Recent Acquisitions

DSC_0003Much smaller pile this time around. The selections available at the library’s used book sale were pretty repetitive — lots of book clubs dumping their selections, I guess — and I haven’t exactly been reading enough to justify bringing home yet more books.

Three of the books I picked up — The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness, A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon — are books I remember making their rounds through the blogosphere over the last couple of years. And I’ve read two novels by Sophie Hannah before hence bringing home The Cradle in the Grave.

The only book I didn’t pick up at the used book sale was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which I purchased at a local bookstore while I was hanging out with a friend in Somerville last weekend. This novel is my book club’s selection for August, and there was no way I would make it to the top of the 450+ waiting list at the library in time. I haven’t made much of a dent in the book, but it’s set during World War II so I am looking forward to reading it.

Recent Acquisitions

DSC_0020The first Saturday in an even-numbered month means there’s a used book sale at the public library to check out so the first Sunday in an even-numbered month means it is time to share my recent acquisitions with you all. The organization that runs the used book sale was offering a number of deals and promotions this time, but I zeroed in on the buy one, get one free promotion for fiction.

Once again, I picked up two books I have read before at the sale — The Girl Who Played with Fire by Stieg Larsson and A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin. I’ve been itching to read Larsson’s series again, especially after a fourth book in the series to be written by another author is slatted to be published in August. As much as I understand the position of Larsson’s partner of thirty-two years, I think saying I won’t read The Girl in the Spider’s Web — period — would be a lie at this point. I’ll likely wait for the reviews to start trickling in before I deciding yay or nay.

I picked up Martin’s novel, the third in his series, for two reasons: (a) I’m trying to encourage my family to read the books since I’ve been so disappointed (and disgusted, to be honest) with season five of the television season and (b) this book happens to be my favorite of the five he’s published so far. Oh, and did I mention I got it for free?

I purchased three novels by authors whose other works I’ve read and enjoyed in the past — Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Amy Tan’s The Opposite of Fate, and Lisa See’s Shanghai Girls — and then two by authors I’ve heard a great amount of acclaim for, Little Bee by Chris Cleave and Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby.

Rounding out my purchases are Madwoman on the Bridge by Su Tong, the first two books in Julianna Baggott’s Pure series, and Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. It wasn’t until I started walking home that I realized I recognized the titles of Wouk’s books because there are television miniseries from the 1980s based on the novels, which are both in my Netflix queue. So now I don’t know if I should start with those giant chunksters in the bottom right of the picture above or get my feet wet with the television series? Or, maybe I’ll start with one of the familiar authors on my list. So many choices!

Sunday Salon: Currently in May

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Visiting | Since Memorial Day weekend is the “unofficial start of summer”, I took public transportation to the beach and enjoyed an ice cream cone as I walked in the sand. The weatherman kept warning about crushing heat, but it ended up being a beautiful day so I came back home via the river stopping along the way to see the Memorial Day commemorative flags. We supposed to have similar weather tomorrow, which I’m sure will bully me into putting aside the remote and going outside again.

Missing | My beloved papa (grandfather) passed away recently, and I made a whirlwind trip back to his hometown for the funeral. (Hence the silence on the blog as of late.) He was my (self-described) biggest supporter, and I miss him terribly. But it was nice to see family — some I haven’t seen in years — and remember my grandfather as the man he was before his health declined so much.

Reading | Nothing? I finished Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay on the plane and left it behind for my mom to read. Since returning from the funeral, I haven’t started another eBook or printed book. So unlike me.

Listening | I’m slowly but surely making my way through Dragonfly in Amber by Diana Galabdon, the second book in the Outlander series. The projects I’ve been focusing on work haven’t lent themselves well to audiobook listening so I’ve been limited to listening during walks on the weekend.

Watching | I started the first episode of “Orphan Black” earlier this week and am now flying through the rest of season one. All the praise you’ve probably heard is well founded — Tatiana Malslany is simply amazing! I am so impressed with all the subtle nuances she adds to the six characters she plays.

Planning | I’ve been putting together a list of goals and plans for the summer — join a summer sports league, visit Vermont — and trying to figure out how I’m going to squeeze them all in amidst what I already have on my schedule. I’ve been get a lot of pressure to take over a Meetup group (even though I’ve only hosted one event) so I’m trying to figure out if that’s a feasible undertaking or not.

Either way, I imagine the blog will continue to be pretty silent over the summer picking up again when the cold weather and snow forces me to stay indoors again. Or, when the humidity becomes so unbearable that I don’t stray far from the AC!

The Sunday Salon:

The Sunday Salon.com The Sunday Salon encourages bloggers to get together –at their separate desks, in their own particular time zones– every Sunday and read. And blog about their reading. And comment on one another’s blogs. Salon participants are encouraged to blog about their time spent reading, pages read, information about current reading, discuss a reaction to a book, state what they plan to read the following week, or make suggestions for a group read.

Russian Winter by Daphne Kalotay

Fiction — print. Harper Perennial, 2010. 496 pgs. Purchased.

Nina Revskaya, an eighty-year-old former acclaimed ballerina from the Bolshoi Ballet in the Soviet Union, has decided to sell her jewelry collection – unique for both its contents and its origins in Soviet Russia – in an auction to benefit the Boston Ballet Foundation. Since her retirement from the Boston Ballet, Nina has largely become a recluse in her Back Bay brownstone interacting with only two chosen friends infrequently and with her nurse on a daily basis. Nina is uninterested in sharing the story of her jewelry and refuses to expand upon her largely yes-or-no answers to questions posed to her by Drew Brooks, an associate from the auction house tasked with creating a book on the jewels included in the sale.

The unsolicited arrival of an amber necklace believed to match the amber set owned by Nina offers Drew an alternative source for answers. Yet Grigori Solodin, a professor and translator of poems written by Nina’s deceased husband at a local Boston office, is just as clueless about the source of the amber necklace in his possession and hopes Drew or, better yet, Nina herself can help fill in the holes of his own personal history.

I purchased this book at the library used book sale because of four words on the back cover: Boston, Stalinist Russia, and ballet. The cover evokes a melancholy, dreamy feeling, which is part of why I was drawn to the book in the first place, but I also seem to be reading a slew of books lately featuring faceless women on the cover. The faceless theme works in this case as much of the book is spent exploring who the real Nina Revskaya is – the person defined by the past she has tried to ignore for so long – and how exactly a favored ballerina in Soviet Russia came to defect one night in Paris nearly fifty years ago.

Central to Nina’s past are her husband, the poet Viktor Elsin; her childhood friend and fellow ballerina, Vera; and the Jewish composer, Gersh. Oddly enough, these characters felt far more developed than Nina herself, who seems to largely float along from one conflict in Soviet Russia to another. Clearly, Drew is a prop character used to open the door to Nina’s past without much development on her own. The story could have done without her intrusion in the later chapters.

The mention of Grigori’s mere existence exposes the overarching mystery the novel solves, although I did appreciate the red herrings Kalotay throws into the story to try to keep this mystery fresh. And maybe the ending felt a little abrupt given how slowly drawn out the book is, but I’m not sure there needed to be a longer march given how predictable the ending was.

For all its predictability, though, Kalotay’s descriptions of Soviet Russia, of the Back Bay in Boston, of the pain ballerinas are subjected to in order to dance, and of the fear her characters felt throughout of the novel kept me from putting this one aside in favor of something else. A third of the way through this book, I found myself pondering which brownstone exactly could be Nina’s as I walked through the Back Bay late one afternoon. The descriptions add to the slow pace of the novel, but they really helped me connect with the bleakness of the Russian winter and the bleakness of a past a person might be afraid to address in their own age.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Fiction — print. Vintage, 2008. Originally published 1987. 324 pgs. Library copy.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1988, this tale focuses on Sethe, a young salve who escaped to Ohio to join her mother-in-law (although her marriage to Halle was not legally binding) and her three other children, and the young daughter named Denver that Sethe was pregnant with during her escape.

Eighteen years after her arrival in Ohio, she and her youngest daughter, Denver, live together in the house at 124 Bluestone Road in Cincinnati that is haunted by Sethe’s two-year-old daughter. The unnamed daughter is referred to as ‘Beloved’ after her death because that was the only word from the preacher’s sermon at her daughter’s funeral and the only word the funeral home would carve into the stone in exchange for sex.

The death of Beloved has marked every aspect of Denver’s life isolating her from the community at large, especially after her brothers, Howard and Buglar, escaped from the house and her grandmother, Baby Suggs, passed away. Largely housebound, Denver is unprepared for the arrival of two new people in their lives: Paul D, a former slave who knew her mother from their time together at Sweet Home, and a young woman who calls herself Beloved.

“Beloved. You are my sister. You are my daughter. You are my face; you are me. I have found you again; you have come back to me. You are my Beloved. You are mine.” (pg. 255)

Paul D is able to chase the spirit of Sethe’s eldest daughter from the home allowing Denver to finally leave the house at 124 Bluestone Road, but the supernatural presence returns when Beloved arrives and charms Sethe and Denver with her presence. As Paul D grows closer to Sethe and warier of Beloved’s presence, the black community of Cincinnati informs Paul D of how Sethe’s daughter died, of how Sethe tried to murder all four of her children in order to keep them from being returned to their owner at Sweet Home. Horrified, Paul D leaves the home allowing Sethe to become lost to the idea that the young woman named Beloved to actually her daughter returned to her at the expense of both herself and Denver.

In her preface, Morrison says she was inspired to write this book after reading an old newspaper article about an escape slave who murdered her child to prevent the her child from being returned to their owner under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which required people living in “free states” to return all runaways to slavery. She explains both in the preface and in the text how slavery fractured familial relationships, how it left women like Sethe with few options to keep themselves and their families together.

Going into the story with this particular idea in mind did ruin Paul’s revelation of what Sethe did, but it also allowed me to see the forest amongst the trees, so to say. I could have easily become bogged down in Morrison’s prose, in the magical realism (which is rarely to my own taste), and in sudden shift to stream of consciousness more than halfway into the story. But I also knew I should be focusing on the complexity of mother-daughter relationships, on the guilt that accompanies hindsight, and on the everlasting mark of both slavery and murder.

On those three points, I adored this book for what it had to say. Slavery and murder are despicable evils in this world, but given the choice between the two – given the only choice one has – how can Sethe choose life in slavery over murder? She knew what that life would be like – how it would deprive her children of a family or the right to marry, how it cause them immense pain and suffering, how her daughters would be expected to bare children with a man chosen for them knowing they would be unlikely to see those children grow up.

We see the loss of her child haunt her after the fact in part because she and her three remaining children were allowed to remain free, but her actions cost the life of her beloved daughter and, eventually, the right to be in the lives of her sons. Yet she does not feel guilty about what she did even telling Paul D point blank that she cannot be faulted for “trying to put my babies where they would be safe”. She had already lost her husband, who failed to show up when it was time for them to escape from Sweet Home together, and she had already been brutalized by her new master, who had forcibly taken her milk from her that she had been trying to save for the unnamed infant upon their reunification.

And, of course, her decision cost her remaining daughter a happy and productive life as a member of Cincinnati society. Denver is an outcast because of what her mother did. She is forgotten by her brothers in their attempt to escape their mother and the haunted house, and her grandmother spent most of her remaining years keeping Denver close in order to prevent her mother from having the opportunity to kill her like she did Beloved. She never really has the freedom her mother was trying to afford to her, which is a tragedy in its own right.

I still cannot claim to be a fan of Toni Morrison’s writing, but I can say that I am a fan of what this book has to say and the viewpoint it offers to its readers. (Although, I admit that “fan” is a rather awful word to use in connection to the horrific tale told in this novel.) Another book I’m glad I added to my Classics Club list as I would not have picked it up otherwise.

The Classics Club:

I read this book for the Classics Club, which challenges participants read and discuss fifty or more books considered to be classics within a five year period. My personal goal for this project is to read seventy-five books in three years ending on August 15, 2017. You can find out more information by checking out my introductory post, project post, or spreadsheet of titles.