Sunday, December 23, 2012

Rocking, reeling, rolling

Much like Rhys Bowen's Molly Murphy mysteries, Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series offers a short little walking tour of Manhattan with each book.

In Books 7, 8, and 9, our Knickerbocker-turned-midwife heroine sees more of the ethnic blend that was (and still is) New York.

I figured out who the murderers were in 2 of the 3 books, however. It's always half delightful, half disappointing when that happens.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Exempt from public haunt

The library books are piling up, but I'm determined to keep my overdue fine-free streak! So now I have a whole algorithm for determining which books to renew, and which ones to return and then re-check out when next available.

Olive Kitteridge was a collection of stories from a small town in Maine, all featuring retired school teacher Olive at some point in her adult life. In many of the stories, she is the main character; in others, she figures tangentially.

Stepping back, the book is a pretty intricate portrait of sadness and breakdowns in relationships. Strout showcases the desperate slowness before suicide attempts and affairs; and during weddings, funerals, breakups, and end-of-life care. Through it all, the Maine seasons roll by.

It reminded me of another rather gray depiction of a life loved and lost in a small New England town: Ethan Frome. (Given that that classic is one of the most dismal stories I've ever read, I don't know that that's a compliment.)

Sharon Creech's young adult books are always hit-or-miss for me.

The Great Unexpected is one of the ones I don't exactly love. The story is about two girls in foster care in a podunk American town who meet a mysterious boy who falls from the sky. But it bridges reality and fantasy in jarring ways: Irish magic, crows as omens, and witches exist alongside kids who have to "share" about their dysfunctional families for a school assignment (which is both funny and sad).

My main source of frustration is that I liked parts here and there of the story: the backgrounds of the people in the girls' lives, the mystery of the cackling old lady who always wants to "have a murder," the Tim Burton atmosphere of the small town. It was just too short of a book to weave it all together properly... for an adult reader, at least.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Armed through our watch

I forget how Michael Robotham's Lost made its way to my reading list, but it was so addictive that I ran out and reserved his other books in the series.

Not quite noir, the books are gritty thrillers instead of rosy English mystery novels. They take place, sometimes literally, in the underbelly of London: the characters move amongst mobsters, prostitutes, crooked cops, drug addicts, pedophiles. Robotham does such a great job of making the reader empathize and identify with the main characters, it was hard to stop reading.

Lost, the second book featuring a psychologist and quasi-detective, features a down-and-out police inspector who is found shot and floating in the Thames. The book has him, with the help of his psychologist friend, attempting to solve the mystery of what happened to him before he's arrested for crimes he can't be sure he didn't commit.

Suspect, the first book, features the same two characters before they were friends.  The detective is a hard-ass on the psychologist, who is the main suspect in a series of murders. It's odd having read the first book second (knowing the outcome but not the important details). But each is still good as an independent, suspense-ridden story.

Friday, November 23, 2012

At the end of the day you're another day older

I'd never heard of Jeannette Walls, but her memoir joined my reading list when I was adding NYT bestseller books to it.

The Glass Castle details Walls' family life, focusing on how she and her siblings coped with hunger and poverty and an alcoholic father and an indifferent mother.  Their parents moved frequently, every few months or so, across towns throughout the Southwest until eventually settling with relatives in West Virginia.

Amazingly, the siblings all move to New York City and manage to escape the utter penury their parents made their norm.

Parts of it were painfully and personally familier -- an alcoholic father who frequently uprooted the family on "adventures" -- and so maybe that was why I kept reading. There's a camaraderie of sorts in seeing part of your own story in someone else's.  It's odd, the reviews on the back of the book discussed how it was a touching tribute to her parents, but I didn't interpret it that way. I think her most heartfelt moments are for her brother and sister: the book poignantly captures the strong bond between them, forged out the usual sibling shared experiences but also out of the absolute necessity for survival.

I was a little disappointed in the pace set for the last few chapters, though. Where Walls spends the vast majority of the book going over her childhood memories within a span of a few years, she basically glosses over her teenage and adult life as she made the transition to independence and self-sufficiency. As an autobiography, the closer she got to the present, it seemed liked she wanted to keep more things private. The detailed descriptions of social situations from her childhood did not carry over to details in her adult life -- situations that must have arisen more frequently than mentioned, especially for a Barnard student hiding the fact that she has homeless parents and grew up going days with no food. In my opinion, that detracted from the story and made it a teensy bit less powerful.

On a related note, I watched The Blind Side in my post-turkey haze on Thanksgiving.  Mi Hermana, Mi Cunado, and the sobrinas y neffy were all laid low with the stomach flu, and there was little to do but watch TV.

I have a hard time understanding how Sandra Bullock beat out four other women for Best Actress with this movie. I know it's based on a true story as well as a book, but it's still a predictable rags-to-riches tale about an inner city black boy with a crack addict mother who is given a chance at success by rich white people, perseveres and does well in school against the odds, goes on to get an athletic scholarship to college, and then becomes a celebrated pro football star.

It had its moments, though. There were some funny scenes, some touching scenes, some thought-provoking scenes.  But if falls so neatly in line with the American bootstrap narrative, I think that's the only reason it did so well in theatres and received so many accolades. Otherwise, it's not that great a movie.

To be sure, The Glass Castle also falls into the rags-to-riches American mythology. But the blatant racialized components are absent, as are the tangible class dynamics. I think The Glass Castle would make a better movie because the specifics that Walls shares about her life are so unpredictably destitute and heartbreaking. Her family's struggles also do not end with her becoming a famous writer; there would be no glorious epilogue rolling during the credits.

But of course, The Blind Side was the blockbuster.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Another yellow moon

The Gaslight series has become immensely addictive.

After finishing the fourth, fifth, and sixth books in the series with Sarah-the-mystery-solving-widow-midwife, I've come to the conclusion that the mysteries themselves are not what draws me in; it's the side plot involving the deaf and formerly crippled son of her friend and crime-solving partner.  (I'm shockingly indifferent to whether or not the two of them get beyond their Victorian class divide to develop a romance, or whether or not Sarah's husband's murder is ever solved.)

Having said that, Murder on Washington Square sees a significant development in the socially unacceptable friendship between the Knickerbocker-turned-midwife and the Irish police captain. And Murder on Mulberry Bend has a significant development in the mystery around Sarah's husband's murder years before.

The other aspect of the series that recently dawned on me is that Thompson always takes some . The climactic scenes where the murderers are revealed tend to be dramatic, over-the-top, socially shocking scenarios (everything from an incestuous couple running out to the rooftops in a thunderstorm, to a cross-dressing actor pulling a Norman Bates). In a way, the underlying sensationalism complements the prim and proper veneer of 19th century society rules.

Bizarre and lurid as the endings can get, however, I was a little disappointed that I picked up on the clues and guessed the identity and motives for the culprits in Books 4 and 5 long before the middle of the story. Murder on Marble Row, however, had an unexpected conclusion. So I can rest easy that I won't get bored with the rest of the series!

Saturday, November 17, 2012

On track

Though I love reading Ann Patchett, after reading Run I've realized a trend in my reactions to her books: I get very engrossed in the characters and scenarios from page one, and then feel like the ending is always too neatly and swiftly wrapped up, and feel a little cheated of important character developments.

Run was no different. Though I liked the first 95% of the book, the last chapter glosses over the lives of the characters after a tragedy that necessarily changes them. Then the epilogue picks up years later, with the same characters in very different lives.  (The endings to Bel Canto and Patron Saint of Liars were similarly disjointed and disorienting, after the beautifully crafted, compelling character maps of the rest of the books.)

Run takes place in Boston, over a period of 24 hours after a car accident. The characters are neighbors in that way that worlds collide on every other street in Boston: rich and poor, black and white, Catholic and irreligious, academic and skilled worker. The story itself is cute, though improbable: the privileged former mayor takes care of the young girl whose mother has been injured. His two adopted sons are forced to think about the mother who gave them up for adoption, and his biological son contemplates a car accident years before that altered his relationship with his father.

What left me unsatisfied, however, was the lack of character depth for the girl's mother: though her actions explain a lot of the book, the reader never quite gets into her head. Then there's the reality of Boston, a city (like many old cities with centuries of privilege and inequality) where identity and opportunity are often synonymous. Half the time while reading, I kept thinking "This could never happen in Boston." And yet there's a grain of believability because it couldn't happen anywhere else. (But maybe the part that's believable is really just the buried hope that one day, America can give children of every race and class a good education and an equal opportunity to achieve their dreams.)

The absence of overt racism also added to the book's unbelievability.* I think Patchett did a wonderful job of highlighting the gulf between the clueless (but highly educated) privileged echelons and the working class families struggling to stay out of poverty. She also showed how class and race can be intertwined in a city with very real historical and enduring segregation. However, for a story about worlds colliding (and one in which half the main characters are black), there were remarkably few instances involving racism.

In short, the book is a very different take on that "great" old American favorite, the rags-to-riches tale. It's really cute and magical if we suspend belief and social realities. We want it to be possible  because it ignores the injustices we've created and can't solve.

* Yes, I'm still jealous that a ton of my friends got to go this year's Facing Race conference, where Junot Diaz gave an amazing keynote speech (or so I could infer from the Twitter hashtag stream I was following from home on a Friday night).

Saturday, October 27, 2012

No bigger than an agate stone

While waiting for the next Daisy Dalrymple books to arrive from the library and paperbackswap, I managed to find another great mystery series! (Yay, Amazon suggestions.)

Victoria Thompson's Gaslight series features Sarah Brandt, a widowed midwife in late-19th century New York City.

What I like about the storyline is the development of Sarah's friendship with an enigmatic police detective. In the first book, the police sergeant is gruff and suspicious of Sarah, who left her privileged background when she married a doctor years before. By the end of the book, when they've reluctantly worked together to solve the murder of a girl in a boarding house, the reader learns that Sgt. Malloy has a "feeble-minded", disfigured toddler son. By the end of the second book, they've teamed up again to solve a series of murders of working-class girls who exchange their favors for baubles. But even more interestingly, we discover that the supposedly "feeble-minded" son is actually deaf and that his club foot is operable. In Book 3, Malloy takes Sarah's advice and seeks the advice of doctors and schools for the deaf to see what options are available for his son (oh, and they solve the murder of a quack doctor in the process).

I think I'm fixating on the deaf and disabled toddler son (who is definitely a minor, minor -- haha-- character in the books) because I've been Skyping my nieces and neffies a lot lately, what with a new nephew and starting kindergarten and preschool and all. But whatevs, every reader brings their own personal biases to a series. I happen to like this one... and not because mi dos hermanas both had midwives for their last deliveries, either. Or 'k, maybe that makes me more partial to Sarah as the main character. As the holidays near, I've been poring over Snapfish photos of all the wee ones and keep thinking that they grow up so damn fast!

Anyways, unlike the Daisy Dalrymple series, which is very much in the vein of Dame Christie (where the mysteries are solved in large rooms with relatively little cliffhanger drama at the end), the Gaslight series features the cases being solved in extremely dramatic ways. Perhaps this is the American tradition in the genre? At any rate, the series is thoroughly enjoyable; and it serves its purpose as a method of escapism during this rainy GOTV season.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Through a glass darkly

I read Wicked years ago during a cold, gray New England winter. And as part of a fundraiser for Approve R 74, I finally saw the Broadway musical... on a cold, gray, unusually torrential Seattle autumn evening.

The book intrigued me with its nuanced stories of power and oppression in Oz. It was a dark tale, but it was spun with great skill and creativity.

A musical, however, must have a happy ending -- that's what all the song-and-dance cheesiness is about. And it did, in fact, so drastically deviate from the book that it's better to think of them as different stories altogether.

Unlike the book, the heart of the play is the friendship between Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda (the Good Witch). The vocal talents of the two main characters are amazing. (I had "Defying Gravity," which I've only ever heard on Glee, stuck in my head the entire day before seeing the show.) Most of the story takes place during their time at boarding school. And the musical only touches tangentially on issues like the Wizard's oppression of the Animals and the slavery of the Munchkins. The main theme of the play is seeing the alternate views in everything -- in official histories, in standards of beauty.

I've always loved musicals, and this was no exception.

Sacre Bleu had a similar "alternate history" take, though in no other way can it be compared to Wicked. Like he did with Fool, Christopher Moore tells a story from a different perspective in Sacre Bleu. 

From Vincent Van Gogh's death to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's debauchery, Moore spins a weird but slightly interesting story about Art, artists, love, and inspiration. In increasingly kooky plot twists, Moore's story revolves around the color blue,  the idea from the Renaissance that the "sacred blue" was reserved only for depicting the Virgin Mary's cloak, and the old-fashioned sexist saying that "All women are the same."

Like Fool, I liked the first half, when everything was still a mystery. I enjoyed the mystique of art and the blue and the source of an artist's genius. By the middle of the book, when it became apparent that an immortal pimp and his companion Muse, though a bizarre regeneration ritual, are supposed to be the source of all artistic brilliance,  I ceased caring about the characters themselves and just wanted the damn book to finish.  Like Fool, there was too much casual bonking for me to take it seriously. I know seriousness is definitely never the point of any of Moore's books (and I've liked some of his campier books in the past), but I was disappointed with the last half of this one too.

One book I couldn't force myself to finish, however, was The Marriage Plot. I couldn't put down Jeffrey Eugenides' absolutely riveting, Pulitzer-winning Middlesex. And I liked The Virgin Suicides. But his latest book was kind of a disappointment.

Maybe because it's about two recent college grads trying to get over university crushes, spread their wings, and find themselves. But I just couldn't relate to it. It seemed like a book version of St. Elmo's Fire, which I also didn't love.  I got about halfway through before I realized I didn't care if the two main characters ended up together or not, or how much philosophizing they did on their journey to discover whether or not they should end up together.

When it comes down to it, I have little patience for stories about post-college angst. I think I'm just getting too old, and the kids need to get off my lawn!

Saturday, October 13, 2012

A still and quiet conscience

I absolutely loved Ann Patchett's Bel Canto. So naturally I ran out and reserved most of her books from the library, never imagining they would all arrive at once.

Patron Saint of Liars was equally as gripping as Bel Canto; I couldn't put it down, and read it in one sitting on a windy autumn night. The story spans a century: a small Tennessee town with a "miracle" spring, a runaway wife from California who drives across the country to a Catholic home for unwed pregnant girls, a nun who can eerily predict the future.

As the title implies, the lies characters tell themselves, strangers, and their loved ones form the foundation of the community at the girls home. The lies about why they are pregnant, who the fathers are, whether or not they will keep their babies, whether or not they are Catholic, create a solid --if temporary-- universe. Even the lies of tangential characters shape the realities of the central ones.

It's a beautifully written story about hidden pasts and how people build a comfortable reality around partial truths. My only small quibble with the book is that the central character, Rose, is still a mystery by the end. We never get to delve more deeply into her psyche, and it's barely known why she always runs away. In the end, it doesn't matter; since the reader is left with the same feeling of abandonment and confusion that the characters have already normalized.

Because I hadn't quite gotten my Ann Patchett fix, I read What Now?, a commencement speech she gave at Sarah Lawrence College, her alma mater.

With few exceptions, I tend to forget commencement speeches and remember only a line or two at best. Graduation keynotes are written for an audience that will not be able to full appreciate the words for years, if not decades -- and by then, they will barely remember most of it. Commencement sermons (because that's what they are) resonate more with the parents, family, and alumni more than with the cap-and-gown- clad honorees themselves.

As speeches go, it was decent. But I definitely prefer Patchett's fiction.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The playground round

When I ran out and ordered every Sharon Creech book from the library, I thought her audience is usually the "young adult" crowd. However, three of the books that arrived are clearly intended for the elementary school crowd.  That's cool, though. I consider it research for possible gifts for the nieces and neffies.

Fishing in the Air reminded me of my nephew (who I repeatedly found "fishing" in my bathroom sink last summer when he visited). In the story, a little boy goes fishing with his father. I was a little bored (because there's really not much else), but there's some good, colorful imagery for kids. Maybe the neffy would like it for Christmas.

I couldn't stop thinking about all the immediate legal challenges to the scenario in A Fine, Fine School, so that might have clouded my possible enjoyment of the book. Basically, a principal decides that there will be school all year round, and on weekends and holidays. Nobody protests until they realize they are also learning while at home. Creech gets bonus points for mentioning Ramadan, but I don't think I'll be buying this one for my eldest niece, who just started kindergarten and loves it.

Lastly, Pleasing the Ghost was a cute but bittersweet story about a boy who is visited by ghosts. He really wants the ghost of his father to visit, but he gets his deceased uncle instead. Said uncle had had a stroke while still living, and so his stroke-affected speech make for endearing yet quasi-disturbing conversations with the boy. This would be a good book for a child who has recently lost an adult in their life... except for the possible awkward theological issues that might arise (like why spirits in the next life still have to live with the strokes they had during their time on earth).  This book is a good example, though, of why I love Creech as a children's author: she normalizes intergenerational interaction and doesn't shy away from themes like illness, death, and loss.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Some sweet oblivious antidote

The Leftovers started out as fascinating, then grew quickly (if paradoxically) boring and horrifying. The premise reminded me a bit of The Road: one day, millions of people around the world simply vanish.  Religion is thrown into question. (Was it Rapture? Why did non-Christians vanish, then?) A cult of the Disappeared emerges, as well as the myriad ways "survivors" cope with their guilt for not disappearing and their grief for loved ones who did.

Like The Road (possibly the most depressing book ever), the unexplained occurrence remains unexplained at the end of the book. The focus is more on how one town (and one family in particular) tries to get on with its life while incorporating the disappearances and the changes they have brought into its very identity.

As a snapshot of what individuals might do in the face of traumatic change and ideological upheaval, the book is rather distressing. (The mother joins  one cult, the son another, and the daughter is led astray by the stereotypical "bad crowd"of teenagers. The father --or should it be the Father?-- is the mayor of the town and tries to maintain some semblance of normality.) Curiosity slowly turns to insanity and faith evolves into fanaticism as characters join cults that have replaced traditional religion. (It's ironic, then, that the book ends with the promise of a baby who will save the world.... or maybe just the town and the sanity of a few people in it.) When you take a step back from the book, it's kind of a hilarious alternate universe; but up close, it's a creepy, uneasy scenario.

Treasure Island!!! also ran the gamut from hilarious to uncomfortable in the way it also dealt with living on the edge of sanity and reality. The reader watches as the main character, a young twentysomething, reads Treasure Island and is so inspired by the tale that she draws her own life's map based on what she interprets to be its core values: Boldness! Resolution! Independence! and Horn-Blowing!

She convinces her boyfriend to let her move in, she steals from her employer to buy a parrot, she refuses to see her therapist, she becomes obsessed with reacquainting herself with a childhood friend, she breaks up with her boyfriend and moves back in with her parents, she starts to spy on her sister... It's an awful, awkward downward spiral to watch. And all the while, she tries to use Robert Louis Stevenson's classic adventure story as a Bible of sorts to guide her through life... until her ex, her family, and her friends hold an intervention because the her obsession with the book is more than a little unnatural.

It's hard to love the protagonist, since it's hard to see past her selfish and self-destructive veneer. But the farce of her specific situation is still at times hilarious, just like The Leftovers had a note of delirium beneath the melancholy and uncertainty.

The patients are indeed ministering to themselves.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Ab ovo usque ad mala

I'm still fascinated by the huge range of children's author Sharon Creech. Half of her books are brilliant, timeless snapshots of the complicated family and social dynamics that children learn to navigate. And the other half are disappointments.

Heartbeat was in the vein of two of her other brilliant poetry books (Love That Dog and Hate That Cat), and it's also told in verse. A tween girl who loves running has a school assignment to draw the same apple every day. The metaphor is beautiful: as her best friend becomes moody and obsessed with winning races and her mother gives birth to a new sibling and her grandfather, the girl   The world changes but remains the same and regenerates and regrows and is reborn. Loved this short book.

Ruby Holler, however, was similar to The Castle Corona and The Unfinished Angel in that it projected a pseudo-fairy tale quality in an over-stylized setting. Two orphans ("trouble twins") are adopted for a summer by an older couple who want to take separate trips but not alone.  Like most of Creech's books, it too had an intergenerational aspect to it, but  it was over-simplified for me to find compelling and interesting. It could have been deeper: the parallel aspects of the twins' inseparable nature and the old couple's shared life could have been a richer part of the story. But instead, the antics of a bumbling, corrupt orphanage director were developed  at the cost of the better story - that of the adolescents and retirees finding common ground and building trust.

Of course, I'm still going to read all of Sharon Creech's books! The four that I've absolutely loved and think are beautiful pieces of poetry far outweigh the impact of the ones that seem half-assed in their portraits of human interactions.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Little grey cells, mon ami

It's getting harder and harder to find mystery series set between the World Wars with female detectives. But I found another, and it's entertaining: Carola Dunn's Daisy Dalrymple series.

(Funny thing, back in my middle school Regency Romance phase, I remember reading books by Carola Dunn. After a bit of research, I learned she's crossed genres.)

The Daisy books are yet another take on the privileged-girl-tries-to-make-her-own-way-in-the-world tale. The heroine, the Honourable Daisy Dalrymple, is a writer for a magazine, and uses her society connections to write articles on stately homes and gardens around England.

They were definitely enjoyable enough, in a Christie-like way. And like any post-WW1 story, the cultural shift in women's roles and the slow disintegration of class lines are central to the story. (One does not, for instance, pursue a Scotland Yard inspector if one is an Honourable. One does not work.)

Unlike the Maisie Dobbs mystery series, which is wonderful but a bit heavy in its post-war legacy and class identity themes, the Daisy books seem to follow the Dame's successful formula: manor, small social circle of suspects (most of them fairly privileged), clever but not cliffhanging resolution.

More on order from the library!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The world breaks everyone

The bleak outlook of Train Dreams reminded me of Swamplandia!, minus the quirky characters and humor.

The story of a dying era in a dying landscape, Train Dreams follows one man from his days logging in the Cascades to his seasonal hermitages in Idaho, Montana, and Canada. From one isolated cabin or church or town to the next, trains rush through desolate regions ghost-filled with broken lives and loss.

Even though it is equally as devoid of hope and happiness as the last book I read.... at least it's in my own neck of the woods?

Monday, September 10, 2012

Hell is empty; all the devils are here

I wanted to like Swamplandia! but I couldn't really get into it. It took me try after try to get into it, and I never really succeeded; I only finished it because I wanted  to make the overdue fines worthwhile...

A depressing tale about a family business (and a family itself, local culture, and way of life) crumbling in the Everglades, the book is certainly well-written and evocative. The main character is Ava, a tween girl whose family all leave: her mother dies of cancer, her father heads to the mainland to work at a strip club to pay off debts, her brother goes to work for the family's corporate rivals, and her mentally unstable sister runs away to marry a long-dead (and possibly made-up) teenage boatman.  It has delightfully quirky elements and enough interesting dynamics  -- like alligator-wrestling, a tragic ghost story, or glimpses of irony and comedy in characters' seemingly ordinary lives.

But there were a few needlessly shocking parts (I fail to see how statutory rape, for instance, was in any way symbolic or relevant). And throughout the book, the themes of abandonment and failure were made brutally clear: failed government revitalization programs, inadequate education, islands cut off from the mainland, changing muddy coastlines, derelict boats, etc. The past, present, and future presented in the book are rather abysmal and hopeless. By the end of the book, instead of celebrating the intricate and highly complicated histories of Ava's swamp heritage, I was horrified and simply glad that the book ended with her making it out of a mental and physical hellhole.

That sense of relief, if not the overall story itself, was worth the $1.60 fine.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Mountain mama

Northwesterners call Mt. Rainier "The Mountain".  At 14,410 feet, it's the tallest mountain in Washington State and the entire Cascade range.

When The Mountain is "out", as Northwesterners also say on clear sunny days when it's visible, this is what it looks like from my neighborhood in Seattle (photo credit: a University of Washington site):
Rainier is a regional icon (it's on the state's license plate).  It's also a dormant stratovolcano, considered one of the most dangerous in the world. 
But it's such a beautiful and awe-inspiring volcano!
This is what it looks like from one of the trails near the Mount Rainier National Park Visitors Center:
I love, love, love mountain meadows! The wildflowers are so amazing.

(There was a mama deer! With her two fawns! How much more picturesque could it get? Photo credits for the rest of this post: me)
This is what it looks like when you get a little further from the tourist center:
It's still a hefty hike, even on the paved pathways.   
I finally saw a marmot in the wild!
This is what The Mountain looks like when you reach Muir Snowfield:
(Do NOT google anything like "deaths Rainier Muir snowfield" in the days before you set out to hike it. Otherwise you might be tempted to run out and buy a ton of emergency equipment at REI. *cough* )

Muir Snowfield is 2.2 miles long and has an elevation gain of 2800 feet.
This is how steep the slope is: 
It was brutal. I was worried about altitude and dehydration, so I stopped often. (Also, I huffed and puffed nonstop.)
But the view was amazing! 
The Tatoosh Mountains, which I've only ever seen in winter, were beautiful. Beyond them, both Mt. Adams and Mt. St. Helens were visible - it's as if three tall mountains in the Cascade range get to say "Hello!" to each other every sunny day.
And this is what Mt. Rainier looks like at the almost-top!
We made it to Camp Muir! I'm so proud of myself and my two friends - we weren't sure if we could make it, but we did!
10,188 feet is the highest I've ever been (not counting airplanes, obviously).

4600 feet in elevation gain is the most I've ever hiked.

Personal records FTW!

Then we glissaded down the snowfield. So amazingly fun!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Daring an opposite to every danger

The first book in the Graceling trilogy was mostly captivating but really slow towards the end (the characters wander in the mountains for months). The second book, Fire, was the opposite: it took me a while to get into it (more wandering across rugged terrain), but the last half had court intrigues that made slogging through the first half worth it. Bitterblue, the last book, ties together the stories from the first two. But even better, it didn't bore me for any part.

Though each book can stand alone and the reader doesn't need to read them together or in order, they do fit together nicely. Fire is the prequel to Graceling, taking place decades before in a faraway kingdom where beautifully-hued "monsters" mesmerize their victims. Bitterblue picks up 9 years after Graceling, when a child queen comes of age and faces the difficult task of healing a kingdom scarred by her sadistic, psychopathic father's reign of cruelty.

One cool theme throughout the trilogy (besides strong-willed young female protagonists) was the idea that women can defend themselves and that happily-ever-after romances are the stuff of unrealistic fairy tales. In these books, the heroines don't want marriage or a traditional gendered relationship, and they are jarringly realistic about sex and love and time. Nothing wraps up neatly, whether it's the fate of a local uprising or the future of a budding friendship.

Bitterblue left me wanting more stories from this intricate, nuanced world. But alas! As a trilogy, though, it was epically satisfying.

All the difference

The Road was one of the most bleak and depressing books I've read in a very long time.

A nameless father and a nameless son journey across a post-apocalyptic America after an unnamed catastrophe that has wiped out most life on earth. They trudge through ashes of a burned-out world, scrounging for non-perishable food items hidden in ghost towns, running away from cannibals, stepping over long-mummified bodies of fellow citizens along the way.

Amid the despair, their love for each other and their barely-alive hope that they will encounter other "good guys" are manifest in evolving but timeless ways.

Still, it's an incredibly gloomy portrait of how kindness survives. Half of the hopelessness and helplessness comes from not knowing what the characters don't know themselves: the how and the why of what happened to the world.

McCarthy's writing style mimics the barren wasteland he has created: there are no quotation marks, few proper nouns, few apostrophes. Sentences and dialogues are short.

I might need to go watch The Care Bears for a while. But in the meantime, this poem that I've always liked by Walter d la Mare might serve as a good transition from McCarthy's despairingly desolate scenes:

The Listeners
Walter de la Mare 

'Is there anybody there?' said the Traveller,
Knocking on the moonlit door;
And his horse in the silence champ'd the grasses
Of the forest's ferny floor:
And a bird flew up out of the turret,
Above the Traveller's head:
And he smote upon the door again a second time;
'Is there anybody there?' he said.
But no one descended to the Traveller;
No head from the leaf-fringed sill
Lean'd over and look'd into his grey eyes,
Where he stood perplex'd and still.
But only a host of phantom listeners
That dwelt in the lone house then
Stood listening in the quiet of the moonlight
To that voice from the world of men:
Stood thronging the faint moonbeams on the dark stair,
That goes down to the empty hall,
Hearkening in an air stirr'd and shaken
By the lonely Traveller's call.
And he felt in his heart their strangeness,
Their stillness answering his cry,
While his horse moved, cropping the dark turf,
'Neath the starr'd and leafy sky;
For he suddenly smote on the door, even
Louder, and lifted his head:--
'Tell them I came, and no one answer'd,
That I kept my word,' he said.
Never the least stir made the listeners,
Though every word he spake
Fell echoing through the shadowiness of the still house
From the one man left awake:
Ay, they heard his foot upon the stirrup,
And the sound of iron on stone,
And how the silence surged softly backward,
When the plunging hoofs were gone.

The silence surging softly backward has always been a particularly poignant image.

OK, time for Care Bears.

Saturday, August 04, 2012

Nonna, nonna

As I'm making my way through the books of children's author Sharon Creech, I'm finding that they're hit or miss with me.

While I absolutely LOVED Walk Two Moons and Love That Dog / Hate That Cat and thought they were near genius, I didn't exactly love The Castle Corona. It's a quasi-fairy tale story about two peasant siblings and three royal siblings. It was pretty predictable and lacked the depth that some of Creech's other books model.

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup was better. It was definitely a cute story, about two friends who grow up next door to each other but then as adolescence hits and new neighbors arrive, they find themselves floating apart. It was predictable and unresolved in that way that young adult books sometimes are ("It'll all be OK. Things change, but your family loves you.").

Both books were really short, good for zippy summer night reading.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore

I don't remember how Bel Canto came to my attention, but I'm incredibly glad it made its way onto my reading list. Like the opera masterpieces that frame the characters and the storyline, the book is an exquisite work of art, beautifully and skillfully written.

The tale unfolds at a dinner party with an array of important individuals: a famous opera singer, politicians, priests, ambassadors, businessmen from all over the world ... and the terrorist generals and child soldiers that intrude and hold them all hostage.

Amid the chaos and power struggles, Patchett's narration floats like an aria from person to person, past to future. The book is a fascinating and lyrical portrait of human behavior in all its uncomplicated intricacies. Friendships, romantic relationships, and transactional alliances are all played out on a grand scale. (In real life, the reader knows these scenarios are highly unlikely. But this is an opera. It's comedy, tragedy, love, hate, and pathos blended into one.)

Though the ending was hinted at throughout the book, the epilogue seemed completely out of place. The role of nostalgia in survival is important, but the last few pages only make sense on a metaphorical level rather than a tangible human one.

Still, Bel Canto was categorically, utterly amazing.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Unacknowledged legislators of the world

Because library books on reserve tend to arrive all at once in a great cosmic plot to make me have more overdue fines, I was able to read two more of Sharon Creech's charming (and short) stories.

Love That Dog and its sequel Hate That Cat were cute and inspiring. Each book takes about 20 minute to read, so it was perfect for a weekend camping trip with limited daylight hours.

The books, through poetry writing assignments, tell the story of Jack, a kid who at first hates writing poetry. But as his teacher Miss Stretchberry continually challenges him to re-think what he considers poetry, he gradually learns to love it.

In Dog, Jack slowly comes out of his shell and eventually shares a personal painful story of his. It's the classic story of a boy and his dog, told through poetry influenced by William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, Valerie Worth, and others. In Cat, the reader learns more about Jack's family, and through his evolving relationship with poetry and words he is able to understand how sights and sounds can be felt.

Like the Creech's other books I've read, I'm amazed by how aptly she has captured the fresh and innocent voice of a child struggling to understand life and death while still enjoying play time and simple daily comforts.

The books are also a wonderful tribute to teachers everywhere who encourage students to find their voices and share their stories. I couldn't stop smiling, watching Jack learn and grow throughout the books. Perfect quick summer reads!

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Oft in ourselves do lie

From books to movies, I seem to be on a young adult audience kick. In this stressful election year, however, I think that's totally justifiable. What better escapism is there than to re-live the agony of adolescence, now that I'm safely and long past it?

I'm not the biggest fan of Wes Anderson's style of comedy (it's a little too deadpan for me), though I loved The Royal Tenenbaums. There were many moments in Moonrise Kingdom, however, where I genuinely laughed out loud or found a particular scene profoundly striking in its imagery.

Two New England tweens run away from their dismal lives and try to forge a new happy and free existence of their own making. Adults and a boy scout troop pursue them. So does a hurricane. Moonrise Kingdom was quirky and old-school epic, but cute nonetheless.

And then there was Brave. Honestly, the only thing I knew about it (enough to get me to a theatre) was that it had a feisty young heroine and took place in ancient Scotland.


I think I was expecting something along the lines of Mulan-meets-Braveheart. But what it turned out to be was a pretty sweet tale of mothers and daughters and courage and acceptance. There's the prerequisite Celtic witch, and a spell, and bears.


I really, really liked it (SCOTLAND! BEARS!) but wasn't over-the-top wowed by it. It was also the first movie I've ever seen in 3-D, although I don't know that it made any real difference for this film.

But while I was hiking in Central Washington this past weekend, I couldn't stop thinking in a Scottish accent.

Wha's like us? Damn few...

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Into the vale of years

Because I really liked Sharon Creech's Replay, I reserved a few of her other books at the library. One of the things I liked about Replay was Creech's ability to capture the voice, demeanor, and language of an adolescent so well.

The Unfinished Angel was similarly intriguing in its linguistic voice: the main character is an angel who guards a tiny village in Italy, and who struggles with speaking and understanding human ways of communication.  That was the most interesting part of the short book, however; I wasn't as captivated by the plot itself, about a little girl who can see the angel and convinces it to help change things for children nearby.

Walk Two Moons, however, was simply a masterpiece. It's no wonder that it won the Newbery Medal. The storytelling mechanism was brilliant: a girl on a road trip with her grandparents helps pass the time by telling them stories of her best friend's weird family. The stories are true, but the grandparents know they're just a metaphor for the girl's own growing pains and unique family heartache.

Even though, from an adult perspective, the ending isn't a surprise at all (it was pretty easy to read between the lines), I still found myself crying as I read the last few chapters. It was such a beautiful, sweet, tragic tale of love and hope and family ties.

As young adult authors go, I like Sharon Creech because her writing style also appeals to adults. The plots of her books (at least three I've read so far) take place at the very real intergenerational crossroads of family life.