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A new project

Earlier this month, Econo Man and I went to Mexico. We visited some Mayan ruins, swam in the ocean, snorkeled, and ate things smothered in delicious mole sauce … but mostly, we read. On the beach. It was heaven.

And it reminded me how much I love reading, how I used to get lost in books and not hear my parents calling me to dinner (or, in some cases, reminding me that we’re supposed to leave for the airport RIGHT NOW), how I’d spend hours thinking about a compelling book even after I’d closed its covers.  I’ve missed that kind of intense, immersive reading-for-pleasure, and I wanted to be sure I kept it up when I got home.

So, naturally, I started a book blog.

It’s called “Shut Up, Heathcliff: & other literary opinions.”  It currently has four reviews up and I hope to post a new review up every week for the foreseeable future.  The reviews will range from mystery novels to epic fantasy to nineteenth-century classics and funny essay collections; I may also post about reading-related topics like e-readers and why we don’t have a better name for “literary fiction.”

I am going to keep my book somewhat separate from this blog (different pseudonym, different WordPress account) because I may end up sharing the new blog with friends and family who ask me for book suggestions.  (In fact, I’ll probably take down this post after a couple of weeks.)

I hope you’ll stop by and talk books with me!

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I recently borrowed Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, the zombie-apocalypse parody of Jane Austen’s classic novel, from my library’s Kindle books collection. I’m conflicted about whether I would recommend it to other readers.  At first it was fun to read about the Bennett sisters battling the undead, but after a while, the novelty wore off and I started to get annoyed with the way the zombie stuff was distracting from, well, Pride and Prejudice. The original novel is just too charming to be improved — yes, even by the addition of ninjas.

But not all of Jane Austen’s novels are gems on the level of P&P.  I think one of them in particular could seriously benefit from the addition of some undead antagonists.  For your consideration, I present the following Austen mash-up idea: The Vampires of Mansfield Park.

Let’s be honest.  The original Mansfield Park is a snooze.*  Heroine Fanny Price is a passive drip, especially next to her neighbor, the witty and assertive Mary Crawford.  Mary’s charming brother Henry Crawford is an appealing suitor for Fanny, yet Fanny inexplicably rejects him to continue pining over her boring cousin Edmund Bertram, who barely seems to know Fanny exists until the last 10 pages of the book.  The Crawford siblings are allegedly the villains of the piece but their only real crime** seems to be not being dull enough to suit the tedious Bertram/Price clan.

Now, think about how much awesomer the book would be if the Crawfords (and possibly some of the other characters) were vampires.

Suddenly, Fanny’s resistance to Henry’s advances becomes much more understandable.  Edmund’s near-total indifference to Fanny — a major obstacle to caring about the original book’s key romance — could be explained by Mary putting him under thrall.  Fanny’s disagreeable Aunt Norris would be even more odious with supernatural abilities.  Also, the long sequence in the book where Fanny agonizes over finding the right chain for her cross pendant wouldn’t seem so insipid if she were going to a ball filled with vampires.

What do you think?  Do you like MP the way it is, or do you agree that a few bloodsucking undead would really improve the story?+

Also, Heathcliff’s behavior in Wuthering Heights would make a lot more sense if he were a werewolf.  Just saying.

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*  I am not alone in thinking this, I’m sure.  In college, a wonderful scholar from Oxford gave a guest lecture in my English class.  She was delighted to learn we were reading an Austen novel, but her enthusiasm dissolved when she learned we’d been assigned Mansfield Park. “… oh,” she said, visibly deflating.

** OK, yes, Henry sleeps with the married Maria Bertram.  Fair enough.  But I’ve always felt that Mary’s supposed villainy was only tacked on at the end to explain why Edmund would ever choose Fanny over Mary.

+  Apparently there’s already a Mansfield Park and Mummies, which is sadly not available from my library.  I may have to spring the $5 for the Kindle version.

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Anticipation

I come from one of those aggressively practical families that isn’t big on the “surprise” element of gift-giving.  We want our loved ones to just put stuff on a list and let us choose something cool from it so we know we’re getting them something they want and will use.*  As it turns out, my in-laws are very much on board with this philosophy of gift-giving as well, which means that I already know what I’ll be getting for Christmas.

A Kindle.  Specifically, the ad-free basic Kindle 4.

 And ever since I decided on the exact type of Kindle I want (after extensive testing at Staples, where they have display Kindles and Nooks), I have encountered situations where I really wish I already had my Kindle.  Sick in bed and out of reading material?  Oh, I wish I already had a Kindle so I could just download a new book!  Taking a long-ish public transit journey to a lecture?  Man, I wish I could slip a tiny 6-ounce Kindle into my bag and read on the bus.  Reading the new George RR Martin in hardback?  If I had my Kindle, I could have gotten the e-version and then I could take Dance with Dragons on the airplane!

Needless to say, I’m super-excited for Christmas.  In the meantime, I’m amusing myself by looking at awesome Kindle cases on Etsy.**  (The Amazon “official” Kindle cases strike me as a bit overpriced.  Plus, I’m a sucker for a colorful fabric.)  I think I want a Kindle sleeve — I want to take the Kindle out of its case when I read — but there are also some cute folding-cover cases that are awfully tempting as well.

I know a lot of you guys have eReaders.  Any tips for an eReader novice like me?  What kind of case do you use?

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*  One Christmas, my mom told me that she really wanted a paper shredder for her home office.  The Staples checkout guy looked at me like I was the worst gift-giver imaginable when I asked for a gift receipt.  But darn it, she still uses that shredder!

**  I haven’t been doing much Etsy shopping lately, largely because I have a hard time handling the number of options.  A search for “Kindle case” returns over 8,000 results!  If I don’t see something I love on the first page of results, I usually click through 2-3 more pages before getting overwhelmed and giving up.  Has anyone figured out a good way to manage results overload on Etsy?

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I’m bringing back my silly Top 5 lists for an utterly selfish reason: I need book recommendations!  My nightstand is looking a little bare at the moment.

Now, there’s absolutely no way I could ever decide on a list of five favorite books.  So instead, I’m just going to share five books I think are really good.  My taste in literature (as you’ll see) runs to the clever, the mysterious, and the creepy; I love strong heroines, beautiful prose, and believable emotions.

(more…)

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Last week on Twitter, a bunch of us got to talking about our favorite childhood books.*  Several of the books mentioned, like The Ordinary Princess or Dealing with Dragons, had fantasy settings and unusual, clever princesses.

If you’re looking for the adult version of those delightful princess books, may I humbly recommend the works of sci-fi/fantasy author Lois McMaster Bujold?

My husband introduced me to Bujold about a year ago, and I can’t believe I never knew about her books before then.  The woman has four Hugos and two Nebulas, for pete’s sake.  Her books are so good that I almost feel embarrassed writing about them because every time I try, I’m reduced to a near-incoherent stream of superlatives.

So instead of selling you on her general merits as a writer, I’ll just tell you a bit about my favorite Bujold novel so far: Paladin of Souls.

Image from BN.com

The middle-aged Dowager Royina Ista has spent her life being ignored and underestimated, valued only for her beauty and her womb.**  A series of cruel betrayals placed her under a curse of madness that stole nearly two decades of her life; now recovered, and subject to a never-ending stream of “you shouldn’t” and “you mustn’t” from her well-meaning attendants, she wonders what she will do with herself.  Desperate to get away from her usual routine, she embarks on a sacred pilgrimage that doesn’t quite go according to plan.  I won’t spoil what happens, but I will say that through it all, Ista is brave, sad, honest, cranky, no-nonsense, and utterly heroic.  She’s an almost painfully sympathetic and compelling protagonist, and she’s unlike any other heroine in any of the fantasy novels I’ve read.

So if you were a fan of Amy the Ordinary Princess or Cimorene the spell-casting librarian-princess, go read Paladin of Souls.  You should also read its prequel The Curse of Chalion, which has been keeping me up far too late at night this past week.  And then join me in reading everything Lois McMaster Bujold has ever written.

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* OK, I admit it. Twitter is fun. I’m a convert.

** Royina = Queen in the Bujold fantasy world.

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Snow Crash, by Neal Stephenson

I have a confession.  This is my first Neal Stephenson book.

I’ve checked out Cryptonomicon and Quicksilver from the library multiple times, but unfailingly, I suddenly become very busy, and before I know it my check-out period is half over and the massive length of the book intimidates me out of starting.*  But when I saw this book on that 3-for-2 table at the Harvard Co-Op, and remembered how Econo Man had raved about it, I knew I had to give it a try.

And it’s great.  Insane, and chaotic, and overstuffed, yes, but also great.

Snow Crash is set in a not-too-distant future America, where (as the characters are fond of reminding us) there are no laws, only corporations and franchises.  We first meet our protagonist — whose name is Hiro Protagonist (hee hee!) — as he races to deliver a pizza within the all-important 30-minute window for the Mafia-owned CosaNostra Pizza Company.  But Hiro is not just a pizza delivery driver.  He’s also a freelance hacker who, along with his friends Da5id and Juanita, is one of the original creators of the Metaverse, the virtual reality universe.**

At the beginning of the book, Hiro learns that a program called “Snow Crash” is being passed around the Metaverse.  At first it seems to be a computer virus, but he soon learns that Snow Crash is also a drug sold out in reality — and that encounters with Snow Crash, either in the Metaverse or the real world, have dire consequences for hackers.  He teams up with a fifteen-year-old Kourier called Y.T. (short for “Yours Truly”) to gather information.

Hiro himself is a bit of a blank slate — especially in the later stages of the book, he largely serves as an exposition device, asking the right questions to the right people for the readers’ benefit.  But Y.T., whose job as a Kourier involves a lot of high-tech skateboarding and harpooning passing motorists to get where she’s going, is one of the more believable teenage girls I’ve encountered in science fiction.  She’s smart, she has an attitude problem, she hides things from her mother, and she’s completely fearless in that way you can only be when you’re fifteen, but she’s also more vulnerable than she realizes, and not nearly as worldly as she thinks she is.

Stephenson’s tale takes us to franchised jails, to a Federal “burbclave” where visitors must spend 30 minutes reading a 10-page contract before entering, to the Metaverse’s all-knowing library, and to “The Raft,” a mysterious structure floating off the coast of California that’s strung together out of boats and teeming with refugees.  It’s an absolutely fascinating read (although I wish Stephenson had cut down significantly on his expositions of Sumerian mythology … no, I’m not kidding, that’s really part of the book), and has inspired me to tackle Cryptonomicon again.  Wish me luck!

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*  Renewing never seems to be a possibility.  There’s always someone else with a hold on the book, eagerly waiting for their turn.

** To those of us in 2010 familiar with The Sims and Second Life and all the weirdness of internet social life, the Metaverse may seem like old hat, but Stephenson wrote this book in the late 1980s, and it was published in 1992.  I believe the term I’m looking for is “eerily prescient.”

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A Death in Vienna, by Frank Tallis

The death of Charlotte Lowenstein in turn-of-the-century Vienna has Detective Oskar Reinhardt perplexed.  The beautiful medium had no shortage of admirers or enemies, but the circumstances surrounding the murder are baffling, and have the Viennese authorities whispering about supernatural powers at work.  Reinhardt decides to seek help from an unusual source: his good friend Dr. Max Liebermann, a psychoanalyst and disciple of the infamous Dr. Sigmund Freud.

I found A Death in Vienna utterly absorbing.  As I read, I found myself oddly … well, jealous.  I wish I could write a book like this.  Tallis has a powerful ability to make his historical period come to life.  The descriptions of the Viennese streets, the cafes, the food the characters eat, the intellectual and political movements that pulse through this metropolis, are all so vivid.  And Tallis absolutely nails the depiction of the hospital where Liebermann works — I might even assign chapters from this book to undergraduates in order to illustrate the turn-of-the-century conflicts over medical and psychological treatments for hysteria.  Liebermann sometimes comes across as just a little too modern, a little too correct about everything, but both Oskar and Max are well-rounded, compelling characters, and their friendship is warm and genuine.

I don’t want to say too much about the mystery of Charlotte Lowenstein’s death, but the solution is both elegant and ingenious, and the path towards finding that solution is very well-plotted.  Highly recommended for fans of historical mysteries.

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