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Book Review: Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

February 24, 2011 3 comments

Brown cover with three female portraits on it.

Summary:
In this memoir, Jung Chang recounts the lives of herself, her mother, and her grandmother growing up in pre-communist, revolutionary, and communist China.  Mixing extensive historical facts with intensely personal remembrances, Jung Chang presents a vivid portrait of real life in China.

Review:
As an American, I was raised being told communism is bad, but not particularly taught much about it.  So when Meghan blogged about this memoir, I was immediately intrigued.  My history BA taught me to favor first-person accounts over academic ramblings, so a memoir of communist China from a woman’s perspective was frankly ideal.

It has been a very long time since I’ve learned so much from a memoir.  Chang was extremely careful to verify the facts of the historical events surrounding her family’s various issues.  Starting with her grandmother who had bound feet and was essentially sold by her family as a concubine, Change moves up through the drastic changes in China.  From her mother who was part of the communist revolution to herself who ended up an ex-patriot in Britain.

My preconceived notions of communism were frankly tromped upon by this memoir.  As a liberal person, I never quite understood what was so bad about communist China.  Chang makes it clear throughout the book that the governing body of China never actually lived up to the communist ideals of her revolutionary parents.  The passage where Chang best explains the warped version of communism enacted by Mao states:

The Cultural Revolution not only did nothing to modernize the medieval elements in China’s culture, it actually gave them political respectability.  ‘Modern’ dictatorship and ancient intolerance fed on each other.  Anyone who fell foul of the age-old conservative attitudes could now become a political victim.  (page 413)

Thus, communism in China was and is not at all what many hippie Westerners believe and/or believed it to be.

Beyond opening up understanding of communist China, this memoir also distinctly demonstrates the human spirit under pressure.  From Chang’s father who stood by his ideals at all costs to her grandmother who simply wanted everyone in her family to be comfortable and happy to neighbors with their own agendas, Chang demonstrates how an oppressive regime s bring out both the best and the worst in human nature.

This is a fascinating book both for its insider’s view of communist China as well as its female perspective on said regime.  Similarly, it offers an intriguing commentary on human nature.  I recommend it to anyone interested in the history of China as well as those with an interest in women’s studies or political science history.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: SwapTree (now defunct)

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Book Review: Farewell by Honore de Balzac

February 21, 2011 1 comment

Picture of BalzacSummary:
Philip, a colonel in the military, lost his love Genevieve in Siberia when retreating from the Russians.  Years later, he randomly stumbles upon her in a country house with her uncle, having lost her mind from her horrible experiences in Siberia with the military after they lost each other.  She is only capable of saying one word.  “Farewell.”

Review:
I decided to read a Balzac work due to a reference in the musical The Music Man.  The elderly ladies of the town think the librarian is scandalous because she keeps works of Balzac in the library.  Clearly I needed to know what all the fuss was about, so I decided to see for myself.

My first instinct is that this classic work of tragedy shouldn’t actually be that scandlous, which perhaps was the point in The Music Man.  These elderly ladies are *so* ridiculous to object to Balzac.  In any case, however, in retrospect I can see what is so shocking.  The incredible weakness of mind and character demonstrated by both Philip and Genevieve are both irritating and depressing.  I’m not sure what point Balzac was trying to make, but all I could think was that both of them needed to man up.

That’s not to say the book isn’t well-written though.  The translation is lovely, and I’m sure in the original French it is even prettier.  Just imagining Genevieve only being able to say “Adieu” sounds prettier than “Farewell.”  The scenes are vividly described, and the reader is certainly engaged.

Overall, it is a well-told tragedy that suffers a bit from weak characterization.  I recommend it to fans of tragedies and classic French literature.

3.5 out of 5

Source: Audible app for the iPod touch, iPhone, and iPad

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Friday Fun! (Soup Season)

February 18, 2011 6 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  It’s alternating between a pleasant 40-something degrees and so fucking damn cold that you just want to curl up under your pile of blankets and stay there forever.  This clearly means that it is soup making season.

The great thing about soups is not only do they warm you up, but they also actually taste better when reheated than the first time around.  Plus when you make a huge pot, there’s enough for dinner, lunch the next day, and some leftover to freeze for a busy evening later in the month.  As such, I’ve been making soups non-stop yo.

I have a plethora of options for actual soup recipes, as opposed to what I did in previous winters which was dump boullion, veggies, and pasta or rice in water and call it good enough.  No, no.  Now I’m making such things as Thai Butternut Squash and Lime Soup or Kale Potato Soup or Root Veggies Red Lentil Dal.  It’s divine.  It’s awesome.  It’s healthy.  It’s one of the pluses to cold weather.  I mean, seriously, I can’t imagine downing that dal in 90 degree heat.  Just would not work.

Of course, when the soup doesn’t cut it to warm you up, gin always also helps.  (Yes, I know technically it thins your blood so you get colder, but you still *feel* warmer, and that’s the point, isn’t it?)

Happy weekends all!

Book Review: Cthulhurotica an anthology published by Dagan Books

February 14, 2011 5 comments

Woman with tentacle head sniffing an apple.Summary:
This collection of short stories, art, and poetry pay homage to H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulu mythos by adding an erotic twist.  Lovecraft was notoriously up-tight about sex, yet his mythos inspires erotica.  Stories, poetry, and art draw inspiration from everything from Nyarlathotep, to the Old Ones, to Cthulu himself.  These works of art promise spine tingles of both horror and pleasure.

Review:
I knew the instant I saw the gorgeous cover and read the title of this book that I had to read it.  I am completely taken with the Cthulu mythos and always felt the only thing it was missing was some raunchy sex.  This collection definitely tastefully delivers on both.  You won’t find pages and pages of sex, rather the sexual encounters occur as a key plot point to the various stories, rather like well-written sex scenes in romance novels.  Only with tentacles.  And gore.

Naturally as with any short story collection there are tales deliciously pulled off and others less so.  Thankfully, most of the short stories fall into the previous category.  Three in particular–”The Fishwives of Sean Brolly”, “The Assistant from Innsmouth”, and “The Summoned”–really rocked my world as they are not only deliciously entertaining, but also offer thoughtful commentary on gender roles and relationships.  In fact this is what moves the collection from just a bit of fun to thought-provoking territory, and that is always the sign of a good story.

Further, I am quite pleased to point out that the collection is very GLBTQ friendly.  Multiple stories feature non-heteronormative relationships, and the GLBTQ characters are as well-rounded as the straight ones.  I offer my applause to Dagan Books for its choices of stories to include.

As far as the artwork, it is all beautiful and impressive.  Enough so that I’m seriously considering acquiring a paper copy to keep kicking around my apartment.  The pictures suck the viewer in in the tradition of the classic piece of tentacle erotic art “The Fisherman’s Wife.”

Overall, this is a highly entertaining read.  Although some of the stories fall short of others in the collection, most of them offer up chills and delights in addition to social commentary.  I highly recommend it to those fond of the Lovecraft universe as well as those with an interest in gender/sexuality.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Friday Fun! (Amanda Joins the Gym)

February 11, 2011 4 comments

Hello my lovely readers!  February is upon us, which in this part of the world means the battle with the winter blues.  It’s cold.  It’s icy.  It’s snowy.  It takes extra effort to go anywhere or do anything.  It’s dark a lot of the day.  And of course there’s Valentine’s Day, which if you’re unattached is basically the haha sucks to be you of holidays.  However!  I am determined not to let the winter blues get me down.  In light of that, as well as recent changes in my life including being single and finishing grad school, I decided to join a gym.

A couple of years ago, I was in great shape.  I miss being in that great shape, not because I’m obsessed with looks (swear), but because I like feeling like I can depend on my body, particularly in the event of a zombie apocalypse.  What can I say.  I was raised Baptist.  They like talking about apocalypses, and I’m always slightly paranoid about them.  You know how one of the Zombieland rules is cardio?  I’d fail that rule right now.  So I went into a local women only gym and informed them that I want to regain that inner strength I used to have.  Originally the plan was to just take care of getting back in shape myself, but I got two free sessions with a personal trainer for registering with the gym.  You guys.  Personal trainers are officially amazing.

The woman I was randomly assigned is incredibly cool and supportive.  I talked to her about my specific issues (asthma, heart disease running incredibly strong in my family), and she reassured me that I’m still young enough I can fight back and regain that body confidence I miss.  She’s mad cool, you guys.  Her body image ideas are very similar to mine.  She talked about “skinny fat” girls who just burn calories but actually have a high body fat percentage aka no muscle.  Also, she teaches Irish stick fighting and invited me to join her next group, which I SO am.  I mean, what better way to prep for the zombie apocalypse, eh?

I’m really excited to get back to being the strong, healthy woman I know I am inside.  My mood has already drastically improved, and I’ve only been a member of the gym for one week!  Plus, it has a steam room, and nothing sounds nicer to a freezing Bostonian than a room full of steam.

Happy weekends!

Book Review: How to Be a Hepburn in a Hilton World: The Art of Living with Style, Class, and Grace by Jordan Christy

February 9, 2011 Leave a comment

Little black dress with pearls.Summary:
This book is a call to action for intelligent American women to start addressing our current image problem.  Increasingly, women are willing to give away all the self-respect our suffragette fore-mothers fought for in return for their quick 15 minutes of fame or even 15 minutes of attention from that one dude.  Christy calls on women to appreciate the relatively recent freedom we now have as a gender by pursuing knowledge, class, and dignity in lieu of late-night dancing on stripper poles at clubs.  The book serves not only as a call to action, but also as a how to guide, featuring chapters on classy dress for every personality, good friends, dating, body image, and more.

Review:
I admit that I largely bought this book because the women of classic cinema–from Audrey Hepburn to Katherine Hepburn–are my heroes.  They exuded femininity and strength simultaneously.  What’s more attractive than that?  Overall, though, I think this book is a bit behind where I am in my personal growth as a woman, although that doesn’t make the message any less important.

For instance, I really didn’t need Christy to tell me to love and accept my body and eat healthily.  I already do both those things.  On the other hand, I know some women who would really need that chapter, so I certainly didn’t mind it being in the book.  Similarly, I’m a nerd.  I don’t need to be told not to be a Stupid Girl (as those hoo-ha flashing reality tv stars are often called).  I suppose if I was a bit younger or raised a bit differently though I might be intrigued by this book if for no other reason than the idea that class and intelligence are actually more attractive than that kind of behavior.

The two chapters on style were actually quite useful.  Fashion sense that’s practical and attractive simultaneously while reflecting my personality is something I struggle with.  I found the quizzes to help you determine your style and colors that work best for you to be truly enlightening.  Christy offers up sample core items for the various personality types, and I immediately wanted to acquire the ones that suited my own.  It was worth reading the book for the fashion sense alone.

Overall, I appreciate a book calling on women to respect themselves and behave like intelligent human beings.  To pursue the goals and passions or fore-mothers fought so hard for.  I definitely think those who would benefit the most from this book might be the ones least likely to read it–like oh think of the Jersey Shore female cast members.  On the other hand, everyone has moments when they get tired of the partying lifestyle.  Having a book like this out there for them to grasp onto with such an attractive cover to boot is definitely a good thing.  I’d recommend giving it a go if you’re an intelligent woman seeking for encouragement in your pursuit of class and goals or if you’re a partier thinking about changing your lifestyle.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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Book Review: Eros and Psyche by Robert Bridges

February 8, 2011 Leave a comment

Winged god holding a mortal womanSummary:
This twelve section poem re-tells the mythological love story of Eros and Psyche with each section representing one month of the year.  Psyche, a mortal, and Eros, a god, fall in love, but Eros’s goddess mother, Aphrodite, disapproves of her son loving a mortal.  They therefore must face trials and tribulations to be together.

Review:
Since this re-telling of the Eros and Psyche myth was originally written in English, it is actually quite beautiful to read and/or listen to.  The use of the twelve months to tell the story lends it a certain relaxing quality, even when the lovers are facing trials and tribulations.

The story itself is typical of a myth.  Someone wants something.  A god or goddess doesn’t want them to have it.  They face trials and tribulations before besting or being accepted by the god/dess.  Nothing new there.  What is new is how prettily the tale is told.

It’s a short read, but it features some well-loved figures from mythology including Pan and Demeter.  There’s a particularly fun gathering of the gods and goddesses toward the end that demonstrates the interaction and clash of personalities that the Greeks and Romans believed in.

Overall, this retelling is well-handled, and the poetry is beautiful.  If you enjoy poetry or mythology, you will enjoy this read.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Audiobooks app for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad

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Movie Review: The Happiest Millionaire (1967)

February 7, 2011 Leave a comment

A man's smiling face.Summary:
This live-action Disney musical tells the story of the Biddle family through the eyes of their recent Irish immigrant butler, John Lawless.  Anthony Biddle is independently wealthy and a bit eccentric doing everything from keeping alligators to running a Bible study group that includes learning boxing.  He must not only face it that his beloved daughter, Cordy, is growing up, but also come to accept her choice of husband.

Review:
I added this to my queue after calling my dad up to pester him to help me remember a movie I used to watch with him when I was little.  All I could remember was “there were alligators in the house.”  Based on that, he guess The Happiest Millionaire, and he was right!

It’s an odd experience watching a movie that resides in your subconscious.  What really stuck out in my memory was the songs.  Two in particular “Bye-Yum-Pum-Pum,” which is all about how to flirt with boys and “Let’s Have a Drink On It,” which is essentially John trying to get the young groom to be wasted to keep him in town for the night.  It’s your classic Disney musical numbers, and they’re all fun.

I was at first surprised and then not surprised at all to see that this movie is really about the father/daughter relationship.  Suddenly why my dad used to watch it with me made sense.  Mr. Biddle is trying to protect his daughter while simultaneously letting her go live her own life.  Similarly, Cordy loves her papa and is trying to learn how to be herself while still being his daughter.  It’s really quite touching and gently handles a relationship that isn’t talked about very much.

I also was pleased to see that this was Lesley Ann Warren’s first big screen role.  I love her in pretty much everything I’ve ever seen her in.  I think she’s under-recognized among fans of musicals, and that’s sad.  Her voice is so unique, and she really emotes with her eyes.  Also, Fred MacMurray plays the role of Mr. Biddle, which was fun to see.

Overall, I recommend this to fans of Disney movies and musicals alike, but especially to those who enjoy a film about the father/daughter relationship.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netflix

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Friday Fun! (The Long Winter)

February 4, 2011 Leave a comment

I keep thinking this week about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Book The Long Winter.  We’ve been slammed with snow, sleet, hail, thunderhail, thundersnow, and more almost every single day this week.  It’s dark.  It’s dreary.  Most New Englanders I know are struggling with the winter blues.  I’ve been taking to snuggling up under my electric blanket earlier and earlier at night, and all this reminds me of reading The Long Winter during the long Vermont winters when I was a kid.

Basically, in this entry in the Little House series of books, Laura’s pioneer family faces one of the worst winters ever.  Excruciating detail about the cold, the food, the clothes, and more go into the tale of how they managed to just barely survive that winter.  I’ll never forget the passage in which they hang their wet clothes out to freeze as a close approximation to drying.  Winter is just something northerners have always had to deal with.  I remind myself that at least I have a lot more entertainment and warmth than Laura did, but Laura also could just stay in the house all winter.  I have to go out and get to work.  Hibernation is just not an option.  Not to mention that it’d get lonely after a little while.

But there’s something comforting in reading about other people facing winter when you’re in the throes of it yourself.  I know some people like to read books set in the tropics in the winter, but personally I’ll always reach for tales of freezing cold and survival against all odds.  There’s a sort of camaraderie to it that only other northerners understand.

Happy weekend all!

Book Review: It by Stephen King

February 3, 2011 2 comments

Creepy looking clown.

Summary:
In the late 1950s in the small town of Derry, Maine, children are being mysteriously murdered.  Seven misfit and outcast kids band together to face It, and they think they’ve beaten it, but 27 years later, the murders return.  Vaguely remembering a promise they all made, the now adults return to their hometown of Derry to face It again.

Review:
This tale is largely known in the States as “that scary clown story,” so for years I avoided it.  I’ve been terrified of clowns for as long as I can remember.  My parents tell me that the first time I ever saw one, I screamed uncontrollably.  My only encounter with Stephen King’s It (as it’s known in the States) was with a diorama of the clown from the movie in a haunted house I went through in Salem, MA.  It scared the crap out of me, so I was a bit nervous to read this book.  However, having read the Dark Tower series, I wanted to read all of the other stories that King lists as taking place in the same general universe, and It was one of them.  So I manned up and read it, and boy am I ever glad I did.

This is not a cheesy scary clown story.  What it is is first a character study and second a commentary on growing up.  The dual horror of being a kid and being excited and afraid to grow up and being an adult and being excited and concerned that you are grown up and may have lost a part of yourself in childhood.  King very clearly demonstrates that being a kid isn’t all fun and games–most of the kids in the group of 7 have bad home lives–but there is an essential hope that children have that is hard to reclaim as an adult.  A child is able to have a horrible experience with a shape-shifting werewolf or a bunch of bullies and then walk a couple of blocks and forget about it and be excited to see American Bandstand that night.  Children are incredibly resilient, and King demonstrates that.

What makes the story though is the return to Derry 27 years later.  King puts a hope in adults that although they may not remember exactly what it is to be a resilient child, they can still repossess that power in later life.  Although the first inclination of kids to survive is to forget the bad, an adult can remember and still survive.  For at the beginning, the characters don’t want to remember what happened to them as kids.

Did he remember?  Just enough not to want to remember any more. (Location 1416)

Yet the characters are brave and face their childhoods.  Yes, King personifies both the childhood evils and the remembering of them as an adult with It, but that’s part of what makes the story powerful.  There’s a reason people refer to memories as personal demons.  That’s how they feel.  In the end, the way the characters grow and change and overcome is to find

A way to be people that had nothing to do with their parents’ fears, hopes, constant demands.  (Location5631)

Beyond the excellent symbolism and allegory for the experience of surviving bad things in your childhood and facing them again as an adult, the horror itself is wonderful.  It comes at just the right frequency so that the reader settles into a sense of security only to be blind-sided by a terrifically horrifying experience.  There were sections that literally had me jumping at the sound of my own phone ringing in the silence.  These are some of the better passages of creepy horror that I’ve read written by King.

Of course, the allusions to the universe of the Gunslinger are there.  It gave me chills to recognize them as I read.  Among just a few were the turtle, spiders, and other worlds than these.  One particular line that gave me chills of recognition that other fans of the Dark Tower series will be sure to appreciate is

Eddie had drawn his aspirator.  He looked like a crazed malnourished gunslinger with some weird pistol.  (Location 20760)

Combining everything from the horror to the allegory of facing childhood demons to the allusions to the Dark Tower series make Stephen King’s It a remarkable read.  I recommend it to fans of Stephen King, as well as anyone interested in the idea of childhood demons who feels they can handle passages of horror.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Amazon

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