Pride and Prejudice Book Review



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Review:

It’s probably safe to call Pride and Prejudice my favorite novel. It comes down to Pride and Prejudice vs Middlemarch, but while I consider Middlemarch to be the slightly better novel, I’ve read P&P a lot more times. And watched the BBC adaptation a lot more times, as well as most of the other film adaptations, including the modern AU, the weird black & white one with the 1840s fashion and the totally OOC Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the Bollywood version.

I get that it’s a totally predictable and boring choice for favorite book, but it really is just that good. And I don’t just mean the romance, although the romance is obviously wonderful. Jane Austen was freaking hilarious and an extremely astute observer of life, so even if you don’t like romance in general, you should give this book a try for the satire.

My rating: (5 / 5)

Middlemarch Book Review



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Review:

Middlemarch gets my vote for the best English language novel ever written, and possibly my favorite as well. It comes down to Middlemarch vs Pride and Prejudice and I can never choose. Middlemarch is longer and more challenging than Pride and Prejudice, so I haven’t read it as many times, but although not openly satirical or as sharp-tongued as Austen, Eliot shares both Austen’s wit and her deep and nuanced understanding of the foibles of human nature. At the same time, Eliot’s novel is much further-reaching than Austen’s. Middlemarch is subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life” and unlike Austen, who confines her pen largely to provincial gentry and their romantic and financial entanglements, Eliot lays out the whole life of a small English town in the 1830s, from gentry to vagrants and everyone in between. The psychological realism she achieved is remarkable, especially considering the field of psychology barely existed at the time the book was published, and despite the very different world her characters inhabit, you will recognize them as well as if they were your next-door neighbors (indeed, it’s quite possible that some of them are), and grow to care deeply about them.

My rating: (5 / 5)

 

Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy Book Review



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Review:

I have social anxiety. Not terrible social anxiety, but bad enough that it’s definitely had a negative impact on my life. I also have periodic issues with depression, mostly of the chronic low-grade variety, although I’ve had a few episodes that were worse. Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, by David Burns, was recommended to me by a psychologist friend when I asked for help after I started getting panic attacks after certain social situations, and I can honestly say it’s changed my life. Alas, it hasn’t cured me. I doubt there is a true cure, though a therapist might be able to make additional progress. But – and this is still a significant benefit and improvement in my quality of life – I haven’t had a panic attack since first reading the book in 2011, nor have I had one of my deeper depressive episodes. I still feel awkward in many social situations, but I’ve caught myself being braver, and less avoidant of them, and I beat myself up less afterwards for perceived mistakes. Again, not cured, but noticeably better.

Burns is one of the developers of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a form of psychotherapy that’s well supported by clinical trials for its effectiveness in treating, anxiety disorders, depression, and a number of other conditions. As someone with an internal voice that tends to be self-deprecating and sarcastic at best and cruel and unreasonable at worst, I found the concept of cognitive distortions especially helpful as a kind of mental structure to help me recognize when I was undermining good feelings and exaggerating mistakes. Even simply being able to recognize and label negative thought patterns has been really helpful in reducing both their frequency and their effect on my mental state.

I re-read it periodically as a sort of inoculation against trouble. If you suffer from anxiety or depression like me, I highly recommend it. It may not be an adequate substitute for seeing a therapist in person, but it’s a big step in the right direction if you need help.

IMPORTANT!

If you’ve stumbled on this review and you need urgent help, skip the book and call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1 (800) 273-8255. If you’re not in the US, check out this list of international suicide prevention hotlines.

My rating: (5 / 5)

Corelli’s Mandolin Book Review



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Review:

Corelli’s Mandolin is one of my favorite novels to pick up and get lost in. Set in World War 2 era Greece, it tells the story of a young Greek woman named Pelagia who falls in love with an Italian soldier and mandolinist.

I was a little slow to get into the novel, because it’s written in a somewhat rambly and discursive style that tends to wander off on tangents a lot and change styles at random. You’ll see what I mean immediately, with the charming third person first chapter and the second chapter that’s essentially a monologue in print (and ends with a dead cat, which almost made me put the book down right there). However, once you get past the initial chaos, the charming wins out. When there are no dead cats and crazy Duces involved, de Bernieres writes beautiful prose, with a lot of vividness and wit (often to the point of laughing out loud) that sucks you into the story and makes it come alive.

The ending was disappointing compared to the rest of the book, but not to the point of ruining it. However, you will want to skip the beautifully shot but horribly miscast (and, frankly, just all around butchered) film version of the book.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova Book Review



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Review:

Anna Akhmatova has been one of my favorite poets since discovering her in my college Russian classes. She had a wonderful gift for lyric poetry and in her youth, her poems were sheer beauty. Her mature poems, on the other hand, are both beautiful and gut-wrenching, for Akhmatova lived through several of the most dangerous and turbulent periods of Russian history, including the Russian Revolution and Stalin’s purges. Her ex-husband, Nikolai Gumilev (also a poet), was shot in 1921 for suspected anti-Bolshevist activity, her common law husband Nikolai Punin was arrested repeatedly and eventually died in the Gulag, and her son Lev (by Gumilev) was also arrested during Stalin’s purges. Many of her close friends and associates, including Gorky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, and Esenin, were also killed or committed suicide.

These experiences gave weight to what is, in my opinion, her greatest poem, Requiem. An excerpt:

You should have been shown, you mocker,
Minion of all your friends,
Gay little sinner of Tsarskoye Selo,
What would happen in your life –
How three-hundredth in line, with a parcel,
You would stand by the Kresty prison,
Your fiery tears
Burning through the New Year’s ice.
Over there the prison poplar bends,
And there’s no sound – and over there how many
innocent lives are ending now…

I gave my copy of The Complete Poems of Anna Akhmatova to my brother when we moved and kept Selected Poems of Anna Akhmatova because Selected Poems is dual-language in Russian and English, while the Complete Poems is English-only. The English translations, by Judith Hemschemeyer in both books, are accurate in meaning and strive valiantly for the beauty and lyricism of Akhmatova’s words, but of course, nothing can compare to the original, so I kept the smaller volume because it has most of my favorite poems anyway (“Poem Without a Hero” is the most notable omission) and I wanted to have both English and Russian versions of her poems together. As a student of Russian, it’s good practice. If you don’t read any Russian, you may prefer the Complete Poems.

My rating: (5 / 5)

Harry Potter Movies Review



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Review:

Despite being a huge fan of the Harry Potter series, I’ve always been a little meh about the movies. The early films came out about the same time as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and they just didn’t stand up very well by comparison. The first two films were competently made, but lacked the sense of wonder in the books and never succeeded in making the world feel truly alive in the way the Lord of the Rings films did. The third film, Prisoner of Azkaban, was the most artistically accomplished in the series (with the exception of the unbelievably awful CGI werewolf), but made such egregious trims to the plot that I have to wonder if people who haven’t read the book even understand what is going on in certain scenes. The fourth and fifth films were back to competent-but-uninspired, and I never even bothered to watch the sixth, seventh, and eight, although my daughter likes them.

Amazing cast, though – practically a who’s who of great British actors.

My rating: (2.5 / 5)

[Read more…]

Harry Potter Series Review



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Review:

Unless you’ve spent the last 15 years in a cave or something, Harry Potter needs no introduction, and I doubt that there’s anything I can say that would convince you to read them if you haven’t already. However, I’m supposed to be reviewing everything on this blog, and the Harry Potter series actually ended up being a big part of my life, so I feel like I’d be remiss not to.

I remember first learning about the series in a Newsweek article about it back in the late 90s, about the time Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban came out. The premise intrigued me, and I ended up getting the first book as a birthday present for my younger brother. It was a hit with the whole family (minus my mom, who doesn’t like the fantasy genre and refused to try it until years later, when my daughter cajoled her into reading the first book out loud together). Soon after finishing the second and third book, I went off to college, where I was delighted to discover that a bunch of the other girls in my dorm were fans, too. There was an empty room on our floor and we had fun making it “Harry and Ron’s Room” and leaving messages on the whiteboard from Hermione, You-Know-Who, etc. One of my friends even wrote Harry Potter fanfiction (including a fic that ended up being pretty popular), but I didn’t understand the appeal at the time and never really got into it.

A few years passed and I graduated, got married, and continued enjoying the series. Then my husband and I moved across country for the first time, leaving behind our family, friends, and my job. I started working at home, picking up assignments as a freelance writer, but I still had long hours to kill at home while my husband was at work because we didn’t have any children at that point and I was, frankly, too terrified of California drivers to go anywhere. (I learned to drive on the type of rural Nebraska backroads where you wave at other cars as you pass and anything more than three in five minutes qualifies as a traffic jam; Southern California traffic nearly gave me a heart attack.) I was lonesome and bored a lot, and one of the things I missed was talking with my brother and friends for hours about Harry Potter. So I joined the Harry Potter forums at FictionAlley Park. I was intending to hang around for discussion of the books, not fanfiction, but one of the first things I discovered was that I wasn’t the only person who’d always secretly suspected Remus Lupin and Sirius Black of being something more than simple friends. From the HMS Wolfstar threads it was an easy slide into Wolfstar fanfiction, and from there to reading other Harry Potter fanfiction, and from there to writing it myself.

I’ve never looked back.

Although I’m not really an active member of the Harry Potter fandom anymore, it was my gateway fandom and still my most intense and obsessive fannish experience. I miss it.

What was it that so captivated me about the Harry Potter series?

Probably the biggest single factor was the worldbuilding. Despite its periodic issues with dark wizards, anti-Muggle racism, and the like, the wizarding world of Harry Potter is a fantasy world that you want to be a part of.

Rowling’s heavy use of whimsy and clever wordplay gave the wizarding world a rather old-fashioned, nostalgic atmosphere that felt simultaneously cozy and limitless. Especially in the early books, she did an incredible job capturing Harry’s wonder and awe as he explored his new, magical world.

The characters were another major draw. With a huge and diverse cast of characters to choose from, practically every reader is guaranteed to get attached to someone. Personally, I got attached to many. As a feminist, I especially appreciate the many wonderful and memorable female characters.



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Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone Review

The Harry Potter series got off to a great start with this book, which introduced us to Harry and the Wizarding World and made us instantly fall in love with both. As a fan of both the fantasy and mystery genres, I also enjoyed the clever use of mystery elements in the first three books.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets Review

The weakest of the early books, but still quite good. A much creepier mystery than the first book.

My rating: (4 / 5)



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Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Review

My favorite book in the series. The best and most tightly plotted mystery, plus the introduction and largest role for my favorite character in the series, Remus Lupin.

My rating: (5 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire Review

Amazing as it is that JK Rowling had children the world over reading a book longer than The Canterbury Tales, I think Goblet of Fire is where Rowling and her editor started to lose control of the series a bit. The mystery elements were not as well plotted and there was lots of stuff that seemed kind of superfluous and unnecessary. Still enjoyable, but a step down from the previous.

My rating: (3 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Review

I have seriously mixed feelings about Order of the Phoenix. On the one hand, there are few tropes I hate more than prophecy plots. (Ugh.) One of the few happens to be plots that wouldn’t exist if people just sat down and TALKED to each other. Basically the entire plot of this book wouldn’t exist if Dumbledore had just sat Harry down and told him what was going on, and it drives me nuts every time I reread it. Frankly, it ruined my opinion of Dumbledore and I’ve disliked him ever since. Forcing Snape to give Harry occlumency lessons was also inexcusable, imho, both because Harry wouldn’t have needed them so much if Dumbledore had simply told him what sort of manipulations Voldemort would attempt and because Snape is a terrible teacher at the best of times, and even worse than usual with Harry.

On the other hand, Order of the Phoenix has so many of my favorite subplots and scenes it’s probably the book I reread most after Prisoner of Azkaban. I especially love the stuff with Dolores Umbridge (by far the best villain in the series, and one of the best ever written, imho) and the Order itself. As a big Neville fan since book one, it was lovely to see him get to come into his own more with the Order’s help, and I also adored Luna Lovegood, who was introduced in this book.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince Review

My least favorite in the series. I disliked it so much that it’s the only one I’ve never re-read, so I don’t even remember entirely why I disliked it, but a big part of the reason was the amount of focus on Voldemort, who is boring, and Snape, who I hate. The romantic entanglements of the characters were also more annoying than interesting.

My rating: (2 / 5)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Review

Better than Half-Blood Prince, but just not as satisfying or fun as the early books.

My rating: (2.5 / 5)

To Marry an English Lord Book Review



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Review:

If you’re a fan of Downton Abbey, the novels of Edith Wharton, or similar period pieces, I can’t recommend To Marry an English Lord, by Gail MacColl and Carol McD. Wallace, highly enough. Starting in the 1870s, many wealthy and beautiful American heiresses, snubbed by stuffy New York high society, moved to England, where they married into the British aristocracy, saving many a bankrupt family estate in the process. These matches had surprisingly far reaching consequences for both British and American society, and included Randolph and Jennie Churchill, parents of Winston, George and Mary Curzon, who became the second highest ranking woman in the British Empire after Lord Curzon was named viceroy of India, and James and Frances Burke-Roche, great-grandparents of Princess Diana. The book also focuses a great deal on Alva Vanderbilt and her daughter Consuelo (pictured on the cover), who married the Duke of Marlborough and later shared her experiences in the classic memoir The Glitter and the Gold. (If you’re interested in the Vanderbilt ladies, I also recommend Consuelo and Alva Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age.)

To Marry an English Lord is a well-written, informative, and highly entertaining peek into the lives of wealthy and aristocratic Americans and Brits in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras. Many parts read kind of like a Victorian People magazine, and the gossip is still as scorching now as it was 120 years ago! My only complaint is the format of the book, which is copiously illustrated and stuffed with so many info boxes and two page spreads on different details that it can be difficult to read. Hard to fault a book too much for providing too much information, though, especially when it’s as fascinating as this one!

Originally published in 1989, To Marry an English Lord has been re-released as a result of the popularity of Downton Abbey, which features an Anglo-American marriage between Lord Robert and Cora Crawley that is similar to those described in this book.

My rating: (4.5 / 5)

Man-Eaters of Kumaon Book Review



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Review:

A really well-written and fascinating memoir by Jim Corbett, one of the world’s greatest big game hunters, about his experiences tracking and killing man-eating tigers in India, including the infamous Champawat Tigress, who killed 436 people in Nepal and India before being shot by Corbett in 1907. Although I’m an avid hiker, my tracking skills are basic in the extreme and it was really fascinating getting a peek into the mind of a great tracker like Corbett. The amount of information he could pick up from something as simple as a footprint or tuft of hair was mind-blowing. There’s also quite a bit of interesting information about tiger behavior and habits.

As somebody who is morally opposed to big game hunting, there were a few chapters I found sad and depressing to read, because several of the hunts he discusses in the book were in pursuit of tigers who were not man-eaters and who he killed due to their large size or a similar factor that I don’t consider justification for murder. (Later in life, he apparently had a change of heart and refused to shoot any tiger that was not a proven man-eater, as well as lobbying for the creation of India’s first national park to protect tiger habitat.) However, the chapters on the man-eaters were thrilling reads.

Given the era and society in which he lived and wrote, I was pleasantly surprised by Corbett’s sympathetic treatment of both the poor Indian villagers he was trying to protect and the man-eaters themselves. There were several very moving passages about the courage of some of the tigers’ victims and would-be victims and their families and neighbors, including a brave young woman who chased after the Champawat Tigress with nothing but a sickle after it carried off her sister. Corbett also treats the tigers with respect and explains the factors that made them into man-eaters, with harsh words for his fellow hunters when he discovers bullet wounds that disabled but did not kill the animal, forcing it to turn to easier, human prey.

My rating: (4 / 5)

Rules For the Dance Book Review



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Review:

I’ve read, well, not tons of poetry, but probably more than most people, and did pretty well in high school and college English classes (I was even thinking about being an English major for awhile), but The Rules for the Dance: A Handbook For Writing and Reading Metrical Verse, by Mary Oliver, really opened my eyes to a LOT of things that I’d been missing in poetry. Some of it now seems blindingly obvious after reading the book – poetry is meant to be recited, so of course the rhythm of the poem would affect the breath of the reciter, and vice versa – and some of it still kind of blows my mind with how many layers of meaning can be fitted into a few short lines. Right off the bat, her analysis of Robert Frost’s Bereft amazed me, for example, and gave me a new appreciation for Frost’s skill (and he was already my favorite poet!)

Copiously demonstrated with examples from famous poems, the book explains the different types of metrical patterns (iamb, trochee, dactyl, anapest) and how each one affects the mood and tone of the poem, both by themselves and in combination with each other and elements such as line length, rhyme, and more. It may sound boring, but it’s well-written enough (and the example poems are all good enough) to make for quite a fascinating read. The book also includes a short anthology of metrical poems to practice on.

Whether you want to write poetry or simply develop a greater appreciation for reading it, I highly recommend this book!

My rating: (5 / 5)