Friday, December 31, 2010

What Rachel Read in 2010

Back when I used my LiveJournal, I used to post, at the end of the year, a list of all the books I'd read (for pleasure, and for the first time) over the course of the year, with brief summaries/reviews.  This, I feel, is a tradition that should translate very well to the form and content of this blog, so, without further ado:

Beloved, Toni Morrison (275 pp.).  Oh wow.  Haunting, beautiful, moving.  I read it almost exactly I year ago so I can't recall much more details, but definitely an outstanding book I could see myself re-reading (not something I do with that many books).

Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison (309 pp.).  So hard to read (especially that one climactic scene, which anyone who has read the book will remember with horror and a vague sense of nausea, I'm sure) but so incredibly exciting and relatable and well-written.

Lord of Chaos, A Crown of Swords, The Path of Daggers, Winter's Heart, and Crossroads of Twilight, Robert Jordan (986, 856, 672, 766, and 823 pp., respectively).  Those who used to read my old reading lists on LJ will recognize that these are books six through ten of an epic fantasy series (The Wheel of Time) that I started reading in 2008 at the recommendation of a friend.  There are three more out that are already published, and a final, fourteenth one planned for release early in 2012.  I honestly don't remember much of the first three I read this year, but I know that these middle books feel a bit like the lackluster middle seasons of that great TV show you've loved forever: it's been fabulous before, you have faith that it will be fabulous again, you still love the characters, and, most importantly, you've been with it so long, you just want to see what happens in the end (Season 9 of "Friends," anyone?).

Insecure at Last, Eve Ensler (200 pp.).  Borrowed from a friend, this book was fascinating.  Eve Ensler is, of course, the playwright responsible for "The Vagina Monologues," and this book dealt with some of the women's issues Eve is best known for, as well as exploring our culture's deep aversion to insecurity or discomfort.  Wonderful read. 

The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold (372 pp.).  Another loan from a friend (I have pretty awesome friends, don't I?), this was very well done.  Once you get past the rather graphic depiction in the first few chapters of the sexual assault and murder of a young girl, the novel becomes a painful, moving account of a family trying to move on.  Very well-executed; not an easy or fun book, obviously (the plot makes that difficult) but a worthwhile, enjoyable read.

The Lost Continent, Bill Bryson (350 pp.).  I love Bill Bryson.  Very, very much.  The man is hilarious, insightful, and so appreciative (and therefore communicative) of all the small details surrounding him.  He is, of course, best known for his travel books, of which this was one, as he traveled across much of America experiencing small towns.  He almost lost my adoration when he declared that he finds the redwood, my state tree and also my favorite tree, to be "an ugly tree," but I decided to forgive him, as, after all, he comes from Iowa ("someone had to," he says).

The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison (160 pp.).  Not quite as engaging as Beloved, but moving and mysterious and beautiful and gut-wrenching.

Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (257 pp.).  Although they're often lumped together, this book struck me as different and much more frightening than 1984.  Orwell's dystopia is a world created by a controlling government and the population that doesn't fight it, but Huxley's is much more a world created by its mindless, apathetic (quite literally unfeeling) populace itself.  The fact that this world comes from the inside out, from a populace so invested in wanting to avoid pain at all costs, something that sounds all to familiar, made it that much more frightening.

The Gun Seller, Hugh Laurie (340 pp.).  Yes, a book by the guy who plays House.  This was hilarious and engaging and a delightful send-up of spy novels.  The plot got a little bit confusing for me around the middle or so (how many times can someone be a double/triple/quadruple agent before he himself forgets who he's really working for? [I felt the same way about Snape, btw]), but it didn't detract from being a rollicking good read.  I recommend it as a vacation book, or for anyone who wants to read something that will make you feel like you're on vacation.

Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer (427 pp.).  Yeah, that's right.  I'm that medievalist who got so bored of reading popular novels in the year between college and grad school that she read Chaucer for fun.  You wanna make something of it?

Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, Gregory Maguire (368 pp.).  Gregory Maguire, like Bill Bryson and a few others, is an author I would probably follow to the end of the earth.  Luckily, he's never lead me over the edge, and this book too - with a provocative, Dutch retelling of the Cinderella story - was a joy to read.

Paradise, Toni Morrison (318 pp.).  More confusing than the other two Morrison books I read this year, slightly less provocative, more plot-driven, not quite as engaging, but definitely pleasurable.

An Acceptable Risk, Robin Cook (404 pp.).  Back in May, I drove my then-roommate to a gig in San Jose, performing interviews in the lobby of a hotel.  Like a lot of lobbies, this one had books in it left behind by previous visitors, and I picked this one up when I saw that it was a medical thriller involving the Salem Witch Trials.  It turned out to be an engaging, but not particularly brilliant book dealing with a specific wheat mold responsible for the plagued girls in the 17th century, and some bizarrely cannibalistic scientists in the 20th.  Good summer read.

Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy (408 pp.).  Let me begin by saying that Thomas Hardy is one of my favorite authors ever.  That being said, I probably was less horrified and traumatized by this book than others might be, just because I'm familiar with Hardy and sort of knew what to expect.  As depressing as the book is, it's so fantastically rich with emotion and physical detail that the heart-break it causes is definitely bittersweet.

Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis (251 pp.).  My dad bought this for me to read while we were camping, and I loved it.  The portrayal of life as a history lecturer at a "red-brick university" in mid-century England was hilarious and not too far removed from the world of humanities academia here and now.

Heart of the Matter, Emily Giffin (368 pp.).  I went to visit my grandparents this summer, and this was in my grandmother's stack of books to read.  I was putting off reading my heavy Victorian novel (see below) so I picked it up.  It was an over-the-top soap opera of a book, but it must have had some merit, otherwise I would have stopped reading it.  Can't seem to remember what that merit was, though.

Daniel Deronda, George Eliot (883 pp.).  If I could marry a Victorian novel, it would probably be this one.  Brooding, thoughtful, magnanimous hero?  Check.  Flawed, but human slightly-less-significant-heroine?  Check.  Exploration of a culture never usually talked about in this time period (the Jews)?  Check.  Love, love, love.

Bloodhound, Tamora Pierce (534 pp.).  I think there's only one book of Tammy's that I haven't read since I started reading her books when I was eleven, and that was because it was a spin-off for a character I wasn't that interested in.  She may still be writing for an age demographic that I left behind about a decade ago (OMGWTFBBQ how am I so old?!) but her strong, funny female leads always make me smile.

Finding Oz, Evan I Schwartz (315 pp.).  This was a fantastic biography of L. Frank Baum, the man behind the book that inspired my favorite movie of all time.  Schwartz did a fantastic job of suggesting (rather than imposing, as some others have done) links between Baum's life and his writing, and I learned a great deal about the man and his family (for instance, his mother-in-law was one of the most well-known, radical feminists/suffragettes of the time).

Nicholas Nickleby, Charles Dickens (796 pp.).  Again, so much love.  Love love love love love.  Funny, sweet, all in all one of the most pleasurable books I read all year (and probably the most famous and well-written of them!).

The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, Suzanne Collins (374, 391, 390 pp.).  After Harry Potter wrapped a few years ago, there was an empty slot in the world for really well-written, engaging, frightening, not-at-all-dumbed-down science fiction/fantasy for young adults.  And then these books came along to fill that slot.  Brava, Suzanne Collins, and brava, Katniss Everdeen.

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (179 pp.).  I know - how had I never read this before?  I'm not sure, but somehow I hadn't, so I did this year, and I'm glad.  I found the second half to be somewhat disjointed from the first, but Bradbury (whose Martian Chronicles I re-read and re-fell in love with while camping with my dad this summer) didn't let me down.

A Wizard of Mars, Diane Duane (550 pp.).  Like Tamora Pierce, I've been reading Diane Duane's books for just over a decade now (though Duane is less prolific).  Again, I'm outside of the target age range, but I still love Nita and Kit and Dairine and I still love the way Duane has crafted magic as a form of quantum physics, as her teenage wizards deal with things like entropy and the maintenance of energy.

The Mermaid Chair, Sue Monk Kidd (368 pp.).  This was the first book I read on my new Kindle (thanks Dad!), based on the recommendation of a friend.  I enjoyed it and found it to be well-written, but not as delightful or engaging as The Secret Life of Bees, Kidd's debut novel.

The Wizard Heir, Cinda Williams Chima (480 pp.).  I'd heard this young adult novel (part of a trilogy) was a fun fantasy read.  I mistakenly started with the second instead of the first book of the series, and whether because of that mistake or just because of the way it's written, I found it totally uncompelling.

I Am Number Four, Pittacus Lore (448 pp.).  This young adult science fiction, however, the last book I finished this year, was utterly compelling and engaging.  I might even go see the movie starring my beloved Dianna Agron, and I'll probably read the sequel when it comes out.

(So, 32 books and 14,620 pages.  Damned good year for reading, I'd say.)

Then, of course, there is the story of The Book I Stopped Reading.  This was a big deal for me when it happened last week, because I almost never hate a book so much I don't finish it.  But this book, First Stringers by Gerald Weinberg, which I got for free (thank goodness) off of LibraryThing's Early Reviewer list, was so poorly written and edited that I decided watching paint dry, streaming seven episodes in a row of "Veronica Mars," and moving on to a better book (just started Everything Is Illuminated) was a much better use of my time.

I hope you're all (if there are any of you, that is) enjoying the end of this turbulent year and ringing in the new one in flawless style.  Bring it on, 2011!

Saturday, December 25, 2010

So this is Christmas, and what have you done?

I am well aware that I am grossly overdue for a blog update.  I have quite seriously been meaning to post since I finished my quarter, but that was just over two weeks ago, so vacation has clearly drained me of motivation.  But here I am, to offer my readers a happy/merry/enjoyable/tolerable Hanukkah/Christmas/Solstice/Festivus/Kwanzaa/Holiday/whatever it is you celebrate this time of year.

As far as accomplishments go (to answer John and Yoko's question), this whole being done with my first quarter of grad school is rather astounding.  I'll admit, for these past few months, I've definitely felt as if, in some way, I wasn't quite a "real" grad student yet: I felt as though I were a probationary grad student, or testing the waters to see if grad school and I were compatible with each other.  Now that I've successfully completed an entire quarter, though, I definitely feel like a real grad student - I clearly passed whatever test I was giving myself September through December.  As far as my compatibility with my new long-term partner, grad school, I'm fully committed.  I may be heading into a dreadfully co-dependent relationship, but oh boy will it be fun and exciting.  I have just over a week left of vacation, and although I am enjoying the relaxation and the family and friends, I'm just as excited to be heading back down to Santa Barbara next week to start my second quarter.

I used to do this long, very thoughtful, probing, and sometimes cattiness-inducing end of the year survey on my LiveJournal every year at this time.  Looking back over the questions, though, I think I can more effectively summarize 2010 like this: This year, for me and many of my near and dear ones, was a year of upheaval.  I was lucky enough that all of my upheaval was for the best: my move to Santa Barbara, my beginning of graduate school (and, consequently, my future career) turned out so very very well.  Next year, I hope, will be a bit more stable - I'm aiming for 2011 to be the first year since 2005 without my moving in and/or out of a dorm room or apartment - and (this I know) full of new experiences, new friends, long-time friends and loved ones, and joy.  And lots and lots of reading.

Merry, merry, merry, everyone!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Giving Quite a Lot of Thanks

I know I've been grousing for the past week or so - the nasty flu/cold/whatever it was bug that hit me right in the middle of presentation time made me pretty cranky - but now that I'm feeling (mostly) better, I want to re-up (is that an expression? have I just made it an expression?) the mood of the blog with only some of the many many thanks I feel today.

I am thankful for, above all other things in my life right now, the amazing opportunity of being in grad school. This experience is everything I hoped and dreamed it would be, and I am so thankful to be doing it.  I am thankful for the wonderful new friends I've made, the brilliant professors I'm working with, and the fascinating books I'm reading and work I'm doing.  I'm also thankful to have this amazing experience in one of the world's most beautiful places.  The day I moved into my apartment in Santa Barbara, as I was getting suitcases out of my car, I stood in my parking lot and looked at the light the sunset was casting on the mountains just to the east of SB.  The color, the air, and the light were all so stunning that I knew I was right where I was supposed to be.

I am thankful for my cat.  I know this sounds silly, as she's small and non-verbal and will never read this blog and feel proud to be mentioned, but I am thankful for her small furriness and her cuddles and companionship.  I never could have made it through senior year of college without her, and I don't think I'd make it through grad school without her, either.

Speaking of college, I am so thankful for all the wonderful professors I had at my various undergraduate institutions.  Without their guidance towards the best authors, the better way to write a paper, and the passion for learning and literature, I wouldn't be in grad school.

I am thankful for my best friends, whether I've known them for nine or four years.  (Yeah, you know who you are.)  The shoulders to cry on, the smiles to laugh with; the dinner dates, the movie nights, the shopping trips, the phone calls.  Everything has kept me sane and happy and looking forward to many more years of friendship.

I am thankful to my family, in particular my parents and grandparents.  Without them, I (obviously) literally would not be anywhere, but metaphorically, I wouldn't be where I am.  They are my never-ending pep squad, my patrons, my nurses, my chefs, my constructive critics, and my friends.

And, lastly, in true fashion of this blog's "appropriate pretension," as some have called it, I am thankful for my great buddies Chaucer, Shakespeare, Gower, Hardy, Eliot, Dickens, Jonson, et al for leaving me and my colleagues such a wealth of richness to analyze and interpret until our heads explode and our fingers fall off.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Being Sick in Grad School

When you're under the age of 18, being really sick sucks, but having a cold that's just bad enough to keep you home from school can be somewhat magical.  Elementary school, and even middle and high school move so slowly, relatively, that one can afford to miss one to three days.  And those days can be filled with soup, saltines, Jello, 7Up, and Judging Amy.  Or at least that's what my sick days used to be like.

College sick days are not quite as much fun.  Class now meets usually only twice a week, so missing one day of it is tough, and more than one day can be deadly.  You can still indulge in Jello and syndicated television, but there's no Mom to stop in periodically to feel your forehead or make you tea.  But, for the most part, there are friends who live down the hall or down the block who will bring you class notes and trashy magazines and, if you're lucky like I was, Mom lives 2 miles away and can stop by with some Magical Mom Healing Powers (tm).

Being sick in grad school, as I'm finding out this week, is the worst of the worst.  Forget college, when classes met twice a week.  Now classes only meet once a week!  Missed today's class?  Oh, well, you just missed the only discussion on that text you wanted to write about, and you missed 10% of the class this quarter.  My head cold has oh-so-conveniently timed itself to match perfectly (note that I am dripping not only with snot [sorry for the image] but also with sarcasm) with my overload of Presentation One tomorrow, and Presentation Two on Monday.  Not exactly the time to coddle yourself with saltines and 7Up.  I suppose taking care of yourself when you're sick is just one more of those responsibilities that come with growing up, along with privileges like going to fricking grad school, which is so infinitely more interesting than elementary school...but right now some time to take a few days off, along with some Jello and Magical Mom Healing Powers (tm) would definitely not be unappreciated.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Titles and Other Rookie Mistakes

So, I've finally settled on a new (and permanent) title and URL for this blog - Confessio Scholastici, or The Student's Confession.  It's a modification of Confessio Amantis (The Lover's Confession), the name of the 1390 poem by John Gower on which I wrote my undergrad thesis.  It also seems particularly apt for the title of a blog aiming to chronicle the trials and successes of a student.  So, I had a few misses with overly crude, cheesy, and simply un-amusing titles, but this shall be my successful sticking point.

On the topic of rookie mistakes (like titling a blog before you have a really good title for it), I made a big one this quarter.  In background, let me explain that most graduate English seminars require, along with a final paper, that each student lead class once during the quarter, presenting on a specific week's reading, describing some of the existing criticism of the primary text, and starting the class discussion with a few questions.  When the sign-up sheets for these presentations went around back in September, I eagerly scanned the syllabus for what I was sure would be my favorite topic - What will I have the most to say about? I asked myself, choosing to present on the second half of Tess of the D'Urbervilles for one class, and "The Community of Women" for the other.  Fabulous, wonderful topics to present on.  The presentations are going to be really interesting to research and give.  One problem.  Without noticing it, I managed to sign up for two presentations in the last two weeks of class.  This means that, while everybody around me who had the good sense to get their presentation over with earlier in the quarter is focusing all of their attention on writing their papers, I get to focus on preparing my presentations and writing my papers.  If just one of my presentations had already been done - but, alas, no, I have two presentations and two papers to grapple with in the next few weeks.  This is not a mistake I will make again.

The bad news about this is that I will be spending copious amounts of time staring at my computer screen, printouts of articles, and dusty books (one of my favorite smells, BTW).  My eyesight may suffer, and my hair will probably be thinned by my tearing of it.  The good news, however, is that I will surely find myself hitting an academic wall and needing breaks to do things like write witty blog posts to entertain my wide reader base (Hi Mom and Dad!).  So wish me luck on my great dive, and hopefully I'll come up for some air around these parts.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The English Grad Student as a Social Animal

In the five weeks since classes began, my cohort (that's the fancy word we use in grad school for "year," or "class") and the cohort one year ahead of us have gotten together for a social gathering every Friday night.  The first four of these were parties at people's houses/apartments - I actually hosted the second.  This past week, the dreaded Week Four of the quarter hit, with its sudden exponential increase of reading, writing, prepping for teaching for some of my colleagues, and general school-related stress.  Added to the rainy weather we've been having this week (as a NorCal girl, I've been un-bothered by it, but all the locals keep expressing their astonishment), this left all of us grad students in a rather bleary mood, and no-one volunteered to host a get-together last night.  Not all of us surrendered to the reading and the gloom, however.  One of my colleagues (the only man in my cohort) sent out a message to the party-list, and several of us met up at a bar in Isla Vista (the community directly off campus primarily populated by undergraduates) for a few pitchers of beer, and great conviviality was enjoyed.

As we all enjoyed ourselves, it occurred to me that, for the most part, English grad students party in a (not so) slightly different way than other people in my age range might. Let me give you one example:  At the bar last night, one of my friends rejoined the group after buying herself a beer.  "I think I have to turn off the English major sometimes," she said.  "I just almost corrected the bartender's grammar."  We all laughed as she recounted overhearing the bartender talking to a friend about how "Me and Sarah are going to the party," and each winced and sucked in a breath before muttering, "Sarah and I" under our breath.  Later, I was bemoaning some piece of overblown rhetoric I'd overheard in my French class (a topic for another post, if not several), a friend commiserated with me for having to tolerate "such pompous sophistry."  I could be wrong, but I don't think the undergraduate frat brothers next to us who were whistling for the bartender while chugging their beers were having conversations exactly like ours.  At our social get-togethers, I have heard my colleagues discuss their research, the readings for the classes they have in common, their preparation for their qualifying exams (source of all my future nightmares), and their current favorite (or least favorite) theorists.  I have heard the words and names postmodernism, affect theory, Foucault, Derrida, and post-colonialism all used in so-called "small talk" at these parties, and never does it have a whiff of pretentiousness - our lives are as focused on literature and its ins and outs that our daily vocabulary is as full of its "isms" as my parents' (both lawyers) attorney friends are full of lively political, legal discussions at their social events.

Not that I would want anyone to think that the only things we do while consuming our wine, micro-brewed beers, and cheese and crackers is talk shop.  Along with the fancier-sounding names and ideas, I have heard (or participated with) my carousing colleagues discussing Lady Gaga, pie recipes, hot beverages-related accidents, and unicorns.  (Although one of my friends would argue that the last is quite possibly a totally legitimate topic of scholarly discussion.)  So yes, we English grad students can "turn it off."  We just don't always want to.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010


When I was in elementary and middle school, I had a collection of paper journals that I used to record my experiences, document my crushes, and process my emotions.  In high school and the first few years of college, I used LiveJournal to share my experiences, crushes, and raw emotions with all of my closest friends (and some strangers I met on the internet).  I'm well beyond feeding off of the heady drama fueled by passive-aggressively trying to work out my emotions in a semi-public forum, but I learned through my LiveJournal experience, as well as through comments my family and friends have made, that I really like telling stories about what's been happening in my life - and I'm good at it, too!  I've recently moved away from home to start my graduate career, and it's hard to talk to everyone everyday, remember all the stories I wanted to tell them all, keep the stories lively for each re-telling.  It occurred to me that a blog would be a perfect outlet for me - a way to share my stories of grad school and the life that I am developing around it - hilarious, torturous, thrilling, esoteric - with my loved ones, as well as anyone else who stumbles upon me (in the traditional sense of the word, I mean.  God, how cool would it be if my blog wound up on Stumble?  But I digress..)

So welcome, dear readers.  I hope to check in at least once a week, but please extend some patience and mercy for the girl with 600 pages of reading a week.  And on that note, my homework calls...