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

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.