Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.

So, quick tangent before I start here. When we moved I left behind the most awesome book club. I was really sad about this, because, if you haven't noticed yet, I LOVE talking about books. Especially with other intelligent people who think deeply about what they read. So anyway, I had an amazing group of roommates from back in my college days, and we'd been throwing around the idea of doing a long distance book club together. We've all spread across the country, so it's a bit difficult coordinating across all four time zones, but the recent loss of my old book club finally galvanized me. I rounded up the troops and we had our first "meeting" two weeks ago (we use Google hangout, isn't technology amazing?). If you haven't guessed yet, this is the book we chose to read for our first go, and it was so good to discuss this one with someone else. This is a book that needs discussion to be really understood.

So I'll start by saying that this is a slow read. If you're looking for an engaging plot with lots of action, this is not the book for you. Several chapters in and I was still wondering why people liked this book so much, because I was honestly a bit bored. But really, just stick with it, because with a little digging, there is some gold to find in this one. The book is narrated in first person by Stevens, an old-school butler (think Carson, but possibly even more straight-laced than that), and the voice is so spot on it's hard to believe Ishiguro wasn't a butler himself during this era. It took me about half-way through the book before I realized that there was so much more going on behind the words that Stevens was actually saying. When I figured out that whole other layer, the love story and the emotions and everything going on behind the controlled and passionless narration, that's when this book really opened up.

A recurring theme in this book was the concept of "dignity" and what it meant to have dignity. Stevens recounts a story about another legendary butler working for his master in India. One evening, before dinner, this butler discovered a tiger underneath the dining table, borrowed his master's gun, shot and killed the tiger, and served dinner in the usual manner as if nothing had happened. That was Steven's grand idea of dignity: complete control and mastery even in the most surprising and upsetting circumstances.

I've been thinking a lot about this concept of "dignity," especially when my sister (who is part of the book club, because she was one of my awesome roommates back in the day) commented to me about how she could use some more of this "dignity" as a mother. Doesn't that sound like a good goal? Let nothing ruffle you. Just let the toddler tantrums and diarrhea diapers and everything else just roll off, and serve dinner like there was never a tiger under the table. It does feel like a worthy virtue to pursue, doesn't it?

But while Stevens spends so much time extolling this virtue, the very life he leads seem to indicate some kind of emptiness about it. Like somewhere along the line he was so concerned about being dignified that he forgot to be human. He forgot to recognize his own emotions. He forgot to have relationships. Because those things, emotions and relationships, they are messy things. Very, very often, they are undignified things. But they are also essentially human things, and a life without them offers very little else to fill their place.

I stumbled across this post here shortly after our book club discussion, written by a feminist Christian writer whose stuff I really like. In case you don't click on that link (you really should go read her words, not mine), she writes about just this topic of "dignity," and how she has come to learn that God is not found so much in the dignified moments as in the undignified ones. She writes about how it is much easier to find God in the messy moments, the weak moments, the hard and painful moments, the scruff and scrubby and oh so very undignified moments (she has a lot more to say about the topic, you should go read the post). And I think that is true for most things in life, motherhood included. Dignity is nice, but real life happens in the undignified moments. That's what made this book such a tragedy. Here Stevens is, at the end of his career, reflecting on the "dignity" he attained, and wondering just why life feels so empty.

There is so much more I could say about this book, so many other rich topics for discussion and reflection (especially the commentary of British society as a whole-- like the summary above says, this book really is an elegy to the former Great Britain), but this will have to suffice for now. I recommend this to anyone with a solid appreciation for the monolith that is the British butler, and patient enough to wade through the slow pace. You will be richly rewarded.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The View From My Hammock

When: Last week
Where: Some island in the Bahamas

Home from the cruise, but wishing I were back there. On the docket today is frantic packing and loading of moving trucks in preparation for a twelve hour drive to our new home tomorrow.

So, are you just dying to know how many books I was able to read while spending leisurely hours basking by the pool and beach? I know you are, and the answer is...

Two, but really only one because I was 70% finished with the other one before we even started the cruise and it was a quick read anyway. I had grand visions of having oodles of time to read and listen to audio books on this trip, but I forgot I was married to Mr. Action-Packed-Let's-Get-Up-At-7:30-AM-To-Go-Snorkeling/Kayaking/Walking-Around-Every-Port-All-Day-Long-Party-It-Up, who needed me to play shuffleboard and cards with him and do all the other random stuff you can do on a cruise ship that's not sitting by a pool and reading. Long story short, I'm more tired now than before we left. And my to-read list is backed up. But it was a grand time, so I can't complain.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Vay-cay!


Not to make anyone jealous, but I'm leaving on a cruise today. Just me and the hubby. We're leaving the kid with the grandparents (first time I'll be away from him since he was born, kind of freaked out about this) and setting sail for the Bahamas. I'm beyond excited, and since this vacation is all about unplugging from the world and just relaxing, I'm giving myself a blogging break here as well.

But certainly not a book break. In fact, I've been stewing this whole week over the reading material I'll be taking with us, looking for the perfect pool-side book. Right now I've got about five e-books and two audio-books of all different types and genres for whatever mood I might be in. That should last me for a five day cruise, right?

I'll report back next week, hopefully with a tan, a lot of sleep under my belt, and certainly with new books to review.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Other People's Writing

I've read a few articles/blog posts recently that I keep thinking about, so I thought I'd share them here.

-I've been thinking a lot recently about why I read, how I select the books I read, and being more intentional in my book choices. I'll probably write a more in depth post about some of these thoughts at some point in the future, but a few things I've heard and read recently have been contributing to these reflections. This post, by Amy over at Sunlit Pages, is one I keep coming back to about why I read. I love the reasons she lists.

-When I was in high school, I loved my English classes, but didn't care much for one of my high school English teachers. One day near Christmas break, there was an event in my seminary class (Mormon religious education-- in Utah high school students can actually have one period of "released time" to walk across the street and go to seminary) that I was supposed to dress up for. I wore a black a dress, and to accessorize a little bit for the festive holiday season, I wore a read ribbon around my neck. To my horror, this particular English teacher assumed I had dressed up as Eustacia Vye, because we were taking the final on The Return of the Native that day in my English class. I was just so embarrassed that she thought I was actually nerdy enough to dress up as a character for the test. And maybe I was that nerdy, but I didn't want her to think so. Ever since then, I've been pretty wary about character costumes, accidental or otherwise. But the more and more I embrace my inner nerdiness, the more and more I'm reconsidering this stance. This awesome post, in honor of Book Lover's Day, certainly helped. Book nerdiness never looked so stylish.

- So, if I haven't made it clear, I'm definitely a Shakespeare fan. I don't pretend to be any sort of expert or even "hardcore," but I am on the bandwagon that considers him the finest English author of all time and I admire him accordingly. The man knew how to turn a phrase. So, call me excited to learn about any additions to the Shakespeare canon. Also fun to learn that Shakespeare had terrible handwriting. So nice to know that good writing doesn't need good handwriting.

-I taught seventh grade English in my former, pre-mom life. The Hunger Games was just becoming a huge thing, and our school acquired a reading circle set. I had read the book myself, and loved it, but I was pretty wary about putting it into the hands of thirteen-year-olds. Actually, I wasn't worried about giving it to my students, I knew they would love it. I was far more worried about the reaction from parents. Luckily, I didn't get any backlash, but if I had I would have wanted an article like this to refer them to. I have enough thoughts and opinions on the topic of "disturbing" content in YA fiction  that I could write a whole series of posts about it (probably will), but as far as this kind of violence in books is concerned, I agree with this author.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Avoiding My To-Do List


This is a busy week around here. It's the one week this month I won't be travelling or moving, so I'm trying to pack a million things into it. I've got my grad school application to work on, baby presents to make, a kitchen table to refinish (never done this before, quite the project), family pictures to take, an ABC book to edit and put together, plus a couple other smaller projects.

But... I'm in the middle of a couple of really good books that I just want to finish. So I spent last night staying up way too late trying to squeeze in some reading time, and now I'm dealing with the exhausted consequences of that. Such is the conundrum of my life as a mother. Read, or be responsible? That is the question.

Better stop blogging and go do some laundry.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Road Trip Reads

I think I mentioned this in my last post, but we were on a massive road trip last week (just got home tonight, in fact). When I say massive, I mean 40+ hours in the car in the space of eight days. With a toddler. It was a recipe for potential disaster, but luckily our little man was a road warrior, and we ended up having a blast.

It also helped that we had a good a supply of audio books on hand, because nothing makes time on a road trip more enjoyable than a good audio book. I thought this trip would be a good opportunity to listen to a few of the free Sync downloads I've collected this summer, and we made it through three of them. All of them were super charming and very fun, so I thought I'd just do a quick review of all three in one post.

The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place: The Mysterious Howling by Maryrose Wood

This little story was perhaps the weakest of the three books as far as plot was concerned, but the writing was so clever and witty that it more than made up for it. This book is British humor at it's best, and had so many gems in it. My husband and I laughed our way through this one, and while we might not be intrigued enough to pick up the next book in the series, it was delightful fun.




Young Sherlock Holmes: Death Cloud by Andrew Lane

This one was my least favorite of the three, but it was my husband's favorite. As the title implies, this series follows the development of a young (14 year old) Sherlock Holmes, and I think I only disliked it because I would have imagined a younger Sherlock Holmes differently. I guess that's the problem you have when you start with a character created by another author (endemic to all fan fiction). My husband had no problems with the way the young Holmes was portrayed, however, and I must say that I found no fault with the plot. It was a nicely intricate and exciting story very worthy of a Holmes character. My husband and I talked about how this book would probably be perfect for intellectually inclined teenage boys.

The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

This one was just fun. The setting was certainly unique, think "fairy" meets "steampunk." It wasn't necessarily standout in any other way. It felt like a bit of a cliche story; young, disadvantaged boy must save his sister from the clutches of an evil conniving politician and ends up saving the whole of Great Britain in the process (with the help of a bumbling, cowardly privy council member who would much rather be sleeping in bed then accidentally saving the world), but it was well written and fun nevertheless. Although, can I gripe about the fact that once again, this was only the first book of a series? Seriously, why does every single YA book have to be part of a series? Every single one of these books would have made a fantastic stand alone. For the love, just learn how to wrap your stories up, okay? (I know, I know, publishers like series because it means more money. Ugh. Sometimes it works, but I think this multiple series stuff is ruining some really good stories).

Anyway, these were three fun reads that definitely made our road trip so much more enjoyable. I'd put all of them in the three star range. You don't necessarily have to seek these books out, but if you come across any of them, feel free to pick them up.

Friday, August 9, 2013

National Book Lover's Day


You guys! Today is National Book Lover's Day! What a random, perfect little holiday.

So what is National Book Lover's Day? According to DaysOfTheYear.com:
A day for those who love to read, Book Lover's Day encourages you to kick back and relax with a great book. From shaded spots under arching trees to being tucked up warm in bed, there's no better way to celebrate Book Lover's Day than to while the hours away lost in a book.
Considering I'm on a road trip across the country ride now, my celebrations of this holiday will involve listening to audio books in the car. But considering this is an annual occurrence, I'm seriously considering coming up with some fun family traditions to do every year on this day. Like maybe picking an old favorite we read together every year on this day, or hosting a read-a-thon (like we used to do in elementary school, with pillows and treats and that sort of thing), or something fun. I'll have to think about this.

How are you celebrating?

Monday, August 5, 2013

Book Review: The God Who Weeps

The God Who Weeps: How Mormons Make Sense of Life by Terryl and Fiona Givens*

I have yet to find an adequate summary of this book anywhere online, and I'm not sure if I can come up with an adequate summary myself. The best I can say is that this is a philosophical discussion of large theological issues (the purpose of pain and suffering, the reality of a pre/post earth life, etc.) presented through the lens of Mormon belief. But this is not a book meant for Mormons only. Quoting and responding to the ideas of great thinkers and writers throughout history, this book reaches out to the rest of Christianity, and the world at large, as a powerful explanation of a beautiful view of life.

I'm not sure that I should be reviewing this book right now. I only finished it a few days ago, and I feel like I need to read it over and over again to really let these ideas sink in and respond to them in any kind of coherent way. This slim volume was so densely packed with incredible thoughts expressed in such poetic prose, I don't quite feel like I will do this book justice, but I do feel the need to get some thoughts down.

First off, I should say that there are many small issues that I have with my religion. There are things in our history, our culture, and even our doctrine that I don't fully understand or that don't sit well with me. But what the Givens present in this book is exactly what I love about my religion, and why I believe it. They express here the larger picture of God, and our life here on earth, that Mormon doctrine explains in a way that makes so much sense to me. They explain a loving God who feels pain, a God who has plumbed the depths of sorrow in order that he might empathize with us. This is a God who does not take our pain away because we must know pain to know joy. We must experience sorrow to understand happiness. And we must know these things to become more like our God. It is an absolutely beautiful conception of God, and one that feels right and true deep down in my gut.

Honestly, their explanations of the purpose of pain and sorrow made me feel a little nervous about my own relatively easy life. I will be the first to admit that I have been blessed with many advantages, and have had to face very few hard things. But after reading their beautiful conception of pain as an agent that allows us to understand others more deeply, experience joy more fully, and connect to divinity more completely, I almost wished I had a few more trials in my life. Now, I'm not actually brave enough to seriously ask God for more trials-- I will cling to my life of ease as long as I can have it-- but I hope if I ever do face pain and sorrow I will be able to turn to these words for comfort and edification. They were truly comforting.

The Givens also discuss the Mormon view of other conflicting Christian doctrines like how we celebrate Eve's choice as being one of courage and progress, not sin and digression (I loved their discussion of the central role of agency and choice in this process of life). Or how we reach out to and perform the saving ordinances for our dead to claim all the souls who did not receive the gospel in this life. And of course, central to this whole plan is the idea of relationships and family and learning to love others with the deep love of God. Because that is our conception of heaven-- dwelling with our families in eternal love. Of course, the Givens can say it so much more eloquently than I can, so here are just a few of my favorite quotes:

"The ancient philosopher Plato... thought life was most likely a choice-- even the circumstances of our birth and lot in life. He described a scenario in which spirits were allowed to select their lives from a range of situations and environments. Intuitively, most would choose the easy and attractive path through mortality, but Plato indicates that-- contrary to expectations-- the comfortable, effortless life was, in all likelihood, not the life most wisely chosen. ... Plato's reflections should give us pause and invite both humility and hope. Humility, because if we chose our lot in life, there is every reason to suspect merit, and not disfavor, is behind disadvantaged birth."

"God is not exempt from emotional pain. Exempt? On the contrary, God's pain is as infinite as His love. He weeps because He feels compassion."

"The human capacity to suffer pain at the distress of a loved one is an imperfect shadow of the unfathomable grief a perfect being feels when His creations put themselves beyond His healing embrace."

"Relationships are the core of our existence because they are the core of God's, and we are in His image. God's nature and life are the simple extension of that which is most elemental, and most worthwhile, about our life here on earth. However rapturous or imperfect, fulsome or shattered, our knowledge of love has been, we sense it is the very basis and purpose of our existence."

"Perhaps truly there are religious advantages to doubt. Perhaps only a doubter can appreciate the miracle of life without end. ... And yet, what we have presented is a version of life's meaning that makes sense to us. We find it reasonable, and resonant-- a song that runs deeper than memory."

Okay, there are so many more, but five quotes are enough for now. These probably aren't even the best quotes I could find, these are just the ones that popped out as I flipped back through. Basically the whole book could be highlighted.

This book was not perfect. I'm not sure the thoughts were as organized as they could have been (this is very much a free-flowing essay form), and there were some issues I wish they would have explained more that they only skimmed over (the concept of a Heavenly Mother for one, though that is a bit of a taboo topic). But, it has been a long time since I have read a book that has made me think so much. I was allowed to reexamine my own faith and relationship with Mormon doctrine, and it was certainly a growing experience for me. And a beautiful, inspiring experience. I am so grateful I got to read this book and think these thoughts that were higher than my own.

Five stars, and I highly recommend this book to anyone, Mormon or otherwise, who is interested in examining the large questions of life, God, and religion.

*Note: I've mentioned this before, but for clarification: I am a practicing, believing member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or a Mormon. If you have questions about my beliefs or would like further information, please feel free to contact me.

Friday, August 2, 2013

On Reading Multiple Books at a Time

Source
My general principle for pleasure reading, ever since I was a little girl, has been that I must only read one book at a time. This is partly a byproduct of this quirky personality trait of mine where I'm very good at focusing obsessively on one thing (multitasking is not my strong suit), and partly a mental motivation to finish the books I start, even after I've lost interest in them. Now that I write it out, it seems that both of those are quirky personality traits. I just hate leaving books unfinished (when they are truly terrible, I have to give myself a pep talk about how it's okay not to read the whole thing). This principle of mine helped me finish War and Peace in 8th grade, even though it took me several months to plow through it, and especially during those last few excruciating chapters when the story had wrapped up nicely but Tolstoy went on philosophizing for ever. I was not old enough to appreciate anything beyond the fact that my favorite characters had finally gotten married, and I found those chapters extremely boring. I finished because I could not let myself move on to a new book until I did.

However, now that I have several formats for reading books, and now that I generally have a queue of books available on those different formats, I find my habits are changing. For instance, I've got several audiobooks on my ipod, a few e-books on my e-reader, and my good old stack of hard copies on my nightstand, and I find that just because these books are in different formats, I feel justified in having a book going in each format at any given time. I listen to my audiobook when I want to multitask, I read my e-books when I'm on the go and don't want to lug a bunch of real books with me (and let's be honest here, I read my e-books on the computer too, during those little moments after I've checked my email but don't actually want to work on something productive), and then I have my "real" book for my dedicated reading time (usually at night in bed).

But it's gotten worse. Now that I've given in to having more than one book going at a time, I don't just limit myself to one per format. Currently I'm in the middle of about five books, and it makes me feel guilty for being unfaithful to my long held principles. Also, I find myself neglecting the one less interesting book because I have so many other options, which leaves me fretting that I'll never finish that one less interesting book, which gives me little fits of anxiety.

Is this silly?

It's probably very silly. I probably need to not worry so much about finishing every book I start, especially when they are not important or very good and I could spend my time reading better things. So maybe this is actually a good development.

But also, sometimes it's good to plow through the hard things. To get all the way to the end of War and Peace just for the sheer accomplishment of that feat. And sometimes it's good for the soul just to finish what you start.

Ah, what the pleasure reading habits of a person say about their personality! I wonder if Freud ever analyzed this topic.