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I Finally Gave into the Russians

Having never forayed into the world of Russian authors – aside from Nabokov’s Lolita (but then, it was written in English) – I was tempted by the new Penguin Deluxe edition of Tolstoy’s classic novel with its French flaps, pliable spine, and rough cut pages.

My sole assumption about the book was that it was the Russian Madame Bovary, a story of a young married woman named Anna who has an affair with a man named Vronsky, and upon his desertion, throws herself under a train. Kit and caboodle. This assumption was not false, but it was overly simplified. Tolstoy had much more on his mind than a simple morality tale of love and betrayal when he penned Anna Karenina, which he considered his first attempt at the novel (disregarding his magnum opus, War and Peace).

This novel has been well-read and beloved for over a century, and I doubt that I could say anything new to demonstrate my new loyalty to such a classic. But as a new devotee to Tolstoy, allow me to encourage those who haven’t been f…

It was a Dark and Stormy Night in Yorkshire

I have seen people reading Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell on airplanes for years, and decided that the autumnal Northwest provided a dark and rainy October perfect for reading Susanna Clarke’s bestseller. I was told that this book was cross between Jane Austen and a dark Harry Potter (with a bit of Cooper’s The Dark is Rising thrown in for good measure). This recommendation was not far wrong: like Jane Austen, Clarke’s book contains men in naval uniform, young women with and without inheritances, fashionable circles in Bath and London, and the importance of manners and decorum. Like Harry Potter, magic is often seen as utility, improved upon by rigorous study and practice rather than by an exploration of mysticism or divine gift. Also, like Rowling’s magical kingdom secretly inhabits the normalcy of everyday England, Clarke’s proper Georgian England is the unlikely (yet perfect) backdrop for magic of every kind.

Set during the Napoleonic Wars, the novel begins with a small circle of …

Twilight Mania

So I finally gave in to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series, a series which has spawned a huge following among teen girls, a handful of considerate boyfriends, and a few groups of dedicated mothers. This succumbing has much to do with finding wounded copies of the books in a donation pile, and a large dose of curiosity as to what makes these books so palatable to girls under eighteen. Let’s not lie; it may also have a little to do with the impending release of a movie based on the first novel, “Twilight,” starring Robert Pattison (of Harry Potter fame, “Cedric”) in the lead male role.

If you haven’t observed this national vampire obsession, look at display tables in any major bookstore. Chances are there is a prominently featured table with Meyer’s novels to catch the eye, each with arresting artwork in red, black, and white. The Twilight series was first published in 2005, and now contains four books: “Twilight”, “New Moon”, “Eclipse”, and “Breaking Dawn”, which was released August 1st …

"Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" by Winifred Watson

Winifred Watson had never been to a nightclub in her life. Yet, from her pen came the 1938 Cinderella story of a dowdy British governess who by chance appointment discovers the glamorous dazzling nightlife of London, and in the process, herself. Accustomed to reading Watson’s provincial historical romances, Watson’s fans were surprised when she spun a tale of cocktails, cocaine, and jazz singers.

Miss Pettigrew is a woman who is on her last stretch, one step away from financial and emotional bankruptcy. Her final hope is an appointment with a Miss LaFosse, a beauty and jazz singer in negligee. Miss LaFosse instantly recruits Miss Pettigrew to help manage the string of lovers that weave in and out of her boudoir: Phil, Nick (a devilish Lothario who enslaves Miss LaFosse’s affections), and Michael (an intemperate man wishing to marry the beautiful singer). Due to Miss LaFosse’s quick affection and confidence in Miss Pettigrew’s talents, Miss Pettigrew finds herself able to see herself as…

A Detour from the Booker

Trenton Lee Stewart seems unafraid to pick up a few children’s lit archetypes in his book “The Mysterious Benedict Society”: four remarkable and lovable children (albeit one slightly less lovable than the others), missing parental figures, the kind male guardian, the boarding house/ evil school scenario, and themes of mind control and world domination. But within the archetypes, Stewart creates his own brand of magic. One becomes fond of Reynie Muldoon’s human perception, Sticky Washington’s nervous glasses cleaning habit, Constance Contraire’s irritability (can you guess the reason for this?), and Kate Wetherall’s acrobatic maneuvering and endlessly helpful red bucket.

The intelligent writing, Carson Ellis’s charming illustrations, presence of narcolepsy, the in-text puzzles, and memorable characters like Kate Wetherall make this book a must-read for those interested in children’s lit. As soon as I finished the book, I ran out to buy the sequel.

An explanation as to why I’m reading the Man-Booker Prize winners:

It was a gradual and growing idea idea: I thought one of my bookselling co-workers had said that he had read Man-Booker prize winners, and as I saw copies of the winners flow in and out of the store inventory, I began to fondle them and set them aside. As I considered it, it seemed like more and more of a good idea.

Several reasons come to mind:

1. My love of British literature: I am curious about what had been proclaimed the best of British (and Commonwealth) literature in the second half of the twentieth century and into the new millennium.

2. As a citizen of a Commonwealth country, I was interested in the works of South Africa’s prizewinning authors, J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer.

3. A chance to read fiction from all over the world (The old empire: New Zealand, Australia, Ireland, India, Egypt etc.)

4. The Man-Booker Prize is an easier target than the Nobel Prize winners, which are received for a consistent work contribution. This would be difficult to choose one work for which these…

"The Sea" by John Banville

Winner of the 2005 Man-Booker Prize, number 39 in a line of 41 books to read (non-consecutively), The Sea reminds one of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, for all-too-obvious reasons, perhaps. The overwhelming presence of the sea, the prominent place of an attractive mother-goddess (Mrs. Ramsay/ Mrs. Grace), themes of youth, memory, transience, and mortality.

Protagonist Max Morden is a recent widower, having lost his wife, Anna, to cancer. He has retreated to the seaside town where he spent summers as a child, staying in a house which once was the home of the Graces, a family which he idolized as the “gods” in his youth. The narrative switches between the present experience of staying at the seaside; to the recent past, where Max remembers Anna’s gradual descent and death; and his childhood, his experience with the Graces – in particular the children: Chloe, his cruel sometime-girlfriend, and Myles, her mute twin brother.

Critics of the book may accuse the nov…

"The Virgin Suicides" by Jeffrey Eugenides

Before the acclaim of Middlesex and My Mistress’s Sparrow is Dead, Jeffrey Eugenides published his debut novel, The Virgin Suicides (1993). An homage to the five Lisbon girls from the boys of the neighborhood (the ubiquitous “we”), the Virgin Suicides is a voyeuristic shrine to unfulfilled love and the decay of young life.

As opposed to Middlesex, where words were spawned as often as generations, Eugenides conserves his words to create a sculpted landscape of images. His careful choice of syntax creates a hazy atmosphere in which the hot days of summer seem to linger, and the amber glow of the seventies has not yet dimmed.

The adoration of the Lisbon daughters begins by a conceptualization of all five girls – Therese, Bonnie, Mary, Lux and Cecilia – as a “mythical creature with ten legs and five heads,” which only later develops into five characters. The neighborhood boys, not allowed to step into the Lisbon household, have to rely on imagination, surveillance, and the words of those lu…

"Possession: A Romance" by A.S. Byatt

I attempted to read Possession my junior year of college. It was a whim: it was a large, appropriately dusty, tome of a book whose Pre-Raphelite front cover appealed to my sometime attraction to Victoriana. It was far too literary for me then; Byatt’s prose is capable of holding one at a distance and freezing one out. As part of my resolution to read all winners of the Man-Booker Prize, I decided to try again.

The novel centers on two twentieth-century literary scholars, Roland Michell and Dr. Maud Bailey, who uncover a secret romance between two relatively obscure Victorian poets (their academic specialties), Randolph Henry Ash and Christobel LaMotte. Trying to stay one step ahead of unscrupulous scholars and academic rivals, Roland and Maud find the seductive call of curiosity a stronger force than responsible, methodical scholarship. The lust for discovery and the poets’ paraphernalia cause the quest for truth to be conducted in secrecy and care. Though originally an awkward couple …

"Good Morning, Midnight" by Jean Rhys

Never read Jean Rhys if you are unemployed and tend to overspend on late night visits to cafés. It tends to make you feel as though you are spiraling into depression, are old beyond your years, will never have money again, and despise the nature of humanity.
Published in 1938, the book chronicles the thoughts and habits of Sasha Jenkins, an Englishwoman (“L’Anglaise”) who has returned to Paris. She is poor, but spends her days revisiting old cafés, drinking, making casual – and disappointing – acquaintances. A woman obsessed with finding enough money to live comfortably on, she stoops to embarrassing lengths and rails against those who debase her.

Given a colour, this novel would be grey. Sentences now and then remind the reader that this is the grey that follows World War I, shortly before the Second World War and the subsequent French occupation. Life is meaningless, everyone is poor and grasping, youth is short and the devil is laughing.

Partially, one feels sorry for Sasha, regrets h…

A Word on Ulysses

It looks so tempting: a large, fat, pliable book. The pages are soft, the font is just right; if you carry it around with you, you can wear the term “literary” like a badge on your hat. (Warning: if you are not smart enough, you may have to log on to wikipedia to understand that there are indeed eighteen episodes which are supposed to correspond with The Odyssey. You may have to debase yourself further by reading the explanations and the sketches of what those episodes are trying to chronicle.)

To my credit, I finished the last third of the book on a turbulence-filled plane ride sandwiched between my mother and an unhappy man who was invading the demarcations the barrier between his seat and mine had delineated.

It has become my subsequent goal to read Joyce’s Ulysses at least once every five – or ten – years, and perhaps by the time that I am forty-five I will be able to discern the exact narrative arc and the Circe episode won’t scare me, and eventually I will love it, and throw obtus…

"The Green Knight" by Iris Murdoch

Though I have recently taken to buying and reading books that I feel ought to be read for a firm foundation (Woolf, Joyce, Coetzee), I arbitrarily found The Green Knight in a well-ordered used bookstore in downtown Seattle. Something about the cover, the way the book felt, and the kinship to the Byatt I had just re-shelved, caused me to buy it. Reading the Green Knight has been like being immersed in a well of exhaustive emotions, ideas and characters. Focusing on issues like sex, religion (both Western and Eastern), morals and ethics, and deception, it gradually draws the reader in to a web.

Murdoch’s dense plot and characterization pays tribute to the great novels of the past – Dickens, James, the Russian authors. There are at least eleven or twelve significant characters, including a dog. The novel, published in 1993, is set in London and introduces Louise, a widow, and her three remarkable children: Aleph (Alethia), Sefton (Sophia), and Moy (Moira). Aleph is the beauty and a schola…
I am a person who needs two things in order to deal with the world and its inhabitants well. First, a certain amount of time and space to myself; and second, fresh reading material. Because I read too quickly, I often miss the richer elements of the books I'm reading and have found it to be a valuable practice to reflect on the books and my response to them in writing.

Well, that sounds pompous. Let me rephrase: hello, this is my reading journal.