Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reading Lolita in Tehran

by Azar Nafisi
New York : Random House, 2008 (originally published 2003).

Azar Nafisi bookends her memoir with stories of her special class, a group of women who met at her house to talk about texts that were forbidden. Together they read Nabokov and Austen, Gatsby and Daisy Miller. In the middle is Nafisi's memories of involvement in the '70s revolution, teaching in the 1980s and 1990s, and the Islamic Republic taking away more and more freedoms.

I first read this book about ten years ago, and when I was looking for a new audiobook I thought it was a good time for a reread. Since the first time I read the book, my own knowledge of Iran has improved, and I've read another book or two that is covered in the text. There are four parts divided into several chapters; the chronology is confusing at best, and very often Nafisi chooses to forgo quotation marks. This was less noticeable in the audio, when I could tell from the narrator's voice who was talking, but it was frustrating to read. I enjoyed some of Nafisi's and her students' comments about the literature I've read, but now that I'm reasonably sure I won't read the others, I was less enthralled with the books I hadn't read and how she draws parallels or contrasts with her and her students' lives. And really, it was much less about the books than what I remembered. Nafisi writes much more about her personal experiences, and changes information about the students to protect their privacy (an understandable choice, but one which nonetheless kept me wondering what was "made up" and what was "real"). Recommended if you're interested in Iranian memoirs and literary criticism.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Paris Review Interviews, IV

edited by Philip Gourevitch
Picador, 2009.

The fourth collection of author interviews printed in The Paris Review contains sixteen interviews, including those with William Styron, Jack Kerouac, E.B. White, P.G. Wodehouse, Maya Angelou, Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robison, and more. The interviews are organized in chronological order, with the oldest published in 1954 and the most recent in 2008, just a year before this collection was printed.

The interviews are done in a variety of styles, from multiple meetings with an author to a live interview in front of an audience; in all cases, the authors are allowed to review the interview and edit, clarifying points before the interview sees print. This makes for a unique blend of artistry between the interviewer and author, as the conversation ranges from thoughts on writing and reading to politics and life in general. The type of writing the author is known for is identified at the beginning as "The Art of Fiction" or "The Art of Poetry," for example, and the interviewer frames the interview by outlining the writer's life and describing where they met and the conditions of the interview itself.

I received this book for my birthday three years ago. I started reading it immediately, but slowed down when I reached the fourth interview, that of E.B. White. He was identified as a writer of essays, while I only knew him as the author of Charlotte's Web and the other children's books. I thought I'd read his entire oeuvre has a child. So, before I read the interview, I had to first read a book of his essays. I didn't stop to read any other author's works before reading their interviews, but I was most interested in those of authors I've read. I loved Maya Angelou's, which was the one done in front of an audience. I was intrigued by the personal look into Marilynne Robinson's life and work, having read her three fiction titles. Though I expected to enjoy the authors I was familiar with, I was surprised at how much I was interested in the interview with Stephen Sondheim, as he talked about the art of writing musicals. There is such a variety of authors and opinions in here, that I can confidently say there's something for anyone interesting in authors and the writing process.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

At Home: A Short History of Private Life

by Bill Bryson
New York : Doubleday, c2010.

Bryson lives (lived?) in a former rectory in England, and one day had the idea of going through every room in the house and researching the history of something related to that room: trade for the kitchen, food for the dining room, sex for the bedroom, etc. What follows is a social history much in the same vein as A Short History of Nearly Everything was for science, ranging all over the place in topic but surprisingly coming back around with interesting connections to mid-19th century England and some of the amazing changes going on in simply living during the Industrial Revolution.

At 452 pages (not counting bibliography and index), this is the longest and most dense book that I've read for my library book discussion, but I'm glad I persevered. It's an entertaining popular history using primarily secondary sources with, as Bryson is known for, many tangents, humor, and interesting tidbits thrown in for good measure. Unlike many of his books, At Home is on the denser side of pop history. There is a lot of information thrown into this book, and I found myself forgetting what I'd read before and being surprised when a name later in the book carried a reference to a previous chapter, something that you'd think might happen less in a book that ranges over such diverse topics as sex, food, trade, childhood, and more. Except for this fact, each chapter is rather disparate in subject to the extent that you could get away with skipping to the parts you're most interested in and not losing much context along the way. Bryson is sometimes criticized for not having notes; this book has them, albeit online instead of in the text. His extensive bibliography ensures the possibility of follow up for any subject that may particularly catch your fancy.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Behind a Mask; or, A Woman's Power

by Louisa May Alcott
E-book from Project Gutenberg

When the Coventry family hires Jean Muir as a governess for the daughter, Bella, Jean goes on to charm everyone in the household, except for Bella's brother Gerald and his cousin Lucia. These two can't shake off the idea that Jean is not quite what she seems.

I read every Louisa May Alcott children's book that I could get my hands on when I was a teenager, including her lesser-known ones, such as Eight Cousins, Rose in Bloom, and An Old-Fashioned Girl; but I never read her Gothic novellas or the novelizations of the newspaper stories that made her money. I'm rectifying that now, and this book - a free e-book - is my first foray into that part of her writing. This is more of an early example of a thriller than a mystery or Gothic novel per se, but it's an engaging story that keeps the reader in suspense to the end.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Mysterious Howling

by Maryrose Wood
New York : Balzer & Bray, 2010.

At age 15, Miss Penelope Lumley, recently graduated from the Swanburne Academy for Poor Bright Females, is on her way to her first position as a governess. When she arrives at Ashton Place, she is shocked to learn that her young charges have been raised by wolves!

It's hard to describe this story without making it sound silly. It is silly, but it's also cleverly poking fun at tropes in children's literature and it's an entertaining story whether you catch the references or not. Because of this, it works well as a story for both children and adults to read - if it's your first story about wild children and governesses, great, and if it's not, you'll chuckle along with the narrator even more knowledgeably. It's smart without feeling didactic; I was amused by the explanations of irony, for example, and the use of poetry was fun without feeling forced. I'd be hard-pressed to tell you if I preferred the audio or the book, since the former is superbly read by Katherine Kellgren, while the latter includes illustrations from Caldecott Award-winning illustrator Jon Klassen.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

His Majesty's Dragon

by Naomi Novik
New York : Del Rey Books, c2006.

Laurence is happily serving the navy, but a routine capture of a French ship turns into much more when a dragon egg is found and recovered for Britain. When the dragon hatches and needs to be harnessed, Laurence's life takes an unexpected turn and he and the dragon, Temeraire, find themselves serving in aerial warfare instead.

This is the first book in a series of alternate history set during the Napoleonic War, with dragons. The world-building is great, as we get details of the aerial corps, their training, and the dragons' way of thinking, as well as military action. The characters - both human and dragon - are fabulous. Duty means a lot to Laurence, and it comes out in action and word. Temeraire is a combination of innocence and intelligence while not being afraid to speak his mind, which makes for some humorous conversations. This is one series I have a lot of fun recommending.