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.