Archive for the '2013 Books' Category

The Vast Eyre Bender: Books

Saturday, December 28th, 2013


Thanks (or apologies?) for the pun to long-time reader and friend VT.

I picked Jane Eyre as the November selection for the book group I lead (as opposed to the two others I just attend.) As the moderator of a discussion of my favorite book, I felt compelled to prepare thoroughly, and spent most of November reading Jane Eyre, related books, and watching all the adaptations. The 20 hours of seven (yes, seven) adaptations deserve their own post, so this one will just be about the ten (yes, ten) books.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. One of the first books written in first person from a child’s point of view, with attention to abuse, neglect and poverty. A coming of age, mystery and romance novel that contains one of the most famous metaphors in literature. Jane is a cool customer who speaks truth to power, and carves out her own belief system on the way, one that intriguingly merges Christianity, self-knowledge, and feministic nature.

The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth Century Literary Imagination by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Gilber and Gubar’s chapter on Jane Eyre helped bring that famous metaphor out of the Victorian closet and into wider view.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. An early intertextual and post-colonial novel that re-imagines the backstory for a character from Jane Eyre. I recommend the Norton annotated edition for its footnotes and essays. The text on its own bewildered me the first time I encountered it.

The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller. Excellent detailed history of how the facts and fictions about the Brontes themselves have come to overshadow the genius of their actual works.

The Brontes at Haworth by Ann Dinsdale. Lovely to look at. A good companion to The Bronte Myth.

Down a Dark Hall by Lois Duncan. One of my favorite childhood books, from which I learned that Emily Bronte wrote under the name Ellis and died young.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde. Hilariously nerdy book about a detective who investigates literary crimes, such as the kidnapping of Jane Eyre.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James. James’ take on the governess-who-sees-a-ghost tale. The story and premise are great, but I found reading many of the actual sentences tedious.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey. A post-WWII update of Jane Eyre set in Scotland. The analog-to-Rochester guy’s secret makes no sense. Not only is it not compelling, but aspects of it contradict one another. Gemma makes an uncharacteristic decision toward the end, there’s an unpleasant hint of homophobia, and the resolution has nowhere near the power of the original. Widely praised by critics, it didn’t work for me.

Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons. Mentioned in The Bronte Myth and recommended long ago by my friend Becca, I finally got my own copy. Flora Poste is a delight, and I often laughed out loud. Here, she asks about a writer she’s met. The innkeeper tells her:

‘He’s doin’ one now about another young fellow who wrote books, and then his sisters pretended they wrote them and then they all died of consumption, poor young mommets.’

‘Ha! A life of Branwell Bronte,’ thought Flora. “I might have known it.’ There has been increasing discontent among the male intellectuals for some time at the thought that a woman wrote Wuthering Heights.

Cold Comfort Farm was a fun and funny book to end the Eyre Bender with. It has phrases and characters I will never forget.

For the record, reading all these was not only entertaining, but prepared me well for the book discussion.

“The Testament of Mary” by Colm Toibin

Saturday, November 9th, 2013

Super short, super cranky but impressive, daring, and with beautiful, evocative prose, I wanted to like it more than I did, though, and had some lingering troubles. In The Testament of Mary, Toibin takes an intriguing idea and gives voice to Mary the mother of Jesus, so often portrayed as demure and all loving. Toibin dares to make Mary bitter and mean. She says the death of her son was not worth whatever it is that the men who pester her say it is.

They appear more often now, both of them, and on every visit they seem more impatient with me and with the world. There is something hungry and rough in them, a brutality boiling in their blood, which I have seen before and can smell as an animal that is being hunted can smell. But I am not being hunted now. Not anymore. I am being cared for, and questioned softly, and watched. They think that I do not know the elaborate nature of their desires. But nothing escapes me now except sleep.

Toibin dares a lot: he portrays Jesus as kind of a show-off-y jerk who wouldn’t listen to others, and shows Mary running from the cross for fear of her life.

A review I read at The American took especial issue with that last:

What troubles me about his Mary is that she is a coward. After her son is nailed to the cross–a scene described in agonizing detail–Mary runs away. She runs away because she cannot help him, because she is afraid and (here is the hardest part to swallow) because she wants to save her own skin.

Toíbín sins here against Scripture and tradition, yes, but also against the more universal code of Motherlove–that irresistible compulsion that drives a mother to protect her child at any cost. Motherlove is the deep knowledge that you would stand between a killer and your child and take a bullet in the face, that you would dive in front of a runaway train to shove your child off the track, that you would part with your own heart if your child needed it and that you would do this gladly. The inventions of tradition and bad art have provided us with too many impossible Marys who bear no relation to us. Do we need another? Toíbín denies Mary what makes her most human, sinning at last against the law of verisimilitude, and giving us one more Mary we cannot believe in.

I take issue with the review author’s “we.” I admire Toibin’s choice, I can absolutely buy a mother running away, since she knows her son is dead or dying. She does regret it later.

The ways in which Toibin didn’t carry me all the way were few, but significant. I kept wondering things like where is James, brother of Jesus, or why, if the gospels weren’t written until many years after his death, they’re being shown here as current with his death. Additionally, while I appreciated the complex humanity he granted Mary, a few times I felt her more as a puppet for Toibin’s anger at the church, rather than as a person of her own.

Mary Gordon at The New York Times noted this, about anachronisms, but I felt the same way about the doubts I had as reading, though I think mine nagged a little more:

This is a place where our associations – sandals and piles of coins versus shoes and bills – create doubts that hang in the air, like an annoying buzz. Or like a tiny pimple on an otherwise beautiful face.

In closing, these are a few images of Mary that have spoken to me over the years, ones that show her as decidedly human.

I love The Annunciation by Simone Martini, because she looks unhappy at the news of the Annunciation:


I love Paolo Veronese’s Holy Family because it shows Mary buttoning up, a motion familiar to those of us who’ve nurses babies, Jesus in a milk coma and clutching his penis. So normal!


I love Madonna and Child by Defendente Ferrari because it shows Jesus nursing, and Mary holding a cloth diaper. This one shows real, messy bodily truths:


And finally, Caravaggio’s Death of the Virgin, which pissed people off because it showed her bloated, old, and with BARE FEET. Also, he used a prostitute, i.e., a real, sexually active woman, as a model.


“Behind the Beautiful Forevers” by Katherine Boo

Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo had long been on my radar. When a friend told me she was going to be in town for a free talk, it seemed like the perfect time to get around to it. That, and the library queue for it was no longer batsh1t-crazy long.

It’s a non-fiction account by a journalist about a slum in Mumbai, India. It is loosely centered around a death and series of trials, but includes a huge cast of people and tells a much broader story of poverty, corruption, and what people do to get by.

Boo made an interesting choice to narrate in the omniscient third person, but the summary at the end of the exhaustiveness of her research back this up. She didn’t put herself in the story because it wasn’t her story. And I didn’t miss her a bit, because hyper-focused Abdul, runty Samil, power-hungry Asha, and every single one of the others were so complex and interesting. Please forgive my reductive descriptors of these people–read Boo’s book to get the fuller picture.

At her talk, an audience member asked if her book made people’s lives more difficult because she named names and detailed acts of corruption. She responded that one of her goals had been transparency–all her participants had not only given permission, but sometimes insisted on using their full names and details of their lives, to better show the complicated, ethically slippery environment so different from ours in the pampered west.

I very much appreciated Boo’s afterward, in which she specifically calls out her situation of white privilege, and how and why she wrote the book. This was a eye-opening, world-expanding, thought-provoking book. One that, like the best books, leaves me with the question: NOW, what do I do now that I know what I know?

“Wicked” by Gregory Maguire

Saturday, October 12th, 2013


For years, I snobbishly dismissed Wicked by Gregory Maguire and the musical it spawned as populist tripe. Fun for the masses, but not for me.

I can be such a snobby cuss, sometimes, no? Put me in mind of that lovely quote by William Paley:

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all argument, and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance. This principle is, contempt prior to examination.

so when one of my smartest friends posted a glowing review of Wicked the book on Goodreads, noting that it was her THIRD read (important not just for 3rd read denoting a better knowledge of the book, but how many books do we readers honor by reading 3 times?), my interest was piqued, I questioned my prejudice and resolved to read it myself.

The time was right recently, when the touring company of Wicked came to town. I got tickets with a girlfriend,and sat down to read the book. It is not an easy read, but I found it a challenging and rewarding one.

You probably “know” the broad outlines, as I thought I did, given the popularity of the musical. It is a re-telling of the Oz story focusing on the witches showing a less sympathetic side of Glinda the Good, and a more sympathetic side to the Wicked Witch, named Elphaba, pronounced EL fuh buh, in homage to Oz’s creator L. Frank Baum.

This is a fair summation of the musical but it does faint justice to the book, which is complicated, going way beyond in depth and breadth Good vs. Evil, and which witch embodies which. Maguire’s book provides the history, childhoods, and influences of Glinda, Elphaba, and many more characters who orbit around the original Oz fable and movie. There are competing religions and traditions in Oz including a variation on Christianity, as well as echoes of an older, darker tradition reminiscent of ancient, matriarchal ones that predate Christianity. There are talking Animals who are persecuted, sentient mechanical beings, a recurring mother/crone figure, and so many more elements. Throughout, though, is the question of Good and Evil, which Maguire presents as tantalizingly ambiguous.

People who claim that they’re evil are usually no worse than the rest of us… It’s people who claim that they’re good, or any way better than the rest of us, that you have to be wary of.

The heady mix of themes includes also wind as a signifier of power, and the nature of forgiveness.But it’s complex stew of themes that is, perhaps the book’s greatest weakness and, I suspect, why so many readers dislike it, shown by 3 stars on good reads with many negative reviews. The plot is loose, and wanders. Maguire raises many questions, but answers few definitively. This can be read as challenging the reader and trusting in their ability to think, but it can also be an author not quite in control of his creation. And near the end, when the traditional Oz tail dovetails most with Maguire’s re-telling, it felt like Maguire was hampered by fitting his tale to the other.

I can see why those who liked the musical (which is great fun, and offers some complication of the Oz story just not as much as the book. FYI, it’s adapted by Winnie Holtzman, who also wrote My So-Called Life.) would read the book and dislike it. It’s far less tidy and satisfying than the musical, which demands not nearly so much of its audience. But for its weaknesses of plot and sometimes over-mysterious backstory, this book has made me think, actively, on power, religion, good, morality and so many BIG things, that I highly recommend it, as long as you know you’re in for a challenging ride.

King Henry IV part 2

Monday, October 7th, 2013

I’m continuing to read Shakespeare’s history plays along with the adaptations on PBS of The Hollow Crown. Last Friday was King Henry IV part 2, which I did manage to read before I finished watching. I find it does help to review the play beforehand.

As I read and watch, I’m struck again and again by the enduring poetry of Shakespeare. This line:

Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown. (III, i, 31)

He’s talking about not being able to sleep, so it makes perfect sense in context, and is such lovely phrasing, and oh, I’m such a geek.

And oh, my crush on Tom Hiddleston just grows and grows.

Before God, I am exceeding weary (II,ii, 1)



“King Henry IV, part 1″ by William Shakespeare

Thursday, October 3rd, 2013


I’m watching “The Hollow Crown” series of Shakespeare’s history plays on PBS, so am reading the four plays: Richard II, King Henry IV, parts 1 and 2, Henry V.


I’d never read the Henry IV plays, so part 1 was new to me. I watched the movie first, then read the play second. I wish I’d done it in the reverse. One particular scene, in which Hotspur continually insults Glendower, was hilarious to read, but I don’t remember finding it as funny during the play.


I cannot blame him: at my nativity
The front of heaven was full of fiery shapes,
Of burning cressets; and at my birth
The frame and huge foundation of the earth
Shaked like a coward.


Why, so it would have done at the same season, if
your mother’s cat had but kittened, though yourself
had never been born.


I say the earth did shake when I was born.


And I say the earth was not of my mind,
If you suppose as fearing you it shook.


The heavens were all on fire, the earth did tremble.


O, then the earth shook to see the heavens on fire,
And not in fear of your nativity.
Diseased nature oftentimes breaks forth
In strange eruptions; oft the teeming earth
Is with a kind of colic pinch’d and vex’d
By the imprisoning of unruly wind
Within her womb; which, for enlargement striving,
Shakes the old beldam earth and topples down
Steeples and moss-grown towers. At your birth
Our grandam earth, having this distemperature,
In passion shook.

So, basically, Hotspur told Glendower that the earth was farting on the day he was born. Lots of bodily functions and meaty insults, of which this was my favorite, though it had good competition:


none of these mad mustachio purple-hued maltworms (II.i.73-4)

This is a manly play, full of action, which perhaps explains why I found it more enjoyable than Richard II, which is full of effete, weak Richard and lots of people who stand still and speechify.

Based on this, I will try to squeeze in a read of part 2 before tomorrow.

“This Lullaby” by Sarah Dessen

Monday, September 30th, 2013

Lots of people cite Sarah Dessen’s This Lullaby as a classic of young-adult romance. Alas, it didn’t draw me in.

Eighteen-year-old Remy has just graduated from high school, and is about to dump her current boyfriend when she meets a weird guy named Dexter. Remy is a control freak with a many-times-married writer mother, and Dexter does not fit into her plans.

But I never felt really involved with the book. The characters never felt real to me. Remy felt like a checklist of characteristics rather than a person. I saw a couple plot twists coming from a ways away. I know Dessen is popular and her books are well reviewed, so perhaps her style is just not for me. I liked Keeping the Moon more than this, though, so I may check out another title.

“The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice”

Monday, September 30th, 2013


Now, HERE is a good entry into the excellent and involving comic-book series The Unwritten. In The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice, we get origin stories for both Tom Taylors, the real one and the fictional one. In alternating segments, illustrated in alternating styles, we learn how writer Wilson Taylor simultaneously created both his real son Tom and his fictional character Tommy.

In what has been told piecemeal throughout the series so far, we get the backstory of Tom’s mother, her pregnancy, and Wilson’s machinations to create a living embodiment/mirror of a fictional creation.

This alternates with the text of the first Tommy Taylor book that Wilson was writing, the Ship That Sank Twice about a boy named Tommy, his friends Sue and Peter, and their magical adventure.

Like all of Unwritten, this is a twisty-turny tale that has literary references upon references, yet is good no matter how many you get or don’t, e.g., the Dumbledore-ish character is called Tulkinghorn, a name from Dicken’s Bleak House. I really enjoyed how it joined together and filled in so much of what readers knew and didn’t know.

While I liked the idea of the alternating styles, crisp pencils for the “real” world and softer watercolors for the fictional one, many of the segments had a different style. The credits page indicate that Peter Gross did all the layouts but several different artists did the finishing, This range of art styles made it feel uneven, rather than balanced, to me. This was a lovely, involving book. I would have preferred to have waited for one that Gross would have illustrated all himself, or at least half and half with another artist like Jon Muth, whose style I was reminded of in the fictional sections. But, I quibble. It’s a lovely book, well illustrated, and well told. It’s both a good entry in the series and a good possible entry point for new readers.

Further Thoughts on “Kindred” with Many Links

Sunday, September 29th, 2013

I lead a local community book group. This month’s selection was Kindred by Octavia Butler, which I wrote about here.

As I researched the book and author in preparation for the discussion, one thing began to stand out. Again and again, the book is referred to in terms I think might put people off from reading it. The author herself called it “grim fantasy” and that’s what Charles Stross referred to it as in his recent post “Time Tourism” on why women don’t time travel in fiction much. Adjectives from the back of the book include shattering and terrifying, And while these may be true, this book is so much, much more. It’s a gripping page turner, with a strong memorable main character, and a supporting cast that deconstructs racial stereotypes like these detailed at the blog Nicole Be Thinking:

Common stereotypes of black women include the Mammy, who is “everyone’s favorite aunt or grandmother;” Jezebel, the “sexually promiscuous, libidinous black woman;” and Sapphire, who is “usually shown with her hands on her hips […] as she lets everyone know she is in charge” (Yarbrough; Hudson 243). In my reading, I have come across another stereotype, the tragic figure of Cassandra (Yarbrough).

Do not be afraid of this book. Read it. Everyone should. It’s changed, and continues to change, my way of thinking and seeing the world.

The links I found were many, and fascinating, and I can’t do them justice, but in case you’re also wanting to know more about the book and its author:

Kindred is representative of a body of counter-narratives seeking to challenge dominant, utopian portraits of American democracy and the veneration of post-racialism as the state of U.S. race relations since the end of the civil rights movement.

Butler on time travel:

People who think about time travel stories sometimes think that going back in time would be fun because you would have all the information you needed to be much more astute than the people there, when the truth is of course you wouldn’t.

A short bio.

Reinventing the slave narrative.

Why it should be a movie, here and here.

It will be a graphic novel.

Themes of power, community and motherhood

About publishing Kindred:

“Kindred” was repeatedly rejected by publishers, many of whom could not understand how a science fiction novel could be set on a plantation in the antebellum South. Butler stuck to her social justice vision - “I think people really need to think what it’s like to have all of society arrayed against you” - and finally found a publisher who paid her a $5,000 advance for “Kindred.”

“I was living on my writing,” Butler said, “and you could live on $5,000 back then. You could live, but not well. I got along by buying food I didn’t really like but was nourishing: beans, potatoes. A 10-pound sack of potatoes lasts a long time.”

“Richard II” by Shakespeare

Saturday, September 21st, 2013

King Richard II: Arden ShakespeareKing Richard II: Arden Shakespeare by William Shakespeare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Lots of the talky-talk. Some great stuff about the complexities of leadership, and how one’s strengths and weaknesses can be used against one. A focus on the question of divine right of kings. Lots of lines devoted to men pointing fingers at one another and yelling “Liar!” Far too much rhyming for it to feel as real as I’d like it. Richard II undergoes fascinating ups and downs. But the play wasn’t as felicitous to read as later ones, and some scenes (Liar!) had me rolling my eyes. Good, sometimes not, but occasionally great. Also, in this edition of the Arden, I found Peter Ure’s notes all but useless to me. Rarely did he explicate or contextualize the lines. He was far more interested in obsessing nerdishly over comparative texts.


I re-read Richard II in preparation for the PBS showing of The Hollow Crown: Richard II last night. I didn’t love the production. I didn’t like the implication that being effete and loving men is at least weakness if not villainy. His love of men was shown both in gesture, and in the repeated motif of St. Sebastian, often called the patron saint of homosexuals. In the DVD Shakespeare Uncovered, in the Richard II segment the director revealed he was going for someone who simply had no awareness of others, and had the idea of Michael Jackson, which is where the idea for the monkey came from. I did think the monkey was a nice touch at showing Richard’s love of ridiculous things. Also, Derek Jacobi reveals he thinks Shakespeare didn’t write the plays, the earl of Oxford did. !!! I was surprised that such an eminent Shakespearean actor doesn’t believe in Shakespeare.

To counter my concerns about his earlier effete-ness, Richard does have a pleasingly badass scene at the end:

Villain, they own hand yields thy death’s instrument.
Go thou and fill another room in hell (V, vii, 6-7)

But the scene where his name was written in the sand and erased by the surf? A little too on the nose for me.

I did enjoy Rory Kinnear as Bolingbroke, silent and bewildered at Richard’s behavior and in a later scene when he had to make the hard decisions of a king. Patrick Stewart as John of Gaunt was terrific.

This was not my favorite play, to read or see, but it does contain this, and so I’m reminded that even lesser Shakespeare can make me feel like bowing down:

For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of kings (III, ii, 155-6)

“Your Seven-Year-Old: Life in a Minor Key” by Ames and Haber

Thursday, September 19th, 2013

I mostly hate books about parenting. They’re full of reasonable sounding things that I promptly forget once I close the book, and reading them takes time away from reading for pleasure, which is my recovery FROM parenting, And yet, every so often, I’m so perplexed I break down and read a parenting book. On our recent big-a$$ summer driving trip, my 7yo would not answer people’s questions of him,make funny noises instead, and then run away from being hugged. This is not endearing behavior when our little family had driven umpteen bazillion miles to see many and various members of our extended family, who unsurprisingly were hoping for a little interaction.

In other words, I had of late lost all my patience over his behavior, and wondered why he was being such a pain in the butt, so I read this book.

Four years ago, when the boy was 3.5, I was introduced to the series by someone, I forget who. They recommended Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy? Which I HAD to read because it is such a hilarious AND perfect title. As far as I’m concerned, 3.5 is when children are possessed by demons. I don’t remember at all what the book said (see first line) but I do recall it had to state explicitly at some point that 3yos were NOT the enemy. i found that helpful at the time. So I borrowed Your Seven Year Old: Life in a Minor Key, hoping for some insight.

The premise of this series is that kids tend to go through stages at around the same ages. The authors posit that year-ish periods of equilibrium are balanced by disequilibrium. Unsurprisingly, to me, both 3 and 7 are disequilibrium years.

There’s tons of information in here, much of it super dated especially re: gender roles and spanking. There’s also a lot about some stuff that I haven’t encountered in either of my boys, such as the persecution complex and fear of failure. But it did affirm that an inward focus, a lessening of talk and wanting to be touched and an increase in clownish behavior were all right on track for 7.

Concrete strategies for the trenches? Not many. The value of this series I think is in the same kind of empathy it advocates using with kids, what with mirroring troubles and trying to loosely guide to solutions. It’s a short fast read though, with helpful reminders that kids aren’t evil plotting geniuses, they’re just small people who are growing in fits and spurts in body and mind. They’re individuals, yet they’re also just like everybody else. Isn’t it true for us all?

“Winnie the Pooh” audiobook

Thursday, September 19th, 2013


My family recently finished listening to all Harry Potter books on CD, the English editions narrated by the wonderful Stephen Fry. Over the summer, we started doing jigsaw puzzles while we listened, and I fell in love with these activities together. Alas, the Potter books come to an end. So when I searched for more things narrated by Fry, I found a full-cast dramatization on CD at the library of the stories from Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, with Stephen Fry as Pooh, Judi Dench as the narrator and Kanga, and Jane Horrocks (Ginger’s voice in Chicken Run) as Piglet.

Please, pause just a minute and imagine having Stephen Fry and Judi Dench reading to you? Something about having these two great actors reading me one of the most beloved books of childhood had me amazed with wonder at our modern world, where I could get this for free from my library.

Alas, my two boys, 7 and 10, were not as enthralled and repeatedly said they were not interested, after starting it a few times. But I persevered. (Because I can be stubborn like that.) I renewed it at the library, and kept playing it when they were round, and finally, FINALLY, I got the younger one to listen with me while I did the mending last week. Granted, he didn’t laugh as much as I did, but he was paying attention, and we got to share jokes, like the Tiddley Poms, and I got to listen to how to play Pooh Sticks with him. The older one was watching football with his dad. And so it goes. But I did finally listen to this, and can highly recommend it, and perhaps advise you that someone older than 6 mild feel they’re too old for it, but at some point before 45 year I became no longer too old for it.

As for our next audio book that I’m hoping to lure them back to the jigsaw with? A Dr. Who dramatization read by David Tennant. I think that’ll be more exciting than Pooh. To them, at least.

“Kindred” by Octavia Butler

Thursday, September 19th, 2013


You know those books or authors that are on your radar for years and then you finally get around to them?

(I suppose this is just a variant of the books/authors on our radar whose books we bought and then just let sit on the shelf for years. Oh, wait, I’m the only one who does that, right?)

Anyway, Octavia Butler is one of those authors for me, and so I chose Kindred for one of my book groups. I was kind of afraid of it. To me, the description sounded like a time-travel version of Beloved, one of the most powerful novels I’ve read, but also one of the most harrowing. But I chose the book, and read the book, and am here on the other side to say: damn glad I did. This is great stuff.

Dana is a black woman in 1976 who is suddenly pulled back in time to early-1800’s Maryland. She has a strange connection to a red-haired boy that unspools in a time-traveling back-and-forth between the centuries. Most of the book is set in the 1800’s, one of the reasons this nearly 30-year-old “science fiction” book doesn’t feel dated, except when it’s deliberately TRYING to be dated, which Butler does a fabulous job writing, because she clearly did a boat-load of research. But even most of the mundane details of Dana’s life in the 70’s don’t jar, which makes the shift to the past that much more jarring. One exception: when Dana wants to find an example of what a pass letter for a slave might look like, none of the books in her house have that. I found one in a few seconds.

This book is typically shelved in science fiction/fantasy and because it’s historical time travel, is more often referred to as science fiction. This doesn’t quite fit: there’s no science to Dana’s time travel. Butler leaves that deliberately vague. Really, it belongs in literature because it’s a beautifully crafted, suspenseful novel.

Dana cannot predict when she’ll be drawn back in time. Time passes differently in the past than in her present. Like all time travellers, she has to carefully weigh her actions in the past for their potential consequences in the future. Dana is a strong, smart, heroine. While I began the book with trepidation, it soon had me so in its grip that I raced through it. And, like the best books, it has me thinking about it after I’m done, mulling over the questions that Butler poses so tantalizingly, and in such complex ways.

A note on the covers. The image at the top is of the most recent US edition. Part of my trepidation about the book stemmed from the more haunting image on an earlier edition:


Yet after reading the book, I see the newest edition as the romanticized nonsense that it is. The older cover is a much better fit for the story, even as I can recognize that the newer one is more reader friendly. Given that this book has lasted, I’ll grudgingly allow that anything that draws a reader into it to evaluated it on her own terms is a good thing. But, having read the book, the older cover has more integrity.

Another characteristic of a great book, for me, is its ability to provoke me to follow up on ideas in it, such as a recent piece in the Guardian, “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?” and sci-fi author Charles Stross’ response on his blog, “Time Tourism” in which he refers to Kindred by link via the phrase in bold:

Time travel tourist yarns that describe the depths of our historical depravity have to deal with the essential problem that their settings can be no less sexist than our past. And there are time travel novels about women that tackle this problem head-on, but they tend to make for grim reading.

Kindred is at times grim. Yet it’s also utterly involving and thought provoking. So to dismiss it as grim is to be afraid of it, as I was for many years, and thus to miss out on a great book. Be not afraid. If Dana can make the jump, so can you.

“We Have Always Lived in the Castle” by Shirley Jackson

Thursday, September 19th, 2013


I am abashed to admit that Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle is the first novel of hers I’ve read. Like most people, I’m familiar with her short stories “The Lottery” and “Charles.” I’m not sure those can be forgotten after having been encountered. I now feel the same way about We Have Always Lived in the Castle, which opens:

My name is Mary Katherine Blackwood. I am eighteen years old, and I live with my sister Constance. I have often thought that with any luck at all I could have been born a werewolf, because the two middle fingers on both my hands are the same length, but I have had to be content with what I had. I dislike washing myself, and dogs, and noise. I like my sister Constance, and Richard Plantagenet, and Amanita phalloides, the death-cup mushroom. Everyone else in my family is dead.

Mary Katherine, or Merricat, is our extremely unreliable narrator in this tale of alienation and class warfare in small-town America. The black-and-white art by Thomas Ott on the Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition perfectly suits the novel. The introduction by Jonathan Lethem should only be read after, as is true of nearly all introductions, because it contains SPOILERS. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is a mystery by turns funny, enchanting, and terribly sad. I was utterly engaged.

“The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death” by John Gray

Saturday, September 7th, 2013


You know how some magazines sit around for a LONG time, since you want to read them, but you know that it would probably take as much time as a book, and who has time for that? A friend had lent me a copy of Harper’s magazine from early 2011, and I didn’t even remember which article or story was the reason, but I finally got around to reading it, and whether it was the intended article at the time, what I was most interested in was Zadie Smith’s review of John Gray’s book The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Alas, the link is only available to subscribers at

Gray’s book is short but not a quick read. I felt out of practice with my academ-ese, but I muddled through, though I did feel at times rather dim. His topic is the muddy and contentious areas of science and occult in the post-Darwin years. Occultists in England were seeking scientific proof of the afterlife from a growing library of “automatic writings,” material channeled by mediums ostensibly from the dead or yet to be. Scientists in Russia pursued immortality and human perfection through any number of atrocities that pre-figured those of the Nazis during WWII.

There is no pristine science untouched by the vagaries of faith (5)

Speaking of Russia, WTF? Reading this book made my jaw drop. It seemed that all government people in Russia did was run around, plot, kill and poison each other, and then murder millions of citizens, either by mass starvation or guns. That is some scary stuff, people. Much more gruesome than the tidy, repressed Victorians who were trying to talk to ghosts.

Gray’s book was not an easily accessible book for me. It had lots of esoteric vocabulary, that even though I was familiar with, e.g., hermeneutics, the study of texts, which I find is a litmus test of discourse level. If the author uses “hermeneutics” it is high Academ-ese, as a professor of mine once called it. But it’s not fair, and kind of embarrassing to say that it was hard to read because the words were hard, but I’m just sayin’. But other things would have helped a great deal: labelling photos rather than having an illustration list at the front to be flipped back to, end notes that were noted by number, not just clumped at the end. These made the book tidy, so perhaps visually easier to read, but didn’t help illustrate some of his points as he made them. Further, a timeline at the beginning of people’s deaths, as well as clearer delineation within the book of the chronology of events would have helped. In the English Cross-Correspondences section, one man was apparently channeling another, whom it wasn’t clear had died.

Those things aside, this was fascinating stuff, especially in the wake of reading The Karamazov Brothers, since Dostoevsky was writing in this post-Darwinian period of doubt, faith, and possibility.

“I Am Not Sidney Poitier” by Percival Everett

Monday, September 2nd, 2013

I picked up I Am Not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett after reading a good review of it in an old copy of The Believer that I finally got around to reading on our Big Ass Family Trip Out East, aka the BAFTOE. But anyhoo, the book: it’s a satire on being black and not poor in the south, it reminded me of Confederacy of Dunces and Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days. Our narrator is Not Sidney Poitier. Since his last name was Poitier, his mother thought she’d be making it clear who he wasn’t. Instead it just inspired the running joke of the book.

What’s your name?

Not Sidney.

Okay, then what is it?

I did recognize some references–getting arrested in a Southern town had a similar feel to In the Heat of the Night, while a trip to meet his girlfriend’s family was a send up of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I got the sense there was a lot going on in other scenarios that might have been referencing other Sidney Poitier work I wasn’t familiar with. I was intrigued and amused by the presence of a professor named Percival Everett who people thought was brilliant, but was actually just messing with people. I’m not sure if this novel was brilliant, or just messing with people, but it was frequently funny in spite of its treatment of ongoing racism in the south, which is always depressing.

Silence fell on the table like a bad simile.


“How much money he got?” from the fat man.

“Ten crisp one-hundred-dollar bills,” the deputy said.

Tractor Cap whistled. “That must be close to a thousand.”

“Pretty close,” I said.

Also hilarious: everything that came out of fictional Ted Turner’s mouth.

“The Karamazov Brothers” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Saturday, August 31st, 2013


Hey, y’all! Guess what I did this summer? I finished The Karamazov Brothers! And am feeling v. please w/self because of it.

What can I possibly write about The Karamazov Brothers by Fyodor Dostoevsky that doesn’t come across as hubris. This is one of the Great Books. But, as David Foster Wallace (RIP) noted in his essay on Dostoevsky that was collected in Consider the Lobster, approaching it as such can suck all the fun out of it. And it CAN be a fun book, As well as a moving book. And an engaging book. Which is why it’s come to be one of the Great Books.

Here are just a handful of reasons I’m glad I read it and would recommend it to just about everyone:

It’s perhaps the first police procedural. It centers on a murder, one that is described often for most of the book, but doesn’t actually take place until about 2/3 of the way through. But the clues, action, suspects, motivations, police work and trial are all detailed, often exhaustingly.

It’s funny. Too many examples to count, but one of my favorites was:

I must make an admission…I never could understand how it’s possible to love one’s neighbors. In my opinion, it is precisely one’s neighbors that one cannot possibly love. Perhaps if they weren’t so nigh…

It deals overtly with Theodicy, the study of the problem of pain in Christianity, or how can a benevolent God allow terrible things to happen.

As with the police procedural aspect, it is sometimes spookily modern:

the world is becoming more and more united, is being formed into brotherly communion, by the shortening of distances, by the transmitting of thoughts through the air. (313)

And perhaps, most of all, the teachings of Father Zosima, an elder, who speaks a passage quoted in both Harriet the Spy and Terence Malick’s To the Wonder,a character whose teachings changed Martin Sheen’s personal faith after Malick gave the book to him:

Love all God’s creation, the whole and every grain of sand in it. Love every leaf, every ray of God’s light. Love the animals, love the plants, love everything. If you love everything, you will perceive the divine mystery in things. Once you perceive it, you will begin to comprehend it better every day. And you will come at last to love the whole world with an all-embracing love.

I started reading the newest translation, the one by Pevear/Volkhonsky but switched to the Oxford World’s Classics (which have yet to let me down) version translated by Ivan Avsey, which I thought read much better in English. I did this as a summer reading project. The novel is divided into 13 books, ranging from about 20 pages to 100, (FD didn’t have the whole serialization thing nailed down, like Dickens, whom FD admired, did, with regular page counts ending on a cliffhanger.) so I read a section a week. Dividing it, and reading it with others, ensured that I finished. Otherwise, I would likely have given up during the third book, in a section called The Grand Inquisitor, which in retrospect is one of the more intriguing parts to the book. This would be a good book to read during winter.

Highly recommended. Not just because it’s Important. But because it’s GOOD.

“This Boy’s Life” by Tobias Wolff

Saturday, August 31st, 2013


This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff was recommended to me a while ago on one of The Morning News Biblioracle events, where I listed the last five books I read, and John Warner offered a suggestion for the next. I am far, far from whenever that suggestion came, and perhaps it would have been more timely then, but it seemed timely enough, coming on the heels of my finishing, liking and appreciating Jeannette Walls’ childhood memoir The Glass Castle.

Also, since you may be wondering, it was adapted into a movie with Ellen Barkin, Robert DeNiro and Leo DiCaprio.

Toby, or Jack, since he changes his name within the book, lives in the west with his mother, who is divorced from his dad, who lives out east with their son Geoffrey. The mother, Rosemary, has a penchant for getting up and going. Interestingly, she shares this tendency and a name with Jeannette Walls’ mother, so there was an interesting fun-house mirror effect to reading these books one after the other.

Where Jeannette was a sympathetic narrator, though, Toby/Jack is not. He lies, he steals, he plays with guns. He is sympathetic in that he has to endure two abusive father-ish figures in a row: Roy, then Dwight, who becomes Toby’s stepfather. So his deliquency is his survival mechanism. And Tobias the author doesn’t paint his younger self in a flattering light. Like Walls and other memoirists, he presents a portrait of his childhood, one that we are supposed to read as more or less true. It’s a rough one, without the abject poverty of Walls’, but without the intermittent glimmers of love and joy, too.

Dwight drove in a sullen reverie. When I spoke he answered curtly or not at all. Now and then his expression changed, and he grunted as if to claim some point of argument. He kept a Camel burning on his lower lip. Just the other side of Concrete he pulled the car hard to the left and hit a beaver that was crossing the road. Dwight said he had swerved to miss the beaver, but that wasn’t true. He had gone out of his way to run over it. (88)

Like Walls, Wolff is a storyteller, and the tale of his childhood is a compelling one, if often uncomfortable to read. Towards the end, when Toby tries to get out, it was much more complicated to root for him, given the machinations he went through to orchestrate his potential escape from small town Washington State. But since we know he DID escape–since he’s a published author, and a professor of writing, it’s also fascinating to see the beginnings that ended up somewhere quite different.

“The Glass Castle” by Jeannette Walls

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

Apparently, I am one of the last women in the world to read Jeannette Wall’s The Glass Castle. It has been recommended to me umpteen times. When a friend urged me to borrow her copy so we could talk about it, it seemed like it was finally time to read the book that most people described as “a memoir of a girl whose parents choose to be homeless.” After reading the book, I now understand why this is a shorthand for describing the book, yet I think it gives more weight to later developments of the parents, and not enough to the bulk of the book, which is the unlikely survival and escape of the three elder Walls children from their poverty-stricken, bat$hit crazy childhoods.

At lunchtime, when other kids unwrapped their sandwiches or bought their hot meals, Brian and I would get out books and read. Brian told everyone he had to keep his weight down because he wanted to join the wrestling team when he got to high school. I told people that I had forgotten to bring my lunch. No one believed me, so I started hiding in the bathroom during lunch hour. I’d stay in one of the stalls with the door locked and my feet propped up so that no one would recognize my shoes.

When other girls came in and threw away their lunch bags in the the garbage pails, I’d go retrieve them. I could not get over the way kids tossed out all this perfectly good food: apples, hard-boiled eggs, packages of peanut-butter crackers, sliced pickles, half-pint cartons of milk, cheese sandwiches with just one bite taken out because the kid didn’t like the pimentos in the cheese. I’d return to the stall and polish off my tasty finds. (173)

Walls tells the stories from her childhood with a light touch. She has amazing reserves of love for her parents, despite the ongoing trauma they put her and her siblings through. I kept reading because I wanted those kids to escape from the parents. It’s amazing that they did, and even more so that the three eldest became successful.

Like the best memoirs–Mary Karr, Cheryl Strayed both come to mind–this one is self-deprecating, often funny, and not recriminating, though I think it’s impossible not to judge the parents, even as we grudgingly admire their many positive traits that Walls carefully enumerates.

“The Cat Ate My Gymsuit” by Paula Danziger

Monday, August 26th, 2013


Last week I finished The Karamazov Brothers (woo!), and cast about for a a sorbet of a book, a mezzo, something that would be fast, funny, female and modern. I landed on The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, one of the titles I never got ’round to last summer while I was reading books for the Shelf Discovery readalong.

The outline is simple: Marcy Lewis is an unhappy, overweight girl whose father yells a lot. When she gets a new teacher, she and her friends are transformed. Trouble happens with the teacher, and her parents, plus there’s a cute guy thrown in for good measure.

This was a short, diverting book, but oh-so-slight. I wonder–would it have meant more to me if I’d read it as a girl?