Review — Housekeeping

September 16, 2012

Back in August, my subway book was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson. I don’t know why it has taken me so long to review it. I guess other books and school and internships provide a veritable smorgasbord of decent excuses. All the same, I really enjoyed it and if I’m going to skip reviewing a book it really shouldn’t be that one.

When I visit book blogs I often end up adding books that I see reviewed to my list if they aren’t on it already, or bumping up books that have languished on the list for years to the top. If there’s even a chance that my words have the same effect on others, than Housekeeping needs to make an appearance.

The description from Goodreads:

A modern classic, Housekeeping is the story of Ruth and her younger sister, Lucille, who grow up haphazardly, first under the care of their competent grandmother, then of two comically bumbling great-aunts, and finally of Sylvie, their eccentric and remote aunt. The family house is in the small Far West town of Fingerbone set on a glacial lake, the same lake where their grandfather died in a spectacular train wreck, and their mother drove off a cliff to her death. It is a town “chastened by an outsized landscape and extravagant weather, and chastened again by an awareness that the whole of human history had occurred elsewhere.” Ruth and Lucille’s struggle toward adulthood beautifully illuminates the price of loss and survival, and the dangerous and deep undertow of transience.

I rarely quote copy from Goodreads or the back of the book, but Housekeeping calls for more than I can give.

It is about family and growing up and staying put. About loss and moving on and dysfunction and memory and so many other things. Yep — family, identity, women — Housekeeping has it all. The recurring themes of identity and femininity in the types of “housekeeping” are subtle and profound.

There’s a certain passivity to Ruthie as she matures that in other circumstances I might find perplexing, but in the greater scheme of this work — with its shifting tides of identity and questions of growing up and “out of” or “into” certain things — I think works.

Even writing this is making me want to re-read Housekeeping. It’s a book I imagine I’ll return to quite often in years to come.


Review — Mansfield Park

September 15, 2012

I finished reading Mansfield Park not too long ago. It took me longer than I expected to finish, partially because of my previously-mentioned inability to focus on one book at a time, but also because despite my love for Jane Austen, I just couldn’t get into this one.

It turns out I’m not really alone. Ask a selection of Austen fans to rank the novels, and Mansfield Park will as often as not end up closer to the bottom. It’s denser and the characters are harder to like. Bits of witty repartee are few and far between.

It’s not that I didn’t like Mansfield Park, it’s just that I didn’t like it nearly as much as the other Austen novels I’ve read. When deciding which book to pick up of the four or five I was in the middle of, Mansfield Park just didn’t reach out to me as much, and so it took longer to get through.

Now, trying to paint you a picture in this review becomes increasingly problematic. It’s not that nothing happens, it’s just that it happens so slowly and the characters don’t endear themselves to the reader, so you don’t particularly care. Fanny Price isn’t a bad person, she’s just kind of dull. And Edmund means well, but is easily distracted and even more easily manipulated. These are our protagonists.

And our inevitable Austen scandal isn’t particularly surprising given what we know about those involved. The cousins are selfish and flighty, the Crawfords equally selfish and somewhat devious, so really, what did you expect?

I may try to give this one another go when I’m out of my read-80-books-at-once phase and can actually concentrate on it. It really is considered to be one of Austen’s more profound works, so I should probably give it the attention it deserves. Right now though, I’m thinking I may revisit good ol’ Pride and Prejudice as it’s been a while and I have a new copy to break in…

Remember how I read Lev Grossman’s The Magician King and only realized that it was a sequel after I was 3/4 of the way through the book?

Remember how I then went back and read The Magicians, the first book, and promised that review would be forthcoming? I’m finally making good on that promise. Better late than never, I say.

Given my unorthodox sequence of reading, The Magicians filled in a lot of gaps for me. It helped me understand some of the characters and settings much better and put a lot of things into perspective. That being said, it also undermined and confused a lot of my perceptions.

There are some things I simply cannot reconcile now that I’ve read both books, and I’d be curious to see how others who read them in order feel about them.

Exhibit A: In The Magician King, Janet is snide and smug. Maybe not the most likeable character of the group, but decidedly part of it. In The Magicians, she is that and so much more. She is manipulative and conniving, and her actions nearly have some very dire consequences. How do things go from so bad to hunky-dory?

I said in my review of The Magician King that some parts just felt — for lack of a better word — improbable, and that observation carries through to The Magicians as well. The background, with the introduction of the school and the big players, as well as more of the back-story helped to some degree, but some aspects were lacking.

There’s a gap between the end of The Magicians and the beginning of The Magician King, and that could be a contributing factor to my lack of satisfaction and feeling of unease. They leave Fillory in shambles and The Magician King picks up with it as an idyllic fairy-land. Grossman needs to fill in the gaps.

Despite my whining, I really did like The Magicians, though I think I enjoyed the sequel more. If I could do it all over again, I’d probably read the books in order and maybe I’d be less confused/disillusioned? I suppose we’ll never know. Grossman managed to build a great premise though, and it kept me reading. I think the pros far outweigh my nitpicky cons.

O lovely readers, I promise I have not forsaken thee! I’ve just been easing (read: sinking) into my graduate studies. I know it hasn’t been that long, but I’m still working on re-learning how to be a student again… weird.

I’m in an Information Technologies class, and while my professor is beyond amazing, our most recent assignment involved designing a (albeit incredibly simple) webpage using HTML and CSS. In case you cannot accurately call to mind my fear of all things Technology, I will direct you back to this post.

And now I must dive back into my reading. Here’s a tidbit: antelopes are documents. But only some of them (the antelopes), and only in certain situations. Gotta love information theorists.

I do have things to review, but for now I leave you with an old one recycled from my now-defunct previous blog. Enjoy?

The Night Circus

     Most of the people I’ve spoken to about this book have very strong feelings about it. Love it or hate it, there are no feelings in the middle. I can kind of understand how it inspires those feelings, yet I am irrevocably indecisive, so I still find myself mostly in the middle of the road.
     I enjoyed reading the book. It held my interest and I didn’t really feel that the story lagged or the plot fell apart. That being said, I do take issue with some aspects of the book.
     Most of the story is supposed to be set in the late 1800s/early 1900s. Other than women wearing gowns instead of dresses and the characters speaking with fewer contractions there is really no sense of this whatsoever. I understand that this is a different side of that era and Morgenstern is trying to show us a bit of the fantastic, but if you’re going to go through the trouble to set that sort of scene, there needs to be more follow-through.
     The challenge concept was a good idea, but there wasn’t really the right balance of conflict throughout. At times there was so much focus on the challenge that there was a complete halt to the rest of the story, at others, the challenge seemed entirely forgotten. There was just a bit of a balance issue.
     I also wanted to know more about Poppet, Widget, and Bailey and more about Marco’s charms. These were the most interesting parts for me and I wish they had been developed more. It just felt like Poppet, Widget, and Bailey should have been played much bigger parts in the story. They were interesting and I wanted to know more. I wanted to know what it was like for Poppet and Widget growing up in the circus. And the magic: Celia’s is innate, but Marco’s is learned. I understood this to be at least partially the basis of the challenge, so I wanted to know more about Marco’s magic. I also wanted to learn more about the magic that held the circus together: what magic belonged to whom?
     All in all, Morgenstern has a flair for description, I’ll give her that, but at times I wondered at the things she chose to describe. It almost seems like everything I wanted might have been in there at some point, and then someone told her to edit for length and she took out all the wrong parts.

Review — The Magician King

September 2, 2012

I read The Magician King by Lev Grossman pretty quickly. I’d picked it up in the bookstore portion of the Center for Fiction when a customer was asking for recommendations. I remembered hearing about it so I glanced at the cover copy to refresh my memory and see if it was something in the vein of what she was looking for. The customer wrote down a few of my recommendations (but didn’t buy anything), but I ended up totally wanting to read this book. It was only in hardcover though, and I am too poor for that right now. Then I found it in the circulating collection, so all bets were off.

So fun fact: as I was reading this I didn’t feel particularly lost, but there were a lot of references to things that happened before in the past/before the point where this book starts. I found that kind of bizarre and kept wondering why Grossman hadn’t written a book about all of this since it sounded like there was a lot of action(!) and drama(!) involved. And then I found out that he had in fact written a book about all of that (The Magicians) and I was reading the sequel. I’m a truly impressive creature, I know. Anyway, I was more than 3/4 of the way through The Magician King before I realized this, so I finished it and am now reading The Magicians.

I’m almost done with The Magicians, so I thought about just waiting and then giving you the reviews in order, but what’s the fun in that?

I really enjoyed The Magician King, and I think that the fact that I was able to get so far into it without realizing that I was reading a sequel speaks volumes about Grossman’s ability to draw the reader into the story. As I said, I wondered why Grossman hadn’t written about the previous events. I was curious, but I was never confused.

As a writer Grossman doesn’t take himself too seriously, which can be refreshing and funny at times, but starts to get old and seem amateurish if used too often.

I also found parts of the plot…improbable? That’s probably not the right word to use given that this is a fantasy novel, but I’m sticking with it for lack of a better phrase. After the near-disastrous results of rushing through the first door opened with a magic key, wouldn’t Quentin be a bit more careful the second time around? I get that Grossman needs these characters who are all in different places to talk to one another, but getting stranded gets old fast. And the ending! In a game of lowly bureaucrat vs. royalty, shouldn’t royalty have the upper hand there? Why is there any talk of punishment coming from them?

The ending is unsatisfying for other reasons, but I do admit that had everyone gone back to Castle Whitespire to live happily ever after with everything all nice and tidy, that would have been unsatisfying and anticlimactic as well. Maybe I’m just difficult to please.

This makes it sounds like I have a lot of complaints, but over all, I really liked The Magician King. It had just the right amount of mystery and magic, with some humor and plenty of adventure thrown in. Yes, there are blurbs on the cover that mention Harry Potter. No, I will not make a comparison.

On an almost entirely separate note, am I the only one who wishes that the Fillory novels mentioned in the book were real? I want to read them. They sound like fun, sort of like the Magic Treehouse books, of which there are probably 60 by now.

My first week back at school was uneventful in the way that every first week back at school always is: introductions to syllabi, professors insisting that we go around the room and introduce ourselves, trying to figure out what the professor prefers to be called, etc. It was also entirely different because it’s grad school. Not only is this grad school, this is library school. Everyone in that classroom wants to be a librarian. Sure, there are different specialties and concentrations, but at the center of it all is information. Every person in that room wants to learn how to take that information and make it more accessible.

Classes have technically started, but now that this first week of introductions is over, I’m excited for classes to really begin. I’m also still kind of terrified.