March 2012

Books read:

  1. State of Wonder. Ann Patchett.
  2. The Icarus Girl. Helen Oyeyemi.
  3. Women readers and the ideology of gender in Old French verse romances. Roberta L. Krueger.
  4. An Equal Music. Vikram Seth.
  5. Ombria in Shadow. Patricia A. McKillip.
  6. The Book Thief. Markus Zusak.
  7. Victory of Eagles. Naomi Novik.
  8. The White Deer. James Thurber.
  9. Out of the woods: an armchair guide to trees. Will Cohu.
  10. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. N. K. Jemisin.
  11. Party Book. Sarah Fielding, compiler.

Best fantasy: Ombria in Shadow
Best new author: N. K. Jemisin
Best literary read: The Icarus Girl

Wow. Choosing a best fantasy was hard, especially when the contenders are Ombria in Shadow, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and The White Deer. My love for Patricia A. McKillip’s storytelling won out, but that doesn’t mean The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin or The White Deer by James Thurber were any less wonderful. It will be difficult to choose which of these two to review for my Sunday Review post tomorrow. (Well, I already know which one it is, since I’ve already written most of the review in my head…) I wish I had more money I could spare for books, because our public library doesn’t have the rest of Jemisin’s series and I want to read the rest. As it is, I suspect my next book purchase might be Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness, being as I requested it from the public library a month ago and it’s still ‘in transit’, er…

I think we can safely say that I read more when I turn of the computer for the night at 9PM. (And when I’ve been traveling — I was on the train quite a bit.) Maybe this is a Lenten habit worth keeping.

Going to the cinema

I interrupt our regularly scheduled ‘Favourite Things’ post to provide an alternate glimpse into Being an Ex-pat.

Yesterday I was positively bouncing with excitement to finally see The Hunger Games. Ros had gamely offered to go with me, despite not having read the book, since everyone else we knew had already gone. I wore boots and my hair in a braid to channel Katniss and wished that I had a ‘District 12’ t-shirt. I smuggled in a bag of M&M’s, purchased a small sprite and salty popcorn, and joined Ros in a mostly-empty theatre with the best seats: as close to middle-middle as we could. Meanwhile, Ros was only beginning to be bemused. I was clearly displayingAmerican movie-going behaviour.

For one thing, she was surprised at my perfectly normal snack choices of popcorn & M&M’s. This is indicative of a larger cultural difference: most British people I know won’t mix sweet and savoury things together. They think it’s incredibly weird. Every Thanksgiving, this topic comes up, and the British people present express their bafflement that we Americans would mix something as savoury as turkey with something as sweet as sweet potato casserole. It is one of the reasons, I suspect, that peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are a truly foreign concept to my British friends. They know Americans eat them, but won’t themselves. And so it is with classic movie snacks: M&M’s and salty (but alas, not buttery) popcorn.

Secondly: I sat through the credits. When the lights came up, everyone stood as one and within minutes the theatre was empty. Ros stood as well, but I was sitting in the aisle seat. We sat through the credits, I casually commenting on this name and that, waiting to see where it was filmed (‘North Carolina! Good, I’m glad.’) and who had done the music. Once one of the cinema staff came in and pointedly looked at us, but I ignored him. So what if we were the only ones in the theatre? I wanted to see the credits. When we finally left the lights were out in the foyer and he was already locking up. Staying for the credits certainly isn’t a British thing to do.

There were other little differences: the types of adverts and previews before the film started. I visit the cinema so infrequently that I forget about them. The largest screen at our cinema is the size of one of the small screens at any of the Regal Cinemas in San Antonio. The small screen here is little bigger than watching something on a projector. There are only three screens. Granted, I live in a small town. The one time I went to the ‘proper’ cinema in Dundee, that felt more like a ‘real’ movie theatre: it even had escalators!

What did I think of the film? I really enjoyed it. I might have enjoyed it more had I not already read the books — I mean this only in the sense that because I already knew what was going to happen that this element of suspense was lacking. But I loved Katniss and Rue and Haymitch and Cinna and President Snow was creepy and the tracker jackers totally made my poor allergic-to-wasps housemate freak out (sorry Ros!) and it was filmed in North Carolina where it ought to have been, so I am glad. I noticed only one thing missing and that was the bread that District 11 sent to Katniss, which I loved in the book, but it also would have been rather difficult to explain. The sets, the costuming, the cinematic quality of it (it’s all about one huge TV show after all) was well done. This fan is happy.

Now, where can I get a mockingjay pin?

Briefly, London

St Martin in the Fields is a nice little church in Trafalgar Square, London. I made it there with my bags just after the choral concert started, so I lugged them down into the crypt, to sit in the aptly named Café-in-the-Crypt until the interval. The Café-in-the-Crypt is a lovely café/restaurant with a wide range of options to fit most any budget. I myself had a large bowl of soup and a roll for £3.75. Not bad for London. After dinner I waited upstairs until the interval. I found myself standing in the doorway of the church, listening in rapture to the pure soaring notes of Allegri’s Miserere Mei Deus* in one ear and the sounds of sirens and traffic noise in the other. I found Charly at the interval, shared crème brûlée with her dad, and sat inside the church to hear the rest of her concert.

As already mentioned, I spent most of my time in London at the British Library. No touristy things this time. I stayed with my friend Charly and her family, met up with friends for lunch in the BL courtyard, did lots of research, and then jetted off to Oxford.

* For the record, I want Allegri’s Miserere sung as part of my funeral/memorial requiem mass.

The Other Place

My first port of call for my trip south was The Other Place, Cambridge, to visit some friends who recently moved there from our lovely seaside town. I wasn’t even there for a full 24 hours, so it was but a ‘taster’ visit. Though I took lots of pictures, I was your typical tourist and can’t tell you much about what I saw. I merely took pictures of things that were pretty.

Jake had to work, but Chris and I went to wander the city center and visit a few colleges. She hadn’t had a chance yet to be a tourist in her new town, so I’m glad I was there to force her to take a day off and wander around. I kept being disoriented: I am so familiar with Oxford, and yet here was a place that had colleges, too! But the colleges and streets were all ‘wrong’ — the colleges were in the wrong places and the streets turned the wrong way. I think I would need to stay in Cambridge for quite some time before I stopped comparing it to Oxford. Continue reading

The British Library

Well, I’m sitting in the café of one of my favourite places in the UK (if not the world), and since I am now merely waiting until my train leaves (in four hours), I suppose I shall finally update my blog.

Where am I, that it is so lovely? Three floors of reading rooms tower above me; there are reading rooms on either side of the café, and below me is a shop, exhibition hall, and below that is a cloakroom, another exhibition room, locker room, and I don’t even know what else. From where I sit I can see most of the King’s Library collection on display. Where am I? I am in the café of the British Library.

The British Library is a wonderful place. It is a haven in the heart of London. Outside the world is busy, turbulent, always in a rush. Step but through the gates into the courtyard and at once enter the calm: in the courtyard, academics mill about on the steps or the outdoor café, chatting quietly or eating or drinking in silence, often with a book in hand. Enter the doors and you have entered a sanctuary. Oh, how airy and full of light it is! And quiet, filled only with soft murmurings rather than traffic noise. The British Library is a beautiful place filled with beautiful books and beautiful people. I love it.

Part of my trip down south has been to spend a few days here, in the manuscripts reading room of the British Library. I have been consulting the manuscript of my beloved Melusine, tenderly turning its pages and transcribing its handwritten words. Oh, the wonders of scholarship! I live in two worlds: one that holds a 15th century manuscript in its hands and which types its notes onto a laptop computer, connected to the world via wireless internet. I’m here gathering clues for an article or two, and in the meantime, reviving my love for the text of Melusine. There is nothing like paging through your favourite medieval romance manuscript to get you excited about your thesis and the life of a scholar again.

The lockers are nice to use, too.


The Book Thief

Opening line: ‘First the colours. Then the humans. That’s usually how I see things. Or at least, how I try.’

ImageIn 1939, Liesel Meminger is taken to live with a foster family in Molching, a suburb of Munich. She never knew her father; her brother died on the way; her mother is too poor to care for her. Her new family isn’t much better off. She goes to school and plays football on the street with the neighbourhood boys. Far away, it seems, the world is at war. But over the next few months and years the war begins to be felt in Molching, in the basement of 33 Himmel Street, where amidst the discovery of reading and words and the music of the accordion the Hubermanns and Liesel are hiding a terrible secret.

To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. And in all honestly, although the first few pages really gripped me, I was getting rather bored until page 170 or so. But then Things started happening and it kept my attention until the very end and for a while afterward. (Sometimes I can start another book the next day after finishing one; but with others I have to wait a day or so before I’m ready to move on.) At times I found the narration somewhat tiresome — the novel is narrated by Death, who sometimes tells you events out of order — but by the end I appreciated the way and the order in which I as the reader was exposed to the information. The ending was powerful; I wish I knew more of what happened next.

One thing I found particularly interesting was that this wasn’t your typical WWII novel. This wasn’t set in a camp, it wasn’t about resistance fighters, it wasn’t about people in occupied territories. While I was reading this novel, I realised that I had never really took the time to think about what the war was like in Germany. Being an American, living in Britain, the primary narrative I’ve been exposed to has been the Anglo-American one. What I appreciated about The Book Thief was that it depicted a microcosm of, well, ‘normal’, realistic people. Families trying to get by. Regular people not all that concerned with politics, varying in ignorance or knowledge, varying also in their opinions. I was struck by the scenes in the bomb shelter: swap the names of the targets and the attackers and it would have found its reflection in the suburbs of London. In some ways I found this uncomfortable. In the same ways, I appreciated being challenged.

What did I like most? Liesel, and how she used words and reading and writing to understand what was going on in the world around her.’There was once a strange, small man. But there was a word shaker, too.’

If you can make it through the first 170 pages and bear the company of Death, you just might like this book.

Favourite things

Sometimes silly ducks:

'How do I get down? Quack!'

Every day I pass over the Kinnessburn to get into town, and every day I see the ducks. Sometimes they’re silly and end up places you might not expect. I’m glad I’ve started carrying my camera around again, to capture quirky moments like this.

My apologies

I am sorry, dear readers, I have been remiss: I did not forewarn you that I would be away for some days. I am still away – photos and stories upon my return, of course – but let me leave you with a tantalizing glimpse of what I’ve been up to:

I am a pro at taking clandestine photographs in libraries.

Ombria in Shadow

First sentence: ‘While the ruler of the ancient city of Ombria lay dying, his mistress, frozen out of the room by the black stare of Domina Pearl, drifted like a  bird on a wave until she bumped through Kyel Greve’s unguarded door to his bed, where he was playing with his puppets.’

Ombria is the oldest city in the world, the most beautiful city in the world, the most powerful city in the world, and when its prince dies his young son is left an orphan. As his regent, the ancient great-aunt Domina Pearl rules the court and its city with an iron fist and dark magic. With the other claimants to the throne half in their graves already with age, and his only cousin the illegitimate son of a dead princess, Prince Kyel is in danger of forever being the Black Pearl’s puppet. She has spent too many lifetimes scheming to rule Ombria to let a mere little boy stand in her way.

But behind the walls of the palace is a secret palace; under the city is a secret city; behind Ombria is a shadow world with a life of its own. It seems that there is no one in these two worlds who cares for Prince Kyel — none except the illegitimate cousin, Ducon the artist, and Lydea, the prince’s mistress thrown out to the streets to be killed for the jewels in her hair and her dancing shoes made of sapphire. A girl of wax who swallowed a heart finds herself meddling in the spells of both the sorceress under the city and the Black Pearl’s, bringing Ducon and Lydea together to save the child prince of Ombria, and them all.

I love Patricia A. McKillip, and I loved Ombria in Shadow. I discovered Patricia A. McKillip several months ago when I was looking for Cybele’s Secret by Juliet Marillier — the cover art for these two authors is very similar in style. Last September, I read Kelly’s copy of Od Magic and fell in love — where has Patricia A. McKillip been all my life? I told Kelly I would read anything by McKillip, and because Kelly is a wonderful friend, I received six (6) books by Patricia A. McKillip for Christmas. I have since read The Changeling Sea, and The Book of Atrix Wolf, and now Ombria in Shadow, and what can I say? I am still smitten with this author. Her stories are dreamlike, enchanting; her characters unassuming, natural, and real; her prose lyrical, musical; her descriptions as beautiful as a pre-Raphaelite painting. Sadly, I only own three more books of hers to read, but fortunately she has written lots, lots more.

Should you read Ombria in Shadow? Yes, you should, and other books by her, too.

Museum visitors

Things that visitors do that never cease to baffle me:

  • Attempt to enter the museum before it opens. The museum’s opening hours are posted on no fewer than four signs. These extra keen visitors ignore the fact that the gates are closed and enter into the courtyard anyway. Then they try to open the front door — which, being that the museum isn’t open to the public yet, is locked. But these visitors are not deterred by a locked door: they will simply continue to yank on it and shake the door until I or my colleague are interrupted from inspecting the cases or unlocking the galleries to go and tell them, no, I’m sorry, the museum isn’t open yet, please come back in fifteen minutes.
  • Sense of entitlement. When these early visitors are then confused and put out that no, we will not open the museum early especially for them.
  • Smudging the glass. Really, why do you need to touch the glass cases? Why do you  need to push your nose against the glass? I have to clean up after you.
  • Leaving through the Emergency Exit Only door. I know it’s confusing. The door you entered is the same you are supposed to leave through, and right next to it is another door with a push-bar. But this other door has a big red sign on it that says, ‘EMERGENCY EXIT ONLY’. If you open it, it will not close behind you. I will have to get up and shut it. We can’t alarm it because too many people open it. Too often I find myself saying, ‘It’s the door on the left-‘ only to have the visitor ignore me and open the door on the right instead.

These are not rare occurrences; on the contrary, they happen every weekend when I work. I just don’t understand.