Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Fancies

Are you reading anything spooky to get in the Halloween mood? I just finished Career of Evil, the third installment of J.K. Rowling's mystery series written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith, and while I didn't intentionally choose it to align with the season, the novel has enough creepy and suspenseful elements to make it a fitting choice for this time of year. Although I don't consider myself to be an aficionado of mystery novels, I absolutely love this series. Private detective Cormoran Strike and his partner, Robin Ellicot, are such rich, likable characters that I find myself more interested in seeing how their characters develop than solving the mystery of the plot.

Here are a few other things that have caught my eye lately:

The funniest Halloween costume idea I've seen so far this year.

An essay about Murakami in Hawaii.

A pistachio cream puff recipe to tie in to Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend

A short story vending machine.

And last but definitely not least, my dog Millie has joined instagram! Follow her there and you'll get to see her in her Halloween costume on Saturday!

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Home Front

Recently my reading and my TV watching have aligned around the subject of the home front during World War II. 

First, I've spent the past few Sunday nights watching the miniseries Home Fires on PBS. It centers around the a Women's Institute in a rural village at the start of WWII. The WI's membership comprises a wide cross section of women--old and young, upper and lower class, housewives, shopkeepers, and farmers--and shows the impact the outbreak of war has on their lives. While it's interesting to see such a range of characters portrayed, my favorite thing about the show is its setting. From the neighborly sense of everyone knowing everyone's business in the village to shots of cozy British interiors, I can easily imagine the world of Home Fires being populated by a cast of Barbara Pym characters a few years down the road.

With all of this on my mind, when it came time to start a new book, I naturally gravitated toward On the Side of the Angels by Betty Miller, a Virago Classic that I had picked up at a used book sale. Also located in a rural village, the novel centers around two sisters: Honor, a mother of two whose husband is a physician in the local army hospital, and Claudia, a schoolteacher whose lawyer fiance has recently been invalided out of the service after developing a heart condition. Honor tends to be meek and prone to daydreams. Her world centers around her husband and she resents the pull that the commanding officer in his unit seems to have over his actions. Claudia is intellectual and feisty. She has very clear ideas of how she should act and how her life should be. She comes to question these ideas for herself when a British Commando comes to the village. His aggressive demeanor and his reputation for heroic deeds behind enemy lines cause all of the characters, both male and female, to reevaluate their impressions of the home front.

One key difference between Home Fires and this book is that while many of the characters in the former are left on their own when their husbands head to the front, in the latter both Honor and Claudia have their husband and fiance present with them. This highlights the different ways that the male and female characters deal with life on the home front. One theme that surfaces in the novel is the suggestion that the characters are actually glad for the war because of the opportunity it offers them to step out of their everyday civilian lives and adopt more exciting roles for themselves. While I felt that this argument could only hold up among people like Miller's characters, whose upper class professions enable them to serve on the home front and who are not separated from their loved ones, I nonetheless found it to be an interesting take that I had not considered before. While it doesn't evoke the kind of cozy atmosphere that Home Fires does, On the Side of the Angels is well worth reading for the new perspectives it offers on this time period and location.

Friday, October 23, 2015

On Rising Early

Are you an early bird or a night owl? As much as I like the idea of waking up early to start a productive day, I generally have a hard time getting out of bed in the morning, especially as we enter these darker Fall and Winter months. Surprisingly, the time in my life when I came closest to being an early bird was actually in college, when I would easily wake up early to go to the gym before my classes. Of course, "early" back then meant 8am, so maybe that's not so surprising after all.

I'm trying to change my mindset about mornings--although first I should backtrack and mention Yoga With Adriene, the YouTube yoga channel that I've been following. After doing yoga in various forms over the past few years, finding Adriene's channel completely revitalized my practice. Her laid back approach has resonated with me more than any "live" yoga teacher I've taken class with. The channel's mantra is "find what feels good", which, to me, takes on a couple levels of meaning. First, it's the idea that modifying a hard pose or using a prop shouldn't be thought of as something only for beginners, but rather should be considered options to use depending on how your body is feeling on any given day. Next, it can be seen as the idea of trying to find some comfort and ease while you're in a yoga pose that might be uncomfortable, which is also a metaphor for how a regular yoga practice can translate into other areas of life and help you find ease in uncomfortable situations you might find yourself in. I highly, highly recommend the Yoga With Adriene to anyone with a remote interest in trying yoga. The channel has a ton of videos of every length, level, and purpose, as well as a Thirty Days of Yoga program that got me to commit to a daily practice earlier this year. Now I'm doing yoga almost exclusively at home and feel like I've gotten stronger and progressed more than I ever did in public classes.

(image via here)

But back to waking up early. Last week Yoga With Adriene launched Rise, a seven day program of yoga practices to do in the mornings. This seemed like exactly what I needed to get myself out of bed a little earlier and free up some time later in the day for other things (like keeping up with this blog!). I haven't made it through the full seven days of the program yet because I've been feeling a little under the weather this week, but I did enjoy the two mornings I got up to practice. So far, so good. And on a related note, I was very intrigued when I stumbled upon this blog post about the Miracle Morning program. It actually makes a 5am wake up call sound appealing, although I'm not quite sure I'm ready for that yet. Let's see how this morning yoga goes first.

Do you have any morning rituals?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Neapolitan Novels

The buzz around Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels has slowly built up to a full-blown literary frenzy over the past couple of years. So much has been written about the novels and the mystery of Ferrante's identity. I've seen nothing but praise for the books, but that praise was tempered by descriptions calling the books brutal or bleak often enough to give me pause. I was finally prompted to read them when my local bookstore started to promote and rave about the series. It's such a well-curated store that I trust their recommendations and they did not lead my astray with these. In fact, reading the series turned out to be exactly what it took to push me back to this blog after many months away.

The Neapolitan series tells the story of the lifelong friendship between Elena and Lila, two girls from the same poor neighborhood in Naples. Both girls are exceptionally bright. Elena is more reserved and is a traditionally good student who advances through the university level. Lila, who leaves school after the elementary level and marries early, has a natural intelligence that is often at odds with the tempestuous life she leads in the neighborhood. The first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, begins when Elena and Lila first meet as children playing in their neighborhood and ends with Lila's wedding at the age of sixteen. The second book, The Story of a New Name, spans the early years of Lila's marriage and the final year's of Elena's university studies. Although their lives follow different paths, the two girls remain closely linked throughout their lives, even through long periods of separation.

Ferrante's portrayal of this complex friendship is the hallmark of the novels, and it's the aspect that has been the focus of much of the praise they have received. The aspect that made the biggest impression on me, however, actually comes about as a byproduct of the way this friendship is portrayed. Through Elena's narration of the novels, she tells the story of her own life, but focuses most heavily on the parts of her life that intersect with Lila's, or that fall under Lila's influence from afar. She is so outwardly focused on Lila and Lila's impact on her life that she is unable to have a true sense of herself other than as she appears in contrast to Lila. There are a few moments in which the curtain is pulled back and she is afforded a brief glimpse of herself as others see her, not merely as a counterpart to Lila. The idea that it can be difficult to see an accurate picture of oneself is very true to life and is skillfully portrayed by Ferrante. Interestingly, she achieves this portrayal by going against the old adage that a good writer should show rather than tell the reader what's happening. Ferrante's style is very formal and verbose, with more time devoted to Elena's summary of events than to long scenes of dialogue. It somehow works to create an overall tone that held me completely enthralled.

I highly recommend these novels, and would love to know what you think if you've read them. I'm now at the halfway point of the series, having just finished The Story of a New Name.  I had every intention of trying to spread out the remaining books, but the last few sentences of book two left me so eager to find out what happens next that I'm fairly certain I'll be running to the bookstore this week to pick up Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay


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