Monday, November 23, 2009

Technologies

My most recent read, Little Women was the first book I read on my fancy new Kindle. This magical book machine is my first plunge into reading books any way other than the old-fashioned way. I thought a review of the medium was called for.

Reading on Kindle - I have a second generation Kindle, and it is easy to read with it. The text is easy to see, the pages are easy to navigate and on the rare occasion that I am unfamiliar with a word it has a built in dictionary. I didn't miss the tactile feel of a book or dog-earing the pages, but that may have been the novelty. One interesting dynamic was missing my usual feeling of superiority when reading in public. Nothing makes me feel like a scholar like holding an 800-page tome next to someone flipping through People. Not that I don't read People, I just like to feel smart when I'm reading a big book.

Buying Literature with Kindle - I got Little Women for free. There is a rather large library of books that have been formatted for Kindle by volunteers and which are available for free. I've seen quite a few available for $0.99 as well. These don't have the fancy read-aloud feature and the format is a little squidgy sometimes, but for no money its nothing that can't be overcome. I've hesitated to spend more than $5 on Kindle books. I'm still getting over the whole concept of not having the book on the shelf. The actual technology is great though, I can browse on my Kindle (with free wireless access built in) and buy the book, which downloads in about a minute. Instant gratification feels good. Anything I buy automatically charges to the payment option I have set up on my Amazon account. Very convenient.

Kindle vs. Book - Other than my perceived drop in status, Kindle has some obvious advantages. I went on a trip and carried 4 books into the airport which took up less space than one paperback. I can add notes without feeling like I'm destroying literature. Kindle fits in my purse, but if I'm not in the mood for my current read, I can browse magazines or blogs while I'm in line at the bank. Options, baby. On the other hand, if I buy a great book on Kindle, I can't really lend it to a friend. The whole migration of literature between me and my co-author will fall apart.

Miscellany - I haven't found a way to buy a Kindle book for someone else on Amazon. What if I want to gift a book to someone? Or more likely, how do I put a book on my Christmas wishlist in Kindle format? Shopping for books is a little weird too - I'm used to judging books by their covers. No colors, no weight, just the blurb. It is hard to tell how long books are.

Final verdict - I think I'm going to grow to cherish my Kindle, but we're still getting to know one another. If I can get over the vanity of carrying around large books and buying shiny covers, it should all work out fine.

Little Women - Louisa May Alcott

Abby experiences nostalgia through literature. I don't remember what age I was when I read Little Women the first time, but the second reading gave me weird deja vu. I must have been pre-teen because the parts of the story that stuck with me then were parts that would barely register now.

Little Women is the story of the March sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy. The story follows the girls for about 13 years - opening with all the girls in their teens and closing with the girls as adults, married and with children.

The theme centers strongly around Christian values and especially the role of a woman in a good home. The story is set at the end of the Civil War and at the beginning the four March girls and their mother are running the household alone while their father contributes to the war effort. I think the book is forward-thinking in its way and in its time. The women are portrayed as strong, multi-dimensional, capable and diverse. Meg is mothering, Jo is the "boy" of the family, Beth the saintly homebody and Amy the ambitious, precocious artist. While Little Women certainly doesn't break down any walls with a feminist message, it does an excellent job of showing the depth, difficulties, and strength required of a woman in that traditional role. The women and men alike struggle with the mold they are expected to fit, and at times rebel and act against self-interest when they find that mold uncomfortable. The novel loses its revolutionary edge in the end where each character finds happiness in their own way in a very traditional life. Each girl reaching adulthood ends the book married to a respectable man and finds happiness and fulfillment in bearing children and being a good wife.

As an interesting point on growing up, I was very amused by the parts of the story that were the most familiar on the second read. I assume these were the bits that resonated the most strongly with younger me. In my days as a young reader, I was more into action, more sensationalist. At one point Amy falls through some ice on the river and nearly dies. This chapter I could have recited the plot at the opening. I think its been 15 years since I read this book, but I remembered exactly how this exciting scene played out. I also remembered the scene when Jo cuts off all of her hair and sells it, so I must have been vain in my youth. The book also deals with death, and reading the passages about the long illness of one character filled me again with dread and confusion.

What I did not see on my first read were the really obvious messages. The book was clearly written for the betterment of young women, and Mrs. March speaks to the faults and triumphs of her four girls as a lesson to the reader. Any girl could identify with one or more of the sisters and take that girl's lessons as her own. From a strictly stylistic standpoint, the character development is the opposite of subtle. After a break in time Alcott often describes the changes in character in detail, up front and relays the reactions of other characters in equally plain language. As a tool to teach young girls it is probably really effective, but for an adult reader it sort of took away the mystery when we're reunited with a character.

Anyway, I can recommend this book to readers young and old, its a good story and well-written. If I were handing it to my own daughter, I'd probably include a disclaimer that the book is a period piece. While I do believe that happiness is found in the love of one's friends and family, the book only acknowledges one type of family - man, wife, chilluns. Not exactly the message I'd want to send my daughter.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Vanished Smile - R.A. Scotti

Another fabulous woman author. Vanished Smile is the story of the shocking theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911. The portrait was eventually returned, undamaged two years later. The self-proclaimed thief brought it to Italy, ostensibly to return her to her homeland. The motivation for the theft is still somewhat of a mystery as the thief was generally regarded to be too stupid to pull it off and had no motive whatsoever.

The book is extremely readable, the characters are familiar and accessible and its hard not to let your imagination run wild. The story of the heist is somewhat of a Thomas Crowne affair, but the really interesting part is the motivation. After all, the Mona Lisa is the most recognizable painting in the world. Its value is essentially nothing, because it couldn't be sold on any recognized market. Scotti recounts a tale involving an expert forger, a charming con man and a few very stupid Americans.

Aside from profiling the various persons involved with the case-including the famous Inspector Clouseau, the guard on duty, the Louvre's head of security and the thief himself- Scotti writes a biography of Mona Lisa herself. From the contradicting theories about the model for the portrait to her journey to France, the various kings who loved her and neglected her, to the high-tech analysis she's received in the Information Age, the book treats the painting as a person with a long and fascinating history. She's a lover, that is for sure.

The robbery exposed huge holes in the Louvre's security, which appears to have been nonexistent. In addition to instigating a huge overhaul of the Louvre, the incident caused real tension in Europe at a time when tension was already high. The French assumed the robbery was the work of the Italians and the Italians blamed the French for the loss of a national treasure.
I recommend this book and intend to read more of her work in the future.

Sin in the Second City - Karen Abbott

Sin in the Second City: madams, ministers, playboys, and the battle for America's soul

Wordy title. This is another in my feminist experiment reading only books by women. The book is an accounting of the intersection of immigration, white slavery, politics, and the sex trades in Chicago between approximately 1895 and 1915. The book centers around the Everleigh sisters, two infamous madames with the most notorious brothel in the country, possibly in the world - The Everleigh Club. Other main characters include a zealous minister who for years held midnight services in front of the Club and the aldermen, mayors and prosecutors that served during the sisters' reign.

I found the book really interesting, the sisters are clearly modeled as heroines, early feminists defending sex workers. The Everleigh Club is pretty much the most luxurious brothel ever and fantastically profitable. Abbott clearly did an incredible amount of research, every detail is substantiated and conflicting accounts are often presented. There's also a surprising amount of dialog, taken from personal accounts, letters and news stories.

The Club operated during and after a population boom in Chicago, following the World's Fair. Most of the new residents were immigrants and young women in search of work were coming into the city alone. Stories of white slavery started a moral uprising in England and preachers in the States saw to it that the U.S. followed suit. Eventually, this led to the formation of the FBI, stronger laws against pimps and prostitutes and against kidnappers and white slavers. It also shines a light on the racism, classism and xenophobia of Americans at that time.

I think the most fascinating dynamic for me (other than the sisters' ostentatious and largely fictional life stories) was the virgin/whore perspective of reformers and lawmakers. A woman snatched from the train depot was an innocent daughter in need of protection until she was raped and forced into prostitution at which point the young woman was seen as a corrupter and temptress. These women, too ashamed to return to their families after being raped (or gang raped) were arrested and prosecuted with the same zeal as their kidnappers. Although sex workers today are not held with equal social standing as teachers or accountants or plumbers, we've clearly come a long way in the last hundred years. Not far enough, but far enough to (mostly) know the difference between a victim and a criminal.

All in all a great read for anyone interested in political corruption, vice, Chicago or stories of moral outrage. The style is narrative and the author does an excellent job showing her perspective without inserting herself into the story (I'm looking at you Ben Mezrich.)

Friday, November 13, 2009

Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby

- Miranda

I finished Juliet, Naked last night, and at the time I was really disappointed. Now that I've had some time to let the last chapter sink into my brain, it's not as bad as I had originally thought. It's no About A Boy, but it's a good read and the emotionally stunted main characters and music themes are signature Hornby.

The plot is a little convoluted, but essentially it's about three people who, through a series of ridiculous yet not totally unbelievable circumstances, realize they have sleepwalked through the last 15+ years of their lives. The main characters are: Tucker Crowe, a singer-songwriter from the early '80s with only one notable record to his name (Juliet) who hasn't been seen or heard from since halfway through the Juliet tour. Duncan is one of only a dozen or so people left in the world who not only has heard of Tucker Crowe, but actually considers him a musical genius. And Annie, Duncan's long suffering girlfriend. And by "long suffering" I mean that they've been dating for 15 years and have very little in common aside from hating the small seaside town in which they live.

One day Duncan recieves a copy of the first new Tucker Crowe album in 20+ years, a demo version of Juliet dubbed "Juliet, Naked." He listens to it and writes an embarassingly glowing review on his TC fansite basically saying that Naked is like the greatest thing ever and definitely better than the original Juliet. Annie listens to it (actually, she listens to it first, which pisses Duncan off royally) and writes her own review basically saying that the accoustic demos are nice and all, but the original Juliet is superior because the finished, polished product is always better than the rough draft. Tucker Crowe sends Annie an email thanking her for being the only reasonable person on the fansite (apparently he reads his own fansite. I totally would, too). Hijinks ensue.

One of my first complaints was the fact that Tucker's 6 year old son Jackson's dialog doesn't really read like an American 6yo speaking. I can't put my finger on which part is off, the American part or the 6yo part, but it's definitely not quite right. My other complaints are actually about the very last events in the book, and therefor obvious spoilers, so I'll just stop now.

Juliet, Naked was a decent read from a great contemporary author. I recommend it, but not too strongly. Solid B.

Next up: Under The Dome by Stephen King. I'm about 60 pages in and there's already been a lot of blood and gore and explosions. Basically, so far so good. :)