Friday, January 28, 2011

"Jane Austen: A Life Revealed" by Catherine Reef

Title: Jane Austen: A Life Revealed
Author: Catherine Reef
Published: Clarion Books, April 2011
Where I Got It:

Jane Austen may be the author of easily one of the most popular novels of all time, but how much to her readers actually know about her? In my case, not much. Sure, I knew a few things about her, such as that fact that she never married, and....well, that's it.

After finishing Jane Austen, this is in no way true anymore. Catherine Reef's book, while favoring a younger audience, is extremely well written, interesting, and very  informative. The book covers Jane's entire life and almost every aspect of it: her upbringing, schooling, parents, siblings, young love, sickness, and of course, her writing. All of her novels are summarized rather extensively; I initially thought this was an unnecessary part to the story, but the author lets the summarizations connect to Jane's life and the modern movie adaptions are also visited.

Now we all know that every single one of her six novels focus on young women whose economic and social future depends on the fortune they marry into. While this simple plot may sound trivial and petty to us, this was probably the number one worry of females in this era. Historically, women typically did not inherit anything from their parents, except maybe a small sum of money, so they had to look to potential husbands to assure their futures. The richer the man, the better. If women could not find a husband, they were written off as spinsters and became financial burdens to the family members that had to support them for the rest of their lives. Jane Austen experienced these troubles firsthand; though she received several offers of marriage in her youth, she never married and was passed around from her parents and brothers until her death. The fact that she was still able to inject so much humor and wit into her stories puts her miles above what the typical 'spinster' would have done. She obviously loved her family very much, particularly her fellow unmarried sister Cassandra.

Faults? I can only think of one: the pictures included don't really have anything to do with the page they are placed on. You may be reading a section about Jane's writing, and here's a picture of her brother talking about his political career. Sometimes the pictures even served as minor 'spoilers,' alluding to things that hadn't been mentioned yet in the text. Maybe this is only because I'm reading an early version of the book, hopefully this is cleared up during publication!

I'd give Jane Austen somewhere between 4.5 and 5 stars. Like I said before, it was an extremely interesting read and I learned a much so, that I was able to use some of this knowledge in a paper I wrote for my Theories of Literature class. Recommended if you like biographies, history, and obviously, the wonderful works of Jane Austen.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Top 10 Books I Wish I'd Read as a Kid

I haven't done a Top Ten Tuesday in FOREVER! I've missed doing them and this week's topic, books I wish I'd read as a kid, was a good place to jump back into things. I read constantly as a child, so I'm not sure I missed out on too much...but hey, you can never read too much.

  1. The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling - Yeah. I didn't read these until the summer of 2009 when I was 18. If I liked this so much in college, imagine what they could have been when I was younger!
  2. The Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis - I've got the whole series on my shelf only because I found the whole hardcover set for 99 cents. They just seem like so much fun.
  3. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
  4. Where the Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls - I know! I've never read this one! What is wrong with me? My favorite Lit teacher tells us constantly how he reads this book on the treadmill at the gym with tears running down his face. Sounds intense to make a grown man still cry!
  5. Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren
  6. Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
  7. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh - I remember seeing this movie in theatres and still being bothered that I hadn't read the book. The early start to a long lasting pet peeve.
  8. A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket - I always remember these books selling out at the Scholastic book fairs at my school (I wish we still had these!!!!!). I should have gotten into them at the time.
  9. Maniac McGee by Jerry Spinelli - I used to call my childhood best friend Maniac McGee because her last name is McGee...maybe it would have been nice to know what the heck I was calling her! She's still my best friend to this day, but I've matured in my nicknames for her. I call her McGeek.
  10. I don't have a number ten. oopsie.

Monday, January 17, 2011

"Wolf Hall," or where Anne Boleyn is AWESOME

So, I adore the show The Tudors, this can be no secret. I may or may not have spent all day Sunday watching the marathon on BBC. I love the history and time period first and foremost, but I also like the costumes and particularly the actors who bring such life and feeling to the characters. While Johnathan Rhys Meyers is not your typical Henry VIII (very slim and brunette), his queens usually stole the show (namely Natalie Dormer and Maria Doyle Kennedy as Anne Boleyn and Katherine of Aragon, respectively). Henry Cavill as Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk was the ladies' eye candy and the actress playing Katherine Howard was...well, the airhead. However, in the first three seasons, there was this somewhat seedy character always lurking in the background, Thomas Cromwell. He has some big roles in the overall story, he managed to get Henry divorced from Katherine of Aragon, was able to send Anne Boleyn to her executioner, engineered the destruction of the Catholic church in England, and found Henry his fourth bride, Anne of Cleves. And of course, we all know his unfortunate end. I've always found Cromwell to be a very interesting guy, so I jumped at the chance to read a book about him, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. It follows his life from about 1527 to 1535, during the years Cromwell worked as secretary to Henry VIII.

One of the things I noticed about Cromwell in The Tudors was that he was almost always alone. His wife gets one mention early on (historically, she died soon after), and we see his son exactly two times. Cromwell just seems to be a loner; sad and misunderstood. Well, in this book, his children, sister-in-law, nieces and nephews, cousins, and various wards all live with him. He is definitely not a lonely a way this made me happy. He didn't seem like such a tragic character when I found this out. Overall, I loved the way the author portrayed him. I think Hilary Mantel must be a very humorous and sarcastic woman, for she sure injects it into almost all of her characters.

I've read many books about Anne Boleyn, but this portrayal of her is hands down my absolute favorite. The best word that I could come up with to describe her is feisty. Cromwell thinks she may be a little psychotic, and he has perfect reason to. She calls Jane Seymour 'pasty-face' and vindicates her evil uncle, the Duke of Norfolk. She thinks her sister Mary Boleyn is a slut and Cromwell is an ugly little man. Yet through all of this apparent bitchiness, I saw her as a witty and extremely sarcastic girl....all still likable somehow. She knew her place but knew how to use it to her advantage. I'd recommend this book just for the Anne Boleyn angle.

One of the big problems with this book is sparse usage of names; the text is littered with personal pronouns. Just keep in mind that whenever you see a 'he,' 'him,' or 'his,' it is 98% of the time referring to Cromwell. It still can be a hassle to read the book, especially when new characters seem to get introduced out of the blue, but I promise, if you can handle it, it'll all be worth it. It was such a different angle on what I already know so much about, it was quite refreshing - 4 stars. I'll leave you with some of my favorite quotes from the book, there were dozens of them!

"A little later, he hears that Anne has taken the wardship of her sister's son, Henry Carey. He wonders if she intends to poison him. Or eat him." (pg. 131)

"The boy has lingered at the door to drink in his praises. A hard Cromwellian stare - the equivalent of a kick - sends him out." (pg. 154)

"At New Year's he had given Anne a present of silver forks with handles of rock crystal. He hopes she will use them to eat with, not to stick in people." (pg. 273)

"The king is a complainer too. He has a headache. The Duke of Suffolk is stupid. The weather is too warm for the time of year." (pg. 282)

"Believe me, God intends some peculiar blessing by this princess [Elizabeth]." (pg. 450)

"The child Elizabeth is wrapped tightly in layers, her fists hidden; just as well, she looks as if she would strike you. Ginger bristles poke from beneath her cap, and her eyes are vigilant; he has never seen an infant in the crib look so ready to take offense." (pg. 512)

"Incest is so popular these days!" (pg. 556)

Also, a big thank you to Passages to the Past, and Picador, the publisher, for providing me with a copy of this book!

Saturday, January 15, 2011

In My Mailbox (4)

Another attempt at In My Mailbox, hosted by The Story Siren!

OK, first of all, the volume is wayyyy low, so you'll have to turn it up. Second, I just came back from a run when I recorded this, so I look like a hot mess. Other than that....yeah. :)

Books Mentioned:
Pretties by Scott Westerfeld
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
A Child Called 'It' by Dave Pelzer
A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson
The Glimmer Palace by Beatrice Colin

Other Books Recieved:
Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett
The Queene's Cure by Karen Harper
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
The Queen's Rival by Diane Haeger (An ARC that I've actually already finished! You can read my review on goodreads, here.)
Between Two Queens by Kate Emerson


And here is the cover for The Glimmer Palace. Isn't is GORGEOUS?!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

"The Hours" by Michael Cunningham

Title: The Hours
Author: Michael Cunningham
Published: Picador, 1998
Where I Got It: Library

Also posted on The Broke & the Bookish!

Do you like Virginia Woolf? If so, you'll probably like this one, especially if you've read Mrs. Dalloway.

The Hours is told from the perspective of three different women: Virginia Woolf, the author, living in 1920s London; Laura Brown, a housewife in suburban Los Angeles in the 1950s; and Clarissa Vaughan, a woman living in modern day Manhattan (well, modern as in the 90s). Each of these three women, though separated by time and distance, are all connected through the story Mrs. Dalloway.

If I correctly recall, Mrs. D took place during the span of one day; so does this book. Virginia Woolf, obviously, is writing the book. As she is planning a visit from her sister, she muses aloud, some of which will make it into her novel. She tries to juggle her writing with being a wife and entertainer to friends and family. Laura Brown, pregnant and dealing with a small child, is actually reading the book. She wishes she could stay in bed all day and finish the book (don't we all!), but her wifely duties call. Laura struggles with running away from her life with her book in tow, and doing the right thing and staying with her family when they need her. Clarissa Vaughan, affectionately called 'Mrs. Dalloway' by her closet friend, is for all practical purposes, is living the story. When we first meet her, she is leaving to buy flowers for a party later that evening.

A favorite technique of mine in books are separate timelines somehow merging together: this one definitely qualifies! The ending is completely unexpected (at least I didn't see it coming), and all the timelines conclude nicely. All the struggles that the three women were dealing with contrasted nicely with their time period. Before you think this is a nice, light read, let me say a few things. A lot of the characters are either gay or are leaning towards it. AIDS also plays a big part. There are several suicides and some other tough subjects come into play. Everyone seems to be struggling with doing the right thing, not the selfish things.

Overall, this was pretty interesting. It's not perfect, but gets 4 stars for being pretty entertaining. I do seem to be in the minority for liking it though. It gets ripped apart on goodreads!

The novel was also adapted into a movie in 2002. It won some awards, but looks a lot more dramatic that the book....which is usually the case.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova

First review of 2011! Yay!

Title: Still Alice
Author: Lisa Genova
Published: Pocket, 2007
Where I Got It: The library

Forget DraculaHouse of Leaves, or any Stephen King novel, this may be the scariest book I've ever come across. While there may be no vampires, demons, or murderers, there is something even more frightening: reality.

Alice Howland is a fifty year old professor of psychology at Harvard. She and her husband are celebrated scientists who have three successful children, a summer house on the beach, and seemingly perfect lives. Alice begins to forget words, gets lost in her neighborhood, and fails to recognize someone she just met minutes before. She visits her doctor, only attributing these incidents to menopause. After a brain scan, she is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease.

While the thought of being diagnosed with Alzheimer's at age fifty isn't scary enough, I did some research and found out that a small percentage are diagnosed in their early thirties. Can you even imagine?? I myself have a TERRIBLE memory; I have to write down everything or I'll forget it immediately and I can't remember saying things I said just a few seconds before. Though this is mostly due to a stroke I had in high school, the even slight possibility I could for all practical purposes lose my mind sooner than I'd think terrifies me.

Anyways, back to the book. After the diagnosis, the rest of the book follows Alice through the next year. Her progression in the disease is a rapid decline. She starts just forgetting to do tasks and other chores, yet by the end of the book, she gets lost in her own house and is beginning to not be able to recognize her husband and children. I thought the effect on Alice's family was the most interesting part; her children, all in their twenties, are suddenly forced to take turns babysitting their mother. Her husband responds to the disease with much more emotion than Alice. I couldn't even imagine myself in her husband's place - he eventually had to quit his job to care for her. That's love.

While I have no personal experience with Alzheimer's, I can deduce that this would be a pretty bleak book for someone who has a family member with the disease. Yet, all in all, this was an excellent book. I read in a few hours. Highly recommended for an eye-opening read. 5 stars.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011 Reading Challenges!

Since I joined the blog-o-sphere in mid-2010, I wasn't able to properly participate in any reading challenges, so I'm taking full advantage of as many as I can in 2011!

The first is a general historical fiction challenge, hosted by Historical Tapestry. I'm aiming for the Severebookaholism level, or 20+ books. This should be no problem at all, since I read 29 HF books in 2010!

Another challenge that sounds right up my alley is the Henry VIII challenge, put together by All Things Historical Fiction. The challenge requires you to read at least three books somehow relating to Henry VII (which again, should be no problem!)
My three (initial) picks are:
1. Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett
2. No Will But His by Sarah Hoyt
3. The Queen's Rival by Diane Haeger
There will be MANY more added to this list, be sure to check out the Challenges tab I will be creating soon to find out the rest of my picks!

Lastly, All Things Historical Fiction has another challenge that I in no way could pass up - the Jean Plaidy & Victoria Holt Challenge. Since Jean Plaidy is one of my all-time favorite authors, this one will be a real treat. 
My tentative picks for this challenge are:
1. The Loves of Charles II
2. Mary, Queen of France
3. The Lady in the Tower

I have a niggling feeling that these are not all the challenges I will attempt. Anyways, like I said earlier, I'll be creating a new tab in a day or two that will have an expanded version of this!


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