Thursday, March 30, 2006

Persuasion and other literary issues

We recently read Persuasion for our study group, and an interesting issue came up. The book didn't resonate for one reader who is new to "the classics," and had never read Jane Austen before. She didn't know anything about the development of the novel or the historical/social context for Jane Austen's work. She found it to be too fluffy and felt disappointed that an author of such obvious talent hadn't tried to write something more important.

In response, we explained that Austen was offering some relatively important and new social critiques--critiques which though they seem obvious to us today, like marrying for love, were somewhat revolutionary at least among the aspiring classes of her day. And one group member read a quote from someone else saying basically we shouldn't be fooled by the witty, gentle way Austen offers her social commentary. She's still teaching us important things about what it means to be human. As a group, we also learned more about how the novel developed. I guess it was a pretty new literary form in Austen's day, and realism didn't develop until the late 19th century. So when we're looking for novels with more depth of character, more psychological turmoil, more gritty and true portrayals of life, we have to look a generation or two beyond Austen.

Besides, I love Anne. She's so gracious and steadfast. I do think we learn from her how to be a good friend and a fully decent human being in every small and daily act. In addition, by contrasting the novel's various relationships, we can understand many qualities of a good marriage. But it is true, I think, that we read Austen mainly for fun--for the lively writing, the wit, the characters we get attached to, and the happy endings.

That all being said, my new-to-reading friend unintentionally raised an interesting question: What is art? What do we expect literature, visual arts, and performing arts to do for us? Is it truly art if it merely entertains? Do we expect art always to uplift, transform, or challenge us? Is Austen art or mostly entertainment?--because, even though she offers social commentary, her work does feel more entertaining than life-changing.

The Da Vinci Code

Judging by the waiting list to get this book at the library, I am not in fact the last person on earth to read The Da Vinci Code, but it sure seems like it. (Who hasn't read this? Anyone?) Normally the "best-selling thriller" is not my genre of choice, book snob that I am, but I finally decided to give this one a try because critics seem to agree it's far more than your average thriller—not to mention I had to find out what all the hype was about. And it was actually quite good. It's very fast paced, but takes time out for art history and symbology lectures. There are lots of unexpected twists and intriguing riddles. The conspiracy theories provide rich food for thought and the ending leaves you surprisingly satisfied. Brown is particularly skilled at ending chapters on a cliffhanger that compels you to read on—not a good thing for someone hoping to get a decent night's sleep, but definitely a good thing for those who like a page-turner. There are times in the book when the writing is noticably awkward, but that didn't stop me from thoroughly enjoying it. I think it'll make a fun movie. Dan Brown's web page is a good companion to the book. Click on "Secrets" then The Da Vinci Code photo gallery to see pictures of the Louvre, Westminster Abbey, Da Vinci's work, etc.

Saturday, March 18, 2006


In my last post I mentioned that I usually don't read a book unless I'm sure I will like it. Well, there are exceptions to that rule, and one of them is that sometimes I read a book to be nice, because someone gave it to me. Mermaids by Patty Dann is one such book, and unfortunately it was really dumb. Anyone remember the movie version from 1990 with Cher, Winona Ryder and a very small Christina Ricci? Okay well some of you were floating in amniotic fluid when that came out (Danielle), but some of us were about to graduate high school (crap, I'm old as dirt). Anyway I think the only reason this book is still in print is that it’s “the book that spawned the cult classic movie starring…” etc. This is actually one of those rare cases where the book is worse than the movie. The writing is clumsy. None of the characters are likable, and they’re more like caricatures than real people—they do and say and think things that are inexplicable. The plot is practically nonexistent and takes a completely implausible turn right before screeching to a halt in an ending that comes out of nowhere (because there’s no story to begin with). So here is a book to avoid. It’s really lame.

Friday, March 10, 2006

A Great and Terrible Beauty

A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray: I'm just going to write the book jacket thing and then add some, because I tried to tell Lorna what it was about and it was too complicated. So here goes: Gemma Doyle isn't like other girls. Girls with impeccable manners, who speak when spoken to, who remember their station, who dance with grace, and who lie back and think of England when it's required of them. No, sixteen-year-old Gemma is an island unto herself, sent to Spence Academy in London after tragedy strikes her family in India. Lonely, guilt-ridden, and prone to visions of the future that have an uncomfortable habit of coming true, Gemma finds her reception a chilly one. She's not completely alone, though....she's been followed by a mysterious young man, sent to warn her to close her mind against the visions. For it's at Spence that Gemma's power to attract the supernatural unfolds; there she becomes entangled with the school's most powerful girls and discovers her mother's connection to a shadowy, timeless group called the Order. It's there that her destiny waits...if only Gemma can believe in it. A Great and Terrible Beauty is a curl-up-under-the-covers kind of book...a vast canvas of rustling skirts and dancing shadows and things that go bump in the night. It's a vividly drawn portrait of the Victorian age, a time of strict morality and barely repressed sensuality, when girls were groomed for lives as a rich men's wives...and the story of a girl who saw another way.

So there you go. It's a mix of girl book, and fantasy. The four girls Gemma, Felicity, Ann, and Pippa each have their own wish; Gemma wants to figure herself out, she's the mysterious one, until she tells them about her visions and takes them all into her dream world in the Realms. Felicity is the popular girl, the head of the group, she wants power and love. Ann wants beauty, she's the ugly, unpopular girl that at first is only invited because she's Gemma's roommate, but later fits in just as much as the others. Pippa is the second in command type; before they have their foursome she's second to Felicity in popularness. She wants to marry because of love, but her parents are marrying her off to the typical rich old guy. So in this book, there's the girl struggles, and the magic. It's the same type as Harry Potter, magic and reality intermingled. I loved it and I really did curl up in bed with it! If I were to grade it I'd give it an A++ : ) Definitely check it out! Alright, that's all, love you guys, Dan

How to Make an America Quilt

How to Make an American Quilt by Whitney Otto: This is a lot different than the movie, for those who've seen it. It focuses on the pasts of all the quilt makers, and unlike the movie, where Finn Dodd (i think that's her name) (played by Winona Ryder) is the main character, in the book she is only the narrator repeating the stories of the quilters told her by Anna Neale, the first member of the Grasse Quilting Circle. Every other chapter there are Instructions on how to make a certain kind of quilt, what fabrics to use, etc. But in those instructions is tied in the story of what's going to happen in the next chapter. I don't have much else to say about it, especially since I turned the book in to the library so I can't read the book jacket, and I've read another book since this one. All there is to say is that its good. It really pulled me in, I wanted to know what would happen with so-and-so in the next chapter and what the author would say about it in the quilting instructions. Look it up at barnes and noble or something, if you want to know anything else, because I got nothing else : ) love you!