Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why James Franco Should Visit My Library

I recently signed up for an account on Twitter, Tweeter, Twiddling Thumbs, whatever-it's-called. I also started a blog about my books.
These are all things that a few months ago I would have said I had a 0.01% chance of doing.

Well, I am enjoying myself. Perhaps it's because I feel almost as if my library has gained another dimension. And with my dreams of starting a private university, I have always felt that my books are meant to be appreciated by other people, not just me.

On Twilight in Winter (I just can't bear to type that I was on Twitter), handy little suggestions pop up helpfully in your browser. I hadn't heard of any of them, until a familiar face came up: James Franco.
I've always loved James Franco, but not for the usual reasons. I haven't seen many of his movies, except for "Howl" and "Milk," less mainstream ones that I adored. My favorite piece of film that I saw him in wasn't a movie, but a short clip by the New York Times called 14 Actors Acting where he kisses himself in a mirror. It was like Borges and Kundera had made a beautiful collaboration on film.
But to me, James Franco isn't primarily an actor, he's a professor, a poet, an intellectual, a reader of Ulysses. And who else is all that?

So, James.

Here's why you should come and visit my library.

1. Because I live in Miami. And, as Tweeting Bird so cleverly informed me, you are currently in Miami.

2. You're not only in Miami, you're here for the Miami Gay & Lesbian Film Festival. I'm not exactly gay, and I'm not lesbian, but I'm not really straight, and there is probably some sort of connection to something there, but basically, that's a great reason to visit a city.

3. Because intellectuals belong in libraries, and my books belong with intellectuals. Living in Miami, they don't get such company very often.

4. You can sign my copy of "Palo Alto," but more importantly, you can sign my California book. I try to collect books about every place on earth, and whenever I meet someone from there, I have them sign the book. Care for your signature to join the names of a beautiful copy-editor raised in a cult, a literal rocket scientist, a cheating ex, and a surfer who was afraid of water?

5. Because I want to know all about everyone's books. What books have you brought on planes? Found in strange places? What books were written just for you? Which poets make you want to write something important? Which books make you feel like you should have written that?

6. Because none of my 3,000 books care about Twittering Sparrows and social media and pop culture and paparazzi. Some of them know about movies, but they consider "the book to be better." Most of the time they're right. None of my books have ever heard of you. They really have no idea who you are, except an intellectual who knows about Kafka and Ginsberg (so probably Kerouac, too) and such people, and about the beauty of poetry and art.

Where Are All the Books?

When I think of Miami, I see flashing neon signs streaked across the hot night air, of crowded beaches choked with tourists, houses in offensive shades of pink and horrid lime green, and people in plastic flip-flops with bleached hair appropriately tousled by the ocean breeze. Humid, sticky, exorbitant, shallow.
I don't like Miami. Or, to put it better, I know that it isn't where I want to live for the rest of my life. It can be beautiful, and I do love the ocean (even though I never go, I just look at it from my balcony). The sense of wild, uninhibited freedom there is, at times, liberating. And being one of those people that's shivering and wearing a coat when it's 75°, I like the weather. 

When I moved here, I had just emerged from a nearly 700 mile walkabout inspired by Kerouac and Christopher McCandless, freshly inspired and idealistic, my worldview forever changed (more on that in another post). And before that, I had left behind Charlottesville, my lost intellectual utopia, where I lived next-door to two bookshops with dozens more within a 20 minute walk.
Coming to Florida was a bit of a culture shock.

In Miami, I immediately set out to answer that all-important question I ask of every new place I find myself in: Where are all the books? 

Not a book in sight

 The question went disturbingly unanswered for a few months. I found a chain bookstore at the mall, but they had a limited selection, and I was put off by the fast paced, mainstream atmosphere. There weren't any chairs to sit and read, the bookshop clerks were talking about watching trashy reality shows, and if you stayed longer than half an hour they slipped you suspicious glares.
I looked up used bookshops online, and embarked on a 30 min. drive to a beaten down bookstore attended to by one elderly woman who looked as if she had stepped out of the 1950's. This was more like it! 
Or not. A cursory glance around the place told me that it was packed with cheap romance novels. A deeper investigation turned up a single shelf of "Classics," containing about 20 books. I purchased an overpriced copy of Hardy's "The Mayor of Casterbridge," and the woman gave me a funny look. "Why would you buy this?" she asked. "School, I guess."
"No," I said. "Hardy is one of my favorite authors."
She looked at me as if I had just informed her that one of my favorite pastimes was hammering splinters into my fingernails.

Further searches turned up much of the same, and at one point, I had actually read all the books that I owned. For any reader / book collector, you know how unthinkable this is.

In horror, I considered the possibility that there just aren't any places to buy books in Miami. Of course, there is always the option of buying online, but that can't compare to sifting through used bookshops, never sure what you'll come across, finding books that you've never heard of but suddenly can't imagine your library being without. 

What to do?

Now, after living in Miami for about four years, I'm intimately acquainted with all of the places that books are hiding. It took some searching, but I found them.

A particularly good day of book-buying!

Because of this, I think that almost anyone can find books, and lots of them, almost anywhere.

1. Abandon any and all qualms against thrift stores and secondhand shops. They are probably the best places to buy books in the absence of used bookshops, and most of the time, they're a lot cheaper, too. Many used bookshops sell their selections for half of the cover price, which is normally about $5 - $15. Thrift shops sells books for about $1 - $4. Besides being ridiculously low priced, stores like these aren't likely to know anything about the books that they're selling, so if there's a treasure hidden in the shelves, they aren't going to know it. I've found a 1st edition Tolkien, Toni Morrison, and a signed 1st edition of Nabokov's "Ada" in thrift shops, among many others.
I really started finding a ton of books after I had located every Goodwill, Salvation Army, and secondhand shop in the area. And often, your money is going toward a good cause, too.

2. Go to the library. Visit multiple libraries, especially your county's main library. Nearly every library has a discards section, where they sell discarded library copies or donations. Some of these discard sections are so large that they're the size of bookstores, and some libraries call them ongoing "Book Sales." If you can believe it, libraries normally sell books for even less than thrift stores, from $0.10 - $3.

3. Of course, find your local independent and used bookshops. And befriend the people behind the counter! I have found that people working in small, more obscure bookshops are voracious readers themselves 99% of the time. I've also had a lot of them give me generous "best customer" discounts, and when I gave one of them my phone number, he called me with books he thought I'd like and offered to hold them for me until my next visit.

4. Sometimes, I post on Craigslist that I will take unwanted books off people's hands. I always get a ton of replies, which I hadn't expected when I put up my first ad. Likewise, people sometimes post books for sale on Craigslist. Posts like "Tons of Books!" or "Hundreds of Boxes of Books, Must Go," are the best! 
When planning to go to someone's home for books, I always ask them for a snapshot of their shelves and what types of books they have. Hopefully, they send a photo with visible titles, so that I can get an idea of the selection. Asking them what books they have generally isn't much good. They say "Literature" and they mean Reader's Digest. They say "vintage" and mean 1980's. But if they say "No clue, they were my grandmother's," then I always, always go. 
I also bring my boyfriend along with me on such visits. I'd like to think that everyone on the internet is an honest person, but Craigslist isn't exactly the most legitimate place of business.

5. I made a sort of deal with myself that I would purchase one book online every two weeks. I don't like buying books online, and this post is kind of about finding books without using the internet, but for new releases or books on specific topics, it's often the best way to get something that used bookshops aren't likely to have. I highly recommend AbeBooks for this.

 6. Find book friends, swap books, and ask where they find things to read. I'll admit, I haven't accomplished this here, but I had lots of fellow reading friends back in Virginia, and was introduced to many of my favorite books and authors through them.

7. Here I'm going to recommend something that isn't typical of my world of books in any way. First of all, it's on the internet, and secondly, it involves eBooks (in other words, files disguised as books). However, NetGalley.com is one of my favorite websites. It offers "copies" of upcoming releases available through publishers for you to review. They have a great selection and I'm always reading something that I received through them.

Sound familiar?

Guess what this description refers to...

There is a simple farm boy who lives with his uncle, because his father was supposedly killed, and his mother is dead. He has a normal, happy life until he finds a mysterious object. A princess in trouble leaves something behind for him to discover. Confused, he consults an old, wise man who is his friend. He comes back to his farm to find that it has been set on fire, and his uncle is now dead. He leaves with an old man who is his friend, and discovers that the old man has hidden, amazing abilities. The old man gives him a very special weapon and trains him how to use it. They go on an adventurous journey and the boy learns to fly and fight. He finds the princess who had left him a message, and befriends her.
He meets another young man whom he really dislikes at first, but gradually they become friends. The mysterious old man who taught him how to be a warrior is tragically killed. He must defeat the evil villain - who turns out to actually be his father of someone in the group.

No, it isn't Star Wars, it's Eragon!

Review: The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder

Title: The Bridge of San Luis Rey
Author: Thornton Wilder
Genre: Literary
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 1927
Pages: 160

Rating - 7 out of 10

In 1714 Lima, Peru, a bridge breaks, and five people crossing it at the time fall to their deaths. Brother Juniper, a Franciscan monk just seconds away from being on the bridge himself, witnesses the event in horror, and begins to ask questions that no one can answer. Why did he arrive a few moments later? Why did those five people die? Was it a coincidence, or did God himself choose that the bridge should break, and choose which people should die?

Brother Juniper begins an investigation into the backgrounds of each person, and the book is divided into parts with their stories. The first individual is María, Marquesa de Montemayor, a woman whose passionate love for her daughter eventually drives her away as she seeks independence. María writes essay-like, eloquent letters to her daughter, in which Wilder's simplistically delicate prose became a bit heavier, a bit more ornate, to fit the voice of his character.
Also traveling with her is a servant girl, perhaps an attempted replacement for her daughter.

The second part is about Esteban, whose story involved his twin and a secret invented language, all fractured when one of them falls in love. It was a dramatic story made completely believable.

Lastly is the story of Pio and Jamie. Pio, a well traveled man with an eclectic past, takes a little girl singing in a coffee shop under his wing, and over the years, she develops under his guidance into a beautiful, famed actress. Pio watches her ascent and descent, and one day persuades her to let him teach her son, Jamie, as he taught her. They leave for Lima and are on the bridge when it falls.

The way that Wilder gives us glimpses into these character's lives, in a short story sort of writing style, was lovely. He chronicles both commonplace and extraordinary events, and with each twist, we see their stories heading steadily toward the bridge where they will die. I hadn't been expecting Wilder to remind me so strongly of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but the types of stories that he told were very similar.

I don't normally say this, but I liked the quiet spirituality of this book. Rather than blindly refuse to ask questions of God, Brother Juniper devotes himself to doing so. He never seems to actually question his faith, but rather asks questions about it, seeking understanding. He approaches things philosophically and inquisitively.

Following the September 11th attacks, Tony Blair read the last sentences of this book in New York:

"...But soon we will die, and all memories of those five will have left earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love. The only survival, the only meaning."

This little book was subtle, insightful, and pretty. Few books can searchingly approach the topic of death in a such a meaningful way, but this one did.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Review: The Waste Land and Other Poems by T.S. Eliot

Title: The Waste Land and Other Poems
Author: T.S. Eliot
Genre: Poetry
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Published: 1922 (The Waste Land)

Rating - 10 out of 10

T.S. Eliot is a true master with words. His style of dark, depressing prose, gorgeous description, veiled hidden meanings shrouded in mystery, and sharply satiric wit is awing.
While some of my favorite poets have earned my respect for their pretty, delicate writing, T.S. Eliot twists blackness, madness, and desperation into shining beacons of lyrical beauty.
I also love how Eliot so frequently references other literary characters, especially Shakespeare. He also shows echoes of Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Marlowe, Emerson, the Bible, Arthurian Legend, Classical Greek, Shelley, Chopin, and others. These reflected acknowledgments to his heroes influence his writing deeply, and make it seem far more literary and relevant.
The satiric elements are clear and intelligent. I admired his short poem The Hippopotamus, in which he compared the animal to the Roman Catholic Church. Hilarious, biting, and clever. But of course, of course, the true gem in this collection of epics is The Waste Land itself.
One of my favorite poets and thinkers of all time.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Review: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

 Title: Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
Author: Susanna Clarke
Genre: Fantasy / Literary
Publisher: Bloomsbury
First Published: September 8, 2004
Pages: 864

Rating - 9 out of 10

How to write a review of a book so expansive, so epic, and so complex as "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell?" I have been putting it off, and while I am not entirely sure that I'll be able to do it justice, I have so very many thoughts on it that it simply wouldn't be right to neglect reviewing it altogether.

First of all, the storyline. In an alternate 1800's England, magic was once an integral part of battle, politics, and royalty, but died out hundreds of years ago. Now, the only people who care about such things any longer are men who study magic but never actually perform any. That is, until an eccentric, hermit-like man named Mr. Norrell comes along. Formerly known only as a man with a large library, Norrell is thrust into the public eye when he performs a public bit of magic in a Yorkshire cathedral. His hopes are to become a political figure and help fight the Napoleonic Wars with his spells, but instead, he is viewed more as a curiosity to London society.
When a man's beautiful young fiancee unexpectedly passes away, Norrell is called upon for help. Norrell agrees, and raises her from death with the help of a fairy. Fairies practiced magic alongside humans hundreds of years ago, but they were never trusted, and have not reappeared in the land for hundreds of years. Norrell himself views the race as treacherous and dangerous, and yet, he secretly agrees to the fairy man's terms in return for Lady Pole's life.
In another part of the country, a younger man named Jonathan Strange has a random encounter with Vinculus, a fraudulent street magician with a massively important secret.
The event leads Strange to move to London and seek out Mr. Norrell, establishing his place as the second magician in England. Norrell takes Strange on as his pupil, and at first, the relationship between them is a grudging friendship.
Strange's role in the public eye is quite different from his tutor's, and as he is younger, far more personable, and irresistibly stylish, he inevitably gains more popularity than Norrell could ever have managed.
Strange becomes caught up in the Napoleonic Wars, aiding the army and actually going into battle with the soldiers and scheming with the generals.
During the years he is away, back in London the fairy who helped Norrell lurks over Lady Pole's life, constructing a dark, murky, and eerily enchanting world of dances and balls that he uses to suck in unsuspecting mortals.
When Jonathan does return to London, he finds his relationship with Norrell changed forever, as their magical ethics, ideas, and practices have drifted too far apart to exist alongside each other.
As they battle with each other in the form of books, newspaper printings, and slights, Jonathan's own wife is unknowingly becoming involved with the perilous fairy world that her friend Lady Pole is already enslaved to.
Mrs. Strange isn't the only one spiraling into darkness, however: Jonathan's open-minded approach to new types of magic is leading him deeper and deeper into blacker and blacker spells.
Norrell is perhaps the only one who realizes the seriousness of his former pupil's situation, and is perhaps the only one capable of coming to his aid, despite the fact that the two magicians of England are locked in a war against each other.

As long as the above paragraphs are, they can only encompass the merest sliver of what this massive book is truly about. JS & MN could easily have been drawn out into a long series of ten books or more, or at the least a trilogy or quartet.
I absolutely loved the complexity of this book. It is like a well structured, weaving and winding maze. There are far, far too many corridors, deceptive tunnels, twisting back streets, and prominent passages to possibly keep them all going in your mind at once.
There are many, many characters - it may be advisable to keep track of them by noting their names on a card and referring back to it as needed - but every one of them have their part to play in the story, and no one is added unnecessarily.
While I am aware that the very noticeable complexity of this huge novel may drive some readers crazy, I embraced this aspect of it joyously.
Clarke has created an entirely new world that is woven seamlessly with actual history. While most authors set up the scenery and then work on (hopefully) realistic characters and events, Clarke takes this idea a few levels further. Indeed, I believe that my idea of a vivid setting will now always be forever changed, as Clarke has certainly raised the bar here.
Like Tolkien, Clarke has invented an entire world, complete with culture, history, lore, rumors, customs, fads, politics, historical figures, and back stories.
Many of these points are told in her footnotes at the bottom of many of the pages, which may give a mere sentence of explanation or go on for pages and pages, giving you entire stories about people, places, or events in a news reporter, unbiased and factual manner.
I cannot express how much I loved these footnotes. They may have even elevated my rating an entire star. Whenever I saw one at the bottom of an upcoming page, I could hardly wait to read it.
Everyone in this book has a story. Minor characters that are not mentioned very many times still manage to be deep vignettes that you wonder about. If Clarke wrote a separate book on every single minor character, I do believe that every single one of them would be fascinating, even if they all related only events that already happened in "JS & MN."
The result of such finely detailed imagining is a world that Clarke ingrains within every page of this masterpiece. You sink into her world, and even after you finish the last page, you still look at the real world a bit differently after such a vivid immersion.

The characters are all exceedingly well done, even if they are a bit distanced. Readers must be aware that Clarke's writing style isn't one that gives you a thought-by-thought description of individual's minds. Her style of writing is closer to Jane Austen than to J.K. Rowling.

Mr. Gilbert Norrell, who takes over most of the first half of the story, is not exactly a lovable character that you wish existed in real life. In fact, I would say that it is far more likely that you will take a disliking to Mr. Norrell, perhaps even a rather strong disliking.
He is stuffy, arrogant, and prudish, and believes himself to be The (yes, with a capital T) end and beginning of magical knowledge. His ideas are law, in his own mind, and anyone who contradicts them is immediately dismissed as an insufferable imbecile. Though he eventually agrees to tutor Strange in magic, he is still unwilling to fully impart limitless knowledge, shown most through his refusal of admitting Jonathan into his library. It is only toward the end of the book that Norrell at last offers to give Jonathan a free pass to his books, and then, only as a bribe.
Norrell buys every single magical book in the entire country, and in other countries as well. When there is an auction of five or so magical manuscripts, Norrell rushes to buy them all, at any cost, and he is famous for buying out entire stores that are attempting to sell spell books.
He wants no one else in the entire world to have access to books on magic, even bringing politics and laws into this unofficial ban. See page 360.
This obsessive and shockingly assumptive aspect of Mr. Norrell reminded me of how the church did not allow commoners to read the Bible in medieval times.

Our second magician, Jonathan Strange, is far more likable, though he may in fact be less 'good' than his rival.
From the very first time that we meet him, he reveals himself to be an impressionable man, which may perhaps hint that he isn't quite as strong as he ought to be. In his meeting with Vinculus, he is told that he is meant to be a magician. From that moment onward, he is. Yes, yes, it was fate and all that... But really, now.
Jonathan has a much more personable nature, which results in his popularity in London. Originally, it was Norrell's greatest wish that his magic be involved with politics and war, and while it is Norrell who starts off the trend, it is Strange who actually travels alongside the army, helps draw up battle strategies, and battles the French face to face.
Though we know that he is a talented magician, we are also well aware that Strange is inexperienced, and there are quite a few near disasters. In many instances (speaking to dead enemy spies, creating a water-man to put out a fire, etc) his spells are helpful at the time but result in more long-term negativity.
Jonathan is more boyish and relateable than Norrell, and I think it is pretty near inevitable that most readers will side with him.
Even as he slips into the darker realms of magic, we sympathize with him. I wanted to plunge into the darkness with him and drag him out, as his descent was horrifying to witness. It was gradual, so that one day, everything is fine, and then a few hundred pages later, we realize that our beloved character has become almost... evil. What has happened to him?

There are other characters that fascinated me, but to list them all would simply take up far too much room, and this is already a very long review.
Norrell's devoted servant Childermass was one of my favorites. He very much reminded me of a Dickens character. Page 49, when he is first described in detail, contains a few insightful paragraphs about him. Childermass could, in fact, be viewed as the true second magician of England. He reveals toward the end of the book that he has known spells and magic for years. After all, he is Norrell's closest confidante, and it likely was impossible for him not to. Always in the shadows, Childermass provides a strong backbone to the more public figures of his master and Strange, and much relies on him, no matter how little his acknowledged.
Lady Pole is a Gothic, eerily beautiful character. She is child-like, and despite her acidic bitterness toward the world around her, a certain innocence pervades her every action, and her story was extremely sad. If Norrell had not raised her from the dead, it would probably have been the better for her.

Clarke's approach to magic in this story was also extremely interesting. I wanted to take just a little peek into some of Norrell's books of magic, to see what secrets they held.
The magic is approached as a very literary, philosophical, scientific, almost theological thing.
There are no waving wands or silly sounding spells here. The magic is, like everything else here, complex.
Every spell has a history and a consequence, and a back-story.
And no matter how much of an expert Norrell professes to be, the truth is that neither magician truly understands the magic completely.
Norrell does his best to banish the Raven King (the most famous magician of all time, and former king of England) from modern magic, while Strange reminds everyone that it was the Raven King who practically invented magic. Without him, would there be any magic at all?
A sense of confusion exists through-out the story, as two men do their best to master forces that are far beyond what a single human can handle on his own.
The fairies seem to have a better grip on magic, and yet they twist it to their own ends. The fairies found here are no pretty Tinkerbells. They are dangerously intelligent, deceptive, and darkly evil creatures that are best avoided (as we certainly see quite soon in the story). Perhaps, the reader may think to himself, it isn't the fairies who twist magic into darkness, but the magic that twists the fairies into ethereal, ruined beings.

I absolutely loved this book, and I spent more time with it than I have with any other book in a long while. Though I am a fast reader, I slowed down my speed considerably as I went through this one. It just seemed right - this is a book to be savored.
I rarely ever re-read books. Even my 5 star books are hardly ever revisited. Perhaps the only books I have ever read more than once (besides childhood books from when I was very young) are Tolkien.
However, I have a suspicion that I'll be coming back to Clarke, and I also have a feeling that I will appreciate and enjoy this classic even more the second time around. That's just the type of work that this is.

I have wished a few times that I could find an author who wrote new, modern books in the style of the classics.Well, I have found her.
Though, I may not have many other books to choose from for quite some time, because she took ten years on JS & MN.
Clarke's writing style is magnificently classic, and I couldn't believe how close she sounded to Jane Austen.

Though it is certainly not for every reader, I cannot think of a single flaw in this epic story. I loved every detail here, and this is truly a masterpiece.
I hope that this review inspires you to read this very impressive volume. It is a book to be appreciated and revered, and hopefully in 100 years time, this book will still have well-earned place on many shelves.

Brava, Susanna Clarke. I am beyond impressed.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Review: Voltaire's Calligrapher by Pablo de Santis

 Title: Voltaire's Calligrapher
Author: Pablo de Santis
Genre: Literary / Historical Fiction
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Released: 2001 (as El Calígrafo de Voltaire)
Pages: 149

Rating - 8 out of 10

About Reading This Book
I read this book sitting one afternoon in a Barnes & Noble  near my house, which is now tragically closed, with a cup of cinnamon tea. After reading, I found a tiny lizard, smaller than a quarter, trapped in the rest rooms, and set it free outside.

Originally written in Spanish by Argentine author Pablo de Santis, this book is the story of a young man named Dalessius in 1700's France. From a young age, he is trained as a calligrapher, which later earns him a job working for the eccentric Voltaire.

This book was beautiful and intellectual. It is a book that you must pay attention to, and read carefully, as there are countless little details on every page that you would miss if only skimming. Essentially, these little details were what made this book so fascinating for me.

De Santis is a skillful, intricate writer who masterfully creates a vivid world by using a curious method. He gives the reader a strong impression that other lives and stories, besides the one that he is writing, are going on all around it. Little descriptors given for an unimportant individual, or a place, or an object, hint at there being so much more under the surface - other, unrelated stories that sound intriguing, but that he doesn't have time to go into.
The result is a very realistic, artful sense of setting that does not rely so much on a place as it does on the realistic presence of the people who inhabit it.

I just loved all of these little details and eccentricities, which were scattered over nearly every page. Most were unimportant to the story, but they added so much to it. They were the minuscule moments in the book that contributed beauty and a sense of cinematic-style art. Dalessius accidentally glimpses the face of a beautiful corpse in her coffin, a man tells us that he carries a withered enemies hand about with him wherever he goes. Kolm tells a story of accidentally executing his estranged father and giving up his job as a hangman afterward, students whisper rumors of an unspecified "cursed" word that they will punished for happening to write down. A man accidentally uses disappearing ink when writing a woman's execution document, so that when it is opened and found blank, the people take it as a sign from God, and she is let go. An actor becomes so well known for playing his role of a notorious local villain that he becomes hated himself. A man who lost three fingers setting off fireworks tells the tale with nostalgia, likening it to an honorable sort of battle wound. A traveler sees a woman on her deathbed and takes it as a sign, returning home to his wife and never leaving her side again. A maid is given a candle but is forbidden to light it, lest she waste her master's hoarded money. A sculptor finally finds his paragon model, a beautiful girl who can sit deathly still, but she disappears the next day, resulting in only a half finished sculpted head and his eventual suicide. A man writes using the blood of his enemies as ink....
And there were so very many more. None took up more than a few lines, which actually made them seem all the more realistic, allowing the reader to fill in extra details in their imaginations.

Another thing that I absolutely adored about this book was Dalessius' view on his trade as a calligrapher.
I think that what gave this book its literary, intellectual texture was the way that our main character looks upon his career. To him, it is more than just copying words in pretty handwriting.
He experiments with it and becomes obsessed by it, both hating and loving his trade all at once. He develops finesse and sophistication, even strategies that have to do with his techniques, his paper, his quills, and most importantly, his inks. He describes to us different methods, comparing some calligraphers to stonemasons. He uses describing words like "laceration" or "flow" for his writings.
As the book progresses, calligraphy becomes less of a study and more of an art to Dalessius, and finally, a philosophy.
He develops theories concerning his calligraphy, entertains deep-thinking notions and musings, all related to us with a light sort of sincerity.
I loved de Santis for what he created here. Truly, nearly any topic can be twisted into something intellectual if given the precision and philosophical, artful manner than he conjured up here.

The above is the essence of what I got out of this book and enjoyed about it. If none of that sounds like your type of story, you will probably not enjoy this book.
It does not have a specific outline of a plot, and yet neither is it a character-driven story. In fact, it would be a bit difficult to pinpoint exactly what the purpose and main story would be.
True to the title, Dalessius does work as a calligrapher and assistant to Voltaire, but not for a long enough time to be considered the main plot line. I loved the depiction of Voltaire as an eccentric, messy, quirky old man and wish that he had been focused on more.
Dalessius is in Toulouse for quite some portion of the book, which makes a less than favorable impression upon him (he stays in a filthy inn room and spends most of his time delving into the lives of hangmen, stories of grisly executions, and local tales of murders that are later glorified in plays).
Later in the story, he meets the fascinating clockmaker and mechanic von Knepper and his beautiful daughter Clarissa. Von Knepper's life's works are his life-size mechanic dolls, fashioned after Clarissa herself.

My one small complaint about this book would be that the author, or publisher, or someone really ought to included some actual calligraphy in this book! Even a pretty beginning letter at the start of each chapter would have been a lovely and relevant touch. Dalessius and de Santis make calligraphy sound gorgeous, and I wanted to see some examples! A few typical squiggles underneath the chapter numbers were included, but that was all.

All in all, this is a book as intricate and calculatingly artistic as Dalessius' calligraphy or as von Knepper's mechanical art. Though it was extremely short at only 150 pages, the author's shading of the story with detail and back-stories make it seem like a very long, complex book. This is a perfect example of beautiful, thoughtful writing.

Review: The Midwife's Revolt by Jodi Daynard

 Title: The Midwife's Revolt
Author: Jodi Daynard
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Oppossum Press
Released: January 1, 2013
Pages: 213

Rating - 7 out of 10

Despite my interest in the topic, it's been a very, very long time since I've read a Revolutionary War book, so I was very excited to read this one.

Here in Daynard's first novel, we meet Lizzie Boylston, midwife and owner of a small Massachusetts farm. The story follows her through the death of her husband in the Battle of Bunker Hill, her close friendship with Abigail Adams, the highs and lows of her medical work, espionage, and her struggles through the war years in general.

Even though I got through this book in just two sittings, I wouldn't call it a fast read. It is more one to be savored with some tea, snuggled up in bed. I can see how some readers may be put off by the pacing, and while I agree that some of the more slower portions of the book could have been omitted, I never felt bored or disinterested in the story.
Also, the second half of the book picked up a bit, complete with poisoning, a murder mystery, more than one mysterious suitor, and espionage.

I enjoyed the character of Lizzie, strong and thoroughly independent while still remaining a woman of her time, rather than a 21st Century girl taped into a historical setting.
As a child, Lizzie requested that her father provide her a tutor, which, more in carelessness than love, he did. She learned Greek and Latin, developed a fondness for Shakespeare, and became learned in medicine. Everyone in the story is aware of her intelligence, but she lives in a world where it is generally viewed as a strike against her rather than one in her favor. Sad, but triumphant Lizzie rises above this thinking.
Her development as a character was well written, and I especially thought that the way she handled her grief over her husband's death was marvelously realistic, allowing us to catch glimpses of all the things that made her come alive as a character - her flaws and best qualities.
Besides her new life as a widow, Lizzie's life is far from easy. She obviously longs for a family, she is at first shunned as a possible witch in her community, her farm does not exactly prosper, and she goes through multiple times of near starvation and sickness. In one hopeless instance she tells us "At times we felt as if God were on the other side."

Another thing that drew me to this book was the involvement of Abigail Adams. Abigail's unabashed honesty, clear-headedness, and tough love make for a great friendship between her and Lizzie. I love John and Abigail Adams, and from the other things that I have read about her, this seems a good re-imagining of what she may have been like with her closest confidantes.

Another thing that I greatly appreciated about this book was that it truly seemed set during the Revolutionary War.
This is clearly a book for readers of historical fiction, by a fan of the genre. There are dashes of old fashioned words through-out the book, though not enough to seem forced. Daynard isn't afraid to use words such as "breast" or "gay" with their original meanings attached (and no, neither have anything to do with sexuality). Two women share a bed because that is what women of the time did, with no gratuitous lesbian undertones attached. There are also fainting spells, fancily worded scenes, and some melodramatic speeches. At times, it strongly reminded me of a book of the period - and to do that successfully is to be applauded.

Overall, a lovely book that really takes you back in time.

Thanks to Opossum Press and NetGalley.com for providing me with an advance review copy of this book.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

An Introduction to My Library

As my first post as a book blogger, I thought it would be fitting to introduce to my library. I have been collecting books since I was a little girl, and my collection is the result of years of voracious reading. I love discovering and adopting books, wherever I may find them: tame and shiny books waiting in Barnes & Noble, books that have wandered into used bookstores, books lost in dusty thrift shops, forgotten in attics, left on buses, or wondering what they're doing on display in furniture stores.

most of my fiction section

Of course, the content of my library is based on what I read. I have literary tastes for intelligent, well written books. My top genres would be Historical Fiction, Classics, and Literary Fiction. From there, my reading branches out to many other topics. HF (historical fiction) leads to history, history leads to biographies, and biographies may take me to the rainforests of Brazil or to a medical research lab. You never know.

Basically, I read anything worth reading.

more fiction

  I own 2,817 books. I make lots of lists about my library, and keep meticulous track of things... So you can expect more thrilling numbers and statistics  to follow. Don't worry, I'll keep them brief.

I buy books that I am interested in, of course, and keep books that I've enjoyed. I like having knowledge close at hand - so, I try to collect a variety of non-fiction books on a wide array of subjects. I weed out fiction that I read and dislike, but I'm more lenient with my non-fiction. Even if, say, a particular biography didn't win me over, I'll probably still keep it. Same with classics.
I'm a fan of neglected, obscure books. Worn, scribbled in, pre-ISBN copies that I've never heard of are treasure.

Non-Fiction section. Double shelved and crowded

More double shelved non-fiction

 I dabble in antiquarian, collectible books, too. I have quite a lot of first editions and books from the 1800's, some from the 1700's, and one from the 1500's. Some of my older books are quite valuable, others are worth something only to me.

The name for my blog is in honor of Jorge Luis Borges, and can be used as a nod to Umberto Eco as well. I used to say that I would never find an absolute favorite book or author, but that was before I read Borges. Thanks to him, my world of reading is forever changed.

Living in Miami (not exactly a go-to place for intellectuals and readers) hasn't provided me with many any book-friends. I love when fellow book-lovers explore and appreciate my shelves, but those instances are few and far between. I want to be able to discuss what books I'm reading, buying, thinking about, and coveting with other book lovers who actually know what I'm talking about, not people in coffee shops who glance at me askance and edge away as I share my impassioned book-ramblings.

I am hoping to find book-friends, bring to light under-appreciated books, give my take on some books everyone is talking about, discover new reads, learn new things, and enjoy myself in book-blogging.

Still more fiction. It will inevitably always be under invasion from my boyfriend's computers / current project

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Review: The White by Deborah Larsen

Title: The White
Author: Deborah Larsen
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Vintage
Published: 2003
Pages: 219

Rating: 3 out of 10

In 1758 Pennsylvania, sixteen year old Mary Jemison is captured by a band of Shawnee Indians. At first, she rejects her captors and desperately plots methods of escape, but as time passes, she adjust more and more to the Native American way of life, even marrying within the tribe.

The story isn't a new one - I can think of a good handful of other books off the top of my head with this exact plotline. But, many of those books have also been very good, which I why I wasn't all that hesitant about reading another.
Also, I was particularly familiar with Mary Jemison's story because of another fictional book about her, Indian Captive, by Lois Lenski. It was one of the books of my childhood and won the 1942 Newberry Award.

The problem with this book, however, is not the storyline, but the author's writing, and her manner of recounting this true tale. I got through the book quickly, because of the sparse writing style, but there was nothing that compelled me to continue or interested me.

There was not a lot of focus on anything in the book except for the main character, Mary. The ways and customs of the Shawnee are neglectfully skipped over, along with any sense of culture. The other characters of the book, such as Mary's father, her husband, or her children, are also given this brusque, edited-out treatment. We never come to learn anything about them, save for their strict relationship to Mary.

For going to so much trouble to erase everything from the story except Mary herself, the author surely has created a bland main character. Mary is a shell-like, cardboard person whose thoughts, emotions, and motives are unclear to the reader. She never shares very much with us, and sometimes I had trouble guessing what exactly she was thinking. For example, she expresses her unwillingness to marry a certain man (she appears to be attracted to someone else), but very shortly afterward, agrees to marrying him and offers up no complaints ever again. Why? Further on in the book, she expresses a sudden, strong desire to own land. Why? The author never gives us any insight.
And to make matters worse, Mary is also an intolerably dull, listless character. I never felt sympathy or anything else for her. She was simply boring.

Not a book that I would recommend.