Thursday, March 23, 2006

Things Are Not Always What They Seem

My roommate lent me a book by Jodi Picoult a few days ago. She's a big fan of
Jodi Picoult, and since I trust my roommate's taste, I was eager to plunge head first into the novel she lent me - Picture Perfect. From what I've heard and read, many of Picoult's books deal with main characters who, while easy to become emotionally involved with, have flaws that not only make their personalities stronger, but make their stories all the more excellent. Picture Perfect is no different.

When Hollywood's golden boy Alex Rivers marries
UCLA anthropologist Cassie Barrett, their relationship appears to be, well, picture perfect. They meet on a movie set in Tanzania, where Cassie is hired to be Alex's technical advisor on the field of Los Angeles. Correction: She is living in one of Alex's several homes. She becomes a part of a lifestyle she never imagined entering before, and she begins to believe that, perhaps, everything is perfect in her life after all. However, when dark secrets are revealed, and the newly-wed aura fades away, Cassie realizes her marriage and Alex may not be what they seem.

Both Cassie and Alex are troubled souls, which is what makes Picture Perfect all the more intriguing. They each have their secrets, and they each had difficult childhoods, by which they can either learn and grow or be destroyed. What's more, this novel deals with the slightly taboo subject of
domestic violence and abuse. While I am certainly vehemently against domestic abuse, and I would kick the ass of any man who tried to hit me (Excuse my blunt language, but it only seemed appropriate.), Picture Perfect sheds a different light on the subject, helping you better understand the nature and chemistry of a couple involved in such a violent situation. However, the scenes of domestic abuse chilled me to the bone and remained with me for hours after I had finished reading. In fact, this entire story stays with you long after you have finished the book. I completed Picture Perfect several days ago, but I am still reminded by the characters and their stories every now and then.

Picoult is a strong writer, and her character development is perhaps her best talent. While Picture Perfect is the first book of hers I have read, it most certainly will not be the last.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

ee cummings installation two

somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond
any experience, your eyes have their silence:
in your most frail gesture are things which enclose me,
or which I cannot touch because they are too near

your slightest look easily will unclose me
though i have closed myself as fingers,
you open always petal by petal myself as Spring opens
(touching skillfully, mysteriously) her first rose

or if your wish be to close me, i and
my life will shut very beautifully, suddenly,
as when the heart of this flower imagines
the snow carefully everywhere descending;

nothing we are to perceive in this world equals
the power of your intense fragility: whose texture
compels me with the colour of its countries,
rendering death and forever with each breathing

(i do not know what it is about you that closes
and opens; only something in me understands
the voice of your eyes is deeper than all roses)
nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands

ee cummings

Courted by a Courtesan

After reading The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant, I was so delighted with her writing and story-weaving expertise that I decided to read her latest book, In the Company of the Courtesan, immediately thereafter. Once again, I was thrilled. It's not that In the Company of the Courtesan is better than The Birth of Venus; they are equally strong in both plot and character development. However, there is something particularly enchanting about Dunant's most recent work.

As the title suggests, In the Company of the Courtesan is about, well, being in the company of a courtesan. Fiammetta Bianchini is the lovely heroine, her beauty and excellent reputation as a courtesan spreading her fame across both Rome and Venice. However, the book is narrated by the courtesan's partner/confidant/best friend/pimp, a brilliant, witty and loving dwarf named Bucino. Bucino is an absolutely fabulous character, for lack of better adjectives, and Dunant's choice of using him is the narrator is perfect. I don't think this book would have been quite so excellent had the story not been told from his perspective.

Anyway, to get on with the actual plot line... (I'm rambling yet again. Surprise, surprise. I don't think that it helps that I'm listening to Joni Mitchell while writing this. Odd choice for a Renaissance novel, I know, but, hey, it's a dreary, rainy night and Joni just seemed appropriate.)

So, as I was saying, In the Company of the Courtesan begins by showing Fiammetta and Bucino's successful and comfortable life in Rome. She is Rome's most famous and adored courtesan, and Bucino is also known for his shrewd business sense and comic relief. However, their cushy situation soon takes a turn for the worst with the sack of Rome by Charlemagne's troops. The French, Spanish and ravenous Lutheran Germans (those pesky Germans!) wreak havoc on the city of Rome, destroying both its beauty, its people and its spirit. While Fiammetta and Bucino are spared, they do not escape from the ruins of the once great city unscathed. Fiammetta's head is brutally shaved (with knives and carving scissors) by two hideous witches of German soldiers' wives (You want to beat the snot after them when you read about how they treat poor, beautiful, loveable Fiammetta.), and she and Bucino travel for miles and miles, without shelter or food, to reach their final destination: Venice. Fiammetta's home town, Venice will hopefully save her and Bucino from desolation and ruin.

Thus, the two find themselves in Venice, struggling to "set up shop" and return to their once almost noble status in society. However, their route is not always smooth sailing, and there are many twists and turns along their climb to the top of the Venetian social ladder. With the help of a healer known as La Draga, Fiammetta's hair, and beauty, return with a brighter glow than before, and while she and Bucino manage to build up their business to its former glory, there are still people and events that effect their lives in ways they could have never guessed.

With intriguing characters and intricate story lines, In the Company of the Courtesan is a splendid book. Despite its unconventional leading players and plot, Dunant's latest addition to the literary world is still heart wrenching and bitter sweet. I simply adored it, and I hope you will as well.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Cara Italia

I know, I know... It's been WAY too long since my last post, but sometimes life distracts you. However, I did manage to read a FABULOUS book over the past week (Thanks to my mom, who sent it to me in a care package.), and I am delighted to be able to share it with you now. What do they always say... better late than never?

Anyway, I was walking to the bus in downtown Chicago yesterday, near the Clark and Division El stop, heading towards my dentist appointment, when an overwhelming feeling of grime hit me. The entire city felt grimy: the weather was grimy, the air was grimy, the streets were thoroughly grimy and the people were even grimy. I felt instantly dirty the minute I ascended from the El station. (Not that I hadn't felt dirty on the El as well, but I usually feel an immense sense of relief once outside. Yesterday I didn't.) I had spent the weekend at my roommate's parents' homes in Woodstock, Ill., so the contrast between the fresh country air there and the dull city air here was stark. However, the entire mood reminded me instantly of the book I had just finished reading, one that had transported me to late 15th century Florence, where the streets are also grimy.

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant is a novel, but it beautifully combines the history of Florence during the Renaissance with the story of young and vibrant Alessandra Cecchi's life. (Yes, I did automatically feel connected to this heroine because, well, we do share the same name.) Alessandra is coming of age during a conflicting time in Italy's history: art is flourishing, yet the Roman Catholic church is desperately trying to fight what it considers to be an increase in sin and debauchery. True, Florence is full of a seedy dark underbelly, in which murder, sodomy (a word that appears frequently in this book) and prostitution reign. Alessandra, while an extremely pious girl, is inherently drawn towards the art world, her fingers itching to paint despite the fact that it is forbidden for ladies to pursue a career in the arts.

However, with the help of her bold yet loving African attendant and best friend, Alessandra is able to draw in secret. When a young and mysterious artist is hired by her father to paint the family chapel, Alessandra feels a window of opportunity may be opening for her, yet her entire world is thrown apart with the French invasion of Florence. She chooses the fate of marriage over confinement to a convent, and she finds married to a man who, while kind, has a secret darker than she can ever imagine. While the fight between the corrupt members of the church and the Medici supporters wages in the streets, Alessandra fights her own battle within... And she cannot seem to forget the cat eyes of the painter, staring into her soul like no other has before.

The Birth of Venus is full of history, intrigue, mystery, art and, of course, a little romance. However, the main focus of this novel is the role women played in Renaissance art and what impact they could have had had they been able to pursue their passions openly. Alessandra is a wonderful narrarator and heroine, and her character is one that will surely stick with me for some time to come, as will this story.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

A Little Chick Novel Doesn't Hurt Every Now and Then

I know... I'm supposed to pretend that I'm such an intellectual, only reading high-quality literature with "grown up" words, like copious and raucous. Well, sometimes a girl just needs a little chick novel... and the one my roommate lent me recently just so happens to be a book that men would enjoy as well. Don't believe me? I was reading this book on my lunch break at the office on Friday, and about five different guys came up to me, saying how much they enjoyed that book and what a great message it has and blah blah blah.
But I digress. The book in question is Good In Bed by Jennifer Weiner, and while sex is involved, as the title suggests, that is definitely not the focus of this fabulous chick novel. Obviously, each chick book has to have the obligatory sex scenes, but what really makes Good In Bed stand out from the pack is its heroine, Cannie Shapiro, and the message she gives.
The story begins with Cannie having recently dumped her boyfriend, Bruce. Cannie discovers that Bruce has begun writing for a popular women's magazine, Moxie, and his debut column, entitled "Good in Bed," features none other than Cannie herself. Bruce's article is called "Loving a Larger Woman," which is about his relationship with Cannie, who is in fact a larger woman. While Cannie is initially outraged at being exposed in such a public manner, she realizes that the article actually shows how Bruce truly understood her - her anxiety and sadness over her size and how people perceived her, as well as her inability to truly love as a result. Cannie then decides she needs Bruce back in her life, which leads to a series of events that alters who world so dramatically that she finds herself in an entirely different place at the end of the book.
Weight is, of course, a huge issue in Good In Bed. While Cannie is definitely not obese, she is not an "All American" size four. She is a good, solid sixteen, and she spends much of the novel hating herself for it. However, she begins to learn that it is not about your weight, your looks, your job, your family... it's about you and how you feel about yourself, how you love yourself. Obviously, weight is a huge issue for all women in America, so Good In Bed definitely provides a different perspective on the subject. Men can also appreciate it as well.
Between her verbally abusive, absent father, her recently "outted" lesbian mother, Bruce and her own self-doubting internal monologue, Cannie certainly has her work cut out for her on her road to self discovery. But that is what this book is all about... discovering yourself, seeing those around you in a different light and learning what you really want in life. With that in mind, Good In Bed also stresses the idea of seeing a human being as the person he or she truly is, not just as a body or haircut or outfit. Weiner challenges you to delve below the skin and see what lies beneath. It can be scary, but the end result is infinitely more satisfying.
I read Good In Bed in two days, but I probably could have read it in one. It's such a woman-empowering book, but not in the cheesey "girl power" way. Rather, Good In Bed challenges you to look at who you are and who you want to become. Weiner shows that there are more important things in life than your weight or how you look, and sometimes it takes a mere chick novel to show you that.

On a side note, a friend of mine, whom I respect immensely, pointed out that I have only reviewed more emotional books in this blog thus far. I will strive, hence forth, to make more diverse selections for reviewing.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Simple Things

Alright, so I know this is officially a book blog, but after reading an article in Real Simple magazine this afternoon during my lunch break (As interesting as All My Children is, sometimes one needs another diversion in the lunch room.), I felt the need to share what I read with you all.
Real Simple magazine is one of my favorites out there on the newsstands right now.
National Geographic will also hold first place in my opinion, but Real Simple is such a delight for me to read. It's the ideal magazine for my budding housewife side. Not only are the articles interesting, but they are about practical, everyday matters that are incredibly useful and informative. The feature articles also make for great reading material because, while usually touching stories, they are never dripping with sappiness. Rather, they have a nice icing of it that's delicious to the palette.
Also, let me just talk about Real Simple for an artistic perspective for a minute. The covers are always, and I mean always, beautiful. Even if all that's on the cover are a pink box and a bowl of change, as in this month's issue, the resulting image still manages to be so appealing to the eye, it makes you want to stroke the magazine. (Ok, maybe that's not the reaction everybody has, but it's definitely mine.) Real Simple always has a color scheme for each month that is simultaneously easy on the eyes and incredibly eye catching. The paper they use is also this great rustic-feeling weight, and I love the way it glides across my finger tips. Alright, I'm getting mushy about magazine paper here, so I'm going to continue to the article I read.
The main feature of the March issue of Real Simple is one entitled,
"Fix Your Money Leaks." As a newly "freed" college graduate, I am just beginning to learn the in's and out's of budgeting, so I found this article very useful. However, some of the tips were obvious, such as don't eat out for lunch, cut back on impulse buys, etc. While this article was definitely a must-read, the one I found to be most interesting for this month's issue was the article about friendships rekindling after many years. The article told four different stories about childhood friends who had somehow lost touch but reconnected many years later. One story in particular really stuck with me. The two girls were friends between the ages of five and thirteen, and they didn't reconnect again until they were in their sixties. When they were about eight, they were playing at this abandoned warehouse, pretending to discover buried treasure, when a car pulled up. There was a man inside, and he asked the girls if they wanted to "play sex." Not understanding, one of the girls was about to climb into her car when her friend began to cry. Her friend had been told never to get into cars with strangers, and for this reason, she didn't want her best friend to do so either. The little girls quickly ran away from the car, and the man drove away. The friends didn't realize the magnitude of this situation until they were older and reminiscing. I couldn't believe how lucky they were either.
Even though my best friend, Kate, and I haven't lost touch, this article still reminded me of her. We've been friends since we were 10, and our friendship, despite us living in different cities, is still going strong. Even though I'm always grateful for our friendship, this article reminded me just how lucky I am to have a friend like her.
Anyway, enough for today. I'm getting all misty.
You should read Real Simple because it is an awesome magazine, if only for the pretty paper.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Green Morning

When I was 12, my dad gave me The Martian Chronicles by Ray Bradbury. We had read a short story of his in my sixth grade language arts class (Remember when English used to be called language arts?), which I had thoroughly enjoyed, but I didn't pursue any of his other works thereafter, having never considered myself much of a "science fiction" person. However, when my father told me that The Martian Chronicles was not just science fiction, but, rather, a beautiful example of American literature, I thought I might as well take a whack at it.

I then proceeded to read that book three times in a row.

It was beautiful, just as my father said. Simply beautiful. There are no other words for the feeling this collection of Bradbury's stories creates. As the title suggests, The Martian Chronicles is in fact a chronicle; in other words, it is a collection of short stories that, while seemingly unrelated in subject matter, flow perfectly together, like stars in the night sky or a velvety river on a warm summer evening. Each story is magnificent in its own right; they're all so different yet there is a common thread, one of mystery, beauty and the precious and fleeting nature of time, that connects them all.

All the "chapters" in this book are enthralling, and Bradbury draws you into his world with his fluid phrases and vivid descriptions. However, one story always comes to mind first when I think of The Martian Chronicles: "The Green Morning." In this story, people from Earth are trying to make Mars have a liveable atmosphere. Due to the acute lack of greenery, there is a shortage of oxygen, clearly producing problems when it comes to habitation of the planet. One man, however, persists in his quest to make Mars a habitable planet, and he keeps trying to plant trees in the harsh Mars soil. But it is all to no avail. However, one morning, the man awakes to find a miracle. His planting experiments have finally worked, and he sees before him a sea of trees. Oak trees, maple trees, magnolia trees, chestnut trees... They cover the surface of the planet as far as his eyes can see. But what makes this miracle all the more spectacular is the way in which Bradbury writes it. Through his words, you can see the bright green leaves shining in the morning light, you can feel the breeze blowing softly off the branches, you can feel your lungs filling with lucious, rich oxygen... This story has stuck with me over all these years, and "The Green Morning" is only one of many such fantastic stories.

The Martian Chronicles was, and still remains, one of my top five favorite books. I know each and every story like the back of my hand, and if you take a chance on a little "science fiction," I'm sure you will feel the same way about this beautiful chronicle.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Smells Like Snow

My grandfather is a true scholar, one of the last of a dying breed. He speaks more languages than I can remember, has the most extensive CD collection I have ever seen (all classical and jazz of course), enjoys food more than even a professional critic and has several floor-to-ceiling bookshelves jam packed with books. From dramas to thrillers, fiction to non-fiction, French to Latin... my grandfather's personal library has it all. Thus, whenever he has a literary recommendation to make to me, I always take it seriously and promptly pick up the book he has suggested. They are all excellent, and his latest recommendation proved to be no different.
Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow is a Danish book (translated into English for me of course!) written by David Hoeg. Both a thriller and a love story, this novel proved to be a literary powerhouse that packed quite the punch. With his unique and captivating tone, Hoeg weaves a story through the ice and snow of the Northern Hemisphere that is like fresh powder on a crisp winter morning - pristine, pure and soft yet one step forces the entire mound to cave in on itself. Nothing in this book is quite what it may seem, which is precisely what makes Miss Smilla's story so mesmerizing.
Miss Smilla, as the title suggests, has an amazing sense for snow and ice. She knows and detects things about these water-based substances that no one else can see, and, because of this special gift she possesses, Miss Smilla becomes involved in the solving of a mystery that goes deeper than the waters of the North Atlantic.
The book begins with the death of a young boy who lived in Miss Smilla's apartment complex. The boy, whose mother is an unstable person and alcoholic, befriends the solitary Miss Smilla, and a bond develops between the two. Thus, when the boy suddenly perishes by falling to his death from the top of their apartment building, Miss Smilla takes it upon herself to investigate his death, or murder, further. In her journey to reveal the truth, she grows closer with a handsome mechanic who lives in her building and also knew the boy very well. The two are brought together by the investigation, but soon their relationship develops from a "business" partnership to into a partnership of romance.
But, as I said earlier, things are not always as they seem in this book. Miss Smilla's investigation evolves into a mystery so vast, she must travel through the great ices of Greenland to solve it.
Miss Smilla's Feeling For Snow was a surprise in and of itself; not only was the story full of twists and turns, but I was also taken aback by the sadness I felt upon finishing this book, not because it was bad, but, rather, because I had reached the end. This is truly a book you will not want to put down, and I can not think of a better time to read it than on a chilly winter's night, bundled up inside in your pj's with a nice cup of tea.