Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Cephalophod Coffeehouse: July 2016 Blog List

Greetings to all!  I hope you'll join us for the next installment of the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, an online gathering of bloggers who love books.  The next meeting is set for Friday, July 29th.  If you're interested, please sign on to the link list at the end of this post.

The idea is simple: on the last Friday of each month, post about the best book you've finished over the past month while visiting other bloggers doing the same.  In this way, we'll all have the opportunity to share our thoughts with other enthusiastic readers.  Please join us:

Friday, June 24, 2016

The Cephalopod Coffeehouse: June 2016

Welcome one and all to the Cephalopod Coffeehouse, a cozy gathering of book lovers, meeting to discuss their thoughts regarding the works they enjoyed most over the previous month.  Pull up a chair, order your cappuccino and join in the fun.  If you wish to add your own review to the conversation, please sign on to the link list at the end of my post.

Title: Samskara
Author: U.R. Anantha Murthy
Translator: A.K. Ramanujan
via goodreads
I've had this Indian novel on my shelves for 21 years.  I was assigned to read it in college but never did.  I've kept it with me through several moves and a brutal household book purge.  At 138 pages, it never took up much space.  Surely I'd read it one day, finally making my old Eastern Religions prof proud.  It took 21 years.  And now it's done.

So good, too.  Samskara packs a lot of punch into what is really a simple story.  A man, Naranappa, dies and his neighbors are at a loss as to how to properly dispose of the body.  According to Hindu law, he must be cremated.  But who should do the job?  Naranappa is a Brahmin so only another Brahmin can perform the necessary rites.  But Naranappa was not a good Brahmin.  He openly lived with his low caste concubine, Chandri, out of wedlock.  But he was never excommunicated for fear he would convert to Islam, poisoning the entire community beyond repair.  But Chandri offers a heap of gold jewelry to anyone who will claim responsibility and do the deed.  Such a dilemma...

While perspective switches between characters, most of the tale is told through Praneshacharya, the community's religious scholar.  His neighbors come to him for guidance but he is at a loss.  To his credit, though, while the others are motivated by self-interest, Praneshacharya (Acharya for short) genuinely wants to do the right thing.  For this man of pious virtue, life gets complicated when he is unexpectedly confronted with his own humanity.  Everything he has ever understood about himself and his world is thrown into confusion.

Samskara paints a richly detailed picture of India and the important role religion still plays in people's daily lives there.  Interestingly, it is only because of the mention of things like buses, flashlights and the Great Communicator (Nehru) that the story can reliably be placed in the 20th century.  One can easily imagine the same moral dilemmas playing out a thousand years before.

So yes, I finally read it and genuinely enjoyed it.  Prof got the last laugh.

Please join us and share your own review of your best read from the past month.  This month's link list is below.  I'll keep it open until the end of the day.  I'll post July's tomorrow.  Meetings are the last  Friday of each month.  Next gathering is July 29th.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Diana Wynne Jones

Title: Charmed Life
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
via Goodreads
Charmed Life is the first book of The Chronicles of Chrestomanci series, at least according to the author's own suggested reading order.  Diana Wynne Jones has long been my daughter's favorite author and when I asked her for her favorite book, Charmed Life is the one she handed to me.

Eric and Gwendolyn Chant are orphaned when their parents drown in a boating accident.  Gwendolyn seems to have inherited all of her parents' magical powers while Eric (referred to as Cat by his sister) appears to have none.  Eventually, they come under the care and tutelage of Christopher Chant, better known in the wizarding world as Chrestomanci.

Being a Miyazaki fan, I am more familiar with Jones's Howl's Moving Castle series.  Charmed Life was actually written first, though anyone who knows the Howl books will notice common narrative elements.  For starters, Howl and Chrestomanci are similar characters: tall men in flashy clothing, powerful wizards, not especially verbal, intimidating to everyone around them.  Travels between parallel worlds are important to both stories and in both cases, one of the worlds is our own.

Now that I've read it, I'm a little surprised at my daughter's fondness for it.  Not that it's not good.  It is good.  But for a long time, I've worked under the assumption that she preferred stories with female protagonists - not the case here.  In fact, Gwendowlyn turns out to be highly objectionable indeed.  My daughter does love stories about magic, tough, and there's plenty of it here.  It's a fun read.  I'm definitely interested in reading more of the series.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

On the Coffee Table: Fumi Yoshinaga

Title: All My Darling Daughters
Writer and Artist: Fumi Yoshinaga
via Wikipedia

Yukiko is a career woman in her thirties who still lives with her mother, though the relationship is not an easy one.  Tensions mount when Mom announces she's getting married - to a man younger than Yukiko.  The rest of the book explores the relationships both romantic and familial of Yukiko and her circle of friends.  The themes are subtle ones: no relationship is ever simple and what one sees from the outside is never the whole story.

All My Darling Daughters is a josei manga, meaning it is targeted to women, ages 15-44.  The North American publisher recommends it for older teens, probably about right.  The sexual content, while far from pornographic, is too heavy for me to simply hand it to my twelve-year-old daughter.  I enjoyed the book but was not swept away by it.  The stories are sophisticated and the artwork competent.  Explorations of sexual politics in Japan are always interesting to me and the balancing of personal and professional lives is a hot topic there now.  So, I'd say it's a good book, not a great one.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

The Clone Wars: Nightsisters

My friends and I are watching Star Wars: The Clone Wars.  Every Tuesday, we will be featuring an episode from the series which began in 2008 (as opposed to the one that started in 2003).  All are welcome to join us for all or parts of the fun.

Episode: "Nightsisters"
Series: Star Wars: The Clone Wars
Season 3, Episode 12
Original Air Date: January 7, 2011
via Wookieepedia
"Nightsisters" is a big episode for the development of Asajj Ventress, Count Dooku's apprentice, though not for much longer, as it turns out.  Darth Sidious (aka Palpatine) now perceives her as a threat and commands Dooku to destroy her.  Dooku dutifully follows the order, or so he believes.  While the ship she had been on was destroyed, Asajj manages to slip away at the last moment and makes her way to her home world, Dathomir.

From here, we get a full origin story for Asajj.  The episode also introduces her "family": the Nightsisters, a witch coven who wield magic derived from the Dark side of the Force.  Fortunately, we're going to have a chance to explore this group further over the next couple episodes.
via Wookieepedia
The coven is led by Mother Talzin.  She welcomes Asajj back into the fold and helps her plan her revenge.  In time, we learn she holds respected status on the Dark side, at least enough to inspire Dooku's trust.  Visually, she is based on unused concept art for the character of Darth Maul.  She is voiced by Barbara Goodson.  Told the show was looking for a "Romanian witch" voice, Goodson based her performance on horror actress Maria Oupenskaya.
via Behind the Voice Actors
Barbara Goodson was born August 16, 1949 in Brooklyn, New York.  While her voice resume is extensive, her biggest gig has been the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers franchise, for which she voiced the character of Rita Repulsa among others.  She has also contributed to Jim Henson's Fraggle Rock, Hayao Miyazaki's Castle in the Sky and numerous anime projects.

If you would care to join us for all or part of our travels, sign on to the list below.  Please visit the other participants today.  Next week: "Monster."


Monday, June 20, 2016

On the Coffee Table: How to Cook a Wolf

Title: How to Cook a Wolf
Author: M.F.K. Fisher
via Amazon
How to Cook a Wolf is the third book of five in M.F.K. Fisher's collection, The Art of Eating.  My reviews of the first two books are here and here.  Fisher wrote How to Cook a Wolf in 1942 just as the United States had entered World War II and food rationing had become a national reality.  The author's intention was to demonstrate that good eating could and should continue during difficult times. 

The book was not quite what I was expecting.  After reading Bee Wilson's book Swindled, which included details of the lengths some went to in order to endure dire food shortages during the War, I anticipated more basic survival cooking.  But of course, Fisher was writing from an American perspective, not a European one and that makes all the difference.  She writes of how to manage with less meat than you could buy before, not how to make the most out of sawdust and grubs or perhaps even literally how to cook a lupine trespasser should one have the misfortune of wandering through the yard.  (I must admit, the idiom of a wolf at the door was a new one for me.)

I've also grown accustomed to Fisher writing more about eating than cooking and this book definitely spends more time in the kitchen than at the table, including full recipes.  While some of her advice is dated - she raves about canned and frozen vegetables, hard to imagine any food writer doing that now - many of her basic principles for how to live simply on a limited budget are sound and eternally relevant.  She also includes unexpected chapters on such topics as feeding your pets, drinking well (actually not so unexpected from Fisher) and maintaining one's feminine charms while slaving away in the kitchen (I especially appreciate her ultimate conclusion with that one: don't worry about it).

The main draw to Fisher as a reader is her effortless wit.  If I had known the woman in real life, I would always have angled to sit near her at a dinner party.  While her humor shines through, the editing of How to Cook a Wolf leaves much to be desired.  When Fisher revised the book in 1951, she included footnotes, mainly to highlight the significant differences in American life just a few years later.  The footnotes are embedded as parenthetical comments within the text - more than a little distracting.  Once one gets used to the format, though, one realizes that most of the book's snark is contained within those parentheses.

I don't think this would be a good first Fisher book for a curious reader.  The editing would be more annoying without previous exposure to her style.  But for practical advice, it is the best of the three books I've read so far.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Family Movie Night: Bridge to Terabithia

Title: Bridge to Terabithia
Director: Gábor Csupó
Original Release: 2007
Choice: Purple Penguin's
My Overall Rating: 3 stars out of 5
via Wikipedia
Bridge to Terabithia is based on Katherine Paterson's novel of the same name.  Jess Aarons (Josh Hutcherson) is a talented but socially awkward 12-year-old boy who becomes friends with the new girl Leslie (AnnaSophia Robb), just moved in next door.  Neither makes easy connections with the kids at school but they are drawn to each other.  Together, they create a fantasy world in the woods called Terabithia, one that becomes vividly alive on screen.  Jess's younger sister May Belle (Bailee Madison) tries to tag along but Jess is eager to keep this part of his life to himself so he pushes her away.

In time, tragedy strikes and it hits hard.  What began as a story about a search for belonging becomes one about coping with loss.  The change is quite abrupt, in some ways a little too abrupt.  But then, life is like that, isn't it?

Obviously, the story relies heavily on child actors: always a risk.  Fortunately, Robb and Madison are both delightful.  Hutcherson is a bit stiff, though maybe that's not so inappropriate for the character.  Somebody liked what they saw.  Terabithia was the first big role for Hutcherson on the path that eventually saw him cast as Peeta Mellark in the Hunger Games series.

The visual elements of the fantasy world are fun, though really Terabithia ends up being a relatively minor part of the story.  Ultimately, the path we follow is Jess's emotional journey and it's a compelling one.