Category Archives: travel

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Except not really because I would probably be absolutely petrified, have a heart attack, and die. If you are completely lost, the title refers to the first and very well-known line from the eerie Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. My first experience with Rebecca was as a child when I first watched Hitchcock’s interpretation with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I’ve seen it half a dozen times, more recently two months ago. I finally picked up a copy of the book at the library the day before Thanksgiving and devoured it as it rained outside, which, I have to say, is pretty much perfect reading weather but is certainly perfect Du Maurier reading weather.

The unnamed narrator, a young, unworldly woman, meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo while acting as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an older, wealthy, prattling woman. Mrs. Van Hopper refers to some sort of awful tragedy Mr. de Winter has endured (she seems to know everything about everyone), but our narrator doesn’t pry. Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill, and the narrator finds herself more and more in the company of Mr. de Winter, an inscrutable but fascinating older man.

All too quickly, the holiday in Monte Cristo comes to a close, but Maxim refuses to let the naive young narrator sail off into the sunset. No, there is a much-less-happy-ending in the narrator’s future. The couple goes to Manderley, Maxim’s estate, and the young companion has no idea how to run a household, much less a household as large as Manderley. She meets the household staff and quickly learns Maxim goes about Maxim’s business while she is left to her own devices.

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, conspicuously brings up Rebecca (the first Mrs. De Winter) in conversation, referring to how Mrs. DeWinter did this and how Mrs. DeWinter did that, leaving the narrator feeling more insecure and less able to learn how to adjust to her new home. Mrs. Danvers tempts the narrator with discussions of Rebecca’s rooms, the best in the house. When the narrator walks through the grounds, she looks up and curtains in Rebecca’s old room part to reveal Mrs. Danvers, ever watchful. Let’s stop there. Mrs. Danvers is easily one of the most spooky characters I have ever read about or watched in a film. Her obsession with Rebecca and her obvious distaste for the new Mrs. DeWinter verges on demented. This is one twisted housekeeper, and you should be very, very afraid.

As for Maxim, he is gone quite often and has turned sullen and standoffish inside the walls of Manderley. His moods are inconstant; he treats the narrator like a young girl (which drove me nuts). In the face of near insurmountable evidence, the narrator naturally believes he is still in love with the dead Rebecca. She begs him to host a ball for the neighbors, a costume ball, and Mrs. Danvers suggests what the narrator should wear. The tension mounts until the night of the party, and then there is all sorts of action.  Who was Rebecca, and what happened to her?

I will leave you hanging here because I don’t want to spoil anything. Plus, I think every blogger is owed several “Go read this book right now” statements throughout the year, so I’m calling in my first. Go read this book. Second, watch the movie. Third, come back and thank me, and we can talk. Need some more reasons? Spooky house? Check. Crazy housekeeper? Check. Dead wife? Check. Now go.

If you’ve read it, have you seen the movie? I seriously felt as though it played in my head the entire time. Hitchcock, of course, is a genius, but this film is truly a work of art and an excellent, excellent adaptation. What did you think? Rebecca truly made me want to devour everything DuMaurier has written.

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A festival of books? It’s a festivus for the rest of us!

Friday afternoon, I ditched the office, the pup, and Beaumont, Texas to go with my parents to the Texas Book Festival in Austin, Texas. We went last year and had such a great time, we decided it had to be an annual event.

I had plans, people, big plans: I had my panels mapped out. I booked a hotel close to the site with breakfast included so we wouldn’t have to run around hunting for a Starbucks. My dad, on the other hand, had no clue. Yet somehow he made it to seven panels, while I only made it to four. Ah, beginner’s luck.

The four panels I did make it to? Incredible. Plus, I got to meet up with some other Texas book bloggers and end the moratorium on book buying. Throw in a little honky-tonkin, and you’re looking at one exhausted, but pleased picky girl.

Saturday:

Julia Glass

Luckily, I was close to finishing her newest book The Widower’s Tale. In fact, I brought my library book into the Capitol with me to read before the panel started. (Review coming later this week.) Ms. Glass was not all that inventive a speaker, and I was a bit disappointed. The moderator was excellent, though, and asked a couple questions I certainly had about the book. For example, the novel is told from the perspective of four men. Was that a conscious decision, and was it difficult to write from the male perspective? Ms. Glass answered it was most certainly intentional; she apparently feels very comfortable writing in the male voice, though she did admit the 20-year-old perspective was difficult to write (a complaint I had about the dialogue in the book). Here’s the panel and a pic of my mom and I before it got started:

Scott Westerfeld

Fantastic. Funny. Charming. Scott Westerfeld rocked – plain and simple. He really gave the sort of lecture I strive to give to my students – informative, humorous, practical, and interesting. He talked a bit about his series Uglies, but as I cannot speak to those books, I’ll focus on what I was there for – Leviathan and Behemoth. Westerfeld spoke about where the idea for the books came from. He has a blog, and his fans post art inspired by his books. When he found the Japanese version of his first series had drawings, he was a bit taken aback; his fans were jealous. As he said (and I paraphrase), there’s nothing like an oppressed teenager….

Westerfeld pondered why we, as Americans, avoid illustrations in adult books. Why do we reserve illustrations for the young and then take them away at a certain point? Why do we assume illustrations narrow the imagination instead of expanding it? So with Leviathan, he found illustrator Keith Thompson, and they collaborated quite nicely. He says the illustrations “allow for alternate story lines” and that if you look closely, the illustrator works these in carefully. The challenge, though, is making the story active enough – “with illustrations, characters have to move around, so the drawings can change.” Otherwise, the scenes become repetitive. He also had to think differently in terms of setting the stage. Keith would send him sketches, lacking a couple characters Westerfeld had in the scene. When asked about this decision, Keith would tell him it looked too crowded. So Westerfeld revised.

Westerfeld ended the talk with questions, and my personal favorite was when he was asked if he would venture into graphic novels. The answer? An enticing ‘yes.’

In between Saturday’s panels, I met up with some great Texas book bloggers, including Iliana at bookgirl’s nightstand who encouraged me to get into book blogging. It was really great to put faces to the names although since I only knew what Amanda looked like, I was a bit nervous. Thankfully, I spotted the group pretty quickly, and I had a great time chatting with Iliana, Carin, Karen, Trish, Debbie, and Amanda. Jason, Amanda’s husband, was gracious enough to take our photos (please notice how antisocial we are; we are standing like a foot away from each other). ūüėČ All in all, it was great to meet everyone, and I can’t wait for next year to do it again.

From left to right: Carin, me, Trish, Amanda, Debbie

 

From top left to bottom right: Iliana, Karen, Carin, and Amanda

Of course, I couldn’t wait to get to the tents to buy my copy of Behemoth, and I also picked up these little gems from one of my favorite artists (don’t worry – I’ve got a whole post lined up to give you a peek at the inside):

 

Stay tuned for a wrap-up of Sunday’s awesome panels!!!

Until then, happy reading,

jenn

aka picky girl


Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende

I strike the ground with the soles of my feet and life rises up my legs, spreads up my skeleton, takes possession of me, drives away distress and sweetens my memory. The world trembles. Rhythm is born on the island beneath the sea; it shakes the earth, it cuts through me like a lightning bolt and rises toward the sky…”Dance, dance Zarite, the slave who dances is free…while he is dancing”…I have always danced.

Switching between a slave narrative and an omniscient narrator, Island Beneath the Sea spans 40 years and two countries and also tracks the slave revolt in Saint-Domingue (later Haiti*) that would result in the island’s independence from the British, French, and Spanish and the mass immigration to New Orleans. It follows¬†Toulouse Valmorain, who comes to Saint-Domingue in 1770 from Paris, the pampered son of a sugarcane plantation owner. However, upon his arrival for a quick visit, he finds his father dying and sees the condition of the land, and “the tour was sufficient for him to understand that the slaves were starving and the plantation had been saved from ruin only because the world was consuming sugar with increasing voraciousness.” He works hard to improve the conditions, although he does not see himself as a plantation owner, much less the owner of slaves. Valmorain, instead, sees himself as “a man of letters” and has difficulty punishing slaves or allowing his overseer Prosper Cambray to mete out discipline.

Throughout his early years in Saint-Domingue, he encounters Violette Boisier, a cocotte or courtesan, with whom he keeps company. Violette, even though of mixed blood, is a sign of civility and elegance, so different from the harsh life on the island. She is a smart, independent woman who, with her slave Loula, amasses a small fortune through enterprising businesses. When Toulouse Valmorain decides to marry a Spanish woman, Eugenia de Solar, it is Violette’s advice he seeks as to house and home. Violette outfits the home ¬†and chooses a personal maid for Eugenia, the young Zarite, also known as Tete.

Tete is nine when she is bought from the home of a minister’s widow and leaves her only family, Honore, an old man who cares for her like a grandfather and maman. It is through him that she learns of the loas, or spirits of voodoo. She is taught to serve and cares for Eugenia Valmorain, the weak wife of the master who, as he says, “spends the night tormented by nightmares and the day tormented by reality.” Eugenia was raised in a convent and is not at all prepared for the heat, insects, and cruelty on Saint-Domingue. As Eugenia’s health deteriorates, Valmorain begins raping Tete, and in doing so, ties Tete to himself in more ways than he would like.

Island Beneath the Sea, beautifully translated from Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden, is certainly no love story in the traditional sense, for in this day and age, love is withheld or allowed based on wealth, class, skin color, and religion. But this was a time when blood was measured by percentage, and Allende tells us:

Among the free mulattoes, the affranchis, there were more than sixty classifications set by percentage of white blood, and that determined their social level. In spite of subtleties of color, the mulattoes were united by their shared aspiration to pass for whites and their visceral scorn for Negroes. The slaves, whose number was ten times greater than that of the whites and affranchis combined, counted for nothing, neither in the census of the population nor in the colonists’ consciousness.

In such a place, humanity is always relative; thus, the slave revolt is courageous but bloody while Valmorain’s own discovery of slaves as people is both typical but appalling. Violence is traded for violence; hatred for hatred. During one period, all the slaveholders are being killed by the rebels, and this included domestic slaves because they were treated better than field slaves. In essence, the rebels began imposing their own systems of prejudice upon the slaves. In the historical context, Island Beneath the Sea is truly fascinating while Allende’s cast of characters, including Sancho, Valmorain’s pleasure-seeking brother-in-law; Dr. Parmentier, a noble man with a secret; and Tante Rose, a slave, healer, and mambo, struck me as more real than any I’ve read in quite some time.

From Saint-Domingue to the streets and slave markets of New Orleans, the novel is impressive and much more worthy of what I’ve come to expect from Isabel Allende**. Although not a romance as some others have claimed, the characters are in love with freedom, but the question remains: what can be gained from freedom and what will it cost?

*The novel is very timely, but Allende began researching and writing the novel four years before the 2010 earthquake.

**Her novel, Daughter of Fortune was somewhat disappointing. You can read my review here.


Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

I hate when I really, really love the first book I pick up by any particular author. It makes anything thereafter usually pale in comparison. I’m not saying that is always the case. However, I read Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende because her book The House of the Spirits is one of my all-time favorite books. If you haven’t read it, please please add it to your TBR list right away. The last time I was at the library, I decided to try to remove the stigma of the first great book and pick up another Allende.

From the blurb:

Orphaned at birth, Eliza Sommers is raised in the British colony of Valparaiso, Chile, by the well-intentioned Victorian spinster Miss Rose and her more rigid brother Jeremy. Just as she meets and falls in love with the wildly inappropriate Joaquin Andieta, a lowly clerk who works for Jeremy, gold is discovered in the hills of norther California. By 1849, Chileans of every stripe have fallen prey to feverish dreams of wealthy. Joaquin takes off for San Francisco to seek his fortune, and Eliza, pregnant with his child, decides to follow him.

Although it sounds promising, this book became really tedious for me at times. In fact, almost any book I read, I read in one or two sittings. This book took a bit longer, and I needed frequent breaks. I really enjoyed the historical aspect of this novel as well as the look into life in China during the 1800s and the Gold Rush. The character Tao Chi’en was my favorite. He is a zhong yi, or medicine man. As a young boy, he is sold into service but manages through his healing skills to be sold again as an apprentice to a Cantonese master. The man teaches Tao Chi’en and guides him through life. After a series of unfortunate events, Tao Chi’en is shanghaied into service at sea. Apparently, this was common practice. The sea men would get a man drunk and either force him to sign a document of service or use his thumbprint. Tao Chi’en wakes up aboard ship, but his skills as a healer are noticed early on, and the captain, John Sommers, comes to respect him. Tao Chi’en later helps Eliza follow Joaquin to San Francisco, and again, their relationship is interesting, but Allende doesn’t fully develop it.

The book drags. I could not stand Eliza’s character once she falls in love. Her actions are rash, and after a certain point, they are also completely unbelievable. She follows her lover to San Francisco and endures all sorts of hardship simply to find him. She continues ¬†her search, at times, out of principle only. Her exploration of a woman’s freedom is refreshing but a bit – again – unbelievable. Her foster mother, Rose, has a back story that also tries to reinforce the theme of female independence; it’s just not very convincing. Worst of all, the ending was the most abrupt I believe I have ever read. I really had to look (as this is a library book) to make sure no pages were torn from it. Nope. It just ended. ¬†There are a lot of things for which I will forgive an author, but an unsatisfying ending is not one of them. It felt shocking (outside of the story). Within the story, it just did not seem to make sense. There was quite a bit more I wanted to know upon reading the last sentence.


A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam

It’s not often I venture from the tried and true. I’m an American lit girl. I’ll stray for a good mystery, and I’ve always loved British lit, but I’m an American reader through and through. I’m fascinated by novels of race and identity, and the collective consciousness of American writers intrigues me. However, I’m also very open minded as a reader. (Yes, you can be open minded and picky – I promise… I know you were thinking it.) The world of book blogging has made me consciously consider my reading choices, and for that, I am very grateful. I don’t mean that I run out and pick up the book about which everyone is blogging. Far from it. I would much rather find my own rewarding reads. The library makes that a possibility for me. I know some bloggers are making a concerted effort not to spend money on books for very valid and personal reasons. My reason is necessity. This past year, after quitting a lucrative but miserable job to teach as a university adjunct instructor (a choice I don’t regret in the least), life has been difficult financially. So the library enables me to make adventurous choices in my reading.

A Golden Age by Tahmima Anam was an adventurous choice for me. Set in Dhaka, East Pakistan (Bangladesh) and in the 1970s, the surroundings were completely foreign to me. I love to travel, but have never visited this region of the world. The novel opens with the words: “Dear Husband, I lost our children today.” No, the children have not died, and no, they are not simply lost in the colorful markets of Bangladesh. Rehana Haque, widow, has been declared unfit to raise her children because she has little money and took her children out of school to see Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. She grieves, and in grieving, her brother and sister-in-law make a play to raise the children on their own across all of India in Lahore, West Pakistan. This event shakes Rehana deeply and forever alters her life even though she is able to get her children back. As grown children, Sohail and Maya are headstrong, enthusiastic, convicted citizens who want a better life and a better country. When her son decides to join in fighting, he leaves and cannot stop him, “not just so she would have Sohail’s confidence, but because she could not blame anyone but herself for making him so fine, so ready to take charge. This was who she had hoped he would become, even if she had never imagined that her son, or the world, would come to this.”¬†Rehana worries her children will be lost to her once again when internal and external conflicts threaten their existence.

A tale of love, loss, heartbreak, war, and sacrifice, A Golden Age is full of humanity and the lengths to which a mother can and will go in the fight for her children.


Ah, Italy…

The end of May always makes me think of Italy. The first time I went was in early May (I’ve been three times… I’ll try to keep the “obnoxious” down a bit.) I was 23, had never flown, and was totally on my own. I had just finished my undergraduate degree and had planned my trip for nearly a year, saving and scouting possible hostels and restaurants.

I bought a travel journal, a nifty little journal that I still have and use when I go anywhere. I got it at Barnes & Noble, and it was a great trip-planning tool. It wasn’t one of those that simply looks nice and has blank pages inside. No, this one had handy dandy tips from fellow travelers. It was slim with a band around it to hold receipts, passports, tickets, and it had quotes and spaces to write what I wanted out of this trip, why I wanted to go and to where. It also had plenty of practical details. And, lo and behold, in the back, it had books geared toward different areas of the world. Much as Savidge Reads likes to read books about or set in or by an author from the part of the world to where he travels, so do many people. I was planning on a short jaunt to Venice – I wasn’t planning on liking it as it seemed to me cliche- and the journal suggested The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan (I‘ll link to A Guy’s Moleskine Notebook if you want a thorough review). This book is about a couple vacationing in Venice, meeting another couple, and… let’s just put it this way, things go terribly, terribly wrong. I was horrified. I was petrified.

I proceeded to read everything I could about Venice before leaving, and each resource advised not to arrive after dark. When did I arrive? After dark. Alone, and for the first time on that entire trip, I was scared. I’ll never forget trekking up and down bridges, across narrow passageways, thinking I would never get out alive, peering down dark alleys and seeing lone, hulking figures. Finally, I saw the warm glow of an open hotel lobby and stepped inside. A young man, probably younger than I am now, took one look at me and asked what was wrong. To my utter humiliation, I began crying – the kind of hiccuping cry no one outside of yourself should ever hear – and he was so kind. He brought me water, got someone to watch the front desk, and walked me to my hotel, speaking soothingly in broken English and Italian the entire way.

I ended up loving Venice. The sound of the water lapping against the generations-old stone bridges and walks. The ever-narrowing passageways sometimes leading to nowhere. The flowers growing unbelievably out of cracks of stone and hanging from people’s balconies. The dogs scurrying around outside the open markets that dot the small town. Venice is surreal in so many ways, as is much of Italy. Since that trip, I’ve been back twice – both times with great friends. Although I loved those trips as well and will always remember them, that first exploration will remain with me always. In May, I break out my linen pants, which I wore almost daily in Italy (Italy just seems to call for linen), and dream of the grapefruit-sized lemons of Positano, of the view from a small monastery window looking down in the hills of Tuscany below Cortona, of small-town Italian festival, of an afternoon spent eating gelato and people watching, of walking through lush Italian gardens, and drinking unbelievably-good red wine or Prosecco.

Before I left the first time, people told me traveling abroad would be a life-changing experience. I hate cliches and fought against it, but Italy made me a new person. It made me appreciate the small joys and daily pleasures of life, so today I hope you too find something small in which to take pleasure. As for me, I may be found sitting on the front porch reading a book and just maybe, drinking a glass of Prosecco.


The Swan Thieves by Elizabeth Kostova

Painting by Sisley - at Musee d'Orsay

I loved The Historian. I know others found it to drag or to be too long, but I enjoyed every second of that book. It scared the pants off me, and it fascinated me. As many fans out there, I waited anxiously for Kostova’s new book, The Swan Thieves. I began it Monday evening and finished it yesterday afternoon. At a hefty 561 pages, it is quite long. However, I really found this book to be absorbing. Even once I put the book down, the characters stayed with me, and I had to really think about several different areas I want to address in my review, so please forgive the sometimes incoherent nature of the following…

The publisher’s blurb:

Robert Oliver, a renowned painter, has brutally attacked a canvas in the National Gallery of Art. What would compel an artist to destroy something he values beyond all else? From the confines of his hospital room, Oliver maintains a stubborn silence, offering only the briefest explanation before he stops speaking altogether: “I did it for her.”

Andrew Marlow, an amateur painter himself and Oliver’s doctor, delves into the mystery of why Oliver attacked the (fictitious) painting Leda and the Swan by (fictitious) Gilbert Thomas, a 19th-century French painter and gallery owner. He originally takes on the patient out of professional curiosity that rapidly takes Marlow to the limits of his profession. Marlow is a solitary figure, past 50 and single. When told from his perspective, the action occurred 3 years prior, which can sometimes throw the reader. He contacts Oliver’s ex-wife and then his former lover who also narrate at times, trying to put the pieces of Oliver’s life and mania together and to determine the dark lady he paints obsessively, even maniacally. Along the way, Marlow finds Oliver has a strange and fierce fascination with 19th century letters between a woman named Beatrice de Clerval and her husband’s uncle, Oliver Vignal. The letters are in French, but he has them translated. The beauty of these letters was easily one of my favorite aspects of the story.

Not a traditional mystery, The Swan Thieves definitely has twists and turns; however, I knew the big “tada” moment long before it was revealed. It wasn’t difficult to determine, and it was somewhat annoying that Marlow never commented on these pivotal letters pieced throughout the main narrative. It also reminded me of a more high-handed version of these rampant Da Vinci Code narratives, where privileged people run around, buying exorbitant plane tickets and traveling at the drop of a hat. It seems unrealistic to me, and not just because I’m broke and jealous (wink). Marlow also completely crosses the line of ethical behavior and not once does anyone call him on it.

The character in whom I was most interested – Robert Oliver – was also conveniently clipped at the end. After the second quarter of the book, he seems to become unimportant to Kostova’s plot and is left in the dust. This enigmatic painter whose presence I keenly felt seems to almost become a plot device, a way for Kostova to advance her main story and a platform for Marlow to become the sometimes unlikable protagonist. Yet, Oliver is the one I want to follow. For a year, he sits in Marlow’s presence, mute, painting and sketching, clearly tortured; Marlow says he is attempting to help Oliver but later admits to himself and the reader he no longer has him at the forefront of this journey. Then, once the mystery is gone, Oliver speaks, and bam! No more Robert Oliver. Maybe it is simply because I am surrounded by creative people, all artists in their own right, but I was able to sympathize and identify with Robert Oliver. His passion, his obsession are what he cares most for; people get in the way of that and can become liabilities. It’s an interesting examination of what a creative life can be like – lonely, exhausting, and many times, masochistic. I felt Kostova shortchanged herself and her character by leaving him off so easily. Continue reading