Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Words of the Day and Miscellaneous Good Things

I found another new word this week in my current read, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Which, by the way, I am having a surprisingly difficult time of getting into and caring about, even though I have already read 69 pages. But I will persevere, because I have been promised excellence. And you will be happy to know I actually remember where I came across all but one of today's words!

1. Threnody. (As I said above, from The Sparrow.) "At dinner that first night with Emilio at the Edwardses' place, Jimmy kept them laughing with a comic threnody, listing the hazards life held for a regular guy in a world built by and for midgets." Maybe this is as simple as a "routine," as in "comedy routine? Whatever it is, I am sure it's something one uses with which to regale one's audience. Webster says: A song of lamentation for the dead; elegy. That has just about the complete opposite connotation from what I was thinking. Goose egg for me.

2. Benignant. This is the orphan word for the day, since I can't remember where I found it. But I am sure it has something to do with harmlessness. Webster says: Serenely mild and kindly; favorable, beneficial, benign. Yup, I get a point for this one, but I can't help but wonder why the author (whoever it was) didn't just use the word benign. Seems a little pretentious to turn it into a fancy word that I may or may not know the meaning of.

3. Prolix. From Joseph Heller's Catch-22. I marked "prolix" down on my list when I first read this book, which would have been during the First Saturday Book Club's heyday more than four years ago, but I'm kind of cheating by including this word because I'm pretty sure I looked it up when I re-read the book last summer. Anway, "He's the one who tipped me off that our prose was too prolix." It means verbose. Webster says: Unduly prolonged or drawn out; too long; marked by or using an excess of words; wordy. I'm up to two points!

4. Cantilevered. Also from Catch-22. I'm going to modify this quote somewhat, if you don't mind. "That was where he wanted to be if he had to be there at all, instead of hung out there in front like some [danged ol'] cantilevered goldfish in some [danged ol'] cantilevered goldfish bowl while the [danged ol'] foul black tiers of flak were bursting and booming and billowing all around and above and below him in a climbing, cracking, staggered, banging, phantasmagorical, cosmological wickedness that jarred and tossed and shivered, clattered and pierced, and threatened to annihilate them all in one splinter of a second in one vast flash of fire." If that's not a vivid sentence I don't know what is. OK, from bicycle brakes and pergola plans I have the idea that if something is "cantilevered" it sort of sticks out as if unsupported, but it really is supported because it's balanced just right, but I'm sure Webster can say it much more efficiently than I can. Webster says: A projecting beam or member supported at only one end. That's three points.

5. Phantasmagorical. Same quote as above. I think this means amazing, fantastic, and phantom-related. Webster says: An optical effect by which figures on a screen appear to dwindle into the distance or to rush toward the observer with enormous increase of size; a constantly shifting complex succession of things seen or imagined; a scene that constantly changes. Kathy says: Oops. Apparently "phantasm" and "phantasmagorical" aren't as similar as you would think.

6. We get a bonus word today: Cosmological (yes, again from the same quote). The study of the universe? Webster says: Finally I got one right! That makes four out of six.

On to the Miscellaneous Good Things. If you've had the chance to read many of my other posts, you would probably have the idea that one of my favorite authors is Sam Taylor (and you would be right). I left a comment on his blog a few days ago, and he was kind enough to reply to me with an email which pretty much just made my day.

The other Good Thing of the day is also Sam-Taylor-related. He lives in the south of France (the lucky dog!) and is hosting creative writing workshops! As much as I would love to go, I think my husband is still mad at me for my last trip to Europe, so I'm pretty sure Hud would not look too kindly on me taking a trip to the south of France, especially since I'm not exactly a writer. SO: your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to go to the south of France and then tell me all about it so that I can live vicariously through you!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

"The Island at the End of the World" by Sam Taylor

Oh, Sam Taylor, you are a tease. You tempt me with the most tantalizing tidbits until I am hanging on your every word and absolutely ravenous for more. What am I supposed to do when I have to go to work instead of reading the rest of your book?

At work on Saturday I could not concentrate on my job for all of the questions roiling in my head. I was dying to grasp the key to the story, and it was killing me to wait until I got back home where I could pick up the book again. My brain could only search for the answers. WHERE was the island? WHAT was the time frame? WHY did Will come? Was Mary REALLY dead? This was just how I felt when I was reading Taylor's Amnesiac. (And in case you weren't sure, that is an awesome--if temporarily frustrating--feeling.) I didn't want to put the book down, but I had to, and I hated it. I was worthless until I got back to reading.

Well, now I Know All. I feel triumphant.

I picked up this book purely on the strength of Taylor's other two novels, and until I began to read I knew nothing of the premise. I was surprised to find that the book is basically a modern-day sequel to the Bible story of Noah's Ark. Pa and his three children have survived a worldwide flood--which occurs in our future, but don't get any sci-fi ideas about the book, because it doesn't go that direction--and they are still living off the land eight years later. They don't know if any other humans have survived the flood, but they don't think it likely. And that right there is all I can tell you about the plot without giving away what you will have to earn when you read it yourself.

As soon as I finished Chapter One and flipped the page to Chapter Two, dialect reared its ugly head in the form of Pa's 8-year-old son Finn. At first I couldn't get used to Finn's narration. I was not sure if Taylor was trying to convey that Finn was young, or uneducated, or both; but it actually came across as if Finn had a mental handicap (though later, when we hear Finn speak through the ears of another narrator, his grammar and syntax are perfectly normal). The way Finn's chapters are written, it's like a combination of ignorance--misspelled words that don't sound any different when spelled correctly--and a Southern accent, like substituting "Ahm" for "I'm." Normally the words flow smoothly in my head when I read, but all Finn's typos resulted in choppy, stilted reading, as when Finn tells us his mom died "wen I wer lil." (Yes, Finn's narration is that bad.) I quickly decided I would only accept this if I found there was a good reason for it, but after a few chapters I ended up growing accustomed to it anyway. I do have one good thing to say about Finn's dialect, however: The author is British, the characters in this book are from the U.S., and because of the way his narration is written, it is very obvious that Finn has an American accent.

I think I am in love with Sam Taylor (well, at least his books, anyway). In this interview he mentions his next novel (wooooohoo!) but tells us agonizingly little about it. I love how Taylor assumes his readers are intelligent enough that he does not have to spell everything out for them, and mature enough that they don't need hand-holding. There are no spare parts in this novel. There is no fat to trim.

I enjoyed piecing together the timeline, as little clues about it were gradually doled out in a rather convoluted manner instead of being laid out clearly, concisely, and chronologically. I won't tell you what I figured out, since I want to leave it for you to discover on your own when you read it. There is much to discuss after reading this book, but just as much that I need to leave unsaid to avoid spoilers. Please pick up a copy so that you can tell me what your answers are to my questions!

Just remember this quote from Pa as you read: "Nothing is ever quite as it appears."

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Words of the Day (with a few additional random tidbits)

Time for more Dictionary Fun! I picked up a couple of weird words in my current read, The Island at the End of the World by Sam Taylor. At first I thought they were just misspellings (on purpose, of course), but my foray into the dictionary showed otherwise. The other three words are yet more orphans, as I can not recall where I found them. Starting with Taylor's two words first:

1. Diktats. "But, disobeying the diktats of my mind, my fingers creep to the mouse and click on the camera icon." I always thought this was spelled "dictates" (the noun form, not the verb), which basically refers to a thing that someone in charge has told you to do. Could these be two alternate spellings of the same word? Webster says: Not exactly, but close enough. (No, Webster didn't actually come out and say that, but it is.) Webster defines a diktat as a harsh settlement unilaterally imposed; a decree or . . . dictate! Surprisingly (to me), diktat is pronounced differently from dictate. The emphasis is on the second syllable, which rhymes with "hot" instead of "hate." Pretty interesting, but I have a feeling I won't be using that one much in every day conversations. Chalk up a point for me anyway.

2. Tocsin. Same book as above. In the chapters narrated by Finn, Taylor uses some sort of weird dialect with lots of misspellings, and though this word was found in one of the father's chapters, I thought some of that dialect had slipped in on him unawares when he meant to say "toxin." On the other hand, "poison" doesn't fit the context. "I stare at the dark mark with my heart clanging like a tocsin." Toxins don't clang. A tocsin must be some sort of bell. But would your heart really clang like a bell? Anyway, Webster says: An alarm bell; a warning signal. Ding! I'm up to two points.

3. Derogated. I am guessing this is related to "derogatory," which brings to mind slander or defamation of character. Sorry, no context clues for you on this one, as they are long-lost. Webster says: Detracted; taken away so as to impair; acted beneath one's position or character. So, yes, definitely related to derogatory, but it sounds like something you do to yourself instead of to someone else. Half a point, I guess.

4. Infundibuliform. What the heck? It has to have something to do with some sort of body part. (Yeah, you know, the infundibulum. Which is . . . ) Well, I know it's not shaped like the appendix, because that would be "vermiform," right? I'm sure it's probably some special little lump on some sort of bone. Webster says: Having the form of a funnel or a cone. Oops. Well, cone rhymes with bone . . . no? Well, at least bodily organs do come up: the part of the brain that attaches the pituitary gland, the calyx of a kidney, and the abdominal opening of a Fallopian tube are all infundibuliform. Again, not something I think I can work into casual conversation, and I sure would like to know where I found it in a book. A quarter of a point for knowing it was somehow related to anatomy.

5. Unctuous. I think I know this one. Doesn't it kind of describe a greasy suck-up? Like your typical used car salesman? Webster says: Fatty, oily, smooth and greasy in texture or appearance; smug, ingratiating, with false earnestness or spirituality; used car salesman. (OK, I added that last bit, but you know it belongs there). That's another point.

Let's see how I did. 3.75 out of 5? Maybe I'll do better next time.

Now I'm going to slip in a couple of little off-topic tidbits instead of making a whole new post for them. First of all, today is what I've been hearing people call a "blogiversary"! My very first post was exactly one year ago. Well . . . I didn't actually start this blog until June 2009, because at the end of May I was here, but when I got back I wanted to write about the five books I'd read while I was gone. I just changed the post dates to reflect the day I finished each of those books. So I guess today is really just a faux-versary, but I'm still proud that I've blogged about all of the books I've read for a whole year! (I have spared you most of the bedtime stories, though.)

Second of all, here are the "following" poll results, in case you haven't looked at them yet. I'm not sure how long I'll leave the poll up there on the sidebar now that voting is closed, but for now you can still see what the six options were. I am amazed (and relieved!) that 100% of the 9 voters are just like me and only follow the blogs they're most interested in! That, and the thread on the Ning Book Blogs site, did much to assuage my guilt. Speaking of that site, you should check it out here.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

"Running with Scissors: A Memoir" by Augusten Burroughs

I have a miniscule memory of reading a review of this book several years ago, which extends only to the idea that this memoir involves the boyhood abandonment of the author (evoking a horrifying youth like that in The Glass Castle--although Jeannette Walls was never abandoned, she may as well have been) with a dark humor in the style of David Sedaris. This was confirmed when I read the "additional praise" quotes just inside the front cover and several compared Burroughs to Sedaris.

Before reading, I was slightly ambivalent about the book, and the aforementioned quotes didn't really help. One of them made the book sound great: "It's gross, it's shocking and its humor is blacker than a thousand midnights . . . " but the very next quote negated the previous one for me: "Brutal, disturbing . . . unfathomable heartache and dysfunction." (That's not the whole quote, but those are the parts that stood out to me). But I was resigned to discovering whether Burroughs was able to put the "fun" in dysfunction.

Well. My goodness. This memoir is a train wreck if I ever saw one. You know how I label some books as "not suitable for my mom"? I think this book was not suitable for me. It should have had a subtitle of "Adults Who Should Have Known Better But Didn't." (If you are a tender sweet young thing and you can't handle reading words like "penis," please close your eyes, skip to the next paragraph, and then open your eyes to continue reading again.) It was bad enough when I read about the six year old boy giggling as his dog licked his erect penis (not that I blame the boy, but there were adults in his life who should have taught him that this is Not Right), but it was awfully icky to read about 33-year-old Bookman, erm, forcibly receiving oral sex from thirteen-year-old Augusten. All weird sexual fetishes aside, pedophilia is never cool. The whole thing is made all the more horrible by the knowledge that this is not a work of fiction.

Yeah, about this being a true story. Even some of the not-so-horrible-but-just-gross parts rather defied belief. I mean, turd fortune-telling? I guess whoever said truth is stranger than fiction was right. And how funny that the turd fortune-telling chapter ended with Natalie telling Augusten he should write all this stuff down, and then Augusten saying, "Even if I did, nobody would believe it." How did he know? Honestly, though, I'm not questioning the veracity of the memoir, because this book was first published in 2002; if Burroughs had made this stuff up, there would have been a James-Frey-style uproar by now. (Interestingly enough, there was an uproar of another kind when the real "Finch" family brought a lawsuit against Burroughs for defamation of character). True, exaggerated, or false, I just can't help but wonder, how did so much crazy crap happen to one poor kid? I had to laugh (albeit in a slightly bewildered way) when, during one of his mother's periods of psychosis, Augusten wonders "how anything would ever be normal again." My bewilderment stemmed from his use of the word "again," of course.

I must admit that the book was engrossing (emphasis on "gross", but still). On Monday I didn't think I'd been absorbed in the book for too long, but during "not too long," my three-year-old managed to unspool two full rolls of toilet paper, soak the bathroom floor with water, and smear a glue stick on her belly. I'm so glad she's going to be four soon. It will make a difference, right?? I guess I should look on the bright side: at least she didn't poop under the piano.

If you like David Sedaris and can imagine still liking him multiplied by ten, you might want to read this book. Otherwise, just take my word for it that Augusten Burroughs had a horrible childhood and is very lucky that he can make light of it now. In fact, it amazes me that Burroughs never asks for the reader's pity, and the book ends on such a note of hope.

Have I told you before how glad I am that I am NORMAL?? After reading this book I feel exceedingly lucky that, as a child, all my adults Knew Better.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Words of the Day

I really should be going to bed, since even if I fell asleep rightthisminute I wouldn't have time to sleep much more than six hours tonight, but I would much rather play another round of Dictionary Fun and finish my wine instead.

I didn't come across any excellent words during my reading this week, so the five below are all from my original list that has been waiting on me for years. Of course, what this means is that I have no idea where I found these words, nor do I know the context. But I can still have fun with definition-guessing!

1. Pathos. One of the Three Musketeers, right? (Yeah, I can see you rolling your eyes). This is one of those words that I'm sure everyone knows except for me. Does it have something to do with passion? Or angst? Or angsty passion? Webster says: An element in experience or in artistic representation evoking pity or compassion; an emotion of sympathetic pity. Looks like I'm not off to a good start. No points for me. (By the way, just for good measure, I looked up Athos, Porthos and Aramis. None of them are in my dictionary. And as a bonus, here is a related word: Bathos. Insincere or overdone pathos; sentimentalism. Exceptionally trite, commonplace, and anticlimactic.)

2. Cystologist. Why is this word on my list? I am almost 99.9% sure it would refer to someone (namely, a doctor) who studies the bladder. Wouldn't you just love to know what the heck kind of book I read that used this word? (I assure you it wasn't a medical textbook). Webster says: Nothing. This word is not in my dictionary. Obviously it's not unabridged. Google says: Specialist of the bladder. Ding ding ding!

3. Cetologist. For some reason I have the idea that this is someone who studies whales. Aren't whales cetaceans? Webster says: A branch of zoology dealing with the whales. w00t!

4. Shanghaied. Taken advantage of by trickery? Webster says: Put aboard a ship by force often with the help of liquor or a drug; to put by force or threat of force into a place of detention; to put by trickery into an undesirable position. Full points. Even though I probably don't deserve them because my guess wasn't quite specific enough.

5. Pedantic. I'm thinking that someone who preaches in a condescending manner could be described with this word. Webster says: Narrowly, stodgily, and often ostentatiously learned; unimaginative, pedestrian; being a pedant (who would parade his learning and unduly emphasize minutiae in the presentation or use of knowledge). A pedant wouldn't give me a whole point for my guess but I'm taking it anyway.

Four out of five points for me tonight. How did you do?

Saturday, May 15, 2010

On Links, Awards, and Comments

It always gives me the warm fuzzies whenever someone likes my blog enough to mention it in their own. On the inside I'm like Sally Field accepting her Oscar. Partly to return the favor and partly to express my gratitude, I would like to give a shout-out to my fellow bloggers who have mentioned me in recent posts:

Kate posted a link to my blog last week. I've really enjoyed the first two installments of the Friday Five meme she's participating in (and not just because I was one of the five last week). This week Becky featured my blog in her "Lights, Camera, Blog Action" post. I enjoyed answering the interview questions, even though I am already rolling my eyes at myself for some of the things I said. I got my first blog award from Elle and I really appreciate it even though I haven't done anything with it.

On to comments. I'm sure most bloggers out there love getting comments just as much as I do. It's a little bit like Christmas. I read them all (usually more than once) and wish I had something to say in response to each one, if only so you know how much I appreciate your input. If I haven't replied to your comment, just know that it's only because a smile and a nod doesn't translate well.

When I first started blogging it was mainly for my own personal use, even though I didn't mind if others read what I posted. I kind of had the attitude that "if you build it they will come," but that didn't exactly happen. The further I've gone with this blog, the more important it has been for me to find others who connect with me over the books I've read, but I had a teeny tiny number of followers for a long time. I was happy to come across Jennifer's weekly blog hop, which has been great both for discovering new blogs to follow and for other bloggers to find me, even though the majority of hoppers seem to be interested in genres I haven't explored much yet (like "paranormal romance" or "urban fantasy." I'm not even all too certain what sorts of books would fall in those categories). By the way, if any of you know of something like the blog hop that links up book blogs that review the types of books I have on my TBR list, let me know!

Which leads me to a question. Do you follow the blogs of each of your followers? I have a few followers who, at this point, I have not yet added to my list of blogs I follow, and I feel so guilty! If you have been wondering why that is, it's most likely for one of two reasons: either the books you read aren't the same types of books that interest me (for instance, maybe you read lots of romance novels, or you read YA almost exclusively), or your meme- and challenge-related posts outnumber your book review posts (she says as she types her own off-topic post). So, check it out--I have created a poll! Go ahead and vote--make your voice heard! It will be interesting to see if the results assuage my guilt or make me feel even worse.

I just had to mention that the beautiful amaryllis featured in this post has nothing to do with the conversation, but I think I may be incapable of publishing a post without a picture. And, as long as I'm off my usual topic of book reviews, I'll add this one last thing: Happy 7th birthday to my middle child!

"Cyrano de Bergerac" by Edmond Rostand

I picked this book up a few months ago and immediately put it back down when I discovered that it was written in play form. But when I finally came back to it, though I prefer prose over a script, the reading of it went quickly. And, as an added benefit, the writing is straightforward and not difficult to follow.

Before reading, I had vague memories of Gérard Depardieu in a French film version, and Steve Martin in Roxanne, and big noses and love stories and panache; but I didn't remember any further details. I certainly didn't remember this is basically a "tragicomedy." The play is in five acts, and until the last one I would have called it a comedy, but Act Five changes the whole tone.

The translator of my edition made one grave misstep by using the word "plume" or "scarf" rather than the word panache, which means "plume" as well as "a flamboyant manner and reckless courage." I think the distinction is important, especially where Cyrano de Bergerac is concerned.

Did you know that de Bergerac was an actual historical figure? I had no idea, though--as wikipedia says--the character in "the play bears very little resemblance to the life of the actual person." But there are several interesting similarities between the character and his namesake. I didn't realize the real-life connection until after I finished reading, but several times as I read I wondered if Rostand ever thought that people would still be reading his play in book form more than a century after he wrote it.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Words of the Day

Ready for more Dictionary Fun? I was going to continue through my original list from top to bottom, but I came across two new words just this week, and I was eager to get to them first, with the added benefit that I actually remember where I heard them and can even share with you the sentence where I found them.

1. Gallimaufry. From my most recent read, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. "Every family had a few skeletons in their cupboards, but the Vanger family had an entire gallimaufry of them." So I'm guessing it's a pretty big place to store skeletons. I mean, I have no clue. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say it's a French tomb at the top of a tower. (I really do have reasons behind this: Galli- as in Gallic, -mau- as in mausoleum, and -fry as in belfry . . . hey, I tried!!) Webster says: Hodgepodge (which, in turn, is defined as a mixture or jumble). Yup, I couldn't have been more wrong. Zero points. Boo hiss! But there's an option for a bonus half-point if I'm pronouncing the word correctly (accent on the "mau" syllable). Let's check in with Webster again: Oooh, yes! 0.5 for me.

2. Exiguous. Another from Dragon Tattoo. "She had a rudimentary knowledge of the law--it was a subject she had never had occasion to explore--and her faith in the police was generally exiguous." Lacking? Theoretical? Along the lines of thinking "it works for other people but not for me"? Webster says: Excessively scanty; inadequate. So, "lacking" works, right? I'm claiming the point.

3. Anabaptist. I totally remember learning this word in a religion class in college, but that was, like, a long time ago. Funny that I don't remember the definition, but I do remember that my roommate knew the definition. Or maybe I'm thinking about the word "gnostic" . . . OK, I guess I have 2 words to look up now. And honestly I don't even have a guess on either one. Webster says: An Anabaptist is a Protestant sectarian of a radical movement arising in the 16th century and advocating the baptism and church membership of adult believers only, nonresistance, and the separation of church and state. A Gnostic belongs to a cult of late pre-Christian and early Christian centuries distinguished by the conviction that matter is evil and that emancipation comes through gnosis. Ugh, will this never end? What is gnosis? Esoteric (private or confidential information limited to a small group) knowledge of spiritual truth which is essential to salvation. MY GOSH that was convoluted but boring. I get a point just for looking all that up. And YOU get a point just for reading it. Maybe #4 will be more fun.

4. Glutinous. Is this like gelatinous, only wheat-based? (Nah, "gluten" ends in -en, not -in.) Webster says: Having the quality of glue; gummy. So if something is glutinous it is like glue, and a gelatinous substance is like jelly. I get 3/4 of a point, since "gelatin" is defined as "a glutinous material." They're definitely related.

5. Gorgeous. I've always thought gorgeous meant super-pretty, but that definition must not have matched the context wherever I found it. I sure wish I remembered where this one came from, because it's a little disappointing to wonder but not know why I was unsure of the definition. Webster says: Splendidly or showily brilliant or magnificent. I say I get a point for this one too, don't you?

So now I have to do some math. Looks like 4.25 out of 5, but I'm subtracting a point since this wasn't near as fun as last week. Well, the first two words were fun, but the other three, not so much. You can have the point that I deleted from my score as a reward, if you actually read this far.

Now here is my Dictionary Day disclaimer. Not that I thought I was the first person to have ever looked up the definitions of words I don't know, but the day after I posted my first Words of the Day last week, I found there is already a well-established blogger meme called "Wondrous Words" that basically does just the same thing that I'm doing here. I guess I just want to say I'm not trying to be an idea thief, thunder-stealer or copy-cat with my definitions posts. 'Sokay, though. Dictionary Fun can be for everyone.

Monday, May 10, 2010

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" by Stieg Larsson

I have succumbed to peer pressure. This has got to be the book I've heard talked about the most, and from the most varied venues. I can't even tell you how many bloggers I've seen posting about it in recent weeks. I have studiously avoided reading all of those posts Just In Case. Partly, of course, to dodge spoilers, but also because I didn't want to have my experience with the book colored by the opinions of others. So, get ready for me to color your experience with it. (That is, if you haven't already read it, which somehow seems unlikely.)

The writing was a little awkward as I first began to read, but who knows, this may just have been due to the translation. (The book was originally written in Swedish). I imagine it is difficult to translate an author's words and intent while retaining their unique voice. I guess I will never know whether Larsson's own writing was as awkward as this English translation. But as I read, either the awkwardness disappeared, or I got so accustomed to it that I forgot about it (with occasional reminders by way of little words like "anon"--more than once!--and "alas".)

I'm not sure what exactly I expected of this book, but I hadn't realized it's basically a murder mystery novel, and I was pleasantly surprised when I figured this out. The book may not be as "literary" (or navel-gazing?) as I expected, but neither did it make me feel guilty for reading it. It was certainly not one of those brain-cell-killers, thank goodness.

This is the first mystery novel I've read in a long while that ranks well on my Agatha Christie scale, which would be my method of measurement for all murder mysteries, Christie's novels being the epitome of the genre in my opinion. I must note that this book definitely had more "contemporary" themes than a Christie mystery. (In this case, "contemporary" is a euphemism for nasty-minded.) I can't imagine Agatha Christie ever writing about anal plugs. Especially since I had never even heard of them myself, before reading this book. Well, you learn something new every day. That, by the way, is one of the reasons why I am marking this book as Not Suitable For My Mom. She doesn't need to know about anal plugs (or any of the rest of it, because it gets worse).

Deviant behavior aside, this was a truly engrossing story. The characters were well-written, unique but not unbelievably so, imperfect but still likable. The plot was tight and, for the most part, fast-paced. I loved that I found it unpredictable. (Although I did figure out Who She Was a page ahead of time--mainly just because there weren't any other options remaining). It wasn't exactly like a Christie book, in which I generally suspect every character in turn. But neither was it like a flawed mystery with the perpetrator as a surprise stranger that jumps out of nowhere at the end of the book. I also liked that the mystery kept rolling over into something new. You think it's solved, but wait! There's more! On the other hand, I didn't like that the book started and ended with blah blah blah finance blah blah blah industry. For me, the excitement ended about 60 pages before the book did. Not that I was completely bored by the dénouement, but it wouldn't have hurt my feelings if that whole section had been edited out.

Then the last two pages, ugh. Not that I should have expected a nice pat happily-ever-after ending with these characters. And honestly, with the way things were left, I think I am more interested in reading the next book in the trilogy. (Although I had already planned to, many pages previously). This is not because the end raised more questions that need to be answered in the next installment, but because the characters were true to form, and the unresolved conflict is sure to be interesting when it is addressed. But still, ugh. Any time you end up with Elvis* in the trash can it can't be good.

Now I'm off to read all those other bloggers' posts about this book which I have been evading until now!

*Don't worry--not the real Elvis, lest I be coloring your experience with the wrong hue.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Words of the Day

Several years ago I started keeping a list of "Words to Look Up." These were words I came across while reading that met one of three criteria: #1, I had never heard of them before; #2, I thought I knew the definition but wanted to confirm it; or #3, the definition in my mind didn't match with the context in the book. I think I may have first started doing this while reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray (excellent book, by the way--I highly recommend it if you've never read it), or perhaps it was during The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (another decent one).

I fully intended to look up the definition of these words, and then reread how each was used in context, but I didn't do a very good job in keeping track of which book I found them in. Oops. For about half of the words I didn't even list a page number; a bunch more have a page number without a notation about a title (how does that help??); then there are a few for which I marked down title initials but I still have no idea what book it might be! For instance, what book uses the word "fuliginous" and could be denoted by the initials HJ? Or where would I find the word "alacrity" in a book with the initials FM?

Anyway, since I am obviously never going to take the time to look up all the definitions in one sitting, I have decided to look them up in groups of five with a nice break in between. I call this "Words of the Day" mainly in homage to Joey Tribbiani's toilet paper, but I don't plan to do this daily. I guess I just hope to do it often enough that I finally come to the end of my list someday.
So, here are today's five entries:

1. Sere. On my list, this word is followed by "fields" in parentheses. I assume this is because, in the book I was reading, "sere" was an adjective used to describe "fields." My guess: Sere means dry. Webster says: Being dried and withered. Score!

2. Sine qua non. I assume this is a latin term. I bet my nephew David could tell me the definition, being one of the only people to have taken Latin classes in this century. (For all I know, he *is* the only one). He could also probably tell me how to pronounce it, because I have no clue. For my purposes, I'm calling it "see-nay kwa non." On my list, this phrase is followed by "necessary?" in parentheses. I am guessing that was my guess for the definition. Webster says: An absolutely indispensible or essential thing. Actual translation is "without which not." It is used as a noun. Anyway, that's two points for me!

3. Nacre-colored. On my list, this term is followed by "pearl material?" so I am guessing that was my guess as to the definition. Webster says: "nacre" is mother-of-pearl. Hey, I'm doing pretty well! This is fun!

4. Doge's barge. I'm almost sure this was from Dorian Gray. No qualifiers on my list. I have a vague idea that this refers to Venetian gondolas, and I used to think it was something dark and solemn and perhaps even funereal, but in one of the two books I recently read about Venice, I seem to recall learning that a Doge is some sort of government official. Webster says: a "doge" is the chief magistrate in the republics of Venice and Genoa. I don't feel like I can give myself full points for this one, because (though I know what a Doge is and I know what a barge is) I still don't get what the phrase "Doge's barge" connotes. I mean, is it just fancy?

5. Pygmy. I'm pretty sure this word came from Conan Doyle's aforementioned book. I always thought "pygmy" referred to a small version of something. In order for this to have made my list, my definition must not have fit the context. Webster says: Any of a race of dwarfs described by ancient Greek authors. Any of a small people of equatorial Africa ranging under five feet in height. A short, insignificant (really, Webster? that's a little rude!) person; Dwarf. I'm sure this word can apply to little rabbits, and, um, hippos too? So I say I get full points for this one.

Look at that! 4.5 out of 5. I win!

Sunday, May 2, 2010

"Always Looking Up: The Adventures of an Incurable Optimist" by Michael J. Fox

Yeeees, another library book. When will I learn? Probably about the time I finish up my TBR list. Which means probably about never.

I read about this book in Reader's Digest. Like any good little American girl who grew up mostly in the 80s, I had a great big ol' crush on Alex Keaton. (That is, until I found out that Michael J. Fox was, like, old. Not that my "chances" for getting a date with him would have improved much had we been closer in age.) My former crush on still-boyishly-handsome Fox, in combination with my own incurable (or, to some, unendurable) optimism, made me snatch up this book as soon as I saw it on the shelf at my local library.

This book is basically a memoir that spans the past 10 years of Fox's life. It is divided into four sections: work, politics, faith and family. Fox later describes these as his four pillars. This got me to thinking. (And, by the way, I absolutely love it when a book manages to do that). What are the pillars of my life? I would definitely describe two of mine as faith and family, but so far I haven't really been able to decide what else in my life might be described as a pillar. (All I know is "politics" and "work" would not be it for me). I am a little bit uncomfortable with the idea of a two-pillar life, because that doesn't seem stable enough; but at the moment, nothing else comes to mind that has the robust aspect of a pillar. I will have to ruminate further on that point. So, back to my thoughts on the book.

During the first of four sections ("Work"), as I read about the Fox family's vacation in Provence and Paris, I found myself alternating between annoyance at the offhand way he was tossing out references to his amazingly posh life, and nearly salivating at this opportunity to sneak a glimpse into the Real Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. Hanging out with Lance Armstrong and Robin Williams? Check. Living for several weeks in a French villa actually owned by literal royalty? Check. Flying from Paris to New York in three hours the day before the deadly crash that ended the era of the Concorde? Oh my gosh! But, check.

Most of the "work" section centered around Fox's transition from actor to Parkinson's activist. I was a little bit disapointed that, though he writes about the vast sums of money that the Michael J. Fox Foundation has poured into research, he mentions nothing about any sort of success or headway towards finding a cure. I would have been interested in reading at least a few scientific details, even if they only led towards dead ends or an uncertain future.

The "work" section segued neatly into the "politics" section, as stem cell research has been a ray of hope (for Parkinson's patients as well as many others) while also quite politically charged. I was impressed by how respectful Fox was of those whose political ideology differs from his. I am not interested in using this forum to express my political leanings, but Fox's desire to have restrictions lifted from stem cell research is such a common theme throughout the book that it caused me to attempt to solidify and define my previously amorphous stance on the topic. Here is what I find I have to say: First, I believe the (however unlikely) possibility of growing actual entire humans for use as replacement parts is unethical, but I don't think those who advocate stem cell research are suggesting that this be done. I am all for legislature to keep this from happening in the future, and though Fox doesn't actually come out and say so, I feel certain he would think the same way. Second, if in vitro fertilization is not wrong, how can using the byproducts (excess embryos which would be discarded anyway) be wrong? Yeah, I know that my stance is still pretty amorphous, but at least it's not nonexistant.

Where I find I do disagree with Fox somewhat is in his support of political candidates who are pro-stem-cell-research based solely on that issue. Sure, it's not like we have Hitler running for office here, but it's kind of like my discomfort with having only two "life pillars." Supporting a candidate based on only one "pillar" is not to my liking. On the other hand, I bet I would feel differently if stem cell research struck closer to home for me.

All in all, from what I gathered in reading this book, Michael J. Fox seems like a geuninely good guy with his feet on the ground and his head in the right place. It's encouraging to see someone with so much passion and drive in his position. Even if I am jealous about the castle in Provence.