Bye bye #BBSReads

So, #BBSReads. 

I finished all three books, and I think I could have actually squeezed in a fourth had I not gotten completely sidetracked by Clockwork Prince and Clockwork Princess. (Both of which were purchased copies, so I couldn’t count them towards the readathon.) The first couple days of the readathon were a bit slow. I was visiting family that weekend, and so most of my time was spent doing stuff with them. I did manage to squeeze in a few hours of reading, though, and by Day 3 I finished my first book, City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. I’m planning on doing a standalone review of the book soon, so I’ll go more into detail about what I thought about the book then. But for now, I’ll just say that it was exciting, and very action-packed. Narrative-wise, it wasn’t as polished as Clare’s subsequent books in The Infernal Devices. The prose in City of Bones was rather choppy, and veered on cheesy at times. And the drama, while catalyzing, was a little much for me. (Dare I say, soapy?) But the book was enjoyable. 

I followed with City of Ashes, which is the next book in Clare’s The Mortal Instruments series. The main story arc progresses, but at a much slower pace than I thought was necessary. Also, the romantic drama at this point got more irritating, and I was pretty certain that Clare only included certain scenes to artificially propel the angst. By the end of the book, I was wondering why Clare decided to stretch out the series into six installments. I feel she could have condensed the story into a trilogy, and the series would have been better for it. But we’ll see. Maybe there’s some plot twist in City of Glass that requires an additional three books to resolve. 

I finished the readathon on a much different note—a historical mystery called The Hangman’s Daughter. I didn’t get to finish it in time—dang it, The Infernal Devices!—but I had a lot of fun reading it. The central mystery was fascinating, and it kept me guessing all the way to the very end. There’s elements of spookiness to the story—like man with the skeleton hand—that made me wish I had saved this book for Halloween. I really liked the titular hangman, Jakob Kuisl, and his spirited daughter Magdalena. I like that Jakob was a compassionate man, shrewd and intelligent, and incredibly progressive for his time. (17th Century Germany, where witch hunts were still in vogue.) He insisted that Magdalena be taught to read and write, and is himself very well-read. His friendship with the physician’s son, Simon, was also one of my favorite things about the book. (Also, I’m just tickled by Simon’s fascination and love for coffee, which at the time was considered an exotic drink in Germany, and not entirely orthodox.) The author has so far penned three follow-ups to this book, and I am eager to read them all. 

Overall, the readathon was a BLAST. I had so much fun, and in part it’s thanks to YOU guys who read a long with me. You guys definitely made the experience all the more enjoyable, and I hope you guys had fun as well! I’m hoping to do the readathon again next year. The one thing I want to do differently is to also include daily challenges or activities, along the lines of Booktubeathon. I think it would make the experience all the more fun and interactive. But otherwise, same time, same theme. See you guys there?

Happy reading,

Jen

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Bicycling tips from the world of Flavia de Luce

So, this is a bit of a silly post, a (hopefully) fun post. Definitely not a Let’s sit down and discuss literary theory and see how long we can go before we broach the inevitable of Freudian interpretation sort of post. (Although I’m really itching to wash over this book series with a more analytical treatment. Future post, yeah?) But it’s a post that I’ve wanted to do ever since I came up with the idea a couple of weeks ago. And with May being National Bike Month – whooooo! – I figured, why not? I want to make it clear, though, that I don’t really know what my intention is for this entry. I’m certainly no bike guru, and I don’t want to sit you all down for a nice, stern, matron-with-spectacles lecture on how to be a respectable modern-day bicyclist. (I point you to the DMV and local bicycle coalitions for that sort of thing.) Nor am I claiming that Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce books should be treated as a manual for the noob bicyclist who wants to learn how to avoid the inconvenience of becoming splatter on someone’s front grill. I guess I just want to draw parallels between the fictional world in my hands and the real world I’m living in. And amuse the inner child in me who can’t help but tug at her mother’s pant legs and exclaim, “Mommy, look! Minnie Mouse and I are wearing the same dress!”

BICYCLING TIPS FROM THE WORLD OF FLAVIA DE LUCE

 

Don’t be afraid of buying secondhand. And maintain thy bike!

Until I rescued her from rusty oblivion, my trusty old three-speed BSA Keep Fit had languished for years in a toolshed among broken flowerpots and wooden wheelbarrows. Like so many other things at Buckshaw, she had once belonged to Harriet, who had named her l’Hirondelle: “the swallow.” I had rechristened her Gladys.

Glady’s tires had been flat, her gears bone dry and crying out for oil, but with her own onboard tire pump and black leather tool bag behind her seat, she was entirely self-sufficient. With Dogger’s help, I soon had her in tiptop running order.

— pg. 72-73 (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)

Going the secondhand or vintage route may take more time and money than buying a glossy new thing fresh out of the factory. Depending on the condition of the bike, you may need a new coat of paint, new gears, new brakes, new tires, and/or a new seat; not to mention, time to research the different makes and models (pros & cons, that sort of thing), as well as time to hunt down good deals on Craigslist and other similar venues. But as Flavia demonstrates throughout the series, going secondhand is definitely NOT settling for second-rate. Flavia is very fond of Gladys, and Gladys has proven herself many times over to be a very sturdy and reliable bike.

Also, this is a good reminder to always keep your bike in good shape. Wipe it down, oil the gears, check tire pressure from time to time, that sort of thing. If you have a leather saddle, it’s a good idea to occasionally treat it with a suitable conditioning cream. Please don’t doom your bike to a slow and rusty death in the family tool shed. I will cry if you do.

 

Be visible, especially in the rain.

“When cycling in the rain,” Dogger had told me, “being visible is more important than keeping dry.”

“You mean that I can always dry out, but I can’t be brought back to life when I’m impaled on the horns of a Daimler,” I said partly joking.

“Precisely,” Dogger had said with a perfect tiny smile, and gone back to waxing Father’s boots.

— pg. 262 (A Red Herring Without Mustard)

While it would be ideal to be visible AND dry, when pressed to choose between the two always opt for visibility. However, this doesn’t mean you have to run to the nearest outfitter and go crazy on neons! (Although you certainly can if you want to.) Bright colors will do just as well, in my opinion. In this scene, Flavia dons a yellow raincoat, and that gives her ample visibility on the country roads around Bishop’s Lacey.

 

Give your bike a good name. 

In the kitchen garden, I grabbed my faithful old BSA Keep-Fit from the greenhouse. The bicycle had once belonged to Harriet, who had called her l’Hirondelle, “the Swallow”: a word that reminded me so much of being force-fed cod-liver oil with a gag-inducing spoon that I had renamed her “Gladys.” Who, for goodness’ sake, wants to ride a bicycle with a name that sounds like a sickroom nurse?

And Gladys was much more down-to-earth than l’Hirondelle: an adventurous female with Dunlop tires, three speeds, and a forgiving nature. She never complained and she never tired, and neither, when I was in her company, did I.

— pg. 102 (A Red Herring Without Mustard)

I think this goes without saying, but … bikes need good names too! For those who have trouble coming up with names — I know I fall into that camp sometimes — try names of people you admire, or fictional characters that you like. If that fails, you can always tweak a stranger’s random comment.

 

Always remember to lock up!

I strolled casually over to the bicycle stand. Ten seconds more and I’d be on my way. And then, as if someone had thrown a pail of ice water into my face, I froze in shock: Gladys was gone! I almost screamed it aloud.

There rested all the official bicycles with their officious little lamps and government-issued carriers — but Gladys was gone!

[…]

Fear filled me and then anger. How could I have been so stupid as to leave Gladys unlocked in a strange place?

— pg. 167 (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)

Flavia has a habit of leaving Gladys unlocked wherever she goes, and I always wince whenever she does because to me it’s utterly unthinkable to leave one’s bike unprotected and utterly vulnerable to thieves like that. But Flavia does live in a small country town, where everyone knows everyone, and no bike thief would be able to go very far before their stolen good was identified by someone on the street, and their person dragged unmercifully by the ears to the constabulary or to the rightful owner for a good old-fashioned tongue-lashing. And in that sort of environment, I suppose it’s really not necessary to lock one’s bike.

But Flavia does get a good scare once, in the scene above. Luckily for her, Gladys wasn’t stolen at all: a well-meaning police officer had stowed her into the truck of his car, and later offered her a ride home on account of the rain. But nevertheless, it’s a good reminder to lock up one’s bike, regardless of how “safe” you feel your city to be. A u-lock is a basic must; pair it with a cable for double protection. Or even better, store your bike indoors if possible.

 

Don’t be afraid to explore!

I think there must be a kind of courage that comes from not being able to make up your mind.

Whether it was this or whether it was Gladys’s willfullness I can’t be sure, but there we were, suddenly swerving off the main road and into the Gully.

— pg. 273 (A Red Herring Without Mustard)

Certainly, there is wisdom in avoiding unfamiliar places — what if you end up in a bad part of town, or somewhere where road conditions are dangerous? — but that doesn’t mean you can’t be safe AND adventurous. One of the joys of bike-riding is being able to wander at will and happening upon tucked-away gems, like a cafe that serves up a mean espresso, or a hidden park filled with sunlight and beautiful flora. But be smart about it. Research your environs beforehand; know which streets are the most bike-friendly. And go! See where your bike takes you.

 

Have fun!

Gladys’s tires hummed their loud song of contentment as we sped along the tarmac.

Summer is icumen in,” I warbled to the world. “Lhude sing cuccu!”

A Jersey cow looked up from her grazing, and I stood on the pedals and gave her a shaky curtsy in passing.

— pg. 113 (The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag)

Bicycling has a bunch of benefits: it’s good exercise; it gets you out of the house and breathing fresh air; it’s an excellent alternative to driving, especially for short trips. But best of all, it’s just plain fun. So go out there and enjoy!

Some ideas that I’ve come across and have found tantalizing or interesting:

♦ Sign up for a tweed run! For Bay Areans, there is the San Francisco Tweed Run that happens twice a year.

♦ Call up friends and go for a ride together!

♦ Deck out your bike with pretty things! I spotted one young lady complementing her ride with a bouquet of flowers.

♦ Switch things up a bit! Ditch your spandex and fluorescent safety vests, and dress up in bright colors.

Addendum

♦ I don’t think Flavia wears helmets … but you definitely should! Helmets are an absolute must, regardless of where you’re biking, or how unlikely you think the chances are of getting into an accident, or how experienced you are as a bicyclist. Accidents do happen, and truly, truly, it’s better to be safe than sorry! If you don’t like traditional bike helmets, there are plenty of alternative shapes & sizes out on market for you to choose from. Gala Darling mentions a few in her article on cycle chic. Nutcase Helmets is also a good place to look; they have some awesome designs in their collection! And just for kicks, because this is really too epic to not share: go supervillain. (Warning: some swearing, ahoy. Also, thanks to Anne for the head’s up!)

♦ Your local bicycle coalition is an excellent place to start for information on bicycling etiquette and bike safety. For those in the SF Bay Area, you can check out the SF Bicycle Coalition, the East Bay Bicycle Coalition, and the official SF Bay Area Bike to Work Day website. Their online resources are super helpful!

Readers — What books have you been really into lately? Do you bike?

SNIPPETS: Turbulent pastry cooks

Seed biscuits and milk! I hated Mrs. Mullet’s seed biscuits and milk the way Saint Paul hated sin. Perhaps even more so. I wanted to clamber up onto the table, and with a sausage on the end of a fork as my sceptor, shout in my best Laurence Olivier voice, “Will no one rid us of this turbulent pastry cook?”

— Flavia de Luce, from Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie is quite the treasure chest of hilarious and clever passages. The above, voiced by narrator Flavia de Luce, is one of my many favorites and I think fairly showcases her precociousness and characteristic bite. I can’t wait to see more of Flavia in Bradley’s subsequent books.

Readers — What book or character has tickled your ribs lately?

BOOK NOTES: The Swan Thieves

Purchased from Borders on a lazy Saturday afternoon.

Oh, The Swan Thieves. We go back a bit, don’t we? I remember how excited I felt when I found out that you were to be released. And the impatience that ensued when I discovered that I had to wait my turn to check out the library’s sole copy. It took me a long time to finally meet you. But it happened in good time, thanks to a Borders coupon and a free Saturday. But The Swan Thieves, you disappointed! I was hoping that you were going to be as exciting and engrossing as your older sister, The Historian, but you weren’t. Your narrators were boring, and the events in your plot somewhat contrived. You were sluggish in the middle, and lackluster at the climax. But you weren’t entirely without strengths. Your themes were very interesting, brain-tingling. I just wished that there was more spark in you.

I don’t know what it is exactly about your characters that puts me off so. No matter how hard I tried, how much I empathized with their struggles and viewpoints, I couldn’t seem to care for them. Their narratives overflowed with details about their lives: their family backgrounds, their childhoods, their desires, everything. But again, I couldn’t seem to bridge the emotional distance. At first I thought your narrators were too modern for my period palate. Too close to home, as it were, being characters who hail from the recent past. (There is a sort of magic that enshrouds a story set in the past, a delicious atmosphere almost always missing from those set in the present.) But that didn’t seem right. I’ve read novels with contemporary settings, and enjoyed them just fine. Then I thought, maybe it’s their narrative voices. Perhaps they speak too robotically, too matter-of-factly. And I suppose there is some validity in that. Marlow, Kate, Mary … they’re telling their stories to inform, and for nothing else. Not to ask for sympathy, or acceptance, or forgiveness. They just speak. And maybe that’s why I couldn’t relate to them. They didn’t want to be related to in the first place, only to give their stories and be left alone afterward.

But like I said, I did enjoy the themes you brought up: obsession, the justification of the pursuit of art, perspective and perception in art as well as human relations. Perspective and perception in particular, I suppose because at the time I was mulling over the nature of human communication, and you were very helpful in giving me the insight I needed. Through each narrator’s experience with and interpretation of Robert Oliver I realized that, much like art, human relationships and communication is all about expression and interpretation. Kate’s experience with Robert was very different from Mary’s, which was very different from Marlow’s; similar to a portrait viewing where each viewer interprets the painting differently from those around them. What this says about art imitating life, or life imitating art, I’ll leave for another time and another discussion.

I shall end this post with something that came to my mind while I was collecting my thoughts re: your story those several months ago: that The Swan Thieves is in some ways a companion story to The Historian. There are no overlapping events, no crossing-over of characters, but there are a series of complementary contrasts that I found very amusing. The Historian is a very intellectual story, full of old world universities and bibliophiles and historians and intellectuals and the quest for knowledge. The Swan Thieves on the other hand is a very carnal one, full of human bodies, and sexual longing, and sexual relations. And yet The Historian‘s cover is predominately red — the color traditionally associated with passion and the carnal — while The Swan Thieves‘ cover is blue — a color traditionally associated with wisdom. Both The Historian and The Swan Thieves take their titles from an occupational identity. Both incorporate letters into their narratives, yet do not utilize the letter form. Both leave out identifying names — not all the time, just sometimes. I don’t think this was intentional, the complementing, but it is interesting.

Until next time, The Swan Thieves.

Yours,

Jennifer

BOOK NOTES #8: The Historian

I really enjoyed re-reading Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. It’s definitely my sort of book: lots of history, a vibrant cast of bibliophilic characters, and many, many delicious descriptions of European cities. And while the central mystery involving Dracula was interesting, I didn’t care that much about it, so much as I enjoyed soaking up the feel of the novel.

Kostova created a very special world in The Historian. From the moment I started reading, I felt pulled into this enchanting place where people travel by trains, and dress with more charm (men in wool sweaters and tweed hats; young girls in berets and crocheted stockings). It’s a world of cocoa and croissants for breakfast, English housekeepers, and carefree picnics in the south of France. But it’s also a scary and unnerving world — a world where menacing vampiric henchmen lurk in the streets, between library shelves, always seeing but unseen themselves; where loved ones mysteriously die without a sound right outside your office door; where fathers disappear; where one is both pursuer and the pursued. It’s a world steeped in the past, a past so thick and substantial that it almost feels alive.

Which ties in perfectly with what I took away from the book after this re-read. The Historian, I’ve realized, is not so much a story about the main characters and the journeys they embark upon, but history itself. As embodied by Dracula and his henchmen, history is a persistent and active force, and not just something of the past — which, by the way, I’ve come to realize, is a relative term because someone’s past is another person’s present and someone else’s future. History is ongoing and relentless. We are living history.

Although I’ve been indirectly told that a blogger should never apologize self-consciously, I’m going to break that unspoken rule and apologize for the brevity of this post. I’m tired. It’s getting late. And this post took way too long to write. I went through at least five different drafts, before I gave up and stuck with the above. I guess that’s the catch when writing about a favorite book, eh?

BOOK NOTES #3 : People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

I first heard of People of the Book back in November or December of last year, through HRH who was reading it at the time. When she had explained the plot to me one evening, I was frankly unimpressed. Sounds like a Historian copycat, I remember saying to myself, and brushed it off.

Three weeks ago, I found myself in a pinch. I was craving a book to read, but I was tired of Sherlock Holmes (which I had been reading for a couple weeks straight), and all the rest of my books were sitting in paper bags towards the back of a very chaotic living room (compliments of being in mid-move). HRH came to my rescue, with some books from her library, which had not yet been packed up. People of the Book was one of the several she suggested. Although I had brushed it aside all those months ago, I was desperate, and desperation is a funny thing. I expressed my thanks, took the book, and began to read it.

I liked the book almost from the start — which certainly surprised me, because I was so set on disliking the book. I wrote this in my journal the day after:

I am nearly halfway done with People of the Book, and all I can say at this point is, “Wow.” Brooks is a good writer, and I wish I could write down all the well-put and clever phrases that caught my attention. […]

I do. I really wish I could copy down all the phrases and descriptions that I thought were particularly striking. But I don’t think it could be possible, without copying the bulk of the book into my journal. Brooks’ writing is so descriptive, and rich in imagery and emotion.

Here is one good (albeit, unpleasant) example:

The young man spoke with difficulty. When they had unscrewed the gag and pulled the metal bulb from his mouth, four fractured teeth had gone with it. His lips were torn at each corner, and when he opened them to speak, a fresh spurt of blood trickled down his chin and dripped onto his stained smock.

You see what I mean? So vivid and emotive. You can’t help but be pulled into the world of each character: to see what they see, and feel what they feel. (That chapter, by the way, was the hardest to read. Wow, the Spanish Inquisition was no joke.)

Also:

The story is, for lack of a less clichéd word, rivetting. As with The Historian, the thrill of the story lies primarily in the story’s capacity for instruction (namely, world history), and for spiriting me away to exotic locales, such as Venice, Bosnia, and Vienna. Reading the book is like taking a trip to the parts of the world that I have never been to, and taking part in work that I want to do but cannot because I lack the knowledge and the credentials necessary.

In hindsight, I should have said “the thrill of the story lies in part in etc. etc.”  As much as I enjoyed the history lessons and the vicarious traveling, what I liked most of all about the book was its focus on the relationship between books and people.

People of the Book is not so much a story about the Sarajevo Haggedah, but about the characters who brought it to life, who handled it, and who ultimately preserved it. The story is about their lives, their struggles and fears, their hopes and desires, and how their stories intertwined with that of the Haggedah’s. What captivated me was how ordinary these characters are, and how none of them sought to be a part of something big and famous and world-shaking. And yet, through their seemingly ordinary actions, their courage, and a generous dash of fate, they not only managed to preserve the Haggedah but unwittingly left their marks — their memories, their stories — in the codex. In a way, the characters became the Haggedah. And likewise, the Haggedah became them, as a repository of memories and lives, and deaths. Perhaps that is why books are so precious to me: because they withstand time in a way that humans cannot. And yet that imperviousness is so fragile, and so dependent upon the next generation of people.

On the Book Shelf ♥ 3.07.10

Photo by bee hives

As winter wraps up its chilly reign over the Northern Hemisphere, I’m trying to cross off as many books as possible that are on my To Read List. I haven’t read as much as I’ve wanted to since this past fall — what a horrible bookworm, eh? — and the same can be said about story-writing. Ever since my first short story submission back in December, I’ve been taking a unexpectedly long hiatus from writing. I said I would start again after the holidays; but I just got lazy, choosing instead to brush up on my forensic anthropology à la Bones, and to pick up sketching and painting with watercolors, which I haven’t done in months and months.

I don’t regret taking that time off. As strange as it may sound, Bones taught me a little something about human communication and relationships that I have since been able to apply to my own relationships with others. Sketching and painting allowed me to exercise my creative muscles differently, and it provided me with a balance to my text-heavy diet. All in all, it was a good respite. But now that I have two submission opportunities lined up in the next two months, I need to return to my reading and writing regimen.

Below are some books that I haven’t yet gotten the chance to read this season. Hopefully, I’ll have them under my belt by springtime.

Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro
While caring for an old school friend at the brink of his epithetic “completion” as a doner, thirty-one year-old Kathy H. looks back at her days as a student at Hailsham, an isolated boarding school set in the countryside of a dystopian Britain. Through her recollections, Kathy reveals the school’s startling secret and its tragic, long-reaching grip on the destinies of the students who attended.

The Swan Thieves, Elizabeth Kostova
The orderly life of psychiatrist Dr. Andrew Marlow is turned upside down with the arrival of his newest patient, artist Robert Oliver, who was caught attempting a brutal attack on a painting in the National Gallery of Art. When entrusted to Marlow’s care, Oliver refuses to speak on the matter, and shortly refuses to speak at all. The only clues that Marlow has are the packet of old letters in Oliver’s possession, and a mysterious woman whom Oliver obsessively sketches over and over again. Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, Marlow delves into the artist’s personal history. Through interviews with the women in Oliver’s life, and the contents of the old letters, Marlow slowly pieces together the artist’s past, and discovers a link to a scandal at the heart of French Impressionism.

Reader — How about you? What have you been reading, or plan on reading?