Saturday, March 29, 2008

Too sleepy for a bedtime story?

Bedtime for Sleepy Lotus
Originally uploaded by littlemiao

Baby Lotus is never too sleepy for a bedtime story... zzzzz...

Friday, March 28, 2008

Time Cat by Lloyd Alexander (Book 13/50)

Lloyd Alexander's Time Cat is a (mostly) delightful little book chronicling the nine adventures of a young boy and his cat through different times and places. Jason, the boy, learns from Gareth, the cat, that cats do not have nine lives as is popularly believed. Even more fantastically, they they have the ability to travel to nine different times and places. Upon revealing his secret, Gareth takes his person with him to visit Old Kingdom Egypt, Caesar's Rome, the Ireland of Saint Patrick's day, Heian period Japan, Renaissance Italy, Peru beset by Spanish conquistadors, the Isle of Man at the time of the Spanish Armada, Germany during the witch hunts, and revolutionary America. The episodes are only loosely connected by occasional references. Each one has didactic value - a little insight into the character of cats as well as of humans.

I don't mean to dismiss the book by stating that the episodes weren't historically accurate or believable. In many respects they aren't. The chapters on Ireland, for example, portrayed the island as benighted and superstitious until Saint Patrick came to drive out the "snakes". Perhaps a biased interpretation...

To be honest, I don't think I would have liked the book if I had read it when I was younger. There is no sustained plot - it is episodic, and it makes little sense that Gareth and Jason should have all of their nine adventures at once, rather than taking them gradually over the course of years. Jason is a normal little boy - there is nothing special or noteworthy about him, apart from the fact that he understands cats fairly well. The historical inaccuracies are somewhat annoying - when I was younger, I was much less forgiving of perceived slights to different cultures or people. I'm not any more forgiving now, but I try to consider them within the larger context of the book. Time Cat was published in 1963, after all, and it merely reflects the popular biases of the time. And the book is no worse for the lack of an overarching plot - it just makes better bedtime reading this way. (Unless one decides to finish the book in a single night, as I did.)

Time Cat sat untouched (by me) on the shelf for years... more than a decade. I usually devour cat-themed books very quickly, but perhaps the cover just didn't draw me. I think the boy's expression annoyed me. I remember looking at the book, but always passing it over for something else. If it had been published in one of the new covers, no doubt I would have read it when I was ten or so.

As my ramblings may indicate, I feel generally ambivalent about this book. I like it out of loyalty to Lloyd Alexander, a cat lover, and because it conveys insight into felinity.

I loved the way Alexander described the Time Cat:
Gareth was a black cat with orange eyes. Sometimes, when he hunched his shoulders and put down his ears, he looked like an owl. When he stretched, he looked like a trickle of oil or a pair of black silk pajamas. When he sat on a window ledge, his eyes half-shut and his tail curled around him, he looked like a secret.
It contains undeniable wisdom, such as, "A cat can belong to you, but you can't own him". Or, "any bed is soft to a cat" - an axiom even the pampered Prince Tantra proves almost daily. "You can say some of the loveliest things in the world - without words." And finally, something to remember when you feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to get done: "The only thing to worry about is what's happening right now. As we tell the kittens, you can only wash one paw at a time."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

The Devil's Feather by Minette Walters

Last night, I finished listening to The Devil's Feather by Minette Walters, narrated by Josephine Bailey. It's always a gamble to choose an audiobook by an author I'm unfamiliar with, but I wasn't disappointed this time.

The Devil's Feather is a psychological suspense story about a journalist's confrontation with a sadistic serial killer who had held her captive for three days. After her torturous experience and inexplicable release, she retreats to a country house in England to nurse her wounds and hide from the world. The house holds its own secrets, which she discovers in due course. The level of tension is high throughout the novel, because the omnipresent threat of the psychopath's return. The denouement is neatly crafted and satisfying.

The aubiobook narration was quite well done. Josephine Bailey was able to project the main character's anxieties, terror, and anger into her voice. She was also able to distinguish between the narration of documents (emails, news articles, etc) and the main narrative by her tone and pitch - something which seems elementary in audiobook narration, but which I have found wanting in several audiobooks. They have left me wondering if particular passages were intended to be excerpts of documents or part of the narrative flow, and since I don't have the book in print to consult, it is quite frustrating.

Apparently Minette Walters is a fairly popular British suspense author with twelve titles under her belt. I wish had more of her books available. I'm in the mood for more suspense - it makes an excellent accompaniment as I wash my dishes and scrub the toilet.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A lazy morning

I got up at a respectably early hour (6am), and (having no pressing assignments or exams to work on at the moment) I finished reading Washington Square. I'll write my reflections on it later, after I have read the critical essay in the Penguin edition. It's a worthwhile read, and I'm glad I saw it in scb's Decades list, or else I would never have thought to read it myself.

Even though I haven't technically finished Washington Square yet, I'm already debating what book to read next. Should I read Lloyd Alexander's Time Cat, a children's book about a boy who time travels with his cat? Or should I read Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi, which promises to be a sad sad story of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan? Both books are very short and have been sitting on my to-read shelf for ages. Or, should I continue with the decades theme and read An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott? The heroine of Washington Square was old-fashioned in her own way, so perhaps the two books would make an interesting comparison.

Since I allowed myself such an indulgence this morning, I must prove myself worthy by being extraordinarily productive for the rest of the day.

*gratuitous kitteh image courtesy of some random Chinese website

Saturday, March 22, 2008

My Caturday Surprise

The Miao Brothers very own Laugh-Out-Loud Cats book
Originally uploaded by littlemiao

I received a book in the mail today. An autographed book of my favorite comics in the whole wide world, for my Miao Brothers. They'll get to read it (and pose for pictures with it) when I go home in April.

I took a long walk in the snow this morning. I love the springtime snow showers when the temperature isn't bitterly freezing and the birds are chirping about. It makes driving inconvenient, I'll admit. I walked to the closer grocery store (at times I felt I should have brought snowshoes along) to get a few things I wanted, since I'm running low on supplies. Well, mainly I went for frozen strawberries, green tea, and whole wheat bread.

I'm still reading Washington Square. I didn't make much progress yesterday. If I get enough studying done today, I'll reward myself with a nice reading time this evening. It's almost noon, and because of my walk this morning (and maybe a little voxing), I haven't opened my textbooks yet.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

A week of reading (and studying)

Reflective Lotus
Originally uploaded by littlemiao
I finally finished reading The Dark Is Rising on Tuesday - I have a few reflections I want to jot down sometime. I also finished listening to an audiobook last week. I haven't been listening to audio books as much as usual - I've only finished one this month, and it wasn't even very long. It's probably because 1) I haven't exercised as much as usual and 2) I've been listening to a lot more news podcasts, in an attempt to stay semi-informed of world events. Anyway, I have a few reflections on the audio book (The Commoner by John Burnham Schwartz), and I want to write them down before they evaporate.

Since I'm in such a rambling mood, I may as well continue and say that, in spite of exams and such, I've still managed to get a bit of reading done. It helps that I have such a hard time falling asleep at night - another opportunity to finish one more chapter. That's exactly what I did last night - another chapter of Washington Square by Henry James. The chapters are admittedly short. It's a good read, but I'll save my reflections for a separate post once I'm finished. I decided to put my reading of The Picture of Dorian Gray on hold for a while because it was making me think too much... too much about anthropology. Not necessarily a bad thing, but my brain is currently on sabbatical from thinking about anthropology.

I don't plan to do much studying tonight, but instead of curling up and finishing Washington Square (it's barely 200 pages long), I think perhaps I should clean my room. And the kitchen. And the bathroom.

Hmmm, maybe I should study instead...

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Caturday story-time for Mani

Waiting for story-time, originally uploaded by littlemiao.

Mani wants someone to read him a Caturday story.

Friday, March 14, 2008

To Suspend Time

Nap in Purrfection, originally uploaded by littlemiao.

Lately, I haven't had nearly as much time to read as I would like. I'm still not done with The Dark Is Rising. The book sits on the shelf right in my line of vision when I'm at my desk - a constant reminder of the suspenseful, fast-paced story that I'm inching through page by interrupted page. I've been studying all day - I didn't even go outside for a walk today, even though the sky is beautiful and blue. I gave myself that luxury yesterday. I don't like being cooped up in my little basement. I feel like a prisoner glancing longingly at the little patch of blue. I even have a crick on my neck from glancing up too much.

Enough complaining.

In The Dark Is Rising, the main character, Will Stanton is given a book of ancient knowledge to read and absorb. Through reading that book, he experiences the entire universe, from the farthest stars to the deepest crevices under the ocean. It is "the Gift of Gramarye: a long lifetime of discovery and wisdom, given to him in a moment of suspended time." As an "Old One", Will exists in a different time-scale. He can stretch time out as he wishes, "to make it go fast, or slow..."* As petty as it sounds, I'm envious. Very very envious.

* Quotations from pages 123 and 109, respectively, of the 1973 Macmillian edition.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Over Sea, Under Stone (Book 10/50)

I finished reading Over Sea, Under Stone on Wednesday, nearly a week ago now. I began to write a post, but I never got around to finishing it... now I'll give it another go.

I used my annoying cold as an excuse to neglect my academic studies and do more reading for pleasure. I've finished three books in the past week - which isn't quite as impressive when one realizes that I've done little else but go to class, sleep, eat, and read. (Now I've almost recovered from my cold, but I've still not done much else but eat and sleep).

Today (which was actually several todays ago) I finished Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper. I read this book when I was around 11 years old, but I never read the rest of the Dark Is Rising sequence. When I was young, I frequently got strange notions in my head about reading. Somehow, the thought that the next installment of the series didn't feature the Drew children put me off from reading more. This year, I decided to read the entire series, and where better to start than from the first book?

Over Sea, Under Stone chronicles the quest of the Drew children to find King Arthur's Grail before the enemies of Light get to it first. They are aided by their mysterious Great-Uncle Merry (Gumerry), who hints at but never fully explains the history and importance of the grail. They know only that
... it stands for something, somehow. And that's why Gumerry wants to find it as well. It's like two armies fighting in history. You're never quite sure what they're actually fighting about, but only that one wants to beat the other. (p. 158, Macmillan 1989)
The children were satisfied despite the lack of information. A grail quest is inherently exciting, after all, and since the children instinctively see the line between Light and Dark, they know they are on the "good" side. Perhaps it was the simplicity of the quest, or the children's superficial eagerness, that discouraged me from continuing with the series when I was younger. Then and now, I found it a likable story, but not deeply compelling.

However, I have determined to continue on with the series this time. I'm only a few chapters into The Dark Is Rising, and the atmosphere is already palpably different. The first chapter was so spooky I was afraid to turn my light out at night. The situations are more complicated, and while Light and Dark have not changed in nature from the first book, a murkiness has formed around them. I look forward to venturing deeper into the world that Cooper hinted at in her first book. I'm also beginning to suspect that Over Sea, Under Stone has a deeper subtext that I didn't see on my first reading.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

An hour of catnaps lost...

I exiled myself from Vox for the weekend in order to be more productive, but I don't suppose this is cheating, since I didn't say "no Blogger". I finished reading Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper a few days ago, but I still haven't posted about it. It was enjoyable to re-read it - I actually enjoyed it more this time than the first time I read it. Now I'm reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Dark Is Rising - alternately, depending on my mood. (When I'm not studying, that it.)

Anyway... We lose an hour of catnaps tonight because of the silliness that is Daylight Savings Time, which makes me very very sad.

Monday, March 3, 2008

Newberry Medal Winners in the Miao Library

I was recently inspired to make a list of all the Newberry Medal Winners in the Miao Family Library. Many of these books my parents bought for us to read in China, since there was no English-language library at our disposal there. I've read a good number of these, but not all. I'm sure my brother has read all of them.

This list includes some of my all-time favorites (most notably Island of the Blue Dolphins and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH). When I finish (re)reading these, I'll move on to ones not (yet) in the Miao Library.

Please excuse any mistakes and mistypings on this list - I complied it quite quickly and haven't revised it yet. I may also have inadvertently left out one or two books.

In no particular order:

1. The Voyages of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
2. The Trumpeter of Krakow by Eric P. Kelly
3. The Cat Who Went to Heaven Elizabeth Coatsworth
4. Caddie Woodlawn by Carol Ryrie Brink
5. Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes
6. Strawberry Girl by Lois Lenski
7. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle
8. Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell
9. Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
10. The High King by Lloyd Alexander
11. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor
12. The Grey King by Susan Cooper
13. Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
14. A Gathering of Days by Joan W. Blos
15. Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
16. Sarah, Plain and Tall by Patricia MacLachlan
17. The Giver by Lois Lowry
18. Number the Stars by Lois Lowry
19. A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
20. Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt
21. Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O'Brien

Click here for the complete ALA list of Newberry books.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Anne's House of Dreams

Anne's house of dreams is not Green Gables. I figured that out years ago from reading the book's synopsis, and I was reluctant to begin the book for that very reason. For me, Green Gables was Anne's essence. I didn't want her to get "older" than me. I didn't want her start a home elsewhere than Green Gables. She was my childhood heroine, and my vision of her was etched in stone. So, over the past few years, I've reread Anne of Green Gables but I've never gotten beyond Anne of Windy Poplars. I finally decided to put an end to that irrational nonsense, and I'm glad I did.

Anne's House of Dreams is the saddest of the Anne books I've read so far, but it is nonetheless a rewarding and life-affirming read. The book follows the tales of the tragic Leslie Moore and the delightful Captain Jim almost more than it follows Anne herself. Anne marries and sets up her new home with her beloved Gilbert in Four Winds, a harbor town miles from Avonlea. She finds great pleasure in domesticity, and suffers great sorrow with the loss of her firstborn. Through the character of Leslie Moore, L.M. Montgomery suggests that only by experiencing personal tragedy can one understand another's tragedy. Anne's loss is her initiation into this sisterhood of suffering.

I couldn't help but feel disappointed that Anne had abandoned teaching and writing, even though I understand the conventions of the times. I agreed with Gilbert when he half-jokingly said:
And some people might think that a Redmond B.A., whom editors were beginning to honour, was 'wasted' as the wife of a struggling country doctor in the rural community of Four Winds. (p.88 Bantam Classic Edition, 1987)
But is my attitude fair to Anne? Is my idea of (academic or literary) success the only road to a life well lived? Certainly not. I struggled to silence my prejudices and allow Anne's contentment to speak for itself. While puzzling over why Lucy Maud Montgomery did not make her Anne a successful, married writer (like herself), it crossed my mind that Montgomery might have wanted to give Anne something more, something that she herself did not have, rather than make Anne a mere clone. Montgomery's life had its share of stresses - a depressed husband, a dead child, her own depression and illness, difficulties with publishers... etc.* Reading Anne's House of Dreams has helped me to appreciate how immature my own dreams and measures of success still are.

Anne's House of Dreams was full of endearing (and eccentric) characters and descriptions of the scenery of Four Winds. There is one man who vowed not to shave or cut his hair until the Conservatives were out of power, and as a consequence had become a "perambulating haystack" (p. 211). My favorite, is of course First Mate the orange cat:
A gorgeous beastie, with a face as round as a full moon, vivid green eyes, and immense, white, double paws. (p.58)
And the breathtaking views of Prince Edward Island... Possibly my favorite passage, capturing the eye-blinding clarity of winter so well:
The last day of the old year was one of those bright, cold dazzling winter days, which bombard us with their brilliancy, and command our admiration but never our love. The sky was sharp and blue; the snow diamonds sparkled insistently; the stark trees were bare and shameless, with a kind of brazen beauty; the hills shot assaulting lances of crystal. (p.97)

* A short biography of L.M. Montgomery, with links to additional resources

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Make Caturday Nap-on-a-Book Day

Kemi naps on a book, originally uploaded by littlemiao.