Friday, November 24, 2006

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark

Title: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
Author: Muriel Spark

“Give me a girl at an impressionable age, and she is mine for life.”


“I have frequently told you, and the holidays just past have convinced me, that my prime has truly begun. One’s prime is elusive. You little girls, when you grow up, must be on the alert to recognize your prime at whatever time of your life it may occur. You must then live it to the full.”

Firstly, I have to thank Kat for finding Muriel Spark’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for me – she honestly has that magical librarian touch. After I unsuccessfully scoured Half-Priced Books for a copy this afternoon, she serendipitously happened upon one in the special “Bargain” section. I believe I responded to the find with squeals, bounces, and general glee. I don’t know how she did it. I guess it was the Secret Librarian Power.

As interesting as that little side story is, I’ll get to the real point – was The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie worth all the fuss?

Hell yeah.

Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at an all-girls school in 1930s Edinburgh. Carefully, she gathers around herself a group of girls whom she can “trust,” girls in whom she can confide. She tells them about her love affairs, speaks to them about the importance of truth and beauty and art, and avers that she will make them the “crème de la crème.” The girls – Sandy, Rose, Jenny, Eunice, Mary, and Monica – become known as the “Brodie set,” and they keep Miss Brodie as the center of their world long after they have moved on from her classroom. They look to her for guidance on what classes to take, what clothes to wear, what opinions to hold, and – ultimately – what affairs to conduct with men with whom Miss Brodie herself is secretly in love.

If all this sounds a little creepy to you, don’t worry, it’s supposed to be – it’s like a very twisted Dead Poet’s Society.

Miss Jean Brodie is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating characters I’ve come across in literature. In many ways, she’s a classic grotesque, so completely wrapped up in her own vision of reality that she’s incapable of seeing other people and things for what they really are. She professes to be an independent and free-thinking woman, and yet has an unabashed admiration for men like Mussolini and Hitler (remember, the story takes place before WWII). She believes that the fascisti have solved all social and economic problems in Italy, and the Brodie set marches behind her just like the Hitler youth goose-stepped through the squares of Berlin.

Sandy, on the other hand, as a member of the “Brodie set”, is a budding psychologist who sees people through her “little eyes” with uncanny accuracy. While she’s Miss Brodie’s favorite, she’s simultaneously the only one who sees her mentor’s ignorance and folly for what it really is. Oddly enough, however, it is Sandy in the end who is most trapped by the influence of Miss Brodie, the one girl from the “Brodie set” who simply cannot let go.

While hardly graphic, there’s a lot of rather dark and frustrated sexuality in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie as well, which should interest those of you with an appetite for romance novels. Or maybe not, since romance novels tend to be fluffy and happy, and this book definitely doesn’t fall under either of those two adjectives…

Anyway, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a fascinating and yet incredibly short read, perfect if you have a free afternoon to lounge about the couch and feel in the mood for some intense character study. Is Miss Brodie a monster or a tragic idealist? Are the Brodie girls brainwashed, or do they benefit at in some ways from their mentor's tutelage? Is Sandy the antithesis of Miss Brodie - or just like her? All fascinating and debatable questions!

posted by Elizabeth at 10:49 PM


Sunday, November 19, 2006

Another romance novel... sort of

Title: The Road to Paradise Island
Author: Victoria Holt

The females in my family like to pass books around. Therefore, I usually end up reading some romance novel (the clean kind) or other. This book is a prime example. It started with my mom, then went to both of my grandmothers, then to my aunt, and now me.

It is up to me to pass the book on. However, I can't do that… unless the next person takes my advice and starts reading the book at the halfway point. The first half of the book is completely unnecessary and very boring.

Annalice is an 18-year-old girl who lives with her grandmother and her older brother, Philip. During a huge storm their house is damaged and they discover a secret room. In it Annalice finds a journal and a map.

The journal belonged to Ann Alice, an ancestor who died at the age of 18 approximately 100 years before, and weaves a tale of love, mystery, and murder. Philip soon sets off in search of the mysterious island mentioned in the journal and depicted on the map. Annalice is left behind. She meets Raymond and they fall in love. Or he does, at least.

Two years pass with no word from Philip, so Annalice goes in search of him. To steal a phrase from ket, "Hijinks ensue." Annalice meets Milton, an arrogant, handsome, wealthy, Paradise Lost-quoting man. During her search for her brother, the husband of her traveling companion is killed, Milton relentlessly badgers her, she meets the great grandson of Ann Alice's betrothed, discovers the mystery behind her brother's disappearance, and much more.

To find out whether Annalice ends up with the conceited Milton or the boringly nice Raymond... just ask me. I won't put you through the torture of reading the book. But then again, perhaps those of you more knowledgable of the ways of romance novels can already guess... :)

posted by Kate at 8:57 PM


in a direct contrast to the previous post...

Title: The Librettist of Venice - The Remarkable Life of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart's Poet, Casanova's Friend, and Italian Opera's Impresario in America
Author: Rodney Bolt

Few people really think about the fact that Mozart didn't really write the librettos to his operas, including some of his best known works, like Cosi fan tutte, Don Giovanni, and . As it turns out, they were written by an Italian poet named Lorenzo Da Ponte who had little to no operatic experience at the time. But that's not where the story starts.

This book is an incredibly detailed biography, showing all sides of Da Ponte, many of which were not too flattering, from boyhood through his death at age 89. Born in a Jewish ghetto in Venice (the country, not the city); his family converted to Catholicism when he was a teen, in order to increase their financial opportunities. At that time, Da Ponte could barely read and write. He and a few of his brothers ended up studing at various seminaries, where he fell in love with Latin and, more particularly, Italian prose and poetry. He ended up being forced to take minor orders in order to continue his studies, and was known for many years as Abbe Da Ponte. Of course, that didn't stop him from running off to Venice and having a few affairs while establishing a reputation as a poet. He also met the infamous Casanova there, establishing a lifelong friendship/rivalry. Eventually, his affairs got him run out of town, and he headed off to Vienna.

Working as a poet there, he gained the favor of the court, and wrote the libretto for one of Salieri's operas (which didn't go over too well). Then, he hooked up with Mozart (Salieri's arch rival...) and found success once again. Then the prince died, and the new queen was not so much a fan of Da Ponte's style.

The recurring theme of this life is how he dreams big, but doesn't execute well - Da Ponte was constantly either fabulously rich or feeling the after-effects of throwing all his money to the wind for a pipe dream and being destitute, running off to a new city and hoping for the best. Throw in a few semi-scandalous affairs and no judgement of people's character, and repeat.

After Vienna, Da Ponte moved to London, where he helped to establish the first Italian opera company/house there.

He met and fell in love with Nancy, and somehow married her - simultaneously converting back to Judaism because she was Jewish and ignoring his Catholic orders and history (um, the past 25 years of his life...). Interesting how that works. She was incredibly patient, and saved his sorry behind from financial ruin on more than one occasion...

Da Ponte was incredibly flexible - when things went poorly with the opera, he opened a bookstore, and ended up having immense success (at least briefly) selling Italian books to the fashionable Londoners.

At some point, he decided to move to America (Nancy's family was already there). They went to New York City for a few years - he ran a grocery store and tried to push the Italian opera scene. Then they moved to Pennsylvania, closer to her family. Then back to NYC. At one point he opened an Italian opera house. At another point, he sank all kinds of money into bringing a touring company from Europe, but, unfortunately, they weren't very talented. At one point he and Nancy ran a finishing school, where they taught all kinds of subjects, including Italian, which was just becoming fashionable to learn. Eventually, he became the first professor of Italian at Columbia University (while in his 70's!).

He always had a high opinion of himself, and blamed all failings on people being jealous of him and trying to keep him down. He wrote various memoirs throughout his life, and very few people appeared in a flattering light, because they were always in some way responsible for him not being an incredibly famous and successful poet. Da Ponte was a fascinating person, and though I would have hated actually interacting with or knowing him, reading about his life was really neat. He was friends with (or at least acquainted with) every well-known person alive during his lifetime - Casanova, Mozart, Salieri, even Clement Moore ('Twas the Night Before Christmas...). Highly recommended to anyone who can find it at their local library. :-)

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posted by ket at 1:03 PM


wow - that's about all I've got for this one...

Title: The Admiral's Bride
Author: Suzanne Brockmann

You know, I sometimes question why my library gets such worthless books as part of the collection, but then it hits me that by taking them out, I'm encouraging them to keep purchasing similar books. It's like a vicious circle...

This book takes us back to the "realistic" Navy SEALs. The book opens in Vietnam, where a young Jake continually rescues various soldiers from impossible situations where even their own commanders had often abandoned them.

Fast-forward to present day. The daughter of one of "Jake's boys", as the field medics and stuff referred to the people he saved, is now an operative of some sort with a PhD in random weapons of mass destruction. She's called in to help on a mission to recover several canisters of "Triple X", an agent thousands of times more deadly than anthrax, from some crazy fundamentalists in Montana.

Who's in charge of the mission? Jake. And even though he's plenty old enough to be her father, he's still attractive and in good shape, and she has more than a bit of a crush on him, plus some hero worship for saving dear old dad. Jake's still scarred by the death of his wife Daisy 3 years ago from cancer, but he finds Zoe very attractive, and has mental issues with that, both because of the age difference and Daisy's memory.

The way it goes down is that Jake ends up "joining" the group. They plant Zoe in town as a waitress at the local bar, where she "happens" to fall for Jake. They get "married" because she won't sleep with him otherwise (but the ceremony's performed by the crazy cult leader, so no legal implications), but really it's so he can bring her into the compound to help search for the Triple X.

The remainder of the team, various "young" (at least in comparison to Jake) SEALs are doing surveilance and intel and stuff, and they all think Jake's too old, etc., until they read a book about all that he pulled off in 'Nam, then they develop some severe hero worship too.

Jake and Zoe have to fake having a "real" marriage because his room in the compound is filled with surveillance cameras, but then they fall for each other for real, but still can't do anything, because both the crazy cult leader AND the SEALs would be watching (because they tapped into the camera feeds...).

It all comes to a climax when Jake needs to prove his loyalty to the group (in order to find out where the Triple X is being hidden) by letting the cult leader sleep with Zoe. She doesn't want to, but pretends that it's just part of the job; he doesn't want her to, but doesn't want her to think that he thinks she can't be an operative, and miscommunication runs rampant. Plus, within days, the crazy is planning to attack NYC with the stuff, and he doesn't realize quite how potent it is.

Will Zoe be forced into a rather compromising situation? Can she and Jake save the day and live happily ever after even if he's twice her age? You'll just have to read the book (or draw the logical conclusions based on the genre - you'll be correct...).

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posted by ket at 12:50 PM


Friday, November 10, 2006

Commit to one book? Are you crazy?

Title: The College Student’s Research Companion
Author: Arlene Rodda Quaratiello

Reyn has informed me that for a librarian, my level of reading is abysmal. I tried to explain to him that I have a commitment problem. I cannot seem to commit to just one book. Therefore, I am reading something like five or six books all at once. He seems to think that isn’t a good excuse.

So, I told him I finished a book recently but it was for work and would bore the readers of this blog to death. He said the one rule of this blog is that you have to write about everything you read, so I just want to let you know in advance that I blame reyn for this post.

I read the above book to get ideas for the class I will be teaching in the spring. As you may be able to guess, the class will be about how to do library research. Unbelievably exciting, I know.

And that just about describes this book (keeping the sarcasm in mind, that is). I reread various paragraphs 5, 6, even 7 times before the information sunk in. Not because it was difficult but because it was boring. Perhaps that's partially because I already know all this stuff...

I also wonder as to who the intended audience is. Today's college students don't feel like taking the time to read a book about doing research before they actually do the research itself (and I don’t blame them). Hell, we can barely get them to use anything other than Google. I also thought that perhaps this was meant to be a textbook for a class such as mine. However, after reading it I know I won't be using it as one (actually, I decided to be nice and not have a required textbook this time around. They better be grateful!).

She also discusses some things that I definitely wouldn't bother with. For example, somehow I suspect that today's college students don't need an explanation of what surfing the Web means. They also don't care about who the various database providers are as long as you tell them which database they should use to find the article they need NOW. In addition, she talked about CD-ROM indexes. Does anyone even use those anymore?! Did they in 2003 when this book was written? I doubt it.

Basically, as if you couldn't really tell from all I wrote above, I don't recommend you read this book. However, I do recommend that if you ever need any research help, you ask a librarian. :D

posted by Kate at 10:06 PM


Gaudy Night, by Dorothy Sayers

Title: Gaudy Night
Author: Dorothy Sayers

“Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?”

“So easy that, to tell the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober. Which accounts for my talking so much.”

While attending her Oxford reunion (known as the “Gaudy”), Harriet Vane finds a nasty anonymous note tucked into the sleeve of her gown: “You dirty murderess. Aren’t you ashamed to show your face?” Soon, similar pranks are breaking out all over the college. The new library is vandalized, the body of a female don is hung in effigy, and more notes attacking female academics are found. As a Senior Member of the college (and yes, reading this book will teach you quite a bit about British academia), Harriet is asked to discretely investigate the pranks before something…more serious…occurs.

Gaudy Night is one of the great classics of detective fiction even though Lord Peter doesn’t make a sustained appearance until about half-way through the novel. For most of the time he’s abroad on some mysterious diplomatic mission for the Foreign Office. Instead, it’s Harriet who’s running the show.

And Harriet has a lot more than the “poltergeist” to deal with. Questions of academic integrity frequently raise their head, and the importance of doing one’s proper work in the world. There’s her own scandalous past to confront, and – of course – the regular proposals of marriage coming from Lord Peter in the post.

Sayers’ writing in Gaudy Night is simply gorgeous. The language is leisurely, and you really get to sink into the scholarly atmosphere of 1930s Oxford. And this book is simply overflowing with dark, complex emotions. I devoured it upon a first reading, and have revisited it several times since. If I can get even one of you to read and enjoy this book (kat, I think, is my most likely victim), I will consider this entire blogging adventure to be a success!

posted by Elizabeth at 7:40 PM


Have His Carcase, by Dorothy Sayers

Title:: Have His Carcase
Author: Dorothy Sayers

“I don’t want gratitude. I don’t want kindness. I don’t want sentimentality. I don’t even want love – I could make you give me that – of a sort. I want common honesty.”

“Do you? But that’s what I’ve always wanted – I don’t think it’s to be got.”

“Listen, Harriet. I do understand. I know you don’t want either to give or take. You’ve tried being the giver, and you’ve found that the giver is always fooled. And you won’t be the taker, because that’s very difficult, and because you know that the taker always ends by hating the giver. You don’t want ever again to have to depend for happiness on another person.”

“That’s true. That’s the truest thing you ever said.”

Harriet Vane, whose novels are selling faster than ever now that she’s been acquitted of murder, happens upon something strange during a walking tour along the English coast – the corpse of a bearded man who’s had his throat cut. The tide washes the body away, but not before Harriet takes several photographs of it. The press descends upon the story like bloodthirsty vultures, eager for another scandal involving the notorious Vane.

Along with them comes Lord Peter Wimsey, who can never resist a good corpse. Together, he and Harriet set about discovering who the young man was, who killed him, and what any of it has to do with Russian Bolsheviks?

Have His Carcase is the middle child of the Sayers canon – a little awkward and gangly. While Sayers is still working with the frame of a classic mystery she employed in her previous works, you can feel her being pulled in the direction of Gaudy Night, which is really something else entirely and rather indescribable. But it’s in this book that Harriet begins to emerge as a fully-formed character, and it’s wonderful to watch.

Oh, and read “Carcase” as “Carcass.” Those crazy British don’t know how to spell.

posted by Elizabeth at 7:37 PM


Strong Poison, by Dorothy Sayers

Yes, I’m still reading Dorothy Sayers. To make this less painful for you guys, I decided to review together the books where Harriet Vane makes an appearance. While I adore all of Sayers’ mysteries, those dealing with the developing relationship between Harriet and Lord Peter Wimsey are my favorite. Sayers writes incredible dialogue, and the repartee between them is witty, combative, and full of literary allusions. Reading it makes my eyes gleam. A book is nothing without good dialogue.

The Wimsey-Vane mysteries work wonderfully as romances of the intellect. Indeed, one character describes Harriet and Peter’s relationship as “a marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences…reckless to the point of insanity.” I always liked that. Anyway, I’m trying to keep this short, so on to the reviews!

Title: Strong Poison
Author: Dorothy Sayers

“But, however entrancing it is to wander unchecked through a garden of bright images, are we not enticing your mind from another subject of almost equal importance? It seems probable – ”

“And if you can quote
Kai Lung, we should certainly get on together.”

“It seems very probable that I shall not survive to make the experiment.”

Harriet Vane is accused of murdering her former lover, Philip Boyes, with arsenic. Both were authors – Harriet of financially successful mystery novels, and Philip of pretentious, misunderstood works of genius (*snort*). Luckily, Philip is dead at the beginning of the novel, so his whiny nonsense is kept to a minimum. It’s also fortunate because amateur sleuth Lord Peter Wimsey sees Harriet Vane at her trial, and falls madly – though perhaps not wisely – in love with her.

Harriet’s trial results in a hung jury. But everyone knows Vane is guilty as sin and will be condemned during the next session. With only one month to investigate the case, Lord Peter visits the prisoner in jail and informs her that he intends to prove her innocence – and then marry her.

Harriet replies rather huffily that she will gladly accept his detecting assistance. But marriage is certainly out of the question, thank you very much.

Thus commences one of my favorite literary romances, and a good place to start reading Dorothy Sayers. Will Lord Peter save his beloved? Did the miserable ass Philip Boyes commit suicide, or did someone actually have reason to do away with him? And will Peter ever convince Harriet to say ‘yes’?

Strong Poison is an example of Sayers’ earlier writing. The plot is a straightforward jigsaw puzzle to be solved, it’s relatively short, and although dark emotions are hinted at, they’re not the primary subject of the novel. Harriet herself is actually something of a background character. But its very simplicity makes it an excellent introduction to many of the secondary characters –including Bunter and Miss Climpson – and gives you a good taste of Sayers’ writing. You may not be “wowed!” at the end of it, but keep reading if you can stomach it, because things only get better.

posted by Elizabeth at 7:32 PM


Just plain crazy.

Title: Crazy Cool
Author: Tara Janzen

The only daughter of a powerful senator (party-affiliation not provided, but I wouldn't exactly describe her as liberal...), Kat just opened an art gallery in Denver. Several years ago, there was an "incident" on prom night - her asshole prep school friends thought it'd be fun to attack and rape her. She escaped, thanks to Christian, a bad boy a few years older than her who'd been out stealing cars but got distracted by the sight of a prom queen (complete with tiara) fleeing from an alley.

Kat and Christian fell for each other (duh.). But mom didn't exactly approve of him. One of the assholes was killed, and Christian was accused and a murder charge was railroaded through; suddenly he's in prison for a few years (until a random homeless guy provides an alibi, Christian's acquitted, and then the random homeless guy dies). Meanwhile, Kat was sent to France by mom, to get her away from the various bad influences in Denver.

Okay, back to the present:

Christian's now a super-awesome DoD operative or something with mad killing skills and, as reyn would have it, "a bitchin car". He and his friend get hired to play bodyguard at an art auction which, as fate would have it, Kat's also attending. There's an explosion, and Christian saves Kat, thereby revealing his presence to her. Neither of them knows how he ended up on duty there, since the person who arranged it is hidden somewhere up the chain of command. Along with the explosion they find the body of another of the prep school assholes.

Christian and Kat go back to her place, and they find an envelope of rather revealing pictures of them from back in the day - apparently someone's not too happy that Christian's not in jail and Kat's back in town.

They start interviewing the other, living, prep school assholes. And fall into bed (or the back seat of his bitchin' car) as often as possible. The person behind this could be just about anyone - Mom, the father of the guy Christian was accused of killing (who used to be a senator too), one of the other assholes, etc.

Will they figure out who's behind all the crap? Will Kat and Christian live happily ever after? Well, yeah, of course both of those will happen, but I'm not telling you how. You'll have to read the book. :-)

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posted by ket at 10:36 AM


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

mmm... muffins...

Title: Death by Design
Author: Laura Childs

This book is actually a compilation of three previously released books - Keepsake Crimes, Photo Finished, and Bound for Murder. Referred to as "the Scrapbooking Mysteries", the titles rather make me want to gag.

Oh, right, back to the review.

So Carmela lives in New Orleans with her husband Seamus, a reluctant banker. He gets flaky and runs off to the bayou to be a photographer and find himself. The evil sister kicks Carmela out of the family house. Last year (pre-flakiness) Carmela opened a scrapbooking shop. Yes, an entire store devoted to scrapbooking products and techniques and stuff (I'm sorry - most of that seems like way too much effort - I'll take a regular photo album anyday...). Now the store actually has to provide her entire income, but that's okay because apparently folks in New Orleans love their scrapbooking.

Anyway, in the first book a guy dies during a Mardi Gras parade, and Carmela has to figure out who did it, because the police think it was Seamus. In book two, the obnoxious guy who owns the store next to her dies, and she has to figure out who did it because the police think it was the nephew of one of her friends/customers. And in book three, a friend's fiance is murdered. I don't think anyone connected to Carmela was suspected, but she has to figure it out to ease her friend's mind.

Blah, blah, scrapbooks are made while clues are discussed, and each time, Carmela saves the day - at least her friends acknowledge her nosiness, because in books 2 and 3 they ask her to help figure out what's going on. Carmela saves the day each time!

Reading the above, you'd think I hated the books. Okay, they were a little cutesy, and would probably be appreciated more by someone actually into scrapbooking.


At the end of each story, in addition to the requisite scrapbooking tips that I ignored, are a few pages of recipes for food cooked and/or served during the story, like Seamus's bread, Baby's Applesauce, and so on. Food is always a good thing! Plus, I actually made the pumpkin muffins with cream cheese frosting last week (from scratch, mind you), and they were a big hit. Mmm... pumpkin...

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posted by ket at 6:55 PM


Monday, November 06, 2006

I'm in a 6-hour meeting and can't keep this window open too long.

World War Z
Max Brooks


(Previosuly reviewed here and here.)

posted by reyn at 1:40 PM