The Final Countdown (Top Ten Tuesday)

Rather than apologize profusely for my absence from the blogging world, I'm actually going to give myself permission to take the rest of the year off from my blog.  It's not for lack of love of this blog or any of my fab readers and it's certainly not for lack of great books to write about.  Rather, this has been one of those months where life has thrown me for some loop-de-loops and in an effort to simplify, I'm allowing myself to take a breather.  That's not to say that this will be my last blog of the year and that's not a promise that come January things will return to normal, but it's just an announcement that if I'm not here with my typical frequency, keep heart - I will be back.

With that said, I really can't resist jumping in on today's Top Ten Tuesday topic: Favorite Books Read in 2011.  As usual, I can't actually limit this to ten, but with 70+ books finished this year, this list does still represent the cream of the crop!

Favorite YA Fiction:

Tall Story by Candy Gourlay
Birthmarked by Caragh O'Brien
Tyger, Tyger by Kersten Hamilton
Matched by Ally Condie

Favorite Adult Fiction - Fantasy:

Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher
A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin

Favorite Adult Fiction - Mystery:

Take the Monkeys and Run by Karen Cantwell
The Chalk Girl by Carol O'Connell (review to come)
Six Geese A-Slaying by Donna Andrews (review to come)

Favorite Adult Fiction - General Fiction:

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen
Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides
The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Favorite Classics:

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery

This really is just a sampling of many wonderful books I encountered for the first time this year!  Are there any that I've mentioned that you loved as well?  How about titles I loved that you didn't particularly care for?  Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.  Feel free to join the fun with a post of your own and link up at their site!


First comes the apology for my unexpected blogging hiatus.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I was a bit under the weather last week.  Once I was feeling more human, I was busy playing catch-up at work and trying to get ready for the holidays (service projects, card writing, shopping, party planning).  But as a very special return post, I'm happy to share a review of a book that impressed my socks off - happy Christmas socks, that is, featuring little puppies and kitties in Santa hats... the socks, not the book.

Ambitious in scope and epic in execution, Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides is an amazing story not just for its sweeping family saga but for its remarkable narrator. Calliope "Cal" Stephanides is a hermaphrodite - genetically male but raised as a female - and the genetic mutation that led to his condition is rooted in the history of his family. Though Cal is introduced immediately, the majority of the story is told in the past - from Cal's grandparents, Greek immigrants Lefty and Desdemona; to his parents Milton and Tessie.

The unique relationships between the two couples is almost as captivating as their surroundings. Settling in Detroit, Michigan, Lefty and Desdemona's tale corresponds to the city's glory days of Ford. As the next generation takes the focus of the narration, the landscape shifts as well and Cal's parents witness the race riots of the sixties and follow the white exodus to suburban Grosse Pointe, where Cal and his brother are raised.

Eugenides succeeds not only in revealing the complex history of Detroit, but in telling the book with an amazing flair for detail. Some of the characters are painted so richly with personalities that jump off the page while others are classified precisely by their lack thereof. Cal's parents were complete with their own back-stories, hobbies, quirks, and talents; meanwhile Cal's brother is only ever referred to cleverly as "Chapter Eleven". Everything about the story feels real and more than once I found myself running an internet search on a business, neighborhood, or event to distinguish facts from Eugenides's fiction.
I must admit that I had this book on my "To Read" list for a long time and was unfairly prejudiced against the story - which I assumed would revolve primarily around gender identity issues. What I found was a book that did deal with gender and sexuality, but through the eyes of a witty and unique narrator that I came to love, because I was first introduced to his captivating family saga. I was swept up by the Stephanides's history and as Cal interspersed his own struggles into the tale - complete with a decent dose of science and genetics - I felt like a member of the family. I'm also not normally swayed by awards and accolades on book covers, but Middlesex deserves all the praise and attention it has received. I was thoroughly amazed by this book and can easily say it's one of the best I have read this year.

"Curling up with a good book when there's a repair job to be done"

"There's nothing to match curling up with a good book when there's a repair job to be done around the house." ~Joe Ryan
I've been home sick the past few days and I always have a hard time making myself rest when I'm sick versus getting things done around the house. The cold bug I caught this year however really wiped me out. I'll sleep nine or more hours a night and still wake up feeling really tired. So the quote above seemed rather appropriate for me this week as it has been rather nice to kick my feet up and cuddle with a cup of tea, a cozy blanket, and a good book with hopes of feeling better soon!

Tales of an African Vet

Tales of an African Vet is a fascinating series of vignettes from the life of author Roy Aronson. The stories follow his real life experiences as a veterinarian in South Africa and his patients range from elephants and lions in the wild, to snakes and squirrel monkeys brought into a clinic for treatment.

Dr. Aronson shows a depth of passion for his work and for all the animals he treats that reveals a sense of compassion as great as his intelligence. The book is amazing for its details of science and medicine - and the logistics behind treating incredibly large and dangerous wild animals - as well as the knowledge and interesting facts about the variety of animals encountered (from rhinos to alligators to hedgehogs to koi).

The book was well written and the format of stories rather than a single narrative provides a sweeping coverage of the grand scale of Dr. Aronson's work. This is a wonderful book for anyone interested in African animals, exotic veterinary medicine, or just a great biography of a man with an extraordinary job.

Rumpelstiltskin (Fairy Tale Fridays)

In lamenting a particularly frustrating portion of my work as a research scientist, I once described a group of my assignments as "The Rumpelstiltskin Effect".  I felt as though in moving my project forward I was being asked to spin straw into gold - a task that was in every way something that nobody could do, but still I was pursuing it.  Needless to say, that project did not pan out as well as some of my others.

Reflecting on that portion of my work, I also realized that I've never reviewed and analyzed the popular Brothers Grimm story Rumpelstiltskin.  As many know the story begins with the Sisyphean task for the miller's daughter all because of something her father says:
"Once there was a miller who was poor, but who had a beautiful daughter. Now it happened that he had to go and speak to the king, and in order to make himself appear important he said to him, 'I have a daughter who can spin straw into gold.'" 
Notice that the problems all begin because the man was trying to "appear important".  The adage of pride before the fall comes to mind here as the story is set in motion.  The greedy king locks the girl up with a room full of straw and a spinning wheel and threatens to kill her if she cannot perform the feat by morning.  Partly I wonder if this was the king simply trying to call the man's bluff.  I have to wonder if the king would really go through with executing a subject - and a beautiful one at that - for what seems to be an obvious exaggeration.  So the miller's daughter is more than a little bit stuck.  The story tells us:
"She had no idea how straw could be spun into gold, and she grew more and more frightened, until at last she began to weep.  But all at once the door opened, and in came a little man..."
I'll try not to roll my eyes at why the miller's daughter didn't at least start trying to spin her straw, plead hay fever and demand release, or fess up to her father's lies; but as in many fairy tales, we have a male who comes to her rescue.  The stranger creates the gold in exchange for a necklace and when the king's greed causes a repeat of events the miller's daughter turns over a gold ring.  (Does anyone ever stop to wonder why, if the miller was so poor, does his daughter have a necklace and a ring that become some pretty hefty bargaining chips?  Or why, if Rumpelstiltskin can spin stray into gold, does he have need of the girl's trinkets?  Sorry, moving on.)  On the third night, the girl is once more thrust into a room of straw and told by the king, "You must spin this, too, in the course of this night, but if you succeed, you shall be my wife."

Rumpelstiltskin appears to save her once more but she is left without anything to offer him in trade for his service - and yet he offers her a deal:
"'Then promise me, if you should become queen, to give me your first child.'"
Who knows whether that will ever happen, thought the miller's daughter, and, not knowing how else to help herself in this strait, she promised the manikin what he wanted, and for that he once more spun the straw into gold."
I know fairy tale heroines are not known for their brains but since the king promised to marry her for one more night of spinning and if Rumpelstiltskin had already delivered a straw to gold transmogrification twice, why didn't she think she would be queen?  So the story proceeds with the girl marrying the king, and eventually having a child that Rumpelstiltskin comes to claim.  She pleads with him not to take the baby and he offers her a reprieve if she can guess his name.  (I have to wonder, how did he help her out three nights in a row and she never asked who he was?)  Of course the big "R" is not a name on anyone's lips so the new queen's situation is rather dire.  She sends out messengers to seek new names from all the kingdoms and eventually one returns with the following tale of what he observed:
"Round about the fire quite a ridiculous little man was jumping, he hopped upon one leg, and shouted -
     'To-day I bake, to-morrow brew,
     the next I'll have the young queen's child.
     Ha, glad am I that no one knew
     that Rumpelstiltskin I am styled.'" 
The queen reveals the answer to the guessing game and the peeved little man suffers a rather disastrous fate:
" his anger he plunged his right foot so deep into the earth that his whole leg went in, and then in rage he pulled at his left leg so hard with both hands that he tore himself in two."
Typically Grimm, that line is the morbid end to the story.  At first, my reaction to this story is one of disdain.  None of the characters are exceptionally virtuous, but on second look there are some actual morals to be found.  The first may be that honesty is the best policy and that one should not tell lies to make themselves seem more important, but I think the larger lesson revealed is to guard one's words.

There are multiple Biblical proverbs about this topic, and regardless of your thoughts on the divinity of scripture, the advice is exceptionally wise.  One example is Proverbs 13:3 "He who guards his lips guards his life, but he who speaks rashly will come to ruin." (18:21 says, "The tongue has the power of life and death" and 21:23 states, "He who guards his mouth and his tongue keeps himself from calamity.")  Knowing that the Grimms were in the practice of moralizing, I think it can be rather obvious how these verses tie into the tale.

Firstly, the father's boastfulness is what begins the whole fiasco.  The king's harsh threats cause the miller's daughter her panic, which in turn leads to her making an unwise promise to Rumpelstiltskin.  All through the story we see the characters causing their own trouble because of what they say and ultimately, it is the little man's words when he thinks no one can hear him that leads the queen to have his name. 

What are your thoughts on the morals and lessons of Rumpelstiltskin?  Is discretionary speech a good theme to pull out of this tale or do you interpret it differently?  Do you feel bad that things ended so poorly for the titular character or do you think he got what he deserved? 

This post marks another entry in my 2011 Fairy Tale Challenge (10 out of 12) hosted by Tif of Tif Talks Books.  I'd love for you to share your thoughts on this post or any of my previous Fairy Tale Fridays selections and wish me luck in finding two more tales to post about before year's end!