Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Grey King

The title: The Grey King
The authors: Susan Cooper
Publication: Simon & Shuster, 1975
Got it from: ?, 1998

I suppose it's rather fitting that I re-read The Grey King over a weekend while I was sick with a cold, as the book (the fourth in The Dark is Rising series) opens with Will Stanton recovering from a bout of hepatitis.  This is by no means my favourite in the series - the first three will always be the dearest to me - but it's still delightful.  This time Will travels to Wales in the autumn to recover from his sickness at an aunt and uncle's, but his real reason for going is to find the magic harp that will wake "the Sleepers" and aid the Light on their quest against the rising forced of the Dark.  Will ends up befriending an albino boy named Bran, who plays a significant part in the quest.  What I love about these novels is that even though they're fantasy, what they really feel like are a love letter to the parts of Britain Susan Cooper is describing: the farmlands of Buckinghamshire, the seacoasts of Cornwall, the mountains of Wales.  Her language is beautiful; it's haunting, and even without the fantasy elements you would have five lovely, evocative novels.  Not only did I feel I was in Northern Wales, I actually felt like I was part of the landscape.  It's a slim novel, almost a novella, but it adds to the building tension of the previous novels.  I look forward to reading the next and last.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Captain Wentworth's Diary

The title: Captain Wentworth's Diary
The authors: Amanda Grange
Publication: Penguin, 2007
Got it from: MC

I feel like I've been reading a lot of Jane Austen-inspired stuff this year, and I don't know why that is.  I didn't plan it, but somehow friends have been loaning me a lot of JA books - not that I particularly mind!

Amanda Grange has written "diaries" for all the heroes of Austen's novels and in this one we get to see the diary of Captain Wentworth, the hero of Persuasion.   And I actually liked it.  I think it works, largely because half of the story is how Wentworth initially meets and proposes to Anne Elliot, which we don't get to see in the original story.  In Persuasion, Wentworth's motivations are a bit mysterious and we don't like him very much at the beginning because we're on Anne's side, but here it's the other way around.  Grange paints him as a rather charming and good-natured man, and we see how easy it is for him to fall in love with intelligent Anne.  We also see why after being at war, he is charmed by the lighthearted, young Miss Musgroves, and why Anne's depth ultimately wins his affections again.  Reading Austen herself is always best, but I liked that this story felt lighter from his perspective - after all, he does have a much easier time of it than Anne after their initial meeting.  In general, I enjoyed that we get to see his perspective, because it's always more fun to know both sides of the story.  Recommended for "a light Regency diversion," take with tea and ginger snaps for full effect.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts...

The title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking
The authors: Susan Cain
Publication: Crown Publishers, 2012
Got it from: The library

I don't know what's more remarkable: a book about introverts on the bestseller lists, or me reading and enjoying a bestseller.  But there you have it: I couldn't put this book down.  I have read other books about being an introvert before, but this one really seems to have struck a chord, not just with me but with everyone.

We are living in an extrovert-centric world.  Classrooms and businesses are designed around groupwork.  Extroverts are the ones who get ahead in business world.  But Cain argues that we need both types of people, introverts and extroverts, to run things.  The Wall Street crash probably wouldn't have happened if happy-go-lucky investors had listened to their cautious colleagues.  In a fascinating section of the book, Cain explains that extroverts get more of a rush out of the thrill of things like gambling, where introverts have more warning signals telling them to slow down.  More balance is definitely needed.  What's interesting is that studies show that when employees are unmotivated, extroverts do better as bosses, but where employees are motivated, introverts outperform extroverts as bosses.  The implication is that introverts are much more likely to listen and implement their employees' suggestions when they make sense, rather than forge ahead with their own ideas as extroverts do.

I can just imagine the countless number of introverts who may not have even realized they were introverts, reading about themselves for the first time and nodding along.  I was particularly fascinated by her description of sensitive people (70% of sensitives are introverts) and which I definitely count myself among the ranks.  Not only are sensitives born that way (studies showed 4-month old sensitive babies are more easily startled), but their skin is literally more sensitive to stimuli, any kind of stimuli.  Sensitive people don't crave excitement the same way, because less stimuli is actually enough for them.

If nothing else, introverts can finally feel validated that they're not freaks.  There's nothing wrong with being introverted, and it's not selfish to take time for yourself.  Not doing so can literally cause you to become sick.  As introverts, we have a lot to contribute to the world.  If only we could make our voices heard.

Monday, March 12, 2012

29: A Novel

The title: 29: A Novel
The authors: Adena Halpern
Publication: Touchstone, 2010
Got it from: The library

29 is the story of Ellie Jerome, a sweet 75-year-old lady who makes a wish on her birthday to be 29 for a day.  Ellie feels like she has a lot of regrets in her life, mainly involving being married to a much older man who cheated on her during their marriage.  She's jealous of the opportunities her twenty-something granddaughter has, and wants a second chance to see what it's like to be young and single.  She makes a wish on her birthday, and the next day she gets to revert back to her 29-year-old self.

The premise of this story sounded fun (and caught my eye because I'm currently 29), but overall I was disappointed.  It wasn't that it was light, because I was actually expecting a light, madcap Freaky Friday book, which would have been great.  But not a lot happens in the story.  It has has very little to say about the real advantages and disadvantages of being 75 vs. 29.  I wasn't expecting something profound, but all Ellie does with her new body is get a haircut, buy a new dress and talk about wanting to get a bikini wax.  You would think with her newfound energy and youth, she'd have done something a little more exciting.  She does have a fling with a guy she met that day, but that only comes at the end and it feels too late to really give the story sparkle.  

This on its own wouldn't have been enough to sink the book beyond hope, but the real problem was that the focus was only on Ellie for one half of the book.  Every other chapter described the adventures of Ellie's obnoxious daughter Barbara and doormat best friend Frieda, the kind of old lady who steals sugar from restaurants.  The two women spend the day trying to find Ellie, but their tedious adventures add little to the story.  They are supposed to be characters who experience growth thanks to Ellie's transformation (I think), but they felt like filler because the main story wasn't enough for a whole book.  And maybe that's my problem with the book - once you take out Barbara and Frieda's arguing and all kinds of stuff about fashion (Ellie's a fashion nut and her granddaughter is a designer), you really only have enough material here for a novella.  If I were assigning books letter grades, I'd give this one about a C.  It was okay, but I wouldn't recommend it. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Brendan Voyage

The title: The Brendan Voyage
The authors: Tim Severin
Publication: Arrow Books, 1978
Got it from: Attic Books, London, 2004

I was first came across the story of the Brendan Voyage in O.R. Melling's marvelous The Book of Dreams, in which Tim Severin and his crew appear as fictional characters.  Some years ago I stumbled across The Brendan Voyage in a used book store and thought it would be entertaining, although it has taken me years to get around to reading it.

In some ways it is a great follow-up to Simon Winchester's Atlantic.  This story is part history, part sea tale, part adventure and part mystery.  St. Brendan was a 6th century Irish monk who features in Navigatio sancti Brendani abbatis (the voyage of St. Brendan the abbot).  For many years people thought his fantastical voyages to "promised lands" was the stuff of legend, but recent studies have shown that Brendan may in fact have visited real places, and maybe even North America, by island-hopping in the North Atlantic.  In the 1970's scholar Tim Severin set out to prove that the traditional Irish curraghs could have withstood the arduous journey.

I never would have thought I'd find boat-building fascinating, but I did.  Severin had to use his medieval detective skills and assemble a crack team of experts in traditional boat-building skills in order to make it happen.  Even in the 1970's, this proved difficult, as many of the traditional crafts were dying out.  The boat itself was constructed out of all-medieval materials, using wood for the frame with a leather covering.  The most astonishing thing about the boat was not the material, but the size.  It was barely 36' long, but had to comfortably stow five men and all their supplies. 

Amazingly, Tim and his crew discovered that not only did their medieval boat hold up, in a lot of cases the medieval material fared better than its modern counterpart.  Of course there were a lot of nail-biting moments, including several storms and a rather harrowing encounter with icebergs, but the little boat that could seemed to roll with the waves better than the bigger, modern boats.  Intriguingly, they discovered that many parts of Brendan's tale that people dismissed as myth could have been true - for example, the "island of fire" might be the volcanoes of Iceland and the monstrous beasts could have been whales (who, incidentally, showed little fear of the boat and swam beside it for much of the journey).  Even though Tim answered the question of whether Brendan could have reached North America, scholars are skeptical regarding whether he did.  The question remains an intriguing mystery.