Adventures in Reading


222 Days & the Man Booker Prize
July 30, 2009, 12:00 pm
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It has been 222 days since my last post: I’ve got a new job, a new hair color, a new outlook on life, and will shortly be moving to a new city.  I’ve definitely fallen off of the book radar so imagine my surprise while scanning the BBC’s website that it was already that time of year: the Man Booker Prize long list announcement. The Man Booker long list consistently promises phenomenal fiction reads from the UK, Ireland, and the Commonwealth and each year I find a new favorite from this list; last year it was Steve Toltz’s A Fraction of the Whole. The 2009 long list is:

  • AS Byatt’s The Children’s Book
  • JM Coetzee’s Summertime
  • Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze
  • Sarah Hall’s How to Paint a Dead Man
  • Samantha Harvey’s The Wilderness
  • James Lever’s Me Cheeta
  • Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall
  • Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room
  • Ed O’Loughlin’s Not Untrue and Not Unkind
  • James Scudamore’s Heliopolis
  • Colm Toibin’s Brooklyn
  • William Trevor’s Love and Summer
  • Sarah Water’s The Little Stranger
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Michael Buckley’s The Sisters Grimm: Magic & Other Misdemeanors
December 16, 2007, 12:06 pm
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“I’m sure this could be seen as child abuse,” Sabrina groaned as she pulled a pillow over her head. She wondered how many children had grandmothers who woke them up by standing over their beds banging a metal pot with a spoon. She peeked out at the old woman. Granny Relda looked like a member of the world’s most annoying marching band.” – Michael Buckley’s Magic & Other Misdemeanors

I do not often read children’s literature, but often wish I spent more time doing so. Particularly books designed for children ages eight through twelve have some particularly charming plots. Authors for this age range tend to stick with simple and meaningful themes such as patience, family, and the importance of younger siblings. Michael Buckley’s Sister Grimm series has been my children’s literature indulgence over the past year as a result of word of mouth and my own love for all things myth, folklore, and fairy tale related. It is a charming series punctuated by wonderful illustrations by Peter Ferguson, and I must commend Buckley for taking his fifth book in the series – Magic & Other Misdemeanors – to an entirely different place than the proceeding stories.

I posted once before about my initial reaction to the first fourteen pages, and in retrospect I hope nothing sounded too harsh or condemning. (One of the downsides of not having home Internet access is that there is little chance I can return to my posts 30-minutes later and be bewildered at what I actually wrote versus what I thought I wrote!) I was pleasantly surprised and quite taken as the previous two stories seemed to drag, but this latest work takes the sister detectives to entirely new places or should I say times. In the prior books, the sisters solved some rather incredible fairy tale cases, but now Sabrina and Daphne have quite the plot of danger and intrigue set before them: what happens when a glimpse into Ferry Port Landing’s future promises a frightening world where everything is ran by crazed fairy tale characters?

This glimpse into a tear of time encourages the Grimms to take action and change the present before they are doomed to this future. However, the novel concludes on a rather dastardly point, which perhaps implies that any actions are futile. All I want to know – when is the next book coming out? The usual cliffhanger Buckley ends on is more sensational than ever and I wait in great anticipation to read more of the Sisters Grimm. I have remarked on a few reasons why I like the series, such as having two strong female leads or the fairy tale nature of the stories, and Buckley is one of my favorite recommendations to give at work, but I have discovered my own folly and that is I seldom suggest these books for boys.

There seems to have been a recent spurt in genderizing literature, and while this is absolutely not new it still seems strange in how welcomed the move seems and how unquestioning most people are about it. It seems every other children’s book that is coming out is either marketed specifically for boys or specifically for girls, and while The Sisters Grimm may describe the adventures of two sisters there is nothing a boy cannot enjoy from the series. This afternoon I had a woman shopping for her son-in-law and she wanted recommendations for suspense novels, but she turned down every one of my suggestions because the lead in the books (and this was entirely accidental on my part) were women. She confessed that some men were simply a bit chauvinistic, but I find that a poor excuse and will in the future try my best to discourage such behavior.

However, as it seems I am going to have to wait a good deal of time to find out what exactly happens, I plan on turning to some other children’s classics that I have never managed to finish. While I usually try not to play too far ahead into my reading future I have put Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women and Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows on my must read for January list.

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Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
December 13, 2007, 6:21 pm
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“We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a ‘new fellow,’ not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk.” – Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Between the novel The Heroine and my interest in 19th Century literature, Madame Bovary seemed an excellent book to bite into. In The Heroine there is a brief stop by Emma Bovary and that really spurred me to pick up Flaubert’s novel. Madame Bovary is moving, brilliant, and I could not put it down. The story represents the darker side of female struggle in the period and calls into question the stifling atmosphere that women lived/live in. What happens to an ambitious women when her ambitions are limited by her husband’s? Granted, as I read it I also realized that the novel could easily be read as a condemnation of the novel and its influence on women. However, Flaubert discusses the darker aspects of this life and the novel concludes with a painfully graphic description of Emma’s suicide.

There are unmistakable similarities between Madame Bovary and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and I spent a lot of time post-reading wondering how respected both Flaubert and Tolstoy are for slaughtering their female leads. Please do not get me wrong, these are both novels I adore and I cannot wait to read more by Flaubert. However, Austen so often seems written off as romantic pink puffs of fancy (though certainly not by her fans). Even today a supervisor, with an English degree, described Jane Austen as “Snow White” for adults. I never fully realized how such different impressions are developed based on a happy or sad ending. Would Austen be accused of “chick lit” if she had killed off the middle Miss Dashwood or had Jane Bennett kill herself?

Despite this, Madame Bovary has nestled its way into my ever expanding list of favorite novels of all time. The story is beautiful and sincere, and Flaubert does not shy away from dealing with the more serious issues of the period. We watch Emma marry without giving much thought to her future life, and when she quickly becomes bored with it she becomes ill. The quick fix to her unhappiness and boredom is found through affairs, but the mad and passionate love that is produced is no solution. Even when in a love affair, Emma does not seem happy. As with Anna Karenina, Emma’s happiness seems to fluctuate based on the men in her life.

Tied in with this overarching idea, we also see Emma utilizing consumerist greed to replace more tangible happiness and growth in her life. Emma quickly accumulates a great deal of debt and her suicide is intimately attached not only to her own self-destructive behavior but to the lust yet another man has for her.



The Sisters Grimm by Michael Buckley
December 13, 2007, 5:49 pm
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Earlier in the year a popular requested author at work was Michael Buckley, and it seemed everyone was interested in his Sisters Grimm series. Since then I have read the first four books and I have finally gotten around to the latest edition Magic and Other Misdemeanors. While reading the previous four I noticed that the books seemed to grow progressively weaker, but that could also simply be the result of reading too many of one author’s books at once.

While I am already only fourteen pages in I am at a point of great indecision with this book. Before I get ahead of myself allow me to explain the basis of the series: two sisters discover they are descended from the brothers Grimm, and along with a zany [1] cast of characters they run a sort of fairy tale detective agency. The idea on the whole is cute and it is also one of the few fantasy books for ages eight and up that offers a primary focus on two heroines.

So what am I indecisive or unsettled about? First, usually Buckley clearly states the folktales, myths, and fairy tales that he is referencing. However, this is the first time I noticed what appears to be references to modern tales of fantasy, but this is not referenced. When discussing “the black, gaping hole” or “What could any of them do to stop themselves, and soon the rest of the world, from being sucked into nothingness?” and I can only assume he is referencing Ende’s The Neverending Story where the Great Nothing of nihilism threatens the world.

Secondly, Buckley discusses “God” almost immediately and if my memory is correct this is the first mention of “God” in any of his novels. While there is nothing specifically bad about this, Buckley has for a long time been a favorite author for me to refer to customers at work, and part of my unwavering faith in suggesting him is that I have never had to earnestly consider on a customer to customer basis whether or not this would be appropriate. Not to say that “God” is inappropriate, but not every customer may want to purchase a book for a child that has religious tones in it.

And third, and practically the same as my first qualm, on page 14 the sisters stumble onto a group of chimpanzees and the docile chimpanzees turn on them when the sisters refer to them as “monkeys.” If that does not have Terry Pratchett written all over it I do not know what does!

So, are these huge issues? No, not particularly. But it does make me consider how an author treats references to other works of literature (and of course one could make the argument that Buckley is referring to neither Ende or Pratchett), and how do you suggest to customers and specifcally to children?

[1] Yes, zany is the only appropriate word.

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Emma by Jane Austen
December 13, 2007, 5:43 pm
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“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with verylittle to distress or vex her.” – Jane Austen’s Emma

I was thrilled to earn and receive an A on my Jane Austen Pride & Prejudice stock character paper, and was also encouraged by my instructor to submit it to the school’s writing review. Thus, for the next few weeks I will be extra fine tuning my paper. Between the research and writing of the paper I found the few odd moments to conclude Austen’s novel Emma too.

In many ways, Emma differs from Austen’s previous novels. Our heroine Emma Woodhouse faces no plight of financial or social existence that hinges on a good marriage. However, a theme of women “marrying up” persists in every marriage (and the book is full of them!). In addition, there is no clear cut villain such as Wickham or Willoughby. Instead, the closest Austen comes to a villain are Mr. Churchill and Mr. Elton. These two men are less of villains and more of cowards as a result of social and familial expectations.

While the heroine does marry in the end (to her brother-in-law’s brother) it is after much insistence that she will never marry or fall in love, and the resulting marriage has her husband moving into her household rather than the reverse. A special circumstance does exist as Emma does not wish to leave her (amusingly) sick father, which implies that perhaps her insistence was more to do with protecting her pride and heart.

Emma very much is a novel about matchmaking and the million small degrees of social status that exists. In regards to her own Yenta-like habits, Emma reflects that “The first error and the worst lay at her door. It was foolish, it was wrong, to take so active a part in bringing any two people together. It was adventuring too far, assuming too much, making light of what ought to be serious, a trick of what ought to be simple. She was quite concerned and ashamed, and resolved to do such things no more” (763). From decorum books I have read of the period I understand that matchmaking was not a thing to do, and was looked upon poorly.

The social statuses in the novel vary greatly from the Woodhouse home (where Emma is line for a 30,000 pound dowry if I recall correctly), to her ex-governess’ new matrimonial abode with Mr. Weston, to the now impoverished but once established Bates family. The novel thoroughly explores issues of marriage and relationship propriety for the people of Highbury. Since concluding Emma I have started on Northanger Abby, which is sensational. If anyone has ever doubted Austen’s wit, vivacity, and charm it is because they have not read NA!

Other opinions: Mommy Brain, Good Clean Reads, Deliciously Clean Reads.



Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis

“Goldfinch was flapping clothesline, a tenement delirious with striving.”

A few posts back I asked how reader’s decided which book to read next. I forgot to add that an excellent way to discover new writers and titles is asking at readings. Earlier in the year I heard two Canadian authors read. One was Steven Hayward author of The Secret Mitzvah of Lucio Burke (which I still have not read) and the other man I entirely forget (except that a group of us went back to a friend’s house and ate take out sushi). However, both of these authors recommended David Bezmozgis’ Natasha and Other Stories, and ever since then the collection has been sitting in the forefront of my mind as a must buy.

And I did. Buy it, that is, and it definitely tops my list as a favorite purchase and read of 2007. Bezmozgis story collection follows the life of a family of Jewish Russian immigrants in Toronto, Ontario. To paraphrase from one of my favorite television shows Black Books: I laughed, I cried, it changed my life. The book does follow the same family in chronological order, so especially if you are not a fan of the short story format this is one to try.

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The Heroines by Eileen Favorite
December 9, 2007, 10:15 am
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“Alas, if the heroine of one novel be not patronized by the heroine of another, from whom can she expect protection and regard?” – Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

When I stumbled onto this book last week I could not resist reading it. Eileen Favorite’s The Heroines is about a mother, Anne-Marie, and daughter, Penny, running a bed and breakfast, and famous literary heroines show up during some of their most stressful novelized experiences [1]. All of this is punctuated with glimpses of the televised Watergate trial.

The story is cute (and hokey) with a smattering of literary criticism, and I greatly enjoyed the premise of the novel. I mean, as fantastical of an idea as it is I am sure any fan of literature has at least one character they would love to get Chinese take out with. The first quarter of the novel amusingly details the mother and daughter tension of the household and gives the reader a glimpse of Franny (from Franny and Zooey) and Emma (from Madame Bovary).

However, Favorite inserted other themes and plots into the book that read more as gashes and interrupt the flow of an otherwise relaxing read. That is, Favorite begins to become very heavy handed about half way through the novel. Penny is abducted by a Hero, and after being found is taken to a hospital where she undergoes a rape test and is checked into the mental unit. (Granted, I suppose if you told a doctor you were abducted by a Celtic king similar things could happen to you.)

This portion of the story seemed a bit daft and I wonder what (if any) editorial conversation occurred. It reads as a mediocre scene of Girl, Interrupted (though with younger girls). Here Favorite seems to be playing up an idea of the psychological treatment of girls/women in this period with the wonder drug Valium. All well and good, and perhaps if Favorite had woven in more psychological tension for the reader – for example, questioning the reader whether or not the heroines are really exist – this could have progressed somewhere worthwhile.

It does not though. It dead ends and from here to the end of the book everything ends randomly and conveniently. I found this most irritating. Favorite had a great idea, but it just is not enough to carry excess themes.

I was also frustrated that only two of the heroines were from female authors. Favorite focuses on Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary, and a pre-christian Celtic tale “Deidre of the Sorrows” particularly as she is concluding the stories. (I will not lie – I kept hoping Austen would rear her head at some point!) Three stories written by men that conclude in the suicide of the heroine.

All I could think of was Claudia Johnson’s criticism on Austen, and how Austen did not kill off the scorned lover Margaret Dashwood as was/is so common in literature. I recall that Johnson describes it as a “pornographic death” where the heroine is killed under the mentality that if the hero cannot have her then no one will. Granted, Anna’s story is a bit different but this was the first thought in my head.

The book still has some cute and hokey moments. If the premise of the book seems thrilling I reservedly suggest you pick it up for some light reading on a cold winter’s afternoon. Honestly though, I found it a rather sloppy narrative and I could have read the book jacket and finished reading Austen’s Emma instead.

[1] There is a movie/book/short story/play/poem about a man who uses a black box to be transported to (and to transport) Emma Bovary to have an affair with her. Eventually the box breaks and I think he’s stuck with Emma in his world. For the life of me I cannot remember what it is though! This will annoy me until I find out.