertaining villanelles and a surprising number of well-fashioned rhyming poems. Hardly anyone writes rhyming poems anymore, but they really work here.

The poems I connected with the most have to do with politics, particularly considering the current political climate (we are about two weeks from election day!). Tim Seibles does not mince words particularly when it comes to his disregard for particular politicians. "Vendetta 2006" is really great:
"...I have held
my rage on a short
leash like a good,
mad dog whose bright

teeth could keep
the faces of our enemies
well lit...."

Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro

"Not my style" is the best summary I can give Shapiro's work. It feels like the poet walked around town one night and wrote a poem about each place he saw. His structures are overly limiting with little variety between them, and it makes for pretty dry reading. The poems seem to imagine the possibilities of actual events at each place, instead of digging into emotions or memory.

Heavenly Bodies by Cynthia Huntington

Cynthia Huntington is a genius. Reading this tiny volume was accompanied by little exclamations and repeated insistence on reading bits out loud to people who don't really get poetry to begin with, followed by the distinct sorrow of understanding that THIS is greatness and nothing I write will come close.  The poems are divided into three sections. The first section is devoid of health and full of hospital stays, medications, and addiction. There is also a sense of a lack of control over how life is, particularly as a woman. That you have to come up with ways to cope, rather than ever have hope to change it. This comes through in Delinquent, and the creatively-titled "Bride of the Barbiturate?"

Section II has "Shot Up in the Sexual Revolution: The True Adventures of Suzy Creamcheese." I'd buy this volume just to own this poem. Amazing. I can't pull out one bit of it. Okay maybe a bit from 7.:
"Oh, I admit you were beautiful to me, each dog-faced man-child,
steaming with revolution, and the absolute confidence
of sexual privelege...."

Section III focuses on fantastic beings and places, and ends with a poem called "Cut Flowers" that I really loved.  She would be my favorite to win the award.

Monday, November 5, 2012

The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean

The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the ElementsThe Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements by Sam Kean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Never underestimate spite as a motivator for genius."

I can't really speak to the scientific accuracy of this book, but I really enjoyed listening to the stories that come from the periodic table. I feel like I learned some things, which isn't that difficult of a feat since what I remember from my high school chemistry class has more to do with the people sitting near me (we called ourselves the Peanut Gallery). I have vague memories of a teacher, the great Thorstein Sabo, who tried to teach us about the periodic table by telling us stories about electrons playing cribbage in the electron hotel. I didn't really get it.

This book groups different elements, and tells stories about them in context of political intrigue, devastating consequences, and lifesaving discoveries. Coincidentally, I am also reading Rites of Spring: The Great War and the Birth of the Modern Age, a book with a lot of parallels to The Disappearing Spoon. Where The Disappearing Spoon demonstrates how war interrupts scientific process, Rites of Spring shows the same about war interfering in the arts. You have to wonder how much farther, or at least different, both science and the arts would be, had we never had the world wars consuming the first half of the twentieth century.

The tiny pieces of information I didn't know would fill a book, this book. It would be impossible to even recite them, but I particularly enjoyed the story of argyria, silver poisoning, and the senate/governor hopeful who drank collodial silver in preparation for Y2K. Argyria turns your skin blue... permanently. Papa smurf!

I also made a note to myself to check out the poet Lowell, who is one of the first people to be treated with Lithium for mental illness. Salt (not an element) was also put into perspective with Ghandi and enforced iodine and I just don't know whether to be grateful that my government is preventing birth defects or to be freaked out that they are adding things like iodine to salt and fluoride to the water.

The audiobook was great for this. Sean Runnette has a unique voice that I enjoyed in zombie stories but still translated well to science!

I will leave you with the song I could not get out of my head during my listen to the second half of the book.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Hobbit Read-a-Long

Reading confession - I have never read The Hobbit.

Another reading confession - I have never read The Lord of the Rings.

Eep.  I know, right?  How can any self-respecting science fiction or fantasy reader have committed such great offense to her reading heritage?

I'm not sure.  I was handed The Chronicles of Narnia as a child, and A Wrinkle in Time, but most of my reading otherwise was taken up by the Mandie books and old Bobbsey Twin books, at least, when I wasn't practicing the piano.  Hours and hours of Suzuki later, I'm a better reader than pianist.

I know that The Hobbit is coming up in December for the Sword and Laser Book Club, of which I've been a longtime member.  I would have read it during that month, but in Twitter today I came across a post (a tweet) about the read-a-long over on Unputdownables.  I love reading in community, and am always looking for more book blogger buddies, so I signed up immediately.

The reading schedule, which you can see at the aforementioned site, only requires a pace of 58 pages a week for two months.  This is something I can do while participating in NaNoWriMo and slogging through other books. 

I need to track down a copy of the book.  I will take any suggestions for editions, but I'm thinking of following Veronica Belmont's lead:

Veronica is wise, plus I have not yet had the opportunity to try out the Whispersync shindig.  The audio version of The Hobbit that just came out in Audible last month is the version set up for this, which makes it even more appealing!

So tell me... what are your book confessions?