Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Top Ten Most Vivid Book Worlds/Settings

Julia at The Broke and the Bookish invites readers this week to talk about setting.  As she says, "Today we get a special glimpse into one reason why we love the books we love: the settings and the worlds. A setting can make or break a book for me, especially if it is supposed to be in a world different than our own." 

A sense of place and time is one of the most important aspects of fiction for me, and a vivid setting can often make up for a book's other shortcomings.  (In the same way, I can often enjoy a movie I wouldn't otherwise care for if the setting is very compelling, like Defiance, or if the cinematography is stunning, like The Water Horse.)  Here are a few (not ten, sorry!) of the most memorable novel settings I've experienced, in no particular order.

England between the wars, as depicted in Agatha Christie's mystery novels.  To my suburban teenage self, this world in which people travelled by train, wore hats and stockings, had tea parties and cocktail parties, attended plays in the city, and ate off of china was the most exotic and wonderful of existences.

The bleak and paranoid world of the Soviet Union under Stalin, depicted in In The First Circle by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.  In hundreds of chapters with alternating points of view, the voices of prisoners, scientists, civil servants, diplomats, intelligence agents, and even Josef Stalin himself build a picture of a system that crushes hope, initiative, and intellect.

Askatevar, a fascinating and forbidding planet far in the future which is the setting for Ursula K. LeGuin's Planet of Exile.  This enormous planet is located far from its sun, and therefore its single years are as long as human lifetimes;  its earlier seasons are remembered only by the very old.

Russia in the early nineteenth century, in War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  Tolstoy recreates Russia around the time of the Napoleonic invasion.  Characters are drawn from every level of society;  we care as much about serfs' and prisoners' concerns as those of princes and princesses.   Inward spiritual struggles, confused teenage romances, military strategy, and family relations all contribute to the historic panorama. 

Any of the exotic rural settings described by Mary Stewart in her suspense novels.  Nobody can describe scenery like Mary Stewart.  Greece, Lebanon, Austria, Scotland, France--these landscapes are still vivid mental images for me after decades because of Stewart's evocative prose that appeals to all the senses.   

India just after Partition, as depicted in Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy.  Seth does for India what Tolstoy did for Russia:  brings to life an entire society and all its strata at a particular historic moment, and deals with every kind of concern, from a mother's dislike of her son's wife, to the enactment of laws that would end the feudal system of landowners and tenants in India.  We get scenic descriptions, family relations, parliamentary sessions, religious riots, caste injustices, romances, friendships, factories and slums.  It all forms a wonderfully detailed picture of the time and place.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Just Finished: A Suitable Boy

In talking about Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy, I'm going to try to avoid using terms like "epic" and "tour-de-force," but it won't be easy.  This is a 1300-odd page novel with dozens of characters and a scope that is both grand and intimate, and yet it's so compulsively readable that I was interested in every character and every story line.

The book is set in India in 1951.  The story loosely revolves around the main character, Lata, whose mother is determined to find a "suitable boy" for her to marry.  Although the book begins and ends with weddings, and the title notwithstanding, this story line is only one of many.  In addition to marriages, births, and deaths, subplots deal with land reform, caste discrimination, shoe manufacture, Hindu-Muslim relations, post-partition politics, university faculty politics, and more.  Jawaharlal Nehru himself makes a few appearances.

Although even the political story lines were interesting, the great pleasure for me was the depictions of Indian family life, with which I am familiar in a secondhand sort of way as my inlaws are Pakistani (raised in India and migrated to Pakistan at the time of partition).  They have brought many elements of that culture with them here to the US, and I felt real affection for many of the characters, both Hindu and Muslim, for that reason--I almost "knew" them already.  Not that such a body of background knowledge is necessary to thoroughly enjoy A Suitable Boy.  Seth's storytelling is at once so fluent and so sympathetic that I always wanted to read more.  By the end, I had spent so much time with these characters in their world that I knew I would miss them.

The Classics Club

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Some Nice Prose

Here's a beautiful passage from A Suitable Boy

She had dispersed.  She was the garden at Prem Nivas (soon to be entered into the annual Flower Show), she was Veena's love of music, Pran's asthma, Maan's generosity, the survival of some refugees four years ago, the neem leaves that would preserve quilts stored in the great zinc trunks at Prem Nivas, the moulting feather of some pond-heron, a small unrung brass bell, the memory of decency in an indecent time, the temperament of Bhaskar's great-grandchildren. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Liebster Blog Award


Amber at A Morose Bookshelf has tagged me for the Liebster Blog Award.  Says Amber, "You're tagged if you have under 200 followers and do a good job blogging. Those who are tagged then share 11 random facts about themselves, answer 11 questions posted by the person that tagged them, and then create their own set of 11 questions for others to answer."  Well, thanks, Amber!  I'll do my best. 

 Eleven Random Facts About Me:

1.  I live on the Gulf coast of Texas.
2. The only thing I enjoy cooking is soup.
3.  I think Puget Sound is the most beautiful place in America.
4.  I dislike driving.
5.  I love walking.
6.  In my teens, I was addicted to Agatha Christie.  I read every one of her books multiple times and can virtually recite them now.
7.  My current favorite poet is Anna Akhmatova.
8.  I have never waterskied.
9.  I try to eat, cook, and grow food as organically as possible.
10.  My favorite city to visit is London.
11.  I love tofu.

Amber's Questions:

1.  You're going to be stranded on an island.  You can only bring three books.  Which three?  They should be long, and they should be books I haven't read yet.  Middlemarch, Anna Karenina, and Les Miserables.
2.  One book you wish you had written.  Why Houston Needs Bike Lanes and a Decent Public Transportation System.
3.  Do you speak more than one language?  Am I fluent in more than one language?  Sadly, no.  I'm working on getting fluent in German, but that may or may not ever happen.  And I speak a little Urdu (my husband's language) but I'm nowhere near fluent.
4.  Which one is the better actor:  Matt Damon or Mark Wahlberg?  Damon is good, but I haven't seen enough of Wahlberg to say whether he's better.  I did like him in Three Kings, though.
5.  What are you listening to?  Bollywood songs mostly these days.
6.  What is the worst book you've ever read?  That's tough to answer because I don't get very far into a book if I think it's really bad.  The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon comes to mind--I read the whole thing because I had to;  it was assigned in high school. 
7.  Do you have a doppelganger?  I don't have a lookalike that I'm aware of, but I do have a distant cousin with the exact same name. 
8.  SVU or Criminal Intent?  Don't watch either one.
9.  Three authors that "get" you or that you really love?  Tolstoy.  Ursula LeGuin.  Irene Nemirovsky.
10.  Do you have any other hobbies?  Reading and walking are my favorite pastimes.  That makes me sound really boring, I know, but there it is!
11.  Are you okay with reviews containing spoilers?  No!

Questions I'm Asking:

1.  How do you feel about the reading you were assigned in school?  Dislike?  Appreciate?
2.  Is there a book you have read so many times you almost have it memorized?
3.  What's your favorite non-fiction genre?
4.  Do you listen to many audiobooks?  Why or why not?
5.  What's your favorite movie based on a novel?
6.  Do you talk books with anyone in real life?  Who?  Or is your blog your only avenue?
7.  Is there any book you associate strongly with a particular place or time in your life?
8.  Where and when do you do most of your reading?
9.  What period in history have you read the most about (either fiction or non-fiction)?
10.  What kind of poetry (if any) do you read?
11.  What is the funniest book you've ever read?

I am passing the Liebster Blog Award on to the following bloggers, who may answer the above questions if they wish to participate:

Jean@Howling Frog Books
James@The Frugal Chariot
Monika@Library Mistress
Brona@Brona's Books
SmellinCoffee@This Week At the Library
Jo@Mixed Book Bag
Yvonne@fiction books

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Just Finished: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

When it's very hot, and where I live it's very hot most of the time, I love to read about cool, green, misty places.  (That is a not insignificant part of my love for English classics.)  So this collection of poetry and prose by Matsuo Basho was just the ticket last week.  The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches is his collected observations from several walking trips around the wild areas of northern Japan in the seventeenth century.  Autumn winds and moonlit mountains sound like heaven to me these days.

The translator of this edition, Nobuyuki Yuasa, explains that in the years preceding these journeys, Basho had been "casting away his earthly attachments" in an effort to attain spiritual purity, and that these journeys were intended as a final step in that process.  His intention was to travel until he died.

Although Yuasa provides a very interesting introduction to the haibun form (linked prose and haiku) and to the evolution of Basho's style, I didn't look at it until after finishing the book.  I wanted those images--I wanted to head north into those wild mountains.  And the poetry on its own was a great pleasure.  Images like this
Over the darkened sea,
Only the voice of a flying duck
Is visible--
In soft white.
and this
Not knowing 
The name of the tree,
I stood in the flood
Of its sweet smell.
and this
Only half the way I came
To the ancient capital,
And above my head
Clouds heavy with snow.
were what I was craving.

Basho seems to be trying to notice and preserve every impression.  But more than just recording what he sees, he seems to want to see everything mindfully;  to see the essence of whatever he looks at.  He visits old friends, shrines, and the sites of ancient battles;  reflects, and is moved to tears.  It's as if he is trying to take leave of the world by studying and making poetry of it.

Mixing It Up
The Classics Club