Category Archives: Books

Christmas looms but there’s still time to read a few more good books

I’ve done all my Christmas shopping so I’m taking a minute to do a quick post, but the books I’ve read lately that I felt were noteworthy had to go back to the library!

(I know authors love to hear that. Not. Honestly, I would love to buy every book I read but a) I can’t afford it and b) there’s no room in my house for more books.)

Big Brother by Lionel Shriver. Lionel Shriver is a totally fearless writer and in this book she tackles the issue of obesity. The main character’s brother comes for a visit and has put on so much weight he’s unrecognizable. He’s become an obsessive eater, much to the alarm of his sister and her family. He actually breaks handmade furniture with his bulk. Shriver looks at the root causes of this character’s obesity and makes links to depression, the dangers of peaking too early, and self-worth. There were great paragraphs about youthful entitlement that I wanted to quote but I already owed the library major late fees. I actually don’t mind paying money to the library; I figure it’s going to a fantastic public service that I’m happy to support.

The Gates, The Infernals and The Creeps, by John Connolly. This trilogy is actually YA fiction, but I enjoyed it mightily. I’m a Christopher Moore fan, and John Connolly is essentially a British Christopher Moore. Basically, a Hadron collider opens a wormhole between Hell and a small village in England. Mayhem ensues. It’s very fun and witty, and I was reading bits out to my sister that made us laugh out loud and now she’s reading the series.

Merry Christmas everyone!

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Book Reviews in brief: The Golem and the Jinni, The Abominable, etc.

I have powered through a pile of library books and some, in fact most, have been absolutely wonderful. I’d like to say I bought them all but I can’t afford my own reading habit. There are some books I will buy for my Reader and then I hoard them for holidays and for reading on the elliptical machine. Right now Margaret Atwood’s Madaddam and Bill Bryson’s One Summer are on the Reader for when we go to Hawaii. Also G.J. Meyer’s history of World War I, A World Undone. Remember him? He wrote about the Borgias and the Tudors and I am a fan. But I thought I’d quickly run through some of the fabulous books that have kept me reading late into the night….

1. The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker. GolemI didn’t know what to expect from this book but from the first paragraph I was totally mesmerized and neglected my work and family so I could finish it. I think everybody’s enjoying this book because it took AGES to get from the library. I love stories about magical creatures finding their way in our world and in this novel a golem and a jinni find themselves in New York City circa 1910. I was rhapsodizing about this book to anyone who would listen, forcing my husband to look up from the sports pages, and found that I had to explain what a golem was quite a few times. I guess everyone hasn’t read Marge Piercy’s amazing book He She and It, and if you haven’t you should. Its main point is the immorality of creating a self-aware intelligent being for your own purposes and denying its right to its own life. In Piercy’s story a futuristic self-aware robot is created for the defense of a community, yet it has its own needs and desires. Interwoven with this narrative is the story of the golem of Prague, the clay man brought to life by a rabbi who also desires to protect his community. In Wecker’s book, the golem’s master dies within hours of bringing her to life and she arrives in New York masterless. Wecker just takes it from there and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Ms. Wecker, and please get right to work on your next novel. I’ll buy it.

2. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler. On the theme of intelligent self-aware beings, this book is about the fallout when a family that has adopted a chimp is forced to give her up. I heard today that there is a lawsuit in the United States being filed on behalf of a male chimp named, I believe, Tommy, which is interesting as it argues Tommy’s rights as a person, so the whole issue of personhood will soon be wrangled in the courts. This book is gripping and made me remember the films from Psych 101 with the signing gorillas and chimps. I didn’t really consider what would happen if one of them threw a grad student into a wall. If you raise an ape with a human family, they believe they are human. To then – even though it’s clearly necessary for everyone’s safety – send them to an ape research facility is incredibly cruel. It’s hard to believe that smart people like psychology professors don’t see the eventuality looming, but there you go. Fowler’s previous book, The Jane Austen Book Club, was a good read but this one blew me away. I needed to take a break after I read it so I could properly process and then I told the whole story to Justin. It’s ok, he wasn’t going to read it anyway. I’d love it if he would read more fiction, but you know. Horse, water, drink.

3. The Abominable by Dan Simmons. I just love books about climbing, even though you would never get me near a mountain. I’m fascinated by the thought processes of people who can’t wait to endanger their own lives and those of others in this totally unnecessary physical feat. Into Thin Air? Awesome, and it got me started on this genre. Abominable The Abominable is a novel about climbers in the 1920s and has a great spy-novel-ish plot. There are lots of minutely detailed descriptions of climbing that made my eyes glaze over a few times, but overall it’s great fun to read. It’s even more fun if you read it with Google Earth by your side so you can look up the Matterhorn and the Eiger and say knowledgeably, “Yeah, that north face does look pretty tough,” from your warm and cozy bed.

4. A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. I put off reading this book because it was about the Balkans and everything I’ve read about the Balkans has been devastating. Then the due date loomed and I was forced to and I was glad I did. This book is, unsurprisingly, devastating but it’s a very good read nonetheless. It’s one of those “small world” plots in which the main characters’ stories are entangled together but they don’t know it and the reader gets to put it all together. Layers of tragedy and irony. Cue the dolorous minor-key Chopin Nocturne.

5. Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s books are just pure fun. My seven-year-old watches a good movie with wide eyes and a big smile on her face (it’s hilarious) and that’s what I look like when I read Neil Gaiman. I think I’ve already established myself as a fan in a previous blog post. I love it when characters from our world encounter some alternate reality and are going along with the quest or whatever but their internal thoughts are, essentially, “WTF!” That’s so fun.

6. The Weight of Heaven by Thrity Umrigar. WeightofWater Another devastating tragedy, but beautifully written and so worth staying up late to finish. You know it’s well written when even though you know where this is going you still read on and on because every word is worth savouring. Then you get to the end and it’s heartbreaking but you knew it was going to be. It’s like watching a car crash. Horrid but it gets your attention. Let me start you off: A couple from Ann Arbor move to India after their 7-year-old son dies of meningitis. That’s just the beginning and it gets even more tragic. And it’s set in India, so cultural misunderstandings just make matters worse. But it’s so good.

OK, it’s bedtime and I have to make sure the kids’ light is off. (They’re allowed to read until 9.)


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Back to Back Borgias: Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and The Borgias (The Hidden History) by G.J. Meyer

One of my favorite things is to read a historical novel and then follow up with non-fiction  on the same topic. The novel pulls me in, and the nonfiction fills in the gaps. If I were a history teacher, this is how I would engage my students. So here we have a novel on the Borgias by Sarah Dunant, and then a nonfiction treatment of the family by G.J. Meyer, whose book The Tudors I absolutely loved. See blog post here.

Blood and Beauty opens with the election of Rodrigo Borgia to the papacy. Instead of a modest acceptance of the election results, he exults in his new office, sort of like an over-the-top Oscar winner. He immediately begins planning and plotting, insisting his son Cesare become a cardinal even though he will have to do a lot of plotting to pull that off, and building family alliances through his daughter Lucrezia and sons Juan and Jofré. There is lots of political finagling and positioning, interspersed with sessions in bed with his mistress, Giulia Farnese, who is the beautiful blond wife of his nephew! There is much about the political situation of Europe at the time, and the careful balancing of power between France, Spain, and the various principalities that made up 16th-century Italy. Great stuff. If you have the vague notion of the Borgias as this evil, conniving family, with Lucrezia as an incestuous poisoner and Cesare as equally evil (he was the subject of Machiavelli’s The Prince, after all), you will be pleasantly surprised by this more sensitive treatment of a very human family, especially the portrayal of Lucrezia. Interested in learning about the Renaissance? This novel is a good way to start.

(spoiler alert)

Until you read G.J. Meyer’s The Borgias. And realize that all that Borgia hype is just anti-Catholic propaganda! I was very surprised by this. Apparently a few scholars have dug deeper and discovered that 1) Rodrigo Borgia did not father Juan, Cesare, Lucrezia and Jofré, they were his sister’s kids 2) nepotism was normal in those days and if they weren’t his kids it’s not exactly nepotism, 3) they didn’t poison anybody, 4) they didn’t commit incest, 5) Cesare did not kill Juan….and so on. Most importantly, the rise of anti-Catholicism which led to Martin Luther and the Reformation meant that there were writers who had an agenda: blackening the Catholic church in order to justify the Reformation. Why the Borgias, specifically? For one, the pope who succeeded Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI) was one Giuliano Della Rovere (Pope Julius II) , who was beaten out for the papacy twice, once by a man to whom Borgia was close, then Borgia himself. He hated Rodrigo Borgia. So when he finally got on the hot seat, he was intent on discrediting his predecessor. In fact, he tortured known Borgia associates hoping to extract “damaging material.” Nothing came up but no matter; rumours were good enough and Julius would reward those who provided such fictions. There’s a lot of this in history (i.e. Tudor propaganda vigorously disseminated in order to make Henry VII feel secure, which is why Shakespeare portrayed Richard III as a villainous hunchback; it was the kind of thing that pleased a Tudor monarch), you’d think we’d have learned by now. When writers seeking to advance the cause of the Reformation needed colourful stories to illustrate the corruption of the Catholic church, they easily found all this Julius-promoted scandal and didn’t really question their sources. G.J. Meyer, on the other hand, is very clear about his sources, so I’m inclined to believe this version. He points out that most of the scurrilous stories about the Borgias were written by people who weren’t even alive during the Borgias’ lifetimes. The stories began once the Borgias were dead and the next Pope, a real hater, wanted dirt. When it comes to supposedly-incriminating Vatican documents, he points out that Vatican documents were often forged, and the Borgia-scandal Vatican documents are not even good forgeries. He maps out where Rodrigo Borgia was when the children attributed to him were born, and it’s clear that it was geographically impossible for him to impregnate Vannozza when he was in Spain and she was in Italy. Lots more of that, and it becomes very clear that the Borgias were an interesting Renaissance family, but that’s about it. Although when you look at his achievements, Rodrigo Borgia was a very good Pope! Rather boring, actually! So if you’re enjoying the HBO series The Borgias, just remember to take it with a grain of salt. It’s about as truthful as The Tudors series was.

As a history of the Renaissance, The Borgias is a great book and improves vastly one’s understanding of the political landscape of Italy and Europe. There are many explanatory chapters interspersed with the narrative that deal with the rise of ambassadorships in Europe (started in Italy!), the emergence of global exploration as a powerful mechanism by which a country might rise to prominence (Portugal), and similar Renaissance-related topics which enhance one’s understanding of the narrative.

I’m loving G.J. Meyer’s work and can’t wait to get into another of his books, A World Undone, which is about the First World War.

(please excuse some clunky prose; I’m WAAAAY behind on blog posts and am trying to get it all done before the Christmas rush starts so I’m not editing very carefully)

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What Matters in Jane Austen? Twenty Crucial Puzzles Solved by John Mullan

If you’re not an Austen fan, this post probably isn’t for you. Fortunately, I am a big Austen fan and I LOVED this book. I wish I’d had it when I was studying the 19th-century novel in university. There are so many significant details to notice in Austen and of course while we noticed some, this book is crammed with many we totally missed.

John Mullan is a professor of English at University College London who also appears on the BBC, and writes a book column for the Guardian, and judges the Booker Prize, so while he is a credited academic he also has a flair for writing for Everyone, which includes me. If you have read at least a few of Austen’s books, you will find this book very entertaining and fun to read. For me, it was revelation after revelation and feeling simultaneously exhilarated by Mullan’s insights and also very foolish for not having noticed these details before, myself. After all, I have read and re-read Austen’s novels for well over 20 years. But I was reading for enjoyment and not necessarily for literary criticism, so that’s my excuse.

What does Mullan investigate? Well, age, for one. He points out that the film adaptations of Austen’s books often miscast actors by age. For instance, Mrs. Bennett is usually portrayed by an actress in her 60s, but as her eldest daughter is only 21, and she was likely married by 18, she is closer to 40. Mr. Collins was played by Tom Hollander, 38, in the most recent adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, but he is introduced by the author as being 25. Similarly, Emma Thompson in Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility is 36, but the character, Elinor Dashwood, is 19. And on and on.

The notion of the seaside being a place of instability is actually something we touched on in English class, along with the idea of indoors being somehow more safer and regulated than the outdoors. Brighton is where Lydia Bennett meets up with and elopes with Wickham. In Lyme, Julia Musgrove acts like an idiot and becomes injured. However, Lyme is also the place where Anne Elliot, her complexion revived by the sea air, attracts the admiration of Mr. Elliot (the younger and heir of her father) and also regains the attentions of Captain Wentworth, so there is an element of liberation and freedom along with the danger.

Other issues such as names – what do characters call each other? – are also exposed and examined in great details. How much Money is Enough? and Why is the Weather Important? are chapter titles. I also loved Chapter 16: Are Ill People Really to Blame for Their Illnesses?

Mullan also looks at sex in Jane Austen. Before I read this chapter, I would have said, essentially, that there isn’t any. Well, ok, off the top of my head: Lydia Bennett and Wickham, Maria Rushworth and Henry Crawford and Julia Bertram and John Yates. That’s it, along with the awareness of illegitimacy here and there. However, guided by Mullan’s keen take on Jane Austen and the 19th-century novel, I realized that her books are actually seething with sex or at least the understanding of it, and the impact of sex on the lives of her characters. One of Austen’s themes is that of the marriage made on the basis of sexual attraction which then dissipates, leaving a mismatched and unhappy couple. Mr. Bennett is saddled with the foolish Mrs. Bennett, Mr. Palmer (S & S) with his equally silly wife.  Sir Thomas Bertram and the indolent Lady Bertram and Mr. John Knightley and his wife are more examples. Lucy Steele too, is credited with “considerable beauty” and we must assume that she must be pretty sexy because there is no other reason to marry her, yet she manages to ensnare both Edward Ferrars and his brother Robert. The very famous first sentence of Pride and Prejudice gives away a man’s “need” for a wife. Not because he wants to enter into domesticity per se, but because of a need for a sexual relationship – gasp! I never even considered that before, and I was blown away by this chapter. Armed with a new understanding of Austen code, I now find the novels almost embarrassingly racy: the “great happiness” of Lucy Steele and Robert Ferrars’ honeymoon, the month of sex enjoyed by Lydia Bennett with Wickham before marriage – yikes! Not only that, but Austen indicates which couples enjoy an active sex life via evidence of fertility. Catherine Morland has something like 13 siblings! Yow. Mr. Palmer, though he clearly has contempt for his wife, still also clearly sleeps with her, because she is pregnant in Sense and Sensibility. Mr. and Mrs. Weston, who are married at the beginning of Emma, are pregnant within a month. Hot stuff.

I was also very taken by the chapter on blushing: What Makes Characters Blush? Again Mullan refers to film adaptations: though actors can usually weep on demand, it is impossible to fake a blush, yet blushes are very key to understanding Austen’s characters. Blushing can indicate a social awareness, embarrassment for someone else’s insensitivity. Elizabeth Bennett blushes for her mother’s silly remarks, because her mother lacks the awareness to blush for herself. Elinor Dashwood blushes for the dishonesty of Lucy Steele. Charlotte Lucas blushes when her husband, Mr. Collins, blathers on pompously. Blushing is also connected to innocence, virtue and simplicity. Fanny Price is a champion blusher, always colouring in angry response to others’ indiscreet or disparaging talk, blushing when teased about the unwanted affection of Henry Crawford. Because Fanny is one of Austen’s most silent heroines, her blushes serve as statements of opinion and feeling in lieu of dialogue. She blushes when she’s treated rudely, she blushes when she’s complimented, but she rarely is bold enough to make open remarks. Harriet Smith and Catherine Morland are also blushing left and right, mostly because of their innocence. Blushing also indicates truth and awareness, as Anne Elliot blushes when Mrs. Smith guesses her secret desire for Captain Wentworth. Elizabeth Bennett and Marianne Dashwood also blush with self-consciousness of their secrets, Elizabeth because although she knows that she and Darcy are falling in love, other people are still acting on the assumption that she dislikes him. Marianne blushes because people begin to assume, wrongly, that she and Willoughby are engaged. She knows darn well they aren’t and that they have been behaving in a way that leads to that assumption. Mutual blushing is also given as evidence of mutual love, such as Elizabeth and Darcy’s blushing together. Awwwww.

That’s more detail than I usually give in a book review, and it’s only brief snippets. But it’s pretty interesting, no?


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Summer Books! Spies and Monsters and Teenagers, oh my

There are intelligent books, and there are summer reads. In the summer I’m not looking for challenging literature, because I keep getting interrupted by kids, house guests and meal times. However, this year I’ve had the good fortune to read intelligent books that were also loads of fun, and it’s been wonderful.

Last summer I read Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy. I’d been impressed by this youth lit fantasy so I thought I’d try a few more I’d had recommended to me. Veronica Roth’s Divergent was one such. Once again, dystopian future, disaffected rebellious youth. I liked it enough to download Insurgent, the second book in the series. Book Three is due out some time this fall, so I’ll watch for that.

Cassandra Clare’s ‘City of -‘ books have been made into a movie so I figure they’re really hitting the mainstream and I’d better catch up. I read the first three about a year ago, downloaded the rest, then forgot about it and got her mixed up with Cassandra Clark (more on her work later). I have to keep a list of the books in order so that I don’t get lost. This is important with e-books because you don’t have the benefit of a quick glance at an endplate to see what this one’s all about and where it fits in the series. In this story, there are special descendants of angels called the Nephilim. They are sort of UN peacekeepers of the supernatural world; when vampires, werewolves, or similar get out of line, the Nephilim sort everyone out. Plus they’re gorgeous and really well dressed. The main character finds out late that she is a Nephilim, she falls in love with a Nephilim, there’s a confused bit where they think they’re brother and sister for a while, but then it’s all good, except that her personal style never catches up and she feels really insecure. Her best friend becomes a vampire, her mother’s boyfriend turns out to be a werewolf leader, but they all get along. It’s fun, there’s lots of drama, a certain amount of silliness, but it’s a good read nevertheless. How good? I’ve downloaded her next series, Clockwork this and that. Angel, Prince, Princess, I believe.

I had Cassandra Clark’s books downloaded because initially I mixed her up with Cassandra Clare. I identified my mistake but then looked into the matter and found that Cassandra Clark writes intelligent medieval murder mysteries! Jackpot! I think I actually cheered when I discovered this. Her protagonist is a nun named Hildegard and the stories are set during the reign of Richard II, the boy king, son of the Black Prince, nephew of John of Gaunt. This is a period I’m not very familiar with so I’m happy to have some fun fiction to bring this era to life. Prepare for nerdiness: I find it’s easy to follow the monarchy from William the Conqueror through to Edward I (Longshanks) but then it gets a bit confused (because Sharon Kay Penman’s books stop around there and I have to depend on non-fiction to fill in gaps). Edward II’s wife essentially pulled off a coup with Roger Mortimer and they did away with Edward II, but her son, Edward III (not the offspring of William Wallace, I’m sad to say because that would be awesome) took the throne when he achieved his majority (and executed Mortimer). His son Edward was the Black Prince who died before his father. Richard II was overthrown by his cousin and son of John of Gaunt, Henry Bolingbroke, who became Henry IV. Then Henry V (Agincourt). His son, Henry VI, was a weak king. Because of this and because he had such a strong French wife whom everybody hated (Margaret of Anjou), his cousin Richard of York started going after the throne, thus beginning the Wars of the Roses (Philippa Gregory’s books start here and go right through the Tudors; Sharon Kay Penman has a book about the Wars of the Roses also). That little exposition is not necessary in a quick review of Clark’s books but I just wanted to see if I could do it. One of those bursts of nerdiness that are hard to control. I’m interested in seeing how Clark deals with the downfall of Richard II, so I’m hoping for more Hildegard stories. I’ve read Hangman Blind, The Red Velvet Turnshoe, The Law of Angels, and Parliament of Spies. Enjoyed them all, especially Parliament of Spies and if you read it you’ll know why. Yow! But read them in order first!

In the spring I’d picked up a prominently displayed book by Daniel Silva in the library (thank you library people!) and it was GRIPPING. Whenever a good espionage writer comes along he’s compared to John LeCarré; in my opinion Daniel Silva is even better. I’ve downloaded his Gabriel Allon series (The Kill Artist, The English Assassin, The Confessor, A Death in Vienna, and it goes on) and am galloping through it. Gabriel Allon is an Israeli assassin who daylights as an art restorer. He’s also good-looking, speaks a zillion languages, totally cool. Yet he’s not cheesy. He’s an assassin with a conscience; he was part of the team who avenged the Munich massacre of Israeli athletes. (I’m interested in comparing the characters in the movie Munich to Daniel Silva’s books to see if they correspond.) So far, he’s been part of teams that have blown open Swiss banking collaboration during the war and the major art thefts that happened under the Third Reich and also a team that investigated a threat to a Pope who wants to open the Vatican’s Secret Archives to expose the Church’s role in the Holocaust. Whoa. Interesting and well-researched, and intensely gripping. Just enough description so you can get a good picture in your mind, and enough character development that you have emotional connection to the various players. If you like Ken Follett, John LeCarré and similar you’ll love Silva.

Before we went to the Island I was downloading books for my Sony Reader, and I often visit best-seller lists to see what’s new. Here I found Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Joe Hill’s NOS4A2. I downloaded them, took them with me on the ferry and started reading. The Neil Gaiman book was hard to read at first because the download had something wrong with it; every apostrophe was misrepresented by a weird tangle of characters. This went on for chapters but eventually the text improved. Nevertheless, I found I was obsessively reading late into the night to see What Happens. It’s one of those charmingly rooted fantasies in which the world of magic is separated from ours by the thinnest of veils. Someone stumbles through, and chaos ensues. It’s lovely and humorous (reminds me a bit of Christopher Moore) and I immediately went back to the Sony site to find other Gaiman books, and found that he is the writer of Stardust, one of our favourite movies.

I read through Joe Hill’s NOS4A2 thinking to myself, “This guy’s read a lot of Stephen King,” because it’s a very Kinglike novel and I honestly think that any writer of horror nowadays has to be familiar with King’s incredible oeuvre, as King himself references H.P. Lovecraft. Vampire writers hearken to Bram Stoker, ghost story writers to Wilkie Collins, etc. So as I read, I thought, Scary, monsters, children, etc. = King influence! Great fun. So then I read the Acknowledgements at the end and he thanks Tabitha King – his mother, which means he’s the son of Stephen King! It’s genetic, folks. Immediate download of previous works followed.

I am a big fan of Barbara Vine – who is actually Ruth Rendell, famous British mystery novelist. I actually prefer the Vine novels however, as they are dark and psychological. The Child’s Child is her newest and once you start reading you are totally sucked in. Rendell is a genius. I’d started to read the new Dan Brown novel and, sorry Dan, it was hard labor. I was doing that thing where you say to yourself, I’ll read 30 pages and then if I’m still not intrigued then I’ll quit. But then I figured, a Canadian summer’s too short for this, and started the Vine book. And she whisked me away into her world. Effortless. I cannot recommend her books highly enough.

Postscript: Before summer began I read two very good nonfiction books which I’ll just name here: Paleofantasy, by Marlene Zuk. There’s a good review in the Guardian on this book. Basically, when someone tells you you need to eat a lot of meat/don’t eat carbs or dairy/run barefoot, because when we were cavemen that’s what we did, they’re full of nonsense. And anyway, cavemen didn’t live so long so why should we copy their habits? They ate meat, or fish, or whatever, because that’s what was available; they didn’t have a Cupcakes store two blocks from their house the way we do. Anyway, archaeologists have proven that they did eat carbs because they analyzed plaque in Neanderthal teeth, so there. Read the book, and you’ll be armed with knowledge against this kind of bizarre notion. I’ve heard a lot of this twaddle lately so I was glad to read a book by an actual evolutionary biologist who is also rolling her eyes. The other is With Charity for All, by Ken Stern. This is about the charity business in the United States and I figure Canada isn’t much different. Good review in the Wall Street Journal online. It was hard to read.I’ve read other books about charities being big frauds but it’s really depressing to seriously contemplate. Nevertheless, it’s well written, well researched and we need to know this stuff!

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Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead

Wonderful books are coming at me from every direction, it seems. Once again I have the amazing librarians at the VPL to thank for putting Seating Arrangements where I would be sure to spy it and add it to my heap of books. I’m actually going to download this as well, the writing is that good. And I have it on hand so I can provide a few quotes to prove just how fun this book is.

When I wrote about Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, I noted a trend in literature coming from the UK. There is a similar yet distinct vein in American writing as well, of which I am equally fond. The best examples are, in my opinion, Richard Russo, Jonathan Franzen, John Irving and Curtis Sittenfeld.  Again, it’s the relatively common-sense expository style that I like. These writers however, are more explicit in their examinations of social mores than are the English.  (Both include details of food and clothing which I love.)

Seating Arrangements deals largely with social striving, the futility of endlessly climbing a ladder which has no end:

“These people, this pervasive clique, this Establishment to which Winn had attached himself and his family, seemed intent on dividing their community into smaller and smaller fractions, halves of halves, always approaching but never reaching some axis of perfect exclusivity.” p. 75

“Years had to pass before Dominique could see the strain they placed on themselves or, rather, what their grand goal was. They wanted to be aristocrats in a country that was not supposed to have an aristocracy, that was, in fact, founded partly as a protest against hereditary power. That was what Dominique could not understand: why devote so much energy to imitating a system that was supposed to be defunct? Any hereditary aristocracy was stupid, and Americans didn’t even have rules for theirs, not really. Lots of the kids Dominique knew at Deerfield came from families dedicated to perpetuating some moldy, half-understood code of conduct passed along by generations of impostors. But, she supposed, people who believe themselves to be well bred wouldn’t want to give up their invented castes because then they might be left with nothing, no one to appreciate their special clubs, their family trees, their tricky manners, their threadbare wealth.” p. 78

Dominique is a Coptic Christian Egyptian who attended private school and later Princeton with the protagonist’s daughters. She provides the outside voice who makes cool observations of the others. The protagonist, Winn, seems at first like a classic East Coast patrician. But as the novel progresses the fragile construct that Winn lives by is slowly eroded as the reader – and Winn himself – discovers just how tenuous his grip on his social status really is. You have to feel pity for Winn as he seems obsessed with a golf club which refuses to admit him. He keeps casting about for reasons and he descends into pitiable gestures, flailings at those he imagines are responsible. His shallow yearnings inspire contempt and pity, and his weak attraction to his daughter’s friend makes it even worse. Meanwhile one of his daughters is hugely pregnant and about to be married, and the other is suffering from rejection and an abortion. The first daughter has completely bought into the faux-aristocratic lifestyle; his second makes bitter observations about the uselessness of all the striving:

“The club, she thought, was an institution that existed for little purpose other than to select its members. Once you were in, then what?” p. 70

“People shuffled the order of love, marriage, and baby carriage all the time, but not people who had grown up under the contiguous roofs of Winn Van Meter, Deerfield, and Princeton.” p. 260

Livia also makes some amusing observations: while being prepped for her abortion, she notices, “an apparatus the size and shape of a small water cooler covered with a quilted, strawberry-printed sort of tea cozy. Was there some booth at a craft fair that sold cheerful, handmade accessories for abortionists?” p. 263

Winn’s concern for his status far outweighs his concern for his daughters and his wife and he seems completely oblivious to the undercurrents and tensions that surround him as guests and family gather for his daughter’s wedding, whilst he simultaneously becomes more and more hysterical about the perceived snub of the golf club. He gives a disastrous toast in which he compares marriage to death: “What else is there to do? You can’t date forever. We don’t want to be alone. We marry, and we live out our lives. Then…well, marriage, even a happy marriage like my own and like I’m sure yours will be, Daphne, is a precursor to death. If you never leave your partner and you’re faithful, marriage has the same kind of finality. there is nothing else.” Awesome. Immediately afterward his new son-in-law explains to the gathering that Winn was knocked off his bicycle earlier and is under the influence of painkillers. And Winn, in the grip of despair at being barred from the holiest of holies, is just getting started. I’m going to stop here before I give it all away.

I find it interesting, the desire – and I don’t think it’s exclusive to Americans – for a kind of caste system in which one is at the peak or at least in sight of the peak. I think it’s significant that the two biggest commercial vendors of this fictional aristocratic image are both immigrants or children of immigrants – Ralph Lauren, formerly Lifshitz, and Martha Stewart, formerly Kostyra. There have been enough wealthy Americans aping British aristocracy for them to be able to re-create, visually, a lifestyle that never really existed. (Jonathan Raban writes about the Ralph Lifshitz/Lauren phenomenon in his book Hunting Mr. Heartbreak.)

Dominique: “As a member of an unpopular minority in her home country, secular though she and her parents were, she thought she should be outraged by WASPy illusions of grandeur and birthright, their smugness, the nepotistic power they wielded. But the worst she could summon was a bleak, mild pity, and more often, she felt a bleak, mild amusement. Her sense was that the Van Meters had to throw more elbows than some to keep their status, and at times she caught herself feeling sorry for them.” p. 79

I suppose there are lots of people who need to feel better than other people, albeit for equally silly qualities or achievements. When I lived in England I kept meeting people who behaved in a very superior manner towards others, but when you talked to them to try to find out exactly how excellent they were and why, it would essentially boil down to the fact that they were born to a family that had pretensions to some kind of social loftiness. They would often have no great skills, or interesting work, or even a university degree. I would have settled for “idle philosopher” but most of them didn’t seem to think, even. They didn’t read, they didn’t engage in the world, yet they considered themselves a cut above everyone else. It all came down to being born. Talk about confusing luck with virtue. I always thought that was very sad – there must be immense depths of insecurity for someone to clutch onto this ephemeral idea of superiority. If you know anything at all about English history, or even if you’ve read Edward Rutherfurd’s London or similar books, you know that titles and aristocracy could be happened upon accidentally, or even bought. Charles II was an impoverished king who sold titles left and right to anybody who had the ready cash. Even in Downtown Abbey, Lord Grantham has married an American woman whose fortune has enabled him to remain Lord Grantham. The rest of the family condescends to Cora, but without her money – her American money – they wouldn’t have a silver pot to P in. In Australia, we discovered that if you want to make an Australian bristle, bring up convict ships. I guess the First Fleet, though it has a cachet of its own, is not exactly the same as the Mayflower. Even the Mayflower – in Bill Bryson’s book The Lost Continent he describes the passengers of the Mayflower as being woefully unequipped and too incompetent to survive life in the New World. There must be something to be proud of in there but I’m not sure what it is.

In my own family, people periodically mention the fact that my great-grandfather entertained the Prince of Wales when HRH came to Canada in the 1920s. I always think, So what? HRH’s train happened to stop in Lethbridge, Alberta, a community that consisted of maybe 20 Doukhobors and then Pete and Margaret Smith, who had come north to Canada leaving behind their Mormon roots in Utah so that they could have a drink in peace. The train had to stop somewhere and Lethbridge was convenient. I picture the royal equerry choosing activities for HRH and pondering: a tour of a Doukhobor farm, or a night with the area’s bon vivant? Tough choice! I don’t drink but even I would choose to hang out with Granddad Pete over touring a pig farm. Of course, I have actually toured a Doukhobor farm on a family visit so I know of which I speak – being a city kid, I found that the farm produced aromas that I found, um, strong, so I was holding my hand to my face. One of our Doukhobor hostesses, a lady in a starched apron and wire-rimmed glasses, frowned at me and flicked my hand away from my face, like I was going to offend the pigs. I retaliated by lifting my t-shirt over my nose and glaring at her over the collar.

So, “entertaining royalty”, though it sounds good, just means that Granddad could party and there was nobody else available who spoke English and not Russian. Dubious distinction at best! Why do we have such a weakness for our little pedigrees? What does it all actually mean? In the New World, not a whole lot, and that should really apply to the Old World as well. Remember the French Revolution? How long did it take for Napoleon to resurrect all that noble fawning? In Communist countries, party officials become puffed-up elites clad in Louis Vuitton bought with kickback money. Drug dealers use their ill-gotten loot to gain admittance for their children to private schools in attempts to achieve respectability, like the Corleones. Climbing, climbing, always climbing, trying to forget from whence we really came.

Anyway, enough about me. Seating Arrangements pokes fun at this phenomenon more eloquently than I can, it’s hilarious, and the writing is wonderful. And Ms. Shipstead was born in 1983! She’s so young but has such a grip on the language. Kudos to her. There were no mistakes in grammar or usage which was a a relief, although this is often the failing of editors and copyeditors. (In this week’s edition of Maclean’s magazine (Canadian news magazine) someone wrote, “a lower-wrung staffer” – italics mine. I winced when I read it.)

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My eclectic reading list

I can’t post any more Internet pictures of books because I heard about somebody being sued for that. And the following were library books and they’ve already gone back to the library so I can’t take a picture myself. Sorry!

How To Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran: I was expecting a lighter take on feminism when I picked this book up (actually had it on hold for ages, it’s popular) but I was surprised and pleased to discover that Moran is quite serious about her topic. She has a self-deprecating, aggressively funny way of making her point so the book is fun to read, but she made me think hard about my own definition of feminism. Her definition? “If you have a vagina and you want to be in charge of it, you’re a feminist.’ In a nutshell! What I remember most about this book was the difference between “being” and “doing” – she points at the WAGs (wives and girlfriends of professional athletes) and people like Katie Price (this woman is famous for having a topless photo of herself in a British tabloid – it’s a British thing – but that is it, and she’s parlayed this into a major empire of self-promotion) who are “being” various things: famous, photographed, having reality shows made about them. I think a good North American parallel is Kim Kardashian. I’ve been irritated before with people who are famous for…nothing! They’re good looking, but seriously? Why pay any attention to them? Then Moran points to Lady Gaga to illustrate the difference. Unlike Katie Price, who has nothing to say for herself, Lady Gaga has lots to say, and she’s come up with original and intriguing ways to say it. Lady Gaga is “doing”, not “being.” It’s an important distinction, boiled down into two words, and I’m remembering it as the kids grow up.

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train, William Kuhn – I don’t know who recommended this book, but whoever it was, Thank you! There is an identifiable style of writing coming from the UK nowadays that I particularly enjoy. I think it’s becoming its own genre. The language tends to be plain and relatively simple. The words chosen are precisely the right words and convey the exact nuance that the writer intends. The subjects are usually fairly matter-of-fact and down-to-earth. For all that that sounds so boring, the results are incredibly charming and addictive. There is amazing depth of emotion, and all kinds of nuance, and it’s clearly conveyed yet not obvious. There are no signposts, but you find your way anyway. How do they do it? Mark Haddon writes in this style, as does Kate Atkinson, and now William Kuhn. I would tentatively put Alan Bradley in this category as well. The details provided are the details that enhance the story and add interest, not long paragraphs of description that go nowhere. No flights of fancy here! The dialogue is very real and sounds like people talking. I know, when I describe it it doesn’t sound thrilling but it is, it is. If I can’t properly express how wonderful these writers are this is my fault. Anyway, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a prime example of this minimalist – but not – style that I love so much. It’s hard to believe that it’s fiction, even with the bits about the Queen taking up yoga, as it’s so realistic. Basically, the Queen borrows a hoodie from an employee, gets routed out of the palace grounds by workmen by mistake, then decides to take a train to Edinburgh to see the decommissioned Britannia. She manages to get there incognito – with concerned staff hot on her trail – and is taken for a cleaning lady by the guards at the port. She actually does the washing-up in the galley – my favorite part. Charming and fun. I’m a bit of an Anglophile so I was particularly enchanted but I think anyone would enjoy this book.

At my local branch of the Vancouver Public Library, there are shelves in which library staff arrange books according to a weekly or monthly theme, or just “staff picks.” Whoever they are, they have the best taste. I have found so many new writers just by trusting in their judgment. In a Foreign Country by Charles Cumming is my latest leap of faith and I was amply rewarded. I adore spy and crime novels, especially period ones, and this book sent me rushing back to the library website to find his other books. They all came in today and I’m gloating over the pile like Midas. Having a big stack on my bedside table makes me feel rich, rich, rich. And under pressure.

John Elder Robison is the older brother of Augusten Burroughs, who is famous for writing Running with Scissors, which was made into a movie. Robison has Asperger’s Syndrome, and has written two books already about his experiences, Look Me in the Eye and Be Different. Raising Cubby is his latest, and I only found it because the wonderful library people had set it aside in the “New” section. Raising Cubby is about his son, who also has Asperger’s – no surprise, as Robison’s wife also has Asperger’s. Cubby’s interest in chemistry led to his experimenting with explosives which led to his being charged with making bombs. The problem with a lot of gifted kids, especially those who are on the Asperger’s scale, is that they are so absorbed in their interests that they can’t imagine how they might be perceived and misunderstood by others and Cubby is a prime example. Combined with a DA who thinks convicting a teenager will boost her career, the situation becomes a nightmare. I am loving books like this, and also fiction that tackles brain disorders like Lisa Genova’s books, Still Alice, Left Neglected and Love Anthony (which I haven’t read yet but am saving). Robison is a spokesperson for Asperger’s and an amazing writer.

Selling the Dream: Ken Campbell is a sports writer with deep roots in the hockey community. Selling the Dream is about how hockey has become a rich man’s sport, with every parent whose kid can stay upright on skates having NHL dreams and sparing nothing to achieve them. I don’t want to say too much here, because this is a controversial topic and people can be crazy when it comes to kids and hockey. I don’t need nutters Googling Campbell’s book and coming up with this and then freaking out at me, which has actually happened already on another topic. I don’t even have a son, which, frankly, I’m almost grateful for as I suspect my husband would be just as hockey-mad as some others around here. It’s like I’ve dodged a bullet. Basically, Campbell is saying that you can’t manufacture a star player. But people are trying, by throwing money at coaches, trainers, elite hockey schools, spring hockey, summer hockey, you name it. Interestingly, he’s critical of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers – Gladwell’s theory of the magic number of 10,000 hours to achieve proficiency has, in his opinion, given rise to much of this mania. This theory has misled many into thinking that if they can just get their kid enough ice time, enough training, enough games, that they will morph into an NHL player. It’s sad. There are so many stories of families who make incredible sacrifices in order to fuel this dream, and generally – like, 99.99% of the time – their dreams are not realized. People start putting money into their kid’s hockey, then put in more because of the psychology of previous investment, and then because they’re so invested the kids feel incredible pressure to perform. Even if they don’t want to play any more, they feel they don’t have a choice. What kind of childhood is that? Then, paradoxically, the parents are willing to risk this investment – and their child’s health – by often insisting that the child play with concussions and injuries. There is a whole chapter on this and it is heartbreaking. OK, I said I wouldn’t say a lot here and I’ve said more than I meant to already. Anyway, Campbell says sure, chase the dream, but have some perspective, that’s all. What kills me is that the people who really should read this book, won’t.

Eclectic enough for you? You won’t hear from me for a while as I’m just starting In The Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire by Tom Holland. 428 pages. I’ll be finished by the end of the week, insha’allah, provided I’m not distracted by the pile of spy novels calling my name.


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Dreams and Shadows by C. Richard Cargill

I’m exploring more fantasy fiction lately. (I’ve just downloaded a Terry Goodkind novel. If it’s good then apparently I’ve got loads to get through. I’ll let you know.) I did a post on Game of Thrones and fantasy literature and it got me thinking that I should do more exploration of this genre. But I’ve taken a sideline into the kind of fiction that has a lot to do with magic and the collision of worlds as opposed to outright fantasy. Lev Grossman’s The Magician and Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus are good examples of this trend.

Ten pages into Dreams and Shadows I was looking in the front flap to see what else Cargill has written because I was absolutely captivated and was hoping to find a long list of books. Alas, Dreams and Shadows is his first. I hope he turns out to be one of those prolific writers who produces a book a year at least. I’m sure his publishers are thinking the same. What kind of contract are we talking about? I’m hoping a 10-book contract! AT LEAST. Because Dreams and Shadows is wonderful and I just ripped through it.

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Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version by Philip Pullman

When I was young, someone gave us a book of fairy tales. These were not the Disney versions. They were the dark, original versions full of gore, people being killed and rising from the dead, Cinderella’s stepsisters having their eyes pecked out. Of course that instantly became my favourite book of fairy tales. No bowdlerization there! When you’re a kid, you’re always suspecting that something’s being kept from you – because it is – so when I encountered a book that held nothing back, I was delighted. It felt honest, and real. Plus, the villains were usually punished in appropriately graphic fashion. In a world full of unfairness, it was satisfying to read stories in which everything came out right and the bad guys got their just desserts.

150Philip Pullman (author of The Golden Compass) has re-told these stories, keeping in the gore but editing for clarity and concision. It’s a fabulous read. I read one story aloud to my daughters and they loved it too, so I might have to buy this (I confess I got this from the library) so they can read for themselves. I tried to find an original Grimm’s fairy tales book for them (my mother having given away all the books of my youth!) but in these PC times, all you can find are extremely edited and saccharine versions. It’s sad. Kids know when something’s being sugar-coated and the modern versions are just so slack and pale.


The fairy tale books we favour are those that at least have wonderfully dramatic illustrations. My favourite illustrator is Trina Schart Hyman, whose work illuminates and brings to life the wonderful fairy tale, King Stork by Howard Pyle.

Back to Pullman: my favourite story in the original Grimm book is in Pullman’s book too! It’s The Goose Girl.  A princess rides on her talking horse to marry a prince in a far land. On the way, her maidservant pulls off a coup of sorts, forcing the princess to change places with her and swear not to speak of it. The maidservant marries the prince and orders the horse killed for fear the horse will speak of her perfidy. The princess is made to herd geese and the horse’s head is mounted on the wall. The princess and the head converse from time to time and eventually things come to the attention of the prince, who tries to get the goose girl to speak of her troubles, but she has sworn not to and refuses. He tells her she can tell her troubles to the stove (!) as that would not be breaking her vow, and hides so he can eavesdrop on her. All is revealed. The goose girl is restored. The maidservant, who has apparently forgotten her own history, is asked what the punishment should be for a maid who has usurped her mistress’ place. Her verdict: the culprit should be put naked into a barrel studded with nails and dragged behind two white horses until dead. So that’s what they do. Awesome.

It’s not perfect, obviously. What kind of princess lets her maid take over like that? Why didn’t the horse stop the maidservant from overriding the princess? Weird. But then these old fairy tales are often full of inconsistencies and odd turns. They’re fairy tales, after all. Logic is not an essential. Good and evil, wrongdoing and punishment, magical flora and fauna, virtuous acts rewarded with a shower of gold and immediate elevation to royalty; that’s what fairy tales are all about. And Pullman’s versions are exactly that. In his own words: “I didn’t want to put them in modern settings, or produce personal interpretations or compose poetic variations on the originals; I just wanted to produce a version that was as clear as water.”



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Some lighter reading: Paris in Love and Vinyl Café

After Sex at Dawn I took a break and enjoyed some lighter reading. Now I’m onto a book about World War II by Antony Beekov. I don’t know if I’m going to be able to post about that, it’s like 900 pages of small print on onionskin paper, but I’ll post about the light stuff:

51ihty1lg9L._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_Paris in Love is a memoir by Eloisa James. She and her family took a sabbatical year and spent it in Paris and it sounds just great. Books about Paris always make me want to shop and eat. Interestingly, Eloisa James is also a romance writer with very good reviews so I thought I’d download one of her books. I downloaded The Ugly Duchess because the title is funny and it’s very well written. I don’t read romances any more but I went through a period of connoisseurship when I was a teenager so I can tell a good historical romance when I see one. James’ book doesn’t seem as dense as say, one of Kathleen Woodiwiss’ novels, but it’s very witty and fun and is moving along briskly. (I feel a post on romance novels coming on….)

51APWP4S0AL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA300_SH20_OU15_Vinyl Café is a creation of Stuart Maclean, a Canadian writer and radio personality. He dreamed up a typical Canadian family living in Toronto, and has a series of books which charmingly and hilariously relate episodes in their lives. These people get into more scrapes than Anne of Green Gables (another Canadian literary creation.) I wonder if that’s a Canadian thing. We just get into trouble, darn it. Anyway, these stories are laugh out loud funny so you can’t read them before bed, and not on a plane either. But I cannot recommend them highly enough. Maclean also has podcasts on CBC for download through iTunes, and I’ve been listening to them while I do chores around the house this weekend. If you download one, look for the names “Dave” and “Morley”. “Dave and the Bike” is a good one. The podcasts are of live shows Maclean has done around the country, so the first part is usually a lyrical talk about the history of the town he’s in, then there’s a musical interlude or two, then he gets into the story. So if you want to just hear about Dave and Morley then skip ahead until the last bit of music and applause stops. He’s a great speaker and storyteller. His podcasts kept me in a good mood all weekend despite payroll and laundry and changing bedding. “Stories from the Vinyl Café” is the first one, but the second one, “Home from the Vinyl Café” is even better.

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