The Moonstone

Friday, December 28, 2007

The Moonstone, by Wilkie Collins

This story was a quintessential English gothic novel. A valuable jewel, a Hindu curse, opium addicts, beautiful (and innocent?) rich heiresses, unrequited love, bohemian young men travelling to the Continent in between adventures, dramatic suicide, elaborate dinner parties... I wouldn't necessarily call this "literature", but this was a fun read. I like stories like this--they keep me guessing, but without the gore and licentiousness of modern detective novels.

The introduction to the work proposed that there were three major themes to the book: imperialism, sensationalism, and mesmerism. They were certainly there, but the author was either ambivalent or deliberately ambiguous about his opinions regarding the subjects. Incidentally, it seems that he would have been a great character in his own novels: he was Charles Dickens's protege, openly kept a mistress, was a notorious opium addict, but nevertheless was intellectually curious and enjoyed conducted 'experiments' at home.

When I read English novels, I find I tend to lose my voice and write in a style from the 1800's. I had to practically start over today when I was writing an email to my brother. So, to get it out of my system:

I beg your pardon, gentle reader, for a hasty review of a story which deserves more than my artless commendation, and a recipient who, for noticing my humble weblog, is owed more than my meager entry. However, I must end here. The hour is late, and our programmable thermostat has decreased the heated comfort of our home to the point where it drives me away from the computer, and into the warm bed where my good husband awaits. Good night.

A Mirror Garden

A Mirror Garden, by Monir Shahroudy Farmanfarmaian

I really enjoyed reading this book. It begins with the author's account of her life as a little girl in Iran in the 1920's, tells how her eagerness to explore brought her to New York as a young woman, and then her return to Iran. Art, love of family, and adventure were her life's prevalent themes. Her story was highlighted by family portraits, sketches of daily life, and photos of the places she lived.

I admired her adventurous spirit, which began as a tomboy pulling pranks when she was little, and then progressed to her travels to a foreign country as a young woman (she went to New York to study art with her brother, "fiancee", and his friend during WWII), taking the risk of marrying again to a man who she learned was really a prince, and then her travels around rural Iran, becoming a patron of folk art, and then building her life again when she was exiled from Iran after the Revolution. I enjoyed seeing her country though her eyes, and I learned about the diversity of Iran--people groups, geography, cultures, and sadly, economic disparity. I also enjoyed reading about the art that she created, and following her through the creative process.

This book was a perfect counterpoint to "Lipstick Jihad." That book was written by a Generation X-er, and her introspection was quite a contrast with Monir's action. Monir suffered more--her disastrous first marriage, said goodbye to America, and then lost everything when the Shah fell--but Lipstick Jihad read like a pity party comparatively, as the author tried to find her identity as an Iranian or American. Monir's strong sense of self overcame the navel-gazing that many memoirs fall prey to.

I've been trying to find "Persopolis" for several years. It's a graphic novel about a young Iranian girl sent to live in France right before the Revolution. I saw it's being made into a movie, which I'm looking forward to. I hope to read the book first, and see how it compares with the two books mentioned above. In the meanwhile, here's an excerpt from "A Mirror Garden" (p. 201).

The city of Shiraz lies at the hub of the Qashqa'i migration routes, and I had caught glimpes of the tribewomen in the bazaar there. They had an air of freedom that was startling in the narrow passage-ways of the bazaar: tall, unveiled, trailing gauzy scarves in a riot of colors, they walked with long strides that seemed to end with a kick of their many layered skirts in a rhythmic flounce. So when I was introduced to a Mr. Bahmanbegui on a visit to Shiraz and he invited me to see one of his tent schools at a nearby Qashqa'i encampment, I jumped at the opportunity....

(p. 202) I was saddened to learn that even the tent schools were a source of conflict between the tribes and the government, ruffling feathers at the Ministry of Education. Never mind that it was in those breeze-blown classrooms that the Qashqa'i first learned that they too were Iranians...

Taste, by Letitia Baldridge

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Taste: Acquiring what money can't buy, by Letitia Baldridge

This book could have been alternatively been subtitled: "Taste: Did I mention I worked for Jackie Kennedy? and Tiffany's? and I went to Vassar?" It also could have been subtitled "Taste: Acquiring what money can't buy, although it certainly doesn't hurt". It started out well enough, with a tasteful (of course) and intriguing cover, and a thoughtful introduction about the nature and definition of "taste." The author is certainly experienced on the subject. Here is her bio from the book jacket:

Letitia Baldridge was born to a prominent family and educated at Vassar. She was chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy during the White House years. She has advised four other First Ladies, written two dozen books, and runs a consulting business. Letitia Baldridge lives in Washington, DC.

She certainly has seen and experienced enough to validate her self-proclaimed expertise in the subject, but the book read more like her memoirs with meandering stories and gratuitous name-dropping. I think a broader subject, or a firmer editor, could have improved the book, although it was unintentionally humorous. Take this example concerning menswear from the chapter, "Good Taste in Fashion":

...Today a well-dressed, savvy Frenchman, Italian, or Spaniard dresses like any English duke or Irish castle owner, in beautiful tweeds, cashmeres, brogues and laced oxfords, fine shirts, pure silk ties and pocket hankerchiefs, except of course, when the young, as in the United States, are demonstrating or attending a rock concert. (p. 120)

And here is my favorite quote of the book (p. 122): "But from this writer's point of view, 'tasteful jeans' is an oxymoron."

For me, as a middle-class housewife in a rural area, it would be in poor taste if I took Mrs. Baldridge's advice literally. That would mean wearing a little black dress frequently, gorgeous dinner parties, frequent visits to world-class museums to 'educate my eye', taking decorating inspiration from Versailles and the White House, and emulating Jackie Kennedy as much as possible. I believe it is more appropriate for me to ensure I'm not overdressed (so as to not limit my daily physical activity or make people around me feel uncomfortable), entertain frequently but humbly (inviting my neighbor over for coffee instead of multi-course dinners), and making our house welcoming and comfortable. And sorry for the cliche, but I choose to emulate Jesus Christ, not politicians, socialites, or taste makers (although, I'm sure in Mrs. Baldridge's opinion, Jesus wasn't a very good dresser).

I'm back!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

We got our computer issue resolved! I'm very glad. I can't make full posts on everything I read in my absence, so here are some quick summaries:

Florence of Arabia, by Christopher Buckley
A funny satire which would be a great airplane book if it weren't about the middle east and terrorism.

The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck
A surprisingly timeless novel contrasting the motives of family members.

Don't Be a Slave to Housecleaning, by Pam McClellan
A sensible plan for decreasing clutter and streamlining and organizing one's home.

Face Forward, Kevin Aucion
A fun picture book of makeup techniques, but the author's anger towards God's law couldn't be avoided.

Naked Babies, by Nick Kelsh and Anna Quindlen
I enjoy this photographer's work, and his beautiful photos elevated the text to a meditation on innocence and fleeting babyhood. I was actually teary when I finished reading it, and cuddled Violet even more than normal.

Everyone Worth Knowing

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Everyone Worth Knowing, by Lauren Weisberger

I've read this book before. It was called "The Devil Wears Prada." It was about a normal girl thrust into the glamorous life of a Manhattanite, has a high-rolling she-boss, gets caught up in the lifestyle and relationships suffer, friends and family worry increasingly, there's a gratuitous sexual encounter, and then the heroine leaves it all for something less fabulous but personally fulfilling. Yes, there are some differences between the two plots, but there are certainly uncanny similarities. Almost as though they had the same author or something...

Despite her lack of imagination, I still enjoyed the book. It really was an entertaining read. And like the previous book I read, it made me appreciate my life even more. I have good friends, a great husband, and out-of-season clothes from Target. (I now believe that being moderately unfashionable can be character-building.) I think I'm finally done with my chick-lit trend. It's time to resume literature that encourages personal growth--not books that increase self-awareness because of my reaction to them.

Bergdorf Blondes

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bergdorf Blondes, by Plum Sykes

I'm glad I read this book, because it made me gratefull for out-of-season mules, natural hair color, and self-awareness. The book itself was really aweful. I was expecting something fluffy, but I can't describe how vapid it was. I could see the ending coming a mile away, and I would have been sad to see one of the characters end up with the "heroine", if you can call her that, but he was such a thinly drawn character that I couldn't feel sorry for him.

It was a good airplane book, I guess, but I probably would have been more edified if I had just stared out the windor for 3 hours.

Gods in Alabama

Saturday, October 13, 2007

gods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson

I stayed up past midnight to finish this book--I couldn't put it down. The author had a well-told story with interesting characters that didn't resort to cliches. Please note that it is an "R-rated" book, but I thought it was worth it.

Basically, the plot is this: a southern girl successfully leaves her small town and big family for the anonymity of Chicago, but then is pulled back 10 years later when she tries to protect her secret. It could have been condescending towards the South, but the author respected her characters enough to write them fully.

I'm not sure what I think about "Southern Fiction." There are so many stereotypes and usually they really annoy me. I will probably always identify myself as a Californian, but I've lived in Texas for four years and Virginia for three, so I'm starting to take the southern jokes more personally now. It's a group of people who are fair game to deride in pop culture. I'm certain that the intellectual elite feel free to mock southerners because it's one of the areas of the country which still has a Christian culture, although I've found that Christianity to be quite shallow. And of course, the South still has such baggage from the Civil War (or "War of Northern Agression"). And southerners talk funny and love Wal-Mart, both of which are things I laugh at. Maybe that's part of southern literature, is acknowledging the kookiness and character flaws but being proud of one's heritage anyway. I need to think more about this, but in the meantime, just know I enjoyed this book.

Same Kind of Different as Me

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall and Denver Moore

This was a memoir of three people's spiritual journey. Check out the link to see the synopsis on Amazon--it's an usual story. An art dealer and a homeless man become friends through the influence of the art dealer's wife, Deborah Hall, a woman who was close to God and passionate about helping the homeless in Fort Worth, TX. The Dallas Metroplex is a tough place--instead of solving the root behavior, the cities criminalize homelessness itself. As if someone living on the streets doesn't have enough problems already, right? That's what Deborah Hall recognized, and instead of just feeling good about serving food once a week, she tried to personally engage the people living in a Fort Worth mission.

This book was written in an engaging manner, switching back and forth from the art dealer and homeless man's perspective. (It was co-written by Lynn Vincent, one of my favorite editors at World Magazine.) The story was unusual, so much so that my friend who lent it to me didn't realize it was a true story until half-way through the book when she read the dust jacket. Honestly though, I was disappointed in myself that I wasn't more personally effected by this story. Am I calloused? Could the story have been more dynamic if it were fiction? Is my white guilt keeping me for appreciating the story for what it is?

I wish I had felt more convicted my this story, but I still appreciated the story and I was inspired by all three of the main characters. I recommend it.

Joy in the Morning

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Joy in the Morning, by Betty Smith
I enjoyed reading this. Everything I've read lately has been sad, bittersweet, or grappled with epic conflict and lost. So it was good to read a nice story, for a change.

Betty Smith also wrote "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn" and it was similar to "Joy in the Morning": plucky heroines who grew up in poverty, strong mothers, rites of passage, and absent or menacing father figures. This book didn't have the same scope as ATGIB, only focusing on the first year of marriage for a young couple. It was set in 1928 in a Midwest (or "Middle West") college town. It described their ups and downs, struggle to make ends meet, and how their relationship grew. Basically, it described a good marriage and reminded me of my own, which is probably another reason why I liked it. Neither mine nor the heroine's are perfect, of course, but it showed two people who were committed to each other and determined to make it work.

It was a simple story, but the characters were rich and the tone was positive. The author obviously had personally overcome poverty and believed that it was possible for others to do the same. This was a quick read which will probably stay with me for a while.

What Rachel's Reading

I'm a reader. I'm also a sporadic journal-writer. My life has calmed down enough to the point now where I have been considering starting up again. I'm on vacation right now, and I brought my old reading journal. I started it in 2001, and my last entry was from May of 2004. I just finished a book, and was thinking about my entry, when I realized alot has changed since 2004. Mainly, blogs have changed the way we can record our everyday lives. So I decided to blog about the books I read instead of keeping it in a book for only me to read.

In honor of my old journal, here's the first entry I wrote.

July 16, 2001
This is my book journal. I am starting this for a variety of reasons, but the main one is I am a sucker for blank journals. Empty pages are among the many things I cannot seem to resist.
This will also serve to be a diary of my spare time. I don't seem to have much of it, so I want to remember my leisurely moments, both how I spent them as well as the fact that I did, indeed, have some.
But these are not the main reasons why I am writing this. Dad gave me a very interesting quote once, which I think was by Charlie "Tremendous" Jones. Roughly paraphrased, it is this: Ten years from now, the only things that will have changed you are the people you have met and the books you have read. I want to keep a record of the things that have influenced me as a person.
Why do I have this desire? Maybe it goes back to the Puritans' love of journaling as a means of discovering more about themselves and God. Or, maybe it is something else entirely, which I will someday discover in one of the books I will read...