Archive for the '2017 Books' Category


Monday, September 18th, 2017

Great news! My friend Samantha Bohrman, the author of the hilarious Ruby’s Misadventures in Reality, has a new book out. Breaking the Rules of Revenge is a young-adult romance set at a summer camp. “Like a parent trap for teenagers!” says one reviewer. If you’re looking for a last blast of summer before the leaves fall, take a look at this fast fun read, which is just $2.99 on Kindle.

Mallory Jones is tired of being the girl who stays home and practices French horn while her identical twin, Blake, is crowned homecoming queen. So when she has the opportunity to pretend to be Blake, she takes it. At Camp Pine Ridge, she will spread her wings and emerge a butterfly. Or at least someone who finally gets kissed by a cute guy. That is, until bad boy Ben Iron Cloud shows up, ready to get revenge on Blake—aka Mallory.

If it weren’t for that infuriating girl, Ben wouldn’t even be at camp. Luckily, he now has six weeks to soak up some rays and get even with his nemesis. But the more time he spends with Blake, the more he realizes she’s nothing like the girl he thought she was—she’s kind and innocent and suddenly way too tempting. And soon enough, revenge is the last thing on his mind. Unfortunately, the girl he’s falling for is keeping a major secret…

Disclaimer: This book contains a super-hot bad boy out for revenge, all sorts of camp hijinks, and a girl who realized she’s been a butterfly all along.

RIVER OF GODS by Ian McDonald

Monday, September 11th, 2017

I’ve written before about how thorny the issue of “you should read this book” recommendations is, especially those from my husband. He recommended Ian McDonald’s River of Gods to me in 2007, after he read it, and after it had won many major international science-fiction awards. I finally took it off its dusty shelf where it’s been patiently waiting, since I just finished Salman Rushdie’s classic Midnight’s Children, which also is set in August on an anniversary of India’s independence and partition. So it’s ten years later (also ten years from when I wrote that post on recommended books–I’ve been blogging for a LONG time) that I’m finally getting around to it. That’s a shame, because it’s a book that begs to be talked about, and I waited so long to read it that he is now foggy on the details, which are exactly what I’d like to discuss with him.

Instead, I read as many online reviews as I could find, which is a decent substitute for a back and forth conversation, especially since one of the links, this one at Coalescent, WAS a back and forth conversation.

River of Gods is a huge book, both in scope and size, at 599 pages in my paperback edition, which is curiously only available at amazon from 3rd party sellers, but does not seem to be out of print? The adjectives that litter the books reviews are telling: sprawling, major, huge, vast, ambitious, staggering, etc. The book is bigger on the inside, like the Tardis, and a myth of nesting dolls that one of its characters references in the book, each of which contains a universe bigger that the one that contained it. And the book’s bigness seems to have resulted in a divided response. Most reviews praise the epic sweep and the ambition, while many reviewers complain that it doesn’t (didn’t, given how long ago it was published) break new ground, and that it was bloated and overlong. I’m going to side with those that praise the book.

It’s set in 2047, on the hundredth anniversary of India’s independence and partition. Further partition has occurred, and India is split into three major segments, Bharat, Awadh, and Bengal. I would dearly have loved a map to the fictional divisions, though part of this desire is probably from my typical American lack of geographical awareness. Religion and politics are still sites of contention and unrest. The narrative switches between many characters (the number changes depending on which review you read. The back of the book says nine, but really it’s more like a dozen, with a few locations getting their own segment as well.

India is suffering a drought, with the monsoon three years gone. The territories are clashing over a lack of water, as well as over religious and social difference. Meanwhile the Americans have found a weird artifact in space that somehow ties a handful of the characters together in India, which has become a haven for unauthorized AI activities after certain levels have been outlawed by puritanical legislation globalized from the US.

Non-fans of the book argue that there are too many voices and perspectives, and that they detract and distract from the plot. But to my reading, the panoply of voices and locations and ideas is central to the plot, which concerns itself with how simplistic either/or dichotomies just can’t contain the messy, beautiful, horrifying mess that is life on this planet. This idea is embodied in the character of Tal, a “nute” who has been genetically re-engineered to have neither sex nor gender, and whose pronoun is “yt” and who has a spectacular character arc throughout the book, one that is interesting to contrast with that of Mr. Nandha, the “Krishna cop” who, like Deckard in Blade Runner, is tasked with identifying and eliminating rogue “aeais”.

Like the soap opera Town and Country that’s a key feature of its plot, River of Gods moves in and out of lives and locations to tell a story that’s big, about aeais advancing, while also telling the everyday stories, like that of the Krishna cop’s wife who longs for attention and babies from her husband, who becomes ever more obsessed with tracking and killing aeais even while his own real life is unraveling.

While it was hard to keep track of all the characters as well as the liberal use of Hindu terms and slang (there is a glossary at the end, but I found it was only spottily helpful and eventually gave up, just guessing from context and getting along just fine), I got swept up in the plot as it picked up elements from each of the many characters’ stories. Christopher Priest in his Guardian review says “It is not a page-turner book; it is a turn-page-back book.” By the end section, which is titled Ensemble and features all the storylines and characters coming together in a fast and furious climax and denouement that was vivid and visual in its description, I was hooked and loathe to put the book down.

I’m a sometime reader of sci-fi and speculative fiction. This book reminds me of the work of William Gibson–it’s cyberpunk set in India rather than China. In scope it reminds me of the books of Neal Stephenson, though I think this has a more satisfying ending than Stephenson’s earlier books, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age. In spite of the length and details, I found it accessible and engaging, often even enthralling, and enjoyed the reading experience much more than I did with Midnight’s Children. I wouldn’t recommend it for those unfamiliar or averse to reading sci-fi, but for those with at least a passing familiarity with the genre, this is a grand mash up of India culture, a varied cast of characters, and speculative ideas. Whether the setting is integral to the story, or perhaps a romanticized Western, colonial perspective, is questioned in this piece from the Mithila review, which reminds me to get going on another recommendation of my husband’s, Monica Byrne’s The Girl in the Road.

If anyone comes here that’s read River of Gods, I’d love to know: what did you think? And specifically, what did you think about the revelations about Najia’s childhood, and how they fit into the plot. Also, what did you think about the character of Krishan?

“The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece” by John Pfordresher

Thursday, September 7th, 2017

I wanted to love The Secret History of Jane Eyre: How Charlotte Bronte Wrote Her Masterpiece by John Pfordresher very much. Jane Eyre is perhaps my favorite book. I’ve read it several times and done a fair amount of research into Bronteiana. Further, I studied with Dr. Pfordresher when I was an undergrad at Georgetown. I was a business student and only had to take one English class. I took Dr. Pfordresher’s class, and we only read three texts that semester: The Iliad, War and Peace, and Hemingway’s In Our Time. We dove deep into each book and the class was one of my favorite college experiences.

When I saw that Pfordresher had written a book on Jane Eyre and that it was well reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly and The Washington Times, I was pleased to see two pieces of my life overlap and eager to read the book. My zeal dissipated quickly. The subtitle should have warned me. Jane Eyre, while one of my favorite books, is not necessarily regarded by most scholars as Charlotte’s masterpiece. That honor goes more often to her final book, Villette. As Pfordresher goes to some lengths in his book to demonstrate, Jane Eyre is the work of a well read and imaginative but unworldly young woman. Much of Jane’s fictional story comes from the fanciful stories Charlotte and her siblings wrote growing up, drawn from the inner life of the imagination, not from real, lived experience. Villette, on the other hand, was written after Charlotte had earned fame for Jane Eyre and suffered the deaths of her three closest siblings, Anne, Branwell, and Emily. Villette is a darker, more complex and mature work that reflects how life changed for Charlotte after Jane Eyre was published.

My discomfort at the simplification of referring to Jane as Charlotte’s masterpiece was not eased as I began the book. Pfordresher presented the Bronte’s early life as simple and sequestered, buying into the romantic portrait that modern biographers have done much to dispel, as Lucasta Miller details in her metabiography The Bronte Myth. Further, he presents excerpts from Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte and presents them without question or qualification, while recent scholarship has called Gaskell’s reliability as a narrator into question. Was Patrick Bronte a loving supportive father, or a demanding tyrant? Gaskell, and Pfordresher based on her, choose the latter portrayal, but couldn’t the answer be both?

A more uncomfortable interpretation that Pfordresher presents is about Patrick Bronte’s influence on the character of Rochester. In noting the influence of Charlotte’s former teacher Constantin Heger on Rochester, Pfordresher notes:

In many ways [Constantin] resembled Patrick Bronte and anticipated Charlotte’s projection of him in Mr. Rochester. Constantin, like Patrick, was strong-willed and courageous, a man with a considerable sex drive who knew how to handle a gun, and yet also a tender and thoughtful teacher and father.(133)

That both Heger and Bronte have strong sex drives because they fathered several children, and that they were then the models for Rochester’s sex drive, is a reach to me, and one that smacks of a simplistic Freudian reading. Because Pfordresher’s premise is that Jane Eyre was based on details from Charlotte’s real life, he uses this as evidence, where others have more convincingly argued that Charlotte’s reading of Byron and stories from Blackwood’s Magazine are more fitting predecessors to Rochester.

Though Pfordresher doesn’t reference Freud specifically in the analogy he draws between Patrick and Rochester, he does quote Freud later on the subject of the uncanny, arguing that Charlotte had both rage and passion in her real life that she concealed but that yet come to light. He offers Bertha’s unearthly laugh that Jane overhears on her tour of Thornfield as an echo of Charlotte’s suppressed rage and passion in real life. I’m perplexed why Pfordresher would reference Freud, though, whose scholarship and influence has fallen out of favor, when there is a more recent and better respected reference, which is Gilbert and Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic, a comprehensive work with an entire segment devoted to Bertha as a shadow side to Jane.

I was also vexed with small errors throughout the text. Typos are inevitable, but I found it puzzling that Pfordresher refers to Rochester as Fairfax Rochester, as if his first name is Fairfax, where it’s Edward, or as if the last name is compound, which I don’t believe it is. When the characters of the Rivers sisters are named, Mary is often referred to incorrectly as Maria, which is confusing given that Maria was the name of Bronte’s mother, a sister, and the first name of the character of Miss Temple in Jane Eyre. Mary versus Maria seems like an easy mistake to make, yet it is an important distinction, yet it’s missed more than once. Also, while the biographers Juliet Barker and Claire Harman are mentioned in the acknowledgements and included in the bibliography, Barker is misidentified as Julia in the bibliography, Harman is spelled Harmon in the acknowledgements, and Claire is misspelled Clare in the bibliography. For a work of scholarship, this does not give me confidence in either the author or his editors.

This book works best as a close reading of Jane Eyre, and ties details to many from Charlotte’s Angrian tales that she wrote with Branwell in her youth. This was the aspect that interested me most, since I’m not very familiar with details from the juvenilia. There is also an intriguing analysis of Jane’s paintings as she shows them to Rochester (147-148). I also appreciated Pfordresher’s identification of the moon as a recurring symbol in the novel for the feminine as a guardian figure, which I have previously interpreted as Bronte putting a feminine face on God.

But by trying to forge such direct connections between Charlotte’s life and details in Jane Eyre, I felt Pfordresher was often shoehorning complex realities (like the temperament of Patrick Bronte) into tidy boxes in service of a theory that few would contest: that Charlotte based her book on reality and embellished from imagination.

A more interesting question, to my mind, would be the contrast between Jane Eyre’s more conventional Cinderella story written in anonymity, and that of Lucy Snowe of Villette, written after Charlotte’s authorship was revealed, she’d endured the deaths of her siblings, and she’d received acclaim.

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis

Monday, March 6th, 2017

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis has too may excellent quotes for me to leave it to Goodreads and Facebook, which is where most of what I used to post here on the blog goes, nowadays. But sometimes I want a little more space, and so, here I am.

It Can’t Happen Here, about a Vermont newspaperman who is moved to political action for the first time in his life, is both terrific, and not so great. Terrific, because it’s timely after the 2016 election, and the election of a charismatic but ethically weak man who is a puppet for a more militaristic and grim advisor. Buzz Windrip is not exactly Donald Trump, but Lee Sarason is scarily like Steve Bannon.

One of the things that’s interesting about the book is that it predicted the rise of a popular leader like Trump based on Huey Long, who was assassinated, and didn’t rise to power. So Lewis’ era missed out, but here we are, 80 or so years later with so very much of this book that could be ripped from the headlines. And while it’s satire, it’s often not funny, because right now, it’s too close, too soon.

For example, his description of how many voters

“had turned to Windrip & Co., not as perfect, but as the most probable saviors of the country from, on the one hand, domination by Moscow, and, on the other hand, the slack indolence, the lack of decent pride of half the American youth whose world (these idealists asserted) was composed of shiftless distaste for work and refusal to learn anything thoroughly, of blatting dance music on the radio, maniac automobiles, slobbering sexuality…(350)

The paragraph is ironic given the current regime’s entanglement with Russia, and with how the description of youth could be taken from any piece on Millennials in the past several years.

I had to laugh at the following, about a group of states who later try to take things into their own control:

There were bubbles from an almost boiling rebellion in the Middle West and Northwest, especially in Minnesota and the Dakotas, where agitators, some of them formerly of political influence, were demanding that their states secede from the [Union] and form a cooperative (indeed almost socialistic) commonwealth of their own. (346)

Forming a co-op is SO Minnesotan.

The book is quite uneven. It’s long, it drags in the middle, some of the characters are flat or caricatures, and yet, I am glad I read it, and I recommend it, because otherwise I wouldn’t have read this, which rings deep and true for me:

More and more, as I think about history,…I am convinced that everything that is worth while in the world has been accomplished by the free, inquiring, critical spirit, and that the preservation of this spirit is more important than any social system whatsoever. But the men of ritual and the men of barbarism are capable of shutting up the men of science and of silencing them forever. (359)

It’s an imperfect novel, but it’s a nearly perfect political snapshot. Now if only it was been less descriptive of the problem, and more prescriptive of what we might do about it. I guess we’ll find out, since it did in fact happen here.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys Part 3

Monday, January 23rd, 2017

The idea of this read was to read Wide Sargasso Sea before Jane Eyre to put it in the proper perspective, and to strip away the layers of romance that Bronte drapes over Rochester, revealing him as a bitter, controlling, vengeful man.

Why, why does he take Antoinette back to England? Why not just abandon her, and pretend as if she hadn’t existed? Some of that is out of guilt, to punish himself for making bad decisions, but it also punishes her, who is not nearly as culpable as he would like to make her out to be.

In this third section, what I love is that Rhys not only continues her construction of poor, mad, imprisoned Antoinette, but also Grace Poole, one of the more maligned characters in Jane Eyre. No longer is Grace simply a mean, crude drunk, but instead is a woman who has endured hardship in the world and at the hands of men. She recognizes that same damage in Antoinette, the anger that has resulted, and respects it.

The third section is the most intertextual, weaving in and out of Bronte’s Jane Eyre and drawing attention to the absurdity of Rochester inviting a slew of people to his house when he has a prisoner in the attic.

The color red, of Antoinette’s dress, of the fire, in her memories of home, is throughout this section. It is the dress she wore with Sandi when she said goodbye to him: Sandi often came to see me when that man was away.

Does this mean that she was having an affair with Sandi before her marriage fell apart, or did that happen between sections two and three.

The section ends with a dream, Antoinette’s third of the book. Intriguingly and skillfully, Rhys has her dream of escape:

And the sky so red. Someone screamed and I thought, Why did I scream? I called Tia! and jumped and woke.

Out of the dream, then, she proceeds out of her prison with the candle to guide her.

It is a mercy, I think, that Rhys allowed her this freedom, at the end. She is not jumping to her death, but into wakefulness.

Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys, part 2

Monday, January 16th, 2017

Part One of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea ended with Antoinette having a dream she was in hell, and being comforted with hot chocolate, which reminded her of the tragic life and death of her mother.

Part Two is the famous “narrated by Mr. Rochester” section, yet Mr. R is never mentioned by name.

The section begins with him under a tree in the rain, already questioning his marriage to Antoinette, and expressing doubt and fear of his surroundings. He describes the girl Amelie, the one he will later in the section bed as revenge against Antoinette:

A lovely little creature but sly, spiteful, malignant perhaps, like much else in this place.

Over the course of the section Rochester notes how he was disliked and disregarded by his father and older brother, and had been shipped off to get married to an heiress as a way to get off their hands. He notes how he learned how to cut off his emotions when he was a child, and dislikes Antoinette for not being able to do so, though in comparison, her childhood was at least as brutal and damaging as his. As he attempts to exert his control he begins to call her Bertha, his mother’s name, a name she rejects.

There is a part in the middle of section 2 in which Antoinette’s narration resumes, or disrupts, his. She seeks out Christophine’s help, asking for obeah cures to make her husband love her again. Christophine warns her again and again, and gives her good advice to run away, which she ignores.

While Antoinette is getting this “medicine” Mr. R finally sees Daniel Cosway, who has been trying to tell him the “truth” about Antoinette and her family. With this in his mind, Mr. R is drugged by Antoinette, sleeps with her, wakes disoriented, wanders the island, then comes back to sleep with Amelie, as revenge for being taken advantage of, and deliberately cruelly, knowing that Antoinette can hear. She deteriorates mentally, while he seems to rush the process along with his hate and cruelty, rushing to get off the island, and for some reasons taking her with him, punishment for believing that she duped him, perhaps.

There is plenty here to despise, but also, plenty here to show how things lead inevitably to the action of section three. Rhys showed how Rochester’s own upbringing was cold and distant, and gives insight into why he acts the way he does.

There is also plenty to show how Antoinette makes her own bad decisions, and is treated as an object by the men in her life, but disregards the sage advice of Christophine, the only woman in the book who seems to have figured out how to buck the patriarchy. But even she flinches from the threat of English law when Mr. R threatens her with it.

What do you think?

WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys: Part One

Tuesday, January 3rd, 2017

Hello, hello, is anyone out there? I’ve let this blog lie fallow for some time, and I miss it terribly. If you read this, let me know you’re out there.

What with Facebook and Goodreads, it feels as if some of the purpose of the blog has become obsolete or at least redundant, since I do brief, timely posts elsewhere. But some things cry out for a longer form, and right now that’s my reading of Jean Rhys’ postcolonial classic revisioning of Jane Eyre’s madwoman in the attic, Wide Sargasso Sea.

I last read Wide Sargasso Sea for the first time in 2008, and again in November 2013. The first time I read itin 2008, I was baffled. I didn’t understand the Jamaican dialect, such as the opening, or the many details, which Rhys drops like tantalizing breadcrumbs through the short novel, often explaining things later, like family relations.

They say when trouble comes close ranks, and so the white people did. But we were not in their ranks. The Jamaican ladies had never approved of my mother, ‘because she pretty like pretty self’ Christophine said.

She was my father’s second wife, far too young for him they thought, and worse still, a Martinique girl. When I asked her why so few people came to see us, she told me that the road from Spanish Town to Coulibri Estate where we lived was very bad, and that road repairing was now a thing of the past. (My father, visitors, horses, feeling safe in bed–all belonged to the past.)

WSS has grown on me with each reading. I found the Norton edition with its footnotes and critical material helpful to understand the details so I could focus on the beauty of the prose and the power of the story, however short. I’m not sure I’d feel right about re-reading Jane without also re-reading Antoinette’s story.

Antoinette is one of the many authorial choices Rhys made as she crafted the book over a period of 20 years. In Bronte’s book, she is called Bertha Antoinetta Mason. Rhys changes this to Antoinette (more properly French), after her mother Annette. Bertha, we learn, is what the Mr. Rochester character (though he is never named) calls her, after his own mother, who is not mentioned in WSS otherwise. Rhys also changed the time period of her novel, placing it just after the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies, which took place in 1834 so that slavery, race, and class more firmly underlie the story. Jane Eyre was published in 1847, and the story was set earlier in the century.

Additionally, Rhys adds a layer of family beyond what Bronte invented. Antoinette is the daughter of Mr. Cosway. Mason is the man who marries Annette after Cosway has died. He is the father of Richard, the man who claims to be “Bertha’s” brother in Jane Eyre. I don’t know if their is significance in the names: a causeway is a raised road over low or wet ground where a mason is a worker. I wonder if this is mean to signify a fall in status.

In Part One, narrated by Antoinette, we see the unrest in the aftermath of emancipation, and the family’s precarious situation, tolerated only out of pity because they were poor. When Mason marries Annette and begins to repair Coulibri, there is a revolt, and a group sets fire to the house. The family is driven out, Antoinette’s younger brother dies, her mother goes mad and refuses to see Mr. Mason, and Antoinette languishes in a coma after being struck with a rock thrown by a former playmate. When she finally wakes, she finds her mother refuses to see her, and is sent to a convent by Mr. Mason, who visits periodically, and tells her about some English friends he wants her to meet. The section ends with a dream:

Again I have left the house at Coulibri. It is still night and I am walking towards the forest. I am wearing a long dress and thin slippers, so I walk with difficulty, following the man who is with me and holding up the skirt of my dress. It is white and beautiful and I don’t wish to get it soiled. I follow him, sick with fear but I make no effort to save myself; if anyone were to try to save me, I would refuse. This must happen. Now we have reached the forest. We are under the tall dark trees and there is no wind. “Here?” He turns and looks at me, his face black with hatred, and when I see this I begin to cry. He smiles slyly. “Not here, not yet,” he says, and I follow him, weeping. Now I do not try to hold up my dress, it trails in the dirt, my beautiful dress. We are no longer in the forest but in an enclosed garden surrounded by a stone wall and the trees are different trees. I do not know them. There are steps leading upwards. It is too dark to see the wall or the steps, but I know they are there and I think, “It will be when I go up these steps. At the top.” I stumble over my dress and cannot get up. I touch a tree and my arms hold on to it. ‘Here, here.’ But I think I will not go any further. The tree sways and jerks as if it is trying to throw me off. Still I cling and the seconds pass and each one is a thousand years. “Here, in here,” a strange voice said, and the tree stopped swaying and jerking.

For Antoinette, fire is associated with rebellion, anger, and the loss of her mother. She, like Jane Eyre, is effectively orphaned at a young age, narrates her story from girlhood, is sent to a boarding school, put at the mercy of distant relatives, and has a a family servant who is kind to her. Like Jane, she is a poor outsider.

The next section jumps ahead in time and is narrated, but for one short part, by the man Antoinette marries.

What did you think of Part One?