This week in books.

I finished reading Hedda Gabler this evening. I didn’t enjoy it much. I’m trying to figure out why — I suspect it’s that Hedda falls a bit too much into the ‘problem woman’ stock type and doesn’t feel very real to me. Maybe I just have a really bad imagination and seeing more productions of the play would help fill out the character. Enh.

I’ve been picking away slowly at Alice Major’s The Office Tower Tales (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2008) for the past several months. It’s something of a mix of The Canterbury Tales and 1001 Nights, but with a modern backdrop. (Scheherazade, Aphrodite, and Pandora work in the titular office tower, with Scheherazade telling stories on their breaks.) Reading it very slowly over a long period of time has allowed me to spend a lot of time thinking about the structural and thematic connections in the poem as a whole. Hopefully will have more thoughts on this after it’s done.

I also finally finished the Welcome to Night Vale novel (Cranor and Fink, New York: HarperPerennial, 2015) which was really fun. I hadn’t realised how much the weirdness of Night Vale had seeped into my brain until I was reading one of the Alice Major poems and a character opened a(n ordinary desk) drawer and my brain automatically supplied hot milk drawer. WTNV is so weird but the weirdness comes off as completely normal.

Finally, I started Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (London:Penguin, 2012) and it is funny in a way I didn’t at all expect (Gaskell is very witty, and intentionally so, I think). It’s 700+ pages so expect lots more melodrama in the coming weeks.

(For work I am reading Jill Dolan’s The Feminist Spectator as Critic (Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1991) but that is for work so I’m not going to talk about it here.)

23 September 2016

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This week in books.

Have made it to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix in my re-reading of the HP series. Every time I re-read the series I find it harder and harder to like Snape (even though a lot of people find him heroic or whatever based on the revelations in Deathly Hallows). Even putting aside the personal vendetta he has against Harry because of his resemblance to James, it’s hard to ignore that he is an extremely  abusive teacher, verbally and emotionally. Like, there’s this throwaway detail at the beginning of chapter 14 of Goblet of Fire:

The next two days passed without great incident, unless you counted Neville melting his sixth cauldron in Potions. Professor Snape, who seemed to have obtained new levels of vindictiveness over the summer, gave Neville detention, and Neville returned from it in a state of nervous collapse, having been made to disembowel a barrel-ful of horned toads. (185)

First, it’s maybe not a great teaching method to respond to errors in the classroom with punishment. The classroom is supposed to be a place where people who don’t already have a set of knowledges and skills learn a set of knowledges and skills, and do so by practicing things they are not yet good at and therefore are going to make mistakes.

Second, this punishment is particularly heinous given that we know Neville’s beloved pet Trevor is a toad. Earlier in book 3 Snape also tests Neville’s shrinking solution directly on Trevor with the comment that ‘If, as I don’t doubt, he has done it wrong, his toad is likely to be poisoned’ (97). This is some specific and deliberate cruelty designed to emotionally torment a student just because he isn’t good at the subject and it is awful and gross.

3 June 2016

Works Cited

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.Vancouver: Raincoast, 1999.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Vancouver: Raincoast, 2003.

This week in books.

I haven’t had much time to read in the past few weeks because of paper grading, and exam grading, and then lots of  medical appointments in the morning (which is when I do most of my free reading). So I am mostly in the middle of things. Those things being:

Mitchell, David. Cloud Atlas. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004.

B. and I are reading this together and then having a Skype-based book club. I’m finding re-reading it very odd because I have such strong memories of really loving the book, but it turns out I have only the vaguest memories of actual plot details. Which is kind of nice, because I really want to know how the first story ends and am not in any way deprived of the puzzle-structure of the book the second time around.

But also I’m worried it’s not as good as I remember? Updates forthcoming.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Vancouver: Raincoast, 1999.

I’ve been re-reading Harry Potter while I sit in waiting rooms, waiting for x-rays and ultrasounds etc, because they’re comforting, and you need something to do there, and because I find it really difficult to read something new in the fragmentary space-and-time of the waiting room. Snoopy Mrs Norris is still my favourite.

Yeats, William Butler. W.B. Yeats: Poems Selected by Seamus Heaney. London: Faber, 2000.

I used to really love Yeats in undergrad. And now I find I still love him, but like different poems. I’m more annoyed by his use of ladies as mediums for talking about how beauty is fleeting and the poet is old and life is fleeting and everyone dies one day (because ladies are people and not just empty pictures, Yeats) but ‘Easter 1916’ just about broke my heart in a way it never had before.

But also I love that Heaney included ‘To a Squirrel at Kyle-na-no’ because in the midst of Yeats talking about the ache of age and loneliness and the tragic history of Ireland you just get this little imagist moment:

Come play with me;

Why would you run

Through the shaking tree

As though I’d a gun

To strike you dead?

When all I’d do

Is to scratch your head

And let you go. (56)

Yeats is pretty great.

13 May 2016

This week I’ve been reading…

basically nothing. Because first, I’m still reeling from Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot which is the sort of book that slowly seeps into you and takes hold of your brain and also your feelings in subtle but strong ways (like, it took me a very long time to realise that it was making me feel a constant trickle of anxiety about social rules; also, it represents trauma and depression in complex ways that I still can;t wrap my head around).

Second, end-of-term wrap up has kept me busy. Final lectures to prep, and exams to write, and a Good Deal of Email. Plus grading, grading, grading.

I did start Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale a few days ago. It’s a fast, engrossing read. A change from Dostoyevsky. I have mixed feelings about it. It’s a good modern-day romance along the lines of The Woman in White or The Monk or anything weird by Walpole. But that also means it’s got a lot of the sensationalising of violence (particularly sexual violence) for entertainment that I’m uncomfortable with in contemporary literature. But it also points a bit more to the traumatic effects of violence in ways that Walpole certainly doesn’t give a poop about (I’m looking at you, Mysterious Mother).

We’ll see.

(I don’t know what happened in that last paragraph. I’ve got no real eloquence left these days.)

((I am totally equating the Gothic novel with romance but you prove to me that they aren’t the same thing.))

9 April 2016

This week in books.

So many books this week! I’m reading lots of young adult literature for teaching prep. But also for fun. Shall we?

Alexie, Sherman. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. Illus. Ellen Forney. New York: Little, Brown and Co, 2007. Alexie’s book talks about life in Wellpinit, a community within the Spokane Indian Reservation. Alexie absolutely refuses to romanticise life for indigenous peoples made to live on reservations. Junior (the book’s narrator) navigates the conflicting desires to remain a part of his community while also escaping its poverty, alcoholism, death, domestic violence, and feelings of hopelessness at the same time that he deals with the loneliness of being an outsider in both the white high school he attends outside the reservation and his community — many of whom regard him as a traitor. He also recounts the endless racism he experiences both from people he encounters at school and visitors to Wellpinit.

The book is heartbreaking but Junior’s narrative voice is masterfully witty and sardonic and accompanied by the comics he (but really Ellen Forney) draws as a way of responding to, thinking through, and coping with his life. So the novel also extremely funny and ultimately very very hopeful at the same time that it’s so so sad. Basically you’re laughing and crying at the same time. It’s my favourite book so far (welll, maybe tied with Catwings).

Fitzhugh, Louise. Harriet the Spy. New York: Yearling, 2001.

We’ve all read this before, right? After reading it this time around I would guess that enduring appeal of it is the way it so accurately and complexly writes children’s behaviour — and there’s a lot of grey area around who’s ‘right’. Although the narrative sympathies ultimately lie with Harriet it’s also hard not to see her attitudes to her classmates — and people generally — as often hurtful (though she does learn the harmful effects words can have and the necessity of taking responsibility for that harm in the end, so I guess it’s all okay in the end?). Harrison Withers’s cats tho’! Living the dream.

Horvath, Polly. Lord and Lady Bunny — Almost Royalty. Illus. Sophie Blackall. Toronto: Groundwood Books, 2014.

I tried to like this one but it ultimately left me feeling frustrated. It’s cute and silly but I found it really hard to locate a point to a lot of its humour. At times it seems to be mocking different versions of wives as social climbers, flighty and obsessed with fashion, nagging, etc. At other times it’s making fun of hippies, suburbanites, J.K.Rowling, and academics, and I just couldn’t figure out what the jokes were ultimately trying to say. It’s a nice light read but a little bit disappointing.

Hughes, Monica. The Keeper of the Isis Light. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 2000.

A really well-paced story with a somewhat sad (but ultimately satisfactory) ending. Olwen, the keeper of the Isis Light (a lighthouse intended send back information about the planet Isis to Earth, and ultimately to guide settler ships to the planet) is a pretty great independent lady protagonist too.

Le Guin, Ursula K. Catwings; Catwings Return; Wonderful Alexander and the Catwings; Jane on Her Own. Illus. S.D. Schindler. New York: Orchard Books, 2006.

These books so perfectly capture what cats are like (and what flying cats would be like) that my heart broke constantly while reading them. Catwings are little love letters to cats and are maybe the most perfect and adorable stories of all time.

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. New York: HarperPerennial, 1991.

I really wanted to like this book because everyone I know seems to love it and it’s so important as a post-colonial text but I really couldn’t. Far far far too much sexual violence in the first hundred pages — and without any real purpose except to make the male characters learn or feel something. And often normalised as part of a regular sexual relationship. I did love the concept of the narrative structure and the idea of the generations of solitude in the fated Buendia family. And I loved Ursula. I wish she was the real centre of the novel (she sort of takes over for a bit in the second half but I wanted far more time spent considering her thoughts and experiences).

Nabokov, Vladimir. Pale Fire. New York: Vintage, 1989.

I really detested this book. I find its pathologising of homosexuality as inherently misogynist, jealous, hedonist, sociopathic, and self-destructive to be really problematic and gross. I’m officially giving up on Nabokov at this point.

Richler, Mordecai. Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang. Illus. Dušan Petričić. Toronto: Tundra Books, 2009.

Apparently this book is set in England?! I always thought it was set in Canada. Otherwise it’s exactly how I remembered it and very pointed in its mockery of parents who are dismissive and sometimes downright cruel to children. I’m particularly struck by the way this book — along with Harriet the Spy — breaks away from the model of representing parents as infalliable and children as disobedient/ungrateful.

White, E.B. Charlotte’s Web. Illus. Garth Williams. New York: Harper, 2012.

So this book is still adorable, and also has really fascinating things to say about the environment, and life and death. But I found it really weird how Fern’s mother is so disappointed that she talks to animals and doesn’t like boys when she’s all of eight years old. It also seems really untrue to her character that she suddenly abandons Wilbur at the fair, just as he’s about the get his special award, because she wants to ride the Ferris wheel with Henry Fussy. I get that it’s supposed to be representative of how she’s growing up, but she basically gets an entire personality shift in the space of a couple of days which feels very contrived.

Yep, Laurence. Dragonwings. HarperTrophy, 1975.

This is another book that is simultaneously very sad and very hopeful. Dragonwings is part of Yep’s Golden Mountain series and covers about five years in the life of Moon Shadow, from the time he sails to San Francisco from China at the age of eight through the San Francisco earthquake, and after. The book — as with all of Yep’s Golden Mountain books — represents the experiences of navigating a culture in which one is seen as an outsider. Moon Shadow relates the feelings of isolation and confusion he experiences before he learns English, the physical and verbal violence white adults and children inflict on him and his family, as well as the internal problems within the Tang community in San Francisco (that are themselves consequences of the already-long history of exploitation of the Tang people in America): poverty, drug addiction, and gang violence. But the story is really about his father’s dream of being a dragon once again and building an airplane (a decision which leaves him derided and ostracised by his extended family). That is, Yep’s novel refuses to ignore the violence of suffering that seems to have characterised the experience of Chinese people in America, but also refuse to reduce them merely to an experience of suffering.

Phew. I’m also reading some fairy tales for lecture prep, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and am about two-thirds through Brown Girl Dreaming (which is amazing!), but these will have to wait for next week.

24 May 2015

Books? Books! BOOKS!

My reading is very scattered lately. I hit a lull after finishing War and Peace. So I’m currently reading about five different books (plus the stuff I’m reading for research purposes), but making my way through at an extremely leisurely pace.In no particular order:

Early Irish Myths and Sagas, trans. Jeffrey Gantz [London: Penguin, 1981]). These are entertaining, and make good breakfast fare but my do you have to overlook the horrible horrible misogyny. Female characters so far have literally been either 1) trophies in contests of strength between men or 2) equivalent to gold/armour/horses that can be traded/sold. Maybe things will get better in later stories?

Chekhov’s novella ‘The Duel’ (Seven Short Novels, trans. Barbara Makanowitzky [New York: Norton, 1963], 10-105). Chekhov, as always, writes with a psychological realism which is (in this story at least) extremely uncomfortable. I love Chekhov forever.

Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (trans. Max Hayward, Manya Harari, and Bernard Guilbert Guerney [New York: Pantheon, 1958]). This novel is amazing but is taking me ages to get through, either because I’ve been working a lot lately and am a bit tired by the time I pick it up or because I’m a bit burnt out on long novels. I started reading it at the same time I was reading Robert Massie’s Nicholas and Alexandra though, and the novel is set in the same time period (most of it details the events following the overthrow of the Romanovs and the beginning of the Revolution); both books are really excellent, though very different, tellings of a horribly tragic and violent period in Russian history.

Nabokov’s Pale Fire (New York: Vintage, 1989). I am very ambivalent about this novel. It’s well-written, but the narrator is also pretentious pretentious pretentious and I can’t figure out if it’s just the character himself or the book as a whole (probably a bit of both). At this moment there’s  enough in the novel that intrigues me so that I think I’ll keep reading it, but also maybe I won’t. (I’m also a bit worn out from novels that use violence as a way to make a philosophical point and Nabokov does this all the time in his writing. I’m pretty sure this will be the last Nabokov I read in a long long time.)

I also finished Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon (New York: Little, Brown, 2009) today and it is charming and beautiful and weaves stories within stories, with each story working towards a whole. I loved it enough that I’m putting it on my re-read list immediately.

Finally, I finished Rudolf Erich Raspe’s The Surprising Adventures of Baron Munchausen (New York: Everyman, 2012). It was incredibly readable and entertaining, and pokes fun at the adventure narrative and a particular kind of eighteenth-century male narrator/fellow who obsessively brags about his exploits. Though I think it’s not really poking fun of the western-European sense of entitlement to the natural and geographical world that led to colonialism (the Baron mostly travels the world killing wild animals).

And these are all the books I’ve been reading. Plus Berkeley’s Lost Lady. Hopefully I’ll have made some progress in the novels by the end of next week.

12 April 2015

In the midst of several books.

I seem to be reading a number of biggish things lately: I’m halfway through Albert Baugh’s The History of the English Language, which is interesting, but since I’m reading it over breakfast I tend to be somewhat sleep-addled still and have to keep rereading paragraphs. I’m fascinated by the way the Norman Conquest irrevocably changed English (like, Latin would have had a far lesser influence on the English vocabulary if French hadn’t for a time taken over as the primary language spoken in England).

I’ve also been reading War and Peace for the past three weeks or so. I’m nearly a third of the way through which is simultaneously encouraging (because I can actually see progress when I have the book open) and discouraging (because at nearly 400 pages in and it’s still only two-thirds the way through!). I had an idealistic notion of how reading a book that would take several weeks or months to get through would somehow make winter seem a bit more bearable (because by the time I’m done the days will be noticeably longer). It just makes the season seem to creep along more slowly though.

Other books: I’m nearly done the complete Holmes stories (two left!) and George Elliott Clarke’s Whylah Falls (which is an astounding work that everyone should read). Also, I read All’s Well That Ends Well this week for a chapter I’m writing. But mostly I’m plodding along at the Baugh and Tolstoy.

Plod, plod, plod.

17 January 2015

Books read.

This month’s reading has felt very slow for some reason. I’m always reading about five books at once, and usually make good progress (because if one of the books is a bit of a slog I can have a break and read a different book, which refreshes my energy and attention for the first). But everything I’m reading at the moment is rather voluminous (i.e. over 400 pages) or extremely slow-going.

I did, however, finish two books this week. Peter Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee and Sharon Creech’s Love That Dog. They’re obviously quite different in terms of genre, form, and audience.

I really love Ackroyd’s translations and historical texts. Last year I read his London, A Biography, and his modernisations of Mallory and Chaucer. And obviously I love all things early modern. Alchemy also has a special place in my heart because of Jonson’s The Alchemist. So I was eagerly looking forward to The House of Doctor Dee. It ended up disappointing a bit — the mystery of the nature of Doctor Dee’s house in Clerkenwell and the historical ghosts haunting it in present day (the 1990s in the story) were compelling enough to make me keep reading, but I suppose I found myself underwhelmed by the ending ‘explanation’. Additionally, I was a bit uncomfortable with the way the novel represents abuse. It introduces it as kind of a throwaway plot point and while it suggests that it plays a shaping role in the present-day narrator’s life and history, it never really explores the trauma Matthew (the narrator) experiences except in a glancing way (so it just becomes an event that creates character without being sensitively discussed). Finally, the Doctor Dee storyline itself felt heavy handed, and made for tough reading.

Creech’s poem-novel for young readers is a beautiful little book though. It’s told entirely through the verse voice of Jack, but Jack is always writing his poems in response to his teacher, Miss Stretchberry, who is a silent but wholly realised figure in the unfolding story. Though we never hear her words, we see her influence on Jack — encouraging him to see his everyday words as poetic in and of themselves, never allowing him to give up writing poetry. He moves from not wanting to write at all, to being proud to sign his name to the poems his teacher puts up on the board, to encouraging his classmates, and finally, to falling in love with the work of other poets. His dog, Sky, is a kind of muse, and he gradually tells the story of his beloved dog in a way that is sweet and heartbreaking.

I’m intrigued by the follow-up book, Hate That Cat. The book includes an excerpt and it looks as though if the first book is about encouraging children to read and love poetry, to see their words as poetic, and to feel confident about writing poems, then the follow-up book is about introducing more ‘technical’ aspects of poetry — like different metres and devices like alliteration and onomatopoeia. Jack fitrst hears about these forms and techniques through a university professor who tries to tell him his earlier poems aren’t actually poetry because they don’t rhyme (6), but all I could think was that Jack’s uncle is certainly not an English professor because there’s no way any English professor would ever make such a claim. We couldn’t possibly teach the last 100 years of English poetry if we believed that sentiment.

I’m looking forward to reading the full story soon!

Still reading through the complete Sherlock Holmes, the Margaret Cavendish bio, Foucault, and Walcott’s Omeros. I’ve also just started Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series. Reports forthcoming.

29 November 2014

Works Cited

Ackroyd, Peter. The House of Doctor Dee. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1993.

Creech, Sharon. Love That Dog. New York: HarperCollins, 2001

 

Mansfield Park.

I finished reading Mansfield Park today. Without a doubt it’s my favourite Austen, and very unlike a number of other Austen novels (I’m looking at you, Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Northanger Abbey). Most Austen novels have one or two fairly dubious characters — but in Mansfield Park basically everyone is awful, with the exception of our heroine, Fanny Price (and even she has a couple of moments of envy of her rival Mary Crawford).

Fanny’s brother William is okay as well, as is her sister Susan (whose generally good character suffers in the home of her unloving mother and uncouth father, but who flourishes under Fanny’s guidance).

I’m trying to think through what the book is trying to say about what makes a good moral character: Fanny’s father and mother and most of younger siblings suffer from poverty, but the family also falls into bad character because of her mother’s indolence and her father’s love of drink and swearing); Fanny’s cousins Maria and Julia suffer from bad parenting (their aunt is overindulgent, their father too controlling and distant, their mother shares the laziness of her sister Mrs Price). Fanny, by contrast seems to be good because she escapes the squalor of her parents’ home, but is also denied the love and indulgence of her cousins (because Sir Thomas and Lady Bertram and aunt Norris are determined that Fanny should remember she is not the same class as her cousins). Fanny is forced to learn to be humble yet gentle; but she also has a natural timidness that makes her unwilling to confront her abusive relatives, and a seemingly natural goodness that prompts her to try to respect her uncle’s authority, to quash all feelings of ingratitude, and to never ever complain.

Much of her refusal to complain is also prompted by inherent feelings of worthlessness, initiated by her parents’ willingness to give her away to the Bertrams, and continued by Norris and her cousins’ constant reminders that she possesses no social value whatsoever. But her sister also experiences lack of love from her mother and seems to possess an inherent sense of self-worth that makes her quarrelsome in her parents’ home, but able to stand up for herself at Mansfield in a way that Fanny never could.

Also, Edmund Bertram keeps reminding Fanny that Mary and Henry Crawford suffered from a poor upbringing in the home of their aunt and uncle, the latter of whom seems to have been abusive, abrasive, and profligate in a number of ways. But then Edmund himself is entirely different in nature than his own brother and sisters, despite having grown up in the same environment. (Edmund is fairly self-involved and ends up hurting Fanny throughout the book because he’s entirely unaware how his actions affect her, but he is at least well-meaning.)

So it’s difficult to tell if the novel blames poor parenting or an innate lack of morality/decency for the ways that people behave badly. By the end, Sir Thomas begins to realise some (though decidedly not all) of the ways he’s been a bad parent and helped his children on to their various downfalls — but there’s also a sense throughout the book that a lot of people are just awful. Society, upbringing, or environment might make them more corrupt or less, but mostly people are shallow, selfish, and cruel.

It’s also quite a humourous novel in a lot of ways, and I’m pretty convinced it’s satirical, but my goodness is it bleak and bitter as well.

25 October 2014

Post script.  Things were not great for ladies in Austen’s time. But things were pretty great for pugs and other lapdogs. I’m not sure where to go from here.

 

 

Having a cold this week…

has slowed the pace of my reading endeavours. I usually read a few different books at once, and right now I’m working my way through Camoën’s The Lusiads, the major epic poem of Portugal; the complete Sherlock Holmes stories (currently on Hound of the Baskervilles, where we’ve just discovered Stapleton’s ill-doings); and Mansfield Park, which I’m loving immensely. I spent most of this week sleeping though, or dragging my way through work/meetings/chores, and feel like I’ve lost a lot of momentum. With Sherlock Holmes that’s fine, because I can put the books down between stories, but with the Camoën’s it’s devastating, because I’m having trouble engaging with the colonialist narrative to begin with.

Really looking forward to getting back to Mansfield Park in a serious way though. Thankfully this cold is nearly done.

18 October 2014