Goodreads Monday: Practical Magic

Goodreads Monday is a weekly meme where you randomly choose a book from your To Be Read list and share it with everyone.

This week’s selection:

22896Practical Magic
by Alice Hoffman
286 pages
First Published in 1995

From Goodreads: “[A] delicious fantasy of witchcraft and love in a world where gardens smell of lemon verbena and happy endings are possible.”—Cosmopolitan

The Owens sisters confront the challenges of life and love in this bewitching novel from New York Times bestselling author Alice Hoffman.

For more than two hundred years, the Owens women have been blamed for everything that has gone wrong in their Massachusetts town. Gillian and Sally have endured that fate as well: as children, the sisters were forever outsiders, taunted, talked about, pointed at. Their elderly aunts almost seemed to encourage the whispers of witchery, with their musty house and their exotic concoctions and their crowd of black cats. But all Gillian and Sally wanted was to escape.

One will do so by marrying, the other by running away. But the bonds they share will bring them back—almost as if by magic…


I watched the movie based on this book for the first time last winter, on the recommendation of one of my best friends. Practical Magic is one of her favorite movies, and I quite liked it, too. I was happy to find that the movie was based on a book, and I’m looking forward to reading the book. It might be something to read during one of my upcoming flights.

The Bear and the Nightingale

bearThe Bear and the Nightingale
by Katherine Arden
322 pages
Published January 10, 2017

From Goodreads: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.


I had seen this book on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, but for some reason, despite the fact that the cover art is so simple and beautiful, I didn’t pay it much mind until Danielle over at Books, Vertigo and Tea read and loved it. I put in a request for it via my library’s digital library and fortunately did not have to wait terribly long for it to arrive.

This is an amazing book, and all the more so because it’s Arden’s debut novel. It takes place in the northern reaches of late medieval Russia, deep in the forest where winters are long and harsh and summer is short but beautiful. Though they are Christian, the people pay homage to the old spirits of the forest, and so they are protected from the demonic forces that would bring them misery and death. When Vasilisa’s father brings home his new, very devout wife who in turn summons a new priest to minister to the people, the old ways are frowned upon. The protective spirits are weakened, allowing the demonic forces to rise up, threatening to bring destruction upon them all.

Vasilisa, or Vasya and she’s usually called in the book, is easily my favorite heroine I’ve encountered this year. She’s smart and strong, and though her appearance is captivating to those who would claim her for their own, she’s never described as particularly beautiful. Our heroines are almost always beautiful, as though their inner strength must always translate into outer beauty, so it’s nice to see a heroine who isn’t gorgeous by default. Rather, her strength comes from her ability to see and accept the spirits around her– the ones that appear in children’s stories, but are largely dismissed by adults. Because Vasya can see the spirits and doesn’t see them as malevolent creatures (as her step-mother Anna does), she talks to them and learns all sorts of things, like how to ride horses and move quickly and silently through the forest. It is not entirely a gift, though, as Vasya’s abilities make her desirable to the demon looming at the edge of Winter.  It gives her courage, though, and it is Vasya’s courage that see her through danger, especially when the villagers are set against her.

The rest of the characters are wonderfully written, too. Even those who are largely against Vasya and her wildness are sympathetically rendered, and instead of hating them for their intransigence, I felt sorry for them. The step-mother, Anna, for example, is a prisoner of her circumstances, sold into marriage when she wanted nothing more than to become a nun, she sees demons everywhere except for the churches she find sanctuary in. All she has in her life is her faith and her young daughter, and she would do anything to please God and her priest and protect her child– to the point where she would sacrifice Vasya. The priest, Konstantin, is also a victim of his circumstances. He quickly falls for Vasya- though it’s hard to say if that feeling is lust or love- but his situation will not allow him to act upon his wishes, and so he condemns Vasya for being what he cannot be- wild and free.

The pacing of this book is solid throughout, except perhaps for one section, where Vasya’s father Pyotr takes his two elder sons to Moscow to present them at court and find himself a new wife. There are a few bits I could have done without, or that might have been a bit shorter. But now that I’m thinking about it, the section where Vasya’s brother Sasha visits a monastery might actually be necessary to show the strength of the Christian faith to the people of Rus’. That is pretty much my only gripe with the story, though, and it’s so minor overall.

Arden’s writing is beautiful throughout, blending Russian fairytales, history, and Christian lore into a gorgeous story that I both wanted to finish in a hurry (so I could find out what happened) and linger over (because the world is so intricate and realistic). Vasya is a hero who can defend her family and her people in spite of their hostility to her nature. She refuses to be anything but true to herself even when it causes conflict with her father, because she knows she’s doing the right thing.

The end of The Bear and the Nightingale leaves things open to more adventures for Vasya, and there is indeed a second book due out next January- The Girl in the Tower. It’s already on my To Be Read list, and you can bet I’ll be picking up a copy as soon as I can!

Sunday Sum-Up

I can’t complain about the weather this time. It’s been absolutely gorgeous. No one is running their air conditioners, everyone’s windows are open, and the neighborhood kids are spending their evenings outside. Fireflies are everywhere, and so too, it seems are playful dogs. In other words, it’s practically paradise around here. I’ve been taking advantage of the break in the hot weather by taking walks around a nearby college campus. With classes out for the summer, it’s incredibly quiet and full of singing birds, chirping crickets, the nightly cicadas, and the chatter of the occasional offended squirrel.

I’ve gotten a lot of reading done this week, finishing up both The Soul of the Camera by David duChemin and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. They are both excellent books.

The Soul of the Camera stays away from technical information. There is no talk of aperture or shutter speed or back vs. front-lighting. The camera itself is treated like the tool it is, and duChemin talks about the photographer’s importance in the making of the image. It’s your vision that creates the photograph, he says, it’s your ability to be patient and wait for the right moment to unfold in front of you. It’s your ability to see the world around you and pay attention to how things are that makes a memorable photograph. The camera is secondary to that. If you’re interested in the art and craft of photography beyond the basic technical skills, I would highly recommend The Soul of the Camera.

My current reads are Medium Raw by Anthony Bourdain, a book I downloaded during an exceptionally slow and boring day at work today, and Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas which downloaded automatically after being on hold for me for several weeks. I keep hearing about Sarah J. Maas’s books and about how  much people like them, so I figured I would give them a try. I haven’t started on Throne of Glass yet, but I should be able to start it fairly soon, since I’m three-quarters of the way through Medium Raw. 

I have to admit I’m a bit dubious about Throne of Glass. I mean, it involves a tournament of thieves and assassins, people who would logically be doing their best to not be found by royal officials. There is also a love triangle, which makes me roll my eyes, but I’ve heard that it’s relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. I haven’t really read any other ‘teenaged assassin’ books so as long as it’s better than Robin LaFevers’s Grave Mercy, it will be the best of that particular type of book I’ve ever read (note: I hated Grave Mercy. I thought the main character was a temperamental dolt who should have been taken out by one of her fellow teenage-girl-assassins, because the other girl was far more interesting and way more intelligent).

But in the spirit of trying new things, I’ll give it a go.


I did not finish Glen Cook’s The Black Company. I gave it about 80 pages, but I never could connect with any of the characters- not even the narrator, Croaker- and it always felt like things were coming out of the blue, event-wise. Like, they’d be chilling in their quarters, and someone was suddenly poisoned, and then half a page later they were conducting a raid on a rival company’s stronghold. I never could get a grasp on the world, its geography, or its history, culture, or ideals. Not really, anyway. It just seemed like everyone was trying to kill everyone else, and then, ‘look! Were-creatures are on the loose! We’re going over here now so we can ignore the were-creatures!’. I know a lot of people love this book and the ensuing series, but it just didn’t connect with me. There is an upcoming television show based on it. I’m hoping it will be a good one, and that I’ll like it more than the book.

The Good, The Bad, and The Fireflies

First off, the bad news: I have, as of tonight, run out of my stock of Celestial Seasonings Candy Cane Lane green tea. Tragedy, right? My favorite decaf tea, and it’s seasonal. Now it’s true that I could very sweetly ask my friend who lives just miles from the Celestial Seasonings headquarters (she’s the one who introduced me to the flavor to begin with) to buy me a few boxes the next time she’s there, but she’s going to be away from Colorado for a month, so I wouldn’t get it until August, at which point I will be in Iceland. So September is probably the earliest I will be able to enjoy this tea once I finish this cup.

Sad face!

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Holiday tea: Difficult to find in summer, for some strange reason.

(And yes, I know I can go online and buy it, but despite the fact that Colorado and Nebraska are next door neighbors, Celestial Seasonings ships their product out of their warehouse in California. So if I want to get Candy Cane Lane out of season and reduce the carbon imprint by even a smidge, I’ll have to wait until my friend is headed to C.S.’s headquarters.)

In the meantime, I have found simple recipes that even I can follow for rice pudding, coffee, and cookies involving cardamom. The rice pudding is fantastic! It’s been too hot for baking, though, and I haven’t been able to bring myself to drink hot beverages until tonight, so the cookies and coffee will have to wait.

On a more bookish note, I finished Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale today. I loved it! It is beautifully written, with memorable characters and antagonists who are easy to both despise and pity, with an ending that is both sad and hopeful. And the Russian fairytales that were incorporated into the story were fantastic, with both their good and evil sides portrayed believably. I will have a more in-depth review later on.

Now that I’ve finished with The Bear and the Nightingale, I can focus on The Black Company and figure out if I really like the book or not.

 

It’s been hot this week. Not like in Arizona, where temperatures have been so high that airplanes can’t fly in Phoenix, but hot enough that I just want to sit next to a fan on high with an endless glass of lemonade and books about snow to keep me company. Fortunately, the heat is set to break tonight, as an incoming cold front is set to bring the temperature down to about 75°F (24 C). Far more tolerable! And with Shakespeare in the park and book club scheduled for Sunday, it should be a fantastic weekend!

This has been in my head all day, though:

 

I’m not sure whether to attribute it to the heat or not, but my neighborhood has been positively swarming with fireflies these last few weeks. Though the past several evenings have been hot, sticky, and occasionally plagued with mosquitoes, walking through a cloud of fireflies at twilight is well worth the discomfort.

Goodreads Monday- The World Between Two Covers

23331535The World Between Two Covers
by Ann Morgan
326 pages
Published May, 2015

From Goodreads: A beguiling exploration of the joys of reading across boundaries, inspired by the author’s year-long journey through a book from every country.

Following an impulse to read more internationally, journalist Ann Morgan undertook first to define “the world” and then to find a story from each of 196 nations. Tireless in her quest and assisted by generous, far-flung strangers, Morgan discovered not only a treasury of world literature but also the keys to unlock it. Whether considering the difficulties faced by writers in developing nations, movingly illustrated by Burundian Marie-Thérese Toyi’s Weep Not, Refugee; tracing the use of local myths in the fantastically successful Samoan YA series Telesa; delving into questions of censorship and propaganda while sourcing a title from North Korea; or simply getting hold of The Corsair, the first Qatari novel to be translated into English, Morgan illuminates with wit, warmth, and insight how stories are written the world over and how place-geographical, historical, virtual-shapes the books we read and write.


I first heard about this book after watching Ann Morgan’s TED Talk about her literary adventure. She realized one day that most of the books she read were by British or American authors and wondered what she was missing out on, so she set out to read a book from every country- 196 of them- in one year. Some things were easy to find, others were extremely difficult, and in the process she encountered issues such as censorship and what makes a person a citizen of ‘Country X’ if they are immigrants or living in exile.

Morgan’s story inspired me to start reading books from other countries, and it’s been interesting (in a good way!) so far. I’ve read Ukranian satires (The Master and Margarita), dark stories about conflicts between siblings and even deeper inner conflicts from South Korea (I Have the Right to Destroy Myself). I have a long way to go, but it’s going to be a fantastic journey.

High Tea

I found a tea company here in town! And it’s not Teavana!

The Green Leaf Tea Company sells several dozen varieties of teas, along with treats, chocolates, and tea supplies in a cute little shop in the southern part of town. I didn’t know it existed until I came across it while searching for local events on Facebook. A couple of friends and I met up for Sunday High Tea, which included tiny sandwiches, scones, shortbread cookies, bitty lemon cupcakes, and a pot of tea. It tasted fantastic! If the shop was any closer to me, I might be in danger of spending a lot of money in that shop. As it is, it’s about a half-hour drive from where I live, so my trips there will be occasional treats rather than daily or weekly stops.

I had the wuyi oolong tea, while my companions had the classic Earl Grey and a rooibos chai.

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Sunday Sum-Up, or The Best Laid Plans of Mice

This week was an example of best plaid plans going somewhat awry. Not awry in a terrible way. More like, “I planned to do this, but I guess I’m going to do this other thing instead”. Part of it was due to the weather, which went mad with storms on Thursday and Friday, with Friday’s storm throwing hail, heavy rains, wind gusts of up to 88mph (100mph in Omaha, where several houses were destroyed), and a small tornado that touched down just three blocks from my apartment! Three blocks! And the tornado sirens didn’t go off!

Luckily, it was a very small tornado and touched down in an open field that belongs to the University’s agricultural college, so there was no damage. Around town, a lot of trees, tree branches, and power lines were downed and a lot of people lost electricity. It was not as bad as it could have been, though. No one was injured, even though this was a huge storm system that swept across the entire eastern section of the state.

Yesterday was thunderstorm-free, though it was cloudy all day and started raining off and on again. I had made plans to see the Flatwater Shakespeare Company’s production of The Merry Wives of Windsor at a park near where I work, but I decided not to because of the rain. It’s an outdoor production, so lousy weather is definitely a factor. Fortunately, it’s running for another couple of weeks, so I have more chances to see it.

Hence, ‘the best laid plans of mice’:

 

I went to the theater to see two movies this week! That’s more than I usually see in a month! First off was A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon and Jennifer Ehle.

imagesThis was an odd movie. It had a stellar cast and beautiful locations, but it was presented and shot very strangely. The actors spoke in turn without interrupting each other, even when they were angry, like they were in a play instead of a film. And while the language was period appropriate and went right along with the costumes and sets, it sounded strange coming out of their mouths. So while it was good overall, I don’t think I’d recommend A Quiet Passion unless you are a die-hard Emily Dickinson fan.

 

 

I had to take my car in for a lengthy repair on my day off, and because Panera prefers to refrigerate their customers, I decided not to stick around and read like I had planned to do. Fortunately, there was  a movie theater nearby, so I decided to go see a movie instead of slowly freezing to death while reading at Panera.

The movie I saw:

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Let me start by saying that I hadn’t intended to see this when it came out. When they announced it way back, I thought, “Oh. Another superhero movie. Great”.  I was going to let it pass me by, when I saw a post about it online regarding the fact that it stars a woman and is directed by a woman (and also, the screenwriter is a gay guy). The commenter stated that seeing Wonder Woman was like having the scales fall off her eyes regarding superhero movies. Finally, she said, there’s a superhero who isn’t being portrayed specifically for the male gaze. It’s not all T&A, or stick-thin actresses in corsets and stiletto heels. Here, the Amazons are powerful women with a range of skin color and body types, all of them with actual muscles, looking like they could wade into a battle and kick everyone’s ass. And who was leading them? Hippolyta, played by Robin Wright, a 51 year old woman in an action role in Hollywood where women are considered ‘old’ when they hit 30.

And can we talk about Gal Gadot as Diana? Another woman with muscles! And she’s not a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl with an All-American accent. She’s obviously from ‘somewhere else’ (aka Themyscira), and that’s the way it should be. She’s an Amazon warrior. She shouldn’t sound like she’s from Iowa. Her armor, too, fits the character. The short skirt and sleeveless top don’t seem like they’re meant to show off her body so much as to mimic the armor of ancient Greek warriors. You know, like the Spartans who held off the massive Persian army long enough to let the rest of the Greek city-states gather to defend their homeland. And maybe there were a couple of missteps in the film, but they weren’t enough to bother me. I loved Wonder Woman.

Something else notable…  the battle scenes- with the Amazons on the beach of Themyscira, and later with Diana charging the German forces by herself- honestly made me cry. Not because some syrupy emotional element had been added in, or because I was scared that Diana was going to die or anything like that. It was because- finally– there is a portrayal of a woman warrior who can lead the charge, wield a weapon as well as any man, and fight for what she believes in without needing a man to speak for her or defend her. I didn’t realize how much that would mean to me, or how it really has been lacking in Hollywood. Historically, women have been warriors. Viking, Anglo-Saxon, Sarmatian, and other cultures I can’t think of right now have graves of warrior women that have been found, and more will be revealed as archaeologists and historians go back and test the DNA of the bones found in previously unearthed graves.

Diana, Princess of Themyscira, might have been an anomaly when she was first dreamed up, but history is coming to show that she is not such a lonely figure after all.

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Now, onto books! I finished Dava Sobel’s The Glass Universe, Roshani Chokhi’s The Star-Touched Queen, and Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. The Glass Universe brings many women scientists out of obscurity and describes how their work- often derided as mere drudgery- was truly revolutionary and in many ways laid down the foundations of modern astronomy. Thanks to Edward Pickering, who hired the first women at his observatory at Harvard, many women were able to get their start and contribute to the study of the stars.

Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is pretty much that. He discusses nearly every branch of science, goes into their history and talks about the various scientists (and their oddities) who contributed to their fields, and discusses the field itself. Physics, quantum physics, biology, chemistry, geology and others all get their say in this book, which is written with the same sort of wry humor as the other books I’ve read by Bryson.

 

I’m still working on Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale, which I had to put aside for a bit so I could finish up A Short History of Nearly Everything before it was due back at the library. I’m looking forward to delving further into The Bear and the Nightingale! I haven’t gotten any further into Glen Cook’s The Black Company. I’ll try to get through more of it this week.


My pottery class is going well. It helps that we all have a background in art and have done at least some work on the potter’s wheel, so the teacher isn’t have to start with the “What is clay?” lecture. We dove right in, and the technique mostly came back, even though it’s been years since I had a lump of clay in my hands. The next class is tomorrow night, where we’ll learn about trimming pots.

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Proof that we are, indeed making things and not just eating cake and drinking beer (though we’re doing all three).