Posts Categorized: Books

Trimming the ol’ TBR list

March 7, 2016 Books 0

This weekend was moderately eventful for us.

We went to a shell auction put on by a local conchology club, which was… well, actually kinda fun, even though I’m not a sheller myself. (My husband is the big mollusk fan in this family. I’m trying to convince him to let me post some of the lovely shell photos he’s taken here on the blog.) We also did a bunch of housekeeping/gardening stuff, and I spent several hours trying to sort out our taxes.

I also spent a few hours sorting out my Goodreads shelves. I love Goodreads for organization and tracking purposes, but I think I’ve been abusing it a little bit lately. When I find a book that seems even vaguely interesting, I stick it on my virtual “to-read” shelf… and about half the time, I completely forget about it after that. The whole thing is getting out of hand, so this past weekend I sat down and did something about it!

Starting TBR count: 1140

Actually, before even getting to the to-read shelf, I spent a little time reorganizing all of my shelves. For example, I consolidated some country-specific shelf tags into regional tags. I changed the names of some shelf tags, too, like changing “religious” to “religion and spirituality” (just for clarification).

Then I went through the shelves with the most books on them and started weeding.

I started with some of the more highly populated shelves, like “biography” or “classics” with the intention of simultaneously cleaning them up and cleaning them out. For example, I had quite a few books shelved as biographies when in reality they were autobiographies or memoirs/journals, which I have separate shelves for. I also just had a lot of biographies that I’m not super gung-ho about reading at this point (if I ever was), so out they went.

Ending TBR count: 1040

Wow, 100 books knocked off of that stack! I didn’t intend for it to be exactly 100 books, but I’m illogically pleased that it turned out that way.

Yeah, I can stand to lose WAY more than just 100 books from my TBR. For one thing, it includes a ton of YA books that I felt obligated to read when I was a teen librarian… and since that’s no longer my job, keeping up with whatever is hot off the press or winning awards in that arena isn’t something I’m worried about (but I am still interested as a casual YA reader). But when I started going through that YA to-read list, I got super overwhelmed and kinda shut down. So this is something that I still need to tackle!

What about you — do you have to clean up your TBR list every once in a while? How do you keep track of what you want to read, and how do you keep it up to date?


Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

March 6, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Cline_ReadyPlayerOne

★★★★

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline | November 2011 | Broadway Books | Paperback $16

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win — and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

I didn’t actually intend to review this particular book here on the blog — about 1/3 to 1/2 of the books I read will just get a few stars and maybe a quick paragraph or two on Goodreads, especially backlist stuff that I’m not reading for a particular challenge/event.

But I’ve been in a little bit of a reading slump lately. Not that I’m not reading, because I am, but I’ve been taking it pretty slow, plus I just don’t have much to say about what I’m reading. So maybe it’s more like a reviewing slump. So when I felt like blathering on just a little bit about Ready Player One, I figured I’d better seize that feeling and run with it!

– – –

My husband received this book a few months ago in his Loot Crate, a monthly subscription box that delivers themed “loot” for geeks — he’s gotten all kinds of things, from a Fallout Vault Boy bobblehead to a World of Warcraft hearthstone stress ball thing. Now our dog gets a monthly box (Loot Pets), too, and they get matching t-shirts. It’s adorable.

Anyhow, mi esposo really enjoyed Ready Player One, and even though our taste in books doesn’t always match up he was pretty sure that I’d like it, too.

Plus, get this: Spielberg is working on a movie based on this book, due out in 2018!

– – –

But… I almost DNF’d this book before I even got through the first couple chapters. It starts off like just another YA dystopia, all doom and gloom and “energy crisis” this and “giant evil tech corporations” that. Which, y’know, I get it. The human species is slowly suiciding and taking this little planet with it, yes, OK, but after a while the dystopia fatigue starts to set in. And the beginning of Ready Player One seemed to me like just another teenager bemoaning the predictably broken state of the world… which I was frankly just not in the mood to pay attention to.

Anyway, I’m glad I continued on with it. Once the plot picks up, the pacing and tension and character development help keep it moving and make the book pretty hard to put down. There are a lot (A LOT) of fun references to 1980’s pop culture — not just video/arcade games, like you’d expect with a title like Ready Player One, but also tabletop games, movies and TV, music (lots and lots and lots of music), and technology.

– – –

My only real complaint is the unnecessary amount of exposition, especially at the beginning of the story. And listen, I’m normally one of those readers who loves exposition. I can’t resist a carefully built, detailed world, and I don’t do well with stories are so plot-centric that they have barely a sketch of a setting/history. So, you know the exposition must be pretty excessive if even Louise is getting tired of it. The first quarter or so of the book is like 90% infodumping!

I’m also not sure how to categorize this book for my review index. I think it is being marketed mainly as an adult SFF because the whole focus on 1980’s pop culture probably appeals mainly to grown-ups who lived through that time period. But the age of the characters, some of the experiences they go through, and the kind of “stick it to The Man” mentality are all very YA-ish. Anyway, Ready Player One did get an Alex Award for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults” from the American Library Association’s YALSA group, so I guess it really does have some serious crossover appeal.


Links:

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.


Publication information: Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. Print.
Source: Loot Crate
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Women in Science History Challenge

March 4, 2016 Books 0

WomenScienceHistoryChallenge2016

I’ve decided to follow the lead of Katie over at Doing Dewey and join up with the Women in Science History Challenge!

The goal is to, well, read about women in science history of course! This is a topic close to my own heart. Hit that banner up there for a link to the sign-up page.

I’ve been meaning to read Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, her 1971 book about her experiences observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. It’s on my Classics Club list, plus it counts towards this year’s Women’s Classic Literature Event. Perhaps I’ll pick up a copy at the library, or maybe I’ll just buy myself an early birthday present….

I encourage anyone with an interest in science or women’s history to join up, too. The more, the merrier.


A Closer Look @ My Classics Club Reading List

February 29, 2016 Books 0

Two years ago, I joined the Classics Club and resolved to read 50 “classic” books over the next 5 years.

Here’s that book list.

Lately, I’ve been pretty interested in analyzing my own reading choices. Partly just out of curiosity, partly out of some vague feeling that I might need to read more diversely or something. Anyway, I took a look at the 50 books on my Classics Club list and this is what came up!

Categories & Genre

When I made the list, I separated the books into 5 categories (basically broad genre labels).
cc1_categories

As you can see, my CC list is 50% general fiction (20th century and pre-20th century), with the bulk of the rest being made up of speculative fiction (SFF, a.k.a. science fiction/fantasy).

I broke this down a little more into common genre labels.

cc2_genre

Here we can see the breakdown of “fiction” a little better — there’s still a lot of what I think of as general fiction, but also some historical fiction, adventure, etc.

Of course, there are always going to be books that fit more than one genre label. For example, I didn’t distinguish between general fiction and speculative fiction under the “Teen” label. (I tried to get more specific originally, but the chart got out of hand.)

Number of pages
cc3_pages

Most of the books on my list are at or under 600 pages. There are just a few doorstoppers. The longest was The Count of Monte Cristo; the shortest was The Yellow Wallpaper.

Original language
cc4_language

Wow, this is where things start to get just a little embarrassing. Nearly all the books I chose for this list were originally English language, with just a smattering of 2 other European languages.

Author’s ethnicity
cc5_ethnicity

Please note that in this case only, “American” = U.S. and Canada — I was going for a continental perspective, rather than by country.

I guess it is no surprise, given the language breakdown, that many of the authors on my list are white Europeans and Americans. Most of the Europeans are Brits, by the way. You can also see that I wasn’t quite sure how to categorize the Jewish authors. Some of the Jewish people I’ve known would consider that their primary culture/ethnicity, but some wouldn’t.

In any case, it’s pretty clear from this graph and the previous one that I didn’t give much thought to the diversity of the authors on my CC list when I was making it. If I choose to do another CC list after this one, I’ll definitely want to give this matter some more thought. I’ll be missing out on so much important literature from around the world if I just stick to the “Western” canon.

Author’s gender
cc6_gender

About 1/3 of the authors on this list are women. It isn’t even close to equal representation, but it isn’t as bad as I feared it would be.

Publication year
cc7_pubyear

It’s easy to see from the “stacks” above that most of my CC books came out of the mid-to-latter part of the 20th century, with quite a few from the 19th. For some reason I’m surprised that I didn’t have anything pre-1800 on this list. Again, this is definitely something I’ll want to address if I choose to do a second list after finishing this one.

Popularity with other Classics Club members
cc8_otherreviews

Keep in mind that these numbers are based on when I originally looked at the CC review list (here) while compiling this post in January 2016. Perhaps by the time I get around to finishing my list, the numbers will have changed.

In any case, it looks like a great many of the titles I chose are unique. This is probably because I chose to focus partly on nonfiction and SFF classics, which most other CCers don’t seem interested in.

I did find it interesting that 10 of these titles have 10 or more other reviewers, though. They must be popular for a good reason!

– – –

If you are a fellow Classics Clubber, have you done any number-crunching like this, or otherwise really given some thought to the diversity of your list? I’m interested in whether any of these results are typical of Classics Club lists in general.

 


Backlist Love | A Particulary Useful Cookbook

February 28, 2016 Backlist Love, Books 0

Backlist Love is an informal series on “older” books that I hope you’ll find interesting. These aren’t so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.

BLL_Cookbook

Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today (General Mills, 2005; originally published 1969)

Betty Crocker Cookbook

From foolproof, dependable recipes to reliable how-to advice, the Betty Crocker Cookbook has everything you need for the way you cook today. Whether you’re a new or experienced cook, the Betty Crocker Cookbook is the book for you.

Why I liked it

This cookbook, out of all the ones I’ve read, is probably the one I’ve actually used the most often. It just has a lot of basic, solid dishes that involve easy-to-find and cheap ingredients. Plus it includes lots of “helper” info, like where on an animal various cuts of meat come from, or step-by-step photos for a few cutting methods.

My mother gave me this cookbook ages ago… I’m pretty sure it was a gift for my high school graduation, and I think her own mother did the same for her, so this cookbook is something of a family tradition. Even though this cookbook is over 10 years old I still use it on a regular basis.

Who I’d recommend it to

This is a great resource for beginning cooks who are ready to try out a variety of recipes. It’s especially helpful for people who enjoy “American” food like casseroles and that sort of thing — although there is a pretty good choice of flavors/variations to choose from to please just about any palate.

Links

backlistlove_redux

Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

February 27, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Wilson_ConsidertheFork

★ ★ ★

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson | January 2012 | Basic Books | Hardcover $26.99

Since prehistory, humans have braved sharp knives, fire, and grindstones to transform raw ingredients into something delicious—or at least edible. Tools shape what we eat, but they have also transformed how we consume, and how we think about, our food. Technology in the kitchen does not just mean the Pacojets and sous-vide of the modernist kitchen. It can also mean the humbler tools of everyday cooking and eating: a wooden spoon and a skillet, chopsticks and forks.

In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson provides a wonderful and witty tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of everyday objects we often take for granted. Blending history, science, and anthropology, Wilson reveals how our culinary tools and tricks came to be, and how their influence has shaped modern food culture.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever give much thought to the basic technologies that facilitate (or complicate) my cooking and dining experiences. I mean, whoever actually does consider the fork? Bee Wilson, apparently.

This book includes some fascinating insights, like the details of the mid-century kitchens on display at the exhibition where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate discussions over the merits of communism vs. capitalism in the context of model American homes. And there was quite a lot of detail included about each featured technology, from the long evolution of the “simple” table knife to the quite literally life-saving advent of refrigeration.

– – –

So, yes, the information presented in this book is interesting and the writing certainly isn’t bad, but something about the flow of it all didn’t click for me. The book felt, at times, more like a collection of essays than a comprehensive history of food tech, and at other times it seemed to ramble and drift from whatever point or thesis the author was trying to get at. But, again, I think that’s more of a stylistic preference issue than a quality issue.

I do wish there had been more in the way of footnotes or endnotes. I suppose, given the extensive bibliography tacked on at the end of the book and the author’s professional reputation, that it must have been very well-researched. I guess I just prefer the more academic way of citing things when it comes to nonfiction like this.

– – –

The only thing that really rubbed me the wrong way was the low-level but pervasive snark towards whatever cooking techniques/attitudes the author isn’t fond of. I don’t agree with her idea that cooking isn’t really (or shouldn’t be) a science — because ignoring all the science (accidental or otherwise) that goes into producing a meal is willfully, well, ignorant.

I also really don’t care how silly she thinks the American way of using cups and other volume measures rather than metric weight is — that’s how we do it and it’s a ridiculous thing to make an issue of. Americans are happy to put our flour in measuring cups, pour gravy over our biscuits, and dump your stupid tea straight into the harbor.

– – –

I’m afraid that’s all I have to say about Consider the Fork. My brain is feeling a bit fuzzy lately (blame it on allergies, terrible sleep habits, measuring cups, or whatever) and it’s all I could do to concentrate on this book long enough to make it through a chapter or so at a time. But I’m glad I read it and get to count it towards my Foodies Read challenge this year.


Links:

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.


Publication information: Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.
Source: Purchased from public library used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Reevaluating My Reading: Battle of the Sexes

February 20, 2016 Books 0

A little while ago I did some quick number-crunching to figure out where the authors of the books I’ve read over the past 5 years have come from.

Here’s my intro from that post:

I’ve been seeing more and more buzz about diversity in the book world lately, and I got curious:

How diverse are my reading habits?

There are lots of ways to measure this. Author or character gender, LGBT orientation, ethnicity or culture, disability or mental illness, and on and on and on. Today, though, I just want to focus on gender.

Just a quick note: Yes, I am aware that there is a difference between gender and biological sex. Read the section below if you want more info about my methods. Otherwise, just trust that I did my best to make sure each author was represented as accurately as possible.

– – –

This section is all blahblahblah about how I gathered the stats, so skip to the bottom if you just want to see some pretty pie charts mkay?

First, I decided to stick with author gender/sex instead of that of the characters because I frankly didn’t want to struggle with the problems of nonfiction, multiple MCs/POVs, or other weirdness.

As with my last stats-gathering post, I had to figure out what to do about series, because if I read 10 books in a series by one author in a year that could really skew the results! So like last time, I decided that each author would only count once per series within one year. If I continued reading the series the next year, or if I read another non-series book by the same author, I could count them again.

Now let’s talk about gender and sex. For the purposes of this post, I assumed that whatever gender the author presents as is what they actually identify as. If for some reason gender wasn’t obvious but they claimed a particular biological sex, I decided to go with that (though I ended up not needing to rely on this). Genderqueer and intersex (in other words, non-binary) authors were counted separately (… except it turns out that none of the books I read had genderqueer or intersex authors), though I decided to count any transgender people as whichever gender/sex they present as.

– – –

So, here’s the breakdown of the authors of books I’ve read over the past 5 years (2011-2015):

authorgender1

Interesting! I suspected I may have read more books by women than men, for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve simply been drawn to them and their work, especially when it comes to the YA genre. Second, there seems to be a higher proportion (relatively) of female to male authors writing on many of the subjects I like to read about in the nonfiction category.

It’s interesting to compare this unconscious habit to my planned reading for the Classics Club, which has almost the exact opposite percentage (2/3 men, 1/3 women).

Do you know what your ratio of male to female to nonbinary, etc. authors is? Do you make a special effort to read authors of one gender or sex in preference over another?


Backlist Love | Two Books About Genetics

February 19, 2016 Backlist Love, Books 0

Backlist Love is an informal series on “older” books that I hope you’ll find interesting. These aren’t so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.

BLL_Genetics

The Double Helix: A Personal Account of the Discovery of the Structure of DNA by James D. Watson (Touchstone Books, 2011; c. 1968)

The Seven Daughters of Eve: The Science That Reveals Our Genetic Ancestry by Bryan Sykes (W.W. Norton & Co., 2001)


The Double Helix

The classic personal account of Watson and Crick’s groundbreaking discovery of the structure of DNA, now with an introduction by Sylvia Nasar, author of A Beautiful Mind.

By identifying the structure of DNA, the molecule of life, Francis Crick and James Watson revolutionized biochemistry and won themselves a Nobel Prize. At the time, Watson was only twenty-four, a young scientist hungry to make his mark. His uncompromisingly honest account of the heady days of their thrilling sprint against other world-class researchers to solve one of science’s greatest mysteries gives a dazzlingly clear picture of a world of brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions, and bitter rivalries.

The Seven Daughters of Eve

One of the most dramatic stories of genetic discovery since James D. Watson’s The Double Helix — a work whose scientific and cultural reverberations will be discussed for years to come. In 1994 Professor Bryan Sykes, a leading world authority on DNA and human evolution, was called in to examine the frozen remains of a man trapped in glacial ice in northern Italy. News of both the Ice Man’s discovery and his age, which was put at over five thousand years, fascinated scientists and newspapers throughout the world. But what made Sykes’s story particularly revelatory was his successful identification of a genetic descendant of the Ice Man, a woman living in Great Britain today. How was Sykes able to locate a living relative of a man who died thousands of years ago?

In The Seven Daughters of Eve, he gives us a firsthand account of his research into a remarkable gene, which passes undiluted from generation to generation through the maternal line. After plotting thousands of DNA sequences from all over the world, Sykes found that they clustered around a handful of distinct groups. Among Europeans and North American Caucasians, there are, in fact, only seven. This conclusion was staggering: almost everyone of native European descent, wherever they may live throughout the world, can trace their ancestry back to one of seven women, the Seven Daughters of Eve.

Why I liked them

Seven Daughters of Eve is a combo of genetic science for the lay person + imaginative speculation about the lives of humanity’s shared ancestors. I know the science in this book is about a decade and a half old at this point, but it’s a great intro to mitochondrial DNA and how it can be used to help us make educated guesses about our family trees.

To be honest, my interest in The Double Helix was purely historical. I read Seven Daughters of Eve first and just wanted to know a little more about how DNA became a “thing” originally. Despite Watson’s complete dismissal of Rosalind Franklin’s work, his voice is engaging and his memories of this momentous discovery are just fascinating.

Who I’d recommend them to

The Double Helix is, I think, a book best appreciated by people who already have at least a basic background in biological sciences. And you have to realize that it’s basically the recollections of a single person — a brilliant person, but a fallible one.

Seven Daughters of Eve has a broader appeal. Anyone interested in human evolution should definitely pick this up, but it will also be a great read for anthropologists and even genealogists who are interested in the impact of DNA on their family history research.

Links

The Double Helix

The Seven Daughters of Eve

backlistlove_redux

Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind

February 13, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind Book Cover


(… yes, that is one star)

Wizard’s First Rule by Terry Goodkind | January 1994 | Tor | Mass Market Paperback $7.99

In the aftermath of the brutal murder of his father, a mysterious woman, Kahlan Amnell, appears in Richard Cypher’s forest sanctuary seeking help … and more. His world, his very beliefs, are shattered when ancient debts come due with thundering violence.

In their darkest hour, hunted relentlessly, tormented by treachery and loss, Kahlan calls upon Richard to reach beyond his sword — to invoke within himself something more noble. Neither knows that the rules of battle have just changed … or that their time has run out.

I was — at first — pleasantly surprised by Wizard’s First Rule. I put it on my Classics Club list because (a) it consistently ends up on lists of best fantasy books/series and (b) it’s frequently compared to the Wheel of Time series, which I love. This book is one of the most recently published titles on my CC list, too (my rule being only that the books have to be at least 20 years old).

I was kind of skeptical about this one going in because I’d read several critical reviews calling it “derivative” or poking fun at the author. (I should have listened to their warnings….) Plus, I had been expecting to like the last SF book I read for CC, Foundation by Asimov, but ended up being rather disappointed. So I didn’t want to let high hopes get the better of me this time.

But even though the book clearly wasn’t perfect, it was appealing to me. The overall plot and setting are not particularly unique. Nice village boy discovers he’s The One who can save humanity, with the help of a wise old wizard and a pretty, secretly powerful lady friend? It’s been done… but I’m also a huge sucker for that type of story. And Goodkind’s political philosophy (Objectivism à la Ayn Rand) shines through in some places. It wasn’t particularly subtle and it’s not my favorite flavor of philosophy, but this issue in particular wasn’t so terribly distracting that it ruined the story for me.

My feelings about the whole thing changed in the last 1/3 of the book, where things took an abrupt turn for the worse.

Spoilers from here down.

– – –

I do not enjoy reading about rape. I understand that sometimes it is something that is going to happen in a brutal world like the one Wizard’s First Rule is set in. I understand that sometimes it can be an important part of the story, just like murder and war and other evils can be. But at some point (though I can’t really specify where), it can cross over a line between plot device and plain old gratuitous violence. It crossed that line in this book.

One of the main characters is repeatedly tortured and raped, although it is never actually called rape — he is his rapist’s “mate” (ew). Worse, his rapist explains that the reason she tortures and rapes him is because she was tortured and raped as a girl, and it’s somehow her job to do the same thing to him. He develops Stockholm syndrome and begins to feel sorry for her, as the reader is presumably meant to do as well. Was this meant to be some kind of BDSM fantasy fulfillment? If so, it missed the mark by a mile.

I felt sick while reading this. All the fun of the earlier chapters was gone. I almost quit reading at this point. The only reason I kept going is because I had enjoyed the first part of the book so much and thought there might be some redeeming qualities in the conclusion of it.

The last few chapters were boring at best, almost offensively so. The magic system that had seemed interesting and well-organized devolved into random new, just-in-time powers and spells. The derivative-yet-fun-anyway storyline sank into predictable “Power the Dark Lord knows not” and “Luke, I am your father” clichés.

I am so, so disappointed by this book. That’s why I’m rating it 1 star, a rating I have so far used only for books I flat-out hate or books that are just too stupid to exist (and a rating I have never yet used on this blog before now because why bother writing about stupid bullshit, but this is different because it’s for a reading challenge), because after finishing it I felt like the whole thing had been a tragic waste of time. 

– – –

I know this book has an average of 4+ stars on Goodreads. If you’re one of those who’s read it and liked it: What about it was appealing to you? What do you think I’m missing?


Links:

Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge. (Bought before the new year.)


Publication information: Goodkind, Terry. Wizard’s First Rule. New York: Tor, 1994. Print.
Source: Amazon.com
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.


Middlemarch – Book I
by George Eliot

February 12, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0

Book I – Miss Brooke
Middlemarch by George Eliot Book Cover

I’ve decided to tackle Middlemarch by George Eliot as part of the Classics Club’s year-long Women’s Classic Literature Event. I’m reading it one book at a time because I have previously had some difficulty with Victorian social/realistic fiction and I wanted to give this book the fair attention I’ve been told it deserves.

Book 1 took me about a month to read. I enjoyed reading it while I was sitting down with the book in my hands, but I also found myself easily distracted by other books and whatever else was going on in the house.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Book 1: Miss Brooke (and Prelude)

The novel starts off with a discussion of Saint Theresa (Teresa) of Ávila, a passionate religious scholar/reformer in the 16th century. The narrator goes on to compare this book’s titular character, Dorothea Brooke, with Saint Theresa. Dorothea takes her faith seriously and would like to make a real study of it, beyond what she’s expected to do as a well brought-up young woman; the difference between her and the saint is that Dorothea doesn’t feel she has the freedom to pursue her religious studies freely or passionately.

A more extreme way of putting it is that Dorothea might have been perfectly happy offering herself up as a martyr or otherwise suffering in hopes of attaining holiness, if only she had lived in Catholic Spain about 3 centuries previous. As it is, she does as much as she can to deprive herself of pleasure because of this religious fervor, which makes her a particularly odd character among her peers. She dresses plainly and avoids frivolity of any kind, even going so far as to declare that she’ll give up riding her horse simply because she enjoys it too much!

St. Teresa by Gerard

St. Teresa of Ávila
François Gérard

– – –

This is all in contrast to her younger sister, Celia, who is not generally considered as intelligent (or beautiful) as Dorothea, but who does at least seem seem to desire the expected feminine life of marriage and motherhood. There is a scene in which Celia convinces Dorothea to let her wear their mother’s jewelry (the girls being orphaned and living with their uncle), where Dorothea acts very high-and-mighty about personal ornamentation but can’t resist taking just a few particularly nice pieces. Celia is hurt by Dorothea’s judgement of her vanity and is compelled to point out her sister’s own hypocrisy.

They later make up after this fight, but this pattern of their relationship continues throughout the book: Dorothea makes an effort to be pious and ends up insulting others in the process, which Celia notices and comments on sarcastically in a kind of self-defense. I don’t have a sister so I don’t know whether that kind of relationship is typical, but I did enjoy all the little nuances of their interactions/conversations. They clearly care about each other but also find each other rather incomprehensible in some ways.

Two Sisters by Chasseriau

Two Sisters
Théodore Chassériau
(representing Dorothea and Celia)

– – –

Sisterly stuff aside, I was particularly interested in Dorothea’s relationships with her two suitors, Sir James Chettam (a neighboring landowner who has been trying to court her for some time) and Edward Casaubon (a middle aged clergyman scholar). From what I’ve read — and I did end up following along with some previous online book club stuff to help me get through it — most people are of the opinion that Dorothea made an obviously terrible choice in marrying Casaubon. Any modern reader with a tiny bit of romance in her soul could be expected to see Chettam as the obvious choice: he even brought her a puppy at one point… be still, my heart!

But I have to say that I sympathize with Dorothea’s choice of Casaubon, even if it is obviously naïve from an outsider’s persepective. She sees him not as a lover or even as a provider/protector, like women were (are?) expected to see their husbands, but as a teacher, as a kind of socially acceptable conduit to greater knowledge that would usually be denied to her on account of her sex. She focuses so much on her future studies of Greek and Hebrew (motivated purely by her desire to help her husband with his big “Key to All Mythologies” project, surely) that she fails to consider her other needs — and as much as she would like to deny herself these things, she does need affection, small enjoyments, and a purpose of her own.

– – –

I have to say that the switch from Dorothea’s story to the lives of the other characters was a bit jarring for me. I’d assumed that since this book was titled “Miss Brooke” that it would all be about her. But nope!

We are also introduced to Dr. Lydgate, a newcomer in town; Rosamond Vincy, the local beauty who catches Dr. Lydgate’s eye (and who also happens to be the mayor’s daughter); Fred Vincy, Rosamond’s ne’er-do-well brother; their elderly uncle, Mr. Featherstone, from whom they hope to inherit despite lack of blood relation (their mother’s sister was one of his wives); and Mr. Featherstone’s caretaker/neice, Mary Garth, who has caught the romantic attentions of Fred Vincy.

Sophie by Winterhalter

Princess Sophie of Sweden
Franz Xaver Winterhalter
(representing Rosamond Vincy)

Parsing out this who’s-who of all the semi-related families took a bit of effort, not least because there are a handful of other characters that also make appearances in the chapters of this first book and I kept losing track of which person was doing what. Really, the cast of characters is quite large already and we’re only in the first book.

– – –

Mary Garth was perhaps the most charming of the characters introduced in the second half of this book. She’s practical and honest (sometimes disparagingly so) and has the kind of dry wit that reminded me of the titular character of Daria, that animated show on MTV in the late 1990’s. I couldn’t help but imagine her delivering all her lines in that same deadpan, almost depressive tone of voice.

Madame Leblanc by Ingres

Porträt der Madame Leblanc
Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
(representing Mary Garth)

Mary has even somehow managed to convince Fred to bring her gifts of books, despite her uncle insisting that he stop encouraging her reading habit. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing what becomes of her. But — despite her obvious affection for him — she’s already decided that she couldn’t marry Fred if he asked, though she doesn’t give a real reason for this decision (and he hasn’t asked anyway; the whole affair seems to be an invention of Rosemond’s imagination).

– – –

I have to say that the edition I’m reading — the Barnes & Noble Classics version — seems riddled with typos, which has been a bit distracting. I can’t comment on the quality of the endnotes/comments as I haven’t bothered to read them.

I’ve also been taking notes in the margins of this book, which is something I haven’t done since my undergrad days. I forgot how satisfying underlining and commenting on particular passages can be. One thing I didn’t expect was how humorous some of the narrator’s statements have been. Eliot has a sharp wit.

Have you read Middlemarch yet? What did you think of the goings-on in Book 1?

(No spoilers, if you please; even though this book is nearly 150 years old, I have somehow managed to avoid knowing very much about its plot so far.)