Category Archives: Fiction

Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn

What a wonderful thing that Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn was the most recent pick for the Slaves of Golconda reading group (in which everyone is welcome to participate!). I’d read du Maurier’s most famous novel, Rebecca, and liked it very much, but somehow I never got around to reading further in her work. But I loved Jamaica Inn and am inspired to read more du Maurier now. The novel surprised me. After reading Rebecca the plot twists and turns and the moodiness and sensationalism of it weren’t a surprise, but I expected it to be another novel that takes place in a big house amongst people with wealth. However, Jamaica Inn is very much a novel of the lower classes; it takes place among farms and tiny villages and its characters are smugglers and horse thieves.

The novel tells the story of Mary Yellan, a 23-year-old who has just lost her mother and now, to fulfill a promise, has gone to live with her Aunt Patience. The last time Mary met Patience, she was happy and full of life, but things have changed: Patience has married Joss Merlyn, a surly, violent man who now runs Jamaica Inn, a place strangely devoid of customers — and a place that, mysteriously, no one wants to talk about. As Mary settles in to Jamaica Inn, she becomes determined to get her aunt away from her husband and into a better situation, but she gets unwillingly caught up in her uncle’s doings — which she realizes are worse and worse the longer she lives there — and becomes more and more miserable.

There are two sources of hope for Mary, although neither is particularly hopeful. The first is Joss Merlyn’s brother, Jem, who cheerfully admits he is a horse thief but whose involvement in his brother’s darker doings is uncertain. He is a mysterious figure whom Mary doesn’t trust, but something continually draws her back to him. The other figure of hope, a more substantial one, is a local vicar, Francis Davey, who treats Mary kindly, but who is distant and almost otherworldly. Something about him doesn’t sit right with Mary. But she is on her own and needs to take help wherever she can find it.

The novel started off just a tad slowly for me, but once it gets going, the plotting is very well done — the novel is suspenseful and exciting. Okay, I could figure out roughly where things were going, but there were plenty of surprises and du Maurier kept me glued to the book. In addition to the plot, though, there is much to appreciate. The novel is set in Cornwall, which du Maurier evokes beautifully. The sea, the moors, the marshes, the country roads are all integral parts of the book. Mary is a champion walker, and I could feel the rain and the wind as I read about her exploratory rambles around Jamaica Inn.

Mary is a fascinating character, spirited and independent, as I imagine her Aunt Patience once was. She is often doing things that other characters think women shouldn’t do: taking those long walks unaccompanied, for example, often in circumstances that would frighten just about anyone. She frequently thinks that all she wants to do is live a man’s life, which is to say, she wants to work a farm independently, as a man would. She has no aspirations to marry, as she knows marriage can often lead to subjection and misery, as it did for her aunt. She knows how the world works and what she needs to do to keep herself safe.

She is not a complete loner (although, appealingly, she prefers people who know how to keep quiet when they should to those who will talk nervously through any situation); she has fond memories of living in her small village with her mother, knowing all the people who live around her and being able to count on them for help. She wants a community and to know her place within it, and she is not interested in social climbing; when offered the opportunity to live with a family from a higher class than hers, she rejects it, knowing it’s not her place.

On the one hand, Mary knows who she is and what she wants out of life, but, on the other, there is something appealing about excitement and newness, an appeal that is reflected in the wild landscape surrounding her. At times the rough winds of Cornwall are frightening and lonesome, but at others, they are exhilarating. Perhaps Mary isn’t so sure what she wants out of life after all.

Jamaica Inn is so different from Rebecca that I wonder what du Maurier’s other novels are like. I’m looking forward to finding out.

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Updates: Recent reading and 35 weeks

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season. All is well here, although everything feels slightly strange, in a not-bad way. Hobgoblin and I usually spend Christmas with my parents, but this time we didn’t want to drive the six hours required to get there so (relatively) close to my due date, so Christmas was quiet, with just the two of us and Muttboy. But we had fun opening presents, eating Hobgoblin’s awesome cooking, and seeing The Hobbit (not my kind of movie, really, and not perfect, but enjoyable nonetheless).

And now I … wait. After submitting final grades last week, I now have no obligations at work until I return 6-8 weeks after the baby is born (at which point I won’t have many obligations — it will be nothing but putting in an appearance in the writing center a couple times a week during the remainder of the spring semester to keep the paychecks coming). So all I have to do is stay healthy, take care of a few things like buying a car seat and arranging the nursery, and sit on the couch and read in between muttering complaints about my sore back. I’m extremely lucky to have so much time to rest before the baby is born (extremely!), but at the same time, I’m wondering what the next few weeks will bring. I generally don’t deal well with having a lot of time on my hands. I get anxious and cranky and find myself doing nothing at all. But this time I’m going to keep telling myself to enjoy it while it lasts, because it won’t last long, and maybe I’ll convince myself. We’ll see.

As for what I’ve read recently, I’ve been ploughing through Francis Burney’s long (900+ page) novel Camilla and should finish it in a day or two. It’s been a fun read. Yes, it could be shorter — there are episodes that could easily be cut — but it’s obviously not the kind of book you pick up when you want a quick read; it’s the kind of book you pick up when you want to be absorbed in a long story, and it’s perfect for that. Camilla is that very typical 18th/19th novel character — the young woman venturing out into the world for the first time without the protection of a mother, finding that all is not what it seems and that people can be treacherous and deceitful. Even those who appear to be kindhearted and friendly can pose dangers — in fact, these are the most dangerous of all because they seem so trustworthy. But they are all too often frivolous, or friends with the wrong people, or profligate with their money, or vain, and they lead poor, susceptible Camilla down dangerous paths. The book is all about the dangers of having the wrong friends, and also, although Burney wouldn’t frame it this way, about how horrible it is that women of Camilla’s background can’t easily earn money. As the novel goes on, it gets more and more obsessed with money and the problem of not having any, and Camilla can do nothing about it except look for new people to borrow from and hope her relatives can come to her rescue. If only she could just work a small part-time job for a while, she would be fine, but, of course, she doesn’t live in that world. And I don’t live in Camilla’s world, a fact for which I’m very, very grateful. The restrictions she lives under are absurd, but no one in her world sees it that way.

I also finished Virginia Woolf’s diary, volume 2, which I’ve been reading off and on for several months now. I’ll admit I skimmed over some of the passages where she talks about her social life, except those where T.S. Eliot and E.M. Forster appear, in favor of passages where she discusses her writing and reading and her mental state. Those passages are fascinating, particularly toward the end of this volume where she is working on Mrs. Dalloway. She struggles with it at times, but she also seems to know that this is going to be one of her masterpieces. She is writing in a way that pleases her and she doesn’t much care, at least in her best moments, about what people think. She’s found her style and her subject, and it’s fun to know from the perspective of the future that her confidence is justified.

A few quick notes on other books I’ve read in the last month or so: first, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which was as great as everyone seems to be saying it is. It’s an absorbing story, and at the same time it leads you to thoughts, questions, and conclusions about global economic structures without being at all didactic. She has a great way of keeping her focus on the story, but getting the reader to realize the implications of the story without spelling them out. Surely that’s not easy to do.

I also read Christopher Beha’s What Happened to Sophie Wilder, which I liked very much — it has a satisfying structure and is the sort of book that makes you turn back to the first page after finishing it to see what you missed the first time around. It turns out to be worthwhile to take that extra look because then you understand the book as a whole so much better. It’s a book about art, specifically about being a writer, and it’s also about faith. This is where I balked a little bit, for the very personal and non-literary reason that I didn’t understand the religious conversion the main character undergoes. Hers is a kind of faith I have a hard time wrapping my mind around. I’m still undecided as to whether Sophie makes sense as a character. But in a way this is okay because the narrative purposely keeps a distance from her and she is meant to be mysterious (as the novel’s title indicates). I liked the way the novel circles around her, trying and never quite succeeding to understand what happened.

And, finally, I finished Christina Schutt’s novel Prosperous Friends, which was a dark and difficult read that I liked very much. The characters are complicated and frequently unlikeable and the prosperous friends are not always friends you actually want to have. It’s a book about relationships and marriages gone wrong and only occasionally going right. I think I’m in the mood for unlikeable characters these days, so all this was fine, but I particularly liked the writing, which was rich and poetic — not always a good thing as far as I’m concerned, but it worked well here. The writing makes you work a bit, as Schutt does not always fill in all the pieces of the narrative, but it captures the mood of the novel perfectly.

I’ll close with my latest picture, which shows me looking a little bit harried — which is only to be expected, I guess! I hope to be back soon with my year-end round-up.

35 weeks

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Updates: 8/20/2012

I got back yesterday from my mystery book group meeting in Vermont, and it was a lovely time. Hobgoblin and I arrived on Friday afternoon and had some time to hang out, rest, and chat with our hosts (I guzzled limeade while the others drank martinis — I will certainly enjoy getting back to my moderate social drinking when this pregnancy is over!). Saturday involved a trip to the local farmer’s market in the morning, complete with bluegrass music, and a group excursion to Northshire Bookstore in the afternoon. We all brought home something; in my case, I found a used copy of Mark Doty’s memoir Heaven’s Coast, which I was thrilled to find after falling in love with his book Dog Years. We also bought our first children’s book, Tales from Old Ireland. The first of many more to come, I’m sure!

The book discussion Saturday evening was good, as it always is. Feelings were mixed about Sara Paretsky’s novel Hard Time, some really liking it and others finding it difficult to get through. Many people felt that Paretsky’s depiction of the prison system was the most powerful part of the book and the place where her writing really took off. It was clear that she has a passion for social justice, and when this passion lets loose, the writing gets stronger. The plot felt contrived, though, and we spent a lot of time talking about various plot points that seemed absurd. The mystery itself didn’t seem to work very well.

We also spent a lot of time talking about the news that John Banville/Benjamin Black will write a new Philip Marlowe book. Opinion here is very mixed as well, largely because many, although not all of us, strongly disliked Black’s novel Christine Falls and got the feeling that Black doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the mystery genre. It’s my feeling that I might like John Banville’s version of Marlowe better than Benjamin Black’s, but we’ll see what happens.

And then Sunday morning we all headed home and back to regular life, which for me includes finalizing my classes for this fall. I will spend some time today thinking about how I will teach E.M. Forster’s Passage to India in my new online class.

As for other reading from the past week, I finished Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and liked it very much. I don’t want to say very much about it, as it’s a book that should be read with no preconceptions, but it was extremely absorbing, entertaining, and satisfying. I liked that it had a focus on writing and how writing shapes our identity and how other people think about us (and on how crime cases are solved). It’s a book that gets you to think about narration and how much to trust what you are told. The book reminded me a bit of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley in the sense that it left me with a vague sense of dread and anxiety the entire time I was reading it — a feeling that sounds bad, but isn’t entirely. It’s a sign of a powerful book, I suppose, that it can grip the reader so tightly.

I also began reading Tove Jansson’s novel The True Deceiver and am about a third of the way through it. It’s similar to The Summer Book (which I loved) in its simple, pared-down writing style that is also very beautiful, although in other ways it’s an entirely different story. It’s set in a small Scandinavian village (I’m not sure if it’s in Sweden or Finland) and is about a young woman at odds with her fellow villagers, trying to take care of her younger brother, and developing a sketchy plan that involves a vulnerable older woman. I’m enjoying the writing, and also the detached, non-judgmental tone with which Jansson tells the story. She simply lets it unfold and allows you to draw your own conclusions.

That’s it for me for now — have a great week everyone!

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The Yacoubian Building

I bought this book a while back for reasons I can’t remember now, but it’s the most recent choice for the Slaves of Golconda book group and so high time I read it. The novel tells the stories of multiple characters, none of whom could really be called the protagonist, since the narrative spends similar amounts of time with each story. It’s the Yacoubian building that holds all the stories and the novel itself together. The Yacoubian building contains apartments that house people of many different backgrounds and classes, so through their stories we get a glimpse into various parts of Egyptian culture and experience.

There’s more than the building that holds the novel together; there is also a simmering frustration with Egyptian society and government that plays a part in many if not all of the stories. Taha, for example, finds himself unable to fulfill his dream of entering the Police Academy because of favoritism and corruption and soon joins a militant Islamic group. Busayna discovers that the only way she can support herself and her family is by allowing male employers to take sexual advantage of her. Zaki falls victim to his conniving sister who evicts him from his own apartment by getting the police on her side. Money, family, and connections are everything, and without them, there is little one can do to change one’s fate. It helps very much not to be a woman as well.

I admired the range of stories (not that there are all that many main narrative threads, maybe a handful) and subject matter they explore, from political corruption to workplace exploitation, religious devotion, family dynamics, sexuality, con men, drug dealing, torture, and falling in love. It’s a lot to cover in 250 pages, and Al Aswany does it admirably, giving us a feel for life in Cairo. I was grateful for the list of characters and their descriptions included right before the novel’s opening because the frequent switching from story to story got distracting at times, and the guidance was helpful.

I was never fully immersed in the novel, another function, I’m sure, of the jumps from character to character. But there were rewards to compensate for this, especially the overview of Egyptian society the multiple stories offered and the economy with which Al Aswany captures a rich sense of his characters’ lives. The narrator seems to withhold judgment, portraying the characters’ virtues and failings with equanimity. He seems interested more in understanding why people are the way they are rather than in judging them for what they do. It’s possible to find this narrative style flat and affectless, but I felt an undercurrent of compassion that at times is powerful.

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The Last Samurai

I’m not entirely sure where I learned about Helen DeWitt — from blogs of course, but I can’t remember which ones — but she’s been on my mind lately because of her good showing in this year’s Tournament of Books. I thought The Last Samurai might be a better place to start than the most recent Lightning Rods, though. What a fun book it turned out to be! It’s over 500 pages, but a fast read and very absorbing. It tells the story of a mother and son living in London, both of whom are brilliant, but the son, Ludo, is particularly so, and the mother, Sibylla, doesn’t quite know how to handle him. He has a desperate hunger to know things, and is studying Greek and other languages at the age most children are barely ready for Sesame Street. At the novel’s beginning, he wants Sibylla to teach him Japanese, inspired by her obsessive rewatching of Kurosawa’s film The Last Samurai. For her part, she is struggling, both because money is very tight, and because she needs time to do the typing that brings in what money she has. It’s hard to find time, though, when Ludo constantly asks questions and begs to be taught more — and more and more.

What I liked particularly about the book is the style: DeWitt captures the craziness of Sibylla’s and Ludo’s experiences by throwing it all out on the page. There are pages where the sentences go back and forth at a dizzying pace between Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions, or between a description of The Last Samurai and Ludo’s questions, or between comments they get from strangers as they ride the Circle Line all day to keep warm and Sibylla’s thoughts and Ludo’s questions. There is also a lot of Greek and Japanese and other languages in the pages, as well as numbers and math formulas. The novel has so much energy that it threatens to overrun its boundaries at times, both because it’s frequently breaking out into other languages and different fonts and because it’s constantly veering off into different stories. As Ludo grows older, he becomes more and more curious about his father and asks Sibylla more and more insistently to tell him who he is. Sibylla refuses, so Ludo goes on a quest to find him, or to find someone worthy of being him. Part of this quest is discovering stories of brilliant, adventurous, potential father-figures, and these stories become part of the novel.

It’s here that the novel faltered the only time; in the second half of the book, the narration settled down into a pattern that threatened to get dull. But only threatened — the energy and humor of the writing saved it, as did the relationship between Sibylla and Ludo and the fondness I had for Ludo throughout the whole book.

I think the thing I like best about the book is the great sense of openness it has. Even though Sibylla frequently feels harried and trapped by her situation, she’s able to offer Ludo so much intellectual possibility and so much freedom that it’s satisfying to watch him figure out the world and begin to make his way in it. He struggles with boredom, frustration, and uncertainty, but he also has great resourcefulness to match his intelligence. It’s a pleasure to watch him take on the world.

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Recent Reading

First, some numbers:

  • bike miles logged since January 1st: 1,775.
  • Hours ridden: 114.
  • Races completed (in unspectacular but acceptable fashion): 1.
  • Books read: 16.
  • Hours worked: too many.

Rather than writing reviews, I’m busy enough to be reduced to lists, but that’s better than complete silence, so here’s what I’ve been reading since I last posted:

  • I finished Zadie Smith’s essay collection Changing My Mind, which was absolutely fabulous. If you like essays on literature and culture, read this! Smith is brilliant and charming, and I have become a fan (I read White Teeth a while back and liked it fine, but my response to this essay collection has been much stronger).
  • I finished Essayists on the Essay, a collection edited by Carl Klaus, which is exactly what the title promises. It’s very good if you want to get a sense of the essay as a genre and also if you want essay recommendations.
  • My mystery book group read Martin Cruz Smith’s Gorky Park, which I can appreciate as a very good example of a particular kind of mystery/thriller, but which I struggled with a little. I’m not a plot person, basically, and this was a lot of plot. I get tired of struggling to keep everything straight. But still, lots to appreciate here.
  • David Shields’s Reality Hunger deserves its own post, which it may not get. I give it five out of five stars for articulating a nonfiction aesthetic that I like very much and for having awesome book recommendations, and two out of five stars for being obtuse when it comes to the value of fiction. Also, I was never completely won over by the argument it implicitly makes about collage, quotation, and plagiarism.
  • Lorrie Moore, Anagrams, which was funny and inventive. It has an interesting structure, with four chapters or so that give you the same two characters but in different permutations: with different backgrounds, personalities, careers, etc. Eventually it settled down into one version of these characters and told a more coherent story. I was a little disappointed the opening structure didn’t continue through the whole book; once it settled down into one story, the whole thing got a tiny bit less interesting. But still, very good.
  • Darin Strauss, Half a Life: A Memoir. This tells Strauss’s experience of accidentally hitting and killing a high school classmate in a car crash when he was 18 and about to graduate. The accident wasn’t his fault, but of course the experience was still devastating. The story is well-told, and Strauss does a great job articulating what the experience was like. At times, I found the writing too vague and abstract for my taste; sometimes it was hard to wrap my mind around the thoughts and images. But still, it’s a brave book.

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The Accidental

I finished Ali Smith’s The Accidental the other night, and I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it; I’m not quite sure I like the ending, but that’s not a big deal with a book that is not plot driven. Mostly, I liked the book because of the writing, the way Smith captures the consciousness of each character.

I’ve always liked books that tell the same story from multiple perspectives because you can see how people react to the same situation in different ways or how they interpret a situation differently given their varied preoccupations and levels of knowledge. It shows how little solid information we have about anything and how our most prized opinions may be based on very incomplete knowledge. Smith tells her story from four different perspectives, each one appearing three different times: Eve, her second husband Michael, and two children from her first marriage, 17-year-old Magnus and 12-year-old Astrid. They are on vacation in a rental house in Norfolk, and in walks Amber, a 30-something woman who wheedles her way into their lives. Each one thinks someone else in the family knows Amber, so no one seriously questions her presence. The story is about the havoc she wreaks as she develops different relationships with each family member and makes them confront who they are as individuals and as a family. There are short sections that are presumably from Amber’s perspective as well, although they don’t tell us much about who Amber is. She remains a mystery.

What works best is Smith’s use of language to capture the distinctive thought pattern of each character. The opening lines of Astrid’s story, for example, are interrupted by the words “Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski. Astrid Smart. Astrid Berenski” in parentheses, as Astrid, in the midst of her thoughts on the dawn, also thinks about her own name and identity. She was born Astrid Berenski, but when her mother remarried, her name changed, and she is constantly thinking about what this change means. Eve’s first section is told in questions and answers, which is appropriate as she is a researcher and writer whose books are part biography, part fiction and who undergoes interviews herself. This format nicely captures her uncertainty and self-doubt. There is even a very odd section where’s Michael’s story transforms into a series of poems. Normally I would find this sort of thing irritating, but here it works: Michael is the sort who might start composing poems (bad ones) in his mind as a way of thinking about his life, and so it’s natural for the narrative to follow his mind there.

I found the characters almost equally compelling — which strikes me as hard to pull off when a writer is moving back and forth among four of them — and enjoyed being pulled into the emotional world of the Smart family. I read this book partly because I’ve heard very good things about Smith’s latest novel There But For The, and I wanted to read the Smith book on my shelves before moving on to the new one. I’m glad I did, and now I’m even more eagerly awaiting Smith’s latest.

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Brief Reviews

The form of the very brief review is working well for me these days, so I’ll do it again.

First, The Marriage Plot. I liked it just fine. But, but … I wanted to like it more than that and so felt a little disappointed. It’s a very absorbing story, and I read the novel quickly. Ultimately, though, I didn’t think it was doing anything terribly interesting. It was good but not great. I guess I don’t think the question the novel asks — what happens to the marriage plot in the modern age when marriage is so embattled? — is all that interesting. Forms of the marriage plot still exist, but it is radically changed and becomes something more like the relationship plot. But this is something tons of novels explore, right? I did like all the novel’s bookishness, Madeleine’s literature and theory courses and her obsession with A Lover’s Discourse. And I liked Mitchell and his religious explorations. I thought the ending was satisfying as well.

Also, Mariana, by Monica Dickens. Again, I liked it just fine, and again, it was good but not great. The story is episodic, recounting scenes from the main character Mary’s life from her girlhood up through her (early or mid?) adult years. She visits the country, she goes to school, she gets “engaged” as a child to a boy who takes the “engagement” much less seriously than she does, she slowly comes to face more grown-up worries. What makes the novel’s structure more interesting is the opening scene, which shows her as an adult during World War II waiting to find out whether her husband was drowned or not. After this, we move back into her girlhood and don’t find out what happened to the husband — or even who the husband is — until the novel’s end. This created enough suspense and interest to keep me going. The novel was charming and fun, but not something I was in a mood to fall in love with.

I’ve been in a mood to read fiction that’s a little more experimental and strange and not likely to be the kind of perfectly competent but not very exciting novel I’ve read recently, so I picked up David Foster Wallace’s short story collection Oblivion, and even though I’m not loving that book either, it is closer to what I’ve wanted. It is strange, certainly.

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Wild Life

Like Danielle, I had mixed feelings about Molly Gloss’s novel Wild Life. To begin with the positive, there were times in this book where I felt thoroughly engaged. It’s in part an adventure story, and the main character, Charlotte, does have some great adventures. The novel takes place in the west, somewhere around the Washington/Oregon border, in the early 20th century. It’s logging territory, and a pretty wild, uncertain place. Charlotte lives with her five children, trying to carve out a writing career. Her husband is not in the picture, but she has a woman who acts as nanny, which allows her to sneak off now and then to get some writing done. The adventure begins when the nanny’s granddaughter disappears in the woods. When search parties fail to find her, Charlotte decides she needs to go search for her herself. She takes off into the wilderness and soon enough gets lost herself. These passages were exciting. I could imagine all too well what Charlotte was experiencing as she struggled to find her way back to civilization.

The book has fantasy elements to it, but they don’t become part of the story until Charlotte gets lost: while wandering around the woods nearly starved to death, she comes across a group of large human-like creatures, frightening-looking but kind animals, who slowly adopt her into their community. The creatures’ lives are endangered by the encroachments of logging; they need space in which to wander and forage for food, but that space is quickly disappearing.

All this works pretty well, although the fantasy element comes too late in the book to feel natural and properly-integrated. The book’s structure is odd in one way — the pacing is wildly uneven — but quite interesting in another: it is a mix of several genres. The main story is told through Charlotte’s diary, but interspersed throughout are fragments of her fiction, stories that are sometimes based on her own life and so rework the material in the diary, and also Charlotte’s essay-like ponderings on what it means to be a woman writer. These materials reinforce each other by exploring themes and ideas from different perspectives, so we can see Charlotte’s life told through her diary and also transformed into fiction.

What bothered me, and I couldn’t shake the feeling although I’m not sure how fair this is, was that Charlotte felt unrealistic, too much of a fantasy figure. For her to be able to write as much as she does without a husband and with five sons seems improbable, even given the nanny. But even more so, her feminism seemed fashioned purposely to please 21st-century audiences rather than to capture a truth about the time period. I know that feminism at the turn of the last century was well-developed and that people were making arguments about women’s writing similar to Charlotte’s, but Charlotte seems just too perfect. She defies stereotypes about women at every turn, in the way she dresses and acts, in her conversation, in the way she treats men, in her writing. I am all for strong female characters who defy gender stereotypes, but I don’t want to be jerked out of the world of the story by the feeling that I’m being presented with an argument rather than a character.

All in all, it’s a pretty odd book, although not entirely in a bad way. The book’s various elements — the wild west, the fantasy, the feminism, the theorizing about gender and writing, the experimenting with structure — don’t quite cohere, but it’s interesting in parts, and it’s fun when the story finally hooks you and you absolutely have to know how Charlotte is going to make it out of the woods.

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Very brief reviews

I’m not going to pretend to get caught up on reviews or review everything I’ve read lately, but I would like to say at least something about a few books I’ve finished recently.

  • The Laughing Policeman, by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. I chose this book for my mystery book group and am glad I did, because I liked it very much and most of the members of my book group did as well. This is the fourth in what’s called the Martin Beck series, but Martin Beck is really just one of a group of characters and doesn’t stand out much more than the others. The book is dark, as one expects of Scandinavian crime fiction, and the writing is very good. I’m not sure how the authors divided up the writing, but whatever they did worked well. I liked the interaction among all the officers, and I thought the dark humor that runs throughout the book was great.
  • Maria Edgeworth’s Helen. This was a bit of a disappointment. It tells an interesting story and takes up some important themes of the early 19th century, but it’s too long, with too many digressions. The story is partly about the complicated friendship between Helen and Cecilia; Helen is your typical nearly-perfect heroine of early fiction, and Cecilia is charming and gracious but has a fatal flaw: when under pressure, she hides the truth about herself. This puts Helen in danger and threatens her potential marriage. The novel is also about unreasonable expectations (or at least I think they are unreasonable expectations — it’s hard to tell what Edgeworth’s stance is) placed on women to love one man only during the course of their lives. The social critique here is interesting, but the novel needed some serious editing.
  • William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience. I really loved this book. James surveys a range of religious experiences, focusing on the personal rather than on the institutional aspects of religion. His approach is for the most part nonjudgmental; he wants to describe and understand rather than to judge. The basic idea he is working with is that our religious experiences stem from our individual psychological histories and that the many varieties of religious experience exist because humans have a wide range of religious needs. I valued most his tolerant and open-minded approach, as well as his very pragmatic idea that we should follow the religious practices and beliefs that suit our needs most.
  • Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. This book was so much fun! Before this, I had only read “The Lottery” by Jackson, and now I’m ready to read more. I loved Jackson’s use of point of view; she writes in the first person and uses it masterfully to slowly reveal information about the protagonist and her family — information that, as it turns out, is really bizarre. The book isn’t scary exactly, but it’s incredibly creepy, and it perfectly maintains that tone right through to the end. I’m looking forward to reading The Haunting of Hill House very much.

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The Golden Mean

Annabel Lyon’s The Golden Mean is the latest selection of the Slaves of Golconda reading group. The novel tells the story of Aristotle’s life, focusing particularly on his relationship with the future Alexander the Great. It’s told from Aristotle’s first-person perspective, and for me, this was the chief interest of the book: imagining what it might have been like to be Aristotle. We see him disagreeing with his former teacher Plato’s ideas about the nature of reality, developing his ideas about tragedy as a genre, and thinking about the danger of extremes and the importance of the middle way. We also see him dealing with a complicated relationship with his wife and facing disappointment in his career. He runs into political trouble because of his association with Athens at a time when he was living in Macedonia, Athens’s enemy. All of this makes it possible to conjure up an image of life as it might have been so long ago and to think of Aristotle as a real person with regular-person worries and needs, when generally I think of him as nothing more than a brain and a set of ideas.

I found the book disappointing, though. Like Stefanie, I thought it was a little dull. The main problem is the lack of narrative tension. I don’t need an exciting plot, but I do need some kind of tension to pull me through a book, or, failing that, I want some interesting ideas, beautiful writing, and/or characters I enjoy spending time with and thinking about. I didn’t find enough of any of these things. There are interesting things to think about, the tension between being a warrior and a scholar that many of the characters experience, for one. I was also intrigued by the way the first person perspective makes Aristotle come across as a sympathetic human being, one who treats the mentally disabled with tremendous compassion unusual for the time, but who also owns slaves and assumes that women have limited capabilities and value. There is something fascinating about getting into the mind of a person who thinks about the world in such a fundamentally different way than we do today.

But the ideas don’t seem to lead anywhere in particular. I was interested in Aristotle in a general and vague kind of way, but I wasn’t worried about what would happen to him — he was clearly going to get back to Athens eventually — and his thoughts and observations weren’t interesting enough to keep me happily reading. I think I would have preferred the book in the third person with some more insight into the culture of the time from an external narrator’s point of view. The advantage of first person, of course, is getting to see the world through Aristotle’s eyes, but perhaps an exterior view would have helped bring his character into sharper focus and would have allowed more commentary on the social and political values of the time. In the abstract I like the idea of historical fiction that doesn’t get bogged down in explaining all the details of the time and place — where the author isn’t showing off her research on every page — but in this case, I wanted a little more guidance.

At any rate, I started off the book with high hopes and did well at first, and then found myself less and less eager to pick it up. Other people have enjoyed it very much, though, and you can read Lilian Nattel’s very positive review here.

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Book signings and writers who tweet

This is, apparently, my year to go to book signings. Last weekend Neal Stephenson was doing a reading/book signing at the Union Square Barnes and Noble in Manhattan, so Hobgoblin and I made our way there to hear him. I’m not the Stephenson fan in our house; I read the first book in the Baroque Cycle, and it was fine, but I didn’t fall in love and didn’t read any further. Perhaps I should give Cryptonomicon or some other book of his a try? But loving Neal Stephenson’s books was not the point; it was just fun to get out and see someone well-known whom I’ve read.

The reading was subdued. Two of the authors I’ve seen in the last year, Ian Rankin and Joe Hill, were both fabulously entertaining; Rankin told great stories and made us all laugh, and Hill was … wacky. He also told great stories, he had a (grotesquely) funny excerpt from his new book to read, and he performed in a nerdy, enthusiastic, thoroughly-charming way as he read. Stephenson is obviously not nearly as comfortable performing in public as the other two. But that’s okay, of course, because why should writers necessarily be entertainers as well? He started his reading pretty much right away after getting up on stage, and he read for a half hour or so and then took questions. He seemed comfortable answering questions, but you could tell he wasn’t going to mind when it was over. One person who stood up to ask a question offered an interpretation of Stephenson’s work and asked if it was correct, and Stephenson’s answer was basically, “You may be right, but it’s not something I’ve thought about; I prefer to just write and let you all figure out what it means.” I suppose, in a way, that that makes sense — authors write, readers figure out what it means — but it also felt like an odd answer. Doesn’t he think about the ideas he’s working with as he writes? Perhaps he just didn’t want to engage with this particular interpretation. I can understand that.

Then we all lined up to get our books signed. I didn’t say much to Stephenson. I rarely want to say things to authors I meet at book signings because I’m too worried about messing up and saying something dumb, so I don’t try. But I’m realizing now that the last three authors I’ve seen — Rankin, Hill, plus Rosanne Cash, who did a talk/signing of her recent memoir at a nearby school a month or so ago — are all on Twitter, and in each case, Hobgoblin or I or both of us said something about enjoying reading their tweets. To authors out there — being an interesting tweeter can make a difference! We found out about Joe Hill’s reading in London because of Twitter, and Roseanne Cash has been on my radar lately only because I find her tweets amusing.

And speaking of writers who tweet, I may go see Colson Whitehead this weekend, who is doing a book signing at McNally Jackson along with Jonathan Franzen, who does not tweet, unless you count Emperor Franzen. I wonder what Jonathan Franzen would do if I said something about Emperor Franzen while he was signing my copy of Freedom?

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The Man Who Was Thursday

What an odd book this was! G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is going to be tough to write about. The plot is bizarre, and describing what happens even a little way into the book is more of a spoiler than I want to give. There have been interesting discussions going on at various blogs about spoilers, and my feeling (at the moment) is that some books are more easily “spoiled” than others. The back cover of my edition of the book has the right idea when it says only this about the plot:

G.K. Chesterton’s surreal masterpiece is a psychological thriller that centers on seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who call themselves by the names of the days of the week. Chesterton explores the meanings of their disguised identities in what is a fascinating mystery, and, ultimately, a spellbinding allegory.

The description goes on, but the rest of it is focused on ideas rather than plot. But those ideas are the other thing that make this book difficult to write about, because … huh? What exactly is going on on the level of ideas is a bit of a puzzle. The book does move into the area of allegory, or, actually, probably not allegory in the strict sense of the term but more like fable or parable. Chesterton clearly has something to say about anarchy and government, about violence and order, about good and evil, and, ultimately, about the value of suffering (I think this is key to understanding the very strange final scene). It starts off as a political thriller pitting police against anarchists, but it ends up in religious or quasi-religious, mystical territory. By the time you get there, you feel as though you’ve gone on a long journey, even though the book is quite short.

But I’m making the book sound serious, when it’s really quite funny, until the very end when the seriousness takes over. It has a witty tone and a kind of joy in the absurd that makes it a pleasure to read. The novel begins with two poets at a party in a London suburb, one who claims to be an anarchist, and the other who claims to be a poet of law and order. The two of them spar over the nature of poetry and their political beliefs until one of them is goaded into proving he is serious about his anarchy, and the other into admitting that he is a police officer. The relationship gets a little crazy from there. But everything is described so briskly, and the main character, Syme, gets to be so clever and witty, that the craziness is fun. It’s enjoyable to follow all the plot twists and turns, to watch the characters undergo dangerous trials and perform amazing feats, and all the while keep their cool and get some good lines in. Obviously, this is not a realistic novel and it does not try to be; it’s more of an amusing romp that also has something serious to say.

So, obviously, I think there’s a lot to enjoy here. This is the kind of book where it’s good to know a little bit about the tone and the feel of the novel, but best to discover the plot on your own. Chesterton takes you on a long, crazy journey, and although I’m not entirely sure where we ended up, it was fun traveling there anyway.

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Alias Grace

Alias Grace is my first Margaret Atwood novel, and I liked it well enough, I suppose. Sigh. I want to fall in love with novels, but these days it doesn’t happen very often. I did enjoy reading the novel, though; it’s long, but it read quickly, and I got caught up in the story. It dealt with interesting ideas and had some good characters, and it was well-written. I liked the variety of voices it contained, including letters from several different characters. It was all good … just not something I fell in love with. I will read more Atwood, though, at least one more, because I want to read The Handmaid’s Tale. That seems like a book I should read.

Alias Grace is a historical novel, set in Canada in the mid-nineteenth century, and it tells the story of Grace, a woman convicted of murder and serving time in prison, although she is let out during the day to work as a maid, where people stare at her in fascination. Her crime was murdering her employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery, who is also his mistress. She was believed to have worked in tandem with James McDermott to commit the murders, but he was hanged while there was enough doubt about Grace’s case to lead to a prison sentence.

But Simon Jordan, a young doctor out to prove himself in the as-yet-unidentified field of psychology, decides that Grace is worthy of investigation, and might just be the case to make his reputation. He is hired by some charitable church types to investigate her case and see if he can prove her innocence. So he spends many afternoons interviewing Grace, and her story as she tells it makes up the bulk of the narrative.

All this gives Atwood the chance to explore the beginnings of psychology, which she does quite well with dream sequences and free association exercises and attempts to understand rather than just condemn criminality. She also writes about the nineteenth-century fascination with spiritualism and little-understood mental phenomena: some of her characters participate in seances and some are eager to hypnotize Grace to see if they can discover her guilt or innocence through her unconscious self.

Atwood keeps the narrative structure varied; sometimes Grace tells the story in the first person, sometimes we follow Simon Jordan in a close third person, and at other times we get letters that Simon, his mother, and various other characters write. All these work together to give depth to the story, especially in the way the various perspectives clash and contradict one another. We get the letters Simon writes to his mother, which do not tell her much of what he is actually experiencing, and, more significantly, we get Simon’s and Grace’s very different accounts of their conversations as Simon tries to win her trust, and Grace resists him.

Atwood does a good job of keeping the tension up throughout the book. Grace is an enigma; even though we get her first-person narrative of the murder story, there is much about what happened that she doesn’t understand — that, or she isn’t telling us what really happened. We have no idea, really, how reliable she is. But her story of working as a maid, trying to make her way through a world very inhospitable to women unprotected as she is by a father or a husband, is interesting even if we don’t know to what extent we should trust her.

So there is a lot to enjoy and admire here. I was just hoping to love it more than I did. Other Atwood fans, is this one of her better ones, do you think?

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Finishing the Little House books

I finished the Little House on the Prairie books a couple weeks ago, shortly after the hurricane craziness (it was comforting, somehow, reading The Long Winter during the power outage, because even though our lives had been thoroughly disrupted by bad weather, it was nothing like what the Ingalls family experienced. We weren’t in danger of starving!). I like the early books in the series, but I love the later ones, and those are the ones I reread most often as a kid. Laura gets more interesting as she gets older and starts to grow up. Now she has to confront the fact that she can’t do whatever she likes with her life; instead, she has to become a school teacher in order to put her sister Mary through college. She takes on sewing jobs that she doesn’t like. She deals with social difficulties such as Nellie Oleson’s competitiveness and general nastiness. Since Mary became blind, Laura has been responsible for “seeing” the world for her, and she has taken on the responsibilities and worries of the oldest child. She is still energetic and high-spirited, but she must hold these spirits in check because young ladies are not supposed to do things like play with the boys at recess. She has to fit the code of femininity that she does not like and that feels uncomfortable to her. Things are not as simple as they once were, and the stories become richer as Laura figures out how to negotiate the changes.

Reading the Wilder books was a whole lot of fun, but reading about the Wilder books in Anita Clair Fellman’s Little House, Long Shadow has been much more complicated. Fellman’s book, which I am about halfway through, is very good; it’s an academic book, but one that is jargon-free and extremely accessible to general readers. I find the ideas in it fascinating and the arguments convincing. But it’s uncomfortably self-revelatory. I’m seeing now just how influential Wilder really was for me and how much I learned from those books as a young person, without meaning to learn anything. I recognized some of these things as I was reading Wilder herself this most recent time, but it took a critical perspective for some of it to really sink in.

There’s the matter of being uncomfortable with femininity, for example. Laura was expected to be docile and quiet in a way I never was, but I still knew how she felt when she longed to be out playing in the sunshine rather than sitting quietly with the other girls during recess. I hated the thought of having to fit someone else’s expectations of proper feminine behavior. I also identified with her longing to be like Pa and keep traveling westward. Ma and Mary both wanted to settle down near a town and school, but Laura knew what Pa felt when he looked longingly west and wished he could have more adventures on the frontier. I thought I knew what that felt like too.

But more significant than those things is the description of the relationships among the family members. Members of the family obviously felt warmly toward each other and it’s clear that they loved and felt loyal to each other, but they are not verbal about their feelings. They don’t hug or say “I love you” or share many of their innermost thoughts. They are all very stoic; they keep their thoughts and worries to themselves for the most part, and they try not to show it if they are scared or angry. When Laura does show strong emotion, she gets reprimanded for it. And, interestingly, she reprimands her little sister Grace for showing emotion when Mary leaves to go to college. It’s startling the way she keeps repeating “for shame! for shame!” to poor Grace as she very understandably cries at losing her oldest sister. Fellman describes the difficult relationship Laura had with her daughter Rose, and part of the problem was Laura’s refusal or inability to show affection toward her daughter.

So, yes, all of this reminded me of my family very much, both strong the sense of loyalty and love and the fact that it was rarely acknowledged. And then there’s the extreme individualism that runs strong throughout the novels. This is really the subject of Fellman’s book, which argues that the Little House books and their conservative ideology were powerful although largely unrecognized influences on American conservatism of the 80s and onwards. The Ingalls family take care of everything on their own, thank you very much; they rely on each other and occasionally are helped out by friends and neighbors (and they help others), but they don’t need a community or a government to take care of them. They create who they are and are responsible to no one but themselves. As a young person, this appealed to me very much, as, I would guess, it probably appeals to many young people. I had an (exaggerated) sense of my own strength and independence and a reluctance to trust or rely on anyone else. Independence and self-sufficiency are certainly not bad things, but Fellman points out how Wilder and her daughter (who heavily edited the books) leave out details that show the importance of community in their lives. She argues that the two of them regularly exaggerated the isolation of the family in order to make them seem more self-sufficient than they actually were.

There are more examples, but I think I’ve given plenty to show just how much these books have made me think. I’m left wondering how much the books taught me vs. how much I loved them for reflecting what I already felt, or how these two possibilities worked together. I’m not entirely sure, but I have learned that rereading childhood favorites can be dangerous, so watch out!

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The Little House books

I mentioned earlier that Hobgoblin bought me a set of the Little House on the Prairie books, and I have now read through the first four of the nine novels. It’s been fun to reread the books (who knows how many times I’ve read each one — it’s many), and especially to do it shortly after I read Wendy McClure’s book on rereading the series as an adult, and also at the same time that I’m reading Laura Miller’s book on C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. All this thinking about children’s books and what it’s like to reread them! I’m also sort of in the middle of rereading the Anne of Green Gables books, although it’s been a while since I picked one of those up.

A friend asked me if rereading the Little House books reminds me of what I felt about them as a child, which it has, and also whether it reminded me of where I was when I first read them, which it hasn’t. I read the books too many times to remember where I was when I first read them; all the subsequent rereadings have erased my first memories. But I do remember how much I loved reading all the details of the characters’ lives, although right now I’m feeling surprised and a little overwhelmed by exactly how much detail there is, especially in Little House in the Big Woods and Farmer Boy, which, I learned from Wendy McClure, were the first two books written and were meant as companion books — Laura as a child and then her husband Almanzo as a child.

Not much actually happens in these volumes except everyday life. We learn about what Laura and Mary did on Sundays, what they played with during the week, how they helped their mother, how they waited for their father to return from hunting trips and journeys into town. Farmer Boy is even more detail-laden; it takes the reader through a year on the farm and describes all their tasks: plowing, planting, weeding, and harvesting; breaking in colts and calves; repairing the house and barns; fishing and berrying; chopping ice into blocks and packing it in sawdust; and most of all, cooking and eating. The book is overflowing with food and descriptions of eating. There are many passages like this one:

Almanzo ate the sweet, mellow baked beans. He ate the bit of salt pork that melted like cream in his mouth. He ate mealy boiled potatoes, with brown ham-gravy. He ate the ham. He bit deep into velvety bread spread with sleek butter, and he ate the crisp golden crust. He demolished a tall heap of pale mashed turnips, and a hill of stewed yellow pumpkin. Then he sighed, and tucked his napkin deeper into the neckband of his red waist. And he ate plum preserves and strawberry jam, and grape jelly, and spiced watermelon-rind pickles. He felt very comfortable inside. Slowly he ate a large piece of pumpkin pie.

As McClure points out, Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote this book during the depression when food was scarce and after having gone through years of poverty and deprivation. It’s no wonder she focuses on the food so much.

Almanzo loves working on the farm with his father and longs for the day when he can have a colt of his very own to train. Wilder describes his joy in the farm animals and farm work so infectiously that it makes me want to live on a farm, even though I most definitely know better. I would not like all that hard work and uncertainty one bit. But Almanzo thrives on it, and Wilder makes the abundance of the farm and the reliable rhythms of yearly agricultural cycles so appealing. I knew as a child that living on a farm is not quite like it’s described in Farmer Boy, but I found the fantasy version of farm life comforting then and I do now as well.

Little House on the Prairie and On the Banks of Plum Creek have slightly more going on in terms of plot, although they, too, have lots of descriptions of how things get done, especially how houses and barns get built. These two novels tell the stories of how the Ingalls family packed up and headed into new territory, first the Indian territory in Kansas, and second to farm land in Minnesota. The plot, such as it is, centers around the struggle to settle themselves in a new place and the question of whether they will make it there. In Kansas there are the Indians (whose land they have taken), prairie fires, and blizzards, while in Minnesota there are blizzards and grasshoppers swarms. In Minnesota there is also school and Nellie Oleson to deal with. On the Banks of Plum Creek was the most engaging, partly because there is more story involved and also because Laura is getting older and her challenges are more interesting (to me): she is now having to find her way through the social world and make more decisions for herself.

What I don’t remember caring about much as a child but what I thought a lot about this time around was the isolation the family lived in, especially in Little House on the Prairie. As a child I took it as natural, I guess, to want to head off into unknown territory and settle it, and as my life was spent mostly with my family, I didn’t question their reliance on no one but themselves. But now I’m amazed at their willingness to live almost entirely without neighbors and extended family. In Kansas they have a few people they see occasionally and who play crucial roles in keeping them alive and well, but for the vast majority of the time, they are completely alone. Town is 40 miles away. They have only themselves to talk to and get entertainment from (Pa’s fiddle helps a lot with this). Unless I’m forgetting something, there are no references to books until we get to On the Banks of Plum Creek, and then there’s only one novel and a newspaper mentioned. I understand the desire for independence and the longing to create their own life on their own land, but would that life really be satisfactory and fulfilling with only themselves in it? I think my child-self would be surprised at how important being surrounded by lots of people has become to me, but that’s a significant way I’ve changed as I’ve gotten older.

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In the Bleak Midwinter and other thoughts

I don’t feel like I need to write an entire post on Julia Spencer-Fleming’s detective novel In the Bleak Midwinter, but I did want to say that I liked it quite a bit and am eager to read further into the series. In fact, I made sure to find a copy of the second in the series while I was out book shopping last weekend. As is usual for me, it wasn’t the plot that made me like it so much, although I found the plot perfectly satisfactory. It was the dynamic between the main characters that held my interest. There’s Clare Fergusson, the Episcopal priest who gets drawn into the mystery when she finds an abandoned baby on the church steps, and there’s Russ Van Alstyne, the police chief in charge of the investigation. It’s probably a little unrealistic the way Clare kept accompanying Russ on his police work — would she really have been able to do that? — but the dynamic between the two of them is so interesting that I was willing to overlook this.

I also liked the setting, which is in upstate New York, near the Adirondack mountains. It’s pretty far from my home town in western New York State, but the territory is still somewhat familiar, especially the small town culture and the dark, snowy winters. I thought as I read about when the best time to read a book with a title like In the Bleak Midwinter is. Do you really want to read about bleak midwinters in the summer? Or while you’re in the middle of winter? Or in the fall when you dread winter’s arrival, or the spring when you can’t wait for it to warm up? IS there a good time? But that comes from someone who is no fan of winter, and I know some people feel differently. And I liked the book enough to be willing to read it no matter the season.

I did wish Spencer-Fleming had given more information on Clare’s religious faith; I wanted to know how she went from being in the military to being a priest (there is an explanation hinted at in the story of a family tragedy, but it’s not developed) and what her faith means to her now. But perhaps these things are developed in later books.

My weekend with my parents was very good; western New York can be miserable in the bleak midwinter, but it’s beautiful in the summer with temperatures that are more moderate than home and rolling green fields and orchards. I was able to ride my bike along Lake Ontario twice, which was great, and I went book shopping twice with my dad, which was also great. We found two used bookstores that we hadn’t visited before, and discovered a couple more that we didn’t make it to this time but can explore later. In addition to the next Spencer-Fleming novel, I bought a copy of Rilke’s novel The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. Sadly, I probably won’t get to the book this summer to participate in Litlove’s reading of it, but at least I now have it on hand. And I also got Pierre Bayard’s book Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong: Reopening the Case of the Hound of the Baskervilles. I love the title and premise of the book — can he really be right about Holmes? — but I’ll have to read The Hound of the Baskervilles before I pick this one up. That will be something to look forward to.

I also brought home my mom’s copy of Little House, Long Shadow: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Impact on American Culture. It happens to be the copy I gave her for Christmas last year. But no, I did not buy her the book in hopes she would let me borrow it later. Not really. At least not consciously…. I’ve been flying my way through the Little House series and have made it through three books and am in the middle of the fourth. They read very, very fast, and it’s been great fun to remember all the details and rediscover their charm. But more on that later.

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The Wilder Life

I very much enjoyed Wendy McClure’s book The Wilder Life, which tells the story of McClure’s return to her childhood obsession with the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the Little House on the Prairie series. I have no idea what someone who wasn’t obsessed with the series would think of the book, but I was obsessed as a child, and so her story sounded very familiar to me. I read and reread all the books, imagining what it would have been like to be Laura and live in her time and also what it would be like to introduce Laura to late twentieth-century life. I don’t remember when I started reading these books and when I stopped (I haven’t reread them as an adult), but I know I reread them over the course of many years. I watched the television series too, but it was always clear to me that it was only very loosely based on the novels. There was no danger I was going to get them mixed up, as many people do.

My experiences were similar to McClure’s — she read and reread the books and thought of Laura as a friend. Now, as an adult, she comes across her childhood copies of the novels and becomes fascinated by them all over again. The fascination quickly turns to obsession as she decides she wants to try some of the things described in the novels, such as churning butter, folding hay into sticks to burn, and making candy out of molasses and snow. She also decides she wants to visit the Ingalls and Wilder homesteads, which, since she lives in Chicago, isn’t too, too hard to do.

So she sets forth on numerous trips to Wisconsin, Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, and South Dakota. She even makes it to the town in upstate New York where Almanzo, Laura’s husband, grew up. In between all these trips, she researches Laura’s life and the culture that’s grown up around the books, and she contemplates what her personal and the larger cultural obsession with Little House on the Prairie means.

So the book is part travel narrative, part biography, part memoir, part cultural criticism, and probably some other things as well. I was fascinated to read about the ways that the novels do not reflect what actually happened in Laura’s life; for example, Laura was too young to remember the events in Kansas in Little House on the Prairie, so that book was fictionalized and based on family anecdotes. The stories from Little House in the Big Woods took place after the ones in Little House on the Prairie, after the family had retreated from Kansas back to Wisconsin, even though it’s first in the series. And there are other shifts and omissions that are surprising for someone who took the novels as faithful to real life. McClure is good at discussing the significance of all this.

She is also very good at describing what the home sites are like. She times a couple of her visits to see Laura Ingalls Wilder pageants and festivals, which involve look-alike contests and stagings of the family story. She is decidedly spooked by fundamentalist, survivalist, end-times people who have latched onto Laura’s story and to pioneer ideals generally as a way to deal with the coming apocalypse. She also meets many people whose religious views aren’t quite so extreme, but who admire the Ingalls family for the simple, self-sufficient, godly life they led. Which I think is hogwash. Not that their lives weren’t simple and self-sufficient, and even godly, but this admiration comes from nostalgia for a simplicity that never really existed and rests on a misunderstanding of what the Ingalls’s lives were really like. I suspect at least some of the Ingalls family wouldn’t have minded trading some simplicity of living for greater comfort and security, or at least that’s true for Ma Ingalls.

McClure has an informal, breezy style, and I’m not really a fan of informal, breezy writing, but her voice never gets irritating or over-the-top cute, and she pulls it off pretty well. She comes across as warm and interesting, and a great guide to what she thinks of as “Laura World.” I was certainly very happy to return to the world of the books in her company.

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Among Others

Jo Walton’s novel Among Others was a lot of fun. I also felt it had a number of kind of obvious flaws, but, still, it was absorbing and enjoyable. It has a fabulous book club in it and a teenage girl who is obsessed with books, and it also has magic and fairies, and it takes place partly in Wales. Those are all very good things.

Morwenna, otherwise known as Mori, is the protagonist, a teenage girl who just lost her twin sister in a car accident. Mori herself suffered a hip injury that has left her with a limp and in need of a cane. It was more than just a car accident, though, as it happened when the twin sisters were battling their mother for reasons that are mysterious through much of the book but involve magic used for evil purposes. Mori has run away from her home in Wales to escape her mother and has found refuge with her father in England, whom she has never really known. Her father lives with his sisters who decide Mori should be packed off to boarding school as soon as possible. So she goes, and is (not surprisingly at all) miserable there. She not only has a limp and can’t participate in sports with the other sports-obsessed girls, but she is Welsh and doesn’t come from money.

Her only consolation is that she gets to spend the hours normally devoted to athletics reading in the library. She is an avid science fiction and fantasy reader, and this forms the one connection she has with her father, who has the same reading tastes and sends her books frequently. She also discovers the joy of interlibrary loan, and keeps both the school and the town librarians busy recommending and ordering books. The best moment, though, is when she finds out about the science fiction book group run through the town library. Here she finds her community: a group of people equally obsessed with books as she is.

But there is another sense in which she is an outsider: she sees fairies and knows how to do magic. The fairies were in much greater abundance in Wales, but she finds them in England as well and tries, with mixed success, to communicate with them. She also, with equally mixed success, explores her ability to do magic. In desperation one day, she casts a spell in order to find some friends to help her cope with her loneliness and unhappiness. This leads to a lot of uncertainty, though, because when she finds those friends in the form of the book group, she’s not sure if they are genuine or there just because of the spell she cast. Magic, she knows, is complicated and dangerous, with unknown consequences. Not least, of course, when used with malicious intent by one’s own mother.

All this is a lot of fun. The flaws I mentioned earlier have to do with the meandering pace of the plot, in part; while I enjoyed reading about all the book group meetings, the details of how she gets there, how she gets home, how she gets to the bookstore, how she gets home, etc. take up an awful lot of space. There is a lot of action at the novel’s end, but it’s all bunched up in a way that feels rushed and unsatisfying. And then there’s Mori’s love interest, Wim, whom I was not terribly fond of. I found their relationship unconvincing.

That said, this is still a book I read quickly and contentedly. I haven’t read much science fiction in my life, and Walton made me want to read more. That’s a pretty good recommendation for a book, I think.

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Spurious

To give you a sense of what Lars Iyer’s novel Spurious is like, here is the opening paragraph:

I’m a terrible influence on W., everyone says that. Why does he hang out with me? What’s in it for him? The great and the good are shaking their heads. Sometimes W. goes back to the high table and explains himself. I am something to explain, W. says. He has to account for me to everyone. Why is that?

Even though the novel opens with a statement of what “everyone says,” it’s quickly obvious that this is really what W. alone says and that it’s W. speaking from the start. The novel is a story of a friendship of sorts between W. and the narrator, Lars, a very odd friendship where W. insults the narrator but seems to like hanging around him anyway, and the narrator simply reports the insults and doesn’t seem to mind them. Insulting the narrator seems to be mostly a way to fill the time, something to do when life isn’t very interesting.

The entire novel (which, I have to say, is about right at 175 pages — any longer and it would get dull) continues on much like the opening paragraph: the narrator describes his not-very-exciting doings but mostly reports what W. says to him. They are philosophy professors in England, and they travel around together to conferences when they can and struggle along with their work when they can’t. They are desperately searching for an idea to make their names as thinkers, but it’s pretty clear that’s not going to happen. W. is forever reading a book he can’t understand and the narrator spends too much of his time on administrative work. As nasty as W. can be to the narrator, he’s equally hard on himself:

‘When did you know you were a failure?’ W. repeatedly asks me. ‘When was it you knew you’d never have a single thought of your own — not one?’

He asks me these questions, W. says, because he’s constantly posing them to himself. Why is he still so amazed at his lack of ability? He’s not sure. But he is amazed, and he will never get over it, and this will have been his life, this amazement and his inability to get over it.

The narrator moves seamlessly back and forth between quoting W. and taking on W.’s voice to report what he says (as in the first paragraph above), and pretty soon it comes to seem like they are actually the same person. It takes a while to catch on to what the pronouns mean, but soon enough you get it straightened out, and then it’s like living in both the characters’ minds at once.

Which is kind of a scary thing. They are obsessed with apocalypse, convinced the world is falling apart around them. They also talk a lot about messianism, their crazy hope that something will save them, although this seems highly unlikely. Much more concrete and believable is the apocalypse that is coming soon to the narrator’s apartment: it has the worst infestation of damp and mold you can imagine, and it gets worse as the book progresses. The narrator has carpenters and plumbers and everyone he can think of come and try to figure out the source of the damp, but they can’t. So he lives with crumbling plaster and mold spores and tries not to get too sick from it. All the attempts to work, the conferences, the trips and conversations with W. are a distraction from the mold, a symbol, of course, of everything going wrong with the world.

This is a strange book, but it’s fun: the conversations are entertaining, even as they are kind of sad. It reminds me of a Beckett play where two warped characters have warped conversations in order to distract themselves from their painful lives. And what’s not to like about that?

Spurious began as a blog, which Iyer adapted into the novel. I haven’t read many of the blog posts, so I’m not sure about the differences between the blog and the novel, but I like the idea of using a blog to develop ideas to turn into a book. The blog says there’s another novel coming out in 2012, Dogma, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it.

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